Fall Exhibition: Los Angeles Architecture at the Huntington

“Architects of a Golden Age: Highlights from the Huntington’s Southern California Architecture Collection” debuted this weekend at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. The small exhibition is on view in the West Hall of the Library through January 21, 2019.

Documenting what curators rightly call “one of the most creative and influential periods in Southern California architecture”, the Huntington presents 21 original plans and drawings depicting various distinctive buildings designed or built between 1920 and 1940, coinciding with LA’s growth and the arrival of individuals of ability from across the U.S.

“Architects of a Golden Age” features renderings of Downtown LA’s Union Station, Los Angeles Stock Exchange and buildings in Chinatown, which was reshaped when city government seized control of private property in the early 1930s through eminent domain law.

In press materials, the Huntington suggests that the private research and educational institution founded in 1919 by businessman and industrialist Henry Huntington (1850-1927) began to focus on collecting architectural documentation in the late 1970s, when building conservation and the preservationism movement took root.

“For curators at the Huntington, that was the time to actively seek out and salvage as much of the architectural record as possible, as dozens of significant buildings fell to the wrecking ball and the downtown skyline was forever changed,” said Erin Chase, assistant curator of architecture and photography. “This show is an opportunity to showcase our collection, which has become invaluable in the study of the history of the region’s built environment.”

The Huntington says that its collection has grown to thousands of plans, sketches, photographs and records. “Architects of a Golden Age” includes a charcoal drawing of the façade of LA’s Union Station, designed by Edward Warren Hoak (1901-1978), illustrating his blend of Spanish, Mission Revival, Southwest and Art Deco styles. Also, look for a detailed sketch of the Mayan Theater on Hill Street mapping the ornate 1927 building’s façade, with its stylized pre-Columbian reliefs by Mexican sculptor Francisco Cornejo (1892-1963).

The 12-story granite Los Angeles Stock Exchange building by Samuel Lunden (1897-1995) is captured in two gouache renderings by Roger Hayward; one of the building’s exterior, the other of the cavernous trading floor. Completed in 1931, its edifice was designed to instill a sense of financial stability. The LA Stock Exchange, which opened eight days before the crash of 1929, was designed with a goal by the exchange’s board of directors to advance three hallmarks of capitalism: finance, production and research and discovery.

Today, the space is used as a nightclub. Architect Lunden’s papers were left to the Huntington, which points out that he left a mark across Los Angeles with, besides the Stock Exchange building, USC’s Doheny Library and the 1928 wing of the Biltmore Hotel.

Featured collections include architect Wallace Neff’s (1895-1982) papers, which include an elevation drawing (graphite on tracing paper) for Neff’s 1923 horse stables for glass tycoon Edward Libbey, original owner of the Ojai Valley Inn, along with renderings for an Airform house, Neff’s solution to the mass-housing shortage during and after World War 2.

Roger Hayward (1899–1979), Los Angeles Stock Exchange, interior of trading room floor © Courtesy of Dr. James and Mrs. Miriam Kramer, 2018.

One of the greatest assets of this new exhibit is its representation of our remarkably enterprising history of businessmen, industrialists and capitalists in Southern California. Besides the place’s namesake Huntington and Edward Libbey, works include elaborate residential plans for English immigrant Arthur Letts, who took a bankrupt store in downtown Los Angeles and remade it into The Broadway department store and, later, Bullock’s.

The rendering of Mr. Letts’ magnificent Holmby Park estate, constructed in 1908, must be seen up close to be fully appreciated. Arthur Letts bought 60 acres in the city’s northeastern section now known as Los Feliz, where Letts built a Tudor mansion. He hired William Adolph Peschelt (1853-1919) to landscape it with a unique selection of trees, succulents and other plants. The botanical specimens eventually were dispersed and sold to nurseries and private collectors, including Huntington founder Henry Huntington. The drawing of this private property includes a simple home on top of a small hill overlooking an entirely private estate with greenery and walking paths amid a few fluttering birds and the early LA backdrop of surrounding foothills near what is now Griffith Park.

