Remember the episode of Seinfeld when Jerry and George go to Los Angeles because Jerry is a guest on The Tonight Show? In that episode they make a call to the police from a pay phone on Ventura Boulevard to clear Kramer’s name from being suspected as the Smog Strangler. At the end of the show they all sit in Griffith Park with the Hollywood sign behind them after Kramer gets off from the accusations. Or what about the fact that Jerry’s apartment building is actually in Koreatown in Los Angeles, nearly 3,000 miles away from where the show takes place?
For a show set in New York, they take you on a virtual field trip and show various snippets of Los Angeles that may not mean much to outsiders, but for those who live here, it’s just enough familiarity to make you feel at home. You can’t help but feel a bit of excitement to recognize familiar places on t.v., especially if you have a personal connection to the place. It’s a similar sense of excitement visiting a place for the first time that you’ve previously only seen on t.v. I have to admit that while visiting Atlanta, GA in 2014, I was a little too excited to explore the various filming locations of The Walking Dead.
I was recently chatting with a friend while standing on Hill Street in downtown LA and staring at the 500 Days of Summer bench perched on a hill next to Angels Flight while he was explaining to me that a scene from Set it Off was filmed in nearly the same spot. This wasn’t the main topic of our conversation, but a young man standing a few feet away overheard the comment, and immediately jumped in with “No way. Are you serious? Set it Off is one the greatest movies. That just made my day!” I was a little intrigued with how such a simple comment he overheard about one scene of a movie made his whole day. I began to think more about this reaction and then back to times when I’ve had a similar reaction, and what it means in the sense of culture and community identity. By coincidence, a few days later I discovered the iconic Melrose Place house that I just so happen to pass by almost every day. This got me thinking further. Why is it that when we learn these little bits of television or film knowledge we feel like we just found a pot of gold of entertainment trivia?
Growing up and living in Los Angeles, the city’s diverse neighborhoods and landmarks are as commonplace to filming backdrops as palm trees are to the city. But there’s always something in the moment we recognize a specific place on film that takes us away from the ordinary. And similarly, when we’re standing in a place we only knew from a television or film screen, we feel like we’ve made it to end of a long journey that we didn’t know we were on to find that iconic place where something fictional, but perhaps so memorable, happened. We revel in the feeling of being in the very same places we’ve come to know from behind a screen, perhaps hoping that it earns us some sort of connection to the culture of that place; to say “I’ve been there.”
The knowledge becomes something that we share with others so they too can marvel in our new found connection to whatever production took place there. At first thought, this makes sense for already well-known places. But why is it that even something so simple as a bench, a random street corner, or a pay phone on Ventura Boulevard, makes us gleam with excitement? One of the underlying reasons for this simple joy is television and film bring our everyday common places to life. I think of it as a Huell Howser affect. Huell’s public television show, California’s Gold explored the richness of California’s natural landscapes, intricate history, and culture based on the idea that there’s a story behind every place and that story deserves to be shared. Seeing a known place on screen or seeing a place in person from a memory of a film brings feelings of familiarity, comfort, and often nostalgia. In a way, this helps to preserve the history of place and share it with the world.
Huell Howser didn’t create the hisory of special places, but he helped bring it to life. We tend to feel some sort of pride particularly when our hometown is the featured location in all its glory and distinctive character, including the random mom and pop store down the street, the busy intersection or the run-down strip mall. When we see them on the screen, it gives us a feeling that our small places might actually matter in someone else’s world and on a larger scale.
These places are a part of collective pop culture and entertainment history, but they’re also part of the local, social, urban, and community history as much as a personal history. They show the distinct architectural styles that are ingrained in our minds as the settings to our everyday lives. They show the character of our neighborhoods that is almost synonymous with the people who live there who make those places unique. They show the streets that we drive on and walk down, the restaurants and bars we frequent, the parks that we play in, the cafes where we learned of tragic news, the public spaces that remind us of times when our hearts were broken, the places we gather with loved ones, and where our dreams are eventually realized or our paths are steered in different directions. They show us our beginnings, our middles and sometimes our ends; personal experiences encompassed with growth, happiness, and even loss.
In a city as large as Los Angeles, it’s easy to feel disconnected from even your next-door neighbor. But if there was ever a way to remind people that their place, however large or small, still has merit, a film screen can help fill that void. Why do we know about places like Elizabethtown, Kentucky with a population of nearly 30,000 or Fargo, North Dakota with approximately 240,000 residents in its metro area? Because movies put them on the map. When we see familiar places on screen we know that mass audiences will come to know the same places we know and love and that ultimately makes us feel good and validated for our sense of hometown pride. This is what made someone like Huell Howser and his show so great and so needed. The show brought the history, culture and lives of California’s residents to your living room. Showing how vast and how different California is, it helped foster understanding and appreciation for our differences, as well as a realization of our common values around the ideas of family, community and our hopes and dreams for the future.
The next time you get excited about a place you recognize from a Hollywood film set, think about why you’re so quick to document and share your experience. Is it the fascination with celebrity and movie culture? Or is there something else you identify with on a basic level of connection to place and memory? I would love to learn more about the history and culture of spaces, what they mean for individuals and how they’ve shaped the collective memories and histories of communities. I invite you to share with me via comments or photos. What are some other unique locations that we would recognize from t.v. or films that have significance in your life?