Sooner or later each of us is tasked with escorting visitors around Los Angeles. No matter if these visitors are adventurous or timid or whether they are here on business, representing their government or simply families on vacation, when I ask, “What would you like to see?” the unvarying response is “Hollywood.” I have, hopefully, learned to mask my lack of enthusiasm.
In reality, it is the area that surrounds the intersection of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard that I am most averse to. This is an area over-populated by wide-eyed tourists being photographed by super heroes portrayed by unemployed actors; homeless panhandlers jockeying for prime handout locations; and glassy eyed runaways exiting the Hollywood/Highland Red Line Metro Station.
Even so, I concede that the block anchored by the intersection of Hollywood and Highland is a composite of Hollywood’s many facets. Along with the tourists, the street performers, the homeless and the lost are the Dolby Theatre, site of the Academy Awards and the Chinese Theatre, developed by Sid Grauman, the ultimate Hollywood showman, in partnership with Hollywood icons Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They are all part of Hollywood’s reality and mystique.
However, before making that inevitable trek to Hollywood and Highland, I suggest an appetizer. First visit the Hollywood Bowl. Then, if it is open, visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Following these preparatory stops, proceed to Hollywood and Highland.
The Hollywood Bowl is the summer home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Started by a group of community activists in 1922 its stage has been occupied by a world’s Whose Who of music. It is open for free walk-throughs on most days throughout the year. If you visit on Tuesday or Thursday mornings during the summer you may watch and listen to the Hollywood Bowl orchestra rehearse – no charge. And, while walking your visitors through the Bowl, don’t ignore its museum. It’s a short visit that provides additional perspective on the Bowl and on the entertainment industry.
From the Bowl I suggest driving your visitors a couple of blocks south on Highland to the Hollywood Heritage Museum – the only museum in Hollywood worth spending time in. Located in the barn where Hollywood’s first motion picture was shot, the museum contains a potpourri of Hollywood artifacts, memorabilia and history. I find it to be the perfect introduction to the rest of Hollywood. The only negative aspect are its hours – 12:00 to 4:00 on Saturdays and Sundays.
Once you have been fortified by the Hollywood Bowl and the Heritage Museum’s displays it is time to face the challenges of Hollywood Boulevard. I suggest parking at the Hollywood and Highland Center parking lot – it’s reasonably priced, especially if you buy some trinket at the Center and get your ticket validated.
While exiting the parking area you may want to take your visitors to the third level of the shopping area. The north side has a popular site from which to view and photograph the Hollywood Sign. Leave the Hollywood and Highland Center by passing the Dolby Theater and the stairway that leads to it. Unless you sign up for a tour of the theater you won’t see the inside. As opposed to most available tours of Hollywood, I find the Dolby tour at least marginally worthwhile.
The Chinese Theatre has gone through numerous naming rights. Currently it is identified as the TCL Chinese Theater. Before that it was Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Most people still call it Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Famous for its forecourt’s handprints and footprints, the inside is lavish and makes sitting through a so-so movie worthwhile. By the way, the sidewalk impersonators that are so much a part of the forecourt environment aren’t hired by the theater. Neither are they licensed. Feel free to tip them but you don’t have to pay them for being photographed with your guests.
From the Chinese Theater I would cross the street to the Roosevelt Hotel – the site of the first Academy Awards. Wander around the lobby area then take the stairs to the Mezzanine. There you can peek into the room where the first academy awards were held and another room in which Marilyn Monroe took her first screen test. The stairs you took to reach the Mezzanine are the stairs where Shirley Temple and Bo Jangles rehearsed their famous dance routine for The Little Colonel.
A short distance from the Roosevelt Hotel, the El Capitan Theater showcases an ornate East Indian interior and a Spanish Colonial exterior. It opened in 1926 as a live theater. This is where Citizen Kane premiered. After falling into disrepair, it was painstakingly restored. El Capitan is now the exclusive first run theater for Walt Disney Pictures. It also hosts live stage shows, world premiers and other special events.
I like to walk my visitors three or four blocks along each side of Hollywood Boulevard. If they look up instead of the stars on the Walk of Fame they will see some interesting architecture. Along the way they can also see Larry Edmunds Book Shop, the Egyptian Theater and Musso & Frank Grill.
Larry Edmunds Book Shop has been in business for over 70 years. It is Hollywood’s best-known source for Hollywood related books, lobby cards, original posters and press books.
Sid Grauman developed The Egyptian Theater in 1922. Originally it was supposed to resemble a Spanish hacienda. While under construction, King Tut’s Tomb was discovered. Ever the showman, Grauman disregarded the already installed Spanish tile roof and shifted to an Egyptian motif. The idea of staging a big event as part of a movie’s premier started with Grauman at the Egyptian. The theater fell into disrepair and was acquired by the city of Los Angeles. In 1996 The American Cinematheque purchased the theater from a Los Angeles redevelopment agency for $1.00. It is now a nonprofit venture that showcases public programming. In the interior, only the original ceiling remains.
Musso & Frank Grill is famous for its martinis. It began in 1919 as Frank’s French Café then became Musso & Frank in 1923. It is Hollywood’s oldest restaurant. Renowned as a meeting place for Hollywood’s literary figures and personalities it is conveniently located to the Shane Building, where the Writers Guild of America had its offices for many years. Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann were among the famous writers who have dined here.
Depending on your scheduling here are additional places within Hollywood that visitors may be interested in.
Monastery of the Angels. The monastery’s sisters acquired this mansion and moved here from their downtown 28th Street address in the late 1930s. No more than two miles from Hollywood Boulevard their store sells pumpkin bread and candies made by the sisters.
Sunset Gower + Sunset Bronson Studios. The Cahuenga House saloon, on the corner of Sunset and Gower, was forced out of business in 1919 when Hollywood’s governing body decreed that alcohol could only be sold by doctor’s prescription. The building’s next tenant was the Nestor Film Company – Hollywood’s first studio. Columbia Pictures Studio acquired and expanded the Sunset and Gower location in 1921. Today its 16 sound stages are rented for television and indie movie productions. Paramount Studios is just to the south. Visually, they tend to blur into one.
Paramount Studios. In 1926 Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky built a new studio on Marathon Street in Hollywood. This is still the location of Paramount Pictures. Mary Pickford, Rudolf Valentino and Clara Bow were under contract to Paramount as was Cecil B. De Mille. Wings, the studio’s 1928 release, received the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The back half of the cemetery was used to build Paramount Studios. Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Jayne Mansfield are a few of the personalities buried here as well as gangster Bugsy Siegel. Several times each month during the summer classic Hollywood films are projected against the wall of Valentino’s mausoleum. The public is welcome.
Magic Castle. Located within one of Hollywood’s first mansions, the Magic Castle is a private clubhouse operated by the Academy of Magical Arts as a showplace for top professional and amateur magicians who perform a variety of close-up, parlor and stage magic. Dinner, with a nice view of Hollywood, is served prior to the performances. I have found it good place for entertaining visiting Estonian Foreign Ministry guests. Although this is a members only club and I am not a member I have been able to gain access, sometimes with the help of intermediaries.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.