“Almost Famous,” Alan Brackett’s Memoir of Music, Life and Los Angeles in the 1960’s

April 9, 2017 § 1 Comment


Those who’ve seen my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” will remember my interview with the musician Alan Brackett, a longtime Hollywoodland resident who also contributed the song that accompanies the end credits. Brackett has just published an illuminating memoir, Almost Famous: Journey to the Summer of Love, about his early life in Santa Barbara, where he was a child performer, and his subsequent musical career in Los Angeles during the 1960’s.

“I believe I helped kill [folk music] with…over-exposure,” he writes refreshingly. Brackett isn’t kidding: before founding the seminal psychedelic band the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, he was a successful folk musician, most notably in the Hillside Singers, a quartet that toured the country during the height of the folk craze in the early 1960’s, when he was still a teenager.

The other reason for folk’s demise, of course, was the British Invasion, whose seismic influence Brackett grasped as he enlisted in the Marines in 1964, ahead of being drafted. After six months of service he returned to a changed world, musically and socially: the 60’s had begun in earnest. His new band (first called The Young Swingers, then The Ashes) played rock, and after a few more incarnations and personnel changes became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy in 1966. The band signed with Columbia, cut an album and quickly became famous. Brackett, who played bass, was its main songwriter.

PBC had a woman as its lead singer, Barbara “Sandi” Robison, which probably contributed to its rivalry with the Jefferson Airplane, which was led first by Signe Anderson and then Grace Slick. (Beyond that fact, the Airplane’s drummer, Spencer Dryden, had been a member of The Ashes.) In an affecting aside, Brackett talks about manager Bill Graham’s reaction to the PBC’s getting better reviews than the Jefferson Airplane did: he kept the band off any bill that included the Airplane, effectively cutting off the PBC’s chances to play festivals and large venues across the country.

While “Almost Famous” will appeal most to those who remember the Peanut Butter Conspiracy and its heyday, anyone can appreciate the whirlwind atmosphere of the late 1960s music scene. Within a few months of its founding, the PBC not only had a major label recording contract but was billed with every famous band and musician of the day. The Doors, the Association, Iron Butterfly and the Byrds are a few of the bands Brackett knows well, and Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa enliven his anecdotes. His memories are all the more affecting because many of these musicians are gone, along with the Los Angeles they inhabited so brightly.

“Almost Famous” has some drawbacks: it’s heavy on childhood reminiscences and light on Brackett’s later life, including a stint in music publishing and a longer career as a Hollywood prop master. It also could have benefitted from a cleanup of the spelling, punctuation and grammar. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable account of an important time in American culture, and well worth reading.

https://www.amazon.com/Almost-Famous-Journey-Summer-Love/dp/1541382528/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491779334&sr=1-1&keywords=alan+brackett+%22almost+famous%22

The Hollyweed Sign and Its Predecessor

January 3, 2017 § 1 Comment

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

The Hollywood Sign on January 1, 2017/Courtesy LA Times

Because I was out of town on New Year’s Day, I missed seeing the Hollywood Sign transformed to read “Hollyweed.” Nevertheless, I heard about it from neighbors as soon as I woke up, and shortly afterwards from every imaginable news outlet . While I was surprised that the prankster got away with it, the prank itself wasn’t new, as I knew from making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign.”* On New Year’s Day, 1976, less than two years before the completion of the current Sign, a prankster named Daniel Finegood did exactly the same thing to the orignal Hollywood Sign. Here’s a photo:

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

At the time of the first prank, the Sign was a crumbling, unguarded relic that anyone willing to climb to could access. Today, the rebuilt Sign is fenced, alarmed and off-limits to visitors without official permits. (Disclosure: I have filmed there twice, both times with permission.) Because the Sign stands below a militarized emergency communications center, trespassers are subject to arrest–or so the City claims. That whoever who transformed the Sign was able to escape notice, let alone arrest, is proof that the Sign’s alarm system failed or went unheeded. One wonders whether terrorists have taken note.

The Hollyweed incident capped off a particularly frenetic holiday week, when thousands of tourists walking in the street (itself a crime) on the sidewalk-less part of Beachwood Drive endangered themselves and trapped residents in and out of their homes. Beyond the gridlock, there’s everything that comes with uncontrolled crowds: trash, public urination, defecation and sex, trespassing, illegal parking, drinking and drug use. The Hollyweed prank was the last straw–and also the event that exposed the lies and double-dealing of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman David Ryu, who have long promised to enforce the law in Hollywoodland. They haven’t and they don’t, and now it’s indisputable.

*”Under the Hollywood Sign” is available on DVD and as a digital download from http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com

Just Don’t Do It: Penalties Kick In For Hollywood Sign Trespassers

July 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

People who climb to the Hollywood Sign are fully aware they are trespassing: there are Do Not Enter Signs on the way up, as well as a gate. The Sign itself is equipped with sensors and loudspeakers, and police helicopters are deployed at the first sign of a breach. Even those who are at the Sign legally (as I have been on two occasions while filming) will be warned off before their time is up.

However much of a tourist attraction it is, the Hollywood Sign is also a high-security area, and has been for decades. After the September 11th attacks it was designated (along with City Hall, LAX and the Pacific Design Center) a high-risk target for terrorism. Yet in the years since, the consequences for trespassers have been all but nonexistent: climbers to the Sign usually haven’t been arrested, let alone fined, despite the fact that criminal penalties have long been in place.

