Moving into autumn as lingering summer finally fades, there are too many happenings to note this week. An album release party, the passing of a local heroine, neighborhood heroes facing foreclosure, and literary journal launch parties. This week L.A. Letters covers a kaleidoscope of L.A. arts issues, equally tragic and uplifting. Themes overlap and co-mingle in the whirlwind of the California dream. Moving on into cycles of L.A. Letters.
On the heels of the World Stage's eviction issue is a similar case at Bob Baker's Marionette Theater. The longest running children's theater in Los Angeles, the legendary marionette theater has been in continuous operation since 1963. Baker himself is almost 90 years old. Similar to the World Stage, they are faced with a huge bill and an uncertain future.
Prior to the rise of computer animation, Baker once made much of his income doing puppetry for Hollywood when the studios needed it. Some time, starting in the late 80s and early 90s, animation technology became so advanced that Baker hardly got any Hollywood work at all.
Is it bad luck to laugh in a cemetery? If it is, then I'm in for a lifetime of doom. Is it strange to feel the crackling of opportunity and mid-century American idealism in the air of the dead? Then I am one odd bird. Is there a graveyard where you can transport yourself into the VIP room of a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast? There sure is, pal o'mine, and it is right in the heart of our dear old Los Angeles, USA.
Westwood Village Memorial Park is hard to find, as any legendary Hollywood haunt should be. Nestled behind the towers of Wilshire Boulevard, off Glendon Avenue, it is hidden by tall trees and high walls. It is an elegant little cemetery, and when I get there on a Saturday afternoon, it is quietly humming. The sparse modern chapel, akin to a ski lodge, has been roped off in anticipation of a memorial service later in the day. A smattering of people mill along the grassy yard with their heads down. They are not mourners but tourists, forever on the hunt for the next name they recognize. Every few minutes one motions over to another, their eyes never leaving the ground. This is a signal that another celebrity has been "spotted," and a picture of the cold stone must be taken.
A bald man with purple shorts and a large calf tattoo walks slowly around the cemetery, placing a single sunflower on select celebrities' simple graves. Many of the names evoke a glamorous sadness. There are the famous women who met untimely ends -- Natalie Wood, Dorothy Stratton, Dominique Dunne, Farrah Fawcett, Heather O'Rourke, Minnie Riperton, and Marilyn Monroe. But there are so many other notables -- Karl Malden, Truman Capote, John Cassavetes, Mel Torme, Walter Matthau, Ray Bradbury, Burt Lancaster, Eve Arden, Jack Lemmon, Donna Reed, Don Knotts, Roy Orbison, Rodney Dangerfield, Billy Wilder, Bob Crane, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Fanny Brice, Frank Zappa, George C. Scott, James Wong Howe, Peter Falk, Eva Gabor, Bettie Page, Darryl Zanuck and Janet Leigh, to name a few -- that the sadness is quickly snuffed out by sheer celeb-shock.
Crenshaw Boulevard, the 'Shaw', the Crenshow -- though it may lack the global appeal of its Hollywood cousins, the iconic thoroughfare is best known to many Angelenos as the cultural and commercial spine of black L.A. Of course, as is true with many sections of South Los Angeles, this wasn't always the case.
The street was named in 1904 after banker and real estate developer George Lafayette Crenshaw, often remembered for his upscale Lafayette Square community, located just two blocks from the boulevard bearing his name.1 Twenty-three miles in length from its start in Hancock Park to its terminus on a panoramic cliff in Palos Verdes, Crenshaw Boulevard, as architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne once noted, "begins and ends in wealth."2
Prior to WWII, many of the communities intersected by Crenshaw Boulevard were "protected" by housing restrictions that essentially barred non-white ownership. In the 1930s, the Leimert Park development served as a glimmering addition to Crenshaw, attracting a middle to upper class white population, lured by Spanish revival homes and a plaza designed by the Olmsted Brothers.3 In those years many area residents would buy their fresh produce at the Mesa Vernon Market at the corner of Crenshaw and Leimert Place (before 1930 that section of Crenshaw was known as Angeles Mesa Drive) . With the arrival of Ralph's grocers in 1942, and the Broadway Crenshaw Plaza (now the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza) in 1947, the Boulevard quickly established itself as a thriving commercial corridor.
L.A.'s first legal murals will be street art.
Renegades will make up the first batch of artists to be issued permits under the new mural ordinance. Shepard Fairey and Risk share a wall for a major piece in Skid Row, and Ron English will be painting in the Arts District. Both street art projects fall under the curatorship of Daniel Lahoda's LA Freewalls Project.
The Risk/Fairey collaboration will be at the Rossmore Hotel at Sixth and Ceres -- another LA Freewall piece for Skid Row Housing Trust. That project has the first permit and will be completed in a few weeks, said Lahoda.