A recently acquired archive of landscape architects Florence Yoch and Lucile Council includes a 30 x 36 inch ink drawing on tracing paper for movie director George Cukor’s 1936 garden at his home in West Hollywood. Yoch and Council, who apparently were quite skilled in botany, horticulture and design, worked on a range of projects, from the Vroman’s Bookstore courtyard in Pasadena to prominent estates. The pair survived the Depression by designing sets for movies such as Gone with the Wind (1939).

An opaque watercolor on board from 1925 by another artist, Elmer Grey (1871-1962), architect of the Pasadena Playhouse and Henry Huntington’s residence in San Marino, shows the first conception of a community playhouse in Pasadena, the city of roses. The curator notes that Grey’s architectural philosophy was peculiar to Southern California’s climate; he regarded its Mediterranean-like climate as ideal for informality in design with a new type of Spanish-influenced architecture, which he simply referred as Californian.

The Huntington’s new, one-room exhibition includes a rendering of a luxurious, post-World War 2 era living room designed by architect A. Quincy Jones and interior designer William Haines (1900-1973) in 1952 for Sidney and Frances Brody’s home in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. Curator Chase calls this mid-century modern depiction of the Southern California lifestyle “the pinnacle of what can be achieved with California innovation…It beautifully brings the pre-war history of architecture in the region to an uplifting sendoff.”

Be sure to pick up the exhibit’s official brochure, which provides in colorful detail with reprints a numbered guide to the collections’ documents. Also included in the fold-out supplement are exhibit, architectural, cooking and downtown LA bus tour information and a fun, music playlist which ties into the Huntington exhibit with songs such as “West Coast” by Lana Del Rey, “Skyscrapers” by OK Go and “Downtown” by Petula Clark.

“Architects of a Golden Age: Highlights from the Huntington’s Southern California Architecture Collection” is made possible by the Robert F. Erburu Exhibition Endowment and the Tracy S. and Kenneth S. McCormick Endowment for the Study of Architecture and Design.

The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road in the San Gabriel Vallley’s tiny San Marino, 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles near Pasadena. The place is open to the public Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For details about membership, parking and admission, call (626) 405-2100 or visit Huntington.org

TV Review: Dynasty (The CW)

The first season of the CW’s Dynasty is salacious. It is also surprisingly sharp, even surpassing the original 1981-1989 ABC series in the caliber of its writing. Several key original characters, created by Richard and Esther Shapiro, are re-conceived. Several original costume motifs, plot lines and themes appear in this version, too. But the show’s first season (season two debuts on October 12) is its own combination of brisk, biting and usually interesting melodrama.

Buy the Season

The first major switch is from the original’s Colorado-based Denver Carrington business empire to the South’s Atlanta-based Carrington Atlantic. This allows for an engaging twist and the second major change from the old to the new Dynasty: Blake Carrington’s rival family the Colbys (and other characters such as the chauffeur) are black. Other flipping includes Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear in the original), a trailer trash tramp in the Eighties, as Sammy Jo the gay South American hustler.

Both characters bear familial connection to the second Mrs. Blake Carrington, Krystle (Linda Evans) who’s now Cristal (Nathalie Kelley). There’s a clever tie-in to almost every original character. This includes Matthew and Claudia Blaisdell, the middle class oil rig couple, butler Joseph and his mentally unstable daughter Kirby, hunky driver Michael Culhane and both Fallon and Alexis Carrington, formerly brunettes and now blondes who are each more diabolical.

But they’re bad in a more realistic way. All the Carrington mayhem, scheming and manipulation unfolds through the lens of plausible betrayal, family and business. The larger than life mythology remains. Steven Carrington’s still gay in the new Dynasty, though he’s less the strong, silent type that Al Corley portrayed and more like a modern version of Oscar Wilde with left-leaning politics. Also look for Ted Dinard.

The plot follows its own course, with some thematic and specific rebooting for fans of the original and plenty of sexual, interracial, intercultural points. With more socially and politically pointed, sometimes astute, commentary and snappy, often realistic lines and consistent characterization, this new Dynasty is worth checking out for “escapist” type entertainment, nothing more.

Production values include stunningly, beautifully shot scenes. I especially like that the show begins many episodes with rich, elegant details of the inner workings of the Carrington home, which adds a degree of authenticity to the more ridiculous plots.

