Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, February 26, 2017


               The ship loaded, fueled, and ready for blastoff back to the Home Planet...
Forty years ago I rode into Hollywood on a motorcycle, a young man in search of himself. After two years at a JC, three more in college, and another three years working a pizza joint, then a deli -- all the while editing my thesis film -- I had no idea what to do with my life. True, I was captivated by film and movies, but as a kid from the sticks who milked our small herd of goats every evening for ten years, a life in Hollywood seemed the most distant of pipe-dreams.  

All I knew was that I'd managed to make a film -- in the process committing every forehead-smacking, Homer Simpson "D'oh!" blunder in the book (and then some) -- a 30 minute documentary in 16 mm black and white. It wasn't very good, but I'd learned that even a farm boy could make a movie.  

Next question -- could I make a living at this

In what I'm sure he felt was an earnest attempt to talk some sense into my head, one of my oldest friends (himself destined for law school) looked me in the eye and asked: "Do you think you're going to become some kind of star in Hollywood?"

I shook my head.

"Are you looking for a career?" -- that last word carrying more than a hint of sarcastic disbelief, as if seeking a career in the movie industry was hands-down the dumbest idea in the world.

"I don't know," was my reply. "I just need to go and see what it's all about."

That was the truth. I really couldn't imagine forging a career in Hollywood, mainly because I had no idea what that meant. I had a vague notion of what writers, producers, directors, actors, and cameramen did -- the tip of the cinematic iceberg -- but absolutely no clue what lay in the murky depths below the proverbial line. Still, I needed to put this movie thing to the test -- to shit or get off the pot -- and if Hollywood proved to be a bust, I'd just have to find something else to do in life.

At 26 years old, it was time.

Some of my ex-classmates were already there, working on Roger Corman movies, editing low-budget indie films, and working their way up the ranks of the camera department.  So down to LA I rode, on the proverbial wing and a prayer.  After three months of flailing, having spent most of my savings just getting by while failing to land any kind of job, I finally caught a break -- an unpaid PA gig on a feature with a budget so low it was shot on 16 mm film.  With eight dollars left to my name, I called home for a two hundred dollar loan to tide me over... and my parents  -- God bless them -- came through.  

I was so ready to hit the ground running. That gig led to the next, and the next, until I'd learned just barely enough to be hired as a grip (albeit the Worst Grip in Hollywood) on another low-budget, non-union feature, and was on my way.  Although I was never destined to become a producer, director, editor, or cameraman, that didn't matter. Others possessed the requisite ambition and drive to achieve those lofty goals -- I didn't.  

So I became a grip, a juicer, a Best Boy, a Gaffer, and then -- coming full circle -- finished up my career as a juicer. Having learned by then what I did best, I knew how to fully contribute my skills to the job at hand, how to have a good time with my crew on set, and how to survive in a very uncertain industry. Looking back now, I can see that's all I ever really wanted: to be halfway good at something, to earn the respect of my peers, and work with some really great people. Doing all that in the context of the film industry was just icing on the cake.

Some might consider this clearing a very low bar, and I can't argue with that -- but as far as I'm concerned, it's "mission accomplished."

Now my Hollywood adventure is over. In so many ways I still feel like that naive, dumb-ass kid who rode into town on a motorcycle, but if my aching back isn't enough to dispel this quaint notion, one glance in the mirror will do the job... which is why I left Hollywood driving a Uhaul, with yet another motorcycle securely tied down in the back. I still love to ride, but as Clint Eastwood once famously intoned: "A man's got to know his limitations."

I've learned mine, all right.

Back on the Home Planet for good, it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. Four days after touchdown, my aging mom fell and broke her leg in three places. She died a week later, a gasping, skeletal shadow of the woman who gave me life, and although the advent of death at such an advanced age is hardly a surprise, there's no way to brace against the sudden door-slamming finality of that day

Now I sit at the keyboard surrounded by forty boxes (believe me, I counted...), each of which must be unpacked and the contents tucked away somewhere in this tiny house. What was once my escape-from-LA crash pad will have to be morphed into a home, and that's a big job. I'll have my hands full for a while.

