(originally published in Rosebud #53)
What’s it like living in a city in the movies?
I suppose it is precisely because I was born and raised in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills that this question never occurred to me. Then, at the age of seventeen, in 1960, I went off to college, at U.C. Santa Barbara, and met people from other places. For the firs t time and by more than one friend, I was asked, a question that made me realize there might be something special about the place I came from. It was a roommate from Denver named Larry Field who put it in exactly the form I’ve never forgotten. It was Larry who asked, “What’s it like living in a city in the movies?”
He went on to explain, “I’ve always thought that it must really be something to drive by the City Hall that they show at the beginning of Dragnet.”
All I could say at the time was that we didn’t go downtown much. Of course, I knew that parts of movies and television shows were sometimes shot on locations around town. Like most people who live here, I didn’t bother to watch the filming. It is a tedious process and you can rarely get close enough to see much anyway.
I also knew that some sites were famous for having been in movies and shows. More than once I’d been taken on school trips to the Griffith Park Planetarium, where the gift shop sells as many knickknacks and publications about Rebel Without a Cause as it does about Mars and Jupiter combined. It just didn’t matter to me that this was one of the places that gave birth to the James Dean legend, that my classmates and I sat in the same uncomfortable slanted chairs, peering up at much the same show that James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo sat through or that afterwards we walked the very parapet where Dean was drawn into a knife fight. Well, they say native New Yorkers are immune to the majesty of the Statue of Liberty and few Parisians bother with the Eiffel Tower.
You do take things for granted when you grow up around them. I thought nothing of it when, driving west on Olympic Boulevard, I came around a curve and was confronted with the Swiss Alps or the Arabian desert where the ordinary skyline ought to be. These panoramas were painted as needed for particular productions on a huge backdrop – imagine a gigantic billboard – rising up from behind the fence surrounding the 20th Century-Fox lot.
I did have a favorite scene that was in place for months -- a forest fire, the effect of which was enhanced by rows of trees set up to give it a foreground the actors could struggle through. When the studio was actually filming this, dozens of smudge pots were fired up to produce a pall of black smoke that probably violated every rule the AQMD has since come up with.
The Fox lot was immediately adjacent to my school, Beverly High. From the second floor chem lab, you could see the spires of what we called Prince Valliant’s castle. Occasionally, an adventurous classmate would sneak over the fence and return with reports of the cowboy street, the lake with a rotting schooner, a hundred yards of cement painted to look like the deck of an aircraft carrier. It hardly seemed worth the risk of getting caught by the studio police. (No, they didn’t wear Keystone Kops outfits).
And yes, there were stars. My mother once pointed out Gloria Swanson to me at Robinson’s department store. This was many years ago. A friend and I were driving too fast down Rodeo Drive when a pedestrian darted out into the street. I still remember the look of horror on Jack Benny’s face as we missed him by inches. On the other hand, it was just being the object of a strikingly beautiful woman’s attention, even for only a few moments, that stunned me and not the fact, which I only realized later, that it was Kim Novak who was asking the way to Linny’s Delicatessen.
But, as I say, it wasn’t until I went off to college and began to see my hometown as others saw it, that I realized that there was anything exotic about L.A. Over the years after college, back home, I became more interested in movies and their history, and made myself expert at identifying particular sites, some as obvious as the Planetarium, some a little less so, like the hillside in Silverlake where Laurel & Hardy had their Sisyphean struggle with a piano in “The Music Box.”
I enjoyed knowing a lot about the city ‘s role in movies and television, and sharing that knowledge with people who cared, but for all those years I failed to fully grasp the deep power and meaning of our city’s Hollywood connection.
My new understanding was triggered by another question, this one put to me recently. I was waiting to cross Sunset at La Cienega when I was approached by a tourist about my age, a Brit, judging by his accent. He wondered if I could direct him to 77 Sunset Strip. He had already determined that there is no such address but he wanted to visit the spot used for the opening of the 1960s television show of that name.
“There’s nothing there,” I said. “There used to be an awning like the one in the show, but it’s been gone for I don’t know how long. And it didn’t say 77 Sunset Strip. They just brought that in when they shot there.”
He didn’t seem surprised or disappointed and still wanted to know where the awning had been.
I pointed down the block and off he went. Later, my curiosity aroused, I took a look for myself and found that there is something of 77 Sunset Strip after all, which I had never noticed. The awning is gone, along with Dean Martin’s night club, Dino’s, which was always included in the show’s opening. The faux timbers and plaster suggesting a lodge ambience have been replaced with a featureless facade of glass and cement. But under my feet I found, in slightly raised stone lettering, a grimy memorial which identifies this as 77 Sunset Strip. That’s when a new realization about the city in the movies began to dawn. At least this marker is at a place where something happened. My mind turned to other markers, miles of them, which mark nothing.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame runs along Hollywood Boulevard with a swing down Vine to Sunset. It consists of over 2,400 stone and brass plaques (more are added from time to time), laid down as part of the sidewalk. Each of these plaques bears the name of the person honored framed in a star, along with a symbol designating their area of achievement – movies, TV, radio, recording, live appearances. It’s not just performers who are honored. Directors, producers and other behind the camera personnel are included. Many of the honorees, achievers in more than one field, have more than one plaque, in different locations. Bob Hope, for example has four.
To me, the really interesting thing about these markers is precisely the fact that they mark nothing. No scenes featuring the stars were shot on their stars, no one – so far as is known – is buried under any of them. And yet, they draw about ten million tourists a year. Many of the plaques commemorate names which have fallen into obscurity, but others are still profoundly meaningful to those who visit them. Eavesdrop on the tourists taking photographs of Olivia Newton-John’s star and you’ll probably hear Australian accents. Older black people cluster around Nat King Cole. A German tourist in a cowboy hat kneels while his wife takes of a picture him at the star of Hoot Gibson.
Great works of man and nature -- the Sistine Chapel , the Grand Canyon come to mind -- have inherent value. Other sites are important because of what happened at them – Gettysburg or Independence Hall. I think I understand why we take pictures of ourselves at such sites, even ones as comparatively trivial as the Hollywood sign. It’s a way to assert ourselves, to show others that we’ve been to the exotic locale. It’s also a way to hold on to an experience, literally a memento. But why would anyone be drawn to a marker that is undistinguished in appearance and arbitrary in its location?
The answer, of course, is because the Walk of Fame stars represent the idea of Hollywood. The plaques are a connection to a concept and so is all of Los Angeles.
Movie makers have been using L.A. and environs for nearly a century. Beyond the specific sites, there is the general background... the beaches, both crowded and solitary, the miles of surface streets, the spectacular geometry of the freeways, the public buildings and the homes, some striking; most, nondescript but even so used as background.
Most of the time, for most of us who live in Los Angeles, it’s just the place where we live. It is the outsider, the tourist, open to what his or her trip has to offer, who is likely to get an odd, hard to define thrill from the place. The years of fleeting illusions experienced in theaters and in front of TVs are affirmed and enhanced by the physical reality of the city. It’s a wonderful trick of the mind. The glamour, the comedy, the struggles between good and evil, the romance, the sexiness must have happened because they happened here, and that association in turn endows Los Angeles with a unique emotional significance.
So, Larry, my old roommate, thanks for asking what it’s like living in a city in the movies. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. The answer is that living in Los Angeles is like living anywhere else... until you are able to see it as outsiders do.