All nine days of West Coast adventure can be found here.
California, There We Went
Day Seven (April 24, 2014)
in which we learn how the sausage is made, stare blankly at a sign and watch the finest team in sports
Lots of people are running from something when then get to Hollywood. Some are running from the high school drama teacher who never believed in them. Others are running from the expectation that they’ll be taking over the family dairy farm.
As for me, I run once I get to a place. Thursday morning started with a jog down Hollywood Boulevard, before the crowds were out. Turning south, I passed a speed trap on Bronson Avenue (ha) and a prop warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard with giant Easter Island heads outside. Not far from there I came across the entrance to Hollywood Forever cemetery, where peacocks and palm trees live in harmony with many famous dead Jews. I didn’t have a cemetery map, but in five minutes I did manage to find Mel Blanc, owner of the finest epitaph in history: “That’s All, Folks.” I skirted the Paramount lot and the Wilshire Country Club on my way back to the hotel. The Hollywood area has plenty of variety. The east-west streets are grimy and filled with storefronts, while the north-south streets have some picturesque little neighborhoods, where aspiring actors are probably living four to a bedroom.
Allyson has her own wake-up rituals, which generally start an hour later and involve coffee. We fueled up at the Coffee Bean across from the Roosevelt, just as the first middle-aged Spider-Men were going on duty in front of Grauman’s.
Allyson needed that energy, because it was time to see how the sausage is mass-produced. You can tour many studios while visiting Los Angeles. Warner Brothers is unquestionably the best, because it’s the one we chose to visit. It’s just up the hill from Hollywood in beautiful Burbank.
Back in the golden era, when slapping women was still seen as a social necessity and smoking was recommended by doctors, a Hollywood studio might produce 16 to 20 movies on any given day. Warner Brothers, which had large standing sets for Westerns, also rolled out an average of 123 television episodes each hour. Location shooting and the shifting economics of the entertainment industry have greatly transformed the output of the studios, but there are still a few things to see.
Once you’re properly loaded on a tram car, Warner Brothers’ helpful team of tour guides starts you off on the “back lot,” home to all the big standing exterior sets. (Some of which have functional interiors, too.) It’s an amazing system. Buildings are dressed up and stripped from day to day. With a few selective camera angles and cosmetic changes, the same square can serve as South Side Chicago, a town in Connecticut or whatever the stupid town from “Hart of Dixie” happens to be. There’s a “New York City” block, with brownstones and storefronts and fire escapes. And there’s a suburban / small town street. Among other things, they filmed “Gremlins” there.
All the doors, windows, fixtures and signs can be swapped out within hours. If a production company paying for use of the lot wants to destroy a building, they can smash it up real good – as long as they restore it to its original condition. They can tear holes in the street, as long as they patch things up for the next guys. If they want it to rain, someone brings in a crane that holds a giant grid of pipes a few stories over the action.
It all looks patently fake when you see it in broad daylight, and surprisingly real once it’s committed to film. In the same fashion, most celebrities actually look like Norwegian folk villains in person, but with the right lighting, they become your sexual fantasy. Unless your sexual fantasy involves Norwegian folk villains. Do what you do.
The tour you get depends on who’s in your group. The guide asks you as the start what shows you’re into, and if anything matches up with a show filmed on the WB lot, that’s what you hear about. We had five teenage girls on our tram, so we heard a lot about “Pretty Little Liars.” We also had a hysterical middle-aged woman (me) in the group, so every location from “Gilmore Girls” was pointed out. Allyson and I watch “Shameless” together, so we were happy to see the exteriors for The Alibi Room. They also point out classic locations: the only remaining exterior from “Casablanca” (the Paris café scene); the only house left from Rock Ridge in “Blazing Saddles”; and the spot where Kirsten Dunst wore a soaking wet top (and also Tobey McGuire was there upside-down).
It’s neat to see those things, but the reality is that you’re looking at a blank canvas. A storefront might have appeared in 38 different episodes of “Friends,” but these days it’s just a featureless storefront. It’s far more interesting to learn about the production system.
