October 2011, self-published

Welcome to a piece that is part travelogue, part essay, part meander…but all heart.

When tourists, like me, come to LA we probably expect to see some stars, other than the ones embedded in Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. Though celebrity spots are by no means guaranteed they are highly probable; more likely than staying at home but less likely than being in an episode of Entourage. Meanwhile, what is guaranteed is that, other than private clubs, the playground of the rich and famous is open for Joe and Josephine Shmo to frolic on and pretend on by recreating scenes from various movies that have either been shot in and around Hollywood or cannibalised the Hollywood scene itself.

Chateau Marmont seems like a good place to start such a trail. However, this famous location whose string of celebrity credits include its status as a Greta Garbo hideaway to the setting for Sophia Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere, was actually my last stop on my LA stay. Although sitings of Idris Elba, Milla Jovic and Adam Brody there were pretty cool I’d already seen what I came for and, short of perhaps Sarah Michelle Gellar, Courtney Cox Michael C Hall and, well, Idris Elba pulling up chairs next to me, what I had seen may make a more lasting impression on me than glances of the stars. My foray to LA was a long time coming and it had definite mission statements.

As a kid I was exposed to numerous television shows and films from which the California sun bled into my eyes like some kind of SAD lamp regulated by the TV Times. ChiPs was one of my earliest favourites and I distinctly remember the sadness I felt when it ended at 6.25pm on a Saturday, partly due to the fact that my bed-time was not far away.

California was, thus, logged as an escape route to the sun in the back of my mind, which seems so appropriate given that a corner of it is devoted to pumping out all levels of escapist entertainment. In the intervening years I have to admit that the apparent sun-drenched vacuity of California was usurped by trips to Europe and my fondness for focused-cities over sprawl made me much more anxious to visit New York which I did and I loved. Besides, I’d listened to various folks I knew who had visited LA and come back disappointed. It didn’t seem like I was missing much.

Warner Brothers and Friends
Still, LA cache  never went away, it was still the birthplace of so many things I loved and still love. Take Friends. It’s an interesting example because it is set in New York but filmed at the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank. I remember looking at the location one day on IMDB, I think I was thinking to myself how great it would have been to have watched an episode being filmed. I had no concept of where Burbank was in relation to Hollywood and how much it would mean anything to me to be there when the series was over. The secrets behind the camera, if I wanted access to them, were there though and not in New York the backdrop that gets such a fleeting role in the show. Most of the time the New York that is shown us on Friends is the Warner Brothers mock city set. Somewhat ironically I only caught a glimpse of when I visited the Warner Brothers studios.

The Warner lot is, to the visitor, quite a calm place, full of pastel-shaded buildings, well-scrubbed to almost sterile, a bit like some of the studios output. That’s not to say some mammoth films and TV shows haven’t come out of WB and I am partial to some of its more saccharine treats too, such as The Gilmore Girls.

Though Friends was what I was here for, sight of the Warner village is a boon to the GG fan and sight of Merlotte’s bar from True Blood another bonus of the visit.

The Friends aspects of the tour are literally scrappy but something to be cherished nonetheless. For example, remember the patch if grass where Ross plays that unlikely and unorthodox game if rugby?

Or the scene in “Central Park” where Phoebe shows off her equally unorthodox running style?

Well, as you can see, they are just bits of grass on the “village green” area in a settlement that has been used for Westerns and TV shows including The Gilmore Girls. As I discovered, individual houses on the block have a similar stories for example one was used for The Shootist and the Friends episode where a moustachioed Ross comes agonisingly close to taking Rachel to the prom. Yes indeed I saw the stairs down which Elliot Gould (Ross’s dad) descends saying “here comes your knight in shining…”, cut-off as he sees the re-united unit of Rachel and Chip leave with Monica and Roy.

Of course, the much anticipated moment for me was seeing Central Perk. I’d heard that you were able to get your photos taken on the couch but no such luck. The set enjoys the honour of being the only one belonging to a decommissioned show that is still preserved, but having said that it is unceremoniously housed in a “cupboard” and you can’t sit on the couch. Admittedly, there would not have been much more room when it was laid out as a proper set but it was only til we made our last surprise visit – to the set of Two-and-a-Half Men – that you could get an idea of how the Friends experience would have fit together.

