Sunday, October 05, 2008

Celebrity Revealed: Amorous Hollywood, episode 3

I’ve been mulling over the concept of celebrity recently—when you visit Hollywood, the topic is unavoidable. And so I got to thinking, what is the allure of movie stars after all? What do they really offer us? From one perspective, they are nothing more than attractive people who are good at reading a script someone else wrote and making us believe that a made-up story is real. Isn’t that just a form of lying or selling or both? I always found it sad and laughable that people would write to Robert Young of “Marcus Welby, M.D.” for help with their medical problems. There’s something wrong with this—why are we spectators so gullible, so needy?

But going to Hollywood itself and wandering around some of the places the celebrities live and work gave me a slightly different perspective, partially because I found myself getting caught up in the “Deanna Durbin stuck her feet in this cement—cool—and who is she anyway?” madness as well. And then, well, I am meandering here, but this past Friday night we were watching an episode of “Love American Style” from November 1969 and who should make a brief appearance as “the boyfriend” than Harrison Ford before he was famous. My husband and I started screaming once we figured out who he was, then pushed replay so we could see his scene again. Harrison did a fine job with his lines, but there was little to suggest this bit-player would be a superstar. And yet, it was oddly thrilling to see him at his humble beginnings.

For the same reason, it is strangely compelling to drive past Jackie Chan’s gated house or Cher’s condo, or wander among the graves at Hollywood Forever, or press my shoe over Olivia de Havilland’s footprint at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and see how small her foot was. I am seeing the ordinary humanity of people who’ve been made larger than life by the entertainment industry. And in some cases the excesses as well—you should see dead billionaire Merv Griffin’s space colony mansion perched in the mountains above Hollywood or John Travolta’s absurdly large castle rearing above the trees. “Welcome Back Kotter” led to this? There’s also the thrill of peeking behind the scenes, seeing something we aren’t supposed to see, the workings of the illusion industry, like Toto uncovering the tricks of the Wizard of Oz.

Why do we love celebrities so much? Why do we care? Is it because they’ve become part of our imaginations? The vehicles for our own desires and lusts and longings? Are we in fact worshipping part of ourselves that could be anything and do anything? Am I getting too damn intellectual here? Probably, but if you have any thoughts on the matter, please leave a comment. I love to penetrate mysteries and this is definitely a mystery to me.

Okay, it’s time to get back to the travelogue. After all, I have to get through Friday and Saturday before I tell you about the “climax” of my adventure.

On Friday morning, my sister had booked us on the VIP tour at Warner Brothers (all the tours are VIP) which is reportedly the best studio tour offered. I’d give it very high marks except for the stupid introductory movie, which was just a bombardment of 4-second clips of famous Warner Brothers movies and shows. But then we got to divide up into our groups of about 15 and board a large golf-cart like vehicle—after we turned over our purses and cameras to be kept in a locked compartment. No photos, remember! I liked our guide, Jessica, who gave us lots of information in a matter-of-fact way—she knew her stuff, but wasn’t under any illusions. The tour is very much a demystification—you learn how basic sets are remade for different shows, how “roof-top” scenes are usually shot at ground level, how a four second shot of a TV star entering a building takes an hour to shoot.

For example, we stopped by a working set to watch them film random cars driving down a street while the star walked into a shop. We stood by the line of extras waiting in the electric cars (that make no extra noise) reading the papers until “Action” was called, then they drove at random intervals through the set while about eight ordinary-looking people walked across the street in irregular groupings. A choreographed reality. Then “Cut” was called and it was over. I forget the name of the show—does it matter? But I did have a better understanding of what hard, unglamorous work it is to film a TV show. We also learned that dramas require much longer hours than comedies, which only take four short days of rehearsal and filming per episode. Most have live audiences which are purposely offered candy and sugared soft drinks so they are hyper and laugh more. Makes sense, huh?

We were allowed to take photos in one section of the tour, a sort of car museum which held the latest Batmobile, the car from the second Harry Potter movie and another car from the Matrix. Here I play Agent Smith—hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?

