October 2 , 2012

Gone Sailin'

 

Bark Europa

 

Just got back from a voyage on the tall ship Europa - sailed from the Netherlands to Portugal! Hmm... I'd better do a piece on tall ships in general, come to think of it.

 

Hanging out in Amsterdam

 

 

Crewmate Lawrence points out the sights of Cascais, Portugal

 

New friends, new adventures....got a lot to post, so stay tuned!

 

 

May 26 , 20012

Waiting for some Friends

 

I was sneaking around the Warner Bros. lot the other day and I stumbled upon the Central Perk set from the TV show Friends. Thought you might want to see the pics...

They've got it set up in the Properties building as a stop on their studio tour. The food's stale and there's no coffee ... you're better off at Starbucks.

 

 

May 11 , 20012

Hot Wheels

 

In celebration of the release of the upcoming Dark Knight Rises, the oh-so-cool Tumbler and the Bat-pod are heading out on a cross-country tour. Before they hit the road, however, I thought I'd stop by to kick the tires... maybe take it out for a spin.

.........

It doesn't get any cooler than this! Yes, sir... I think I'll have to get me one of these babies!

 

 

May 8 , 20012

Sitting in the Dark with the Avengers

by Scarlett Savage

 

In an unprecedented move, Marvel Studios execs got together a decade ago and decided to bring back the Avengers, introducing the characters one prequel movie at a time. In an industry known for immediate gratification, this farsighted plan was impressive indeed. They painstakingly built up to the moment when the mighty heroes FINALLY joined forces and learned to play nice. We saw their individual pain, flaws and sacrifice before we ever got to see them take on something as a team. By the time this movie rolled around, we were more than primed.... we were pumped.
Now the Avengers are here and doing exactly what Marvel hoped they would, all those years ago. Which is to say, resetting the action-movie bar in every conceivable way.


As to the plot:

The threat is immediate -- Loki (Tom Hiddleston), brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who shows delicious comic flair under those shiny Nordic muscles) has found the Tesseract, an energy source of limitless possibilities with which he plans to open a portal to bring forth the enemy, the Chitauri. He uses his own powers amped up by the Tesseract to control the minds of not only Dr. Erik Selvig (the wonderfully understated Stellan Skarsgard) but Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as he hijacks them from S.H.I.E.L.D. The Chitauri are a race that seek to conquer the galaxy; one guess which planet Loki guides them to start with.


Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), still smarting from the attack on S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters, decides to re-start the Avengers initiative. He employs the gorgeous and multi-gifted Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to lure in the evasive Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (the adorable Mark Ruffalo), who’s hiding out in the slums of India (which was heavily protested by Bollywood, who claim filmmakers always choose to show their country’s poor and rarely the more luxuriant cities; since Dr. Banner also hid out in South American slums in his own movie, I think they should realize that Banner just likes being where he can help the less privileged). The “interrogation” scene in which Romanov gets the assignment is worth the price of the ticket alone (she gives new meaning to the request, “Hold, please”). Ruffalo, who replaced the by-all-accounts-hard-to-work-with Edward Norton, from the first few seconds gives us a very different but in my opinion superior Dr. Banner—he’s more likeable, more restrained, and much more vulnerable than his predecessor. And he’s so much hotter.


One by one, the heroes are all brought to the ship ,which rises from the sea high up into the sky above America. That is where Fury and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) make their stand for the Avengers to band together and fight. Coulson, showing his human-ness for the first time, adorably seeks out Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) to sign his mint-condition hero card.
Once onboard, there’s a little friction: Tony Stark/Iron Man (the incomparable Robert Downey Jr., who has secured his place in the action hero hall of fame in this role in his character's prequel films) hasn’t forgotten that they weren’t sure if they wanted him to play, and Banner doesn’t want to bring “the other guy” into the fracas, because he fears he can’t control him. Downey brings many things to the movie (including the self-sacrificing moment that defines any great tale) but his comic timing truly makes for some of the film’s best moments (watch for the poke in the lab as he tries to get Banner to release the Hulk). Additionally, Stark and Rogers butt heads from the start, as Steve is a soldier who believes in following/giving orders and being part of a unit, and Tony is…well, Tony. He balks. Steve feels that without his suit, Tony’s nothing. Tony in turn feels that “everything special about you came out of a bottle”.
Loki, upon his relatively easy capture, is brought to the ship and placed into the inescapable container meant for the Hulk, but his arrogance and seeming desire to be exactly where he is sets the entire team on edge. If he gets Dr. Selvig to use the Tesseract to open the portal for the Chitauri, then the fight will truly be on…and the human race can’t possibly expect to come out of that war on top.


In an ensemble show, the talents of the individuals are often sacrificed to give way for the effects of the whole, but uberdirector Joss Whedon (whose altar this reviewer has worshipped at since he created a certain blond vampire slayer, and so I look with contempt upon all you Johnny-come-latelys) makes certain that there are plenty of small moments in which these stars can predictably shine. Johansson especially, playing the girl card and pretending to get weepy to get Loki to spill his guts, gives us a close look at the Black Widow’s coolly calculating mind (although we’re pretty sure she feels a whole lot more for Hawkeye than just having “red in her ledger”, when she determinedly fights for a way to help him regain his mind). Ruffalo, riding up to the big fight on a dilapidated motorbike, gives us something the dignified Norton never could: the willingness to look ridiculous, to look small, nerdy and weak before becoming the mightiest of them all. Hemsworth does much the same; most of the time he acts like the demi-god he is, but every now and then he allows himself to be the punch line of the joke (quite literally in one scene with the Hulk), which cozies us up to this otherwise unapproachable character.
But what endears us most of all is how the entire bunch finally comes together as a team to avenge the first soldier felled, the very man who so patiently worked to bring the Avengers Initiative together in the first place. When Coulson’s blood is spilled, the Avengers are not only stunned, but hurt; more importantly, they are enraged. The six no longer have time for their personal squabbles; they are out to conquer. To avenge. They also find that they bring out the best in each other--Steve and Tony, despite their initial dislike for each other, work incredibly well when they watch each other’s backs, much like Black Widow and Hawkeye.


Unsurprisingly, it’s Stark who coolly gives the news to Loki that the Avengers are now ready to go to war. He’s completely confident in their ability to smack down these angry, otherwordly bitches; when informed by Loki that “I have an army”, Stark snaps back, “So what? We have a Hulk!!”.
But it’s Banner who throws the first punch in the retaliating attack on the city, by at last informing the group his secret to manifesting the Hulk—he’s always angry. And it’s the Hulk who finally gets Loki to shed his cocky, lofty posturing in a hilarious display of power. And, after Iron Man’s self-sacrifice to close the portal and decapitate the enemy, it’s the Hulk who comes to his rescue—first with his muscles, then with his deafening roar.
In general, I won’t see a film if eye-candy is all there is to offer. No special effect in the world can save a tale if it’s weak. But by the time the fight has come to the Avengers, the audience is dying for the fight to be huge, for the destruction to be devastating, and for the fall of the enemy to be cataclysmic.
The actors in the smaller roles sparkle as well. Jarvis (Paul Bettany, who gives more depth to a computerized butler voice than one could ever have imagined) is included in the anguish felt by all when Coulson is shot and Stark is threatened, along with Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), whose quiet and demure punch isn’t lessened a bit by her mere few moments onscreen; the fact that she misses her man’s call as he’s headed toward potential death because she’s so busy watching it on TV is a wonderfully illuminating wordless statement on our society. Ashley Johnson, as the lovely waitress with her eye on Captain America, also makes the most of only seconds of screen time. Harry Dean Stanton also proves you don’t need long to make your mark, and when the man who began it all, Stan Lee, makes his cameo, the theater erupts in shouts of glee.


There are few things to criticize about this extravaganza in filmmaking—the script is tight, by turns hilarious and touching; the directing is spot on, the effects are blindingly amazing and well-placed, and the performances are stellar. I wasn’t quite sure what Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) added to the mix, other than bringing in another girl to even out all that testosterone. But if she comes with this particular package, I’ll take her.
In a career full of creating innovative new themes and reviving old ones, Joss Whedon has surpassed all expectations and crowned himself the new King of the Action Hill. If Marvel hasn’t already lock him in for the already-in-the-works sequel, I can’t imagine who else could helm this particular ship. So Marvel, listen up: keep the team together on your end, and for our end, we’ll keep coming back.

April 14, 20012

Raising Caine

 

Took a trip to Boyle Heights this morning to visit Caine's Arcade - a cardboard wonder made by a nine-year-old boy in his father's used auto parts store. Caine Monroy and his home-made arcade puttered along in relative obscurity until Nirvan Mullick came in looking for a part for his '96 Corolla. He became Caine's first paying customer, then came back to do a short film about Caine and his arcade. Caine's Arcade went viral (at this point it's had over a million and a half views) and Caine Monroy became quite the little celebrity. Caine's Arcade has a Facebook page with almost 90,000 likes, and Nirvan has raised over 150,000 dollars to put Caine through college! If you want to find out more or help put this pint-sized entrepreneur into an institute of higher learning, just check out Cainesarcade.com. Then head over to Boyle heights and get your game on!

My advice: go for the fun pass - 2 bucks for five hundred plays is hard to beat! Oh... and the hook game is for suckers.

 

April 14 , 20012

Saturday Morning at Caine's Arcade

by Scarlett Savage


What’s the most important kind of film?
The kind of film that tells the world something it really needs to know about.


When Nirvan wandered into Smart Parts in East LA for an auto part, he was startled to see something going on in the corner. Moving in closer, he saw a number of cardboard boxes, of all sizes, that had been cut and decorated in the most homemade of fashions to resemble arcade games. A skee ball game, a drop claw, a basketball toss, and many other games you’ve seen in an arcade; Caine’s made out of boxes that were used for parts in his dad’s store. His dad George thought it was adorable, and it kept the kid busy during the long hours he came to work with George. Caine gave you a choice—you could pay one dollar per game or buy the economic two dollar Fun Pass, which gave you 500 plays; there were prizes based on how many points you won. And Caine would climb into the game to push through your tickets once you’d won them.


He’s called the Coolest Kid in America, and he’s earned over two hundred thousand dollars toward his college education (and for the Caine Foundation, which will help other kids pursue their dreams). Forbes Magazine predicts he’ll be a billionaire by age thirty, to which he responds, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. Definitely.”
But is it Caine’s imagination, or his commitment to his creation that makes him so special?
For weeks, the world didn’t know about the Cardboard Arcade. Caine didn’t want to wear his Staff shirt to school for fear his classmates would tease him, and most of George’s business came by way of the internet. But that didn’t stop the young entrepreneur. He would be there every hour that he could, waiting for potential customers. And finally, one came in.


Nirvan was so impressed he immediately bought the fun pass. When told he was the young boy’s only customer, he decided to do something about it. He arranged a flash mob to come play, and he created the short film Caine’s Arcade.
Filming the young man’s story brought Caine to the attention of pretty much every news program in the area, and soon the whole country knew about the kid with the cardboard fun park. Suddenly the lonely corner of his dad’s auto parts store was so crowded with customers they had to wait in line to play. Celebrities have brought their kids to check it out; Jack Black showed up with his children one weekend (Caine had no idea who he was, but Mr. Black got the same close attention as every other customer).
There are a lot of touching moments in the film, but for me the moment of triumph was just before George drove his son back to the Arcade after a pizza dinner; he teasingly asked the boy if he didn’t want to close up shop early (George knew that Nirvan had rounded up a large group to attend)—after all, he pointed out, it had been pretty slow all day (a euphemism for “no customers at all”). But Caine, hardworking young man that he is, said, “No can do, Dad.” When they pulled up to the Smart Parts, and Caine saw the crowed Nirvan had drawn, the nine-year-old’s face exploded into a grin—but he didn’t look surprised. He’d been waiting for this. Word just had to get around, he knew. Now, thanks to Nirvan, it had.


I went to Caine’s Arcade very early on a damp Saturday (we thought we’d beat the crowds, but there were at least thirty people already ahead of us on this morning). He was too busy to climb into the games to push the tickets through, and instead handed out tiny slips of paper with the correct number of points. He’d co-ordinate two or even three people to start their games at the same time, and count to twenty while we each had our turns.
I had frankly been worried that the novelty of being the Game Master would get old for the young boy; it’s an awful lot of work and he pays strict attention to customer service (he was more than happy to take a moment out of his morning to pose with Marvin the Monkey). But nothing could be further from the truth. He fairly glows as he bounces from game to game, and he’s all business as he counts off their seconds to play the game.
Is it the actual cardboard arcade that’s so interesting? Not really. After all, you can play better versions of the same game just down the block. It’s being around a kid who doesn’t spend every waking moment on his PlayStation; it harkens us back to the days of playing outside and climbing trees and making rockets out of the same kinds of cardboard boxes that Caine prefers. It reminds us of a simpler time, but it also allows us a few minutes in the presence of this extraordinary young man, with enormous dreams and even more enormous drive. We want to be in the presence of this kind of imagination, and we want to see it in action. And it’s worth every minute.

 

March 17, 20012

Hooray for Hollywood

 

At 1660 North Highland Avenue, just off Hollywood Boulevard, sits the old Max Factor building. Max was a big name in Hollywood's heyday - he took care of the hair and makeup of all the big stars: Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball... he even did toupees for Frank Sinatra and John Wayne! He invented a lot of the make-up used today - lip gloss, pancake make-up, even false eyelashes!

The building used to house the Max Factor Beauty Museum, and the ground floor is still dedicated mostly to Max. These days, however, the building is the sight of the Hollywood Museum, a four-floor repository of all things Hollywood! Costumes and props fill display cases - there's even a recreation of Hannibal Lector's cell from Silence of the Lambs!

Outfits worn by Marilyn Monroe, Charlton Heston and Judy Garland

 

PeeWee's bike!

 

Puffy from SOMETHING ABOUT MARY

 

The automaton from HUGO

 

Michael Jackson or Sylvester Stallone - who's really Bad?

 

So the next time you're wandering around Hollywood trying to escape from the souvenir stores, throngs of tourists and crazed costumed characters, why not duck into the Hollywood Museum and check out some actual Hollywood history?

 

 

March 7, 20012

Star Wars and Science!

 

Okay all you Star Wars Fans, get your butts down to the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana for Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination - the place is jam packed with props and costumes from all six of the Star Wars films, and no Jar Jar Binks anywhere! Where else can you get up close and personal with so much ACTUAL REALLY COOL STUFF!!!

 

The exhibit runs through April 15th, so put it in hyperdrive and get down there!

 

 

 

December 12 , 2011

Mumbo Gumbo

 

I tell ya - every time I visit New Orleans, I end up loving it all the more. This time I headed down with my friends Melanie and Violet to take in the sights and sounds of pre-Christmas in the Big Easy. Here are some assorted random thoughts:

The Olde Town Inn - You know it's old if it has an extra "E". A beguiling mix of antique charm and "What The Fuck?" zaniness. A good WTF example: in an apparent attempt to make up for lack of closet space, one wall of an otherwise lovely bedroom was taken up by two enormous unfinished plywood storage lockers. Each one five feet wide and some eight feet tall, they would have looked perfect down in the garage filled with paint cans and old National Geographics. In the master bedroom, though? Sometimes you just gotta wonder.

Winter in New Orleans - You have to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at you. Hot and muggy? Got it. So cold you can see your breath?Got that, too. Fortunately, our nightly walks home always took us past Coop's Place, where a hot- buttered rum to go was guaranteed to take the edge off the evening's chill.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum - What I learned: Soda fountains got their start in drugstores because the flavored syrup and fizzy water concoctions were originally used to make medicine more palatable. Many early fountain drinks contained a combination of cocaine and caffeine, and were used to cure headaches. One tonic invented in 1888 used cocaine extract from the coca plant and got its caffeine from the kola nut. Hmm...coca...kola. I'll give you three guesses what they named it. By the way, did you know they once made tampons laced with opium and belladonna?

Mr. B's Bistro - The B stands for boring. I thought we'd walked in on a geriatrics convention. The food? Meh.

