Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Lion King In Winter

All photographs for this post by Silvie Garcia-Martin

The Hollywood of myth and legend, the one where Lana Turner is discovered as a sixteen year old at the counter of Schwab’s Drugstore, the one where dreams really do come true, is the Hollywood that exists only in our fevered dreams.  The real deal is a down-on-her-luck bit player who does a little porn on the side until her “big break” comes along, only the moment never arrives.  Instead, she finds herself used up and spit out by a cruel town that knows how to destroy the heart and soul of every one of its denizens.  That’s life in the Hollywood of real time.  The only truth about Hollywood is that it is filled with ghosts that haunt its streets and bars and hotels, even the new old hotspots like the Roosevelt.

One such haunted place is the Pantages Theater.  A friend gave us some tickets to The Lion King, a visually stunning yet somewhat empty staging of an animated movie from Disney.  The Walt Disney Company has never been shy about co-opting its movies from a variety of questionable sources.  I grew up in the age of Uncle Remus and the pirates in the ride in Anaheim chasing maidens around and around in an animatronic simulation of attempted rape, so nothing the company does surprises me.  The Lion King has some allegedly solid references behind its story.  Of course, much is made of its parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but I never quite felt that when I viewed the film.  Supposedly, it is also based on some Old Testament tales, but I did not see that either.  To me, The Lion King is the kind of story so true to the Disney tradition:  a coming-of-age tale featuring enough death and life to tug at the heartstrings of the audience as well as a decent helping of fart jokes for the kids and double-entendre humor for the grown-ups.  The characters are superficial and stock, and some are in place simply for the stereotypical humor they provide, Pumbaa being the best example:  a beefy warthog with a flatulence problem.  In Swahili, the word pumbaa means foolish and weak-minded.  Enough said.

The best thing about this production of the play is the visual richness of the staging.  The characters wear a puppet-like apparatus that gives them the shape and movement of the animals they portray.  The sets are colorful and lit with brilliance.  The music has its decent moments as well.  On either side of the stage sit two percussionists who provide much of the African beat for the production.

More than the play, I enjoyed my winter night in Hollywood in all its glam shabbiness.  Traffic is a problem, and parking is like wedging your vehicle into a sardine can, but right across the street from the theater is the Hollywood Metro station, so it is possible to take the subway from select parts of the city to get to the play.  I drove and parked, and then walked the streets of Hollywood for a while to soak up the ambiance.  It was by far the best part of the experience.  Hollywood has journeyed through a bit of a revitalization at different points in its history in an effort to make the reality fit the mythology.  It is a sort of L.A. Times Square, although a bit underwhelming in comparison.  For sheer weirdness and people watching, it is a nice place to hang out if you ignore the sometimes frightening characters you encounter.  There have been a few high profile stabbings of visitors down by Grauman’s Chinese Theater, now called the TCL Chinese Theater.  When the Zimmerman verdict came in last summer, there were gangs of youth wilding through the streets assaulting people and damaging stores and businesses.

On the night of the play, we managed to avoid any trouble, although there was a group of young people walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard screaming at people for no apparent reason.  We went to Starbuck’s at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and found the place packed to the rafters.  The sidewalks were thronged with people, some obvious workers from the W Hotel and other restaurants up and down the block.  Others were tourists in awe of the mythical city.  We got our Venti-to-go and walked a few blocks enjoying the crisp night air.

When the doors opened at the theater, we made our way inside to the lustrous interior.  The last show I’d seen there was a long time ago, The Phantom of the Opera.  I did not care for that show either; I came away with a bad cold and the signature yellow Playbill.  Not great souvenirs.  In our section that winter matinee day were a number of people who seemed to be in the last throes of tuberculosis, hence the bad cold that developed over the Christmas break into bronchitis.  So I was worried about similar contagion breaking out this time.  Instead, we were seated with about 100 students from a Santa Barbara middle school out on a trip to the big city.  They took enough cell phone pictures before the curtain rose to fill terabytes of digital space.  On the other side of us sat a group of five women who immediately upon arrival, removed their shoes and left them by their seats as they went back out to the lobby for drinks in bare feet.  Maybe this time it would not be TB that would infect us, but foot fungus.  Nearly everyone had a cell phone in front of their face until the play started.  Many asked ushers to snap pictures of them, eschewing the current trend for selfies.  I guess it’s hard when you don’t have the bathroom mirror to line up the shot.  The ushers were gracious and happily stepped in to act as photographers.


The Pantages is a gorgeous theater with a long history.  The interior is ornate and beautiful, but it also has a chill to it, a sense that ghosts might haunt the place.  In fact, one ghost who allegedly does make his presence known is Howard Hughes.  His offices were on the second floor of the theater when he owned RKO Pictures.  Supposedly, his ghost makes his presence known by slamming drawers in a desk and creating cold spots in a conference room that used to be his office.  Another ghost of a woman who died during a performance haunts the mezzanine where we were seated.  Often during performances, people can hear her singing.  Her vocal contributions peaked in the 1990s when microphones picked up her singing along with the production.  A famous story has it that a theater worker leaving late after a performance found herself in total darkness when the lights went out.  Someone touched her arm and led her out of the theater into the light.  When she turned around to thank the person, no one was there.  All I can add to this legend is that throughout the theater, there is a feeling.  It is a very old place, and it would not surprise me if there were ghosts there.  Of course, theaters are always creepy places especially when empty, which is why a “ghost light” is often left burning on stage when the theater is dark.  The story goes that without this light, all the ghosts of the characters would flood the place.  It’s a nice story.

