Happy Holidays! I hope all my readers in 101 countries around the world are having a wonderful year end break as New Year’s Day approaches – and welcome to my new readers in Paraguay. Going into Capricorn always changes the tempo at this time of year, and hopefully you have enjoyed some time for family and friends after coping all year with life’s persistent obligations.
This is a time to recharge, reflect and relax. And for me that means visiting some Old Hollywood haunts.
I am thrilled that my blog stats evenly divide up between interest in new music, travel and food. That’s my point. I read a lot of current articles about the challenges of classical and new music, but I find the perspective of most all these debates so narrow as to be, in a word, uninteresting.
There is nothing more annoying than trying to convince someone of something they know they don’t like. Why prepare goose for a vegetarian, convince a stubborn stay-at-home type that Oaxaca is fantastic, or suggest to an early music lover that Milton Babbitt is lyrical? I never try.
Music, for me, is bound up with everything else. I spend as much time reading about history and food and art and literature and science and politics and diplomacy as I do concerned about a singular professional concern to create a program. Ideas don’t happen in a practice room.
And speaking of Babbitt, I’m going to spend time with opposites that attracted, Milton the Sorcerer and his Apprentice, Stephen Sondheim. They are not an odd couple, partners in crime might be more to the point, and we love them both. Jan and I went to see Into the Woods at the Vista last week, our favorite movie theater in Hollywood, followed by a great holiday meal celebrating the 25th anniversary of moving into our small 1922 Craftsman Era home in Pasadena.
Let’s start with locating the echt Hollywood from the 1920s and 30s. For my many international readers who might be film fans, allow me to point you in a better direction to find what you are looking for when you dream of movie stars and experiencing Hollywood. You want an experience that brings you face to face with the magic of the movies. Perhaps my suggestions for an off-the-beaten-track day will work for you like it does for me with my guests.
So here’s my itinerary for you. Exercise in the morning by doing the Laurel and Hardy Loop. Visit Sunset Junction for lunch. Go to a movie at the Vista Theater and end up at Musso and Frank on Hollywood Blvd., since 1919 serving the greats in the world of cinema.
But plan your movie ahead of time, which is why I mention it first before the day officially starts. Do yourself a favor and go to the Vista Theater in Silverlake. This lovingly restored 1920s gem is found at the confusing intersection of Sunset Blvd., Hollywood Blvd., Hillhurst and Virgil Avenues. It’s an Old World intersection where you need to know where you are going, but trust me, you want to go to the Vista Theater. There is no better place to sense the history of Hollywood than here. Other theaters have been renovated (the Egyptian, Grauman’s Chinese, the El Capitan, the Cinerama Dome and others) but the Vista Theater is where the magic is to be found. You can sit quietly (it boasts the greatest leg room in the world) and imagine a long gone era still speaking to you.
Here’s a tip for visitors (and maybe a lot of people who live here). If you are looking for Old Hollywood look in the Silverlake and Los Feliz areas of town. On that Boulevard made famous by Billy Wilder and Co., Sunset Boulevard.
True story. When my wife Jan came to visit Los Angeles for our first visit after meeting at Tanglewood, my first day was spent driving her the length of Sunset Boulevard, from downtown all the way to the Pacific Ocean. You can see the diversity of the whole city from this one street and end at the ocean. We’ve been married and lived in LA for over 35 years, so I think the strategy worked.
With these introductions over, let’s start our day!
Finding The Music Box location in Silverlake is a Hollywood Holy Grail that is still very much here. Time has brought more housing, so it doesn’t look exactly like it did in the 1930s but you won’t be disappointed.
There are a few other die-hard locations close by for Mack Sennett’s studios. Charlie Chaplin’s studio is on La Brea (now a Jim Henson Production Building), and Mary Pickford’s Pickfair Mansion is owned by the Buss family (they own the Lakers). Many of these place are hard to gain access to or even find.
But for a great day finding Old Hollywood, find The Music Box Steps at Vendome and Del Monte and do the Laurel and Hardy Loop.
