Walking Through WeHo

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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.

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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.

The Wandering Spoon: A Love Story in Half a Dozen Acts

So Mark took me to see La Cage Aux Folles at the Pantages Theater last week. As we were eating dinner before the show, Mark threw down a knife and fork in front of me and said, in what I’m assuming was a compliment, “You could take that and write a story about it.” I kind of stared down at the table and thought “I could?” in a not so positive way, but by the end of the meal, I was feeling better about the whole thing so I told Mark to take a photo and I would come up with something. Sadly, all the forks were gone by then, so the story is about a spoon.

Deal with it.

The Wandering Spoon: A Love Story in Half a Dozen Acts

Life can be rough here at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Oh, sure, there’s the glamorous Pantages Theater nearby, but all the stage-struck dreams in the world won’t help you if you’re a spoon. And Kayla was a spoon, a dessert spoon to be exact, but she wasn’t happy just to dish out bread pudding to the customers. No, she wanted to be an actress.

Which is tough when you’re silverware.

But she practiced every day at the Irish pub, flirting with the diners, being coy with the busboys, hoping someone, somewhere would take her out of this joint and make her a star.

Her boyfriend Kevin thought she was wonderful just the way she was, but what did he know? He was happy being a utensil. He didn’t share her dreams.

And he was also a little short.

But they did have some fun times, dipping into the bread pudding together, cutting through the virgin whipped cream, curving through the cold hard ice cream into the hot steamy bread pudding beneath. Sometimes they would be on either side of the dessert, too far to touch, but sometimes, they would meet in the middle, just clipping edges on a downward swing, diving in over and over until they lay exhausted in the cool puddle of liquid at the bottom of the plate.

It should have been enough.

But it wasn’t.

One day she noticed someone new at the far end of the table, a knife left over from the dinner service, tall and glistening. She slid over to take a closer look. The knife took one glance at her curves and swept her into his arms.

Well, where his arms would have been anyway.

He told her things, things no one had ever said to her before, about how talented she was and how he could get her a job in the pictures. And how could he be lying? He was so tall and thin. He had to be an actor himself.

“You leave her alone.” Kevin reached out, trying to pull Kayla from the interloper’s nonexistent arms, but it was no use. Mack just held her up out of reach.

Kayla pressed herself against Mack’s smooth shiny…uh..chest. “Go away, Kevin.”

“But…”

“No more bread pudding for me. I’m going to be a star.”

And Mack carried her away, off across the table to the empty dessert plate with no preliminaries, no swooping and soaring and almost touching. Just plunk into the cold remnants of someone else’s joy.

She lay in the stinging remains of the whiskey sauce, shamed and alone. There were no movies, no stardom. It was all just a lie. She cried silver tears into the melted ice cream.

“Kayla?”

And there was Kevin, poor loyal Kevin, waiting for her on the far side of the plate. She staggered through the slop to him, mumbling apologies as she went.

He pulled her close. “You’re such a great actress, I almost believed that you didn’t care about me.”

Kayla snuggled against him. “I almost believed it too.”

Dark Shadows Burton-style

Okay, I’ll admit it. I was one of those kids who raced home from school to watch Dark Shadows every single day. I could hardly wait to get my daily dose of vampires, werewolves, witches, shaky sets and boom mikes.

Which explains a lot really.

Years before Lost, Dark Shadows was playing with alternate timelines and shape-shifting villains. Which was why you couldn’t miss an episode. You missed an episode and you wouldn’t know who the heck was possessing Caroline this week. (Actually, it was Caroline in the Past, AKA Charity Trask, who was always getting possessed by a dead dancehall girl named Pansy Faye. Who was more fun than the real Charity Trask so when Charity was singing and dancing it was a dead giveaway that she was someone else.)

Barnabas was always Barnabas, no matter what time period they were in, because he was old as dirt, but occasionally someone from the Present would run into Barnabas from the Past in the Past and he would have no clue who they were. Because he was Barnabas, but he hadn’t gotten to the Present yet. People from the Present were always getting mistaken for witches in the Past and then they’d have to be rescued from hanging or stoning or something.

Luckily, all those time travel paradoxes did not apply in the Dark Shadows universe. You could go back in time and visit yourself and the world would not implode.

I worshipped Jonathan Frid with his plastered down bangs and David Selby with his fearsome sideburns (When you think about it, werewolves really should have fearsome sideburns). Did it matter that the sets moved every time someone closed a door? No. Did it matter that the boom mikes got almost as much screen time as the actors? No. Did it matter that the actor who played Roger once did an entire scene with a fly crawling over his face? No, but that was pretty funny. So it was with much excitement that I waited for the new Tim Burton version of one of my all time favorite shows.

Then the first trailer came out.

And it was a comedy.