The cast is generally outstanding, even Nicollette Sheridan as Alexis (not appearing until later episodes), playing the character with more humor than the iconic Joan Collins portrayal. Veteran actor Grant Show (Swingtown, Melrose Place) is excellent as Blake Carrington. Show makes the industrialist more human and believable in one season than John Forsythe did during the entire original series’ run.

Kelley’s Cristal is more convincing as the second wife than as the executive type but she’s fine. Rafael de la Fuente as Sammy Jo adds camp. Elizabeth Gillies as Fallon, a dominant character in the first season, carries quite a plot load and mostly pulls it off. James Mackay as Steven is also spot on. Sam Adegoke as Jeff Colby brings his own flair and stands opposite of John James’ original benevolence, Alan Dale as Joseph makes the butler a full-fledged character with distinction and Robert Christopher Riley as Michael steals every scene.

Movie Review: “A Star is Born” (2018)

Directed by its leading man, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and co-starring the singer known as Lady Gaga, billed as Lady Gaga, the new remake of A Star is Born is good. Yet it is also a disappointingly missed opportunity. This is not the best version.

Hitting the main points of William Wellman’s sterling original 1937 film (read a roundup of my reviews of each previous version here), with nods to the 1976 remake, Cooper’s version, adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) makes an impact. Given its essential theme contrasting selflessness with selfishness, which is more relevant than ever before, that’s to be expected.

However, absent certain elements, especially the role of the collective in spreading nihilism and explicitly dramatizing what destroys man at his best, it is also partial.

A Star is Born starts with guitar-playing vocalist Cooper’s banging out hard rock with his band before bingeing on hard liquor while his driver totes him around Los Angeles. The lengthy movie about a man on the way down meeting a woman on the way up recasts the falling star in a clinically correct mental health context. Unless you know how this story ends, look for plot clues.

Spiraling rocker Jackson Maine meets Gaga’s talented, rising singer Ally when she’s done up as Edith Piaf in a bar where men dress and lip synch as women. For her part, Gaga sings with gusto in her signature style, in which she starts singing and veers into belting the tune. As a performer, she conveys both a sense of commitment and a stage presence. As an actress, Lady Gaga is good, not great, as the insecure artist.

Lady Gaga’s Ally snaps Bradley Cooper’s scruffy, blue-eyed Jack out of his stupor long enough with her theatricality — she descends into the cabaret audience with a rose — for him to notice that she toasts with a martini and two olives. It’s love at first sight.

Or something like it. Whatever else, Jack and Ally share the artist’s curse of chronic self-doubt. Even after grizzled, drunken hunk Jack, who fills every stadium seat with his blend of rip-roarin’ country-rock, charms the club’s drag queens with a down-home song, he apologizes, confiding to Ally that he thinks he “fucked that song up”. This, too, is a clue.

That an insecure star tutors an insecure ingenue and what becomes of both drives A Star is Born. When the movie lingers on their songwriting, it’s hard to resist. Their moment begins in earnest in an empty late-night retail parking lot that’s both indelible to LA and setting for the best scenes in the picture. Here, with no one else in sight, the artists show their humanity through showing themselves. Like in real life, especially in the city of stars.

When Ally answers “me” after Jack asks her who’ll take care of her injury, their character lines are drawn. In the years since the original, it is telling that the tale of a presumably privileged male being crushed while molding the presumably disadvantaged female still captures an audience’s imagination. Gaga grasps the character’s requisite strength through empathy. But Ally’s undeniable empathy starts with herself.

This is emblematic of Gaga’s star persona and best performances. Ally draws upon her own self-care with a father (Andrew Dice Clay) who projects his self-denial; she sees in Jackson Maine what she sees in her father like a mile of bad road ahead. “He’s a drunk,” she observes about Jack early in the picture. The redeemable drunk is central to the story. Ally, too, wants to cash in on the promise of what Jack says he sees in her, so she follows him into the downward spiral.

Featuring Sam Elliott (Grandma) as Jack’s strong-minded older brother, a complicated relationship which is never fully explained, with Anthony Ramos as Ally’s best friend, A Star is Born descends and ascends with a series of pop and rock songs. When Jack and Ally duet on stage that “we’re far from the shallow now”, it underscores that life is made or broken on how one handles hardship.

