A company town

Despite its size, Los Angeles is a company town, and that company is entertainment — film, television, and music, and to a lesser extent gaming and internet. So, growing up here, seeing film crews and running into celebrities all over the place was always quite normal. Hell, I went to school with the kids of pretty big celebrities and never thought much of it. “Your dad is who? Whatever.”

It looks like that company is finally coming back to life after fifteen months of being semi-dormant. It’s tentative, of course, and we may wind up locking down again, especially if a vaccine-resistant variant suddenly pops up. But, for the moment, movie theaters and live venues are reopening, along with the restaurants and other businesses that survived.

But here’s one thing I don’t think a lot of non-locals understand: None of the major studios are actually in Hollywood. How the city of Hollywood — which is where I was actually born — became conflated with the movies is a very interesting story. Once upon a time, there were some studios there. Charlie Chaplin built his at La Brea and Sunset in 1917. It was later owned by Herb Alpert, when it was A&M Studios and produced music. Currently, it’s the location of the Jim Henson Company. The Hollywood Hills were also a popular location for celebrities to live, and a lot of the old apartment buildings in the city were originally designed for young singles who worked in the industry.

Come to think of it, they still serve that purpose, although given the cost of rent in this town, a lot of those studio units are cramming in two tenants.

The one thing that Hollywood did have in abundance: Movie premieres, and that’s still the case to this day. The Chinese, The Egyptian, and the El Capitan are perennial landmarks, and the Boulevard itself is quite often still closed down on Wednesdays for red carpet openings. Although Broadway downtown also boasts its own movie palaces from the golden age of cinema, it was always Hollywood Boulevard that had the great grand openings. It’s also still home to the Pantages, which is the biggest live theater venue outside of downtown, although they generally only do gigantic Broadway style musicals. (Side note on the Chinese Theater — although it’s technically called the TCL Chinese because, owners, nobody refers to it that way, and you’re still more likely to hear it called what it always was: Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Want to sound like a local? That’s how you do it. You’re welcome.)

There is one Hollywood tradition that does not date from the golden age of cinema, though, and it might surprise you. The Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t proposed until the 1950s, and construction on it didn’t begin until 1960 — long after all of the movie studios had left the area.

In case you’re wondering where those studios went, a number of them are in the oft-derided Valley: Universal in Universal City (they like to call themselves “Hollywood” but they’re not), Warner Bros. in Burbank, Disney in Burbank and Glendale, and Dreamworks Animation SKG in Glendale (across from Disney Animation!) all come to mind — and damn, I’ve worked for three out of four of them. On the other side of the hill, in L.A. proper, Sony is in Culver City, 20th Century Fox is in Century City (which was named for the studio), and Paramount is in L.A. proper, right next to RKO, which really isn’t doing much lately, both due south of Hollywood and right behind the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — which isn’t in Hollywood either, but which has a large number of dead celebrities. I think that covers most of the majors. YouTube Studios is in Playa del Rey, on the former sight of the Hughes helicopter factory that also happens to be right below the university I went to for film school, Loyola Marymount.

Like I said, company town.

The other fun part about growing up here is all of the film locations that I see every day, and there are tons. Ever see Boogie Nights? Well, most of that film was basically shot within a five mile radius of where I grew up, with only a few exceptions. Dirk Diggler’s fancy new house once he became a porn star? Yeah, my old hood. Location of the club where Burt Reynold’s character finds Mark Wahlberg’s character? I took music lessons a few blocks away from there. Parking lot where Dirk is mistakenly gay-bashed? Pretty close to the public library where I fell in love with reading.

Remember The Brady Bunch or the movies? Well, that house is only a couple of miles away from where I live now. The OG bat cave? Let me take you to Griffith Park. If you’ve ever seen Myra Breckenridge (you should if you haven’t) the place where Myra dances in the opening is right next to where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now and two doors down from the now Disney-owned El Capitan.

The Loved One (an amazing movie) — Forest Lawn Glendale, where I happen to have at least four ancestors buried. Xanadu? The major setting was the Pan Pacific Auditorium, which was a burned down wreck in my day, but it’s where my dad used to go on date night to roller skate. Go to the Vista Theatre? It sits on the site where D.W. Griffith built one of his biggest sets for Intolerance, his “mea culpa” for making The Birth of a Nation.

