Friday, August 25, 2006

Hollywood Bowl

Although I used to go to the Hollywood Bowl occasionally when I was much younger, I didn’t become a real fan until we moved back to LA twelve years ago. Every time the summer schedule arrived in our mailbox there would be a flurry of phone calls and emails back and forth to Karen while we decided which concerts to attend. We even stood on line for three hours one year to make sure we got good seats for the most coveted concerts. In those days, we were happy to sit with the masses on the Bowl’s notoriously uncomfortable wooden benches. The trick was to arrive early enough to snag a vinyl seat cushion, which the ushers gladly rented for fifty cents. Not only could you use the cushion to claim your seat—which tends to shift when you’re sitting with twenty people on a wooden bench!—but your rear end was also a tad more grateful for the extra padding.

Then something dramatic happened. About five years ago, the Bowl installed individual, stadium-style “super seats” in the section directly above the exclusive box seats. They are more expensive to reserve, but a lot more comfortable. We bought super-seat tickets for one concert and that was it. The next year Tim and I decided to subscribe to mini-season super-seat tickets and have never looked back!

My musical tastes lean more towards the popular (e.g., Jerry Goldsmith, Pink Martini, and last year’s fabulous staging of “Camelot”), while Tim prefers traditional jazz. We both love pop standard vocalists, however, and so over the years have seen Tony Bennett (several times), Diana Krull (terrific), Mel Torme (his last Bowl performance), Peggy Lee (her last Bowl performance), Rosemary Clooney (her last Bowl performance, too), Van Morrison (singing jazz), Al Jarreau (not so good), John Pizzarelli (a fave), and others too many to remember. This week was big band music, featuring the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, the Stan Kenton Orchestra 2006, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. It was our last concert of the season.

A big part of the Hollywood Bowl experience is getting there. We learned a long time ago that the best way to travel to the Bowl is by bus. Indeed, several shuttles transport concertgoers from around the county. Our own Culver City bus leaves 90 minutes before the show and often takes an hour to arrive. Needless to say, traffic around the Bowl is always a nightmare.

Culver City is such a wonderfully diverse community that the bus ride presents an interesting microcosm of humanity: racially-mixed couples, people of all ages and lifestyles, and everyone excited to be going to the Bowl. On the weekend, riders may pass around a bottle of wine or champagne to get into the mood. But even without libation, there’s always lots of laughter and good cheer on our way north. I like the bus ride because it gives me a chance to catch-up on changes to the mid-Wilshire/La Brea district where we lived when we first returned to LA. The pasta restaurant where we used to eat is now a sushi bar, and, oh, look at that tiny pizza parlor tucked between those two vintage clothing stores!

Food is another big part of the Hollywood Bowl’s culture. Most people arrive early enough to eat in their seats or create an impromptu picnic on the surrounding park grounds. We’ve seen some elaborate displays of three-course meals accompanied by candelabras and fine china. We, on the other hand, are more simple folk and usually just bring sandwiches from Pavilions or a rice bowl from El Pollo Loco. I’ll never forget the time Tim snagged last minute free tickets from someone at work, prompting me to quickly throw together a salad before running out the door. When we got there we discovered we were sitting with rich folks in the box seats. There I was scooping homemade salad out of a recycled butter tub while the people next to us sipped from crystal goblets! I was mortified.

Wednesday’s concert was the perfect way to end this year’s season. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra got the ball rolling with a rousing opening number. Turns out Tim had met Mr. Wilson many years ago when he sat in on his “history of jazz” class at Cal State Northridge. Tim, of course, was trying to impress a girl who wasn’t worth the effort and so stayed for only one class session. Still, the moment was memorable enough to share with me thirty years later on the bus ride home.

Wilson’s orchestra was followed by Stan Kenton’s group, which really got our feet tappin’. “That bongo guy is insane!” Tim whispered. Sure enough, his hands were flying a hundred miles a minute! I was thrilled to learn later that it was Alex Acuña, former percussionist for the Weather Report, a fusion-jazz band I had listened to in my pre-Tim days.

For all its enormity (18,000 seats), the Bowl can be stunningly quiet when everyone sits in polite silence. Over the years, I’ve heard the frets on John Pizzarelli’s guitar and the rattle of music stands before the band begins to play. The natural bowl-shaped contour of the amphitheater certainly heightens the acoustical effect.

The concert ended 10 minutes before the 11PM curfew, so we gathered our belongings and headed downhill past the pitiful ventriloquist singer, who covers his mouth with one hand while moving the lips of a raggedy old dog puppet with the other, and the solo saxophonist, who uses the acoustics of the pedestrian’s tunnel to enhance his own sound. Someone had lit vanilla-scented incense in the tunnel, so it smelled more pleasant than usual. We emerged on the other end to bus fumes and burnt diesel. The evening was rapidly drawing to a close.

