Who loves his job more than anyone else in Hollywood? Nicholson? Hefner? Sajak?
As I sat in the back of a small, egregiously air-conditioned tour bus one recent Friday afternoon, climbing Foothill Road in Beverly Hills, soaking in a stream of celebrity trivia and the delighted giggles of Midwestern tourist couples, I grew convinced that none of those people enjoys his job half as much as Brian Donnelly.
What does he do? Donnelly drives a tour bus for Starline Tours, of course.
To suggest to any resident of Hollywood, of Los Angeles — of Irvine — that he or she should go to Mann's Chinese Theater and pay $29 to take a bus tour around the city is, at best, insanity. It is like suggesting that a Parisian ride the elevator up the Eiffel Tower or that a New Yorker visit the Statue of Liberty. That gruesome stretch of Hollywood Boulevard? That fake pagoda? Waiting on a line next to a person in a tracksuit taking pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger's handprints?
Just completely out of the question, off the map, you say.
And that's what I said. Until I took a ride with Donnelly.
We boarded the bus — tourists included a couple from Miami, a couple from Idaho (plus one mother-in-law), a couple from Arizona and me — outside Mann's. We knew we were in for a special afternoon when all of the women leaving the previous tour kissed Donnelly and all the men pushed wads of bills into his palm.
"I love Hollywood!" Donnelly said, once we were moving. "Whadya gonna do?" We sped past the Magic Castle to the parking lot of Yamashiro, where the parade of obscure facts and sidebars began. Did you know, for instance, that at night the light at the top of the Capitol Records building spells H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D in Morse code? Or that the stars on the Walk of Fame range in price from $7,500 to $15,000, depending on location? Or that the ghost of Montgomery Clift is widely known to haunt the upper floors of the Roosevelt Hotel? That's right. Any number of guests have heard him in the middle of the night, reading his lines from "From Here to Eternity" and blowing a bugle.
"Room 928," Donnelly said, matter-of-factly. "Everybody knows about it."
The 10 tourists and I soon knew a lot about Donnelly, too, who is not squeamish about sharing personal information. He leads a kind of ascetic life of celebrity-obsession, without car or cable. He collects cookbooks, books on the JFK assassination and books of old Hollywood photography (several of which were passed around the bus) and, though Irish, is currently reading "The Joys of Yiddish." He prefers tea to coffee and has been in a Starbucks only once but eats at the Stinking Rose every two months. He has a big thing for Stockard Channing ("If we see her, I'm pulling over, that's it — tour's over!"), thinks Jay Leno is really nice but doesn't like David Spade. He has an ex-wife in Orlando, Fla., whom he dislikes as much as he does Spade and to whom he refers often. He's been a contestant on "The Weakest Link," and he talks to his mother on the phone a lot ("She says 'chichi froufrou' instead of 'fancy' now, and I've picked it up from her," he said, after describing a store on Rodeo Drive as "chichi froufrou").
From Yamashiro we descended into West Hollywood, where we checked out a number of unassuming spots: Bob Barker's longtime residence, the synagogue where Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were married ("She's currently single and looking — just like me!") and the house where James Dean first lived when he moved to Los Angeles. Last year Donnelly, whose devotion to his riders is evident in his willingness to flout local ordinances and minor traffic laws, happened upon an open house there. He herded his entire tour group in, to the real estate agent's astonishment. (The house later sold for $790,000.)
"If you see a celebrity, shout it out!" he said, as we turned onto Sunset Boulevard. "If you just think you see a celebrity, still shout it out! Better safe than sorry. Whadya gonna do!?"
Donnelly is versed in the seedier side of Hollywood geography and immune to its misinformation. He pointed out the Bank of America on Sunset where Hugh Grant withdrew cash before giving a prostitute that famous lift and then handily dispelled the rumor that Lana Turner was discovered in Schwab's drugstore, which once sat where the Virgin Records store now does. (She was discovered at a drugstore nearer Fairfax Avenue.) Thank goodness that was cleared up.
Donnelly's fascination with Hollywood history can tend toward the morbid and melancholy too. Like the James Lear character in "Wonder Boys," he knows more than any one person probably should about the circumstances of celebrity death. He cited the locations of no fewer than nine of them. In addition to Room 928 at the Roosevelt, there was Room 109 at the Highland Gardens Motel, where Janis Joplin died; the exact side door off the Viper Room from which River Phoenix stumbled; the house where oil baron Edward Doheny was found shot; the apartment building where Dorothy Dandridge died ("This town just used that woman and threw her out. Tragic!"); the house where "Halloween" was filmed, which, gleefully enough, happens to sit three houses down from Spencer Tracy's house in the original "Father of the Bride"; and, of course, the Hollywood sign itself, from which a little-known actress named Peggy Entwistle flung herself in 1932.
Passing from West Hollywood into Beverly Hills, the man from Miami blurted out, "There's the sign from 'Beverly Hills 90219'!"
"That's right!" Donnelly said, kindly ignoring the numerical error.
In Beverly Hills, the celebrities' houses are, of course, largely invisible. They are hidden behind huge walls of shrubbery and iron fences and often behind acres of lawn. But this does not stop Donnelly from enlisting the riders' imaginations and otherwise filling in gaps. In front of Groucho Marx's one-time house, he recited lines from "Duck Soup." "Who's Groucho Marx?" the young wife from Idaho asked.
At Aaron Spelling's sprawling compound, only one wing of which can be glimpsed, he passed around an aerial photograph of the place and informed us that it has a room devoted entirely to gift-wrapping ("Whadya gonna do!?") On the way out of Beverly Hills, we saw Charo's house. He revealed that the Spanish entertainer not only holds the record for appearances on "The Love Boat" but also has been named flamenco guitarist of the year twice ("She's an amazing guitarist — really!"). Who named Charo anything of the year, or why this strange artistic juxtaposition helped us picture Charo's living room, I can't tell you, but it did.
How does he remember so much about Charo? How does he remember in what year Doheny was shot or what Jack Benny paid for his house or how much jewelry Barbara Sinatra was wearing when she was robbed down the street from her house? Is it just because he gives this tour three times a day, five days a week?
I don't think so. I think it is because he loves his job. In a town where so many people have no interest in their day jobs, where everyone wants to be doing something else, Donnelly truly loves what he does. He is not an actor who drives a tour bus between auditions. He is not a drummer who drives a tour bus after rehearsal. He is a tour bus driver. Perhaps he obsesses a little too publicly about his ex-wife in Orlando. Perhaps he has a slightly unhealthy wealth of knowledge of suicidal actors and about the 7-Eleven where Joey Buttafuoco was arrested on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes. But that's Hollywood. Whadya gonna do?
As we rolled back toward the Chinese Theater, an hour behind schedule (nobody was complaining), Donnelly took us past the house where German actor Peter Lorre lived until 1964. "Lorre dropped dead from a heart attack half an hour before he was due in divorce court." You could just see Donnelly's ex-wife in Orlando. "And she got everything! Everything!" The young wife from Idaho and her husband looked at each other. After a moment, they both laughed.
Hop on the bus Casablanca Tours
7000 Hollywood Blvd., on the mezzanine level of the Roosevelt Hotel.
Two tours daily. Two to four hours. (323) 461-0156. Starline Tours
6925 Hollywood Blvd., in the courtyard of the Mann's Chinese Theater.
Tours leave every 15 minutes. Two to four hours. (323) 463-3333. Hollywood Fantasy Tours
6251 Hollywood Blvd., next to Pantages Theater.
Tours leave every hour. One to two hours. (323) 469-8184.
James Verini can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.