The kings of L.A. camp
Do vintage neon signs and boarded-up movie palaces make your gut spasm with wistful delight? Do you flip for burlesque and have a soft spot for midget wrestlers? Have you had a birthday party at Medieval Times or cried your eyes out reading the earnest lamentations of pet owners on the headstones at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions then you are friends of Anthony (Tony) Lovett and Matt Maranian, the authors of “L.A. Bizarro: The Insider’s Guide to the Obscure, the Absurd and the Perverse in Los Angeles.” Published in 1997 by St. Martin’s Press, the groundbreaking guidebook was instantly embraced by camp-loving Angelenos, spending 18 weeks on the Los Angeles Times’ bestseller list (including one week in the top spot) and selling nearly 40,000 copies.
Ten years later, after a number of failed attempts to publish a Part 2 with St. Martin’s, Lovett, 46, and Maranian, 41, have regained the rights to the cult classic and have come to an agreement with Chronicle Books to put out an expanded and updated version, with 60% of its material brand new.
Lovett and Maranian remain understandably tight-lipped about the new stuff: The writers were seriously burned a few times by copycat books; indeed, St. Martin’s published “San Francisco Bizarro” after passing on a sequel to “L.A. Bizarro.”
But on a morning last week, Maranian and Lovett are happy to offer a more general preview over fried chicken and pork chops at one of the duo’s favorite spots in L.A., Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown. The old-theme restaurant, with its indoor waterfall, fishing bears and tiny chapel complete with 1950s-style narration at the push of a button, was a highlight of the original “Bizarro” and will live on in its sequel. The books, says Maranian, champion places “that are off the beaten track. Little-known spots that are worlds unto themselves. Places that are frozen in time. Separate realities.”
Outside the restaurant’s doors, the lively and often heartbreaking ballet of Broadway street life is in full swing. A homeless man in a giant folded taco of a sombrero dances to his own inarticulate mumblings for a bit of change. “Restaurants like this are being wiped out for new theme restaurants, which are completely antiseptic,” Lovett says. “I think Matt and I both sensed that the things we were enamored with weren’t going to be around for long. As we approach this again I’m realizing that there is less of a well for us to draw from in 2007 than there was in 1996.”
“By the same principle there are places that we wouldn’t have considered in ’96 that are better now,” adds Maranian. Lovett laughs. “Like the Hard Rock Cafe probably qualifies; it’s still as obnoxious but now it’s pathetic. I think there’s a new sensibility where it doesn’t have to be an old place or smell like pee. I’ll go to CityWalk because it’s so obviously callow and manipulative and yet there’re still people stuffing their faces and having the time of their lives. It’s frightening.”
The unfathomable depths of homogeneity shared by modern chain hangouts will be a big theme of the sequel. “A great example of this new era of bizarre was the reconstructed Don the Beachcomber [the granddaddy of Polynesian-themed eateries] in Disney’s California Adventure,” Maranian says. “They re-created the original in a theme park. It was so many steps removed from reality that you could barely wrap your mind around it.”
Other examples are fired off in rapid order, including Ben Frank’s on Sunset, which was turned into a Mel’s Diner. “They made it a funky fun ‘50s diner, but it already was a funky fun diner,” Maranian laments, before assuring fans and future readers that the duo won’t indulge in too much finger-wagging. “I don’t think that’s what people want,” he says.
True enough. The charm of “L.A. Bizarro” was that it was a guidebook to a city, but also a guide to having fun. Lovett and Maranian have an uncanny ability to gild even the saddest lily. “Our approach,” says Lovett, “is like telling people who used to hate Vegas to go there on acid. It’s a completely different experience after you’ve read the book. . . . Some of the restaurants we wrote about are pretty awful, but you’re not going there to have some sort of Emeril experience, you’re going for the ambience -- or even the anti-ambience.”
The Southland, a sloppy stew of faded magnificence and furious reinvention, has plenty of both -- at least for now. Lovett and Maranian consider it their mission to rediscover some cherished landmarks before they’re bulldozed into oblivion (like Lake Arrowhead’s dearly departed Santa’s Village or the nudist retreat Naked City in the high desert of Hemet.)
On the way to Clifton’s the two trek through the increasingly gentrified landscape of downtown Los Angeles. Cameras and notebooks in hand, they marvel at how quickly the area is losing its charming, somewhat sleazy, patina of neglect.
“Grit and decay has real appeal if you come from the plastic of suburbia, where there are only malls,” says Lovett, who moved to L.A. from Dallas in 1979. Maranian arrived in the ‘80s, a transplant from Fresno. They met in an improv comedy class in 1986 and bonded over Russ Meyer films and trolling the streets of L.A. for the seedy and strange.
“L.A. was developed for cars so you had to be louder and bigger and more tawdry than the next guy just to get people to pull over. That’s what makes the area so fertile for the kind of material we love,” says the equally scathing and upbeat Maranian, who nevertheless has since moved east, to Brattleboro, Vt. Since “L.A. Bizarro,” he’s published a couple of books, including one on outside interior design called “Pad,” and now runs a new and vintage clothing store with his wife. Lovett -- who calls himself the “less charming one” -- stuck it out in L.A.. Recently divorced, he now publishes trade journals for the adult novelty and intimate apparel industries, and lives in Simi Valley with his 10-year-old daughter.
Lovett, who is prone to spells of stony silence followed by animated bursts of arcane hilarity, indulges in a stony moment as we come upon Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, a drinking and dining institution since 1908, recently purchased by super-trendy developer Cedd Moses. In the first book, Cole’s was lovingly described as “ ‘The Iceman Cometh’ meets ‘Cheers’ on morphine,” but that unique concoction will surely be lost after Moses renovates and reopens the place.
“They’re gonna keep that old neon sign, but when you go in there there’ll be a $14 Bloody Mary and it’ll be like going to the beach club,” Lovett says.
“I’d rather have it be that than be gone,” Maranian says.
“It’s a tossup for me,” says Lovett. “I can’t say whether I’d be more outraged that somebody buys it and turns it into a hipster place with the same neon sign or that it becomes a Beef Bowl.”
Lovett stares at Cole’s boarded-up facade. “I think I’d rather it become a Beef Bowl,” he says finally. “Otherwise you’re taking the old lady and propping her up and making her do things she shouldn’t be doing and there’s something really horrible about that.”