Drainage of the Stars

MGM Manhole Cover

So when I was a kid, we lived down the block from Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. I was too young to know for sure, but I think maybe it was my mom’s idea. She used to tell me all sorts of stories about the movie stars she saw coming in and out of the gates and how she would check every day to see what the weather was like on the huge wooden sky backdrop they would paint with puffy white clouds or beautiful sunsets depending on the movie being shot. On top of the main building was a huge glass sign with the roaring lion logo on it which you could see for miles around. She was so excited about being near that studio, but she could only see the bits of movie making visible over the fence. She never once got to go inside.

I feel a little guilty that I did.

Of course, MGM isn’t MGM anymore. The studio that gave the world The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain was sold off years ago, the back lot made into condos, the movie collection going to TCM. Nowadays all most people remember is the hotel in Vegas which doesn’t really have much to do with the studio at all except for the yellow brick road that used to run through the casino. What’s left of the original buildings became Sony Pictures and little by little everything that said MGM was removed or replaced.

Except for this lone manhole cover.

Which isn’t much to look at, but think about it. Maybe Dorothy stepped across it on her way to Oz or Gene Kelly practiced a dance step or two while waiting between takes. Or maybe, if it is old enough, Louis B. Mayer himself stepped on this humble metal circle. And now I’ve stepped there too, just for a moment, just long enough to feel the magic.

Not just for myself, but for my mom.

I think she would have been thrilled.

Advertisements

Walking Through WeHo

1350bldg

So back in the day, my friends and I were all about going to Hollywood. It was kind of a wonderland to us, a little rundown, but fascinating and full of history. There were theaters that looked like Chinese palaces and Egyptian temples, there was a hot dog stand shaped like a hot dog, there was Famous Amos Cookies in its little A frame cabin with the giant airbrushed cookie on the front. Of course, there was Carney’s, a real train on a real track, and a restaurant that looked like a Russian cathedral.

And there was Tower Records, not shaped like anything really except a large rectangular box with a big lip hanging down from the eaves, literally shoved into the hillside. The Hollywood Hills rose right behind the dumpsters in the parking lot. The building itself was red and the large lip at the top was painted a bright yellow with the name Tower Records in red block italic letters that leaned left instead of right. On the roof and sides of the building were an ever-changing pantheon of the newest albums by the hottest bands, one of a kind artwork airbrushed onto huge canvases that could be seen the moment you rounded the curve on Sunset. You could find anything there. Old records, new records, records from across the sea. Celebrities shopped there too. We never saw anyone famous there though.

At least as far as we knew.

Anyway, when I read that there was going to be a walking tour of West Hollywood, I wanted to go. So much history packed into such a small amount of space and most of it I had just whizzed past in a car without appreciating what I saw. Now what you need to know about West Hollywood is that it is far and it is crowded.

Which led to me being late and having nowhere to park.

Spanish style
Spanish style
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable's
Blanche studies the tile outside of Clark Gable’s

I stashed my car in the big parking garage at the huge shopping plaza on Sunset and hurried to catch up with the small group making its way down Laurel Ave. There were about fifteen people and a white silkie chicken named Blanche. I’m not sure how much Blanche actually got out of the tour, but she seemed to be having a good time.

Our guide Roy led us up and down the neighborhood, into secret courtyards where Gable and Dietrich once lived, past Jim Morrison’s last LA address and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s upstairs apartment, pointing out architectural features unique to California, fine work by famous architects. A little gem here, another gem there. History you could touch.

Saved
Saved
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction
Valentino Courtyard destined for destruction

But interspersed with the beautiful architecture and fun stories were little eulogies. Roy would point at some huge faceless apartment complex and say “This used to be a gorgeous little Craftsman home.” Or he would point at another building, still standing, but restored in a way that totally destroyed its original beauty. The saddest sight of all was a small L-shaped courtyard which had been built in the silent film era. Its days were numbered. The residents had already been evicted. The grass had been left to die. Soon it would become just another four story apartment building.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's apartment
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment
Jim Morrison's place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)
Jim Morrison’s place (note the photo of him in the lower right window)

Now I get that property in this part of Southern California is hard to find. I know that businesses come and go and owners die or move away. I know that places change hands and the old owners have no say in what the new owners do to them. I get all that, but every time one of these little bits of history disappears, Hollywood loses a little bit of its soul. If everything that is unique about Hollywood disappears, it isn’t really Hollywood anymore. It becomes no different than anywhere else. And it was different. And it is still different here and there, if you know where to look.

