When first I gazed upon the Hollywood Walk of Fame, averting my eyes from the expectorated fluids and bird droppings dotted across the names of the world’s most revered entertainers, I had a thought that I’ve learned is not uncommon upon a first visit to Hollywood: “This is it?” Scruffy denizens and a sea of tourists shared the slightly soiled sidewalk in front of questionable-looking storefronts, plodding along together under an unmistakable hovering cloud of marijuana fume. Welcome to Tinseltown.
Here’s the thing, though. After rendezvousing with this section of the behemoth that is Los Angeles, as well as some of its neighboring environs, I had the same feeling I did the first time I tried sushi many years ago. Back then I had left the restaurant unimpressed, not turned off, but not turned on, either, until three months later, when a sushi menu in the Spanish town in which I was living made me throb from all the right culinary places. We’ve been mad for each other ever since. LA seduced me more gradually, little by little shedding its slightly putrid crust to reveal the depth and breadth of its nautilus heart. It’s a businessman’s heart, a foodie’s heart, a family person’s heart, and absolutely, without question, an artist’s heart. Here’s how we fell in love.
I brought the Silver Fox and Scooter with me for the maiden voyage in 2015. I had business in the northern and southern parts of the state across two weeks in the summertime, so we traveled together, spending the weekend between office locations in Hollywood as tourists. On our first outing we experienced that anticlimactic moment on the Boulevard, where everything seemed so much smaller and seedier than it did on TV. However, to that revelation we soon (and ironically) added this one–Hollywood can be cool for kids.
In a move for which we still metaphorically high-five one another, the Silver Fox and I booked our weekend stay at the Magic Castle hotel. Two words: popsicle hotline. That was all Scooter needed–a red phone placed on the wall next to the pool at this cozy quaint motel-shaped property, literally blocks away from the Walk of Fame. Make the call and an attendant wearing white gloves (seriously) comes outside bearing a twin pop on a silver plate. Scooter got some serious mileage out of that one, let’s be clear.
There was nothing not to love about the Magic Castle hotel. It’s not fancy, but comfortable, with an authenticity about it that lets you know you’re in Hollywood, and sweet touches like kid-sized bathrobes to make your little ones truly feel appreciated. To boot, it’s located next to the Magic Castle venue, a popular celebrity spot for events ranging from galas to actual magic shows. We made a wrong turn there at one point on our way to the hotel parking lot. There was a good-sized line of folks queuing outside, and they all looked shiny. Hollywood shiny.
This first weekend was a short one, but we filled it nicely with drives through the Hollywood Hills, which at that August time was a region in dire need of water. There were also a few nice meals to be had, served by folks like Demius, who explained to us in Paul Robeson’s voice between descriptions of the specials that he was heading to Asia to play Mufasa in a touring production of The Lion King. There was the first pass through stately Beverly Hills, and the serious wow moment that is one’s initial ride down Sunset Strip, as Whiskey A Go-Go and The Viper Room pass right there in front of your eyes. It was good.
LA and I brought our relationship to another level when I returned alone for a conference a year and a half later. This time the port of call was the Loew’s West Hollywood–literally right across a skyway from the Boulevard and a ten-minute walk from the Magic Castle. “A king room would be fine, Ms. Williams? In that case, I think we may have an upgrade available.” Damn straight. Top floor–a suite, no less–and a window looking right into the Hills and smack-dab at that iconic sign. Good day, LA.
I’m not gonna lie, there was tourism involved this time around too. I walked onto an open-air celebrity homes tour an hour or so after checking in on Sunday, joining a couple of other conference-goers, a pair of Southern newlyweds and two Kiwi ladies on a photo-op laden open-vehicle drive to see where Katy, Mel, JLo, Denzel and the rest hang their hats. The air was crisp and cool, the less arid conditions bringing out buds of green under a clear, blue sky. We were also party to a questionable Gosling sighting at a local park; one of the Kiwis was undaunted in her quest to answer the question “is he or isn’t he,” almost to the point of peeking out behind the bushes as he retreated pulling a Barbie car in his wake. Sidebar: having been to these parts of LA and other known celebrity spots in the area (Malibu Country Mart and Burbank, for example), not to mention lots of travel to New York City, I’ve discovered that I really don’t care whether I’m in the room with a famous person or not. Truly. On a stage, yes, I’m excited to see them do their thing, but eating ribs on a paper plate or perusing the fruit jams, not so much. I did see a Shih Tzu in a diamond collar, though, so that’s something.
Business has its privileges, and on this second trip to Hollywood I got to feel just a bit more of the rarefied air of the well-connected Angelino. I had some good friends at this conference; we reunite at events like this whenever we can, and this time around was no exception. The last reunion, in Nashville the year before, was a fabulous if hangover-inducing few evenings of bonding over music. On this occasion, one of the gang had organized a networking dinner at the Paley, and since there was a big event being held downstairs at the same time (red carpet and all, eek!) we found ourselves enjoying the beautiful rooftop, sipping wine as we looked over the star-lit city on a cool, clear night. Excellent food, great friends, and the feeling of being special–that was another of LA’s gifts to me.
