SOME 400 PAIR OF SLIP-ON SHOES LIE OUTSIDE THE AUDITORIUM OF Laguna Beach's Anneliese's preschool. Beautiful yoga couples and 40-something hipsters dressed in colorful cottons mill about the lush gardens, mural-covered bungalows, an exotic bird sanctuary, and a pen that holds a couple of llamas and a pig that have been rented for the weekend. They're here for the 10th annual Kali Puja Festival, a two-day event dedicated to the worship of Kali -- God in the form of the divine mother.
Ruth, a pretty mom from Holmby Hills, admires the peacocks with her 5-year-old son, Simon. "It's really important to bring your kids to things like this. The music, the spiritual vibe, the different types of people . . . Kids don't have a sense of that today. Kids relate to God, like, right here in the peacock, in hearing the music. You take them to a church or a synagogue, God's just not there for them."
Scott, 26, drove 11 hours from Albuquerque with his 23-year-old roommate, Yuki, to be here. He sits holding a paper plate of vegetarian food. His thick brown hair is long and wavy. His skin is tan. His eyes are blue. He's talking about the three months he spent at a small hermitage in the Himalayas. "I was really considering being a monk. I was examining all my sexual hopes and dreams. That's partly what brought up so much anger."
Meanwhile, Bhagavan Das, the man responsible for introducing former Harvard professor, LSD enthusiast and Be Here Now author Ram Dass to his guru Neem Keroli Baba in 1967, is holding court. A red hibiscus peeks out of the mound of dreadlocks piled on top of his head. He is wrapped in a white sarong. Seated at a small, blue, child-size table, he sips chai and elaborates on his favorite form of God.
"Kali is the god of sex and death. See, all the relationships we build in this world are gonna be fickle. The only thing for certain is about death. But we are afraid to die, we are afraid to go all the way, afraid to show up, to zoom in. So, we live a half-life. The idea is to die to the moment, to surrender completely. What else are you going to do, go shopping?"
A butterfly lands on a large pink flower. Two barefoot children run by. The 6-foot-4 former surfer, onetime used-car salesman, is performing this weekend. His last CD, Bhagavan Das Now, was produced by Beastie Boy Mike D.
"Am I ready for death?" he continues. "No. I'm power tripping. I'm thinking of the future. I'm gonna get famous, I'm gonna buy a house, gonna have a big party. That's what my mind thinks. The nature of the mind is to think that. So, instead of beating yourself up -- back off. Get real."
The smell of incense wafts through the air. The yogic Moondog goes on. "This is who I am. It's not an act. I'm a naked hippie. I love the sensualness of it all. What I renounce is the idea that it's gonna fix me. The idea that if I hop into bed with the 18-year-old, she's gonna be around tomorrow. But I'm gonna give her everything that night. I'm gonna love every moment of it. That's the way I live. This life, you can't go around it. You gotta go through it. So, when Kali comes at me with her sword, I lean into it. I say, 'Let's go. This is what I've been waiting for.' Got it? Do what you love. Love what you do. Go all the way. Be complete. Get into life, 'cause you're going to die. But know that it's not gonna fix you. Follow me?"
In a long line, a gorgeous blond couple wait behind an East Indian family to make their offering of flowers and incense to a massive altar.
Outside, standing next to a white Cabriolet with the license plate "WITHIN," is Krishna Das, the chanting world's biggest celebrity, who has just wrapped up his Sunday-morning performance. If Grammys were given for kirtan, as chanting is called in Sanskrit, he would be the first to get one. His smooth rock vocals and inspiring sincerity have made him a staple on the ever-expanding yoga circuit -- and attracted people like Rick Rubin, who produced his last CD.
"I can tell you that Kali is supposed to be the aspect of the mother that absorbs all our darkness. That's why she looks so fierce." His words are punctuated with thoughtful pauses; his eyes are kind. "We are holding on to our ego. She is ripping that away from us and we're scared. But once the work is done, she turns into the golden Durga, who is only love. You can see her as all the difficult things that happen to you in life, that force you to look at yourself and clear your heart." A young girl in an orange T-shirt approaches the singer. She falls into his arms, crying.
"I'm a kirtan groupie," says Renee, a 42-year-old masseuse from Monterey waiting in line to make her offering. When asked if she came alone, Renee replies with a smile, "We are never alone."
Down on the beach, a few hours later, Scott and Yuki toss red and pink carnations from Kali's altar into the waves. The festival is over. A young man in a Hawaiian shirt, Jimmy, walks down the shore carrying a Fender guitar. Yuki hands him a carnation, which he places between the frets. His crystal-blue eyes match his shirt and the orca whale and full moon painted on his guitar. He's a pot dealer from Vegas who is here on vacation and wishes he never had to go back.
"I'm getting sick of that Vegas money, it's evil," he says. He didn't know about the Kali festival, but last year he started doing yoga and lost 200 pounds. He knows that's hard to believe, but his parents are Mormon and they ate a lot of sugar. Recently he obtained a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita and would like to go away someday and live at an ashram. Jimmy disappears down the beach, strumming "Stairway to Heaven." A few yards behind him, four Italian gentlemen wearing matching navy Speedos pass. Each carries one of the red carnations, which have now washed up on the shore.
THE ACTING LIFE: Desert Storm
WE'RE AT 110TH STREET AND AVENUE G in Lancaster, and the hot August air is filled with snowflakes, folks are bundled up and shivering, and a busted-down heap is about to be towed out of this oddball, quasi winter wonderland.
Of course, the snow is a wheat byproduct, and the red faces and runny noses can be blamed more on wind-whipped desert dust than the temperature, which is in the 70s. We're on location for a Prestone antifreeze commercial that is supposed to take place in an arctic environment. Instead we're outside Fox Airport, just 75 miles from Hollywood, a homegrown shoot in a setting that would have been more apropos had it taken place in the hated confines of Canada, archenemy of union grips, gaffers and other assorted crew members.
I'm playing a "hick redneck" tow-truck driver who rescues a stranded motorist, only to have Prestone's superheroine spokesperson Jillian Barberie spirit off the sad-sack driver after a sassy admonition to him for the penny-pinching that just cost him his radiator. If he had only used Prestone, he wouldn't be shaking like a frosty leaf and having to deal with the likes of me. Barberie, the pert football commentator and local celeb (Good Morning L.A.), drives a sweet '69 convertible SS Camaro (painted in Prestone yellow and black, of course) and is dressed in a tight black top and yellow leather trousers as the driving blizzard swirls about her . . . why?
"Glad you noticed," says Tom Parr, the spot's creative director (which means general overseer and eventual editor). "Jillian has superpowers and doesn't get cold -- that's the bit!"
Parr sits with his assistants, as well as producer Lynn Sobol, product rep Jim Brown and the remote sound unit, in the "village," situated behind one of the few rows of trees within miles, and watches the action on a monitor. The entire village crew is outfitted with goggles and gauzy headgear to protect against the unusually high winds that are ripping skin and eyes to bits. It is a surreal sight -- from the head up, they look like al Qaeda operatives or special-ops troops. Meanwhile, just outside camera range, another section of the crew hurls "snow" into a wind machine; as they heave this mess upward, they resemble farmers in the Russian steppes chucking grain into the air.
As high-stakes as these things get, the atmosphere is jovial and relaxed. Parr holds court about his favorite spots of the last 30 years, marveling at past ad greats, from the hyperactive FedEx spots of the '80s all the way back to the famous "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" Alka Seltzer campaign of the '60s. "Total classics," he says wistfully. Eventually, the crew's conversation wends its way into the staple topic of all shoots, the craziness of the genre's grand master, Joe Pytka (famous for Britney Spears' Pepsi spots, as well as the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" video). Pytka's short temper is the stuff of legend, and the way the crew recounts his verbal assaults in awestruck tones is stunning -- you'd think they were talking about Fellini or Coppola or John Ford.
Now Barberie's shot is being set up, and all eyes are on the busty star. As the fake snow lands on her low-cut top, a wardrobe person scurries over with tape to remove the offending particles and the crew responds like a bunch of goggle-eyed frat boys. A slew of leering tit jokes cascades from the lads until Sobol, the lone female on the crew, has had enough. "Shit, you'd think you guys had never seen breasts before," she says, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the star adjusts her ample cleavage right into the camera, paying no attention to her admirers.
