January 31, 2018

Siete Años Aquí

Seven years ago, on January 27, my flight from snowy New York landed at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

I was still wearing my winter boots, which I promptly tore off and threw in the trunk of my rental car.

The first place I drove to? Target. I bought a bikini there.

Later, I arrived to my new apartment in Beverly Hills, the lease for which I'd only signed a couple weeks before.

Seven years later, I still live in that same apartment. And I have no intention on leaving anytime soon.

If I've got to live in any apartment in the LA area—if I can't yet afford to buy a house—then I might as well just stay here.

But seven-plus years is a long time. It's the longest I've lived anywhere as an adult, just now surpassing the seven years I spent in my Manhattan apartment.

And I can't believe some of the things I haven't done in seven years—the things I haven't unpacked, the household items I haven't bought.

For example, it's taken me seven years to frame a limited edition poster of a live concert screening of Dracula I attended in 2011 in Big Sur. I'll be picking that up from the framer soon.

It took me seven years to find a bookshelf that I could use to display my tiki mugs. I liked the first one so much that I just bought another one to make a pair.

Of course, I moved to LA in a hurry, and I'd sold or given away many of my possessions back in New York so as to not have to pay movers to transport them across the country, so that forced me to start anew in LA.

When I got here, I bought a new couch, new rug, new coffee table (my first!), new chair, new shelves and tables and bedding and whatnot.

Some of it was a rush job and didn't quite fit in my small Art Deco studio. I've gotten rid of some of those items since.

Some of what I moved from New York turned out to be dead weight, unneeded for my new California life.

The jury's still out on some of it.

And now, after seven years, it's finally time to get a new quilt for my bed, a new trash can for my bathroom, and a new table for my bedside. It's amazing how such little changes can make an old apartment feel completely refreshed.

I'm not much for New Year's Resolutions, but the start of a new year is a good time to gather a "to do" list—and at the top of mine were three critical tasks:

  1. Go to the car wash. (Done New Year's Day, ✓)
  2. Take my cat to the vet. (Done two weeks ago, ✓)
  3. Hire a crew to "deep clean" my kitchen and bathroom. (Done this week, ✓)
After all, seven years is a long time to live in one place. And I'd dirtied up this place enough to require some professionals to come in.

When one of the crew members—who didn't speak much English—finished in the bathroom and came to check on me in the living room, I fumbled through some Spanish to explain to her how long it had been since the place had gotten "a big clean."

"Siete años aquí," I said.

"Siete años?!" she exclaimed, acknowledging what I meant.


And we need to say nothing more. The looks on our faces said it all. 

When she had me inspect her work in the bathroom, all I could say was, "It's so clean!" 

I hadn't seen it that clean in seven years.

But I didn't know how to say that in Spanish.

Maybe I will in another seven years.

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January 30, 2018

The Studio Built By The Little Tramp, Now Home to a Frog Named Kermit

I don't remember when it was that I first passed the former Charlie Chaplin soundstage on La Brea Avenue, just south of Sunset...

Postcard: Circa 1920s, California Postcard Co. (Collection of the California State Library)

...whether it was in the back of a taxi in the late '90s or riding shotgun with a coworker in the early 2000s.

By Charles W. Beam (British Film Institute) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It might've even been behind the wheel of my own car—rental or lease—I just don't remember.

What I do remember, however, is thinking, "I don't know what that is, but that is something."

That's a standard diagnosis from me for something off the side of the road—either "That's something" or "That used to be something."

As it turns out, both statements were true about the storybook-style facade across from a reality TV tattoo parlor and a strip club and a few blocks north of LA's most famous hot dogs.

What it used to be was the movie studio built in 1918 for such Chaplin classics as City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator to be filmed,

What it became at the start of this millennium was the new home of The Jim Henson Company—and, in a hat tip to Chaplin's legacy on the site, its Kermit statue at the front gate was dressed in the style of "The Tramp."

So there are two concurrent layers peacefully coexisting at this Tudor-style estate, which looks like a little bit of the English countryside plopped down in the middle of Hollywood.

Usually, security is pretty tight around the property. The gate is locked and guarded by steadfast security. You never see anybody go in or out.

The D23 Disney Fan Club occasionally offers tours to its Gold Members—for a pretty penny.

The Henson Company doesn't just want to keep access to its lot exclusive—it needs to, considering all the top-notch musical artists that still come here to record.

