SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : A Tour De Force : From LAX Tower to ‘Pulp Fiction’ Diner to Stars’ Hangouts, Pop Culture Landmarks Dot Landscape Here
Greeting millions of passengers a year at LAX is the futuristic-looking Theme Building, built more than three decades ago to mark the birth of the nation’s jet age. But face it. This Jetsons-like structure has not become a landmark on its historical merits alone. It has been immortalized in hundreds of TV shows and movies, just the right structure to tell audiences: “We’ve arrived in L.A.”
In fact, throughout the South Bay, you can follow a trail of landmarks made famous not for their august significance but their appearance in a movie, reference in a literary work or connection with a celebrity.
From highbrow to lowbrow, from notorious to trivial, pop culture landmarks can be found. Jimmy Cagney’s boat? It’s in San Pedro. Charles Laughton’s home? It’s in Palos Verdes Estates. The video store where Quentin Tarantino worked? Well, it’s now a bakery, but it’s in Manhattan Beach.
Washington has the White House, New York has the World Trade Center, Seattle has the Space Needle and the South Bay has the place where “Carrie” trashed her high school class prom.
Finding someone who knows a story--that Tennessee Williams worked in a Hawthorne chicken ranch or F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in the Hollywood Riviera--is much easier than pinning down where they happened. Here are some of the top pop spots that can be verified:
Start at the LAX Theme Building, built in 1961 and almost always mistakenly identified as the nation’s first revolving restaurant. It doesn’t turn at all, and never has. Going back to an entire episode of “Here’s Lucy” and continuing to more recent productions, like Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film “In the Line of Fire,” the parabolic-arched structure has been featured in hundreds of TV shows, movies and commercials.
“On any given day on TV you will see it,” said Richard E. Croul, the airport superintendent of operations.
Chances are, you can also catch the airport’s runways and terminals. Take “Speed,” last year’s hit action thriller in which a terrorist rigs a bus to explode if it travels below 50 m.p.h.
Actor Keanu Reeves, as the LAPD explosives expert who has the task of getting passengers off safely, steers the bus to an airport runway, where it can maintain that speed without obstructing freeway traffic. (The freeway scenes were shot at the nearby Century Freeway).
“That was just great,” Croul said. “They were here for 30 production days.”
Just south of the airport in El Segundo, two famous blond actors toiled away part of their youth before making it to the big screen. Robert Redford worked three summers at the Standard Oil Refinery, and Marilyn Monroe reportedly attached propellers at the Radioplane Co. at 2031 E. Mariposa Ave.
Hop over to 13763 S. Hawthorne Blvd. to the Hawthorne Grill, which still sits empty and for sale, even after it was featured prominently in Tarantino’s 1994 R-rated hit “Pulp Fiction.” In the film, two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), confront a pair of robbers who hold up the diner.
“I haven’t seen the movie yet,” said Hawthorne Grill co-owner Angelo Pappas, who built the place in 1956 and closed it three years ago. “I saw them on the job. They had quite a time.” With a chuckle, he added, “The language they used . . .”
The diner was also in Chevy Chase’s “Cops and Robbersons,” which Pappas did see. But even after being spotlighted in two movies, the closed cafe has not sold.
Just a few blocks away, at Rosecrans and Ocean Gate avenues, is the birthplace of an icon. The first Barbies were manufactured at the site, the former world headquarters for Mattel Toys. The company has since moved to greener pastures in El Segundo.
Hawthorne was also the childhood residence of Marilyn Monroe, who attended Washington Elementary School at 4339 W. 129th St. One of her biographers referred to the Hawthorne of Monroe’s youth as a city “very nearly as remote from the film industry as Omaha.” The young Norma Jean left Hawthorne for Hollywood in the early 1930s.
On the other side of the San Diego Freeway is the corporate headquarters of TRW Space and Electronics Group, One Space Park Drive, Redondo Beach. Its pop culture claim to fame, however, is nothing to boast about. This is where engineer Christopher Boyce collected top-secret defense files, teamed with a Rancho Palos Verdes childhood friend and fellow altar boy, Daulton Lee, and then sold national secrets to the Soviets.