As festive as the bus ride is heading toward the Bowl, the complete opposite is always true going home. Sometimes a passenger or two might hum a ditty from that night’s concert; but usually we’re all too tired to even talk. Plus, it can be an excruciatingly long wait before we even move, especially if we’re at the back of an immobile line of buses. Rarely do we get home before midnight.

But Wednesday was a happy exception—by some miracle, we left the parking lot by 11:15PM and were soon barreling down Cahuenga Blvd. I had visions of actually being in bed before 12 o’clock, when the bus suddenly stopped at Wilshire and La Brea. It seems one of the riders had gotten on the wrong bus and was negotiating with the driver. “PLUH-EEZE don’t go back to the Bowl!” I silently pleaded as the other passengers began to stir. Instead, Mr. Lost quickly exited our bus and dashed across traffic (don’t look!) to catch the bus on the opposite side of the street. Apparently he needed to get to Chatsworth, another two hours (by bus) heading north.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were safely in bed when Tim drowsily mumbled, “I guess the summer is now officially over.” But I’m not ready to give up on it yet...


Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Trip We Didn't Take to San Francisco

We are supposed to be vacationing in San Francisco with friends this weekend. But after spending three days in Sacramento earlier in the week, plus the ridiculous new regulations limiting what can be carried onto airplanes, we decided to just stay home. Instead, we’re doing “LA” things, like attending a fundraiser for the Culver City Democratic Club (last night) and going to an Angels game (tomorrow). Heaven forbid we should waste an entire weekend just sitting at home relaxing like normal people.

Tim and I love Los Angeles. We especially love the history and architecture of the city. When the two intersect, we are in our glory. No surprise, then, that we found ourselves heading east at nine in the morning to attend a tribute to the Brown Derby restaurants, which have all been either demolished or transformed into other businesses. The event, sponsored by the Southern California Restaurant Historical Society, was held at Louise’s Trattoria in the Los Feliz district. Louise’s is the last Brown Derby to remain relatively in tact despite recent efforts to raze it in order to make way for “much needed” condos (boo! hiss!). We had hooked up with the restaurant group at the huge Wilshire Blvd. centennial celebration last year and attended their first meeting a few months ago at the Hollywood Heritage Museum on Highland Ave. We had a great time and so were glad to be able to participate in today’s Brown Derby event, which we discovered after canceling our trip to SF.

The Brown Derby was perhaps one of the most recognizable of Los Angeles’s many icons in the early twentieth century. In particular, the Wilshire Blvd. Derby, shaped like a man’s hat, was the most famous and was featured in many movies and TV shows (see the 1947 photo above). Sadly, it was all but destroyed in the 1970s when a developer bought the corner where it sat to build yet another ubiquitous strip mall. After much negotiation, he perched the round part of the “hat” at the back of the shops, where it pathetically sits today, but the restaurant is no more.

An even worse fate awaited the Hollywood Brown Derby, located on Vine and Selma. After many years of neglect, it finally burned down in the late 1970s and was eventually demolished to create a parking lot. The Hollywood Derby is probably best known as the setting for Lucy Ricardo’s infamous encounter with William Holden in one of the most memorable episodes of “I Love Lucy.” The hallmark of the Vine Street Derby was its black-and-white caricatures of Hollywood’s most notable celebrities. Luckily, as we learned today, they survive as part of someone’s private collection.

There was also a Brown Derby in Beverly Hills; but the only one that still exists as a restaurant is The Derby nightclub, adjacent to Louise’s Trattoria on Franklin and Los Feliz. The Derby has become a favorite of young swing dancers and was featured prominently at the end of the 1996 cult hit movie “Swingers.”

Today’s festivities began at 10AM. We arrived a little early so we could snag a couple of seats. We even found an excellent parking spot behind the restaurant, but were taken quite by surprise when a parking attendant suddenly appeared, demanding four dollars. “It’s not even 10 o’clock!” Tim exclaimed. The attendant just shrugged his shoulders and pocketed the cash. Ah, life in LA.

The Derby is located at the back of Louise’s, atop a short flight of stairs. While Tim signed us in, I moseyed onto the dance floor under the rounded part of the “hat.” Interestingly, the Los Feliz Brown Derby originally started out as something else altogether before becoming The Car Cafe, the only drive-up Derby, in 1941. The exposed beams holding up the domed part of the hat remain in good shape, possibly because little light gets into the room even during the day. The other half of the club is the old banquet room, which was added to the Brown Derby in the 1950s. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz hosted a party there the night the William Holden episode of “I Love Lucy” aired in 1955. Apparently, the banquet room was quite the celebrity hangout back in the day.

