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Southern California Close-Ups: San Fernando Valley

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First published on April 24, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.

The San Fernando Valley is 260 square miles of suburbia. Actually, make that suburbia on nutritional supplements. And antidepressants. With perhaps a little cosmetic surgery south of Ventura Boulevard, where the big money is. Or maybe -- now that it's grown to more than 1.7 million people in nearly three dozen cities and neighborhoods rich and poor – the Valley isn't even a suburb anymore.

It begins just 10 miles northwest of Los Angeles City Hall, sprawling west to the Simi Hills, north to the Santa Susana Mountains and east to the Verdugo and San Gabriel mountains. Yet when you ask the natives what there is to do besides Universal Studios, you may hear a long pause.

Don't worry. They just take the area for granted, and they know it will never replace the beaches on tourist itineraries. But once their lips are loosened, most locals can tell you plenty. The Valley is the home of the oldest Bob's Big Boy diner and perhaps the only porn-star karaoke night in North America. (After all, the Valley is widely known as the nation's porn production capital.) This is where Bob Hope and Ritchie Valens rest in peace, where "Friends" was shot, where Disney makes movies (but doesn't give tours), where the ageless phrase "gag me with a spoon" was born, and where the papa of Patagonia honed his climbing skills.

1. Driving on the Edge and Hiking

Mulholland Drive wriggles for about 20 miles along the ridgelines of the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, marking the border between the Los Angeles basin and the Valley, its two lanes passing palatial homes and big views. In "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," author Kevin Roderick writes that he likes to introduce visitors with a drive here, preferably "on a sparkling winter morning, with a chilly north wind gusting down from the San Gabriels to keep the sky clean." Wind or no wind, you should start near dawn or dusk at the drive's east end at Cahuenga Boulevard (near the 101 Freeway). From here, you can almost (but not quite) see the fictional home of fictional detective Harry Bosch, which author Michael Connelly describes as a stilted refuge off Woodrow Wilson Drive. A few hairpin turns later, you reach the Hollywood Bowl overlook. Farther west, you’ll find the headquarters of the nonprofit group Tree People (Coldwater Canyon Park, 12601 Mulholland Drive, Beverly Hills; www.treepeople.org) in an area that includes great views and several hillside hiking trails. You could keep driving west for miles past the homes of the rich and famous, but why not do something healthier? Park in TreePeople’s main lot at Coldwater North and Mullholland,  and hike the Betty B. Dearing Trail. Dropping to the valley floor and then climbing again, the trail traces a three-mile loop through Coldwater Canyon and Wilacre parks. TreePeople park operations director Jim Hardie suggests you keep an eye out for poison oak and the occasional rattlesnake -- but then again, you also might encounter Paul McCartney (a repeat hiker here) or actor-activist Ed Begley Jr. (a frequent biker).

2. Universal Studios

The Universal Studios people (Universal Studios Hollywood, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City; www.universalstudioshollywood.com ) would like you to believe they're in Hollywood, but you have a map, so you know better. Like the Disney and Warner Bros. studios, they're in the Valley. If you go whole hog at Universal, you'll pay about as much here as you will at Disneyland. (But for the $77 that a one-day pass costs, you get can an annual pass that gets you in free all year, although with many blackout dates.  For more dough, you can upgrade to a pass with no blackout dates.)  For that you get a 45-minute tram tour of the studios, along with a passel of theme-park rides and attractions. Arrive before temperatures rise and lines lengthen, do the studio tram ride first, and try to imagine these hills in 1915. That's when founder Carl Laemmle started charging gawkers 25 cents a day to watch moviemaking on the site of an old chicken ranch. After many expansions (and a four-acre fire on the lot in 2008), the territory is 415 acres, and the tour includes fleeting glimpses of productions in progress and a series of staged scenes, including a King Kong 360 3-D   encounter, an earthquake in a subway station, a leaping "Jaws" shark, the old "Psycho" motel and mansion, a "Fast and Furious" car that belches flames, and a gaggle of spittle-flinging "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs. Wipe yourself dry and head next for the Simpsons Ride (a.k.a. Krustyland), a fake roller-coaster ride that will likely have your 7-year-old in stitches and you fighting off nausea. Other attractions are drawn from "Shrek," "The Terminator," "WaterWorld” and “The Blues Brothers." If you have little kids, the water features, ball room and playground of the Curious George area are sure winners, and roaming characters such as Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants turn up left and right.

