Best of L.A.

Best Of 2008

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Best Of :: People & Places

Best Underground Sounds
Los Angeles Theatre

Two stories below Broadway, beneath the ceaseless hustle and/or bustle, there's a ballroom in the belly of the Los Angeles Theatre. When it's an empty belly, everything echoes, as though calling forth the sounds of past dancers up from the bedrock and delivering them once more. It's the kind of rippling acoustic reverie that sounds like laughter, or ball bearings, or birdsong, depending on where you are in the room. It's not something that gets mentioned much on the L.A. Conservancy's walking tours, and seldom do those Sunday tours make it all the way down there — but when they do, the sounds that come pinging and ringing from the footsteps of the curious are enough to make one's pace slow in order to feel the effects of each foot fall. What results is a joyous pause that recalls the first time you ever heard your own movements create a weird sound. The best listening spot is at the center of the room, where the wood bends and yaws just enough to make the sound that much more pronounced — a wet, bouncing kind of reverb and echo created by more than 75 years of people enjoying movies and, on their way to the show, creating another kind of spectacular in the process.

—David Cotner

615 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, 90013
MAP
213-629-2939
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
MAP
818-597-9192
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
MAP
310-836-6131
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
MAP
323-860-9936
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
MAP
323-661-8958
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
MAP
323-662-5874
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
MAP
661-296-2737
Best Hollywood Trash Collectors
World of Wonder Storefront Gallery

Estelle Getty would be rolling in her grave if she knew that there's a pornographic painting of her vagina out there. The World of Wonder Storefront Gallery opened its doors last summer with the now infamous "Golden Gals Gone Wild," an exhibit inspired by The Golden Girls that includes erotic depictions of Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia, and a lone rendering of the girls as Hindu goddesses. (We always knew they were holy.) In recent months, the gallery has displayed art celebrating all things Britney Spears ("Just Britney," with yet another vagina showing) and Madonna ("Dial M for Madonna"), while the current "Dollypop" pays tribute to the queen of country. The works range from a portrait made entirely out of candy to a doll lovingly crafted out of pipe cleaners. Just look for a giant pair of breasts in the gallery's window — you can't miss 'em.

Gallery owners Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato know all about turning pop-culture trash into art and honoring gay icons. After founding their World of Wonder Productions in 1991, the producing and directing partners began their careers managing RuPaul, and spent the next 15-plus years creating work for TV and film both here and abroad. They've worked with countless artists and pseudocelebs, from Ellen DeGeneres and Heidi Fleiss to Perez Hilton.

But Bailey and Barbato didn't make their mark in Hollywood until The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the 2000 documentary that saw the rise and fall of the late Tammy Faye Bakker through the late televangelist's unbeatable soul. Since then, the partners have released their first feature film on party promoter turned convicted killer Michael Alig and the New York club scene, 2003's Party Monster, followed by 2005's Inside Deep Throat, another documentary on the behind-the-scenes story of the most legendary porno ever made.

The East Villagers moved shop to L.A. in 1995, taking with them their "weird collective" of artists and art enthusiasts, and following in the footsteps of Ann Magnuson, author and former club kid James St. James and more of their '80s N.Y. cohorts, who eventually migrated West.

"We love New York," Barbato says. "But part of it was getting to that point in our lives where we were wanting to settle down a bit more. It's so difficult to do that in New York. Just the simple things, like space. And the weather's kinda nice here. It was the superficial, simple things like that. We moved out here for the quality of life. Then it turned out there all these New Yorkers are out here."

Seeing the dire need for more trash on Hollywood Boulevard, Bailey and Barbato decided to open World of Wonder in 2007, in the same building that houses their production company, conveniently located next to Skooby's Hot Dogs and the Iglesia Universal Church.

"We've always been obsessed with art," Barbato says. "Here we are, right on Hollywood Boulevard. We're at the center of all things pop culture. We used to rent it out to a porno store, and their lease was up. They used to sell dildos and essential oils, and now we're selling topless Bea Arthurs and Dolly Partons."

