OPENING SIDETRACK: THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL
As I plan to return to Los Angeles at least once a year for the foreseeable future, I’ve started to build a mental list of landmarks to see that I never had the chance while I was living out there. Believe it or not, I’d never been to the Hollywood Bowl until my visit a couple weeks ago. Also believe it or not, I had never seen The Specials either (I’ve been a ska fan for well over half my life now; Dick Hebdige would either be proud or pity me). Fortunately, the Hollywood Bowl’s Reggae Night on June 18th helped me check off both of those bucket list items. Here is a fuzzy photo that accurately reflects my thoughts on the matter:
You can’t make out the details in that photo, but Lynval Golding, 65, was rocking out after loudly declaring that Black Lives Matter, a true testament to Rude Boys everywhere. My longtime friend Kat, my new friend James, and I saw them play a slew of classics, including “Gangsters,” “Monkey Man,” and the eternal crowd-pleaser “A Message to You Rudy” as the sun set over the Hollywood Hills. It was euphoric. Here are a couple of better pictures…
The Hollywood Bowl is a true marvel of landscape architecture and engineering; I wonder if it gets enough credit as such. We had to leave a couple of songs into Ziggy Marley’s headlining set in order to get me to LAX in time for my flight, but it was still a night I won’t forget anytime soon.
Now that I’ve gone off on my musical tangent, I’ll rewind to earlier in the week and get to the focus of this entry: the Ben Irving Postcard collection and depictions of wartime Los Angeles to now.
ACTUAL INTRO: REPHOTOGRAPHING LOS ANGELES
On Tuesday night before heading down to Long Beach for the start of EmoGeo, I had the rare opportunity to talk about Irving on Modern Vaudeville, a weekly variety show held at the Lyric Hyperion Theater in Los Feliz. It was a rare opportunity because not only did it represent my professional and performing life intersecting, but I was also on a bill with a number of great comedians, including Scott Thompson (doing a new Buddy Cole monologue) and the always-delightful Sklar Brothers (don’t miss their Netflix special). Despite the broken A/C and my own lack of time to prepare and refine the 8-minute set, it was well-received and the crowd joined in to sing one of his songs, the first time it had probably been performed in over 70 years. Thanks to Christy Coffey and Ian Abramson for the opportunity.
THE HOTEL ALEXANDRIA / PERSHING SQUARE
One of the DTLA landmarks I featured in my presentation was the old Hotel Alexandria, located at 500 S. Spring Street. Though I was in the area for over a week, I did not get a chance to visit the site, which I’m pretty confident I’ve walked by dozens of times without knowing Irving had once stayed there. I Sweded an image via Google Street view, commenting on how a once-upper-grade hotel had turned an SRO by the time that Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski could have lived there in the 70’s. The message on the back of the postcard that he sent on August 15, 1940 read “Hotel Alexandria: Where you meet America’s most famous people.” It may have been a bit of a stretch then; now, you might luck out if one of them’s filming something in there, but probably not.
I hope to ground-truth this image the next time I’m in LA and take a proper photo that I didn’t need to hijack from Google’s server. That being said, another place I have clear memories of visiting is Pershing Square. My classmates at CSU Long Beach and I did a walk-through as part of Norman Carter’s encyclopedic tour of downtown LA in 2012, and then we revisited the block as the (Millennium) Biltmore Hotel was one of the venues for AAG 2013. Unsurprisingly, when Pershing Square became a watering hole for many of the city’s homeless, the Biltmore re-oriented their main entrance away from the park side. What’s funny about looking at an early-1940’s depiction of Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel versus seeing how it looks now (at least as it did in February) is how relatively little the Hotel façade has changed, but how drastically the park across the street has (post-)modernized. As much as I can’t blame the Google Street View car operator for driving in one of the middle lanes down Olive Street, I’m putting a re-photographing of this vantage point at the top of my priorities for the next time I’m in DTLA. Either way, I hope you find this interesting.
Here are some photos I found that I took in 2013, including one which is actually not far from this vantage point, on the park side of the street. It seriously looks like Fritz Lang and Salvador Dali got together and directed this park. Seeing these photos again after a few years makes me even more excited to go back to Pershing and see what changes (if any) the city has made, and if any tent cities have figured out how to appear.
THE HOLLYWOOD PLAZA HOTEL
When I did have opportunities to ground-truth sites depicted on the postcards, it often times didn’t work out due to the encapsulating site not existing anymore. This happened to me in two separate manner in Savannah last month (which I completely ran out of time to write about here, but I plan to soon). Earlier in the week, I found myself in Hollywood to see what kind of deals Amoeba had to offer, and I wandered over to Vine Avenue to see what had become of the once-luxurious Hollywood Plaza Hotel. All I had was a postcard (mailed June 9, 1941) that depicted the lobby lounge, rather than anything on the exterior of the building:
What I found at the site was a strange combination of nostalgia and blatant disregard: the large neon sign remained on the roof of the block (as designated an LA Historic-Cultural Monument), but it appeared that little of the actual building had been preserved or made accessible. The second level was actually beautifully adorned on the outside (and possibly on the inside, but I wouldn’t know), but the chocolate-centric cafe on the street level outside hung an imposing banner. A historic placard about the Hotel hung on the light post nearby. I walked inside the main office entrance, greeted by a security guard with (I gathered) pretty strict bosses. I wanted to make up a story about someone I had an appointment with, but I didn’t have time to spin anything. Also, my brain was fried from the Hollywood heat and traffic I had navigated to get there.
