You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.
The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King, Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.
Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.
There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).
He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.
Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.
Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.
Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.
“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.
“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”
What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.
Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.
With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.
Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.
The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only one ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.
And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.
This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.
In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.
In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.
That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.
Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.
Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.
Crudup’s 1946 original of “That’s All Night (Mama)” kicked up the pace of the traditional Delta blues; Elvis, most likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, took that as a template and mixed in some rockabilly for his own white interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; it was exactly what he’d been waiting for. The genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.
Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.
Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.
That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.
Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.
To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.
At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.
Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.
He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. As Hal tells the story, most likely for the millionth time, his father had some supernatural premonition that this shy young man was about the change the world and staked him his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.
When Hal was a child, he’d often spend Saturday mornings riding horses at Graceland or accompany his father dropping off new outfits to Elvis. Hal fondly remembers Elvis as never less than welcoming.
“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. Elvis never forgot what my father did for him.”
In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.
In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.
Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that during his lifetime Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).
(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.
Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.
Further suggested reading:
Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)
Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)
Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)
But, sometimes, the story behind the story is even more interesting.
Ipso facto, the story behind the story becomes the thing. If you catch my drift.
By way of illustration, take Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles. It’s an old-time cafeteria, a place of much wonder, even magic. Clifton’s opened in 1935 and it’s continued almost uninterrupted ever since, except for a few years earlier this decade at which time it was lovingly restored, refurbished and reborn into something even more wondrous.
In its time, spanning world wars and social upheavals of so many kinds, Clifton’s served up countless millions, maybe even billions, of meals to customers who were happy to dip into their wallets and pocket books for the privilege as well as those for whom a hot, nourishing meal was simply beyond their financial means.
Due to the humanitarian principles of Clifton’s owner, there was a company policy that nobody should go hungry. And that was part of the wonder, though it wasn’t widely publicised or recognised, and especially notable as the restaurant was opened in the very midst of the Depression.
What is remembered about Clifton’s, by generations of Angelinos and visitors alike, is that visit was such a special occasion.
Because they never felt like they were just sitting in an anonymous restaurant, eating an ordinary meal. With murals and props equal to any of the Hollywood dream factories, patrons found themselves dining indoors in the Great Outdoors, in a setting reminiscent of the forests of northern California, surrounded by majestic towering redwoods and woodland creatures.
The tranquillity of nature enveloped patrons while, outside, the city throbbed. They may have just stepped off a streetcar, dodging the hectic crush of traffic, or be relaxing after a busy morning shopping at Bullock’s department store or getting ready to catch the latest Tyrone Power swashbuckler in the French Baroque splendour of the Los Angeles Theatre, or enjoying downtime from the office routine by casting a critical eye over the front page of the Examiner as it dissected the latest challenges for President Roosevelt.
Inside, with a tray of comfort food, whether it be pot roast or corned beef and cabbage, maybe followed by Jello, customers were transported to a tranquil sanctuary of their own imagination. Sure, Clifton’s was a theme restaurant, one of the earliest in a city that has always held an enduring as well as endearing fascination for the genre, and gimmickry is what this branch of the hospitality industry is all about.
But Clifton’s was special, to people both famous and not-so. Walt Disney was a regular, often with his daughter, and it’s said that Clifton’s influenced the creation of Disneyland; other frequent diners over the years include Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Lynch. Maybe it’s not too much of a reach to suggest that imaginations such as these were entranced by the juxtaposition of Jello and a faux redwood forest (certainly there’s a thematic similarity between Clifton’s and the north-western setting of Twin Peaks).
The Clifton’s on Broadway that exists today, and others in the chain that at one time existed throughout Los Angeles, was the creation of Clifford Clinton. His father, Edmond Jackson Clinton, was a restauranteur in San Francisco; although they were Quakers, the entire Clinton family – E.J., his wife, Gertrude, Clifford and his siblings – travelled overseas as a Salvation Army missionary.
In 1905, when Clifford was just a young boy, he accompanied the family to China; the incredible hardship and poverty he witnessed stayed with him his entire life. The San Francisco earthquake of the following year devastated his father’s businesses and the family returned to the States although, as soon as possible, they returned to China to continue helping the poor.
He worked long hours, up to ten hours a day, in his father’s restaurants, gaining invaluable experience, while still at school. In 1911, E.J. Clinton opened a relatively new kind of restaurant, called a cafeteria, where the diners served themselves. The Quaker Cafeteria, as it was called, was the first of its type in San Francisco.
He served in Europe in the later stages of World War I, returned home, married and had children, working in his father’s restaurants.
Eventually, as a married man with a young family, he felt it was time to start his own business. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1931, opened a cafeteria on South Olive Street in the downtown area. After searching for the right name, he settled on Clifton’s, a contraction of Clifford and Clinton.
As much as the restaurant trade coursed through his veins so, too, did his ingrained Christian values; his business plan formalised the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity – treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself.
From opening day at the Olive Street Clifton’s, two policies went instituted – “Pay What You Wish and Dine Free Unless Delighted” and “No Guest Need Go Hungry For Lack Of Lunch”.
For all his good intentions, however, his timing could not have been worse. It was the midst of the Depression and so many of the hungry and impoverished flooded through the doors that the fledgling company seemed likely to be swamped; ten thousand people were served free meals in the first three months of operations.
Clifford addressed the problem not by limiting the Golden Rule at Clifton’s but by opening another cafeteria, The Penny, nearby on Third and Hill streets, in 1932. There, nutritious servings cost just one cent each; a full meal could be had for four cents. Within weeks of opening, the Penny was serving 4,000 meals a day. The restaurant was so well run, it survived the Depression; by the time it closed, it had served some two million meals.
And it wasn’t just the customers who were well looked after; employee benefits were far ahead of their time, including a medical plan that paid for hospital stays. It’s fair to say Clifford was the very model of the perfect employer, especially as he wasn’t afraid of hard work and could often be found during busy periods bussing the tables.
In 1935, he opened a new Clifton’s at 649 South Broadway, just near 7th Street, in the very heart of Downtown’s theatre district. It was there that Clifford set out to create a point of difference with his new endeavour, something that would attract attention and make it stand out from the competition.
For five months, while the new cafeteria operated night and day, workers transformed it into something otherworldly.
As an inspiration, Clifford recalled visits as a youngster to the Brookdale Lodge, a famous landmark set amidst the redwood forests of northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. He had always remembered the Lodge’s dining room which had a real creek, with live trout, winding through it.
It was his intention to recreate a tranquil forest setting amidst the chaotic bustle of Downtown. Murals of redwood forests were painted on the walls, columns were masked in tree bark, a fully operating creek and waterfall, though without the trout, brought the sounds of nature into the dining hall. Backlit mountain scenes, and taxidermied forest animals added to the ambience.
When the renovations were complete, the new cafeteria was renamed Clifton’s Brookdale. It was an instant hit.
Theme restaurants were relatively new; the first appearing in Paris in 1885. This was a café decorated as a prison with waiters serving as the convicts. Another, also in Paris, with a medieval theme, had its wait staff dressed as nun and monks.
The first American theme restaurant appears to be the Pirate’s Den in New York City. It was opened by restauranteur Don Dickerman in 1917 and became wildly popular. A Los Angeles branch, bankrolled by entertainers Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, opened in 1940.
Certainly the most enduring theme, and one that is again increasing in popularity, is the Tiki bar. The best-known chains were Don The Beachcomber, famed for inventing the Zombie cocktail (its LA bar opened in 1933), and Trader Vic’s, which lays claim to the Mai Tai (the first opened in Oakland, California, in 1936).
While Clifford’s business went from strength to strength, his sense of social justice occasionally led him along strange paths.
It happened by accident but, by the mid-1930s, Clifford’s business precision, combined with his commitment to humanitarian endeavours, drew him into the role of political reformer, fighting corruption and government waste. This occurred quite innocently as a result of reviewing a nearby hospital’s food delivery services; his unsparing findings highlighted vast inefficiencies, wastage and supplier contracts tied to supporters of local politicians.
Ultimately, much of the corruption was traced to Frank L. Shaw, a businessman who had entered city council in 1925, and in 1933 became Mayor of Los Angeles.
Although there were some agreeable aspects of Shaw’s administration (LAX and Union Station were both commenced during his time), a lot of people, including the city’s more notorious organised crime figures, depended on the status quo being maintained and didn’t appreciate efforts to interfere.
Political opponents co-opted Clifford’s assistance on a Grand Jury investigation; Shaw, feeling cornered, pushed back.
The city’s Health Department started leaning on the Clifton’s restaurants with trumped-up violations. The Los Angeles Police Department also targeted him; in 1937, a bomb blast demolished part of Clifford’s house. Luckily, nobody was hurt. When a car bomb seriously injured a private detective working for the Grand Jury and evidence led back to an LAPD captain of detectives, the tide turned and a special recall election was held for Mayor in 1938. Support for Shaw evaporated and he lost office.
Once his career as a political reformer came to an end, leaving only his restaurants to occupy his attention, he managed to squeeze in a holiday in Hawaii. But Clifford even managed to turn this to his advantage.
Cognisant of how well his Brookdale restaurant was performing, and aware that the original South Olive Street property was in need of attention, once faced with the exotic South Sea charms of the Hawaiian Islands, he determined he’d found just the right decorating idea.
Returning home to Los Angeles, the renovations commenced – while the cafeteria remained open. In total, some $US100,000 was spent. Clifton’s Pacific Seas, as it was named, debuted in 1938. It was a riot of flamingo red neon, jungle murals, live ferns, eight-metre-tall rubber palms trees, waterfalls, aquariums, a volcano and a rain hut where a tropical storm played out every 20 minutes.
Its critics called it vulgar and tatsteless. The general public couldn’t have agreed, or cared, less. Clifton’s South Seas was an enormous success. At the peak of operations, it served 12,000 meals a day.
And its peak lasted for quite some time, although not quite as long as Clifton’s Brookdale. The South Seas closed down in 1960 and, echoing Joni Mitchell, the building was demolished to become a parking lot.
Don’t it always seem to go /
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
Indeed. Vale Clifton’s South Seas.
And the other Clifton’s branches throughout Los Angeles, all of which had varying degrees of success and longevity. In the 1950s and 60s, such outposts as Lakewood, West Covina and Century City all boasted outposts of the Clifton’s empire. None exist today.
The thing that worked in the Brookdale’s favour was that it was Downtown. Once the throbbing heart of LA’s retail and entertainment, by the 1960s its importance had declined at the same time the suburbanisation and decentralisation of the city headed in the other direction.
In such a sprawling city, Downtown quietly slipped into a kind of hibernation. The land wasn’t considered important enough, economically or socially, to redevelop. The grand old department stores, the Art Deco office buildings, the multitude of opulent movie palaces were repurposed for other uses.
Nobody went Downtown anymore, unless it was really necessary. Clifton’s Brookdale puttered along, a lovely baked anachronism with a side of Mac and Cheese. Progress would eventually have had its way with it; like so much of old-time LA, the Brown Derby (both of them), Bullocks Wilshire, the Mocambo, the Coconut Grove (indeed, the entire Ambassador Hotel), Clifton’s would have been sucked stealthily below the surface by time.
First you lose your relevance. Then, years down the track, you lose your life.
But something wondrous happened. Followed by something entirely unexpected.
Firstly, Downtown began to awaken. Developers moved in to refurbish the historic office buildings as condos and loft apartments. Now in many other places, the appearance of developers would not bode well, but the heritage protections put in place, along with a market eager to live in a revived CBD, proved a fortuitous convergence.
Secondly, the family of Clifford Clinton, who had been managing Clifton’s since his death in 1969, sold the restaurant to Andrew Meieran in 2010. Meieran is an interesting hypen, a developer-filmmaker (one of his intended projects is a bio-pic of Twlight Zone creator, Rod Serling).
On the developer side, he is best-known as the man who transformed a former Downtown power station into the ultra-hip Edison Bar. Meieran paid $US3.6 million for Clifton’s; he then spent four years and upwards of $US10 million to not only restore the entire place back to what it was but to also make it better.
Nobody knew what to expect when the hoardings came down but on the grand day of re-opening, when June Lockhart (Dr Maureen Robinson of television’s Lost In Space) cut the ribbon, the curious flooded in. It’s pretty safe to say they were enthralled by the changes.
While adhering to the original design concepts, Meieran added some audaciously original touches of his own. In the rear dining area, a central atrium has been cut through the above floors and a giant faux redwood, reaching up twelve metres, was created. On the bottom floor of the redwood, which has a fireplace built into it, is the Monarch Bar; on the floor above, is the Gothic Bar.
Meieran’s creation of hip bars is a canny commercial decision, extending Clifton’s dining hours and clientele beyond the traditional. As Downtown becomes more populated, the reborn Clifton’s, now a destination dining and drinking establishment, will become an integral part of the local community.
There’s another bar tucked away within Clifton’s, this one a little more difficult to find though certainly worth the effort. Behind a mirrored door on an upper floor, and up a few flights of stairs, is the Pacific Seas, a respectful nod to the old South Seas, and already celebrated as LA’s newest Tiki Bar. Its centrepiece is a full-size 1930s mahogany Chris-Craft speedboat.
During the day, the new revived Clifton’s does great business, drawing in the faithful as well as visitors (invariably curious tourists) who stumble a few steps inside the door before having their WTF moments. At night, it’s a whole new ballgame. Cashed-up millennials with a penchant for the offbeat, clubbers, artists, actors and the wealth of creatives who make Los Angeles their own.
While it may be a romantic notion, I like to think it’s a whole new breed of Bradburys and Bukowskis, Lynchs and Disneys, people whose imaginations power their futures and who are drawn to Clifton’s because it’s a place that, externally, complements their own internal dialogue. And makes the wondrous just that little easier to manifest. Because the story is the thing.
For further information, consult Clifton’s & Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader (Angel City Press, 2015), written by Clifford’s grandson, Edmund J. Clinton III. I’ve drawn heavily from this biography to populate this post.
A great way to experience Clifton’s is via Clifton’s Living History Tour. Conducted by the charming and erudite Kahlil Nelson, it puts the past and present into perspective in a most entertaining fashion. I highly recommend this tour. Contact via Facebook, Instagram or http://www.cliftonstour.com.
There’s a reasonably well-known Monty Python sketch in which Pope Alexander IV critiques Michelangelo’s The Last Supper (OK, OK, yes, we know, but that’s how British comedy occasionally rolls). While a complete outline is unnecessary, sufficient to say the Pope is somewhat peeved that the finished work has three Christs (two thin and one fat), 28 disciples and a kangaroo. It ends with an exasperated Pope exclaiming, “Look, I’m the bloody Pope! I may not know much about art but I know what I like.”
I may not know much about art. But I know what I like.
I get that. Because, like most people, I know fuck all about art but I know what I like.
Regrettably (because not only does it date me horribly but places me at the very outer limits of contemporary art’s target market), part of what I appreciate is that it requires a certain level of skill. I like to look at something I know I couldn’t do myself. Something that requires talent and hard work and dedication.
Or, at least, it did.
It’s an old-fashioned conceit, to be sure, in this Age of Inclusiveness. Where anybody can be an artist. Where all you have to do is declare yourself an artist and, voila, an artist you become. And, in very many cases, be very well rewarded for it.
In my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in art galleries, checking out my favourite artists. I’ve seen monumental works by Dali across the world, from Madrid to Yokohama, Klimt and Schiele in Vienna, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud at the Tate Britain, Jackson Pollock as far afield as Canberra and Venice, Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus at the Uffizi, and, without fail, whenever I was in Chicago, there had to be a stop at the Art Institute for Edward Hopper and Nighthawks. There were even times I grew to appreciate an artist by seeing their works in the flesh (so to speak), the best example being Van Gogh from viewing his works in the Hermitage.
Not surprisingly, I’m a great believer in the traditions of a formal art education, the apprenticeship system that started out with the Guilds of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, that evolved into the Academies and continue in some shape or form to the present day at the conservative end of the art spectrum.
Hundreds of years ago, young artists would learn their craft from the ground up, literally from sweeping the stone floors of their masters’ studios, along with a range of ancillary skills such as grinding pigments and priming panels. If they showed promise, there were years rigorously developing their draughtsmanship skills by copying the works of established artists; Michelangelo, for example, spent much of his youth in Florentine churches, slavishly imitating Giotto.
The last two hundred years has been marked by a rolling tide of rebellions against such tradition. Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art. Just a sampling of the movements that railed against what had come before.
In some garret somewhere in the world, there seemed always to be some paint-splattered personage, with a catchy didactic ready to be flung, knife-like, at their betters and a band of followers eager to man the barricades.
The result is that art is no longer a spectator sport. The rebellions have come so continually and spun so fast that we are all now our own Che Guevaras with the merchandise to match. With our smartphones at the ready, we’re Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and each and every one of the Kardashians in one underwhelming multi-media package.
Power to the people. And even if we have no traditional tangible talent, point and shoot, upload to Facebook or Instagram and, as the likes and comments swamp us with the toasty satisfaction that comes from the approval of complete strangers, we become not only the artist but the art itself.
And so we arrive at the 14th Factory, which has recently completed its run in Los Angeles. The organisers call it a “monumental, multiple-media, socially-engaged art installation” as well as the “largest experiential art project” the city has ever seen.
And, in a city that can lay claim to inspiring more social media than most, the crowds came, saw, recorded and uploaded in record numbers.
Its home was an empty warehouse complex in Lincoln Heights, on the edge of downtown. Hong Kong-based artist, Simon Birch and 20 collaborators put on a show that perfectly exemplified art in the age of instant gratification. Utilising video, installation, sculpture, painting and performance, it was satisfyingly snappy and tactile in ways that traditional art galleries can never be.
The audience became complicit in the exhibits, smartphones poised, making sure every trout-pout, upwardly tilted face and angled body is immediately shared with their followers. Can’t do that with the Mona Lisa.
There is, of course, a word for all this. The “artselfie” was coined by art critic Brian Droitcour in 2012. It is, he has said, part of the “…aestheticisation of everyday life in social media that has leeched the authority of image-making from mass media and from art”.
But is an art gallery that celebrates the artselfie really art? Who knows. And, really, who cares, when it looks as good as it does and provides so many self-interacting opportunities.
A room with 300 pitchforks hanging from the ceiling has a line of onlookers waiting patiently to take their own artselfies underneath. A reflecting pool in an outdoor courtyard contains dozens of salvaged airplane tail sections. The queue starts over there. A video installation showing, across multiple screens, a red Ferrari in a slow-motion car crash, with the adjoining room presenting smalls pieces of wreckage on a long table. Best you come back later.
And, at least to my undiscerning eye, the best of the lot. A full-size recreation of the eerily-lit Empire-inspired bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey (at a point in the film when the astronaut Bowman appears as old man before transforming into the Star Child). Masterminded by Birch and architect Paul Kember, it’s a major hit with the crowd and full points to the organisers who limit only a few visitors into the room at any one time. Instagrammers and Snapchatters swooned with delight.
Of course, the inevitable had to happen. In mid-July, a woman taking selfies accidently demolished one of the exhibits, causing an estimated $US200,000. Simon Birch, contacted in Hong Kong, was philosophical (though most likely delighted with the world-wide publicity which, invariably, led to claims the incident was staged). Any publicity, in the age of Insta-art, is good publicity.
So while there may be some who decry today’s “technically impoverished” artists, you can’t help but feel Simon Birch and 14th Factory have given the public exactly what they want. And what these precocious times need the most. In an ironic post-modern kinda way.
For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.
It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.
It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.
Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.
Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.
Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.
I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.
The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.
Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.
The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.
Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,
Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.
Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.
Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.
And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.
The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.
He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.
Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.
That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.
His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.
The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.
By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.
The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.
Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.
They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.
It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).
The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.
Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).
All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.
Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.
He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.
In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.
Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.
The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.
The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.
Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.
While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.
Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.
On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.
Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.
The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.
Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.
On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.
“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.
The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.
A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.
Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.
Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.
There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.
As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.
Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.
It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.
While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.
It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.
The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.
Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.
At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.
The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.
In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.
It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.
Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.
Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.
Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.
Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.
Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.
Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.
Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.
If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.
The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.
During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.
However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.
The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.
After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.
Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.
The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.
Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.
It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.
Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him
Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.
Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.
Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.
Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.
Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.
Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.
The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.
“The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.
Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.
If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.
Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.
Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.
I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.
There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.
It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.
And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.
For most of its history, Los Angeles has been the Dream Factory, for those who already make their living from the entertainment industry, the countless thousands arriving each year hoping to do the same, and even those who know it only from its enduring myth and legend.
There’s history aplenty for those interested enough to seek it out, some in the most unlikely places. I’ve been a regular visitor for decades and even I find places and stories I never knew.
For just that reason, I would generally base myself in Hollywood; in one easily navigated area were so many of my favourite places, all steeped in history and still existing pretty much as they always had – restaurants such as Musso & Frank, and Miceli’s; bars – Boardners and the Frolic Room; cinemas – the Chinese and the Egyptian, and slightly more modern classics as the Cinerama Dome; bookstores and purveyors of entertainment ephemera – Larry Edmunds; and music and DVD stores – Amoeba Music.
Although it was more than a touch Midnight Cowboy with its hookers and hustlers, I was happy there, staying at a very humble hotel behind the Hollywood & Highland development. The facilities were basic but the staff friendly and breakfast included for less than $US100 a night.
As Hollywood gentrified, the sex shops and strippers’ outfitters gradually edged out by hip bars and cafes, prices edged up and my humble accommodation now runs towards $US250 including taxes. Even the formerly run-down 1960s motels along Sunset or on Hollywood Blvd east of the freeway, that used to rent out by the hour, are now made over with little more than a retro pallet and cost the same.
In terms of accommodation prices, LA is now the New York City of the West Coast. Anywhere worth staying is astronomical. Santa Monica? Forget about it. Beverly Hills or West Hollywood? The same. Even downtown, where squalid once-abandoned office buildings have been transformed into shiny minimalist loft apartments and there seems to be a Whole Foods on every corner
On the last trip, I took a chance on a reasonably-priced airport hotel and really hit the jackpot. I knew the location – the corner of West Century (the main artery leading into the LAX terminals) and Aviation Boulevard, the price was right (about $US160 including tax and breakfast, about half the price of the anonymous big chain brands) and it had a retro look that piqued my interest.
If I’d paid strict attention to TripAdvisor, perhaps I’d have passed it by. Comments were pretty evenly split between “hidden gem” and “dump”, service between “friendly and efficient” and “cold and rude”. Even factoring in the “reading between the lines” factor necessary for TripAdvisor, something told me it was worth further investigation.
And, boy, am I glad I did.
The Travelodge Hotel At LAX is a charming retro throw-back, a low-rise (just two stories) mid-century survivor with motel-style units grouped around a large swimming pool. There’s parking on-site and a Denny’s restaurant with attached cocktail bar.
There’s a couple of aspects of the Travelodge that immediately impressed me. The first was the check-in. The front desk staff were friendly and personable; disregard the TripAdvisor complaints, put them down to the usual impossible-to-please whingers who tend to populate feedback sites.
The second was, considering the vintage of the property, just how well-maintained it was. Throughout the public areas, and particularly around the pool, the gardens were splashed with vivid colour. The neatness and tidiness spoke of an evident pride. The pool furniture was arranged just-so, the pathways swept clean, no rubbish or cigarette butts littering the garden beds.
