Monday, March 29, 2010

Up with Downey

One of our favorite L.A. personalities is Charles Phoenix, the self-proclaimed “histo-tainer” who makes local history fun and entertaining (hence the sobriquet “histo-tainer”). Charles collects and shows other people’s retro photographic slides, plus leads fascinating tours of mid-century L.A. landmarks. We think he’s just wonderful!

On Saturday, Charles led his first tour of Downey, “America’s greatest space age suburban city.” I worked in Downey for a year in the mid-1990s, so knew a little about the town. But nothing prepared us for the sights we were about to experience on Charles’s “Up with Downey” tour.

Our first stop was Bob’s Big Boy, a recently refurbished coffee shop with drive-in service and a real 1950s feel. Originally Harvey’s Broiler and then Johnnie’s, the restaurant was illegally demolished a few years ago when the building and its parking lot served as a used car lot. Luckily, enough of the structure was saved that the current owner was able to rebuild it as a fabulous new Bob’s. We do love our Big Boy!

From there, we all piled into an orange school bus and visited the Downey Historical Society as well as the city’s oldest house (ca. 1886). We next toured the remains of the Los Angeles County’s “Poor Farm,” where the destitute helped grow provisions for several other county facilities, and the abandoned old Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center, where polio victims lived and convalesced during the first half of the 20th century. Here we sampled the Rancho’s famous “prune bread,” which apparently was a huge bestseller during the early 1900s. I was careful to eat only the bread portion, but Tim ate prunes and all (ack!).

Our next stop was the barn where the Downey Rose Float Association creates its magic every year for the Pasadena Rose Parade. Tim was mesmerized by the float mechanics, but I thought the thing looked like a gigantic mattress boxspring and so waited outside while everyone else oohed and aahed over next year’s design.

We took a quick stop at Beach market--a complete throwback to the “supermarkets” of our youth--before making our way to one of Downey’s main bedroom communities. Perhaps the most famous of the city’s former residents are pop-singers Richard and Karen Carpenter, who lived and owned property in Downey. We not only saw the house where Karen Carpenter grew-up and (sad to say) eventually died, but also the twin apartments she and her brother bought with their first royalties. Fittingly, they named the buildings after their first pop hits: “Close to You” and “Only Just Begun.”

A major coup for the Downey Historical Society was helping save the world’s oldest McDonald’s restaurant from the wrecking ball over ten years ago. Naturally we had to pay our respects. Tim and I resisted the urge to eat, but did enjoy the small McDonald’s museum right next door. We also adored our paper chef’s hats, decorated with McDonald’s vintage mascot, Speedee. Thank you, Charles!

As terrific as everything else was, Charles truly saved the best for last: the former North American Aviation plant, where the Apollo command modules were built during the 1960s and ‘70s. Now I am not a space fanatic, but I am extremely nostalgic about the Apollo missions and space exploration of my youth. Therefore, I was almost overcome when we got off the bus and walked behind a chain-link fence to view (and touch!) not one, but two (!!) life-sized command module “templates” (i.e., mockups) that were used to test various Apollo functions. We then visited the archives of the onsite Aerospace Legacy Foundation, which seeks to preserve L.A’s aviation heritage. It was the perfect ending to an absolutely wonderful day.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Portland, OR

I had a conference in Portland last week, so Tim and I flew up for an extremely short two-and-a-half days. We spent a lot of time with colleagues, mostly eating and slogging around in the cold rain. Instead of boring you with those details, I'm posting below my pre-blog journal entry about the much more interesting trip we took to Portland back in June 2006.


Tim and I had a couple of Alaska Airline tickets that were about to expire, so we decided to take a quick trip up to Portland, OR. I had been there twice on business, but he had never been. So we reserved a room at the Westin and flew up on Friday, not really knowing what to expect. We ended up spending a delightful weekend filled with many happy surprises.

Our first surprise was the light-rail. I had a vague memory of riding a trolley around town during one of my previous visits, but did not remember taking it from the airport. Yet, sure enough, there it was waiting for us as we exited the terminal. For $1.95 each, we had a relaxing ride while passing logging trucks and a handful of cars zooming down the highway. Forty-five minutes later, we got off and walked two blocks to our hotel. What a nice introduction to the city!

At check-in, the friendly receptionist asked if we were in town for the annual Rose Festival, which was happening that weekend. Now I had heard of the festival--Portland’s one true claim to fame--but had no idea we were landing right in the middle of it, so this was the second of our pleasant surprises. Not only was the annual “Starlight Parade” happening on Saturday, but fireworks were being launched that very night! Plus, as guests of the Westin, we got free admission into the Waterfront Festival, a fair that stretched along the Willamette River. Our weekend was suddenly filled with things to do!

