Oh Hollywood my home away from home on the range.


Having secured a cheap room (thumbs up for Hollywood’s La Brea Motel) I had the opportunity to stroll down Hollywood Boulevard a while back.  A life-long ambition, there were no illusions that this was “Hollywood,” the metonym for the celluloid dream factory. I treated the adventure much as one would a visit to the battlefield at Gettysburg (thumbs up for Gettysburg’s Hickory Branch Guesthouse) and was in search of more tangible apparitions, such as an actual chariot wheel from DeMille’s The Ten Commandments at the Hollywood Heritage Museum.

I was also there to eat and drink, of course, and although the Brown Derby, Schwab’s Pharmacy and Sardi’s are long gone, I did have a nice meal (but lousy martini) at Musso and Frank Grill, a one-time haunt for the likes of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Orson Welles. I also managed a few beers at the Pig ‘N Whistle (inspecting each and every star on the Walk of Fame can be thirsty work), favored by Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Carry Grant, etc, which abuts the Egyptian Theatre, current home to the American Cinematheque and where the first-ever Hollywood premiere (for Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks) was held.

Yes, and I also enjoyed a quirky breakfast at the unkempt and wonderful Snow White Café, which first opened when Walt Disney was looking for a place to hold the after-party for the premiere of Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. Disney is said to have sent his animators over to paint murals of the film’s characters on its walls and ceilings. Hiding in plain sight on the boulevard, it has long since become an insider’s dive-bar (ignored by tourists) with a happy hour that runs from 1 to 7 p.m!

But there remained much else to gawk at, including the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the first – and shortest – Academy Award ceremony was held, and where Marilyn Monroe began her modeling career, posing by the pool whose lining was painted by David Hockney. Next door was the El Capitan Theatre, where Citizen Kane had its premiere and which is now owned and operated by… Disney. And down the street I had to see the designed-for-Vaudeville, Pantages Theatre, another past-venue for the Academy Awards. Once owned by RKO, Howard Hughes had his offices here.

Shuffling past hordes of tourists, tour guides, and costumed characters, I later spent a few harried moments at the sadly mundane Hollywood & Highland Center. Intriguingly topped with remnants from the set of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 classic, Intolerance, it remains a Gap/ California Pizza Kitchen/Victoria’s Secret kind of place (albeit one that employs thousands in a once-seedy neighborhood) and connects Ocar’s new home, the Kodak Theatre, with another of its old homes, the Chinese Theatre.

Built by Sid Grauman, who also built the Egyptian across the street, it was Grauman who came up with the idea of having stars place their footprints/handprints in cement, beginning with Mary Pickford.  The grand, old movie palace has since seen more movie premieres than any other venue anywhere.

A number of the actors in those premiered films now reside in the unrepentantly kitschy Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where you can buy a map in the flower shop to find the final resting places of John Huston, Adolphe Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks (and Fairbanks Jr.), Jayne Mansfield, Fay Wray, Mel Blanc, Peter Lorre, Tyrone Power, as well as Cecil B. DeMille, Don Adams, Dee-Dee and Johnny Ramone among other entertainment legends, not to mention (my favorite stop) Rudolph Valentino.

After sneaking into the nearby Hollywood Bowl and driving up to the Griffith Observatory (“You can wake up now, the universe has ended,” said James Dean to Natalie Wood), where I got as close as I could to the Hollywood sign, I looked out over the valley and thought of Sergeant Joe Friday “…this is the city.”  Still, there was one more sight to see before I wended my way back to the freeway.

Built in 1956 with a blinking light atop its tower that forever spells-out the word, “Hollywood” in Morse code, and featuring subterranean echo chambers designed by the great Les Paul, the Capitol Records Building houses studios that have recorded such luminaries as Sinatra, Streisand, Bacharach, Nat King Cole, the Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson, Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Mary McCaslin (who?).

Mentioned a few times in this blog, McCaslin toured regularly with her husband, Jim Ringer throughout the ’70s, including Passim in Harvard Square. Born near Indianapolis in 1946, her family moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘50s, where she became fascinated with television westerns and Native American lore. Having bought her first guitar at 15, she became a regular on the West Coast coffee house circuit while still a teen, cutting her first album for Capitol Records in 1968.

After meeting and marrying Ringer she cut her second album, Way Out West, for the newly formed Philo folk label in 1972.  Co-written by Bob Simpson, this nod to the fact that not every Hollywood cowboy finds redemption through a good woman is the album’s opening track.

 Music Strings/Oh Hollywood

I’ve played on the music strings of my life,

Their silver thread melodies take me away.

My life lies to cling to in stealth and strife,

Weaving my passage through starlight and day…

I dreamed I was a cowboy out on the western plains,

Yodle-ay-dee I’ve been lately feeling weirdly and quite strange.

