LOS ANGELES – HOLLYWOOD
10-12 October 2016
Having purchased the LA GO Card in advance of our trip made excursion choices a little easier since it made sense that things covered by the card became go-to decisions. The card is purchased online and allows unlimited access to the included activities for the number of days you opt for. We’d opted for 3 days, thinking that we’d do all the Santa Monica stuff on Sunday when we returned from Malibu and then have 2 days to do all the Hollywood options.
Sunday didn’t quite go as planned thanks to Rosenthals last rounds being later than advertised, meaning we only got back to Santa Monica in time for dinner and missed out on the bicycle hire from Perry’s for a sunset flit along the promenade as well as the access to the theme park on the Pier, which now held no interest. No mind, we’d still had the Celebrity Home Tour, which at $50 a head was a good use of a day on the card anyway.
Now we were able to use the Hop On Hop Off bus tour as our transfer from Santa Monica to our Hollywood hotel, which was a double win both saving money on an Uber and combining sightseeing with our transportation.
It was also easy enough since the bus stop is on the corner of Broadway (our road) and Ocean Avenue (2 blocks down from our hotel), leaving at a very reasonable 9.30. That gave plenty of time to lie in, partake in the complimentary hotel pastries and commit the view of the coastline to memory while getting our tickets at the Pier.
The stops through Santa Monica are a bit thin, including arb sights like the hotel where Jane Fonda recorded some of her fitness videos, Marilyn Monroe’s house and the house where Shirley Temple was born. There was also a property claimed to be The Governator’s home… but based on yesterday’s Celebrity tour, Arnie owns half of California so probably not such a big deal to see one of so many.
On completing the yellow line, we were delighted to find the red line bus already waiting at the crossover stop. We hopped off and then hopped on, much as the name implied we would.
The red line took us through Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive and we could see that the traffic was thickening noticeably. It’s debatable whether this was a product of location or just because it was by now midmorning and the city was becoming lively.
Even though we’d come quite a distance, it was still easy to get our bearings as we crisscrossed key arterial roads like Wiltshire and Sunset boulevards, names that we recognised from a lifetime of movies. Wiltshire was also apparently the testbed for LA’s car culture so had the first left turn lane, the first traffic lights and has a generous allocation for parking to service its buildings and businesses. A bit of a yawn of a claim to fame as compared with its highbrow neighbours.
The bus dropped us at Pantages Theatre, a relic of the golden age of Hollywood, at its prestigious address on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
We got ourselves a map and headed off on the trek to our hotel (probably more fairly defined as a motel), on Sunset Boulevard a few blocks down.
Taking little more than 15 minutes and with no resistance from our wonderful new featherlight trolley cases (replacements, thanks to my beautiful black leather case from China being broken on the last trip), we were still a sweaty mess when we arrived at Dunes Inn Sunset. I asked the reception fellow if it’s always this hot in LA; he looked confused and said it was a bit chilly. It was easily 30 degrees! Suppose that’s what you get from a local who enjoys 325 days of sunshine and as little as 15 inches a year.
By now it was midday and we had lots to do, so we dumped our things in our room and hightailed straight out the see what we could see.
Being based on Sunset Boulevard made navigating very simple – what isn’t on Sunset itself is on Hollywood Boulevard, parallel and one road up.
We had pre-booked online for the 2pm Redline behind-the-scenes Hollywood walking tour (included in our GO card), which gave us some time to grab a quick lunch (fried chicken at Popeyes) and have a nose about for ourselves.
The tour was a great decision. With the tour company operating from a small lock-up-and-go stand in the courtyard in front of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, it was all action from the moment we met our tour guide, Michael, who is a native born-and-raised LA resident, which he says is as rare as an unicorn.
The tour started with viewing inside Grauman’s Theatre and a history of its namesake and his considerable contribution to making Hollywood and the film industry the profitable business it is today. If Michael is to be believed then Syd Grauman may be the among the most genius marketers that ever lived. He apparently coined the term “movie stars” which took actors from being paupers plying their trade for passion alone to create opportunities so lucrative that relatively soon thereafter Elizabeth Taylor was the first to command a $1 million paycheck, for her role as Cleopatra. The original Egyptian dogs from the epic movie are displayed in the Theatre as a testament to breaking through boundaries.
Grauman also built the Chinese Theatre found further up Hollywood Boulevard, which he made famous with having a very select few stars immortalise themselves with hand- and footprints in the concrete leading up from the pavement to the entrance. We stood next to John Wayne’s slab and, while a tall fella of considerable stature, his feet were tiny! No more than a UK size 6 or 7 at most!
