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Only in West Hollywood

Glenn von Kickel has immortalized plenty of celebs in his 25 years as an artist. He’s done President Clinton, Burt Reynolds, Marilyn Manson, Mr. T and Steven Spielberg, among others. And he’s sculpted everything from boats to cars to musical instruments. But there’s a special ingredient to his masterpieces: cake. From his Cake and Art (8709 Santa Monica Blvd., 310-657-8694) shop, von Kickel can create literally anything with cake: the Getty Museum, toothbrushes, atomic explosions, mermaids and the entire animal kingdom. If you simply pointed to the sky he could probably whip up some sort of heavenly concoction. Von Kickel hand-paints the colors and designs on his white, lemon, carrot and chocolate cakes, which go for anywhere from $15 to $5,000. The 800-pound carousel-shaped carrot cake he created for Casey Kasem served 2,000. You might dispense with the traditional three-tiered wedding cake and opt for one of von Kickelclever specialties: a man and a woman in a bathtub. And then there’s the X-rated menu of body parts and various sex acts. Yes boobs, balls, bestiality and other erotic-themed eats go flying out the door, especially come bachelorette season.

Each morning, a table at the entrance of the Chabad Russian Jewish Community Center and Synagogue (7636 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-848-2999) is covered with loaves of bread free to anyone hungry who wanders in. Hundreds of people come here on any given day to worship in the corner synagogue, learn a new language, dance, play chess, or just chat with the locals. For the 3,500 Russian immigrants in West Hollywood and thousands of others in L.A. adjusting to life in a new country, this has been their all-purpose meeting place for the past nine years. Founded by Russian émigré Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, the center moved from several old locations, finding its permanent home in a former auto-repair shop. It offers an almost endless list of services: sports camp, summer job placement with the county, senior citizens program, wedding and funeral services, clothing and furniture distribution, circumcision for infants and adults, and a citizenship program with the INS, among others. To date, more than 30,000 people have become citizens with the Chabad’s assistance. Because religious practices were so rigorously supressed by communists, families under former Soviet rule often arrive with little knowledge of their religion or traditions. So education is an integral part of the center’s curriculum, which includes a Russian-language library at 7414 Santa Monica Blvd., classes in Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and English, as well as prayers and the history of Jewish holidays. The Chabad Russian Synagogue, usually open till midnight, has a memorial for the millions of Eastern European Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Refining the premise behind the usual head shop, the Galaxy Gallery (7224 Melrose Ave.; 323-938-6500) offers an espresso bar and comfy couches in its "Chronic Café," along with the regular assortment of glass pieces and paraphernalia found in most head shops. The café serves the normal blends, plus its own hemp coffee, and it can’t be said enough times how cozy the couches are. They make you want to stretch out and light up. The shop cries out for conversation with its cool, browser-friendly vibe, a rotation of local artists’ works on the wall, live music several times a month and, hopefully, a comfortable refuge from the standard head shop full of whips and strap-ons. Russ Cress, who three years ago opened the joint, wanted to "bring in the more intellectual side of the culture, instead of just the Beavis and Buttheads all the time."

L.A.’s music scene has watched the passing of the sitar and the 15-minute drum solo, but the guitar remains a tool that endures, even at its Motley Crue worst. With this in mind, the seven shops of Guitar Row, on the 7000 block of the Sunset Strip, have been the best places in L.A. to consummate your guitar love. The Wal-Mart of guitar shops, the original Guitar Center (7425 Sunset Blvd.; 323-874-1060), has been L.A.’s music capital since ’64, when it stopped selling organs and followed the money. No need for Celine Dion background music here, in arguably the cheapest place to hear live music in L.A., with half a dozen tunes being strummed at once on some of the 1,500 guitars in the store ($149 to $100,000). Outside on the sidewalk you can browse over the palms of the masters on the famous Rockwalk. Down the street you’ll find a number of small shops that have prospered despite their more mass-market neighbor. Freedom Guitar (7501 Sunset Blvd.; 323-874-4876) specializes in retaining long-term customers and luring in newcomers. While business today cannot match the boom of the ’80s, Freedom’s been able to find a niche among the monopoly-hungry corporations. Carvin (7414 Sunset Blvd.; 323-851-4200) sells only Carvin guitars, and is a good place to find a bass. Johnny Guitar (7500½ Sunset Blvd.; 323-969-8555) caters to metal heads, with an amazing graffiti-art mural outside.

