Friday, August 23, 2013

Walking and Drinking Beer on the Street of Dreams -- Hollywood Boulevard

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Hollywood Boulevard was the most glamorous street in the world – a place where movie stars came to party, walk the red carpet to film premieres past search lights and popping flashbulbs, meet with their agents in Art Deco offices, cruise in convertibles with hair flying,  palm trees overhead, or hobnob with writers and directors in long, cool dark bars like the Musso & Frank’s or the Cat & Fiddle.  

But times change.  In the 1960s, the street, like the movies, went into a steep decline.  Hollywood Boulevard became a joke on Johnny Carson – a haven for drug users, prostitutes, bikers, and run-a-ways.  It was here that Hugh Grant was arrested in his BMW for lewd conduct.  Along its darker edges, Janis Joplin and John Belushi died of drug overdoses, while Charles Manson and his followers murdered a house full of strangers.  

The New Hollywood

Hollywood and Highland Shopping Center
It has taken decades and billions of dollars of investment, but today, Hollywood Boulevard is finally coming back to its glorious past.  Oh, don’t expect too much glamour.  There are still two dozen look-a-likes posing for tips -- everyone from Superman and Elvis to Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson – and the street has more than its fair share of tattoo parlors, biker bars, rotting and abandoned old movie theatres and wandering homeless hippies. 

But today they share the same real estate with flashy clubs filled with black-skirted high heeled hipsters and high style restaurants, mixed in with wax museums, souvenir shops, tiki bars, and an assortment of gorgeous old Hollywood bars and theatres.  It's a mish-mash alright, but an interesting one.  

The movies have moved on and are made elsewhere, but Hollywood Boulevard has rebounded as the ground zero tourist center for the world’s largest entertainment industry.  There are Hollywood walking tours, theme parks, studio tours, cemeteries...and 10 Hollywood museums

Look-a-likes pose for $1 by their star on Hollywood Blvd
The Hollywood History Museum is a dusty version of a Planet Hollywood with an ecletic mix of stuff (from Hannibal Lecter's prison cell to the plastic cannons from Master and Commander) .  It's mostly props and costumes, but how could you not like seeing W.C. Field's top hat from My Little Chickadee?

You can see the homes (or at least the front gates) of today’s stars by buying a map, or going on only slightly cheesy narrated bus tours.  You can even fly over the star’s homes on a helicopter.  You can buy daily production sheets to see where movies are being filmed on location, or hang out at popular industry eateries like Mr. Chow in hopes of seeing stars in person.  Incredibly, there's a jogging tour of Hollywood, where to give you a taste of what it’s like to be a star, you are chased by running paparazzi. 
Whether you dream of being a star -- or just seeing one – the first stop is Hollywood Boulevard.  Marilyn Monroe knew the street well.  She grew up in a orphanage just a few blocks away and wrote:  “I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night, ‘There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star.’ But I’m not going to worry about them.  I’m dreaming the hardest.”   

Touring Hollywood by Foot

Universal CityWalk is pedestrian (and neon) friendly 
A good itinerary is to stay around Hollywood and Highland (The Roosevelt has been restored -- it was here in 1929 that the first Oscars were held, and the ghost of Marilyn Monroe has been seen in a mirror).  Cheaper and a tad dodgey, but centrally located is the Hollywood Liberty Hotel.   You can walk Hollywood Boulevard in late afternoon to dusk, see the lights come on, have drinks at the old Hollywood bars, and then take the Red Line subway from Highland to Universal CityWalk for dinner and neon, then come back and get off the subway at Vine and walk back to 

your hotel (about a mile) along Hollywood Boulevard past the clubs and bars.  It's sketchy at night, but there's plenty of people about, and lots of packed clubs and bars you would never know existed in the day.  The street, however, is absolutely dreadful on a Sunday Morning, so head immediately to Universal Studios. 

Some Top Things to Do in Hollywood:

Marilyn is everywhere
See the stars – There are 2,400 bronze medallion stars set in the Walk of Fame sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard and along Vine Street, honoring the legends of the film, television and recording industries.    Some are obscure, behind the camera folks, but it’s a rare block where you don’t bounce from one super star to another as you stroll along.  Some of the most popular:  Marilyn (at 6744 Hollywood);  Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson (6925 Hollywood); and Marlon Brando (1765 Vine).  Modern stars pay about $25,000 for the honor of having a star on the street.

Buy a map of the stars home's and you can see the site of Marilyn Monroe's elementary school, where she shared an apartment with actress Shelly Winters, where she spent her first honeymoon or the apartment where she lived with Joe Dimagio, where she posed for her famous nude photo and the house where she was found dead.  There are murals, wax sculptures and look-a-likes of Marilyn up and down Hollywood Blvd.
Have a drink – There are three classic old Hollywood bars.
Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood) opened in 1919 and is today the same dark wood haven that was familiar to Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor.  Raymond Chandler immortalized the bar by putting it in his classic LA mystery, The Long Goodbye.  Step out of the bright California sunshine into this dark oasis and place your cocktail on the same polished wood bar where Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable once rested their martinis.  
Here’s Chandler’s homage: 

“I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.”  Chandler’s drink was a gimlet – half gin, half Rose’s Lime juice.