I like to hear good live music whenever I possibly can (refer to Nashville above). Business trips are an excellent opportunity for this, since I’m alone with free time on my hands in a new place–usually a major city. But that situation was also my limitation in LA. The night before, I had closed out the hotel bar with a few folks, including my dear friend Lindsey, talking about an old flame of hers while I sipped away on my water, having had my quota of 2-3 drinks for the night (a hard-won business travel trick that has saved my ass from more than one miserable morning, Nashville excepted). Lindsey and the rest of the gang had since gone back home, my flight was in the morning, and I was solo for the evening and chafing at the bit to hear some damned music. In HOLLYWOOD.
You know when the concierge just laughs that the pickings are pretty slim. “You’re a woman traveling alone, and don’t want to go too far? Well, then…”. I wanted very much to head out to Studio City and hit some small, hidden gem of a venue, but that was too far to go when I had an early flight. I was itching to visit one of the storied clubs on the Strip, but since I was alone, that was also a big, steaming No. My rockstar concierge pressed on undeterred, however, rifling through his papers, searching the internet, conferring with his colleagues behind the desk. The clock ticked. Then, finally, “Do you like jazz?”
I love jazz. You can thank my native Pittsburgh for that, where I attended the University of Pittsburgh’s annual jazz concert with my ex more than once. For those who haven’t been (and you should go–both this show and my fair hometown are simply awesome), the Saturday night concert caps off Pitt’s wildly popular Annual Jazz Seminar–global masters of the craft holding sessions for students and citizens to talk about how they do that marvelous thing they do. This is where the gurus jam–Patrice Rushen, Terumasa Hino, Grover Washington, Jr., Dr.Nathan Davis, Abraham Laboriel. Yeah, THOSE guys. I got spoiled fast back then.
It had been a few years since I’d heard live jazz, most recently from the talented, beautiful and chic Bria Skonberg, right here in my Florida neighborhood, so I wasted no time in letting Rockstar Concierge know that I was all in for the reservation. It was a five-minute cab ride from the hotel to the Catalina Bar & Grill, one of those intimate dinner and a show venues where a $20 cover gets you entertainment that renders you barely able to taste your food. Found myself one of those cliched little round tables for one in the corner, ordered up some pasta and wine, and settled in for a performance by the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center.
The Master of Ceremonies took the stage first, resplendent in high-shine shoes, slicked-back hair and a three-piece suit, to include a very present black-and-white checked vest. He was not messing around. After a few announcements and other pleasantries, the band kicked up and he launched right into Mustang Sally, grooving and crooning and offering up a throaty vocal worthy of Wilson Pickett himself. That’s when I stopped tasting my linguine altogether.
You know how sometimes you’ll have a sort of “Oh shit” entertainment moment that makes you realize you’re in for something particularly fabulous? For example, Hugh Jackman’s very first scene as Wolverine (you know–the cage fight), Aretha Franklin singing the opening lines of Nessun Dorma, the stage lights coming up on Bruno Mars wearing Prince purple, ruffles, a cloud guitar and that damned eyeliner–all definite “oh shit” moments for me. Another one came on as I sat at my little round table at the Catalina, during the first chorus of Mustang Sally. This song is nothing if not an audience participation tune, right? I mean, everyone and their grandma knows “Ride, Sally, ride,”after all. Well, in this case, when the audience broke into that refrain, it sounded like I was surrounded by a professional gospel choir. Every single member of the 100-plus person crowd seemed to have a stellar singing voice, everyone was in total unison, and no one was even remotely off-key…except maybe me. Oh shit, indeed.
But friends, that was merely the beginning. Every act was rock solid, from standard jazz to scat to growly, bluesy goodness. I grooved through each performance, absently twirling my pasta, occasionally making the little stank face I make when I hear blues, and metaphorically patting myself on the back for getting out of the hotel to See Something. Toward the end of about the sixth act, a lovely woman in a glittery red dress and close-cropped gray hair came to stand several feet behind me, talking in low tones with an audience-goer. When the music began again, Oh Shit returned in full force.
Barbara Morrison started singing from right where she stood behind me, a good 30 feet from the stage. The band’s groove spirited her toward her mark, while she advanced slowly, with flawless, strong vocals, proceeding up the side of the room and onto the ramp and totally owning both the song and the audience. WITH NO MIKE. Mike? Who needs a mike. This is Barbara Morrison, people. Mike schmike. All eyes and ears were focused only on her from that moment on.
For the next twenty minutes she ruled the room, singing (eventually into a microphone) about being a woman and an artist, making us blush at her bluesy pronouncement of what a lover needs, letting us all feel both the sound and the words in her unique, beautifully phrased and masterfully performed way. When she was done–which meant the show was over–she walked back down the ramp to talk with the audience. When it was my turn in line, she took my hand as I thanked her, and asked me earnestly, with a sweet grandmotherly smile, “Did you have a good time?”
The answer, through and through, from Mulholland to West Beverly and from the Magic Castle to that cozy music club, was yes. Yes, Barbara. Yes, LA. I had fun. And I can’t wait to have some more.
Postscript: Want to hear some of Barbara Morrison’s mojo? Check this out.