Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Photo Essay: The Speedway Magic of Lights

So this is a thing now.

I want to drive through every drive-thru Christmas lights experience there is.

My latest conquest was the "Magic of Lights" installation at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

But whereas at the Glittering Lights display in Las Vegas I wanted to know how slow I could go...

...here, I wanted to know how fast I could go.

Because I've driven this track before. And there's no such thing as too fast.

But while there was no minimum nor maximum speed limit at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in Fontana we were restricted to 5 mph.

That's barely moving at all.

And I'm not the most patient person in the world.

I want to take my time, but when I'm ready, I'm ready to go.

So, as I passed the nativity scenes and the "12 Days of Christmas" depicted in lights...

...I found myself going very slowly in my car...

...barely crawling past the wise men and the Angel Gabriel...

...not even outpacing a horse-drawn carriage...

...or the tempo of a Victorian tea dance...

...and then gunning it when I had the chance, past garden gnomes...

...and lords a-leaping...

...and, for some reason, fire-breathing dragons.

Much of it didn't feel very Christmasy to me, nor did it feel incredibly Southern Californian.

Save for the occasional palm tree.

But I welcome a light display at any time, taken at any speed.

Even if it's all just a blur.

Especially if it's all just a blur.

I've got enough time to stop and admire the surfers.

I can watch the cars ahead of me meander through the light tunnels.

And then I can zoom my way through at my own pace...

...be it at a snail's pace or, at least for a short distance, hyperspeed.

And so describes my time in Southern California throughout the rest of every year as well. It's a wonder I can ever focus on anything without everything being lost in a trail of light.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Glittering Lights at Las Vegas Speedway
A First Time for Everything
Photo Essay: Griffith Park's Holiday Light Train

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Photo Essay: A Bit of Hollywood in Vegas

I've quit gambling. I'm a stupid gambler, and I lose too much money too quickly.

So why go to Vegas, then?

To me, there's so much more to Vegas than the roulette wheel and poker tables and slot machines. I love the bling-bling of a big win (even though it was much better when you got to collect a bucketful of actual coins), but typically I try to make a beeline through any given casino floor to get to the other stuff in Vegas that I can safely (and more affordably) occupy myself with.

My Vegas visits are frequently offbeat even by Vegas standards—hiking the red rocks, for example—but this time I wanted to see just how Vegasy I could make my trip, without gambling, and still have fun.

And that meant I had to chase down the ghost of Liberace.

I missed my chance to visit the Liberace Museum when it was open, but back then I wasn't very interested in "Mr. Showmanship" (not to be confused with "Mr. Las Vegas," Wayne Newton).

And now, just a small collection of some of his possessions—costumes, a rhinestone Baldwin grand piano, and a fleet of cars—are on display at "Liberace's Garage" at the Hollywood Cars Museum, right off the Strip.

But you do get to see how the flamboyant piano man rolled—specifically in cars like the shocking pink "VolksRolls" VW Bug that kept him rolling in style despite the 1970s energy crisis.

That was just to stand in for his preferred model—which was a real Rolls Royce, of which he had several, including a "Bicentennial" edition, a 1952 Rolls Royce model that he got special permission to paint in stars and stripes for his patriotic-themed show in 1976.

But perhaps the only thing he loved more than Rolls Royces were rhinestones—and to match his glittering custom Baldwin piano and his "Ice Blue" costume, he adorned a Roadster with thousands of them in 1986.

As much as "The Glitter Man" lived in a disco ball world, many of those cars were just for his live concerts and TV appearances. The car he actually drove himself was a gold-flecked, custom Bradley GT sports car with sterling silver candelabras on each side.

The thing about Vegas, though, is that it's inextricably linked to Hollywood—for better or for worse.

So, it's in Vegas that you'll find one of the original Batmobiles...

...or a James Bond villain's AMC Matador coupe, the "flying car" from The Man With the Golden Gun.

In Vegas, you'll find one of the 1969 Dodge Chargers known as the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard (though you'll find others at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank and even the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville).

The only surviving stunt car from the TV show Hardcastle and McCormick, the Coyote X, is also in Vegas—having been rescued from the backlot of MGM Studios in Culver City.

And The Fast and the Furious may be one of the main attractions at the Universal Studios Tour, but Brian's 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse is permanently parked on Dean Martin Drive.

