Progress Report: Gehry in Bloom

This time, they let us in the front door. The escalators aren’t yet working, nor the public johns; the tour guides on this mid-May afternoon still insist on hardhats and goggles as the apparel of choice. The chaos, however, has measurably receded. Outside, on the corner of First and Grand, some kind of roadway biz is under way and the landscape is all mud and rocks. Inside, however, the Walt Disney Concert Hall has achieved a discernible shape. As the ads have said, “You could almost hear it.”

The pillars and girders, leaning every which way in accordance with Frank Gehry’s epochal designs, are handsomely sheathed in glistening Douglas fir. The lobby floors are decked out in floral carpeting that may make you want to leave your shoes outside. “Mrs. Disney loved flowers” is our tour guide’s litany for the afternoon. The “Grand Hall,” the place for pre-concert lectures and such, is indeed grand — if, on first sight, somewhat dizzying: the convexities of Gehry’s stainless-steel designs turned inside out and reproduced in burnished wood.

Just outside, Mrs. Disney’s real garden crowns the rooftop of the part of the Disney enclave that nobody mentions, the industrial-park complex of solid, stolid masonry that clings to two sides of the Gehry fantasy and renders them non-photogenic, the home — any day now, in fact — of the Philharmonic’s executive offices. Up on top, however, all is magical: the trees chosen so that something will be in bloom 12 months of the year, set among flowers flowers flowers; a darling small amphitheater space for kids’ entertainment; a place for picnics and just for hanging out. Lillian Disney wanted all of this, and she’s getting it — too late, alas, to earn her famous smile. Her fountain will be there, too. “Walt and Lillian loved blue-and-white china,” our guide explains. “They collected the real stuff from Holland, but they were just as passionate about fake-Delft tchotchkes from Woolworth’s. And so there’ll be a blue-and-white paving around the fountain.”

Solemnly and hopefully, we file into the concert hall itself. The seats, except for a couple of rows, are in place, done up — “alas,” did someone say? — in the same assertive color scheme as on the carpeting outside. Another Gehry fantasy, the wild jumble of the fake organ pipes that will front the real ones, draws a gasp or two. Best of all is the sense — even in this not-quite-ready-for-closeup state — of being in the same room with the onstage performers, no fourth wall, no intimidating proscenium. This time, however, there are no performers; onstage are Esa-Pekka Salonen, his boss Deborah Borda, Frank Gehry, legendary acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota — all abeam like the brightest of his stainless steel panels. Polite and whimsical chitchat is the order of the day, mostly centering around Gehry’s account of how many times he had dropped into the project, been dropped out of it, obliged to change his mind, his plans. Fresh from his latest triumph, a collaboration with Gehry on a concert hall at Bard College in New York state, Toyota rattles on wistfully about the imponderables that beset his profession. Borda coins executorial clichés. Salonen sings a few bars from that old circus-band chestnut “Entrance of the Gladiators,” which he had tried out with some Philharmonic musicians the day before.

“You have just heard the first live music performed in front of an audience in Disney Hall,” he proudly proclaims, leaving unspoken the promise that the next music will be better.

Ten days later . . . Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony is the obvious choice for the last-ever music the Philharmonic will play in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; it ends with the orchestra members, one by one, moseying offstage as the music oozes to its finish. It’s not so obvious a choice for archmodernist Pierre Boulez to conduct, but he goes along in fine fashion. Concertmaster Martin Chalifour, the last one out in the Haydn, will be the first one in at the Disney Hall inaugural on October 23, leading off with some Bach for solo violin.

Before the concert there are memories: Philharmonic players Richard Kelley, Roy Tanabe and Michele Zukovsky reminisce about what it was like to play in the Chandler when it was new, 39 years ago. The accounts are as expected, rose-colored memories of Mrs. Chandler’s great new hall, a giant step up from the seedy old Philharmonic Auditorium, such modern splendor, such great lighting, even — bite your tongue! — such grand acoustics. With all the fond memories of bygone leadership, two names are absent, to nobody’s surprise. One is Willem Wijnbergen, who enjoyed a teensy interregnum between Ernest Fleischmann and Borda. The other is André Previn, the self-willed low point in Philharmonic lore.

Fleischmann, the Philharmonic’s boss for most of those years, sounds the evening’s most curious note. With the Philharmonic gone, he proclaimed, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion can now become the world’s greatest opera house. Yes, but ... Mrs. Chandler disliked opera, and worked hard to keep it out of the Music Center. Stainless steel on one side of the street; irony on the other.

