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The Real Los Angeles

Lisa Eisner

Photo: Lisa Eisner

If Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria had decided to open a cafeteria and pattern it after a hunting lodge, Clifton’s would be it. Columns disguised as redwoods appear to poke through the dining room ceiling. A 20-foot waterfall washes through its center. Long before feng shui made it to the States, founder Clifford Clinton knew that the sound of water was soothing. “My grandfather’s parents were missionaries in China,” said Clifford’s grandson, restaurant manager Robert Clinton. As a little boy, Clifford saw hunger, poverty, and hopelessness. When he had a chance to alleviate them, he jumped at it. “He wanted a place where people could leave all that outside and eat good, wholesome, low-priced food,” Clinton said. Even at Broadway’s lowest point, Clifton’s never closed its doors. “We are a landmark.We don’t need a plaque on the door to say so.”

Neither does another living landmark, Bob Baker, who carves marionettes and trains apprentices to animate them a mile and a half northwest, in Filipinotown. Baker gave his first puppet show at age eight, in 1933, and has been mounting them ever since. With its houselights on, the theater is nothing: squirming kids and cheesy, dusty Christmas decorations. With the lights down, it’s unforgettable—part Ice Capades, part Muppets, part Chinese opera, part Bolshoi Ballet. And you see the puppeteers, a rainbow of ethnicities, walking among the audience, hands flying, convincing you that the marionettes are alive and the humans are struggling to keep up with them. Even before the theater was founded in 1963, Baker, who worked in movies, was a hit with Hollywood families. “Poor little Liza Minnelli,” he recalled. “She was always getting left behind. She used to put her arms around me and say, ‘I love you, puppet man.’” Some kids who celebrated their sixth birthdays in the theater are coming back to celebrate their fortieth.

Placido Domingo gets it that authenticity is not about snubbing community; it’s why he’s tapped Hollywood heavies Garry Marshall, William Friedkin, and Woody Allen to direct. It’s why the L.A. Opera performs free for kids, and why it has commissioned a work on Rafael Mendez, who as a boy played trumpet in Pancho Villa’s army and as a man performed with the MGM Orchestra. “How are we going to get people to love our religion,” Domingo once asked a staff member, “if we don’t invite them into the church?”

When Welton Becket designed the original 1964 Music Center complex, anchored on the south by the Chandler Pavilion, he made a controversial decision—to raise its plaza above street level. Becket’s L.A. was not pedestrian-friendly, so the placement of the plaza did not then seem outrageous. But L.A. is rethinking its symbiosis with the car: when gas prices spiked last summer, so did ridership on the L.A. Metro—which includes the Red Line, an eight-year-old, 17-mile-long, earthquake-resistant subway that makes it possible to travel from Downtown to the San Fernando Valley at rush hour without hitting traffic. It may also be time to rethink Becket’s symbolic placement of high art above the culture of the street.

The 110 Project, newly commissioned by the L.A. Opera, may well erase that symbolic separation. It is a paean to the city’s first freeway, the redoubtable I-110, which turns 70 in 2009. Emmy Award–winning Angeleno composer Laura Karpman will write the score. Its libretto will incorporate themes from “story circles”—public interviews held in the racially diverse neighborhoods that the freeway traverses. And it will run 110 minutes—the time it takes in heavy traffic to get from San Pedro (at one end of the city) to Pasadena (at the other).

“It’s about moving not only from one place to another, but through time,” says Stacy Brightman, the opera’s director of community programs. It’s about the wind in your hair and the right turn on red. “Seventy years—a lifetime. How has Los Angeles changed in a lifetime?”

And will it take a freeway or a subway into the future?

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