How the rugged hilly terrain of Los Angeles became the office, studio and playground of famous entertainment personalities in Hollywood.

It's for good reason it's called the city of angels and stars. On most evenings, where the 405 freeway slopes to meet the 101 or atop of Mulholland Drive, there is a stunning dazzling scene. Below lies the San Fernando Valley and as far as the eye can see there are miniscule blinking lights, glowing in the landscape. Child-like, viewers are awe-struck. It brings to mind hundreds of lit-up paper lanterns placed outside traditional early Spanish-Mexican homes to welcome guests — except that this collective display is a giant magical carpet spread across hundreds of acres.

Blinking beauty

 Equally spectacular views can be had at the grounds of the Griffith Park Observatory on the southern slopes of Mount Lee. There on summer evenings, this beautiful peaceful hill is covered by a huge inverted ink-blue bowl filled with twinkling silvery stars. As Orion the Hunter or the Seven Sisters or Taurus constellations wink and smile, the Valley reciprocates with a shine of its own: the thousands of blinking yellow-orange city lights. As if this light show is not enough to dazzle and mesmerise viewers, up front between valley and sky, stands a glowing white sign proclaiming ‘Hollywood'.

 Together it's a spectacular display and a fitting welcome to the expansive metropolis Los Angeles and its glittering world of cinema and starry entertainment. Most visitors expect to bump into famous actors somewhere or the other on their LA visit. Fans expect to see the likes of Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt walking the red carpet, and eagerly scout many venues to catch glimpses of their favourite movie heart-throbs And sure enough there are enough ops for that in LA's entertainment centres — at movie premiers or events at Grauman's Chinese or the Kodak Theatres; at the studios; or in Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset strip. Then of course, celebrity glam of the past and present is found aplenty on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The popular stretch measuring some 2.4 miles on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street has some 2,400 stars made of terrazzo and brass. There are printed guides for easy location of stars. Each year, new ‘stars' are added and the ceremony is well publicised. Recently, singing sensations Christina Aguilera and Cher were honoured with Stars.

So how did this rugged hilly terrain become the ‘starry' office, studio and playground of famous entertainment personalities, attracting a constant, dizzy array of fans and paparazzi? How did this dream centre where reality and fantasy tango so intimately come about? Centuries before the ‘Hollywood' sign or the Walk of Fame, the region was the abode of the indigenous people of California such as the ‘Tongvas'. Their homes and colonies stretched from the Los Angeles basin, from Malibu in the north, past Laguna Beach in the south, and inland to the San Gabriel Mountains. Known for long as ‘Gabrielinos', they were primarily hunters and gatherers and fisherfolk and had their own culture — music, cosmology and distinctive art. Into their land came the white man.

Without quite realising what was happening or how rapidly, the native tribes were marginalised. First, in the late 1700s the Spanish flag came onto their land. On September 4, 1791, some eleven Mexican families trudged and pitched tent. Soon, the area close to today's Union Station resounded with names such as Olvera, Pico, Carrillo, Sepúlveda and Lugo. And the pueblo became a modern city with a dynamic economy based on live-stock and traditional crafts and culture. With the Gold Rush of 1848–1855, however came the most dramatic changes in the landscape which ultimately reduced the age old inhabitants to footnotes in history.

The get-rich-quick scramble resulted in an unprecedented flood of people to the LA region — from the east-board and Latin America, Europe and China. With their arrival, new contours formed and changed the old Native American village and ordered life. Parts of the territory such as the present day Sunset Boulevard turned into a rough grazing land. Before its current posh avatar it was literally the Wild West – bustling raucously with prospectors, cowboys, cattle rustlers and bandits. The one constant in this terrain of much change was the climate. It remained for most parts of the year, sunny and mild.

As a result of the people rush on California, demand for living and working spaces shot up astronomically. By 1887, real estate became a lucrative competitive business complete with innovative tactics including branding, advertising and promotion.  In one such clever move, in 1923, realtor and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler commissioned the ‘Hollywoodland' sign to promote his suburban housing project. Each 50ft high letter was held up by pillars to attract passing by motorists. Over the years, the shifting, sinking of earth got the letters ‘misaligned'. So much so by 1949, the ‘land’ of the word came down. As the original property developers were long gone, no one really bothered to put the letters back. However, the original sign served its purpose — buyers came by the hundreds and changed the very landscape, history of the area.

The sign remains one of the world's most loved and recognisable names, at once synonymous with the entertainment industry. ‘It's our Eiffel Tower', says Playboy's Hugh Hefner.  Importantly, in it is the message that ‘magic' is possible and that dreams can come true!