The second permit is for a Ron English piece at Jesse and Imperial, and expected to be completed over the weekend.
The downtown neighborhoods are in District 14, which falls under the watch of José Huizar, the councilman who laid most of the groundwork of mural motions. He led the final push for policy changes to make murals legal on private property in the city limits, after being sequestered under sign ordinances since 2002.
The two permits evade the soft lobbying made here for a traditional piece in Highland Park, by a young artist, to be the first legal mural.
So be it. There still something symbolic to latch on to.
This shows how street art and graffiti became part of the larger mural tradition. Once the Risk/Fairey piece is completed, an aesthetic that was often illegal under any circumstances will welcome in the next generation of Los Angeles murals. There may even be a reception. "There's a big parking lot next door to the Rossmore," hints Lahoda, adding that District 14 recognizes the first work under the ordinance as "landmark." Risk begins painting this weekend. Fairey will jump in and work on his section in the upcoming weeks, as his schedule permits, said Lahoda, the city's unofficial "mural mayor."
The homes of Hancock Park, while nostalgic, didn't set off Los Angeles' interest in architectural revival. Some builders looked backward here even as others looked most enthusiastically forward, and their collective effect on the environment remains in the hills of Los Feliz, five miles to the northeast. There you find examples of Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, Spanish, Mediterranean, Moderne, Mayanesque, Tudor, Italian Renaissance, Doric, Ionic, International, an odd kind of alpine Mitteleuropa, and much else besides, the most notable of which went up in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Where the higher elevations of Silver Lake provides the low-profile Los Angeles residential architecture tour, those of Los Feliz provide the high-profile one. The prepared architectural tourist will turn up ready to seek out such well-known residences, often photographed and sometimes used in movies, as Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, Gregory Ain's Ernest and Edwards Houses, and Richard Neutra's Lovell Health House. They will, most likely, do it with a copy of David Gebhard and Robert Winter's "An Architectural Guide to Los Angeles" in hand.
Gebhard and Winter diligently map out Los Feliz's numerous homes of aesthetic interest in Los Feliz, then dismiss much of the neighborhood — namely the commercial and medical developments centered around Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard — with the unusual term "skulchpile." You'll find no more peaceful vantage point from which to view this skulchpile than Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler's Barnsdall House, also known as the Hollyhock House, now known as the main set of structures in what has become Barnsdall Park, or Barnsdall Art Park, or Barnsdall Arts Park, depending on which sign you read. Despite those, and despite how unignorably the bold angularity of the house itself looms over Vermont, Barnsdall Park remains one of the strangely little-known assets of Los Feliz — indeed, of all Los Angeles. The first time someone told me to meet them there, I had to look the place up; now most friends, even those who've logged many more years in the city than I have, look surprised then I take them up there. Perhaps those who lift their gazes from the streets of Los Feliz get distracted by other sights: the Hollywood sign, for instance, or the Griffith Observatory, whose vast eponymous park people do tend to know something about.
"In size it is in the league of New York's Central Park, Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, or San Francisco's Golden Gate Park," write Gebhard and Winter. "But, for a variety of reasons, this great park functions not as an urban park but more like a distant regional park." They cite its relatively untamed landscape, its thin connection to the city, and certain long-standing desires to build in or through it, but if Griffith Park suffers one overall limitation, it has less to do with awareness than with accessibility. So often with the elements of Los Angeles most worthy of attention, you either don't know about them in the first place, or, if you do know about them, you may have a hard time making use of them. The city's defenders have long fallen back on — or even begun their arguments with — its heritage of illustrious residential architecture, both of the innovating and reviving varieties, but I've never quite summoned the same conviction. Some of these homes have undergone conversions to more open uses, the way Barnsdall Park has become home to a theater, a gallery, art classrooms, and so on. Most, though, permit entry only to those who actually live in them, or at least those who shoot in them, or those who snap up a ticket for the occasional tour.
Given that visiting friends already know to take a drive by the Lautners, the Neutras, and the Wrights of the city — and the far less noted but considerably weirder homes that lay between them — I tend to endorse the pleasures of the skulchpile. Los Feliz's lowlands have, in recent years, come to offer the stuff of high-end, low-risk hedonism: artisanal pizzas, intensively curated vintage shops, juiceries, old-fashioned foreign travel accessories, exotic coffees brewed by the cup. Rarely do my visits to the neighborhood not include at least a few minutes spent at the well-respected Skylight Books (or its art-music-film-architecture satellite just down the road), to whose world-literature shelf — a small one, but wholly dedicated and ever-changing — I always make a beeline. None of this comes cheap, of course, nor do the sort of meals people talk about: the latest in Thai fusion, new frontiers in vegan cuisine, elaborately re-engineered plates of unabashedly health-unconscious Americana. But the area also offers an abundance of less pricey options, starting with its fast-food chains, near-anonymous strip-mall eateries, and plain discount stores, none ever too far away.