This true story is better known as “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Robert Lindsey’s book and the 1984 movie. Orion Pictures, for legal reasons, called TRW the RTX Corp.
“The Falcon and the Snowman” touched all corners of the South Bay--St. John Fisher Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Palos Verdes High School and even The Hangar in Manhattan Beach, 1001 N. Aviation Blvd., a bar where Boyce hung out.
“It was here, absolutely,” manager Linda Castillo says of her bar’s claim to fame. “We still get a few people who remember when he frequented the place.”
Manhattan Beach is also famous as the place where Tarantino, the “Pulp Fiction” director, got his start in film. He worked as a video store clerk dispensing movie wisdom to customers at the Video Archives at 1808 N. Sepulveda Blvd. The store is now the Manhattan Bread Co., and co-owner Michael Keegan says people still come in asking about Tarantino.
Three years ago, Tarantino stood outside the bakery and gave out copies of his movie “Reservoir Dogs,” Keegan said. The director was more accessible then. “You can’t talk to him anymore. Now you have to talk to his business manager.”
Video Archives, meanwhile, moved on to Hermosa Beach, only to close recently. Its demise hasn’t stopped aspiring auteurs who work at the bread shop.
“About a year and a half ago there were at least five young kids here going to film school, writing screenplays,” Keegan said.
Two decades ago, instead of a script, the youths might have tried to pen a novel and follow in the footsteps of Thomas Pynchon. The reclusive author of “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Vineland” lived at 217 33rd St. in Manhattan Beach, in a small downstairs apartment next to Beach Pizza (then the Fractured Cow).
According to Jim Hall, executive director of the Redondo Pier Assn., Pynchon wrote “Rainbow” in his apartment in the late 1960s, holing himself up for weeks at a time. Hall, then in the Army, met Pynchon through a mutual friend, among a circle of aspiring writers and artists.
Coincidentally, across 33rd street lived actress Phyllis Coates, best known as the original Lois Lane on TVs “The Adventures of Superman.” Pynchon, it turns out, dated her daughter, according to Hall.
Hall remembers the author as a man who carried around a small plastic pig and lined the walls of his apartment with swine photos. Pynchon often read Scientific American, a scholarly journal heavy in technical writing.
“He was deathly afraid that he would plagiarize another author,” Hall said.
Brief appearances by reclusive literati seem to be a South Bay tradition going back to the turn of the century, when renowned poet Robinson Jeffers escaped to Hermosa Beach. According to Patricia A. Garzon’s book “Footnotes on the Sand,” he basked in the “indulgent, motherly friendship” of Melissa Nash, who lived at 431 24th St., and even wrote about his getaway vacations to the beachside town.
One poem was “From Fenestrella’s,” named for a restaurant on The Strand.
King nor queen had e’er such pleasure Out of love--the high gods know it
She was just a pretty waitress,
I a mad and drunken poet.
Another poet, Charles Bukowski, was known to peruse the aisles of the Either/Or Bookstore, 124 Pier Ave. He would pull out one of his books, draw cartoons inside the cover and sign his name, said Peter Pott, manager of Either/Or. Then book lovers would search through the Bukowski collections for copies with the distinctive cartoons, Pott says.
Author Leonard Wibberley frequented the nearby Hermosa Beach Public Library, just off Pier Avenue. Wibberley lived in Hermosa for 34 years until his death in 1983. It was in this tiny beach town that he wrote “The Mouse That Roared.” It’s about a tiny, poverty-stricken country, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, which invades the United States.
“He loved Hermosa Beach because of its smallness,” said his widow, Hazel Wibberley, who still lives at the family home on 24th Street.
Small--but happening when he wrote “Mouse” in 1954--the city then had one of the nation’s top jazz spots, The Lighthouse, 30 Pier Ave.
“There was a government tax on singing and dancing, but there was no tax on instrumental music,” said Howard Rumsey, a star bass player for the Lighthouse All Stars who helped start the place in the late 1940s. “We put in seating like a small theater. People couldn’t dance, so they just sat there and listened to a concert.”