The night out, a break from the rush of Christmas shopping and holiday cheer, was a welcome relief.  The play was not a highlight, but I enjoyed a chance to see Hollywood again.  People in Los Angeles often don’t go to Hollywood unless they have some business there, desire some specific entertainment, or live in the area.  It is a place geared to tourists and ghosts, both of whom wander the streets looking for the mythological movie town of imagination.  The reality is simply that Hollywood is a town with a history, and its beauty is not classical, but decayed.  It represents the down-and-out dreams of those who dare to hope for a moment in the spotlight, who believe, most fervently, that everything will work out in the end.  They will have their stardom, their moment in the sun.  Such is the mythology of Hollywood.  Hakuna matata.

Monday, August 12, 2013


It’s tough to write a book about Charles Manson.  Even if you find new material and interview people who haven’t been interviewed before, as Jeff Guinn did in his new book Manson:  The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, 2013), you are still competing with the book about Charlie and company:  Helter Skelter:  The True Story of the Manson Murders (Norton, 2001) written by the prosecutor in the case, Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry, first published in 1974.  However, Guinn diligently fills in the killer’s childhood and teenage years as well as offering an update on the current status of all the players involved in the case.

Every native of Los Angeles knows the Manson case.  When I was in high school, friends used to dare each other to drive up to the house on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, or to Leno and Rosemary LaBianca’s home on Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, or even out to the old Spahn Ranch property in the Santa Susana Pass on the way to Simi Valley north of Los Angeles.  These excursions were innocuous jaunts during daylight hours, but they were good for a creepy thrill at night, the later the better.  According to Guinn, the LaBianca house now has a different address number, but is relatively unchanged.  Cielo Drive was torn down in 1994 after being owned for several years by musician Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (he recorded the band’s The Downward Spiral album there).  Reznor sold the place because it “made him jumpy,” and “because he kept returning home to find bouquets of dead roses and lit candles placed reverently at the front gate.”  Did he really help matters by naming his recording studio on the property “Le Pig,” a reference to the word written in Sharon Tate’s blood on the door of the house by Susan Atkins during the murder?  The Spahn Ranch burned down and the property is now “owned by a church organization,” according to Guinn.  I believe he is referring to the Church at Rocky Peak.  However, the old movie set portion has been incorporated into the Santa Susana Pass State Historical Park.

Guinn is one of the few authors to tackle Manson in a biography.  Most books focus on the crimes, his extended Family of followers, even the cultural impact of the murders.  There is a clear reason why biographies have proven difficult to write:  Charles Manson is a liar, and the public record of his troubled life is spotty.  So it is up to Guinn to separate fact from fiction.  Manson is an “opportunistic sociopath,” says the author, “a lifelong social predator.”  He consistently demonstrates Manson’s ability to lie and manipulate in nearly every situation, including during his trial for murder.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Manson’s behavior during the trial.  In a private area next to the courtroom, Manson and his fellow defendants, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, as well as their attorneys met to coordinate strategy.  In the courtroom, the women acted as Manson’s Greek chorus, chanting, laughing and shouting out or turning their back on the judge in an effort to disrupt the proceedings.  When Manson carved an X into his own forehead to symbolize that he had been “X’d” from the world, the women did the same.  In the end, their antics had no effect; all four were found guilty and sentenced to death.  They avoided the gas chamber when the death penalty was overturned in 1972, reducing their sentences to life in prison.  As Manson sought alliances with the Aryan Brotherhood in prison, the X on his forehead became a swastika.  Guinn writes that the Brotherhood eventually turned on the diminutive murderer and beat him badly, resulting in Manson’s transfer back to San Quentin.  He now resides at Corcoran State Prison in Kings County, California.

Charles “Tex” Watson was finally extradited to California from Texas to stand trial for his role in the Tate-LaBianca murders, and other followers of Manson faced charges in a number of murders and other crimes, the most notorious being Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.  Guinn updates the current status of most of Manson’s Family, and it is surprising how many have simply disappeared into American life.  Krenwinkel and Van Houten remain incarcerated as do Tex Watson and Manson.  Susan Atkins died in 2009 of brain cancer.

