The first 24
The last time I was in Los Angeles was for a couple of hours between flights on the way home from a gig in New Zealand. I had just enough time to meet my old friend Jay Leggett in an LAX coffee shop. We caught up, made each other laugh, hugged and then I was back through passport control and on my plane home. The time before that was many years earlier, but also involved Jay. We stayed at his place for a few days. He showed us the sights, bought us dinner, took us out, drove us around, and generally really loved playing the host and showing us his Hollywood. He helped us make memories I couldn't forget even if I tried.
So, as I sat in my shuttle bus, Eduado the driver cruising us from the airport to the strip, I remembered the times I'd been here before, and smiled, and allowed myself a little cry. If Jay hadn't died, he would have got such a kick out of me being invited to perform at the Magic Castle. He would have been psyched, and would have planned things for us to do, he would have kept me out late, he would have been proud of me. As my week rolled past, I heard his voice in my ear almost constantly, providing a running commentary of teasing and enthusiasm. So this week was, at least partly, for him.
But lets track back for a moment. Yes, I'd been booked to perform at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. The premier venue for the magical arts. No, I'm not a magician. But glossing over that little technicality, it was a hell of a compliment of a booking, and I was ridiculously excited to go.
I gawped out of the window of the official Magic Castle airport shuttle bus, I remembering what LA looks like. All hazy and golden. The grey ribbon of freeway flanked by signs that once were brightly coloured, but quickly faded in the sunshine. They jostle for attention in a way that, were they newer, would be ugly. At least to my jetlagged eyes, their age gave them some kind of beauty that by rights they shouldn't have had. Thats, possibly, one of the things places like LA are good at. Seeing the beauty of an ageing sign seems like the same kind of thinking that started people appreciating old movies, or unfashionable fashions, or diners that have seen better days. The unabashed love for the flotsam and jetsam of fairly recent cultural history. When I was in my thirties, my dad teased me mercilessly for wanting to revisit my childhood neighbourhood, telling me that I was “A little young for nostalgia”. That was, of course, bullshit – loving something from the past isn't about how far back it happened, it's about why it means something to you. So, that's Los Angeles, perhaps – Not too young for nostalgia.
Eduado dropped me off at the Castle, I collected my apartment keys, dumped my stuff, splashed some water on my face, then headed right back out to do two shows. Endorphins beat jetlag by knockout, and pretty soon I was sitting in my dressing room, massive picture of a particularly intense Houdini staring down at me, with a little sheen of sweat on my face, looking at myself in the mirror, grinning like an idiot. Listen, I'm sorry to all the other venues I've ever played, but in nearly thirty years of shouting tricks at people, the Magic Castle has the best audiences I've ever worked to. For a start, they're there to see magic, so they don't need any convincing when a variety act steps on stage. Secondly, the main show at the castle is a hot ticket. You have to be a member, or know someone who's a member, and book in advance. All the shows sell out, so they're super excited to have managed to get a seat. Lastly – they've had a drink. Now, sometimes, obviously, having an audience a little booze-enhanced is the last thing you want, but when that audience is already made up of people who love magic and variety, and are chuffed to have made it there – well, the drinks just help them slide a little bit into unbridled childhood glee. They laugh, they gasp, they clap, and I smile.
I headed straight to bed after my last show, and thanks to my timezone-addled soul, got a solid couple of hours of unconsciousness before the invisible jetlag demon slapped me wide awake. There was no getting back to sleep, so I threw on my suit and decided to wander around outside and see if I could find a good vantage point from which to watch the sunrise. At about five thirty in the morning I found some hills, which turned out to be Runyon Canyon Park. It was pitch black, but there was a lady with a dog, and some young hikers, which inspired feelings of not-danger, so I followed them. I trekked along a sandy path, up and around and up some more, while the sky everso slowly got less black, and more inky blue. Palm tree silhouettes started to become visible overhead, and occasionally, through the leaves, I'd get a glimpse of the pinpoints of light from the otherwise unlit downtown, like showgirl glitter on the floor of a dark dressing room. Up and around and more up. Until there was no more path, just a bench and a sheer drop. I stood, feeling safe by making sure the backs of my legs were touching the bench. The city was spread out in front of me, shiny. The sun starting to throw some haze through the overcast sky, so I could finally see my surroundings. I breathed slowly and deep, letting my head pan across the view, and heard myself say out loud “Well. Damn.”