Given all that, this isn't the time to write blog posts. It's not over -- I'll be back at some point -- but right now I need to turn my attention and energies to coping with the depths and dimensions of this new reality.  

Let's just call it a hiatus.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Bad Side of LA

"There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure.” 

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald 


There are a few things I definitely won't miss now that LA has disappeared in my rear-view mirror. At the top of that list is the truly God-awful traffic, which is so miserably bad that it drives everybody crazy after a while. It's not just the freeways, either -- gridlock is increasingly common on city streets as well, generating massive frustration for everybody involved, which means you're constantly dealing with legions of pissed off...


When an otherwise normal, well-adjusted, "it's all good" Angeleno slips behind the wheel, a Jeckyl and Hyde transformation occurs, morphing him or her into a highly-territorial, anger-and-adrenaline fueled lunatic fully prepared to do battle in the mindless cut-and-thrust race to be first in line at the next red light -- and in LA, there's always another red light on the road ahead. Any notion of relaxing, easing off the throttle and just going with the flow vanishes into the smog. 

So much for the casual, laid-back LA you've heard about.

It's dog-eat-dog out there on the roadways, and all the more so if you ride a motorcycle or bicycle -- or in my case, both. Apparently jealous of the freedom a bike represents -- and its ability to slip through the madness of gridlock -- the erstwhile mellow citizens of the Southland will gleefully block your path and put your life at risk out of sheer spite. Toss the ubiquitous cell-phones into the mix (let's face it -- nobody out here pays attention to the laws that prohibit using a hand-held phone in a car), taking to the roads in anything less than an urban battle tank SUV represents an act of faith that is all too often repaid by the shriek of rending metal, shattering glass, and the explosive percussion of airbags.

The worst thing about this -- other than the sheer aggro of having to deal with all these over-caffeinated, lead-foot morons -- is that eventually I get caught up in their lunacy too, and soon I'm driving just like the rest of those assholes. Fighting fire with fire might work pretty well in the forest when properly done, but not on the streets, where the action/reaction dynamic just makes everything worse for everybody

What's truly depressing about this is that there are thousands of great places to go in LA, with endless things to do... but only once you get there -- and getting there is the problem. I know lots of people who grew up in LA, and they all tell me that when they were kids, a driver could go almost anywhere in twenty or thirty minutes. That was still somewhat true when I came here in 1977 -- yeah, traffic was always bad during the morning and evening rush hours, but between 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. you could motor around town without much trouble. 

Not anymore. That traffic window has shrunk to the hour between 11:00 A.M. and noon -- and it's really only good for about 45 minutes. The rest of the time, it's gridlock. 

Other cities in America and the world may well have worse traffic and worse drivers than LA (or not..), but this is the city I know, which is why I take a deep breath every time I enter the food chain of the streets. And -- piling insult upon injury -- whenever I do so on my motorcycle, bicycle, or on foot, I invariably run into some pendejo wielding a...

                                          Leaf Blower

               Yep -- he's blowing all that crap right in your face...

Leaf blowers? Why the hell would I hate leaf blowers? Maybe this is one of those "only in LA things" that won't resonate with residents of other cities -- but LA is an over-irrigated urban desert where the natives have no real clue what the term "winter" actually means. In this land of the endless summer, gardeners work year around tending to the lawns and yards of homeowners. Back in the good old/bad old days, they'd just hose down driveways and sidewalks to move the leaves and cut grass into the gutter, there to be hoovered up by the city street sweepers making their rounds once a week. 

The great drought of the late 70's -- when the phrase "If it's yellow, it's mellow: if it's brown, flush it down" came into our vernacular -- put an end to this egregious waste of water.  Rakes and brooms were too slow for gardeners who depend on a high volume of work to make a living, so they began using motorized leaf blowers. Powered by two-cycle engines (which are as bad or worse than low-tech diesels when it comes to spewing toxic pollutants into the atmosphere), these noisy machines made quick work of leaves and grass, and now every gardener in LA -- and there are thousands -- uses a leaf blower all day, every day.

