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A Los Angeles history lesson


To many, Los Angeles is the home of plastic flamingos, aspiring actors, and perfect tans.  Part of the apparent superficiality of Los Angeles lies in its obsession with newness—youth, beauty, and vigor—and with the ruthless destruction of has-beens (the regrettable demolition of the Brown Derby being one example).  Yet a drive through the dizzying architectures of Beverly Hills (where English Tudor vines twine Spanish Mission adobe walls) reveals a different obsession–a passion for history as myth, for the malleable past.  Freed by wrecking balls from the tangible remnants of actual lived history, Los Angeles can create a world that never was, a giddy blend of fact and fabrication.

It is no wonder then that many of Los Angeles’ most antique-seeming attractions are also among its newest.  I discovered one such marvel by accident, as my friend and I were walking down Hollywood Boulevard.  Keeping an eye open for a place to take a break, we passed what looked like a classic diner.  Signs still advertised cold drinks and sandwiches; in fact, the “open” sign was turned merrily outward.  But inside it was dark and apparently deserted, the windows barred.  We paused out front, weighing the likelihood that there was still a diner inside.  Our deliberations were interrupted by a middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt who emerged from the interior and stood smiling in the doorway.  “Come on in,” he beckoned, “don’t worry about the admission, come on, we’re open.”

Inside we went, completely unworried about the admission.  We walked down a long, curving corridor, dim and undecorated.  “Go ahead,” our host cheerfully encouraged, “it’s through that door,” with bracing confidence.  We opened the door at the end of the hall and stepped inside a low, dark, round room, decorated with a 360-degree panorama painting, a splendor of browns and whites, a muted chaparral landscape.  It was like stepping back into the Old West, or perhaps more like stepping onto the painted set of a Western movie.

Retreating to the lobby, we gladly donated admission in exchange for a brochure advertising the Velaslavasay Panorama in a suitably archaic-looking font.  Our host was the father of Sara Velas, the artist who painted the oil-on-canvas panorama, “The Valley of the Smokes,” in homage to the nineteenth-century panorama craze that spawned panorama rotundas throughout Europe and the United States, of which only a handful remain.  (Her website, www.panoramainhollywood.org, features some pictures of European panorama rotundas in Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium, as well as one in Atlanta, Georgia.)  Her father declared this little spot was the “most peaceful place in Los Angeles.”  Brad Pitt, he assured us, said as much himself, retreating to this “oasis” to find solitude and calm in the city.

It seems Velas’ project has spawned a resurgence of interest in this old-fashioned type of virtual reality.  There is now a Velaslavasay Panorama Enthusiast Society whose dedicated members gather in the rotunda’s shady back garden for ice cream socials and all manner of eclectic performances, including burlesque entertainers and fortunetellers.  A gathering celebrating the Ides of March reportedly featured a “Roman augur” who read prophecies in the movements of birds.  Sadly, Mr. Pitt was not in attendance.

Back on the street again, we could not find any signs advertising this hidden treasure.  We strolled back down the same street, heavy and dull with musty winter sunshine.  Litter was pooled in the gutter, and the cracked glass of windshields glinted wickedly on the smoky asphalt.  Yet not ten feet away there sat a timeless oasis.

The reckless mix of fact and fiction, the straight-faced irony that is also conviction–clearly Los Angeles takes a postmodern pleasure in the past.  More than that, it takes expansive ownership of history: Willamsburg has colonial America; San Francisco, the gold rush,; Los Angeles has the world, a wild conflation of Roman augury, Victorian panoramas, and Tudor mansions.  Like the city’s suburban tentacles sending their invidious tips out into the desert, Los Angeles’ history roams the vast open spaces of imagination.

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