I was just as impressed with the accommodation. Over the years, I stayed at just about every LAX hotel and the Travelodge is now my favourite. Sure, it’s an older property but it’s clean, extremely comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, the bed was just as comfortable as a Westin or Sheraton.
The furnishings are plush and have an agreeably retro feel, quite in keeping with the property’s historic charm. During my stay, I posted on Instagram that my room was like staying in the Captain and Tennille’s pool cabana and that pretty much sums up the ambience.
And although the wing I was in ran parallel to Aviation Blvd, with the air-conditioning on, I couldn’t hear any traffic noise. For an airport hotel on a major intersection, it was miraculously quiet.
LA is the sort of city where a car is a necessity. However, if you’re there for a short stay, public bus stops are a short walk away; in the one direction, the Big Blue Bus goes to Santa Monica. In the other, a shuttle runs to the Aviation/LAX station, part of the Green Line of the city’s Metro Rail system. From there, it’s easy to access Long Beach, Downtown, Hollywood and as far north as Universal Studios and North Hollywood.
So there I was, happy enough that I’d found such a charming, cosy and comfortable, well-situated and reasonably-priced hotel with friendly and personable staff. What more could I ask for?
The answer was awaiting me tucked inside the guest compendium. It told the history of the Travelodge At LAX with quite a few surprises in store. For example, the little-known background to one of the country’s most prominent hotel chains (no, not the Travelodge).
Although initially I was pretty sure the hotel was vintage 1960s. I was off by a decade. The hotel opened in 1953, built and operated by an LA businessman and man about town by the name of Hyatt van Dehn.
It was originally called the Hyatt House and was the first hotel to support an airport that had opened in 1930 as Mines Field. The city had a number of small private airfields and, by the time commercial airlines started operating following the end of World War II, the major airport was Lockheed Field at Burbank, now known as Bob Hope Airport. But, by the closing years of the 1940s, such major airlines as American, Trans World, United and Western switched across to Mines Field and in 1949 it officially became Los Angeles International Airport.
Business was good at the Hyatt House and added another wing in 1955. Hyatt was young, handsome and wealthy and, while a well-connected businessman, he was more frequently mentioned in the gossip columns for his love life. His second wife, Ginny Sims, was a singer and actress, a featured vocalist with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. In the 1940s, her records sold in the millions and she had a long movie contract with RKO studios, later moving on to MGM.
Hyatt and Ginny lived in a Beverly Hills home designed by renowned modernist LA architect, Paul Williams (incidentally, he co-designed the iconic flying saucer form of the Theme Building, part of the 1961 redevelopment of the LAX terminals as we known them today).
Hyatt and Ginny had what could best be termed a tempestuous relationship and by 1951 had been married and divorced twice. They remained friends, though, after the final separation and Ginny, who also embarked as a career as an interior decorator, was involved in furnishing the Hyatt House.
In 1957, a Chicago businessman by the name of Jay Pritzker was sitting in Fat Eddie’s, the coffee shop of the Hyatt House. He was the grandson of Nicholas Pritzker, who had brought his family from the Ukraine to the United States in the late 19th century and opened a law firm in Chicago in 1902.
Jay’s own father, Abram, was prominent in the family business; something of a prodigy, Jay, graduated from high school at the age of 14 and took a managerial role in steering the company towards owning and managing extensive real estate holdings.
Jay was always on the lookout for investment opportunities; the Hyatt House was uncommonly busy and it got him thinking. Then and there, he decided the Pritzker family should get into the hotel business. He scrawled an offer of $2.2 million on a paper napkin and asked that it be forwarded along to Hyatt van Dehn.
The offer was accepted; Jay was in something of a bind. The impulse purchase of the family’s first hotel had him at a loss as to a name. It was well recognised as the Hyatt House so he kept it as such.
Years later, Jay told the Chicago Daily News that the Hyatt was “simply the first first-class hotel that I had ever seen at an airport”. He kept the strategy going along the West Coast. Jay’s second Hyatt hotel was at Burlingame, near the San Francisco International Airport. Within four years, there were six Hyatt hotels and the company went public in 1967 (it became a Travelodge, part of the Wyndham branding, in 1994).
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Travelodge had its share of celebrity guests. Cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, would stay in Room 131 when they were flying in and out for personal appearances. Greg Morris, an actor best known for his role as Barney Collier on the hit television show, Mission Impossible, preferred Room 232. Rock’n’roll performer Little Richard and actor Patrick Stewart were also frequent guests.
The history contained within the guest compendium gave me a deeper appreciation of the Travelodge At LAX. Although there is at least one whimsical detail.
We’re told that Howard Hughes and Jane Russell occupied Room 225 during the filming of The Outlaw. It does make a good story, and that’s what the Dream Factory has always been about. Except for the fact that The Outlaw was filmed in 1941, twelve years before the hotel was built.
And Russell was one of the least likely Hollywood actresses to have an affair (discounting her association with actor John Payne in the early 1940s). She was extremely conservative, a devout Catholic and married her high school sweetheart in 1943, a marriage that lasted for 25 years.
The occasional fact-checking glitch aside, the Travelodge is still an endearingly authentic historic Los Angeles artefact, a piece of history that also a fun, comfortable, friendly and centrally-located hotel. And whenever I’m heading to the US, what else could I really ask for?
It’d be boring as batshit to weigh in on the political arguments demonising fashion via the objectification of women (or hunky men if you’re so inclined) and the rampant promotion of consumerism but, just so you know at the outset: fashion is OK by me.
Call me a dilettante, and very many people do (even in their kindest moments) but I kinda like fashion, both as an observer and consumer. I’d prefer to flick through Vogue than Rugby League Week and I can tell the difference between Suzy Menkes and Suzi Quatro (even blindfolded).
So when the opportunity arose to attend Australian Fashion Week 2015 (or the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, as it is formally known), I jumped in. True, it wasn’t the REAL Australian Fashion Week. It was the Weekend Edition, when the general public, fashion’s ultimate target market, gets to peek behind the curtain (a little like the end of The Wizard Of Oz, except the costumes are more restrained) .
Anybody and everybody is allowed to attend. All you need is a ticket; mine came courtesy of a friend who won a double pass in a radio competition. I arrived armed with a Nikon 300S, a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 zoom, a Nikkor 24mm F2.8, and all the best moments of Zoolander on an endless loop in the multiplex of my mind, ready to capture the weird and wacky aspects of life in the fashion industry.
As indeed did everybody else there that weekend although they would have been sorely disappointed. Australian Fashion Week itself functions pretty much like Paris, Milan or New York in all its bizarre glory, especially the stratification of the haves and have-nots, the front rowers and those eternally exiled to the nosebleed bleachers (four or five rows behind, although no less of a social divide) that everybody knows from fashion magazines and tabloid television.
By the time the Weekend Edition rolled around, the designers had long-since fled, leaving only a phalanx of models to protect the industry’s dignity.
Which they did superbly with their serene beauty and perfect postures, horizon-gazing and even, occasionally, the hint of irony teasing their glossed lips. Perhaps they were gratified that they finally had an audience paying avid attention, happy to be there, interested in the clothes rather than each other or where they were sitting.
And, unlike the usual portrayal of models as gaunt waifs, flushed of physical substance by caffeine, nicotine and diuretics, I didn’t feel any necessity to toss the occasional sandwich onto the catwalk. True, they may have won first prize in life’s genetic lottery but they also looked like they could tell one end of a Steak frites from the other.
What do I know? I’m a bloke and, ipso facto, mere collateral damage in the fashion wars. But I know what I like and I liked my time at the Weekend Edition even if it was only Australian Fashion Week lite. The designers – which for those who know about such things ranged through Bianca Spender, Manning Cartell, Betty Tran, Steven Khalil, Serpent & The Swan, Watson & Watson, and Kate Sylvester, among many others – and their creations came and went from the catwalk too quickly to note, especially as I was having so much fun snapping away. And the people-watching opportunities were priceless.
In the late 1940s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, during a period of Polynesian procrastination, opined “there’s nothing like a dame”. They were writing about soldiers on a Pacific island, yearning for female companionship, so it’s understandable if the focus of their attention was a little narrow.
As a passionate and committed wanderer, I’d say that – of all the things there’s nothing like – there’s nothing quite like a five-star hotel.
Style is the one thing that never goes out of style, although it’s occasionally obscured by the clever marketing of shiny baubles, talismans of trend that convinces consumers they want or need such modern variations of the inn-keeping tradition as boutique or design hotels. They look great, shiny and up-to-the-minute, resembling sets built for Wallpaper magazine. Ultimately, though, the sterility just isn’t comfortable.
Call me old fashioned (and many people do) but I love the grandeur of a traditional five-star hotel. It’s a special occasion that lasts as long as you want, where you check in but don’t ever want to leave.
That’s why, when I think back over the past few decades of hotel stays around the world, it’s places like the George V or Le Bristol in Paris, the Dorchester in London or the Essex House in New York City that I remember the most vividly.
There’s no flash or ostentation, no showing off for idle effect. There’s no need. Just plush comfort, efficient and unaffected service, an attention to detail. The ability to anticipate the needs of an exacting clientele and to provide exactly what is needed at precisely the right time.
The true five-star experience is the sum of very many parts and it’s indulgence, pure and simple, that makes such hotels so enjoyable. I was reflecting on this in the Club Lounge of the InterContinental Bali Resort at Jimbaran Bay. It was early evening on the second day of my stay and the wait staff remembered, as good staff do, that my preferred cocktail was a Negroni, with a few drops squeezed from a freshly sliced orange to soften the bitterness. The Negroni, perfectly prepared, along with an Aperol Spritzer, appeared at our table almost as soon as we ordered, as if they had been awaiting our arrival.
You can’t help but smile at moments like this, an instance when the stars in the hospitality heavens align and everything is as it should be. It’s the mark of the five-star experience and one that would be repeated so many times during my stay at the InterContinental Bali.
Make no mistake. This is a tropical resort, albeit on a huge parcel of land on a grand sweep of beach with the rocky Bukit rising to the south and the frantic bustle of Kuta just 15 minutes’ drive but seemingly far away and certainly out of mind to the north. The InterContinental has 417 guestrooms spread across a series of low-rise accommodation wings; with six swimming pools and extensive gardens across 14 hectares, even when it’s busy it never seems so. There’s a tranquillity here, a sense of ease that masks the friendly efficiency of the staff. This is a holiday destination, a place to relax and unwind, but with a five-star level of dedication.
From the moment guests arrive under the sheltered portico and are led into the enormous open-sided reception pavilion, an imposing first impression of monumental proportions, there’s the sense that this is something very special, the beginning of a holiday that will be hard to beat.
For those in the know, it’s on to the Club InterContinental Lounge, an elegant space with its own check-in area. It’s where breakfast is served, along with High Tea in the late afternoon, cocktails and canapés in the early evening, and refreshments throughout the day. It’s such extras afforded by the Club InterContinental that make it so special, and such good value, but you’ll be even more convinced once you experience the guestrooms.
The Club guestrooms are like small apartments with every possible inclusion including a supremely comfortable bed (surely the most important aspect of all hotel rooms), an equally-comfortable full-sized daybed, large balcony, big screen television with an outstanding selection of cable stations, free wifi, iPod connectivity via the in-room sound system, pod espresso coffee maker, even the International New York Times delivered each morning. There’s a separate dressing area with good indirect lighting, large closets and electronic safe, and a huge bathroom with separate bathtub and enough counter space for an army of narcissists.
I’ve spent a lot of my life in hotel rooms with a very critical eye being the inevitable result but even I couldn’t fault this guestroom. Two nights later, I still couldn’t. Even more impressive is that the room is whisper quiet, as if the walls were bunker-thick. There’s no sense of being surrounded by other guests. It’s like you have the whole place to yourself.
The Club wing has its own private swimming pool with cabanas, but perhaps the most impressive area is the Inspiration Room. Exclusively for Club members, this space has numerous quiet nooks for reading or relaxing, a refreshment area, balcony and an extensive and eclectic selection of books, CDs and DVDs for loan.
The Spa Uluwatu is the centre of the resort’s wellbeing area but massages and other treatments are also available in the secluded Villa Retreats. Each Villa within this complex, located on the beachfront perimeter of the resort, is a peaceful haven for singles or couples to enjoy such indulgences as a Balinese or Thai massage, the InterContinental Signature Massage or the four-hour intriguingly-named Sea Of Love.
Dining is an important aspect of the five-star experience and the InterContinental Bali certainly doesn’t disappoint. After the first morning in the Club Lounge, it was time to try breakfast at the Taman Gita Terrace. It is range as much as execution that differentiates a good buffet breakfast from a truly great one, a distinction that the Taman Gita effortlessly demonstrated by way of an extensive selection of Indonesian, Asian and Western dishes (including a roast carvery and dim sum), a fresh juice bar, egg station, espresso coffee and a masterful bakery spread.
Dinner was even more spectacular. Bella Cucina, the Italian fine dining restaurant, was helmed that evening by an enthusiastic young Italian chef. Charmed (and possibly inspired) by my companion’s fluent Italian, he suggested we leave the menu selection in his hands. The result was three sublime courses including carne cruda, a Tuscan version of beef tartare topped with poached egg, followed by risotto, and finishing with a lamb fillet glazed with a coffee crust
The InterContinental Bali just kept ticking boxes until it ran out of boxes to tick. At each and every turn, expectations were surpassed. A hotel or resort, however, is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s the people who make it the pleasure it can and should be.
With labour costs so low, tourism in developing economies is often more about quantity than quality. The result can be vast hordes of staff who have little inclination to provide anything beyond the basics. This is where established tourism operators, and especially the richly-experienced international hotel chains, with their tried-and-tested systems, make the greatest contributions.
As tourism becomes the dominant economic force across the globe, training is all about building a culture of service that has nothing to do with servitude but establishing confidence and a sense of pride in a job well done, in motivating and inspiring workers to understand different cultures, expectations and desires, no matter how alien to their own, and doing so with good humour.
The staff of the InterContinental Bali are truly delightful, demonstrating that it’s possible to be professional without sacrificing anything of their innate background and personality, giving guests a taste of traditional local hospitality in a very indulgent setting. All in all, the makings of a great holiday.
Over the span of more than 35 years as a journalist, mostly writing about the tourism industry, I’ve experienced some truly remarkable hotels and resorts. Those forever lodged in my memory have a consistent thread. They’re not the usual, cookie-cutter mass-market properties of bed, bathroom and balcony, marble vanities, 1000-thread counts, pillow menus and duck down duvets.
The truly special have a blatant disregard for the ordinary. They’re flights of fancy, balancing whimsy and imagination with an occasional nod towards function.
The wow factor (to use that hollow phrase so beloved of marketers) is, to me, something that tilts expectations off the axis and spins them far out into the Twilight Zone. They’re usually the pet projects of truly inspired individuals, people who can only function in what the rest of us call the real world by taking their own dreams and ideals and fashioning them in bricks and mortar, stone and glass.
Some work, many don’t, for the simple reason that, all too often, that which the mind can envisage can never be satisfactorily realised in the real world. The visionary mind is an abstract; trying to fit it together like Lego compromises its very essence. Luckily, that doesn’t stop people from trying; we mere mortals can do little more than pick our jaws up from the floor upon experiencing the truly transcending.
As I did at the Michi Retreat in Ubud, Bali. I’m not sure I’d ever want to stay there but I’m sure I’ll go back, time after time, just to marvel at the audaciousness of the place, wonder at what could have been and hope it never goes away.
The Balinese town of Ubud is said to have magical properties, a place of healing and spiritualism, and it has long attracted those seeking a different path than the rest of humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that in a place where alternative therapies, past lives regression, crystal healing, kinesiology, transformational breathing, reiki, aura cleansing, chakra realignment and dozens of different kinds of yoga are considered normal avenues for the attainment of enlightenment, that there are places to stay that complements such beliefs.
Ubud accommodation veers across the spectrum. There’s the Four Seasons Resort Bali At Sayan, which is a monstrosity or a stroke of genius, depending on your point of view. The Four Seasons spills down a deeply rainforested ravine with the Ayung River at the base, anchored by an ultra-modern tower that looks either like a spaceship or an airport terminal, again depending on your mood, inclination and generosity of spirit.
Further along that same ravine and river is the Royal Pita Maha, encompassing a selection of private pool villas. Owned by the royal family of Ubud, it is much more a traditional villa resort except for the long entrance driveway with some startlingly explicit statues of animals – elephants, pigs, frogs – with generously proportioned human genitalia.
Traditional guesthouses, modern resorts, private villas surrounded by Ubud’s impossibly green rice paddies, there’s something for every budget and level of consciousness.
And then there’s the Michi Retreat.
The official website tells the story of a retired Japanese-American professor of history and sociology who built his dream some fifteen years ago. On the edge of yet another steep ravine, this time tumbling into the Wos River, the sacred river of Ubud, at the village of Jukut Paku, and opposite a rural vista of palm trees and rice terraces, he drew on a lifetime of influences to craft a rambling hotel complex where no one part is the same as any other and surprises await at every turn.
Standing in the midst of Michi, as we did on a hot cloudless spring day, was a very different experience. There was an eerie, deserted atmosphere. The doors were open to the rooms and we wandered from one to the other, checking out the studios that evoke an ancient hillside Berber village as envisioned by Hundertwasser and the upstairs suites including one with subcontinental Indian and elephant motifs.
And the bathrooms! In every room, it was hard to tear our attention away from the bathrooms, each wildly different and supremely exotic confections.
Mosaics, stone, pebbles, mismatched ceramics, mirror fragments of all sizes; on the pool terrace, undulating concrete benches studded with jig-sawed tile pieces evoked the Parc Guell. The adjoining restaurant area postulated a fantastic pop-cultural meeting of the minds, its shabby post-apocalyptic opulence like a Eurotrash 70s disco designed by Gaudi.
Aside from the restaurant, there were few signs of life. There were areas, dusty with neglect, that must have been, not that long ago, shops, a beauty parlour, a spa. The jacuzzi is dry, the swimming pool not quite sparkling. There’s no reception at Reception except for leaflets announcing houses and apartments for rent within the complex on a daily and monthly basis. Amongst the facilities are listed “Kafe – Restorant”.
Where is everybody? A clue may be on the website with the bizarrely honest admission that Michi’s “management is journeying through a paradigm shift” although there doesn’t seem to have been an update since 2011.
Michi is a hotel you’d expect to find on the edge of the American desert, perhaps envisioned by Sam Shepard and directed jointly by Antonioni, Jodorowsky and Ralph Bakshi with Tarantino relegated to second unit, run by a guy who looks disturbingly like Harry Dean Stanton.
It’s a familiar theme. You don’t want to stay there, it doesn’t feel right but your car has broken down, there’s a suitcase full of cash in the trunk and the cute little blonde at your side, the one with the elongated vowels and even more elongated limbs whose humid gaze can melt metal, is the mistress of a Texas cattle rancher with no sense of humour whatsoever.
You know the movie. You’ve seen it dozens of times under a variety of titles. And Michi seems like the perfect setting, even with the rice terraces and palm trees and the slim sleek tabby with high-stepping elegance who guides us around like a new best friend.
As the fantasy fades, so the realisation dawns that, quite possibly, despite the air of neglect, Michi may be as magical as Ubud is meant to be.
I’ll come back to Michi. I’ll eat in the Kafe, swim in the pool, maybe even stay a night or two. Hopefully, I’ll meet the Professor. In a 2009 magazine article republished on the website, it mentions he’s 79 years old, which would now put him in his mid-80s. He’s had an amazing life, wandered the world, made fantastic friends, appreciated the arts and turned his dreams into a potent reality. I’d really like to hear his story.
There aren’t many opportunities to understand the genesis of a place as special as the Michi. If the Universe allows, I’ll get that chance. If not, then the mystery will have to do. I just hope the Michi endures.
In early March 2017, the founder of Michi, David S. Kung, otherwise known as The Professor, passed away. He was 86 years old. He was in Japan, where he’d travelled as part of a continuing book project that, as of this time, no further details are known. He will be cremated in a traditional Balinese ceremony quite near his beloved Michi on Friday 10 March.
Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet one of their heroes? Over the course of a career careening towards its fourth decade, I’ve had quite a few chances although experience has taught me to be wary. Singers, musicians, writers, actors, you may love their work but that doesn’t necessarily mean meeting them will be enjoyable or that they’ll enjoy meeting you. The celebrity ego, deeply-ingrained sense of entitlement, the after-effects of substance abuse, age, world-weariness, there are so many factors working against the average Joe being in the company of greatness, self-perceived or otherwise.
While I love their work, for example, I know enough about Jerry Lee Lewis and Hunter S. Thompson to acknowledge I’d never want to spend any time with them (not that I’ll have much of a chance with Hunter this side of the vale of tears).
There’s also the matter of timing. Your heroes are only human after all. Everybody has good and bad days. You just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
However, and I’m inclined to bold, underline and italicize however, there are those glorious moments when celestial bodies align and the people you’re most looking forward to meeting are everything you’re hoping for. And more.
As it was recently, aboard the cruise ship Sun Princess, on a voyage from Sydney to Auckland. I’d been commissioned to interview actor Gavin MacLeod, better known as Captain Merrill Stubing of The Love Boat; the editor knew I’d get a kick out of it and she was right. I’m a huge fan of 1970s television shows and The Love Boat is at the very top of the list.
It just so happened I had a copy of Gavin’s recently-released memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking, and one of the local Sydney television channels had run the complete series of Love Boat episodes in chronological order, most of which I’d watched.
For those too young to remember or not of this galaxy, it’s difficult to describe just how popular a show it was. It ran from 1977 to 1987, ten seasons in all. At its peak, it screened in more than 90 countries. It probably still is.
The Love Boat revolved around the adventures of a cruise ship crew – the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr Adam Bricker, generally known as Doc, purser “Gopher” Smith, bartender Isaac Washington, and cruise director Julie McCoy, overseen by a kind yet firm father-figure, Captain Merrill Stubing. A year into the run, producer Aaron Spelling decided it needed younger blood and introduced Stubing’s teenage daughter, Vicki, to the group.
For a one-hour show, it had something of a radical narrative in that each episode consisted of three stories. One emphasised the crew, another the passengers, and the third veered between the two. The guest stars provided a large measure of interest, anybody and virtually everybody who was reasonably ambulatory and within travelling distance of Los Angeles in those days appeared on the Love Boat; casting favoured well-known, if slightly overlooked, movie stars, some going as far back as the silent movie days.
So, you are asking, how did Captain Stubing come to be on this cruise ship more than a quarter of a century later? Soon after production wrapped in 1987, Gavin MacLeod was signed as an ambassador by Princess Cruises, which had provided the ships used in The Love Boat. The Love Boat itself was, as you’ll find in the opening credits, the Pacific Princess, although others in the Princess fleet stood in from time to time although only for exteriors or location shoots. The cast spent most of their time (at least for the first five seasons) on sets at 20th Century Fox in Century City, Los Angeles.
That Gavin has been an ambassador for Princess Cruises for far longer than he was captain of the Love Boat is remarkable. Founded in 1965, the company was acquired in 1974 by P&O, then taken over by Carnival in 2002. In the meantime, it’s gone from strength to strength; the 18th ship in the Princess fleet, the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess debuted early in 2014. Despite the vagaries of the tourism industry, Gavin has been retained as ambassador and today continues a busy schedule of promotions and appearances. In 2011, he celebrated his 80th birthday aboard the Golden Princess.
