Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Alexandria Hotel

I know I am a few years off the hipster train but I just recently discovered how awesome Downtown Los Angeles is. And no place encapsulates the edgy, gritty, half-hip,half-derelict, magical wild west meets grand haunted history state of downtown like the Alexandria Hotel.

And for those of you who don't know- hotels are particularly significant for me because I AM ELOISE(by Kay Thompson, look it up!).

The Alexandria Hotel was built in 1906 when LA was still about rich people trying to build a sophisticated west, not about movie stars getting all sorts of wasted,though it eventually played host to that as well. The Palm Court ballroom(now on the LA historic register) featured an original Tiffany ceiling,and the ceilings of the lobby were 80-foot high gilded, molded wonders. Presidents Taft and Wilson spoke there.Churchill and that rascally hottie, Edward VIII, stayed there. Oh, thinking about it just gives me chills!

In the nineteen-teens the Alexandria became a center for the burgeoning Hollywood boomtown. Ruldolph Valentino danced the tango in its famous Palm Court. Charlie Chaplin and Louis B. Mayer had a fist fight in the lobby. United Artists announced its formation there and the list goes on and on. But after the nearby Biltmore Hotel opened in 1923, the Alexandria lost its "most fashionable" cachet and quickly went into decline. It eventually became a transient hotel and its grand ballrooms were used for boxing matches and as training facilities.

The Alexandria has recently changed ownership, and like a good chunk of Spring Street,home to the hipster fest known as ArtWalk, it is in the throes of gentrification. What makes the hotel so fascinating now is that it is in the very beginning of its transformation. You walk into the lobby on any given night and you can find hipsters trickling into the Palm Court for a fresh live show. I sang with this troupe(http://capturedauralphantasy.com) a couple weeks ago. What a cool experience. You will also see wheelchair-bound men who live in the low income housing upstairs waiting for the elevator; modish folk eating in The Gorbals, a super slick uptown eatery; and other scruffy and stylish types drinking in one of the bars- all as a player piano provides ghostly accompaniment and newsreels from silent Hollywood are projected on the walls.

But the most amazing thing about the Alexandria is that, like the Wild West, it is open to exploration- and most of the occupants seemed excited and friendly, turned on by this grand experiment in integrated development . Upstairs in the second ballroom(used in The long and boring life of Benjamin Button), I found a fledgling Cuban Ballet troupe, and made friends with a little girl who danced among the golden paint and exposed electrics as her mother warmed up on the barre. Everything is makeshift and dusty, and every hallway leads you somewhere that seems hidden and magical. A new bar was opening that night, just a few tables and a stage for a jazz quartet with views of the city all around and packing boxes in every corner.

You really can be Eloise and skedaddle anywhere you want. Just don't got in the Palm Court after midnight (Galloway and I got kicked out for that one). I encourage you to do so whenever you are downtown. Maybe have a drink, if you so choose, or see a show. But you don't really need one, because just being at the Alexandria makes you feel like you're on the last frontier between LA's glorious, shady past and it's uncertain brave new future.

Travel: B-
Ease: A
Content: A+
Subjective Coolness: A++
Overall: A

Directions: Take the 101-S to the 110-S and take the Downtown/4th St. exit. Merge onto W. 4th and take a right at S. Spring Street. Start looking for parking lots (ladies and smaller gentlemen-bring a buddy!).
Address: 501 South Spring Street.
Hours: Whenever suppose.
Price: Nothing. Parking will run you $7 to $10, whatever else you want to buy or see is on you!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Babe's and Ricky's Inn

If you hate the Sunset Strip (Saddle Ranch this is not), then you will love Babe's and Ricky's. If you enjoy great, expertly performed, live music (an 8 minute blues epic about a Hoochie Mama, sang by a man in a cowboy hat and very tight jeans that showed off an awful, awful lot?), you will love Babe's and Ricky's. If you adore feeling like you are out-of-town (somewhere in the South, where it's all humid and friendly and no-nonsense) when you are still in town, then you will love Babe's and Ricky's.

If you don't love Babe's and Ricky's I will think something is really wrong with you.

Babe's and Ricky's is a Blues Bar in Liemert Park, which our friends from the 90's would call South Central LA. The area seemed a little daunting at first- when Cat and I got there at 10:30pm on Saturday night it was very deserted, and this No Cruising sign did little to quell our fears(no driving by the same spot twice every SIX hours! What if you have to go to the grocery store, and then five hours later you need gas?).We entered the small bar cautiously- only a few couples sat at tables, the house band of seasoned, grizzled musicians were jamming on a little stage and the old bartender was shouting out catcalls and requests from behind the bar.