The Westin is near Powell’s City of Books, one of the places I definitely wanted to visit. So we dropped our bags in the room and headed north three blocks to literally the largest bookstore in the country. I had spent several glorious hours there on my previous trips, but Tim was clueless, so I warned him to “prepare to be amazed.” Powell’s is a booklover’s paradise, with hundreds of thousands of new and used books lining the shelves according to general subject area. The main store takes up an entire street block and is at least four stories. I had my eye on the fantasy/science fiction section, while Tim wandered around. I told him to come find me when he was done. I then proceeded to scan through the authors whose last names begin with A. An hour-and-a-half later, Tim returned to find me perusing books written by authors with the last initial J! I still had half an alphabet to go! But I managed to tear myself away. We then spent another half-hour distracting ourselves in other parts of the store. I left empty-handed, but Tim succumbed. Pleasant surprise #3: no sales tax in Oregon!

We then walked around the neighborhood. By now, it was 5PM and antiwar protesters (mostly people our age) had gathered at Pioneer Courthouse Square, a large public meeting place in the heart of downtown. Later we saw animal rights activists picketing the Nordstrom across the street. Who knew Portlanders were so political? (Yet another happy surprise!)

The fireworks were still two hours away, so around 8PM we decided to walk over to the Waterfront Festival, located about eight blocks from the hotel. We could easily find our way because it was still light outside! The festival was a bit of a disappointment--more county fair than “festival”--still we enjoyed ourselves, watching families and young lovers gleefully board the ferris-wheel and other carnival rides. We ate ice cream, followed by strawberry shortcake, and then decided to find a place to watch the fireworks. The fireworks themselves were nothing spectacular--Disneyland puts on a far better display every week--but the crowd was thrilled and I must say that I've never seen a fireworks show I didn’t like. We happily collapsed in our “heavenly” Westin bed by 11PM.

The next morning, we took the light-rail, which is free in the downtown area, to Skidmore Fountain, where the weekly “Saturday Market” is held. A complete throwback to the ‘70s, the marketplace was filled with former hippies hawking handmade candles, tie-dye t-shirts, and bongs. We wandered around a bit and then headed back downtown. Tim returned to the hotel for a nap, while I made my way (once again!) to Powell’s, where I continued through the rest of the SF/fantasy alphabet. Two hours later, I emerged with two books in hand and stars in my eyes. I was content.

Before we even left L.A., Tim read that Burgerville--a Pacific Northwest fast-food chain that serves only locally-grown beef--offers one of the best hamburgers in the US. Armed with this info, we began our quest for lunch. Turns out there’s a Burgerville a block from the convention center, so we hopped the light-rail again and headed north. After waiting on line with a large group of hungry conventioneers--apparently everyone knows about Burgerville!--we placed our order and took a seat. The crispy chicken sandwich was good (B+) and Tim’s burger was worth the train ride over. Our own beloved Fat Burger still rules, however!

With several hours to go before the parade, we decided to walk around town to see if crowds were starting to gather. We had read in the newspaper that people reserve street and sidewalk space hours before the parade and, sure enough, all along the parade route were squares outlined in masking tape or chalk with family names scribbled inside. Some had even left plastic chairs behind to reserve their spot--a risk that no one would ever take in Los Angeles!

We could see the start of the parade route from our hotel window, so we ran over there once the “floats” started to arrive. Surprisingly, no one stopped us as we went from one group to the next, snapping photos and generally marveling at the parade participants. Here was Calamity Jane’s Hamburger Parlour’s float sitting close to the Beaterville Cafe Beater Car Club Band float. Southwest Airlines (the parade sponsor) also had a float, as did many other local businesses and groups, including the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Portland Rescue Mission. We saw lots of young women dressed in prom gowns, getting ready to take their places atop the Portland Rose Association and Columbia River Yachting Association floats. We also spied a group of senior-citizen square dancers wolfing down fried chicken before their float rolled. We laughed at all the people patiently waiting curbside for the festivities to begin when we had already seen everything there was to see!

Still, at around 9PM, we ran down to the corner (half a block from the hotel) when we heard the crowd begin to cheer. Spirits remained high even after it started to rain. My favorite parade participants were the Greyhound Pets of America float--dogs and their owners sitting inside a covered flatbed truck--and the Cloud City Garrison, a contingent of science fiction geeks dressed as their favorite Star Wars characters. At one point Tim whispered to me, “This is as bad as the old Canoga Park Memorial Day parade of our childhood.” Yet there we were, grinning from ear to ear, standing in the drizzling rain.

We left Portland the next morning, but are determined to return again to see what other surprises might lie ahead.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March Madness

As often happens, we’ve been having so much fun this month that I haven’t had time to write about it. Here are some highlights. . .