Slim Goodie's - A damn fine place to get breakfast. Funky vibe with friendly,laid-back staff. It takes balls to name a breakfast the "Jewish Coonass".

Commander's Palace - I think I'm turning into a snob about expensive eateries. If you're going to charge twice as much for a dish, it better be twice as good as you'd find at a cheaper joint. In New Orleans, that's awfully hard to do. Fascinating dishes (spinach and pressed sugarcane salad, oyster and absinthe "dome" , tobasco smoked shrimp and grits), but nothing blew me away. I suppose the high prices (and suggested dress code) are a good way to keep out the riff-raff. As a waiter cleared a table near us, he was singing Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People" under his breath. Well put.

Fleur de Tease - A striptease act in a Snuggie? Brilliant!

Bourbon Street - Big-ass drinks. Loud 80's rock. Obnoxious tourists. It's a perfect storm for assholery.

Frenchman Street - So THAT'S where they keep all the good music in the Quarter! (Okay, Quarter adjacent.) I loved walking down the street each night hearing the live music drifting out of the different venues.

Priestess Miriam - That's one happy Voodoo Queen... you just wanna give her a big squeeze!

National World War II Museum - Wow, that's a lot of war! We were there for four hours and still didn't see everything. Sorry Tom Hanks, we'll have to catch your WWII 4-D movie extravaganza next time. By the way - if you get hungry, stay FAR AWAY from John Besh's AMERICAN SECTOR restaurant.

Krewe of Zulu - Do they really throw those coconuts? Those suckers are heavy!

 

 

October 26, 2011

Polynesian Paradise

It's finally up - my travels to the enchanting Polynesian Isle of Moorea! Come snorkel with sharks, hunt for black pearls and lounge with the locals in Tahitian paradise!

 

October 10, 2011

Heavy Metal

by Scarlett Savage


There are certain stories that always make us melt.

When the underdog beats the bully, for example; when the beauty tames the beast, for another. But one of our favorites has to be when the uncaring absentee dad is contacted by or on behalf of his offspring, and is won over by not only the kid’s talents, but charm.


In the not-so-distant future where robot boxing is a top sport, we meet Charlie Kenton (played to rugged perfection by Hugh Jackman). Charlie’s a former boxer/current promoter who can’t seem to catch a break; he spends the last of his money on a well-known robot that gets its circuits shorted in the first fight. In the midst of all this, his ex-girlfriend’s son, Max (the adorably defiant Dakota Goyo) pops into his life. The ex-girlfriend has passed, and now the boy’s aunt Debra and her husband Marvin (Hope Davis and James Rebhorn, respectively) want the kid. Well—Debra wants the kid, and Marvin wants to keep Hope happy. Charlie has to sign off on this deal, so he shows up to do so—he wasn’t a dad before and has no plans of being one now—but when Marvin confides to Charlie that he’d “really appreciate” it if Charlie would just look after Max while he and Debra take a long-planned Italian vacation. Charlie names a figure and Marvin happily agrees. But, when Charlie’s plan to dump Max with his long-time would-be girlfriend, Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), who also happens to own the gym where Charlie lives and works out his robots, falls through, he’s forced to bring the kid along for the ride. After the fight that loses Charlie his new robot, Max nearly dies in a mudslide at a junkyard; he’s saved when the arm of an old robot stuck in the ground grabs him long enough for Charlie to get to him. Giving the robot gratitude for saving his life, Max insists on cleaning it up and getting it a fight. And this hunk of junk, with Charlie’s training and Max’s technical know-how, starts to win. And win big. But there are dangers in the world of robot boxing…and when Max witnesses some of the off-ring brutality that follows betting with the wrong kinds of men, Charlie realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew. But this time, it’s not so easy to walk away.


This kind of film is often ruined by too much sap and not enough grit; but director Shawn Levy gives us just enough heart without forgetting the realities of life that make the tale not only real, but believable. He shows us that Charlie can quickly grow attached to his hard-headed son, but that a father can’t be born overnight after a lifetime of looking out for Numero Uno. The aunt, in this type of tale, would normally be a wicked stepmother-type, but Aunt Debra is loving, if a little cool, and she deeply loved her sister, Max’s mom, as well as Max himself—the fact that her husband has money only adds to the reasons that her home is the better home for Max, it’s not the sum total of it. Additionally, while the son would normally teach the father some moral that would change his life in a smarmier tale, in this one it’s that Max is so very much like his father that rekindles Charlie’s life; Max is what he once was, when he let himself care about things enough to become emotionally involved. And at the end of the movie, Max does indeed go home with Aunt Debra as planned, but you know that Charlie will be popping up much more often than before—even if he probably never learns how to schedule things properly.


Director Josh Levy takes a lot of chances with this tale, and comes up winning every time. It’s the grit that’s thrown to this modern-day fairy tale that makes us believe it—a lesson more filmmakers should learn. The darkness of the film is literal, as well—the use of shadows and multiple use of darkened settings add a wordless element of nervousness and fear which adds an extra edge. He doesn’t pull any punches for the sake of the kid in the scenes where Charlie deals with Ricky (Kevin Durand), a bookie Charlie owes money to; since it’s this scene that loses Charlie custody of Max for the remainder of the summer, we need to see the violence and blood and desperation that can accompany sports betting, and Levy doesn’t let up an inch. He’s equally determined to show Charlie’s request for a second chance in its real light—Charlie knows he could never be a full time dad, and he doesn’t promise that. The difference is, he now knows to make promises he CAN keep.


It’s a tale of a man struggling to better himself in a world that’s not easy to succeed, and it shows both the struggle and the successes beautifully; the losses along the way only highlight what he’s finally able to actually achieve. Jackman lends both heart and soul to a character that could easily have been one-dimensional, so we’re fighting for him all the way.


 

October 1, 2011

Happy Hour with Muk

At 5:30 every night (except Wednesday) you'll find him here - a bucket of ice by his chair and two mini-bottles of tequila within reach. He talks with the ease of an old showman - regaling the crowd with stories of the Islands "back in the day", when living on Tahiti or her sister islands really was an adventure. He's surrounded by people; some are first-timers and others have heard these stories so many times they know them by heart. Pull up a chair and settle in - it's time for HAPPY HOUR WITH MUK.

It was back in 1959 when Don "Muk" McCallum, Jay Carlisle and Hugh Kelley hatched their plan. The three Newport Beach roomies had had enough of the old "nine-to-five", and decided it was time for a change. They sold everything they owned and packed up for French Polynesia, where they were going to try their hand at vanilla farming. What do a salesman, a stock broker and an attorney know about vanilla farming, you may ask? As it turned out, very little. Only two of their 400 acres could be cultivated, and when African farmers flooded the vanilla market, the prices crashed. Determined to turn their 6-month visas into something more permanent, the three bought a run-down 4 bungalow hotel on the island of Moorea. They named the place after the mythical island from James Michener's book "South Pacific", and in 1962 the "Bali Hai Boys" were in business.

The three Americans worked hard and played harder, and they'd soon built themselves quite the reputation. One day a photojournalist covering nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific dropped by for a visit, and liked what he saw. He spent three weeks there, and in December of 1962 the Bali Hai Boys were featured in Life Magazine.

 

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The story was a hit, and business skyrocketed. Hotel Bali Hai grew into a 65-unit resort, and the boys expanded onto two other islands. They also built the first over-water bungalows, an item which these days has become synonymous with vacationing in French Polynesia. They rode their success all the way into the eighties. Things slowed down businesswise, and Muk headed back to the States, where he lived for the next 18 years. He didn't see Moorea again until he came back in 1998, for Hugh's funeral . He decided to stay, and he and Jay sold Hotel Bali Hai in 2001, leaving them with only the tiny Club Bali Hai in Cook's Bay.

Muk's 80 now, and Jay's 76. They're still there at the little resort. Any time you get the urge, grab a bottle of your favorite beverage (It's BYOB - "We used to have a bar, but it was just too popular," Muk said. "We'd have fights and people going off together to the docks. Sex on the Beach wasn't just a name of a drink. It got to be too much. So we shut it down."), and come by for Muk's Happy Hour. Ask him about Suzie No Pants, the chickens in the Honeymoon Suite, or Lincoln's telescope. You'll be glad you did - it's an evening well spent.

Yukkin' it up with Muk

 

 

September 30 , 2009

Marvin in Kuwait

Here's a new page for you to check out - Marvin in Kuwait with the 100th battalion/442 infantry. Hooah!

 

 

September 28 , 2009

Travels in Tahiti

 

I'm back from a fantastic vacation on the Tahitian island of Moorea, and I've got a whole lot of pics to show you.... stay tuned!

 

 

August 19 , 2009

Midday at the Oasis...

 

This past weekend brought an onslaught of aloha shirts and flaming rum punches to sunny San Diego, as tikiphiles from around the world gathered for Otto von Stroheim's TIKI OASIS, the annual West Coast celebration of the luau lifestyle. This years theme: Tiki Surf City.

I donned my flip-flops and my loudest shirt, hopped in the jalopy with my friend Christine and cruised down the 405 to the Crown Plaza (formerly the Hanalei), host hotel for the weekends festivities. The first stop was the Thursday night pre-party at the Bali Hai restaurant and a table full o' fun courtesy of Miss Sophista-Tiki herself, Dawn Frasier. After the dining we went downstairs to enjoy the tunes and check out a bit of burlesque!

Davie Allan and the Arrows

 

Saturday morning we rolled out of bed and down to Mission Bay for a private Where You Want to Be Tiki Walking Tour - just tour guide Marc Menkin, Christine and myself. We saw some of the hidden tiki gems in the area, and stopped off at Freaky Boutiki to check out their exhibition TIKI ISLAND 3. I was quite taken by a smaller Ken Ruzic piece called "The Magical Fish" - it had a nice tropical Paul Klee feel to it. I didn't buy anything, though - thought it was better to wait and see what was selling at TIKI OASIS.

FREAKY BOUTIKI at the FREAK FACTORY

 

We got back to the hotel just in time for the symposium "Rum and Chocolate: a Match Made in Heaven". For my money, any afternoon spent drinking rum and eating chocolate is a good one!

When we got out the evening festivities were just beginning. A couple of poolside rooms were open for business, so we popped in for a looksee. Thor had a magnificent display of shrunken heads, and Gecko had a table full of South Seas ceramics. I couldn't resist - I bought one of his "Fat Lava" pieces.

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Christine wanted to check out the jewelry next door at SKINNY DOG, so I came along. While she browsed I looked through a big portfolio sitting on the coffee table - it was Ken Ruzics stuff! I was showing Christine my favorites when Ken showed up to get his portfolio - turns out it wasn't there for public viewing. Oops!

We went back out to the pool to catch the evening's entertainment - Thee Swank Bastards, the Martini Kings, Baby Doe and her Devilettes and a bit of burlesque with Violetta Baretta, Megan Mayhem and Mimi LeMeaux. For me the highlight had to be the musical stylings of Josh "Shag" Agle and the Huntington Cads. It had been 12 years since their last appearance - I hope they don't make us wait that long to see them again!

Saturday morning it was over to Ricky's for their "world famous" apple pancake, then back to the hotel to check out the vendors. It was only a half-hour after opening, and things were already going full-swing. I stopped in to have a look at Heather Watts' black velvets and she was nearly sold out! Lucky for me they hadn't got my favorite one, so I made a purchase of my own.

River Spirits

 

The best booth? Definitely "Pappy Haggler's Bargin Barn" - they had it all! The outhouse door surfboard, the putt-putt golf course, and of course Pappy Dave "Squid" Cohen and his boy, Kinny "Junior" Ruzic. All they were missing was the jug band - I swear it made me want to run out and marry my cousin!

"You sure do got a purty mouth!"

The day was a blur of sights and sounds - Vendoors everywhere, inside and out; 1st Annual Tiki Oasis Car Show; Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School (where Christine won a prize for her sketch of a pinup girl being accosted by a couple of tikis); The Semitic surf tunes of Meshugga Beach Party; King Kukulele's rendition of "Boogie in Your Butt"; rocking out to the Lively Ones, the Phantom Surfers and the Blue Hawaiians; the drunken revelry that is room crawling; chewing on a lychee and blueberry "eyeball" (courtesy of the Cult of the Eye) while watching Tana the Tattooed Lady's Bo Peep striptease - inflatable sheep and all!

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Sunday was much more mellow. We took in James "Tiki Road Trip" Teitelbaum's symposium "Big Stone Head: Easter Island and Pop Culture", and then I chilled out poolside while Christine got in on the ukulele jam session. Afterwards we packed up our treasures, made a round of goodbyes to our newfound friends, and hit the road for home. Farewell, Tiki Oasis! Great job, Otto - can't wait for next year!

 

PS. I did manage to get back into Ken Ruzic's portfolio, and "The Sleeping Cannibal" and "Visit to the Jungle Ruins" have found themselves a new home! Thanks, Ken!

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May 3 , 2009

London

 

I know, I know - it took me forever, but the London page is finally up. Check it out!

 

 

January 28 , 2009

Breakfast in America

Castine, Maine to Santa Monica, California in a 1998 Lincoln Continental in the middle of winter. How do you make a drive like that interesting? I had an idea: don't plan the route with your head; plan it with your stomach.

I left Castine on a brutally cold morning (how does fourteen below grab ya?). In Waldoboro I popped in at Moody's Diner for some blueberry pancakes and a side of cheddarwurst sausage. It's kind of a tradition at this point - I stop there anytime I'm headed out of Maine. Then I continued my journey down to Philadelphia. I would have stopped to eat somewhere near NYC, but traffic over the Georgr Washington Bridge was a nightmare. In Philly I met up with my friend Jim, who was joining me for the next leg of the trip. After a day of rest (and some tasty home cooking), we hit the road. We headed west through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia(South Virginia? East Virginia?). We were using Jane and Michael Stern's book Roadfood to help guide us on our journey, and we planned our meals accordingly. In Virginia we stopped off in Staunton at Wright's Dairy Rite - a great throwback drive-in joint (with carhop service and everything!). I had the Wright's Special Beef (grilled beef, provolone cheese, bacon, sour cream, and a touch of brown mustard), which was a bit dry for my taste. I accompanied it with a very tasty chocolate malt, though.

We hit Tennessee round about eight that night, looking for a restaurant in Knoxville called Litton's. The place looked great, but deserted. We happened to show up on Sunday, the one day they were closed! We grabbed some dinner at The Chop House instead (tasty lamb chops and creamed spinach), and crashed for the night.

The next dat we hit the deep South, catching the corner of Georgia before heading into Alabama. We stopped for lunch at Bob Syke's Bar B-Q in Bessemer; that was some serious barbeque! The smoker was lined with pork butts and whole chickens, and the whole place smelled of hickory. We had the pork ribs and the chopped beef, with coleslaw and beans on the side. It was all mighty tasty, although I found the ribs a bit on the dry side (what is it with dry food?); Jim said they were just to his liking. To each his own, I guess. We had the lemon meringue pie for dessert because the book had recommended it, but it was nothing to write home about - the meringue seemed undercooked and had formed a rubbery skin on the top. We should have gone with our first choice - a red velvet cake that looked for all the world like a brownie (it was only an inch thick). We were too full to think of more food by that point, though.

Then it was back on the road, through Alabama and Mississippi, and on to Louisiana. Around five that afternoon we reached our destination - the Big Easy! I didn't need any book to tell me where to eat in New Orleans; I already had my favorites spots. Beignets for breakfast at Cafe du Monde on Decatur - you can tell who's eaten there recently because they're invariably sporting a dusting of powdered suger down the front of their shirt. Po' boys for lunch. Johnny's on St. Louis makes a mighty fine crabcake version, but for me nothing beats Liuzza's by the Track. Their garlic and oyster po' boy is sublime, and their BBQ shrimp po' boy is a thing of wonder (They hollow out a loaf of french bread, and stuff it with shrimp cooked in a golden cream sauce suffused with enough black pepper to keep you licking your lips for the rest of the day). Dinner? That would be Coop's Place, a bar/eatery on Decatur that serves food until 2AM - perfect for a late-night bite. Go for the jambalaya supreme, a smoky concoction filled with rabbit, sausage, crawfish, shrimp and tasso ham. That's good eatin'!

