(In this second post, the focus moves from northern to southern California, and the time shifts from 1961 to 1973 when I was looking for work after completing graduate school at Harvard, returning to California, and, because of the scarcity of job openings in academia, finding nothing promising up north. I didn’t locate suitable work in southern California, either, and I eventually went to Washington DC where I worked for several years thereafter. But I did learn some fascinating things while I was in southern California, as the post explains.)
I thought I might find work in Los Angeles. I left Monterey County, where I had been living and working for three years after graduate school, and drove down south and stayed for a month with friends. The Los Angeles region was energetic and infinitely interesting. I lived in Santa Ana with a friend, Robert, who was a professor of philosophy at one of the local colleges. He, his wife, and two daughters, ages four and seven, lived in a quintessentially suburban house dating from the early 1950s. They were kind hosts and welcomed my stories, each evening at dinner, of the things that happened as I explored greater Los Angeles trying to decide whether it was the right place for me.
One of the things I wanted to do while in Los Angeles was to visit a few movie studios. I thought I might try to get a job as a screenwriter. This was an unrealistic goal, an example of the habit I had inherited from my migratory family, of thinking I could enter into any new world at any time.
I reasoned that I ought to begin my quest with a tour of a movie studio. Some of the old lots, I discovered, were no longer around. For example, the old Twentieth Century Fox complex had been torn down and developed into the Century City real estate complex. The old MGM lot in Culver City was still there. It was almost abandoned, though, and not open to the public. The Paramount Studios, just a few blocks from the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, was fully operational but did not offer tours to the general public. I stood outside its ornate, neo-Moorish entrance for several hours one day, taking in all the ceremonial comings and goings. A tour was available, and very widely advertised, at the big Universal City complex, a couple of valleys away from town. But, judging from the ads, the tour there would have been too mob-oriented for my tastes.
The Right Fit
Fortunately, the old Warner Brothers studio, in Burbank, offered just what I was looking for. Each tour group was limited to ten people, and you were assured that your guide would be someone who knew the movie business well. For my group, the guide was a longtime member of the studio staff who had once been the private secretary to Jack L. Warner. He was about forty years old, thin but muscular, of average height. He talked in a quick, animated manner and made lots of artistic flourishes with his hands. At the same time, he had what I thought was an overly formal manner. He wore black, heavy-brimmed glasses and a green blazer with a tie. He must have been uncomfortable in the outfit in the summer heat. He seemed proud that the Warner Brothers tour was more reflective than the ones given by other studios, and yet he could not quite attain the scholarly demeanor, or even the mannerisms of a movie critic, that he was striving for.
Our tour began at the main entrance – a neo-Spanish, stucco, tan colored gateway with red tile roofs and porter’s lodges on each side. The gate was beautifully situated under a grove of palm and eucalyptus trees that cast their dappled shadows over the area and cooled the air. Across the small, quiet street there was a tiny group of old storefronts. One was the first stop on the tour. Supposedly it was the pharmacy with the soda fountain where Lana Turner had been discovered while wearing a tight sweater and sipping a cold drink. The overt sexuality of the story was so appealing that we all wanted to believe it whether it was true or not.
From the drug store we went onto the studio grounds and toured a couple of sound stages. They looked like big hangars for airplanes. Inside, we saw a courtroom set where Ben Gazzara was starring in a made for television film about persecution of Jews in the Second World War. In another studio we walked through a set that was an elaborate replica of the interior of a Japanese thermal bath and health club. The set was made of fragile plaster of paris and papier mache, but it was visually convincing. Robert Mitchum was scheduled to act there in a few days in the concluding, very violent scenes of The Yakuza, a movie about gangsters in Tokyo. The scenes to be filmed were so violent that the Japanese government had refused to let them be made in Japan. The set was going to be demolished as soon as filming was concluded. I was startled by the way a place could be copied on demand – placelessly, as it were – with no regard for permanence or actual location.
I experienced the same shock when we left the sound stages and went out to the back lot. We passed through an area of scruffy bushes, trees, and bamboo, called “The Jungle,” which served as the all purpose locale for movies about exploring in Africa, war in the Pacific, and gunfights in the American West.