Name any jazz great of the era and they played there: Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chick Corea. It was so popular that Dave Garroway brought his NBC show “Wide Wide World” on location to the nightspot in 1957, according to Garzon’s book. The Lighthouse is still open, with framed album covers of LPs that were recorded live in the club.
Hermosa’s more recent pop fame is on the tube. “Baywatch” and “Hunter” were filmed there.
And in 1993, it was on the television show “Beverly Hills, 90210,” if only for a short time. When the show’s college-age characters needed a place to live, producers picked a blue-awning beach house on the north end of The Strand in Hermosa. But residents protested that the filming disrupted their neighborhood and picketed the set. A court commissioner sided with them, kicked the show out of town, and left the series with only shots of the outside of the building.
Just imagine what the commissioner would have thought of the 1976 movie “Carrie.” The most memorable scene, in which a blood-soaked Sissy Spacek wreaks havoc on her high school prom, was shot in Hermosa Beach’s community center gymnasium at Pier Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. The gymnasium now houses the Hermosa Beach Historical Museum.
“We’ve cleaned the blood up,” museum director David Johnson said jokingly.
One of the few series to be set in the South Bay and filmed here took place at King Harbor. It was NBC’s “Riptide,” about three guys who lived on a yacht, owned a robot and solved crimes. The show lasted two years.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula, meanwhile, is a gold mine of moviedom. Take the former site of Marineland, near Hawthorne Boulevard and Palos Verdes Drive South. That’s where Harrison Ford’s character Jack Ryan lived in “Patriot Games.” (It was made to look like Maryland). Go farther east to Portuguese Bend, where the 1983 ABC miniseries “The Winds of War” mimicked Hawaii. And Wayfarers’ Chapel, where Jayne Mansfield was married in real life, served as the happy ending for the movie “Innerspace,” in which Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan’s characters wed. That scene, too, was made to look like it was another locale, a city in Northern California.
The one movie that does showcase the peninsula and makes no attempt at hiding it is “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” Stanley Kramer’s 1963 madcap comedy about a Las Vegas-to-L.A. scavenger hunt for buried treasure.
From a vista on the grounds of Wayfarers’ Chapel, looking out to the ocean, can be spotted the palm trees lined up in a “W,” where the treasure was hidden.
Kramer says the film crew made the “W.” “We bent the trees to look like the “W.”
“That’s probably our most famous film,” said Rick Otto, a Rancho Palos Verdes city official in charge of film permitting. “Every once in a while I get a call from somebody who is a fan of the movie who asks where it was shot and if the palm trees are still there.”
Just a few miles from the “W” is Walker’s Cafe, where a scene from “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic starring Jack Nicholson, was shot. A few people still mention it when they come into the cafe, 700 Paseo Del Mar in San Pedro.
Peninsula residents say producers are lured by the area’s scenery. But when Ansel Adams, one of this century’s foremost photographers, came to the area, his lens was pointed not at the vistas, but at Chadwick School and its students.
The prep academy at 26800 S. Academy Drive was a haven for the sons and daughters of celebrities. Adams set up the school’s first darkroom, and illustrated a 1941 Chadwick catalogue, now considered a collectors item.
Also sought by collectors is The Sardine, an alternative newspaper that was banned at the school in 1963. Its editor was Jann Wenner, who went on to start Rolling Stone. He and his friends hung out at The Parasol, 2690 Pacific Coast Highway. It is now Coffee Shop University, but the place is still shaped like an umbrella.
Writer Christina Crawford wrote a book that includes her Chadwick experiences, along with a few unflattering words about her famous mother, Joan Crawford. Her book was “Mommie Dearest.”
Southeast of the Chadwick campus in San Pedro is the Sacred Grounds coffeehouse, 399 W. 6th St., which was one of writer Bukowski’s favorite haunts, when he wasn’t illustrating the inventory at Either/Or. Before his death last year, he frequently stopped in for coffee and cheesecake.
And moored just offshore, at Berth 84, is the 70-foot schooner the Swift of Ipswich, once owned by actor James Cagney. The vessel is now used by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute to teach youths from disadvantaged backgrounds how to sail.
Up the Harbor Freeway in Carson is the fire station at 2049 E. 223rd St. where the television series “Emergency!"was filmed, according to the book “My Carson Your Carson.”
Nearby in Torrance is Torrance High School at 2200 Carson St. While no Chadwick, the school has been seen by millions, as West Beverly Hills High School on “90210.”
Bo Derek, when she was Mary Kathleen Collins, went to Narbonne High School, 24300 S. Western Ave. in Harbor City. Derek, famous for her role as the “perfect” woman in the movie “10,” dropped out of high school when she was 16 and met movie producer John Derek, who was in his late 40s.
But for those who came of age in the 1960s, there is surely no South Bay spot more sacred than Hawthorne. It is here that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson lived in a house on 119th Street, attended Hawthorne High School and drove a 1957 pink-and-beige Ford Fairlane and hung out at Foster’s Freeze at 11969 S. Hawthorne Blvd.
The anthem for the Beach Boys generation is, of course, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” which, biographer Timothy White reports, was inspired by this very burgers-and-shakes joint.
So no South Bay cultural foray can be complete without cruising Hawthorne Boulevard on a Friday night with these lyrics blaring from the radio:
Well, she got her daddy’s car
And she cruised to the hamburger stand, now
Seems she forgot all about the library
Like she told her old man, now
And with the radio blasting
Goes cruising just as fast as she can, now
And she’ll have fun, fun, fun
‘Til her daddy takes the T-Bird away. . . .
Times staff writer Deborah Schoch contributed to this story.
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Popping Around the South Bay 1. Theme Restaurant, Los Angeles International Airport. For any movie or TV show, this Jetsons-like tower is the landmark that says “We’re in L.A.”
2. Hawthorne Grill. 13763 S. Hawthorne Boulevard, Hawthorne. A large chunk of “Pulp Fiction” was shot here.
3. Mattel, former world headquarters. Rosecrans and Ocean Gate avenues, Hawthorne. The birthplace of Barbie.
4. Thomas Pynchon residence. 217 33rd St., Manhattan Beach. This is where the author of “Gravity’s Rainbow” wrote and lived in the late 1960s.
5. The Hangar. 1001 N. Aviation St., Manhattan Beach. The bar where Christopher Boyce hung out, one-half of the espionage team depicted in the book at movie “The Falcon and the Snowman.”
6. The Strand. At the northern tip of Hermosa Beach is the house used on “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
7. The Lighthouse. 30 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. The West Coast’s top jazz hotspot in the 1950s and 60s attracted a who’s who of greats.
8. King Harbor. Catalina Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard, Redondo Beach.
The short-lived series “Riptide,” a knock off of “The A Team” was based here.
9. Marineland. Near Palos Verdes Drive West and Seawolf Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes.
The former aquatic amusement park, closed in 1987. The site has since been the location of several movie scenes, including one from “Patriot Games.”
10. Wayfarer’s Chapel, near Narcissa Drive and Palos Verdes Drive South, Rancho Palos Verdes.
This popular wedding chapel has been featured in the movie “Innerspace.” And look out to the ocean to a pair of diagonally crossed palm trees. This is where the treasure was hidden in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
11. Chadwick School, 26800 S. Academy Drive, Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Ansel Adams taught a photo class here. The reason: It is an exclusive prep school frequented by the offspring of celebrities. One became famous on his own: Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, who even started his own alternative newspaper during his tenure.
12. Coffee Shop University, 2690 Pacific Coast Highway, Torrance. Students often hung out at the nearby Parasol, now called Coffee Shop University.
13. Walker’s Cafe, 700 Paseo Del Mar, San Pedro. Featured in the movie “Chinatown.”
14. Sacred Grounds, 399 W. 6th St., San Pedro. The coffee house was a favorite haunt of writer and poet Charles Bukowski.
15. Torrance High School, 2200 W. Carson St., Torrance. Recently popularized as West Beverly Hills High School on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THAT’S PROBABLY NOT ALL
We’re sure that we’ve left out many other pop culture spots of the South Bay. Know of other TV, book or movie connections? Send your letters to Pop Tour, Los Angeles Times, 23133 Hawthorne Blvd., Suite 200, Torrance 90505.