3. The Walk, Beverly and Vivian

You don't need to pay admission to visit Universal CityWalk (100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City; www.citywalkhollywood.com), an entertainment district adjacent to the theme park, with 19 movie theaters and dozens of shops and restaurants, all arranged on a pseudo-street full of Southern California architecture in caricature. The restaurants -- Hard Rock Cafe, Johnny Rockets and so on -- aren't unique, but the flashing, splashing, buzzing energy and kid-friendliness of the place is undeniable. To sidestep the $10-$20 cost of parking, arrive using the Metro Red Line's Universal City station or sleep just down the hill and walk. The two closest hotels to Universal are the Sheraton Universal (333 Universal Hollywood Drive, Universal City; www.sheratonuniversal.com) and the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City (555 Universal Hollywood Drive, Universal City; www.hiltonuniversal.com). But there's also the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn (4222 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; www.beverlygarland.com.), which is almost as close and offers free shuttle rides to the park. The seven-acre Garland complex offers a pool, a restaurant (Tula's), two illuminated tennis courts -- not your typical Holiday Inn and not a typical back story either. Beverly Garland, a TV and film actress from the '50s to the '90s, built the hotel with her husband, Fillmore Crank, in 1972. He died in 1999, and she died in 2008, but a great collection of stills from her spectacularly varied career ("The Alligator People," "My Three Sons," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") remains on the lobby walls. From that lobby, you can walk two blocks to a breakfast haunt where few tourists turn up: the ultra-casual Vivian's Millennium Cafe (10968 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; www.netentry.net/vivians-café). Head for the patio in back, settle in among the locals and order the pancakes.

4. Cruise Ventura Boulevard

There's no sense fighting car culture, so you may as well embrace the boulevard. It carries the Valley's commercial lifeblood, and without it, the stars from up the hill would have no place to take their dry cleaning or get their poodles permed. Start at its southeast end in Studio City, perhaps with breakfast at Jerry’s Famous Deli (12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; www.jerryfamousdeli.com) and head toward Tarzana, an upscale hillside community that began with the arrival in 1919 of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Check out the big digits at Hand Car Wash (11514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; www.studiocityhandcarwash.com); the spate of sushi restaurants between Vineland Avenue and Laurel Canyon Boulevard; the 24-hour Du-par's coffee shop (12036 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; www.du-pars.com); the 24-hour Twain's coffee shop (12905 Ventura Blvd., Studio City). Or skip the foregoing and start with lunch at Sweet Butter Kitchen, Café & Market (13824 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; www.sweetbutterkitchen.com), then check out the highly walkable stretches near Vantage, Whitsett and Cedros avenues; and the fountain at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (15301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; www.shermanoaksgalleria.com). The Galleria has been so thoroughly updated that it looks nothing like it did in the early '80s, when Frank and Moon Unit Zappa drew inspiration for their song "Valley Girl," but it has Arclight Cinemas, a gym, a spa and a bevy of national-chain restaurants and snack stops. You'll also pass Van Nuys Boulevard, which was a big-time teen cruising scene in the '60s and '70s before police put a stop to it. (Classic-car enthusiasts have been trying to revive summer cruising nights on the second Wednesday of every month.) To top off the journey, tip your cap at the humble offices of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. (18354 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana). It was here, under a walnut tree, that the author's family scattered his ashes in 1950. (A Burroughs office staffer notes, "We have had a lot of landscaping done in the meantime.")

