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Chris & Allyson vs. California (2014)

Day Nine: Sunset Boulevard. The Dearly Departed tour. High-end shopping. The Hollywood Improv.

People come to Hollywood with dreams of a brighter life. Leaving behind the people who never understood their dreams, they scrape and scuffle while waiting for their big break. Before that big break comes, their financial situation gets desperate. They do a topless scene in a cable show or movie to afford a new timing belt on their 1993 Chevy Lumina. A cousin stumbles across that topless scene, and it and ruins Thanksgiving dinner. The rest of their days are spent broken and defeated, behind the returns counter at a Bed Bath and Beyond. This is the glamour that has drawn so many people west.

Allyson and I had one day left in Hollywood, and no prospects of going topless in either the movies or on TV. Sadly, all we could do was cram in another tour and hope that it would be enough to convince us that hey, at least we tried to live the dream.

Judging by our choice of restaurant for breakfast, the dream involves type 2 diabetes. Allyson has several excellent friends from her high school days, and they are what scientists call "foodies." When they travel together, they make dinner reservations that never start before 11:30 p.m. The meals cost at least as much as a three-day stay at a Motel 6, and it's poor form if you don't send back at least one bottle of wine on principle. Allyson eats like a sparrow, and she staggers around like an AWOL sailor in Hong Kong after half a glass of wine. But she goes for the company.

The point is this: Allyson's friends usually have restaurant recommendations for any major city. On the advice of her friend Louise, we went to The Griddle on Sunset Boulevard. I was psyched for the chance to drink wine at breakfast, in the traditional style of a high-class Hollywood burnout. Sadly, it turns out The Griddle is an actual diner, and a very popular one at that. People line up on the sidewalk to get in, so that high-class Hollywood burnouts barely have room to stagger past on the way back to the bungalow paid for by the studio boss whose pity hasn't been exhausted just yet.

It was great. There were all kinds of people sitting down to start their Saturday. Allyson kept eavesdropping on the girls at the next table, who kept talking like they were taping some kind of reality show. We haven't seen them on TV, so there are two possibilities. First, the show stank. Second, when you're a 20-something eating breakfast in Hollywood, you talk loudly about fake shows, just in case that studio boss cut ties with the withered starlet and is having French Toast at the next table while contemplating his next move.

The Griddle will also go down in history as the first restaurant that broke my spirit. I opted for pancakes. All the pancake selections on the menu had a theme. I'm a sucker for Stevie Wonder, so I went with this:

"A Time to Love" -- Enter a world of Wonder with our streusel, butterscotch chip, and caramel-filled " 'Tis the Season" pumpkin originals … topped with powdered sugar and whipped cream. (Signed, Sealed, Delivered!) $11.95

You would have to be blind to think that eating those pancakes is a good idea. And in the ultimate paradox, if you ate enough of them, you almost certainly would go blind. Each pancake in the stack is physically larger than the plate. Each bite was a combination of sweetness and starch that probably surpassed the calorie total consumed by some Japanese fishing villages in a single day. I was raised to eat everything on my plate, especially at a restaurant -- $11.95 can buy you sandwiches for a week, so if you're spending that much on one meal, you damn well better eat said meal.

I finished 40 percent of the stack, and I'm fairly confident that the pancakes were growing back to full size after each bite.

One of the dumbest notions in modern life is that you can "walk off" a meal. Walking is a fine way to get around if you can't afford a Ford Fiesta, but a man my size moving at 3.5 miles per hour burns about 120 calories a mile. I would have to walk two hours to offset six greasy mozzarella sticks. I would have to walk the Pan-American Highway to counteract the pancakes.

But you do reach a point where you need a mental fig leaf, so we walked off breakfast by strolling the Sunset Strip. For years, we've heard stories of the glamour: Comedians uproot their lives, move to Los Angeles and slavishly work the open mics for the chance to "pass" an audition at the Laugh Factory or the Comedy Store. Once they succeed, it's just seven to eight years of doing five-minute sets on the late showcase show on Wednesday night before they have a psychotic episode, find religion or quit the business to work the counter at a medical marijuana dispensary.