Cooper inhabits the role, down to the evident pain on his face when he sings his new lover’s lyrics, to the point that his Jackson Maine is the most introverted version of the character. There’s not enough of Jack’s appeal on display, other than flashes of his blue eyes and occasional guitar riffs. His character fades amid mumbling, outbursts and the alcoholic’s constantly oozing skin. He smokes, snorts and gulps his way into oblivion, hiding behind facial hair, rage and music.

Only Ally brings him out. Together, they spontaneously write songs while touring, play with a puppy and get silly, often with looming clues such as Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont in the backdrop. Credit goes to Cooper, Roth and others for the film’s veracity in depicting the scenario that plays out. Toxic behavior, from enabling and codependent action to the tendency toward self-abnegation, let alone the drug use, rings searingly true.

Director Cooper’s first feature film is too long and unrefined; it needs editing. Scenes don’t play out. In fact, they get choppier as the picture goes on. A key plot point never gets developed. Ally’s best friend, amicably played by Ramos, comes and goes without realism.

A Star is Born wraps too quickly and neatly but not without having made that impact. It isn’t the best version, which remains the original, though it isn’t the worst. And while the 1937 picture starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is still the best because it depicts with perfection the quality that makes the drunk irresistible, this movie retains enough of the story’s intimacy, depth and poignancy to stir today’s audiences. The seasoned, discriminating movie fan will want more. But for most, while the gushing praise is mostly unmerited, this new version of the classic tragedy will (have to) do.

Incidentally, the show I attended at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome was unfortunately prefaced by what amounts to an ad for the movie, a creeping and bad trend, which puts the audience in the movie, telling the audience what to think, before the picture begins.

Movie Review: The Old Man and the Gun

The Old Man and the Gun, based on an article in the journalistically dubious New Yorker and written and directed by David Lowery (2016’s Pete’s Dragon), is apparently and unfortunately Robert Redford’s last motion picture as an actor. This is not entirely because it’s not as good as it might have been.

Of course, it’s chiefly because Mr. Redford is an excellent actor. In The Old Man and the Gun, the legendary director, producer and movie star of The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and founder of the Sundance Film Festival), the audience catches glimpses of his ability. In grainy 16mm film, Redford replays many of his screen archetypes. He’s the criminal, the loner, the individualist. As a notorious bank robber, Redford’s first visual cue is a sign which reads: Rebel Junk Co.

Enter underappreciated Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter) as a Texas ranch widow to whom Redford’s felonious geezer takes a liking. Ms. Spacek shines in one of her best and most believable roles, joking to Redford’s cagey smooth-talker when he says that riding a horse is on his bucket list that he’d “better hurry up”. Her reply when he asks her where her husband is? “Dead—that’s where he is.”

If only The Old Man and the Gun had explored her intelligent character (one of Sissy Spacek’s best since her searching role in ‘night, Mother) and their relationship more. Instead, with a sleepy pace and strumming guitar score, the film is unimaginative. A big part of the problem with this movie, which as a Robert Redford and Pete’s Dragon fan I wanted to like, there’s more conflict in the Spacek-Redford union than in the cop-and-criminal interplay between Redford’s geriatric ex-con and Casey Affleck’s policeman.

Affleck, who weirdly looks and acts like he wandered into the early 1980s-set movie from the mid-1990s, behaves like he’s been heavily sedated. His ambivalent cop character comments that no one’s really motivated to catch the thief and his gang (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) “on account of nobody giving a shit”. Because this mildly entertaining movie doesn’t examine its own plot points and themes, why should anyone else?

Redford and gang, backed by old movie clips and channeling every Robert Redford movie from The Chase to The Horse Whisperer, are supposed to represent the presumably victimless, free-wheeling criminal. Setup and desired effect fail, however, because, as depicted, the exploits aren’t much fun. Redford’s codger missed a lifetime of love, which comes across in an Elisabeth Moss cameo. His supposedly charmed bank teller and branch manager victims would surely be traumatized for life, though the film treats the prospect of armed robbery by an old gentleman as a cute gag. (It’s hard to not notice that this premise originates with a publication now chiefly known for making unsubstantiated claims in the name of sympathy for unreported crime victims).

