We were cruising past Edendale, just a few miles from our exit, when I reclined my seat, unfastened my seat belt and slid into the back of the Prius.
“What are you doing?!” Him asked, hands gripping the steering wheel as Los Angeles’ infamous Interstate 5 traffic whizzed past our windows.
“I need a costume change,” I replied. “I can’t wear a T-shirt and sports bra on Hollywood Boulevard.”
If you, like me, are prone to changing your blouse five times and stuffing autograph-ready pens and paper into pockets in preparation for that random celebrity encounter, save your energy – at least on Hollywood Boulevard. No star in their right mind would go anywhere near that zoo without a red carpet to shield their stilettos from the gum-encrusted cement. That’s because Hollywood Boulevard – for the most part — is an icky part of town attracting – for the most part – icky people. Camera-wielding tourists in butt-cheek baring shorts, aging Marilyn Monroe impersonators and grease balls hawking “Star Tours” from street corners all meld into one giant sea of sweaty humanity. Careful not to step out front of one of the many Mercedes Benz vans modified into a tourist-toting convertible. Don’t even think about snapping a photograph of one of the half-dozen Johnny Depp clones without first forking over some cash.
Yet, ironically enough, Hollywood Boulevard as it exists today is actually an improvement over the Hollywood Boulevard of the not-so-distant past.
In 1996, a group of business owners pulled together to form a Business Improvement District (BID) and “revitalize” the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between LaBrea Avenue and the 101 Freeway. Since then, the BID has operated with an annual budget of $3.4 million dollars funded by 400 business owners, many of whom, I assume, operate tourist tchotchke and kinky costume shops because that’s the kind of business dominating the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
There are a few exceptions to Hollywood Boulevard’s crazed, Vegas-strip vibe. The first is the Hollywood and Highland Center, where Him and I parked ($2 for the first two hours with validation). There, visitors will find an assortment of chain restaurants, including the Hard Rock Café, and the kind of corporate shopping staples (Hot Topic, Gap, Fossil) available in most malls. But it’s clean and there’s a view of the distant “Hollywood” sign from the central courtyard.
The Hollywood and Highland Center is also home to the annual Academy Awards. Him and I knew this, but we were not aware the venue name had changed from the Kodak Theatre to the Dolby Theatre. We emerged from the Hollywood and Highland Center’s underground garage at the foot of the theater steps but assumed they led to just another movie theater in the shopping complex.
It was only later, when we drove around the entire shopping center in search of a “Kodak Theatre” sign that we realized we had already seen the theater entrance. Yep. It’s that impressive.
The second exception to the crazed, Vegas-strip vibe is 25 Degrees, a reasonably priced “high-style” diner serving up genuinely yummy burgers. I ordered their signature burger, the Number One (caramelized onion, crescenza, prelibato, gorgonzola, bacon, arugula and Thousand Island dressing), and Him had the Number Three (mezzo secco jack, green chili, chipotle, avocado). I’m still not sure what “crescenza” or “prelibato” are (I could Google the words but the results would deprive me of the lasting mystery), but I can attest that they taste pretty darn good stacked between two buns. The restaurant is attached to the dimly lit Roosevelt Hotel, reportedly home to the ghosts of former actors like Montgomery Cliff and the setting for several movies, including Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (the scene at the “Tropicana Motel” in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s con artist leaves Tom Hanks’ bamboozled detective with a wallet full of paper labels).
After lunch, Him and I did what most Hollywood Boulevard visitors inevitably do: compare our feet and hands to the feet and hands of the rich and famous. Most of the cement slabs outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater contain love notes to the landmark’s namesake and founder, theater magnate Sidney Grauman. It’s fun to inspect your favorite actors’ handwriting and gauge their physical size, but considering Grauman died in 1950, some of the newer well wishes seem a bit grandiose.
No visit to Hollywood Boulevard would be complete without joining the zombie-like line of tourists shuffling, eyes directed downward, along the Walk of Fame. Like all the others, Him and I idiotically recited our favorite names aloud.
“Oooooh, Tom Hanks! Ooooh, Alfred Hitchcock! Oooooh – wait — the Victoria Secret Angels?!”
Yes, even lingerie models have “earned” a star on the Walk of Fame.
So Hollywood Boulevard was a bust, a past-her-prime starlet desperate for a facelift. Him and I were relieved we had booked a room at the simple but quiet Tarzana Inn (19170 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana), located 15 miles away.