Well before the ‘Hollywoodland' hoarding came up, scores of photographers and film-makers arrived in sunny LA. Director, David Wark Griffith (1875–1948) arrived in 1910 with Mary Pickford et al and a crew to shoot a movie in the rustic but cheery blue-skies locale of what was to become downtown LA. A small village then, it was perfect for his movie — a melodrama set in Mexican California of the early 1800s. While there, Griffith and the crew discovered to their delight, that a few miles up north lay an idyllic residential area with superb views.

The success of Griffith's movie led to the popularity of the LA locales…and its desirability as a home. Besides the weather, wonderful outdoor film making conditions and variety of scenery, film companies found that by making movies in the west coast they could avoid huge royalties to the inventor of the cinematography, Thomas Alva Edison.

Griffith's “Birth of a Nation” (1915) launched Los Angeles firmly into orbit and worldwide cinema vocabulary enthusing film makers from other parts of the world including Hitchcock to arrive en masse and form ‘one of the 20th century's most remarkable growth industries'.

With the ‘talkies', the studio system, Walt Disney's animation movies and the pleasant suburban ‘Hollywoodland' in place, motion pictures caught people's attention like few things have in history.  As an upshot, by the mid-1940s, USA saw more than 400 movies being cranked out annually, and audience attendance swelling to 90 million per week.

By then the movie juggernaut reached the most remote parts of the globe, lighting up hundreds of local film industries. But it was American movies with its colourful, variegated content that held universal audiences spellbound…even as the City of Angels became indistinguishable from movie-making, glamour and stars.

Wannabe stars

When I grow up, I wanna be famous, I wanna be a star, I wanna be in movies… goes the popular hit of the Pussycat Dolls.

There are many youngsters in LA and particularly around the studios, who sing the same song. You can tell them from a mile. They are wannabe stars sporting synthetic smiles, outfits and behaviour that are hard not to notice. They come from all parts of the world, hoping to catch the eye of a producer or a casting director and make it big in the movie business. They're all convinced that they have the requisite good looks and that stardom is ‘their birth-right'. That belief no doubt comes from families and friends telling them that they belong in the movies! As a result, right from the valet who takes the car for parking to the bell-hop to the waiters and barmen, and the angelic girl on the roller-blades serving burger and milkshakes, everyone thinks that they are star material.  

Juggling roles

A miniscule few, of course, do make it. But the trail has its downside — thousands disillusioned, heart-broken. And yet, aware of this reality, people still hope for stardom and fame. Like the good looking waiter at P.F. Chang's China Bistro at the Beverly Centre in Beverly Hills. Smilingly he narrates his claim to fame ‘I am already a movie star', he says tossing the curls on forehead, ‘I am now moonlighting here serving tables between roles. I recently played a hospital patient. It was a tough role. I had to be still, very still, on a stretcher when Orlando Bloom's heroine comes rushing in, excited, worried like, mistaking me to be Orlando. Oh, boy! What a role.'

Like him, there are any number of hipsters, wannabes, and struggling actors thinking of a bigger role– even if they've passed their prime. Take the senior ‘ stars' who entertain visitors on Hollywood Boulevard, near Disney Hollywood Studios. These street performers, all dressed for their part, imitate scenes from the movies. As the tourists' cameras go click, click, click, ‘Bogart' does the tough guy bit from Casablanca and further up, ‘Marilyn Monroe' has skirt teasingly flying up and elsewhere Mary Poppins levitates with parasol. The folks from back home Texas or Alabama are ‘mighty tickled' just as are their children. But casting directors and such passing by in cars don't even bother a second look — even if ‘Gene Kelly' risks hip injury doing heart rending jig with brollie and song.

Besides wannabes, LA has its share of awe-struck visitors who want to take in anything remotely connected with the movies. Such is the influence the land of make-believe has on the ‘common folk'.

Watch what happens at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Right from Graumann's Chinese Theatre, the pavement with hundreds of hands and feet cement impressions of stars sends fans into a tizzy. As they reach familiar stars including fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse, adults will elbow kids out of the way, and gleefully place hand and foot on the Golden Stars.

Then there is celebrity-spotting craze. It's a big deal in LA. Dedicated websites such as www.seeing-stars.com have details and up-to-the-minute info on where to catch a star. In turn the poor celebrity in goggles and every attempt at mufti tries desperately to remain in cognito. Doesn't always work. They are caught hanging out at bar lounges, shopping with their kids or eating. In addition, cinema-buffs take specially organised bus tours to invade their private spaces. Star home tour in and around Beverly Hills on the western parts of LA, and Bel Air has double-deckers cruising around all parts of the day and evening.  The ‘homes' turn out to be sprawling mansions with manicured lawns and palm trees. Eddie Murphy has a posh 77,000-square-foot villa. Steven Spielberg's dream-like home is in the Santa Monica Mountains. ‘These awesome residences', said my guide, ‘ remind wannabes that thinking big can bring big rewards. That they too can be famous, and make it big in the movies.'

J.R.                                                                                         

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012