“That was then — this is now”, is the type of cliched line Redford must deliver in service of a script by Lowery which never feels authentic to any real life experience other than a long-form journalist glamorizing someone who steals what other people earn. That he does it for thrills hardly puts joy in the occasion, though because it’s Robert Redford, such a lovable rogue in The Sting and other movies, you want his bank robber to have a little fun.

Watching Robert Redford cap his unusual career in pictures with a role that bundles his roster of scoundrel roles into one, last movie isn’t the good time it might’ve been. Despite David Lowery’s artful scenes, shots and transitions, especially a whistling tea kettle, there isn’t much to rally around in his jovial but spent criminal, whose most interesting background material appears to have been left out of the final cut.

I suspect that what would’ve served The Old Man and the Gun better is a stronger sense of what has always been what I suspect is the source of Redford’s star quality. This quality permeates his subtle performance in The Way We Were, his Gail Wynand-type characterization in Indecent Proposal, his old rancher in An Unfinished Life, even his role in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and certainly in Redford’s motion picture debut, War Hunt. The man gone rogue in crime can be fun, as Redford demonstrated again and again in his most popular bandit movies. But only for so long. The man who goes his own way for himself is the type which Robert Redford captures at his best: the individualist.

His most distinctive movie in this regard remains Sydney Pollack’s 1970s film Jeremiah Johnson. Robert Redford’s final movie evokes few moments from that earlier film. They don’t add up to a reason to recommend The Old Man and the Gun. But you might want to see it anyway to watch a movie star on screen one more time.

Hotel Review: Vdara Las Vegas

Vdara Hotel & Spa is located just off Las Vegas Boulevard. The all-suites, non-smoking, non-gambling resort, owned by MGM Resorts, is perfect for my needs. But I know that I am not the typical visitor to this desert oasis.

Vdara Hotel & Spa

Like LA, Las Vegas attracts every type of wannabe and couldabeen and they’re all over town. Prostitutes in line at the front desk with their clients, a drug addict passed out in the lobby, drunks stumbling around the parking lot, I saw them all on this trip, which was for business.

Attending the Global Security Exchange (GSX) conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center, I was easily able to get around town, thanks to Lyft, the monorail and sponsored shuttle buses. Each time I needed to go, a Lyft driver was already waiting by the hotel entrance.

Vdara, where I’d previously stayed, is tucked away off Frank Sinatra Boulevard behind MGM’s Aria casino and resort. Upon check-in, I asked the friendly front desk clerk, Letitia, for a list of items, which she promptly provided. The room was simple, elegant and easy to find and use. The same goes for everything else in the hotel, including the compact fitness room, spa, pool, bar and dining.

Complimentary bottled water awaited in the refrigerator. I used the kitchenette during my stay, though once standard items, such as coffee makers and dishes, either cost more or are provided only upon request. The bathroom had both a spacious shower and separate tub, good lighting, closet, vanity mirror and pocket door. The television’s remote control was sluggish, so it probably needed batteries. The wifi was strong.

Meals at Vdara mean a patio and bar lounge, small cafe with adjacent pantry for pricey, light groceries (each suite has a kitchenette) and a friendly, if high-priced, Starbucks. I bought groceries at Walgreens on the strip, which is my usual practice, and ate at the convention center. When I ordered to-go meals from the cafe, however, the food was fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. But it took way too long. Every morning I asked for salt and pepper with my eggs, but they were included in the order exactly once. Each time I ended up with a small bottle of Heinz ketchup, which after the first time I asked them to omit. So, go and order to-go for the best Vdara food, but watch the clock and check the to-go bag.

I plan to visit Vdara again. It’s a beautiful, simple hotel. Staff are friendly, though a few stand out. Nathan was very prompt with a request. Letitia made an outstanding first impression. Concierge Hakan, who previously worked the concierge desk at the Cosmopolitan, was the most knowledgeable, accommodating and results-driven and I came away thinking that he should personally train every one at Vdara. There wasn’t a single Vdara detail about business or personal travel that he didn’t know.

As a non-smoking non-gambler seeking to work and enjoy myself while in a still-sometimes seedy town, modern, efficient and quiet Vdara, removed from the strip yet in close proximity, is in a class by itself.