Gavin was born Allan George See in 1931 and grew up in an upstate New York town with the unlikely name of Pleasantville. At the age of four, he appeared in a Mother’s Day play at his local school and there experienced an epiphany. His young heart responded to the siren call of applause. He loved it, craved it, wanted more of it. As small as he was, at an age when most of us are still giddy with the novelty of walking or stringing half-intelligent sentences together, he knew he wanted to do whatever it took to hear that applause over and over again.
He was determined to be an actor.
It came to be so. Once out of high school, he moved to New York City where he worked as an elevator operator at Radio City Music Hall while he studied acting. He was young and inexperienced, on the very bottom rung of a career ladder he was anxious to climb but he had one more drawback than most of his contemporaries. He lost his hair at an early age and, as agents and casting people were quick to point out, that didn’t exactly make him the next big thing.
His confidence improved remarkably upon obtaining a second-hand hairpiece. Gavin (by this time, he’d taken another step upwards by changing his name to a more marketable one) readily admits it turned his life around; he even started dating a Radio City Rockette.
In short order, his future looked rosier. His performance in his first Broadway play garnered interest although another cast member, who went by the name of Steve McQueen, ended up on a far faster track. He made friends, including an actor by the name of Marion Ross, of which more later, and director Blake Edwards, and followed the trail of many actors heading west to Hollywood.
If the 1950s was the East Coast, by the end of that decade he was well established on the West Coast. He took on some movie roles, playing opposite Susan Hayward in I Want To Live (1958), Orson Welles in Compulsion (1959), and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat (1959), and through the 60s seemed to pop up on every television show of note. Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Dr Kildare, The Munsters, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Flying Nun, the list goes on. He spent two years on McHale’s Navy with Ernest Borgnine but, as an ambitious actor, he felt under-utilised and under-appreciated.
Then, as the 1970s dawned, things got a whole lot better. He was offered the role of Archie Bunker in a new sit-com called All In The Family. It was edgy and subversive, far ahead of its time, and now regarded as ground-breaking for shattering the staid orthodoxy of American television. Bunker was a blue-collar American, rigidly conservative, bigoted, sexist and misogynistic. To creator Norman Lear, it was a satire although many viewers considered it more a documentary.
Gavin was uncomfortable with the material and immediately knew he wouldn’t be able to portray such a character, even in a comedy. He turned it down. Carroll O’Connor took it on and it became a hit. It ran for nine seasons and netted a trove of Emmy Awards (including four for O’Connor). There were no hard feelings. All In The Family wasn’t the door of opportunity he’d failed to knock on but it led directly to his first great television success.
Almost immediately after turning down All In The Family, Gavin auditioned for the role of Lou Grant, boss of a fictional television news team that would be at the centre of a new comedy called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, he sensed that a hard-nosed yet soft-hearted martinet wasn’t quite his speed and he asked for and won the role of Murray, a sort of Everyman.
Murray was much more a Gavin creation and it resonated with audiences. The show was an ensemble project with even the titular star barely bigger than her supporting cast. Many of the friends he made on set, such as Betty White, continue to the present day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a huge success, running for seven seasons and picking up an unprecedented 29 Emmy Awards (a record not broken until Frasier in 2002).
When it ended in 1977, Gavin wondered whether he’d come close to having the same experience, the same enjoyment in turning up each day to work with a close bunch of friends, ever again.
The answer came soon enough. Gavin was offered two pilots. One was a Western with Jeff Bridges in the lead. The other was actually the third pilot to be filmed for an idea that producer Aaron Spelling couldn’t and wouldn’t let go. The first two efforts hadn’t quite gelled and were turned down; some of the previous cast were held over for a third try.
The role of Captain was begging (the first pilot in 1976 had Australian actor Ted Hamilton – known to local audiences from Division 4 – as the Captain; the second Quinn Redeker, an actor best remembered for Days Of Our Lives but who notably received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Deer Hunter).
Just a few months after the second pilot had been turned down, Gavin and the cast were shooting exteriors aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. In an echo of his Lou Grant experience, the initial Love Boat script called for the Captain to be quite strict, a disciplinarian. Gavin suggested softening the character, making him more of a father figure. Spelling agreed, the pilot was completed. And the top-rating US ABC network, which was already airing smash-hit Spelling productions of Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island, jumped aboard.
And this, as they say in the classics, is where I came in. At the appointed time to meet Gavin MacLeod, I was ushered to his suite, armed with notepad, pen, copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking (and an Extra Fine Point Sharpie in black, for the all-important autograph), camera and digital voice recorder.
Oh, and eight pages of notes. Did I mention I was a huge fan? Of The Love Boat, 70s televisions and Hollywood in general? Just saying. So, anyway, eight pages of notes didn’t seem excessive for a one-hour interview, although the 42 points I’d bullet-marked for discussion may have tipped the scales slightly into the overly optimistic category.
In an interview situation, I’m happy to take a passive role. Turn the recorder on, chat a little while assessing the interviewee, point them towards the desired subject and do the occasional sheep-dogging but, if they want to digress and it seems relevant or interesting, let them.
An interview will rarely progress the way you envisage. It can be one of those brightly-wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree that reveals a lump of coal. Or it can hold the most magical, enthralling of treats. You just never know what you’re going to get. Some of my best interviews have come from the most unlikely of sources, often because I allowed them to talk about what interested them, without too much in the way of interruption or continually dragging them back to the designated subjects.
Gavin MacLeod greeted me warmly, his handshake firm, his smile genuine. It was soon obvious that this was going to be one of those magical times, when all I needed to do was to switch on the recorder.
Stories, anecdotes, recollections, they all came thick and fast, a lifetime of funny, heart-warming recollections, delivered in a style that recalled Milton Berle and a million other Borscht Belt comedians that Gavin would have associated with in the old days. Gavin was raised a Catholic and remains a committed Christian but there’s a certain rhythm to the delivery, a way showbiz veterans tell a story that borrows much from Jewish traditions; comedic, self-effacing, annotated with a little gentle kvetching.
Aside from the acting roles he did land, an interesting aside were those that were almost his. It was his long friendship with director Blake Edwards that provided the best instances. Edwards put him into the comedy classic, The Party (1968) with Peter Sellers and allowed him to improvise a quick, wonderful scene with a hairpiece. Such was the high regard that Gavin was held by Edwards, that he was considered for numerous other parts. Gavin almost took the Peter Falk role in The Great Race (1965) and the part of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) that was eventually played by Mickey Rooney. It was on the set of Breakfast that Gavin first met Audrey Hepburn.
Yet I’m more eager to learn more about The Love Boat and Gavin is happy to accommodate me. He revealed that one of the pleasures of playing Captain Merrill Stubbing was in meeting so many of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Having three plots running in each episode allowed any number of actors the chance to shine and it’d be easier to list those in Hollywood who didn’t appear on the show.
In terms of oldest to youngest, Love Boat guest stars ranged from silent movie stars Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor (in 1929, she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and Luise Rainer (still living in London at the age of 104, she has the distinction of being the first actor to win two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress, for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937), to such 70s pop cultural staples as Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Bob Mackie.
Gavin was often awestruck when meeting so many he’d idolised over the years, yet their own reactions could be even more surprising.
“Can you imagine going to work, and there would be people like Helen Hayes, the first lady of American theatre, and Mildred Natwick. I’ve been on the stage since I was four years old and I wanted to be like all these people, and here they are on my set and they’re saying how nervous they are. Helen Hayes said to me that she did one appearance on The Love Boat and was seen by more people than had seen her in her entire career on stage.”
It was such a great honour working with so many fine actors, Gavin says. “They all knew their lines, they were all prepared.” The difference between traditional and modern actors was readily apparent, though. “If they were from the theatre, it’d be one, maybe two takes. If they were from television, it may be eight or nine takes.”
Gavin gleefully recounts those actors who appeared the most. He mentions Charo, an exuberant Spanish-American entertainer who shtick revolved around her generous figure and penchant for mangled English (a 70s version of Sofia Vergara), who racked up eight appearances. “She was so much fun,” he offered. And close friend Florence Henderson (Mrs Brady from The Brady Bunch), the record holder with 14 times.
Gavin’s wife, Patti, who he married in 1974, divorced in the early 80s, and remarried in 1985, played five different roles on seven episodes.
There were also the cross-over episodes with other Aaron Spelling shows, where the Love Boat cast interacted with characters from Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island.
Among Gavin’s favourite episodes, he keeps returning to a two-part episode in Season 5 called The Love Boat Follies. It had an amazing cast including Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway in a tribute to old-time Hollywood musicals. Incorporating several dream sequence song-and-dance numbers, it allowed Gavin, resplendent in a sequined captain’s uniform, to effortlessly show off a different range of skills.
Gavin recalls that Merman and Channing got on each other’s nerves due to a long-running dispute about who would be collected first each morning by the studio’s limo service. “That episode was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. It didn’t win favour with the critics but that’s no surprise; those who felt obliged to determine the public’s taste rarely cut The Love Boat any slack, a situation that, all these years later, still makes him laugh. “It’s great to be part of something the critics hated but was so successful.”
Another favourite was also a two-parter from Season Five in 1981, which was filmed in Sydney although the visit wasn’t quite everything Gavin could have anticipated. The plot line revolved around the Love Boat crew gathering for the wedding of cruise director Julie McCoy.
Filming had progressed well and included the usual scenes of petting kangaroos and other wildlife. The wedding was scheduled for the day before they were to return to the United States and the penultimate scene was where Captain Stubing would give Julie away to her fiancé, played by Anthony Andrews.
The church was St Mark’s in Darling Point, which would gain a further soupcon of notoriety just a few years later as the place where Elton John married Renate Blauel. On this day, however, rehearsals went well but, when filming commenced and Gavin had to chase Julie as she fled the church in tears, he fell on the uneven flagstones and broke his ankle. For the last few scenes remaining, he was strapped to a trolley and photographed from the waist up.
He has since returned to Sydney a few times. “I just love the people,” he enthuses.
A good friend of Gavin’s who made multiple appearances on The Love Boat is Betty White, who was also part of the ensemble on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “She’s a National Treasure,” he says. Gavin joined her in filming a recent Air New Zealand air safety video and became the target of tabloid newspapers, reporting they’d had an on-set affair. He laughs it off. “Betty is 93, I’m 83; we’re just happy we can walk.”
The ship on which we were conducting this interview, the Sun Princess, has its own Love Boat connection. In 1998, it was the setting for The Love Boat: The Next Wave, a short-lived continuation produced by Aaron Spelling and starring Robert Ulrich as the Captain. It lasted just two seasons but one episode brought together the original Love Boat crew for a reunion.
While Captain Stubing by this time has been elevated to Commodore, the most disturbing aspect has yet to be verified. The series hasn’t been released on video or DVD and only the sketchiest of synopsis is available on the Net yet such that is available suggests that Julie McCoy and the lovable yet romantically-indiscriminate Doc express their long-submerged passions for each other.
Gavin has no memory of this storyline and is rather horrified at the prospect. “That’s so unrealistic, it couldn’t happen,” he says finally. “I would see her more with Isaac. They were very close friends.”
For those who are wondering, the original Love Boat hasn’t fared so well. The Pacific Princess, launched in 1971, had a long and illustrious career, serving under the Princess Cruises banner until 2002. In 2013, it was broken up for scrap metal in a Turkish salvage yard; in a bizarre coda, two workers dismantling the ship died when overcome by toxic gases.
Gavin could have carried on this conversation for far longer and I would have been more than happy to listen. Over the next few days in his company, I watched him interact with the passengers; he was always gracious and patient, happy to answer their questions, scribble an autograph or pose for photographs. At the Princess Theatre, he hosted a chat about his career in front of a capacity crowd, and charmed them all.
For someone of his age and experience, it would be excusable if he wished some peace from his ever-adoring public but he never disappointed. He had a genuine commitment to giving his fans his best, to returning the complement they’d shown him over the years by keeping his shows at the top of the ratings and paying to see his movies.
Unlike many celebrities, there’s no sense that he feels more privileged than anyone else. He’s just like you and I, only his gifts have led him along a different path. He’s had a good life, his hard work and talent has paid off, and he seems genuinely delighted that he is still attracting the love and respect of people he’s never met.
Gavin MacLeod is a fine ambassador for Princess Cruises and doubtless a marketing asset. But he also reminds us that nostalgia isn’t such a shallow pursuit, that in recalling the good times, whether twenty-five months or twenty-five years ago, is a way of commemorating our lives, loves and experiences and those special to us. Of putting aside our differences, the mis-steps and tribulations, of slipping into that deep timeless reservoir of remembrance and bathing in its warm waters.
For me, all it took was meeting one regular guy who has lived a most extraordinary life.
Note: For those who have been paying attention, this article will seem familiar as it originally ran in May 2011, not long after I started this blog. Over time, it’s slipped so far down the listings that it’s virtually inaccessible but I thought it worth resurrecting as a good example of how a sense of place can be evoked just as much by a person as anything else.
Of the twenty to thirty times I’ve visited New York (I’ve lost track of exactly how many), it’s this incident that I most associate with the city. It brings back so many ancillary memories. While I’d never want to live there, New York remains in my Top Five favourite places.
It was in the late 1990s and I was in New York researching an article on the newest and trendiest martini bars. In reality, this turned into something of a continuing quest and, several visits later, I was still hard at work. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it. I owed it to my readers to be as thorough as possible and damn the consequences to my liver and other vital organs.
On this particular trip, I planned to cover four martini bars a night for the duration of my stay. That evening, I’d started out at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, went on to the historic Algonquin Hotel, then to Pravda, a very fashionable bar just south of Houston Street, virtually next door to the building where Grace Adler works with Karen Walker in television’s Will & Grace.
Pravda was below street level with vaulted ceilings and a run-down quality that lent it, at least to New York bar-hoppers, an authentic Russian appearance. By this time, dangerously, I was on my third martini and feeling no pain. To those whose sole experience with cocktails is with the stunted Australian variety, carefully measured out with laborious precision, it’s worth pointing out that an American cocktail is much, much bigger. Alcohol is cheaper and the size of the drink is often governed by the tip you left for the last one.
At Pravda, I had my fourth martini of the evening in a plush private booth, washing down caviar and blinis. Just as I was considering calling for the bill, the hostess rushed up explain that a VIP group was imminent and would I mind terribly vacating the booth? If I’d be happy to move to a table in the middle of the room (in reality, about 20 feet away), she’d send a round of drinks on the house.
Who was I to turn down such a kind invitation?
Within minutes, in walked Nicole Kidman, the Academy Award-winning actress of The Hours (2002), The Others (2001), To Die For (1995) and, one of my all-time favourite movies, Moulin Rouge! (2001). She was accompanied by her sister, Antonia, and another woman I took for a minder. I was aware that Nicole and husband Tom Cruise were then filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick in London; it appeared she was in New York briefly for an awards ceremony.
Our Nicole, as she is known in Australia (born in Hawaii of Australian parents, there’s long been a national pride in her achievements and we even went so far as to consider Tom Cruise, during their marriage, as a sort of Australian-in-law) looked radiant that evening, every inch the movie star, in a body-skimming strapless black evening dress that highlighted her pale flawless skin. She was the embodiment of a movie star. Although not generally the type to intrude on celebrities, I’d certainly consumed enough rocket fuel to think Nicole would be happy, even eager, to greet a fellow Australian.
I held back for a while, aware that the true measure of a celebrity encounter is in the exit line, something witty and sophisticated and memorable. After a suitable period of reflection, it came upon me in a hot rush of originality and creativity. I knew without a doubt that she would be impressed; one Aussie chatting without artifice to another. The skillfully-rendered exit line would be the perfect way to sign off. My sharp but self-deprecating humour, delivered with typical Australian panache, would, I felt sure, be well appreciated after the endless parade of phoneys and sycophants she endured in her professional life.
In hindsight, I recognize that the tingle I felt was not really anticipation but more likely a premonition of rapidly approaching disaster, a train wreck of truly momentous proportions. The engine was tearing down the track, the throttle on full. The bridge was down and the river high. I was in the driver’s seat, Casey Jones cap at a jaunty angle, martini glass in hand, and a maniacal cackle issuing from my frothy lips. The inevitable was rapidly approaching and there was nothing I could do about it, even if I wanted to.
Standing a little too unsteadily, I pointed myself towards Nicole’s table. Three anxious faces turned at my approach but, once Nicole heard my accent, she seemed to relax. As far as I can remember, she was enchanting and attentive but I have no memory whatsoever of the conversation.
Suddenly, the time seemed right. I deftly maneuvered the conversation towards the exit line and then, just as I was about to permanently impress the Greatest Living Actress of Our Generation………my mind went blank. I stood there uncertainly, my mouth moving but nothing coming out, a sense of helplessness and growing hysteria compounding by the second. If Travis Bickle had suddenly pressed a handgun to my forehead, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember the line.
The combination of my apparent consternation, my mouth motioning silently like a goldfish and my swaying from side to side may have led them to believe I was about to be ill. They shrank back in the booth. I was desperate to flee so, after what seemed an eternity, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.
“You’ve come a long way since BMX Bandits.” I then turned for the door and stumbled inelegantly into the night.
Not long after, Nicole and Tom split up. Was it one of those wild coincidences, I wondered, or had our encounter coloured her decision? Had Our Nicole realised that what was missing from her life was the meat and three veg of a down-to-earth Aussie guy just like she’d met that fateful evening in New York, like the ones she’d left behind when stardom, and Tom Cruise, came calling?
Later, of course, she married Keith Urban, the singing country superstar from Caboolture, Queensland, and her fairytale was complete. Coincidentally, I’d met Keith a few times in the early 1990s when I was working on a book on Australian country music and always found him delightful and entirely uncomplicated. I’m sure he’s still so.
That niggling sense of guilt continues to this day. I can’t help but think that, in some miniscule way, I was responsible for Nicole and Tom’s divorce. Had a nameless Aussie guy with an easy repartee and far too much vodka brought a Hollywood marriage undone? Only Tom’s eventual autobiography will tell.
For once, I’ll be relatively succinct. I’ve spent a couple of New Year’s Eves shoulder-to-shoulder with the hordes cramming the shores of Sydney Harbour and vowed never to do it again. In 2012, it was a case of “never say never”.
It must be said there are many better uses for $5 million than sending it high into the air where it explodes noisily in bright colours. But nobody asks me. So each year, NYE dutifully rolls around and more than one million Sydneysiders and visitors stake out their places around the edges of the Harbour at first light and wait through the day for darkness to fall and the bread and circuses to begin.
There are two rounds of fireworks – at 9pm, ostensibly for families, and midnight. Seven fireworks barges are anchored along the harbor with other pyrotechnic units on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and several office buildings at Circular Quay.
For the more sensible, the television coverage, beamed around the world, offers a distinctly better vantage point. What it lacks is the sweaty, crowded, intoxicating bonhomie of sharing the moment with countless others, oohing and aahing as the explosions rattle the bones and the night sky is stitched with light. They probably said the same thing about the Western Front.
The A-listers party at the Sydney Opera House, amongst celebrities, politicians and the beautiful and connected. At Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Botanic Gardens, a canapés’ throw away, ordinary folk do exactly the same thing but without the French champagne or, in fact, any alcohol of any kind.
The police had closed off Circular Quay and The Rocks by early afternoon, when it was deemed to have reached capacity, and BYO alcohol was not allowed in although hotels, restaurants and numerous food stalls were operating.
While Northern Hemisphere celebrations can be distinctly frosty, in Australia – if the weather is right – it’s balmy and still. NYE 2012 was just such a night. It had been a hot sunny day, a showpiece of summer, and by 9pm it was still about 21 degrees Celcius.
I would never have entertained the thought of doing it again except for a friend’s kind invitation to spend it on the 15th floor of her mother’s East Circular Quay apartment, which as can be seen from the accompanying photographs had spectacular views from the CBD and Circular Quay to the Bridge and up the Harbour as far as South Head.
Traversing the police road closures was quick and highly efficient and an official pass allowed a picnic basket crammed with champagne to proceed unmolested. Travel into the city was easy by train; and out again just as painless. It was the perfect demonstration of crowd control, how to disperse countless thousands of people quickly and without drama. Police, check-point security, public transport workers, everybody that could have been pissed off that they had to work such a major public holiday weren’t and those who could be expected to have attitude didn’t. At least as far as I could see, NYE in the Sydney CBD was one big love-in, brimming over with good humour and respect.
Sometimes, human nature can be a surprising thing. Consider the magnitude and you have the makings of a very special event.
Many, many thanks to long-time reader and avid travel blogger Ashley Paige (no, not the Californian bikini designer – for those who fret about such things – but the East Coast anthropology student) of the fortheloveofwanderlust blog for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award.
As a condition of my nomination I must list 15 of my favourite blogs, a tricky task as I subscribe to so few. I’ve put in a little research and found some wonderful blogs that align with my interests.
For more than 20 years, I travelled extensively around the world and one of the things I looked forward to was staying at hotels I’d normally never be able to afford. There’s something wonderfully indulgent about five-star hotels, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong or Paris, and my first mornings would always follow the same path – trooping off to the hotel dining room with that day’s copy of the Herald Tribune and the heady anticipation of what the breakfast buffet would hold. I’d first check that bircher muesli was available; I considered then, and still do, that a hotel could best be judged by the quality of that one dish – moist, creamy, sweet and welcoming, the perfect introduction to a new destination.
This was especially so in Asian hotels during the 1990s, when the international five-star brands were more often than not staffed by European food and beverage executives, trained in classic traditions by the finest Swiss hotel schools. Even if the eggs were incinerated at blisteringly high temperatures and the “bacon” was beef or turkey, I could generally count on the bircher muesli as authentic.
In recent times, my travel has tailed off but my love of bircher muesli has not. In my local neighbourhood, I’ve found only one café that serves it and, while it’s a fair approximation, it’s not exactly my ideal.
With this in mind, I started fiddling with the numerous recipes available on the Internet. Most create the muesli from scratch, with oats and nuts, then adding grated apple, yoghurt and milk, at which point they often spin wildly off into a galactic black hole of improvisation. It’s not unusual to find such oddities as agave nectar, sunflower seeds and apple slices pan-fried in maple syrup and cinnamon.
I wanted something simpler. I figured there’s no reason I couldn’t start with readily-available pre-mixed supermarket muesli. Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve devised one that comes pretty close to those wonderful concoctions I remember from my travels. Just how wicked it becomes, calorie-wise, depends on whether you use cream or milk or a combination of both. You can even substitute low-fat or skim milk and the taste will not suffer that much.
Firstly, though, a little background. Hats off to Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, a late 19th century Swiss doctor and early advocate of healthy eating. The basis of his teachings was to avoid meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables and nuts. Around 1900, at his clinic in Zurich, with the Alps resonating in the background, he mixed together a few of his favourite things and came up with museli.
Interestingly, across the Atlantic, this philosophy was mirrored by John Harvey Kellogg. At his Battle Creek Sanitorium in rural Michigan, Kellogg pushed the boundaries of healthy living way beyond his Seventh-day Adventist adherence (which already renounced alcohol and tobacco) and embraced vegetarianism. A firm believer in the benefits of nuts and whole grains, in the late 1890s he started a company with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. No prizes for guessing where this is going, right? Along the way, Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and no suburban breakfast would ever be the same again.