After the tour, we had lunch at Frank and Musso Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, established in 1919. It was once the power restaurant of choice, an honor now given to The Ivy, but Frank and Musso is still worth a visit. The menu is timeless—I love looking at old menus and this one has all the standard American fare, although the prices have changed over the decades. Jello costs four dollars, chicken ala king is twenty five! I had an omelette with fresh tomato, and I have to admit it was very tasty. The tomatoes were roasted and had a lovely smoky flavor.

Better still was the setting, a wood-paneled room where history lingered. I couldn’t help thinking of the lunch scenes from my current favorite TV show, “Mad Men.” This is definitely the sort of place where Don Draper would have a three-martini lunch with the braised short ribs special. Afterwards we asked the waiter, who was friendly in a surly way, to take our picture—my sister claims it is the first time she’s ever done this in her life, but that’s Hollywood for you, brings out the tourist in us all. The waiter pretended to be annoyed, but when I quipped that we hadn’t tipped him yet, so he should be nice, he laughed.

Dinner Friday was at a Joachim Splichal seafood restaurant called Paperfish. The food was excellent, but the setting was a rather residential area and I wouldn’t say the place was jammed. Too bad, because it was the best food of the trip—I loved my halibut with greens and the olive rolls.

A celebrity’s life is busy if nothing else, but Saturday morning we paid a visit to some celebrities who have a lot of time on their hands at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Peter Lorre, Jayne Mansfield, Don Adams, Nelson Riddle and Art Pepper are buried here, but we didn’t have a map, so our discoveries were hit and miss. We did see the gravestone of Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and countless other Warner Brothers cartoon characters. We also saw the impressive grave of Cecil B. DeMille. More interesting however, were the marble chapels where the bodies are stacked in rows and columns. Most are from the 1920s and I couldn’t help imagining mourning ladies in cloche hats gathered around to say goodbye to “our dear aunt Frances.”

But as I said, my trip was full of surprises and Hollywood Forever held one of the most amusing. Some of the memorials we saw were not just names carved on marble, but a sort of shadow box of collected items that were important to the departed along with an urn of their ashes. One man’s shadow box had labels from wine wines he’d drunk, another had marathon medals. And then I saw it…the highlight of the cemetery visit.

I was standing in the presence of the memorial to Larry Tate from “Bewitched”! You remember him, the venal ad man, predecessor to “Mad Men’s” Roger Sterling. Larry has a “real” name—David White—but I always like to think of him as Larry Tate. Now, you may not believe this, but getting so close to Larry Tate like this was a sweet surprise. Funny and absurd, too, but somehow more moving than happening upon a more obviously famous dead actor.

After the cemetery, my sister dropped me off at my new hotel, the Magic Castle right in the middle of Hollywood, while she went off to have lunch with a TV star friend of hers (probably best not to mention the name here, but I saw lots of billboards in the neighborhood for the show). My room wasn’t ready and I had a few hours to kill, so I strolled down to Grauman’s Chinese theatre to get one of the famous Starline Tours of the stars’ homes.

The man at the ticket counter was very charming and commented that I had an interesting name. I told him it was even more appropriate because I was a writer. “What do you write?” he asked. I leveled my gaze at him. “Erotic novels.” He smiled. “Wow, my girlfriend and I would be interested in that. Where can I get your book?” I handed him my card, which he admired, and told him the story was set in Japan. It turns out he studies karate and loves Japanese art. Was this another sale? One copy at a time….

I then boarded my air-conditioned mini-bus for a two-hour tour of stars’ homes in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air. My one bit of advice—try to sit on the right hand side of the bus, as I did. You get a better shot at the good photos. Now, this blog is going on too long, so I won’t list all of the homes I saw. But highlights for me were Jackie Chan’s house—actually we could see nothing more than his fancy gates—the white mansion used in Gone with the Wind for Tara, and, to keep with the “Bewitched” theme, the houses of Agnes Moorehead and Elizabeth Montgomery.

There was also the Reagan complex, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis living across the street from each other, a funky arty type who had an interesting mail box and George Harrison’s house. And then of course, my very favorite, the home of the Skipper in “Gilligan’s Island.” I don’t even know his name, but that is the one house I’ll remember best—it looks rather like something one of my friends might live in. Maybe that’s why it sticks?