Memory is destiny. So I highly recommend climbing these steps, remembering how Laurel and Hardy give Sisyphus his best interpretation. Watching their greatest comedy will never be the same for you, I promise. These steps are the Hollywood you came to experience (your legs will remember the steep climb as well) and make me proud to call Los Angeles home.
After you climb into Hollywood legend and walk the Laurel and Hardy Loop (The Music Box won an Academy Award for Best Short Film), find a place in the very nearby Sunset Junction for lunch. Just walk around and pick one, they are all good and yummy. Cafe Stella for French, Forage for healthy California done perfectly, Intelligentsia Coffee to be cool and hip, El Condor (at night), there’s Pine and Crane, a new Taipei noodle place, Casbah for teas and salads, Cafe Flore for vegan goodness, and the tremendous Silverlake Cheese Shop will make you a great sandwich (ask for Maggie). There are more places as well, but you get the idea I’m sure. You also have one of the best views of the city from here looking west down Sunset and back up to the Griffith Park Observatory.
Then go down Sunset Blvd. a little more (you can walk it) and plan for a movie at the best 1920s theater in town. We all love the Vista Theater here in Los Angeles, and you will too. Seeing sites is one thing, but seeing a movie is something to do in Hollywood as a tourist.
When a director invokes the sky of The Wizard of Oz in his opening (and closing) shot, you’re getting a signal of things to come. Our holiday trip this year to the Vista Theater was to see Into the Woods. Seeing Meryl Streep in anything is time well spent. But Jan and I also wanted to spend time with Stephen Sondheim, Milton Babbitt’s most famous and loyal student. Sondheim has supported a few Babbitt CDs and readily admits to learning a great deal from The Sorcerer. We loved the film, the singing, the performances. But we loved the music more.
I miss Milton Babbitt, Sondheim’s teacher. I miss him a lot.
People see Milton as the avatar of complexity (Leinsdorf refused to prepare a score of his with the Philadelphia Orchestra). Some people I’m sure feel he represents the enemy, so to speak, of audiences. They couldn’t be further from the truth, though they might be close to the fashion of our times.
I do not see Milton this way but I HEAR him as a an inspiring dreamer, and I hear him with genuine love. The difficulties can be overcome with diligent practice and study by an engaged performer. If the world were to love to Milton’s music, take it to heart as he composed it, we might be in a more enlightened space. A member of an audience came up to me after a performance of When Shall We Three Meet Again? and said to me “Jeff, I really didn’t want that piece to end. It twinkled like stars all the time.” And I think this woman, Daleen Larkin is her name and she is not by any means a musician, was spot on in her response to the music.
For me, Babbitt is the Bach for Our Era. His musical world, like his love of baseball, plays by the rules and is a perfect universe, fully ordered and interdependent, though it might appear random, it is anything but. Cage with notes? Perhaps. There is an aesthetic morality to his choices which reinforce his idea of expressing a fully democratic and participatory society through music. It’s a society we do not have right now. Maybe we will one day when Babbitt is loved.
Sondheim wryly describes Milton as a composer of science fiction, which is very accurate. In many night owl conversations with him (Milton always wanted to talk in the middle of the night) he never once wanted to discuss his elaborate world of metric arrays, combinatorial set theory, serialization of pitch and timbre, time point composition or computer music. He would talk ideas.
And Milton wanted to talk about baseball. Or Broadway songs. And he loved Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I think he liked me because I’d grown up with Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “A real pitcher,” Milton would say over Chinese food.
Hearing Into the Woods brought Milton back to life for me, because he was a frustrated Broadway composer deep inside, and Sondheim knew it better than anybody else could. So he poured everything he knew into his open minded student. Sondheim learned a lot from Babbitt about “getting a lot out of a little.” They would discuss Mozart and Bethoven, not set theory, and how a composer controls a song or a symphony.
And what Sondheim learned is easy to hear and why you remember his tunes. Sondheim places notes, high and low, within a larger structural harmonic context that is beyond rare in popular music. I won’t get all Schenkerian on Sondheim, but it wouldn’t be hard to do with what I heard in Into the Woods. He also does not shy away from dark contexts (neither did Leonard Bernstein) or big structures. The opening scene is stunning in that regard. A lot of his success comes from loving classical music, and a lot of his knowledge was guided by the Sorcerer of Musical Science Fiction, Milton Babbitt.
