I love books. I also love historic architecture and gossip, especially gossip involving historic architecture. So I was delighted to mix all my obsessions at a reception celebrating the publication of George Snyder's novel, On Wings of Affection, in William Randolph Hearst's two-story, customized suite at the historic Los Altos apartment house near Hancock Park.
The novel is about a well-connected Angeleno immersed in the West Hollywood substance abuse-recovery scene who struggles to keep his social circles from intersecting when his young ward befriends a notorious gigolo kept by a Beverly Hills interior decorator who turns up dead. It's a sexy read and well-written.
The novel is like a West Hollywood version of Tales of the City crossed with the works of Ann Lamott and Dominick Dunne, if that's possible. Like the novel's narrator, the author lives in the Los Altos apartment complex and shared a bit of his lifestyle with his guests. It was a beautiful event, filled with interesting people and gorgeous waiters in white T-shirts bearing the novel's logline "Murder, Mayhem, Cocktails, Kept Boys, Rehab and Redemption in the City of Fallen Angels." It was a truly enchanting Sunday afternoon.
Another opening, another show. Last week the faithful trekked up to Cahuenga Pass, with their picnic baskets, to inaugurate the summer season at Hollywood Bowl -- both before and after our so-called Carmageddon put us in the national spotlight and had Angelenos quaking in their driving shoes.
Yes, it was splashy. Gustavo Dudamel's name on the marquee, alone, guarantees big notice. He could have programmed the Yellow Pages and, as always, caused a box-office bonanza. But our LA Philharmonic director didn't leave it at that. The celebrity conductor added the celebrity pianist Lang Lang to the first bill and put on a concert version of Puccini's last opera "Turandot" for the second.
Now everyone knows that the Bowl crowd feasts on familiar, hummable fare and that our Venezuelan man of the hour doesn't have an elitist bone in his lithe body - which make evenings at the mammoth showplace happy, easy-going affairs.
Especially so when, at last, we get an ear-opening account of Moussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" after having it served as pain quotidien every summer for as far back as I can remember. No surface contours alone -- the usual -- would do for Dudamel and his band.
Instead there was depth of characterization, with more seriousness and more mystery, so darkly vivid in the low strings that the big, heavy, striding chords seemed to shake the huge amphitheatre from the ground up. So immersed was our podium meister in getting what he wanted that once we even heard him explode in a grunt, forgetting the live mic, and that this was not a rehearsal where a conductor's audible urgings are commonplace.
And if full-out explosions are Dudamel's order of the day (they are), then it came as no surprise that Lang Lang -- in all-white attire sans neckwear, his black hair moussed high to perfection - provided the keyboard pyrotechnics. His launchpad was Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto (remember "The Competition" with Richard Dreyfus and Lee Remick? That concerto.)
Ordained for virtuosos with the chops for dense, raging octaves and the snap-and-spring for tinkling effervescence, it was a mere toy in his hands. Dreamy, ghostly effects emerged in the slow movement, with a growing sweep that spread through the orchestra, before arriving at the tumultuous, heart-stoppingly percussive climb to the finale.
The Chinese wonder played an encore: Liszt's Consolation No. 3. And we could see he was ready for his close-up. Cameras complied and took in his face -- eyes shut, head tilted back so as to capture the chiseled cheekbones, lips in open ecstasy. Yes, the showman lives.
But he was not the only guest force at work opening week at the Bowl. On Sunday Dudamel & Co. let it rip as they enlisted Christine Brewer, she of the powerhouse voice, as Princess Turandot. And while she made us wince deeply at some wayward high notes yelled out too close to the mic, not to mention at the strangest slurs down from the top, her soprano, when warmed up, cut through full-decibel orchestral tuttis and overwhelmed other voices - including Frank Porretta, as Calaf, who, in his best moments, could recall Franco Corelli; Hei-Kyung Hong, who sang a gorgeously wrenching Liù (after a dry-throated start) and the terrific LA Master Chorale and Children's Chorus.
Overall, though, this concert version was arbitrarily staged. Calaf turned, at the end, to give his X-sized Turandot a big smooch, but Liù did not gesture her knife-to-the-gut suicide, even with the music charting it.
Main afterthoughts: Puccini's opera, not grounded in the composer's skilled music drama, but overridden with grandiose, ceremonial Chinese motifs and bulked up here with the Bowl's amplification, never sounded so much like a score to fit the name Hollywood. All those triumphal climaxes, coming at key junctures, one after another, made me feel like a witness to the birth of overkill, movie-score glory. Did the composer know what he wrought?
