When I landed into LAX, I was so fortunate to have a seat on the right-hand side of the plane and one away from the window, with a slender slumbering passenger next to me so I could lean right over and shove my nose up to the glass (plastic?). As we swooped down over the city, I had the perfect birds-eye view of the Hollywood sign which had me giddily bouncing about in my seat. I’ve since learnt that this aeroplane sign-spotting is extremely rare. The day before I flew in, LA had something almost unheard of… rain! This meant the stubborn smog, that would usually entirely blot out the view of the sign and the Hollywood hills, had lifted for a few days and the air was temporarily clear and crisp. By the time I headed up to the Griffith Park observatory just a week later, the soupy smog was well and truly back and although it created a dramatic Gotham-city style effect it really did highlight just how terrible the pollution problem is, especially for a city so otherwise obsessed with health and well-being.
Do you know the story of the Hollywood sign? It’s well worth a read here if you don’t. I had no idea that it started life (appropriately for Hollywood) as an ambitious outdoor marketing campaign for a suburban housing development “Hollywoodland”. Long after the housing development firm had disbanded, the land was removed leaving the sign that still stands today. It’s had a typically Hollywood life; with a drunken driver ploughing through and destroying the H, a suicide of a rejected-starlet Peg Entwistle (who in an ironic twist, mere days after her suicide would have received a letter offering her the lead role in a play… about a girl driven to suicide) and near total destruction as weather & no maintenance took it’s hold. In 1978 numerous donors bought a letter each at $27,777 a pop and the sign was renovated. Hugh Hefner owns the Y and Alice Cooper bought the second O in memory of Groucho Marx. Whatever your views on Hollywood and the culture, I would challenge anyone not to feel moved in some way when they see that sign in the flesh!
Now where was I? The rest of my week followed a similar path of working away during the days, then escaping into the dusky evening to explore Los Angeles whilst I could keep my eyes open. On the Wednesday evening I was fading fast so took a night off tourism and just explored Sunset Boulevard with the sole intention of snapping up a feast and retreating to eat it in my hotel bed like a massive slob. I discovered a little Mexican take away (sorry take-out) called Poquito Mas where I ordered a shrimp taco, which you can see below was about twice the size of my head (and stomach, but that didn’t stop me!). I also called in at the liquor store and bought a Mike’s hard lemonade. I first discovered wonderful Mike in NY a few years ago, and it’s perfect for people like me who don’t drink alot and aren’t overly fond of the taste of beer. It comes in a few flavours but black cherry is by far the yummiest.
You’ll notice a theme in this post… FOOD. After a strong start to the year of running, swimming, pilates-ing… all rules went out of the window for a fortnight of gluttony. One night after work Nora kindly chauffeured me back to Malibu as I was desperate to get some more beach time. First we stopped off for sushi (where we could sit outside; a prospect which seems ridiculous now that I’m back in the UK in head to toe thermals, woollens and 3 pairs of socks) and I devoured spicy seaweed and blue lump crab and various sea-lurkers I’d never even heard of, before proudly tucking into an authentic California roll IN California, ho ho. It was during this meal we were sat next to a boy of about 14 on a date with a similar aged girl, and I overheard him loudly exclaim “well I asked my agent, my manager AND my publicist…”which was my one ‘only in LA’ experience. Well that and crossing the road with Joshua Jackson. After sushi we hit Malibu Frozen Yoghurt, and I made Nora laugh/cringe by insisting on saying Mu-Bu-Fro-Yo-Yo-Lo the whole walk there. Mu-Bu Fro-Yo is obviously the #1 teen hangout so I felt like I an extra in Beverly Hills 90210 whilst I sat surrounded by impossibly skinny teens in cut off shorts, scooping mountains of peanut butter frozen yoghurt with crushed Oreo toppings into my gob!
I’m lucky enough to have a cousin, David, who lives out in LA with his girlfriend Katie, so I had a second set of tour guides to introduce me to a whole different part of the city. They live in an area called Echo Park, which along with nearby Los Feliz and Silver Lake are certainly up-and-coming and becoming increasingly appealing neighbourhoods. I can see why; Echo Park is a wonderful mishmash of diners, trinket shops, dive bars, diners, all walks of life, all cultures, street art, lakes, green spaces and there is also 826LA; one of Dave Eggers-inspired non-profit writing & tutoring centres. If you haven’t seen one, then you can seek out the Ministry of Stories in Hoxton. All of the centres have a fictional shop-front hiding the volunteers and students from prying eyes. In Hoxton its a Monster Suppliers store, Pirate Shop in San Francisco, Super Hero Supply Co in New York and 826LA in Echo Park has a Time Travel Mart. Behind the shopfront, there are classrooms and seminar rooms where children and young people up to age 18 from the local community can go and work with volunteers to improve their writing skills and explore their imaginations. I’ve always wanted to volunteer in London, it’s definitely on my permanent to-do list. On my night in Echo Park we sought out the Gold Room dive bar, where a beer & tequila are served together as a rule, and I enjoyed giant pint of Californian beer that came served with a peel of orange curled into it, served with a bowl of shell-on peanuts.