Storybook Style
Storybook Style
Marlene Dietrich's balcony
Marlene Dietrich’s balcony

Hollywood architecture used to be like a wild, brightly colored Dentzel carousel, the kind of carousel where the traditional horses had been replaced by cats and bears and dragons with an occasional ornate bench for those who preferred not to ride. But as time went on and property values grew steeper, the exotic jumpers started to decline. You can fit more people on a bench than on a seahorse. So the seahorse was replaced by a bench. And then the stag and then the lion disappeared, each replacement bench becoming a little shoddier than the last. The day is coming when that last zebra will be replaced by a pair of lawn chairs zip-tied together and no one will remember what it was like to ride at all.

Cheers to the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance for trying to do something before that last zebra is gone.

On the way home, I drove past what used to be Tower Records. The building looked empty. The glowing yellow and red lip had been whitewashed out, the huge airbrushed albums were all gone. All that was left was an anonymous white box with the word “LIVE” written on the corner.

It was anything but.

Taking the Characters for Chili Dogs

 

Sometimes you write the story; sometimes the story writes you. I generally have more luck when the story does the telling. When I jump in, it usually ends up like it does when I jump into someone’s conversation at a party and suddenly realize that they were talking about real saints and not the New Orleans football team.

Anyway, the current story takes place in Hollywood. Mostly. Important bits of it do anyway. And when I think of Hollywood, I think of faded glamour and hot dog stands, not movie stars and Kim Kardashian.

Which means that I would be a lot less disappointed on a sightseeing tour of the Sunset Strip.

But I digress.

The story needed a location in Hollywood and I immediately thought of Carney’s. Carney’s is a hot dog stand in an old train car, well, actually, two old train cars, that has been selling chili dogs on the Sunset Strip for almost forty years. Back in my Hollywood days, we used to pass by it many times a night as we cruised aimlessly down Sunset, but I’d never actually been inside. Still, there are photos on the Internet, so I figured I could wing it.

I figured wrong.

Because me randomly picking a place I don’t really know is not the same as a character grabbing hold of a location himself. The characters know what they are going to do before I do. I’m not sure how that happens, but if I get out of the way and let them, the story comes out much better.

So here I am with a scene that could best be described as useful. It moves the action from here to there, but it is about as energetic as a dead possum. This left me with two options. Go to Carney’s or just make stuff up. I chose Option A.

Because Option B does not involve chili dogs.

Elaine took pity on me with my broken down car and my broken down foot and agreed to drive me up to Carney’s for some lunch. She was a little concerned about the traffic. She needn’t have worried.

Turns out there is nothing more deserted than the Sunset Strip on a Sunday morning.

We pulled into the driveway beside Carney’s. No one at the picnic tables. No one at the windows of the train car. Only one car in the parking lot.

“Are you sure it’s open?”

“Well, if it isn’t, we’ll go to Canter’s.”

Which wouldn’t help the story at all, but they have a Reuben to die for.

So we park and get out. I’m at least going to take a few photos of the outside of the place. As I’m framing my first shot, another car drives in. A friendly couple from Texas gets out and they immediately volunteer to take a photo of Elaine and I with the train car if we will take a photo of them with the train car.

Which leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to explain that I don’t really want any photos of anyone in front of the train car, just photos of the train car, all by its lonesome.

For a story.

About vampires.

On the Sunset Strip.

Damn it.

I may not have mentioned the vampires because I usually don’t if I can get away with it. I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling awkward.

Elaine saves the day by offering to take a photo of them. I go back to taking shots of various angles of the train car, hobbling around as much as my foot will let me.

I took pictures of everything because I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed. I took pictures of the tiny train car bathroom. I took pictures of the zigzag handicap ramp. I took pictures of the picnic tables out front. I took pictures of the view of the hotel across the street from out of the train car window. Pretty much everything but the far west end of the train car because it was far and I was gimpy.

So I get home, full of chili dogs and inspiration. Things are flowing nicely. I know almost every inch of Carney’s now. I can use anything.

Drac decides he needs to make an entrance from the far west end, the only part of the entire building I hadn’t had a good look at.

Thank goodness for Google Maps.