After a couple days galavanting around the French Quarter I drove Jim to the airport and continued on my journey. Lunch time found me in Natchitoches, at Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant. A meat pie is just like one of those Hot Pockets you find in your grocer's freezer section; the main difference being that it is homemade, has a beautiful golden flaky crust and a filling that doesn't taste like packing material. I went with the crawfish pie and a side of fried okra. The pie was good; the okra was all dried out. For dessert I tried the Cane River Cream Pie. Roadfoods said it was "a variant of theBoston cream pie, but with gingerbread instead of white cake". Turns out it was more like a light spice cake, using chocolate milk instead of regular milk in the mix. It was good and all, but I was really looking forward to some nice moist gingerbread.

Then it was on into Texas. I swear the whole place smelled of barbecue, and there were different joints at every exit. I wasn't hungry yet, though, so I just kept driving - through Dallas and its rush-hour traffic, and up to Oklahoma. Turns out all the BBQ joints are between Louisiana and Dallas. Dallas to Oklahoma? Nothin'. Dinner was baby back ribs at Two Frogs Grill in Ardmore - good, but nothing great. Of course the crazy old guy sitting near me and making bizarre noises may have affected my dining enjoyment.

Next morning it was back on the road - up to Oklahoma City and all points west. Lunchtime found me in Amarillo at The Big Texan. It wasn't in the book, but I remembered it from my last cross-country drive. Where else can you find a 72oz. steak dinner that they'll give you FOR FREE if you can eat it in one hour? Besides, the whole place has this crazy Disneyland (maybe Knott's Berry Farm?) vibe to it - it's WAY larger than life. The place is made for tourists, and the food reflects that - such treats as rocky mountain oysters and rattlesnake next to the standard steaks ( the rattlesnake comes with a disclaimer: it's got little meat and lots of bones, and if you complain about it they'll bring out a live one). I went with the brisket, trying to get in a bit of Texas barbecue before I left the state. I probably should have stuck with the steak.

Nightfall found me in Gallup, New Mexico. I ate at The Olympic Kitchen because...well, because it was within walking distance of the hotel. Eclectic menu - Italian, Mexican and Greek. I went with a salad for the simple reason that I hadn't eaten anything healthy in days. Would have liked to have tried the Saturday menu, when they feature a number of Indian (as in Native American) dishes.

The next morning I set off again. Breakfast was free at the hotel - I won't bother talking about that. Brunch (well, it wasn't officially lunch time yet) was at Old Smoky's Restaurant in Williams, Arizona, where I filled up on the huevos rancheros and a story about how the waitress had beat up some 200 lb. guy back when she was a kid. That lasted me all the way back to Santa Monica, where I capped off my culinary adventure with a delivery of Mussaman curry from my favorite local eatery, Poom Thai.

There you have it. It was an adventure! I made it home eight days and 3,980 miles later, and five pounds heavier. I guess it's time to start that diet!

 

 

August 11 , 2008

Bring Out Your Dead!

 

Highgate Cemetery. It's the ultimate graveyard - a delightfully creepy place where all your secret fears can come out to play. Bram Stoker reportedly got inspiration for the novel Dracula during his lunchtime visits here, and the Hammer horror films of the 60's made extensive use of it's gothic ghoulishness.

Attitudes toward death took an interesting twist in Victorian England. The newly emerging middle class was seeking to separate itself from the hoi polloi, and how one dealt with death became a status symbol. Funerals became giant spectacles with plumed horses, crepe-draped carriages and throngs of hired mourners. The richer you were, the more over-the-top you could be. Widows would stay in mourning for up to two years, wearing suitable black attire and an appropriaely somber demeanor (Queen Victoria herself was the ultimate widow, remaining isolated and in mourning for forty years following the death of her husband Albert). The family of the departed was expected to spend as much as they could afford on a grave, as testament to the social status of the deceased - a monument to immortality, as it were.

Death in London in the early 1800's had been an unsavory business. The population was booming, and there simply wasn't enough room to deal with all the deceased. The church graveyards were literally filled to overflowing, with bodies buried just below the surface or even left out to rot. Parliament's solution to this unsanitary situation was the creation of seven private cemeteries in a ring around outer London. These new cemeteries gave wealthy Londoners the space they needed to more properly show off their riches, and came to be known as "The Magnificent Seven". Highgate Cemetery, opened in 1839, was the jewel in the cemetery crown. Set high on a hill overlooking London proper, it soon became THE fashionable final resting place. It was also a huge tourist attraction, with thousands of people coming to stroll the grounds and marvel at the monuments. Highgate soon filled to capacity, and in 1854 Highgate East was opened to deal with the overflow.

 

Between 1860 and 1880 the Victorian mania for funeral spectacle had reached its peak. By the time the 1900 rolled around, such ostentation had fallen out of favor. World War I dealt the final blow, with the senseless deaths of so many young men overseas making a mockery of all the pompous display. Death still happened of course, but nobody was paying for elaborate memorials anymore. Highgate remained open for business, but the staffing was slashed, and through the 20th Century the grounds fell into disrepair. Tombstones tumbled and vines of ivy swallowed up the landscape like an encroaching jungle.

By the late 60's the place was mainly known as a creepy filming location (such classics as Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Abominable Dr. Phibes filmed there) and a hangout for vandals. Highgate soon became famous again, but for an entirely different reason. David Farrant, an "occult explorer", told tales of a supernatural being lurking amongst the tombs there. Soon others were coming forward with reports of strange goings-on in the graveyard, and the Highgate Vampire (as it came to be known) was the talk of London.. Vampire mania reached its peak in the spring of 1970, when rival factions of ghostbusters - one lead by Farrant and the other by a Van-Helsing wannabee named Sean Manchester - battled it out in the press over who was more capable of exorcising the evil entity. A "magicians duel" was supposed to take place between the two, but it never happened. When Manchester announced an "official" vampire hunt on Friday, March 13th, a hundred self-appointed vampire hunters showed up. People ran roughshod over the grounds, armed with holy water and garlic paste. A couple months later a headless corpse was discovered in a car parked outside the cemetery. One day Farrant was spotted on the grounds sporting a crucifix and a wooden stake, and was arrested. The trial was a media sensation, with stories of orgiastic Satanic rites and otherworldly demons. Farrant and Manchester each wrote a book on the subject, and to this day the two maintain a bitter rivalry. As to the vampire, Manchester claims to have dispatched it himself with a stake to the heart.

By 1975 the West Cemetery had ceased to become financially viable, and was shut down. A group of volunteers calling themselves the Friends of Highgate Cemetery (FOHC) did what they could to keep the place from falling into complete disrepair, and in 1981 the FOHC acquired the freehold to both cemeteries. Since then they have been solely responsible for the place, and have fixed it up to the point that it is now listed as a two-star park and "a place of outstanding historical and architectural interest" by English Heritage. Be warned, though - these grey-haired old ladies rule the place with an iron-fist.

The East Cemetery is a casual affair; pay the entrance fee and you're free to wander at your leisure. The grave of Karl Marx is the big draw here - Chinese tourists make the pilgrimmage all year round to pay their respects to the Father of Communism. The center of the cemetery has a wonderful "reclaimed by nature" feel (the volunteer at the gate uses the term "managed neglect"), with crumbling grave markers enshrouded in lush greenery.

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As charming as the East Cemetery is, the real treasure is over on the west side. This was the original cemetery, and it's a Victorian-era masterpiece. The elaborate tombs are now surrounded by a veritable nature preserve of trees and shrubbery - a walk in the woods, but with tombstones! It's like a Disneyland of Death, with an Egyptian Avenue and a Circle of Lebanon (with its ring of crypts dug into the hillside, all topped with a giant Lebanon Cedar). Victorian funerary symbolism abounds - broken columns signifying a life cut short, half-draped urns denoting the soul's final resting place, inverted torches representing a life extinguished. Figures of weeping women and consoling angels share space with more fanciful grave markers - there's Nero the lion napping on the tomb of menagerist George Wombell, and Lion (the dog) napping at the tomb of bareknuckle brawler Thomas Sayers. Sayers, the first boxer to be declared World Heavyweight Champion, was so beloved that when he died at age 39, ten thousand people showed up for his burial. Lion was honored with the role of Chief Mourner in the procession, and his likeness continues to keep watch over his former owner and companion.

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By far the largest tomb in the cemetery belongs to Julius Beer, a Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in the newspaper business. Denied entry to all the high-society functions of his era, he even had to convert to Christianity in order to be buried in Highgate. He had the last laugh, however. The promenade behind St Anne's church, which stands above the cemetery and (at the time) overlooked all of London, was a popular strolling place for the city's upper crust. Imagine their horror when the magnificent view was suddenly and forevermore blotted out by Beer's monstrous mausoleum. Ahh... sweet revenge!

The West Cemetery is much trickier to get in to see. There is a single guided tour at 2pm Monday through Friday. Call ahead to get in on that one, because if you're not in the first two dozen, you're out of luck. I waited two hours for a potential opening and was turned away with a politely curt British "Sorry". Saturday is a better bet, as there are hourly tours from 11am-4pm on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Then there are the rules - stay with the group at all times. No wandering off the path. No video. Still cameras are grudgingly accepted, but "only very little ones". The tour will not stop for photos. Laggers, stragglers and incessant shutterbugs will not be tolerated.

I have to say, though - even with the draconian rules, it's still a fantastic place to visit and one of the highlights of my time in London!

 

 

 

July 20 , 2008

Comic-Con

 

A weekend in San Diego and the place is packed - Illustrators and animators, fanboys and gamers, steampunks, lolitas, cosplayers, mechaheads, the simply curious and the should-be-committed. People of all ages are crowded into the Convention Center and swarming the nearby streets. This can only mean one thing ... Comic-Con's in town!

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Comic-Con is a celebration of the popular arts - comics, science fiction, fantasy, film and television. It's a place for fans to dress up, buy cool stuff and get a sneak peak at all the latest the entertainment industry has to offer. There are screenings and signings, costume contests and portfolio reviews. The exhibition hall is packed with booths offering art, clothing, toys - anything even remotely related to the genre. The halls upstairs hold workshops, panel discussions and Q&A sessions; a chance for the fans to get some face-time with the creators (and for the creators to get some much-needed feedback). You can make a day of it or stay for the entire four-day event!

The first convention, held in 1970 drew a crowd of 300. This year's has some 130,000 attendees, and tickets were sold out weeks in advance. It has become a must-do industry event, with entertainment giants fixing up enormous booths and major (and minor) studios showcasing new releases and projects in the pipeline. It's also a fantastic place for people-watching!

 

July 20 , 2008

Ripped

 

There are some names that make your heart beat a little faster; that make your breath catch in your throat. One stands head and shoulders above the rest. He's the ultimate boogie man - the guy you're least likely to want to meet in a dark alley. He is fear personified. He is Jack the Ripper.

Back in 1888, London's East End was a bad, bad place. Overpopulation, squalor and neglect had made the area a disease filled, crime-plagued embarrassment to the more affluent West End.Vermin-ridden tenements were crammed with the city's working poor; rubbish and raw sewage spilled out into the streets. More than half the children in the East End died by the age of five.The Whitechapel area and its inhabitants were problems London's elite did their best to put out of their minds. Jack changed all that.

That fall a series of murders took place. The victims were all East End prostitutes - prostitution being one of the only ways a widow or single woman could earn a living (in 1888 there were some 1200 prostitutes living in Whitechapel - and that doesn't count the women who did it part-time to supplement a meager income). Each murder was more savage than the one before, and most took place right out in public - down those dirty, dark alleys the area was known for. The crimes were ghastly... mutilation... evisceration.

The press latched onto the story and spread it throughout London; in fact the media frenzy surrounding these crimes brought about the rise of tabloid journalism. Letters started appearing, one addressed "From Hell" and bearing a partial human kidney; another bearing the signature by which the sadistic killer would be known from then on.

The police and Scotland Yard frantically searched for the Ripper (or did they? Hmmm...), and met with one failure after another. All of London screamed for justice, and the police were maligned for their apparent incompetence. Vigilante groups were formed.

Then, after one last display of horrific brutality (the victim was quite literally taken apart), Jack disappeared. Theories abounded as to the identity of the killer, with everyone from author Lewis Carroll to Prince Albert Victor - grandson of Queen Victoria - named as suspects. Nobody was ever charged, though, and the murders are unsolved to this day. The infamous deeds of Jack the Ripper grew from being the source of headlines to the stuff of legend. Over 200 books have been written on the subject, and he's made an appearance in many films - most recently Johnny Depp's 2001 movie From Hell. In 2006 BBC History Magazine and its readers selected him as The Worst Briton in History.

These days he's a source of revenue. It's hard to overstate the fascination Jack the Ripper still holds on the public imagination. On any given day there are probably a dozen "Ripper Walks" wandering around his old haunting grounds. Since I've always been a subscriber to the "When in Rome" philosophy, I went on one such tour. We were a gathering of fifty people, separated into two groups, and out for a stroll on a Friday night. As we wound our way from Tower Hill to Christ Church, we were filled in on all the case's the gory details. You have to have a heck of an imagination on this walk, because thanks to the WWII London bombings and subsequent rebuilding, there is virtually nothing left that resembles the London of old. We didn't even get any old photos to look at. Our guide would point at a parking garage or park bench, and leave it to us to picture the dark back alleys and crowded tenements that once existed.

The East End has cleaned up quite a bit since 1888, but the group still faced its own particular kind of dangers: We ran a gauntlet of traffic and withstood verbal abuse by pub patrons out for a pint. Some "sensitive sights" could only be pointed out from a distance; any closer inspection risked a shower of water and garbage tossed by locals sick of all the attention. On my walk I heard a flowerpot shatter in the vicinity of a competing tour group.

Speaking of other groups, the existence of so many different "Ripper Walks" vying for such limited real estate added a kind of "West Side Story" feel to the evening. We circled each other like rival gangs, always trying to be first at a historically significant location. My group was usually on the short end of the stick, gazing wistfully from a distance while another group gathered around Catherine Eddowes' "discovery site" in Mitre Square, or walking to the only surviving example of the old Victorian alleyways and finding it already packed to the gills with the members of some other tour. The tour, like the original case, just kind of fizzled out in the end, and I wandered back to the tube station thinking an episode of Unsolved Mysteries would have been every bit as enlightening.

If you're mad about Jack, though, then by all means take a tour. Just be careful wandering those dark alleys... you never know who you might bump into.

 

July 19 , 2008

Vive la French!

You might know him as the hilarious Harry Solomon from 3rd Rock from the Sun, but did you know that played Yogi Bear in Hanna Barbera's Shakey Quakey Tour - from which he was fired for removing his bear head in front of the children? How about that he's the official spokesperson for Clamato? A man of many talents, and a great guy to boot! New to the Celebrity Scrapbook ... it's French Stewart!

 

July 18 , 2008

Sir Marx-a-Lot

He's the guy who wrote The Communist Manifesto, whose philosophy gave rise to the Mighty Soviet Empire, and he's buried in...London!?

I suppose I never really thought about it - I just assumed Karl Marx's final resting place would be in Russia (somewheres near Lenin's Tomb, perhaps). That's what I get for assuming. Karl Marx spent the last thirty-four years of his life in London, and now he's resting comfortably in Highgate Cemetary. Wanna see him? Just head over to the East Cemetary and walk the main path until you get to what looks like a grave marker for Santa Claus. That's him. It's quite a popular destination for Chinese tourists, I hear.

Of course you could always save yourself the airfare, head over to the Final Chapter section of the Celebrity Scrapbook and see a picture of him with Marvin!

 

 

July 16 , 2008

Just An Observation

 

Statues - London's full of 'em. You can't swing a cat around here without smacking the statue of somebody or other. Walter Raleigh, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Ian Christian Smuts - I could go on forever. Famous, obscure...doesn't matter - if they were English or had anything at all to do with England's history, you'll probably find a statue to them. I happened to notice something, though. Other than the impressive statue of Queen Victoria out front of Buckingham Palace (she sure was a looker, wasn't she?), I didn't see a single other actual woman depicted. Sure, there were plenty of female figures on monuments throughout the city - quite lovely ones, at that - but they were all either timeless goddesses of some sort, or personifications of some abstract quality like freedom or perseverence.