From Hollywood, we cruised through the craggy mountains along Mulholland Drive to the immaculately landscaped Beverly Hills. As can be expected, the homes along Mulholland and Coldwater Canyon Drives are quite impressive, and the spindly palms lining Beverly Drive will make any tourist wish they had sprung for the convertible car rental upgrade.
As at the Hollywood and Highland Center, most of the shops along Rodeo Drive are familiar corporate brands. Of course, on Rodeo Drive, the brands are mostly high-end luxury.
“Brooks Brothers?!” Him said, spying the first of the Rodeo Drive shops at the Santa Monica Boulevard intersection. “It’s like the [Palm Beach, Fla.] Gardens Mall – but outside.”
Yes, a great deal of L.A. reminded us of South Florida, where we grew up. For every Worth Avenue-like Rodeo Drive, there’s a corresponding commercial strip like U.S. 1 in the aptly named Hollywood, Florida.
Even tourists without thousands of dollars to blow on generic, overpriced goods will deem Rodeo Drive worth a jaunt because it’s pretty and clean and ideal for pretending one’s a high-class hooker preparing for a big date with a corporate raider client but all the shop clerks are mean. (Don’t fret: Those stuffy ladies will get their comeuppance sure enough). And the faux European pedestrian street at Two Rodeo Drive does its best to evoke Paris – or at least Epcot-World-Showcase “Paris.” Anyway, 2-hour parking in front of the homes on the north side of Santa Monica Boulevard is free.
Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain brand of slightly hostile, slightly crazed homeless person, the kind who calls me the “C” word as I innocently pass him in a crosswalk. So I was a bit taken aback when a ragged Rodeo Drive street denizen treated Him and I to a joke.
“Why did the bee wear a yarmulke?” the bum asked.
We had no idea.
“So he wouldn’t be confused with a WASP.” (Nervous laughter ensued).
From Rodeo Drive, Him steered the Prius to Santa Monica. There we promenaded through Palisades Park and watched the ground squirrels scurry in and out of their crumbling cliff-side burrows. Despite their cuteness, the squirrels have reportedly reproduced at such an alarming rate that — and I find this part exceedingly amusing — city officials proposed to administer birth control shots to the rodents. Unfortunately, the USDA disqualified Palisades Park from the Squirrel Sterilization Program because officials decided the park was too small. (As a side note, Hollywood earned approval to sterilize its pigeon population by feeding the birds contraceptive-laced kibble served from rooftops!)
Santa Monica is famous for its pier, a historic landmark constructed in 1909. It’s free to walk along the 1,600-foot-long structure and into the 2-acre Pacific Park, but the rides within cost between $4 to $6. The amusement park’s centerpiece, of course, is the nine-story, $1.5 million Pacific Wheel Ferris wheel, the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel. Its 660-photovoltaic modules generate about 200-kilowatt hours of energy a day.
On the second day of our L.A. tour, Him and I watched the Pacific Wheel break free of its support system and horrifically roll down the pier. And so began the Griffith Observatory’s 30-minute planetarium program, “Time’s Up” ($7 each adult), about the nature of time and its effect on the universe. We were surprised to realize the show’s narration emanated from a live woman because her delivery was flawless. She spoke as if she was smiling, the edges of her lips wrinkled into a wide, all-knowing grin, when she purred lines like, “Time is not a burrrrr-den. Time is a gift.”
The story of Griffith J. Griffith, the man behind the observatory, is almost as interesting as the observatory shows and (free) exhibits: He was born in Wales in 1850, made his money in Mexican silver mines and Southern California real estate and insisted everyone call him “Colonel Griffith” despite the fact that he was never officially commissioned as an officer. Thanks to the Southern California Academy of Sciences, Colonel Griffith became so enamored with astronomy that, in 1912, he donated $100,000 for the city of Los Angeles to construct the observatory atop Mount Hollywood. All this I learned from the observatory website. What the website failed to mention, however, is that Griffith served two years in prison for attempting to murder his wife.
According to The Native Angeleno, Griffith was a Protestant teetotaler but secret drunk who, during one particularly saucy night in 1903, became convinced his Catholic wife was in league with the Pope to poison him and steal his money. He shot the poor woman at point-blank range, and the bullet traveled through her eyeball. Despite the injury, she managed to throw herself from a Santa Monica hotel window and bounce off an awning below. She lost her eye but survived.
When it comes to the Griffith Observatory and the J. Paul Getty Museum, it’s worth noting visitors should arrive at both as early in the day as possible. Entrance to both sites is free (parking at the Getty, however, will set you back $15), so the attractions are often packed.
