…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Monday, January 30, 2006

hollywood disinterred

Whenever we're about to host first-time visitors from out of town, my partner and I start thinking about where to go, what to do, how to present Los Angeles to the novice user. We've long wanted to crystallize a cogent tour, with a trajectory that flows as swiftly as water whooshes through the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens Valley—with nods to the graft and corruption appropriate to the metaphor. [See "Chinatown."]

It's impossible to sway L.A. virgins from seeing the old standards: Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame, celebs' footprints in the Grauman's forecourt. But Hollywood Boulevard, from which one can view the latter three, is certain to disappoint, and I don't just say that because I grew up in Southern California: It doesn't take repeated exposure to be turned off by the cheesy souvenir shops, tourist traps like the Guinness World of Records, and sloppy men halfheartedly trying to sell their privacy-invading tours of stars' homes. And while the Chinese Theatre is still captivating enough to compel even the most jaded among us to put our sensible lesbian shoes alongside the impressions of Joan Crawford's freakishly tiny feet and wonder how the woman ever remained upright, the forecourt is now positively overrun with freelance costumed "performers" who are at best tepid approximations of their totem characters. Nothing trashes Hollywood glamour quite like a motley troupe of fanny-packed superheroes, listless villains, and vaguely menacing Muppets. Lest you think I'm exaggerating for comic effect, a fall article in the Los Angeles Times exposed most of the lot as little more than panhandlers incognito, inviting tourists to take photos of them and then shaking them down for tips (hence the fanny packs; tights have no pockets). LAPD officers, at the behest of the Hollywood Entertainment District, staged a sting operation, resulting in one of my favorite lines of text in a newspaper article ever: "'Throw down your heads and get up against the wall!' police in Hollywood shouted at Mr. Incredible and his sidekick, Elmo the Muppet."

Do I sound sour? In reality, I love Hollywoodness. I can think of no better place to take a visitor to lunch than the Formosa Café, a dive that's been swilling cocktails and dishing greasy Chinese food since 1925 from a tiny unassuming building that happens to be next door to the Warner Hollywood Studio. Any booth you land in is guaranteed to have hosted major celebrity butts through the ages. The walls are jammed with black-and-white glossies from Hollywood's golden age—James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando—all personally signed to the Formosa owners and staff. If you like your icons on the darker side, Johnny Stompanato—Lana Turner's gangster boyfriend, who was stabbed to death by Lana's daughter—and Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia—a charismatic aspiring starlet who in 1947 was found in a vacant lot cut in half at the waist, a still unsolved murder that's one of L.A.'s most enduring and sensational mysteries—were both regulars at the Formosa bar.

Likewise, the Roosevelt Hotel is a required stop. The Spanish-style hotel, initially financed by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Louis B. Mayer, hosted the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929 and pays tribute to its storied past on a tourist-friendly—i.e., you don't have to be a paying guest to enjoy it—mezzanine filled with photos of old Hollywood, newspaper clippings, and artifacts, including one of the cameras used to film "Gone with the Wind." The hotel is said to be haunted by not one but two ghosts: Montgomery Clift (suite 928), who lived there during the filming of "From Here to Eternity," and Marilyn Monroe, who is said to make periodic appearances in a full-length mirror that once hung in her poolside suite—it now hangs conveniently in the hotel lobby should you want to keep vigil.

One of my favorite nights ever was spent at the Cinegrill, the hotel's now-closed cabaret. In this startlingly intimate space, once a favorite hangout of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Salvador Dalí, I watched Anita O'Day take down the house at age 85. She may have had trouble remembering her bandmates' names, but the lady, whose career ranged as wide as singing big band with Gene Krupa and bebop with Thelonious Monk, could still swing, always taunting her combo to keep up with her. Sitting at a round table not four feet from the stage and sipping an extra-strong Manhattan, I felt lost in time.

I suppose my tour would continue in much the same vein, exploring the stomping grounds of stars, criminals, and ghosts—some of whom were surely prolific enough to embody all three. We could hike through Runyon Canyon to view the ruins of magnificent estates long since torn down, one of which housed Errol Flynn when he lost his own home in an alimony fight. We'll hum "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as we walk along the dry creek of Placerita Canyon, backdrop of countless singing-cowboy movies and TV Westerns. And if your appetite for the macabre wasn't satisfied when the Formosa bartender pointed out the stool the Black Dahlia reportedly last pulled up to the rail, we can wander through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking for the graves of Rudolph Valentino, buried there in 1926, and Fay Wray, more recently interred in 2004. We can also check out HFC's proprietary LifeStories technology, touch screens placed throughout the park where visitors can view videographies of cemetery residents.

This all may sound a little like Hollywood archaeology, and maybe it is. I think I'm interested in times past not because they were better but because we can better appreciate any time at arm's length. A favorite recent quote comes from George Clooney—touted in today's Los Angeles Times as one of our few genuine movie stars (and even he would rather direct)—regarding the cinematography of "Good Night, and Good Luck": "The problem with doing this film in black-and-white and making it really attractive is that you look at it and go, God, I really miss the '50s. You can long for that. And it's hard to remember that…if you were a gay black woman in the '50s, life ain't so good!"

It is precisely for this reason that you should be sure not to leave the Hollywood Forever Cemetery without first contemplating the memorial to Hattie McDaniel, who, despite her stature as the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award, was refused her dying wish to be buried at HFC, a "white" cemetery, when she passed in 1952. Forty-seven years later she was offered a plot at HFC by its new owners, who had recently renovated the long-neglected property and wanted to right the wrong done to McDaniel. Her family thought it would be disrespectful to disinter her remains, so a memorial was erected instead. Not to gloss the original injustice, but isn't it nice to be able to skip ahead those 47 years and know how everything turns out in the end?

In hindsight Hollywood can be lovely. In the harsh klieg light of a 2006 afternoon, not so much.


Blogger sporksforall said...

Wow, fantastic. Makes me want to tour with you, sensible lesbian shoes and all.

10:44 PM  
Anonymous Plushie said...

Lovely. I have never been to California, much less Hollywood. To be honest I have never really wanted to go until I read your blog.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

There's really nothing to show that Elizabeth Short ever set foot in the Formosa or 90% of the other sites listed on the Net and in books, which are largely fictionalized.

8:16 AM  
Blogger scout said...

When I saw Larry's comment I got excited for a second thinking that people I don't know are actually reading my blog! But then I found that he has researched and written about the Black Dahlia extensively, so he probably only visited because I mentioned her. Oh, well, it's still nice of him to visit, if only to correct me.

Plushie, come and visit anytime!

10:41 AM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

Well, I'm no expert on the BD, but I can tell you two Hattie McDaniel facts... she'll be honored with a stamp this year. And, she had so much power as a performer that she was allowed some changes to the GWTW script. Still and all, she was not invited to the world premiere of GWTW in Atlanta at the fabulous Fox Theatre.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Slangred said...

I feel lucky--I am the proud owner of a spankin' new sheet of Hattie McDaniel self-adhesives, and I was there with Scout to hear the legendary Anita O'Day do her thing that night at the Hollywood Roosevelt, and it was as amazing an experience as described. Something I'll never forget. The kind of night that wrapped me with a little bit of "cool" for awhile and left me with a real jones for Anita. If you want to wallow in world-weariness and feel something real, listen to her version of "I Cover the Waterfront" or "Angel Eyes" sometime. It helps like nothing else.

11:38 PM  

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