 

Klezmer’s buoyant wailing pours out of speakers from Hatikvah (436 N. Fairfax Ave.; 323-655-7083) sucking in passersby like a musical vacuum. Part music store, part Library of Congress, and part local landmark, Hatikvah (meaning "The Hope" in Hebrew, and also the name of Israel’s national anthem) has the world’s largest collection of Jewish music on CDs, cassettes and video. There are Hassidic standards, baroque Jewish music, cantorial (for religious services), Ladino (combination of Castilian and Hebrew from Spanish Jews) and, of course, klezmer. Hatikvah’s klezmer — the bittersweet folk instrumentals born out of Eastern European villages — goes as far back as the early 1900s and up to current bands like the Klezmatics and Klezmer Conservatory Band. Israeli pop stars Zehava Ben, Yehoram Gaon and the late Israeli Yemenite singer Ofra Haza share shelf space with old-timers like Moishe Oysher and swing/big-band singers the Barry Sisters. Want Johnny Mathis singing in Yiddish or 2 Live Jews’ rap-parody As Kosher as They Wanna Be? No problem. Back when it was called Norty’s Music Center, this was a hangout for a young Herb Alpert and Phil Spector, and also where Jerry Leiber once worked, eventually going on to meet songwriting partner Mike Stoller here, too.

The reputation and population of West Hollywood grew alongside the movie business, and the best place to see this is in the former Pickford-Fairbanks studios, which today is just called The Lot (1041 W. Formosa Ave.; 323-850-3180). Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks built the studio in the mid-’20s, a few years after they had formed United Artists with the other leading stars of Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. The main idea behind United Artists was for the stars, who knew their drawing power even then, to organize and distribute their own films, and retain most of the profits, instead of seeing it go to the studio heads. Trouble plagued the first few years because U.A. was not generating enough product, with Chaplin still under contract to another studio, Griffith in a perpetual money crisis after his film Intolerance broke him, leaving Fairbanks and Pickford to pick up the rest of the slack. After five years, Griffith dropped out to join Paramount, but Chaplin had begun to make films with U.A., though between him, Pickford and Fairbanks they were only making about three films a year. After talkies became the standard, the three stars diminished in stature.

Max’s (442 N. Fairfax Ave.; 323-651-4421) is a place where people only know your name if you act like an asshole. Its darkness and anonymity attracts celebrities like Michael Stipe and Brad Pitt, who sit around and reminisce about the East Village over Manhattan-type service (good if you tip well) and prices (cheap food, expensive stiff drinks). Owner Randi Chernov, herself a Manhattan emigrant, named the joint after her nephew, and wanted to build a place where people could chat, no matter how deep or meaningless the alcohol makes them sound. "People can come here and be," says Chernov, who unlike most Village barkeeps actually hangs out in her place and mingles with patrons. The bar, while small, has a lot to look at, with works of local artists on the walls, red candles lit low enough to make your date desirable, attractive bartenders, and very good food ($4-$9) for a dive of this nature.

As West Hollywood’s demographics have shifted to a predominantly gay and Russian neighborhood over the past 30 years, the "world-famous" Paris House (7527 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-876-0033) has remained a local fixture for the straight and sleazy. Catering to married businessmen who’re supposed to be on their lunch breaks or taking a business meeting, it’s remained a popular afternoon stomping ground going back to the likes of Elvis. From the outside, the Russian district storefront looks like a crappy apartment building, but inside, the plush red carpet, red lights, and several ladies in waiting greet you. Your date of choice takes you inside a white, mirror-covered room, turns on the music and begins the

ä show. It’s pricey — $60 plus tip for a half-hour — but the ladies attest that the substantial investment beats any five-minute lap dance.

The special bond between a pet and its owner offers endless and unconditional love, comfort and companionship to people living with HIV and AIDS, and since 1989, PAWS/L.A. (7315 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-876-7297) has provided the funds and care necessary to look after animals whose owners are stricken with the virus. PAWS/L.A., which stands for Pets Are Wonderful Support/Los Angeles, is the largest of similar nonprofit organizations nationwide serving more than 1,400 home-bound clients — who are referred to by AIDS organizations like AIDS Project Los Angeles and Project Angel Food — and their 2,300 pets in L.A. County. Volunteers provide and deliver food to dogs, cats, birds and iguanas, take them to the veterinarian and groomers, walk dogs, and will even clean out those smelly kitty-litter boxes and bird cages. PAWS/L.A. also pays for spaying/neutering and vaccinations. The sheer cost of medical care for HIV/AIDS patients is daunting enough, and for those who simply become too ill to take care of their pets, PAWS/L.A. places animals in foster care instead of the pound.

 

Dildos and vibrators and whips — oh my! If you leave the Tomkat theater so excited you just want to spank yourself silly, check out The Pleasure Chest (7733 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-650-1022), conveniently located across the street to help you figure out how. It’s a strictly 18-and-over erotic emporium filled with lingerie, videos, novelties and sexual aids. The tame stuff on the first floor includes a wall-to-wall section of naughty greeting cards, clocks, handcuffs, magazines, and T-shirts with such killer slogans as "Young, dumb and full of cum." Nearly everything in the store is either boob- or penis-shaped, from straws to lollipops to pasta (giving a whole new meaning to spaghetti with meatballs). The merchandise on the second floor gets a ä little more shocking. Ever hear of the "Diving Dolphin"? How about the "Spiral Butt Plug"? The plastic vaginas, vibrators and dildos come in so many different speeds, colors, shapes and sizes (25 inches being the largest), some look like detachable parts of a vacuum cleaner, and others you’re positive aren’t even meant for humans. The frilly boas, corsets, stockings, and painful-looking S&M bondage gear with matching whip and paddle can spice up any wardrobe, and the adult-baby clothes from the Happy Nappyland collection will unleash that disturbed child in you.