Thanks Milton, for teaching all of us who came in contact with you to make music all it could be rather than be satisfied with as little as we could get away with.
Now let’s edit back to your day in Hollywood and return to the Vista Theater. The theater, in case you were wondering, has all state of the art bells and whistles for high clarity definition and sound. It is not technically behind the times, no worries there. Once the movie is over, bid a fond farewell to the Egyptian themed walls in the lobby – and promise to return for the your next movie soon!
And for the perfect drink or dinner go to Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. Ask for Mr. DeMille’s table and be sure to have their martini. Another place where you can find legendary footprints. Since 1919.
We have had music and travel but now it’s time for food and holiday meals. I am toying with putting together recipes for non-profit entertaining into a book. I don’t know a better way to consolidate your base of support if your run an arts organization. Stay connected!
So for me who lives here, it’s now time to go back home to enjoy a holiday meal celebrating 25 years of moving into our small 1920s Craftsman Era home in Pasadena. All of my dishes cook ahead, which is key for the entertaining home chef to understand and master.
The best way to celebrate a house anniversary? Fill it with the best kitchen aromas through and through all year long!
That’s an easy task at the holidays. This year I made my own five spice powder rub for three days for our annual goose (notice below my Thai mortar and pestle if you want a secret to this success), then when you roast the goose place some clementines, sage leaves and juniper berries inside the cavity and plan on a few hours at 350 F the day before. Let it rest for over one hour, even longer. Carve the whole bird up (use plastic gloves), confit the meat with goose fat, the Cadillac of fats, and then reheat slowly for under 30 minutes the next day.
A great easy side dish is braising fennel, also the day before, for ninety minutes at 375 Fahrenheit (roast the fennel at a different time than the goose, even a day before the goose is fine). Poach Mission figs in chicken stock, split fennel bulbs, add shallots and cinnamon sticks, clip bay leaves, rosemary and marjoram from our garden, and add enough stock to come up about a half way into the skillet. Use your eyes and good sense. What a delightful smell throughout the house!
Condiments are a must. And again, make ahead is key so that after the movies everything comes together with ease. Cranberries with minced orange candied slices and more Mission figs poached in a cup of Syrah as well as a shallot marmalade with beer, cocoa nibs, and balsamic vinegar. Off camera are mashed potatoes, and a chanterelle dressing. And the wine is a Dunning syrah.
I always take advantage of roasting my goose ahead to make a goose stock for gravy (off camera) and for soups. This year I’ve made a mushroom barley soup with dried porcini and fresh cremini but be sure to use a transforming tablespoon of Armagnac at the end!
And for dessert? I make everything up in advance so we can choose from cherries in black currant jelly and Kirschwasser with creme fraiche (very Viennese recipe), or a Mason jar of prunes in Armagnac made a few months ago but find a great ice cream (a very French recipe), poached summer Satsuma plums (frozen after poaching) from our garden tree with whipped cream (a homegrown recipe), or a puree of persimmons with pomegranate seeds (fruit from Redlands is best). In other words, make things ahead for no worries!
Music. Food. Travel. We use the holiday season to remind us why we live where we do, and so travel this time of year is our chance to be tourists in our own home town. My wife Jan is the best traveler in the world. Within an hour, she’ll discover why everybody lives where they live. Cities always divide into similar, though widely different, districts. Big attractions, out-of-town side trips, trendy new areas, old standbyes, and off-the-beaten track.
So if you are in Los Angeles and miss finding Old Hollywood, you’ve missed the boat. I don’t mean the crazy Hollywood churning out bad sequels or lousy ideas or tourist crazy Hollywood and Highland, which serves a good purpose. But I mean the Legendary Hollywood. At least it’s not me who puts photos of Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn everywhere I go!
If you know where to look, you can find Angels in Los Angeles.
See you at the movies!
Best, best, best,