"Are they ready for us, Mom?" asked my 10 year-old daughter Maya, 'they' being the glamorous residents of Hollywood. We had just landed at LAX, about to embark on a tour of Los Angeles during awards season. It was a plan hatched as we watched yet another Oscars ceremony on television: somewhere between rating the red carpet gowns and watching the best film win, we decided we had to see it for ourselves. From window shopping Rodeo Drive to Instagramming the epic façade of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, we did it all. Here's a snapshot of our three-day trip.
There's no better place to start than in the little village in the heart of LA, otherwise known as Beverly Hills (pop. 34,000). Like a sleepy starlet, Beverly Hills takes its shuteye seriously. There were no signs of life in the schmanzy shops along Rodeo Drive as we walked over to our breakfast spot, Nate & Al's. A local favourite, this New York-style deli has been slinging hash to actors (working and non-working alike), for the past 60 years. With wise-cracking waitresses and regulars that include Mike Myers and Larry King, we half-expect to see Will Ferrell here, in his pajamas.
Up the street, we hopped on the Beverly Hills Trolley for a 40-minute tour of famous landmarks, streets and homes - a must for anyone interested in how this little municipality rolls. Our guide tells us all about this 5.7 square-mile town, with its own mayor and police force, (hello Eddie Murphy!), and a rare budget surplus. Downtown, the streets are filled with modest houses that were once home to stars like Candice Bergen, Julie Andrews, and Clark Gable. Today's celebs want to live up in the Hills, but the trolley guides won't tell you where: they're sworn to secrecy as city employees. For a gawkier tour, grab a star map from a street vendor and start walking, or take a Hollywood double decker bus tour. Like TMZ on wheels, the guides gleefully share the latest gossip, and dish on which stars live behind which tall hedges.
After our ride we continued celeb-spotting on foot along Rodeo Drive, now bustling with activity. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada line one side of the street, with jeweler Harry Winston, Michael Kors and Chanel on the other. We scan the sidewalks and peer through windows while faking cell phone calls, all to no avail. So, we head for Sprinkles, cupcake shop to the stars, credited with starting the global cupcake trend. If you follow them on Twitter, and mention the word-of-the-day to staff, they'll reward you with a free cupcake, and they are fabulous. Their latest innovation is a cupcake ATM for instant sugary gratification, coming soon to a mall near you. Two more shops lured us in: Kitson Kids, a tween shop that's as hip as they come, and Menchies, the go-to frozen yogurt mecca for Disney Channel stars.
Using our sugar rush to good effect we walked over to the Paley Center for Media, with its vast archive of historic television and radio programming. TV fans can watch 16,000 episodes of favourite shows, and attend panels with actors and writers from popular shows like Modern Family. But our favourite thing was Beyond the Box - an exhibit that draws on Warner Brothers' enormous archive of costumes, sets and other memorabilia from The Sopranos, Kung Fu, Murphy Brown, and The Big Bang Theory, among other shows. Photo ops include a booth from Seinfeld's iconic Monk's Diner, and a recreation of the Central Perk coffee shop from Friends. And for animation buffs, there's a walk-in animation cell where you can get interactive with Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters.
By late afternoon, it was time to head back to our hotel, the grand, Rat Pack-era Beverly Hilton, whose expansive lobby and glittery ballroom plays host to the Golden Globes and other major shindigs. We planned on a little lounging around the glamorous pool but we were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a red carpet running the length of the lobby. Amid a milling crowd in the lobby we spotted a woman talking into a walkie talkie, and asked her what was happening. "It's the Producer's Guild Awards - lots of stars are coming out tonight. Do you want to take a picture on the red carpet?" Umm, yeah! After a few photos we hurried upstairs, threw on our best outfits, and took our place red carpet-side. We saw a lot of familiar faces that night - Brad and Angelina, Stephen Spielberg, Sofia Vergara and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. Though star sightings aren't guaranteed, visit Hollywood during awards season - January through March - and you stand a good chance of running into a few. It was a happy ending to a perfect first day.
