Best of 2019: Danny Burdett

Cinerama

Los Angeles, USA

If you find yourself in Los Angeles with no more pressing decisions than where you shall take your first meal of the day, which film you will see and where… if you are the beneficiary of this unaccountable good fortune, you should probably escape the force field of your reasonably comfortable bed and do as much as you can with the day.

So you trail along the controlled jungle of your motel’s courtyard, various of the guests placed about a metal patio table or contentedly prostrate in pool deck chairs beneath the strengthening sun. You pass through the vestibule of this establishment that could write pulp novels with what it has seen and emerge through the establishment’s curiously plantation-like facade — the face whitewashed, a broad expanse of porch and a row of imposing, unfluted columns. Into the Los Angeles morning! Well, the late morning at least.

You emerge from the Hollywood and Vine Metro station and decide as the day’s voyage is beginning you will seek augury in the stars set into the walkway beneath your feet.  This is all very exciting, but then the first star you espy whose name is spelled in gold within its pink star (it’s like the whole thing was designed by somebody moonlighting from Frederick’s of Hollywood) is Reese Witherspoon. You mean no disrespect to Ms. Witherspoon, but this is not quite the answer you were seeking in these stars. So you decide the next, yes the next star on which you focus will be the one. And sure enough, the next tacky pink star on which your eyes alight is that of good old Joe Mankiewicz. And you think, now we’re talking. But then some time later your feet fall upon the star bestowed upon that cinematic giant, Bobby Flay. Perhaps this particular set of tea leaves should be the subject of a factory recall.

Down Hollywood Boulevard, you settle on an a Middle Eastern restaurant. As many, Jonathan Gold preeminent among them, have pointed out, numerous of the city’s culinary delights are hidden in plain, banal sight in its strip malls.  So it is at this joint, probably not quite distinguished enough for dear departed Mr. Gold, but who knows; the man got around. Amongst all the movie popcorn, the gallons of soda and the seamy late-night fast food runs, you realize it’s probably a good idea to occasionally throw your body a curve and deliver unto it a plate heaped with organic matter. Not just chicken shawarma, not just hummus and actual lettuce, but even little stalks of beets.  Beets, for heaven’s sake!  You imagine an internal food monitor, generally inured to the flow of manufactured food and drink, practically startled out of his little chair at this unorthodox repast. Speaking in even, Spock-like tones, he says, “It would seem to be organic matter, but we can’t be sure. Let us hope for the best.” And indeed, you all have a lovely meal.

Sunset Boulevard is just a few blocks south on Vine, and yonder to the west is the unmistakable shape of the Cinerama Dome. You’ve never been, and this is to be the day.  They’re playing Wonder Woman in the dome because, well,  everyone is playing Wonder Woman just now.  So once more unto the breach with Ms. Gadot you will go.

But you’ve got time prior to the next cinema bum afternoon screening, so you wander around Hollywood along the streets mainly south of Sunset. Moving west along De Longpre (which makes you happy just to say), you come to the bland police station at Wilcox. Across the street, predictably enough, is a bail bond establishment, perhaps several under one flat roof.  This low-slung building, is a riot of old signs and enticements, extending above that flat roof and painted on its facade.  Perhaps the strangest bit of juxtaposition here, considering form and function, is not the almost cheerful cacophony of the signs, but the row of Christmas lights hung along the eaves of the building.

Through the relative hush of this residential area, you also see examples of Los Angeles street signs you have never quite noticed before. This the generation that first appeared in the 1940s, with its no-nonsense, “just the facts ma’am” sans serif font on a navy blue field, called the shotgun sign, much as they remind you more of a hand with an extended index finger.

These neighborhood streets are rich with expansive flowering shrubs and trees, behind which can be found lovely, modest houses. These are mainly enviable bungalows, flatter than their Chicago brethren and sheathed in wood planks instead of brick. The attractiveness and variety of these bungalows sing a seductive song with which the Midwest bungalow can’t quite compete; so it goes with the West Coast. The most encouraging thing here is scale. The size of the average North American dwelling (and this definitely includes our seemingly more civilized neighbors to the north in Canada) has increased radically since the mid-20th century.  But here are houses low to the ground, not far removed from the street, modest in scale.  Just a few feet from the next house. It all seems very civilized.  But how one affords such civilization you still don’t entirely understand.

