Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hooray for Hollywood

There's an odd paradox about people who live in cities other people visit as tourists. We hardly ever set foot in the most popular tourist attractions in our own home town. Thirteen years in Los Angeles, and there are famous places I've still never visited. This weekend, a lucky invitation from kind friends allowed us to visit one of Hollywood's most iconic attractions for the very first time.

Paramount Studios at 5555 Melrose in Hollywood is the oldest operating movie studio in the U.S. The company was started in 1912, and The famous arched entrance, known as the Bronson Gate, was built in 1926 and appears in the film "Sunset Boulevard" as Norma Desmond triumphantly rides her chauffeur-driven limousine through its gates to return to the lot.

We drove onto the lot through the much more pedestrian gates off Van Ness Avenue, and parked in a modern structure behind the warehouses used to store lighting equipment. We flashed our orange parking pass at the guard, and greeted a smiling couple wearing green wristbands, who directed us how to find our way.

Our friends invited us to attend an event for the Concern Foundation, a charity that funds cancer research. The 36th Annual Block Party was being held at Paramount Studios' New York Street backlot - a five-acre outdoor location where building facades mimic New York neighborhoods, and where countless films and TV shows have been shot.

In addition to this outdoor location, the Paramount lot features some 30 sound stages. We wandered through a maze of beige buildings, all bearing signs indicating their function - stages, costume shops, storage rooms, fitness center.

Some of the stages dated from the studios origins - signs listed the names of films that had been shot there.

Bungalows and dressing rooms named for stars are still in use as offices. The lot has many features that function as film locations, including parks made to look like city plazas, office buildings made to look like residential streets, and a giant water-tank with a sky background.

Just past this sky painting we found the entrance to the event - tented and decorated and drawing us in.

The theme of the Block Party this year was "Under the Big Top" and as we walked past the ticket-takers, we entered into a fantasy environment - like the craziest city street fair you'll ever attend. There were stilt walkers and vintage circus banners. There were tents and arbors. The streets were set with brightly colored tables and chairs, and lined with stands featuring delicious samplings of treats from over 50 Los Angeles restaurants.

The streets were lined by building facades that looked just like the Lower East Side but seemed about 3/4 scale somehow. They were perfectly authentic - but you could see they were non-functional - beyond the facade the buildings reverted to the relentless beige paint of the sound stages and warehouses.

The party ranged through the maze of streets, so that as you turned a corner you'd encounter some new attraction, like a carousel, a ferris wheel, or a trapeze act.

Stuffed elephants were on display in front of old '50s style cafes or gothic-arched brick schoolyard entrances.

The columns of Washington Square ranged behind food stands dispensing juicy carved prime rib sandwiches, handrolled sushi, or mango martinis. A separate casino area stood beneath the mock cast-iron storefronts and a turn-of-the-century fire station.

A band played on a stage built before a replica of a lower Manhattan bank. We browsed the food stands. Would you like a bite of curried cauliflower salad? An amuse-bouche of tomatillo gazpacho topped with a crown of tomato aspic? Perhaps a tiny corned-beef sandwich is more your style, or a shrimp quesadilla, or risotto?

The longest line was for the stand operated by Pink's Hot Dogs - which was no surprise. You could get a 10" hot dog on a bun dressed as you wish, with chili or with kraut.

There were plenty of choices for dessert, from do-it-yourself soft ice cream stands to French pastry.

We tried these little fondant-covered bites of cake - one is red velvet, the other carrot cake.

Clowns and fabulously dressed show-girls roamed the streets, alarming small children in the universal manner of clowns, or agreeing to have their picture taken with guests.

It was a wonderful people-watching opportunity. I am terrible at recognizing celebrities, so I am certain that some of the attractive young persons with extraordinary clothing and hair gelled into odd shapes were people I should know. Silver-haired gents in studiedly casual outfits leaned back on the baroque-patterned divans, talking on Blackberries and I-phones. Children with painted faces and twisted balloon hats held the hands of women who looked like nannies and pulled them impatiently toward the carnival rides. A large woman pushed a fancy wheeled and cabled walker imperiously through the crowd like an ocean liner plying the waves. Elderly couples in canvas visors staked out the non-reserved picnic tables, surrounded by dozens of small dishes. Impossibly slender women with layered and flat-ironed hair shrieked in excitement as they encountered one another and pressed their drawn and shiny cheeks together in an air-kiss.

You could have your picture taken at the photo booth - we look pretty good, I must say.

As evening fell, the huge studio lamps mounted on the rooftops washed pink and amber color over the building facades and warmed the faces of the the guests clustered under canopies and umbrellas.

The event also featured a silent auction followed by a live auction and award presentation. We bid for a couple of travel packages, but were outbid pretty quickly. No matter - every bid meant more funds raised for the charity - and hope to those suffering from cancer. The event's goal was to raise $2 million for research.

When the evening ended, we were offered a ride back to the parking garage by an attendant on a multi-seated golf cart - we were whizzed through the darkened passages and alleyways of the sound stages, leaving the pink and gold magic of the party behind.


M. Bouffant said...

Ain't that the truth. Been here close to 40 yrs., & have never been to Universal Studios, among other venues.

The sky backdrop you walked by is the background for the studio tank (not the fire-fighting water tank) 'though I'm not sure they've shot anything aquatic there for some time.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

What a great event! Looks like it was a lot of fun.


What fun.

Jason, as himself said...

How Fun!!!

You have been wayyyyy more places in LA than I have, and I have lived here longer than you.

Elisa said...

Oh wow what a fun event. and so much food, I wouldn't mind some sushi and a mango martini sounds refreshing.

What a sweet picture of the two of you!

by the way I have been reading your previous posts and that peach pie looked delicious. so a pie a week, what a fun challenge.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I visited Universal Studios as a child (yes, we were tourists).
There are many places in Washington DC that we have not explored.