PaleyFest: Like they have every year since 1983, the Paley Center for Media held its 10-day PaleyFest, celebrating the best and most popular shows on television. And just like we’ve done almost every year since 1983, Tim, Karen and I attended several events, including: Modern Family (ABC’s hit sitcom about three distinct yet interrelated L.A. families)--the love among the actors was palpable (a wonderful evening); FlashForward (the SF thriller where everyone in the world sees his/her future during a 2-minute blackout)--love the show, but not so much the cast (lots of science, but no chemistry!); Men of a Certain Age (about three 50-something guys who’ve known each other since college)--Ray Romano had a death in the family and so wasn’t there, but Scott Bakula and André Braugher were terrific (can’t wait for season 2!); and Curb Your Enthusiasm (the insane ramblings of Seinfeld producer Larry David)--absolutely hysterical.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Paley honored the detective show Castle, starring the ever adorable Nathan Fillion, the following week. “I think everyone is here to see Nathan,” an older woman (i.e., older than me) whispered in the ladies room. “Well, that’s why I’m here!” I announced, declining to mention that I’d seen him several times already in other venues. Fans even flew in from Australia! Nathan and the rest of the cast did not disappoint.

Bob Newhart: And speaking of TV celebrities, the ageless Bob Newhart was interviewed at the Grammy Museum, March 9th. His first comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, won Grammy’s album of the year in 1960. The sold-out crowd hung on his every word. Newhart was witty, fascinating and still highly entertaining.

Plays: One of my all-time favorite TV shows is The West Wing, the dramatic series about a fictional Democratic president, Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. I was such a huge fan of the show that one of students gave me a bumper sticker, “Martin Sheen is my President,” which I proudly displayed in my office during the Bush years. No surprise then that I immediately bought tickets when I heard Sheen was going to star in The Subject Was Roses at the Mark Taper Forum. He and costar Frances Conroy (the mom on the HBO series Six Feet Under) were wonderful. But even more exciting was Brian Geraghty, who starred in The Hurt Locker, Oscar’s best picture of the year. Every time the camera panned over to Geraghty during the ceremony, I felt so proud after seeing him just the night before at the Taper. Ya gotta love theater in L.A.

I also saw the musical Dreamgirls at the Ahmanson, last weekend, as part of my season tickets. Tim didn’t want to go, so I went alone. “If I don’t like it, I’ll come home at intermission,” I told him as I left the house. But there was no way in hell I was leaving the theater after Effie’s big number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” one of the greatest torch songs in American theater history. My seat companions (complete strangers) and I were hootin’ and hollerin’. If the production of Dreamgirls, starring Moya Angela, comes your way, rush out and buy a ticket, even if you have to see the play by yourself!

UCSB: Karen and I spent all day Saturday visiting old haunts as part of the Society of Architectural Historians’ tour of UC Santa Barbara, where we met and both went to college. I warned Karen I might get creeped out reliving the past. But the campus had changed so much, I barely felt a twinge. Although we had fun, we were both discouraged by all the disparate architectural styles that now define our alma mater.

Up next: Portland, OR, and a local tour of the city of Downey, where the Apollo spacecraft were built. So stay tuned!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sandy Koufax

Although we’ve since switched our allegiance--first to the Padres when we lived in San Diego and then to the Angels in 2002--Tim and I both grew-up worshipping the Dodgers. One of my favorite memories of junior high school was when a classmate, who had surreptitiously smuggled a transistor radio onto campus, suddenly yelled out that the Dodgers had won the World Series. We all shared in his glee and cheered!

Between the two of us, Tim is the only one old enough to remember when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s (I was only 3 years old). But we both remember, quite fondly, the team’s star pitcher, Sandy Koufax. Tim admired Koufax as an athlete. But I loved him because he was left-handed, like me, and because he was Jewish (I had a crush on a Jewish boy at the time). We both remain staunch Koufax fans because of his integrity and historic Hall of Fame career, even though he hasn’t played professional baseball in over 40 years.

Part of Koufax’s allure, of course, is that he’s pretty much stayed out of the public’s eye since retiring in the late 1960s. Indeed, he is considered by many to be a recluse--a charge he refuted Saturday night in a rare interview before a sold-out crowd at the Nokia theater. The event was a fundraiser for Dodgers manager Joe Torre’s anti-violence Safe at Home Foundation. Torre was interviewed, too, though obviously most, if not all, of us were there to see “Sandy the K.”

Koufax and Torre both looked damn good for men in their 70s. They were interviewed by T. J. Simers, an obnoxious L.A. Times sportswriter who loves to provoke his subjects. (Many in the audience booed when he walked onstage!) Still, Koufax graciously answered his questions and shared stories of the old days, but wisely didn’t fall into any of Simers’ verbal traps about his personal life. Torre, on the other hand, was very candid about growing-up with an abusive father, hence the impetus for his Foundation.

When it was all over, Koufax and Torre walked off-stage to a standing ovation--something both men deserved and certainly should be used to by now.

Photo credit: L.A. Times (2/28/10)