Sunday, September 20, 2009

San Diego

After spending two months sitting down in Los Angeles, it was hard to get on the road again. Fortunately, our next move was a short one - sparing us the dramas of packing for an airplane and allowing me to drive a couple of hours with bulging bags that never would have made it across an airport scale. Roy and I drove down the California coast, stopping en route to visit the Mission at San Juan Capistrano.

I've visited several of California's 21 Spanish-era missions and found them intriguing, but the mission at San Juan Capistrano is justly known as the "crown jewel". Not only is the chapel itself beautiful, but the grounds are also extensive and well maintained. Many of the old structures have been restored and much of the archeological evidence on the grounds has been uncovered and is explained in the audio tour. Roy and I spent as much time as his load-in schedule would allow exploring.

Serra's Chapel - the only surviving church where Father Junipero Serra (the founder of CA's mission system) is known to have conducted a service.

Roy amid the ruins of the "Great Stone Church". The massive stone edifice was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812.

In the mission's courtyard

Roy and I rented a condo in the hills above downtown San Diego. It was a cute little place with a balcony looking out toward the water:

VFMHRW San Diego - looking across the airport to the navel air station and Point Loma beyond.

I really, really liked San Diego and I drug Roy out of the house every day to go exploring. On Wednesday, we drove out to the end of Point Loma. The Port of San Diego is sheltered by a thin hook of land that extends out from the north of San Diego and beds back to the south. At the tip of this hook is Point Loma. It was at Point Loma that the Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who was sailing for Spain, became the first European to come ashore in modern California in September of 1542. Today, much of the peninsula is controlled by the military, but the tip is a national monument.

The view from Point Loma back across the Naval Air Station toward downtown San Diego

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse - the light has since been relocated and automated, but the lighthouse has stood on this windy bluff separating the Pacific from San Diego Bay since 1855.

The ocean side of the peninsula is rocky and dramatic. It's also home to lots of tide pools, which were all under water when Roy and I visited.

Also on the ocean-side of the peninsula is the Ocean Beach neighborhood. While I dug most all of San Diego that I saw, Ocean Beach was my favorite neighborhood. It's the hippie and surfer hang-out. While still a part of laid-back San Diego, Ocean Beach feels like it's own small beach town. Roy and I happened to visit on Farmers' Market day and were greeted with all manner of baked goods, produce and flowers as well as people cooking up meals from every corner of the globe. We enjoyed ice cream sandwiches made with warm waffles as well as one of the best hamburgers I've ever eaten. The latter was created at Hodad's. It's a burger dive in the best sense of the term - decorated with surfing knick-nacks and even the front of a VW Minibus. The house specialty is a bacon cheeseburger made with a thin patty of chopped bacon that insures that there's bacon-y goodness in every bite. I'm sure it took months off my life, but I'm still thinking about how good it was and plotting a trip back to Ocean Beach...

With my warm waffle ice cream sandwich

The other gastronomic highlight of San Diego was the coffee cake at the Big Kitchen. I know, how good can coffee cake be? Go to the Big Kitchen and you will know. It was AMAZING. The rest of our breakfast was great, too - but our waiter was right to insist that we try the coffee cake.

On Thursday, I drug Roy and Lenny around the world famous San Diego Zoo. It took all day to make a quick trip around the zoo. We started with a bus orientation tour of the place that pointed out the highlights and then we set out on foot to get closer to the zoo's inhabitants. We left with aching feet, but having seen a wide variety of the world's fauna. It's the best sort of zoo: involved in conservation and breeding programs for many endangered species, the animals all appear engaged and healthy and the enclosures mimic the natural habitat of the animals.

Pandas always look more like people in panda costumes than wild animals to me...

Koalas spend 90% of their time sleeping - the other 10% of their life is spent eating.
They're so sleepy that their enclosure was hardly an enclosure at all. All that kept them in place was the fact that their eucalyptus was in the middle, there were no bars and hardly a fence; they don't stray too far from their food. (I can relate...)

Hilarious, unless you get peed on.

On Friday, Roy and I visited Old Town San Diego. Old Town is a State Historic Park that preserves and recreates the beginnings of San Diego from around 1821 through just after the creation of the State of California. It includes commercial buildings as well as residences such as the Casa de Estudillo. The Casa de Estudillo is an original 1827 adobe home built in the Spanish Colonial style with the rooms connected via an outdoor gallery, rather than interior halls, surrounding a large courtyard and garden.

