Saturday, January 14, 2006

Southern California, Lakers, Leno and Pimp my Ride

Each year my son and I try to take a long weekend trip to visit my brother who lives in southern California. We always coordinate it with the west coast swing of the Pacers schedule, and catch the game at Staples Center against the Lakers. We have been at every Pacers/Lakers game (except one) since the Staples Center was built, including all 2000 NBA finals. During the 2000 NBA finals, the Pacers matched up with the world champion Lakers and the series went six games, losing the finals in LA. We were there, it was an extraordinary experience and the first and only time the Pacers have been to the NBA finals.

This year we left on Friday, January 6th and arrive in LAX late Friday evening. Arriving at my brothers we called it a night (it was 2:00 am Indy time). We awoke to a beautiful sunny southern California day, and as always, began with a trip to the local Starbucks. Next on the agenda was lunch at my all time favorite hamburger joint adjacent to the UC Irvine campus, In-N-Out, which is a southern California institution.

This particular In-N-Out is the company's flagship store, and their corporate headquarters is on the 9th & 10th floors of the office building in the middle of the marketplace. On the ground floor of their HQ building is a boutique children's bookstore, A Whale of a Tale who's owner, Alex Uhi is known for her ability to reach out to children with a view to "make them readers for life", as well as staging events highlighting the importance of reading. Because of this commitment to young readers, she lures blockbuster authors such as J.K. Rowling to the store, who held a book signing for her Harry Potter books at "The Whale". I'm sure J.K. must have "eaten a double-double" at In-N-Out while here.

We spent the afternoon visiting high-end car dealers on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) in Newport Beach. These included Porsche, Bentley, Rolls, Ferrari, Maybach, Mercedes, BMV and Maserati. This was really a joy for me to experience with my son. As a car buff myself when I was his age, it was not only fun to look at these beautiful machines, but fun to see how much these cars have changed since I was his age. My favorite? the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Concept work on this beautiful luxury car began secretly during 1999 in a former bank building located near London's Hyde Park. Once I discovered the history of the concept, the process and the product, the story and the car resonated in a very nice way since I spent time in this area on three seperate trips to London during the 1970's.

According to Auto Week, the Phantom first appeared on the market in May of 2003 and has a base price of $332,000. There are 28 Rolls dealers in the US and 70 dealers world wide. This source estimates 445 of the Phantoms were sold in 2005. I know of one just a mile from my house; Jermaine O'Neal, our star player with the Indiana Pacers drives his silver Phantom around on a regular basis, seeing him at the neighborhood CVS Pharmacy, Sony Theater and the local Ritters Frozen Custard on hot summer nights.

After our luxury and sports car outing, in which we found all the dealers and sales staff very nice and accomodating, we drove to Huntington Beach to check out the surfing capital of the US. My son had been here when he was younger but did not remember the area. In fact, we went to the Surfing America USA Championships held each year in Huntington Beach about six years ago when we took a family driving trip down the west coast that started in Portland and finished in Irvine.

On Saturday, this visit to "Surf City USA" allowed time to visit several very cool shops, a stop at the International Surfing Museum, a nice walk out to the edge of the pier where a Ruby's Diner (not to the confused with the one on Newport Beach) seen in many national photo's, has now been built, and we visited the Surfing Hall of Fame, which is at the corner of Main and Pacific Coast Highway and is a similar set-up as stars on the sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard.

My son found several local independant clothing stores he really enjoyed and clearly the selection is much different and more progressive than here in the midwest. We also visited two of the local surf shops. It was fun and I really enjoyed watching him select clothes, shoes, hats and assessories to try on. This is the way a teenager's life is suppose to be; and to feel in some way you are part of it is something to savor, every single second.

As we finished our Saturday escursion it was now dark in Huntington Beach and tempatures in the low 60's; we were in shorts and most of the locals were bundled up. It was nice to spend a January evening looking at surf boards for sale, viewing the ocean and enjoying the warm winter beach weather. Next stop was dinner in Laguna Beach at Las Brisis, a favorite resturant on the ocean and one we have enjoyed for years and years. After a great mexican dinner and some of the best margarita's on the west coast we called it a successful first day.

Sunday began with our traditional trip to Greeter's Corner resturant for breakfast in Laguna Beach which is located at 329 South Coast Highway. This is just a great place with a wonderful view of the public beach and ocean. We always sit on the deck and this morning the sun was shining, patio heaters lit and the coffee hot.

I first remember visiting this place while driving through Laguna in 1973 on vacation. "The Greeter" was actually Eiler Larsen, a native of Denmark who for over 40 years gave a friendly wave and warm smile to all who passed through Laguna Beach. Eiler would stand at the corner on the southside of the PCH where it takes a slight jog in front on the resturant; he would wave to those passing through much of the day. With a long beard and shabby clothes, the first time I saw him I thought he must be a vagrant. Little did I know over 30 years later I would eat regularly in a resturant that bears the name of his daily activity, and a lifesize wooden statue rests in front of the resturant on the same spot that is carved in the likeness of Eiler waving, or should I say "greeting". The city fathers procalimed him the Official Laguna Greeter in 1963 and even put his footprints in the sidewalk.

