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May 04, 2015

California: The Dream Factory

Text by Madhu Jain

Baywatch bodies and King Kong’s Skull Island at Universal Studios; Johnny Depp’s castle-like home, shrouded by tall trees viewed on a helicopter ride; a Priscilla Presley lookalike at Elvis’ Honeymoon Home, picture-perfect California has much to offer besides sun-kissed beaches and Hollywood, discovers Verve

California is another planet. That thought keeps playing in my mind, like a stuck record — as does the word perfect. It’s all picture-perfect. Santa Monica’s pristinely-perfect beaches, smooth as velvet and sun-kissed, hug the azure blue Pacific Ocean. Impossibly-perfect Baywatch bodies greet you around most corners. Everybody seems to be having a good hair day and perfect teeth and perfect skin: hairdressers, dentists and dermatologists must thrive — and thrive — in Southern California.

Looping in my mind as well is California Dreamin’, the unforgettable song by The Mamas and the Papas:

          ‘All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.
          I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day.
          I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.;
         California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.’

The words ring true. It’s quite a seismic shift from a cold winter early morning in New Delhi — flying out on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul and then onto Los Angeles, from where we head directly to Santa Monica, half an hour and a world away. But fantasy steps in way before we reach the city of dreams. The mammoth CIP lounge in Istanbul could well be a destination in itself, with luscious food and equally luscious decor. For the business class traveller, there’s a bit of a surprise on board the Istanbul-Los Angeles journey: in addition to the spongy cube Turkish Delight you are also served a piece of Godiva chocolate: apparently a Turkish entrepreneur has bought Godiva.

California, however, is beyond fantasy. The sun shines down on the 26 km of its golden beaches almost each day of the year. Waking up the next morning to the bluest of skies, with not even the hint of a cloud, and walking to breakfast just a bit past 7 a.m. at the trendy Dogtown Café done up with a surf theme (it used to be a surf shop) make the lyrics of The Mamas and the Papas chime even truer.

‘Doing’ breakfast must be a California thing — we can’t get a place even at this hour when the sun must still be rubbing sleep from its eyes. The bagels here are almost as big as the flying saucer from which the rather robotic Aamir Khan descends and walks, in the all-together, in a Rajasthani desert, in the film PK.

The next morning as the hour strikes seven, off again to breakfast in the ivy-covered patio of Cora’s Coffee Shoppe, quaint and packed: it opens as does Dogtown Café at 5.30 a.m. The takeaway from here is the energy buzz in the air, and a can-do mantra. No wonder one of the breakfast musts in California seem to be an acai bowl. It looks like a semi-solid smoothie with acai berries, a superfood from Brazil that can make you as invulnerable as Superman. California is the trendsetter for North America, and presumably for the rest of the world. What it does today, we do tomorrow.

California Dreamin’, still
I visited this state as a wide-eyed 15-year-old decades ago. I was coming in from the East, the east coast that is, from Washington DC where I lived with my parents. It was a rather dull world where the children of diplomats lived in the grey miasma of bureaucracy. DC was, at the time, a city where the only entertainment for us desis was in the political arena, eating Indian food in each others’ homes and the awkward, amateur cultural shows staging the ‘Diversity of India’ we had to take part in.

California was like a burst of sunshine, the minute we stepped out of the Greyhound bus. Actually, make that a dream-like state of mind: Hollywood, Disneyland, the beaches and, of course, movie stars. This time, many a grey hair and wrinkle later, it was much the same. Something about the place brings out the child in you. It also brings out the inner groupie. Entering Universal Studios Hollywood evoked a willing suspension of disbelief, providing as well deliciously cheap thrills.

Sharks and Skulls
The Universal Studios Tour, a long train on wheels that slowly snakes its way through what is Hollywood’s most famous and bustling movie studio, had film director Steven Spielberg as a creative consultant. No wonder it chugs along through the landscape of our Hollywood-created fantasies, much of it an immersive and often scary experience. Peter Jackson’s King Kong 360 3-D ride through Skull Island, where the 25-foot gorilla dwells, blurs the line between illusion and reality. Gorillas lurch at you; you can almost feel their hairy touch. The train shakes furiously as King Kong appears to have lifted it and thrown it around as if it was a toy, and water, real, splashes your arm if you are unlucky enough to have grabbed a window seat. I think we are all quite relieved when we come out into the daylight, leaving the terrors of Skull Island behind us and marvelling at the power of simulation. For an even more frighteningly high-tech experience, there’s the 4-D Shrek where the special effects make the action after you enter Lord Farquaad’s dungeon even more palpable, with moving seats, water, mist and wind.

