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Now departing, the Lie-Lie Land tour

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Times Staff Writer

It is possible that, in recent weeks, you have heard reports of alleged insincerity among individuals and institutions in such cities as Washington, D.C., New York and Sacramento. Of course you were shocked, shocked, because you live here, in the truthful refuge we call Southern California.

Not.

For fakery in all its forms, we stand unrivaled (especially in a year without federal elections). We are babes in a wonderland of cinematic falsification, television contrivance, advertising subterfuge, sweetened music, mostly imported palm trees, copycat buildings and amended eyes, noses, chins, breasts, tresses, tummies and regions farther south. Fakes, from the admirable to the reprehensible, flourish in Los Angeles like a bougainvillea (native to Brazil) under a tanning-salon sun.

Hence this reality-check tour. This itinerary offers only a sampling of the area’s not-so-genuine landmarks, some of which are widely known for their untrue aspects, some of which are not. And of course it’s all a subjective enterprise.

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For instance, the big doughnut atop Randy’s Donuts on Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood. A big, old, goofy fake or merely truth in advertising? We’ve decided the doughnut is an epic expression of truth -- unlike, for instance, that “snow” you glimpse atop the Clearman’s North Woods Inn every time you blast through La Mirada on Interstate 5.

In fact, that roof is among the stops on our grand tour of the untrue, which meanders through downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, up and down the coastline, east to the Inland Empire and south to Orange County.

But before we go further, a few words on the depth of fakery’s roots here. We can be sure this region’s fantasy-reality confusion goes back at least as far as the 16th century.

That’s when Spanish explorers arrived, decided to give this place a name, and apparently somebody remembered a fictional island from a romance written in about 1510 by Spanish novelist Garci Ordonez (or Rodriguez) de Montalvo. The island’s queen was named Calafia. Her realm was called California, her subjects were black women, their armor was golden, and their lands were strewn with precious gems. Invading men were typically captured and killed. (And no, to our knowledge, screen rights have not been optioned.)

“The process is circular, perhaps even dialectical, as the California of fact and the California of imagination shape and reshape each other,” suggests historian and state librarian Kevin Starr in the preface to his book, “Inventing the Dream.”

London-based critic Clive James, who made his first visit here in the late 1970s, drew similar conclusions in blunter language. “Restaurants look like carwashes,” he reported, “carwashes look like art galleries, art galleries look like war memorials, war memorials look like fire stations, fire stations look like churches, churches look like restaurants.”

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If she were with us today, surely good Queen Calafia would be having her head shots airbrushed and staging scripted wrestling matches against Pamela Sue Anderson in a circular, perhaps even dialectical, mud pit. We would expect no less.

And that’s the problem. Once you’re lived here for a while, you begin to lose track of just where the leather ends and the Naugahyde begins -- or you simply lose interest in making the distinction. And so to the tour. It begins with a pair of False Malls (newish and oldish) and continues through four Faux Fun Zones, a couple of which slop over the edge of Los Angeles County’s boundaries. These are not necessarily evil places, remember, they’re just fake in one way or another, and often irresistibly so.

The False Malls

Olvera Street. If Cinco de Mayo were a neighborhood, it would be Olvera Street. Just as May 5 is not Mexican Independence Day (it is the date of a victorious battle that was part of a failed war to keep the French from seizing control of Mexico City in the mid-19th century), Olvera Street isn’t what it seems.

The pedestrian-only passageway does lie in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, now known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, and the buildings at hand do include the 1818 Avila Adobe, which many authorities believe to be the city’s oldest surviving residence. But by the 1920s, Olvera Street was full of machine shops and overshadowed by a nearby utility substation and winery.

Enter a civic activist named Christine Sterling, who was appalled by the area’s dilapidated condition. Sterling, who went on to play a key role in the shaping of nearby Chinatown as well, recruited municipal movers and shakers (and, according to at least one history, plied them with tequila) to recast the street as a Mexican-themed tourist attraction. It reopened in 1930 and endures today with more than 70 market stalls and eateries.