Then I went and got some breakfast.
On the way down I passed a homeless woman. All her belongings piled high in a shopping cart. On first impressions, she looked big – fat, even – but as I got closer to her I realised that she was actually painfully slight, but she was wearing all of her clothes. Hat over hat, jacket over jacket over jacket. In her hand she had a rectangular pocket pack of tissues, which she held to her ear like a phone, or a radio. Her head was tilted back, staring at the sky, unaware of anything else. As I passed her, I heard what she was saying into the pack of tissues. Her eyes darting around the sky above, she implored “I'm here. I'm waitin' Ready to go. Right here. Ready for you”. As if waiting for a flying saucer? Or a rapture? The poetic heartbreak of her mental illness killed me.
Suits and hats
The only thing I planned to definitely do while in LA was to go to, what I had been reliably informed, was an amazing hat shop. I like a hat. So I strolled down to Melrose, to find Hollywood Hatters. On the way, I passed a grizzled looking guy in a hoodie, who, when he saw me, grinned broadly and said – almost sung - “WELL LOOK AT YOU ALL IN A SUIT LIKE A MAN IN A PLACE! WELL ALRIIIIGHT!”. Seriously thinking about making that my new promotion slogan. “Mat Ricardo: All in a suit, like a man, in a place. Alright.”
The internet had told me the hat shop opened at 11, but when I was there at noon it still wasn't open. So Sal, the owner, who had been delayed, arrived to find his first customer in the process of sending him a grumpy email about opening hours. I'm good at making first impressions.
Hat shopping is hard. You have to try on ALL THE HATS. SEVERAL TIMES. Sal was very understanding of that, and after a decent amount of hat sampling, and with his expert guidance, I bought some beautiful hats. One of the styles I bought, Sal told me, was a favourite of Leonard Cohen, who used to live in the neighbourhood, and would get his hats there. Nice.
Close your eyes only when you have to
The rest of my week was a blur of work and looking at stuff. The audiences were faultlessly delightful, attentive and appreciative, but even with that said, three shows a night, arriving at seven and not leaving until past midnight is hard work. Fun work, but hard work. I made sure to plan to go do something every day, as well. It'd be a waste of a city to just sit around in your apartment waiting for the evening to begin, so I started to tick off my list of diners, architecture, shopping and views.
One morning I woke up feeling a little black dog-ish, so I decided I'd spend the day looking at beautiful things. I got the metro downtown, and checked out the beautiful Union station – a spectacular art deco masterpiece that, if it was in Britain, would almost certainly have been gutted and modernised by now, or sold off to a hotel developer. But no, here it was, exactly as it had been since 1939, all polished marble floors, angled wooden beamed ceiling, class and style out the wazoo. And it was quiet. Busy, but not loud. Maybe however late for work you are, it's just impossible to be angry and stressed when your commute takes you thought such a cathederal.
While I wondered through the downtown area, hunger reminded me to tick off another diner from my list, and this one was a doozy – The Nickel Diner. As sung about by TomWaits. Made famous by its bacon maple glazed donut. On this grey day it glowed warm and welcoming, fairy lights in the steamed up window, the shapes of happy, chattering, eating people inside. A mix of local office drones, hipster scum like me, and crusty old geezers. The happiest of happy places. I walked in, sat at the back so I could watch the room, ordered breakfast from the uber-friendly staff, and felt my belly and my soul refill. One day I'll write that book about my favourite greasy spoons all over the world, right? This'll be in it.
The black dog was whimpering and retreating, and a visit to The Last Bookstore, and then the Bradbury Building, finished it off, and put it back in its basket, asleep and beaten.
Most of the rest of my daytimes were spent going out on expeditions with my camera. I like to walk, always have done, and even in LA, it's mostly possible, at least between taxi and metro journeys. Bought some sunglasses at a lovely vintage store in beautiful downtown Burbank (and if you don't know why I said it like that, then shame on you), just around the corner from the actual water tower where the Animaniacs live. Not sure if they were there, they may have been elsewhere, engaged in hijinks.
One night, between shows, a dapper, older man made his way back stage. I knew who he was immediately. Every big time magician who has seen my act has told me - “You gotta meet Milt Larsen”. In 1963, he and his brother Bill founded the Magic Castle. It's his house. He's a genuine bona-fide Hollywood film, TV and stage legend. But there's something else. Before I was the tablecloth guy, He was the tablecloth guy. Every American movie or TV show you've seen it done in, chances are it was his hands doing it. The reason you know the tablecloth trick – the reason why, when I bend down and take hold of the edge of the cloth, everyone knows what's coming? That's down, in a major way, to Milt. He pushed that one little bit of business into mainstream culture, over a career that stretched through all of his adult life.