Pig ‘n Whistle:  When it opened in 1927, this was a concession stand for the Egyptian Theatre next door. Shirley Temple bought candy here, and Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant were regulars.  Today, it’s a bar and restaurant known for the hand-painted decorative tiles of the Pig ‘N Whistle logo – a dancing, flute-playing pig -- and for the elaborate carved wood ceiling.

Snow White Café:  The best beer bar in Hollywood just might also be the weirdest. Opened in 1946, it features Disney murals allegedly painted by real Disney artists.  With a slogan like “Where your problems dwarf,” how could you not like it? Funky and 40s, but good beer selection.

Visit Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
This is the “Ground Zero” of Hollywood, the world’s most gaudy movie palace, and the spot where the crazies and tour buses gather.  And why not?  It’s fun, and there are never less than a dozen costumed characters posing for photos.  Since 1927, stars have been setting their footprints and handprints in cement, and tourists have been walking around putting their own feet in the prints and snapping photos.  Most popular appeared to be Michael Jackson, John Wayne and Judy Garland (who went to high school just down the block at Hollywood High).  Most eerie?  On a dry day, Natalie Wood’s footprints were filled with water.

Red Line subway stop at Hollywood and Highland
See the Famous Sign from Hollywood & Highland – The huge Hollywood and Highland shopping and entertainment complex has a Lowes hotel, the usual mall stores, three levels of escalators and outdoor cafes, and the modern Dolby Theatre, which is now the annual home of the Academy Awards. You can take a pricey tour of the theatre and look in the Green Room.  But what really makes the shopping center worth a look is the incredible décor – a throwback to the sets for D.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece, Intolerance.  Few people today have ever seen or heard of Intolerance, but you will still be impressed, if slightly bewildered, by the 33-foot high white elephants and gigantic Babylonian columns.  In the background, framed by the mall’s grand arch, is the famous “Hollywood” sign, now a symbol of the industry.  

There's explosions every minute at Universal Studios Hollywood
Actress Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the “H” in 1932.   During a recent restoration of the sign, Alice Cooper purchased one of the “O’s” in honor of Groucho Marx.  Other letters were “saved” by Hugh Hefner, Andy Williams and Gene Autry. 

Ride the Subway to Universal CityWalk Hollywood
LA has an amazingly complex and beautiful subway system.  Catch the Red Line at the Highland shopping center for a one stop ride to Universal CityWalk.  Free outdoor trams meet each train and will whisk you up the hill to this incredible complex of restaurants, bars, shops and neon that serves as the fun entrance to the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park.  CityWalk is huge, loud, and touristy, but it’s free to walk around, pedestrian friendly, there’s some amazing neon sculptures and it offers great people watching.
You can feel the heat from the explosions at Universal Studios

Tour a Studio
Universal Studios Hollywood is the studio tour de rigor.  Part homage to movies like King Kong, Jaws, and Jurassic Park, it’s also a working studio where you can see sets for everything from Desperate Housewives to Psycho.  But it’s also a movie-based theme park with indoor roller coasters, water thrill rides, 3-D movies, animal trick shows, stunt shows and explosions galore.  Special effects are the specialty, and more than a few times you can actually feel the heat from an exploding gas tank or be drenched by the spray from power boats.

Exploding gas tanks in the Jaws portion of the tram ride
For a more serious look at movie making, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony Pictures (formerly MGM) all have more subdued behind-the-scene studio tours where you get to walk or take a golf cart through backlots, viewing everything from Old West towns used in hundreds of Westerns to streets from medieval Europe to New York  There are artifacts from classics like Casablanca and Wizard of Oz, and (depending on filming schedule) you can often walk right on to the set of current television productions (although they are mostly obscure television shows now).  You can't take photos on these tours, which is disappointing, but it was a thrill to walk down the same Western street at Warner Bros. that Gary Cooper did in High Noon.

Stargaze in Beverly Hills
Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills
You can see where the stars lived on the manicured, palm-lined streets of Beverly Hills (Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and James Stewart all lived next to each other in pretty modest houses on the 1000 block of Roxbury Drive).  Or see where they shopped and dined on Rodeo Drive, before being driven out by hordes of tourists.  But you’re still as likely to see a celebrity here as anywhere, and the architecture and setting on Rodeo will be familiar from a hundred films, and it is pretty, and there are amazing cars parked, and you can at least afford a coffee and a look.  If you truly want to go “star-gazing,” the best bet is at a cemetery.  Westwood Village Memorial Park has Marilyn (but you have a better chance of seeing her ghost in the Roosevelt Hotel); Forest Lawn Glendale has Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and Errol Flynn; Forest Lawn Hollywood has Betty Davis, and Liberace; and
Hollywood Forever has Cecil B. DeMille.

IF YOU GO:  “Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.”  Marilyn Monroe   Best overall site is Fodors.  For a car free trip (yes, you can do it in LA!):
Everything else in LA: