TURNED ON BY L.A. AS IT'S TURNED OUT

A few days ago I unearthed the faded-to-brown carbon copy of the first piece (below) I wrote when I joined the Los Angeles Times as entertainment editor (later arts editor) and columnist 20 years ago this month. All anniversaries divisible by 5 or 10 are natural occasions for stock-taking, and I found myself thinking again about the Los Angeles I had described in 1965, and looking back across those years, and around me now, and ahead. Rereading those old words, I felt a minor embarrassment at the empurpled enthusiasm of (relative) youth, and yet the piece seemed a reasonable portrait of Los Angeles then, and not wildly off base as prophecy.

If I wrote in 1965 of new and thrusting high-rises as being emblematic of assertion, progress and the coalescing of the central city, the rises have grown higher and more numerous than I would have dared to predict.

Nothing is more dramatic 20 years later than the new skyline of downtown Los Angeles: the gleaming and reflective towers, the changed and still-changing vistas, the pedestrian walkways linking a new generation of shops and restaurants, patronized not only by the day workers and day-trippers but also by a new and expanded indwelling population. To move about downtown is to feel the persisting sense of vitality and possibility that hardly faltered even during the recession.

Southern California has been bicultural from its earliest civic days, but it is now multicultural, and if the transfigurations in real property are astonishing over the last two decades, so is the rising diversity of the human dimension. Los Angeles is--and it is an abiding truth about us--the new, west-facing Ellis Island of the country.

The startling juxtapositions of cultures across the area--social and mercantile, old and new, traditional Anglo and recent Asian--are as striking and exciting as the new towers. There are stresses and frictions and there will be more, but we can all at last only be renewed, as we have been before.

The score card on the arts continues to be mixed. There is for the moment even less opera available here than there was 20 years ago, and our most conspicuous dance company is still only semiresident. Yet in a true sense those anomalies become the more evident because of the vigor in the arts generally.

If I can judge by the listings in this Sunday newspaper (and the beseeching requests to carry even more), the number of professional and semiprofessional theater productions has grown severalfold. Theater that originates here and goes East and across the seas is a pattern, not a happenstance.

I can only believe there is more serious music in all configurations--including dance events. The expanding County Museum of Art and the new Museum of Contemporary Art demonstrate the ongoing commitment to the arts of the Southern California movers and shakers, and so do the proliferating and elegant venues for the visual and performance arts in Orange County.

The Olympic Arts Festival would not, I think, have been a reasonable prediction in 1965, but its great achievement last year was to demonstrate the presence of significant and dedicated audiences for the arts at their most demanding as well as their most entertaining.

It was obvious when I came back to Los Angeles in 1965 that the days of the movie moguls and indeed of the movies as the mass medium of entertainment were over. Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn and the Disney brothers were still in place, but not for long.

It's been a period of revolutionary change for both film and television, and not least of the changes has been the extraordinary freedom of vision and speech both the large and small screens now enjoy--latitudes I endorse despite the opportunities they pose for exploitive misuse, latitudes I didn't foresee in 1965. (It is already hard to realize what a stir was caused by an essentially tedious film called "I Am Curious Yellow.")

I was arriving at the leading edge of the Age of Aquarius, with flower power, psychedelics, the generation gap as a fact of life, riots on Sunset Strip and the cataclysmic national division over Vietnam as pieces of history in the making. Not far off, either, were moon landings, Watergate, word processors and VCRs. The arts have reflected all of this, when they haven't invented it.

Looking ahead seems more difficult now than it did 20 years ago, if only because the changes we've watched over those 20 years have been so sweeping.

But it seems certain that the arts, like all the aspects of Southern California living, will in AD 2005 reflect the ethnic diversity of our society even more than they do now. The daily menu of arts can only have a remarkable and exotic richness.

The old line about Los Angeles being suburbs in search of a city will be even less accurate tomorrow than it was in 1965. We're likely to be, as we are now, a prototypal and useful mix of outreach and centrality. The ideal of the central city as a vital nucleus for the arts (which downtown Los Angeles was in the '20s and '30s before the booming sprawl of the postwar years) began to re-emerge with the Music Center in 1964, and it will continue.

But if the change in the mid-Los Angeles cityscape has been dramatic since 1965, the growth in the Orange County landscape has been equally so. Other suburbs have found their own nucleus for the arts. What we may have here are stereo conurbations, complementing each other.

The movies, having achieved a kind of stability, admittedly at a fraction of their historic production and profitability, will preserve the core audience they now have (20 million admissions a week as a base more or less). They're still the great American date, and seeing a movie in the living room will never be exactly the same or as satisfying as seeing a movie in a cinema.

Yet it is evident also, I think, that the trend toward home entertainment will not falter, and that it is commercial television that will have to scramble (as movies had to scramble when television arrived) to hang on to its respective share of audience time.

Television finds new muscle and new technology right along, and it continues to be an exercise in exasperation, producing excellence and banality with equal flair.

This is another way of saying that television can address with unmatched impact the real social and economic issues of the day, and it can also provide diversions of unparalleled frivolity to spare us from any confrontations with reality.

The purely escapist entertainments of both movies and television these days have a feverish and noisy urgency about them, as if to drown out whatever might be heard, or felt, in the quiet. The search in the society for reassurance continues, and it seems to end most often at present in a much-simplified vision of the past, including a stern and simplified interpretation of religious faith.

Ours was being called the Age of Anxiety even before the '60s. In subtler ways--there are no bomb shelter ads as there were in the '50s--and despite a surface prosperity, we seem in some ways to be deeper into anxiety than we were then, producing extreme and contradictory reactions of super-fitness and overindulgence.

This is a way of saying, I suppose, that the arts will have their work cut out for them, as always, in the decades to come: the arts not only as diversions but as illuminations, contemplations and, with luck, reassurances about our common humanity and about what matters and what endures.

Writing a first column about Los Angeles 20 years later, I might be a little less rhetorically enthusiastic, partly as a reflection of the tensions I detect in the society, partly out of the fact I'm 20 years more bemused, partly out of the problems--pollution, transportation, the nature of growth among them--that loiter dangerously in our present and near future.

But I would continue to insist that Los Angeles, by luck as much as by design, has coped with the challenges of the modern city and its growing density as well as any place I know, and that it has become an increasingly artful place to live.

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