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Best Of :: People & Places

Best Ticket to Train Heaven
Travel Town Museum

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
5200 Zoo Dr., Los Angeles, 90027
Best Picnic Spot for Cowboys
Paramount Ranch

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
2903 Cornell Rd., Agoura Hills, 91301
Best Dream Home
Museum of Jurassic Technology

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
9341 Venice Blvd., Culver City, 90232
Best Moving Pictures

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
1636 Wilcox Ave., Los Angeles, 90028
Best Steam Trains
Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn

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
5202 Zoo Dr., Los Angeles, 90027
Best Ape Hoots and Howls
Gibbon Conservation Center

The sun is high, the sky is blue, and a few scattered hoots are on the verge of becoming a rare midafternoon chorus at the Gibbon Conservation Center. "These guys usually sing in the morning," says Alan Mootnick, director of the center. "But maybe you'll get lucky."

Sure enough, the hoots quickly multiply into a deafening harmony of gibbon clatter. "Well, this is a really exciting treat," Mootnick shouts over the din with a smile so big it seems like he's never seen his gibbons sing before. From all directions there are howls and groans, beeps and whistles, some so fast and high-pitched that the collective output sounds electronic, like the workings of some futuristic laboratory. "In their native forest," Mootnick says, "you can hear this for miles. Luckily, my neighbors out here don't mind."

Mootnick doesn't have that many neighbors on the edge of Santa Clarita, not far from Vasquez Rocks and past the frontier where the malls and developments gradually give way to farms and horse ranches. Santa Clarita is an unlikely place for the country's largest zoological facility devoted to gibbon research, but that's what the Gibbon Conservation Center is.

"We have the rarest group of apes — and don't forget that gibbons are apes — in the western hemisphere," he says. "And the most gibbons. We're also the only place in the world with all four gibbon genera."

Mootnick wears khaki long sleeves and brown suspenders even when not in the field, because he doesn't like the sun. "And neither do the gibbons, really," he says. "But this is where land is cheap. Or was cheap. And this is where we wound up." To find these apes in the wild, you'd have to travel to a half-dozen countries on two continents and hunker down for weeks in jungle undergrowth covered in sweat and 90 percent DEET. "But if you live in Los Angeles," Mootnick says, "all you have to do is drive up the 5 freeway."

If you've never seen a gibbon, do make that trip. If you have seen a gibbon, then you know they are endlessly playful, fascinating creatures, and you will therefore also want to make that trip. Gibbons have just the right ratio of arm length to body weight to make them the most natural acrobats on earth. When they're not effortlessly arcing from perch to perch at 35 miles per hour, they like to demonstrate their abilities as the only nonhuman primates to brachiate, meaning they walk upright, loping around like adorable little long-armed hairy people. This is what the kindergartner-sized, black-haired Siamangs are currently doing, as Mootnick chuckles at their antics.

"Kino and Rumi have issues to work out," he says. The chorus is still going strong, and Kino and Rumi chime in, filling their throat pouches and letting their mandibles float on the notes as they exhale. "The songs are part of their little drama," Mootnick says, decoding the story for us. The trouble started when he separated the couple for four months — they were a bit too amorous and Mootnick didn't want more offspring — and Kino took the time alone as an opportunity to start singing with another female in a separate enclosure. "Now that they're back together, Rumi started drowning him out, throwing him off, trying to break his new love."

Mootnick's own gibbon love began when he was 9. Tarzan led him to the old Griffith Park zoo, which led him to ask his parents why he couldn't build his own zoo at home. "They told me that there's nothing in the world I couldn't do," Mootnick says. "But — they added that I'd have to do it myself."

And so, at 9 years of age, self-starter Mootnick took a job working at his grandfather's furniture store. The money was important, but equally valuable was the ability to acquire scrap materials. He'd straighten the nails from broken chair legs, sofa frames and credenza doors, converting the remnants into cages in his parents' backyard. The first menagerie started with a dog, a rabbit and a pair of pigeons. At 13, Mootnick started welding. Bigger enclosures led to bigger animals, including primates. But it wasn't until his mid-20s that Mootnick got a hold of his first gibbon, a white-handed or Jar Gibbon.

"At the time," he says, "I had a lot of animals, not just gibbons. I was living on 2.5 acres in Woodland Hills, if you can believe, with a homemade zoo. And I was leasing."

Eventually Mootnick moved out to Santa Clarita and pared down to focus solely on gibbons. He is entirely self-taught, and Mootnick's 32 years working with gibbons have made him a world-renowned expert. He publishes papers in top journals, appears at symposia, does field work and provides an important breeding service, loaning partners, finding unrelated mates to keep bloodlines healthy and producing offspring for zoos all over the world.

In a nearby cage, Cantor, a little golden baby Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon, is clinging adorably to his mother. "These are some of the most endangered gibbons," Mootnick says as we watch the family watch us. In the wild, they number less than 500. In general, the pressure on gibbons is enormous. In Bangladesh, where gibbons once widely roamed the canopies, there are only 200 gibbons left. "They need our help," Mootnick says.

The Gibbon Conservation Center survives on a supply of volunteers (including Mootnick, who has never been paid for his years of work) and fund-raising from corporations, individuals, membership drives and a gift shop where Mootnick sells items imported from Indonesia. Twice a year, he hosts a fund-raising picnic for the public. "The last one brought in 400 people," he says. "A big success."

Mootnick is hoping to raise enough money for a bigger plot, in Ventura County, where he envisions his ultimate zoo: a system of larger, naturalistic enclosures, without fences, where the public can sit and observe gibbons for hours as if they were on a field study in the wild.

"It's a new type of idea," he says. "But it will work."

The estimated cost? Up to a couple million dollars. A stretch, Mootnick knows, but he points out that it was a stretch to get this far from the 9-year-old banging discarded furniture together in his backyard.

"My next picnic is in October," he says. It's a breakfast picnic on October 19. "The more people who come to enjoy the gibbons now will help others enjoy them in the future."

—Joshuah Bearman
19100 Esquerra Rd., Santa Clarita, 91380

Best Ticket to Train Heaven: Travel Town Museum


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