The white van stalking the streets of Beverly Hills slows before a four-story concrete mansion whose architecture might best be termed Neo-Fortress. The passengers let out a long, breathy rush of "Wows!"
The fort, their driver tells them, belongs to Nicolas Cage. "Cool!" says Nick Wright, craning to look.
Next door is the terribly pretty Max Factor home, where cheerful pink and white begonias line the frontyard with Oz-like symmetry and perfection.
Nick, 12, and his sister, Kelsey, 14, are out from Columbus, Ohio, visiting their father, Phil Wright, for the summer. Phil, 42, a vice president of marketing for a financial services company, has lived in Woodland Hills for about two years. On previous visits, he has taken the kids to Laker games and to Disneyland. This time, the family had "done" the craziness of Venice Beach and the clean fun of Disneyland.
"We wanted to see authentic Hollywood today," Phil says. So they set out to see some stars--or at least stars' homes.
For the kids, it's who lives in the house that is the draw, more than the mansion itself--even if no one's visible. So, Angelina Jolie's Beverly Hills home, and the homes of Mel Gibson and Cage are favorites. "I like war movies, like 'The Patriot' and stuff," Nick explains. Kelsey approves of the Tudor-esque brown and white house that driver Miriam Chinchilla says is George Clooney's: "You know, you could hop that fence!" Kelsey says speculatively.
The Wright trio has jumped aboard one of the Starline tours of the Platinum Triangle--Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Holmby Hills. For two hours, the three unabashedly enjoy the outsize homes, and relish the (slim) possibility of spotting a major celebrity.
What they get is Chinchilla. Miriam Chinchilla, the van driver, is a native of Costa Rica who has spent 22 years taking tourists through Tinseltown. Chinchilla, who is 68 but who looks about 50, dishes up dirt on celebrities, alive and dead, while keeping up a running social commentary about wealth, unreal wealth and obscene wealth.
She could drive the streets of Beverly Hills blindfolded, and her spiel is a captivating jumble of well-researched facts, alleged statistics and tabloid truths.
On Hollywood Boulevard, Chinchilla flings a hand at the massive silver statues at the corner of La Brea. At the top of the monument stands a tiny figurine with a flaring skirt. "See that? It's Marilyn Monroe. It looks like a little baby chicken, no?" Once she points it out, the wing-like skirt does look decidedly avian. "But it's Marilyn Monroe. You know that girl used to live in 24 houses around L.A., including foster houses?"
Chinchilla swings down to Sunset Strip.
"Take a look at that, on your left," she says, cruising by the House of Blues. "They paid $1 million to make that place ugly outside!" A British couple and a family from the Bay Area also are in the van. Everyone marvels at the House of Blues' luxurious dilapidation.
Awe creeps into Chinchilla's voice as the van nears the Sky Bar. "That's the most popular bar in L.A.; it belongs to Cindy Crawford's husband. Everybody wants to go there, and you may want to go there too, but don't go there because you can't. Nobody can get in."
Is That Leo on a Ladder?
The next stop is a hilltop palace that Chinchilla says belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. "Twenty-eight that house cost," she avers. Kelsey, her strawberry-blond pony tail swinging, is jazzed. "Oh, cool! I wonder if he's outside?" Even from far away it is easy to see several men tending the grounds and working on the house. "Yeah, that's him up on the ladder," her father kids.
It soon becomes clear that there are generational limits to Nick and Kelsey's enthusiasm. Lucille Ball's former home seems to garner mere polite interest, as does Carol Burnett's house. When Chinchilla points to a house that Clark Gable once occupied, Nick wonders aloud, "Who's Clark Gable?"
They both like the television show "Friends," however, and if Kelsey could get a glimpse of Jennifer Aniston, she'd be happy.
At Madonna's compound, Chinchilla tries to chum up to a gardener, asking him in Spanish when his boss will come to town. He doesn't bite. Sealing his lips, he shrugs an "I don't speak Spanish, I don't speak English, and I will never say anything about Madonna" sort of shrug.
Driving on, Chinchilla announces, "And now the man who always wears his pajamas: Here's Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion!" Nick snaps to attention. Chinchilla points to the cameras at the entrance and says that Hef can watch them watching him.
Suddenly, a bleached blond in a white Mercedes pulls out of a driveway.
"It's a Bunny!" she shrieks into the microphone. Everyone struggles to see the blond. "That was definitely a Bunny!" Chinchilla says triumphantly.
It will be the biggest "sighting" of the tour.
But Chinchilla is not quite done with Hef. "See all those cars on the street?" she asks. About 30 cars of various early models and makes line the walls outside the mansion. "All those cars belong to the people who work for him. All those cars. They belong to the poor people--like me."
She has juggled two (or more) jobs at once in the last 22 years, but always she has driven a tour bus.
"I've been married 53 years, and in three or four more years, I think we'll move back to Costa Rica. My mother is 93; I'll take care of her."
Mansion after mansion, impeccable lawns and perfect flowers begin to blend into each other. Kenny Rogers, Patrick Swayze, Frank Sinatra. Richard Gere's mailbox is a replica of his house. Bill Cosby ... Eddie Murphy.
Then comes Aaron Spelling's megalopolis in Holmby Hills, and the whole van gasps. It is, of course, lavish, but by the time Chinchilla's done talking, the 45-room Spelling home is just a tad smaller than the White House.
"That house has 123 rooms and cost $75 million!" Chinchilla crows. "Seventy-five million! And that house has two Olympic swimming pools!" (Actually, the 56,500-square-foot house cost about $50 million to build.) "You know who lives there? That man, his wife and his son! A house with 123 rooms for just three people!"
This is more like it. The other mansions were nice, but here is unleashed decadence, the otherworldly opulence that lurks only in the darkest underbelly of Tinseltown. Cameras flash and snap.
"And you know why his daughter moved out?" Chinchilla teases. Silence. No one can imagine why. "I read where the daughter said she moved out because she couldn't find a room she liked! A room that she liked!"
The small forest that screens the Spelling home from view is so lush that only flashes of opulence are visible. But Chinchilla is not to be thwarted. She whips out a giant aerial photo of the Spelling spread with a picture of daughter Tori in the corner. "That is the mansion, and there's that spoiled girl."
Kelsey digs it: "Aaron Spelling's home is my favorite."
The tour is a hit, but by its end, the Wrights have observations of their own. The mansions, they decide, fall into two basic categories: houses and homes. The older stars' houses seem more livable. "Like Jimmy Stewart's and Lucille Ball's houses," Phil says. "They seem more like real homes to me."