Probably because former Councilmember Tom LaBonge, a notorious cheerleader for unruly Hollywood Sign tourism, is no longer around to influence law enforcement, things seem to be changing. After a particularly egregious trespasser climbed one of the letters of the Sign in May, he was arrested, jailed overnight and charged with trespass. At the end of June, he pled guilty and was sentenced to the maximum penalties under current law:

One year’s probation
Twenty days of Caltrans labor
$1,000.00 fine, with penalties of up to five times that amount
Restitution to the LAPD and Rec and Parks
A Stay-Away-from-the-Sign Order

The fact that the trespasser was a professional prankster with a large YouTube following might have influenced the judge’s decision in this case. However, Sarah Dusseault, Chief of Staff for Councilmember David Ryu, confirms that Ryu’s office is working with the City Attorney on stiffer penalties for future scofflaws.

Remembering Beachwood Canyon’s Spectacular Production of “Julius Caesar,” One Hundred Years Later

May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Photos of the "Julius Caesar" Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

Photos of the “Julius Caesar” Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

May 19th, 2016 marked the centennial of what is surely the biggest production of “Julius Caesar” in history. It was performed just once by a cast of five thousand for an audience of up to forty thousand. (Because of ticket scalping, no one knows for sure how many people saw it.) The location was the natural amphitheater where Beachwood Village and Hollywoodland now stand.

The production was both a celebration of Shakespeare’s birth and a benefit for the Actors’ Fund, and starred such luminaries as Tyrone Power, Sr., Douglas Fairbanks, William Farnum and the young Mae Murray. A fuller account can be found in these posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/when-shakespeare-came-to-beachwood-canyon-julius-caesar-1916/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/julius-caesar-at-the-hollywood-bowl-stills-from-the-1922-production/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/death-at-the-1916-julius-caesar-a-news-account/

Last night’s commemoration in Beachwood Village featured the local historian Greg Williams and the actor Stephen Fry, who read the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Act III.

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Because a fully built neighborhood now stands where the sets and stands were located, it’s a challenge to visualize the 1916 production, which featured chariot races, gladiator fights and dancing girls, as well as hundreds of extras recruited from Hollywood High School and Fairfax High School. But “Julius Caesar” was performed here to critical success, and the fact that it drew such a crowd should dispel the notion of early 20th century Los Angeles as a cultural backwater.

Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign

December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_1642

The photo above shows California holly (toyon) in bloom in the Hollywood Hills. Some believe this plant inspired the name Hollywood, although it was more likely a random choice by Daeida Wilcox, who met a woman on the cross-country train with a vacation house of that name. You can read more about California holly here: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/the-hills-are-alive-with-california-holly/

This is the seventh Christmas for Under the Hollywood Sign. As regular readers know, I began the blog to promote my documentary of the same name. That film, as well as my others, is now on sale at half price (that’s $12.50 for features; $6 for the short) on my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com The sale continues through the end of the month; please check it out.

My New Website, and A Holiday Sale on DVDs

December 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_4113Today I’m launching a new website to showcase my films, books and future projects. In celebration, I’m selling all my DVDs at half price for the rest of the year. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please support the work that inspired it at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com

Many thanks to Heath Woodward http://www.wdcreation.co.uk/ for building my website.

On Being Interviewed (Again) About the Hollywood Sign

October 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

Lately my workdays have consisted of moving from writing project to writing project in monastic solitude. Although this suits me fine, others might compare it to self-imposed house arrest, despite my occasional escapes to the gym and grocery store. Yesterday would have been more of the usual, except that I spent the morning in front of the camera for an interview with two Miami-based French journalists for the TF1 program “50 Minutes Inside.”

Regular readers might recall my previous French TV interview, which took place at the Hollywood Sign in 2012. Not only was I overcome with vertigo but the rough terrain did something to my ankle that has never resolved itself. Even during the interview I realized it was the last time I would rappel down Mt. Lee to the letter H, and I was only slightly sorry about it. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/going-back-to-the-hollywood-sign-this-time-as-an-interviewee/

Fortunately, this time the director was amenable to interviewing me at home, so after making myself presentable (sympathies to everyone who has to have camera-ready hair, makeup and clothes daily), I spent some time pretending to work at my computer before answering a lot of questions about the Hollywood Sign, its origins and its meaning.

As some have noticed, I’ve avoided writing about Hollywood Sign-related tourism issues for the past couple of years, but not because of email from readers hellbent on lighting the Sign at night. What did it was the howls of neighbors who disagreed with what I wrote, accusing me of trying to “speak for” them. (Note to those neighbors: write your own blog.) Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed because I wanted to show that the Hollywood Sign’s present status is a very recent, GPS-fueled phenomenon, and that whatever symbolism it possesses today appeared not only decades after its origins in 1923 but well after its reconstruction in 1978. I also wanted to explain the Sign’s beginnings as a billboard for Hollywoodland real estate, as well as its kinship to other municipal signs that, for lack of a mountain or evocative name, decorate water towers and hillsides across America, attracting no one.

No doubt all of this proved disappointing to Adrien Rappoport, my interviewer. “What do you feel when you see those letters?” he kept asking, as if I still might be capable of an epiphany about the Sign. Unfortunately, any charm I felt toward it when I moved here in 2005 faded long ago. Now that the Hollywood Sign is inextricably tied to noise, trash, bumper-to-bumper traffic and a complete lack of street parking on weekends, what I usually feel is annoyance. That emotion has its limits, so I moved on to the feelings of people who happily come here each day to pose for pictures. “I’m a star,” their expressions say, which explains the Hollywood Sign’s appeal: instead of making people feel small, it makes them feel big. Ultimately, the letters on Mt. Lee are a blank screen on which countless individual dreams are projected. As for the Sign’s meaning, it’s whatever people want it to be.

—————
My interview on “Cinquante Minutes Inside” will be broadcast in France in February. Information about online availability to come.

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