The Monument to the Clothing of the Women of WWII

 

I really began to get suspicious when I passed the Monument to the Women of World War II in Whitehall. Great monument, great cause, but where exactly were the WOMEN? It looked for all the world like a giant bronze coatrack. Is there some conspiracy going on here? A cabal of monumental misogynists, perhaps? Hmmm.....

 

 

July 15 , 2008

What is Hip?

 

It sounded like it was going to be a piece of cake - take the tube from Heathrow straight to Leicester Square. A two-minute walk to 45 St. Martins Lane would take me right to my hotel, the imaginatively named St. Martins Lane. Turns out it's not so easy. I come up out of the tube station completely clueless as to my orientation, with nothing to point me in the right direction. Back in L.A., signs on every street corner let you know exactly where you are - even in the smallest neighborhoods. Not so for London. It's much more casual here - actual "street signs" don't seem to exist. Occasionally it occurs to somebody to tack some sort of identifier onto the side of a building; that's as close as you're going to get. Even looking at a map, I still can't figure out where the hell I am!

After several wrong starts, I find St. Martins Lane, hauling my luggage through bustling crowds on a steamy Tuesday afternoon. My next problem? The building numbers appear to have been assigned at random - 38 jumps up to 105, then back down. Is it just me, or do both ends of the street start at 30 working towards the center? This has to be some sort of joke!

I finally find the place, after walking up and down the same block some half-dozen times. Turns out St. Martins Lane is one of those hip, ultra-modern places - too cool to even bother with a sign. I luck out, and finally spot a small number 45 next to a yellow glass revolving door.

I check in and head for the elevator. The doors open, and it's like something from a David Lynch movie: the walls are bathed in purple light, and oddly disturbing films are playing on three different video screens. All that's missing is the backwards-talking dwarf.

Your hellevator has arrived...

"My name is....Grant"

 

I step off the lift and the weirdness continues. I don't see any room numbers, just alternating blue and orange doors. I pass a couple of skater-dudes, apparently as lost as I am. "This is just like Alice in Wonderland", one of them says. He's right. I keep expecting the hallway to get smaller and smaller as I walk down it, until I finally reach my tiny door and the bottle labeled "drink me".

I find my room (the numbers are in the carpeting at the foot of each door), and after three or four tries with the electronic key (Push in, pull out, turn knob and push? Push in, turn knob, pull out and push?), I'm in the room and headed to the bathroom for some much needed relief. Afterwards I go to flush the toilet - only I don't see anything that serves that purpose. No handles, no nothing - just an odd metal disk about four feet up the wall. I press it and it doesn't move. Okay, it's not a button. I try waving my hand over it - it's not a sensor, either. Frustrated, I give the disk a sharp smack - hard enough that my hand smarts. That does the trick! A rather poorly designed feature, if you ask me. A boxing glove or whack-a-mole mallet hung nearby would be more effective, and help to save on bruised palms.

Sweaty and exhausted, I stretch out on the bed and turn on the TV - which turns on not with the power button (that would be too logical), but with the "channel up" button. I pick up the room-service menu and have a look. Twenty dollars for a lychee and elderflower collins? FIFTY DOLLARS for breakfast?

So this is hip. I could go for a cold beer and a Motel 6 right about now.

 

July 14 , 2008

Bottoms Up!

 

Old or young, white-collar or working stiff, the one place in London where everybody feels at home is the local pub. An English pub is not just a bar - it's an institution. People don't just drop in for a pint before heading home... they drop in for a pint INSTEAD of heading home! It's the gathering place of the local community. From mid-afternoon until closing time, establishments with names like Elephant and Castle and Crooked Surgeon are filled to overflowing with crowds of patrons catching up over a cold (or not-so-cold) one. Oh yeah - did I mention the drinking? The Brits are some serious drinkers.

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Pubs are easy to spot - even without the crowds. Just look for the colorful sign accompanied by an often equally colorful name. As with nearly everything in England, this tradition has a rich history. Back in the middle ages, when a batch of ale was ready for consumption, a bunch of ivy would be tied on a post out in front of the alehouses. Then a public servant (an ale-conner) would come by and check on the quality of the brew. In 1393 King Richard II sent out the decree that "Whosoever shall brew ale in the town (London) with the intention of selling it must hang out a sign; otherwise he shall forfeit his ale". Since most of the population was illiterate, the sign usually bore some sort of distinctive picture. The Pub often took its name from that picture. Pub names can be descriptive (Crooked Chimney, First and Last), Historical (Rose and Crown, Saracen's Head), or just plain memorable (Bag o' Nails, Bucket of Blood , Slug and Lettuce). You can stop in at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a favorite haunt of Charles Dickens and one of the few London pubs to survive the Great Fire of 1666. How 'bout Prospect of Whitby, London's oldest riverside inn, built back in 1520? Back then it was known as The Devil's Tavern, and was quite popular with smugglers.

 

You can always knock a few back at Dirty Dicks, named for Nathaniel Bentley, a well-known Dandy of his day. His fiancee died on the eve of their wedding, and Bentley locked up the dining room (complete with wedding breakfast) and lived the rest of his life in squalor. The pub is on the former site of his house. Other than the original cellar, the rest of the squalor is new.

So you've picked out a pub - now what do you drink? If you're a traditionalist, there's only one answer to that: Ale. Cask brewed, cellar cooled and hand pumped. They've been brewing ale in Britain since the Bronze Age, and they've gotten quite good at it. A down and dirty guide to your various brews: Ale is made with water, yeast and malt - mashed together, boiled, cooled and allowed to ferment. Throw in some hops and you've got yourself beer. Cool down your fermentation and you're looking at a lager. Like wine or cheese, it's the subtle differences in ingredients and the factors affecting fermentation that produce the different flavors.

Now order up a round of drinks for you and your mates. That's how it's done in England, with everybody taking turns buying drinks for the whole group. This can lead to some serious intoxication if you're not careful, since the pace of each round is set by the fastest drinkers in the group. Soon you'll find yourself slamming back a half-glass at a time just to make way for the next round.

On the bright side, the London Congestion Charge has made it too expensive to drive in the city anyways, so as long as you can stagger your way to a taxi or the nearest tube station, you're all set!

 

July 11 , 2008

London Calling

 

As I rode the tube from Heathrow to Leicester Square, I watched the people. Businessmen going home from work, school kids horsing around, young parents with crying babies. It occurred to me that I could easily be on a subway in any city in the United States (okay, probably not Los Angeles - there wasn't nearly enough Spanish being spoken). The dress, the mannerisms, even the subway ads - they all seemed so... familiar.

Who's the king of Spain? Does Spain even have a king? I've got no idea. What do I know about German history? Well, there's that whole unpleasant business surrounding WWII, but otherwise there's not much I can tell you. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure German history is quite fascinating; I just don't know any of it. England, though ... that's different. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles and Lady Di - of course I know them. Henry the Eighth and Charles Dickens and Jack the Ripper, Winston Churchill and Buckingham Palace and Big Ben - it's not foreign history so much as it's U.S. history once removed. Sure, America may have cut loose from England over two hundred years ago, but our shared heritage is just too strong to deny. So they drive on the wrong side of the road, and like to put vinegar on their french fries (which they call chips). Perhaps we are a bit too loud and opinionated, and maybe we do like to sue all the time. Does any of that really matter in the big scheme of things? We may never agree on the whole football/soccer thing, but like those two girls in The Parent Trap (the Hayley Mills version, of course) - once you get past the superficial, we're really not all that different.

After all , if we agreed on everything, what would there be to talk about at the pub - besides what a wanker George Bush is?

 

July 7 , 2008

This is England

Did I mention what a fantastic city London is? I just got back from a week over there, and I've got a lot to tell you about... Stay tuned!

 

June 23 , 2008

Behind the Mask

I received an email the other day from my favorite real-life archaeologist/adventurer - David West Reynolds. I thought you might get a kick out of it:

 

Long time no chat, sorry about being hard to keep in touch with, but Phaeton life has been very busy. Wanted to say a belated thanks for the fun article you wrote about me and Phaeton Group. Hope you enjoyed the interview as well as I did. Cheers for that, mate.
I was browsing your site and came across this:

This photo always makes me smile, and not just because I was the director on that photo shoot. Here’s the story, in case you might find it entertaining:


Back when I worked at Skywalker Ranch, we needed a super-clear image of Darth Vader for the cover of one of my Star Wars books. Believe it or not, none of the classic images on file were sharp enough to withstand the necessary high-resolution enlargement—even the photos that had been used for the Empire Strikes Back record album campaign in 1980. So we had to create a new portrait image of Vader. Lucasfilm wanted me to just use whatever costume suit was handy in the Archives, as there were a number of copies that had been made for various public appearances. But--photograph a mere replica, for my historic project? My book was about authentic artifacts, not replicas! I insisted on using a 1977 original, and thanks to my strangely fortunate status at the Ranch, I finally got my way.


Archives curator Paloma Anoveros opened up one of the old chests and pulled out “This old thing. Are you sure you want this?” That’s what I wanted to see, all right. The old helmet and accoutrements emerged from long storage. Heavy leather, heavy fiberglass. Then a cloth was drawn away and the mask was revealed. It was like seeing the perfectly preserved face of a dead man. It gave the shock of seeing in person an extremely distinctive face that you know very well from historical images, like Abraham Lincoln, or more appropriately, like Adolf Hitler. Here he was. This mask was not just a copy of an icon; it was the icon itself. It bore hand-made details and subtle asymmetries that made the hair rise on my neck as my very chromosomes recognized that it was the exact visage that had stared evilly down at Princess Leia. A few chips and nicks were, to me, not flaws. They were proofs of the artifact’s mileage; they made this a true Piece Of History.


Handling it with great care, we tried to set it up on a stand. But we found that the helmet and armor were so heavy that we were concerned they might topple over. The costume coordinator Gillian Libbert ended up concluding, “Oh all right. David, get in there.” The idea of actually wearing the suit had never entered my head. In fact, the sudden prospect almost seemed sacreligious. But on the other hand, it was not an opportunity that I was about to decline. Perhaps it was even... my destiny. :) Compared to the strapping giant Dave Prowse, your humble narrator was so slight of build that even after everything was in place, there was still room in that costume for a set of encyclopedias. However, all we needed was for the head and shoulders to look right. The massive shoulder armor gave me the appearance of the necessary breadth, so it was O.K.


Looking out through that mask was pretty mind-blowing for a guy who had been a little kid completely transported by the original Star Wars movie. Here I was looking out through the “real” Darth Vader’s own eyes. I kept seeing scenes from the film as my very young self had experienced them in the 1977 theater, i.e. as total and vivid reality. It actually took some effort to focus past this sensation on what we were doing.


My brilliant photographer Alex Ivanov—who has since been on expeditions with me high above the Arctic Circle and aboard a classified radar-invisible ship—is what we call “an artist with light.” Alex is one of those people who can somehow capture the intangible power of what he is shooting, and transmit it into his images. In the Archives, he can invest pieces of plastic with the aura of wonder that they carry in the movies. As I sat there under his photo-floods, Alex worked his photographic magic, and the beat-up old helmet became a true incarnation of Darth Vader.


The best photograph of the session graced my book cover beautifully, but that was hardly the end of it. Alex’s images from that shoot went on to appear in many products and advertisements over the years. In fact, until the new lightweight plastic-and-vinyl Vader suit was made for Episode III, Alex’s portraits were the primary Lucasfilm stock images of Darth Vader’s mask.
And all that time, underneath the suit, it was yours truly:

Just think, my high school guidance counselor said that I would never amount to anything if I pursued archaeology.

Hope you are well sir.
Cheers ,
David West Reynolds


PS—On my word of honor, I swear that the above image involves absolutely no PhotoShop or other visual trickery, and that it accurately represents the event and situation in question, without any misrepresentation of any kind.

 

Is that guy cool or what? Captain Reynolds, you can share your stories with me anytime!

 

April 30 , 2008

Avast, ye mateys !

 

Learning your way around a ship is like learning a foreign language - there's a new word for everything! Left and right become port and starboard, front and back are now fore and aft. Then there's the ropes...don't get me started on the ropes! Buntlines and leechlines, tacks and halyards, clewlines and braces - Exy and Irving both have 85 different sail handling lines, and God forbid you loosen the wrong line at the wrong time.

As obscure as shipboard terminology can be (when on land are you going to need to know the difference between a backstay and a baggywrinkle?), it's fascinating to find words or phrases with nautical origins that have passed into common usage. The bitter end? That's the last part of a rope or cable. The end of the anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship's bow - if you've played out all the cable, you've reached the bitter end - there ain't no more to go.

A skyscraper? Before it was a tall building, it was a small triangular sail rigged above the ordinary sails (to take advantage of a light wind).

Here are a few more words and phrases that might sound familiar:

First Rate - British naval ships used to be rated by the number of heavy cannon they carried - the fewer the guns, the lower the rating. A warship carrying 100 or more guns was a First Rate ship.

Pipe Down - The Pipe down was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day. It meant "lights out" and "keep quiet".

Scuttlebutt - The scuttlebutt was a butt (water barrel) with a scuttle (hole) in it for scooping out drinking water. Like the modern office water cooler, this is where people would get together and gossip.

As the Crow Flies - Starting back with the Vikings, ships would carry a caged crow onboard. Since they figured the crow would fly straight for land when released, if they were lost they would let it go and just follow the bird.

Show Your True Colors - Back in the day every ship flew a flag showing its country of origin. It was a common wartime practice to sneak up on an enemy vessel by flying a "friendly" flag, so as not to arouse suspicion. Before attacking, however, rules of engagement stated that the ship had to take down the false flag and put up their real one - to show their "true colors", as it were.

Rummage Sale - From the French arrimage, meaning "ship's cargo". Damaged cargo used to be sold at a rummage sale.

The Devil to Pay and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - The Devil Seam is the long, curved seam where the hull meets the deck. Paying a seam meant to caulk it, and the devil (because of its length and location) was a godawful seam to caulk. Hanging over the side would literally put you "between the devil and the deep blue sea."

No Room to Swing a Cat - That cat would be the cat o' nines, the whip used for punishments. Since the whole ship's crew had to be present for a flogging, things could get a bit crowded at times.

To Take the Wind out of Someone's Sails - This was a nautical maneuver called overbearing, where one ship would sail alongside and upwind of another - blocking the wind and causing the other ship to slow down to a crawl.

Cut and Run - An anchored ship surprised by an attacker sometimes wouldn't take the time to weigh (haul up) the anchor - they'd just cut the cable and run away.

 

I've never seen any evidence that this next phrase has a nautical origin, but since the terms are all nautical ones it makes perfect sense to me:

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - On shipboard you take the slack out of a line by "sweating" it - a labor intensive maneuver that usually takes more than one person. Smaller, more lightweight lines are actually classified as "small stuff". A lightweight rope doesn't require much effort to take the slack out of it, so the small stuff doesn't need to be sweated.

 

April 21 , 2008

Ships Ahoy!

 

Okay, I know I haven't been checking in as often as I should, but I have been keeping busy. All my free time at the present is spent learning how to sail those two beauties you see in the picture - the Irving and Exy Johnson. They're twin brigantines belonging to the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, and they're quite the handful! Ninety feet long and rigged nearly as tall, with thirteen sails and eighty-five different handling lines, there's plenty to do and plenty to learn. You can count on me telling you all about it sometime in the near future, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I've got to go learn my jigger from my jackstay!

 

April 7 , 2008

That's a lot of bloomin' flowers!

 

It's that time of year out in the California deserts: the normally sage and dust-colored landscape is alive with color - carpets of yellow, banks of lavender and bright orange hillsides! The blooms of spring are in full force, and the devotees are flocking in from miles around. The line of cars into the Poppy Reserve (who knew there even WAS a Poppy Reserve?) is daunting, and the surrounding hills are filled with people out to get that extra special "poppy shot". There are couples with babies, couples with dogs, even entire Japanese families out posing for pictures amongst the poppies. Hell, Lancaster (the town with the special distinction of being even further out in the middle of nowhere than Palmdale) even has its own California Poppy Festival coming up in a couple weeks. Who says they don't know how to have a good time in Lancaster?