He grabbed my hand in a handshake. Held on tight. Stared into my eyes. Told me how funny I was, how perfect my timing was. Told me I had the perfect act. Already I'm shaking a little, the voice in my head saying “You can go cry in the dressing room in a minute”
He told me all the times he pulled tablecloths – in cabaret shows, in movies, wherever, gave me a few tips (“But you don't need my ideas – you're bulletproof – but i'm 85 – what do I need them for?”), "Your act?", he said, shaking his head and grinning, “putting it back? Never seen anything like it”
This is why I do this. I mean, one of the reasons, but one of the big ones. I saw in him, and I think he saw in me, that we were similar. Schtickmeisters. Trading in the currency of gags, lines, bits of business. Both part of a lineage. In my critically-acclaimed, and publicly-ignored, one man show “Vaudeville Schmuck” I talked about how lonely it can be being a solo act, but how, if you do the kind of things that I do, you're never really alone on stage – you're accompanied by the ghosts of all the people who helped your artform develop over the decades before you. A family tree that you've never met.
But this one I met. No ghost. Real and giggling. He shook my hand at least six times in the course of an eight minute chat, and I didn't want to let go any of the times.
He told me that he hoped I liked it here. I told him I certainly did. He told me that he knew London is a long way away, but that he hoped I'd come back many times. I told him I hoped so too. I felt that my check-in luggage might be heavier now, the weight of one passed baton.
On Sunday morning I strolled up to the weekly Melrose Trading Post – a fantastic and huge outdoor market in the grounds of Fairfax high school. $3 to get in, which goes to help fund school projects, and then you're in among hundreds of stalls selling vintage stuff, handcrafted stuff, beautiful things, and low-class crapola. It's great. Had a felafel sandwich that was the size of two and a half city blocks. Bought some badges from an English guy who'd moved there thirty years ago. “What got you here?”, I asked. “Would you believe, a woman?”, he replied, resigned to the cliché. He asked what I was doing there, and I explained that I was doing a comedy act at the Castle. “You look like a comedian”, he said. I asked if that was a good thing or a bad thing. “Well”, he said, “It's a good thing if you're a comedian. Not if you're not...”
One more lap of the stalls, a chance to overhear a customer tell a stallholder that he could “Sell the gum off the bottom of a shoe”, and I was on my way back to my apartment and then across the street to do my last night of shows. And that's where was when I wrote this, sat in my dressing room sucking on a polystyrene cup of diet coke, in my costume, headset mic digging into my ear. One show in, on a three show night.
And then I closed my laptop, straightened my tie, and went up into the wings for the second show of my last night. The compere, the lovely Kerry Pollock, gave me his usual killer intro, and onto the stage I swaggered, my eyes immediately falling on the unmistakable form of comedy genius Larry David, sitting a couple of rows back, dead centre, grinning up at me. My brain immediately split into two parts. The main part slid right into doing my act, getting laughs, being sarcastic, threatening to do tricks, my usual kind of schtick. The other, smaller neurological lump just provided me with a n inner monologue of “*Is* is him? Yeah, it totally fucking is. It's Larry David. Watching you. Right now. It's happening right now. Don't fuck up. Calm down. Stop thinking about Larry David. Who is in the audience looking at you. Right now.” etc..
I didn't fuck up. Afterwards he stuck around, shook my hand, told me how funny I was. I got another laugh out of him by telling him how offputting it was seeing him from the stage, and how dare he. He shook my hand again. I told him what an honour it was to meet him. He told me how great my act was. I went back to the dressing room and got dizzy. Actually dizzy. Like all the blood had flowed out of my brain and whatever part of your physiology deals with having a really really good day. I had to check with Kerry that all of that had actually happened. It had. Bloody Los Angeles being such a cliché. Such a fan-fucking-tastic cliché.
And then I was done. Prop case packed. Suit folded. One last double scotch with magicians at the bar with the ghost that plays the piano (Long story), and now I'm sitting on a plane on my way home. All in a suit like a man in a place. Alright.
Jay would have got such a kick out of all of this.