The gallery primarily stages group shows on pop art. And St. James — his book Disco Bloodbath was the basis for Party Monster — can occasionally be seen manning the gallery and curating exhibits.

"He's an institution here at World of Wonder," says Barbato, "which I think is our gift to Hollywood Boulevard."

But you're probably more familiar with Bailey and Barbato's current TV ventures, including top reality shows like Pam: Girl on the Loose on E! and Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood on Oxygen, or the HBO documentary Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madame of Crystal, which chronicles the former Hollywood madam's attempts to open the first all-male brothel in Nevada. (For Anglophiles and children of the '80s, the duo have also been longtime followers of U.K. former pop star Pete Burns, directing a documentary and another reality series for the Dead or Alive lead singer, who has become the poster boy for plastic surgery gone horribly, horribly wrong.)

Even if you don't get around to finding Dolly's breasts by the time "Dollypop" closes on October 8, the gallery's future shows will include the same artsy-tartsy style: RuPaul is curating an upcoming exhibit; the intersection of celebrity and politics is the subject of another; and plans are in the works for a show all about owls. Owls?

"Owls have always been interesting subjects for many artists," says Barbato, with the conviction of someone who believes in UFOs. "They seem to be resurfacing. They were very trendy in the '70s. That's another example of a personal obsession of ours. You know, 'whatta hoot'? I don't know what owls, drag queens and politics have in common, but somehow for us, they do have something in common."

—Siran Babayan
6650 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, 90028
MAP
323-603-6300
Best Doggy Hike
Runyon Canyon

The only off-leash hiking area in the city, Runyon Canyon is the best place to let your dog run free and enjoy sprawling views of the Hollywood Hills. With 90 acres to roam, both you and Prince will get a good workout walk or run. Of course, this see-and-be-seen slice of nature is also known as a great celebrity-spotting sight (we frequently see Jason Bateman jogging up the mountain). We like the short hike to Indian Rock, the highest point in the canyon; there's a good resting spot, with flat areas to play a game of fetch or Frisbee and 360-degree views of the city. On a clear day, you can even catch a glimpse of the ocean. Bring a bone and sit down for a picnic with your loyal hound. The winding trails on the way back down are perfect for doggy socializing. And who knows? Dogs are known to be good matchmakers — so pay attention when yours runs up for a sniff of someone new.

—Gina Pollack
2000 N. Fuller Ave., Los Angeles, 90028
MAP
323-666-5046
Best Blooming Urban Renewal
Exposition Park Rose Garden

It's hard to believe in a city that's largely known for creating the decentralized urban form, but even during Los Angeles' early years, shared public places were a given. Often, they didn't take shape without a fight, and one of the most pleasant places in L.A., now known as the Exposition Park Rose Garden, is a result of such turf battles.

Agricultural Park, across the street from USC, was a locus of civic activity and pride during the late 19th century, and then became a center of vice. So it was the perfect canvas on which to apply ideas from the City Beautiful architecture and urban-planning movement. The lawlessness in Agricultural Park was hardly Grand Theft Auto material, but Methodist crusader William Miller Bowen hated what he saw. City Beautiful (the most notable example being the monumental grandeur of Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition) gave Bowen and his team of reformers some ideas about how to clean up the place. The classical planning and architectural ideals could help show off Agricultural Park's accomplishments, as well as borrow some architectural legitimacy. While other efforts to import City Beautiful elements to Los Angeles failed, they worked at what became Exposition Park.

Three imposing structures brought Los Angeles some badly needed cultural institutions, including one that became the Natural History Museum, and acted as a hedge against the gambling, prostitution and boozing that had been such a draw. And what better symbol than the chaste and dignified rose, planted in disciplined, orderly rows, to tame the memories of the area's sordid past? By 1928, the central sunken garden was rededicated as the Exposition Park Rose Garden, an ideal venue to support the growing horticulture movement and contemplative passive activity. Fortunately for Los Angeles' Olympic bid, the area was all dressed up and ready to go in eclectic Beaux Arts stylings when the games came to town in 1932.