A parade of parking spot-hungry vehicles snaked around Mount Hollywood when we arrived at the observatory, so Him pulled the Prius into a space across Vermont Canyon Road from the Greek Theatre (yes, the same one featured in “Get Him to the Greek”) and we hiked a mile uphill to the entrance. As for the Getty Museum, we arrived late in the day and discovered the parking patrol turning cars away from the lot entrance. There is very little parking in the Brentwood neighborhood and most of it is marked with menacing tow away signs. So, alas, we gave up.
The Warner Brothers VIP Studio Tour ($55 each adult) in Burbank was undoubtedly the high point of our weekend. From the helm of a five-row golf cart, Guide Corey ferried our group of 12 around the 100-acre, self-contained city from studio to studio. Although the production company doesn’t normally preserve old sets due to space constrictions, notable exceptions include the “Central Perk” coffee shop set from “Friends,” a “Paris” shop front from “Casablanca” and a “New York” street section from “Annie.” Because Him and I toured on the weekend, we were able to explore sets currently in use including those from the television shows “The Mentalist,” “Ellen” and, a personal favorite, “The Big Bang Theory.”
When I asked Corey whether he recommended taking the tour on a weekday or on the weekend, he chose the former without missing a beat.
Visitors won’t see the grounds crawling with cast and crew members on a weekend, but there’s a better chance of touring the sets because they’re not actively filming, he said.
Corey and the rest of the Warner Brothers Studio guides deserve kudos for the way in which they specially tailor the experience for visitors; At the beginning of each tour, the guides ask participants for their favorite Warner Brothers productions and they then make every attempt to include the relative sets. Be sure you speak up early on, or you just might end up wasting precious “Big Bang Theory” set time on “Pretty Little Liars” set time thanks to the whims of a pretty little French girl with a dragon tattoo on her ankle.
Apparently, the teen drama/mystery/thriller is quite popular overseas, because Dragon Tattoo was desperate to examine every inch of any set ever used on the show. From her spot in the very back of the supped-up golf cart, she couldn’t always decipher Corey’s narration. So even though I had absolutely no knowledge of the television program, the job of translating fell to me, her nearest seat partner.
“He said, ‘That’s the outside of Aria’s house.’ ARIA,” I hissed.
Following each translation, Dragon Tattoo would grow excited and lean over both Him and I to snap a rapid succession of crooked photographs.
Admittedly, the interior set for #PLL (as I imagine it’s commonly referred to by its devoted teenybopper viewership), is actually worth visiting because it’s one of the most complete sets on the lot. Unlike the set of a sitcom like “The Big Bang Theory,” in which the “rooms” have only three walls (the fourth “wall” is the live audience) and multiple cameras film the action, each set of #PLL is an enclosed, self-contained room accessed by a single camera. This method of filming creates a sense of intimacy. And although the young female protagonists live in different parts of their imaginary town, their respective bedrooms are clustered together like rooms in a single but very large house. So it’s possible to peer through Aria’s bedroom window and then turn around in the connecting hall to peer into Emily’s bedroom. The effect is something akin to examining the contents of a life-sized dollhouse.
Our two-hour tour ended just before noon, so it was extremely helpful when a manager within the Warner Brothers Studio gift shop provided us with a complimentary list of area attractions and recommended her favorite Los Angeles Farmer’s Market eatery, Loteria Grill.
“I’m Mexican,” she said. “I eat this stuff every day at home, and even I love that place.”
Her suggestion was spot-on; Him and I split the Probaditas ($16), a sampling of 12 different sand dollar-sized tacos, a side of rice and beans ($3.50) and a plate of the best fried plantains ($5.25) we’ve ever had. The sweet slices were firm without being hard and came drizzled with crema.
Our quick perusal of the Farmer’s Market revealed plenty of restaurants serving up lip-smacking fare seven days a week, but Loteria wins points for its authenticity, colorful décor and proximity to 326 Beer & Wine, a market bar with draft brews. Tip: If the Loteria take-away line is too long, grab a seat at the counter for faster service.
All in all, visiting Los Angeles proved an enjoyable and exceptionally varied experience, but we were ready to return home to the San Francisco Bay Area after just a few days. On the seven-hour return journey north, I reflected on the difference between the two cities and concluded that one way to sum them up was thinking of Los Angeles as the “Land of Excess” (big cars, flashy clothes, big stars) and San Francisco as the “Land of Minimalism” (electric cars, casual clothes and vegans), but I think Him’s summary of L.A. worked best:
“It’s just like Miami,” he said. “There are some really nice areas and some really not-so-nice areas. And there’s a whole lotta gross, seedy tourist areas.”