“Ticket holders must be in their seats by 5 p.m.,” we are told. And so, those of us who paid $35 for a grandstand spot at the 2003 Hollywood Christmas Parade patiently wait two hours on Sunday for 7 p.m. to arrive. Many in the crowd — grumpy ladies wearing reindeer antlers, proud parents of members of the Shawnee Mission NW High School Band — pretend not to be bothered by two rambunctious toddlers whose mothers attempt to soothe with shiny stickers, toy cars and Mommy’s little red helper (Two-Buck Chuck smuggled in a plastic bottle). Every other overheard conversation involves the Michael Jackson scandal, with the general consensus: “He didn’t do it; he’s just weird.” Sullen baton twirlers slouch by just as the parade is set to begin.
It’s always been kinda charming that you can come to Hollywood Boulevard for the annual Christmas Parade and feel like you’re in Anywhere, USA, what with the marching bands, lassoing cowboys and classic cars. But this is Tinseltown, damn it, the show-biz capital of the world, and our parade promises you can “Come see your favorite celebrities parading down Hollywood Boulevard!”
But imagine you came from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to see the glitzy Hollywood affair, only to find car after car cruising by with people who aren’t even close to your favorite celebrity. By a show of hands, have you ever heard of: Kelly Moneymaker, Christopher Showerman, Damani Roberts, Branscombe Richmond, Tanika Ray, Dee Dee Davis, John Ondrasik, Biggi Krebel or Daniel Roebuck? (You’re disqualified if you actually are these people, their agents or their mothers.) How about James Michael Tyler? Dorian Gregory? Raphael Sbarge? Leslie Charleson?
That’s right, these are the people smiling and waving atop polished cars, saying with their eyes, “Yes, it’s really me.”
With all due respect — no, with no due respect — these people are not celebrities. The organizers of this year’s parade were obviously imbibing the holiday spirits and being extremely generous with their definition of the word. At best, these people are working actors. Not that that’s not something to applaud in this town. But this year there wasn’t even much of the parade’s usually reliable cavalcade of B-list stars.
Back when the parade was young, mega-stars Mary Pickford and Bette Davis flipped the switch that lit the Christmas tree, and Gene Autry rode his horse down the boulevard. A few years ago, you could wave to David Hasselhoff and Mr. T. And in 2002, you could see Destiny’s Child, David Copperfield and Leann Rimes perform. So what happened in 2003? With the exception of a few — God bless Ruth Buzzi, Joanne Worley, Judy Tenuta and Fred Willard — one has to wonder who the organizers had originally aimed for. Did tae-bo infomercial hawker Billy Blanks take the place of Jack LaLanne? Did they approach Mike Myers only to settle for Mindy Sterling from the Austin Powers movies? Maybe after Arnold Schwarzenegger turned them down and they had to put “honorary mayor of Hollywood Johnny Grant” in the grand-marshal car, they just threw in the towel.
The “cast of The Bernie Mac Show” goes by, but where the hell is Bernie Mac? The crowd applauds according to each person’s TV ubiquity and gives the army of yellow-jacketed Scientologists a cool reception (though it is heartwarming when somebody yells “Freaks!”). You know things are bad when one of the most recognizable faces turns out to be Larry Miller, who you might recognize from his Sit ’n’ Sleep commercials. (“We’ll beat any price or your mattress is freeeee!”)
When a smiling fellow named Hahn cruises by, there’s a collective “Who?” What show is he on? Some WB sitcom I’ve never seen? The Mayor of Los Angeles? Never heard of it.
Finally, here comes Santa Claus, looking even better and more charismatic in person than on TV. The crowd cheers wildly. Now that’s star appeal.
Paul Wehunt likes to shoot people, mostly on weekends. And he’s not the only one. This particular Saturday, Wehunt stands on one side of a dirt road in the badlands of west Lancaster, surrounded by blown-up sofas and shotgunned washing machines. Across the road are 30 young men, most of them dressed in unmatched combinations of camouflage and skate T-shirts. Motley as this crew appears, they all have one thing in common: Each of them is carrying a high-tech paintball gun. Some are fully automatic, and some are single-shot. All are loaded and ready to fire.
The guns fire pinball-size bullets of paint wrapped in plastic designed to break on impact. Propelled by compressed C02, the balls exit the muzzle of the gun at 300 feet per second, and when they hit, they hurt. Some of the warriors prefer the cold early mornings, when the paint is harder — that way the balls will leave welts and bruises even through several layers of clothing. Knuckle hits hurt the most, although a group of preteen kids off to the side are whispering about hits to the nuts. One kid laughs and grabs his groin, his face a pantomime of adult agony.
A lot of these weekend warriors are students of Wehunt’s at Lancaster High School, where he teaches math and computer graphics. They are part of a new generation drawn to the sport, which is now more than 20 years old. “Some of them form squads that are connected via headsets, and they get into the teamwork,” he says, “but mostly they like the adrenaline rush that comes in a situation where you can really get hurt.”
Even Wehunt’s two “mini-Rambo” sons, Danny, 11, and Chris, 9, have a fatalistic macho ethic.