After all, this was once the site of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss's A&M Records and recording studio from 1966 to 1999, where dozens of international superstars came together to lay down vocals for "We Are the World" in 1985.

But the real stars of the Henson studios are the puppet creations—whether born out of the Creature Shop (located in the former Carpenter Shop)...

...crammed against the window in the main reception area, amidst all the Emmy award trophies...

...or springing out of the sides of more recently-constructed structures.

You'll find some of those creatures actually on the Chaplin Stage, too...

...thanks to one of the few productions that actually opens the property up to the public.

A few times a year, Jim Henson's son (and current chairman of the Jim Henson Company) Brian Henson puts up a puppet show he created called Puppet Up!—Uncensored, which gives audiences a down-and-dirty look behind the scenes of TV puppetry, performed improv-style by a cast of Muppeteers. And a ticket to that show was my ticket in.

Map of Chaplin Studios (Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)

I didn't find the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin that are supposedly imprinted onto one of the cement sidewalks. I didn't see any traces of the orange grove that had been there before, when Sunset and La Brea was still a dusty, residential neighborhood.

I caught nary a glimmer of the time when Red Skelton shot his TV show there in the late 1950s and early '60s, nor a shadow of Perry Mason from when CBS owned the studio and shot the series there from 1962 to 1966.

I didn't even feel a ghostly chill or catch a whiff of flowers, though the site is reported to be haunted.

But I finally got inside those gates. And if I want to go back, now I know how.

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January 29, 2018

How Draining the Mountains of Its Springs Became Big Business in LA

Note: This is a modified version of a piece I contributed to You can read the original here.

In 1917, the bottled spring water business was thriving so much that it warranted the opening of one of the largest bottling plants in the West at the time.

Circa 1933 (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library)

And now, more than a century after first opening, the Arrowhead bottling plant near downtown Los Angeles on Washington Boulevard and Compton Avenue is one of the oldest continuously operating manufacturing facilities in LA.

When industrious Southern Californians discovered how to tap into one of our many natural resources—the unmolested riches of the San Bernardino Mountains—suddenly anyone could purchase water from our mountain springs to be bottled and shipped to the lowlands.

And thanks to Arrowhead’s aggressive marketing campaigns (which dovetailed with those promoting California as a tropical paradise that drew visitors from all over the country), that became very much the rage in the early 1900s.

That was a time when Southern Californians were fascinated with our mountain ranges and, in a fit of “mountain fever,” flocked to our mighty peaks for hiking, adventuresome trolley rides, dancing, stargazing, and more. Those with the money and the wherewithal to make the trek to our mountain resorts and retreats were romanced by the ruggedness of the Old West and intoxicated by the fresh mountain air and clear mountain creeks that seemed to run all year.

But it wasn’t just that our mountain spring water tasted better...

...because even that wouldn't have been enough to sell glass bottles of water to regular people who probably normally wouldn’t allow themselves such extravagances.

It wasn’t even enough for the water to be “pure,” since many waters at the time could have rated high in purity.

No, this water was something more than that: It was “healthful.”

Arrowhead capitalized on the popularity of drinking for health—like the tonic waters and seltzers that had become so popular in the mid-19th century—by advertising that doctors recommended its particular type of water for its mineral content (reportedly seven grains of mineral salts to the gallon).

Fortunately, some of the company’s fascinating history has been preserved...

...including the last bottle of glass before the company made the switch to plastic.

That and other artifacts had been literally gathering dust for decades in the basement and only saw the light of day again when Ms. G, a veteran Arrowhead staffer, decided to bring them upstairs...

...and put them on display in an empty space nobody was using, right next to the copy machine.

Unfortunately, though, this little makeshift museum—which includes various ephemera from when Arrowhead more broadly defined their role in the beverage business to include products like creamer and sugar, as well as ginger ale and a “champagne-style” orange soda—isn’t open to the public.

At least not yet, anyway.

But after years of drought and only one relatively wet season, should bottling and selling our local water have already gone out of vogue?

That question hit a fever pitch in October 2015, when the water level at Strawberry Creek—one of the sources the Nestlé-owned company taps into—hit a record low.

That’s also when no less than three advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that had granted a special use permit to Arrowhead in the past (actually, before the year 1914).

Apparently, the USFS has failed to properly document its approval of subsequent renewal applications—for the last 30 years.

Based on a decision from a federal judge in September 2016, Arrowhead had been able to continue to remove water from the San Bernardino Mountains—legally—until such time that the Forest Service officially revokes its permission.

