Setting Times stories to music: From Nancy Sinatra to Arctic Monkeys

Setting Times stories to music: From Nancy Sinatra to Arctic Monkeys
Life along Route 66 in Amboy, Calif., wouldn't be the same without Roy's Motel Cafe. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes I think of the Great Reads as a kind of camera: zooming in for a lingering close-up of a person or a place, panning away to capture the surrounding scene. I love it when the stories reveal through showing, not telling.

A photographer named Colin Rich has done the same thing for Los Angeles at night, creating a gorgeous time-lapse video called "City Lights."


These moments reawakened me to the beauty of L.A.:

Molten-lava traffic streaming down streets whose mathematical grids try, in vain, to impose order on a wild city.

The marine layer flowing in from the sea like rivers running backward.

A Ferris wheel shooting sparks over the Pacific Ocean.

Downtown's skyscrapers reaching for the stars, and seeming to touch them.

The Griffith Observatory standing sentinel over the L.A. Basin, reassuringly permanent.

And, more than anything else, the sense of a city in constant movement.

Of course I have to mention the soundtrack too. By the electronic group M83, the music fits the mood of quiet majesty.

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I'd like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they're known in print, Column One) -- maybe they'll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you'll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!


Motel operator is driven to keep Route 66 culture alive and kicking

Kumar Patel grew up along Route 66, a highway long celebrated in literature, song and film. He was not impressed.

On his first long road trip, about six years ago, he found himself bored by the route's decaying monuments, mom-and-pop diners and dusty museums.


"I hated it," he said. "But I didn't understand it."

The journey to understanding started soon after that trip, when his mother started having health problems. She had been running the family's Wigwam Motel, a clutch of 20 tepee-shaped rooms on Route 66 in San Bernardino. She could no longer run it alone.

So at 26, Patel took over, giving up a career in accounting to run an aging tourist trap that struggled to cover its costs.

Now, as a 32-year-old entrepreneur, he stands out among the typical Route 66 merchants, who promote such roadside curiosities as a Paul Bunyon monument, a blue whale statue and the Petrified Forest National Park. Such sites now are operated and visited mostly by white, middle-aged travelers, whose numbers are dwindling.

Unless Patel and other Route 66 business owners can attract a younger and more diverse crowd, one that matches the evolving demographics of America, the shops and oddball attractions along the route will shut down for good.

"If it doesn't happen, we are not going to keep all of this alive," said Kevin Hansel, the caretaker of another struggling Route 66 business, Roy's Motel and Cafe in Amboy. "It will be history."

#soundtrack: "Route 66," by Nancy Sinatra. There might be a million versions of this song. Had to go with this one, both kitschy and swingin'.


In Watts, a Girl Scout uniform levels playing field for young girls

Outside the police station in South Los Angeles, a group of girls assembled, colorful boxes in tow.

"Do you want to buy some cookies?" "Delicious cookies!" They called out, crowding passers-by and, in their excitement, forgetting the pitches their leaders helped them refine. Just inside the lobby, a kindergartner stood beaming near another stack of treats. That sweet face had no trouble making a sale.

Rather than catch grocery-laden shoppers on their way to their cars, the Girl Scouts of Troop 19785 in Watts had taken a tour of the police station, then sold their Thin Mints and Samoas to the officers and people passing through.

In a community that has one of the highest rates of violent crime in L.A. County, it was a chance to see law enforcement for a reason other than reporting a crime or visiting a family member — and they sold a ton of cookies, Officer Jesse Ruiz said.

The girls from Grape Street Elementary School sell the same cookies and wear the same uniforms as other girls and young women across the nation, but this troop is special.

Troop 19785 was formed two years ago through a collaboration of the school, the Los Angeles Police Department and the city housing authority, which pays for uniforms and other expenses.

With many moms unsure of how to volunteer or juggling work and parenting, the school's teachers have taken on the role as troop leaders. They stay for hours after class to lead meetings and wake up early Saturdays to take the girls to decorate Rose Parade floats or attend to scouting events.

Officers play an active role too, stopping by to say hello during and after school, and helping plan activities and outings for the nearly 80 kindergarten to fifth-grade girls enrolled in the troop.

#soundtrack: "Respect Yourself," by the Staple Singers. I love the live version from the Wattstax concert, and love that it fits the locale of the story.


Hollywood auction draws devoted fans, rich collectors

From the moment AJ Palmgren learned of Lot 397, he knew he had to have it.
But he had never bid at an auction before, and as he took a seat toward the back of the gallery, his nerves took over.

"I hoped I wasn't going to space out," he said.

