New York has the Statue of Liberty. Memphis has Graceland. Here in Los Angeles, we have the TMZ Tour.
We've seen the vans from afar and sometimes wondered what goes on, but hey, we're busy and inclined to avoid the throngs of tourists, the nightmarish Hollywood Boulevard traffic and those unsettlingly blue cocktails in star glasses at the Hard Rock Cafe inside the Hollywood & Highland mall.
But with #Oscars2018 just days away, Times photographer Kent Nishimura and I decide it's time to "discover the real Hollywood" on a "2-hour celebrity safari" where we would also have a chance to "win exclusive TMZ prizes." With multiple cameras and a notepad, we set out in hopes of spotting Harry Styles or Kylie Jenner. Or at least one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's ex-husbands.
Our journey begins at TMZ's storefront office on the Walk of Fame — which happens to sit across Hollywood Boulevard from the Dolby Theatre, where the Academy Awards will be held. This week, the boulevard's frenetic traffic has been replaced by frenetic construction as workers put together the red carpet and reviewing stands for the Oscars. This is all surrounded by an army of security guards and yards of chain-link fence, giving the whole place the aspect of a very glamorous demilitarized zone.
Right before the TMZ office resides the sidewalk star of the great silent film director Erich Von Stroheim, whose acting turn as Norma Desmond's enabling ex-husband in "Sunset Boulevard" earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1950. Just above his star is a video ad for TMZ that shows Tyson Beckford taking off his shirt on a TMZ tour bus.
A Superman and a Darth Vader stroll past, offering pictures for a fee — followed by a Chewbacca in need of a deep conditioning. A woman coming in the opposite direction sees me standing in his path. "Careful," she says in my direction. "Chewbacca is a creeper."
I am hardly a devoted viewer of TMZ's television show. (I can watch journalist-nerds engaging in expository dialogue about entertainers at work.) But I do sometimes check the website for the latest Kanye West-fighting-the-paparazzi news. Above all, I'm curious what kind of story TMZ might tell about Los Angeles — a city that in the popular imagination is all glitz and glamour and high-speed freeway chases (at the expense of everything else).
"You'll be entertained for two hours and you'll see some celebrities!" says the young man who leads us to a tour van with a license plate that reads "TMZ 1."
"Maybe," he adds softly, after a strategic pause.
Then we are off.
Our tour guide — the exuberant Kristyn Mendieta — begins pointing out the sights: the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Academy Awards were held in 1929; Hollywood High School, which boasts a celebrity mural on its eastern facade; the In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard, where the stars go to feed post-Oscars.
"Remember, you've been working out," quips Mendieta. "You've been drinking lemon water. You haven't eaten solid food in weeks. It is time for a Double-Double and some fries." She also helpfully notes that this was the site of Paris Hilton's infamous DUI arrest in 2006.
Soon, we are cruising past the Seventh Veil strip club, where Mötley Crüe shot "Girls, Girls, Girls." In between the factual tidbits supplied by our guide, segments of TMZ video play on the multiple monitors that dangle from the ceiling of our open-air van. All of it is narrated in that signature TMZ television tone that seems to channel monster truck rallies and internet forums where everyone types in ALL CAPS.
"Since that video was shot, the Seventh Veil has gone a bit downhill," says the hyper-masculine action voice, "unless you're into C-sections, eye patches and the smell of Metamucil. LAP DANCE, ANYONE?"
Mendieta takes us through the major sights in the area I like to call the Bermuda Triangle of Entertainment: Hollywood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. There's the Chateau Marmont (where John Belushi overdosed), the infamous corner of Sunset Boulevard and Courtney Avenue (where Hugh Grant was caught soliciting services from Divine Brown), the Montage Hotel (where Justin Bieber often stays), the salon where Jennifer Aniston got "the Rachel" haircut (which she hated), and the myriad hangouts of "Real Housewives" star Lisa Vanderpump (sorry, I only ever watched the Orange County ones).
All of this is accompanied by video: Paris Hilton's hit-and-run, Britney Spears doing sexy dances in the windows of Mr. Chow, celebrities coming out of the Hollywood police station after sundry arrests, a guy in a SpongeBob Squarepants costume getting into a fistfight in front of the Hooters on Hollywood Boulevard.
Name-checked throughout the tour is "Harvey" — Harvey Levin, the founder of TMZ — who looms so large in our tour bus universe, he is mononymous.
As we swing by Cedars Sinai Medical Center, we watch a slideshow of celebrity births and deaths. "This is where celebrities like to use excuses like, 'I'm dehydrated,'" says Mendieta.
During lulls, we play games — such as "The Finger or the Wave," in which we watch historic TMZ footage and guess whether a given celebrity will wave at the camera or give it the finger. Kent wins a TMZ travel tumbler for correctly guessing that Emma Watson would wave at the camera. The rest of us had her pegged as a birder.
But the best parts of the tour are the moments that highlight the most mundane bits of cityscape: the site of the defunct El Pollo Loco on Sunset, where Brad Pitt once dressed up in a chicken suit to draw customers, and the street sign next to Alfred Coffee in Beverly Hills, where Kanye West bonked himself in the head in 2013.
TMZ got video of the latter. It was played several times on the tour bus. That evening, I go home and watch it again.
The TMZ view of Los Angeles is narrow and shaky and grainy. It's expensive baby clothes and swank restaurants and late-night perp walks and the occasional meltdown. It is fame and fortune, downfall and misfortune. It is Kanye in a perpetual state of anti-photographer rage.
Throughout the tour, Mendieta reminds us to keep our eyes peeled for fancy cars, highbrow boutiques and restaurant patios — we may, just may, spot a celebrity.
But we never do.