Universal CityWalk. Every theme park is built on the idea of playing with fantasy and reality, but CityWalk does its playing in a distinctive way. Opened in 1993 -- when riots were a fresh memory, property values were starting to sink and plenty of people were beginning to worry that the actual Los Angeles wasn’t much fun anymore -- it mimicked the cityscape like a fond carnival caricature drawing: including evocative architectural details, subtracting traffic, poverty and crime.

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From the beginning, it was a big success. One decade and one expansion later, the lanes of CityWalk are still a model of Los Angeles writ small and shiny, from the Melrose-storefront flash of retailers like Red Balls to the satellite operations of long-standing local restaurants like Gladstone’s and Versailles to the nostalgia of its transplanted vintage neon signs (on long-term loan from the Museum of Neon Art downtown). Pause a moment to admire the area’s full name: Universal CityWalk Hollywood, even though it’s not in Hollywood. Finally, to add one more layer of artifice to your visit here, consider a ride on a fake bull in the Saddle Ranch Chop House: $4 for eight to 12 seconds.

Faux Fun Zone 1

The corridor of verisimilitude: Includes Disneyland’s Matterhorn, a snowbound lodge in La Mirada and an Assyrian castle in Commerce.

Disneyland’s Matterhorn didn’t open until June 1959, four years after the opening of the nation’s first theme park. But it was the park’s first “thrill attraction” and first mountain -- at 147 feet high, it’s a 1/100th model of the original Matterhorn in Switzerland -- and it remains the park’s tallest geographic feature, its topography crisscrossed by zooming bobsleds (on tracks). Since 1978, it has featured an abominable snowman and ice caves. Nearby stands Disney’s California Adventure (opened in 2001), which takes Universal’s fake-L.A.-in-L.A. one step further and gives us an entire fake state, from farm to forest to river to boardwalk to back lot to the Golden Gate Bridge, and a Craftsman-style hotel.

As you bear north from the land of Disney on the I-5, the Matterhorn winter weather will follow, no matter the temperature. About seven miles north of Disneyland, just south of the Valley View Avenue exit in La Mirada, northbound drivers can’t help but notice the Clearman’s North Woods Inn on East Firestone Boulevard -- not just its log-cabin walls, but its snow-covered roof.

There are other North Woods Inns (and a Clearman’s Galley in San Gabriel, painted red and shaped like a boat), but this one, more than a decade old, has the biggest drive-by audience. As for that precipitation on the roof, employees report that it’s hardened foam, which they repaint every four or five years.

Next -- 10 more miles along as you roll north -- comes the castle. The walls of what is now the Citadel outlet mall, you know the ones, on East Telegraph Road in the city of Commerce, went up 73 years ago. The visionary behind them was Adolph Schleicher, owner of the Samson Tire and Rubber Co., who ordered up an ersatz Assyrian castle from the 7th century BC, complete with griffins, bas-reliefs of Babylonian princes and crenelated walls (which these days create the impression that Samson’s minions might at any moment send a volley of arrows down upon the 5’s northbound traffic). Schleicher’s company was soon swallowed by a competitor that came to be known as Uniroyal Tires, and the 23-acre facility endured as a Uniroyal factory until 1978.

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After it fell idle, Commerce city officials stepped up to protect the complex. They bought it, enlisted private redevelopers in a $118-million renovation and reopened the site in 1990 as a mall, with a 201-room Wyndham Garden Hotel next door. And then new management stepped up last year with a plan to boost business by further extending the Assyrian theme into the shopping environment -- in short, to make it faker.

Faux Fun Zone 2

Pacific insincerity: From Naples (Long Beach) to Venice (Los Angeles) to Herculaneum-on-the-Pacific (the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades).

