Hooray for Hollywood

by Nancy Bestor

photo 3On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Sarah and I had a few hours on our hands and decided that a hike in the Hollywood Hills would be just the ticket. Sarah originally wanted to climb to the world-famous Hollywood sign, but we learned that nowadays the iconic sign is fenced off and monitored with security cameras. So instead we enjoyed a great ramble up and down the “Secret Staircases of Beechwood Canyon” which offers great views of the Hollywood sign, downtown Los Angeles, and all the way out to the Pacific Ocean. The 2 ½ mile walk includes six sets of stairways that range from 125 to 180 steps each. While the stairs and streets are steep at times, the route affords views of a myriad of homes, from kooky and run down 1950’s era “modern” homes, to equally kooky faux castles. This being the Hollywood Hills, many of these properties are owned, or were once owned, by both the famous and the infamous. I learned an important lesson that day—just because someone has lots of money, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have good taste.

This neighborhood was one of Hollywood’s first housing developments and was originally called Hollywoodland. The original sign went up in 1923 and was lit by four thousand 20-watt light bulbs, at a cost of $21,000. The thirteen 50-foot high letters lasted until the mid 1940’s when the acreage around the sign and the sign itself were sold to the city of Los Angeles, who now maintains it.

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Although we saw only a few people on the staircases walk, there were many, many more hiking up to view the Hollywood Sign via the Hollyridge Trail. We saw runners, walkers, stroller pushers and more, all on their way up for the chance to peer through a chain link fence at the back side of the Hollywood sign below.

With gawkers often standing in the middle of the street and blocking traffic to take pictures, the neighborhood just below the hike isn’t too pleased to be both a tourist thoroughfare and parking lot. As such, much of the area is strictly regulated as a no parking zone unless you have a neighborhood parking permit. We photosaw several enforcement officers cruising the hood and ticketing those cars without a permit on the sunny Sunday morning we visited. I am always surprised when people park in areas they’re not supposed to, especially when signs are everywhere warning that parking regulations are strictly enforced. But maybe I’m scarred from getting my own car towed at 2am in San Francisco many moons ago, after illegally parking in a McDonald’s lot (but that’s a story best left for another time).

Hiking the neighborhoods of the rich and famous made us hungry, so we finished our day in Hollywood with lunch at Zankou Chicken, a small, family-owned chain restaurant with cheap and delicious Middle Eastern food. The first Zankou Chicken was opened in Beirut in the 1960’s, and I’m glad Yelp and all the Yelpers out there turned us on to this great spot.

I was pretty sure Hollywood had more to offer than wacky Hollywood Boulevard and our hike (and our lunch!) proved it.

That Screwy Ballyhooey Hollywood

IMG_0096by Nancy Bestor

I remember when I was young and thought Hollywood was glamorous. Surely all the men would be dashing and handsome and all the women would be elegant and sophisticated. They would have fancy cars with dignified drivers idling at the curb, while they perused the elegant shops and waltzed over the stars of their celebrity friends on Hollywood Boulevard.

Thus my first visit to Hollywood, at age 16, was a big disappointment.  I learned that much of Hollywood, and a good portion of Hollywood Boulevard, isn’t even close to what I expected. Since I’m trying to relive my childhood through my children, I took them to Hollywood Boulevard this spring. I did not tell them of my previous experiences, as I didn’t want to be the one to crush their dreams of glamour. And perhaps, I hoped, the Boulevard had cleaned up its act in the years that had passed.

IMG_0287I’m not sure I thought it possible, but Hollywood Boulevard might even be more disappointing today than I remember it being in my youth. It’s a strange juxtaposition actually. You’ve got really cool stars on the “Walk of Fame”, while at the same time you have garish businesses and pushy touts shoving flyers in your face just about every step of the way. It reminds me a little of the streets of Las Vegas. I half expected to see neon lights advertising “girls, girls, girls.”

Just about every business caters to the tourist crowd, but often in strange ways. There are people shilling for tours of stars’ houses, and then there are people in creepy costumes, waiting to make a few bucks off the tourists wanting to have their picture taken with a not-even-close Johnny Depp “look alike”, or a man with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. Not surprisingly, the wackiness seems at its height around Grauman’s Chinese Theater, home of many movie premiers and three Academy awards ceremonies. Its most popular draw is the concrete blocks in front of the theater, with handprints, footprints and signatures of famous celebrities. Trust me when I say that you won’t see any real stars here, but you are guaranteed see a weirdly bad impression of Rambo, Mickey Mouse or Lucille Ball.