Guinn provides a lot of details and tidbits of interest to those intrigued by the case.  However, there is nothing earth-shattering here that has not been revealed elsewhere or in the Bugliosi book.  In fact, Helter Skelter figures prominently in the notes and bibliography of Guinn’s book.  He does manage to fill in some of the gaps in Manson’s life story, and he scores interviews with the killer’s adopted sister and cousin.  He is forced many times to speculate when the truth simply cannot be determined.  He writes sentences like:  “Fueled mostly by Charlie Manson’s statements as an adult, it’s a popular belief that during this time Kathleen [Manson’s mother] was a prostitute.”  Or, referring to Charlie’s misbehavior in school, he says “every truant officer in Charleston probably knew his name.”  His use of conditional adverbs does not give us absolute facts, but leaves the door open to speculation.

Forty-four years to the day after the events on those hot August nights, Charles Manson and his knife-wielding followers continue to haunt L.A. dreams.  “Had the California Supreme Court not overturned the death penalty in 1972,” Guinn writes, “and had Charlie been executed a few years later, he might be mostly forgotten…”  As for Manson himself, he no longer attends his parole hearings and has sent word that he intends to remain incarcerated for the remainder of his life.  This is no bombshell as revelations go.  It is unlikely Charles Manson would ever be paroled.  For Los Angeles, this is the most reassuring truth in the whole horrific tale.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Abraham Lincoln at the Reagan Library

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley has a most interesting exhibit dedicated to not our 40th president (although he is also well represented, starting with his name and statue at the front door), but our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.  The collection of signed documents, personal effects, books, papers, clothing, and the bed and pillow where Lincoln rested after being shot, as well as set decorations and costumes from the recent Steven Spielberg-directed DreamWorks Studios’ film, Lincoln will be on display until September 30th.

The most interesting pieces, especially when contrasted with the way modern presidents operate, are the speeches, letters, and documents in Lincoln’s own hand.  Included here are a signed copy of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.  One document, a map of Huron drawn up by Lincoln as a young man and surveyor, contains a spelling error.  The map was sold to pay off creditors, but the frontier town was never built.  The great man’s pocket watch is also on display, along with his iconographic stove pipe hat.


Many of the pieces in the exhibit are on loan to the library from across the nation.  In addition to DreamWorks, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, the National Archives, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, are among the major lenders.

Of course, Ronald Reagan is well documented and represented every day at the library that bears his name.  It is actually one of two presidential libraries located near Los Angeles, the other being Richard Nixon’s in Yorba Linda.  Reagan’s life and presidency are presented through photographs and artifacts, including a searchable daily diary, his clothing and personal items, and lots and lots of film clips, which is to be expected when the president is also a former actor.  Attention is given to nearly every milestone in his presidency.  There are pieces of the Berlin Wall, and an informative installation on the fall of communism and Reagan’s relationship with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In speech writing and personal correspondence, something Reagan was known for, many of the documents were handwritten, at least in draft form.  And in this, he shares much with Lincoln.  It was strange to see pictures and artifacts showing Reagan writing by hand.  These documents were later typed up—on typewriters!—for publication.  His speeches in type showed his additions and notes, and were often in large typeface to enable him to read them at a podium.  Throughout his presidency, Reagan kept a daily diary in large red notebooks.  During the tour, people can peruse the pages of this diary by entering specific dates, or by flipping through pages in sequence.  The complete, unabridged diary is available in a two-volume set in the museum store for $150.

What gets the most press in the entire library is the installation of Air Force One.  I remember when it was moved through the Los Angeles area from 11 PM to 5 AM on June 20-21, 2003.  According to the museum, the Boeing 707 traveled “on a specially designed trailer crossing four freeways, traveling 104 miles.”  The aircraft flew seven U.S. presidents—Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush.  Surrounding the mammoth plane are Marine One, a presidential limousine, a Secret Service SUV, and a police car with several motorcycles.  Patrons get to file through the plane and see how the president traveled.  I found the inside quite small, actually, and a little claustrophobic.  I’m sure the plane President Obama uses, a Boeing 747-200B, is roomier.

I think the least impressive thing about my day at the library were the other patrons in attendance.  Walking through the exhibits and galleries, I was struck by the amount of misinformation people were sharing.  Doesn’t anyone teach American history anymore?  It was rather disconcerting to overhear some of the “facts” that were being shared.  Most people acted as if they were at an amusement park, not a library or museum.  I do think when looking at an artifact of historical significance, especially one from a murder of a president like the bloody pillow from under Lincoln’s head, more respect should be paid.  Instead, the mother and son next to me were arguing:  “I don’t see the blood,” the  teenage son kept insisting.  “It’s right there,” his mother responded while putting fingertip to glass.

Admission to the museum is $16 for adults, $9 for teenagers, and children can get in for $5.  Four and under are free.  The museum is open 10 AM to 5 PM every day.  Parking is free, but the lot fills up fast.  I had to park down the hill from the library on the street.  Trams are provided for offsite parking which drop patrons right at the front door of the library, and returns them to their cars when their visit is over.  The library and museum tour involves a lot of walking, approximately two miles, according to one docent I spoke with.  There are ample break areas, including two restaurants where one could take a break, sit down, and have a cup of coffee or other beverage as well as food.  Photography without flash is allowed in the museum, but no pictures may be taken inside of Air Force One.