5. The mission, the dead and the boulders

Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana (15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills; www.missiontour.org/sanfernando) went up in 1797, 17th of the 21 California missions. The surrounding Mission Hills neighborhood -- a gritty triangle made by the 5, 118 and 405 freeways -- is not a tourist haven. But the mission complex has been well reconstructed, the church celebrates regular Masses and weddings, and there's a big collection of artifacts in the museum next door. Bob Hope, who lived in the Valley's Toluca Lake neighborhood for many of his 100 years, is buried here, and there's a memorial garden in his honor. At the San Fernando Mission Cemetery next door (11160 Stranwood Ave.), you can pay respects to L.A.'s first famous Valenzuela: singer-songwriter Ricardo Valenzuela (a.k.a. Ritchie Valens), who died at 17 in a 1959 plane crash. (To find Valens' flat marker, look in area C, near No. 248 at the Stranwood Avenue entrance.) Next, leave the gravestones and head 10 miles west on California 118 to Chatsworth. When 118 crosses the north end of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, get off and park. See the towering boulders? This is 76-acre Stoney Point Park (www.laparks.org/dos/parks/facility/stoneyPointPk.htm). Outlaws hid out here in the 19th century, and rock-climbing pioneers Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard (founder of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company) did a lot of learning here in the '50s and '60s. The place is still big with climbers (and film crews), and if you show up in the afternoon, expect to find a few boulder-scramblers on their way to play. They'll be the ones carrying bags of rosin (to keep hands dry) and Cheetos (to keep belly full).

6. Great Wall, good sausage, Hot Wheels

The Great Wall of Los Angeles, created by artists Judith Baca and hundreds of high school kids between 1976 and 1984, is half a mile long, which makes it one of the biggest murals in the U.S. It's also an underdog's view of California, beginning before the dawn of man and including downtrodden Native Americans, imprisoned Japanese Americans and deported Mexicans, concluding improbably with the arrival of the Olympic torch for the 1984 Summer Games. The images line the west wall of the flood control channel on the west side of Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard Street in Valley Glen. A footpath runs along the channel so you can cover all that history while making a one-mile loop, as many locals and their dogs do. Then head to Nat's Early Bite (14115 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks; www.natsearlybite.com), an old-school breakfast-and-lunch joint, its menu long on sausage and homemade muffins. Having just covered 2,200 or more years of history, you can eat your fill. Then you step next door and flash back into history again.  Only this time it's the happy recent history prized by the management of Big Kid Collectable Toy Mall & Retro Store (14109 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks; www.bigkidcollectables.com). When customers see old familiars still for sale -- Abba Zabba and Tang, among them -- "people trip out," says manager Nick Liberatore. He speaks over the buzz of a 1963 Pepsi machine and the score of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," which is showing a few feet away on a reproduction '50s TV. Other inventory includes "Planet of the Apes" action figures and Hot Wheels tracks. When the phone rings, Liberatore answers with "Good morning, Big Kid." Who's the kid in that sentence? We all are.

7. Burbank, baby

Eventually, you’re going to crash at the Tangerine Hotel (3901 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank; www.tangerinehotel.com), a 31-room budget spot (with pool) that’s been recently redone in minimalist style, heavy on the color orange. But before you sleep, Burbank awaits, harboring more diversions than you might imagine. They begin with Bob. The oldest remaining Bob's Big Boy (4211 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank; www.bobs.net) went up in 1949. Its sign stands 70 feet tall, it’s open around the clock and its lot fills up with classic cars on Friday nights. On Saturday and Sunday nights, you can get car hop service. For years, writer-director David Lynch had lunch here daily. During the day, you'll see lots of elderly customers under the swooping ceilings of the Midcentury dining room, and the big boy himself lingers just outside the front door like the world's least-menacing bouncer. If you happen to be here on a Tuesday night, one after-dinner option is the adults-only song stylings of Porn Star Karaoke night at Sardo's Grill & Lounge (259 N. Pass Ave., Burbank; www.sardosbar.com), just a few blocks away. Since 2003, porn-industry insiders have been gathering to croon and unwind after a day's filming, these days with the encouragement of sassy emcee (and veteran actress) Nicki Hunter. You never know what you'll get. At 9:15 p.m. one Tuesday, a 90% male audience waited patiently while a middle-aged man earnestly made his way through Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." A week later, a DVD release party for a "Vagina Monologues" parody brought a buzzing crowd that included several cast members. If neither night sounds like your style, here's good news: Just across the street from Bob's is the 130-seat Falcon Theatre (4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; www.falcontheatre.com), founded in 1997 by "Happy Days" creator Garry Marshall. It features goofball musical mash-ups by the Troubadour Theater Company and director Matt Walker. Just from a sampling of show titles, you get the flavor: "It's a Stevie Wonderful Life," "As U2 Like It" and "Much Adoobie Brothers About Nothing."

