Sunday, July 23, 2017

Living in LaLa Land

Mara here. Los Angeles. People usually have strong feelings about it—they love it or they hate it. (My brother falls under the hate it category.)

Even though I often call it LaLa Land, living here isn’t anything like you see in the movies. People don’t suddenly burst into song and dance—unless they're on Hollywood Boulevard and on drugs!

People who tell me they hate LA usually complain about it being big and crowded. And it definitely is those things. But for the most part, I don’t notice the size because we have our little neighborhood where we do our grocery shopping and go to movies. My daughter, Malia (when she wasn’t being home-schooled), went to our local elementary school and middle school. I run into friends at our closest Trader Joe"s. In many ways, it feels like a small town.

I can’t argue with people complaining about the crowds, because it is crowded. And there is a lot of traffic. But the traffic has never really bothered me. I’m used to it. There’s sort of a system to the madness…and I just anticipate that I’ll always arrive places early or late. (Usually early because being late makes me crazy.)

But there are things that make Los Angeles very distinct from other cities, even other big cities.

Driving. Life in Los Angeles is very focused around our cars, the traffic on the freeways, and whether or not we can find a place to park. People like to joke that Los Angelinos will get in their cars to drive a block down the road—and that’s mostly true. We love our cars. And the amount of time we calculate to get anywhere is a hundred percent dependent on what day of the week it is, what time of day it is, and in what direction we're driving.

Celebrity. Most people here know someone who is famous—an actor, a musician, a writer…you name it. And I don’t mean famous like your local newspaper reporter might be famous. I mean world famous. Magazine cover famous. And you run into celebrities everywhere: at restaurants, the farmer's markets, grocery stores, yoga studios...gas stations. I used to regularly see Drew Barrymore at our local hardware store and CVS. And my dog and Steve Martin's dog would often sniff each other hiking through Fryman Canyon.

This culture of celebrity is part of growing up here. The pressure to be “famous” on social media or to become successful as a child is unique here. For many kids, it’s simply a side product of having a famous friend or a famous parent. My daughter has many friends whose social media accounts are sponsored: either they receive compensation for posting things or they receive free products to post about them. For us, that’s normal. I suspect that’s not normal most other places.

Working kids. Los Angeles is one of the only places where there are a lot of kids working as actors. Every year, parents pour into the city with their children for "pilot season." They uproot themselves from their hometowns to spend six weeks in Los Angeles, hoping their kids will book acting jobs. If they do, they're pulled out of school (most child actors have to be home-schooled), uprooted from their friends and family, and sometimes, if they're successful, wind up financially supporting their parents (or they at least they support themselves and whichever parent is living in Los Angeles with them).

It’s a strange world. And while there are a lot of benefits to having the experience and opportunity of getting to work as a child actor, there are a lot pitfalls. When people hear that Malia is an actress, they sometimes get a concerned look and ask me if I’m worried she’ll end up like Drew Barrymore or Lindsay Lohan. And the answer is "no" because there’s nothing inherent about being an actor that leads to kids be out of control. Being successful doess make it harder to control kids—but it's the same with adults. And having a child who financially supports a family puts that child in the role of being the “adult,” which means that the parents no longer have the authority to set rules and limits.  

The biggest pitfall for actors is that there are a lot of people whose job it is to make sure a production (which costs millions of dollars) runs smoothly. A smooth production often means trying to make sure the actors are happy—regardless of whether or not it’s right or even good for the actor. Things get messy when that mentality becomes part of the parent-child relationship. If it becomes more important to you that your kid gets up and works than it is to make sure your kid feels comforted and supported, there will be problems. Or you if you get sucked into the celebrity lifestyle and it becomes more important to you than being a parent, there will be problems too. Kids need parents; kids need limits; kids need rules—even kids who are actors.