We were instantly put at ease when we were greeted warmly by said bartender and the hostess(after we paid our cover, which varies nightly), who led us to a table with a grimy plastic dollies and some um, very old fake flowers, and suddenly it was like we were in our grandmothers houses in North Carolina and Texas.

In a way we were, because the spirit of Babe's and Ricky's founder, Laura Mae Gross, who passed last October, is still very much alive in this place. She is a fascinating LA story. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1920 she and her husband moved to LA in the 1940s. When her husband was robbed and killed in 1954, she opened a blues bar on Central Avenue to help support her family. It quickly became the place for SoCal blues, and everyone from BB King to Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Eric Clapton would come jam. In 1996 the club moved to its present location and Miss Laura could be found at the front door every night greeting guests and telling performers who weren't talented enough to get the hell off her stage- and not come back.

In recent years the bar is said to have been overrun by hipsters(particularly open mike, Monday. Oh I shudder to think of renditions of Ball and Chain sung by anorexic boys who have no business wearing tight jeans and a cowboy hats) but I saw none of that the night we were there. The bar also serves souls food, has an OK, reasonably priced drink menu and the music is just absolutely awesome. It is real music y'all, the kind where you have to listen, the kind where you don't talk while it's going on, no because it's loud(and it is loud) but because it is so truthful and unlike lots of truth, it's pretty damn enjoyable.

The only drawback is that it ends early, 'round midnight, and like my grandmother Lela(who liked to start dropping hints at around 3pm about it getting dark and how no one in their right mind wanted to drive in the dark), when they want you out, they want you out. Since the street are empty, parking is a breeze and the drive is nothing. If you don't go, you are a downright fool, and that ain't no jive.

Travel: A-
Ease: A-
Content: A+
Subjective Coolness: A+
Overall: A

Directions: Take the 101-S(around 5 miles) to the 110-S(around 4 miles) and off at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Turn right at West MLK Jr. Blvd. Take a slight left at the Leimert Blvd. Address is 4339 Leimert Blvd. Tons of street parking
Hours: Kind of confusing- I would call ahead to find out(323-296-9112: call after five, the have no voicemail) and consult their website: http://www.bluesbar.com/index.html for schedule.
Price:Cover plus drinks and food. Varies from night to night.

Photos courtesy of Cat Vasko. Thanks Cat!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Museum of Tolerance

The Museum of Tolerance is SAD y'all.

Why you ask?

You have to go through metal detectors to enter the Museum: SAD.

The docents all seemed either frightened and very depressed or angry at you for being a human being and it made me: SAD.

There is a Holocaust exhibition where you start out in a happy, culturally rich, thriving Jewish city and end up in a life size replica of a gas chamber at Auschwitz: BEYOND SAD.

Worth it? 100%.

The whole Museum seems designed to make you feel and think, and totally confuse the crap out of you. The exterior of the building is that of a normal, modern museum, but inside it houses a giant, free standing spiral staircase that looks like a white conch shell. You are admitted into the conch shell by one of the aforementioned docents, and then you either descend into hell (where the exhibits are), or to heaven(where talks are given daily by survivors and repentant sinners, and educational programs are held).

Being the gluttons for punishment that we are, Sophia and I chose hell(we did briefly take a look at heaven but it was rather boring- just lots of lecture halls and classrooms with pics of smiling kids), and let me tell you it was terrifying for two 20-something women, so I can't imagine what it must be like for little kids. We found ourselves in a silent, dark room standing in front of two doors- one marked "Prejudice" and one marked "Unprejudiced." We clasped hands (which happened several times throughout the day) chose "Prejudice," and were immediately inundated with Neo-Nazis screaming obscenities on a giant TV.

This part of the museum is about prejudice in its many forms, and it is highly interactive, albeit in a pretty dated "Disney's World of Tomorrow" way. Case in point: A mock 50's restaurant called "The Point of View Diner" which houses a bunch of touch screens and you have to chose questions to ask fake lawyers and then make decisions about gang injunction laws(!?!). There are lots of touch screens games like this, many well produced short videos about violence, hate and hope (a very moving one features MLK's "How long? Not long." speech), a lot of noise, and many school groups who look either slightly bored, dazed or overwhelmed.

You then enter the Holocaust section, which is amazingly informative, haunting and beautifully done, with ghostly statues standing in front of screens playing short documentaries tracking the history of the genocide, replica gates of Auschwitz, and a chilling model of a Nazi conference room, accompanied by the sound of actors reading actual transcripts from a meeting about gassing Jews. Of course, Sophia and I somehow managed to enter the Holocaust section at the exit, so we did the whole tour backwards, and being us, did not realize the fact till half way through, because like I said, this place is confusing, and I hate guided tours, so I didn't listen to what the docents had to say.