The real Bonnie and Clyde death car may be displayed in Primm, NV at Whiskey Pete's...

...but the movie death car, in which Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty met their demise, is 40 miles north at the Hollywood Cars Museum.

Sure, it can be a bit morose or even morbid to ogle dead celebrities' belongings and movie props riddled with bullets, but the creepiest part of this Vegas car museum for me was its display of unsettling mannequins.

Whether they were meant to be mechanics...

...or princes of the pump...

...they're a reminder that you never know who or what you might run unto in Vegas.

Because Vegas isn't just any one thing. And whatever it is at any given moment, it's bound to change soon enough.

But maybe Vegas will always be where Hollywood goes to escape—and yet finds something altogether familiar.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: At Home With Mr. Las Vegas
Giving Thanks on the Vegas Strip
Life's a Gamble

Friday, December 8, 2017

Photo Essay: The Greek Orthodox Cathedral That Hollywood Built

I've spent most of my life being unorthodox and doing unorthodox things. And although I don;t consider myself religious, I have a lot of respect for a certain kind of orthodoxy that compels people to express their piety in elaborate architecture, ornamentation, and iconography.

It seems like a good way to channel religiosity—give it up to whatever or whomever you worship, and keep your sanctimony without being too sanctimonious.

And maybe it'll be so pretty that infidels like me can't resist going in.

I found this to be true with the Orthodox cathedrals and chapels in Ukraine; and when I came back from the former Eastern Bloc, I found myself drawn to another Orthodox institution: Saint Sophia Cathedral.

It's Catholic, but it's not Roman Catholic, so I still found it somewhat exotic—though supposedly this version of Catholicism predates all other versions of Christianity (or, as we call them, denominations), going all the way back to the so-called "birth of the Church" (and that is, indeed, Church with a capital "C").

The Roman Catholics didn;t begin to split off until the 11th Century, creating a great divide between East and West.

And that more or less coincided with the time when religion really became an act of war (a.k.a The Crusades).

But before everything got so muddied up with all this infighting, there was a line that led directly back to the apostles of Jesus, and the was The Church, the Orthodox Church (that is, ορθά δόξα, or "right glory").

Then again, there are a lot of churches that claim the same direct line and the same "rights" to sacred sites and traditions.

So who's right?

If you could ask Apostle Paul, what would he say?

What about Matthew?

Would they even recognize the beliefs that have been handed down over the last two millennia?

If Jesus was truly our Holy Savior, surely he wouldn't want his followers to be divided among so many splinter groups.

But how do you know?

Not James, nor James the Lesser, nor Thaddeus, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, or Simon can speak to us now.

Shall we ask Saint Sophia, the 2nd century martyr who gave birth to Faith, Hope, and Charity?

Perhaps, but Saint Sophia Cathedral isn't actually named after her—nor after any saint at all.

The word "Sophia" (Σοφία) here refers to "wisdom"—not a proper name.

And somehow the word for "Holy"(Αγια) got translated into "Saint" (as most dictionaries are apt to do), despite the fact that the cathedral was actually named after the Church of Holy Wisdom—Hagia Sophia—in ancient Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

So, if this wisdom is so holy, then why is it so confusing?

But before I get too mired down in the details and discrepancies of theology, I have to remember what brought me into Saint Sophia Cathedral—and that's the building itself.

With its opulent crystal chandeliers, it feels more like a theatrical interpretation of Byzantine tradition...

...and that's due, at least in part, to its art glass windows being designed by the head of Fox West Coast Theaters' decorating department, William Chavalas.

But the cathedral itself was borne out of a Hollywood dream—the dream of a Greek immigrant named Charles Skouras who vowed to build a house of worship if he ever "made it" in showbiz.

When he did, ultimately becoming president of Fox West Coast and head of the National Theatres circuit, he made good on his promise—breaking ground on Saint Sophia Cathedral in the "Greek" section of LA in 1948.

It was completed in 1952, just two years before Skouras passed away. And now, he's buried in a crypt right there on the property—on land he personally donated to be used for the cathedral.

And yet his dream lives on for its parishioners, the community in the surrounding Byzantine-Latino Quarter, and curious visitors like me.

For more information about the cathedral and its iconography, click here.

Related Posts:
Where Church and State Collide
Photo Essay: Monastery of the Caves (Києво-Печерська лавра)
Photo Essay: Hollywood's First Jewish Temple, Restored