—Alan Rich

Urban Landscape: It’s a Gasser

Early Saturday morning this past Memorial Day weekend, Jeff Appel, the owner of the new Exxon station at Fairfax and Beverly, discreetly opened for business. The night before, he had hung two clusters of sparkling balloons from the blue-and-white marquee that advertises the pump prices, which weren’t up yet. A sagging yellow ribbon kept motorists from driving in to fill up — not that they didn’t try. Eventually, the ribbon was wadded into a bundle and tossed into a trash bin, and the prices were posted. “I’m going to be low-priced,” Appel said. “That’ll bring ’em in.”

If you know what Jeff Appel has been up to recently, that last remark sounds a bit odd. Low prices from a man who just spent a year and a half and more than a million dollars to build a gas station that resembles a Moorish palace? Well, he does have a business to run. But he’s also a man with a vision, one that he just happens to bring to life in the form of the corner gas station.

It’s nearly impossible to miss Appel’s latest creation. At night its 26-foot-high tower of crackle glass glows like the aftereffect of sunset. Faux windows are reminiscent of the work of the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. A waterfall fountain, which forms the corner of the gas station’s 1,400-square-foot “Food Mart,” is made of 24,000 scallop-shaped cobalt-blue glass tiles, crafted in Oregon at a cost of $60,000. The station’s canopy, the huge awning that shields motorists from rain and sun, is covered in 100-year-old French roofing tiles that had to be hand-drilled, one by one, so that a wire could be passed through a 3/8-inch hole that allowed the tile to be secured to other wires stretched across the roof decking — forming an enormous purse seine, or fishnet effect, of tensioned guys and pinioned clay demi-cylinders. It took five weeks to lay the tiles. Whether anyone will realize that the tiles are antique — or that their subtle beige color is drawn from the limestone soil of Languedoc or Provence and not from the iron oxide–rich deposits of, say, Atwater — doesn’t worry Appel. He installed the tiles because, he says, “I love the Mediterranean style. I love architecture.” Appel, a tall, eager man with a soft step and a hopeful, inquisitive note in his voice, says, “It’s embarrassing, really, but I put my heart into this. We build really nice gas stations.” And then he opens them, without another word.

Appel’s family runs United Oil and World Oil, which together own 110 Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Union 76 and ARCO gas stations from Ventura to the Mexican border. At the one on Cloverfield and Michigan, in Santa Monica, 10,000 pieces of fiber-optic strand lighting dangle from the ceiling of the cashier’s store. Another, at College and Ball in Anaheim, won a commercial landscaping award for its topiary. The next station, designed by the L.A. architect Stephen Kanner, will mimic a freeway onramp that whisks you up and over the station’s store and drops down into a car wash.

For the past 15 years, Appel, 44, has been building gas stations. “I go further on each one, spending more and more on them,” he says. “If you spend an extra $200,000, it’s your advertising.” To get the tower’s lanternlike lighting correct, for instance, Appel had his foreman, Frank Lopez, purchase 30 different types of light bulbs, including $90 black lights, to see which light scheme worked best. With Appel standing across the street, Lopez changed the bulbs. When that didn’t produce the desired effect, his boss asked him to paint the interior of the tower black. When that failed, the walls were re-painted white — and the bulbs switched from shining down to shining up, which was judged a success. Lopez, by the way, works year-round on new stations, logging 45,000 miles a year on his midnight-blue Ford F150.

How much did the station actually cost? “I swear to God to you, I don’t know.” Appel isn’t joshing. “I keep adding it up in my head. I know if I’m at $1.3 million, I’m okay.” Lopez, his builder, says, “There was no budget. Just get it done.”

Fairfax and Beverly is by far Appel’s most extravagant project. The concrete has been stained and re-stained with muriatic acid to produce a deep russet that looks like polished granite — a bit too much like granite, because Appel explicitly wanted to avoid that look. The grille work that guards the clerestory and tower windows was handmade by an Orange County metalworker whose first name, Giovanni, is all that Appel can tell you about him. Inside the mart, the walls are splattered with cartoonish amoebas outlined in jiggling neon. The metal-clad bathroom doors are treated with a verdigris patina; the drink-dispensing-machine counter is more crackle glass, lit from below by an intense blue light. Outside, on a wall in the alley through which cars exit the station, Appel’s muralist, someone his son discovered on the Third Street Promenade, has drawn a fanciful Mexican seaside bay, which, among the palms and bougainvillea, includes a trompe l’oeil topiary (a reference to the other gas station?) that belongs more to the Tuileries than to Puerto Escondido.

When it is pointed out that the dancing figures in the grille work are reminiscent of Henri Matisse, Appel says, “Oh? Yeah. I never thought of that.” He is completely sincere, because he isn’t familiar with Matisse’s “Dancers.” But he does know Gaudí. Standing in front of the windows, which are a Gaudíesque pastiche of florid ä fused glass, stucco mullions and casings whose thick impastos make them pulse in too-great relief, he laments how hard it is to adapt the color and texture of the Barcelona genius. Appel, riven with doubt, asks if the windows aren’t too busy, too bright — overdone?