We also went into the Dolby Theatre and saw the magnificent staircase where the stars ascend to attend the Oscars. Undraped, the venue is no more than a mall (with upmarket retailers) but clearly it has its day in the sun for the Awards each year, when the shops are contractually obligated to close so that they can be the invisible substance behind miles and miles of red velvet draping.
Done with the tour, we hopped back onto a HOHO bus, taking the Red Route so we could visit the Guitar Centre. Like Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it has handprints adorning its entrance, but this time with notable musicians rather than actors. We enjoyed putting our hands into the impressions of some of our heroes: ACDC, The Cure and our fondly-known-as Jeff Leppard.
Back on the bus, we were happy to take in the rest of the less important (to us) sites from the comfort of the upper deck, with the audio tour guide filling our heads with random arbitraries about Whisky a Go Go, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive that were forgotten almost as soon as imparted.
We disembarked at Pink’s Hotdogs, a classic diner on the corner of La Brea and Melrose that has been a Hollywood stalwart since the 30’s. We had a chili cheese hotdog and a chili cheese nachos hotdog to share, which came with a few surprises; hotdog chili is like a blend of mince and refried beans, and there were no actual nacho chips on the nacho hotdog, just the runny custard-coloured nacho cheese. Still, both delicious.
We celebrated by walking back up to Hollywood Boulevard to get a free chocolate sample from Ghirardelli’s (our HOHO bus map had told us we’d get the sample, but not that it would be an amazing salted caramel in dark chocolate. I don’t even like dark chocolate, but this was crazy creamy and like a bitesize Caramello Bear for grown-ups).
Last item on the agenda was a nightcap at the Pig n Whistle, next to the Egyptian Theatre where our walking tour had started. The pub has been a part of Hollywood for so long it hosted Judy Garland’s 18th birthday, along with her pals Shirley Temple and Clark Gable in the intimate party. Far be it for us to miss out on such an iconic part of the better part of a century’s history.
En route we were fortunate enough to happen upon the premiere for The Accountant in full swing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. We caught a glimpse of John Lithgow as was chauffeured up in an enormous black SUV, manned on all corners by equally enormous twitchy bodyguards with earpieces. Onlookers went dilly as he got out the car, shouting out his name (they were, not he was) as the press lightbulbs flashed madly, and screeching with delight as he cast a glance in their direction, with the resultant effect a sort of vocal Mexican Wave.
Poor JK Simmons had to follow that act; hopefully he hadn’t heard the John Lithgow uproar from his SUV so was still delighted with the (notably less) warm welcome.
Our timing had been so spectacular that if we’d been any earlier we probably wouldn’t have stood around, not knowing what to expect and if we’d been minutes later, we’d have missed everything.
We marvelled at our good fortune as we made our way down the Walk of Fame, as one does, continuing to the Pig n Whistle as intended, names of all sorts of famous people passing under our feet, immortalised on their gold-lettered pink marble stars embedded on the pavement.
Lucky for us, it was quite quiet, so we could get in a couple of rounds and tear ourselves away.
Unable to face too many more steps on a 20+ thousand step day, we found a Metro station and covered the 3 stops in no time, to flake on the bed in our hotel room, reeling from the pace of the past few days.
Day 2 in Hollywood was planned as a double-bill of studio visits. Our HOHO ticket also transported us to Universal Studios so we got up early to (walk the K and a half to) catch the first bus from Hollywood Boulevard just after 9am.
It was a good call because the park was relatively quiet when we got there and we were among the first group for the popular Studio Tour.
The tour is delivered quite theatrically, co-hosted by a tour guide and (a recorded) Jimmy Fallon, with cameo appearances from some big names like Ellen de Generes and The Rock. The trolley bus moves through the lot while the guide talks through points of interest and what’s been used by whom for which movies when. There are also some experiential elements, like participating in a subway tunnel collapse, a flash flood and a car chase from Fast & Furious, complete with holograms of the cast.
Leaving the tour, we were grateful to have been in the first batch. The queue for the next group was already snaking through a long winding queueing system.
With little direction of our own, we wandered neatly straight into a Special Effects Show. It was equal parts education, exhibition and entertainment – and a very worthwhile way to spend a half hour. Not every day you see someone set on fire on purpose (and extinguished unharmed), another person chopped in the arm (with a trick knife, so unharmed despite all the “blood”) or anyone whizzing around the ceiling (as the volunteer was, illustrating the suspension ropes).
Not particularly fussy about rollercoasters and whatnot, we left the rest of the plan to fate, going on the rides with the shortest queues.