(And you thought there was nothing out there but meth labs.)

 

February 21 , 2008

Beam me up, Scotty!

 

All you Trekkies out there better get off your butts and get down to the Queen Mary Dome in Long Beach - there's one week left to take in Star Trek the Tour! It doesn't matter whether you're a fan of the William Shatner classic original, or a lover of any of the myriad offshoot films or TV shows - this exhibit's got something for you.

Check out the original costumes, props and ship models; get your picture taken manning the bridge of either the Original Series or the Next Generation Enterprise, or get yourself beamed up in the transporter room (the "lenticular" souvenir picture is great!). You can even chow down on a "Hamborger" or "Spock's Brain" at Quark's Bar!

 

 

Here's a hint: there are two "flight simulator" rides - a shuttle version that seats a dozen and has limited motion, and a two- man version that spins around and flips completely over. Both rides are playing the same movie, and (believe it or not) the shuttle version is actually more fun! Even though the two-man version has a better range of motion, you're strapped in completely and the ride's incredibly smooth...and boring. In contrast, the shuttle version's jerky movements send you sliding across the hard plastic benches and slamming into the people next to you - imagine Fred, Shaggy and the gang launching into outer space in the Mystery Machine. Toss in a pair of fuzzy dice and a box of Scooby Snacks and you're good to go!

 

February 11 , 2008

Spring Cleaning

I've been at this a few years now, and this website has been one big learning process (when you're self- taught, it can take a while to work the bugs out). With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the website and see if any of my older stuff needed some jazzing up. This weekend I did just that - have a look at the new and improved Burning Man page, Protest page, Lady Laura's page, and Travels page!

 

February 5, 2008

Mardi Gras!

In honor of the festivities taking place down in New Orleans at this very moment, here's a little piece that was passed on by my dear friend Angelina:

 

I LOVE NEW ORLEANS!


Give me a king cake baby
give me a beignet kiss
give me a French Quarter morning that looks like this


Give me the Endymion Krewe
give me the Times-Picayune
give me a drunk and lazy crawfish boil in muggy sticky June


Give me a six pack of Dixie
give me some assorted Abita beers
give me a city where it only snows once every 10 years


Give me a green neutral ground
give me a mardi gras ball
give me a medium rare burger at my grand old Port of Call


Give me a glittery drag show
give me the streetcar line
give the House of the Rising Sun
give me a Tchoupitoulas sign


Give me a shrimp and oyster po'boy
give me lovebug season in May
give me my New Orleans-
I will definitely stay.


58 percent of Americans think that New Orleans should not be rebuilt...
58 percent of Americans can go fuck themselves.

 

Thanks, Angelina - I couldn't have said it better myself.

 

 

January 25, 2008

Thailand

 

Whew! I've finally gotten the Thailand page up. I know, I know, this one takes a while to load - I didn't have the heart to cut out any of the swell pictures or audio. Take a look!

 

January 13, 2008

R.I.P. Sir Edmund

 

This week marks the passing of one of the world's greatest adventurers - the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary and his guide Tenzig Norgay were the first people ever to climb to the top of Mount Everest. That may not seem like such a big deal these days, but back when he did it scientists weren't even sure a human could survive at that altitude!
When I was down in New Zealand searching for photo ops, someone suggested I get a picture with the most famous Kiwi of all time. Hillary is such an icon down there he's even got his picture on the five dollar bill. Imagine my surprise when I asked how to get in touch with him and was told to just look him up in the phone book! It turns out Edmund is as unpretentious as they come (he doesn't like that 'Sir' stuff - just call him Ed).
I gave him a call. His wife June answered the phone, and I explained what I was doing and asked about dropping by for a picture. She said "Let me go ask him," and set down the phone. A couple minutes later she was back. She apologized for taking so long - she'd had to go downstairs to get him. "I'm sorry," she said, "but he doesn't feel like getting his picture taken right now." They'd been swamped by the media and all the special engagements lately (it was coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of his Everest ascent) - in fact they were getting ready to head to Washington D.C. for some White House affair. I mentioned that I was impressed by the exhibition at the National Museum in Auckland, and June replied that their house was pretty much empty with all the stuff the museum had borrowed. We talked a bit more about all the madness surrounding the 50th anniversary, and I thanked her for taking the time to talk with me. She wished me luck on my project and hoped I enjoyed New Zealand.

So I didn't get a picture, but I did have a wonderful conversation with the charming Mrs. Hillary. Here's to you Edmund - you were a giant amongst men, and you'll be sorely missed.

 

December 26, 2007

"Waiter, there's a bug in my... "

 

So you're out on the town and you're feeling a bit peckish - how's about a tasty snack? A little something to nosh on? Well, if you're in Thailand that tasty tidbit might be a bug!

If you're from the U.S. or Europe, the idea of eating insects may be a bit hard to swallow - the thought of popping a six-legged, creepy-crawly thing in your mouth and biting down would send most folks into convulsions. All over the world, though, people make bugs a regular part of their diet. It makes sense, too - high in protein and low in fat, insects are a nutritious, readily available food source. Insect farming is environmentally friendly and efficient - one hundred pounds of feed produces 10 pounds of beef, but a whopping 45 pounds of cricket!

So many choices...

I was walking through the night market in Lampang when I saw the stand - a table piled high with an assortment of former garden pests. Mounds of crickets, heaps of beetles and a gaggle of grasshoppers were being served up to a long line of hungry customers. Fried in oil, scooped into a bag, and spritzed with god knows what (I Can't Believe it's not Butter, perhaps?), the little critters were selling like hotcakes!

Okay, this I had to try. I got in line, and when my turn came I chose what seemed to be the most popular bug that evening - some sort of larvae. Better than beetles, I thought - at least with these guys I won't be picking leg parts out of my teeth the rest of the night. A scoop, a spritz, a little bit of baht, and I walked away with my own snack bag of buggy goodness.

Mmmm...just like Mom used to make!

V

I fished one out - golden brown and about the size of a Cheetos. I popped it into my mouth and bit down... firm, slightly crispy outside... creamy inside with a taste of...

...well, what do you THINK a bug would taste like? That's pretty much what it tasted like - it was like picking something up off the window sill and putting it in my mouth! It's definitely an acquired taste. They did get better after the first one, although that may have just been the beer I was washing them down with.

So are mealworms going to replace popcorn at the local cineplex any time in the near future? Let me put it this way - until they breed a bug that tastes a little more like sour cream and onion and a little less like ... well, like bug ... I don't think Orville Redenbacher's gonna be losing any sleep.

 

December 15, 2007

Angkor What?

Intrigue, danger, corporate malfeasance and the plight of the falling dollar in today's global economy... plus BALLOON ANIMALS!

Seriously, though... it's here - hot off the presses - the thrilling account of my journey to Cambodia! Follow the link to Marvin's Angkor Adventure.

 

November 18, 2007

One Night in Bangkok

Okay, it's hard to think about Bangkok without that infernal Murray Head song worming its way into your consciousness:

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history
I can feel an angel sliding up to me.

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can't be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me.

 

I don't think there's any place that quite compares. My friend Adrian says it's his favorite place because its motto is "Yes, yes you can." Anything you can imagine - it's there to be had in Bangkok. It's a city that jars the senses.

I was sitting at a patio bar off Sukhumvit with some friends late one evening, nursing a beer and watching the world unfold on the street below. Traffic was brisk - taxicabs and tuktuks (these crazy three-wheeled taxis that are popular all over Thailand) cruised past neon signs touting various clubs and massage parlours. On our sidewalk two food carts had pulled up and were cooking late night snacks - rows of skewered squid sizzled on the grill, their glistening tentacles curled and steaming. Two women had laid out blankets across from each other, and were vying for handouts - one cradling a baby in her arms, and the other tending to a motionless child stretched out before her, his little limbs all twisted. Across the street a group of ladyboys were catching a quick bite at an improvised counter nailed to a wooden fence - at least I think they were ladyboys (in Bangkok it's nearly impossible to tell the real girls just by looking). Hill-tribe women - their distinctive headgear setting them apart from the rest of the crowd - were trying to sell leather bracelets or wooden frog-clackers to any tourist who would return eye-contact. A few middle-aged white guys walked by, their escorts probably younger than their own daughters and far more beautiful than anyone they could ever hope to hook up with back home. Then came the elephant, a little guy about six feet tall and built like a Volkswagen. He and his two handlers stopped at each bar, where the elephant would hand a flower to anyone who offered the proper payment. As the group passed by, a traveling companion leaned over and said "This is what the world's going to look like after Armageddon."

You know, he's probably right.

 

By the way, the only ones who call this city Bangkok are the foreigners. The Thais know it by its official name: Krungthep-mahanakhon-bowon-rattanakosin-mahintara-ayudhya-amahadilok-popnopparat- ratchathani-burirom-udomratchaniwet-mahasathan-amonpiman-avatansathir-sakkathatitya- visnukamprasit (The great city of angels, the supreme unconquerable land of the great immortal divinity (Indra), the royal capital of nine noble gems, the pleasant city with plenty of grand royal palaces and divine paradises for the reincarnated deity (Vishnu), given by Indra and created by the god of crafting (Visnukarma)

or Krung-Thep (The City of Angels) for short. I shit you not.


I can feel the devil walking next to me.

November 17, 2007

I know you are, but what am I?

Pee Wee's Playhouse was a work of sheer genius, and I'm happy to say that I finally got a picture with the genius behind it all, the one and only Paul Reubens! Check out this latest addition to the Celebrity Scrapbook!

 

November 10, 2007

I'm Baaack!

I'm just back from a trip to Thailand and Cambodia, and I've got plenty to show you! First, I have to go through some 2000 photos and get over this jetlag (I'm still not sure what time it is or even what day it is). Stay tuned - I'll be posting soon!

 

October 5 , 2007

Indiana Marvin and the Quest

for the Impossible Picture

 

Just in case you've been living under a rock or have just given up the Amish lifestyle, let me be the first to tell you - they're filming a new Indiana Jones movie. It's called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it brings back Harrison Ford as the world's coolest archaeologist. Indy has always been a hero of mine - when I was a kid I'd put on an old brown fedora, take my dad's bullwhip out into the back yard and practice whip tricks (my most impressive was the one where I'd smack myself upside the head trying to get the whip to crack - that sucker comes back at you FAST!).

The new movie was shooting all over town, and when I heard they'd be doing some work on the Warner lot, I was delighted - a chance to get a Marvin picture with an icon like Indy ...that I couldn't pass up.

The Indy gang took up residence in Stage 16 - the largest stage on the lot. Officially, it was all very hush-hush... the name of the movie was Untitled Genre Project, and that's all anybody had to say. Unofficially, they were building an enormous Mayan temple (if anybody asks, you didn't hear this from me, by the way). It was huge, and they worked on it for months. As the set got closer to completion, security got tighter and tighter. Nobody was allowed on the stage without proper identification. I had to settle for marveling at the truckloads of stuff that were being loaded in - cool stone friezes and ornate Mayan thrones. There was some highly unusual stuff, too, but I'm not gonna tell you about that - wouldn't want to spoil the plot or anything.

Finally the big day arrived, and the shooting company set up. Spielberg's trailer was across from the stage - the front all tented off for maximum secrecy. The alley next to the stage was curtained off, too. This was a far cry from Ocean's Thirteen, the last big show on that stage.Then, you'd go by and see George Clooney shooting hoops out front, or Brad Pitt and Matt Damon chatting it up with passers-by. These Indiana Jones guys were acting like there were state secrets at risk. Once, when riding by on my bike, I asked a PA how long they were going to be filming here. His reply? "I can't tell you that."

Well here's what I can tell you: I saw Harrison Ford all decked out in his classic Indiana Jones gear - he looked damn good, too! Shia LaBeouf was there too, in black biker leather and sporting a blond pompador. Spielberg? Didn't see him, but a friend who did said he looked mighty pissed off. It probably had something to do with the PA who stole the laptop full of production stills and was trying to sell them, or the bit-part guy who spilled the entire plot on national television (I bet neither of them will be doing much work in this town any time soon).

They filmed for three days, and as soon as the rushes were cleared, the forklifts started tearing the set apart. All that work for three days shooting! A plasterer friend working on the movie said they'd worked for two months on a set over at Sony, dressed it out with over fifty truckloads of greens, and shot it in less than six hours. Must be nice to have so much money.

And my Marvin picture? I made the request and had it passed up the chain of command, but to no avail. Oh well... at least now I've got this great Indiana Jones outfit and Marvin-sized bullwhip - you never know when that'll come in handy. Maybe I can try out some of my old tricks. This time I'll be sure not to smack myself upside the head!

 

September 23 , 2007

Star Wars, pt. 4:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

(and Women)

David West Reynolds and Phaeton Group

 

There were a lot of interesting characters at Celebration IV, the Star Wars convention in Los Angeles. Of all the people there, however, none of the stories were quite so compelling, so "that's who I want to be when I grow up" -worthy as that of David West Reynolds.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I saw the lecture listings in the convention program: The Archaeology of Star Wars and The Archaeology of Raiders of the Lost Ark, presented by a Dr. David West Reynolds. This I had to see. The archaeology of Star Wars? How could you lecture on the archaeology of something that never really existed? What was next - The geology of Middle Earth? The anatomy of Godzilla?

As it turns out, David West Reynolds is a very real archaeologist. Imagine if Indiana Jones had a younger brother - that would be Reynolds. Guided by the motto of oceanographic legend Jacques Cousteau, "Il faut aller voir" (literally "you have to go see") - Reynolds has traveled far and wide in pursuit of his interests. He's explored Anasazi cliff cities in Utah, Inca fortresses in the mountains of Peru, and Swahili ruins in the jungles of East Africa. He's done it all.

It was a trip to the King Tut treasures as a kid that kick-started his interest in archaeology. That interest that was subsequently quashed throughout his high school years by teachers who placed the need for a responsible career ahead of the importance of doing what you loved. After high school he found himself at a technical college, where he was groomed for a career in computer technology. Fortunately, his soul-crushing slide into a lifetime of computer hardware design was averted by an English professor who saw where his true passions lay, and set him on the right path. "You need to not be here," he told Reynolds. "You need to go to a university, take everything that you like, and find out what interests you."

So that's what he did. He earned his Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology at the University of Michigan, specializing in Imperial Rome and ancient Egypt.

What brought him to a Star Wars convention? Well, back in 1995 he set out on an expedition of his own, one he had been thinking about since he was a kid: a quest to track down the original "Tatooine" filming sites in Tunisia, North Africa.

"It was, I think, the red second series of Topps Star Wars cards which first put the idea of visiting Tunisia into my head, when I was in elementary school. There was a card called "Threepio's Desert Trek" that I loved so much that I traded with my friends for a whole handful of copies. I read on the back of one of those Topps cards that the movie had been filmed in Tunisia, and concluded that you could therefore go to Tunisia and visit Tatooine. But back then Tunisia might as well have been Mars as far as being within my range. So it was a dream, but not something I imagined I could ever really do."

It was years later when he was in Egypt - working on a U of M project tracing Roman caravan routes between the Nile and the Red Sea - that he realized he had enough familiarity with archaeological technique and with North Africa (e.g. Arab language and culture) in general, that he might actually be able to pull off a Star Wars expedition.

Reynolds called up Lucasfilm to get information on the Tunisian shooting locations, and they put him in touch with the archives. The archives had nothing. "You've got to understand - everyone thought Star Wars was going to be a flop," they told him."All that paperwork was thrown away." They did put him in touch with a production manager who had done the Tunisia location scouting, who was helpful if somewhat vague. Reynolds prepped for this trip just like any archaeological expedition - studying period maps, familiarizing himself with Tunisian geology and topography.

