Star-struck…excessive…smoggy…superficial…There’s a modicum of truth to each of the adjectives regularly applied to L.A. But Angelenos — and most objective visitors — dismiss their prevalence as signs of envy from people who hail from places less blessed with fun and sun. — Fodor’s 2011 Los Angeles
The opportunity to visit our daughter and attend WEFTEC, the largest water conference and exhibition in North America, in Los Angeles spurred my wife and me to visit this storied city for the first time. L.A., baby! Here we come.
We came, we saw, we ate well and basked in the fantastic weather while suffering the traffic and high prices. This latter problem may have been aggravated by the fact that we were spending a lot of time — and money — in Beverly Hills and the Westwood area since my daughter lives and works in the vicinity of UCLA, a pretty tony part of town. You almost forget that California’s state government and economy is suffering. But it is a big place. There are more Californians than there are Canadians.
One morning I called down to the valet service desk to have my rented Mazda 6 brought around to the front of the hotel. I saw my nice little car in the driveway, surrounded by Bentleys, Aston Martins, various high-end German models, and a Ferrari. The hotel had given me a convention rate, but I was clearly out of my league. Having forgotten my claim check, I apologized to the valet, showed him my room key and driver’s license to gain access to my vehicle without going back upstairs.
“No problem, Mr. Mehan,” said the cheerful attendant. “You wouldn’t want to steal that car.” Ouch.
California is quite a place, entirely unique in terms of geography and culture. A friend of my wife from South America, who lived in Manhattan for many years, recently moved to L.A. When asked how she liked California, replied, “It is near the United States.” Many commentators, however, argue that California prefigures what America is becoming at any given moment in time. Whether you find that a positive or negative proposition, I tend to think there is much truth in it.
Pop Culture, for instance, does permeate life in LaLaLand: a massive economy employing millions of Southern Californians is built around it.
No trip to Tinsel Town would be complete without a movie studio tour. We had booked tickets in advance for the Warner Bros. Studios “VIP Studio Tour,” to get a sense of L.A.’s premier industry. This is the quintessential tourist destination and, in truth, it is not to be missed.
Arriving in “beautiful downtown Burbank,” as Johnny Carson used to quip, we were struck by the size of the Warner Bros. corporate complex. This was a visual and useful reminder of the economic magnitude of the entertainment industry, a thought which, immediately, brought on a bout of cultural angst: Is it really a good thing that this town, this industry, these people have such a huge impact on the cultural and moral consciousness of the nation, nay, the planet? Get a grip on yourself, man. You’re on vacation.
Being intermittent, yet dedicated moviegoers, my wife and I were looking forward to a warm bath in film nostalgia. What we got was a tightly focused marketing effort promoting Warner Bros. TV shows produced for CBS, Fox, and the like. The tour guide, a young fellow who must watch television 24/7, was chock full of information, anecdotes, gossip, plot lines, recitations of past episodes and various other trivia relating to numerous prime-time shows very few of which my wife, daughter, or I had ever heard. When were we going to see where they shot scenes for Casablanca or gaze on Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino?
Evidently, they shoot one episode of a sit-com in five days. Most of the cast make something like $300,000 per episode. Moreover, they work three weeks on, one off. Off the record, we were informed that that unfortunate man (my term, not the tour guide’s), Charlie Sheen, made millions for one show of Two and a Half Men.
Also, re-runs of Friends, worldwide, bring in a billion dollars a year. Those protesters occupying Wall Street should Occupy Hollywood next time.
We saw the sound stages for The Mentalist and a replica set for Friends. We also learned about optical illusions to create a sense of perspective on the small sets.
The studio does understand marketing. We just watched our first episode of The Mentalist, a gruesome, compelling crime show with an edgy character, Patrick Jane, played by the Aussie actor Simon Baker. He appears to emulate the great Jeremy Brett who immortalized Sherlock Holmes in that masterful, over-the-top role for PBS. Both characters are nuts — but in a good way.