And while I have Max to thank for my favourite breakfast, I have to admit that Kellogg was a much more interesting individual. He took weird and perfected it in ways that defy definition. As evidence, seek out the 1994 bio-pic, The Road To Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg and Dana Carvey as his brother and a supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.
Kellogg’s overall philosophy was one of moderation and abstinence from all vices, sex included. Self-determination, if I may employ a euphemism, was especially abhorrent; Kellogg considered that such practices led to urinary disease, impotence, epilepsy, cancer, insanity and, eventually, death. These days, he’d probably throw in global warning and Republicanism.
So, keeping in mind the matter of full cream over low fat, what better time to segue to my bircher muesli recipe?
DL’s Bircher Muesli Recipe:
2 cups supermarket muesli (raw, not toasted)
250 mL milk (any type, even low fat or skim, or full cream)
125 mL apple juice
175 mL tub of yoghurt
1 tablespoon honey
½ medium apple, peeled and grated
1/ Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2/ Before serving, the mixture may need a little extra milk. It should be moist but not wet, with a consistency a little on the porridge side.
For many guests at The Del, as San Diego’s historic Hotel del Coronado is often known, their stay recalls the line from The Eagle’s Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like but you can never leave.
This massive and stylishly majestic pile, opened in 1888 and today one of the largest wooden structures remaining from the grand era of late nineteenth century resort building in the United States (not surprisingly, most burnt down), is a place of mystery despite the sun-washed resort ambience of its Pacific Ocean-front position. Ghost stories abound and, within minutes of setting foot inside, I’m drawn to asking the question that I’m sure the staff have heard a million times before.
I’m in the gift shop, just off the main lobby. Amongst the copious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that fills this area almost to overflowing (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, ranked by the American Film Institute as the funniest US movie of all time, was filmed at the Coronado), I ask a staff member if any of hotel’s ghosts cause problems.
“Heavens, yes,” she replies readily enough, although not without a touch of nervousness. “It constantly rearranges the shelves.” The saleslady seems exasperated by the extra work. It’s bad enough when the earthly visitors leave the place a mess, let alone long-dead guests adding to the workload.
“It doesn’t like anything to do with Marilyn,” gazing back at the lunchboxes, fridge magnets and books to check they are still in a general sort of order.
The Coronado’s flesh-and-blood guests have long reported strange occurrences, from sudden plunges in temperature and ghostly footsteps to televisions and ceiling fans that turn on and off without warning.
The usual culprit is claimed to be Kate Morgan, a young woman who checked into the hotel in November 1892 and spent five days waiting a lover who never arrived. She was found dead on an outside staircase with a bullet wound to the head. The San Diego Coroner ruled the death as suicide.
Kate is said to be still seen wandering the halls while guests in her room (Room 3327) report all manner of unexplained disturbances.
Thankfully, the Coronado is not exactly the Overlook Hotel. It’s a most amazing building, designed in the Queen Anne revival style by Canadian architect James W. Reid, and dominated by a massive red turret.
Construction of what was envisaged as the grandest resort hotel in the United States began in March 1887. At its peak, some 2,000 workers toiled on this sandy wasteland but, when it opened the following year, it was an immediate success.
It has somewhere around 675 guestrooms and dominates the southern end of Coronado, a peninsula that is linked by a 16 kilometre-long isthmus known as the Silver Strand to the San Diego mainland. At Coronado’s northern end is the sprawling Naval Air Station North Island, comprising some 35,000 personnel and 23 aviation squadrons.
From the early days of manned flight, North Island was an important aeronautic location. Before being commissioned as a Naval Air Station in 1917, it was the site of an aviation school that attracted trainee pilots from around the world. One such aviator was Sadayoshi Yamada, who rose through the ranks of the Japanese armed forces to become Vice Admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.
Over the years, the Hotel del Coronado has welcomed royalty, American presidents and movie stars. One of its most famous turns in the spotlight was during the filming of Some Like It Hot, which used the beachfront and hotel exteriors to great effect (the interiors were recreated in the Culver City studios of MGM).
Another famous guest was Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series of books. Although from the East Coast, he was drawn to California’s more welcoming climate. He spent months at a time at the Coronado between 1904 and 1910, after which he built a home in Hollywood that he named Ozcot.
The Coronado also inspired novelist Richard Mathieson (whose 1954 novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed four times, the last with Will Smith in 2007) to create Bid Time Return (1975), that deftly interweaves a love story with time travel. When it was filmed as Somewhere In Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the setting was changed to the equally-elegant Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.
However, one of the most interesting connections with the Hotel del Coronado is actually one that could have happened but didn’t. When Bessie Wallis Warfield married Earl Winfield Spenser Jr. – an aviator and lieutenant in the United States Navy – in 1916, no-one could have foretold the effect it would have on the world.
Win, as he was known, was posted to San Diego in 1917 to oversee the establishment of the nation’s first naval air base. Wallis, as she was known, was the dutiful but ultimately unhappy military wife of a dissatisfied and alcoholic officer, a woman who loved to entertain and be entertained.
On 7 April 1920, the Hotel del Coronado hosted a ball in honour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived aboard the British warship HMS Renown en route to a royal tour of Australia. In later years, Win himself recalled he was on hand that evening with his wife who was introduced to the Prince.
Such is the cachè of such a momentous meeting that it has passed, unchecked, into popular legend. Even the Coronado’s website hedges its bets by stating that “many have speculated that they may have first met at The Del”. However, as Anne Sebba reveals in That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2011), the reality is more like the golden opportunity that never occurred.
Several days before the ball, Wallis left San Diego for San Francisco to visit a socialite friend and didn’t return until the week after. This is confirmed by newspaper social columns of both cities.
In actuality, it would be another 11 years before Wallis finally met the Prince. In the interim, Wallis divorced Spenser in 1927, moved to England and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. She met the Prince at a country house party in 1931 and they became involved sometime around 1934. He ascended the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, Wallis and Simpson divorced in October 1936, and Edward abdicated in December of that year. In June 1937, Edward and Wallis married.
And the rest, as they say, even in the character-saturated hallways of the Hotel del Coronado, is history.
They ride high in the saddle in Tombstone. Cause a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do. And what most men and a lot of the women in this historic Wild West town gotta do is dress up like cowboys, gunslingers, dancehall girls and regular town folk and party like it’s 1889.
Tombstone is a dot on the map of southern Arizona, about 40 kilometres off the 1-10 that runs through a sun-baked landscape that anybody who has ever watched a Hollywood cowboy movie would instantly recognise.
It’s a hot, dry, inhospitable landscape. You don’t come across Tombstone by accident. You have to be heading there and the attraction is its name – one of the best known of all the old Wild West towns. It’s redolent of outlaws and lawmen, the site of the O.K. Corral and its infamous gunfight. And it draws tourists from around the globe who find, once they reach this otherwise unprepossessing place, that it’s a lot better than they were expecting. And a lot more fun.
Tombstone was founded in 1879, quite late for an Old West town, and its fortunes were built on silver mining. From 1877 until 1890, local mines produced more than $US50 million in silver bullion. In the heady days of the 1880s, Tombstone had a population of 14,000 and proudly boasted four churches, a school and two banks. A little less proudly perhaps, it also had 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls and numerous brothels.
The miners and cowboys, who weren’t above regular cattle rustling forays into Mexico, kept the town jumping.
The glory days lasted for little more than a decade, however, when rising water levels in the mines made extraction unprofitable. By the late 1890s, Tombstone was virtually a ghost town.
It was tourism that uncovered the gold in thar hills. When the inhabitants began to leave Tombstone for more economically viable climes, much of the Old Town was boarded up and left undisturbed under the baking desert sun. Tourism began to take off in the mid-20th century; luckily, most of the main thoroughfare, Allen Street, remained intact.
Nowadays, some 500,000 tourists a year come to Tombstone, which has a population barely exceeding 1500 people. The Bird Cage Theatre is a favourite. In the 1880s, the saloon and gambling hall operated 24 hours a day; its name comes from the small mezzanine rooms overlooking the main hall where prostitutes plied their trade. Whiskey-fuelled brawls regularly took the place apart and gunfights barely raised an eyebrow but the main claim to fame was a poker game, with a minimum $US1,000 buy-in, that ran for eight years without a break.
When it was closed in 1889, the Bird Cage was boarded up with all its contents still in place and remained that way until it reopened in the 1930s. Most of the interior, from the wallpaper, light fittings and red velvet curtains to its magnificent cherrywood bar, is original.
It helps that the highway connecting the I-10 with areas to the south, skirts Allen Street; the dusty red dirt street is closed to regular traffic. Visitors dodge horses, carriages and stage coaches while the locals, dressed in character for the Wild West, provide Kodak moments.
Each day at 2pm, there is a re-enactment of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, where Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and his brothers went up against a bunch of ornery outlaws in October 1881. Allen Street is lined with museums, saloons, restaurants with staff dressed as dancehall hostesses, and – inevitably – lots of gift shops.
Even the Boot Hill graveyard, which operated from 1879 until 1884, is carefully preserved and tourist-friendly.
It’s easy to get a little sniffy about this kind of pasteurised history, a Westworld where nothing goes wrong, where gunfighters have a jauntily self-mocking tone beneath their carefully-cultivated menace (so as not to scare the little kiddies), and the tourists play along with the joke. It’s a theme park to be sure but Tombstone has a careless charm that gets under the skin and gently eases away any niggling doubts about historical authenticity.
Tombstone, a town that would otherwise have quietly faded away, finds its fortune in acting out the past. In taking history out from under its bell jar, everybody goes home happy at the end of the day. Which is infinitely better than going home in a pine box.
The Bright Young Things out there may be surprised to learn that architecture in Helsinki is not just the name of a fashionable Australian indie pop band whose songs, as much as I’ve been able to ascertain, have little to do with the work of Alvar Aalto or Eero Saarinen. Architecture in Helsinki (not the band) is quite a delight, none more so than in its extensive catalogue of Art Nouveau classics.
This is particularly relevant with Helsinki being elevated to the role of World Design Capital in 2012, an event that is set to generate even more unbridled excitement than that of Seoul last year.
Art Nouveau straddled the closing years of the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th centuries and achieved an artistic glorification throughout much of the world including Britain (where the Arts & Crafts Movement began in the 1880s), Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. In many countries, it was not just a design philosophy encompassing architecture, interior design and decorative arts but was shaded by political agendas.
This was certainly the case in Finland where Art Nouveau, known locally as jugend, underpinned the struggle for independence from Russia (which finally occurred in 1917) and produced a stolid, nationalistic tone often tied to the Kalevala, an epic poem first published in 1835 that is credited with developing the country’s national identity.
The main figures of Art Nouveau in Finland included Eliel Saarinen, Hermann Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, Lars Sonck and Ernst Jung. The Helsinki Central railway station, designed by Saarinen, which opened in 1919, is an outstanding example of the Art Nouveau style.
Another is the National Museum of Finland, designed by Saarinen, Gesellius and Lindgren, which opened in 1916. Wander the streets of central Helsinki and there are many more outstanding examples to be found in commercial buildings and apartment blocks.
In Helsinki’s many museums, Art Nouveau is also well represented. Recommended is the Ateneum Art Museum, Finland’s national gallery, showcasing a collection from the 1750s to the 1950s, and the Designmuseo or Design Museum, founded in 1873, with a collection that encompasses more than 75,000 objects, 40,000 drawings and 100,000 images.
Any visitor to Finland will find its museums and art galleries compelling although most are inclined towards the studious; an exception to this is the Outboard Museum in Porvoo, about 50 kilometres outside Helsinki. This attracts boating enthusiasts from around the world and includes a fascinating recreation of a 1950s-era outboard engine repair shop.
It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada, but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.
The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was not only one of the biggest cities in the region but reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.
The city’s fortunes picked up further with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879. It was at this time the town split in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.
The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.
One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement building that suffered the same fate.
The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.
Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilise Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), and Wild Hogs (2007). Actor Val Kilmer also has a 2,000 hectare ranch outside town.
There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel on the Old Town Square.
Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.
Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.
The Venice of the mind is an apparition of remarkable complexity. Darkly foreboding laneways forever shaded from the sun, canals silently traversed by sinuous gondoliers. It’s all that such illusions imply, long reflected in literature and film. The pomaded ascetic Aschenbach beguiled by Tadzio’s lustrous youth in Death In Venice, the murky compulsions of grief magnified by the harsh winter in Don’t Look Now.
The reality, as in many things, is far different. At the height of the summer season, Venice holds little mystery, just a still oppressive heat, the breathless crush of tourists and a city trying its best to function under the countless pressures that have tested its resolve for hundreds of years.
All of Venice is a museum, made more remarkable in that it’s a living city that has grown across 117 islands dotted on a lagoon on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. It was home to Casanova and Marco Polo (one was an explorer of bold and adventuresome ways, the other went to China) and beguiled Lord Byron, Ezra Pound and countless others.
Venice is impossible to forget and even harder to ignore. It’s a wondrous place, a curiosity that, for the romantic, builds into an obsession and defies any attempt to remove it. Visit once and you’ll be forever drawn back. You can’t ever hope to understand it; simply let its eccentricities lead you where it may.
Invariably, that will be to the canals of Venice and it’s where most tourists get their introduction to the city’s unique way of life. The vaporetti or water buses are the preferred mode of transport, as traditional a way of life as the yellow cabs of New York, the red double-decker buses of London or the jeepneys of Manila.
Through most of the day and night, they work the water, travelling where most visitors need to go. A single fare is around €6 but the best value is in multi-use passes that allow unlimited trips from 12 hours (€16) through to seven days (€50).
The Grand Canal, that extends four kilometres from outside the Santa Lucia railway station in the north-west to near St Mark’s Square, passes stoically elegant palazzos and stolid fondaco or merchants’ warehouse-residences. Along the way, there will be every evocation of Venetian architecture, from Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance through to Baroque and Neoclassical.
Mid-way along the Grand Canal is the Rialto Bridge, built in the early 1590s and designed by Antonio da Ponte; his nephew, Antonio Contino, who worked with da Ponte on construction of the Rialto, designed the famed Bridge of Sighs.
On the shore fronting St Mark’s Square, it’s possible to watch one of the more disturbing sights of Venice when enormous cruise ships work their way up the Giudecca Canal to their moorings at San Basilio Pier or the Marittima Basin. Venice is one of the busiest cruise destinations in the region, with upwards of 500 departures annually. These massive beasts dwarf the human scale of Venice, scattering vaporetti, private water taxis and gondolas and presenting an image of a disaster just waiting to happen.
The area around the Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square is tourist trap central but it’s something to which every visitor should acquiesce. While a gondola ride may seem cheesy, it’s a required experience; in value-for-money terms, however, it rates with the Caffe Florian, where a coffee will set you back the price of a small Japanese car. But it’s worthwhile just for the photo opportunities and the knowledge that you’ve experienced the Venice of legend.
The other must-dos include a bellini cocktail at the Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca, the lozenge-shaped island across from the Piazza, and a relaxed wander through the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, where heiress Peggy Guggenheim amassed such a startlingly extensive collection of early 20th century art.
Add to that, a day or three getting lost within the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, where tiny churches and historic palaces co-exist with Venetians going about their everyday life, and the city will have exerted a magical, adamantine charm. And you’ll be communing with the ghosts of Casanova, Titian, Truman Capote, Hemingway and thousands of others who have fallen in love with Venice.
A couple of years ago, I penned an article for Travel + Leisure magazine on one of my favourite subjects, old-time Las Vegas. It revolved around how my interest had developed after acquiring my prized 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and discovering the original owner’s name amongst a mountain of paperwork that came with the car.
The article remains one of my favourites, more so because of the opening line: “It started, as these things so often do, with a cardboard box full of crap.” The editor kept that line in, unmolested by decorum, when many others would have tossed it aside.
The Cadillac, a Detroit steel monster in gleaming Silver Mink paint, measures almost 5.7 metres long, weighs in at just over two tonnes, and has bucket seats and an interior of the most indulgent red leather. It was delivered new to its Las Vegas address in May 1963 and the name listed in the owner’s manual was Frederic Apcar.
For some reason, it took me a while to Google the owner’s name but, when I did, a surprise awaited. Apcar was a legend in Las Vegas, a producer of tits-and-ass showgirl extravaganzas at the famed Dunes Hotel and Casino; in 2006, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Nevada Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame.
The Dunes opened in 1955 on a 35 hectare site at the southern end of the Strip, diagonally across the road from the Flamingo. With 200 rooms and a 28-metre pool, the largest in the country, the hotel was dominated by a 10-metre-tall fibreglass statue of a Middle Eastern Sultan. The Dunes’ initial investors included East Coast Mob money and was later expanded with funds from the Teamsters Union Credit Fund run by Jimmy Hoffa.
In its early years, The Dunes staggered from one misfortune to another but, by the early 60s, was on the rise. General Manager, Major Arteburn Riddle, knowing the value of entertainment in luring gamblers through the doors, hired Apcar to devise an only-in-Vegas drawcard.
Born in Paris, Apcar was a chorus boy in the famed Folies Bergere at the age of 16. By the time he came to Vegas, he was 46 years old and a respected dancer and choreographer. He drew on what he knew – beautiful women, glamorous costumes, naughty-but-nice dance numbers and variety acts. His first production at The Dunes, Viva Le Girls! opened in the Parisian Room Lounge in 1961. With a budget of $US165,000, it became one of the longest-running shows in Vegas.
His ambition, however, didn’t stop there. He negotiated with the owner and producer of the Casino de Paris to license the first official show outside France. It was already synonymous with glamour; Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker had both performed with the Casino de Paris and, in the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent would design costumes for the show.
In December 1963, just a few months after Apcar took delivery of my silver Cadillac, the Casino de Paris show opened in a new custom-built theatre at The Dunes. It was an immediate success; by the mid-60s, the production cost $US75,000 a week to run and had a cast of 100 dancers and performers who cycled through 518 costumes, 250 hats and 500 wigs.
Apcar remained producer and director of the Casino de Paris well into the 80s but, as the years progressed, The Dunes had trouble competing with its upstart neighbours. That it occupied such a prime position on the Las Vegas Strip only hastened its demise. Steve Wynn bought the property in 1992 for $US75 million and closed The Dunes the following year. He imploded the high-rise 60s accommodation tower in spectacular style in October that year and began construction of the $US1.6 billion Bellagio.
Apcar lived to witness the changing fortunes of The Dunes and Las Vegas and died in 2008, aged 93.
You have to feel sorry for Atlanta, Georgia. It’s suffered more ignominy than Anna Nicole Smith. During the Civil War, it was just about destroyed. The city rebuilt but what General Sherman and the Union Army couldn’t achieve was carried out with brutal efficiency by the mid-twentieth century blights of modernisation and urban renewal.
Vast swathes of the southern edge of downtown were decimated in the 1960s to allow three cross-country interstate highways – the I-20, I-75 and I-85 – to join up. Through that decade and well into the 1970s, whatever historic charm remained in the CBD was laid waste. In its place came parking lots, characterless office blocks and sprawling multi-block travesties such as the America’s Mart that encompassed all the originality of Stalinist architecture minus the whimsy.
When Atlanta was selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, the wheels of destruction were again set in motion. Eight hectares of the north-western end of downtown were bulldozed for the Centennial Olympic Park. It functioned well as a public meeting space during the Games but was quickly forgotten afterwards and now primarily functions as an area where the homeless can ambush tourists for spare change.
While it might be a little difficult to see and touch history in Atlanta, you can at least drink it in. The city is headquarters to a number of the country’s largest corporations, among which is Coca-Cola. Invented in 1886 by pharmacist John Pemberton in nearby Columbus, Georgia, and first sold in Atlanta, the shrine to all things Coca-Cola and then some can be found in the aptly-named Pemberton Place, across the road from Centennial Park.
The World of Coca-Cola is just that – part museum, part corporate cathedral – a vast and entertaining homage to that which all things go with. Admittance is $US16 per person (a $US26 personally guided tour includes a special limited-edition gift) but is one of the few touches of value in the city.
The facts and figures of the Coca-Cola Company are truly staggering. Coke is consumed by more than one billion people every day and is sold in 200 countries around the world. The value of the brand itself is estimated at $US50 billion. Aside from the dark, sticky beverage so beloved of bourbon and dark rum drinkers, the company markets around 3,000 different drinks.
In the Taste It! area, visitors can try some of these different drinks. There’s Fresca from North America, yellow Inca Kola from Peru, Apple Kiwi Fanta from Thailand, Pineapple Fanta from Greece, Stoney Tango Wizi (a somewhat questionable name for something that tastes like ginger beer) from Zimbabwe, and a remarkably foul Peach Nestea from France. And, of course, Coke itself, though regrettably a shot of Jack Daniels is not an option.
The Coca-Cola Loft is packed to the rafters with memorabilia and advertising material harking back to the late nineteenth century. These include original advertising materials and endorsements from such celebrities as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as well as Norman Rockwell paintings specially commissioned by Coca-Cola. The first thing that springs to mind when browsing this treasure chest of collectibles is what would this stuff be worth on eBay?
The World’s examination of all things Coke doesn’t shy away from the more embarrassing moments. While the expansion of the brand yielded such successes as TAB, Fanta, Sprite and Diet Coke, there was also the train wreck that was “new” Coke. On 23 April 1985, a “new” version of Coca-Cola was launched, a move that resulted in exactly 79 days of universal public condemnation until the company backed down and reinstated the “old” version. It was a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; paradoxically that term is generally considered to have originated in Georgia.
The Perfect Pauses Theater shows Coke advertising from around the world including the hugely-successful Hilltop television ad from 1971. This featured a jingle with the line “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” sung by The New Seekers and co-written by British songwriters Billy Davis, Roger Cook and Roger Greenway; Davis had written Reet Petite for Jackie Wilson while Cook and Greenway’s hits included Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress) for The Hollies. The ad was directed by two-time Oscar winner, Haskell Wexler, responsible for Medium Cool (1969). The song was re-recorded by The New Seekers, removing the Coke references, as I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, which went to Number 1 in the UK and was a Top ten hit in the US.
The tour ends, as these things so often do, at the merchandise store. Even the hardest to please anti-consumer will find something to come away with. Even if it is just a new appreciation of the siren call of popular culture.
Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.
Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire. I served John and Nancy regularly and we became fast friends.
One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and my vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.
Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.
Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.
In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.
She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.
By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.
By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.
What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.
Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.
She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.
She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.
When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.
Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.
I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.
Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. A television mini-series, based on Braddon’s book, and starring Noni Hazlehurst as Nancy, appeared in 1987. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.
The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.
Maybe I’ve seen far too many horror movies but when you’re in a place as bizarre as Bombay Beach you can’t help but constantly look over your shoulder. Once a thriving resort area in the desert east of Los Angeles, it now resembles the backdrop for a George Romero zombie movie.
Bombay Beach lies on the shores of the Salton Sea, which is anything but. It’s a lake, covering some 970 square kilometres in the middle of the Sonoran Desert that takes in parts of California, Arizona and north-western Mexico. It lies 69 metres below sea level and, throughout the ages, has alternated between lake and salt pan.