Depending on camera angles and adjustments to the vegetation, “The Jungle” could be made to seem to be all these things. Not too far away, we came upon a set that was, our guide told us, the exterior of the house made famous by the TV series “The Waltons,” about a closely knit farm family in Virginia in the 1930s. The house had no interior and only one side: the front. All the interior scenes were done on sound stages. The voiceovers by the narrator, in his rich, archaic, very local Virginia accent and phrasing, were recorded separately. And not too far away from the Walton’s house we found ourselves at an outdoor set that was a copy of a street in an American city of the 1920s. In the middle of the block was the façade of a movie theater that, we all suddenly realized, we had seen in many films, ranging from “Al Capone” to “Give My Regards to Broadway.” The feeling of disorientation was even greater by the time we left the outdoor sets and went into a big building that was a prop warehouse. Here, our guide showed us a room that contained several hundred chandeliers. Some were on the floor in boxes; some were on big shelves; many were hanging close to each other from the ceiling. Our guide pointed to one of the chandeliers that had been in several Bette Davis movies and had also been part of the room décor in some of those war movies where Nazis are always taking over tastefully decorated European mansions.
Hollywood had a way of permeating everything in Los Angeles. I saw this vividly one Saturday when my friend Robert, the college professor, invited me to go with him to visit his father, who lived about an hour’s drive east of Santa Ana near Riverside. Bob’s wife and children stayed home. They had been out to see Bob’s father just a few weeks before, and saw no need to make the trip as often as Bob. We got in Bob’s old Volkswagen van and drove out to Riverside. We kept the windows open as we drove to prevent asphyxiation. Bob did not have much money and had not yet replaced the broken muffler. In Riverside, I was surprised to find that we did not stop in the downtown area or even in one of the suburbs. We continued east and were probably beyond the city limits although still in Riverside County. We were almost as far east as the beginning of the desert. The topography was hilly, strewn with boulders of all sizes. The ground was very dry and there were few trees. Most of the vegetation was cactus and mesquite. The landscape was purgatorial. I realized I had seen it as the background in hundreds of Hollywood westerns.
Knowing I would have questions, Bob explained a bit about his upbringing. His father, who was Irish, had married a Mexican woman, Bob’s mother, who was deceased. Bob had been raised on the outskirts of the city of Riverside and had been educated in the public school system. He was bright and won a scholarship that started him on his way through the University of California all the way to his Ph.D. in Philosophy. His parents respected education but had little formal schooling. Bob’s father was an itinerant mechanic, carpenter, and ranch hand. The father could not have afforded to pay Bob’s way through college. After the death of his wife, and with his son securely in college, Bob’s father moved farther away from the city. He was still able to earn a living. But, Bob explained, it was just a matter of time before Bob and his family would have to take the father in.
Turning off the paved, two lane, county highway, we made our way up a dusty, winding road and parked near a complex of about ten mobile homes that rested, weather-beaten, on a low, small mesa that was surrounded by boulders. I felt as if I had come upon a tenuously constructed community – the kind that renegades would create. We went into one of the mobile homes and I was introduced to Bob’s father. He was a short, wiry man with skin so tanned and wrinkled that he looked like a Native American. His movements were quick and agile. His eyes were alert. His voice was strong and animated. He had obviously lived an intense life, but did not look aged enough to be Bob’s father. He did, however, look as if he had spent his bodily capital rashly – on cigarettes, alcohol, and fistfights.
For the next couple of hours, the three of us drank beer and talked. Bob’s father was an intelligent listener and questioner. He was soon up to date on his son’s activities and also learned a great deal about me. We didn’t need to ask questions to learn about him. He loved to tell stories and launched into them with no prompting. There were stories about the hippies who had recently moved into the two trailers at the top of the hill. There was a story about an escaped prisoner, hiding in one of the trailers, who had been caught recently. The longest story — oddly and yet not so oddly — had to do with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In the 1930s and 1940s, apparently, there had been a Mexican bar a few miles down the road where the two celebrities used to go when they wanted to take a break from shooting their movies scenes. Few people at the bar ever recognized them, and there were no reporters around. Hope and Crosby could say “fuck” as often as they wanted to, and get drunk and play cards. As I listened to the stories Bob’s father told, I decided that I had wandered into some kind of weird Catholic morality play. Hope and Crosby, pursuing their profession as purveyors of fantasy in Hollywood, had discovered this locale in the desert – a place that seemed so unreal to me – and had come to it again and again for the chance to let off steam and get away from the constrictions of the roles that Hollywood required them to play.