The next day, we headed up into the hills to visit a historic mansion called Greystone, still the largest estate in Beverly Hills with a panoramic view of LA out to the Pacific Ocean. Built by oil millionaire Edward Doheny in 1924 for his newly wedded son, a love triangle and murer-suicide involving his son and his son's male secretary set tongues wagging for years. Today Greystone's turetted towers and stunning gardens are locations for dozens of commercials and movies, most recently The Muppets and the Social Network. Strolling past the reflecting pools and manicured gardens, it didn't seem haunted, but according to the park ranger, it most definitely is. "Other rangers have quit and I've run out of the house twice myself, once screaming," said Park Ranger Steven Clark, who's taken celebrities like Adam Sandler and Leo DiCaprio on impromptu tours of the property. Though empty of furnishings, Greystone's many rooms are still impressive, like the world's first media room where movies were regularly screened, and a bowling alley with a Prohibition-era bar hidden away behind a false wall. To get inside the home, Clark suggests visitors check the Greystone website to see when monthly tours or special events are scheduled.
After a sunny lunch at celeb hangout Urth Caffe (familiar to watchers of Entourage) in nearby West Hollywood we headed into Downtown LA to check out the Grammy Museum. Downtown LA is experiencing a Renaissance of late, with the Staples Centre anchoring LA Live, an entertainment district that's drawing people into the city center again. There's loads to do here, but the Grammy Museum is a hit with its interactive musical games for every generation of music fan. Four hours later, we emerged, after an amazing afternoon of nostalgic listening.
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For dinner, we try for a little more celeb spotting at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's elegant ode to French cooking, and apparently the new Spago, where spotting stars is a nightly event. No luck that night, just a delicious and surprisingly affordable French meal.
We're standing at the corner of Hollywood and Vine with historian Philip Mershon, whose 90-minute walking tour takes you from the early years of Hollywood with its studio system and drugstore cowboys, through the emergence of the television industry in the 50's to the present day.
As cars whiz past the non-descript intersection, Mershon begins his talk by announcing dramatically: "Welcome to Figwood!". Arms outstretched toward the Hollywood Hills, he explains: "Figwood is what Mr and Mrs Harvey Wilcox called this tract of dry California ranchland they had bought, before sensibly renaming it 'Hollywood'. You can't blame them though; in the 1870's these hills were covered in fig trees."
Like the screenwriters and moviemakers who inspired him, Mershon has written a punchy narrative that he unspools as we walk along Hollywood Boulevard, literally in the steps of the stars. His version of the birth of the entertainment industry brings characters like Jack Warner, Judy Garland, and notorious studio boss Sam Cohn to life in a real-life tale of the good, the bad and the ugly. Spending time with Mershon makes a person nostalgic for old Hollywood, and fortunately, a lot of it is still alive and well. We headed to ground zero - Grauman's Chinese Theatre - where the still-beating heart of Tinseltown lies. Grauman's grand portal is just as awe-inspiring as it was when it was first unveiled in 1927. Tours are available but we just poked around, snapping photos of the famous hand and footprints and kibbutzing with passing actors, dressed as Chaplin and Monroe and more than willing to pose for a fee. Just down the street is the El Capitan - Disney's theater and a grand old lady in her own right. Both theatres host glamorous movie premieres on almost a weekly basis, when stars stray off the red carpet to sign autographs, bringing back the high-voltage glitz to this nostalgic part of town.
The area is thronged with tacky attractions, but two other spots rise above the fray and offer a glimpse of the good old days. Venture into Musso & Frank restaurant just up the street - where LA's most famous martini is served to film industry veterans like Francis Ford Coppola - and you'll swear it was 1962. Another spot to soak up the Hollywood feel is the historic Roosevelt hotel, with its scene stealing, ornate Spanish tile and 1920's décor. The Thompson Hotel group has preserved its vaguely sinister, Hitchcockian atmosphere in the lobby and restaurants, but inside the rooms it's another era entirely, with pops of colour and plenty of mirrors to remind guests they're in showbiz territory. By the pool, the party continues, with loungers, cabanas and a fizzy, Tropicana feel. It's easy to imagine Marilyn Monroe here, where she lived off and on, as a young starlet, having publicity photos taken poolside. A sundown cocktail here is one of those Hollywood moments too good to pass up.
As we prepared to leave LA, we were already plotting our return, a sequel if you like. We'll call it "Babes in Hollywoodland, Part Deux".
For information on planning a trip to California, go to VisitCalifornia.com