The expedition was a smashing success - he found every site he went searching for: Luke's house, Mos Eisley, even the sites of the Tusken Raider attack and Ben Kenobi's first appearance. Not only that, but he found artifacts from the movie - the doorway to the Mos Eisley cantina, even the remains of the giant skeleton C3PO was walking past on the "Threepio's Desert Trek" card - still out there in the Sahara desert! "The amazing thing was that it felt like history. It didn't feel like I found the place where Alec Guinness walked up and talked to Mark Hamill. . . . It felt like this is where Ben Kenobi met Luke Skywalker. You're in these places where for 360 degrees around you, you're in that fantasy. There's nothing to tell you you're not on the planet Tatooine."

When Reynolds got home he wrote up the story of his trip and sent it to Star Wars Insider magazine. Right about the time the Insider article was published, Reynolds was contacted by producer Rick McCallum at Lucasfilm. The archives hadn't lied - George Lucas was getting ready to shoot the Star Wars prequels, and they had no idea where to find the original shooting locations. Reynolds signed on as a guide to the Tunisia sites, and McCallum was so impressed by him that he offered him a job at Lucasfilm. Reynolds asked what they could possibly need an archaeologist for, to which McCallum replied "It doesn't matter... I'll think of something. If you think this would actually get you somewhere you want to go...why not try it?"

So he did. Turned out they did have use for an archaeologist - Reynolds eventually led an expedition to track down not just the original shooting locations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the real-life locations the film intended to portray. It turns out the story wasn't purely fantasy - the script was firmly rooted in historical reality.(For a great write-up on that adventure, check out Reynold's articles at Indygear.com.)

This wasn't a one-sided relationship - Reynolds had use for Lucasfilm, too. He'd studied marketing and communications after getting his archaeology Ph.D., so that he could better share his discoveries with people. Lucasfilm was "the best possible school I could get. It was absolutely graduate level-plus." Because McCallum was his patron, he was free to pursue anything at Skywalker Ranch that interested him. He wrote books, worked on website marketing plans and European billboards, and consulted on theatrical trailers and MTV music videos. He watched the various books he'd written progressively climb the charts - when his Star Wars: Episode I: The Visual Dictionary reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list, he knew his schooling was done.

So what to do next? Academia was definitely not the answer. "I chose not to go with a standard university job, and I pay a high price for that, in that in that I don't get a free lunch like my professor friends do. What I get is total freedom to explore whatever I want. I don't know if most people realize this, but universities will not allow you to work outside of a certain field. Until you get tenure, it's strictly controlled what you're allowed to study. It doesn't matter if you're an expert in Greek pots; you do a great book on Greek pots and you teach students about Greek pots. If you want to do a little bit on French pottery...NOT IN THIS UNIVERSITY! The extreme form of it is thought control. They won't let you think outside of a certain area. I want to operate in very different areas."

That's why Reynolds formed Phaeton Group. Phaeton unites experts in over a dozen fields relating to natural science, history and exploration. The team members, hand picked by Reynolds, have to be masters in at least one field, but with respect for and a broad interest in other areas. "It doesn't sound like much, but you knock out most of academia as soon as you ask them to be respectful of another field; then to actually have an interest in something outside of what they do - that's practically nobody!"

"It also comes down to people who are willing to submit to military discipline, which is how we run our field missions. I went on academic expeditions where I saw so much opportunity being wasted, money being wasted... and the morale was terrible because of the way people ran those things. I run Phaeton Project the opposite of the way I saw academic projects being done - the FBI considers us a paramilitary group. I can go in and do with ten people in two weeks what it should take forty people two months to do. Then those same people will sign up to pay their own money to go with me again next year, because they had such a damn good time."

Who else is in in Team Phaeton? There's Michael Ryan, curator and head of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (Ryan was with Reynolds on the original Star Wars/Tunisia expedition). There's a professor and Roman Historian, a pilot and former company commander of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter unit, an attorney with undergraduate degrees in biology, chemistry and psychology (and an M.S. in Environmental Science), an engineering expert and top political analyst, and a researcher of folklore and obscure archival records. Add to that a phalanx of specialists to provide expertise in a wide variety of subjects ranging from mechanical engineering to logistics. These people all have successful careers outside of Phaeton: Ryan has discovered three new dinosaur species. Aldrete (the historian) just published a book on Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome. Bobo (the attorney) works for the State Department as a Foreign Affairs Officer specializing in biotechnology.

So what have Reynolds and Phaeton been up to lately?

They were just at the Smithsonian Institution checking out the Ho 229 V3 - the only surviving turbojet flying wing from Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Looking remarkably like a B-2 Stealth Bomber, the Ho 229 V3 has been hidden out of sight ever since it was captured and brought to the United States in 1945. It took Reynolds six months to get permission to see the German aircraft, which is kept packed away in a Smithsonian warehouse. I asked David what it was like going to see the Ho 229 V3:

"It was like that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We're there to see this Nazi flying wing, right? Well, the whole place is full of things like that. We're looking around and saying "I don't think there's a record of there being a German plane like THAT one over there, but we don't have time to focus on that, because we've got our job to do with the one we came to see!" You know, there's something that looks like a flying saucer in there, too...what's that? It was literally like that - a warehouse full of secrets."

They're also preparing to helicopter a team out to a Canadian icebreaker in the High Arctic this fall, as part of International Polar year.

Reynolds himself has also been studying the Apollo Project as a facet of the overall theme of exploration. "...when I was doing my graduate work in archaeology, I learned about all these ancient explorers that I'd never heard of before. You get Greeks going in search of the source of the Nile, Roman Centurians being sent far south of the Sahara by Nero, and guys sailing to Iceland and beyond...all this crazy stuff, and there's good evidence for it. I got interested in why exploration occurs in some parts of history with some peoples, while in other times nothing. You'd think it'd be dependent on the technology, but it's not. People sat around for a thousand years with boats that could have gone transatlantic, but nobody did it until Colombus. Why? It becomes a really interesting question - what does exploration mean when it does occur? What does it tell you about the society that's sending these people out? It's not just the individuals - it's the society that's funding them. We all think that we've got space exploration continuing to go on, but we actually stopped exploring in the early seventies - we haven't been that high or that far since 1972. We can't say we're in between flights anymore - It's 2007. Between 1961 and 1969 - eight years - we went from a dinky little rocket putting Alan Shepard in space for fifteen minutes to the Saturn V moon rocket, which could have gone to Mars. We don't have that capability anymore. Why is that?"

Reynolds also mentioned a project in development that's really piqued my interest - an exploration of the Sudanese Pyramid Field. As Reynolds tells it, "Most people think the Egyptians stopped building pyramids at the end of the Middle Kingdom, but it's just not true - they were built almost consistently for 3000 years. The Sudanese pyramids are the tail-end of that story. The project I want to do ties together the entire history of building pyramids. It brings in some pyramids that people have overlooked - pyramids that make sense of certain medieval writings that were thought to be fantasy, but might actually have been eyewitness accounts."

 

There you have it...the kind of career every kid (at least this kid) dreams about. Okay, Captain Reynolds - I've cleared my calendar, packed my bags, and gotten all the necessary shots. Any assistance you need - I'm your guy. Just let me know when the adventure begins.

 

 

September 8 , 2007

Ships Ahoy!

 

The pitch of the boat, and the spray of salt water. The return to a day when a man could tell his larboard from his starboard, and a pinnacle from a poop; when "toeing the line", "keelhauling" and "dead reckoning" actually meant something.

This weekend you can revisit those glorious days just by getting in your car and driving down to Dana Point - home of the 23rd Annual Tall Ships Festival. There are ships from all around Southern California - the Californian from San Diego, the American Pride out of Long Beach, and the twin brigantines Exy Johnson and Irving Johnson from San Pedro (among others) - come to visit the Brig Pilgrim at Dana Point's Ocean Institute. Yesterday kicked things off with a Parade of Tall Ships and Great Schooners, and the fun continues all weekend with ship tours, demonstrations, sea chanteys, and an "interactive encampment" where you can try your hand at knot tying or chat it up with pirates and privateers.

On the jetty with the hoi polloi.

 

Saturday and Sunday finish off with "Tallship Cannon Battles", where the ships square off on the open ocean and blast away at each other! If you're one of the lucky ones (who bought tickets ahead of time) you can be right where the action is - aboard the ships themselves as they do battle! The rest of us poor clods get stuck on the jetty watching the tiny ships way off in the distance and imagining what we're missing. Note to festival planners: more explosions. Maybe think about sinking a ship or two.

Come on down and have some fun. Not only can you get "three sheets to the wind", you can even learn what that actually means - and that's not just scuttlebutt!

 

September 3 , 2007

Tiki Time

 

Escapism. The chance to get away from the humdrum, mind-numbing routine that can be modern living. Who wouldn't want to trade in the old nine-to-five for something a little more exotic? Sun-soaked tropical beaches resplendant with white sand and lush palm trees; native drums, hula girls and deceptively fruity, ridiculously strong rum drinks. Sound pretty good? Well, if you don't have the time or money to schedule that Pacific island getaway, you can always bring a bit of the islands to you - and I know just the guys who can help.

Tucked away in a nondescript industrial section of Whittier, California is a place called Oceanic Arts. The building looks like all the other warehouses in the neighborhood - only the big tiki out front gives hint to the wonders that await inside. Through the big rollup door that serves as the main entrance is a tikiphile's dreamland - the place SCREAMS South Pacific! It's packed with bamboo torches, thatch huts, blowfish lamps and (of course) tikis of every size and shape imaginable.

Ship's wheels, figureheads and fishing nets adorn the walls, and a giant outrigger canoe hangs overhead.

-

Started in 1956 by friends and fellow adventurers Leroy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting, Oceanic Arts has spread tiki exotica around the globe - from the littlest backyard luau to the largest Hollywood blockbuster. Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room and the castaways' living quarters in Gilligan's Island? They did them. Same with the Vietnam Village from Forrest Gump. They've dressed out all the big Polynesian-themed restaurants and bars from the 50's to today - Trader Vic's, Don the Beachcomber, Kon Tiki, San Diego's Bali Hai and Laguna Beach's Royal Hawaiian. They're not just importers, either. Schmaltz's wood carvings are even imported to hotels and bars throughout Hawaii, Samoa and Tahiti, bringing the tiki migration full-circle. In fact, the largest tiki in Tahiti - 20 feet tall - was made right here in Whittier.

Leroy and Bob in Papua New Guinea back in 1960

Leroy and Bob at Oceanic Arts, 2007

 

Can't find exactly what you're looking for? Not to worry. When it comes to tiki, if they don't have it or can't find it, they'll gladly make it just for you. So whether you're looking to put up a palapa out by the pool, purchase a few more tiki mugs, or build a temple to the goddess Pele guaranteed to please even the most demanding sacrificial virgin, Bob and Leroy will take good care of you.

Oceanic Arts is located at 12414 Whittier Blvd.

Whittier, CA. 90602

(562) 698-6960

 

 

August 16, 2007

Long Live the King

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the man - the legend - that was Elvis Presley. He may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.

 

August 9 , 2007

That's One Hot Tamale!

Wow....I met Charo today and all I can say is...Wow! That woman is amazing. She looks incredible, she's an outstanding guitarist and a fantastic flamenco dancer, and she even speaks five languages. On top of that, she's got so much energy, she's like a living cartoon character! You can see my picture with her in the Celebrity Scrapbook.

 

July 5 , 2007

The Quest for Krusty O's

Anybody with even a passing knowledge of The Simpsons knows the place: It's where you'll find Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Duff beer and chutney Squishees - good ol' Kwik-E-Mart. For a limited time, the convenience store haunt of Homer Simpson has branched out from it's original Springfield location. If you're one of a lucky few, there may be a Kwik-E-Mart near you! In connection with the upcoming Simpsons movie, eleven 7-Elevens around the country (and one in Canada) have been completely made over into Kwik-E-Marts. Not only do these Kwik-E-Marts resemble Apu's place, but they're stocking products known to Simpsons lovers everywhere - products like Buzz Cola, Radioactive Man comics and Krusty-O's cereal (sorry, no Duff beer). Imagine my delight when I found out there were not one but TWO Kwik-E-Marts near me - one in Burbank and one in Culver City! I'm a bit of a cereal fanatic - I always have to try any new ones that come out, and I couldn't wait to break open a box of Krusty-O's.

And that's what brought me to the store at the corner of West Olive and Verdugo at 5am on a Monday morning. I was amazed - there was no trace of 7-Eleven. Even the big lit-up sign in the parking lot had been changed!

Mmmmm...chili dog...

Words of wisdom from Apu

Where's the chutney-flavored?

There were familiar Simpsons characters everywhere, and a sign on the hot dog machine touted "Special Deal! Buy 3 for the price of 3!". Even the Slurpee machines had been changed - now they were dispensing Squishees (although I have a sneaking suspicion there isn't much difference between a Squishee and a Slurpee). Employees in Kwik-E-Mart shirts were hustling to get ready for the day's onslaught of customers. The Simpsons products had been wiped clean - two foam Kwik-E-Mart coolers were all that remained, looking a bit forlorn sitting there on otherwise empty shelves. The only other non-employees in the store were a group from The Hollywood Reporter, there to film a segment. I waited a half-hour, but they still hadn't restocked the shelves, and I had to get to work.

I came back at noon and there were Simpsons fans taking pictures all over the place. The donut case was full of pink glazed, rainbow-sprinkled donuts and the shelves were stocked...but with nothing but Buzz cola. No Krusty-O's for this kid.

That evening I decided to check out the other Kwik-E-Mart, on Venice and Sepulveda. That place was even crazier - the parking lot was jammed with cars and there was a line of some twenty people waiting to get in the store! I went home determined to try again the next day.

Tuesday morning I stopped in twice at the Burbank Kwik-E-Mart - empty shelves at 5:30am and empty shelves at 8:30 am. They did tell me, however, that the regular 7-Elevens were stocking Simpsons products, too. I hit three more 7-Elevens on the way home. Cola and donuts aplenty, but no cereal.

6:30am Wednesday morning - the 4th of July - and I'm headed down to the Culver City Kwik-E-Mart. The streets are empty - everybody's sleeping in today. I pull into the parking lot, one of only a handful of cars. Just inside the front door, underneath a handwritten "one per customer" sign, I see the object of my quest: the red box, the goofy green-haired clown - I found my Krusty O's! As I'm making my purchase I ask the cashier how business has been. "It's been crazy," he says. "We're all working sixteen hour shifts, and we have to keep mopping the floors constantly. People were taking entire cases of products! Finally we even had to limit the Buzz cola sales to one can per customer, so that the line outside didn't get angry at walking away empty handed."

Home I went, happy at last that my quest had been fulfilled. I could rest easy once more.

And the Krusty-O's? Well, you know the old saying: if it looks like a Fruit-Loop, smells like a Fruit-Loop and tastes like a Fruit-Loop...it's a Fruit-Loop. But, as the box says, it's "the best you can expect from a TV clown". At least there were no shards of jagged metal.

(By the way, if you got that last statement, you're definitely a Simpson's fan.)

 

 

June 24 , 2007

What is it Good For?

Thirty-seven more U.S. soldiers killed this week. No end in sight.

 

Every Sunday for over three years now a field of white crosses has sprung up in the sand next to Santa Monica Pier. Every Sunday more crosses are added. On a good week, just a few new ones; on a bad week, an entire new row. Each cross represents one American soldier killed in the Iraq War - a father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter who is gone forever. Some crosses have name tags, others sport notes and mementos sent by loved ones. Some crosses aren't crosses at all, but Stars of David or Muslim Crescents. As the War drags on a new cross has appeared - a red cross for every ten soldiers killed. There are over a hundred of these. The memorial is called Arlington West, and it is set up and maintained each week by volunteers as a place to grieve, a place to remember, and a place to think about the human cost of war. Take some time from your weekend parties (or your weekend chores) and pay it a visit. Better yet, show up around 7am or just before sunset and help with the crosses. You'll be glad you did. Sometimes we all need a healthy dose of reality.

 

The body count as of Sunday, June 24, 2007 :

3558 U.S. soldiers killed

115,049 U.S. soldiers wounded and injured

Approx. 655,000 Iraqis killed

 

 

 

June 17 , 2007

Star Wars, Get Yer Star Wars Here...