The bystander had to take his word. He was describing a mymarid wasp, the smallest insect in the world, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
That was 12 years ago, and at the opposite end of the animal-size spectrum from what's happening today at the work-in-progress Natural History Museum. In the middle of its seven-year institutional upgrade, this weekend the museum opens the new Dinosaur Hall. This preview participant pronounces it "elegant."
Too often, an elegant museum is a remote museum, a lofty presence that's more lecture than entertainment. Not this creature of the Cretaceous, not this member of the Mesozoic. When a juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet the size of a Cadillac Escalade roams the rotunda grunting and rolling its creepy glass eyes, you know this Dino Hall is about the show as well as the tell. That T. Rex Jr. sprouts a black and orange shag rug circa 1977 tells you that this Dino Hall is OK with fanciful extrapolation, but draws the line at deluded trifle. The Dinosaur Hall might take what Luis Chiappe, lead curator and director of the museum's Dinosaur Institute, calls "artistic license," but we're not the Flintstones. The Dinosaur Hall is about science, and if science isn't always certain, if science takes liberties, it does so based on real, not manufactured, intelligent design.
That means re-learning stuff you thought you knew, like the confusing term "age of the dinosaur"--other animals shared quarters with dinosaurs, which walked the Earth, but didn't swim it, although some did fly over it. But not the Pterodactyl, which was a flying reptile; all dinosaurs were reptiles, but not all reptiles were dinosaurs.
Remember the Brontosaurus? Long ago scientists busted it for the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature's version of copyright infringement--a previously named creature, the Apatosaurus, was really the source of a misnamed Bronto-bone, so now only the hopelessly uncool refer to anything Jurassic as a Brontosaurus.
We know that T. Rex could gain 1,500 pounds a year and that it was covered with a Cretaceous version of feathers that looked more like bristles (see: "shag rug" above); we know that Mamenchisaurus occupied the opposite size extreme of the mymarid wasp at nearly 70 feet long, but depicting its 30-foot-long neck in brown and tan stripes is artistic license, Chiappe explained, based on what we know about the colors of living reptiles.
We know from its nasal and ear anatomy that the crested duckbill made and heard noise of low frequency, but does the grunting utterance of the T. Rex puppet truly represent that typical teen, or is it artistic fancy? Would we be surprised to learn that T. Rex was known at the local watering hole as Squeaky?
Do you even care? If not, you'll still be engaged by how the hall, with its new floor-to-ceiling windows, shines a literal as well as figurative light on its gob-smackingly huge collection of fossil specimens (300-plus), 20 articulated skeletons and the world's only display of three Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons in various stages of growth--tall, grande and venti.
Many of the fossils from North America were discovered in Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado. But there are some impressive specimens from California. Only one, however, is a dinosaur--a footprint of a bi-pedal meat-eater, name unknown, found in the Mojave Desert east of Baker--you know, where today you find the world's tallest thermometer? "It's the oldest evidence of dinosaurs in the state," Chiappe said, "and the only site with footprints."
The other California standout is Morenosaurus, a marine reptile that used to swim in the sea that covered the state and which is responsible for the paucity of dinosaur fossils here. Morenosaurus was discovered in Fresno County and now lives suspended from the gallery ceiling in all its 25-foot-long glory.
In the same gallery you'll find Fruitadens haagarorum, the smallest dinosaur ever discovered in North America, and the only such specimens found in museum captivity.
Skeletons of any size, of any critter, are ghoulishly spooky. Isn't that part of their appeal, whether you're dressing the kids as a Halloween Stegosaurus, or watching "Night at the Museum"? Against a dueling T. Rex-Triceratops backdrop at the Dinosaur Hall preview, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas said, "I will not be caught in this building tonight. I am not afraid to publicly acknowledge my mortality."
Dinosaurs gave us reptiles, birds and, so far, a delicious mystery about their disappearance. We are not afraid to speculate, to be wrong, to revise, to boast. We are in the Dinosaur Hall. We are among friends. They are elegant.
Photos: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
And the livin' is easy and the lawyers are very very busy... and this should suffice until I get a chance to post the annual Malibu summer litigation round-up.