I've found much more of interest just a step or two up the scale, where we have what I'll call Los Feliz's vintage eating and, especially, drinking culture. You'll find one part of it at Ye Rustic Inn on Hillhurst, as classically dim a watering hole as I've ever had occasion to enter. You'll find another part, and a large one, at the Dresden Room on Vermont, where the formidable lounge-musician couple Marty and Elayne, whose vinyl-only album belongs on at least as many Los Angeles shelves as does the "Architectural Guide", have performed from their seemingly limitless repertoire most weeknights for over thirty years. You'll find another of even longer standing at the Tiki-Ti down Sunset, which since 1961 has, in its tiny, still-smoky quarters, served drinks with names like Chief Lapu Lapu, Puka Puka, Ray's Mistake, and Missionary's Downfall. I have no reason to believe you won't find yet another one at the House of Pies, whose name makes a simple promise indeed. The highly crafted across from the throwaway, the once-glamorous alongside the unapologetically scuzzy, the world-famous landmark walking distance from attractions that feel almost secret: nobody who takes in this mixture could easily label it with anything more accurately descriptive than the name Los Feliz — but even that has its irregularity.
From "El Seh-GUN-do" to "San PEE-dro" to "Pal-is VER-dees", greater Los Angeles accommodates all manner of folk-accented versions of its countless Spanish-derived place names, the last audible artifacts of the great Midwestern migration that so inflated the region's population in the twentieth century. This phenomenon saddled Los Feliz with a particularly bizarre pronunciation, which I hear as something between "Loss FEE-lace" and "Los FEEL-us," and which I have yet to bring myself to use. Despite this mental block, I feel less comfortable speaking actual Spanish in Los Feliz than almost anywhere else in town, even when eating at one of the neighborhood's taco-burrito-hot dog-hamburger stands whose staff would certainly understand and maybe even welcome it, even when coming straight from Spanish class at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México branch downtown. When I watch my fellow non-Latinos place Spanish-language orders there, I feel faintly embarrassed for even those who do it well. (They don't all; a linguistics student could write their entire thesis on variety of ways Los Feliz residents say "cochinita pibil torta.") Then again, I suppose most of us unite ourselves in technically mispronouncing the name of Los Angeles itself as "Los AN-gel-us." Some, and not just Anjelica Huston in "The Grifters", have gone as far as "Los ANG-el-ees," whose only acceptable context involves a martini in hand and Marty and Elayne singing "Fly Me to the Moon", live or on the hi-fi.
Photos by Colin Marshall.
"A Taste of Soul L.A.," the Crenshaw District's giant street festival, similar to the Sunset Junction and Abbott Kinney Street Festivals, is on this weekend along Crenshaw between Stocker and Rodeo Road. A star-studded lineup of performers will be appearing on stage live, as well as the usual lineup of local food trucks. This is the 8th annual "A Taste of Soul," and the event gets bigger every year. Less than a mile south of the festival, the legendary World Stage is facing eviction from new shadow absentee landlords. This week L.A. Letters salutes the World Stage, reinforces its importance. and draws the connection between other community arts organizations like Tuesday Night Café, Sunday Jump, Punk Hostage Press and Espacio 1839.
On numerous occasions in this column I have written about the World Stage and its central place in Leimert Park, and the literary landscape of Los Angeles and West Coast poetry. See the Departures Leimert Park section for more history of the neighborhood along with my previous poem and articles.
In the last five years two legendary Leimert venues closed their doors for good: 5th Street Dicks and Babe's & Ricky's Inn. Although both closed primarily because the original owner/founders had passed, the inflation of the last few years has made it much harder for community arts organizations to flourish or make ends meet, as market rates continue to climb. Babe's & Rickey's Inn was the last surviving club from Central Avenue, and lasted in Leimert for almost 20 years after moving there in 1996 from Central.
For the past ten years of my life, the Mulholland Memorial Fountain has been a watery blur. As a longtime resident of Los Feliz, I have passed by it hundreds of times, mostly in my car. Many of these times have found me singing to the radio, or talking on the phone, or yelling at the slow crawl of traffic that seems to never cease at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive. In the past it has been the people surrounding the fountain that have really caught my attention. Trapped in gridlock at the intersection's interminable traffic lights, I might watch the joyful clusters of quinceanera and wedding parties that gather at the fountain every weekend to take pictures. Or at night, when the light of the fountain turns it slime green and candy apple red, I might peer at a couple kissing in the mist, as men play cards on a nearby bench.