The Two-and-a-Half Men set was draped with sheets (no pics allowed, sadly). Not as a mark of mourning for the lead star Charlie Sheen who had committed career suicide only days earlier, but because the series had yet to resume (and would wait a lot longer to do so). Our tour guide, Wes, explained what we could expect if we came to a filming session and I at least got to imagine it from a front row seat for Friends. I wonder if there will ever be another studio show that will make me want to make the trip over. At least I know free pizza awaits if there is.

Buffy Love
Ultimately it was my love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that had really brought me to California and set me on a pilgrimage that few tourists make to Torrence, in the South Bay area of LA. It’s almost as unreal to think of me being there now as it was when I was looking up Buffy locations and wondering if I would ever see them. This might sound melodramatic but when I posted up my pilgrimage plan on a Buffy forum, to find out if there was anyone LA-based who would drive me around them, one girl from Sweden said pretty much the same thing, asking me to send the photos because she doubted she would necessarily make the journey over.

The lure of the hellmouth was just too much for me in the end. A bargain flight was booked, a friend agreed to put me up, other friends of friends agreed to drive me around. The Buffy tour was pencilled in for about half-way through my stay, I didn’t want to peak too early but I didn’t want to wait too long.

On the day, the morning and the evening were in reverse in the sense that I visited the cemetery first (The Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, 1831 W.Washington Boulevard, south of Koreatown in LA) when it was too light for vampires and because it was a handy stop on the way to Torrence, out from where I was staying.

You might say that once you have seen one cemetery you have seen them all and why see more? Well, I’d understand that. That said when, as a Buffy fan, you see the familiar shapes of certain headstones and statues used in shots of the show (when they weren’t using the Mutant Enemy backlot as a makeshift graveyard) there’s obviously something even more special about the place than there already is.

I’ve seen the cemetery used in quite a few things now and I almost feel a bit sorry for the, er, residents but then again you could argue that they provide a solid supporting cast. I doubt they would all get IMDB status but a number of the residents are indeed pretty famous in their own right including Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel, Horror-director Tod Browning and Raputin’s daughter Maria among them. Incidentally there is one tombstone with the surname of Summers, a pretty eerie coincidence.

Buffy’s move from cemetery to studio backlot was rumoured to be partly due to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s, understandable, dislike of burial grounds. More likely it was down to budget but, even so, this tombstone must have been spotted and it would have sent a chill up the spine, it certainly had that effect on me.

Inevitably, given it subject matter, Six Feet Under is said to be one of the shows filmed here. During my visit I spotted one of the smart silver funeral cars operating out of the cemetery and it did make me think of Claire Fisher’s car in the series, albeit less colourful. It was like a cross-over moment between the two shows.

A Six Feet Under Segue
I’d visited the Six Feet Under house in nearby [2302 West 25th St. ~ West Adams ~ Los Angeles, CA 90018] only the day before and it was my first brush with “location fame awe”. It’s a bit of a segue from the Buff stuff but it’s worth a mention here as it puts into context a feeling that I would experience again soon the next day. Getting out of the car to see it and have photos taken outside of it felt almost as if I was going to meet one of the actors in the show, a bit like the feeling Justin Lee Collins must have had when he was busy tracking down ex-cast members of Fame and whatnot.

What struck me was that the house is as nice as it is looks in the showwithout being located is a neighbourhood that is as nice or as spacious as the one depicted, butt then the house borders South Central LA and not North Hollywood where the show is set. Despite the context I felt like I had connected with the show somehow, partly because many of the Fisher family group moments werewhen they were gathered on the porch. I’d just finished re-watching the series before I came out and I haven’t seen it since but I know Iwill get a buzz when I see the house again, something along the lines of “Omfg” as some of my Facebook friends observed when they saw these photos of me posing outside.

And we are back to Buffy love…
I felt the same way and then moreso the next day when, after a lunchtime stop in downtown LA I would later regret, I reached Torrence. Arriving in this neat and tidy suburb I had the sense of where the school was before reaching it but the first task on my list was to find Buffy’s house. 1313 Cota Drive is the address that doubled for 1630 Revello Drive. I’d written to the owners before arriving in the US but I wasn’t particularly surprised not to hear back. I expect they get a lot of requests like this. I was just happy to park up outside and have a few shots of the exterior, conscious of making my friendly intent obvious, knowing that I wasn’t going to get invited in, like so many visitors in the show. I perched on the kerb while my companion took photos. I suppose because I never made it inside it remains a mystery to me but seeing it, as with the Fisher household, was a bit like greeting an old friend even if the experience wasn’t as intimate as full disclosure.