The Casa de Estudillo

We also visited the original site of the Mission San Diego de Alcala. Founded in 1769, the San Diego mission was the first of California's missions and was located atop a hill overlooking the San Diego Bay. Unfortunately, there was no good source of fresh water, scurvy ran rampant through the early settlers and the natives resented the intrusion and attacked within a month of the mission's founding. In 1774, the mission was moved to its present location nearer the river. Today, the site of the original mission is home to the Father Junipero Serra Museum and the relocated mission is still an active Catholic Parish.

The Serra Museum

Mission San Diego de Alcala

Spamalot's home for the week was the San Diego Civic Theatre. Built in 1965 and run by the city as part of their city hall complex, the Civic Theatre was a perfectly pleasant place to be for a week. Downtown San Diego has plenty of restaurants and places to hang out after the show (San Diego's home to several colleges and there are plenty of college fun seekers out and about every night). The best part about the Civic Theatre, though, was the warm welcome they gave us. Between shows on Sunday, the theatre hosted a barbecue on the plaza for us! They grilled up hot dogs, hamburger and boca burgers and provided an array of salads and accompaniments. The genius of the barbecue, however, was not in the food; it was in the array of toys they provided:

Footballs were flying in all directions after dinner!

The hula hoops provided the best photo opportunities

Turned out that we had a few hula hooping champions among us!

Of course there was a cake!

The San Diego Civic Theatre

After the show on Sunday night, Roy and I drove out to Mission Beach for a visit to Belmont Park. Belmont Park is an ocean-side amusement park and home to the Giant Dipper. The Giant Dipper (no relation to the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz) opened in 1925. The wooden coaster fell into disrepair and closed in 1976. In the '80's vagrants were camping under the rotting wooden structure and people were calling for it's destruction, but the coaster was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The Giant Dipper re-opened in 1990 and is a great ride. With a 73' drop and 2,600' of track, the coaster is a great way to pass a minute and forty-five seconds!

San Diego has definitely been added to my list of places to return to - one week was only enough to scratch the surface. The climate was wonderful (it was 10 degrees cooler in San Diego than in Los Angeles). The city's setting against the ocean and surrounded by mountains was beautiful. The city is made up many distinct and interesting neighborhoods to explore. I look forward to a return visit to "America's Finest City"!


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

Time is flying by. The calendar in our office has long been dominated by the two big blocks labeled San Francisco and Los Angeles. Suddenly, we reached the end of those 16 weeks and there was not so much Spamalot left ahead of us...

The last weeks of the LA engagement were a busy time of comings and goings. Tim Connell left and was replaced by Steven Wenslawski. Erik Hayden's track was taken over by Andrew Fitch. Nigel stayed in LA as we moved on and his swing position was filled by Billy Sprague. Fortunately, all three of the guys coming in had been with the tour before, at one time or another, and didn't need a tremendous amount of rehearsal. Our final performance in LA also marked the beginning of our break from John O'Hurley. John will not be playing the King in San Diego, San Jose or Tucson, but will rejoin us for the final engagement in Costa Mesa. In the interim, Christopher Gurr will be wearing the crown. Ch-cha-changes...

Before he left, Nigel presented the company with a gift. He has a bit of a tradition of making backstage music videos for shows he's been a part of (search for nigel1492 on Youtube and you'll find many, many of his short videos) and we had long looked forward to his creation for our show. In his final weeks, Nigel and his video camera popped up everywhere. In truth, it was getting a little annoying - but, at his final shot night, Nigel debuted the video and it was SPECTACULAR. I must have watched it a couple of dozen times now and it impresses me more every time.

Word of warning, the video has its risque moments...

If you can't get enough Spamalot backstage video fun, check out Rick Holmes' video blog on here's a link to the first installment.

During our last two weeks in LA, a huge wildfire burned in the San Gabriel mountains outside of the city. Dubbed the "Station Fire" (as it originated near a Forest Service Ranger Station) it began on August 25th and is still burning nearly a month later. Thus far, the fire has consumed more than 160,000 acres, destroyed 78 homes and cost two firefighters their lives. Huge clouds of smoke (known as pyrocumulus clouds) could be seen from all over the city with flames occasionally visible from downtown as well. As the winds shifted, we could often smell smoke and were sometimes dusted with ash from the fire some 18 miles away.

The smoke cloud as seen from the stage door at the Ahmanson

The smoke in the air colored the sunlight, often to beautiful result

Disney Hall appeared aflame with the extra intense colors of the smoky setting sun

Nate, one of our carpenters, drove out a bit closer to the mountains and snapped this dramatic night photo of the flames.

While people in the hillside communities of Los Angeles had to evacuate their homes, life for much of LA was unaffected. It felt strange to be able to see a giant fire burning on the horizon, but to just go about life as usual.