I’m not even going to get into how many times the complex I live in has been used for various epic TV shoots (which is a lot) or, likewise, how the area in NoHo I worked in is used by everybody, from YouTubers to major studios. Although, I can tell you that having to put up with film crews and their needs is always a major pain in the ass, especially when it comes to parking vanishing. That’s right — there’s really no glamor in show biz outside of that red carpet.

But I guess that’s the price of admission for growing up and living in a company town and, honestly, I’ve never had a single adult job that wasn’t related to that company ever. (We won’t count my high school jobs as wire-puller for an electrical contractor and pizza delivery drone.)

Otherwise, though — yep. Whether it’s been TV, film, theater, or publishing, I’ve never not worked in this crazy stupid industry that my home town is host to. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. What? Wait tables? Never. Although sharing my home town with tourists is a distinct possibility. I love this place. A lot. And you should too, whether you’re a visitor or a transplant. Welcome!

Sunday Nibble #64: Out of the ashes

As of today, it will have been fourteen days from my second Moderna vaccination, so I am now technically immunized against COVID — well, at least most strains, although it’s not clear yet whether this vaccine also works against COVID-19 variants alpha, beta, or gamma.

In case those designations don’t look familiar, it’s because they’re new, and are designed to follow the same recently introduced guidelines that ended the practice of naming a virus or flu strain for the area it was first spotted.

So I’ll be keeping my mask on in public for a while even though California is set to end the requirement on June 15th. It’s still not clear whether Los Angeles County is going to follow suit, though.

But the main thing is that it does feel like we’re reaching the beginning of the end, at least in some places in the U.S. But even as we slowly emerge back into some form of more public and social life, the signs of what we lost are starting to become apparent.

It reminds me of another great plague, the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665. It hit the cities particularly hard because they were crowded and unsanitary. A lot of people who could fled to the countryside as the city of London basically shut down.

This included a 23-year-old Isaac Newton, who found himself isolated in his country home in Woolsthorpe. As a result, he started to develop his theories of optics and gravitation, as well as create (or possibly rediscover) calculus.

Then, in September of 1666, London burned down. The Great Fire, as it became known, devastated everything within the old Roman walls as it tore through the city over the course of four days. The problem was a lot of wooden construction, jammed together haphazardly, but the actions of the Lord Mayor didn’t help at all.

Fire-fighting practice at the time was to create firebreaks by demolishing adjacent buildings that weren’t burning so that the fire couldn’t jump, and then focus on the structures that were on fire. But Mayor Thomas Bloodworth was having none of that. In a classic and short-sighted case of “buildings are worth more than people,” he refused to authorize the tearing down of a lot of warehouses because they couldn’t contact the owners.

Ironically, if he’d just had two houses torn down at the beginning, they might have stopped the thing at the bakery in which it started.

That’s not the only irony, though. The fire itself actually helped end the plague because it either killed or drove out the rats that were infested with the fleas that spread the infection.

Now, Los Angeles hasn’t burned down. Sure, lots of Southern California likes to burn up regularly, but our irony is that we tend to only lose rural neighborhoods while the cities, which are mostly concrete and steel, stay intact. But the city has burned metaphorically and, in a lot of ways, what we lost over the last year may have inadvertently helped slow down the spread of our plague as well. And, unlike Bloodworth, our mayor actually did the right thing, even if far too many people got selfish and bitched and complained instead of following the rules from the beginning.

Yes — if we had all just completely locked down and stayed at home for the first six weeks, we probably would have slowed things way down. But we didn’t learn the lesson that Bloodworth ignored as well: Sometimes, in order to save a lot of businesses or properties or homes, you have to intentionally destroy a few.

In fact, as of February 2021, Los Angeles County had lost the most small businesses of any county in the U.S. These were mostly restaurants and bars, small retail stores, salons, and gyms. The general category of “personal services business” was particularly hard-hit, especially because there were so many such businesses in the county.

But there were bigger victims. Larger retailers like Fry’s Electronics folded, and K-Mart and Sears shuttered a lot of locations. A huge movie chain, Pacific Theatres and Arclight Cinemas, shut down permanently, putting the status of L.A.’s historic Cinerama Dome in limbo. (That one particularly hurts because my dad was one of the architects involved in its creation early on in his career.)

Surprisingly, AMC survived despite rumors of it going bankrupt in 2020, and it’s now re-opened and thriving. And at least some of the arthouse cinemas live on, like the New Beverly, which just re-opened this past week. Of course, that one is owned by Quentin Tarantino, who’s got the money to have kept paying for the lease while it was dormant.