When vinyl records began their inevitable comeback 10 years ago, Sandy Chase had already been in the business 15 years. His The Record Collector (7809 Melrose Ave.; 323-467-2875) contains over 500,000 records, with another 250,000 in storage (mostly LPs), ranging from $10 to several hundred dollars for collectibles. Last year the store moved from its Highland location of 25 years to the current, remodeled, 3,400-square-foot locale, which stills smells like the freshly cut wood of the custom shelves. All of the records are genre sectioned, alphabetized and meet Chase’s high quality standards. Mainly coming from private collections, the records are mostly 40 to 50 years old, but you can still find a dozen Bob Dylan LPs from the ’60s. Along with the LPs, Chase offers vintage audio equipment, and has recently started purchasing 78s, which he swears are making a comeback.

After the murder of then-owner Laurence Austin in 1997, the Silent Movie Theater (611 N. Fairfax Ave.; 323-655-2520) nearly became a parking lot. That was until 30-something songwriter Charlie Lustman stumbled across the "for sale" sign. He bought the theater for $650,000, renovated it, and reopened the doors in 1999, hoping the Fairfax neighborhood would spur a comeback in silent flicks. The theater has a history of surviving sporadic closings, starting in 1979 when, after a 47-year-run, ä owner John Hampton closed the doors for financial reasons. Hampton retained ownership of the theater until he died in 1990. Austin bought the theater and reopened it in 1991, only to have it shut down again six years later after he was killed in the theater by a hit man paid for by his lover, James Van Sickle. Both hit man and lover are serving life sentences. The theater operates six nights a week and remains the only theater in the country solely dedicated to the showing of silent films.

The smell of dough rising wafts throughout Tbilisi & Yerevan Bakery (7862 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323-654-7427) and has customers lining up as early as 7 a.m. to take home a loaf of white, wheat, rye or black bread (99 cents each). Handily situated among the dozens of Russian delis, restaurants and shops in Santa Monica Boulevard’s "Little Odessa" section, Michael Davidson’s family operation has been serving mostly Russian and Georgian baked goods for seven years now. The weight from one of the two-dozen indulgent minicakes ($1 to $1.50) piled high with fruit fillings and layers of chocolate or vanilla cream will settle with you days after you’ve eaten it. On a much lighter side, the gozinake is a thin wafer sandwich filled with walnuts covered in honey, and the suchary are small slices of hard, sweetened bread perfect for dipping in tea. Almost as popular as the bread, appetizers like khachapury and peroshky have engendered a loyal following. Khachapury resembles a turnover with egg and cheese. But peroshky ($1) — fried and rolled dough stuffed with either cheese, meat, potatoes, cabbage or mushrooms — is the quintessential taste of Mother Russia, and can be a meal in itself.

 

From the Pussycat’s ashes the Tomkat theater arose, manlier and smuttier, where all day, every day, it’s spank-the-monkey time. The all-male watering hole for the trench-coat crowd is a teary reminder of the adult world’s yesteryear, when you didn’t need an Internet ä hookup to watch filth. With X-rated movie houses near extinction, thanks to home rentals and multiplexes popping up faster than you can say Starbucks, the Tomkat (7738 Santa Monica Blvd., 323-650-9551) is one of the few gay porn theaters left. Part of the chain that once operated more than a hundred Pussycats across the state, the theater started showing skin flicks in the early ’70s — house favorites The Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat had lines of enthusiasts wrapped around the block — and turned into an all-male review eight years ago. For the low price of admission and popcorn, you can, ahem, take in How the West Was Hung, HOMOgenized, or Virgin No More. Outside, there’s a porn walk-of-fame with the foot- and handprints (sorry, no genitals) of John Holmes, Marilyn Chambers and porn-star-turned-anti-porn-activist Linda Lovelace.

In this town, cafés are the crack houses for java junkies. The challenge is finding one that’s more than just a bar/spoken-word forum/music lounge for poor folkies and jazzbos. The WeHo Lounge (8861 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310-659-6180), owned by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has workshops, discussion groups and activities that keep its patrons educated about HIV prevention, treatments and research, as well as informed about other STDs. Confidential and free oral HIV testing is conducted every day for anyone who prefers the comfy, lo-fi feel of a coffee hub to a clinic. In fact, WeHo is the only one of its kind to offer such a service. Hundreds attend the monthly HIV update to hear physicians lecture on topics such as safe sex, and the 24-and-under crowd come to mingle in the plain-rap youth group on Fridays and Saturdays. Need legal assistance? WeHo’s occasional "Coffee Tawwlk With a Lawwyer" is Law: 101. By the way, the place does have a mean menu of salads, sandwiches, pizza, desserts, and of course, that holiest of holy water, coffee.

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