A small of group of Spamily visited the Warner Brothers Studio before we bade farewell to movie-land. Having just visited Paramount Studios, I'm not sure I need another studio tour quite so soon, but I enjoyed the afternoon. The Warner Brothers tour included a few different behind the scenes glimpses including a peek into their prop warehouse and scene shop. They also have an on-site museum featuring costumes, props and script pages from all kinds of Warner Brothers productions.

Though I kept a close eye on the water tower, the Animaniacs never emerged...

The New York backlot was mid-transformation - the green cart held all manner of lighting fixtures that the prop people were installing to change the look of the facades.

Spamily (Billy, Karl, Nikki, Nigel, Ryan, Ben & Francesca) w/ Bugs Bunny

My last day off in La-la Land was spent with Shey. We visited the train collection at Travel Town in Griffith Park, had breakfast for lunch at the Original Pantry and drove out to Pasadena before stopping in Studio City for coffee with a group of MSU Theatre Department alumni. Joanne Brooks, Katie Von Till and Lisa Lenox all graduated ahead of me from State and I hadn't seen any of them since they left East Lansing. We were also joined by Michael Merritt, who graduated with Sheila Marie, and I had seen once or twice in Chicago - but it was fun to catch up with people I hadn't seen in so long!

Shey, Lisa, Joanne, Katie and Michael after our coffee date

One of Travel Town's steam engines, this one's from the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe

Shey's pancakes at the Original Pantry were as big as her head!

Where no Spartan fan has been in too long

For the first time in two months, I drug out the suitcases again. With the two long sit-downs, I had acquired too much stuff to easily travel. I packed a BIG box and sent it off to New York (thank you, Wife, for dealing with the seemingly endless stream of stuff I keep sending home), but still my suitcases were bulging for the trip to San Diego. I've got to get down to plane weight again...

For our final week, Spamalot played a mid-week matinee and closed the engagement with a Sunday matinee. With our free evening, the Maestro, Karl, Roy and I headed to the Hollywood Bowl! The program featured selections from Rogers and Hammerstein film sores played by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra with clips from the various films. Robert Osborne, of Turner Classic Movies fame, hosted the evening. The Hollywood Bowl is an amazing place. The arched bandshell is situated amongst the Hollywood Hills and the expansive seating area on the hillside facing the shell has seating for 17,376.

En route to the concert, we stopped off for this photo of Roy, Ben & Karl w/ the Hollywood Sign

At the Hollywood Bowl

The concert ended with a sing-a-long!

Our night at the Hollywood Bowl was a classy end to a really enjoyable 9 weeks in Los Angeles. Leaving San Francisco, I was not looking forward to LA. I wasn't looking forward to driving everyday and everywhere. I dreaded the hot weather. I was sure that I wouldn't want to seek out things to do, see and eat in such a giant, spread out town. All of my worries proved unfounded. I came to (mostly) enjoy my time in the car - the weather was more pleasant than I anticipated - and I had no trouble entertaining or feeding myself in many neighborhoods. I even went to the beach several times! I quite enjoyed LA!

Aside from having to pack up my luggage, I was ready to move on, though. For the last month and a half of Spamalot, we were going back on tour!


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Birthday Fun

This year, my birthday fell on a Monday. While that might be a major bummer for folks who work 9-5, it was a wonderful treat for me: I had the whole day off!

The fun began after the show on Sunday night with a bowling adventure at the Hollywood branch of Lucky Strike Lanes. While not planned as a birthday party, the fun stretched on past midnight & I was serenaded by those in attendance as we played a rousing game of beer pong.

Lenny rolls a spare

Nigel lines up his shot at beer pong
As I was, apparently, the only one in attendance who went to state school - my team kicked butt.

Costumed characters were still prowling Hollywood Blvd. posing for pictures as we left the bowling alley - we had to stop for birthday snap!

Bright and early Monday morning, Roy and I loaded up the car and headed out to meet Jeff Brewer at Knott's Berry Farm! Knott's Berry Farm began life in the 1920's as, just as the name implies, a road-side fruit stand. (In fact, it was at Walter Knott's stand that the term "boysenberry" was invented to describe the three-way cross of raspberry, blackberry and loganberry that Knott received from fellow berry-grower Rudolph Boysen.) In the 30's, to help make ends meet, Cordelia Knott began serving chicken dinners. Mother Knott's chicken became a sensation and long lines of waiting diners developed. To entertain the crowds, Walter built a ghost town of buildings relocated from actual western ghost towns. In the 1940's the first rides were added and Knott's Berry Farm became the nation's first theme park! Today, the theme park is run by the good people at Cedar Fair and the berry jams and jellies are marketed by Smuckers, but Cordelia Knott's fried chicken is still served at the park.