Going past Wisteria Lane where the Desperate Housewives live in the TV series is eerie in quite another way. The homes and the wisteria appear so real that you could expect Teri Hatcher or Eva Longoria to come out of their homes at any moment. This is a pleasant experience compared to encountering Norman Bates at the Bates Motel from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho — you can almost hear Janet Leigh shrieking in the iconic shower scene. The illusion disappears as you reach Singapore Lake, where Spielberg’s film, Jaws was filmed. The shark that made you jump out of your seat in a movie theatre looks like a giant, gauchely-made animatronic toy masquerading as a menacing shark. However, Spielberg’s outdoor plane crash site built for his film The War of the Worlds is verisimilitude at its best. A decommissioned 747 plane was brought down by the production team, broken into pieces and taken to Universal Studios. You can almost smell the burning plane.

Peep show
The Hollywood Dream Factory takes you on many more flights of fantasy. But for me the best flight was literally up in the air. Way up, inside a Group 3 Aviation helicopter for an unforgettable hour-long ride over Beverly Hills, the Pacific Ocean and Hollywood. And count your lucky stars if you get Rick Avery, which I fortunately did: he is also a stunt pilot and stunt-coordinator, and has famously body doubled for Robert de Niro and countless others. A veteran of 500 films, in addition to being a helicopter instructor, he has been in Get Smart, The Prestige, The Italian Job, The Intern, The Spiderman, Meet the Fockers.

Avery is also a mesmerising raconteur, and goes the extra mile — almost literally: he lowers the chopper until we are almost eye-to-eye (well, I exaggerate a bit) as we fly low over the homes of movie stars. Johnny Depp’s castle-like home, shrouded by tall trees, can only be seen when the copter is as low as it can get. We are delightfully voyeuristic as we hover over the huge Playboy Mansion, model Heidi Klum’s home, Muscle Beach where Arnold Schwarzenegger built his famous, almost unreal biceps and Venice Beach, made famous by the Baywatch TV series in which Pamela Anderson showed her incredible assets. Of course, it all builds up to the Hollywood sign that symbolises the Dream Factory more than anything else.

Forever Elvis
Voyeurism takes on another dimension, just about two hours or so from Los Angeles in Palm Springs. This is where the A-list of Hollywood went to get away from the crowd: Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley in the past moved here for privacy. Leonardo DiCaprio has just bought a house here. Many stars bought second homes here because Palm Springs was close enough to go back to Hollywood if need be.

I used the word voyeurism with reason, for this is where one can spend an hour in what is called Elvis’s Honeymoon Home at 1,350 Ledera Circle, Palm Springs, where he lived from 1966-1967; Marilyn Monroe lived in an elegant, sprawling white home just behind his house. You have to make an appointment and buy a ticket for what turns out to be quite a performance. Darlene Perez, who describes herself as ‘tribute artist’ opens the door. And lo-and-behold you think it’s Priscilla Presley who is standing there, with long raven black hair and excessively rouged cheeks.

I am a die-hard Elvis fan and didn’t like it when the Beatles edged him out. So this was the next best thing after Graceland, Memphis, to pay homage to the singer-actor. His black guitar lies on a sofa in front of a ‘peanut brittle’ wall. Two huge cut-outs of Elvis and Sinatra almost block the window-doors looking out to the swimming pool. The visit is like a one-hour play, with our performance artist reenacting Elvis’s year here. She takes us up the stairs to show us the master bedroom — with a huge bed covered with a pink-quilted comforter and baby pink cushions and declares: “This is the bed where Lisa Marie Presley was conceived.” And she was born, Perez informs us, exactly nine months after the wedding.

Elvis’s idyll was cut short: he only stayed here for a year. His nosy, gossip columnist neighbour Rona Barret refused to stop writing about him, even after he went across to her house and asked her to respect his privacy.

Could Hollywood have invented this? Even Darlene Perez? Perhaps not. Life is stranger than the movies.

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