Fortunately, we did get some exposure to the venerable film history of Warner Bros. We saw the Paris café where Bogart and Bergman romanced each other, a bank robbed by Bonnie and Clyde, a fire escape from Annie and the pond (sometimes a lake, sometimes an ocean) where the Budweiser frogs were created. Yes, we did get to see Clint’s Gran Torino, which he still owns but lets the studio keep for public display in the same building with other famous vehicles including one from a Batman movie. There is also a whole floor dedicated to Harry Potter costumes, props, etc. Back lot, front lot, it is all a theatrical wonderland, truly the Dream Factory.
However, this city also boasts highbrow appeal, having amassed an impressive array of world-class museums and arts venues.
We lunched at the lovely, outrageously expensive Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows. This pricey, albeit delightful meal pretty much scratched plans to visit Spanish TV chef José Andrés’s new restaurant, the Bazaar where, according to the Wall Street Journal, “All meals are made up of tapas, and signature items include drinks and canapés dipped in vats of liquid nitrogen…A palm-reader roams the floor, offering predictions.” Oh well, maybe the next trip.
After feeding the body, it was time to feed the soul.
Does art follow the money, or does the money follow art? The latter seems to be the case in Los Angeles where the world’s richest man (at the time), the late J. Paul Getty, a world-class collector, endowed and established two of the most spectacular art institutions to be found anywhere in the world. The National Gallery in Washington and the Louvre in Paris have more art masterpieces per square foot, but both the Getty Center in town and the Getty Villa in Malibu, a short drive through gorgeous Santa Monica, are unparalleled in terms of their topography, architecture and presentation of myriad treasures of Western civilization all in combination.
The Getty Center, which must be reached by tram, is located on 750 acres in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains with public and private buildings housing a museum, research and conservation institutes and the Getty Foundation. The Central Garden is marvelous as are the structures which constitute an artistic experience unto themselves. The views here and at the Villa are magnificent.
The Getty Villa houses over 1,200 works of art from Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquity. You do not need a classical education to appreciate the beauty of the antiquities assembled by Mr. Getty. Again, as with the Getty Museum, the Villa-the structure itself-is an object to be contemplated and enjoyed. It is a precise, archeologically correct, replica of the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman country house in Herculaneum. That would be the Herculaneum buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The structure also draws from other Roman homes in Pompeii and Stabiae.
There is an atrium, formal and herb gardens, a floor plan of alternating triangles of Numidian yellow and africano or dark gray Lucullan marble, fountains, Corinthian columns and streets paved with irregular stones.
Moreover, it has burgeoning neighborhoods that bear little resemblance to those featured in The Hills or Entourage.
As much fun as was the wretched excess of Beverly Hills and environs, on Sunday we did manage to make it to the impressive though hyper-modernist Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A., a structure “with virtually no right angles.” The architect thought this conveyed a sense of mystery and other worldliness, I believe.
We were privileged to have the new Archbishop, the Most Reverend José Gomez, a native of Mexico and a fine homilist, celebrate Mass and offer his thoughts on giving unto Caesar the things that are his and to God the things that are His. It sounded like one of my book reviews for TAS. Great minds think alike, right?
Besides being the seat of the Archbishop, the Cathedral is a vibrant parish, largely Hispanic, blue collar and devout. The service was in English but there is a Spanish mass at another time on Sunday. When the lector welcomed first-time visitors to the Cathedral and asked them to stand, they were almost all Anglo conventioneers and tourists. We received a hearty round of applause from our Hispanic co-religionists. The Cathedral, by the way, was packed.
After mass, we strolled around the plaza outside where there are several interesting shrines and features celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas.
When in Los Angeles, do as the Angelenos. We left the Cathedral for a historic Mexican neighborhood, festival and market area — El Pueblo de Los Angeles — to have lunch at an excellent Mexican restaurant and down a few margaritas with my wife’s nephew, an aspiring teacher in town. No question, California Dreamin’ is hard to deny.
America’s second largest city has more depth than paparazzi shutters can ever capture. So set aside your preconceived notions and take a look at L.A. Today.