“There was one guy who came out but quit right after he got killed,” says Chris. “You can’t be afraid of getting shot or you won’t have any fun.” Danny leans forward and adds, “Heck, you might as well have fun while you’re still alive.”
This morning, two teams will battle for the abandoned farmhouse behind Wehunt. One will defend the house, he explains to the group, while the other tries to take it and slaughter every last defender. Only direct hits count, and when that happens, you’re out of the game and have to go back to the dirt road.
Two captains are “volunteered” and begin choosing their respective soldiers. I’m with two girls, and we’re the last to get picked; even with all the testosterone in the air, gender isn’t the problem — we just aren’t wearing enough camo.
I end up in the house, and we get busy pushing burned sofas up against the windows, blocking the doors with stoves and finding good places from which to shoot. Outside, the attackers stack tires and mattresses for cover. The house has already hosted a few battles, and not all of them with paintballs. Someone has tried to systematically eradicate the interior walls by repeated blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun, and the floor is littered with debris and shells from all kinds of firearms. As we work, I’m reminded of the house in which the hero hides in the original Night of the Living Dead. With five minutes to go, Wehunt calls our team together in the ruined living room.
“This is the final stand, right here.” He gestures expansively in the small space. “When there are only four of us left, come down to this room and get in each corner. That way every entrance into the room is covered. You’ll get a lot of ’em before you die.” With these encouraging words in our minds, we take up our positions. Wehunt shouts, “Go!” and I watch the invaders fan out in the yard, running for the nearest cover.
Within a few minutes I get my first kill, but I’ve given away my location, and paintballs begin to splatter around the window from which I’m sniping. I move to the kitchen and begin shooting from the doorway, pretty proud of myself as I get another kill. Suddenly there’s an intense pain on my leg, then several more as paintballs splatter on my pants. A paintball slams into the side of the helmet I’m wearing and sprays through the vents into my ear. I stagger out into the yard with my gun held in the air.
Back at the road the scene is oddly jubilant as people compare wounds and ask each other how they died. When killer meets kill, a strange alliance is formed and details of the incident are discussed. Paintball wounds are displayed, good-size welts and bruises, a few running blood; the gnarlier ones get shouts of praise and oohs of sympathy. Wehunt walks up, killed in a failed ambush. “There are still a few in the house,” he says. Then we watch an attacker unload his gun into the front doorway, and another rolls through an open window.
Gets the Beat
I’m walking down Melrose Avenue minding my own business when a couple of well-groomed 20-somethings stop me. “What is your goal in life?” one asks.
“Nothing,” I reply, not wanting to share my innermost desires with total strangers.
The pair seem confused, as if they’d never heard this before. Even so, they must have been obligated to ask the follow-up question: “Do you find it difficult to achieve your goal?” ‰
“No, not really,” I answer. It dawns on me that these are not your average pollsters, but rather members of the often-maligned Church of Scientology. The organization founded by the late, great L. Ron Hubbard already controls a great deal of Hollywood Boulevard and some of Sunset Boulevard, and now they have finally made headway onto Melrose.
I have a morbid fascination with all things Dianetic. I’ve seen the orientation film three times, and had them arrange a special screening for me of the rare Scientology flick, Man the Unfathomable. I’ve even mastered the personality tests, so much so that the person administering the exam accused me of being an undercover Scientologist sent to study her techniques.
So, I don’t need to be asked twice to follow them to an ultramodern, immaculate Starbucks-esque environment above Golden Apple Comics. Bookshelves carrying the numerous tomes of the mighty L. Ron line the walls. But what makes this Scientology recruitment center different from all other Scientology recruitment centers are the bongos and guitars that sit at one end of the main room.
My guide informs me that Scientology is trying to reach out to artists and musicians. Part of the strategy involves hosting open-mike nights once a week at 9 p.m. at this location.
I convince a few friends to attend the next open-mike with me. We ascend the steps, but the space is empty. Creeped out, my companions run down the stairs. I chase after and attempt to get them to stay, but to no avail. I head back upstairs alone, and miraculously the session is in full swing.
A youthful Jewel wannabe wails away on an acoustic guitar, while a ponytailed young man (I seem to be one of the few guys there sans ponytail) plays lead on an electric ax. After her number “Tomorrow” (an original, not the Annie musical number), the brunette singer-songwriter goes into VH1’s Storyteller mode and introduces a tune that she has yet to name. Crispin, an extremely supportive poet with an English accent, says we will all try to think of a title while we listen to her composition.
Next, Crispin, who is a tall, thin bloke with sporadic facial hair, struts to the microphone with an enormous notebook full of poems. In a voice made for commercial voice-over work, he explains that his first offering was written moments after he and a female poet spent the entire evening reading their works to each other. Crispin’s next poem is based on one by William Blake. He reads the Blake poem first for “reference,” then his.
After Crispin is Marcus, who in Scientology-speak is the “field-office guide.” A talented musician, he plays a Wes Montgomery (whoever that is) jazz tune. Later, I buy a CD of songs by Scientology bands, including the band Poets and Pornstars, which features a Scientologist actor from the WB show Dawson’s Creek. Except for a certain weirdness, the evening’s event could have been an open-mike at any coffeehouse.