At the entrance to Ghost Rider - the park's wonderful wooden roller coaster.
The lines at the park were so short that we had ridden all 9 of the park's coasters before we broke for a lunch of Mother Knott's famous fried chicken!

Jeff, Roy & I took a ride around the park on a stage coach

Yup, an actual stage coach formerly used on the Butterfield Overland Mail route!

There were also plenty more traditional amusement park rides...

After we had worn ourselves out on roller coasters, Roy and I bid Jeff farewell and continued south on I-5 to Anaheim. We met up with Matt Allen, Dumas, Karl & Nikki at Angels Stadium to watch the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim take on the Detroit Tigers. It was a beautiful night for baseball with two great pitchers headed to the hill: Jared Weaver for the Halos and Justin Verlander for the Motor City Kitties. The game turned ugly in the away half of the 7th inning when the Angels surrendered 7 runs to fall behind the Tigers 10-0. The Angels' faithful streamed for the exits. But then, he appeared:

The infamous Rally Monkey!

The Angels rallied with 4 runs in the bottom half of the 6th inning and scored 3 more in the 8th. They even went so far as to bring the tying run to the plate in the 8th inning, before letting the game slip away from them with a final score of 10-7. The giant halo would not light this night.

The view of the mountains over the centerfield wall

The view of Angels Stadium from our seats.
Renovated in 1997 & 1998, the Big A is 4th oldest active ballpark in the majors (behind Fenway, Wrigley & Dodger Stadium). It's also the 13th Big League Ballpark I've visited and the 29th (and final) park I visited on while on tour.

Bobby Abreau smashed a homerun in the 8th to trigger these fireworks and a show by the fountains in centerfield

w/ Matt & Dumas outfitted, as usual, for teams not playing at the park we were sitting in...

Tuesday morning, my birthday weekend of fun concluded with a visit to Paramount Studios. Movie magic was being made just blocks from my apartment in Hollywood (in fact, Paramount Studios built the apartment complex I stayed in as company housing), so Roy, Karl and I could walk to the studio from my bungalow.

Paramount Studio's Bronson Gate

What is now Paramount Pictures began in 1912 with the creation of two companies: Famous Players Film Company founded by Adolph Zukor, and Lasky Feature Play Company founded by Joseph Lasky. In 1914 both men began releasing movies through a third company, Paramount Pictures created by a theatre owner in Utah to distribute films nation-wide. In 1916, Zukor managed a three-way merger and soon became the driving force behind the business, eventually pushing out his other partners. Paramount moved into lavish new production studios on Marathon Avenue in Hollywood in 1926 - the core of the modern studio. Today, Paramount is the only movie studio with a lot in Hollywood and is the oldest operating studio. Paramount took over the adjacent RKO lot when it acquired Desilu in the 1960's and eventually expanded it's lot across Marathon Avenue to Melrose, resulting in the city within a city that is the Paramount Lot today.

The Hollywood Sign is visible above the Paramount sound stages

Our tour was a really interesting glimpse behind the scenes of modern movie and television production with a good bit of history thrown in as well. All of the sound stages at Paramount bear plaques listing the many hit films and shows filmed within, titles like Sunset Boulevard, The Ten Commandments and Bing Crosby's "Road" movies share space with Cheers, Everybody Loves Raymond and I Love Lucy (though RKO kept less detailed records so where, exactly, Citizen Kane and other RKO classics were filmed is less sure). Our tour guide pointed out Lucille Ball's bungalow dressing room as well as the office of Edith Head and Rudolph Valentino. The most interesting part of the tour, however, was the backlot where large outdoor scenes are filmed. The day we visited, Criminal Minds was preparing to shoot a scene on "New York Street", Paramount's urban backlot.

"New York Street" can be redressed to look like almost any urban environment and features building of all kinds of architectural styles found around American cities, but it had a very New York feel - there was a building that could easily have been my own apartment! The buildings are funny though, round a corner and the style of the building may change or the building may turn out to not have another side at all!

I really enjoyed the peek behind the scenes and the reminder that very little in movies is actually what it appears to be. Making movies is all about controlling what, exactly, the viewer sees. A film doesn't need a whole building, just a facade. That facade might have appeared in hundreds of TV shows and films, but some clever redressing will render it unrecognizable. The interiors will be filmed somewhere else and on another day, but it will all be made seamless in the editing room.

w/ the iconic Paramount water tower at the end of our tour

I never expected to celebrate 3 birthdays on the Spamalot tour, but all three have been fun. (I've celebrated with tiki drinks in Portland, cheese steaks in Philadelphia and, now, fried chicken at Knott's Berry Farm.) All three have been representations of the locale where I celebrated, but none more so than my great birthday weekend in LA this year.