Finally, my particular genius is required. My bit is to glare angrily at the driver and Barberie as they peel off, then to leer at Barberie (she's already off camera) and wave as I slam down the tow winch, then leer and gape a little more. I appear onscreen for maybe two or three seconds tops, and I've been here five hours already. My goggleless eyes are shredded, and in my full winter regalia (not being a superhero, you see), sweat drips down my legs.
It's a glamorous profession, I think to myself, and then prepare to leer again.
NIGHTLIFE: The Decadence of Decay
HIPSTERS WERE OVERFLOWING Memory Lane: 30-something girls in '40s dresses, shoes with ankle buckles, Louise Brooks bobs and wide-brimmed, feathered cartwheel hats; boys in saddle shoes and white dinner jackets with crisp poplin shirts. This was the Black & White fund-raiser, the coming-out party for the Downtown Theater Trust, a new nonprofit that is planning to restore the Palace Theater with virtually all volunteer help and no revitalization budget. Fag hags, hag fags, trannies, musicians, women with enormous breasts, haute-couture wanderers and perennial loafers streamed across a deserted, after-dark Broadway last Thursday night, deftly avoiding the sleeping bodies curled up like fetuses against the Palace. On nights like this, Broadway is probably the most depressing street in Los Angeles.
Spatial reinvention "without compromising history" seems to be the intent of developer Tom Gilmore, whose offices are housed in this 91-year-old building and who gave his blessing to colleague Dawn Garcia to try to rally the art and performance crowd to the dilapidated theaters of L.A.'s forgotten White Way. Almost as a selling point of what shape the "new Broadway" might take, there was the entertainment of the EZ Bake Coven -- a bizarre coterie of doll-obsessed sketches, songs and multimedia put-ons led by Silver Lake scenester/bluegrass enthusiast/comix writer Dame Darcy. Tours were conducted by a young L.A. Conservationist with L.A. Eyeworks specs who had an enthusiasm that was not so much infectious as quixotic. Like any good docent, he liked the reverie, got excited over minutiae, went up against the drunkenness of the party guests like a matador as the tours became death marches of exhausted souses in period detail schlepping up and down the marble steps of the venue, desiring another cig (or doob) to feed their concrete lungs. (When the guide explained that the more extensive restoration involved replacing the stage's hemp riggings, a couple of people lamented, "Awwwwwww.")
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Faced with this, the guide could only gesture helplessly at the acid-trip melts of the theater's Florentine palazzo exterior: "If you look closely you can still see the O in Orpheum!" There were the old hand-cranked elevators run by black gentlemen with impossibly sonorous basso-profundo voices -- in a theater famous for its old, second-floor balcony earmarked "For Negroes Only." There were the obligatory ghost stories: We were told the legend of the Palace's quiet projectionist who collected the cremated John Does from the downtown L.A. morgue. After he died, workmen discovered their urns stored in a cabinet in the projection booth. The dressing rooms looked more like slaughterhouse pens, stripped of any opulence, including wall paint, besmirched with gangsta graffiti as intricate as the terra-cotta swags outside. Tiny tins of Veleno Poison were shoved into corners. There was the catacomb-like booth with the ancient Simplex XL film projectors that, we were told, could explode and kill a projectionist. Underneath the pen-like mezzanine area that used to house unaccompanied females (aahhh, the good ol' days), the guide was asked about the yellow graffiti on the front sidewalk, reading: "I've been in this town so long . . . I've been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long long time." "Uh, I have no idea where that's from," he mumbled.
Strange, since his tour had morphed into a treatise on the fascination of decay -- the patina of neglect, like the layers and layers of paint that made the walls of Al's Bar like the punk Wailing Wall. After so many years, the effluvia of time collected -- the dust, the graffiti, the cracks, the rat shit, the places where stray animals gave birth, or people forgotten and unloved squatted or expired -- has grafted itself onto the history of these old palaces. One wonders if these stray inhabitants have as much right to be here as what was once here.
We can't see what the preservationists see: the thrill of discovery, of pulling back the old tarps and finding something that has been held in a frieze for so long that its function has shifted -- like a corpse so preserved that it has turned to soap. In this way, yes, Broadway on nights like this is thoroughly depressing.