Yo Ho NoHo…

I spend a lot of time in a part of Los Angeles known as NoHo in general, although the specific area I’m at is called the NoHo Arts District. I spend a lot of time there because I do improv at and work box office for ComedySportz L.A. and, if you’re so inclined, you can come on down and see me perform with the Rec League on a lot of Mondays except the 1st and 5th ones of the month, or catch shows on Friday through Sunday nights. It’s improv (think “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” except we’ve been around longer) done as a competitive sport with two teams and a referee. Unlike “Whose Line,” our points matter.

But end plug. The real point is that designation of NoHo, which I feel some personal attachment to. See, a long time ago in the dark ages of the 90s, and before the Metro opened the Red Line subway station right in the middle of the arts district, leading to its gentrification, nobody called it that. It was also one of those neighborhoods that you really didn’t want to be in after dark. It was rundown, dangerous, and scary.

It was also a place with cheap rent, so where a lot of student and starving artist types had reasonable apartments in sketchy surroundings. So when I wrote a play called “Straight to Heart,” about a gay man in an ill-advised attempt to seduce a straight co-worker, I used the word NoHo. Yes, it was a play on SoHo in New York (which is short for South of Houston), which was probably in imitation of Soho in London’s West End, which is short for… nothing. That’s its name.

It also made sense for the character to use since he (like I at the time) lived in West Hollywood, and that’s been referred to as WeHo at least back to it becoming a city in the 80s if not before. So it was a quick jump from WeHo to NoHo.

Now, when I used the term, it was meant as a dismissal of the place. The lead character replied to the question of what he knows about the object of his affection with, “He lives in some dump in NoHo, with a roommate.” I thought it was funny, but nobody at the time got it.

“Who calls it NoHo?” a director of one reading asked.

But, again, once the Metro Station opened, everything changed, and the Arts District in particular turned into a mini Broadway. I’ve performed in at least four theaters in the area between the Metro Station and the clusterfuck of an intersection where Lankershim and Vineland meet and Riverside turns into Camarillo,  and still perform in one of them regularly. My doctor’s office is across the street from the El Portal, where I do improv, and when you’re not seeing theater in the area, you can see a movie at the Laemmle theatre, walk through the sculpture garden at the Television Academy (home of the Emmys), visit the art galleries hiding everywhere, or dine at one of the many amazing restaurants, including The Federal (yummy garlic fries and great burgers) or Vicious Dogs. By the way, I don’t even like hotdogs, but I love the ones at Vicious, and they are ridiculously cheap. And good. If you come to L.A., forget about the highly overrated Pinks. This is the place to go.

So… why the love letter to NoHo, you may ask. Well, tonight as I was on the way to my box office shift, I noticed a banner on the elementary school that’s a block west of the theater. I’ve seen it a bunch of times — my photo is up top — but tonight that date really hit me. “Lankershim School, est. 1889.” Now, the El Portal Theater was built in 1926. It started out as a vaudeville house, then changed to a movie theater and, finally, wound up as a live theater with three performance spaces. I had thought it was one of the oldest buildings in the area. Yet here we were, with a school established 37 years earlier, and I couldn’t even begin to think of what was there at the time, so I had to look it up.

The answer was fascinating. Basically, it was a farming town created when somebody decided to divvy up part of their family’s land, so the school was meant for the children of those farmers. Two other buildings built at the time, and which are still standing, are the post office and train station. The school is a block away from the former which is across the street from the latter, although the train station is no longer a train station. The original building was refurbished to house a coffee shop next to the end of the Metro Orange Line, which is a busway that connects to the Metro Red Line subway, which began the whole process of recreating NoHo in the first place.

And, speaking of the name North Hollywood, here’s a fun fact for people who don’t know the area. Although it’s called North Hollywood, it’s actually not directly north of Hollywood at all. It’s north of West Hollywood, which actually is directly west of Hollywood. NoHo also doesn’t abut Hollywood, either. The towns of Valley Village, Toluca Lake, Studio City, and Universal City, plus a bit designated as Los Angeles but not Hollywood, are all in between.

It’s just over five miles from the heart of the NoHo Arts District to the hub of Hollywood, at Hollywood and Highland, as the crow flies, although driving it is longer, at up to eight miles, thanks to having to go through a canyon on a bit of a winding route. By subway, it’s only ten minutes, though, since the train blasts its way straight down Lankershim, and then under the mountains that divide the L.A. basin from the Valley.

Now as a native of L.A., I can tell you that it’s very unusual for really old stuff to survive despite the city itself having been founded in the 18th century. That’s because, if an earthquake doesn’t knock it over at some point, then we tear it down with reckless abandon. Yes, we do have some old landmarks, like the aforementioned school, post office, and train station, and Olvera Street and the old church next to it enshrine the place where the city was born. Our City Hall dates back to 1928, and the two missions here — San Gabriel and San Fernando — date back to the 1770s and 1790s respectively. In fact, the trail that missionaries followed to establish California missions, El Camino Real, is marked with mission bells on shepherds’ staves, and quite a lot of it is now the route of the 101. Yes, we do refer to our freeways like that — although we do not talk like the people in the clip. Sorry, New Yorkers can’t talk California at all.

