After traveling to Los Angeles from a small town in Hungary, Richard Hellenbort could have shadowed the Brentwood Country Mart, the Chateau Marmont or the Ivy hoping to catch a glimpse of stars such as Kobe, Brad or Angelina.
But the celebrity he was looking for was a tall, dark and scruffy one named Araucaria bidwillii, whose last (and only) role was more than 20 years ago in “Blood In Blood Out,” a cult movie about gangs and family and betrayal on the Eastside. Luckily, this star never gets around town: Hellenbort found the Australian conifer where it always is: up the hill from a carnitas shop in East Los Angeles.
Taking a video selfie in front of the tree, Hellenbort spread the fingers of his left hand into the sign of a gang that exists only in the film and, doing his best East L.A. accent, intoned: “Vatos Locos forever.”
Hellenbort, 34, said that on his list of places to see, the tree was up there with N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E’s grave in Rose Hills.
“I know some people dream about visiting the Eiffel Tower or the big wall in China. But that was my dream,” he said of visiting the towering tree — which, perhaps fittingly, has needles like little switchblades.
Plenty of places in Los Angeles have gotten their close-ups with the camera over the years, including the Griffith Observatory in “Rebel Without a Cause,” City Hall in “Dragnet,” the Silver Lake stairs where Laurel and Hardy tried to deliver a piano in “Music Box” and the solitary Bunker Hill bench in "(500) Days of Summer.”
But the strangest slice of celebrity might belong to El Pino Famoso. In a case of Hollywood fiction becoming reality, an anonymous tree in an unremarkable neighborhood of stucco homes is cast as a landmark — and becomes one.
The tree doesn’t appear on any tour bus routes or maps of Hollywood stars’ homes. But neighbors say people of all races have made pilgrimages from as far away as China and as close as Boyle Heights.
“They come over here and chill, looking at the tree,” said Daniel Gomez, 18, a gang member who grew up in the neighborhood. “It’s nothing new to me. It’s just a tree. The pino. The famous pino.”
The vaguely peacock feather-shaped tree was portrayed in director Taylor Hackford’s “Blood In Blood Out” as a touchstone to the characters, a place that cousins Miklo, Paco and Cruz — who became a prison gang boss, an artist and a cop, respectively — kept returning to. In perhaps the best-known scene starring the tree, Miklo stares at it longingly and says, “That tree is East Los to me. It’s good to be home.”
But the tree wasn’t well-known before the movie. It’s atop a twisty, hilly neighborhood that isn’t easy to get to. And El Pino Famoso, botanically speaking, isn’t even a pine tree.
Hackford, whose better-known works include “Ray” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” said he wanted to find “some kind of a rallying point” for the film. He was eating at Los 5 Puntos, a restaurant on what was then Brooklyn Avenue, when he spotted the tree.
“I’m eating a tamale and I look up there and there’s this very interesting tree. A really big tree, up on a hill,” Hackford recalled. “It was a perfect place for these guys to get together. I started asking around and people didn’t really have a sense of it. I’m not saying people in the community didn’t know about the tree. But there didn’t seem to be a story about the tree, or a legend about it.”
So he created one.
“I wanted an ethos, a landmark, a kind of epic place that would signify East Los Angeles for them in the future, because they kept coming back to El Pino,” Hackford said. “It was just a cinematic creation.”
Tell that to the tree’s fans.
One writer on the blog for the show “East Los High” wrote that Morrissey, the former frontman for the English band the Smiths who has a fanatical Mexican American following in L.A., was said to have been spotted visiting the tree. While to some that may seem as likely as the famously sensitive Morrissey singing thrash metal, it adds to the tree’s legend.
While doing a tour in Iraq, the writer said his friend was chatting with Australian soldiers who beamed when they heard he was from East L.A.
“Do you know El Pino?” they asked, according to the blogger.
Though the action was set in the 1970s and ‘80s, the film came out in the early 1990s, when L.A. was going through a bloody period of gang warfare. The movie, which featured Benjamin Bratt and Billy Bob Thornton, was not a hit, but as Hackford would later learn, it had an unusually broad following.
Hackford said that while he was speaking to a class of high school students in southern England a few years ago, he rattled off the films he had made. When he mentioned “Blood In Blood Out,” the reaction was surprising.
“One of the kids just lit up. He could quote lines, and he asked me about El Pino,” Hackford said. “He said that if he ever went to Los Angeles, he was going to visit El Pino.”
Eusebio Ortega, who has lived on the Folsom Street property with El Pino Famoso since the 1980s, says he was paid the then-princely sum of $12,000 for permission to use his property as a base for the film.
Ortega, a 75-year-old immigrant from the Mexican state of Sinaloa who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late American filmmaker John Huston, said that once, back when he drank more, he got really drunk at a nearby cantina down the hill. When he walked back onto the sidewalk, he realized he didn’t know how to get back home. He asked someone how to get to Folsom Street, and the man pointed in the right direction.
“He said, ‘OK, señor, do you see that big tree?’” Ortega said, letting out a bellowing laugh.
Ortega’s wife, Amalia Vargas, said that when a strong earthquake struck, everyone fled the house, fearing the tree would come crashing down. She said a tenant, Catalina Campos, 88, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, has planted several saplings from the tree’s seeds. Campos showed off several of the potted baby trees. Recently she sold two of them to visitors from Arizona for $20 each.
“They came to see the tree and take photos of it. I’ve even had pictures taken with the tree when people ask me to pose,” Campos said. “I tell them I’m not the owner, and they say, ‘Yes you are, you’re here, just stand there.’”
On the other side of the street, on a cul-de-sac overlooking the Eastside, Fernando Trejo said the filmmakers paid him $100 for permission to have the fictional Vatos Locos tag scrawled on one of his walls. Trejo said hardly a day goes by without at least one car driving up with visitors, from tourists to guys in lowriders.
“Blacks, Armenians, Native Americans, Japanese,” he said. “One Chinese guy came to see the tree. I guess he saw the movie over there.”
On a recent weekday, Paul Aranda, 57, a former gang member from the Elysian Valley’s Frogtown neighborhood, said that like many, he grew up knowing the tree simply as a highly visible reference point — nothing more.
“It was just a location, to figure out where we were at,” Aranda said. “It was like a landmark. It was easy to recognize.”
Now he was in the neighborhood, visiting the tree after more than two decades, snapping photos to show to his girlfriend.
Folsom Street has no shortage of trees. But none loom like El Pino Famoso. Otherwise, the neighborhood is like many on the Eastside — calmer than it used to be but still pocked by gang graffiti.
Hellenbort, the Hungarian tourist, said that was just what he was looking for when he came to L.A. He was 21 when he got a pirated copy of “Blood In Blood Out.” It had a running time of almost three hours, and he ended up missing work.
Many of the film’s locations beckoned him, including Los 5 Puntos, but none like El Pino Famoso. When he finally made it to Los Angeles and stood under the tree, Hellenbort said it was surreal.
“I felt like I was in the movie,” he said. “After 20 years, the tree is still there!”