Just too bad he insisted on opening it with one of his history-mangling messterpieces.

As an antidote to that, the Nuart also survives, and that’s good news, although they do seem to be focusing on longer runs of obscure documentaries instead of the “you can’t find this online” arthouse stuff they used to thrive on. And, sadly, nary a sign of the return of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet.

Then again, that film is rapidly creeping up on 50 years old. On the other hand, it was so far ahead of its time and so much in tune with current attitudes that I don’t see why it wouldn’t still play with current Gen-Z audiences.

Don’t dream it… be it.

Between the original film and the 2016 TV remake (which decidedly does not suck), it covers all of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC bases. Although the fact that they missed getting that remake done during the 40th anniversary year is just sad. But bonus points for casting Tim Curry as the Criminologist.

So… do I think that everything is going to go back to normal in a couple of weeks? Oh, hell no. And I’m going to be keeping my mask on for a good while after this. Why? Because being able to unmask depends entirely on having been fully vaccinated, and I still don’t trust people enough to not lie.

I mean, come on. People have no problem lying about their untrained mutts being “therapy dogs” in order to bring them everywhere — even though, legally, “therapy dogs” are not a thing, and it’s only trained service dogs that should be allowed.

Not to mention that the anti-vax crowd actually crosses political lines. You’ll find just as many on the far right as on the far left. Yes, for different reasons, but same end results. They’ll refuse the shot, but then lie about it in order to regain their “freedom.”

So even as Southern California and Los Angeles pull that phoenix trick and rise from the ashes, I’m still going to take precautions. Meaning that this mask is staying on my face in public until we’ve vaccinated the fuck out of everyone and/or there have been no new cases of COVID-19 of any form diagnosed in the state for at least three months.

So… see you next fall, maybe?

Now that 2020 is hindsight

Happy New Year! While we’re not out of the woods yet, we are at least seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not an oncoming train.

One year ago from today, nobody had any inkling that 2020 would affect America far more profoundly than 2001, 1941, or 1918. It also came dangerously close to 1860. But then we got news of a little virus in February, began to shut down in March, and 2020 became what I’m going to think of as “The Year We Had No Faces.”

At the end of 2019, I tried to tell people that 2020 was not the first year of the ‘20s, but rather the last year of the ‘10s. They scoffed at the idea then, but I think that now they’ll understand my case. Let 2020 be part of the last decade forever, and let 2021 be the true new beginning that we need.

For me, personally, 2020 had its pros and cons. I’m an ambivert, so while I missed being able to go to work for nearly six months, or to do improv in person at all, I was perfectly fine on my own alone at home. Hey, I completed the first draft of The Rêves during lockdown and, thanks to the stimulus check managed to get major and necessary car repairs done and buy a sweet but relatively cheap musical keyboard — and still have a ton left over for stuff like, oh, I don’t know. Food and utilites?

Or, in other words, I participated in some “percolate up” economics, in which case people who aren’t filthy rich put surprise money back into the economy, thereby helping local merchants, like my mechanic, music shop, and grocery store.

This is as opposed to “trickle-down,” the mistaken belief that giving all the money to the 1% at the top helps anyone. Nope. All they do with it is to invest it for their own benefit, and none of it goes anywhere else.

What? You think that the Bezoses, Musks, and Zuckerbergs of the world turn their windfalls into higher wages and benefits for their employees? Dream on. They turn them into interest bearing and dividend generating instruments for their own benefit.

And, in all the years since Ronald Fucking Reagan (may that asshole rot in hell) created “Trickle-Down Economics,” has no one realized that it could just as easily be called “Tinkle-On Economics?” That’s what happens to anyone who isn’t filthy rich in that system.

Has 2020 radicalized me? Yes and no. I’ve always hated the idea that this country has been run and owned since the beginning by old, white Christian cis-males. Prior to, well, 2016, I thought that we were finally going to break their grip on us. GObama!

The last four years have shown me how determined these dinosaurs are to go kicking and screaming to their less relevant position, and that’s where 2020 has radicalized me. All the economic stuff, I’ve believed for a long time. But as I see the new administration forming, and as I see that a lot of the appointees are, in fact, not old, white, Christian cis-males, it makes me happy.

The light at the end of the tunnel of 2021: President-Elect Joe Biden promised us a cabinet that looks like America, and he is delivering on that promise. And if old white men don’t like that, they can just go pound sand.