Visiting the fountain on foot is a revelation. I go at mid-morning, and the parking lot is empty except for a couple of care-worn campers and beat up cars. Chain link fences encircle the newly landscaped park that surrounds the fountain. A circular slice of the original Los Angeles Aqueduct, now repurposed as site-specific sculpture, is still wrapped in protective wrap and sits among drought-tolerant, native Californian plants. I walk through the fence to the fountain itself, circled by white roses. Up close, the fountain is a wonder -- a 90 foot reflecting pool of brilliant turquoise tiles, filled with water so crystal clear that only the occasional rose petal interrupts the transparent view to the bottom. Water slickly falls over the art-deco tiers, and pours out of rectangular spouts reminiscent of a tall dam.
"Often like a ghost in the shadows, the mother haunts film noir," observed Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo in 2003. "She is mentioned but never seen, yet she leaves her traces throughout film noir. Paralleling the dichotomy of the bad omnipresent or bad absent mother, in film noir the mother is everywhere and nowhere."1 Yet, as the two critics note, a handful of film noirs placed mothers and women at their center, ultimately both pushing back against noir restraints, but still reinforcing domestic, gender, and racial normatives of the day.
In two such films, "Mildred Pierce" and "The Reckless Moment," Los Angeles and its suburbs provide the backdrop for film noir's judgment on the role of women in post war America. Few venues engaged ideas regarding motherhood, adolescence, and gender in a nation emerging from four years of war, like suburban California. Places like Glendale and Balboa operated as the knife edge of suburbanization -- early examples that expanded and served as models, both in design and cultural politics, for all the hundreds of thousands of subdivisions that followed.
"With this money I can get away from you and your pies and your chickens and everything that smells of grease," Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth) snarls at her mother in the 1945 film noir, "Mildred Pierce." "You'll never be anything than a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing." This pivotal scene cemented Veda's place as the kind of child that, as one character observes, inspires alligators to eat their children. Veda's snarling outburst also serves as testament to the kind of fears regarding masculinity, gender roles, and juvenile delinquency that haunted WWII America and the years that followed.
Writing on the Wall's guest editorial series has another visit from G. James Daichendt, art critic, art historian, and Professor of Art History at Azusa Pacific University in southern California. As author of "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art" and the forthcoming "Shepard Fairey Inc.: Professional/Artist/Vandal," Daichendt is also a witness to street art's relationship to public space and within galleries, and takes umbrage to some of the responses to Banksy's current work in New York. He subtitles this commentary as "Banksy Circus Has New York Jumping Out of Small Cars and Running in Circles."
By G. James Daichendt
The ironically titled artist residency "Better Out Than In" by famed UK street artist Banksy has taken New York and the social media world by storm this October.
However, not all are happy with the subversive tactics, including art critic Jerry Saltz. The outspoken and brash writer, known for his stance against blue chip galleries and mega art fairs, takes aim at Banksy's recent work in New York Magazine, calling him a "brand" and an "easy access photorealist." An unfair accusation -- Banksy's accessibility is completely missed by the "critic of the people" because it's what makes him relevant and compelling as an artist.
Here in Los Angeles, we have witnessed a Renaissance in street art, graffiti, and murals as of late, and Banksy's message is important for understanding this larger movement. Saltz's New York-centric worldview sadly misses the point. What New York is questioning would be welcomed in Los Angeles, as the West Coast has a sense of humor and irony of ourselves, including an awareness of our celebrity culture.
Despite the brash generalizations by the esteemed critic, I believe we are witnessing something special this month. An artist has completely bypassed the traditional art world to great success. While he is not a saint (far from it), the approachability and excitement generated from Banksy's antics is sorely missing in the professional art world.
The city of West Hollywood recently launched a new nighttime shuttle service: the WeHo PickUp Line. Although the branding makes it clear that it's meant to be thought of as an "entertainment shuttle," primarily used to transport riders to bars, nightclubs and restaurants (nothing wrong with that), they certainly don't frown on using it for other purposes, such as taking in West Hollywood's impressive collection of whimsical public art, ample neon signage, beautiful architecture, and great people watching -- all of which I did on a recent Friday night.
In the decade and a half that I've lived in Los Angeles, I've visited West Hollywood on surprisingly few occasions. Nearly all have involved a frustrating search for parking, followed by a show at some Sunset Strip venue or other, by performers who'd seemingly find much more receptive audiences somewhere east of Hollywood rather than west. In short, it usually left me cranky and tired.
It was only when visiting a housesitting friend and exploring WeHo on foot that I finally began to appreciate its charms and unique character. Walking is almost always the best way to explore, and this is especially the case in West Hollywood. Just walking on the sidewalks I felt a bit like I was in some kind of large, open air gym, as super fit people passed me by. Walkscore even ranks West Hollywood's walkability above that of such famously walkable cities as New York and San Francisco. They also rate transit and bikability, although not jogging while pulling along a dog on a leash and talking on the phone -- which I also saw.