Cruising in California 2013
After all the time it took me to finally make it to California and the land of movie magic in 2012, it’s not surprising that I left that brief visit with a lot of my to do list undone. A return trip wasn’t even under consideration until my wife Cindy won a couple of round trip airline tickets at her company’s Christmas party. We initially attempted to use them for our already scheduled Vegas trip in February but could not get satisfactory flights and then for a trip to Kentucky for the Abbey Road on the River show this year but ran into scheduling conflicts. After wracking our brains we decided to use them for a destination just about as far away from Jacksonville, Florida as you get in the continental United States – California!
I had done my research and reconnaissance on the 2012 trip and the one indisputable fact I had learned was that if you want to do things in the Los Angeles area while you are on vacation, you stay IN Los Angeles! This time around I made the City of Angels our base of operations and we stayed at the Universal Hilton right on the property of, you guessed it, Universal Studios. Our flight in, aside from being on Wednesday, September 11, was deceptively uneventful and not even as tiring as I would have guessed.
We arrived in California around midday Pacific Time and were checked in and ready to roll by early evening. This was fortunate because I had managed to throw together a last minute “business” dinner with actor Scott Schwartz from A Christmas Storyand agent Derek Maki. Both of these gentlemen had been assisting me with a celebrity guest search and this face to face sit down proved invaluably educational on my part and undoubtedly helped them better understand what we were shooting for on the opposite coast. Scott had suggested dinner at Jerry’s Deli which, despite the name, had a large and varied menu of excellent items. Between eating, talking, and waiting on people to arrive we managed to spend almost three hours there and only broke up because Derek and Scott had commitments elsewhere and fatigue was finally starting to catch up to Cindy and I!
Thursday was our first full day in the Golden State and, in my typical vacation style, it was time to hit the ground running! Our first stop was five minutes away at Universal Studios which Cindy had never been to before and where I had a score to settle! We arrived about ten minutes before the park opened and while they were taking tickets at the front gate, this only got you about 100 yards into the park. Fortunately we did not have long to wait in this area and we could take in some of the impressive and disturbing decorations on display for the recently revived Halloween Horror Nights.
As soon as we entered the park proper, I made a bee line to the Universal House of Horrors. I had been cheated out of this attraction a year ago and now I was ready to make up for that. I gritted my teeth when I saw an all too familiar red velvet rope barring the entrance walkway but a nearby sign assured me that, for some unknown reason, this area opened a half hour after the rest of the park. Not wanting to give the lines time to start backing up and since I knew the layout of the area from my previous visit, we headed to the lower level and some of the newer rides. Cindy was really looking forward to going on the Transformers ride but when we approached it we were greeted by two employees in military garb who informed us the ride was closed for repairs and they did not know when it would reopen that day! The jelly beans they gave us as a consolation prize didn’t do much but we did check out a cool props museum nearby that I don’t think was there last year. Since we didn’t want to get soaked on Jurassic Park and I wasn’t in the mood to have my neck twisted on The Mummy ride that was the end of the lower level.
Back up top we walked right into The Simpsons ride which has been around for a while but Cindy had never been on it either. Afterwards it was time for me to make my overdue pilgrimage to the Universal House of Horrors and I must confess to feeling a thrill as I finally walked across the bridge and through the large entrance gates. Inside I was greeted by a host of horrors from the classic Universal monster movies including life sized statues, reproduction movie posters, and a hilariously creative safety film utilizing clips from their film archives. Unfortunately the house itself left a little to be desired. Since this is a permanent attraction at the park, I expected more detail and thought would have gone into it than one of their typical one shot Halloween houses. While the interior did highlight many Universal classics like Psycho, Frankenstein, and even the more recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the design was a basic haunted house concept where it was often too dark to see where you were going and you certainly couldn’t appreciate most of the detail. While I’m not much of a fan of “jump out and yell boo” attractions in the first place, I did get a lot of amusement from the couple in front of us – mainly the young woman who seemed to be on the verge of hysterics every time she approached a blind corner. Perhaps it was the year long wait or maybe just unrealistic expectations on my part but the Universal House of Horrors will only be a convenient time killer if I ever visit the park again.