But here’s the funny trade-off. While this city seems determined to keep on tearing down its physical history, at the same time we have given the world our cultural history through film and television. Look at most old movies, particularly the silent movies, and they have L.A. all over them. Buster Keaton once staged a cattle stampede through DTLA (that’s Downtown L.A.), although, at the time, that wouldn’t have been all that unusual, since the cattle trains coming west stopped at the future location of Union Station in the old stockyards, which is right across the street from the birthplace of the city, and the station itself opened in 1939. Laurel and Hardy or the Our Gang Comedies reek of L.A. locations, from Pasadena to Silver Lake. Sunset Boulevard is iconically L.A. in both location and story.

And yet… while the world outside of here thinks of all of that stuff coming from Hollywood, they’d be very wrong, because “Hollywood” as the center of entertainment is an illusion. Number of movie studios actually in Hollywood? Zero. L.A.’s entertainment industry is actually located mostly in Burbank, which you could call Northeast Hollywood, with offshoots in Culver City, Century City, Playa del Rey, and Universal City. For TV, it’s definitely mostly done in Burbank and the Valley, with outposts in Santa Clarita, which is another valley north of the Valley, and occasionally Marina del Rey, which is way down south near LAX on the west side. Porn? Mostly the San Fernando Valley.

Hollywood was always a scam and an illusion, mainly meant to keep tourists away from where the magic really happens. On the other hand, NoHo has evolved into a hotbed of creativity and sort of a Broadway West. If you want to see some real art happen, come on over. All of the talent of DTLA, none of the traffic or parking woes. You’ll be glad you did.

This message was not paid for by the NoHo Tourism Council, just penned from personal experience with the place, which has really grown on me over the years.

Seeing the real magic

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started played The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!

Training

As the rail transit system in Los Angeles continues to expand and improve, it provides more and more options for getting around this sprawl of a city without a car.

I find hopping on the subway, riding to a random destination, and then just walking around a couple of miles exploring to be ridiculously relaxing and strangely liberating. Once I’ve gone down the escalators and through the turnstiles, I’m suddenly not bound to where I parked anymore. I also get a much more intimate view of the city by walking through it instead of blasting past it in my private urban pod. Not to mention that it’s a great way to exercise.

The city is full of people, too, and one of the things I love most about LA is that when I get on the train I know that it’s going to be full of people who are as diverse as humanity itself is on the entire planet. Pick any random subway car at rush hour, and you can probably find people on it with backgrounds from six continents (sorry, no penguins!), and at least half a dozen whose first language isn’t English. I also see people of all ages, and lots of families traveling together.

What have I never seen on an LA Metro subway? A fight. Now, that may just be because I’m not a regular commuter so I haven’t had enough exposure, but people on LA subways seem remarkably polite to each other. Well, except for the dipshits who have their headphone volume so loud they might as well be carrying a boombox, but at least most of them actually seem to have musical taste, and it’s their ears, not mine.

I’m not sure why I find the experience so relaxing, though, considering that it consists of long stretches of sitting (or standing) on a moving vehicle interspersed with some heavy-duty pedestrian activity. Today, for example, if Google Maps is accurate, I did about three miles. And, since I always seem to forget to bring my headphones, I’m not distracting myself with music. I just distract myself by annoying all of you by over-posting about my experiences to social media!

Okay. I suppose the real reason it’s so relaxing is that it helps to quiet down the circus in my head — and as those unfortunate enough to have gotten into close proximity with that party know, it’s not just the Big Top in there. It’s all Three Rings, the whole goddamn Midway, and a ridiculous Sideshow thrown in for fun. But no clowns. No clowns. I hate clowns!

What I do love are trains and treks and discovering things about my own hometown that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t taken the time to look. Today, a friend of mine pointed out in response to one of my photos (Hi, Charlie!) that we Angelenos don’t realize how lucky we are to live in a place that people actually save up and pay a lot of money to visit. Now, I’ve worked in or on the edges of The Industry for my entire adult life, so I know how little Hollywood actually has to do with the entertainment business. But you don’t see hordes of tourists in Burbank (well, except at Warner Bros.) for a reason. And for all its cheesy wonder, Hollywood Boulevard is kind of interesting if you just take it for what it is: as fake as the teeth and tits on most actors, male or female, but still nice to look at.

Incidentally, I’m 99.9% sure that I was conceived one summer day in an apartment building half a block north of that boulevard and right next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’m that sure because I’m also sure that my parents weren’t that adventurous, so it wasn’t in the theater or in the back of a Ford or something.

I think. Which just reminds me that if I had ever had kids, at least one of them would probably have been conceived in a car. Except, oh, right… can’t conceive with that combination. At least not without making the news.

But I do digress. Wherever you live, take a moment to discover your town — native or adopted — like you’re a tourist. You might be surprised at what you see.