Exposition Park today is no longer an idyllic, tranquil respite. Its location and scale don't seamlessly mesh with its surroundings, a fault both of its own design and that of Los Angeles at large. But the thousands of rosebushes that remain are maintained with a precision that would have pleased Mr. Bowen, and the garden is open to the public year-round. While the Pasadena Tournament of Roses gets more attention, the Exposition Park Rose Garden endures as a reminder of Los Angeles' ongoing battle with itself.

—Jessica Ritz
701 State Dr., Los Angeles, 90037
MAP
213-765-5397
Best Place to Tie the Knot
Marvimon

We've all been there: hot Scottish boyfriend needs a green card and you've always wanted a European passport; or, your waif-y girlfriend has systemic candida and could suck some serious marrow out of your SAG health insurance. All signs point to happily ever after, so you throw both caution and commitment-phobia to the wind and decide to tie the knot.

You've got money, you've got style and you've got a Jewish mother on your back, which means Vegas is out, and there's a reception to plan. Where shall you do the deed?

Marvimon's your obvious choice, and not just because it's Eastside convenient. Built in the '20s as an automobile showroom, the 7,000-square-foot space at the northern edge of Chinatown has since been gutted, made over and reinvented as a hip, hot, happening multiuse loft, available for parties, exhibitions and events. (It also houses its owners.) The space is gorgeous, with epically high ceilings, exposed-brick walls, elegant lighting, a massive bistro kitchen and a spacious courtyard complete with happy green grass and a dazzling view of the downtown skyline. Don't forget the skylights and the bumpin' sound system for your nephew's band's rollicking version of "Hava Nagila." With room for 300 folks to stand and 150 to sit, there's plenty of space for those long-forgotten cousins your mother insists upon inviting for no other reason than to gloat about how thin her daughter is. Mazel tov.

—Dani Katz
1411 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, 90012
MAP
310-922-6609
Best Measure of a Man
Porn Prints at Studs Theatre

How to measure penis size discreetly: big nose, big hose? Large feet ... ? Measuring the tip of the middle finger to the base of the palm? Outside Studs Theatre in West Hollywood, you can gaze upon the scrawl of the late and lamented Linda Lovelace, marvel at the impressive confidence oozing from the signatures of Harry Reems and Marilyn Chambers, or you can put your hands and feet in the impressions of one John C. Holmes. Grauman's Chinese isn't the only theater in Southern California with a monopoly on the footprints of the stars in its forecourt — there are also the lost prints of Roy Rogers, Trigger and other Western stars at the now-closed Strand in East L.A, and the walk of fame in front of the Vista Theatre, with its prints of Kenneth Anger and the cast of Dark Shadows. And then there's the Studs Theatre, formerly the Tomkat, formerly the Pussycat Theatre.

Bill Margold, journalist and noted pervert, reveals that "John Holmes made those imprints on February 7, 1985, in conjunction with the premiere of Girls on Fire. I'm not sure when the Pussycat switched to showing gay films. I've been trying to convince Larry Flynt to try to purchase the Holmes and Lovelace imprints and have them moved over to Hustler Hollywood, but nothing has come of it ... yet."

Removed from the context of the theater, however, the footprints become a pointless, empty burlesque, forgetting a point in time during which the adult industry sought to compete with mainstream movies on the basis that they were making films that also just happened to have hardcore sexuality in them — and that porn's cosmos and cosmology deserved its own star system, with all the trappings and exaltation implied. And of course when a man walks by the theater and sees John Holmes' handprints, the logical and meaningful impulse is the laying on of hands. A religious experience. And yeah, I fit. No, seriously.

—David Cotner
7734 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046
MAP
323-656-6392
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Best Underground Sounds: Los Angeles Theatre

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