Thursday, September 16, 2010

Music Box Stairs

There's Greek myth about a prideful and deceitful king named Sisyphus, doomed by Zeus to spend eternity in a state of frustration. His task is to push a boulder up a steep hill - but always before he reaches the top, he loses control of the boulder, and it tumbled back down, forcing him to start again.

Movie producer Hal Roach probably didn't have Greek mythology in mind in 1931 when he shot a film on location with his biggest stars, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in the Silver Lake neighborhood. But "Sisyphean" is the adjective that pops up in every review of that film, "The Music Box," which won the first Academy Award for a Live Action Short in 1932.

In it, the hapless pair deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long flight of stairs. For 30 minutes, they heave it up and chase it down - or sometimes, the piano chases them down.

It only makes sense, following the guide "Secret Stairs - A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles" by Charles Fleming, to start with this famous staircase.

You can follow along this walk by visiting Fleming's website and opening the pdf for "The Music Box Loop."

[The Man I Love]
and I started at the corner of Sunset and Parkman, after a hamburger lunch at a greasy spoon, instead of at the Cafe Tropicale as the author suggested.

We headed up Parkman, and passed the fantastically minareted apartment building he describes. The courtyard held a pretty fountain and potted roses.

We walked along the shady streets, then turned on Marathon. After a few blocks the street rose sharply, but our route took us to the right, up Robinson Street - a street lined with pretty, modest houses on hillsides above the street. There we found the first staircase, a narrow one, going down between two houses.

The house at the bottom of these steps had a fascinating collection of ceramic knick-knacks arrayed along a low wall in the backyard dog-run. Was the dog a collector?

We followed the route to Vendome Street, to the foot of the steps featured in the 1931 movie. There's a black marble plaque inset into the steps, noting their historic significance.

We started to climb. This staircase has 133 steps, broken up by landings. The yard it goes through contains a huge magnolia tree with large, thick evergreen leaves that lay in drifts on the stairs, making it tricky to walk up. Although in the movie the stairs are on an open hillside, today the narrow passage is crowded between fences and buildings, making it a bit claustrophobic.

Still, you can imagine the comics with the piano crate, painfully inching it up, hilariously plummeting downhill with it. For us, it was tough enough to haul our own wheezing selves up the stairs to finally make it to the top at Descanso Drive, where a sign made it clear that these were the Music Box Steps.

The view from the top of the Larissa steps. Did we really walk all that way?

We walked up the street to Larissa Drive, and took the next flight, continuing up the hill. Descanso spirals up the hill, so we walked up further to meet it at the summit.

Here, the houses were less shabby. This house has a well-tended garden behind a colorful, hand-painted retaining wall.

At the corner of Descanso and Micheltorena, you could see the skyscrapers of downtown.

The route took us along the ridge, past some nice Craftsman bungalows and the house with the signs Fleming describes. Then down the street that falls away to Sunset, only to find ourselves at the foot of Micheltorena Street, where Fleming had us walking up again.

[The Man I Love] took a photo of me climbing the stairs. I don't think he got my best side.

Silverlake is known for its eclectic, artistic, and hip residents. Even the public trash can is decorated with art.

The route has you scale the hill a second time, all the way to the summit at Descanso, and then come back down through neighborhood streets to the Music Box Steps again.

Finally, you end up back on Sunset Boulevard.

Our legs were tired, our throats were parched. We were pretty happy. What a great adventure. We're hooked. We're going to take a stairway tour each weekend.

Want to join us?


M. Bouffant said...

Oh! Oh!

Night view of your last pic.

I BBQ w/ a friend at Vendome & Silver Lake every mo. or two, so I know the minareted bldg. well. Did not know the movie-famous steps were that near.

Have et at Tomi's or whatever it is & lived too.

Vile local gossip/detail: See luminaries of the local music/art scene at AA meetings at the Tropicale, most evenings, in the back room.

Gilly said...

My legs ache just reading it!

But it looks very interesting, even so.

A few years ago we visited Staithes, on the North Yorkshire coast. this is built into the side of a hill, and has lots of little steps to avoid trudging along switchback roads. Only they aren't as long as those in LA - Staithes is only a little village!

But very charming!

CorvusCorax12 said...

love the architecture...great photo trip

shrink on the couch said...

What an excellent way to get exercise! I would love taking that tour. Fascinating stuff, Aunt Snow!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I was wondering what an activity in Silver Lake, LA's hipster haven referred to.

Looks like fun!

Anonymous said...

Working my way back and enjoying these staircase posts -- especially since I'm not the one doing all the climbing! My knees hurt less this way. ;)