That means whenever I take a walk, ride a bicycle, hop on a motorcycle, or drive my car on a day warm enough to leave the windows open, I'm liable to round a corner and receive a face-full of gritty dust in my eyes, nose, and mouth at any moment. I can't even remember the last time I traveled more than three blocks without having to squint my eyes, hold my breath, turn away, and sprint through another man-made dust-storm as rapidly as possible.

It's not so bad in a car, where you can roll up the windows for protection -- but on foot, a bike, or a motorcycle, those leaf blowers are murder.  

I know, I know -- these people are hard-working, underpaid, and earn every cent they make, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to get sand-blasted every time I venture onto the street. It's just one more insult of urban life, and something I'm grateful to leave behind . 

And when it's time to clean my driveway or roof up there in the woods, I'll use a broom... or maybe my own electric leaf blower.


Then there's this... 

Look -- I understand the appeal of cell phones. Having carried one for almost two years now, I get it, and use mine all the time. But there's one thing you can be sure of here in LA; when the road-raging drivers and leaf blowers aren't making life miserable on the streets, you're sure to run across a young member of the digerati strolling languidly across the road while staring into his/her cell phone. At a stoplight, this is no problem -- hey, we're all waiting for the red to turn green, so whatever... but at a stop sign, this kind of self-centered, this-is-my-world, what-me-worry behavior is infuriating. Granted, I was just ranting about the lemming-like drivers of LA always in a frantic rush to go nowhere fast -- but is it too much to ask for a little basic situational awareness here?

The answer, apparently, is "yes."

Earth to cell phone people: this world is not your oyster, nor are the rest of us mere background players here to flesh out your own little digital dramas. That cell phone will not protect you from the harsh realities of Newtonian Physics, so pull your heads out of your asses and do NOT meander slowly across four lanes of traffic while enraptured by some Utube video or urgent text on that little screen. There's a time and place for everything, so look around and pay attention, or eventually you'll suffer the consequences -- and if you're really unlucky, you just might wind up being immortalized in the Darwin Awards.  

And deservedly so.

This isn't just an LA thing, of course -- people all over the globe are so entranced by their smart phones that they forget there's an entire world spinning around them -- but like I said, this is the city I've lived in for the past 40 years, and thus the launching pad for rants.

                                   Filming Downtown

Over at Totally Unauthorized, Peggy Archer recently posted a pithy, eloquent ode to the joys of filming in downtown LA, an ordeal most Hollywood veterans have suffered through more times than we care to admit. I discussed one of my own miserable experiences down there a long time ago in the following passage:

Many of these jobs – particularly the ubiquitous crime dramas -- involve lots of night filming in downtown Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of homeless people west of Manhattan. Given that there are nowhere nearly enough shelters or bathroom facilities to accommodate all these people, parts of downtown LA have become the Calcutta of the West Coast. Certain alleys down there are nothing more than open sewers – and naturally, that’s where so many directors just love to shoot. Maybe they’re attracted by the haunting visual textures of a crumbling city -- or maybe they just like the smell of shit -- but as usual, it's the film crews who suffer the consequences. Production generally hires a water truck to make a pass through those alleys before we show up, which washes some of the human waste away -- but it also serves to rehydrate the rest of the dried crap and urine that’s been  baked into the pavement over the previous months, creating a fetid slurry of raw sewage in which we have to run cable to power our lights. I’ve seen nice neat cable runs fully submerged beneath six inches of shit and piss in those alleys, where a lungful of the foul, choking stench is strong enough to make you vomit.

The last time I worked under such conditions (while filming Rickey Martin’s music video, “La Vida Loca”), I staggered home at dawn after a long night and threw my shoes and gloves in the garbage can out back. I awoke later that afternoon with second thoughts -- those shoes weren’t cheap -- so I fished them out with a stick and dropped them into a Clorox solution for a couple of days, then ran them through a Laundromat washing machine and dried them in the fierce LA sun. Still, it was a couple of weeks before I could get that stench out of my nose.