Even though it has been updated into something much closer to a thrill ride than the original concept, the studio tram tour is still my favorite part of Universal. This was my second time on the tour I was surprised to see a lot of minor differences in just a year. Some of this, like the detour around Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane due to filming conflicts was understandable since this is a functioning studio but it was a shame not to get to see the repurposed Munsters’ house again. When we reached the Psycho set this time, which had seemed disappointingly brief on my last visit, we took a new turn and went right passed the famous house where an actor portraying Norman Bates took a “stab” at the tram! For some reason, perhaps maintenance, we also skipped the Fast and the Furious set where they recreate a stunt from the film series. To me though, the most interesting variance came at the very end of the tour as we passed the giant outdoor Universal blue screen. While the driver was describing the screen on our right side, I noticed one of the mechanical sharks from Jaws sitting off to our left. The fish out of water was off in some brush on a trailer and part of its hide was missing exposing the workings underneath. No mention was made of this during the tour so after we exited I asked one of the employees and was told this was one of the sharks from the original Jaws that Universal uses for promotions and that they have to repair and restore it each year. Maybe it was just me, but it seems like the coolest thing on the whole tour went completely ignored!
After finishing the studio tour I took Cindy to the Waterworld show since I knew she would appreciate how many stunts and effects they are able to pull off in a limited and confined space. After that, we were both ready for some food and relaxation out of the sun. Even though the Transformers ride was supposedly open now, we decided not to trek back down the hill and just call it a day for Universal. On the way back to the car we paused at a few shops in their City Walk area but the inventory seemed much less impressive than it did a year ago so we escaped their shopping shrine with our wallets intact!
We were overdue for eats but we decided to hold off long enough to run by Scott Schwartz’s father’s collectible store in the San Fernando Valley area. Dan Schwartz’s store is an impressive collection of movie, music, and sports memorabilia spanning over a 3000 square foot corner of a strip mall. He had everything from movie posters and rare photos to toys and baseball cards and it was a wonderful trip down memory lane. I spent a few minutes visiting and discussing collectibles with the elder Schwartz before my need for sustenance got the better of me. Fortunately he recommended a great place to eat just two doors down and Cindy and I had a relaxing late lunch before continuing our travels.
Whenever I visit a new area for a vacation I always scope it out for drive-in theaters. The closest one I could find to Los Angeles was the Vineland in Industry, California about thirty minutes away. While we were at the hotel, I discussed this with the concierge to make sure my information was correct and he recommend another drive-in a little further away which combined not only my love for outdoor cinema but also Hawaiian kitsch! The Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in Mission, California sounded like just my kind of place and at only about 15 more minutes away than the Vineland I decided to make the switch. After lunch we began the arduous journey through LA traffic to get to the outskirts and, of course, a normal 45 minute drive became more like two hours. Even at that I had allowed enough time to arrive well in advance of show time with potentially enough left over for a quick dinner nearby. Unfortunately, contrary to our intel, the Mission Tiki was not open seven days a week, only Friday through Sunday. Disappointed with this waste of time, we decided to cut our losses and head back to the hotel. In route, I decided to punch the address of the Vineland into our GPS just to see how far we were from it and it turned out to be right off the next exit! The drive-in gods had smiled on us and we cruised in just as the sun was setting. We watched Riddick at this quaint little three screen outdoor theater that has already made the conversion to digital projection. With a dinner of popcorn and movie snacks we settled into a great evening under the California moonlight.
We decided to kick Friday off on an educational note with a visit to the famous Le Brea Tar Pits in down town LA. There are several tourist attractions in this area but the main point of interest is the George C. Page Museum which houses much of what has been recovered over the years from the pits. After a movie discussing the history of the area and a leisurely stroll around the museum, we wandered onto the grounds which are more like a park and saw what remains of the tar pits, most of which appear to be just about dried up and not in any danger of claiming new victims. We were able to see the outside of several digs going on so their must still be fossils being unearthed. The most interesting piece of information I gained from the visit was that of all the hundreds of skeletal remains retrieved from the tar pits, only one of them was human which must be further proof of why we are at the top of the food chain!
Speaking of food chains, it was time for lunch and we headed over to Hollywood Boulevard to cross another item off my list – eating at the famous Musso and Frank Grill. You don’t stay in business almost a hundred years without doing something right and the food did not disappoint. My lunch of Scottish smoked salmon was absolutely delicious and also not too heavy on a hot California day. The prices were moderate which you would not expect from the upscale atmosphere but, then again, we were there for lunch. Afterwards we cruised the Boulevard and did some shopping. I went by the one movie poster store I had missed last time which is owned by world renowned collector Ron Borst but even though this was one of the three days he is supposed to be open he was nowhere to be found. There was a very cool record shop right next door and I found a new store on Hollywood Boulevard since my last visit – Starworld Collectibles. Even though it was located directly on the Boulevard in the heart of the tourist trade, the prices were much more reasonable than many places I have been to in the area. The store was new and still being set up and stocked but it still had a lot to offer. I finally settled on an original Green Hornet lunch box to add to my collection at a very reasonable amount.