8. Suburban splendor

Take Tujunga Avenue north from Ventura Boulevard, then pull over between Woodbridge and Moorpark streets. You have just arrived in suburban paradise, although it comes with a fatal footnote. Begin by nibbling, sipping and browsing in the home and patio that have been converted into Aroma Coffee & Tea Co. (a.k.a. Aroma Café, 4360 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; www.aromacoffeeandtea.com) and the neighboring bookshop, Portrait of a Bookstore (www.portraitofabookstore.com). Along this block you’ll find vintage clothes, a day spa, a yoga venue, a theater company and gallery, a gelato bar and Caioti Pizza Café (4346 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; www.caiotipizzacafe.com), whose salads have long been said to help induce labor in pregnant women. Within two blocks you'll find at least two casting agencies, one dance academy, one acting studio, one spiritual coach/life teacher and Woodbridge Park, which has a playground, a few shaded picnic tables and a big patch of grass. For the footnote, walk to the nearby Italian restaurant and jazz club. That's Vitello's (4349 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; www.vitellosrestaurant.com), where actor Robert Blake brought his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, for dinner on May 4, 2001, shortly before she was shot to death nearby. A criminal jury acquitted Blake in the killing in early 2005, but later that year a civil jury found him liable for Bakley's wrongful death and awarded her children $30 million in damages, later reduced to $15 million by an appeals court. Blake filed for bankruptcy in 2006.

9. The bohos of NoHo

The North Hollywood Arts District, for many years a forlorn commercial strip, has been gathering steam as a bohemian enclave over the last decade, aided by a subway stop and redevelopment dollars. Start with dinner or lunch at Pitfire Artisan Pizza Co. (5211 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; www.pitfirepizza.com), which has a big patio with a fire pit and pingpong table. (It’s part of a small Southern California chain.) Then hit a performance (check Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; www.deafwest.org), winner of many national plaudits, or El Portal Theatre (5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; www.elportaltheatre.com), built as a vaudeville house in 1926 and revived as a three-venue space in 2000. To see what's on at these and several other local theaters, check www.nohoartsdistrict.com. If you have spare minutes, browse the TV star statues (Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, to start with) in front of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at Lankershim and Magnolia boulevards. Or get dinner or a nightcap at the stylish Federal Bar (5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; www.thefederalbar.com), which opened in February in a cool, two-story brick building that dates to the 1920s.

10. Berries and grass

Three generations along, the Tapia Bros. Fresh Produce (5251 Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino; www.facebook.com/pages/Tapia-Bros-Farm/126868084034172) keeps the Valley's agricultural history alive with an 80-acre farm and stand. The stand, which typically closes January through late March, greets spring with strawberries and tomatoes. The family also grows corn, keeps chickens, pheasant and goats, and sells flowers. Once you've had a taste and said hello to the animals, cross Burbank Boulevard for the wide-open spaces of the Sepulveda Basin and Sepulveda Dam recreation areas, with lots of grass and nine miles of flat trails that are highly popular with joggers, dog-walkers and kids on bikes. This broad area, north of Encino and south of Van Nuys, was designed to collect water in a major flood. It also includes the Sepulveda Basin Dog Park; Lake Balboa Park; Balboa, Encino and Woodley Lakes municipal golf courses; and the Japanese Garden (6100 Woodley Ave., Van Nuys, www.thejapanesegarden.com).

11. That's all, folks

Don't overlook the tour at Warner Bros. studios (3400 Riverside Drive, Burbank; vipstudiotour.warnerbros.com). It has no rides, no 3-D presentations, no spitting dinosaurs. What it does offer is a grown-up look at how TV shows and movies get made, priced recently at $49 for adults, closed to children younger than 8, and lasting about 2 1/2 hours. Led by a guide, you typically travel on foot and by golf cart in a group of 12. You browse the fixtures and paintings in the prop shop, perhaps glimpse rooms where backdrops are painted or orchestral scores are recorded, stand in the square where "76 Trombones" was shot for "The Music Man," step into the courthouse where the last episode of "Seinfeld" took place, and sit on the couch at Central Perk, where the "Friends" coffee shop is preserved. If it's working Hollywood you want to see, this is a better bet than Universal. You wind up at the Warner Bros. Museum, where the bottom floor covers 80-odd years of movies and TV and the top floor covers Harry Potter. Along the way, you're bound to learn a thing or two about such Warner heroes as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, who concluded many a cartoon by saying -- well, you know.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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