 

Okay folks, I've gotten the Star Wars Page up and running in the Exploits and Adventures section - Check it out!

 

May 31 , 2007

Star Wars, pt. 3:

Braving the Autograph Section

or

"I loved you as Yak Face!"

Okay, Mr. Fett - just sign here, here and here,

and you can drive her away today!

 

How can you call yourself a fan if you don't have any autographed photos of your favorite stars? Don't worry - here at Celebration IV they've got you covered. Half the Exhibition Hall is set aside for celebrity signings, and - from the look of things - business is booming! I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone like David Prowse (the guy who was really underneath Darth Vader's helmet) made a living doing nothing but scribbling his name on photos and nicknacks at events like this.

So you wanna get an autograph? First thing you should know - nothing is free. The bigger the star, the pricier the signature. This event was set up on the coupon system - each coupon costing ten dollars. David Prowse? He's a three ticket celebrity. Three tickets - thirty dollars - for one autograph. Want him to sign a couple of things? That'll cost you another thirty dollars. Peter Mayhew or Kenny Baker (Chewbacca and R2D2) - they're two-ticket guys. The big ticket celebs made up the front row of the signing section - Vader, Boba Fett, Darth Maul - they were front-row types. There was an even bigger-ticket section - the Guest of Honor section. Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels were the special guests at this convention. Those guys had their own special tickets (and wristbands!), and the longest lines of all. I've never waited in so many lines in my life ... it was worse than the DMV!

Hmmm...must be lunch break.

My favorite area was the single-ticket autograph section. This place was for the hard-core fans. The actors here probably played somebody (or something) covered in fur or feathers, with green skin, three heads and/or tentacles. Without makeup, it was nearly impossible to tell who was who.Thank God each one had a poster of their character, because I never would have recognized them otherwise. Okay, I picked out the guy Darth Vader puts in the telekinetic chokehold in the original movie (his name's Richard LeParmentier, by the way), but that was about it. The others - not so easy.Who knew that Wookie general Tarfful was really Michael Kingma, or that Alan Ruscoe played Jedi Master Plo Kloon? Who knew there even was a Jedi Master Plo Kloon? The kind of people who come to these conventions, that's who! They were lining up in droves to get autographs from all the beloved (albiet obscure) characters. This must be a nice perpetual source of income. Hell, even if Zachariah Jensen never does another movie, there'll be no shortage of Kit Fisto fans willing to shell out ten bucks for his autograph. Nice job, if you can get it. All I want to know is... where do I sign up?

 

May 30 , 2007

Star Wars, pt. 2:

Jabba Jabba Hey!

Don't Wanna Be Your Slave

 

Man, what a weekend! Five days of total Star Wars saturation - talk about your sensory overload! From casual fans to die-hard enthusiasts (is there a name for a hardcore Star Wars fan?),the L.A. Convention Center was PACKED with people taking in the sights and sounds of Celebration IV - the largest Star Wars convention in history. Believe me, there are some serious fans out there! I talked to a number of people - not just from other states, but from other COUNTRIES - who were in L.A. just for the convention. No Disneyland, no Hollywood Walk of Fame - just Star Wars.

This was definitely an occasion to dress up. The costumes ran the gamut from ten buck trick-or-treat specials to handmade outfits that must have cost hundreds of dollars. Of course you could always just throw on a robe (brown for Jedi and black for Sith) and get yourself a new lightsaber. If you felt the need to congregate with other like-minded individuals, there were plenty of groups to choose from. Looking to use your powers for good? Join the Jedi Assembly. Fancy yourself a Fett (Boba or Jango - they don't discriminate)? Try The Dented Helmet. And if you're ready to switch over to the dark side, there's always "Vader's Fist": The 501st Legion, a worldwide costuming organization 3000 strong. They're partial to the "bad guys" (the misunderstood, as they like to say). Imperial Troops are their specialty. Stormtroopers, Sandtroopers, Sith Lords and their kin. Remember all those Stormtroopers who marched in the Rose Parade this year? That was the 501st.

The Fighting 501st

The Stormtroopers also liked to take the most liberties with their costumes. There were endless variations on the theme:

There were Spiderman Stormtroopers

and Samurai Stormtroopers,

French Stormtroopers

and Three Musketeers Stormtroopers.

Stormtrooper Elvis even dropped by for a visit!

I couldn't believe the sheer amount of stuff there was to do! There were workshops going on all weekend to help you find your place in the Star Wars universe: You could learn the nuts and bolts of droid building, or find out how to trick out your Tusken Raider costume. There were Stormtrooper Olympics, Slave Leia bellydancing lessons, and an incredible One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, where the talented Steve Ross performed the original three films - all the characters and all the action (including music and sound effects) . The show was so much fun I saw it twice!

An observation: Star Wars vs. Star Trek -

Trekkies are the nerds; Star Wars fans tend more to the slacker variety.

 

The Exhibit Hall was the place to be if you were looking to part with a little (or a lot of) cash. If it had anything at all to do with Star Wars, it was there for the buying. Life-size bust of Greedo? It's there. Christmas ornament of Darth Vader building a snow Death Star ? No problemo. 1979 anti-smoking public service poster featuring R2D2 and C3PO? But of course! From cheap plastic gewgaws to one-of-a-kind bronzes and original oil paintings, people were snatching them up.

Deck the halls with R2D2; fa la la la la....

 

C'mon, you know you can't live without it!

It boggled my mind the number of kids who were walking around with new lightsabers. I don't mean those cheap collapsible ones - I'm talking about hundred dollar lightsabers. These rug rats were smacking each other with them like they were those cardboard wrapping-paper tubes we played with when we were little! I tell ya, those paper routes must pay off a helluva lot better than when I was a kid.

 

"Luke! Darth! No more battles for

control of the universe until you've finished your homework!"

 

 

May 25 , 2007

Star Wars, pt. 1:

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

"These aren't the droids you're looking for."

I remember when Star Wars first came out. The family piled into the station wagon and drove an hour to the nearest movie theatre (I'm from Maine, what do you expect?). The movie had already started by the time we got there, and I remember exactly where we came in - C3PO was walking past an enormous serpent skeleton in the desert wasteland of Tatooine. That movie was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. I was drawn into the story - the quest for adventure, the battle of good and evil. Like every other kid on the planet, all my allowance went into bubblegum cards and action figures. I clipped out every article on the movie I could find and saved it in a big scrapbook. I was hooked.

The Empire Strikes Back only made me more of a fan. By this time I'd amassed quite a collection. Death Star Play Station? Got it. Star Wars iron-on book and collectors stamp sets? Got 'em. Burger King glasses? Got those, too. I even had the Star Wars Blueprints Pack and the Ralph McQuarrie Empire Strikes Back Art Portfolio. I loved drawing the characters, and I'd built my own Star Wars playset from some plans I'd gotten from Family Circle or somesuch magazine. Now I was raised Catholic - altar boy, church every Sunday, the whole nine yards...

Life goes on, though, and by the time Return of the Jedi came out the toys had been packed away (They're still there in my parents' attic, by the way), and the models were all collecting dust. I saw the movie, of course, but the spell was broken. Boba Fett - the coolest bounty hunter in the galaxy - had become a buffoon, careening off to an ignominious end in the gaping maw of the Sarlaac. And what was with those Ewoks? My favorite movie had been invaded by Teddy Bears' Picnic! Besides,Indiana Jones was my new hero - there was someone I could actually aspire to become some day! I'd bought a brown fedora and practiced out in the yard with my Dad's bullwhip (those things are trickier than they look in the movies - many a time I caught it upside the face trying to crack that thing).

I was in college when Star Wars came back into my consciousness. I'd picked up The Power of Myth on a whim - just rounding out an order for a book club. The book was amazing - a whirlwind tour of mythology classic and obscure, courtesy of one Joseph Campbell. The book was a companion piece to a PBS documentary - a series of one-hour conversations between journalist Bill Moyers mythologist and Campbell . Filmed at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, the discussions spanned the history of mankind itself. A master of comparative mythology, Campbell linked the great tales told through the ages with each other and with the major religions today. All these myths are the same myth, Campbell was saying - the faces may change but the story remains the same. The myths of mankind are replete with virgin births and heros sacrificed and reborn. The ancient Egyptians, the Gospels, the Iroquois Indians... each had their tales of creation and redemption, their take on the cycle of life and the search for bliss. Buddha, Shiva and Jesus, James Joyce and Carl Jung, midieval literature and modern art - Campbell linked them all. He also laid bare the power of myth to shape today's society, using none other than Lucas's Star Wars trilogy. The hero's journey, the call to adventure, the road of trials, the atonement with the father - it's all right there, retold for a new generation! Luke, the young hero, is Gilgamesh, and Theseus and Galahad. Obi-wan - the wise mentor - is Merlin and the Navajo's Spider Woman. The dual nature of good and evil, the corrupting influence of technology - the more I read, the less Star Wars sounded like a kid's story. It turns out this wasn't by chance - George Lucas was a great admirer of Joseph Camppbell, and set out deliberately to do a retelling of the classic monomyth.

Well, he pulled it off all right, and in spades. If you need any proof, just head down to the Staples Center in Los Angeles this weekend. There you'll find thousands of people celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars. Casual fans, hard-core afficianados - you'll finds all kinds of different people there with one main connection. They all were in some way affected by Lucas' story - a tale of a farm boy on a distant planet, dreaming of bigger and better things. As someone who was that farm boy growing up back in the boonies of rural Maine, I just wanted to say thanks, George.

 

May 10 , 2007

The Force is Strong in This One...

All right all you Star Wars fans, dust off that Vader helmet and polish up your lightsaber - the largest Star Wars party EVER is coming to Los Angeles May 24-28! Be you Sith or Sandperson, Jedi or Jawa, Celebration IV promises five days of total immersion in all things Star Wars - live entertainment, props and costumes from all six movies, celebrity appearances, Stormtrooper Olympics, a droid parade, even a 24-hour-a-day store! You know I'll be there (I'm OJ - original Jedi - none of that Episodes I through III crap) - I'm getting my Jedi robe stitched up even as we speak!

May 10 , 2007

I'll bet Boss Hogg was behind it...

Looks like the nearly ten million dollar bid for John Schneider's General Lee was a hoax - the winner has yet to pony up the cash. If you're still selling, John, I know a certain Rosco P. Coltrane that would love to get his hands on it!

 

May 6 , 2007

Ridin' in Style!

John Schneider's General Lee (the very same 1969 Dodge Charger you see in the above picture) just sold on Ebay for nearly 10 MILLION dollars! Bidding closed at Ebaymotors.com on Friday at $9,900,555 - which (if the bid holds) makes it the second most expensive car ever auctioned. Congrats, you Good Ol' Boy - you can buy a heckuva lot of hog jowls with that money!

 

March 17, 2007

Make My Funk the P-Funk!

The big three in my music world have always been the Holy Trinity of B.B. King, James Brown, and George Clinton - the King of the Blues, the Godfather of Soul, and the Prime Minister of Funk. Today I had the great honor of meeting the forefather of funk himself - the one and only George Clinton! Clinton and his groups Parliament, Funkadelic and the P. Funk All-Stars tore the roof off with albums like Maggot Brains and Mothership Connection, and songs like Up for the Down Stroke, Flashlight and Atomic Dog. At 66, some fifty years after he started in the music business, Clinton's still going strong. Why take my word for it, though? Pick up his new album How Late Do You Have 2BB4UR Absent, or go see the great man with Parliament-Funkadelic tonight at the Malibu Inn. Can't wait that long? You can always check out my picture with him in the Celebrity Scrapbook.

 

February 25, 2007

Catch the Spirit

Hanging out with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Santa Monica was the place to see stars yesterday, and I'm not talking about the Big Dipper variety. The tent went up on the beach once again to play host to Film Independent's 2007 Spirit Awards. Put away your black tie and tux - this is the awards show for those outside the status quo! The Spirit Awards honor both the little guys who have to work outside the system to get their movies made, and the big guys who choose the independent route to keep their artistic vision uncompromised.

Sarah Silverman played raunchy host (don't ask her about her favorite cheese) to a star-studded gathering - a group that included Anjelica Houston, Dennis Hopper, Tobey Maguire, Heath Ledger, Sean Penn, Matt Dillon, Guillermo Del Toro, Christina Ricci, Helen Mirren, Felicity Huffman, Minnie Driver, Christopher Guest, Josh Harnett, John C. Reilly, America Ferrera, Robert Downey, Jr., Maggie Gyllenhall, Elliott Gould, John Waters, Lily Tomlin (I LOVE her! She came over and said hi, and we reminisced about my getting a picture with her - my first celebrity shot. She offered to take me back to the gift area to get more celebrity pics, but my access pass was the wrong color.), and many others.

The big winner yesterday was Little Miss Sunshine, the ultimate dysfunctional family roadtrip film. Not only did it win Best Feature, but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris won Best Directors, Alan Arkin won Best Supporting Male, and Michael Arndt won Best First Screenplay. Talk about a sweep!

Half Nelson did pretty well, too, with Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps taking home the Best Male Lead and Best Female Lead trophies. Thank You for Smoking's Jason Reitman won Best Screenplay, and Francis McDormand puts a Best Supporting Female award on the shelf for her role in Friends With Money. Best Cinematography went to Guillermo Navarro for his work on the incredible (in my humble opinion) Pan's Labyrinth. The John Cassavetes Award (best feature made for under $500,000) went to Quinceanera. Best First feature went to Sweet Land, a film so independent it doesn't even have a distributor! The Road to Guantanamo won Best Documentary, and The Lives of Others picked up Best Foreign Film.

Laura Dern fields questions

A Special Distinction Award was presented to David Lynch and Laura Dern "in recognition of their unique and stunning collaborative work". Their last project together, Inland Empire, was the quintessential Independent film: Lynch took Dern on a three-year road trip with no script and a digital handheld camera. Lynch was the writer, director, editor and even promotor (He rode a cow down Hollywood Boulevard to hype the film!) of this project. Laura accepted for both of them, as David was in Paris overseeing an art installation.

The Spirit Awards also paid tribute to the late Robert Altman, with the announcement of the new Robert Altman Award for Best Ensemble Cast and Director (to be first awarded in 2008). I had the great fortune to work as a painter on Short Cuts, and I've never met a director who more epitomizes ensemble filmmaking. A typical movie set is rife with unstated but understood barriers, separating preproduction from production, workers from "talent", the director from everybody.There were no barriers on Altman's set. Everybody was there for the same purpose - to make the best movie possible. Everyone, from the DP to the lowliest laborer, was invited to sit in on the dailies (where the beer and wine flowed freely). The "star treatment" was refreshingly absent, too. The guy behind you in the lunch line would often be Altman himself; the person passing the salt could be a carpenter, or it could be Tom Waits or Lily Tomlin. For my money, they couldn't have picked a better director to name such an award after.

 

February 16, 2007

Burnin' Love

Valentine's Day came early to the California Institute of AbnormalArts, courtesy of Kelly "Satanica" Robin. Miss Satanica's Festival of Mirth: The Love Show packed the house with a vaudeville-style tribute to love and desire in all its twisted glory - the kind of love that ends with a restraining order, or some "down time" in a mental health facility. Not quite hallmark cards and flowers - more like love ballads sung by a hatchet-juggling drunken dwarf, stripped naked and covered in molasses and glitter.

Satanica lit the place up, both in her solo act and with the cross-dressing Larva in a sizzling dinner for two that ended with a triple homicide.

The acts ran the gamut from vaudeville to avant-garde, with new twists on old themes and new themes that were downright twisted. Host Spooky La Boo was in the swanky mode, and Dame Darcy sang a love song to her doll Isabella. Sandy "Pantalones" Rodriguez performed a surreal take on the love of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,then whooped it up during the "banjolele meets foley table" music of Creekbird. Marsian De Lellis and his superhero sidekick "Beat It" in a cappella accompaniment to a masturbatory film featuring Michael Jackson and Bubbles the Chimp. Duncan Trussel KILLED me with his bit with Lil' Hobo, a demonically possessed ventriloquist dummy, and the Fuxedos capped off the evening in their unique musical style.