The bottom line is that acting is an adult world. There is a lot of money at stake with the production of a film or television show. It’s a business. So kids who are actors get treated like little adults, and they are expected to act like little adults. That’s why the job of parenting kid actors becomes so important. Parents of kids who have power and responsibility have to make sure those kids still are kids in as many ways as possible—even in some of the yucky ways, such as doing chores, getting a limited allowance, and sometimes being grounded.

Wealth. Everyone knows that the big movie stars are rich. And that’s true. Headlining actors make a lot of money. But what most people don’t realize is that a lot of people other than actors make ridiculous amounts of money in the entertainment industry. Writers, producers, directors, production crew, agents, managers, studio executives—lists and lists of industry people—can all make even more money than actors do. So there are a lot of people in this city with crazy amounts of money.

This makes living in Los Angeles a little wacky. One of Malia’s friends lived next door to Justin Bieber. You had to pass through two security checkpoints just to get to her house. (And those checkpoints were just for the housing community itself—not because of Justin Bieber.)

It’s hard to keep a healthy perspective when you have friends who arrive at the dance studio in a rented limousine because their mothers couldn’t drive them that day, or when a friend rents out the Rose Bowl for a Bar Mitzvah. 

Of course, it’s not always that extreme. We have many friends who aren’t outrageously wealthy, but they're still extremely well-off. Most of our friends eat out at nice restaurants several times a week, drive luxury cars, have multiple kids in expensive private schools, and regularly vacation abroad. 

We don’t live this lifestyle. But it’s considered “normal” in our circle of friends. And the crazy thing is that in most places, we would be considered very well off. But in Los Angeles, we are "fine" but not "well off" because, although we can afford nice cars, we can't afford luxury cars. We do go out to eat sometimes, but we do have to live within a budget, and we wouldn't be able to afford to send Malia to an expensive private school. For most of our friends, though, those things are just expected—they're normal. Many of Malia's friends have access to their parents credit cards with no real limits restricting what they can spend. For Malia that seems "normal." But I think normal in Los Angeles is a different normal from other places.

Success. So, we live in a city where there are kids who are movie stars and may even be headlining a television series’ by the age of ten. Let’s just say the bar for success is Los Angeles is high. I’m not saying that's a negative thing, but it makes it hard to have a realistic sense of accomplishment when you are surrounded by people who have achieved extraordinary amounts of success.

On the one hand, I think it’s positive because it makes everything seem achievable. It feels possible to be a writer who can sell scripts when you know a dozen people who have already done it. Something like being an actor or a makeup artist or a cartoonist all seem within the realm of possibility because we all know people who are doing it—and making a lot of money doing it! On the other hand, if you're not successful at your dream job,sasss feelings of failure can be magnified. 

It can be hard to feel as if being a Girl Scout and getting good grades means you're a success when the kid who sits next to you just got back from three months of filming a movie in Africa. Or if you are an adult who is not able to make a living doing your dream job, it’s hard to understand that you’re not a failure, when so many of your friends manage to make their dreams come true. 

For me personally, the benefits of living in Los Angeles have outweighs the negatives. I love the city and it will always feel like home. My family and I, we have had experiences here that we never would have had if we had settled somewhere else. It may not be for everyone, but I wouldn’t have wanted to raise Malia anywhere else.

My mother grew up in Los Angeles. Although she left the area after college, she still has a sentimental attachment to the city. And like most people from Los Angeles, she had her brush with celebrity.

You grew up in Los Angeles. Did you have any sense of how different your growing up experience was compared to kids in other cities?

Usually not. That said, I knew that I might see a movie star or someone famous at any moment. Back then they drove their own cars; they weren't in limousines with dark tinted glass. We lived in West LA, but my dad's store was on Hollywood Boulevard. When I went to work with him, we'd drive down Sunset Boulevard—right through some of the the most expensive houses in LA—and it was very common to see a famous movie star or singer driving alongside of us. [Mara note: It's still common to see that. When I used to drive through Laurel Canyon a lot, I'd always see Jay Leno.]

But other than that, LA didn't feel different from other cities to me, for the same reasons you mentioned in your article. Like you, we lived in our own little neighborhood. I grew up in Westwood, near UCLA. Westwood Village was my territory. 