Don’t worry old dudes. We’re not like Republicans. We won’t take you around back and shoot you. We’ll just point and laugh at your outdated opinions and racist humor and then tell you, “STFU, Boomer.”

Plus, bonus: Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris. How awesome is that? The first Vice President who is female, and of both African and Asian descent. Plus she’s from my home state.

Of course, there are still a few more hurdles to get over after all of the laughable attempts by certain parties to try to deny or overthrow the results of an election which Biden and Harris overwhelmingly won.

The electoral votes still need to be certified by Congress, and the outgoing President went so far as to ask the Vice President to refuse to do so, effectively blocking the vote. Fortunately, Pence can’t do this, and knows it.

The certification happens on January 6, although GOP Congress members are going to try to stop it. They will fail.

The day before will see the runoff elections in Georgia for U.S. Senate, and if both of those offices go to the Democrats — and they just might — then we would have the power to completely undo the mess that the former administration has made of everything.

With those two Senators being Democrats, we’d have a 50-50 split, and do you know who the President of the Senate and tie-breaking vote is? Why, that would be Vice President Kamala Harris.

So all eyes truly are on Georgia, because a double victory there for the Democrats would give them control of two out of the three branches of government — the Executive (President, cabinet, etc.), and the Legislative (Congress, made up of House and Senate.)

This would also leave the door open to fix the Supreme Court by adding four Justices to bring the total to 13, and that’s not arbitrary. It’s an odd number, could be cited as an historical nod to the original 13 colonies, and would match the number of appellate courts in the U.S., meaning that one member of the SCOTUS would not have to oversee more than one appellate court.

There’s no telling what stupidity and insanity certain parties might try to pull off in the two weeks between Congress saying, “Yes, Joe Biden is the president-elect” and John Roberts making him officially the President on January 20th, but we’ll probably see a lot less of it.

With any luck, the coming months will see us turn the ship of state around to avoid the waterfall as we finally give a proper response to COVID-19 in terms of prevention, vaccination, and providing actual financial assistance to people affected.

Invest a little money now so that people actually can stay home for a few weeks or a couple of months until the hospitals empty out and the number of active cases plummets.

With any luck, we will restore protections that have been taken away from not just certain classes of people, but from Federal lands and other protected areas and species.

We will start to see positive reform of the criminal justice system, including eliminating for-profit prisons, possibly legalizing certain drugs under Federal law and freeing all people incarcerated solely for their possession or sale

We can also help the police serve better by figuring out how to bring in other entities to handle cases that might better be handled by non-law-enforcement. For example, you’d send the cops to an armed robbery in progress or to pursue a fleeing carjacker or murderer, but it might be better for everyone to send a social worker or negotiator out on a domestic violence call.

And for everyone’s sake — the police and ours — can we make “on at all times” body and car cameras mandatory and, in exchange, cut down the ridiculous amount of paperwork that law enforcement has to do over absolutely everything? Save that for court reporters reviewing and transcribing the cam footage.

This New Year brings new hope for the future, but we aren’t going to get there unless we shake all of the anger and ill-will of the last four years off, remind ourselves that we are all in it together — in the general sense as Americans, but in the broadest sense as humans everywhere, and it’s time to re-dedicate our efforts to doing what we have to do to end the plagues that tried their best to destroy us in 2020.

One, of course, was COVID-19, but the other was selfishness and the inability to do what had to be done and give up what was necessary in order to help all of us.

Don’t make that mistake in 2021. Keep wearing those masks and social distancing, support your local restaurants by ordering to-go or delivery (and tipping), but do not dine in, and put off those holiday trips to see family and friends. In fact, put off all long trips, especially by common carriers like airplanes.

Life is not going to be normal again until we know that the vaccine works long-term, that we’ve seen the number of active infections drop, and the death rate has gone way down.

None of that has happened yet and, in fact, right around the time Congress is certifying the Electoral Vote is when we should see another uptick because of all the people who couldn’t sacrifice and not travel home for Christmas.

So expect the 2020 Experience to keep on giving until at least the end of June. And that’s being optimistic. In the meantime, while you’re not going out, share some love with those people who’ve entertained you online — share their sites, subscribe to their podcasts, buy their art or etsy stuff, go to their online pay-what-you-can shows and actually pay, and so on.

It doesn’t have to be much individually, but if everybody tosses a couple of bucks in various directions, it will add up. And, anyway, the elections are over and look at how much was donated to all of the candidates.

Now imagine that kind of money divided up among your friends and loved ones and give.

