So about two weeks ago I was on my post-San Francisco, solitary trip to a magical realm I’d always been dying to visit: Hollywood! After years of dreaming of going and wondering when that would happen, I decided: hey, it was only a short flight from Frisco, why the heck not?!
In my globetrotting experience (remind me to tell you about Liechtenstein), that’s really all it takes–deciding “yes, I will go.” Because the second you say “ooohhh, I don’t think I can,” well…you won’t. But enough soapboxing–here’s what I did and what I saw during my very first Hollywoodland experience! (Oh how those excited stomach flutters are starting up again!!)
This was my brain in the days before I headed to California: “This is coming up so fast–how could I possibly be ready in time? There’s so much to plan! So much to research! The calendar’s shrinking!! Where do I even begin??!” I poured over maps in my pocket-size Lonely Planet Los Angeles guide, figured out bus schedules (I believe in being very prepared), watched the Hollywood episodes of I Love Lucy for the atmosphere, and studied the most important thing of all, this book:
I also downloaded this tour from Bengtson’s wonderful blog (I swear he didn’t ask me to do this name-dropping–it really is the indispensable resource if you have any interest in silent Hollywood!). My Hollywood episodes of I Love Lucy all re-watched, it was time to head to California.
Day (or Half Day) #1: The Arrival
My friend, long-time Los Angeles resident and fellow Keaton fanatic Shaune, picked me up from LAX in the afternoon. The sun was shining, there were palm trees dotting the hillsides…this was the L.A. I’d been picturing! On route to the hostel (I’m a budget traveller) she took me on a mini tour, driving past Sony Pictures and Fox Studios and through some of the swanky Beverly Hills neighborhoods. And we thought we’d try to find a certain address, on a certain Pamela Drive…does the number on this mailbox ring any bells for anyone?
That is the address of Buster Keaton’s Italian Villa!! And a few feet past that mailbox was as close to the Villa as we could get, because a guard popped out of seemingly nowhere and asked us to please stop taking pictures. (Yes, the current owners must be loaded.)
I must sadly assure you that from no angle there or anywhere on the surrounding streets is it possible to actually see the Villa, not even a wee little peek. There are hedges, trees, and presumably walls blocking the way. BUT SHAUNE AND I GOT CLOSE!!
Hungry after this daring Mission Impossible-esque adventure, we stopped at a McDonald’s on Sunset Boulevard, which occupied the spot where Alla Nazimova’s Garden of Alla Hotel once resided. Chicken nuggets and Sprite taste much better after you’ve tried to infiltrate the palatial grounds of 1920s comedians, I’ve found.
We then stopped by another historic monument (and this one had a plaque)–Charlie Chaplin’s studio, now the home of the Jim Henson Company, beautifully preserved in all its English architectural glory!
Charlie was painted on one of the doorways, too. Who could resist taking a picture with him?
At my hostel, a mere hop, skip and jump from Hollywood Blvd, I bid adieu to Shaune and then went out exploring. I was here. I was here at last–glorious, historic Hollywood itself!
And right around the corner was Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with all that famous cement. It’s exactly like you’ve always pictured it, and I was giddy with delight.
I then strolled up and down Hollywood Blvd, gawking at the gigantic Hollywood and Highland shopping center with its two replicas of the Intolerance elephants and the Dolby theater where the Oscars are held. The Hollywood sign was in the distance, visible from the shopping center. I spent far too much time reading the Walk of Fame stars (they seem to go on for miles!). I was very happy to see that Harry Langdon’s star was directly in front of Grauman’s, where at least plenty of people see his name!
And good gravy, that was only my first half day!
Day #2: A Trek Across Town
The next day, which dawned gray and drizzly (figures), I was on a mission. After breakfast at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, where the people watching is off the charts, I hopped on one of the local buses and took it down to…Echo Park! The setting of many a wondrous Keystone comedy featuring Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Ford Sterling, and many more pratfalling personalities.
It was a beautiful place, with a trail that circled the lake and a tall fountain jetting up from the water. I fed pigeons some cookie crumbs as I sat on a bench picturing the “mustachioed hero + girl + park bench + policeman” Keystone films in my mind.
Well, cookie crumbs are good enough for pigeons but I needed something more substantial–and I knew just where to go. After a long trek up nearby Glendale Blvd., I stopped at a Jack in the Box. A sacred Jack in the Box, occupying part of the site of…
…the Keystone Film Company studio lot!! That huge white shed-like structure is the last original building that remains. At one time, a big sign saying “MACK SENNETT” adorned the top. Note the commemorative plaque (that gray rectangle) on the lower wall.
After eating a fast food lunch practically on the spot where Charlie Chaplin debuted in films (I saved my sacred burger receipt and the sacred patterned paper lining the food tray), it was time to head out to one more precious site, via another long but doable walk.
