Life is not always kind to tourist attractions. Take, for example, the eight determined souls who have spent the last three weeks confined to the catwalk of a billboard at Sunset and La Cienega boulevards, vying in an endurance contest that won’t end until seven come down.
Tour buses cruising Sunset in search of the quaint and the bizarre have recently added the billboard’s inhabitants to their sightseeing attractions. “You see these buses go by full of Japanese tourists and you wonder what the guides are telling them,” said Jeff Stuart, one of eight who interrupted their lives to live on the billboard. “Then you realize they’re probably telling them we’re crazy.”
For good reason. For three weeks, seven men and one woman have been confined to life on a billboard catwalk the size of an average front porch. They have been limited to going to the bathroom four times a day. They have been subjected to winter rains and the stares of thousands of motorists and pedestrians.
All this, for a sports car and a screen test.
The eight climbed up the billboard Dec. 11 to take part in a contest sponsored by a San Francisco electronics firm trying to promote Winkies, blinking computer chips the firm hopes will become technology’s answer to the pet rock. The firm, Xtronx Inc., has promised the car--a Jaguar, Ferrari or Camaro--the screen test and lesser prizes to the contestant who holds out longest on the billboard.
So far, the eight have dug in for the long haul. Once there were 12, but late December rains drenched the competitive spirit of four contestants. By New Year’s Eve, eight were left: Jeff Stuart, 25, from West Hollywood; Nicholas Hobbs, 36, Savannah, Ga.; Jeff Olan, 23, Santa Monica; Kevin Labahn, 24, Manhattan Beach; Bob Mokahuna, 24, Hawaii; Jeff Weinke, 23, Minneapolis; Lance Mancuso, 25, Simi Valley, and the group’s lone female, Sherry Davis, 25, from San Francisco.
They have managed to coexist in peace for three weeks, but none delude themselves: “Everybody up here is somebody’s enemy,” Hobbs said. “Sooner or later, the smiles are going to disappear.”
All Are Actors
Still, the smiles may last awhile. All are aspiring actors, accustomed to playing roles. They were chosen for the contest, Hobbs said, “because the company wanted people who would do more than sleep up here all day long.”
Instead, they spend much of their day waving. “I think we’re coming down with Queen Elizabeth’s disease,” said Mokahuna, who feebly lifts an arm to show his exhaustion.
Cars honk at them with regularity. Children squeal and point. But what delights the seven men most is the number of women who stop and gawk. “I’ve met more women the last three weeks than I have my entire three years in Los Angeles,” Stuart said.
A day later, Stuart watched while Olan flirted with a woman who flirted back from a car window 30 feet below. “What do you do up there?” she yelled, asking the inevitable question.
“Watch TV, listen to the radio, watch people like you,” Olan replied.
As the flirting continued, Stuart murmured: “You’re scraping, Olan. You can do better.”
Occasionally, the curiosity seekers have become insistent about finding out what is happening on the billboard. On Christmas Eve, a group of well-wishers demanded the right to climb up to the catwalk and share liquor with the contestants. A guard at the bottom of the ladder restrained them. Dave Johnson, one of several guards who maintain a 24-hour vigil, said on another occasion a drunken derelict tried to make it up the ladder. “He wanted to find out what they were doing up on the billboard,” Johnson said. “I guess curiosity got the better of him.”
Night brings the strangest encounters. Evening guards have reported that the contestants were flashed by passing women. One night, two Hasidic rabbis showed up to deliver Hanukkah menorahs and kosher milk to the two Jews among the contestants.
After midnight, the contestants say, they often turn off their televisions--plugged into three electric outlets--and watch the antics of Sunset Boulevard’s prostitutes. “We’ve thought about rating them as they go by, but I don’t think they’d appreciate it,” Hobbs said.
The contestants have tried to make themselves at home within the limits of contest rules. Their homes are small compartments beneath a plastic tarpaulin they rigged over the catwalk to keep dry. Labahn sleeps on an inflated green raft, while Olan’s bedroom consists of a slab of plastic foam covered with blankets. Stuart sleeps on a cot folded out over milk cartons filled with his possessions.
Their food is provided by local restaurants that have kept them stuffed with chicken, ribs and hamburgers. A local water distributor lugged a water cooler up to the catwalk, where it sits with several replacement bottles. The cooler sits in what Davis calls the “press preparation area” where two mirrors are taped to the billboard for primping.
Four telephone lines are hooked up to the catwalk. Usually they are tied up by radio disc jockeys desperate to fill time on their morning shows. One morning, Hobbs picked up the line to hear his mother tell him from Savannah that his exploits have made her an evening news celebrity.
Boredom has been the greatest enemy. There are the television sets and radios, and a 200-page book usually can be read in a day. But craving human contact, the contestants often find themselves expressing their competitive urges in fierce hands of poker and Monopoly.
“This is when we’re at our most vicious,” smiled Labahn as he watched Stuart land on one of his Monopoly properties. “So nice you dropped in.”
As time passes, though, other problems may drive boredom from contestants’ minds. One that always lurks is the urge to go to the bathroom. “You have to develop incredible bladder control up here,” Hobbs said. “I’ve become a master.”
Contestants may descend four times a day to use a bathroom in an apartment behind the billboard where several Xtronx representatives monitor their progress. Each break is limited to 10 minutes and the contestants also get 20 minutes each day to shower.
“That’s when you see how competitive they are,” guard Johnson said. “If somebody’s gone for one second longer than the rule allows, they all start screaming.”
For the time being, the contestants are making the best of their coexistence. On New Year’s Eve, provided with sparkling apple cider and party hats by the contest monitors (drinking and smoking on the billboard are prohibited by contest rules), the eight stayed up long past midnight, watching the revelers below.
“We didn’t get drunk, but the liquid backing up in our kidneys provided a similar effect,” said Hobbs, who put on a tuxedo to convince himself it was a real New Year’s celebration. “We danced and did a lot of waving.”
Depressing New Year’s
He was silent for a moment, then added: “Yeah, this had to be the most depressing New Year’s celebration of my life. It’ll be much better next year, when I’ve got my new car to celebrate in.”
“The only way you’ll get a new car,” said Olan, “is if you buy one. That car is mine.”
It is the same thought that keeps all of them on the billboard, well into their 27th day. Cramped, bored and all privately wishing they were on the ground, each insists he will be the last to climb down.
“It’s a shame it has to be only one of us,” said Mokahuna, “but as long as it’s me, I can handle it.”