|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.