Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Monday, June 11, 2007

Out of the Past: L.A. Between Takes -- Land of Imperfect Dreams

Showbiz David from out of the past

Facing a dull range of lifeless mountains ahead, suddenly you’re ascending the "grapevine" and the promise of a thousand dreams on the other side ... The road pointing south can be a perfect stretch of asphalt — or an inferno of smoke or sliding mud. Once into Los Angeles, myth competes with reality: The famed sun does not always rise on time ... On some city buses I hear my own language still spoken and feel a rare American connection; on others, I am a total stranger in a brown land. Should I learn the other tongue? I know my government will never make them learn mine. Dream city may be running out of dreams ...

...Still, the wonder of the place is how small it actually feels. On the 780 "rapid" whizzing west along Los Feliz Boulevard, there’s a touch of Stephanie Edwards in the air. The passengers seem as free and open to the moment as a warm breeze, while on mounted video screens two character chefs, one dressed as a big pink Easter bunny, are giving cooking instructions that go largely ignored. Easter in June? Must be a rerun; maybe our cooks landed a sitcom ....

Down Sunset Boulevard
on foot, I spot an abandoned teddy bear laying dead on the sidewalk, and am reminded that for every perfect fantasy, there are a million twisted let downs ... A pair of white sneakers hanging artfully from telephone pole wires is so picture-perfect L.A. -- and more clever than the over hyped minimalism of Dan Flavin who assembles abstract shapes out of neon at the County Museum. "Not to be missed," writes the L.A. Times. No, not to be missed if you like walking through mystical spheres of color, much the same as pacing a carnival midway by night.

Between takes, the town is a thousand traffic jams . Maybe if they outlawed automobiles and apologized to the world for glamorizing automania, the long lines at Pink’s Hot Dogs would go away and give us locals (and local tourists like me) a break. 'Twas never like this when I lived down there. Now, Pinks is a hit Broadway show on La Brea, thanks, I suspect, to some wise guy who hired a bunch of audience extras and planted the first queue. Ever since, to get the best chili dog on the planet, you need the patience of a Disney patron from Iowa ...

The lines at Phillipes move faster, and there, if you can nab yourself a booth, it’s yours for as long as you wish to dream or sulk ... The locals love the place. An L.A. dame seated with friend tells me that the two figures among the circus posters I am photographing are Lou and Bud, and I tell her about the Paul Eagles Circus Luncheon Club that sadly no longer is, and the three of us are instantly simpatico. Phillipes does that to people ...

Dreams begin over a thousand laptops. A table at Psych Bubble Coffee House up in Los Feliz makes me feel young again. The place is full of Apple keyboards and scheming would-be screen writers. Two younger-than-me guys chat about a project on which they are collaborating: "I think we pretty much have the central characters," says one. "The beginning is pretty strong," ventures the other... Ah, yes, so many perfect beginnings that go imperfectly nowhere: Between takes, sitcom writers and studio musicians who try their luck at local theatre prove how human they are. All over town on small stages, half-baked ideas strut the boards and the local critics cheer lead too often....

The Beastly Bombing at the Steve Allen in East Hollywood delivers a rollicking good first act built on brilliant subversive satire (a pair of skinheads and two Islamic extremist both plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge in a Gilbert & Sullivan style romp). After intermission, the whole thing collapses into a farce gone astray. Sorry, guys, the image of the Prez making love to his personal savior somehow doesn’t work ... Back to the Psych Bubble, please. .... There on Vermont, nearly everybody is laboring over the next great movie script. A Times reporter once wrote of a similar café down the street that turned out, in his estimation, absolutely not a single producable screenplay ... "The beginning is pretty strong..."

When cameras do roll, the images can be mesmerizing. Late one evening on the TV, I surf into a high speed police chase of a "shooting suspect." For a couple of hours, cop cars follow their prey onto and off freeways, up and down surface streets. "It’s hard to know what’s going on in his mind" says a commentator. Of course, a spectacular shoot-out is what he and we are hoping to witness, otherwise why watch? Running low on gas or inspiration, the suspect finally parks his pickup, gets out and raises both hands. Or did I just watch another rerun? ... The next morning on kjazz radio, I’m listening to nice guy Chuck Cecil play hits from the swinging years, and it, too, is a replay...

... The "movable parking lots" as they call them are now defacto runways for car chases. Johnny’s café on Wilshire and Fairfax now fires up its grills and admits patrons only when they are extras in a film being shot on its premises. Strictly a set for rent. The whole town is one vast back lot, doomed to run out of gas and water sometime between takes, but never of Pink’s hot dogs or new movie script ideas ...

Now co-starring with still-bustling Farmer's Market, next to which it stands, is a modern-day Main Street without cars called the Groove. A little like Disneyland's town square, it’s full scale and the shops are more Bev Hills than Dodge City. Gorgeous upscale facades, verandas and decks for dining, a real grassy park for the kids, a fountain and a two-decker open-air trolley car that rumbles up and down a track. Best yet, recordings of Sinatra and his colleagues crooning the great American song book. I waited for Judy to sing, "Ding, ding ding!" Nobody but nobody can stage an event like L.A. can. This one is a smash ...

At the Angelus Temple on a perfect Sunday and sunny Morning, cameras glorify the service onto cinerama-shaped screens. Rock musicians lift the crowd into rocking orbit, arms waving high, spirits merged into a shared dream of redemption and fellowship. And I too believe, feeling a rare human connection to all the Angelinos around me. Humility is a virtue worth practicing, brother. In this grand white house of worship by Echo Park Lake that Aimee Semple McPherson built back in the roaring twenties, the same mix of religion and glamour she pioneered lives on. The force is irresistible, and together we sing ...

I give you all the glory.
I give you all the praise.
Jesus, the light of glory,
Light my way!

"We’re real. We’re raw. We’re relevant!" cries youngish Pastor Matthew Barnett, a Southern boy who excels in the world’s largest small town. Earlier the same week he was in Russia preaching. The world loves everything tinsel town from car chases to fast flicks to high-tech gospel. Soon to appear at the Convention Center: a three day Erotic Expo. And soon to raise the roof across town at Aimee’s place:

One Night. Twenty Four Cameras. Thousands of Worshipers. One God.

When the cameras roll in L.A. they usually get it right. And when they don’t, proceed at your own caution. Unedited, the town is no different from yours ... Maybe just a little more imperfectly promising...




First published June 10, 2007

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