A mustachioed auctioneer was disposing of lots quickly, sounding off prices and signaling winners with a rap of his gavel. Nearby, several employees sat at a long table, receiving bids from clients on the telephone and Internet. All around them, collectibles gleamed behind glass in hulking display cases.

It was time for Lot 397. Palmgren fidgeted in his seat, gripping paddle No. 129 tightly. Early online bidding had already pushed the price to $3,700.

Palmgren listened as auctioneer Michael Doyle shouted out the asking price. Palmgren made his move.

He thrust his paddle into the air, making a bid at $4,000. The room fell silent. Doyle asked whether there were any other bidders. Palmgren scanned the gallery, trying to suppress a smile.

When the gavel came down, Palmgren let out a "whoop!" that sent the room into wild applause.

He'd just won the front bumper of a KITT car from the 1980s television series "Knight Rider."


The company putting on the event, Julien's Auctions, had expected the item, being sold by star David Hasselhoff, to fetch as much as $800. But Palmgren, 42, a commercial real estate investor who has dubbed himself a "Knight Rider" historian, believed he had scored a deal at five times that much.

"I have a special place in my home for it," he said.

#soundtrack: "Sold to the Highest Bidder," by the Electric Prunes. That's some pretty bitter pop.


Eastside church is changing in a 'post-gang era'

Pastor Pete Bradford, a reformed "dope fiend" from San Diego, went out into the streets of Boyle Heights looking for gang members to pray over. Finding them wasn't hard.

It was the early 1990s, the era of "Boyz n the Hood" and "Colors" and gangsta rap. Everything about gang life in Los Angeles was loud: the jagged slashes of graffiti, the thrum of police helicopters, the percussion of gun blasts.

Bradford, who said God had called him to L.A.'s Eastside, opened the Boyle Heights Christian Center in a low-slung building on 1st Street. The Pentecostal church became known as a house of worship for gang members, drug addicts and lost souls.

"It was not unusual to hear gunshots every day," recalled Bradford, 66, who decided to retire last spring when Parkinson's made it difficult to control his body. "We had windows shot out. They weren't shooting at us. They were shooting at each other."

Now, the loudest sound isn't gunshots, but the insistent, clattering roar of the Gold Line train that sometimes fuzzes out the sermons of Bradford's young successor, Joey Oquendo. The streets where gang members once prowled are dotted with cafes, wine bars, community theaters, art galleries and bookstores.

On a recent morning, Oquendo hoisted drywall sheets into the church. Mounds of chipped wall lay beneath exposed brick. Black plastic bags covered ceiling vents. The pulpit was bounded by the two-by-four skeletons of walls laid bare.

The gang members who once made up the bulk of the parish are mostly gone, leaving a congregation that can number fewer than 20. Some of the old-timers thought the 29-year-old Oquendo — who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents but grew up in San Bernardino -- too young, too inexperienced, not battle-hardened enough.

Oquendo said if they want to come back, he'll welcome them. But the church will be different, because the neighborhood is different.

"There's members who have been here forever, but in essence, a new church is starting," Oquendo said. "Gang members want better things too. But because of who I am, and because of who my members are, we're going to get more of the post-gang era."

#soundtrack: "Gangster Trippin," by Fatboy Slim. He always puts me in a good mood. (Warning: prominently features a semi-obscured Anglo-Saxon word.)


The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies nears last hurrah in prime form

It was 10 minutes before showtime and Joni Naber was putting the final touches on her costume — a blue explosion of tassels and sequins that wasn't doing a very good job of covering her body.

"Come here and feel this!" she called out, grabbing a reporter's hand and placing it squarely on her midriff.

Her abdominals felt tight and smooth, like a piece of molded plastic.

"It's a corset," the 77-year-old former USO dancer explained with a grin.

In the cramped dressing room of the Plaza Theatre, 10 other showgirls were prepping for a matinee show. "Stop flirting with the reporter," one called out.

Naber is a dancer in the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, the musical revue and local institution that for the last 23 years has featured performers who could all claim AARP membership. The current cast ranges in age from 55 to 84.

Dancing in a corset isn't the hardest part of the show, Naber said. The finale is a killer, requiring dancers to descend a staircase in 3-inch heels while singing the national anthem and carrying large American flags.

"Oh man, that's so hard. Especially when you get to be 77," she said.

Finales have been on everyone's mind at the Follies. The Broadway-style revue will play its last show Sunday, bringing to an end a run that will have seen 4,849 performances, 4 million audience members and two Guinness World Records (for the world's oldest chorus line and oldest showgirls, one of whom could still do splits at 87.)

Naber still can't believe it: "I was ready to stay here and dance forever."

#soundtrack: "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," Arctic Monkeys. Alex Turner – great attitude and great songwriter. Look how young he is here.


If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.