Naples, a man-made island in Long Beach, was born as an idea in 1903 when developer Arthur Parsons and financier Henry Huntington set out to re-create a little piece of Italy.

The task was later carried on by others with canals, bridges and gondolas in mind, but they achieved less than they first intended. And the 1933 earthquake didn’t help. Nevertheless, the fake Naples has evolved into an upscale residential neighborhood and home to the Long Beach Yacht Club.

About 28 miles to the northwest, the Venice that lies within Los Angeles city limits came to life when developer Abbot Kinney and partners resolved in 1904 to build a series of canals west of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, bounded by Venice Boulevard and Washington Street. There were to be miles of canals; Kinney even brought in Italian gondoliers to deepen the mood. But, in the end, Kinney’s dream of a cultural district morphed into a vast amusement park, then faded amid maintenance disasters, from fires to nasty smells. Most of the waterways were filled in the late 1920s (just six remain now, and the former Grand Lagoon is a traffic circle), but if you stand at Windward Avenue and pay particular attention to the colonnaded nightclubs and roller-skate rental shops, there remains an unmistakable, and weird, echo of St. Mark’s Square in old Venice.

Now bear northwest another eight miles or so to Pacific Palisades. Do not trespass on the construction site at 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, but consider its history. In the late 1960s, oil tycoon and art collector J. Paul Getty decided that this Pacific Palisades hillside was just the place to build a reproduction of the Villa de Papyri in Herculaneum, near Naples. The Italian original was buried in mud when the volcano Vesuvius blew in AD 79. The copy, Getty thought, would make an ideal home for his growing art collection. In 1974, the Getty Villa opened as a museum. It closed again in 1997 with the opening of the Getty Center in Brentwood. But after prevailing in a long tussle with expansion-wary neighbors over visitor volume, the Getty Trust is spending $275 million to renovate the villa as a repository for Greek and Roman artworks and expects to be done in fall 2005.

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When the villa reopens, Getty leaders will have some decisions to make about one of their most controversial possessions, a marble statue of a boy (known as a kouros) that the museum bought for an undisclosed price in 1985. Since then, some authorities have cast doubt on its authenticity, enough doubt that the museum staged a colloquium on the question, published a book in 1992 on the experts’ findings (still inconclusive) and these days describes the work as either “Greek, about 530 BC or modern forgery.”

So, here’s one way to think of it: Within 36 miles of coastline, we can claim two fake Italian neighborhoods, one fake Italian villa and one possibly fake Greek statue.

Faux Fun Zone 3

Sino-Egypto-Cinematic Hollywood Boulevard. Even for the illusion capital of the continent, those blocks of Hollywood Boulevard between Las Palmas Avenue and Orange Drive stand apart. At 6712 Hollywood Blvd., there’s the Egyptian Theatre, built at the behest of impresario Sid Grauman in 1922 (just after King Tut’s tomb was discovered in Egypt, setting off a weird spell of copycat architecture in the U.S.) and renovated in 1998 by the American Cinematheque. At 6925, there’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater, built in 1927, with its handprints in the cement out front. At 6767, there’s the Hollywood Wax Museum and its 220-odd wax likenesses. At 6780, there’s the Ripley’s Believe or Not! Odditorium, with a dinosaur on top.

To complete and update the fakery, head into the Hollywood & Highland retail complex at 6801 Hollywood Blvd., and ride the escalator up to the open courtyard. There, two great white elephants, inspired by the elaborate Babylonian scenes in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic “Intolerance,” cavort atop pedestals with the Hollywood sign visible in the hills beyond. In other words, you’re seeing a Hollywood effigy of a Hollywood re-creation of a big party in what is now Iraq.

Faux Fun Zone 4

The inland impostors, from tepee to apatosaurus. Head east on Interstate 10.