After the tour, I checked into my room at the Magic Castle Hotel—I was in 209 again, which must mean something, I’m not sure what. Is 209 my lucky number, unknown until this day? More on my room and the hotel later. Celebrity doesn’t have much to do with that part of the trip!

Anyway, at around seven thirty, I met my sister for dinner. We were going to do something in Hollywood, but on a Saturday night, the place was packed with partiers, so we decided to drive over to the Farmer’s Market, which was also packed. I had an appointment to be on the Dr. Susan Block radio show that night and my sister would be dropping me off there, then heading back to her hotel to get a few hours of sleep before her return flight to New York early the next morning.

Over dinner in a French bistro, she asked me what the most surprising part of my visit had been. I didn’t have a quick answer, although what I should have said is that I was surprised I was having so much fun. But instead I said that I was surprised the stars of old Hollywood had such small feet. Even I sensed this was not the real answer, but I’m used to inadequate first drafts.

What I would answer now, after time has sharpened my editor’s eye, is that the biggest surprise was my experience with Dr. Suzy and her entourage in deepest, darkest L.A. at midnight that Saturday, a mere hour after the question was posed. Amorous Woman really has taken me to some places I never, ever thought I would go. And for a brief moment there, I wasn’t sure if I would ever make it back home.

Next time: time travel, bondage crosses, and letting it all hang out on blog talk radio


LVLM(Leah) said...

Oh, fun! I've never been to Hollywood. Even though I personally am not too enthralled by movie stars, I guess it would be easy and fun to get caught up in all the glitz and glamor if only for a short time. Something to take you out of the normal humdrum of life.

EllaRegina said...

Another fabulous chapter in your guide to the ENTIRE WORLD.

But, dude, you've left us with a real cliffhanger!

What happened during that radio show??????

Craig Sorensen said...

Agent Storey. It has a certain ring to it.

Great stuff. I'm enjoying the continued tour!

Anonymous said...

You're really doing a nice job with the cliffhangers! ;) I quite look forward to hearing (reading) about the radio show.

"Are we in fact worshipping part of ourselves that could be anything and do anything? Am I getting too damn intellectual here?"

I myself find that intellectualism delightful. :) And in response to the first question, what an interesting proposition. I also have found our considerable fascination with celebrities curious.

Historically I have been more interested in what the person is famous for than the fact that he or she is famous. For example, since I have never been a big movie aficionado, movie stars in general have not held particular appeal for me, regardless of how famous, whereas musicians have often been quite compelling to me if I am a fan of their lyrics (lyrics are what have generally been riveting to me about music). It has occurred to me before that it is not their fame that attracts me to them, but rather their fame is possibly/likely what exposed me to them -- how would I have encountered these amazing lyrics/words were they not famous? So it has struck me as a bit of a reverse-phenomenon as far as my own appreciation.

Which really doesn't seem to address at all the question of society's interest (obsession?) with famous individuals. Perhaps it has something to do with a collective "knowing" -- in that "hey, everybody knows who this person is," so it kind of draws us together when we feel closer or exposed to him/her? That's a pretty generous consideration, it seems to me...I'm actually surprised it just occurred to me. :) I myself have frequently experienced the way society seems to seek the "dirty laundry" of celebrities as quite I guess that makes the above proposition seem like a nice potential balance. :)


Donna said...

Thanks, ER and Craig. I am considering a new career as a guidebook-writing CIA agent!

And MB and Emerald, I am totally with you in a cynical attitude towards movie starts. Why get all in a tizzy about an actor when there are plenty of people who have done real things of importance?

But again, I did get mildly caught up in the scene when I was there, maybe because it's more fun that way. Yet, Emerald raises and EXCELLENT point about the commonality of the experience of celebrity. We all know these people and their stories, official and whatever secrets have been leaked. They do bring us together in a way and they populate our imaginations in a kind of collection (un/sub)conscious. I think you're on to something here! I'm pretty sure it's all more about us than any particular star....