Friday evening we had tickets to a taping of an episode of the sitcom Two and a Half Men at the Warner Brothers Studio. We followed the directions on the tickets and arrived an hour and a half before the show started and got in line with other attendees. After sitting around for about twenty minutes and being scanned and noted several times, a woman came out and made an announcement which I finally was able to decipher meant that they had too many people there and we weren’t getting in. As we pulled out of the studio garage, a little miffed at the overbooking and disorganization, I checked my research sheet and was reminded that Grauman’s Egyptian Theater was having a 3D film festival that week and It Came from Outer Space was screening in about an hour. This was just the excuse I had been looking for to see a movie at this Hollywood icon theater and seeing a classic from the Golden Age of science fiction, in 3D no less, was a perfect selection.
Walking in to the Egyptian through their concrete patio inscribed with the signatures and hand and foot prints of the stars, I noticed a booth set up selling reproduction posters for the 3D movies in the film festival. These posters were clever recreations of window cards that had the Egyptian Theater’s name and the appropriate date and show time printed at the top. I picked up one for the Jacksonville lensed Revenge of the Creature as a souvenir of my visit but this was not to be my last stop at this booth that night.
Inside the theater was the star of another Creature film, Julie Adams from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon, signing autographs and selling copies of her recent autobiography. I talked to her assistant, who turned out to be her son, about the book, which I had already picked up a copy of recently, and an upcoming appearance she had in Florida. He showed me a couple of beautiful full size reproduction posters they had printed up which he said he could not take on the plane to Florida so I decided to get one and have it signed there while the getting was good!
We took our seats in the half full beautiful theater a few minutes before show time and settled in. A host for the film series took the stage and informed the audience they would be seeing an original polarized 3D print of the film as it was originally projected and not the red and green anaglyphic style that was used for revivals. If that wasn’t enough, he then casually mentioned that Barbara Rush and Kathleen Hughes, the two female leads from the film, were in attendance and would do a question and answer session after the film! This seemed to be met with only mild interest from most of the jaded California audience but this Florida monster kid was in Heaven. Thankfully there was a mid-movie intermission and I took the opportunity to run back out to the poster table and pick up one for It Came from Outer Space to be signed. When I mentioned to the lady taking the money that they might sell more posters if they told people the stars of the film were going to be there that night, she just replied “yeah, I guess so”!
After the film and the talk, these two octogenarian Hollywood starlets signed autographs and spoke with fans in the theater lobby until the festival promoters literally shoved everyone out the doors! It would have been nice if there had been some kind of autograph area set up even if it was out on the patio but their appearance really seemed to be a nonevent to the theater’s way of thinking. What passes for an everyday occurrence in Hollywood can be a major spectacle for tourists who were just lucky enough to drop in. It made me wonder what other surprises they had at other screenings. In the car on the way back to the hotel Cindy asked me sarcastically if I was disappointed that we missed the television taping and all I could do was smile.
On my previous trip to California I took the highly enjoyable Tragical History Tour offered by Dearly Departed Tours but only because my first choice of the Helter Skelter Tour was unavailable. You can imagine my incredulousness while planning this visit when I noticed that the Saturday only tour was not being offered the one Saturday that we were in town! Well, a quick phone call to owner Scott Michaels, who I have corresponded with for years, solved this dilemma and early Saturday morning we pulled into the parking lot of an all too familiar tour service.
The Helter Skelter Tour is only conducted by Scott and his personal investment in the project is obvious throughout the trip. In addition to covering expected sights related to the 1969 murder spree committed by the Charles Manson Family, Michaels also includes a great deal of personal observation and insight into the sobering events. Actually seeing the suburban home where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were senselessly slaughtered really makes the crimes personal and suddenly it was very easy to understand how terrified people must have been in those gentler times. While the tone was kept serious and academic for most of the tour, multimedia was also used to make the victims and their murderers into real people. This type of tour may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the far reaching social ramifications of these events should never be forgotten and I highly recommend this tour to students of true crime or just general cultural history.
After the tour I took Cindy back to Hollywood Boulevard for lunch at the Pig and Whistle where my friend Danny and I ate last year on the recommendation of the Dearly Departed crew. Once again the food was very good and we were also just across the street from Ron Borst’s poster store so I decided to give it one more try after lunch. This time I was in luck and I finally got to meet the author of Graven Images, the early bible for movie poster collectors and a book that can give even the most casual of enthusiasts something to drool over. My “brief” visit stretched out to about two hours as I dug through boxes of posters and discussed collecting with Mr. Borst. It became obvious to me shortly into the conversation that he is a true collector and only a movie poster dealer by convenient circumstance. His love for hobby would be infectious if I wasn’t already too far down that road to turn back but it was an honor to spend a few hours in his company and I sincerely hope our paths cross again someday.