I wasn’t sure how to react to this. I mean, the original Dark Shadows could be hilarious at times, but only by accident. That was what made it funny. Making Barnabas a laughing stock when he ought to be a tragic figure seemed sacrilegious. I was prepared to be appalled.

Only I wasn’t.

Because there were funny bits, but the core of the story was true to the original series. Johnny Depp’s Barnabas is perplexed by the Present which the original Barnabas never was. That seems more realistic although realistic has never been a word used to describe anything involving Dark Shadows before. But Barnabas’s core angst is the same. He still hates being a vampire, he still longs for Josette, he still suffers at the hands of Angelique.

So I’m in.

And while Johnny Depp will never be Jonathan Frid, he will always be Johnny Depp which turns out to be almost as good.

Dark Shadows logo © Warner Bros.

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Two or Three Degrees of Separation

 

So I lied about no more cemeteries. I had to see one more grave, the place where Buster Keaton was buried. Because Buster and I, we go way back.

Back in my wild Hollywood days…well, okay, they weren’t that wild. Mostly cruising down Sunset Boulevard and eating late night sandwiches at Canter’s Deli, but just go with me here. It’s my reminiscence and, in my mind, they were wild.

Anyway, Mike, Leah and I used to go to a lot of plays. They wanted to be actors. I just liked the excitement of hanging out in Hollywood all night long. During the course of these adventures, we met a wonderful lady named Jane who was a stage manager at the Las Palmas Theater. She’d been in the theater for years and had all sorts of fascinating stories about actors and acting.

Sometimes when some old movie that she thought we should see was on, we’d go over to her place, a duplex in North Hollywood, drink cream sodas and watch TV with her. (I never really cared for the cream sodas, but the only other choice was chocolate soda which seemed wrong on many levels.) She lived in the back house of the duplex, the smaller of the two. And on the wall up above the TV set was a huge oil painting of Buster Keaton, three or four feet high, with an expensive looking frame and a little key light at the bottom that threw light up onto his face. A small brass plaque on the frame had his name in fancy letters. Buster Keaton.

Just in case you couldn’t tell.

The painting was something of a mystery to us. I mean, anyone can have an obsession, but the Buster Keaton shrine seemed a little much. Beautiful, but totally overpowering. So one evening, Mike got up the guts to ask Jane why she had a huge expensive oil painting of Buster Keaton in her living room. She looked up at it a moment and shrugged.

“He was married to my sister.”

Now we had met Eleanor in passing once or twice. I don’t think she quite trusted us. I don’t know that we looked all that dangerous, but she would usually disappear into the front house soon after our arrival. But she didn’t look anywhere near old enough to have been married to Buster Keaton.

So Mike repeated it, just to be sure. “Your sister was married to Buster Keaton?”

Jane nodded. “Yes. That painting is from the Brown Derby. They gave it to her before they tore it down.”

We all look up at the painting as if it was a lost Da Vinci. So not only was Eleanor married to Buster Keaton, but the mystery painting came from the Brown Derby?

“THE Brown Derby?” Leah says, just to be sure.

“Oh, yes.” Jane gets out of her chair and goes to a bookcase over on the far wall. She pulls out a rectangular wooden case and sets it down on the dining room table. “These are his poker chips.” She opens the case and there are the most beautiful poker chips I’d ever seen. Mother of pearl maybe, dyed various colors. She took out a blue one and passed it around. “Buster loved poker.”

I just kept running the poker chip over my fingers, marveling at the color and the smoothness and the historicalness of it. Buster Keaton’s poker chip. I wanted to keep it, but, reluctantly, I handed it back.

Now we come to the most tragic part of the story. Because there we were, in that house full of Buster Keaton’s things, not ten steps from Buster Keaton’s widow, and not one of us had ever actually seen a Buster Keaton movie. At that point in time, they just weren’t available anywhere. So there I was, aching to ask questions, but having no idea what to ask.

Jane told us a few stories about what Buster was like and how he loved trains, but we were friends with Jane. I didn’t dare approach Eleanor without some concrete questions in mind.

Fast forward a few years. While I was out of state at college, I finally got to see “The General.” I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t wait to get back to California and see Jane and talk to Eleanor, finally full of all the Buster questions that I hadn’t had before. We made a quick visit while I was home for the summer, but Jane had been ill and we couldn’t stay long. She was happy that I’d loved “The General” and said Eleanor would love to hear my comments about it, but she was off at a silent film convention so I’d have to come back another time.

But that other time never came. We never saw Jane again.

But I’ve never forgotten sitting in Jane’s living room, watching TV under Buster’s mournful gaze. I’ve always felt very close to him, almost as if I’d known him for real.

So one last cemetery trip, to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, beside the wall near the Washington statue, to an elegant little tombstone etched with oak leaves. Someone had left him a huge bouquet of red flowers. And there was a little worn spot in the grass where people had stood to take a picture of his headstone. I leaned down and touched the edge of his monument.