After you see the back lot, a little museum serves as a palate cleanser. It has props and costumes from shows and movies filmed at Warner Brothers. The second floor is dedicated to Harry Potter. Allyson and I never read the books. In fact, my wife reads very little: She has vision problems and, on top of that, no interest in the recorded history and literature of the last 6,000 years. She’s more into music, and pictures of pigs in costumes. I never read the Harry Potter books because I was in college when the first one was published. And if we’re being honest, reading a 700-page book for kids would have been sad. We did see the movies, however. It started as a social activity with a group of friends. After the third movie, it became something painful that you had to finish only because you started it. You know, like eating a two-pound hamburger or obtaining a master’s degree in social work. The point is, we were only mildly interested in the props. But in case you’re wondering, the sorting hat put Allyson in Gryffindor. Whoo.
The last leg of the tour is the “front lot,” home to all the workshops and indoor studios. One building is set aside for famous cars, including a few of the Batmobiles. The prop warehouse looks like the world’s greatest antique shop, without all the browsing senior citizens. There’s also an area set up to look like Central Perk from “Friends,” so you can take a picture on the couch. It’s allegedly the most profitable show ever filmed at Warner Brothers, raking in more than $1 billion. Each of the principal six actors apparently still makes $24 million a year in residuals, which is disturbing. Matthew Perry, according to the Interwebs, was the third or fourth choice for Chandler; before 1994 most of his TV jobs were mildly crappy, and he proved to be an inoffensive but mediocre actor. He now makes $24 million a year for waking up, because TBS has dead air and Europeans have a keen interest in 1990s American culture. Keep reaching for that rainbow.
We saw the set of a single-camera show (“The Mentalist”), and our guide walked us through the demanding eight-day shooting schedule for that format. We saw the set of multi-camera sitcom (“Two and a Half Men”) and learned about the ridiculously easy five-day shooting schedule for that format. Apparently, working on a multi-camera sitcom is the best job in TV. The worst job on the set goes to the studio audience, which has to devote half a day to watching a show that ultimately ends up being 20 minutes. Just like “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” you’re expected to laugh hard enough to pass a kidney stone every three minutes.
During lunch at the WB café, we agreed it was a fine tour. The wife and I have been known to watch the occasional TV show or movie, and it was nice to get a little context for how we spend those six hours each night.
It was shaping up as a Hollywood kind of day, so we decided to go all in. In the 1920s, a real estate developer built a bunch of homes on the fine brown hills towering above downtown Los Angeles. Social media was still a few years off, so to advertise, the developer installed a sign consisting of 50-foot letters spelling out the development’s name: Hollywoodland. People liked the sign, but it deteriorated into highly visible crap after a decade or so. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (of Walk of Fame fame) had the sign shortened to “Hollywood.” They refurbished it twice, in 1949 and 1978. To this day, it remains the finest real estate advertisement that doubles as a tourist attraction in the world.
And if you want, you can kinda sorta go there. The day before, Allyson had purchased a scandal and pop culture map of Los Angeles. It shows the location of many important historic sites, such as any building where Marilyn Monroe picked her nose and any intersection where Lindsay Lohan was detained by law enforcement. It gave us an intersection for the Hollywood sign, even though no one famous was ever caught shooting heroin there. We punched it into the GPS and started driving.
Amazingly enough, it’s not that easy to get to. You have to climb through an entirely residential area. It’s on a hillside, so the roads are all winding. The developers weren’t anticipating so much up-close gawking, so most of the roads are narrow enough that you have to honk before making a turn. There are also plenty of people riding around who are obviously lost – they clearly did not buy a helpful map that tells you where Justin Bieber shot and killed five state troopers before getting a slap on the wrist.
Allyson and I got as close as we were comfortable getting. There’s a road that dead-ends at a locked gate. Beyond that gate is a path leading to the sign. A very informative notice on the gate indicates that anyone walking the path can legally be shot on sight by any municipal worker for Los Angeles County. A few people were risking it, but we weren’t ready to accept the consequences of trespassing. Allyson is physically incapable of running from the authorities, and I have numerous priors in Los Angeles County from my days as Keifer Sutherland’s valet.
Instead, we stopped at a scenic overlook on the way back down. In true Hollywood fashion, a small production crew was filming some kind of stand-up. A host was giving a summer movie preview with the Hollywood sign in the background, because green screens are for losers. There’s also a nice view if you gaze away from the sign. Downtown Los Angeles stretches before you, and some days you can see the cloud of dreams hanging over the city. Some people call it smog, but really it’s dreams.