So yeah -- I will definitely not miss filming in downtown Los Angeles -- or this city's infamous... 

                                           Yes, I still have this shirt...

When I first arrived in LA back in 1977, I was shocked at the smog -- which was unbelievably bad. I would ride my motorcycle up to Mulholland Drive and stare out at the thick curtain of yellow-brown crud that obscured any view of the Valley or the rumored  mountains beyond. Proper smog controls on autos and industry have worked miracles since then, but LA still spars with Houston every year for the crown of Worst Air in the Country, because even if much of the visible smog is now gone, the stuff you can't see is still eating away at our lungs every single day.

There's more I could rant on about, of course -- much, much more... but that's enough bile-spewing. Hey, I don't want to become one of those bitter "get off my lawn" old farts any sooner than is strictly necessary. Still, even though Ross McDonald didn't know it back when he was alive and writing, he was right about one thing: the sea level really is rising, and one of these days LA too will surrender to the waves that once claimed the lost civilization of Atlantis.  

The good news is, nobody reading this will be around by then, so count your blessings and enjoy the good, bad, and ugly in LA while you still can. Your distant descendants will only be able to dream about the wonders -- and horrors -- we experienced in this entropical paradise.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Good Side of LA -- Part Two

Note:  No, I haven't lost my mind and turned BS&T into some kind of lame travelog/food blog, but with my Hollywooden career now over and done, I'm devoting a few posts to Los Angeles itself -- a city the rest of the country loves to hate. This is the second post about the good things in LA, but I'll get around to those aspects of life in LA that I absolutely loathe next time...*


                           Poster at the entrance to the Paramount Studio commissary...
As a true global melting pot, Los Angeles offers a cornucopia of food from all over the world. You can get fantastic Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley, great Mexican food in East LA, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Greek, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, and Ethiopian food -- and that's just for starters. Name a cuisine and LA's got it, and if you get bored with brick and mortar restaurants, there's a rolling convoy of food trucks patrolling the vast expanse of Los Angeles, their menus and time/day locations posted on the internet.

Food really is one of the great things about LA.

Here are some of my favorites:

Musso and Franks (technically, the Musso & Frank Grill) has been around long enough to acquire some serious Hollywood history.  F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler did a lot of their writing there back in the day, along with William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, and Dorothy Parker, among literary luminaries -- and that makes Mussos the closest thing to New York's legendary Algonquin that you'll find on the West Coast.  

You can absolutely feel the history when you slip into one of those red leather booths.

More to the point, Mussos grills fabulous lamb chops and steaks, makes a mean Caesar Salad, and a crisp, dry gin martini that hits like Joe Frazier's famously lethal left hook. The waiters have all been here forever -- last time I had dinner at Musso's, we got the "new kid" who was probably 55 years old and only been working there for fifteen years. Those waiters are no-nonsense pros who won't introduce themselves or fawn all over you while oozing phony sincerity, nor are they wannabe actors waiting for their thespian ship to come in. These men wait tables for a living, and they do it right.

Musso's isn't cheap. A good dinner will run each person well over a hundred dollars with a drink or two, wine, and a tip -- but as an occasional night out, it's worth the price. Put it this way: when the time comes to depart LA for good, I'll be sure to have one final dinner -- the last supper, so to speak -- at Musso and Franks.  
And oh will I miss it once I'm gone...

As the sign says, Versailles is the place to go in LA for Cuban food -- or at least the place I go when I crave that wonderful roast pork and/or garlic chicken, black beans and plantains.  There's always a long line out the door, but Versailles is big enough that the turnover is steady, and I've rarely had to wait more then ten or fifteen minutes to get a table -- and it's always worth the wait.

Pink's might not be everybody's favorite hot dog stand, but it's an LA institution. Working the long hours demanded by the film and television industry, I've driven by Pinks at all hours of the day and night -- and there's always a line. I don't eat hot dogs very often, but when I do... well, it was usually on a show that brought in a hot dog truck for the night. But I like Pink's hot dogs -- and maybe you will too. If nothing else, you have to go there at least once just for the experience.   