Strawberry Creek ran dry for the first time—more than once—in 2017.

This past December, regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board reported that its 20-month investigation seems to show that the extraction and diversion of the water appears to be unauthorized.

The comment period on that report closes February 9, 2018.

According to Arrowhead, the company collects only water that’s naturally available at any given time at Arrowhead Springs (rather than, say, pumping into the groundwater supply). After all, it behooves the company to not let the well run dry, as it were.

Then again, that didn't stop the LADWP from draining Owens Lake after it surreptitiously acquired the water rights on the land that surrounded it.

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How to Rose Parade—Featured on

Presenting my first (and first of many, I hope) slideshow for Frommer's (featuring some additional photos not published on my own blog):

I've been preparing for this moment since at least 2014.

Does this mean I'm a "real" travel writer now?

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January 28, 2018

Memorializing Disasters in Space Flight

For anyone born around 1975, the Challenger disaster was a big deal. We remember it—being shown the footage in school—the way that my mother must remember watching the JFK assassination on TV.

It seemed incomprehensible.

It was a time when young schoolgirls idolized the first [Ed: American] woman in Space, Sally Ride.

Three years later, Christa McAuliffe was to follow in her space boots. But on January 28, 1986—midway through my fifth-grade year—the Challenger exploded and broke apart into two pieces just 73 seconds after launch. All seven crew members died.

That was 32 years ago. I was 10.

But there's another space shuttle disaster that, in terms of human death toll, was just as bad, just 15 years ago: the Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry after its mission  STS-107 on February 1, 2003.

It also killed all seven of its crew members.

The image of the Challenger becoming obliterated into two puffs of smoke is an image I wish I could forget, like the cloud coming out of the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. But in 2003, I was long out of school. I was knee-deep in my life working in the music industry in New York City. To be honest, I don't really remember the Columbia disaster happening.

Fortunately, both orbitors are memorialized at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, built upon the former site of the NASA Industrial Plant in Downey, CA.

Marked at the entrance by Apollo Boiler Plate 12’s command module...

...the Columbia Memorial Space Center is a hands-on space museum with interactive displays like robotic arms, a gravity well, a shuttle simulator, robotics lab, rocket launcher, and of course an astronaut suit photo opp.

There's also the Challenger Learning Center, where you can simulate a return to the moon...

...or a voyage to Mars.

It seems fitting that this living tribute to the crew of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster be located on the site where the space shuttles were actually built... the former Vultee Aircraft Plant (circa mid-1930s), later known as Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) and, in response to President Kennedy's proclamation that launched the "space race," the Resident Apollo Spacecraft Office (RASPO).

Unfortunately, much of that original manufacturing and assembly complex responsible for the space shuttles that ended in disaster—known as North American Aviation—has been razed, paved over, and converted into a strip mall.

In fact, in one of the only remaining buildings, there's a T-Mobile store, though the inside has been gutted.

That's just around the bend from—and technically part of the same structure as—the Vultee Aircraft Company rotunda entrance at 12214 Lakewood Boulevard, designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufmann.

It's currently unoccupied, though presumably it's been spared the bulldozer.

This campus once housed over 300 astronauts, government contractors, and support personnel during the peak of the Apollo program...

...but at the peak of the plant (circa the mid-1960s), it actually was home to 35,000 workers.

From 1972 to 1985, a total of six vessels for "space transportation" (a.k.a. reusable spacecraft, which was a new thing) came out of the Downey plant: the Enterprise, the Columbia, the Challenger, the Discovery, the Atlantis, and the Endeavor.

But even before the Columbia disaster—widely attributed to a problem with a piece of foam that came flying off, a problem that NASA had known about for quite some time—the aerospace and defense business at the Downey plant was purchased by Boeing in 1996.

It subsequently continued on a smaller scale, until NASA relocated the remaining activities relocated to other sites and the NASA site was closed in 1999.

By then, the Columbia had been successfully accomplishing a variety of space missions for nearly two decades—including the very first flight of the space shuttle program in 1981.

But upon the near-completion of its 28th mission, when it disastrously killed all seven of its crew members in 2003, NASA suspended space shuttle flights while it investigated the accident over the course of two years.

It had been the Space Shuttle program's 113th flight.

And ultimately, the spacecraft that kicked off the Space Shuttle program essentially ended it, directly leading to the retirement of the entire fleet in 2011.

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