The place was almost completely full by the time we made our way inside. Tim recognized the creators of a couple of LA-based blogs he reads every day. We also spotted pop historians Charles Phoenix and Kevin Roderick. Chris Nichols, the organizer of the restaurant group and past-president of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, was there, too. Chris always dresses in period clothing and today was no exception, wearing a bow-tie and red jacket, topped off (of course!) by a brown derby.

The speakers included: Mark Willems, author of the book “The Brown Derby: A Hollywood Legend,” which is now out-of-print and apparently worth a small fortune (we own it!); Rebecca Goodman, organizer of the Save the Derby Coalition, who described her group’s efforts to save the Los Feliz site; and Jack Lane, author and artist who drew the caricatures that once decorated the walls of the Hollywood Derby. Radio personality Gary Owens, whom Tim noticed immediately, was also there and said a few words about being a longtime Derby customer. We then watched a string of short clips shot inside the various Derbies. Everyone cheered loudly during the “I Love Lucy” segment, although we’ve probably all seen it a million times. Chris Nichols promised to distribute pieces of the famous Brown Derby grapefruit cake that someone had baked—and that I had begun to eye hungrily—but at that point Gary Owens took control of the microphone and began yet another story about his former celebrity friends. Owens may have been funny in the old “Laugh-In” days, but his anecdotes are now peppered with too many “I” and “me” statements and so we slunk out the side door.

We stopped at Dawson’s Bookstore—possibly the best source in the region for used books on LA—but couldn’t find anything we wanted that we didn’t already own and so headed home. Tim wanted to eat lunch at one of Culver City’s new trendy restaurants; but I insisted on our own culinary icon, Dinah’s Diner, located on Sepulveda two miles north of LAX. Although not as distinctive as the Brown Derby, Dinah’s is famous in its own right, unexpectedly showing up in all kinds of commercials and TV shows. Her fried chicken—arguably the best in west LA—was even featured in the new movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” which is supposed to be set in New Mexico—but we knew better!


Wednesday, August 02, 2006


I’ve been a fan of Crosby, Stills & Nash since 1969 when I heard a trio of classmates sing a couple of their songs at a school talent show. I immediately bought two copies of the group’s first album, “Crosby, Stills & Nash”—one for me and one for my best friend, who played acoustic guitar and loved rich harmonic music. While the other high school girls doodled pictures of their favorite football or basketball players on their notebooks, I carried around the lyrics of “Helplessly Hoping” on the outside of my peechee. To me, Crosby, Stills & Nash represented a whole new mature brand of music: intimate lyrics captured by the most beautiful male voices I had ever heard.

Neil Young joined the band the next year for the “Deja Vu” album, but I didn’t really take much notice of him until the late ‘70s when he released his two-disc “best of” compilation, “Decade,” which included songs from his Buffalo Springfield as well as Crazy Horse days. I have loved him ever since.

Tim and I saw Neil Young in concert in 1993, but had never seen Crosby, Stills & Nash play together because the group broke-up shortly after “Deja Vu.” This was one of those legendary rock-and-roll moments that had regretfully passed us by: neither of us saw the Beatles in concert nor had we seen Crosby, Stills & Nash perform.

Then something amazing happened. In 2000, the band—including Neil Young!—announced that they were getting back together and would be playing in Los Angeles as part of the CSNY2K tour! Tim quickly got us tickets through the radio station and we finally, after all those years, got to see our heroes in person. We cried at the end of the concert because we thought we’d never see them again. But then two nights later, Tim wrangled two tickets for a special VH-1 “unplugged” taping somewhere in Hollywood and we got to see them all over again, only this time they were no more than six feet away from us. That night was truly one of the highlights of my adult life.

No wonder, then, that I bugged Tim about getting tickets when I heard that CSNY was coming to the Hollywood Bowl, July 31. The tour, called “Freedom of Speech,” promised to mix their old songs in with cuts from Young’s latest CD “Living With War”—what I affectionately call the “Impeach the President” album, after its most notorious song. Miraculously, Tim was able to use his radio connections to get us a pair of highly coveted box seats, but we couldn’t pick them up until the night of the concert.

The show was supposed to start at 7:30PM, so we left the house three hours early. Normally we would take the bus to the Bowl, but our usual shuttle wasn’t running that night, so we drove instead. With traffic, I figured it would take us an hour to drive to Hollywood. We’d then have an hour to eat and another hour to board and ride the shuttle up the hill to the Bowl.