Lucy's El Adobe Cafe is an LA classic, with good mexican food, a wall of headshots from Hollywood's Golden Age, and a dark, cozy atmosphere that makes you want to stay all day... or all night. Across the street from Paramount Studios (and just down the block from the landmark independent lot Raleigh Studios), Lucy's has been around since 1939. One of the waiters started there a few years before I arrived in LA, and he's still there today, offering low-key, no pressure (but attentive) service. It's a great place to bring your family or tourist friends when they're visiting LA, or meeting an old friend (or new flame) for a quiet, discreet lunch or dinner -- a tradition Lucy's holds dear.

You can bet on one thing: I'll be hitting Lucy's at least one more time before I leave... 

Another favorite Mexican restaurant is El Cholo, where the margaritas are killer, and their green corn tamales -- available for a limited time each year -- are worth the drive. Th original El Cholo (there are several) is down on Western, and at 90 years old this year, still going strong.

On a busy stretch of Lincoln Boulevard way out on the West Side (Westchester, actually), sits a great little Italian place called Alejos. There are two of them, actually -- a much smaller offshoot a few miles north that does mostly take-out business -- but the original is the place to go. Their pre-dinner bread with olive oil alone is worth the trip, but the salads and pastas are really good. The place has a warm family vibe that takes the chill out of that coastal air.  Back when I had a girlfriend who lived in  Santa Monica, we'd go there all the time, and never had a bad meal. The price is right, too.

I just wish they'd open another one up north...

When it comes to burgers, Tommy's and In 'n Out are the sentimental and cultural favorites here in LA, and who am I to argue?  Both make great hamburgers... but I've said it before and I'll say it again -- proximity matters in this era of terminal gridlock -- which is why I favor Astro Burger.  There's one just around the corner, and that's hard to beat.  Taste is a highly individualistic and utterly subjective factor, of course, so your mileage may vary -- but give Astro Burger a try. You just might like it.

Not every famous restaurant in LA is good, though -- and as a preview of the upcoming Bad Side of LA post, I offer Exhibit A: El Coyote CafeThe place has a great name, and looks like a classic LA mexican restaurant... but the one time I had dinner there was so disappointing that I never returned. Having ordered Sopa de Albondigas -- meatball soup -- as a first course, I was astonished to see it arrive in the form of a single ginormous meatball sitting high in a small bowl, surrounded by a thin circle of broth. I thought this was a joke at first, but nobody was laughing. And the margarita? It was made of some insipid wine concoction rather than tequila. 

Okay, so they didn't have a hard liquor license... but a wine Margarita???

The rest of the meal was similarly undistinguished, which is why I never gave El Coyote (the trickster) another chance to take my money.
The young hipsters of the day loved El Coyote thirty years ago, just as their modern counterparts love it today -- and that's all you need to know about the place.  Let's face it: hipsters are wrong about pretty much everything, from the odious crime against humanity that is the "man-bun" to absurdly expensive artisanal coffee... a certain highly-prized variety of which is brewed from beans eaten, partially digested, then excreted from the alimentary canal of the Civet Cat in the jungles of Sumatra.   

You think I'm kidding? Think again.

None of this means you shouldn't try El Coyote, of course. It's a scene, if nothing else, where the young and restless can seek each other out in answer to the primal drumbeat of our culture's modern mating rituals.  

Just remember -- you're not there for the food.

All of my favorite eateries have been around for a long time, but Hollywood has changed a lot in the past forty years. Walk down Melrose, La Brea, or Larchmont and you'll find new restaurants springing up like flowers after the winter rains. Your choices are much wider than mine when I first came to LA, and you'll find favorites of your own. I was surprised when the Uber driver who was ferrying me to Musso's a few weeks ago said he'd never heard of the place... the oldest, most storied restaurant in Hollywood.  

So consider this post my attempt to clue in the current generation of young LA immigrants to what they've been missing -- and when you get a chance to try out one of these venerable classics, don't pass it up.

* In case you missed it, here's Part One...

Next: The Bad Side of LA