So near and yet so far.

Offending the Ghosts at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

 

So last weekend, I dragged my friend Elaine to the Save Pickfair Studios rally in West Hollywood. Because I have a thing for silent movies. I don’t know why, but I do. Maybe I’m fascinated by the lost worldness of them, the way they show a Los Angeles that no longer exists.

Or maybe I’m just strange.

Anyway, last weekend on the way to the rally, we passed Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I’d heard of it. I knew it was where Rudolph Valentino was buried. And maybe Marilyn Monroe too. But I figured Elaine would have had just about her fill of silent movies after hanging around the outside of Pickfair Studios for an hour or two. But she didn’t. In fact, going to the cemetery was her suggestion.

So we went.

We wandered around reading names for hours. Found Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. and Jr.) and Toto too. No Marilyn though. Turns out she’s buried in Westwood. But it was all a matter of chance. If we stumbled across a name we recognized, we took a picture, but other than Mr. Valentino, we had no idea who we were really looking for.

So this weekend, we returned with a list of locations for people we’d missed the weekend before. It did not go well. Because cemeteries are not as well marked as you’d think. And the Hall of Memories is almost identical to the Abbey of Psalms which is almost identical to the Sanctuary of Trust. Instead of the peaceful reverent feeling I’d had the week before, it felt like I was participating in a morbid sort of scavenger hunt.

And I wasn’t winning.

Mildred Harris, Charlie Chaplin’s first wife, proved too elusive to find, although she was supposed to be right beside Seena Owen who we discovered even though we weren’t looking for her. So we trudged and trudged, looking for The Abbey of the Psalms Corridor G-1.

Instead we found Iron Eyes Cody. You may remember him as the Native American who cries at the sight of all the litter cluttering up America. Or you may not. Anyway, Elaine wanted to take a picture. The plaque on the wall vault says “Iron Eyes Cody/Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody.” Just as Elaine takes her photo, I laugh and say “Didn’t Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody have a name?”

And the big dome light above us goes out.

No, seriously. Just boop. Out. All the other lights in either direction are lit. The light above Elaine, Iron Eyes and I is out. Elaine and I look at each other, give a nervous laugh and say “Guess he didn’t like that.” Ha, ha, funny.

In a creepy cemetery sort of way.

So off we go to not find Marion Davies. We do find Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah and are able to track down Virginia Rappe not too much farther on.  As I’m taking my photo of Virginia Rappe’s grave, I am telling the story of her death in a joking sort of way. (For those who do not know, probably most of the planet, she may or may not have been raped by Fatty Arbuckle at a party in San Francisco. She died of internal injuries four days later. Fatty was tried three times for manslaughter, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. Most people think she actually died from an infection caused by a backstreet abortion performed the day before the party.) Elaine’s photo comes out crystal clear. My photo comes out…cloudy.

Elaine suggests that my lens is smudged. I wipe it off and take another picture. It also comes out very soft around the edges.

I turn to the left and take a photo of an egret wading in the lake. Clear. I take another photo of Virginia Rappe’s headstone. Not clear. I do the only thing I can think of. I apologize to her.

Virginia Rappe, not Elaine.

Because you shouldn’t really talk trash about someone while standing on their grave. It’s just a bad idea.

Apparently.

So we give up on finding Mel Blanc and head off for lunch at Canter’s Deli. And come out to find some poor guy being violently ill.

On the left rear tire of my car.

Which has no connection to anything involving the cemetery yet is darn odd and disconcerting anyway.

But everything is fine. Everyone gets home safely. Hours later, I’m bustling around the kitchen getting dinner ready. Well, really, reheating the previous night’s dinner for an encore appearance.  I’m in and out of the refrigerator about five times. The sixth time, a can of Barq’s root beer on the very top shelf leaps off the shelf and lands directly on my recently healed foot.

I was too astonished to even yell, although, yes, it did hurt quite a bit. But the sodas weren’t anywhere near the edge of the shelf. There was nothing to knock the soda off the shelf, barring an earthquake that I never felt.

My first thought was “Damn it, Virginia, I said I was sorry.” My second thought was “Oh, blog post.” But when I came in here to write it, my Wacom Tablet, which was working fine before dinner, was now unable to function. The computer told me it didn’t exist. After switching the tablet for a mouse, I was able to reboot and here I am writing.

Coincidences? Sure. I mean, anyone can have a day where a mausoleum light burns out over your head, your camera doesn’t want to take a certain picture, a guy vomits on your car, a soda can jumps out on your foot and your computer won’t work.

Who doesn’t?

But just in case, Virginia, Iron Eyes, and anyone else at Hollywood Forever Cemetery I may have accidentally offended, I promise never to do it again.