The next day was Saturday. I awoke and took my time before joining the folks in the continental breakfast room. The details of the slightly stale blandness bowled over with the cheap joy of sugar and fat I ate that morning I can’t tell you. It all seems free and so on a budget is unavoidable. As I crunched my frosted corn flakes at a table in the courtyard a couple asked if they could sit at the same table. As they sat down with their breakfast the woman pulled out a map of L.A..
“Are you here on vacation?” I asked.
“Yes, first time we’ve been to Los Angeles,” the man responded in a Middle Eastern accent.
We chatted a little. They were visiting from Lebanon.
“You’ve heard of it?” the man asked. I made some mention about Beirut being known for fine cuisine, picking it up from an Anthony Bourdain episode. I certainly knew the country’s location on the planet and a bit of its modern history in the historical context of the Middle Eastern current political climate. They frowned at the Beirut cuisine remark. There was an implication it had lost whatever renown it had for such things under the duress of stressful political times. I’m glad I hadn’t mentioned the Bourdain episode, which was infamous for eye-witnessing the trapping of the chef and professional traveler with his crew in a hotel while the Israeli army lobbed shells at Hezbollah sites in and around the city, during the 2006 Lebanon War. They told me with the current Syrian crisis their country of 4 million Lebanese was struggling under the weight of 3.5 million Syrian refugees. They weren’t too impressed with refugee acceptance and assistance amongst other countries of the region. I decided not to bring up our own administration’s ban of Syrian refugees.
But alas they were here to escape all that. Why not Paris or Tokyo or even New York City? What is it about L.A. that draws people from the other side of the planet, escaping the effects of living next to a war-torn country? It turns out it wasn’t the L.A. business hours, as they asked me why Californians didn’t open shop until late morning. I had to admit I’d noticed that myself. But I’ve been a Californian for a long time now. It doesn’t seem to be an issue while I’m living here, but only when I come to visit. They didn’t really have the time to answer my question on what brought them to this part of the world, which I didn’t actually come straight out and ask, as they were headed for Universal Studios. I suspect that mythic Hollywood thing had a strong pull. They said their itinerary was not full for the entire week, so I tried to interest them in visiting the Getty, just a few blocks along Wilshire and then a couple of miles of side road along the 405 next to Bel Air. Just a hop, skip, and a jump by L.A. distances. I wanted them to experience some L.A. culture, along with the amusements. I don’t know much about Southern California amusement parks these days. The last time I was at Universal Studios I was 12 years old and the most exciting thing was that oversized great white shark manikin they dragged along side your tram ride. They were still splitting Cecile B. DeMille’s Red Sea, for heaven’s sake! Or for the Hebrews’ sake, that should be. I’m not sure the couple were going to take up my suggestion, but I wished them a good time and set off for my own L.A. amusements.
It turns out I was heading up alongside the 405 myself. Mulholland Drive can be picked up in Bel Air. It’s a twisty turny camino. At points the Valley appears spread out before you, other times it’s just trees and tall shrubs behind which live supposed celebrity types in, if not mansions, very ostentatious homes. I did see a few homes of more modest means. At least modest for Bel Air, Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills. At a couple of pull offs there were display boards describing natural history, really the attempt at preserving some remnant of natural history, there in that upland.
One spot named after a couple called the Melhorns described a natural corridor between the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains, those brown green scrublands around the Hollywood sign, and the wider wilderness areas to the west above Malibu. Natural corridor is a generous word for not much more than a steep hillside and a few yards of more level ground between the Drive and someone’s swimming pool laden backyard. Maybe not that challenging for Wile E. Coyote, but more doubtful for a shy mountain lion. And yet the famous Hollywood cougar P-22 did it, and even crossed the 101. But he’s a lone bachelor. I’m not sure the Hollywood Hills residents walking the trails of Griffith Park with their pets would be too keen on maintaining a thriving apex predator population in the heart of La La Land. Another pull off was dedicated to a once local resident, a Barbara A. Fine, who put in probably quite an effort to save from development a small gorge that bent down to the San Fernando below. A later map inspection revealed a series of canyon parks that ran together on the north side of the ridge just above the CBS Studios. Maybe these nature preservationists are the real heroes of the Hollywood Hills.
I did see quite a few bicyclists riding along Mulholland. The ridge the Drive traverses is not a uniform elevation. The ride would be a real workout. An endurance test if you decided to take it from where it starts just off the 101 before Woodland Hills all the way to its completion at Cahuenga Pass, at yet another section of the 101 called the Hollywood Freeway. Now that would be an adventure. And a challenge. Perhaps a risky one in sections, with lots of hidden bends, blind spots, and zero shoulders. Not sure I’ll ever do it but it is worth imagining.