It's not quite so glamorous when you're walking past in the daytime. But it was neat to see the clubs up close. Allyson likes to spy on other comedy clubs to figure out what they're doing right. If possible, she will one day relocate the DC Improv to a location in Washington where throngs of tourists and young people walk the streets at night in hopes of seeing a celebrity emerge from a dirty looking club and puke on the sidewalk.

We didn't dive too deeply into the history of the Sunset Strip, because we were paying someone to do that for us. There are lots of "star tours" in Hollywood. Barkers walk the main drag trying to get every nimrod to sign up. They will drive you around in conspicuous buses or vans to show you the places where celebrities live, the places where celebrities shop, and the places where celebrities resent the tour groups that won't leave them in peace.

Allyson and I already know tons of celebrities -- I once spent a weekend hanging out with Biff from "Back to the Future" -- so we wanted a different kind of tour. Dearly Departed promised something along those lines. They show you the locations where stars had mysterious, sad or tragic deaths. Their conspicuous van has a mourning wreath on the front. Our guide was Brian, an insanely enthusiastic guy who almost definitely had ADD. He shared tons of information about his personal life while still being engaging and sincere about his passion for Hollywood and celebrity culture. He spends his birthday parties at celebrity death locations, and he tries to photograph celebs at official functions for his own personal edification. He cried when we came across the site of a home once owned by one of the Gershwins that had been torn down by new owners. That's my kind of tour guide.

The details of the tour are now a little fuzzy, but we went past homes relevant to the Black Dahlia murders, Rebecca Schaeffer (of "My Sister Sam," whose murder by a psycho stalker resulted in changes to anti-stalking laws) and Bela Lugosi (who died at home). Lots of the sites were regular homes in regular neighborhoods -- for a lot of famous people, Hollywood isn't all that glitzy. We drove past the restaurant where Sharon Tate had her last meal and the hotel where Janis Joplin croaked.

For fun, Brian took us past the Scientology "castle," where famous devotees check in for weekend cleansing sessions. There are cameras every 20 feet or so, and two security guards circle the block continuously on bicycles, trying to intimidate people out of lingering on a public sidewalk or taking perfectly legal pictures of the exterior of the building. Brian gave the Scientologists props for being great stewards of classic architecture -- apparently the church is one of the biggest private landowners in Los Angeles. But he also pointed out that the very strange museum across from the Dearly Departed headquarters is a Scientologist front. Signs helpfully tout their main exhibit: "Psychiatry: An Industry of Death."

Things got a big more upscale when we went down to the Grove -- a big shopping complex -- to stretch our legs. Afterward, Brian took us through Beverly Hills and showed us some of the more exotic cursed locations: the house where Michael Jackson died, the house where Johnny Stompanato got stabbed to death, and so forth. He went a little bit off-script to show us Larry King's home (the site of a lot of dead marriages), Simon Cowell's garish mansion, and the block where Jack Benny lived next door to Lucille Ball. Jack Benny, in addition to being insanely funny, was a hopeless romantic. After he died, he arranged for a single rose to be delivered to his widow every day.

Brian wrapped up by taking us along the Sunset Strip. We went past the Viper Room and heard about the death of River Phoenix, complete with a recording of the frantic 911 call. Brian pointed out the spot where Michael Richards killed his career. Then we drove right past the entrance to bungalow 3 of the Chateau Marmont -- where John Belushi made a brilliant career move and overdosed before people got tired of his shtick.

The rule for most tours is that you get out what you put in. Allyson and I peppered Brian with questions. We learned a lot about his relationship with his mother, but we also got a lot of extra information about Hollywood history. Brian is the real highlight of the tour, if you're smart enough to see it.

