Rational exuberance

Looming Over Highland Park
Looming Over Highland Park | Photo: Paul Bailey/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Gregory Rodriguez made a nostalgic case for L.A.'s lost exuberance in a recent Los Angeles Times column. His touchstone for goofiness is the Chicken Boy monument that looms over Future Studio Design & Gallery. Spared in 1984 by Amy Inouye and Stuart Rappaport from whatever fate unwanted gigantic chimeras face and raised anew in 2007, Chicken Boy now gazes enigmatically down on the passing traffic in Highland Park.

Despite Chicken Boy's persistence, Rodriguez and CB's keepers regard him as an unlikely survivor from L.A.'s "fun, sunny, bright, cheap and delicious" past. No longer as cheap - and much more trans-fat conscious - Los Angeles looks up at its fiberglass Ozymandias in search of inspiration.

Is the bucket of twice-fried chicken he offers half empty or half full?


Chicken Boy and the better-known Randy's Donuts - now that the Tail o' the Pup is in storage - are celebrity holdovers from the "libidinal adolescence" that Mike Davis said L.A. has squandered. But let's not get too melancholy. The era of Googie architecture is past, but not our ability to get a laugh out of what we've made of ourselves.

Theme Building
Theme Building

And it takes only a little auto-flânerie to encounter the stuff of adolescent L.A. in surprising abundance - from the LAX theme building to the Felix Chevrolet sign to the Giant Oil Can Man on Downey Road to the Coca-Cola building on Central Avenue.

Sure, we've sobered up some from the days when suburban car dealers opened with a Hollywood-style premiere, but we still have the Rose Parade. Prudish design review boards won't let you erect a towering lady's leg over your hosiery store, but we still have the fiberglass mammoths at the La Brea tar pits. Oscar night still flaunts our original silliness.

What other city has two displays of street lighting as art? The first - Vermonica - is a taxonomy of historical forms. The second - Urban Light - is a piece of postmodern monumentalism that does exactly what Gregory Rodriguez asks of the mildly weird: It makes you smile, then invites a lingering gaze (the libidinous part), and then ushers you into a daydream.

Cities that are alive enlarge the imagination by their swift and frequent conjunction of incongruous things. Los Angeles used to deliver incongruity on almost every street corner. Now you have to look harder for it. It's still here and found most often in the borderlands of L.A., where hopeful exuberance intersects with anxiety in a way that is exactly Angeleño.