I would say- go, go, go but don't be silly like us- follow the docents instructions, no matter how annoyed they may seem, or take a group tour, so you don't feel confused and off balance the whole time like we did. This place, with its chopped off ribbon-tied braids, images of bloody violence, and it's unrelenting focus on incomprehensible tragedy is befuddling enough as it is.

Postscript: It was pouring rain when Sophia and I arrived in North Beverlywood, the modest, historically Jewish Westside neighborhood that houses the Museum of Tolerance. As we looked for parking, we were shocked to see signs in front of almost every home shaming the Museum of Tolerance, and urging the public to say no to their expansion. Apparently the Museum has been wanting to expand for years, which homeowners think will cause more traffic and more noise. The Museum has also been allowing more groups to rent the space for parties and the like, which religious groups find super inappropriate. It's all very strange when you think about what the Museum stands for, but ain't it grand to live in America where public dissent reigns loud and clear.

Travel: C ( I hate driving in Beverly Hills)
Ease: B
Content: A+
Subjective coolness: B-
Overall: B

Directions: Take Santa Monica Blvd. for around 7 miles and turn left on Beverly. Beverly will turn into S. Beverwil Drive, take an almost immediate right onto Pico and then your second left onto S. Roxbury Street. There is two hour street parking. There is also a free parking deck on
Pico, but it was closed off when we went.
Hours: Mon-Thurs 10am-5pm. Sunday 11am-5pm. Closes at 3:30 on Fridays till March.
Price: Pricey! $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $11 for kids.

Worry not friends...more pictures next time(no photography is allowed in the museum).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Descanso Gardens

Okay- at the LA Zoo there are LOTS of strollers and at Descanso Gardens there are LOTS of walkers. So many in fact, that I felt bad about even considering using the handicapped stall in the Visitor Center bathroom. But who can blame the elderly for wanting to spend a lovely Sunday strolling through 160 acres of rambling, carefully curated and (what a rarity in Los Angeles County) elegant nature?

Certainly not me. There ain't no shame in pretending you're Eliza Bennet romping through the English Countryside be you 27 or 99. Speaking of the English, not only did a good deal of the 20 acres of shaded oak forest look like Britain (or at least like the muted woods of the East coast that I played in as a child), European tourists ran a close second to the olds as visitors.

Lots of blonde babies and fanny packs.

Descanso Gardens started out as the private estate of E. Machester Boddy, who besides having a great early 1900s name was also a self made man and the publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News(which much to my surprise actually still exists?!?). The family sold Descanso to the County in 1953 and now it is a public park(admission for adults: $8) with a Rosarium, amphitheater, lilac garden, tea garden, Camellia Forest and California's fave attraction-I have now seen three in the LA area alone- the Japanese Garden complete with tea house and koi pond.

I also got to see a man and his butt crack trying to fish his child's pacifier out of the koi stream, while his wife howled with laughter and the baby cried and cried.

The thing that is so cool about Descanso is that it is highly accessible for every kind of tourist. There is a tram for the olds, a little train for the kiddies. You can walk on the established pavement loop around the park, but you can also amble around the countless dirt paths and impromptu trails that weave through the area. At the end of many of these you will find a subtle stone sculpture, a small lake, a bench dedicated to some rich local, or a maze made of bushes. It is a wonderfully romantic place, with Camellia's seemingly placed everywhere, from the crook of a fallen oak tree to the top of the stone staircase that leads to Boddy Mansion , where you can tour the first floor, which has been strangely compounded into a half-museum, half-Restoration Hardwareish showplace.

The only sucky aspect is that you are not allowed to bring picnic stuff or blankets, though there is an overpriced cafe if you are starving. Also when I was there, there was a Camilla show in the Van de Kamp Hall with hundreds of kinds of Camellas in little plastic cups that had been judged on color, size, appearance, you name it. It was like a highbrow plant show at the State Fair, complete with nice ladies who would tell you everything you ever ever wanted to know about treated vs. untreated flowers, and the debate that rages on.

I think the thing I like most about Descanso was the aforementioned shade. There were hills with Oaks so high you couldn't see the sky, and for a second the California sun, always so bright and harsh, made everything diffused and lovely, and not like modern city life at all.

Travel: B
Subjective coolness:B+

Directions: From Hollywood take the 1-5 South to the CA-2N. Stay on the 2N for eight miles and then take the 1-210 exit towards Pasadena. Keep right at fork and follow signs for Verdugo Blvd. Turn right at Verdugo Blvd. and then right at Descanso Drive. There is a large parking lot and it is free, free, free.
Hours: Daily except Xmass. 9am-4:30pm.
Price: Adults: $8, Seniors and Youth: $6, Children: $3, Children under five: free.