Not too long ago, I pulled over on Hollywood Boulevard and bought a Star Map. I was a bit embarrassed; and I can't say I didn't wonder what all the drivers passing me must have thought. I mean, my car didn't have out-of-state plates. In all my years in L.A., I had never picked up one of the maps they sell on roadsides, the ones that promise to guide tourists to the homes of famous actors. When you grow up here, joining the droves of mid-Westerners and foreigners seeking out celebrities really just isn't something you do. I'd never be caught strolling down Hollywood's Walk of Fame. But I figured I'd try being a tourist in my own town, and help the economy while I was at it.
When I got home and pulled out the $5 map, I noticed the print at the top: "2009 Fall Issue. Revised Every 90 Days." I didn't want outdated information. So I decided to go to the experts and hook up with a guided tour. A quick internet search found StarLine Tours, which boasts 75 years of experience in the business. A video on their website showed tourists sitting in convertible mini-vans that offer "maximum star gazing" potential. I shuddered at the thought of rolling down the streets with those tour headphones on, and I hoped none of my friends would recognize me. It was on special at $30 (regularly $44).
Our tour guide was Gail Harrod, a New Yorker with her accent intact. The first thing she did was ask everyone in the van where they were from. The responses: St. Louis, Houston, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio and Florida. Then came my turn. "From here," I said. There was a pause. "No you're not," Gail replied. I swore I wasn't lying. "Okay, well if we go by your place let us know," she said. (We actually got pretty close. And no, I don't live in a Beverly Hills mansion).
Up we went into the Hollywood hills and then down through Beverly Hills, slowly cruising by stars' homes so everyone could take pictures. We saw the homes of Charlize Theron, Orlando Bloom, Jennifer Aniston, Will Ferrell, David Spade, David Beckham, Madonna, Phil Collins and the Osbournes' place from the MTV show. We spotted the Ice-T house that supposedly appeared on MTV Cribs. Even Bela Lugosi's place was on the tour. Gail was informative, sprinkling every star home in our sights with gossip about the celebrity in question. When we approached Tom Cruise's house, she turned up the Mission: Impossible theme on the van stereo. She did her best Elvis voice when we passed the King's house. She sang "Singing in the Rain" for our stop at Gene Kelly's. And she put on Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." as the trip was winding down.
To our dismay, we didn't see any stars. In fact, Gail told me it doesn't happen that often. I didn't fret; that wasn't why I came. But the trip did surprise me. Somewhere between Sinatra's and Dr. Phil's, I realized that the tour was teaching me a lot about the history of my city. Some of it was of the brazen, decadent side of Hollywood: for example, the Beverly Hills street corner where Lindsay Lohan crashed into the bushes. And then there were the tragic scenes: the Hollywood hotel where Janis Joplin overdosed; the last club to host John Belushi before his death.
So many things are landmarks and icons of American culture. The Beverly Hills Hotel is on the cover of the Eagles' Hotel California album. American Graffiti was filmed at a diner I used to eat at with my Dad. You can't mistake Beverly Hills City Hall for anything other than the police station in Beverly Hills Cop. The Doors were once the house band at a live music club I went to growing up. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had their first date at a restaurant a couple blocks down. Aside from the glitz and glamor, there's a reason so many people visit this city or move here to be part of the action. It's a big part of who we are as Americans.
And a large part of other cultures as well which I realized when I heard a babel of foreign languages on Hollywood Blvd. after the tour. "I can't believe famous people were actually here," said Aleksandra Kleczek, 28, a Pole whose mother had just put her hands in George Clooney's handprints outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre. "She's from Poland so she knows California and Hollywood only from the TV," she said about her mom. At a Hollywood sign lookout in the Hollywood & Highland mall, Japanese tourist Kengo Tanaka was similarly impressed. "L.A. is a center of culture," he said. "It's something you've got to see." I'm glad I did.