Marilyn Monroe was on her cell phone, as she brushed past me, nearly knocking over Darth Vader and Elvis as she hurried to claim her spot. It was 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and the look-a-likes were gathering on Hollywood Boulevard.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Hollywood Boulevard was the most glamorous street in the world -- a place where movie stars came to drink and dine, walk the red carpet to film premieres past search lights and popping flashbulbs, meet with their agents in stylish Art Deco offices, cruise in convertibles, hair flying with palm trees overhead or hobnob with writers and directors in long, cool dark bars like the Musso & Frank's or the Cat & Fiddle.
But times change. In the 1960s, the street, like the movies, went into a steep decline. Hollywood Boulevard became a joke on late night TV -- a haven for drug users, prostitutes, bikers, and run-a-ways. It was here that Hugh Grant was arrested in his BMW for lewd conduct. Along its darker edges, Janis Joplin and John Belushi died of drug overdoses, while Charles Manson and his followers murdered a house full of strangers.
The New Hollywood
It has taken decades and billions of dollars of investment, but today, Hollywood Boulevard is finally coming back to its glorious past. Oh, don't expect too much glamour. There are still two dozen look-a-likes posing for tips -- everyone from Superman and Elvis to Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson -- and the street has more than its fair share of tattoo parlors, biker bars, and old hippies.
But today they share the same real estate with flashy clubs filled with black-skirted high heeled hipsters and even flashier marquees, blinking outside restored movie palaces and hotels.
Although the movies have moved on and today they are made elsewhere, Hollywood Boulevard has come back as the tourist center for the world's largest entertainment industry. There are Hollywood walking tours, theme parks, studio tours, cemeteries and museums. You can see the homes (or at least the front gates) of today's stars by buying a map, or going on only slightly cheesy narrated bus tours. You can even fly over the star's homes on a helicopter. You can buy daily production sheets to see where movies are being filmed on location, or hang out at popular industry eateries like Mr. Chow in hopes of seeing stars in person. You can even take a jogging tour of Hollywood, where to give you a taste of what it's like to be a star, you are chased by running paparazzi.
Whether you dream of being a star -- or just seeing one - the first stop is Hollywood Boulevard. Marilyn Monroe knew the street well. She grew up in an orphanage just a few blocks away and wrote: "I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night, 'There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star.' But I'm not going to worry about them. I'm dreaming the hardest."
Some Top Things to Do in Hollywood:
See the stars -- there are 2,400 bronze medallion stars set in the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard and along Vine Street, honoring the legends of the film, television and recording industries. Some are obscure, behind the camera folks, but it's a rare block where you don't bounce from one super star to another as you stroll along. Some of the most popular: Marilyn (at 6744 Hollywood); Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson (6925 Hollywood); and Marlon Brando (1765 Vine). Modern stars pay about $25,000 for the honor of having a star on the street.
Have a drink -- There are two classic old Hollywood bars.
• Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood) opened in 1919 and is today the same dark wood haven that was familiar to Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor. Raymond Chandler immortalized the bar by putting it in his classic LA mystery, The Long Goodbye. Step out of the bright California sunshine into this dark oasis and place your cocktail on the same polished wood bar where Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable once rested their martinis.
• Pig 'n Whistle: When it opened in 1927, this was a concession stand for the Egyptian Theatre next door. Shirley Temple bought candy here, and Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant were regulars. Today, it's a bar and restaurant known for the hand-painted decorative tiles of the Pig 'N Whistle logo -- a dancing, flute-playing pig -- and for the elaborate carved wood ceiling.
Visit Grauman's Chinese Theatre: This is the "Ground Zero" of Hollywood, the world's most gaudy movie palace, and the spot where the crazies and tour buses gather. And why not? It's fun, and there are never less than a dozen costumed characters posing for photos. Since 1927, stars have been setting their footprints and handprints in cement, and tourists have been walking around putting their own feet in the prints and snapping photos. Most popular appeared to be Michael Jackson, John Wayne and Judy Garland (who went to high school just down the block at Hollywood High). Most eerie? On a completely dry day, Natalie Wood's footprints were filled with water.
See the Famous Sign from Hollywood & Highland: The huge Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex has a Lowes hotel, the usual mall stores, three levels of escalators and outdoor cafes, and the modern Dolby Theatre, which is now the annual home of the Academy Awards. You can take a pricey tour of the theatre and look in the Green Room. But what really makes the shopping center worth a look is the incredible décor -- a throwback to the sets for D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece, Intolerance. Few people today have ever seen or heard of Intolerance, but you will still be impressed, if slightly bewildered, by the 33-foot high white elephants and gigantic Babylonian columns. In the background, framed by the mall's grand arch, is the famous "Hollywood" sign, now a symbol of the industry.
Actress Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the "H" in 1932. During a recent restoration of the sign, Alice Cooper purchased one of the "O's" in honor of Groucho Marx. Other letters were "saved" by Hugh Hefner, Andy Williams and Gene Autry.
Ride the Subway to Universal CityWalk Hollywood
LA has an amazingly complex and beautiful subway system. Catch the Red Line at the Highland shopping center for a one stop ride to Universal CityWalk. Free outdoor trams meet each train and will whisk you up the hill to this incredible complex of restaurants, bars, shops and neon that serves as the fun entrance to the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. CityWalk is huge, loud, and touristy, but it's free to walk around, pedestrian friendly, there's some amazing neon sculptures and it offers great people watching.
Tour a Studio
Universal Studios Hollywood is the studio tour de rigor. Part homage to movies like King Kong, Jaws, and Jurassic Park, it's also a working studio where you can see sets for everything from Desperate Housewives to Psycho. But it's also a movie-based theme park with indoor roller coasters, water thrill rides, 3-D movies, animal trick shows, stunt shows and explosions galore. Special effects are the specialty, and more than a few times you can actually feel the heat from an exploding gas tank or be drenched by the spray from power boats.
For a more serious look at movie making, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony Pictures (formerly MGM) all have more subdued behind-the-scene studio tours where you get to walk or take a golf cart through back lots, viewing everything from Old West towns used in hundreds of Westerns to medieval European streets. There are artifacts from classics like Casablanca and Wizard of Oz, and (depending on filming schedule) you can often walk right on to the set of current television productions.
Shop Beverly Hills
You can see where the stars lived on the manicured, palm-lined streets of Beverly Hills, or where they shopped and dined on Rodeo Drive, before being driven out by hordes of tourists. But you're still as likely to see a celebrity here as anywhere, and the architecture and setting will be familiar from a hundred films. If you truly want to go "star-gazing," the best bet is at a cemetery. Westwood Village Memorial Park has Marilyn, Forest Lawn Glendale has Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and Errol Flynn; Forest Lawn Hollywood has Betty Davis, Lucille Ball and Liberace; and Hollywood Forever has Cecil B. DeMille (facing his old studio, Paramount.).