Last week, in a discussion thread on a story about plans to revamp Hollywood Boulevard and make it attractive to tourists, against an apparently overwhelming tide of homelessness, addiction and petty crime, someone posted a link to this Billy Joel song. For some curious reason it struck me, since I have been saying goodbye to Hollywood – the physical place, and the entertainment concept – over the last couple of decades.
I grew up on the fringes of physical Hollywood. My immediate family was not directly involved in the entertainment world, although there were a great number of curious connections. A fair number of friends and associates were employed in show-biz, mostly as technical specialists for various studios. One very dear friend of Mom and Dad’s was a makeup artist; curiously, as a straight and good-looking man, he wound up dating a fair number of stars and starlets before his marriage. They were gorgeous women and lonely when it came to dating, as their degree of fame intimidated the heck out of most potential dates who were not ‘in the business’. The husband of my Girl Scout troop leader when I was in high school was an audio tech for Warner Brothers; he got the troop a private tour of the studio lot. The set of the throne room/Round Table for the movie Camelot was still set up on one of the enormous sound stages, and it was every bit as cavernously awesome as it appeared in the movie, with enormous candelabras filled with dripping candles as thick around as my wrist. We also got to see and be introduced to Efrem Zimbalist, as he was shooting an episode of The FBI. Richard Widmark’s brother was one of my high school teachers – and another high school teacher had Tommy and Dick Smothers as students back in the day. Ronny Howard went to the same local junior high for a while – he was the same age as my next-younger brother. (Ronny’s stint in public school didn’t work out well – he was bullied and scorned for being a cry-baby, and his parents eventually removed him from that school.)
The Lutheran church in North Hollywood that we attended for many years also had a coterie of Hollywood people in the congregation – again, mostly techs, although Barbara Hutton coached the kids’ chorus for a while, and Elke Sommer also turned up now and again. (At a time, she had the public image of being a Continental sexpot – against type, she was a devout Lutheran and daughter of a Lutheran minister back in Germany.) As I had written before, Granny Clarke, the mother of one of Mom’s best friends had a storied career for half a century as housekeeper to the stars. The Cal State University Northridge campus, which I went to for upper division was a location for exteriors for the medical drama Medical Center, and there was often a camera crew working there. For years afterwards, running the TV control room for whatever AFRTS outlet I was assigned to, I amused myself by spotting familiar places around Los Angeles which had served as backgrounds. For TV shows mostly, as the movie location shooting could go very much farther afield by the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Say goodbye to Hollywood … my brothers and sister also knew physical aspects from the weekly commute to church. Over the hills from the San Fernando Valley, and down through Laurel Canyon – past the forest-grown grounds of Harry Houdini’s estate, although we were never looking in that direction. There was an old rustic house on the other side of Laurel Canyon, with a spiral staircase from an upper floor room wound round the trunk of a big tree next to the building. We were enchanted by that house, and always looked for it. Down to Sunset Boulevard, turning right and past the place where the Garden of Allah had been, and where there was a model of that legendary hotel complex in a glass case next to the bank HQ that sat for a time on that very spot. Past the Whiskey-a-Go-Go – then the white-hot live-music and clubbing venue on Saturday nights. Past the great neo-gothic cliff of the Chateau Marmont … past the more-than-life-size rotating showgirl on the signboard for the Sahara Hotel in Los Vegas – a billboard made famous by the book and movie Myra Breckenridge … all this to the tune of Mom quietly grousing about the drivers with out of state license plates, driving oh-so-slowly, thinking they would catch a glimpse of a real movie star! Yeah, a recognizable movie star, walking along the Sunset Boulevard sidewalk, on an early Sunday morning. It was considered rather tacky to make a big thing about recognizing a movie or TV star, gushing over how much you luuuuved them, and asking for an autograph. That was for tourists; for us here in that part of California, it was just the local industry, the business that many worked for; we were properly blasé. Gushing over stars that you recognized on the street, in a grocery store, or anywhere else? Tacky, tacky, tacky.
I was gone from there by 1977. The congregation of the Lutheran church had dwindled to almost nothing well before then, the building deconsecrated, sold and torn down, which was a pity, as it was a lovely neo-Tudor structure with gorgeous stained-glass windows, and traditional, richly embroidered paraments to dress the altar and sanctuary with. The various studios are still there, sort of, although much diminished from their heyday of more than half a century ago. Movies and television shows are filmed and taped practically everywhere else. The tourists who still come to see Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, and the handprints of stars in the sidewalk apparently have to step over human poop on the sidewalk and dodge aggressive street people. I don’t think that proposed revamping will help much. It will all be a Potemkin set dressing on a decaying urban setting. And I haven’t set foot in a movie theater in ages, and the TV shows that we watch at home now are all produced and filmed/taped practically anywhere else.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood, indeed.