Best Of :: People & Places
The Griffith Observatory may get all the press, but high up in the San Gabriel Mountains is another space-gazing outpost equally worth a visit. The Mount Wilson Observatory, on a summit 5,712 feet above Pasadena, is a haven for astronomers both amateur and professional. Founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale, who was looking for a place to continue his studies of the sun, the isolated grounds and beautiful natural setting are ideal for pondering the universe's metaphysical mysteries and magic. Guests can schedule a public viewing to use the observatory's incredible 60-inch nighttime telescope and view the 100-inch tower telescope. Or bring a picnic and take a free weekend walking tour of the grounds and a small museum where you can learn about Mount Wilson's 60- and 150-foot solar telescopes, and the instruments that led scientists to first recognize that the sun is not the center of our Milky Way galaxy after all.—Molly Lambert
The Paramount Ranch has stood in for Tombstone, Laredo, Dodge City and a host of other cowboy movie landmarks. The façade of a Western town still stands at the entrance and is occasionally used for TV and film shoots. A large grassy area with tables is perfect for picnics. Various trailheads lead into easy hikes through Malibu Creek State Park.—Molly Lambert
It's a favorite of hipsters, artists, scholars, scientists and pretty much anyone with an interest in natural history, dimly lit rooms, mysticism, bees, Wunderkammer, biology, archaeology, pyramids, taxidermy, Victoriana, the notion of what makes a museum a museum, and/or a general sort of elegant weirdness. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, which opened in the late 1980s and, along with its curator-creator David Wilson, was profiled in Lawrence Weschler's book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, subsists on donations. It has survived some tough times, thanks in large part to the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant Wilson received in 2001. More recently, the museum picked up yet another prestigious accolade: its own Facebook page. Titled "I Want to Live in the Museum of Jurassic Technology," with some 134 members and growing, the page expresses a kind of deep longing. If you lived in the MJT, the sentiment goes, you would have as much time as you desired to wrap your mind around the enigma, to parse out every nuance as you contemplate its greatest hits: the mouse on toast; the Napoleon Library; the microminiature Goofy sculpture on a grain of rice atop the eye of a needle; the mobile-park dioramas; and the strange bell thing that chimes unexpectedly while you're staring at the holographic Egyptian tomb.
If you lived in the MJT, you would be the proud possessor of a wealth of relics, curios and technological artifacts supposedly harvested from the lower Jurassic period. People would squint for extended periods at the itty-bitty fruit-stone carving in your living room, trying to make out if there really is a Flemish landscape etched on its front, and "an unusually grim Crucifixion, with a soldier on horseback, Longinus piercing Christ's side with a lance" on its back. Friends would stop by for Georgian black tea and cookies in your Tula Tea Room. Perhaps they'd whisper about how you really ought to hire a new decorator, because your entire place is a wee bit funereal, never mind the cute portraits of the Soviet space dogs. Or if they straight up don't get it — and a few unenlightened folks never will — they'll stomp out in a bewildered huff and swear that it's the worst $10 donation they ever spent. You'll know better, though. "Jurassic" means a whole lot more than "dinosaur."—Gendy Alimurung
At first glance, it's a rusted tower crane. Perhaps something dredged up from the ocean, an artifact of some lost city in some displaced future, like Mad Max's Atlantis. Unlike any projection system Los Angeles has ever seen, the Engine Theater is 1,000 pounds of illuminated oxidized-steel sculpture that rotates to hold a 17-by-10-foot film screen.
Built by Silver Lake–based filmmaker Burke Roberts and his Bizzurke Army collective to answer what Roberts saw as L.A.'s lack of independent screening venues, the Engine is a portable movie theater designed to fit into a number of indoor and outdoor spaces, turning any environment into a motion-picture venue.
Since its 2007 debut at the Architecture and Design Museum of Los Angeles, the Engine Theater has traveled to giant outdoor music and art festivals like Burning Man and Coachella, as well as private parties and über-hip downtown L.A. events, like this year's HARD New Year's Eve, where it screened Daft Punk's film Electroma. Never in one place for long, the Engine's home is where it parks its trailer.
The Engine may have taken 4,000 man-hours to create, but for Roberts and the artists that make up the Bizzurke Army, screening in and around L.A. is only the beginning of the theater's potential. Roberts sees the Engine Theater as having unlimited touring capabilities, like a punk rock band that travels city to city to play gigs wherever, and to whomever.
Currently you can find the Engine at Studio 1636 art gallery, in Hollywood, where Roberts hosts weekly screenings of independent films from around the world.—Erin Broadley
Steam trains were an obsession for Walt Disney since his childhood. From his earliest sketches, he planned to have a railroad circling around the park at Disneyland. Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnson, two of Disney Studios' "Nine Old Men" of animation, shared the same obsession. They introduced Walt to their hobby of narrow-gauge live-steam backyard railroading, inspiring Disney to re-create the barn from his family home in Missouri and make his own miniature track. He used the barn as a workshop for his Carolwood Railroad, a fully operating steam train built an eighth of the size of the real thing on a half-mile of track. Although his train, the Lilly Belle, resides at Disneyland, Walt's Carolwood Barn has been relocated to Griffith Park's former Travel Town, now known as the Los Angeles Live Steamers Museum. The Barn is open free to the public on the third Sunday of each month, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with guided tours provided by members of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society—Molly Lambert
In the general category of obsessive types, rail fanatics are hard to beat. It's one of those fixations that begins in childhood and can balloon into an all-consuming, nostalgia-drenched existence. A glance at any historical rail Web site, typically filled with pages of precise timetables, minutiae about obsolete technology and other arcane information relating to gauge size and engine types will give you an idea.
Of course, every train obsessive's fixation began in childhood. Most kids love trains. Even those who might never step foot in any form of rail-operated transport are gripped by an intuitive fascination.
That's why a visit to the Travel Town Museum in Griffith Park is both a great way to kill a couple hours with your kids and connect with your inner child and history geek. Hell, it's a shame that most visitors are parents with tots in tow. Adults with a modicum of interest in the subject are missing out.
The "railroad petting zoo" that hugs the 5 at the northern end of the park is a graveyard of technology. Nineteenth-century horse-drawn passenger cars are exposed to the elements, and the passage of time is evident on the decaying bodies of the imposing locomotive engines, cabooses, freight cars, Pullmans and other relics that feel like a ragtag group of world-weary characters. (For those who want to get their hands dirty with a more intensive hands-on experience with working trains, membership at the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum next door is better suited to active hobbyists.)
Plus, Travel Town is a bargain. You can buy tickets on the Travel Town Railroad mini-train ($2 or $2.50 for two laps around the three-eighths-of-a-mile track; it's the sister to the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad), make a voluntary donation and buy train-themed goods at the gift shop. Or you can visit and spend no money at all.
The institution, which is managed by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and the Travel Town Museum Foundation, could use some curatorial and physical sprucing up. At times the interpretive program closely approaches paeans to the corporations that built the railways and donated most of the collection, with little in the way of critical history. The attractions are also, frankly, really dangerous. Climbing inside the Oahu Railway and Land Company caboose, or the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe locomotive requires some perilous maneuvering — no small feat if you're managing overly excited kids. Though some cars are undergoing restoration, an army of conservators is nowhere to be found, nor is there a list of who's-who board members posted at the entrance.
But this down-home quality, extending even to the unfussy graphic design, is also a big part of Travel Town's charm. On weekdays especially, there's a ghost-town-like appeal that makes you feel like you have the run of the place. What better way to spark imaginations, regardless of age?—Jessica Ritz