The charm of my local Fourth of July parade is its provincial, ad-hoc personality, a Midwest-meets-People's-Republic-with-a-side-order-of-hippies kind of thing that sets the admission bar lower than Death Valley. Here in Baja Santa Monica, you get an info-deprived banner announcing "Grand Marshal" in front of some unrecognizable guy riding in a car. You get the starred-and-striped members of the DAR and marchers for the Santa Monica Fancy Dress Swim attired in tuxedoes, gowns and Speedos. You get AYSO kids marching in their team uniforms as their adult minders kick a soccer ball wearing flip-flops.
This morning's parade was not as goofy as in years past. Where were the people garbed in plastic bags protesting consumers' poor refuse habits? Where were the lobster people, protesting ... I dunno, shellfish allergies? Where were the saffron-robed Hare Krishnas? Certainly their agent was in attendance, passing out promotional literature among the crowd.
But what this year's parade lacked in laugh-out-loud appeal, unfortunately it made up for in true-life drama. The usual barricades had been erected to prevent vehicular traffic on Main Street south of Pico more than an hour before the 9:30 a.m. start. But nothing prevented people and their pets from crossing the street at will before and during the event, which is as much a neighborhood block party as a parade. Kids and dogs rule. This year, one guy brought his gray kitten on a leash.
Moments before the first parade entry crossed Ocean Park Boulevard a block and a half north, a burgundy Toyota Scion materialized out of nowhere, zooming south apparently oblivious to the people and dogs clustered curbside, and darting into the street. Suddenly there was a collective scream and the gut-tugging screech of brakes as a toddler in a red, white and blue fireworks dress stepped off the curb in front of the car.
In a split second, the atmosphere went from festive to furious, as parents grabbed their crying kids and other grown-ups surrounded the car, banging on the hood and shouting vigilantesque demands. They tried to yank the driver out of the car, but the doors were locked. The perp, a woman in her 70s, looked confused; she turned on the wipers as the angry crowd pounded on the windshield. An army of phone photographers snapped shots of her license plate.
Within a minute or two, a couple of motorcycle cops on parade detail took control. The crowd backed off, and, apart from mood whiplash, it appeared as though no one had been hurt. But this was now the scene of something official--an accident, a near accident, a crime--and the cops summoned paramedic backup. They instructed parade-watchers to move away from the Toyota, which remained parked in front of Toe Heaven--"Foot Reflexology, Waxing, ATM"--as the investigation got underway alongside the Santa Monica High School marching band.
As we applauded for the lifeguards and their "Baywatch"-emblazoned canoe, and for the Santa Monica mounted police horse with a fetching checkerboard pattern groomed into his massive butt, a fire truck and ambulance arrived. Paramedics unloaded a stretcher. Marchers carrying a sign that read "Love your neighbor as yourself," and others with a "Buy Local" banner vied with the cops for the crowd's attention.
The Santa Monica Fire Department was too well represented among parade entries, with a big red truck, a blue paramedic van and a couple of other vehicles, all with their sirens at fake full volume as police officers interviewed witnesses for real mere feet away.
Something called the Santa Monica Corps consisting of six people in black suits passed by, then a guy in a three-cornered hat and pilgrim breeches riding a Segway, then the Westside Original Car Club, with models including a translucent green, finned 1950s' Bel Air with tuck-and-roll upholstery and a 1930s' square black sedan fit for a mobster. Other vintage models in cherry condition motored slowly past a cop taking the dimensions of the Toyota with a rolling tape measure. The paramedics returned the empty stretcher to their van.
Meals On Wheels marched by, oddly represented by a couple of stilt-walkers, followed by a 1946 woodie with a surfboard hanging out the back. Its horn was a conch shell that required several attempts before the driver managed to honk. Four people in an extended golf cart bearing an inflatable fish mobile hoisted a sign that read "Life, Liberty, Happiness." A sky-blue Corvair came later with vanity plates--"NoNader." A bunch of Chabad members in prayer shawls, black suits and side curls danced in front of their message, "Mitzvahs on the spot for people on the go."
The driver of the Toyota wasn't going anywhere. Two-thirds through the parade, the cops moved her car into a small parking lot across from Toe Heaven. When the parade finished and the crowd began to disperse, she remained on the sidewalk. So did the father of the toddler she came within an inch or two of hitting. He said he thought his daughter was OK, but that they would "have her looked at later."
Asked how the driver managed to speed her car down a barricaded street, one of the motorcycle cops said she must have come out of a driveway in the middle of the block. "[She's] a little confused," he said. "We're going to get her checked out by the DMV."
There were fireworks at the Santa Monica parade today. Luckily, nobody got hurt.