It doesn't feel like a small town today, but it did then. [Mara note: Westwood Village is still there.] We did all our grocery shopping in the Village, went to the movies, and even my doctor's office located there. In many ways, Westwood Village back then felt like my relatively small town of Davis does now.

Of course, Westwood has completely changed now. There are lots of high rise buildings and chain retail stores. But when I was growing up, it was like a town within a bigger city—very much like what you were saying about where you live.

Was your family connected to the entertainment industry in any way?

My mom worked for one of the big movie studios before I was born. One of my most vivid memories from childhood is of a family we were very close to who were in the industry. They were driven out of LA during the McCarthy era Communism blacklist/witch hunts. 

They had four sons, and I was very good friends with one of them, Victor, so when they had to leave it, was a big loss for me too. Victor's dad was a very successful screenwriter in Hollywood, but he wound up living out his life in a small town in British Columbia, Canada as a public school teacher. I stayed with them for a month in the summer three times when I was a teenager. It was a beautiful setting, but the dad was never really happy again. For the rest of his life, he suffered from serious depression. Even though the town welcomed them with open arms, he never got over being forced to give up his profession. It was very sad.

So that was one of our connections to the industry. Another was that our closest family friends, the Kaplans, were connected to the industry because Lee, the father, was an entertainment lawyer.

Tell people the story of being able to visit the set of the movie South Pacific in Hawaii.

As I said, my parents' best friends were the Kaplans and Lee Kaplan was a successful entertainment lawyer. He had a lot of famous clients including Yul Brynner, Burt Lancaster, and Gregory Peck to name a few. Another of his clients was Oscar Hammerstein, half the musical writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. They wrote so many great musicals: Oklahoma, Carousel, The King & I and, of course, South Pacific. I had seen all of them performed in the theater with each show's Broadway stars because my mom had tickets for us to go to the Civic Light Opera. In fact, going to those shows was the only time I went to downtown LA. It was a long drive for us to get there, and it always felt like a separate city to me.

So when they decided to make a movie of South Pacific, the Kaplans were invited to stay at the same hotel as the cast and crew. They took me, my brother, and my mom along with them to Kauai. (My father had passed away by then and I was like a daughter to the Kaplans because they had two sons, but no daughters.) The hotel was called the Coco Palms. I mention it because it was the most beautiful place I've ever stayed. It wasn't a typical hotel. It was a set of bungalows along a lush and windy lagoon. To get from your bungalow to the lobby or restaurant, you could get in a canoe and paddle your way along if you didn't want to walk. Unfortunately, it was completely destroyed in the big tsunami that hit Kauai in 1992 and, as far as I know, it was never rebuilt.

The best part for me was that, although I was only about 12, I was given free access to all the rehearsals. I remember how, after breakfast, they'd clear the dining room so they'd have space to rehearse some of the big song and dance numbers, like "Bloody Mary." I'd just sit and watch them rehearse.

My absolute favorite memory, though, was going to one of the bungalows several times and watching Juanita Hall, as Bloody Mary, and a young actress France Nuyen (who later was in The Joy Luck Club), as Liat, rehearse the song "Happy Talk." I would sit there for hours and watch. Any reader who is familiar with the song knows that it involves a lot of miming and choreography, especially with the hands. I learned it all and, for years afterward, I'd listen to the song or sing it to myself and do the hand movements.

So that was my favorite memory, but I also remember spending a lot of time around the swimming pool with the cast members, some of whom were quite famous, like Mitzi Gaynor was cast in the starring role of Nellie Forbush. She was so friendly to everyone. Not all of the actors were friendly, but she was. I also developed a huge crush on Rossano Brazzi who was cast as the male lead. For years after we came back from the trip, I followed all of their careers.

So, although I don't think about it often, that experience is still one of the highlights of my life. It's been fun to remember.

Behind the scenes monitor shot of Malia with actor Christopher Lloyd on the set of Granite Flats

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