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.
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.
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.
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.
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.