The conclusion here is that I have no idea if that Lounge still exists in any architectural form. The historical information I’ve found indicates that the hotel had gone derelict by the late 1960’s and was converted into a senior living facility. Also, in 1937 (a few years before Irving passed through there), Clara Bow opened up the troubled “It” Club off of the Hotel’s Lounge. It closed within a year, so I guess Irving never got to experience that piece of Hollywood Babylon. A real shame.
LANGER’S DELI AND WESTLAKE/MACARTHUR PARK
For every LA landmark within the touristic purview that I feature here, I like to feature one that has, for whatever reason(s), straddled or slipped off of it. On Saturday, after EmoGeo had wrapped up, I had the opportunity to take my Mom (who was in LA to visit family) to one of Jewish Los Angeles’ legendary eateries, Langer’s Deli. Somehow, I had never heard of Langer’s prior to this trip. I had been through MacArthur Park a couple of times, but had somehow never noticed this prominent deli at the corner of 7th and Alvarado Street. For similarly dubious reasons, my brother-in-law (who grew up in Los Angeles and lives there now with my recently-relocated sister and recently-born niece) had never mentioned the Deli to us, despite it being the best one in the city (high praise indeed).
It just so happened that one of the Postcards that my great-grandfather had mailed home from California featured Westlake Park, as it was known when he posted it in 1940.
A bit of admittedly overdue background: During his life as a salesman, he visited California twice, once in 1940 and once in 1941. From what I could tell, Irving was pretty amazed at what he found out there. Obviously, pre-War Los Angeles and Long Beach were much different cities. Many of the nodal cities like Pasadena, Inglewood, and Carson which eventually bled together into modern Greater Los Angeles were still somewhat isolated yet well-connected by… you guessed it…
Ironically, as the neighborhood around Langer’s Deli languished after the GM-led dismemberment of the Pacific Electric system by the early 1960s, it was the emergence of the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station that pumped new life into the block. Today, CiclaVia runs through there and gentrification bites at the area’s ankles. You can read more about it here at the restaurant’s official history.
What my Mom and I didn’t know as we drove down to MacArthur Park the other weekend was that we were about to stumble into a new moment in Langer’s history: its 70th anniversary celebration. The line of eager new customers and longtime regulars wound around a barrier by the entrance. Fortunately, much of the line was underneath an awning, with portable air conditioning units blasting sweet, sweet cool air on them, young women on Langer’s staff handing out “I ♥ Langer’s” pins and free bottles of water.
We headed across the street into MacArthur Park, passing by a large strip of Mexican street vendors and a series of encampments spread throughout the periphery. MacArthur Park, like Pershing Square, has clearly become a magnet for much of the region’s homeless population. However, the city has not taken as much of a scalpel to MacArthur Park, letting it serve its municipal function even if many people who planners find undesirable are populating it. The easily recognizable Elks Club Lodge building sat at the far corner of the park, which made it a cinch to locate the original vantage point depicted in the Irving postcard above. Below are a couple of results:
After taking these pictures, we headed back to Langer’s to get in line. After about 30 minutes, several free bottles of water, and giving a completely useless sound-byte to a KNX reporter, we got seated at the counter inside. My mom quickly charmed the owner Norm Langer, who had passed by to say hello and thank you to customers for the special occasion. Because he was almost as old as the establishment (his father Albert opened it in 1947), we asked him what he remembered about Westlake/MacArthur Park from his youth. He was convinced that there had never actually been water on the East side of where Wilshire Boulevard bisected the park; it had always been a field and the actual lake had always been confined to the other side of Wilshire. This seemed odd, but not unbelievable considering the liberties that Curt Teich postcard artists took when trying to sell cities with controversial water histories. That’s my theory, anyway; it’s possible that Norm was thinking about his childhood in the post-War era and not in the 1930s when the postcard was first published. This may require more digging.
I’ll finish this mammoth series of CA reflections soon with a bonus entry on Long Beach. For now, I’ll finish this post with a quick dedication to my Mom – she was really nice to put up with me and buy me lunch. She did, however, fill my ears with her rendition of the hit song of her teenage years “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, eventually giving up and playing it on her phone as we left Downtown LA. I’m not sure exactly how the park inspired Jimmy Webb to write the song, but I’ll link to this megapost about it and hopefully not regret that later. The song has an interesting history and and interesting cult, for sure. I can’t help but imagine a young Neil Hannon hearing it and having a light bulb appear over his head. Enjoy the majesty: