Photo by Ted Soqui

“What’s with the ketchup bottle?” a woman asks. Her boyfriend shrugs his shoulders, and the two keep walking.

Amid the wreath from the Alzheimer’s Foundation, the flowers, the flags, the candle, the poems, and the hand-drawn picture of the former actor and president adorning Ronald Reagan’s star Sunday on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, there’s a 64-ounce bottle of Heinz 57 Tomato Ketchup.

Reagan was the first president I had any real memory of. Despite what I thought of his policies or his presidency, I always thought of him as a nice guy. Looking at the makeshift memorial, it’s apparent many others did, too. But what is with the ketchup?

Like the flowers, the jumbo-size condiment bottle has a card taped to the side. My curiosity overpowers my respect for privacy. I snatch up the envelope and rip it open, hungry for a logical explanation for this fat, red anomaly. I open the card and begin to read:

Dear Mr. President,

Thank you for teaching me that all I needed for a balanced diet is Tomato Ketchup. Now all I need is a $400.00 place setting (dishes) to eat my tomato ketchup on, and then I will have obtained my fair share (after 447 years) of the American Dream. You fooled everyone, including Hollywood (the fake Capitol of the world), the world’s greatest actors, you and Nancy! You played your roles to the hilt.

(I wish I had an Oscar to give each of you.)

Thanks a million.
—A genuine American

“Are you sure he was an actor?” A group of four buddies are debating the issue. As they walk off and I begin to head the other way, I think about the card and the sentiment that Reagan “acted” his presidency. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I do know that actors can’t really act without an audience.

—Khristian E. Leslie

For more on Reagan’s curtain call, see The Final Act special section.

Diesel Fumes

Whoa, have I got good news for chronic masturbators and video-game aficionados everywhere — grease up the joysticks, boys, you dudes are gonna love this! As for everyone else, well, let us just say you might have a good, albeit thoroughly baffling time watching the dizzying array of fight scenes, special effects and wholly absurd plot twists. But whatever, it’s a summer blockbuster. And like all summer blockbusters, soon as your ass exits the theater, you’re going to forget it ever happened. Apart, of course, for that one mind-numbing scene where Vin Diesel quips to the film’s temptress (played by a lukewarm Thandie Newton), “I haven’t smelled beautiful in a long time.”

Sadly, folks, that’s about as saucy as Vin got during the red-carpet premiere of The Chronicles of Riddick, which I somehow found myself attending last week.

Prior to the screening, Vin walked the Universal Amphitheater’s red carpet like a man who clearly enjoys playing action star. Despite a countenance that places him somewhere between a pit bull and a human toe, he has star power in a weird, fluffy sort of way. Nevertheless, given that his last film, A Man Apart, tanked so horrifically, I suspect both he and the studio are crossing their fingers like a pack of Dick Cheneys hoping Riddick works out.

Despite the film’s absurd premise that it takes an evil man to fight the universe’s greatest evil (in this case, a Bush admin-esque cult of death-worshiping warriors hell-bent on converting or killing all human life in order to redeem the “Underverse”), Diesel is no dummy. He insulated himself with a formidable cast: Dame Judi Dench, Keith David and The Lord of the Rings Karl Urban all give better-than-decent performances. Watching a few of the thespians–cum–action stars walk the red carpet was hilarious. A wave of hero-worshiping, Hollywood man-boys (and the stripper-hot secretaries who love them) huddled, screaming, with digi-cams in hand, as some MTV jerk-beast host made insipid statements into a loudspeaker: “Hey, all right, how’s it goin’? Cool you could make it out to the premiere!” Dude, it’s in their contracts. Where do they get these people?

Once inside the amphitheater, the man-boys and their Stepford girlfriends bounced in their seats, clearly loving the sight of Vin doing his thing. The post-movie bash was an all-out Hollywood splurge staged with that old adage in mind — you’ve got to spend money to make money. And spend they did on costumed guards, elaborate film props, buffets, shrimp bars, booze, coffee kiosks, and decadent desserts galore. It was a trough. I watched with private glee as a bevy of relieved studio execs, lawyers, accountants and their call-girl escorts shoved peanut-butter bars in their faces, danced poorly (neckties flailing!), and test-drove the film’s ubiquitous associate, the Chronicles of Riddick video game. Total awesomeness.

Does Vin’s bald badass make for better summer diversion than that recent Grecian formula starring Brad Pitt’s thighs? Absolutely. Was it better than last year’s atrocity, Charlie’s Angels II? Absolutely not. Welcome to summer.

—Arlie John Carstens

Coach on the Line

Saturday at El Segundo’s Healthsouth Center, home of the Lakers’ training facility, the kids are cheering for Shaq. But it is not Goliath I seek. I’m looking for a modestly built, 5-foot-9, 160-pound David of a coach. The Detroit Pistons’ Larry Brown is about to give a press conference. One of the most successful coaches in basketball history, Brown was told long ago that he was too short to play college or pro ball, but went on to become the first in a long line of great players produced by the University of North Carolina’s Dean Smith, as well as a member of the 1964 Olympic gold-medal-winning U.S. team and 1969’s ABA champion Oakland Oaks. The three-time ABA All-Star also holds the league’s single-game assist record, plus a foul-shooting percentage that would daunt most of the Lakers, not just Shaq.

I enter the low-ceilinged interview room, packed with reporters, and immediately recognize Brown’s voice. Behind a black table and wearing a black sweatshirt, he speaks in a low timbre, each word emerging reluctantly. His exhausted register suggests a man who has suffered.

But for all his success — piloting seven different NBA franchises to the postseason, a league record; leading two different college teams to the NCAA finals, winning once; earning three ABA coach-of-the-year awards in four years; turning around famously inept teams like the Nets of the early ’80s and the Clippers (only to abandon them) — the Hall of Famer never seems to stay in any location long enough to reap the greatest reward, and the only one that has eluded him, an NBA championship. Will this finally be Larry Brown’s year?

At times during the press conference, it seems that Brown himself needs to be convinced. When a reporter asks about the much-touted Hack-a-Shaq strategy employed by other coaches, Brown shakes his head and says that he doesn’t think you can stop the notoriously pitiful free-throw shooter by fouling him. He slumps in his chair and adds, “I just assume Shaq will make all his free throws.”

This is the Weltanschauung of a depressed genius. When Brown’s assistant coaches tell him to play the zone, he thinks the other team will hit jump shots; when the opposing team zones his team, he thinks his players will never hit the jump shot.

But minutes after the press conference, as Shaq entertains fans and reporters just outside, Brown is on the basketball court performing calisthenics with his players, his gray shirt blending in with his salt-and-pepper hair. He shuffles and slides agilely, simulating a defensive maneuver. He and the Pistons look like synchronized swimmers.

“C’mon, let’s go,” he says, walking with a slight limp. Then he stands before the foul line and swishes a shot. The starting team responds by racing down the court, pretending they are being guarded; they go through a play that ends with a Ben Wallace lay-up. Then they come back to Brown.

He stands at the foul line and swishes a second shot, after which the second team rebounds the ball and executes the same drill.

Four more times, Brown swishes free throws. There is no drama at the line, as there is with Shaq. Brown doesn’t alter his position, doesn’t brick a shot. The ball doesn’t hit the backboard or even the rim. It just swishes through the net. All six times.

Just over 24 hours before he will lead his team to a Game 1 victory over Goliath and the Lakers (but three days before Tuesday’s loss), it becomes clear that Brown may be depressed, but, like David, this coaching nomad will find a way to make his team competitive, even if he has to suit up himself.

—Robert David Jaffee

LA Weekly