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This isn’t the glamorous Hollywood of my imagination, and I can guarantee it was not the Hollywood my girls envisioned either. It certainly is a site to see however, and drives home the point that real life is not like the movies. From one of my favorite Avett Brothers songs:

Now in the movies they make it look so perfect,
And in the background they’re always playing the right song,
And in the ending there’s always a resolution,
But real life is more than just two hours long.

Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars

by Nancy Bestor

Getty GardenOur spring break trip to Southern California was not our first choice of vacations. Our plans to chew on cocoa leaves while hiking the Inca Trail did not work out, so our expectations, with Los Angeles as a last minute stand-in, were not set too high. It turns out we sold LA short. We spent a week in So Cal, where the entire family had a great time, and it was delightfully easy on the pocketbook as well!

Three weeks before we left, I looked into tickets for television show tapings online. We were fortunate enough to score seats for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (minimum age 16), and the girls got tickets to a taping of So You Think You Can Dance Los Angeles Auditions. Both events were interesting, entertaining and FREE!

We dropped the girls off at the Orpheum Theater downtown for the So You Think You Can Dance taping, and the “show” began immediately as the line for audience members ran parallel to the line for dancers. Hopeful hip-hoppers, ballerinas and ballroom phollywood orpheumartners went through their warm-ups, many in carefully chosen costumes (full body gold lamé, chicken suits, you name it), right out on the sidewalk.

The guest judge for the day was Jesse Tyler Ferguson who plays Mitchell on Modern Family, and the auditions lasted about two hours. Lucky dancers were welcomed on the spot to the next round (and, yes, the chicken suit dancer made it) and the others were thanked for their time and efforts and sent packing.

The next day it was on to Jay Leno. The Tonight Show tapes at 4:30 in the afternoon at NBC studios in Burbank. As seats are not guaranteed, folks arrive early. We got in line at 1:30 and there were already about 100 people ahead of us, then we were all let into the studio at about 3:45. The guests for the show were actress Kristin Chenoweth and “singer” Josh Groban. Audience members under 25 years of age are seated in the front rows of the theater (perhaps it helps Jay seem younger if viewers assume his audience is younger?) so needless to say, we were seated in the back. Although we’re not really fans of either guest—actually I’m being polite here, we’re not even remotely fans of Josh Groban—we did enjoy the show. But it was quite a bit more interesting to see what happens behind the scenes of a television taping; the band, the cameras, the make-up crew, the personal attendants for Jay and each of his guests, and the crazy guy warming up the audience.

By far, the most entertaining 90 minutes on the trip however was an improv comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Their 95-seat theater offers multiple shows a night, for only $5 each. The show we attended, called “Facebook”, was absolutely hilarious. Three comedians brought two audience members on stage, opened their Facebook accounts on a projector for all to see, and then proceeded to make up a number of fabulously entertaining skits based on what they found. It was really, really good, incredibly funny, and the talented performers were spot on. All shows at the UCB Theater are open to all ages, although some might find it inappropriate for young children.

hollywood cardsOn the spur of the moment, we bought tickets ($49 each) to a tour of Warner Brothers Studios. Our youngest daughter was really pushing for this one, while I was a bit skeptical, but it turns out we made the right decision and once again we all really enjoyed the 2+ hour tour. A tram and tour guide took eight of us all over the huge Warner lot, where we saw current TV show sets (and a couple of actors too, but sadly I didn’t recognize their names, nor their tv shows), the 10-million-item props department, backlot “streets” and more. As is the case in many things in LaLa land, all is not as it seems, and this was evident when we saw fake buildings, fake cars, fake neighborhoods, fake credit card signs, and lots and lots of fun stories on how they all come together (or don’t in some cases) to make movies.

Another fun and practically free highlight of our trip was a visit to the Getty Center. Other than a $15 fee to park, this outstanding museum, with stunning art, sublime architecture and gorgeous views (when the smog clears), is free. The Getty Center also provides a free iPod Touch to each and every visitor, which offers audio details on almost every item in the entire museum. We spent a long and enjoyable morning, but saw only a fraction of what the Getty has to offer. One of my favorite parts was the Central Garden (see the photo above!)—it is just beautiful and definitely gets a “don’t miss it” designation. I was very impressed by what the Getty offers, by how well the Center is run, and by the fact that other than parking, everything is free.

hollywood poemOne final highlight of our trip to LA was a visit to the Sunday Farmer’s Market in Hollywood. When traveling, a visit to a farmer’s market always makes me feel more like a local. I get to sample local produce and cuisine, and the people watching is always fun too. The Hollywood market is the biggest in the area, and we ate our way up and down every aisle. The fresh squeezed juices, goat cheese tamales, coffees, oranges, pastries, crepes, and shave ice were all top quality treats, and the musicians, poetry writers, and entertainers were all a delight to behold.