Sunday, January 26, 2014

A guide to fine dining

This piece has been cross-posted at Mrs. G's blog for women, Derfwad Manor. Go visit there and read her wonderful stories, and works by other women writers.

In adventure stories, explorers visiting a strange land find a trusty native guide to show them around, find food, and survive. When I came to Los Angeles in the fall of 1996, I was overwhelmed by its size and breadth, and I could not grasp its unfocused geography. The streets and boulevards were chaotic, lined with a visual cacophony of signs in multiple languages I could not decipher. But then I met Mark.

Shubert Theatre in the ABC Entertainment Center, photo LA Public Library
We met at the Shubert Theatre in Century City. I had been dispatched by Local #33 IATSE to fill in as a follow-spot operator for the show “Ragtime,” which was nearing the end of its pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles. The show had four spotlights – two in the booth and two truss spots. I ran Spot Two in the booth. Mark ran Truss Spot Three, suspended from the ceiling high over the audience.

The House Electrician liked me, so I quickly became the regular vacation cover for the Electrics Department. I worked both backstage and on spot for a couple of months.

A long-running show is a routine, with shows Tuesday through Sunday evenings, and matinees on Wednesday and Saturday. There’s a two hour break between the matinee final curtain and our call time for the evening show. That first matinee day, Mark invited me to join him for dinner break.

“I know a good place to go,” he said. 

Mark was one of the best followspot operators I’ve ever known, and that’s saying something, because Local #33 spot operators are the best in the business. In LA live TV broadcasts, and award shows require absolute precision and lightning-fast reflexes, with zero rehearsal time and zero toleration for mistakes. The top followspot operators in Local #33 work so many award shows they own their own custom-tailored tuxedos.

Mark loved to eat, and his physique showed it; he was short and rotund and light on his feet like a beach ball. As soon as the house lights came up, we’d dash down the exit stairs to the parking garage beneath the theatre, and jump into his 1989 Camry. The driver’s seat was pushed as far back as it could be to accommodate his belly, while his arms and legs were stretched straight out to reach the wheel and the foot pedals. We’d be cruising down Olympic while the audience still waited for the elevator.

Mark liked all kinds of food, but because of our schedule, he limited our tour to West LA. Mark liked a traditional Italian red-sauce joint called Anna’s on Pico near Westwood, and place nearby called Killer Shrimp. He also liked Gloria’s on Venice, for Salvadoran food, and Delmonico’s Grill for seafood. He knew what was good on every menu. “Get the cannelloni here,” he’d say, and he was always right. We sat at the counter at Johnnie’s Pastrami on Sepulveda, eating thick luscious sandwiches, hot on a French roll, Los Angeles style, slathered with mustard, while he flirted with the waitresses.

And all through dinner, Mark would tell me about other great places in town. “If you’re working at CBS,” he’d say, “you gotta go to DuPars in the Farmers Market.” Or, “There’s this great Thai place on Sunset, just a few minutes from the Pantages.”

Sometimes the show called us in for daytime maintenance, to change light bulbs, repair broken fixtures, and change out faded color medium. If such a call came on a Friday, the whole electrics crew would go to the Century Plaza Hotel for dinner break. Mark had discovered the $14 All-You-Can-Eat Friday night seafood buffet. A bunch of rough-necked stagehands all dressed in black, we’d take over the dining room and eat huge plates of king crab legs, fried shrimp and clams, chowder and baked fish. 

King crab meat dipped in butter
Mark invited others to dinner too; sometimes Stan, on Spot Four, or the show roadie Steve, or Bobo, the deck electrician. Sometimes we’d stay in the big entertainment complex, grab a bite at McDonalds and catch a movie at the multiplex. But Mark wasn’t much for fast food – he liked sit-down places with table cloths.

Mark liked the kind of places that were part of Los Angeles’ history, the places he’d gone as a kid. Billingsley’s was one such joint, a dark steak-and-chops house, with a dining room with curved, tufted red-leatherette booths and tiffany hanging lamps. The early bird special was prime rib, veal parmesan or chicken marsala, served with your choice of soup or an iceberg lettuce salad, and garlic cheese toast made with soft white bread. In its dark and moody bar quiet old people sipped gimlets and rob roys, but we never had a drink since we had to go back to work.

“Ragtime” closed in 1998, and soon after, Mark moved to Las Vegas. I changed careers and lost touch with my Local #33 friends. The Shubert Theatre is gone now along with ABC Television Entertainment Center, demolished in 2002 and replaced by a featureless office tower. I’d always meant to go back to the Century Plaza on a Friday night, but missed my chance.

Some of the places Mark took me are gone now too. Delmonico’s Grill on Pico, where I savored lobster bisque, is no more. Anna’s Italian Restaurant closed; now it’s a faux British gastropub, tricked out with old-timey d├ęcor to look like a place with history.

Johnnies is still open, though, and I sometimes drive by Billingsley’s. It’s in an imperiled triangle by the 405 freeway, crouched underneath the looming span of the new Expo Line light rail spur to Santa Monica. Banners festoon the walls proclaiming bravely “Still open during construction!”

Mark loved Los Angeles with an enthusiasm stronger than a Convention and Visitors Bureau. Mark made me feel like an LA insider before the newness wore off me, and I still hear his voice in my head as I drive around town. He served up Los Angeles on a plate to me, and I’ll always remember him.

1 comment:

smalltownme said...

My BFF and I were starstruck teenagers, and saw A Chorus Line at the Shubert perhaps 3 times, and also the premiere of Funny Lady in 1975 when BFF touched Fred Astaire's shoulder. Stellar memories.