While the house is without doubt one of the most important and constant real locations of the show, for me Sunnydale High School is the most iconic even though it was destroyed at the end of series three. As with the house, I contacted the school in advance of my visit and in this instance I had a reply and arranged with the school secretary to come out of school hours. We parked outside the front and therefore with the most iconic view. I took it in but wanted to spend more time with it at the end, besides, I didn’t want to run out of time inside. After checking in at the school office I had a free run of the school grounds and one of my first stop offs was the courtyard where the “Scooby gang” often had lunch and where set pieces such as the scene with Buffy vaulting her way to Jonathan in the clock tower originate.

Meanwhile the foot of stairs always puts me in mind of Cordelia looking lost with or without Xander.

While at the top of the stairs and the walkway I can see Giles and the gang meeting up in between lessons.

It was while taking stock of all this at the foot of the stairs that a male teacher approached us and asked: “Is this a Buffy tour or a 90210 tour?” Clearly I wasn’t the first. I explained it was a Buffy tour (incidentally the first incarnation of 90210 had been filmed here hence the question) and he said that his colleague in the English department was a huge Buffy fan. So we went with him to meet her.

There is something extremely liberating about meeting someone who shares your passion. Even though a TV show can play to millions of viewers it isn’t always the case that you have someone to talk about it with in depth. Fan sites and forums have proved manna from heaven for geeks but nothing can replace the excited chatter of two or more people who have back history created for them, as if catching up on a kind of extended family but one that seems to resonate as much as a nuclear one. “You speak my language!” said Susana, my new “friend in Buffy”, a friend who had adorned her classroom with posters from the show and even stored post its that were handed out when the filming started there. Susana was already working at the school when the show started and so remembers various aspects of how school life was affected. She told me that they were careful to film it without getting any pupils in shot and somehow managed to choreograph their extras away from the main body of the school pupils with only the briefest cross-over involving one of the senior staff. A lot of the shooting was done in an outbuilding that was closed off when I was there. Susana also told me that the finale of series 3 where the school is destroyed and specifically the clocktower (that doesn’t exist in real life) blown up caused consternation in the neighbourhood. The explosion was scheduled for the early evening but inevitably the shoot went on into the night and it only came at 2am.

Susana, myself, and my friend were joined by a pupil who had been staying behind on library duty (yes I saw the library, spacious, functional and not at all like Giles’) and wanted to hear more about Buffy that pre-dated her school career (and make me feel old). While the various tales were told we strolled around some more of the school that was used for filming and I noted with pleasure the green space near the birch tree where Buffy and Willow would often sit and bare their souls to each other.

On screen the space looks much bigger of course but the wistful quality of it is still apparent and I can just imagine sitting under that tree and bleating about hormonal teenage woes, far less exciting than those of the Scoobies even if they seemed every bit as dramatic.
The locker corridor was a poignant view and made me a bit nostalgic for the US high school education I never had but once hankered for…

…but the the real “find”, however, was the semi-circular window that overlooks one of the foyer areas. Not unlike the Playschool collection of windows this portal is an icon of TV history. Among the pivotal moments of the show that occurred within its gaze was Angel’s savage killing of the oh-so-hot Jenny Calendar…

The visit was full of wonderful moments and to be able to share them with real-life staff at the school was an added dimension. My parting souvenir hunt was a series of shots outside the front of the school. They are the only shots I had posted until now to which the reaction on Facebook was “wow you really are a fan aren’t you?”

That night I had the most evil stomach upset. I think it was coincidental with a Mexican meal at lunch, but I wondered if either that was my payment to wandering too close to the Hellmouth? Or perhaps, more likely the delayed shock at touching base with a location that is so important to me. When I watch repeats of the first three seasons now I do feel an extra sense of connection with the show and a buzz as corridors, rooms and outside locations that I know are shown, almost as if travelling back in time and that is bound to make one feel queasy.