In its current state, it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks. In the 1920s, it became a resort area for the growing population of Los Angeles and communities began to spring up on its shores. By the 1960s, the lack of freshwater infill and low rainfall saw salinity levels rise high enough to periodically endanger the fish life.
Although boating is still popular, the towns of the Salton Sea withered to the point of death. The romantically-named Bombay Beach is just such an example. An hour’s drive north is Palm Springs, a fabulous enclave of mid-century architecture and wealthy celebrity residents, eternally stylish and forever locked in a time capsule of swimming pools, backyard fire pits and a classic car in every Richard Neutra-inspired garage.
Turn off the highway, past the sun-parched Welcome To Bombay Beach sign, and you enter another world. The official population hovers around 300 but you’d never know it. Mobile homes, modest cinderblock houses and run-down timber shacks line the streets. There’s a fire department, general store and tavern but, like the streets, they seem abandoned.
It doesn’t help that temperatures sit above 40 degrees Celcius throughout summer so the residents aren’t likely to be out welcoming curious tourists but Bombay Beach appears, with its faded air of depression and decline, unlikely to ever win any Tidy Town awards. If Palm Springs is Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bombay Beach is Norma Desmond waiting for the mortician to bury her dead chimpanzee.
At the lakefront, where a storm decades ago swamped the town and necessitated the building of three metre-high dirt levee, Bombay Beach becomes a set for the zombie apocalypse. A resort and caravan park was abandoned after almost being washed away; its mobile homes, cottages and outbuildings were slowly pulled into the earth, the salt eating away and almost devouring everything.
The silence, along with the pungent stench of thousands of dead fish, is unsettling. Taking photos requires on eye on the viewfinder and another checking for anything odd, or at least odder than this, coming up behind you. The other tourists laugh nervously, get back in their cars and get out of Dodge real quick.
My curiosity sated, I do the same. After a quick drive through town, I debate whether to stop at the general store but decide that’s a bit too much like the plot of a horror movie. And everybody knows how that ends up.
NOTE: This is Part II of the Garden Palace article.
When the Sydney International Exhibition closed in April 1880, thoughts turned to how best to utilise such a magnificent building. The newspapers of the period weighed in with a range of fanciful possibilities including turning the basement area, under the towering statue of Queen Victoria, into the world’s largest aquarium.
Public sentiment seemed to lean towards a museum. It was announced, not too long after the Exhibition, that the Garden Palace would house the South Kensington Museum of New South Wales. Whether this was an official arrangement with the London museum founded in 1852 and drawing upon exhibits purchased from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (and which was renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in the 1980s) or merely a nod towards the Mother Country, is not known as the plan never reached fulfillment.
However, another museum did occupy some of the space with the Technological and Sanitary Museum taking up space around the ground floor area of the west nave. In the end, political practicality took over. The machinery of colonial government required enormous space and the vast interior of the Garden Palace was perfect for such uses.
The Mines Department, the Harbours and Rivers Department and the Trial Survey Branch were just a few of the many government departments and instrumentalities that set up supplementary offices, storerooms or archives within the Garden Palace.
The Sydney International Exhibition eventually faded into memory and the Garden Palace became an accepted part of the Sydney skyline. Nobody gave much thought to how long the locals would be able to enjoy such a beautiful building. The answer, regrettably, was not that long.
On the morning of 22 September 1882, night watchman F. Kirchen of the Insurance Brigade made his rounds as usual and found nothing of consequence. He met up with the police patrol that regularly visited the building at 5.30am and then walked to the Domain entrance to greet the day watchman, J. McKnight. They chatted for a few minutes as dawn started to seep across the harbour.
Turning their attention to the Garden Palace, they were horrified to notice smoke curling from under the dome. Kirchen and McKnight rushed to the building. It was already too late. They entered the building and saw, through the choking dark smoke, enormous tongues of flame rushing up from the basement area, engulfing the statue of Queen Victoria, and being propelled with increasing speed along the dry wooden beams and supports towards the massive dome.
They had enough time to reach a telephone and alert the Fire Brigade before they fled the scorching heat. After a moment’s hesitation, there was barely time to rescue a pet dog, trapped and barking in panic.
By the time they’d reached a safe distance, the Garden Palace was a roaring ball of flame. As the Sydney Morning Herald later commented, “To describe the progress of the fire is to analyse the events of a few minutes”.
Fire brigades started to arrive from all parts of the city, as did horrified local residents. They could do nothing but watch in stunned disbelief. A few minutes after 6am, the windows of houses fronting Macquarie Street started to crack.
Strong winds fanned the fire which burst in a multitude of colours – dark ruby, green, yellow and blue, tinged by the chemicals and paint treating the wood and the contents of the building – higher skyward. When the dome collapsed, the rush of expelled supercharged heat sent ash, debris and burning cinders as far afield as Darling Point. The roof of a house in Potts Point was set alight while furnace-twisted sheets of corrugated iron rained down on the grounds of Elizabeth Bay House.
The Illustrated Sydney News reported: “A dull roaring sound, and a crackling like the discharge of fire-arms. An immense flame leapt into the sky, volumes of black smoke rolled up, and with a crash like a peal of thunder the mighty dome fell in”.
By 9am, the spectacle was over. The Garden Palace, which for three years, was the first sight of the city skyline seen by ships entering Sydney Heads, was no more. All that remained were a few tottering fragments of the entrance towers, the charred brick foundations and a smouldering pile of rubble that took days to extinguish.
Just about everything within the building was destroyed including hundreds of paintings gathered for the Art Society of New South Wales’ annual exhibition, all documents relating to the 1881 census as well as other important census records going back decades, and land and water calculations that required vast sections of the colony to be re-surveyed.
Attempts to find a cause of the fire proved fruitless. One suggestion was that thieves set the fire while attempting to break into a Mines Department safe. Another was that one of the Macquarie Street landowners had been desperate enough to regain his harbour views that he had resorted to arson.
The sad truth is that fires were a regular occurrence in Victorian times and the haste with which the Garden Palace was constructed, with the Government taking control of the Exhibition’s organisation just eight months before the projected opening, necessitating the use of wood rather than brick and stone, played its part.
It was just one of those things and it robbed Sydney of the most beautiful building that had ever graced its shores.
Today, there’s very little to remind visitors that it ever existed. The Garden Palace Gates, erected in 1889 opposite the State Library (what is now the Mitchell Library), were later relocated to their present site fronting Macquarie Street. The Pioneers’ Memorial Garden was built in 1938 on the spot where Queen Victoria’s statue stood. A small brass plaque commemorates the Garden Palace.
One lasting tribute, although even that is generally known only by trivia buffs, is that the Technological and Sanitary Museum survived the fire despite losing all its exhibits, found safer lodgings and was later renamed the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Later still, it became the Powerhouse Museum and can now be found in Ultimo adjoining Darling Harbour.
NOTE: This is Part I of the Garden Palace article.
The Garden Palace, the most magnificent building Sydney has ever seen, is virtually unknown these days, the province of history buffs and architecture junkies. It doesn’t help that it existed for just three years; in September 2012, it will be the 130th anniversary of its spectacular destruction.
There are a few reminders of its existence if the curious have the time to search the Royal Botanic Gardens but none befits its outstanding splendour and the way it dominated the skyline of the colonial city.
It was a grand Victorian-era confection, an ambitious vision that was hampered by haste, and it was this rush to complete it in time to house the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 that led directly to its untimely demise. Yet, when it opened in September 1879, it excited the awe of the people of New South Wales and the envy of the other colonies. It was a big, bold statement of self-importance especially befitting the colony’s hopes and dreams.
Ever since the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at London’s glittery Crystal Palace, there was a race to mount ever bigger, ever better testaments to technological achievement. New South Wales had sent contributions to the Great Exhibition as well as to subsequent events in 1862 and 1873; to Paris in 1855, 1867 and 1878; and to the biggest of them all, the 1876 Great International Exhibition of America in Philadelphia, that brought together 60,000 exhibitors from 37 countries. All were forerunners of the World’s Fairs and Expos of the 20th century.
The Agricultural Society of New South Wales, founded in 1822, had mounted the much more modest Intercolonial Exhibition in 1870, the centenary of the discovery of Australia, at exhibition buildings located within Prince Alfred Park. As the years wore on, there was agreement that the time was right for New South Wales, as the oldest of the Australian colonies, to make a declaration of its industrial maturity and to be the first in the Southern Hemisphere to do so.
The Society decided on a date in September 1879 to hold a Sydney International Exhibition. Invitations to attend and exhibit were sent out to governments around the world. The response was almost immediate and plans were hastily arranged to extend the exhibition halls of Prince Alfred Park.
The torrent of interest, however, became a deluge that turned into a flood of Noah-like proportions. By late 1878, the Society realised that the Sydney International Exhibition was destined to be bigger than anybody could have imagined. They, and the environs of the Park, just weren’t up to the challenge.
An approach was made to the New South Wales Government to take over the event. Sensing the humiliation to the colony should the Exhibition be cancelled, Henry Parkes, then Colonial Secretary, agreed. In December 1878, nine months before the scheduled opening, it became official.
The rush was on. James Barnet, who had held the post of Colonial Architect since 1865 and whose greatest works would include the Sydney GPO and the Customs House as well as public buildings throughout New South Wales, turned to designing a building big enough and grand enough for the Exhibition. A suitable location would also have to be found.
Formal instructions authorising Barnet were issued on Tuesday 17 December. On the Friday, he submitted a design, which he estimated would cost £50,000 (the eventual cost would blow out to just under £200,000). A prime spot running alongside Macquarie Street and adjoining the Botanic Gardens and the Doman was earmarked. On a high ridge, it was intended that the exhibition building would dominate the city’s skyline and be seen for miles in any direction.
The first controversy of the Garden Palace’s existence erupted even before the first stone had been laid. That the building was going to be big was beyond question; to hold the anticipated exhibitors, floor space was to equal 8.5 acres (3.4 hecatres) and the entire exhibition grounds would spread across 35 acres (14 hectares).
Barnet’s building was, befitting a temple of technological achievement, shaped very much like a church. It had a nave 800 feet (244 metres) long with intersecting transepts 500 feet (152 metres) in length with concluding four storey-high entrance towers. It would be topped by a giant dome 100 feet (30 metres) in diameter (only slightly smaller than St Paul’s Cathedral in London), topped by a lantern for the flow of natural light and an ornamental finial. From the ground to the tip of the finial, the Garden Palace would reach a height of 210 feet (64 metres).
There was a public outcry, fuelled by the newspapers of the period, about such an enormous building dominating a public area. Not the least concerned were the wealthy homeowners along Macquarie Street who were outraged that their expansive harbour views would be endangered.
The site of the Garden Palace was marked out on 2 January 1879, two days before Barnet’s plans were formally approved. By 13 January, construction commenced. By May, more than 3,000 workers were feverishly attempting to meet the looming deadline. The use of carbon-arc floodlights, marking the first use of electric light in the colony, allowed night shifts to accelerate progress.
The factors that hastened the demise of the Garden Palace were beginning to become apparent even at this early stage. With such a pressing deadline, there was no time to use more permanent (and fire-retardant) materials; aside from the brick used in the foundations and the entrance towers, the majority of this vastly enormous building was wood and corrugated iron.
(In comparison, the World Heritage-listed Melbourne Exhibition Building – constructed for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 – was composed primarily of brick and bluestone.)
Thus, the Garden Palace, that most magnificent of constructions in the harbourside city, became impermanence exemplified.
Luckily, everything ran to plan. On Wednesday 17 September 1879, the Sydney International Exhibition had its official opening with some 20,000 people attending. The stormy weather of previous days cleared to bright sunshine; a public holiday had been declared and all shops and businesses were closed.
In total, there were 2,160 foreign exhibitors as well as representation from all Australian colonies. Some 14,000 exhibits crowded the Garden Palace alone; visitors were particularly fascinated by new-fangled inventions. The first elevator ever seen in Australia, with a luxurious interior of paneled ash, carpets and seats, was an instant hit. Another marvel was a machine operated by a 13-year-old girl which washed filthy clothes borrowed from the engineers’ shed to a sparkling white.
The Exhibition was a roaring success. By the time it officially closed, on 20 April 1880, more than one million people had passed through the gates (in a country with a population barely exceeding 2.2 million).
New South Wales had done itself proud. As one newspaper commented, the Sydney International Exhibition had “exalted the colony is the estimation of all civilized countries”.
Once the final visitor had left, the brightly coloured ribbon and bunting removed and the last exhibit crated up and shipped away, there remained another problem. Just what to do with the Garden Palace?
But that, along with the tragic story of the Garden Palace’s final hours, will have to wait for another day.
There are a few destinations in this world that it’s no use rolling up to and expecting them to conform to your expectations. They’re just too sprawling, ambitious, multi-faceted and, ultimately, exhausting.
On this list, I’d include New York, Tokyo, London and Paris. Maybe even Los Angeles, although there’s really only parts I visit and I already know them very well indeed.
The world’s great cities can never be fully explored in one visit. Not even several, maybe not ever. They are constantly evolving, changing from visit to visit, always presenting differing tangential aspects like a slowly shifting kaleidoscope. They forever intrigue and spellbind, confound and delight. Visitors can never expect to completely understand them. They are spectres glimpsed fleetingly in your peripheral vision, slipping off into infinity and lost forever.
The first time I visited New York, I had a list of things I wanted to see and do. At the end of a week, I hadn’t explored beyond mid-town. To this day, much of the list remains. There is just too much and too little time. I still haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty although I’ve glimpsed it from all angles with my favourite being from Battery Park. I haven’t explored the boroughs and I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building.
Whenever I’m there, I often revisited the Metropolitan Museum for the recreated Frank Lloyd Wright room from Wayzata, Minnesota; The Paley Center For Media (if I have a spare day) to settle in and watch those obscure television programs I can’t find anywhere else; a martini in the Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel to relive a North By Northwest moment (overlooking the point that the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage); shopping at Bloomingdale’s (although I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything there; I have more luck at Macy’s), and testing the limits of my baggage allowance at the Strand Book Store.
I’ve moved beyond the disappointment of not ticking off the entire New York list and that’s probably the key component to surviving the world’s great cities. Don’t get too ambitious. It’ll always end in tears before bedtime.
I was just as ambitious when I first visited Paris. Again, I had The List; I spent more time on the Metro, criss-crossing the city, than actually experiencing what I wanted. On subsequent trips, it occurred to me that a far more logical way of dealing with Paris was to stay in a different area each time and just explore within that arrondissement.
In the 2ndarrondissement, I’d stay at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, preferably in a room overlooking the Opéra Garnier, which is always worthy of a few idle hours to marvel at the understated decor. It’s a short stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra to Harry’s New York Bar for le hot dog and a Bloody Mary, which more than a few of those in the know claim was invented right there. Sitting within the cosy wood-panelled rooms, where Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation congregated, it becomes a literary pilgrimage on par with Shakespeare & Co.
In the 6th district, around Saint-Germain, there are so many small hotels with similar charm and pricing, it’s difficult to choose just one. And there’s much to do in the area. An outdoor table at Le Deux Magots, pointedly ignoring the tourists, or a short walk down the Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the jazz clubs or a movie (preferably Woody Allen or Jerry Lewis, in VO). Or the small restaurants that seem to proliferate like lapin between the Boulevard and the Seine, where the mixed-priced menus are very reasonable, if you feel like French onion soup, duck and crème brûlée, as good a meal as any if the fancy takes you. And, afterwards, a browse through the Taschen store on the Rue de Buci.
So the key to survival is simple: don’t even think of compiling The List. Just take your time and enjoy what’s happening around you.
In the 70s, before the accountants took over Hollywood and the merits of a film came to be judged largely by its opening weekend gross, there occurred a vivid flowering of cinematic creativity. Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah and more rode the monster surf of the American New Wave but none were more audacious than Robert Altman.
After honing his craft as a documentarian, short film maker and director of television shows, he burst onto the scene in 1970 with the vibrantly shambolic MASH. The green light glowed above subsequent projects and there followed such critically-acclaimed, though less successful, films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and California Split (1974).
By mid-way through the decade, Altman had cemented a reputation both as a visionary film stylist and a perfectionist who would not be cowed by studios or producing partners. Yet scripts continued to flow his way. In 1975, he was approached to direct a film about the country music industry, intended as the debut vehicle of Welsh singer, Tom Jones. Altman, in his characteristic go-to-hell manner, kept the city and dumped the script and star.
The result was Nashville, undoubtedly Altman’s masterpiece, a bold and enterprising delight that just gets better with each viewing. Richly detailed, the foundation was a screenplay by fledgling writer Joan Tewkesbury, responsible for Thieves Like Us. Altman had sent Tewkesbury off to Nashville to scout out suitable storylines. In collaboration with Altman, the resulting script juggled 24 main characters, weaving the entertainment industry and a growing preoccupation with celebrity into the souring of a nation’s spirit by Vietnam and Watergate.
Altman traditionally drew upon a group of regular players for his films and many were earmarked for Nashville. Some early casting selections, however, didn’t play out. Louise Fletcher was the original choice to play Linnea Reese, conservative housewife and mother of two deaf children; Fletcher’s parents were deaf and she had grown up using sign language, experience that Altman incorporated into the final script.
When Fletcher dropped out to play Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which she won an Academy Award), she was replaced by Lily Tomlin. Haven Hamilton, vanguard of Nashville’s country music royalty, was earmarked for Robert Duvall; Henry Gibson, like Lily Tomlin, better known as a comedian on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, took the role and made it his own, down to a hairpiece that seems fashioned from a slumbering Ewok.
Gary Busey was an early casting choice for Tom, the priapic and emotionally distant folk singer which was eventually played by Keith Carradine. Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler both turned down the role of blowsy country music wannabe Albuquerque.
Altman allowed his actors to comprehensively inhabit their characters without censure. Considering a script more of a blueprint than gospel, he requested they improvise their own dialogue as well as write their own songs. His trust was usually well placed.
Jan Stuart, author of The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster, 2000), told of an actor asking Altman whether he’d be in a close-up or a two-shot. “What makes you think you’re on camera at all? Altman replied. “When I say “Action”, just live your life. I’ll either see you or I won’t.”
Some, like Gibson, stayed in character for the entire two month shoot. And a lot of the most memorable moments came not from Altman regulars but newcomers such as neophyte Ronee Blakely, portraying fragile country singer Barbara Jean, based on Loretta Lynn. Blakely wrote four of her own songs as well as the complex rambling monologue for her tragic on-stage emotional breakdown.
The women have the best roles in this film, facilitated by Tewkesbury’s script and Altman’s relish of female points of view. The result is a range of fascinating moral ambiguities; we may not agree with the choices made by many of the characters but we are constantly enthralled and care about them all the same.
Nashville plays towards a final major set piece organised around a political rally. We never see the candidate but, just as it seems the plot will culminate in a political assassination, it all gets turned on its head and one of the performers becomes the target of the opportunistic killer. In this, Altman was far ahead of his time in predicting celebrity assassinations; the quiet, owlish loner who wields the gun bears a disquietening resemblance to Mark David Chapman who, five years after Nashville’s release, would gun down John Lennon.
Another of Altman’s daring experiments was in the area of sound recording, creatively blending several conversations at once to propel plot and character development. Altman used technician Jim Webb, who had learned his craft on music documentaries such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971) and later worked with Altman on Thieves Like Us.
Webb hooked radio microphones to each of the major players in a scene and recorded their dialogue onto individual sound tracks via an eight-track system. Altman could then mix the sound to his exacting standards during the editing process. The disappointment was that, given this revolutionary process, Nashville didn’t get an Oscar nomination in the sound category.
At the end of the two-month shoot, Altman had more than 200,000 feet of film, coming in at about 16 hours of footage. When it seemed that one movie wouldn’t be big enough for his vision, he briefly toyed the idea with creating two films, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue. This didn’t get beyond the planning stage, nor did a television mini-series utilising the extra footage. Decades later, a sequel to Nashville, reprising many of the major characters, was also stillborn.
As it was, the final cut of Nashville ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. Although the critics once again loved it (Pauline Kael of The New Yorker previewed a rough cut in a lengthy review that ran three months before the premiere, calling it “a radical, evolutionary leap” and “the ultimate Altman movie”), it made just $US7 million at the American box office (on a $US2.2 million budget). It wasn’t babka but it also wasn’t the return to financial form that had been predicted.
Altman would spend the next 15 years wandering the cinematic wastelands with ever-decreasing budgets and success until the career-replenishing double-whammy of The Player and Short Cuts in the early 90s.
Nashville, however, remains his great classic, a movie that repays every favour it asks of an audience and is as fresh and inventive as it appeared 35 years ago.
“Papa.” I called out to the complete stranger standing in front of Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos on the Calle Obispo.
The big man chuckled heartily as only a big man can; the sound originated deep in his barrel chest and rolled forth with the gravity of an ancient cannon being dragged across a stone-flagged courtyard. He was rotund with a big white beard and a theatrically enormous cigar; his embrace was spine-crushing.
I dragged him across to the hotel’s entrance for a photograph. Like many establishments throughout Cuba, the Ambos Mundos trades on its association with Ernest Hemingway and the generously-proportioned impersonator was, in turn, profitably trading off the hotel’s association. It was a symbiotic relationship of the type that drives tourism all around the world; in this case, it added a little extra frisson for the tourists.
Hemingway is big in Cuba. Throughout the 1930s, when Hemingway was rolling towards literary immortality following the enthusiastic reception of The Sun Also Rises, he was a regular visitor to Cuba. Invariably, he would stay at the Ambos Mundos, close to all the bars, restaurants and nightclubs he tore through like a tornado.
Room 511, on the front corner of the building, with a balcony looking up the Calle Obispo to the Plaza de Armas and the waterfront beyond, was his favoured room and it has been turned into a shrine to Hemingway. It is recreated for the period when Papa called it home, down to its plain single bed, typewriter and various personal effects. The entrance fee to the museum is two convertible pesos, equivalent to about $US2 which was the amount Hemingway paid per night for his room.
The hotel publicity claims he wrote Death In The Afternoon and The Green Hills of Africa in that room. Subsequent books would be written at Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm, a property he later purchased outside Havana and which has since become Hemingway Central for his fans, part museum, part national shrine.
Reminders of Hemingway are everywhere in Havana. At the other end of the Calle Obispo is the Floridita, a bar and restaurant that lays claim to inventing the Daiquiri; Hemingway, ever the shill for his own legend, preferred a double-shot of the cocktail. In between, in just about every street and narrow laneway, there’s some reminder of Papa, no matter how obscure.
Later in life, Hemingway would drink to mitigate the pain from two plane crashes he had endured in Africa. When he was young and virile, he drank because he enjoyed it and it complemented his burgeoning reputation. It was what men did and Hemingway fashioned himself as a man in a world that was becoming increasingly marginalised.
Cuba’s adoration for Hemingway straddles the cultural chasm between the man and the legend. Hemingway the man loved adventure, world travel, his many cats, his numerous dogs, drinking, and women, not necessarily in that order. Hemingway nurtured the myth in his own lifetime and it has flourished in the decades since, in the silent early hours of a gentle summer morning, he took his favourite twelve-gauge Boss shotgun onto the porch of his cottage in Ketchum, Idaho, and consigned himself to legend.
No-one in Cuba talks about the old Hemingway, his creative waters muddied by old injuries, half blind and rattled by electroconvulsive therapy. To Cubans, he is a folk hero, a man shaped by the magnetic attraction of heroic bravado and superhuman appetites.