My goal was a simple set of concrete steps. A very long set of concrete steps.
Being one of the many, many Laurel and Hardy fans out there who grew up with their films and whose families have always quoted them on a regular basis (just why are L&H so darn quotable?), well…let’s just say that this was a Hollywood Essential.
After walking up and down all 147 steps (you definitely huff and puff by the time you get toward the top!), taking a ridiculous number of pictures, and quoting “‘Heave!’ ‘Ho!’ ‘Heave!’ ‘Ho,‘” a big item on my bucket list was thereby checked off.
Whew, what a day–time to head back to the hostel, rest a little while, get dolled up and go out to eat at the Pig’n Whistle next door to the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Pig’n Whistle opened in 1927, and the stars used to go there and discuss “the business” after lavish Egyptian Theater premieres. And it’s relatively affordable. I had the steak salad, a glass of chardonnay and a piece of cheesecake (visiting historic comedy sites makes one quite hungry).
After an evening stroll up and down glowing Hollywood Blvd, my first full day in L.A. was at an end.
Day #3: A Pilgrimage
On this second full day in L.A., gray again but thankfully not drizzly, I went to visit my number one Hollywoodland site. Leaving the hostel as early as I could (okay, about 9:30), I took another one of those nice local buses to the Forest Lawn cemetery in Hollywood Hills.
I took it to a stop that was supposedly close to cemetery, but ended up walking and walking and walking just to get to it, and then had to walk all the way through it–those manicured grounds are vast! So you could say that I went on a literal pilgrimage to this marker. It was well worth it.
The marker was bare when I got there–I left the flowers and things you see above, for myself and on behalf of other Keaton-loving friends. The train seemed like the right sort of thing to leave there (it took a little hunting in Hollywood souvenir shops to find a suitable one). I tidied the marker up, too. What a surreal feeling it was to be kneeling there, plucking up excess grass from around the grave of someone whose work has meant so much to so many. Yes, there were tears.
Imagine this: when you’re at Forest Lawn, once your tears have dried from visiting Keaton’s grave you go up some steps and up there on the right you see this:
Oh, the blubbering!
My pilgrimage complete, I returned to Hollywood Blvd to replenish myself at Subway and trek to the next big stop–the Hollywood Forever cemetery.
As you can see, it’s a beautiful place, and stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and the Talmadge sisters are buried there. I didn’t get to see Rudy’s grave, unfortunately, since that particular mausoleum closes insanely early. I did visit Doug and the Talmadges however (interesting that I saw both Buster’s and Natalie Talmadge’s graves in the same day). Plus this darling monument to Toto:
Not far from the cemetery, in a rather sketchy industrial area, there was another historic site that I couldn’t pass up. And here it is:
Doesn’t look like much? Well, the building itself isn’t important, but the spot it’s built on is–the former site of the Buster Keaton studio. (Gee, why ever would I go there?) The commemorative marker is famously on the wrong street corner, that one on the right that’s almost out of sight.
Well, this had been one heck of a day, but there was one more area I still wanted to see. While heading back to the hostel I made sure to walk up a street called Cahuenga Blvd, with my Bengtson Silent Echoes tour in hand. Locations on this priceless street had been used by Charlie, Buster, Harold Lloyd, Doug Fairbanks, and more for scenes in various films. The very best part is seeing this alley:
This is the alley that Buster ran down in Cops, and the spot where he turned, grabbed a passing car and flew out of the frame!! It’s now, err, an organic “Super Foods” cafe.
If that alley weren’t awesome enough, the space behind it is where Charlie filmed scenes from The Kid (my favorite Chaplin film). And Harold filmed some scenes for the classic Safety Last in that same area too!
After that long day, Hollywood Blvd had one more surprise in store–an honest-to-gosh movie premiere was going on at the Dolby theater. Sadly, it was only for some horror movie called Insidious 3, but hey, at least I can say that I saw a red carpet premiere.
I would’ve liked to dine at the Musso & Frank restaurant, which opened its doors in 1919, but my budget screamed at the thought so I had some excellent Chinese food instead. The second–and final–full day in Hollywoodland was complete.
Day #4: A Fond Farewell
One last breakfast at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, one last stroll around Hollywood Blvd and down Cahuenga (couldn’t resist), and sadly it was time to head back to LAX. Although my stay in Hollywoodland was relatively brief, I had packed in a very satisfying number of sights. Incredibly, I had started to feel “acquainted” with the area that I’d read about and seen in films all my life. Now that’s a feeling!
If I could’ve stayed a couple more days it would’ve been fabulous to see the Paramount Studios gate, the Hollywood Heritage museum, the Forest Lawn Glendale cemetery and one of the beach towns like Long Beach. But overall the trip had still been perfect.
Until we meet again, Hollywoodland. I can’t wait.