Scott had pointed out one interesting fact earlier that day on our tour that had not occurred to me. It was Yom Kippur and the large Jewish population in the area was confined indoors for the day in observance of the religious holiday. This meant that traffic was unusually light; our tour got over early even with a few bonus sights thrown in, and it was much easier for us to get around town than it had been since we arrived. We took advantage of this break to hit a few collectibles stores and one really interesting consignment shop. It’s a Wrap only contains consignment clothing and items from the local studios and these can range from screen worn costumes to unused designer clothing. This was the kind of place I would haunt like a ghost if it was local but we had to settle for what was available while we were there. In addition to a few nice new dress shirts, I picked up a couple of unusual pieces from the Showtime series Dexter that, according to the property tags still attached, were used on the show. By the time we finished here it was close to sundown and the streets were starting to fill up again with Hebrew motorists. In view of the interstate traffic, we opted against returning to the Tiki Drive-In and called it a night.
Sunday was intended as our true relaxation day and we started off with a trip to the Melrose Avenue Swap Meet, a small flea market located on the main drag. It always amazes me how merchandise and prices in these secondary venues can vary from one part of the country to another. We had barely started down the first row when I violated one of my flea market rules and made a major purchase without scanning everything first. As I was admiring a vintage Beatles’ TV tray, the elderly oriental proprietor of these tables approached me and began to ply me with all kinds of other Beatles merchandise he had squirrelled away. By the time we had finished haggling, I walked away with the tray plus a vintage watch, belt buckle, and set of four flasher buttons. He was determined to sell me a couple of albums as well but no matter how low he dropped the price I kept insisting I already had copies of my own. As we wandered the rest of the market I was reminded of a similar quandary I faced last year of items being too large to get back to Florida without shipping them and then this would seriously impact the value of the purchase. It’s pretty clear I need to fly to California some time and then drive back in a rented van full of loot!
While I never did get to visit the famous Bronson Canyon, we did take in the nearby Los Angeles Zoo. This zoo, which opened in 1966, replaced the smaller Griffin Park Zoo which was right around the corner. The admission was only $15 but, in all honesty, neither Cindy nor I were terribly impressed. Perhaps we are spoiled living in Florida but it seemed like the Los Angeles Zoo had more refreshment stands and ways to part customers from their cash then they did animals. We dutifully made the entire rounds and killed a couple of hours but it isn’t a site I will feel need to return to.
Sunday evening I was looking forward to visiting the perpetually interesting Don Glut for a second time. He invited us over to his home since Cindy had never seen the miniature Jurassic Park in his back yard, which has grown since I was last there. After a brief tour it was obvious we were all starving so he chauffeured us to Bella Vista, his second favorite Italian restaurant. When I asked Don about his favorite Italian place he said he had to stop going there because the hole in the wall eatery has become a mobbed tourist attraction ever since Robert Blake shot his wife there! I don’t know how the food is at Vitello’s but Bella Vista was out of this world. I had two huge cuts of calamari, accurately described as steaks on the menu, which were flash fried in a light batter and served in a lemon caper sauce. I made sure to eat every bite and gave Don my side of spaghetti to take home. After a leisurely evening of Fanboy revelry, Cindy and I had to beg off due to an early flight out the next morning, so Don took us back to our car and we said our farewells, already plotting potential future meet ups.
When we were taking the shuttle to pick up our rental car on the way into LA, the overhead announcement recommended we arrive at least 90 minutes early to return it. Considering the unpredictable nature of the local traffic, I had figured in two plus hours to get us from the hotel to the rental car place even in the early morning hours. For some reason the documentation Cindy had on the car did not give the address of our rental car return location so I had gotten a print out from the hotel concierge the night before. Unfortunately what he had actually given us was the address of the airport which we finally pieced together after circling the area several times. After we eventually sorted out where to drop the car off and made a mad dash for the shuttle bus, we arrived at the Delta terminal a little under an hour before our flight left. We thought we were in the clear until an employee I asked about baggage checking informed us we had missed our flight because all bags had to be checked at least one hour before departure. Thanks a lot Delta! Luckily we were able to catch a later flight that had been delayed because the huge airliner was coming in from Australia and required additional security checks, presumably to look for stow away Koala bears! When we finally did take off about two hours after our original flight, we were treated to free movies because of the plans delay.
This was a great trip marred only by the last minute problems that make LAX the worst airport I have ever travelled through. Thankfully all this really amounted to was a few tense moments of flight juggling on the phone with Delta Customer Service and our getting back to Jacksonville about four hours later than we had planned. I managed to cover a respectable amount of items on my “to do” list but I can already tell I am good for at least one more visit to California in the not too distant future. The next time I may not fly Delta but I will make sure I am at the airport with plenty of time to spare before my flight.