They run a tight ship at the Cinerama Dome. A squad of polite young men sell you your ticket and offer directions around the corner to the dome proper. There, another well-groomed fellow, apparently the only one on duty at this modern cathedral of cinema, drawn from the very small screen of his smart phone to take your ticket, sell you the requisite vat of diet soda and manage to say without any apparent irony, “Enjoy Wonder Woman.”

Cinerama was originally a method of shooting and projecting film, three cameras or projectors at once.  Just one of the salvos of the movie industry in the 1950s, desperate to compete with the insurgent threat of television. The triple film process was soon abandoned for the highly impractical method it was, but 70mm films were projected onto the originally 146 degree curve of Cinerama screens (not a continuous strip, but a series of narrow vertical strips carefully angled at the audience). There were once Cinerama theaters all over the world, purpose-built and adapted. Only a few remain, the Cinerama Dome (among the late, geodesic dome iterations of the chain) among them.

Even with the pre-film walk, you have arrived some 25 minutes before film time, which makes you the only person in the dome when you step through one of its side curtains. How can this be? At this famous place, in the middle of Hollywood? You have never understood the reluctance of your fellow man and woman to “leave the warm precincts of the cheerful day” in favor of a darkened theater, but it takes all kinds. So, you have the Cinerama Dome to yourself for a full 10 minutes until another sole male arrives (at which time you wonder, as he might well of you: A mere cinephile? Devotee of old theaters?  Wonder Woman fetishist? Maybe all of the above?).

Eventually, about a dozen curious souls choose to shun the California sunshine in favor of the dark of the cinema. One of those polite young men comes out, mic in hand, prior to feature time and welcomes you to the Cinerama Dome.

And then, once more all the spectacle of Wonder Woman. This is the second time you have seen the entertaining if not terribly complex film. But if you can exit a theater of a summer’s day after seeing one of these superhero extravaganzas without a splitting existential ice cream headache, you probably shouldn’t complain.

You’d thought you would just stick around for a while, enjoy the theater experience and then leave before Wonder Woman sprawled to the conclusion of its 141 minutes. But to your surprise, you stay until the victorious end. That Gal Gadot does light up a screen, be it Cinerama or something more humble.

You had walked around Hollywood earlier in the afternoon and thought about the wealth and the striving. You had noticed the banners hung from the poles of street lights  asking for the consideration of Emmy voters in making their nominations.  You had sat in this theater and considered the pressure to fill such places. Box office numbers pored over like holy writs.  And well, you really like looking at Gal Gadot.  Just as you were expected to in the calculus of movie capitalism. And you do anyway. So that was fun.

Not so far away up on Hollywood Boulevard is the venerable little watering hole The Frolic Room. And it would be a sin not to stop by for a drink or two on your way back to the motel. So once more out of the sun and into the shadows.

The relative hush of late afternoon is either a really sad or satisfying hour in which to do your drinking, sometimes both.  The small room of the Frolic is not overrun as it can be of a night. There’s a few young men at the far end of the establishment making the scene a little too loudly, as such young men are wont to do. Otherwise, it’s a few guys spaced around the nearside curve of the bar, a woman sitting near the entrance against the opposite wall, not drinking as yet, and our bartender.

The young woman tending bar is slight of stature, cute in her square-framed glasses a bit incongruous relative to her scrappier wardrobe and short, slightly spiky hair. She hovers back and forth warmly and not without grace. The woman near the entrance has a slightly awkward though friendly introduction to a man who arrives, after having asked a previous patron if he was the man for whom she was waiting. Ah, the blind date. The somewhat eager, halting conversation is quite familiar in its attempt to settle into comforting rhythm. Fare thee well, would-be lovers.

You regard yourself in the mirror behind the bar. This is not always the most satisfying of exercises, but you’re not entirely displeased with what you see. And there is the mere fact of this reflection.

Some six or seven months previous, you had lain on an operating table for about six hours, heart stopped. One leaky little heart valve stitched back into compliance. Another far more leaky valve replaced with something mechanical, leaving you with a pronounced tick as that heart beats. Which it does, sewn back up as you were and dispatched like an automobile with a new carburetor.

Strange things, these wonders and banalities and striving. And what mad luxury to ruminate on it all over a beer in a Hollywood bar of a late afternoon, when this is but one of many choices at your feet. A second round seems appropriate.  You summon that charming bartender. That California sun will wait.


BIO: Danny Burdett has had poetry published in several journals and is the author of the film and travel blog, Pictureland. Mr. Burdett lives in Chicago.

Best of Wanderlust 2019 is available here.


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