He represents the Latin ideal of machismo and it fits well with the Cuban love of life – to live heartily, love with no regret and damn the consequences. Hemingway would have approved.
Cubans have an innate ability to survive the difficulties of life. They do this by harnessing their vibrant sense of humour to an endearingly lateral approach to making money from tourism.
Have an old car held together with spit, paint and fencing wire? Turn it into a taxi. Know some good bars and restaurants? Become an unofficial tourist guide. Have an interesting face? Pose for photos. The upside is that the enterprising Cubans can expect their stipends in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) which are issued only to foreign visitors and are worth 20 times more than the Cuban Pesos (CUP) the locals use. Officially, locals aren’t allowed to handle tourist pesos but there’s a thriving trade nonetheless.
The CUC was introduced to give the government greater control over foreign currency. British pounds, Canadian dollars, Euros and Japanese Yen are all extremely welcome. US dollars can be exchanged but the Government rubs it in by levying a 10 per cent fee on top of the normal currency exchange transactions. The Americans don’t seem to mind too much; they pay 10 per cent more for the currency to buy cigars that cost 70 per cent less than they do back home if they can get them. They seem to think it’s a win-win situation.
Locals ready for their Kodak moments congregate around the Plaza de Armas at the waterfront end of the Calle Obispo. The site of the Plaza was where Havana was created in the 1600s and it grew outwards from there, becoming the first city square and an important part in its social life. One of the most important buildings surrounding the square is the baroque Palace of the Captain Generals, built in the late 18th century, which has performed many duties over the years and is now a museum.
The park in the middle of the square is lush and shady, providing welcome shelter on hot days. Around the edges are stalls selling antiquarian and second-hand books, many of which deal with Fidel Castro. Some of the sellers also offer vintage gambling chips from the 1950s when American gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano ran Havana casinos.
There are always locals eager to pose for photographs if the price is right. Some dress up in elaborate costumes such as Carmen Miranda (overlooking the minor detail that the fruit salad-draped movie star was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil), others are content just to be themselves.
What they do with the money they make is anyone’s guess. When I visited a local supermarket, I found aisle upon aisle empty except for one section that had hundreds of tins of Nestlé Quik. As fresh milk, like most other foodstuffs with the occasional exception of rice and beans, is in exceedingly short supply, and what is available is prohibitively expensive, it’s little wonder it hadn’t flown off the shelves.
Those who stand out from the crowd in Japan are quite happy, even eager, to pose for the camera as the above readily illustrates. And while this observation has little to do with the intended subject, at least it gives me an opening photograph.
At the risk of sounding obtuse, maybe it does, in a weird, disjointed way, lead into one of my pet aversions – karaoke. For a culture that has given the world so many of my favourite things, including Astro Boy, Godzilla, Shintaro and Tombei The Mist, and the wonderful dripping world woodcuts of Hiroshi Yoshida, karaoke almost balances the scales.
Although it is said that karaoke translates into “empty orchestra”, a far more honest meaning would be “ritualised humiliation”.
As an Australian male, I may have something of a natural inclination towards self-delusion but not when it comes to singing in public. I know I can’t sing. Never have and never will. That, however, doesn’t stop millions of other people from ignoring their inner voices and inflicting their limited vocal skills on others.
My first experience with karaoke was in Kyoto, as part of a multinational group inspecting conference facilities. One night, as a brief respite from visiting ballrooms that after eight hours all looked the same, we were invited to a traditional Noh performance. These days, anything described as a cultural experience, especially in Asia, will have me feigning smallpox and requesting immediate quarantine. Back then, however, I was young, eager to please and far too brave for my own good.
The Noh performance was, according to others, culturally enriching although it did seem to go on for days. There had been no dinner beforehand which only made it all the more interminable.
Afterwards, we were led to a small nightclub in the basement of an even smaller office building where we gathered around barrel-shaped tables on which were large bottles of beer, delicate china carafes of sake and glasses of strong Scotch and dry. Emotionally drained by jet lag and the events of the evening, we rapidly drained the table of alcohol. It was almost immediately replenished.
Each of the nationalities was encouraged to sing a song of their own culture. The English chose God Save The Queen, having been unable to find anything on the music list by Val Doonican.
The Americans, without a hint of irony, looked no further than The Star Spangled Banner. There’s no harder a song for amateurs to sing (aside perhaps for My Way which they bravely but unsuccessfully attempted later in the evening) and the result sounded very much like feeding time in an animal shelter as produced by Phil Spector.
Only the French emerged from the cultural trainwreck with any dignity intact. In a masterstroke of lateral thinking, they chose Je t’aime. The men flawlessly channelled Serge Gainsbourg, the women Brigitte Bardot (though, not, it should be noted in any physical sense).
The Australian group was last. I’d been flicking through the song list with increasing panic. Mercifully, Click Go The Shears, Advance Australia Fair and Home Among The Gumtrees were not included. Harsh circumstances called for desperate measures.
By the time the Australian group had been called to the stage, most had mysteriously disappeared. I searched under discarded coats and inside the barrel tables but they were nowhere to be found.
With only one other Australian, we mounted the stage. I introduced our song, explaining its complex cultural significance and how it was indicative of the Australian way of life, a song that spoke of our country’s rich history and vibrant personality.
The audience listened politely, if a little confused. There was a smatter of applause.
We than launched into the Theme From Rawhide.
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Though the streams are swollin’
Keep those dogies movin’
The atmosphere could be described as quizzical, especially with my partner’s Norman Gunston-like acting out of the lyrics. There were cheers when I managed to improvise a kangaroo reference or two into the lyrics.
At the end of the song, some of the audience leapt to their feet but my gratitude lasted only until I realised it was the Italian group heading off to look for the cigarette machine.
As the evening progressed and fresh rounds of beer, sake and Scotch washed across the groups, the inhibitions, like the quality of the singing, dropped remarkably.
Even the Australians lay prone on the melodic altar of humiliation and begged for more. After a couple of particularly desperate yet endearingly enthusiastic interpretations of New York, New York, Feelings and The Pina Colada Song (welcome back to the blog, Rupert Holmes), my memory reached that point that occurs in all extreme trauma and blanked out.
New Orleans can be highly addictive and no more so than with its distinctive cuisine. For someone who considers that all the major food groups are best encompassed on the dessert menu, it’s as close to heaven as it’s possible to get.
Bread pudding is something I’ll always associate with New Orleans. It’s a staple on most Creole restaurant menus and variations abound. The traditional bread pudding is usually accompanied with a piquant bourbon sauce and is made from stale French bread although, in truth, any kind of bread will do, even common or garden variety sliced white. For something a little different, try croissants.
The chefs of New Orleans are nothing if not adventurous. I first visited the wonderful Palace Café on Canal Street soon after it opened in 1991. It is co-owned by Dickie Brennan, whose family lives and breathes great restaurants. He trained in the kitchen of the family’s landmark Commander’s Palace in the Garden District under Chef Paul Prudhomme; Dickie’s other great restaurants are Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse and the Bourbon House Seafood and Oyster Bar.
But whenever I’m in New Orleans, I always end up at the Palace Café, even just to pull up a stool at the bar late in the evening and pay my respects to a staggeringly luscious variation on the bread pudding – the White Chocolate Bread Pudding.
White Chocolate Bread Pudding
6 cups heavy whipping cream
2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
20 ounces (570 grams) white chocolate, broken into small pieces
15 egg yolks
1 (24-inch – 60cm) loaf stale French bread or fresh French bread that has been sliced and dried in a 275-degree Fahrenheit (135 degrees Celsius) oven
White Chocolate Ganache
½ cup heavy whipping cream
8 ounces (225 grams) white chocolate, broken into small pieces
For the PUDDING, combine the whipping cream, milk and sugar in a large heavy saucepan and mix well. Bring to a boil then remove from the heat. Add the white chocolate pieces and let stand for several minutes or until the chocolate melts; stir till smooth
Whisk the eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the warm chocolate mixture in a slow steady stream; scrape the saucepan with a rubber spatula to remove all the chocolate.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Cut the French bread into thin slices and place in a 9 x 12-inch (23cm x 30cm) baking pan. Pour half the chocolate mixture over the bread and let stand for 5 minutes. Press the bread into the chocolate mixture with a rubber spatula or fingers to saturate well. Pour the remaining chocolate mixture over the bread and stir to mix well.
Cover the pan with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for 30 minutes longer or until golden brown. Cool to room temperature and chill, covered, in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours or until set.
For the GANACHE, bring the whipping cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and add the white chocolate pieces. Let stand until the chocolate melts and stir until smooth.
Loosen the pudding from the sides of the pan with a knife and invert onto a work surface. Cut into squares, then cut the squares diagonally into triangles. Place the triangles on a baking sheet and reheat at 275 degrees Fahrenheit (135 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes or until warm.
To serve, place the pudding triangles on serving plates and top with the ganache. Garnish with dark chocolate shavings.
The Palace Café can be found at 605 Canal Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. For reservations, phone (504) 523 1661.
Many thanks to the Palace Café for this recipe and photo.
If you didn’t know better, the shopkeepers of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar would present forlorn figures. Foreign tourists troop past them, their gaze focused steadfastly on the far distance, flicking neither left nor right, as if to engage in any way would see them kidnapped and robbed at gunpoint. Or worse, sold a carpet.
“Hello,” the shopkeepers cry out plaintively. “Hello. I am here.”
The tourists seem dressed to a stolid uniformity. Freshly pressed khakis, checked shirts and gleaming white runners. Bum bags and badly-concealed money belts bulge from their already bulging silhouettes. In the midst of the Grand Bazaar, one of the city’s most fascinating attractions, which has drawn visitors to its expansive confines for more than 600 years, they seem intent on getting from one end to the other in the quickest possible time. Without buying a carpet.
A shopkeeper catches me watching him. He smiles and gives a non-committal shrug, his eyes twinkling with a guarded humour. It’s all a game, he seems to say, one that has been going on forever and doubtless will continue for much longer.
On busy days, when there are as many locals as tourists, the press can be close to overwhelming. The only living beings not disturbed are the cats who display an admirable calm. They’ve been the true locals of the bazaar for centuries, countless generations, and there’s nothing they haven’t seen or survived. They sit peacefully in the midst of the walkways, letting the tumult flow around them with Zen-like calm, feline pebbles in fast-flowing steams of humanity.
Anything you could possibly desire can be found in these wide dusty passages. Gold jewellery, leather coats, fake designer handbags. Beautiful decorative objects such as richly-inlaid backgammon boards and the distinctly colourful ceramics that hail from Kutahya in Turkey’s west. Clothing, fabrics, souvenirs, antiques real and otherwise, silverware and copperware, it’s all available.
Aisle upon aisle, row upon row, in covered laneways and serpentine open streets. The market developed in Byzantine times; some parts were roofed over, grew, sprawled, got bigger and then expanded further.
A precise figure is unknown but guidebooks estimate there are around 4,000 shops. A good pair of walking shoes are a necessity but more so is enough curiosity to take the time to stop and chat occasionally to the shopkeepers. You may have no intention of buying anything but it’s a social custom that pays unexpected dividends.
And when you do find something you like, there are protocols in play that it helps to know about beforehand. If you’re in a shop and you’re offered a drink, whether it be Coke, Turkish coffee or mint tea, that means the transaction is set to move to the next level. If you agree, you’re committing to the negotiating process. It’s just a matter of finding the right price.
This isn’t an Asian street market. You can’t haggle in quite the same way. Don’t over-act, throw your hands up in the air, or raise your voice. That’s not how it’s done. If you don’t like the price and it’s not going down to where you want it, be polite, thank the shopkeeper for his/her hospitality and make for the door. If you get at least three stores down the alley and you haven’t been made a better offer, it can’t be done.
Quality in the Grand Bazaar tends to be high. Expect to pay for it. You’re not in Wal-Mart. If you make a deal you’re happy with, you’ll end up with something truly special.
When it all gets too overwhelming, there are numerous restaurants and cafes throughout the market in which to relax and watch the passing parade. As I was leaving one café, I was stopped and, as is invariably the case, asked where I was from. Sydney, Australia, I replied.
The young man was beautifully dressed despite the high summer heat and impeccably polite. “Please,” he said, “I’d like you to meet someone.” The first rule of the careful tourist is never go anywhere with a stranger but the Turkish coffee bolstered a gung-ho reaction and I was up for anything except a carpet.
I baulked when he steered me towards a carpet shop but he was insistent in a way that piqued my interest. Behind the counter was a young Turkish girl. She laughed as we were introduced. She’d grown up on Sydney’s northern beaches. Her father owned this section of the markets and she spent six months of the year in Istanbul running her own carpet business.
I’d discovered something I wasn’t expecting and that made my visit all the more worthwhile. Next time I may well consider a carpet.
The recently-opened career retrospective accorded film director Tim Burton at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has drawn mixed reviews but the adoration of his fans is just as dangerously entrapping as the goo that snared dinosaurs millions of years ago in the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.
From the opening day, Burton’s legions of admirers have flocked to LACMA clothed in the off-kilter aesthetics of his characters. Burton has always had a thirst for the visually spellbinding, from Beetlejuice (1988) and his revolutionary re-imagining of the Batman mythos to the culturally merciless, almost Andrew Lang-like fairy stories of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Big Fish (2003), and the electroconvulsive short-circuiting of traditional Hollywood fodder in Planet Of The Apes (2001) and Alice In Wonderland (2010).
I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of Burton but will religiously line up on opening day for each new film. Burton is all technicolourful style and movement, bright and shiny and just as long lasting as one of Willy Wonka’s confections. What he brings to the screen, a reawakening of expressionism and the gothic sensibility, he neglects in his characters; I haven’t been emotionally connected to a Tim Burton character since Edward Scissorhands. Like Edward, crack the chest of Burton’s films and all you find is a mechanical heart.
It’s all blue screen and CGI and motion capture. Burton’s is a closed universe with little room for an aesthetic to wander around unhindered. Compare this with a director such as Tarantino where, the more you watch, the more minor details emerge from the busy canvas and take on a life of their own.
That’s not to say his films are entirely unsatisfying. I’m a rabid supporter of movies that almost just not-quite realise their full potential, the coulda been, shoulda been masterpieces.
The Gotham City of Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) was a dystopian wonderland, hemorrhaging from the ravaged heart of its own citizenry; it was a cityscape that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t improve upon. The main problem was Michael Keaton’s Batman, whose pursed lips were his only semaphore for emotional agony.
Alice In Wonderland was gorgeous to look at and packed with great actors but the sum of their talent was wasted by a script that allowed them little more than the opportunity to turn up in flamboyant costumes.
The simian Statue of Liberty in the original Planet Of The Apes made more sense and had significantly more shock value than Burton’s Ape-raham Lincoln twist ending.
Far more interesting are his early films. Ed Wood (1994) was the one instance where Burton didn’t scatter his expressionistic bag of tricks across the screen like a cinematic Jackson Pollock and hope for the best. In this affectionate tribute to the 1950s schlock director, he was understated, even muted. Shot in black and white, it had the effect of reigning in a visual delinquency that would become a regurgitated motif in later years.
The Tim Burton retrospective was originally curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009 and travelled to Melbourne’s Australian Centre For The Moving Image the following year. It runs at LACMA until 31 October 2011.
I’m one for the gaudy souvenir. No matter where I go, there’s always something just a little bit over the top that is worthy of taking home. As I stood before the pet shop window in a Cancun shopping mall, I was seriously considering a purchase that would not only commemorate my visit to this Mexican resort destination but forever remind me of my ignoble but nonetheless landmark introduction to the hallowed sport of golf.
Despite having been in the tourist industry for decades, where golf is not just a pastime but an important business lubricant, I’d never considered taking it up. I already had more than enough obsessions. I’d travelled with a lot of musicians and many have given up such harmless activities as trashing hotel rooms and throwing televisions into swimming pools to chase a little white ball around rolling greens. It’s all some of them can talk about. Even Alice Cooper spent much of his first stint in retirement playing golf with Bob Hope. It doesn’t get any more bizarre than that.
I was staying at the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, an enormous complex of almost 2,500 guestrooms, 15 restaurants and 12 bars perched on the edge of the Caribbean. The resort itself was somewhat of a revelation in that it is all-inclusive. The room rate included breakfast, lunch and dinner, every snack in between and all drinks.
Australians know the all-inclusive concept from the generally cheesy Club Med model but nothing prepared me for this. Every restaurant, from the buffet to the fine dining Italian, Brazilian, Mexican and steak house, and every drink, from the wonderful local dark Dos Equis to top shelf tequilas and Grey Goose vodka to Argentinian, Italian, French and Italian wines by the glass and bottle, were all free.
Our host, Brett, was a mad golfer and, as the other members of the group were focused on trying out the spa, I was his only possible golf partner. I’d warned him well in advance that I’d never even set foot on a course before but he overlooked such a trifling detail, something I’m sure he regrets to this day.
A Jack Nicklaus design, I’m reliably informed that it’s a 7,165-yard 72-par course with a signature 17th hole that’s a 151-yard par 3 that plays downhill to an island green. It meant very little to me then and even less now.
We fronted up to the Pro Shop on a wonderfully warm and humid afternoon and were outfitted with shoes with little spikes, golf clubs and an electric cart that included a chilled cooler full of mineral water. The first sign of trouble came on the practice range. Mimicking Brett’s stance, I fired off a few balls but no matter how I positioned myself they always went off at right angles. I could connect easily enough, I had the strength and the range but pointing them in the right direction, even a passingly similar compass point, proved impossible.
Sensing that this could be a far longer game than anticipated, Brett swapped the bucket of 20 used balls for an even bigger bucket of 50. And this for just nine holes. I considered even that overly optimistic on his part.
The greens were draped with iguanas of all shapes and sizes, lazily basking in the sun and seemingly oblivious to the danger that faced them. Some were huge, extras from Jurassic Park, and all had an upright, elegant carriage that intimated a fierce temperament. Luckily, none of my golf balls went anywhere near them, spearing past at sub-sonic speed into lakes, forests, thickets, adjoining greens, clubhouses, public roads, Mayan cultural landmarks, sinkholes, anywhere but where they supposed to go. I heard of no fatalities that day although there were times when an ambulance would speed by, lights flashing and siren wailing, on its way to an emergency call that I immediately felt responsible for.
We ran out of balls before the ninth hole and decided it was wise to give up. Later, in front of the pet shop, I felt the urge to rescue the iguanas in the window. I knew I couldn’t take them back to Australia. But I could set them free far from a golf course where they may come to harm from a golfer like me.
If the World Wildlife Fund was truly serious about saving endangered species, they should pay me never to play golf again. The iguanas of Cancun would, I’m sure, agree.
The French are delightfully perplexing. They turned the cinematic world on its head with the New Wave and then worshiped Jerry Lewis. They are the last word in style yet made sex symbols of Gerard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Gainsbourg. Their tourist attractions are no less fathomable. For every Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, there’s something so completely bizarre that it strains credibility.
Two of my favourites are hidden away but well worth seeking out. The entrance to the Catacombes de Paris is just opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro station on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.
Above the entrance is a sign that forbiddingly declares “Stop! This Is The Empire of Death”. Visitors must make their way down a narrow spiral staircase to tunnels that snake 20 metres below the city streets.
Getting there early will avoid the crowds that tend to congregate later in the day but being alone in tunnels that extend for some kilometres can be unsettling. The ossuary holds the bones of around five million people, most removed from old Parisian graveyards during the modernization of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century. A large proportion of the relics originated from the Le Cimetière des Innocents in the Les Halles district.
Whether Paris is sweltering in late summer or freezing with the approach of winter, the catacombs maintain a constant temperature of 11° Celcius. The tunnel floor can be wet and uneven so it’s ill-advised to attempt the walk in your favourite Louboutins. The first 15 minutes or so are fascinating, with skulls and bones arranged in extremely creative groupings. After a while, however, it all becomes a little tedious and not even my extreme fear of rats could elicit more than a tinge of unease.
Anybody hoping to snare an authentic souvenir of the catacombs will be disappointed. A security guard at the exit will search visitors’ bags and confiscate anything that should remain underground. Photography, however, is permitted.
My all-time favourite Paris tourist attraction is the Musée des Égouts de Paris, the acclaimed Sewer Museum. The entrance is easy to overlook, next to a small blue kiosk on the left bank of the Seine adjacent to the Pont de l‘Alma.
The sewers of Paris were celebrated in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and the truly miserable musical of the same name, and countless movies about the French Resistance during World War II. Although dating back for centuries, Paris’ modern sewer network is yet another legacy of Baron Haussmann, this time working with visionary engineer Eugéne Belgrand.
The museum is far below ground, built on platforms over a working section of the sewers. It is eye-wateringly realistic and should not be visited immediately after breakfast. The exhibits have explanations in both French and English so visitors are in no doubt of exactly what they are seeing and smelling.
It can be said that the sewer museum is a movement away from the traditional sanitised tourist attraction, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of everyday Parisians. It would be easy to dump on such a concept, to attempt to flush away its philosophical bona fides but the reality is that it’s a breath of (not so) fresh air.
In the 1980s, when negotiations were underway to build Euro Disney outside Paris, there were suggestions that Disney should also take over some of Paris’ most notable tourist attractions. It was only through the protracted protests of French trade unions and leading existentialists that this was avoided.
How the sewer museum would look today in that unlikely event can only be imagined. Perhaps a children’s ride with dancing animatronic figures set in a gleaming porcelain tunnel and a catchy theme song along the lines of “It’s A Small Turd”.
There is, however, a gift shop that has some wonderful souvenirs although, sadly, no snow globes. And, near the exit, there are toilets so that incurable romantics can leave their mark on their favourite city.
For those who always suspected that the French are wonderfully eccentric, there is no greater demonstration.
It’s said that you can never go home and, when it comes to Los Angeles history, it may well be the case. I get a certain sense of melancholy whenever I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard and I pass the Andaz West Hollywood for I both knew it in a previous life and know of it because it is one of rock music’s most famed and infamous locations.
The hotel originally opened in 1963 as the Gene Autry Hotel, owned by the Singing Cowboy of film and recording fame. Autry didn’t retain the hotel for long, selling it in 1966 at which time it was renamed the Continental Hyatt House. Over the next 30 years, it changed names to the Hyatt On Sunset and, later, the Hyatt West Hollywood. From the 60s, though, it had already started its sordid journey to musical Valhalla by way of the Twilight Zone.
It became the hotel of choice for touring rock bands, known as the Riot House to those in the know. Many of the truly extraordinary stories that developed are equal parts hard truth and colourful myth; separating one from the other is almost impossible these days as even those who were there were so mentally splayed by drink, drugs and excessive partying that they have only a nodding acquaintance with the reality. Like so much of popular culture, it’s often a matter of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
The Lizard King, the original rock’n’roll God known to mortals as Jim Morrison, slithered into the Hyatt in the 60s at the height of his unearthly powers. After months of excess, he was finally evicted after hanging from a top floor balcony by his fingertips.
In the 70s, it was the turn of such superstar acts as the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Whether it was the Who’s unhinged drummer, Keith Moon, or the Stone’s pharmaceutically-challenged Keith Richards who first became bored enough to start redesigning the décor isn’t recorded but throwing televisions out hotel windows soon became a popular activity for rock musicians.