With a few hours to kill, we went back to the Roosevelt and hung out at the pool. It’s a beautiful area with a full bar where very few people swim. Lounge pools like the Roosevelt’s are places to be “seen.” Ideally, a passing producer will notice your extraordinarily slutty bathing suit, be impressed by the fact that you’re also wearing full make-up, and immediately give you the keys to the studio mansion. We found some lounge chairs to the side of the action, and we tried not to get in the way of anyone’s impending stardom. I didn’t take my shirt off, which put me in the minority of guys. I’m hoping there was a body-building convention at the hotel, or else I’m not trying hard enough.
We could have stared at the pseudo-beautiful people for hours, or at least until security asked us to leave. But we had somewhere to be. The Phillies were playing the Dodgers. It has registered with Allyson that I mention the Phillies a lot, so she offered no resistance when I suggested seeing the game. We’ve gone to watch baseball before, and there are worse ways to spend four hours with me. As the poets have written, grudging tolerance is the key to a happy marriage.
And we got to enjoy a truly authentic Los Angeles experience! Unfortunately, it was before the game started. Growing up on the East Coast, you hear things about Dodgers fans. As a kid, I used to sneak out of bed at 10 and listen to the radio broadcasts when the Phillies were on West Coast road trips. The announcers would laugh at the L.A. crowds for showing up in the third inning and leaving in the sixth. “Those sad Californians!” I would think. “What a bunch of posers!” Then the Phillies would lose around 1 in the morning and I would cry myself to sleep, like any healthy and well-adjusted Phillies fan.
It turns out that you can’t believe everything you hear from three alcoholic broadcasters employed by the away team. Most Dodgers fans show up in the third inning because they are not licensed helicopter pilots. You hear stories about L.A. traffic: mothers raising children to adulthood during a traffic jam on the 405; people giving up on their commute, abandoning their families and settling in a tent city outside Glendale. Our hotel was seven miles from Chavez Ravine, and it took us an hour to get there. Dodger Stadium holds more than 50,000 people, but they built it in a park serviced by a single wagon road.
We still got there 25 minutes before the game, because that’s how Chris White lives. Dodger Stadium, at this point in its lifespan, is truly historic. It’s the third-oldest stadium in Major League Baseball (it opened in 1962) and it’s also the biggest (it seats 56,000). It doesn’t have the amenities of newer parks, like Build-a-Bear Workshops, carnival games, four-story HD scoreboards or Mongolian BBQ concession stands. But it looks great for its age. The stadium is clean, the sightlines are good and the crowd was pumped up, once they got there. People were cheering, knocking beach balls around and cramming Dodger Dogs in their Dodger Dog holes.
Plus, they know how to use Los Angeles’ most precious natural resource: celebrities. Before the game started, Allyson and I had a minor spat. We were walking the lower concourse when I spotted Rob Reiner (an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan) walking toward us. I’m a discreet guy, so I waited for him to pass before yapping and pointing.
“It’s Rob Reiner,” I said.
“Where?” she replied.
“The guy in the blue,” I said.
In fairness to Allyson, 95 percent of the people in Dodger Stadium wear blue. In fairness to me, Allyson is a part-owner of a comedy club, and professionally she should know what Rob Reiner looks like from behind. There was a short discussion as to whether I was stupid, but before we reached any conclusions, there were more celebs to deal with. Max Greenfield – Schmidt from “New Girl” – threw out the first pitch, and afterward he sat with the guy who played Turtle on “Entourage.” One of the women from “The Walking Dead” was in the front row, and for some wonderful reason Dennis Haysbert was the PA announcer for the entire game. They showed clips of him playing Serrano in “Major League,” and he was practically blushing when they showed his reaction on the scoreboard. That’s hard to do for a guy that black. All the in-game videos have superstars; the clip explaining the rules of fan conduct started Bryan Cranston and Eric Stonestreet. Also, Alyssa Milano works at the garlic fries stand behind home plate.
The Phillies won 7-3, after scoring four runs in the 9th inning. The highlights of the on-field action are a little fuzzy, but I do remember one person in our section getting spiked in the head with a beach ball by another fan, then spilling a beer. I walked away happy, and also with a Clayton Kershaw bobblehead doll.
For what it’s worth, traffic wasn’t so bad on the way back. It took 13 hours to get out of the parking lot, but after that we were fine.
See the World