In his Simon Rodia–like naiveté, Jeff Appel is onto something. Almost 40 years ago, L.A. artist Ed Ruscha did a series of paintings of Standard Oil gas stations, some being consumed by fire. Ruscha could paint those stations because they were corporate modernist icons — conjuring easy mobility and middle-class tidiness when L.A. was still a small town aspiring to bigness — and thus reducible to expressions of shape and color, with Ruscha’s loving, sometimes sour twist. Carefully rendering the gas stations and then setting them aflame was prophetic — not just as commentary, but also as an insight into what would be the genuine fate of modernism. Certainly, for gas stations, since the early 1960s, there has not been a more expressive architecture. Dreadful concrete-block bunkers with bulletproof glass have dominated L.A.’s key street corners since the early 1970s. Jeff Appel’s Exxon manages, even in its inconsistent imagery, to come out of the other end of Ruscha’s engulfed imaginings. He is trying, once again, to put gas stations at the center of L.A.’s identity, and if his choice of styles and materials doesn’t exactly capture the current mood of smug ennui — you’ve got to admit he builds a really nice gas station.

—Greg Goldin

Men of the Year: Eyes on the Prize

I’m not naked, but perhaps I should be. I am, after all, sitting on a chaise at a clothing-optional resort, the San Vicente Inn, in a residential area of West Hollywood. And I’m surrounded by lots of other naked men. Many of these men are gay male escorts, and they are here for the third annual Male Escort Awards. Yes, gay escorts get awards now. Wal-Mart and Popeye’s Chicken have employee-of-the-month awards — why not rent boys?

They don’t have a good catchy name yet, these awards — maybe some imaginative homo will think up a good nickname like, oh say, the Nomis (you know, after Elizabeth Berkley’s character in Showgirls) — but they do have a conscience. Proceeds from the $10 admission fee go to AIM Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides health care to adult-entertainment-industry performers, so I feel pretty good about where my cash is going.

There are lockers to put clothes in, and while I’m normally not shy about taking it all off in queer clothing-free environments, today I need a pocket for my pen and pad, so stripping down isn’t on the agenda. I have company, anyway: The famous gay comedy writer and the actor who formerly appeared on a successful WB teen soap are keeping it in their pants too.

The sponsors, a brash, young escort-porn Web site called JoeyandCarlo.com, have a poolside banner (tied in with ID brand lube) that reads “Where Love Comes by the Hour.” This is a perfect catch phrase that willfully, brazenly pulverizes the distinction between sex and love, and demands that the latter be rightfully acknowledged even when it’s for sale. Minus any reference to sticky issues of legality, it’s practically a prostitute manifesto. Of course, no one uses words like prostitute at this event — apparently the radical reclamation of that value-laden term hasn’t happened yet among most sex workers. The desire to even show up for their own awards show hasn’t happened yet either, it seems. Only a few of the nominees are in sight, chief among them gay porn star Michael Brandon, star of Stick It In and Packin’ Loads. He’s also the day’s emcee, so he sort of had to make an appearance. I can only assume the other men are busy working or decided that 3 p.m. was just too early to rise for the event. In the meantime, the audience waits for things to get going, and a man in big white high heels, white fishnets, latex shorts, extreme face paint and dreadlocks gyrates on the poolside platform stage to Madonna’s “Justify My Love.” He looks a lot like that guy from Dead or Alive.

Emcee Brandon is naked, walking around and cheerfully chatting with other naked and non-naked attendees as the enormous reason for his successful career swings back and forth between his legs. At one point, he gamely poses for photos with fans, and digital cameras go off like crazy as dozens of aspiring Bob Cranes compete to fill their scrapbooks. Later Brandon will win the awards for Best Porn Star Escort and Best Dick. He deserves them, even if the awards themselves are also no-shows. That’s right, the award itself is nonexistent. No trophy, no plaque, no medal, not even a Special Olympics hug — no proof beyond a poolside announcement and a link on a Web site. Maybe that’s why the winners in categories like Best Bottom and Best Submissive Escort are nowhere to be found. It’s an award made of air — and they want something for their den.

—Dave White

Memorial for Writer Eddie Little

Thursday, May 29: L.A. Weekly gathering, all welcome, at Boardner’s, 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., Hollywood, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., (323) 462-0621.

Friday, May 30: Family memorial, all welcome, at Warner Center Marriott, 21850 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills, 3 to 7 p.m., (818) 887-4800.

Monday, June 2: Funeral, all welcome, at Hollywood Forever Mortuary, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., 2:30 p.m., (323) 469-1181.


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