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Universal Appeal

"The Happiest Place on Earth" seems an apt nickname, but it's already taken. Perhaps "The Cleanest Place on Earth," or "The Most Controlled Place on Earth," or "The Corporate-iest Place on Earth."

The place?

Universal City, just outside the perimeter of CityWalk. It's a bright, sunny, uplifting day, on the extrawarm side but closer to wondrously perfect than oppressively hot. The Studio City hills rise up stupendously high across the Cahuenga Pass, a steeply inclined version of Brady Bunch paradise.

You wonder if Universal manipulates the weather around here, and if maybe this is all some Truman Show illusion, life under a giant, climate-controlled, perfectly production-designed dome. But when you see the line of people who've come to apply for the job of tour guide for Universal's famous "backlot" sightseeing excursion, you know that, even here, something is not quite right.

The outdoor line goes this way and that, zigging and zagging, winding around corners, following the contours of outside walls, jumping over a crucial tourist path and disappearing into a gated area concealing an important administration building. Some 800 job seekers show up today. Many of the most alluring, exploitative reality-show cattle-call auditions don't reach these numbers.

But this job has opened in an economy that is so bad, it has former computer techs, office assistants, waiters and others in line scrambling for a buck. It's quite a sight. Included are clean-cut young men in crisp suits; leathery, tattooed roughnecks in tank tops; kids barely out of their teens; senior citizens; characters holding ukuleles and wearing giant sunglasses; people with sharp-angled soap-opera looks; and folks who look like background in some David Lynch–ian carnival world.

Universal doesn't open the employment window for tour guides very often. When it happens, many applicants see the chance to bark fun facts and punch lines at dazzled tourists in mechanized amusement-park carts as a job that offers a certain theatrical visibility and entertainment-schmoozing potential.

On this day, friendships are made on the gargantuan line, in which people near the end wait nearly four hours.

"I heard it pays 30 bucks an hour or more," says Devon Lucas, 50, a guitarist in a rock & roll lounge/cover band from Glendora. Lucas exudes a salt-of-the-earth quality and his statement piques the excitement of several line-mates. They didn't expect such a high number.

"Well, it's basically skilled acting work," Lucas continues. "They must be paying like it's a 'talent' gig."

Others in line nod. Their yearning grows.

"I honestly thought this would be a room full of maybe 10 people," says Pat Mellon, a comedian and former radio personality in his late 30s. "When I first arrived, I thought that all of these people couldn't possibly want this one particular job and that the line must be for something else."

Mellon has the air of a naturally comedic maître d', with an impressive bald head, slightly befuddled eyes and a mischievous, rubbery face.

A little earlier, overwhelmed by the long, slow line, Mellon almost gave up. "At some point in these things you have to assess if the end would justify the means. If I actually get this job as tour guide, will it have been worth standing in a three-hour line, or, more importantly, if I don't get the job, will I be thinking that it had been ridiculous and then become even more jaded about life in L.A.?"

Mellon sees crossover potential here for his real creative passion. "I could basically do a set of comedy every time the tram started moving, for several audiences a day. As a comic, you love to have an audience, and a captive audience is a comic's dream."

More than an hour later, Mellon makes it into the inner sanctum — a building with grand marble hallways and a massive sitting room, resembling a cross between an aggressively showy corporate headquarters and a pricey-yet-gauche Mediterranean-style resort.

Was it worth the wait?

His description afterward of the climactic moment: "My interview was about 45 seconds long. There was a little small talk, like, 'Long line, huh?' and then he said, 'What makes you want to be a tour guide?'

"I answered, 'Lifelong dream, love the park, great with people. ...'

"And then he said, 'What is your favorite movie?'

"I said, Airplane!

"And he paused and said, 'Well, thanks for coming in.' "

Mellon was among those not hired.

The job, it turns out, pays about $10 an hour.