The tour was ultimately inspiring. At one point, Brian showed us the building where they filmed the final fire escape scene from "Pretty Woman." I was so moved that I wanted to hire a random call girl in the hopes of finding true love. But after negotiations with my wife, we decided to recreate a different sequence from that movie. We settled for a high-end shopping spree.

We walked to Hollywood and Highland with the hopes of replacing my shoulder bag -- the manly accessory that some Oakland crackhead was now using to carry around his cooking spoons. There's a store named Focus, where every person on duty tells you that the bag you're looking at is fantastic. They're very persuasive, and I can now say that I bought all my business accessories for 2014 in Hollywood.

There was one last item on our vacation agenda. As night approached, we got mildly dressed up. We then took a cab to a high-end Mexican joint named Red O, on Melrose Avenue. I enjoy Mexican food as much as anyone; it's one of the few national cuisines that you can enjoy on the high end or the low end. (There are no French chains with a dollar menu that caters exclusively to the discriminating pot smoker.) Somehow, it's delightful to enjoy deeply fried cheese while listening to a piano player noodling away in the bar area.

Red O was not recommended to us. We chose it on location alone, because it's across the street from the Hollywood Improv. The first Improv was in New York City, and the second was in Los Angeles. The New York branch eventually tanked, while the L.A. branch stayed open. It switched locations over the years, but it never closed, and that makes it the oldest Improv franchise in the entire chain.

Allyson wanted to see it. First off, there were rumors of a truly horrific mural. We wish nothing but the best for all Improv franchises, but comedians traveling through Washington had told many tales of the hideous paint job that had spoiled the outside of the Hollywood Club. It was supposed to show the many famous comedians who worked the club, but as the legend goes, it actually showed hideous hobgoblins who looked vaguely like famous entertainers. The legend was basically right. If you're trying to depict Jay Leno and you can't quite capture the distinctive features of his face, then you really need to rethink your art career.

It's fun to see an artistic train wreck, but the mural wasn't the only reason for our visit. As it turns out, my wife is familiar with some of the owners of the Hollywood Improv. They invited us for drinks, because that's what you do when you're a fancy showbiz type. After we polished off our dinner, we met them in the bar area outside of the showroom and talked about important showbiz stuff. Revealing the details would be a huge breach of my wife's trust, and it would also require me to remember what the details were. The important thing is this: We had a good time, and I didn't have to pay for drinks.

There was also a nice surprise. Ages ago, I taught a stand-up comedy class in the D.C. area. My hope was to impart the vast wisdom I had accrued from my astonishing 0.3 decades as a professional comedian. I had a few eager students, and a few people who were the human equivalent of a dumpster fire. One of the eager students was a 15-year-old kid named Joey. As Allyson and I were sneaking a peak at the main showroom, a waiter spotted us and said hello. It was Joey, who had decided to pursue comedy and moved to Los Angeles. He was working at the Hollywood Improv to pay the bills. We either ruined his life or guaranteed him a long and happy future. He seemed not at all resentful when we encountered him, so we're counting it as a huge win.

A few more people said hello and good night, but before long the vacation was over. We went back to the hotel, and the next day was spent traveling back to our Washington home.

It was a fine trip. There was business, pleasure and presidential history. We enjoyed fine dining, and we ate in a cheap taqueria that served brains. We saw elaborate mansions and fine museums; we also visited a prison and saw a baseball game. We drove the open road and we sat on the congested freeway. We enjoyed the hospitality of many native Californians and we got ripped off by some jackhole in Oakland. You travel to experience the world, and we saw a nice chunk of California.

You also travel to experience the people you already know. Allyson and I have been to Central America, Australia and Europe. On paper, California was the most vanilla of our trips together. But you don't have to leave the country to learn for the umpteenth time that your wife is the perfect traveling companion. Someday we'll go to Idaho and really road test this marriage, but for now things are looking good. People come to Hollywood with dreams of a brighter life. Some dreams come true.

Back to California Day One

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