At the height of their fame in the 70s, Led Zeppelin would block-book up to six floors at a time. In scenes that would make Fellini’s Satyricon look like a Wiggles video, the band would drag race motorcycles in the hallways, trash their rooms and generally do things their mothers would never approve of.
I stayed there quite a few times in the 90s and clearly remember running into Little Richard, by that time a long-term resident. Despite being in his late 60s, I was always amazed to notice he had the complexion of a 30-year-old.
Across the road is the House of Blues, the restaurant and live music venue originally co-owned by actor Dan Ackroyd. It was there I had one of my most memorable brushes with fame. I’d spent the previous few days on hotel inspections throughout West Hollywood and had been invited to dinner at the House of Blues. Afterwards, I was in the top floor private members’ club having a drink when I noticed a man at the bar who seemed familiar. Not being able to place him but thinking he was one of the many hotel executives I’d talked to, I wander over for a chat.
After about half an hour of animated conversation, I said goodnight and went back to my hotel. In the middle of night, I woke up and realised I’d been discussing convention room measurements with Micky Dolenz of The Monkees.
The Hyatt On Sunset had a makeover a couple of years ago. The Andaz, aside from sounding like a Louisiana sausage, now resembles just about every other boutique hotel ever opened. The balconies have been glassed in, the furnishings are plushly luxurious, there are duvets and widescreen TVs and designer toiletries and you could easily wake up and wonder where in the world you are.
Management probably has a policy these days against racing motorcycles in the hallways and you can undoubtedly pitch a tent on the sidewalk and not have a television drop on your head. In all, the neighbourhood has gone to hell. Keith Richards probably wouldn’t recognise the place but, then again, is there anything he does recognise?
Roswell, New Mexico, is where it all began. UFOs, little green men, Mulder, Scully, the whole shebang. Most likely, it was also the beginning of conspiracy theories, the wide-spread public belief in government cover-ups and that modern day malaise of never believing anything we’re told, especially if it’s by authority figures.
I’d been on a road trip through the south-western United States, driving from Las Vegas (the quaint and historic New Mexico town rather than its better-known neon-and-nihilism namesake) and had stopped off in Fort Sumner to visit the grave of Billy The Kid. The next stage of the trip was on to Roswell before heading to El Paso, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving.
It was late November and the weather was clear although there was little warmth from the sun and the nights were freezing cold. I’d passed by the site north of town where the “reputed” crash of a UFO and the recovery of the bodies of its alien inhabitants by the US military had occurred back in 1947. I’d paid little attention to the black helicopters that seemed to track my progress or the bulky dark SUVs that were always in my rear vision mirror.
I reached the city limits of Roswell and that’s when things really started getting weird. If there had never been an “alleged” UFO crash, there would be no tourism industry to speak of but Roswell embraces visitors of all kinds, even little green ones.
There are UFOs and aliens everywhere you turn in this town. The Walmart has them, the many fast food franchises, including Arby’s, Denny’s KFC and Chilli’s have them in profusion. There are galaxies of gift shops and nebula of T-shirts, shot glasses, ashtrays, beer coasters and snow globes. Everything you need to fit out an intergalactic space-age bachelor pad or the rumpus room of the Millennium Falcon.
The official City of Roswell website buzzes with spaceships and alien life forms, only a few of which are elected officials. Each July, there’s a UFO Festival that includes an Alien Battle Of The Bands and an Alien Wine Festival, although it should be noted that consuming alcohol while travelling at warp speed is not recommended. Long-suppressed reports of the 1947 UFO crash state that numerous empty beer bottles along with salsa and Doritos were found in the spaceship.
Ground zero for tourists to Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research Centre on Main Street. Dioramas and displays carefully explain the area’s history and little green men abound. Strangely, many look exactly as they do on the Sci-Fi Channel.
In the gift store, I uncovered another disturbing link between Roswell and world history. The slim volume written by Donald R. Burleson is titled UFOs and the Murder of Marilyn Monroe (Black Mesa Press, 2003). Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I made the purchase and brought it back to the Hampton Inn and Suites.
On check-in, I’d asked the receptionist whether she’s seen anything other-worldly lately. It seemed to strike a nerve. She looked evasive for a moment, as if she knew everything she said was being recorded and beamed straight back to Area 51. Then she nodded and grimaced wearily. “Just my boyfriend,” she muttered in a low voice.
I read Burleson’s book from cover to cover that night. His central theory was that Marilyn Monroe had been briefed by John F. Kennedy about Roswell, crashed UFOs, alien autopsies and the subsequent political cover-up. She was murdered days before holding a press conference during which she intended telling the world of her discoveries.
Interestingly, Burleson had also published studies of H.P. Lovecraft which opens the possibility that Marilyn Monroe was killed not by the Mafia or the CIA but by Cthulhu itself.
I fell into a deep and undisturbed sleep while a harsh wind whipped the grassy plains outside. In the morning, I found I had no recollection of the previous few hours. I was feeling spooked and knew I had to get out of town. I barely had time for the free breakfast buffet although it was fair to say the blueberry muffins were out of this world.
The black helicopters followed me all the way to the city limits, then turned west. The spy satellites, I’m sure, are tracking me still.
There were moments, in the historic Oxford Hotel in Denver, Colorado, when I felt like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining. Not that I expected to see ghosts of past guests although it may be likely, if you believe in such things, as the hotel opened in 1891 and there have to be a few that never officially checked out.
On the ground floor, tucked away behind McCormick’s Fish House and Bar, is the Cruise Room, an atmospheric Art Deco masterpiece and one of the finest reasons to stay at The Oxford. It was modelled on one of the lounges of the stately passenger liner Queen Mary and opened in 1933, on the day after Prohibition was repealed in the United States.
With the indirect lighting casting an eerie pink glow, it had me thinking of Jack Torrance and all things supernatural. Luckily, the jukebox at the end of the room, despite being something of an anachronism, kept me anchored in the here and now even after a couple of seraphic martinis; the only spirits that possessed me that evening were cold and dry and created from my favourite Ketel One vodka.
Like all great hotels, The Oxford has transformed with the times. It was remodeled in Art Deco style in the 1930s and then updated, with a careful eye to regilding its heritage, in the early 1990s.
The lobby of The Oxford is a time capsule of comfy lounges and overstuffed chairs, antiques and vintage artwork. Near the check-in desk, Rocky the canary trills happily from his cage. Sherry is served in the lobby each afternoon. It was here that local newspapermen would wait in days gone by for passengers alighting from trains at the 1885 Beaux Arts-redolent Union Station just down the block, hoping for a good story.
The guestrooms, cosy with antique furniture, nod to the present with such trappings as Bose sound systems with iPod docks. The lushly carpeted hallways and the thick walls cocoon guests and don’t disturb their rest.
The Oxford Hotel is located in the LoDo or Lower Downtown district which, luckily, resisted the urban renewal that decimated the city in the 1970s. Just around the corner is the Tattered Cover bookshop, housed in a former mercantile building. With a satisfyingly well-rounded range, it has bare wooden floors and beamed ceilings, couches and easy chairs to whittle away a few hours. Free wi-fi and an obligatory coffee shop make it popular with the locals.
Across the road from The Oxford on Wazee Street is Rockmount Ranch Wear. Rockmount was founded in 1946 by Jack A. Weil, who worked every day in the store until his death in 2008 at the age of 107. He introduced the first western shirts with snap fastenings instead of buttons as well as the first commercially-manufactured bolo ties. Today, his family maintains the same traditions, creating western gear favoured by bands, celebrities and movie stars.
The original architect of The Oxford, Frank E. Edbrooke, also designed Denver’s society hotel, the Brown Palace, which opened the year after The Oxford. It’s well worth a visit with its nine-storey atrium crowned by a stained-glass skylight. Every US President since Teddy Roosevelt (with the exception of Calvin Coolidge) has either visited or stayed at the Brown Palace. Guided tours are held twice a week.
Thinking it over, though, there’s really no choice. There’s a shining at The Oxford that has nothing to do with Stephen King. And as I sit in the Cruise Room, the spirits of the past are at rest. And if there is the sense of being watched, a movement out of the corner of your eye or the waft of an unknown perfume, it’s just The Oxford letting you know you’re one of the family.
I’d been skiing moderately, and badly, for years but it was three visits in as many years to the glorious ski fields of Colorado that really fired up my interest and had me determined to progress beyond my halting, tumble-prone snowploughs. The downhill journey was not, however, without some unexpected hazards along the way.
I suffer from altitude sickness and some bouts are far worse than others and the symptoms can be debilitating. Constant headaches, like my skull is wedged tight in a vice and stuff into a metal bucket. At night, I sleep barely more than a half hour at a time, prolonging fatigue. I’m congested and cough up blood (sorry, I should have posted a disclaimer not to read this while having breakfast or pizza or both). I’m a mess by the end of each stay but the exhilaration of traversing those perfect snowfields becomes addictive.
And this from someone with an icy disdain for the cold and the outdoors in equal measure. Yet there’s something strangely satisfying in overcoming the most basic fears of a first-timer and graduating from the beginner’s slopes to the blue runs. Not that my introduction to Vail was all that encouraging.
On the first morning, our group was outfitted with skis and equipment; I was wearing borrowed ski clothes, mismatched pants and jacket that had me resembling someone who’d turned up in fancy dress at a party to find it was formal. I’d warned everybody I was a novice who was more comfortable on a gradient no steeper than the car park. At the summit of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, where the air crackled in my lungs at a height of 3100 metres, the others skied effortlessly off while I perched uncomfortably at the edge of what seemed like a deadly vertical ascent.
Gravity is the most terrifying aspect of skiing for beginners. Being fastened to long slick slivers of carbon fibre, traversing even slicker snow, does nothing for the confidence. I pushed off in a knee-locked snowplough, searching for the safest and most accommodating route downhill.
It took me three hours to reach the village. Without a map, I later discovered I’d mistakenly ventured into the blue runs. Over dinner, the group was horrified but said I’d looked so experienced in my ski gear they didn’t think I’d have any problems. I’m still trying to work that one out.
But I kept at it. Over the course of three years, I skied at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Winter Park, Steamboat and Copper Mountain. The snow was always fluffy, powdery and pristine; each night, the skies dumped fresh deep loads. On the early morning gondola rides, when the first skiers had carved out their elegant turns on the virgin slopes, and the mountain peaks glimmered in crisp air, the spectacular beauty made me momentarily forget my misfortunes.
The cold can be bone-numbing if you’re not prepared. I became used to donning thermals under the ski gear, and often added a balaclava and beanie under the helmet and goggles. My own mother wouldn’t have recognized me although that may say more about my family than anything else.
Most days I’d spend under the patient tutorage of instructors and a finer bunch of calm and charitable individuals could not be hoped for. Teaching me the firm fluidity of hips, knees and ankles, each working differentially to control the skis, was their ultimate goal. I made the same stupid mistakes that all beginners do but, finally, it became second nature.
And I tamed gravity, although it took enormous effort. Gravity went from being my nemesis to my friend, just as the snowploughs gracefully transformed into parallels and my agonizingly careful crisscrossing of the slopes became more determined downhill runs. There were fewer embarrassing crashes as my confidence increased. Although there’s not much I can do about the altitude sickness, I’m learning to love skiing.
One day, I may even be able to say the same for the outdoors.
Cuba has always been on my radar but it wasn’t until last year, when I was offered a trip to Cancun, Mexico, that I was able to realise my ambition. I had little knowledge about the country outside its popular mythology but I knew exactly where I wanted to stay.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba was popularized in the movie Godfather II as the venue for what came to be called the Havana Conference. Held in December 1946, it brought together America’s top crime bosses including “Lucky” Luciano, then in exile in Italy, and Meyer Lanksy, who was to head Cuba’s numerous casinos from the mid-1950s under the patronage of Cuban President, Fulgencio Batista.
The Nacional thus had just the sort of pop cultural juice I thirsted for. The hotel itself opened in 1930, designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White (also responsible for the New York Public Library). Co-founder, Stamford White, had his own literary pedigree. His 1906 murder forms the centerpiece of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Havana was everything I was expecting and far, far more. While the people may be poor, they are overwhelmingly hospitable with a ready sense of humour. It seems as if every second Cuban is a musician; linger for more than a few minutes in a bar or café and a group will wander in unannounced and strike up a tune that would have the Buena Vista Social Club tapping their toes in appreciation.
The Nacional, however, was a mixed bag. The public areas, in dark local mahogany and imported Spanish tiles, are an intoxicating melange of Moorish and Art Deco, the design equivalent of Othello dancing a tango with Nora Charles. The guestrooms tend to the smallish and could most kindly be described as Period Shabby Chic but many have histories that almost make up for their lack of comfort.
The breakfast buffet was a constant feast of surprises. One morning, there appeared on a serving tray what appeared to be a huge slab of pre-sliced bacon that had had all the meat carefully removed and had then been boiled in one piece. For once, I went with the Europeans and chose the stale bread rolls and hard-boiled eggs.
The staff, with the exception of the housekeepers, seem under the impression they’re working in a museum. Any request, no matter how trivial, is dispatched with a sigh of detached reservation and a polite refusal. I was determined to get a tour of the hotel and eventually found a concierge who defrosted slightly under a relentless barrage of flattery and a folded $US20 note.
It opened up a seemingly endless exploration of the second floor, where all the celebrities of the last 80 years stayed. The so-called Mafia Room is a double suite, numbers 211-13. It doesn’t appear like a hangout for a mob of wiseguys and their henchmen, where the hit on “Bugsy” Siegel was planned or the corporatisation of the drug trade was finely honed. It looks more like the place where your grandparents would stay for their golden wedding anniversary.
Celebrity guests of a more benign nature included Frank Sinatra (Room 214), Nat King Cole (218), Ava Gardner (225), Fred Astaire (228) and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller (232).
Errol Flynn stayed in Room 235, two doors down from mine. If our rooms were identically sized, I figured he must have been extremely dexterous to accommodate his growing reputation. Flynn was also said to have been a drinking companion of Ernest Hemingway although it must be noted that, if you had a pulse and were in Cuba anytime between the 1920s and 1960s, there’s a pretty fair chance you’d end up drinking with Hemingway.
The Celebrity Hall of Fame in the Bay-View Bar shows that celebrities have been a little light on in the past decade, the best-known being Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone and The Backstreet Boys
The rear gardens amble down to a cliff-face overlooking the harbor. Pancho, the Nacional’s pet peacock, lives in a small shed in front of La Barraca, an outdoor restaurant promising Cuban cuisine. A living and breathing contradiction in terms (locals will readily admit that the best Cuban food is in Miami), I overheard a group of Australian tourists refer to it as La Berocca.
The centre of the hotel’s social scene is the colonnaded verandah just off the lobby. At any time of the day or night, hotel guests gather to consume fat cigars and over-priced, shamefully bad mojitos and watch the exuberant security guards chase away anybody who looks like a local.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, as the Cubans might say (if they spoke Spanish as badly as me), offers up buenos tiempos but it’s all a matter of interpretation.
OK, so I’m old-fashioned but I’ve never been able to call it Ho Chi Minh City. It’ll always be Saigon for me. On my first visit some years back, a friend promised something special. The streets are crammed with bicycles, he told me, ridden by straight-backed young ladies wearing ao dai, coasting through the traffic so serene and beautiful.
It turned out it’d been some time since his last visit. The bicycles have long-since been replaced by motorcycles that often accommodate entire families, the ao dai swept away by knock-off Calvin Klein jeans and spangly T-shirts.
Saigon now resembles just about every other emerging Asian city; it has an in-your-face precocity and it’s far from being beautiful. The kindest thing that can be said about Saigon is it has energy and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Once visitors have had their fill of temples and Vietnam War (or the American War, as the locals call it) attractions, there are some surprises to be had. And, once the palate has red-lined on Vietnamese food, a journey back into the country’s recent past can be entirely satisfying.
The Augustin Restaurant is as close as you’ll get to a traditional Parisian bistro in this part of the world. For nearly two decades, a local chef has been serving up classic French dishes at ridiculously low prices. Located in a short laneway known as Nguyen Thiep, linking the major streets of Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue, it is a short walk from the flamboyant French-inspired architecture of the Saigon Opera House and such hotels as the Rex, Caravelle and Continental.
A heavenly duck confit (costing just 170,000 dong, about $AU10.00), partnered with an indulgent little Bordeaux (75,000 dong per glass), made me realize that while the Vietnamese fought long and hard to rid themselves of their French colonial oppressors, they haven’t entirely turned their backs on things Gallic.
This is even more apparent just across Nguyen Thiep. The Brodard Bakery has been operating since 1948 and offers up an outstanding pain au chocolat. Other notable treats are tiramisu and coconut ice cream.
Next door to Brodard is My Way Deco. This upmarket interior design shop spins a wickedly Art Deco influence to such items as tea caddies, humidors, jewellery boxes and photo frames. Designed by a French expat, My Way also produces an Agousti-inspired collection with imitation exotic skins such as stingray.
An aspect of negotiating Saigon that may be confronting for first-time visitors is the fearsome traffic. The walls of wheels can be unsettling, amplified a thousand-fold by the metal mosquito drone of a thousand tinny engines. There rarely seems to be a break in the traffic. To cross the street requires a steely determination and the calm of a Buddhist priest. Step from the curb and take your time. Move slowly and steadily and the traffic flows like magic around you. It’s an acquired skill but an essential one.
That way, you’ll not only be comfortable exploring the city but may also find a few local delights along the way.
The first time it happened to me, it was quite amusing. But it continued, in varying ways, and years down the track it was sadly apparent that many Americans don’t have a clue about the outside world. And as much as we Australians think we’re internationally renowned, the sad truth is we’re often mistaken for other nations.
On the first night of my very first visit to the United States, I was staying at the Hyatt at Los Angeles Airport (now the Four Points by Sheraton). In the coffee shop, a waitress remarked on my “cute” accent and asked where I was from. When I replied “Australia”, she immediately became excited. “That’s such a coincidence”, she replied in awe. “My favourite movie is the Sound of Music.”
By the time I’d fashioned a reply about kangaroos being in short supply as they continually fell to their deaths from the Alps, she was long gone.
Years later, in New Orleans, my wife and I were browsing a department store when, in the perfume department, we were served by a well-dressed and presumably well-educated young man who remarked on our accents and asked where we were from. When we said “Australia”, he started telling us how much he enjoyed our country on a recent visit, how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were.
We asked which city he enjoyed the most. He hesitated for a moment, staring into the middle distance to summon his thoughts while adjusting the impeccably-arranged double Windsor knot of his tie. Then he looked me straight in the eye and without, I surmised, any hint of irony, said, “Salzburg”. Not wanting to be rude, I wandered off to an adjoining department before I started choking from laughter.
In a mid-town deli in New York, we were seated next to an elderly local couple who, it seemed, had been avidly listening to our conversation. As our desserts arrived, the woman leaned across to us and asked whether we were enjoying our stay. So ensued a long chat. After several minutes, she remarked to her companion, sotto voce, so that barely half the room could hear, “They speak very good English, don’t they?”
We played it as straight as we could without spilling our beverages. As we were preparing to leave, there was one more question that our friend was obviously burning to ask. “When you’re at home in your own country,” she asked, wide-eyed and completely innocent, “do you wear clothes like we do?”
Later, of course, far too late to make any difference, I came up with the perfect rejoinder. If I had been more quick-witted, I would have replied, “If I’m going somewhere special, I’ll wear an Armani jacket over my lap-lap.”
A regular visitor to the United States will know that, despite their vast news-gathering ambitions, most Americans only know other countries from wars and natural disasters. There’s so much happening within their own borders, even 24-hour news channels like CNN have difficulty keeping up.
Instead, it seems, Americans gather their world-view from the movies. This wasn’t a bad thing when Crocodile Dundee was current. Australians, they might have surmised, were sturdy outdoor types who wrestled crocodiles for entertainment. Later, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert confused things entirely: did Australian men dress crocodiles in women’s clothes before wrestling them or did they themselves don frocks before wading into the nearest billabong in search of reptilian adventure?
As a postscript, it’s worth mentioning that the Australia-Austria confusion is something of a two-way strasse. In the old town district of Salzburg, I once came across a souvenir stand that sold T-shirts emblazoned with the outline of a kangaroo, much like the old Qantas logo, within a circle with a diagonal slash across it. Austria, the T-shirt warned, We Don’t Have Kangaroos.
I can only wonder whether the occasional American tourist passes up the Sound of Music tour and instead spends his time searching for Steve Irwin.
History doesn’t usually get a second chance, especially in a city like Tokyo where heritage often has a timeline as stunted as a bonsai. Even the grandest names aren’t impervious to the wrecker’s ball and Frank Lloyd Wright, surely one of the world’s most celebrated architects, is no exception.
Wright, a passionate collector of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, had long sought out inspiration from Japan; the “floating world” of the ukiyo-e, with its philosophy of evanescence and fleeting beauty, struck an ethereal chord in the architect.
He spent seven years in Tokyo from 1917 designing and building his Imperial Hotel. Although Wright was also responsible for some 14 other Japanese projects, the Imperial was a legacy that would crown his career.
Opened on 1 September 1923, the Imperial survived a massive earthquake that struck on the very same day as well as Allied bombing during World War II. It was a magnificent building but time became its most potent enemy. In 1968, it was demolished to make way for a modern, high-rise building.
That would have been the end of the story but Wright’s Imperial Hotel, or at least the front section, is not lost to the world. It can be found in a rather unlikely setting, in a theme park of architectural history outside Nagoya.
Museum Meiji-Mura is not easy to get to from Tokyo. Two hours in a Shinkansen to Nagoya is followed by a half-hour journey to Inuyama. A 20-minute bus ride brings visitors to the park which holds almost 70 buildings of the Meiji era (1868-1912), gathered from across Japan and overseas and arranged in a jumbled harmony along the western shores of Lake Iruka.
There’s an other-worldly quality to Meiji-Mura; the pristine setting and the fastidious attention to maintaining detail and atmosphere is like a Japanese version of The Truman Show. Exploring the park can take all day so arrive as early as possible.
There’s the elegant wooden Uji-yamada Post Office, fashioned like an English seaside pavilion. St John’s Church, built in 1907 in Kyoto combines Romanesque and Gothic characteristics on the lower levels and an almost Orthodox Russian confection above. A westerner’s house from Kobe, built in 1887, is a mannered two-storey structure with enveloping colonnades, while the fragment of the head office of the Kawasaki Bank in Tokyo, built in 1927, shows an imposing yet finely-detailed European Renaissance style.
The highlight for Wright fans, however, is the main entrance hall and lobby of the Imperial Hotel. The expansive space, which harmonises on a characteristically human scale, is a delight for lovers of fine architecture. In a tea shop above the foyer, visitors sip a delicate tea infused with yuzu, a small tart citrus fruit, while marvelling at Wright’s visionary ideals.
Elsewhere in the park, there’s much to divert attention. The traditionally-styled 1870-era Nakai Sake Brewer from Kyoto invites sake tastings. The wooden Kureha-za Theatre, transported from Osaka and dating from 1868, has kabuki entertainment while the Shinagawa Glass Factory, constructed in 1877 and seemingly snatched from a British architectural pattern book, sells finely-crafted blown glass items.
While it may seem bizarre to find as important a work as the Imperial Hotel in such a setting, it’s worth reflecting that Frank Lloyd Wright in a theme park is infinitely preferable to no Frank Lloyd Wright at all.
And with all that has come and gone since that time, perhaps a haiku (stumbling and European though it may be) is appropriate:
In ancient Rome, the Colosseum was a circus. Completed in 80AD, it hosted entertainment for the masses, and what entertainment it was! Up to 50,000 spectators would watch the ultimate in populist entertainment including recreations of famous Roman battles, animal hunts and fierce gladiatorial battles to the death.
It was completed largely under the patronage of the familial rulers of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian and his son, Titus. Suetonius, who displayed an almost-contemporary regard for gossip and scandal, considered Titus (no relation to Shakespeare’s gore-soaked opportunist) a worthy emperor and thus the Colosseum remains one of his greatest legacies.
In modern times, the Colosseum is still a circus although a little worse for the wear and tear of the ages. Togas have been replaced by logo t-shirts and baggy cargo shorts, leather sandals by the gleaming white runners of the elderly American tourists who look as if the furthest they’ve ever jogged is to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet.
They cram inside its massive brooding walls, gazing out on the broken arena and possibly reflecting on Russell Crowe in Gladiator or any number of Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal epics. Oiled pecs gleaming in the sun, the glinting fury of swords cleaving human flesh, the deafening roar of a crowd maddened by blood lust. The images come readily, the atmosphere leaching from the weathered stone blocks.
Any thoughts of Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain a couple of blocks away or Audrey Hepburn, regally serene astride a Vespa with Gregory Peck, seem like another Rome altogether. The Colosseum is blood, sweat and tears for the ages.
Outside, the snaking lines of tourists are tempted by hunky Romans dressed up as gladiators. For a few Euros, nothing less, they’ll be photographed flirting with the ladies and menacing the men with their plastic swords. Their scowls have been carefully crafted over years of mirror-gazing to maximum effect. Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone had nothing on these guys.
Yet, amongst the many locals eager to share a Kodak moment for a fistful of foreign currency, the most popular were those I came to regard as the Four Stooges. Three were attired in the leather skirts and gold breastplates of Roman soldiers, the fourth as an emperor resplendent down to his crimson robes and gleaming laurel wreath. All were gregarious and entertaining, jokes at the ready, flashing smiles and deadly poses for a never-ending line of delighted tourists.
The startlingly handsome gladiators, with cheekbones as sharp as their plastic swords were blunt, kicked the dirt in rejection. There was no competing with the Four Stooges and they knew it. They were the vanquished of the modern-day Colosseum, their humiliation as great as any suffered within its walls.
It was the late 1990s and I was in New York. I’d had what seemed at the time a great idea for an article, covering the up-and-coming craze for martini bars. I planned to cover four a night for the duration of my stay. On that particular evening, I’d started out at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, went on to the historic Algonquin Hotel, then to Pravda, a very fashionable bar just south of Houston Street.
Pravda was below street level with vaulted ceilings and a run-down quality that lent it, at least to New York bar-hoppers, an authentic Russian appearance. By this time, dangerously, I was on my third martini and feeling no pain.
I had another martini at the bar before being shown to a plush booth for caviar and blinis. Just as I was considering leaving, the hostess rushed up and explained that a VIP group was arriving and would I mind terribly vacating the booth? If I’d be happy to move to a less private table, she’d send a round of drinks on the house.
Who was I to turn down such a kind invitation?
Within 15 minutes, in walked Nicole Kidman, her sister Antonia and another woman. I was aware that Nicole and husband Tom Cruise were then filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick in London; later, I found out she was in New York briefly for an awards ceremony.
Our Nicole looked radiant that evening, every inch the movie star, in a tight-fitting strapless evening dress that highlighted her pale flawless skin. Although I’m not generally the type to intrude on celebrities, I’d certainly consumed enough rocket fuel to think Nicole would be eager to meet a fellow Australian.
I held back for a while, knowing the true measure of a celebrity encounter is in the exit line, something witty and sophisticated and memorable, which came upon me suddenly in a hot rush of originality and creativity. I knew she would be impressed, one Aussie chatting without artifice to another; the skillfully-rendered exit line would be the perfect way to sign off. My sharp but self-deprecating humour, would, I felt sure, be well appreciated after the endless parade of phoneys and sycophants she endured in her professional life.
I should have known that the tingle I felt was more likely a premonition of a rapidly approaching disaster, one of those train wrecks you’re unable to look away from and can do nothing about it. Standing a little too unsteadily, I pointed myself towards Nicole’s table. Three anxious faces turned at my approach but, once Nicole heard my accent, she seemed to relax. As far as I can remember, she was enchanting and attentive but I have no memory of the conversation.
Suddenly, the time seemed right. I deftly manoeuvered the conversation towards the exit line and then, just as I was about to permanently impress the Greatest Living Actress Of Our Generation………my mind went blank. I stood there uncertainly, my mouth moving but nothing coming out. The helplessness compounded. If Travis Bickle had suddenly pressed a massive handgun to my forehead, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember the line.
The combination of my apparent consternation, my mouth motioning silently like a goldfish and my swaying from side to side may have led them to believe I was about to be ill. They shrank back in the booth. Instead, after what seemed an eternity, I said the first thing that popped into my head.
“You’ve come a long way since BMX Bandits.” And then I turned for the door and stumbled elegantly into the night.
When I read, not long after, that Nicole and Tom had split up, I wondered whether I had, in some small way, influenced her decision. Whether, after that chance encounter, she realized that what was missing from her life was the meat and three veg of a down-to-earth Aussie guy just like those she’d left behind when stardom, and Tom Cruise, had come calling.
Later, of course, she married Keith Urban, the boy from Caboolture, Queensland, and her fairytale was complete. Coincidentally, I’d met Keith a few times in the early 1990s when I was working on a book on Australian country music and always found him to be approachable and entirely uncomplicated.
That niggling sense of guilt continues to this day. I can’t help but think that, in some minor way, I was responsible for Nicole and Tom’s divorce. Had a nameless Aussie guy with an easy repartee and far too much vodka brought a Hollywood marriage undone? Only Tom’s eventual autobiography will tell.
NOTE: When this first appeared in 2011, the location of the Casino house was a bit of a mystery. Now, it’s all over the Internet. This piece has been amended and expanded in June 2014 to reflect this.
Sometimes it pays to ask and, if you don’t get the answer you want, keep asking. Persistence pays off eventually. It just takes a little time.
I’m a big fan of Las Vegas, that glittering, gaudy and spiritually gluttonous mirage in the Nevada desert. I especially love its history, the tangled path by which it travelled from being an illicit getaway in the middle of a sun-parched nowhere to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
There’s something for everybody in Vegas: flashy ultra-luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with giant grandly tacky homages to ancient Egypt, King Arthur’s Court, classical Rome and the canals of Venice.
Unlike Los Angeles, where there’s more aspiring actors per square metre than anywhere else in the world, in Vegas everybody unashamedly wants to be rich and they have just about every way imaginable of making that happen. Most, of course, don’t and more shattered dreams lay congealing in the city’s neon glow than in a Nathanael West novel.
The archetypal Las Vegas movie is Casino, Martin Scorsese’s ultra-violent 1995 depiction of old-time Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. The idea being that fiction sometimes has nothing on real life, Casino is based on the story of Frank Rosenthal, the professional gambler who institutionalised sports betting in 1970s Vegas and ran a few casinos for the Mob while he was at it. Robert De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a thinly-veiled Rosenthal.
I’d been trying for some time to locate the house on the edge of the golf course in which De Niro and Stone (as his wife, Ginger, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) lived. I’d initially contacted local journalists who specialised in Vegas history and ended up corresponding with author and Vegas buff, Steve Fischer, whose excellent book, When The Mob Ran Vegas: Stories of Money, Mayhem and Murder (Berkline Press, 2005) is required reading on the city’s lawless adolescence. Get it at Amazon. There’s also an audio version on iTunes.
I’d initially contacted Steve about an Australian showgirl, Felicia Atkins, the star of the Folies Bergere show at the Tropicana, Bugsy Siegel’s old casino, in the 50s and 60s. Felicia was Vegas royalty, centerfold of Playboy’s April 1958 edition and appeared with Jerry Lewis in The Errand Boy (1961) before retiring and moving back to Australia where her trail went cold. Other former showgirls who’d worked with Felicia reported that she’d returned to Vegas a few times for Folies Bergere reunions but none had contact addresses; seems she didn’t stay in contact with too many of her associates.
Then, purely by luck, I found her although it was very much a good news / bad news scenario. Yes, she was still alive, living in an aged care facility north of Newcastle, New South Wales. No, she was far removed from any attempt to recall her glory days as she was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease and her memories had long since evaporated.
A staff member at the home recalled that, in the early days of her arrival, she’d shared her stories about being a Vegas showgirl but not too many people took her seriously. Felicia did, however, love teaching others to dance. The cruel reality that is Alzheimer’s has robbed us of first-hand recollections of those heady days.
Anyway, back to the Casino house. Steve Fischer thought the Casino house was located on the 17th hole of the Desert Inn Golf Course and had been demolished to make way for Steve Wynn’s $US2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas development. In trying to verify that, a very helpful soul at the Nevada Film Office confided that the house was still very much in existence, a little further east on the edge of the Las Vegas National Golf Course.
The National started life in 1961 as the golf course for the Stardust Casino, in 1969 was renamed the Sahara-Nevada Country Club, changed its name to the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club in 1994 and four years later acquired its current designation . These days, the National’s website mentions the Casino house but, when I was looking, it took a fair bit of detective work. So, armed with the film office’s clues, I started driving around the housing development hugging the golf course.
Happily, I found the house quite easily and it looks almost exactly as it did when Scorsese filmed there. If anybody is interested in paying a visit, the address is 3515 Cochise Lane.
I’m sure the owners are pretty weary of tourists snapping their property and I’d advise against knocking on their door and requesting a guided tour of the walk-in wardrobe. But they live in a little piece of movie history and, hopefully, they’re understanding about it.
Since then, I’ve learnt that the Casino house is a cherry on a far larger slice of old-time Vegas history. The golf course and the huge surrounding residential area was built at the same time and named Paradise Palms. The task of creating a homogenous design character to the development was given to the architectural firm of Dan Palmer and William Krisel, which already had mileage in that other time-capsule of mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that one of Krisel’s Palm Springs designs is perhaps the most famous of all the city’s mid-mod houses, the one where Elvis and Priscilla Presley stayed on their honeymoon. It features on every Palm Springs bus tour.)
It was a planned community in that buyers had to choose between certain Palmer & Krisel designs, although numerous variations (in such areas as roof line, decorative finishes, allowing the homes to be rotated at different angles, even having Hawaiian influences as options on some models), allowed individual expression.
Entertainers, casino executives and, inevitably, more than a few “made men”, the people who fed the furnace of Las Vegas, called Paradise Palms home. Some of the casinos also kept homes there for visiting entertainers. Amongst the Palm’s more famous residents over the years have been Bobby Darin, Phyllis Diller, Debbie Reynolds, Dionne Warwick, Juliet Prowse, Max Baer Jr (Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies) and lounge music pioneer Esquivel.
Drive the streets of Paradise Palms and you’ll find a haven of low, long mid-mod homes. There was a time, when the mobsters’ reign ended and Vegas went legit (or gave every appearance of such), morphed into Disneyland and went all out to attract families, that Paradise Palms went into decline. Without regular maintenance, the built environment doesn’t survive long in the harsh desert conditions and these beautiful homes cracked, split, warped, leaked, fell apart.
The erosion would have continued had mid-century aesthetics not become so fashionable in recent times. Now, bit by bit, the tide has turned. New residents with a respect for the past have moved in and restored these wonderful homes back to their former glory.
Paradise Palms has its own website – http://www.paradisepalmslasvegas.com – and Facebook page, while a host of other retro-obsessed sites breathlessly report on PP’s latest developments. The like-minded new arrivals socialize together and spread the gospel: remember, respect, retain.
When, like Felicia Atkins, the real thing is way beyond our reach, it’s still possible to visit a time when style was supreme. The residents of Paradise Palms have it better than most. They can live their dreams in ways most of us can only imagine.
For further retro and old-time Las Vegas info, go to:
Back before design hotels perverted the concept of hospitality into look-at-me-ain’t-I-cool egotism, there were novelty hotels. You could place the tiki craze, with its flamboyant, rose-coloured hankering for the South Pacific, that caught on in the United States in the interwar years, firmly in this category. But there were other, often crazier examples that enlivened the novelty hotel market.
Very few remain, the victim of changing fashions and the newer-is-better mindset of modern times. It’s turned full circle with the retro craze, of course, but too little and too late to save some of the genuinely unique examples of long ago.
When I was plotting the course of a road trip through the US south-west some time back, the Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona, was first on the list. It was part of the revered Route 66 of popular culture, the early 20th century highway that cut across the United States from Chicago to Los Angeles and provided an escape for the Dust Bowl refugees of Steinbeck and his ilk towards a brighter future.
When Route 66 was dismantled and replaced by the soulless Interstates, the Mother Road faded into obscurity. These days, Holbrook is just off the I-40, a roundabout way east from Los Angles and just beyond Winslow, which has as about its only claim to fame being featured in an Eagles song, Take It Easy.
My first mistake was travelling in November. With winter approaching, the days were clear and sunny but with little warmth in the sun. At night, the temperature plummeted. I arrived in Holbrook after dark and checked in just before the motel’s office closed up tight like the town itself.
The Wigwam Hotel looks exactly like the old postcards. A circle of tall teepees made of concrete with a smattering of old long-abandoned cars that lends it a certain Twilight Zone je ne sais quoi. Inside, the teepees were disarmingly spacious but the small heater had a hard time cutting the deepening chill.
I went to sleep but awoke in the early hours of the morning from the bone-rattling cold. I put another blanket on the bed, then covered that with the contents of my suitcase. As snug as I could possibly be without crawling into the suitcase and zipping it up over me, I drifted into a fitful sleep.
The long agonized low notes of a freight train’s horn jerked me fully awake. It felt like it was passing just outside the teepee and, when I investigated, found it was. The rear boundary of the Teepee Hotel is right next to the train tracks. If I was a trainspotter, I’d be in heaven. Regrettably, I was somewhere else entirely.
It was to be a valuable lesson in nostalgia. The Wigwam Hotel, just one of three surviving teepee motels left in the US, is a must-stay in the warmer months and is still operated by relatives of the original owner. But when it’s cocooning you need to endure long road trips, aim for an Embassy Suites or better and drop by the Wigwam for souvenirs and photos.
Amidst the theme park rides, thronging tourists and assorted hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Universal Studios in Los Angeles is a working film studio and has been since the earliest days of movie-making. In 1915, German immigrant Carl Laemmle, who had spun a career as a bookkeeper into a thriving nickelodeon and silent film distribution business, opened a film studio in Los Angeles.
Ever the self-promoter, Laemmle gathered a crowd of 15,000 to celebrate the event on 50 hectares of land he had purchased for $US165,000 in the San Fernando Valley, just beyond the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. So was born Universal Studios, which went on to produce some of the most iconic movies the world has ever seen. From the first days of operation, Universal invited fans onto their sets and it quickly became a must-see attraction.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and Universal Studios continues to give the star-struck public an insider’s view of the movie-making process. The modern period of tourism began in 1964, when pink and white tramcars whisked visitors through the backlots. To handle the increasing numbers, some years back Universal extended the general admission policy (which had begun to see long queues at the various rides and attractions), into a three-tier system.
The first is general admission, the second is general admission with front-of-line privileges which takes visitors to the front of any queues at any attraction and reserved seating at any show. The third is the VIP Experience. Current pricing from the Universal Studios website (and keep in mind that discounts on these packages are widely available) is: General Admission – $US74.00. Front Of Line – $US139.00. VIP Experience – $US259.00.
The VIP Experience is the ultimate and is available to only a limited number of guests each day. During my recent visit, the majority of customers were Australian, taking advantage of the Pacific Peso’s above-parity exchange rate. In the comfortably-appointed VIP Lounge, guests milled about waiting for their guide while drinks and snacks were served. The first half of the day was taken up with rides, shows and attractions then it was lunch at a private dining room before boarding a small trolley car for the backlot and studios tour.
You have to feel sorry for those with general admission tickets who only get a 45-minute dazzle through the backlot. The VIP Tour lasts two-and-a-half hours with, among other things, a visit to a working sound stage (on this day, it was the chance to wander through the house from the television’s Parenthood) and unhindered access to an outdoor set left over from the 2005 Steven Spielberg-directed remake of War Of The Worlds. It was bizarre to say the least to wander through the smoking remains of a massive 747 that had crashed (at least on film) into a suburban streetscape, crushing everything in its path. But, as they say in Hollywood, that’s showbiz!
The highlight for this committed film buff and widely-pitied celluloid bore, however, was time spent in the prop warehouse. Ranging over several floors, the collection has everything needed to dress any film set. From ordinary glass vases to 1930s food packets, from tiki trinkets to authentic-looking human skeletons, each and every item has a film provenance that most likely goes back decades.
As an active eBayer, I couldn’t help speculating what some of the smaller, more easily-transportable items might be worth with a Universal Studios imprimatur. Only my highly-refined sense of honour, along with the fear of getting busted, prevented me from finding out.
So, at the end of a long day, is the VIP Experience worth $US259? The rule of thumb, when it comes to travel journalism, is – would I pay to do it again? In this case, I’d have to say yes.
Universal Studios in Hollywood isn’t just a do-it-once-and-never-have-to-do-it-again tourist trap. It changes on each visit and the VIP Experience is the best way to do it. And it sure is fun to by-pass the crowds to the head of the long queues just like you’re a close personal friend of Carl Laemmle himself.
NOTE: In the interests of tranparency, I flew to the US with Air Pacific via Fiji and stayed at the W Hotel Hollywood.
Actually, it’s not. Especially when “getting there” translates into flying.
I hate flying. Not that I’m a nervous flyer, although I prefer being at the back of the bus rather than the front (on the understanding that planes rarely back into mountains). Rather, I hate the artificial atmosphere of the entire experience. I hate airline food. Even the smell of it wafting from the galley makes me want to heave. I hate sitting up for 12 hours and simmering slowly in my clothes. I rarely sleep on planes, even if I’m flying in Business Class. And I hate having to battle the boredom by watching movies that have been edited so they won’t offend six year olds and Midwestern grandmothers and shrunk to six-inch screens.
I’ve had some horror flights. In the 1990s, I would attend an annual tradeshow in Chicago. One year, owing to the deadline of a magazine I was editing, I had to fly Sydney – LA – Denver – Chicago in one hell-bound session. It was late at night when I arrived at O’Hare International Airport. I was already in a foul mood and even more so when I discovered my luggage had been lost. After two hours of fruitless form filling and arguments with people who didn’t give a toss, I caught a taxi to my hotel to find there was no record of my booking. I was close to ripping the throat from the hapless clerk. Happily, there suddenly appeared two colleagues, also in town for the tradeshow, who had decided over a prolonged happy hour that they would be sharing a room and didn’t need the spare. And my bag turned up the next day.
Another nightmare trip was Sydney – Bangkok – London – Helsinki. In London, I bought a new pair of socks and had a shower but, by the time, I reached Finland, after more than 30 hours since I left home, I was too dazed and disorientated to build a bonfire for my clothes.
So it’s important to find ways of surviving long flights. When it comes to new technology, I’m not exactly an early adopter. So when, at Sydney Airport before one trip, it was suggested by a good friend that I buy an iPod, I was initially reluctant, a strange reaction considering I have such a prodigious music collection. Luckily, the friend, thrice-crowned Rock Brain Of The Universe by the BBC and whose own music collection takes up a two-storey barn on his property outside Sydney, persevered.
So we raided the duty free shop for a 160Gb iPod Classic. I doubt if I’ve ever loved a piece of technology as much as this. I take it on every trip along with external speakers so I can play music in my hotel room. I’ve graduated from earbuds to over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones that pretty much drowns out the background roar of jet engines. And it makes that time away from home a lot more survivable.
Of course, the problem comes with what to put on it. I pretty much cover every eventuality, every possible type of music I could imagine the need for. Rock, pop, 60s rhythm and blues, 40s swing and 90s neo-swing, 70s disco, jazz, blues, crooners, doo wop, French singers such as France Gall, Sylvie Vartan and Serge Gainsbourg, glitter rock, lounge and Northern soul, swamp rock and surf, soundtracks, Broadway musicals and British Invasion.
At just over 25,000 songs, there’s something for every mood. Ever the completist, I tend to go overboard when it comes to inclusions. There are 300 Beatles songs and I don’t even like the Beatles (notice how the world is divided into those who favour the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?). Bruce Springsteen gets more than 400 songs while I once had almost 500 KISS songs on the iPod until I realized they were all pretty much the same. So I replaced them with more than 600 David Bowie songs.
So while I won’t ever say that getting anywhere is half the fun, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it used to be and I travel in a better frame of mind. Which means that, amidst screaming toddlers and seat back kickers and luggage mishaps and missed connections, horror flights are a lot easier to cope with.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been a professional traveller for more than 20 years. By professional, I mean I’ve been paid (poorly, as is the way with the Australian travel media) to travel (widely and often).
They have been the best of times and, occasionally, the worst of times. Lots of adventures and even more surprises. The point of this blog is to showcase some of the things that never make it into my articles. It could be said I have wide-ranging interests: film (new and old); books (mainly old); music (don’t get me started); classic cars, particularly Cadillacs; architecture and design of most periods, although I have a fondness for mid-20th century; and the stylish and beautiful in all things.
Quirky and wonderful things catch my eye and make me linger. We all travel for different reasons. I can be in Paris a dozen times and never see the same thing twice, although I always end up scouring the massive antique markets at the end of the Porte de Clignancourt metro line. I’ve never been inside the Louvre but I love the sewer museum at the Quai d’Orsay. One man’s meat, as it were.
I love big cities, whether they be New York, Los Angeles, Cape Town or Shanghai. Scenery tends to drive me spare. I was once in Yellowstone National Park in a freezing drizzle, attempting to spot bear in the far distance. I think I said at the time, only half jokingly, that all the place needed was a Wal-Mart and I’d be happy although I would have settled for a 7-Eleven. Not long after, I was in Spotted Horse. On a good day, it has a population of two although there was no-one around when I arrived so the roadhouse is a place I must return to someday.
Hope you enjoy my blog.
Oh, and by the way, as so many people seem to Google this, if the term It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish seems familiar, it’s certainly not because of the real reason. It’s a song. A show tune, actually. From a musical not many people paid attention to at the time and certainly, outside of Broadway tragics, nobody remembers anymore. It came from Seesaw, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Cy Coleman and book by Michael Bennett. It opened on Broadway in 1973, after a torturous out-of-town try-out that saw the original book thrown out, along with the director and star, Coleman and Fields reworking the musical numbers and Bennett creating a new book with the help of Neil Simon. It was at this rebirth that It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish was added. Interestingly, it was a song that Coleman and Fields had in their bottom drawer from some years, originally intended for an unproduced musical on Eleanor Roosevelt.
Back in the 1970s, I worked at a fashionable nightclub in Sydney that had the most elaborate drag shows. One of the shows concluded with this song and it’s stuck with me ever since.