The following week an old skinny dude with a graying ponytail jutting straight up from his head is blowing into a strange instrument which is 1.8 feet long. (I know this because he tells me that the name of his instrument is Japanese for “1.8 feet.”) He has a special name for his instrument given in the manner that “samurais name their swords.” A gentleman in a black Izod-style shirt with the word staffer where the alligator would normally be plays a couple of songs, one of which is based on the movie Braveheart.
Finally, it’s my turn. I play lead guitar while a man with his baby in tow works some bluesy riffs. Then, a Rasta-phony-an dude wearing a camouflage jacket with the letters H*A*S*H on it enters and says he just wants to sing some things that come off the top of his head. Marcus plays guitar, another gentleman plays a drum and I man the bongos.
As I leave, a young Scientology gal asks me if I’ve filled out the personality test. I tell her, “No, I lost mine.” They want me to fill out something called the “Public Consultation Form,” which asks such personal questions as, “Are you currently receiving any sort of psychiatric, psychological, or mental treatment? (If Yes please specify.)” I make a hasty getaway, but plan on returning as many times as I can without filling out any surveys. What can I say? I’m addicted to Beatnik Dianetics.
I am riding bitch in the back seat of the So-Cal Speed Shop push truck, waiting for the older dude in the white coveralls and airline-pilot headset to give the thumbs up. We’re at the starting line of the Bonneville Speedway on a crisp recent morning. As soon as that thumb even twitches in the upward direction we’ll be off, shooting across the salt-flat bed, giving GM’s Saturn Ion salt racer in front of us the push it needs to get up to terminal speed and break the record of 183.087 miles per hour (for its class, g/blown fuel-altered coupes). The bigger goal at these Bonneville World Finals, where all the fastest vehicles come to compete in speed trials down a 7-mile strip carved out of a prehistoric lakebed at the edge of Utah, is to join the 200 MPH Club.
A tense body fabricator sits to my left, an even tenser GM engine builder to my right. Bobby Walden, the push truck’s laconic Texan driver, is staring dead red, just waiting. Jim Minneker is at the wheel of the Ion directly in front of us. Muffled tech-speak comes from the guys around me, and Bobby says, “C’mon, don’t worry about the wagon, just load the mule.” A few seconds pass, the linesman flips up his thumb, Bobby stomps on the pedal, and the truck lunges into action. We push the Saturn across the white expanse at 50 miles per hour for close to a quarter-mile, and then, with a loud thunk from its transmission, the Ion is off — nothing but a fleck of red kicking up a rooster tail that would bury the Morton Salt girl and her umbrella.
The 30,000 acres of the salt flats seem to go on forever, and from the vantage point of the timing tower at mile marker four, you can see for close to two and a half miles in either direction. It’s otherworldly, like some barren white planet. Or maybe it just looks like 1949 all over again, as it does to 81-year-old Alex Xydias, founder of Pomona’s legendary So-Cal Speed Shop. In a belly tanker he made out of a spare P-38 airplane fuel tank, a big old V-8 and some major gumption, Xydias went 193 mph at the first-ever meet that year.
At Bonneville, getting your speed is a homegrown sport, borne out of people’s garages and their own engineering know-how, akin to the early days of NASCAR. It helps to have General Motors on your side, but that is an anomaly here in the land of the makeshift. Nowhere else in the world offers so much flat surface, so much freedom. That said, a lot of cars can go 200 miles an hour, but doing it at a 4,000-foot elevation in stressful weather in a straight line on a bed of slippery salt for six miles isn’t as simple as it looks. To set a record here — to paraphrase what Willie Stargell said about hitting Sandy Koufax’s fastball — is like trying to drink coffee with a fork. And even if you do get your speed, you’ve got to back it up on another run. And if you think that’s easy, just ask any of the gearheads who have tried and failed in the last 50 years.
Those people tend to keep coming back. More than a thousand showed up this year, some to work in the pits, some to drive and others just to watch these machines speed by at up to 400 miles an hour. It’s not exactly a spectator sport, though. In fact, it’s a lot like watching a tennis match in really, really slow motion. First you look to your right, then real slow-like you turn your head to the left. The car races past. Repeat every 7 to 10 minutes.
Unlike at the 2002 World Finals, when Nolan White’s chutes failed at 422 miles an hour, there were no fatalities this year. But there were records set in almost every category, including an electric streamliner built by Ohio State that went 257 mph, and Costella Yacoucci, who got the top speed of 315 in his streamliner (one of those really long cars). Jim Minneker hit 213.507 in his last run in the Ion, putting him in the coveted 200 Club and giving him the record.
I watched Minneker’s run with the previous record holder, Santa Ana–based John Thawley, driver of the world’s fastest Honda Civic. As reports of the new record came over the CB radio, Thawley said, “If I didn’t know those guys and wasn’t under strict orders from my team, I’d have hung Jim a huge B.A.” In the parlance of the gearhead, that would translate as “bare ass” — proving, if nothing else, that the down-home spirit of Bonneville lives on.
—Jon Alain Guzik