We arrived at Hollywood-and-Highland right on time—5:30PM—and made our way up to The Grill, an expensive but tasty restaurant in the mall. The hostess eyed my oversized bag stuffed with jackets, blanket, etc. and offered us a “price fixe” boxed-dinners-to-go menu. The cheapest meal was $38 each (yikes!), so we opted to dine in. No sooner were we seated then other concertgoers started to flood into the restaurant—our timing was impeccable.

As predicted, it took us an hour to eat (good food, but very slow service). We got down to the shuttle just as the bus was leaving, so we had to wait for the next one. I began to worry that we were going to miss the first song of the concert. Finally, at 6:50PM, we boarded and started the long crawl up Highland Blvd. The man standing next to us on the bus noted that it would have taken less time to walk and I nervously agreed. By now, I was very concerned about getting to our seats on time.

The Bowl was a mob scene as thousands of baby-boomers tried to file past the ticket-takers. Amidst the madness were tables setup promoting liberal causes, like Amnesty International, Progressive Democrats of America, Planned Parenthood, etc.—all groups that I support and would usually stop to acknowledge, but was impossible in such a huge crush of people. Tim had an email saying his name was on “a list” to get tickets, so we headed over to Will Call, where there was another long line. The friendly couple behind us (our age) said they hadn’t been to the Bowl since 1968. We told them where the restrooms were and how to get back to the shuttle after the concert.

At Will Call we were told that all record company tickets were being held at the “west gate” entrance, so we waded across the masses of people and made our way further up the hill behind the shell of the Bowl. The air is more rarefied here as this is the secret entrance for VIPs and other celebrities. This is also where the performers hang-out until the concert begins and, indeed, we quickly walked by the four million-dollar motor coaches individually housing David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young. A clutch of older (our age) groupies waited patiently outside the barricade to catch a glimpse of their heroes entering the back of the Hollywood Bowl.

With five minutes to go, we found the ticket table, where a disinterested woman on a cellphone pointed us toward the next table over. Tim gave his name and, after a couple of moments, was told there were no tickets waiting for us. He then tried the name of the record label and was told those tickets had already been picked up. Desperate, he left a voice message at the record company and then called his contact at the radio station. Meanwhile, I silently watched as various celebrities raced by on the way to their seats: James Spader (Alan Shore on my favorite TV show “Boston Legal”), Jeffrey Tambor (the father on the now canceled “Arrested Development”), and retired basketball great Bill Walton.

Tim’s radio contact told him that the tickets were supposed to be at Will Call, so we headed back down the hill, weaving among all the high-priced SUVs and convertibles now parked headlight-to-taillight behind the Bowl. The crowd had thinned out considerably, but there was still a long line of Will Call stragglers. We were halfway to the box office when I heard applause coming from inside the theater. CSNY had taken the stage. My concern about missing the opening song had turned into real panic that might not even get into the concert. I began debating with myself whether it was better to buy tickets at the window and watch the concert from the “cheap” ($48!) seats or just go home. I decided to make my decision once we got to Will Call.

At the window, Tim showed his ID once again. I held my breath as the woman took it and left. After what seemed like a lifetime, she returned holding an envelope with Tim’s name scrawled across it. We were in! I strained my ears to hear what the boys were playing—maybe I’d catch at least part of the opening song after all! We then joined the throng slowly moving into the theater and finally charged our way up to the entrance. I forgot all about using the restroom, my usual first stop inside the Bowl. I was now desperate to hear the last notes of the opening song!

Grabbing my hand, Tim pulled me inside the theater. I was literally stunned at how close we were to the stage. I probably would have stood there in a daze for the next three hours except, before I knew it, Tim was following an usher up to our seats. We sat down just as CSNY finished singing “Carry On.” As the audience leapt to its feet, I turned to Tim and whispered “THANK YOU” and started to cry. I couldn’t believe that we were finally there, sitting in the best seats (Garden Terrace) we’ve ever had at the Bowl, listening to one of our favorite rock groups of all time.

Needless to say, the concert was wonderful. Crosby and Nash looked good and sounded especially fine as they harmonized on several songs together. Time has been less kind to the once gorgeous Stephen Stills, nonetheless he managed to bring us to our feet several times throughout the night. The true driving force of the evening, though, was Neil Young who, after all these years, still looks like a big kid enthusiastically playing guitar for the very first time. Never one for subtlety, most of his songs focused on the futility of war, past and present. Jeffrey Tambor (who was sitting two boxes over from us) and I screamed out the lyrics to “Impeach the President,” which were projected at the back of the stage.

The concert ran over the 11PM curfew, so we were cheated out of an encore. But it didn’t seem to matter as everyone left the Bowl on wings. We skipped the shuttle and flew down Highland Blvd. on foot, while I quietly sang, “Helplessly hoping, her harlequin hovered nearby, awaiting a word...” I was fifteen years old once again...