Friday night rolled round and I could breathe a sigh of relief at my office hours ticking to a close. To celebrate Nora took me for a unique LA experience. We headed down to the Upright Citizens Brigade, which I’d highly recommend if you ever find yourself in NY or LA, as it’s not something you’ll read about in a rough guide or tour book. The UCB Theatre puts on nightly comedy improvised & sketch shows featuring various local comedy troupes. The troupes consist of some of the best comedians out there, who still perform together as quite often this type of improv production is often where comedians are discovered and begin their career. Despite the show being ticketed, my one piece of advise it to arrive 30 minutes early as you still have to queue in advance as each show is massively over-subscribed. I was lucky enough to get a great seat to watch Diamond Lion who specialise in musical improv. They launched on to the stage and asked for a word at random from the audience (“plaid”) and then performed various skits inspired by this word, entirely created on the spot AND set to music?! I can’t comprehend how one person could be so sharp, let alone a group of 7 people all working instantly in harmony and feeding off one another’s talent. It’s at the UCB that skits for Saturday Night Live and various other big American entertainment shows are tested out and based on the audience reaction; shelved or written up! I wish there was something similar in London because I have to admit I find stand-up comedy tedious and contrived, and really enjoyed the unpredictability of improv; some of the funniest moments were actually when a joke didn’t work and the whole thing unravelled.
On my last day in Los Angeles David & Katie ensured I saw everything that was on my quirky hit-list. The only thing we didn’t get time for was the Museum of Jurassic Technology (alas) but I know Nick would have been a green monster if I had, so am quite happy to wait for a return trip. First up we drove around ‘Old Hollywood’ and saw some incredible Victorian Psycho style houses, including one that had been set up by a film shoot to have a garage sale outside. Two doors down a real family were having a legitimate garage sale, so I couldn’t help but think the crew could have saved some time and budget and just filmed that! As a David Lynch fangirl I was desperate to see the spooky Sierra Bonita apartments from Mulholland Drive so after a quick ‘scared face’ tourist photo shoot (as people actually live in them… jealous) we sped off up the road to inspect John Marshall High aka Rydell High from Grease. It was surreal to see the bleachers and race track where they sing ‘Summer Lovin'” which still look identical for the students who attend there today. The school seems to be used as a standard high school in most movies, including Nightmare on Elm Street.
We then drove up the actual Mulholland Drive towards Griffith Park and the incredible observatory there, which again I recommend and it’s FREE. The park itself is a vast amount of green space and in an isolated corner David has even spotted a mountain Lion! After a steep climb to the top, you are rewarded with 360-degree views over the whole of Los Angeles. Everything is visible; the sign, downtown, the stacked hill houses and the mountains in the distance. See what I mean about the smog though…
En route to downtown we called in at Scoops. Again Americans just seem to go bigger & better and the flavours were pretty mindblowing. I resisted temptation to opt for the brown bread or hot sauce options (!) with my sweet tooth winning out and gorging myself on Guinness Chocolate (it was St Patricks Day eve after all) and Oreo Cheesecake. I also appreciated the unlimited toppings so I could go nuts with the nuts. Downtown was my absolute favourite part of Los Angeles. If someone had driven me there blindfolded and dumped me out of the car, I would have sworn blind we weren’t in LA anymore. It had such a different vibe and look; skyscrapers tower over with those distinctive NY-style fire stairs and the sun is shaded out by the staggering buildings. It’s a little slice of NY in LA, with the best of both cities. Although to be honest anywhere that is home to a bar that serves cocktails in bespoke copper tankards is bound to win my heart. The tankards at Cole’s are so precious that you have to hand over your ID as a deposit, and they definitely made my 3pm Moscow Mule taste 100% more delicious. The bar itself obviously had it’s hayday in the roaring 20s and still has the most incredible decour, oh and a sign in the men’s toilets (David reported back) that says “Charles Bukowski pissed here”! If you want to know what downtown LA looks like; watch (500) Days of Summer as the majority of it is filmed there. I also was very proud of my own personal Hollywood tour – I spotted the parking lot that the kid in Kick Ass gets stabbed in. Downtown LA used to be the heart of Hollywood, and this is evident in the grand, plush theatres that still dot the streets; although they are mostly abandoned or now house 99-cent stores or dodgy gold pawn shops beneath. It’s quite heartbreaking and eerie.
I didn’t need a Zoltar wish as I’d had the best possible time in Los Angeles and was about to be whisked off to New York, so already plenty lucky enough. Thanks to my generous tour guides and their infectious enthusiasm, my perspective of LA has been entirely changed and I would definitely class it as a favourite place with so much more to still investigate and discover for myself. It’s much more than just the hall-of-fame stars on the strip.