We got very lucky! The Transformers 3D experience was exceptional and we were rocked and rolled around as the Transformers fought each other over and around us as all sorts of shrapnel flew into our faces as we squeaked and flinched because it was so realistic. Then we ended up at a somehow completely queueless The Mummy ride; a forwards, backwards and sideways quite traditional rollercoaster… but in the dark with all sorts of creepy-crawlies. Exhilarating!
The afternoon had us at a 2pm Warner Bros studio tour, which was next stop on the HOHO bus Blue Line so we jumped on the 13h15 bus and were soon at our next Hollywood experience, being given all sorts of insider tips, unprompted, by a very sociable security guard as he did a thorough check of our bags (which, to be honest, seemed unnecessarily thorough for the sole purpose of allowing him to finish his monologue!)
Our timing was perfect and 10 minutes after arrival we were ushered into an auditorium for a short intro film and the assigned to Remsen, our guide for the day, and moved along to our cart that would transport us around the lot.
It was very exciting as we drove through the enormous studio buildings and Remsen filled us in on what used to and still is being filmed where. He was very knowledgeable on films old and new, so had something to say about almost every square inch we passed! … which has much to do with how the studio tries to make use of every inch of real estate where possible.
It was amazing to see how a patch of grass no bigger than that around our swimming pool was the same location used for “Phoebe & Rachel go jogging” and “Phoebe learns to ride a bike” and “Sheldon goes to the Renaissance Fair dressed as Spock” and another half the size for “Sheldon & Leonard fly kites” and “Ross plays rugby”. And Hennessy Street, which is a road lined with shell sets (facades with only a little room behind them where windows can be dressed) on the left side and practical sets (with whole rooms within) on the right has been the set for everything from Annie (the classic and the 2009 remake) to Batman (3 of the movies). It really is all about filming perspective and set dressing!
We drove past the live set of “Shameless” a few times, where we spotted Fiona outside Patsy’s Pies, the diner where she works. How exciting!!
Remsen took us into the set where “Mom” is filmed and explained how the whole process worked. The set consists of a dissected restaurant, kitchen, lounge and apartment entrance courtyard, which was no surprise since we’ve seen the show and already had a vague of how studio audiences work from what we’ve seen on TV… but what did surprise us was that these actors have a 5 day work week like everyone else.
I suppose we assumed the actors swan in and capture their scenes and then swan out again. Not so. There are readings, rehearsals and recordings that alone can sometimes take a full day just to get the footage that makes up the 21 minutes we see. Then there’s post-production and editing and whatnot which take the few weeks between shooting and airing. If anything, knowing this will now make us a bit more empathetic when there are season breaks on our favourite shows.
We also visited the Conan O’Brien set. A different format entirely, being a “live” show (we found out that it’s recorded as a single take but aired a few hours later), we were able to sit in the audience seats as Remsen ran us through the intricacies of how the stage and set work to play the space onto camera for optimal perspective.
We also popped into the props storage facility (an enormous warehouse with anything and everything you can imagine) and I got to sit at the White House desk that’s been used in several shows and movies, like West Wing and one of my favourites, The Fixer. Which is probably what the props team call Lady Gaga after she borrowed the table for a music video and gouged the leather surface with her heels so badly that she had to spend a fortune replacing it!
Christian was delighted to be up close to all of the Batmobiles in the Batman storage area. And our up-close-and-personal experience with costumes and props from a host of superheroes, including Batman, Superman, Supergirl, Wonderwoman, Suicide Squad etc etc.
The tour was really excellent and completely different to the theatrical Universal one in the morning. It ended at a building with interactive displays where you could sit on the couch on the Central Perk set from “Friends”, as well as pose for pics on sets with trick effects that for example had 2D painting on the back drop that gave false perspective when captured on camera in our photos.
We were then supposed to make our way to CBS Studios for the taping of “Last Man Standing”, but it was a bit late. The tour had been the better part of 3 hours, and we were supposed to already be at the other studio which was miles away. It really didn’t smart as much as it would have had the Warner Bros tour not been so amazing. We were sated on the production front – and frankly not as up for the experience now knowing it could take anywhere from several hours to all night to complete!
Our decision was vindicated when the golf cart deposited us back at the entrance and the HOHO bus was waiting for us. Literally waiting for us. The friendly old driver who had brought us to the studio from Universal had been pulling off when he saw our cart behind his bus. Recognising us, he stopped the bus and waited for us!
By the time we arrived back in Hollywood, we were starving so decided to head down La Brea to see if we could find the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles that the security guard at Warner Bros had recommended to us.
We walked and walked and didn’t find it so turned down Sunset Boulevard instead and were rewarded with a magnificent burrito at Chipotle.
By the time we got back to the hotel, we’d done more than 25km walking for the day! Good incentive to rest up for the following day’s trip to Vegas for The Big Experience.