The burlesque was classic old-school...

Loud Louisa's cups runneth over; Miss Lorna T shakes a tail-feather.

 

Puppeteer Eli Presser went tabletop noir -

 

and Laura Heitt put love and lust into tiny boxes.

 

Satanica, you outdid yourself on this one. The variety of acts and quality of performers were impressive - I have to say, it's been a while since I've seen a show so consistently entertaining. I can't wait to see the next one!

 

February 6, 2007

I Feel Pretty...

John Waters made an appearance at Amoeba Records last night to promote his new album, A Date With John Waters. The first 200 people got to get a prom-style photo with the legendary director! I couldn't pass up such a rare opportunity, so I cross-dressed my very best - I was going for Hairspray (it is John Waters, after all), but I think I ended up looking more like Miss Yvonne from Pee Wee's Playhouse. Check out the Celebrity Scrapbook to judge for yourself. As an added bonus - Traci Lords came by to say hi to John, and I got a picture with her, too!

 

January 31, 2007

Chasing the Green Fairy

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Manet, Oscar Wilde and Pablo Picasso were among its enthusiasts. Ernest Hemmingway called it "that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy". Johnny Depp and Marilyn Manson are mentioned as modern-day imbibers (I'll vouch for Manson - that guy can really toss 'em back!). La Fee Verte - the Green Fairy. Absinthe.

The stories are legend. Vincent Van Gogh, loopy on absinthe, cut off his ear and sent it to a prostitute. Edgar Allen Poe's nightmarish stories - the result of nearly fatal mixtures of absinthe and brandy. Jack the Ripper? Insane absinthe addict, of course. I don't think there's any other drink with such a colorful (and convoluted) history.

Is it all true, how absinthe drinking leads to hallucinations and madness, criminal behavior and moral turpitude? Absinthe was banned for years as a result of those scare stories. In reality, it's no more dangerous than any other alcohol - though it is more potent than many. In the end, does it matter? As John Ford put it - "When truth becomes legend, print the legend."

Absinthe was introduced to Paris by soldiers returning from the Franco-Algerian war (where it was used to prevent fever). A liquor made with (among other things) wormwood, anise and fennel - it was popular not just for its intoxicating effect, but for the accompanying feelings of energy and mental clarity . It became the drink of choice amongst the bohemian artists and writers, so popular that 5pm in most cafes and cabarets came to be known as l'heure verte (the green hour). By 1910 the French were drinking 36 MILLION liters of the stuff every year!

Naturally, the Green Fairy found a home in Nouvelle Orleans. Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House was the bar of choice - playing host to such notables as Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum and General Robert E. Lee. Prohibition in the U.S. and a temperance movement in Europe put a stop to the party, however, and by 1915 absinthe was banned all the way from Belgium to Boston. So strong was the backlash against absinthe that only recently has the ban begun to be lifted.

I was keen to try the illicit liquid that fueled of some of history's most creative minds, and I decided New Orleans would be the perfect place for my initiation. Easier said than done, it turns out. Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House is still right there on Bourbon Street, and it even has the original bar and decorative fountains from its heyday. You can even get an Absinthe House Frappe, the drink created here back in 1874! The one thing you can't get is absinthe. The Old Absinthe House serves Herbsaint, a wormwood-free absinthe substitute.

I mentioned my search to my New Orleans go-to guy John T. (more on him later), and he suggested a visit to his friend Cary at Vive la France, just around the corner. Beth and I stopped in for a visit - Cary wasn't there, but the proprietress showed us around. This place had everything an absinthe lover could want - absinthe glasses, absinthe spoons, even some beautiful absinthe fountains for preparing four glasses at a time! There was one thing missing, though - no absinthe. When we asked where that might be procured, she sent us off to Pirate's Alley, to The Pirate's Alley Cafe.

Off to Pirate's Alley we went, to a cozy little bar tucked behind the Cabildo. We asked Thais, the bartender, if they served absinthe. "We certainly do," she replied. "Real absinthe?" I asked. She must hear this a lot, because she immediately pulled out three plastic baggies. School was in session. The baggies contained three substances - anise, grande wormwood, and petite wormwood. The anise is what gives absinthe its famous flavor - very much like ouzo. The grande wormwood - that's what makes absinthe the "bad boy" of alcohols. Grande wormwood - Artemesia Absinthum - contains high amounts of the chemical thujone, which has been blamed for the drink's supposed "mind altering" effects. Petite wormwood - Artemesia Pontica - is an herb very similar to its grande cousin, but with minimal levels of thujone. The drink served at Pirate's Alley is Absente, a French liquor which (like The Absinthe House's Herbsaint) is made with petite instead of grande wormwood.

We ordered two Absente absinthes and Thais got out the glasses and slotted absinthe spoons. The spoons were placed on top of the glasses, and a sugar cube was placed on each spoon. She poured a little Absente on Beth's sugar cube and then lit it on fire. She put the fire out with a drizzle of cold water, which turned the green liqour a milky white (it's called "louching"). I asked for mine the traditional way, which simply left out the fireworks.

As we drank, Thais explained that the reason absinthe isn't sold in the United States is that it's illegal to produce it here. That didn't make much sense to me, since it's readily available for purchase through the internet. I mentioned that fact, but she couldn't explain why they didn't just import it. I've done a little research since then, and it turns out the legality of absinthe is quite convoluted, indeed!

You tell me if this doesn't remind you of Vincent and Jules' scene in PULP FICTION: Absinthe in the U.S. - it's legal, but it ain't a hundred percent legal. It breaks down like this, it's legal to buy it, it's legal to own it and it's legal to drink it. It's not legal to make it, and it's not legal to sell it. It's also prohibited to import it, which makes any absinthe in the United States untaxed liquor, which is illegal. It can be confiscated from you, but you will not be arrested, fined, or jailed - you will simply lose your absinthe. That doesn't sound too serious, but at around a hundred dollars a bottle (or more) - it's a pricey venture. (For a more detailed breakdown of the legal situation, check out THE WORMWOOD SOCIETY's excellent site.)

So we sat and talked about how wacky society is, and how some laws are just plain stupid, and whether we'd be drinking real absinthe at the bar anytime soon. I enjoyed the ritual of the sugar cubes and the slotted spoons - like a Japanese tea ceremony, but with more of a kick. I like the ritual... I like the tradition.

That's as close as I got to real absinthe on this trip. I know it's here - New Orleans is a city that's made for absinthe drinkers. I'll track it down, but it's gonna take some time - I just need to get chummy with the right people. I'm in no hurry... someday I'll find that Green Fairy. Right now, though, there's a crabcake po'boy over at Johnny's that's calling ever so sweetly...

 

 

January 27, 2007

Now That's Good Eatin'!

Eating My Way Around New Orleans, pt.1

 

I have to say, on my previous trips to New Orleans I wasn't all that impressed with what I ate. Don't get me wrong - I LOVE cajun and creole cooking - I just never happened to find the right place to eat. Sure, I had some fantastic blackened snapper at Paul K's and a really tasty mess of crawdads over at Big Fisherman Seafood, but I'd always head home feeling like the best the Big Easy had to offer had once again eluded me.

On this trip Beth and I arrived in the French Quarter on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. The place seemed nearly deserted - not even five o'clock and already the stores were closing up for the evening. Wet, cold and hungry, we just wanted a place to take the chill off and get something warm to eat. We picked the Gumbo Shop on St. Peter because... well, because it was open. I'd eaten here on my last trip and wasn't that impressed, so I wasn't expecting much. We had a tasty hot rum and a very good bread pudding, but the gumbo and jambalaya were nothing to write home about.

Now gumbo's a touchy issue with me. What makes a good gumbo is an extremely subjective opinion - to each his own. My friend Charisse says no gumbo is as good as her mom's. Not having tried her mom's gumbo, my pick was always Pearl's yaya gumbo at the Gower Cafe on the Sony Studios Lot. Pearl would only make his gumbo when some big executive shindig the previous day meant there was plenty of shrimp and crab left over. It wasn't announced or anything, it would just show up as one of the soup options over at the salad bar. That gumbo was so good that there would be a line at the soup section, with people dipping the ladle to the bottom and then draining out the liquid against the side of the pot, so as to get as many tasty tidbits as possible. If you weren't there in the first fifteen minutes of a new batch coming out, you'd be getting nothing but broth. Hours later, a lick of my lips would bring a smile to my face as I thought back to that spicy little bowl of heaven.

Okay, this was no yaya gumbo. While we waited for our check, though, we overheard our waiter talking to the people at the next table. "The owner doesn't want the food too spicy - it scares the tourists. If you want good jambalaya you have to head over to Coop's on Decateur."

Now we were getting somewhere. I remembered eating at Coop's Place one night the last time I was in New Orleans. I didn't remember much about my meal there, except that on a street of empty bars and restaurants the place was packed, and mostly with locals. I was willing to give it another try.

My friend Jim showed up around 10pm and we took a walk down Decateur. Coop's was open (the kitchen stays open 'til around 2am, making it a good place to get some food after a night of drinking. In fact, the place is more of a bar that serves food than a restaurant that serves drinks, so you could cut down on your walking and just come here), and mostly empty, save for a few locals at the bar. We checked out the menu on the blackboard across from us. "Try our refreshing sazerac and our ten-cane mint julep!" The bartender came over to take our order. "We're all out of mint, and I make lousy sazeracs. I do pour a good bourbon, though," he said. I asked about the "Ask Us about Our Breakfast" line on the menu. "Well, we haven't had any potatoes here since The Storm, but if you come by around 11am, I'll see what I can do." We went with three jambalaya supremes.

Our food came out - three steaming bowls, filled to overflowing. This stuff was AMAZING! Chicken, rabbit, andouille sausage, tasso (cajun ham), shrimp and crawfish, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and rice - all simmered together into the tastiest jambalaya I have ever eaten! Just the right amount of spice, and moist enough to put all those other jambalayas to shame. So much food - we ate until we were stuffed and still only got halfway through it all.

We waddled our way back to the hotel, fat and happy. A light rain fell, and a horse and carriage clacked down the cobblestones off in the distance. I licked my lips and smiled at the spicy reminder of a fantastic meal. The Kitchen Gods had blessed us this night - it was going to be a good vacation.

 

 

January 26, 2007

Dem Saints

Back to New Orleans

There was a new energy in NOLA this trip - the signs of it were everywhere. Black and gold had replaced purple, green and gold as the decorative colors of choice. Signs proclaiming BLESS YOU BOYS and WE BELIEVE adorned stores, houses, even churches. The most common greeting you'd hear consisted of two little words said loud and proud - WHO DAT!

For five glorious months the city of New Orleans was given something to believe in. Katrina (now referred to simply as "The Storm") had dealt the city a serious blow. Those that could come home were trying to rebuild their lives. Many more were scattered throughout the country. From bungling bureaucrats to insurance companies trying to cover their assets - inefficient, incompetent or downright evil pretty much summed up anybody who was supposed to help things get better. Then there were the Saints.

Who'd have thought a sports team could make such a difference to a community? I'm not talking about the general "hooray for our team" reaction you see in other places with major franchises. This was something else. I don't even watch football, but I couldn't help but get caught up in the effect this season has had on the people of New Orleans.

The Saints, founded in 1967. Their home: the Louisiana Superdome in downtown New Orleans. It took 'em two decades to achieve a winning season, and thirty years to have a playoff win. In the 80's they were nicknamed "the Aints", and fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads. They muddled through the next two decades without much to show for it; by 2004 the Saints had become to football what the Chicago Cubs were to baseball - loveable losers.

Then The Storm came. Some 20,000 people crowded into the Dome - surviving for days in the sweltering heat with no medical attention, no toilets and a scant supply of food and water. The building was a wreck - part of the roof was torn off by the wind, and it flooded to field level as the waters rose in the basin. The Superdome became a symbol of the tragedy that befell the Big Easy, and the Saints (like most of the general population) were homeless. In 2005 they were the NFL's foster children, shuffling between Baton Rouge and San Antonio to play their home games. Rumors swirled that the Saints would never come back to New Orleans. Franchise owner Tom Benson, a San Antonio resident, reportedly planned to void his lease agreement with New Orleans by declaring the Louisiana Superdome unusable. It was no surprise that the team had a lousy season, finishing up 3-13 for the year.

New Orleans was not ready to give up on their Saints, though. The Superdome was rebuilt, and when the 2006 football schedule was released, all Saints home games were to be played in New Orleans. On September 19, Tom Benson announced that he'd sold out the Superdome for the entire season with season tickets alone! The home opener on September 25th was attended by over 70,000 people, and included performances by U2, Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls. The Saints were up against the Atlanta Falcons, who were undefeated in the 2006-2007 season at that time. The hometown boys rewarded their fans with a 23-3 victory over Atlanta. They didn't let up, either - giving the people of New Orleans something to cheer about for the entire season.

When I arrived in New Orleans, spirits were at an all-time high. The Saints had just beaten Philadelphia in the Divisional Playoffs - only their second playoff win in team history (and the first team in NFL history to reach a conference championship after losing thirteen or more games the previous season). On Sunday the Saints were headed up to Chicago to take on the Bears for a spot at the Superbowl! It was a night-and-day difference from the New Orleans I'd seen last May. Back then everybody seemed kind of numb - fate had dumped so much crap on them that the present had lost all meaning. There was the past, there was The Storm, and there was the better and brighter future of a repaired and rebuilt New Orleans. The only problem was that, as time went by, that future didn't seem to be getting any closer. Things were different now. The Saints had brought a ray of hope, a sign that providence still shined down on the Crescent City. People reveled in the present, the joyful here and now. Black and gold fleur-de-lis shaped king cakes were bought as fast as they could be made. The Katrina themed t-shirts in the souvenir shops had been moved aside to make room for shirts emblazoned with ROCKIN' DA DOME and NEW ORLEANS LOVES BUSH - referring of course to the running back Reggie and not the idiot-in-chief George W.

And so it was in the days leading up to the big game. Saturday night, the weather reports didn't even bother talking about New Orleans. Why should they? All anyone wanted to know was what the temperature was going to be at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Saints are a Southern, covered stadium team. Would they be able to handle the bears in the cold and - God forbid - snow? Come Sunday, Bourbon Street was lined with satellite trucks and camera crews. The game was on in most every store, bar or restaurant. By 2pm Sunday the entire city was holding its collective breath in anticipation.

Me? I settled in at Port of Call down on Esplanade. I've never seen the place so empty - just me, a couple of regulars, and four french tourists. I ordered a burger (what else are you gonna get at Port of Call?),bellied up to the bar, and watched the game.

The game also being on in the kitchen added a surreal quality, as they were getting the broadcast about five seconds sooner than us at the bar. The hooting and hollering coming from the back would alert us to any upcoming big play by the Saints. (Note to self: don't order a burger when there's a big game on. The kitchen staff may be too distracted to actually COOK the food. I couldn't believe how quickly my order came out, until I realized that I was eating something a little closer to medium raw than medium rare.) Reggie Bush's 88-yard touchdown run and flip into the endzone had the whole place up on their feet!

As the game progressed, however, there was less cheering from the cooks and more trips out to the bar for alcohol. Soon there was nothing but silence. The Bears won 39-14 and were headed to the Superbowl. The spell was broken. The Saints had lost, and the sky was crying. I walked back up Bourbon Street in the pouring rain. The news crews were gone, and the streets were empty.

"It was a helluva run", they say. "We're damn proud to have made it as far as we did. Just wait 'til next year." I know, I know - it's only a football game. It's not like somebody died. The people of New Orleans will shrug this off and get on with their lives. There's still Mardi Gras to plan for, after all, and a lot of rebuilding to be done. Hell, what do I care - I don't even watch football! Still, I couldn't help but feel sad. I love New Orleans, and I love the people who call it home. They've been through so much already. It hurts when dreams die.

 

 

qJanuary 1, 2007

Happy New Year!

Hope you all had great holidays! I've been busy working on the Sharktrip page. I'm happy to announce that it's finally finished - it's in the Exploits and Adventures section. Check it out!