Laguna is perhaps my favorite town in the world and the origin of the name is from the Ute-Aztecas who roamed this area and inhabited the canyon formations directly east of Main Street. They named the area Lagonas, their word for lakes, after two fresh water lagoons that decorated the canyon. The Spaniards arrived changing the name to Canada de las Lagunas (Canyon of the Lakes), and in 1904, the name of the area was officially chaned from Lagonas to Laguna Beach.

A long time celebrity town and home to the silver screen, Laguna has been home to Bette Davis, Mary Pickford, Mary Miles Minter, Victor Mature, Judy Garland, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Rooney. These early Hollywood stars also founded the Laguna Playhouse in 1920.

Other dignataries such as Franklin Roosevelt frequented the area and John Steinbeck wrote Tortilla Flats while living at 504 Park Avenue. Today, billionaire and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett maintains his only home outside of Omaha in Laguna Beach.

After breakfast we traveled to Los Angeles for the LA Auto Show. This annual extraganza is held at the Los Angeles Convention Center which adjoins to Staples Center. I simply could not believe the size of this show coupled with endless displays of exotic cars I have never before; one such car was the 1001 horsepower Bugatti supercar. My son enjoyed the show immensely; Dad did as well. Upon leaving the show we ran into Eric Estrada who was in the crowd like the rest of us checking out cars with a friend. He actually posed with me while my son took a picture of us using his cell phone. What the heck, when you are in LA and see a washed out former TV star, why not go for the photo op!

We headed back to Irvine and rested after spending nearly six hours on our feet on concrete floors. Let me say, I have been to the auto show in Indianapolis, and at the McCormick Center in Chicago and have seen nothing like the LA Auto Show. Quite honestly it is overwhelming; but worth going to if you are ever there during the show. It is an opportunity to see all the cars produced in world in one place. A rare venue indeed.

Monday is the big day. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno at 4:30 pm, and then over to the Lakers/Pacers game at Staples Center at 7:30. We are lucky this year, my son is 16 so he meets the age limit to be in the studio audience for the live taping of Jay Leno. This is something very cool to do. My wife and I were in the audience when Johnny Carson hosted probably 20 years ago, and my brother and I attended Jay Leno a couple of years ago. It is a really great experience. I wrote in November for tickets and they were mailed prior to leaving for California so I had this locked in.

Leaving Irvine around noon, we wanted to get to NBC Studios at 3000 W. Alameda Ave. in Burbank by 2:00 or so. NBC requires the studio audience to be in line by 3:30 pm, first come, first serve as far as place in line and seating once you get admitted at 3:30. So the strategy is to get there early. The studio seating holds just over 300 so it is a very intimate setting. There were five people in front of us so I knew from past experience we were in great shape. Many of course were those who stayed over from the Rose Bowl on Wednesday the 4th in Pasadena (Texas 41 Southern Cal 38).

The way the show works is an usher admits groups of about 15 at a time inside to a staging area where you wait again as they escourt smaller groups of 5 or so into the actual studio and seat you. The studio is very intimate and due to all of the lights over the set, the temperature is set extremely low; it is very, very cold. It warms up a bit after the lights come on and the show begins taping live. We had seats in the 5th row to the far left of the set; this is the area where the musical guests perform at the end. The first 4 rows across the entire front of the studio are reserved for friends and family of guests on the show and people that have a connection with NBC employees. For example, the musican who performed the day we were on had about 10 people setting in front of us as his guests.

Jay comes out both times I have been there about 15 minutes minutes prior to the show beginning and jokes around, tells everyone what to expect and then heads back to change into his suit. Both times I have been on the show he comes out in jeans and a jean shirt. He is extremely cordial, makes you feel really part of the show and the entire affair is an extraordinary experience.

The guests were broadway favorties Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, who perform in The Producers, which has become the biggest ticket seller in Musical History.

After the show's taping ended, we headed to Staples Center to watch the Pacers and Lakers play at 7:30. We had great seats, saw a very good game, but did not see the Pacers grab the "W". I have been to every single game, except one, when the Pacers have played the Lakers in the Staples center and have not seen them win yet!

After the game we headed back to Irvine which is an easy 30 mile drive south from LA. We reflected on the day, judged it to be superb and planned our activity in LA tomorrow, prior to heading out in the afternoon. We decided to visit West Coast Customs, the custom car shop Hq'd in LA where MTV's "Pimp my Ride" is filmed.

Leaving Irvine in the morning, we headed to 5301 W. 104th St. in LA, Headquarters of West Coast Customs. WCC's headquarters and shop is behind LAX; an area which is quite honestly very distressed. Upon finding West Coast Customs, this small unassuming site is located behind a wall with barbed wire around the top. The building looked more like a "secure military compound" than a custom car shop. A bit anxious to walk through the open chain link gate as I watched a person exit with a pit bull, I yelled up to some brothers on the front dock and asked it was ok to come in. They were very nice and pointed the way to the main door and gift shop. We had and enjoyable time checking out several cars in the front that had been "pimped". It was actually a very cool experience and the cars are truly extraordinary and creative works of art, understanding you must be into the "pimp look".

Upon stopping in the office, we asked if we could take a quick tour of the shop, unfortunately they were actually filming for a future episode of "Pimp my Ride" that day. So we headed out, turned in our PT Crusier "un-pimped" rental, checked in for our flight, did the security dance and headed back to Indy. It was a wonderful, just wonderful father and son trip!