We take you now to the exotic far east -- that is, the city of Rialto, in San Bernardino County. About two miles north of the freeway on West Foothill Boulevard (historic Route 66) stand the 19 tepees of the Wigwam Motel. It’s not exactly a swanky joint -- manager Manish Patel quotes a $55-a-night rate for most units -- but the place has some pop history and a certain atmosphere. The tepees, about 30 feet high, are splashed on the outside with green, blue, orange and purple, among other colors, and film crews occasionally set up camp to capitalize on, well, the camp. The insides are whitewashed and, as recently as a year ago, each tepee had a mirror above the bed.

By the time this motel went up in the early 1950s, the wigwam complex was a familiar figure in the national motel landscape. Wigwam pioneer Frank Redford built one (no longer in business) in Horse Cave, Ky., in the early 1930s, then added six more over the next 20 years, including at least two that remain in business: one in Cave City (just down the road a few miles from Horse Cave) and another in Holbrook, Ariz.

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Now on to the even more exotic farther east -- to Cabazon, about 35 miles east of the Wigwam, across the Riverside County line. Here, back in the 1960s (recollections of the precise year vary), a retired artist from Knott’s Berry Farm named Claude Bell had an idea for an attraction to draw customers to his roadside restaurant: What if I built a dinosaur family on my property alongside the freeway? To work he went, for more than two decades, until his death in 1988.

His legacy is that pair of dinosaurs on Seminole Drive alongside the 10, not far from the Desert Hills and Cabazon outlet malls. You may remember them from their 1985 film appearance in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Dinney, a 150-foot-long, 45-foot-high apatosaurus completed in about 1972 and painted green and gray, towers tallest, gift shop tucked away in his belly. Next to Dinney is a Tyrannosaurus rex, bedecked in 17 colors, and a smaller turtle, about 5 feet high.

Inside the dinosaur gift shop, the inventory includes enough dinosaurs to populate a Spielberg sequel (at prices from 35 cents to $99), rubber-band guns, frog ceramics, wind chimes, key chains, charm necklaces, amethysts, jade, fossils and so on. For food, there’s the Wheel Inn, Burger King and a few other nearby fast-food spots.

Now it is possible that, given all the fakes that fill up Southern California, from the subtle to the spectacular, this may seem to some readers an inauspicious spot to wind up the tour. But consider this: Once upon a time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the town of Cabazon was a full-fledged city. And the mayor of that full-fledged city went public with his opposition to Claude Bell’s dinosaurs.

Now, no doubt a historian would tell you that lots of other factors were involved, but here’s the bottom line: The mayor didn’t last. In fact, the city’s residents voted to disband their local government and go back to being an unincorporated town again. The dinosaurs endure.

Mess with a favored fake in Southern California, and you do so at your own peril.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where to go

Olvera Street:

Across Alameda Street from Union Station in downtown L.A.; www.olvera-street.com.

Universal CityWalk: From the north take Universal Studios Boulevard off U.S. 101; from the south take Lankershim Boulevard. www.citywalkhollywood.com.

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Disneyland’s Matterhorn: www.disneyland.com.

Clearman’s North Woods Inn: 14305 E. Firestone Blvd., La Mirada. (714) 739-0331.

Citadel Outlet Stores: 5675 E. Telegraph Road, Commerce. (323) 888- 1724 or citadeloutlets.com.

Naples: East 2nd Street and East Appian Way connect the isle of Naples to Long Beach.

Venice: Grand Canal runs parallel to the shoreline, inland from Pacific Avenue and south of Washington Boulevard.

Getty Villa: 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades. Site currently closed for construction. www.getty.edu.

Hollywood Boulevard: Egyptian and Chinese theaters, the wax museum, Ripley’s and Hollywood & Highland complex, are all within a block of the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

Wigwam Motel: 2728 W. Foothill Blvd., Rialto. (909) 875-3005.

Dinosaur delights: 50800 Seminole Drive, Cabazon. (909) 849-8309.

Los Angeles Times library and Encyclopaedia Britannica contributed to this article.

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