Happy New Year, and may our 2021 be much better than our 2020 was.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving however you celebrate it, although the following explains why you should not do it in person. Meanwhile, tomorrow marks the beginning of a special treat — my annual Christmas Countdown featuring a different one of my favorite holiday-themed music videos every day.

This will — or should — be a holiday season unlike any most of us have known during our lifetimes. I can only imagine that the holidays of 1918 and maybe even 1919 were just as disarrayed as now, and for the same reasons.

But I also wonder — what about all the holiday seasons during WW I and WW II, in particular, when all of the fathers, uncles, and other males in the extended family might not have been around to celebrate?

And yet, it is very important this year that we do what Americans used to prove themselves very good at: Sacrificing in the here and now for the long-term benefit of everyone. Rationing was one of the central features of WW II, after all, with people giving up or cutting down on certain things so that they could go to the war effort.

Of course, people back then showed the same warts we do now, and when word spread of something scheduled to be rationed, guess what happened? Yep. Same thing as happened to TP and hand sanitizer back in March. People stormed the stores and hoarded it.

So greed and selfishness are not modern inventions.

In order to make the system work, everyone — adults and children alike — got a ration book with coupons allowing them only so much of certain commodities at a time. But some of the limits were severe. For example, people were allowed three gallons of gasoline a week at a time when cars got really crappy mileage.

To be fair, though, not a lot of people owned cars at the time, so that might be like the modern equivalent of “You can only recharge your electric car to 25% once a week.”

Rationing didn’t just include commodities like fuel and food. It also covered clothing and manufactured goods, like cars, bicycles, and typewriters. Why? Simple. All of the raw materials required to make those things were also necessary to make aircraft, ships, weapons, bullets, and uniforms for the troops — and this at a time just after Japan had wrecked part of the U.S. fleet when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

One of the strangest things rationed was women’s nylons, and I’ve heard stories from my grandmothers about how, back in those days, they would actually use eyebrow pencil or something like that to draw fake seams down the back of their calves so it would look like they were wearing nylons.

So… why nylon? Simple. That’s what they made parachutes out of.

Ironically, once the war was over, all that stuff came screaming back into the economy as War Surplus, and stores selling that stuff are still around to this day.

The place where I live was built just after wartime rationing finally ended, sugar being rationed up until 1947. But one of the selling points of the place is that all of the kitchens have stainless steel countertops, and that stainless steel came right back from all of the aircraft factories in Van Nuys that no longer needed it.

Other fun fact: All of the peepholes in our front doors were made out of repurposed bomber gunsights with the hairline cross-sights removed.

The point of all this is that people had to make huge lifestyle adjustments — in the case of World War II, for over five years. And that’s just in America. People in Europe and the USSR had a lot more adjusting to do, and a lot more sacrifices to make.

So, as we come into this holiday season even as COVID-19 numbers in terms of new cases are outpacing by far the ones that sent us into lockdown way back in March, we have to remember not to do now what wrecked our brief success in the spring.

That is, once we hit Memorial Day, people in general got lazy and selfish, and started going out without taking precautions and acting like the crisis was over. And with every major holiday and event, numbers spiked and new hotspots sprang up — Independence Day, Labor Day, and every unmasked mass gathering, whether at a presidential rally or BLM protest — although the latter group were far more likely to wear masks.

What this means is that this holiday season is a time when Americans need to sacrifice again, and do what our grandparents and great-grandparents did during World War II in order to win. Give up those things that you think you really need right now, do with less, and take the time for focus on yourself, recalibrate, and recharge.

You can easily do without seeing family from another part of the state or out of state in person this year. You can do without getting together for that big dinner and whatnot. And you can easily have a family Zoomsgiving with everyone safe in their own homes, but still hanging out.

The best part: during Thanksgiving, Zoom has waived the 40-minute time-limit on meetings via unpaid accounts, so knock yourselves out — but with virtual gatherings only, please.

And the same will be true of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. Stay safer apart. Period.

All that said, and as a preview of what’s to come here from now until Christmas, here are two Thanksgiving-themed music videos that could not be more different. Or maybe not. The first is a very traditional seeming musical tribute to the holiday until you read between the lines — because it just may be that what at first appears to be a huge feast being set out for a family gathering is really just a meal for one. (Oops. Spoilers…)

The Second is William S. Burroughs, and his ever apt, insightful, and true to this day Thanksgiving Prayer. Enjoy!

Image source, Bart Everson, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons