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.