When you think of Los Angeles, the immediate recall is usually Hollywood, the Oscars, Beverly Hills, Staples Center, Santa Monica Boulevard, Rodeo Drive - addresses that most of us have learnt of over the years courtesy films and soaps. An education from a distance, driven by marketing, public relations and advertising, LA is as much an education when one lands there. The greatest learning is the power of visual media and marketing that has created a make-belief life that actually lives in the figments of our imagination.
So, welcome to LA and its real world where Beverly Hills is a residential area with little action, boulevards are merely arterial streets and places like Rodeo Drive are shopping areas. Motion pictures had perhaps made many of us believe a lot more, making these places seem like destinations in themselves.
LA, therefore, is a 'normal' city not glossed up by the production techniques of any studio. People are scarce to see. The hustle and bustle attributed to large cities is missing. Service, even at hotels such as the Beverly Hilton, is way below the mark. Yet the lifestyle is largely opulent and hence expensive even in comparison with cities such as London. The obvious and immediate connection that one has with the entertainment world is left to Hollywood Boulevard, the homes of stars, the studios (the closest connect perhaps) and the plastic surgery clinics in and around the city.
Americans are largely seen as friendly people as long as you don't tread on their space and time. LA some how seems to be an exception. The locals can be rude and curt. It's the Mexicans and Asians who negate, to some extent, this behaviour. Friends on the East Coast state that it's the rich lifestyle of the people in LA that makes them the way they are. Having been to other parts of the US, I would tend to believe this.
Footprints of fame
Still, one can't take away LA's connection with the entertainment world. Its history and relevance is all about that and you always stand a chance of seeing a Hollywood star walking down the high-end Rodeo Drive where members of the glitterati shop.
That being the case, the starting point typically is Hollywood Boulevard and the stroll down the Walk of Fame. It is a landmark of sorts and the walk-through is a bit of trivia to check your knowledge of famous stars from the films, television and music world. Lined on the side is more significant history with the old and current venue of the Oscar ceremony. The Kodak Theatre may look a tad bland from the outside, but it is far more interesting from the inside. A $15 tour gives one a sense of not just the size of the theatre but also how the stars get seated and all that makes the Academy Awards what it is when we view it on TV. And you get to see the sets of American Idol as well, as this theatre hosts the popular show.
Attached to the Kodak Theater is an open shopping place with cafes and an elevated area from where you can see the Hollywood Hills. It is a lovely site and you may be tempted to head to the hills but locals suggest otherwise. "There is nothing to see but the same letters. Go only if you want a larger view of the alphabets," a local comments and that puts things in perspective.
A few meters from Kodak Theater is Grauman's Chinese Theater that played host to three Oscar Awards and several premieres and ceremonies related to the film business. This theatre is a must-see given its link with history and the forecourt that displays signatures, hand and footprints of motion picture personalities. This experience is more involving than the Walk of Fame as many tourists would like to spend time measuring the feet and hands of some of the stars.
On the same street but in the other direction is the Egyptian Theater built by Grauman as well. The theatre, which is not always open, hosted the first ever Hollywood premiere - the film was Robin Hood - in October 1922.
what a ride!
Perhaps the only parts of LA that give you an almost up-close experience of Hollywood are some of its studios, most of which are now situated outside the city. Universal Studios, close to Warner Brothers and not too far from Sony Pictures, stands out for the sheer experience given the amusement park it has created around its huge complex. The studio breaks myths on how films are made, be it the way animals are trained, earthquakes are created or streets are flooded. And all of this is done with a real life experience that leaves one amazed and yet feeling silly about just how innocent cinema-goers are fooled.
Consider the following. You are sitting in a coach in a subway and then are rocked by an earthquake which results in the roof caving in and an oil tanker coming at you! Imagine the world spinning around you in a dully-lit passage. Try and visualise what it may be like to see an action scene on water right in front of you. Think of what your heart goes through when an inanimate Dracula comes to life in a dark alley just as you are about to pass by. These are just some of the experiences that the studio gives you, other than a short 4-D experience of Shrek. And the huge wooden sets bring London to LA and places the streets of France and New York minutes from each other. A $69 ticket for the day is worth it.
What would complete an LA trip is to see the stars - at least one if not more. The two 'easiest' ways to spot them is to spend time at Rodeo Drive or at the night clubs in and around the Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Boulevard area. To keep the public at a distance, however, stars are known to slip in to Rodeo Drive without the layers of cosmetics and the positive impact of Photoshop-type technology that makes the 'real' them unrecognisable. For those who can't discern between the real and the unreal look of a star, the night clubs are a better option.
Staying at the Beverly Hilton gave me a sense of how the rich and famous live. An extremely quiet lifestyle, the opulence lies in the architecture of the large homes with intricate landscaping, and the unrealistically priced bars and restaurants (night spots usually close at 2 am) where service more than often recognises your profile. The prices have more to do with the location than the quality of food or drinks.
Still you don't mind that as locals claim that celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Christina Aguilera, Nicolas Cage and David Beckham continue to live in and around Beverly Hills and could drop in at some of these night spots around there and the next door Santa Monica Boulevard. If the wait for these stars is in vain, there are guided tours of their homes and some tourist operators pack in Hollywood crime scenes as well for around $35-40 for a two-hour trip! Sadly, the need for privacy of such stars has meant the creation of high boundary walls and gates. One needs to be in a helicopter to see the grounds and bungalows they live or lived in, or be part of the paparazzi.
This is where the chapter normally ends for those who connect LA with Hollywood and its accessories. As a result, tourists often miss on the 'more' that the city has to offer. LA's Farmers Market, the Getty Center and the street art shows that come up on the weekends, are all worth a visit. The Farmers Market, which goes back to 1934, is a small wet market of fresh vegetables, flowers and fruits, candy and fresh nut stores beside a line of quick salad and bagel outlets. The market is where farmers used to bring their trucks to sell their harvests. The space is more organised now and is a good place to pick up fresh food and chocolates. The attached market with cafes and boutiques is worth a visit particularly on a nice sunny day. Unlike many other parts of LA, people are visible here.
The Getty Center has mo