I stopped at the Universal City Overlook and peered down at the studios or theme park or whatever amalgam of the two Universal Studios has become. They were certainly smart to give Disneyland a run for its money. They even encroached into Disney’s Orlando territory. But now Disney owns a good chunk of Hollywood production these days. Their studios were somewhere within my gaze. I could see some bit of baby blue, the façade of some sort of ride. There was the form of a darkish castle, like the alter ego of the Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom artifice. What it was I was seeing I really couldn’t tell you. Beyond all that, the white hangar size buildings of the Warner Brothers Studios lay like a frosting layer. It then becomes the grid of Burbank up against the brown Verdugo Mountains, creased with a few grey-green ravines. It’s not that I look down my nose at such forms of entertainment. Maybe I am slightly guilty of that, but I try to look past my urbane bias. I have a colleague and friend with two Master’s degrees who delights in frequenting Disneyland, with or without a visiting kid relative or friend’s child in tow. She assures me it has a special quality that gives her joy. There are a series of theme parks in Mexico, along what is called the Maya Riviera, for which I have a fondness. Of course, I’ll have arguments for why I think they’re better than the rollercoaster strewn mayhem of Magic Mountain or Cedar Point, that park on the shores of Lake Erie I do remember was a thrill to my Midwestern childhood. Those arguments will be something about cultural sophistication and a reflection of the country’s heritage, as well as a highlighting of the natural world that is found in the region. But it’s all opinion. I have another colleague, a Mexican American, who thinks those Quintana Roo theme parks are too commercial. There are archaeologists and anthropologists who frown on the misrepresentation in those parks, as well as the damage they do to the archaeological sights they are built around. Perhaps I need to revisit an American theme park. See if Disney’s California Adventure Land really does portray the Golden State in a nuanced and intriguing way. I have a feeling somehow, I’ll be let down. Or maybe I’ll just have to bring a kid, some nephew or something, and we’ll descend from this road and see what better things are in store, beyond the animatronic shark. I’ll have fun because the kid will be having fun. At least, that is how it’s supposed to work.
I got back on the Drive and just past Runyon Park started to see glimpses of the L.A. side of the ridge. I arrived at another overlook named after a Jerome C. Daniel. Another conservationist of these celebrity speckled hills. The work of these people really were the Hollywood Hills heroes I enjoyed that day, affording the public views and protecting the landscape from complete development saturation of every acre of high value real estate. Whatever you might think of William Mulholland and his underhanded water rights acquisitions, or that one catastrophic dam design and inspection mishap that ended his career, you might agree this road turned out to be just the right offering to the people of Los Angeles that he envisioned it would be.
I walked down below the stone constructed view point full of people taking selfies with the Hollywood sign or the L.A. skyline in the backdrop. I made my own smartphone memory with a slow video panoramic of the Hollywood Hills, the sign, Griffith Park Observatory, the tall buildings of downtown, and eventually the rest of the L.A. basin curving around Santa Monica Bay with the hump of the Palo Verdes upland and a mirage of a distant Santa Catalina out at sea. It was a hazy overcast day and it lent a slight solemnity to the movie picture. With a little iMovie filtering and Buck Owens’ Act Naturally for a satirical soundtrack I thought it turned out to be a passable minute long vid for social media. But Instagram suppressed my posting with warnings that I most likely did not have copyright permissions to use this recording. Hollywood has been vigorous of late developing ways to protect its intellectual property on the Internets. I was a little let down. The very tune was recorded in that Capital Records building meant to look like stacked 45s in a jukebox, which passes mid minute through my panoramic.
There’s a certain irony in attempting to be sardonic to a scene or city landscape you partly believe to be purely mythic. Often mythical on the delusional side. This was only a couple of months after the Harvey Weinstein story broke. Star studded careers were starting to fall like Buster Keaton movie set props. Its reputation as a seedy, perverted, Roman emperor like court atmosphere has been invigorated, as of late. The irony is, there I was stopping to gaze at it, as if I myself was secretly attracted to that vague shadow of mystery that such places hold behind their myths. After all, I spent a good portion of my adolescence consuming what came out of Hollywood.
Anyway, I wanted to indulge in my own little creative commentary to an industry that greatly fuels L.A.s engine. Although I am a fan of the free culture movement or even a copyright abolitionist when my idealism gets the better of me, Instagram and the lawyers representing the entertainment business dampened my creative spirit enough to reconsider the posting. Maybe I’d compose a fingerpicking melody or two I could lay down behind my panoramic short. It wouldn’t be as good as the Buck Owens’ musical satire of Hollywood dreams. But maybe it is perfectly lawful in other alternative realities of my mind that Buck’s estate and the family of the original composer of the song, still make some income off that diddy. Not that I could have generated income with my posting. But go ask Mickey Mouse about such laws and you will get a strong vote for their maintenance and even coverage into realms void of commerce. After getting the raw footage and a good view of the Hollywood Bowl venue just beneath the lookout, I got back in my car and descended to the Hollywood Freeway.
Postscript – Above, I embedded the intended video after all.