Whoopi-ti I try to make it by on cornbread and spare change,

I think I’ve had enough of California and its ways.

I mosey down the streets at night and look at all the faces,

Trying to keep my mind on other times and other places.

I go down to the saloon on the chance that I might find,

Someone there to comfort me and give me peace of mind.

Oh I wander down the neon streets with no one else to blame,

Oh Hollywood my home away from home on the range.

I look up through the palm trees and I try to find the stars,

To guide me on my travels for I’ve strayed and wandered far.

The stars are in the sidewalks I walk I read the names,

Like never ending tombstones from some forgotten day.

Oh I wander down the neon streets with no one else to blame,

Oh Hollywood my home away from home on the range.

California lasses with their asses bound in leather,

Fancy vests upon their breasts and nothing on their minds.

Remind me of so long ago when I was very young,

I tried to be a cowboy but I could not hold a gun.

Oh I wander down the neon streets with no one else to blame,

Oh Hollywood my home away from home on the range

Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming


It took an autumn day in Concord to bring me back to this blog. Devoted to stories, some personal, most not, about popular songs, my stated goal is to post 365, one for each day of the year. I’m at #320 but since this is a re-posted song, alas, it doesn’t count. Surely I’ll get there in the end.

Perhaps my greatest joy is to watch my kids, now in their 20s, live their lives with a “fist full of gusto,” to steal a line from an old beer commercial. I was much the same at that age, which goes some way to explain this thankfully washed-out picture (considering the poor excuse for a beard), taken in Istanbul in the fall of 1980, not long after that year’s coup d’état.

That’s me, sixth from the left, on the deck of a fishing boat just-in from the Sea of Marmara. Jumping into scenes like this was the kind of thing I did back then and, as their friends may concur, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree.

Since the enforcement of martial law, hotel rooms had become quite affordable that season, and despite a midnight curfew the supper clubs remained open. Though there was no coffee to be had due to an embargo, there was still plenty of high-test (absinthe-like) Turkish raki or “lion’s milk” as it was called, which leads us, hours later, to the dance floor of an old town establishment known for its belly dancing show.

Featuring a small orchestra, its musicians swaying back and forth in their fezzes, and a conjuror with magic orbs and rings of fire, between sets, and starring a marvel of a belly dancer, whose tummy moved in more directions than a three-cycle washing machine, it didn’t disappoint. Then, when the show was over we in the audience had the opportunity to grab a piece of the floor for ourselves while the music played on.

Somewhere along the way a Portuguese girl, named Maria, made it her mission to teach me the Bailarico, a folk dance where the girl backs up and the boy moves forward with little bouncing steps, then you raise your hands up high, before you embrace, and spin in place, then to one side, and then the other, and then…well, you get the picture. Everything was proceeding splendidly until the lights were thrown on and it was announced that 30 minutes remained before curfew.

The music may have stopped but with “lion’s milk” coursing through our veins the urge to dance had not. Maria and I, as it turned out, were staying at the same hotel; and so (I swear this is all true) we danced all the way home.

Perhaps you too have songs you like to sing to yourself from time to time. I know I do, and as an accompaniment to the Bailarico this one works perfectly … “I may go out tomorrow…” Hands in the air… “If I can borrow a coat to wear…” Embrace and spin … around a lamppost… “Oh I’d step out in style…” Step, step, step … down the street through an intersection with blinking traffic lights… “With my sincere smile and my dancing bear…”

When at last we spun through the hotel’s revolving door… “Making the grandest entrances it’s Sim-on Smith and the Ama-zing Dan-cing Bear….” at two minutes before midnight we’d been through the song at least half a dozen times. It’s funny how you suddenly remember these things.

Written by Randy Newman this song was first popularized by Alan Price in 1967, then Harry Nilsson in 1970. Newman finally released his own version on his 1972 album, “Sail Away”. It’s nearly half a century since he wrote it and I’ll bet he still doesn’t realize how nicely it accompanies the Bailarico.

Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear

I may go out tomorrow, if I can borrow a coat to wear,

Oh I’d step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear,

Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming

Oh who would think a boy and bear

Could be well accepted everywhere

It’s just amazing how fair people can be.

Seen at the nicest places where well-fed faces all stop to stare

Making the grandest entrance it’s Simon Smith and his dancing bear.

They’ll love us, won’t they?

They feed us, don’t they?

Oh, who would think a boy and bear

Could be well accepted everywhere

It’s just amazing how fair people can be.

Who needs money when you’re funny?

The big attraction everywhere

Will be Simon Smith and his dancing bear

It’s Simon Smith and the amazing dancing bear