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By the Filmic Shores of Burbank : Reflecting on the Muddy Banks of a Town of Tinsel

IN SEARCH OF THE L.A. RIVER. This is another in an intermittent series.

November 28, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer


Everybody's been real nice about it. Or not, as the case may be.

The Explorer has made a commitment--at least to his conscience--to walk or bike each foot of the Los Angeles River from its mouth to its source. This, of course, has entailed tacking across private property in a pinch.

Permission has been sought. Permission has been granted. Or not, as the case may be.

Whatever the case. He has kept his commitment. That's explorer biz.

Today's trek, however, will involve some particularly sticky wickets. On the previous night, the Explorer had solicited the benedictions of Burbank Studios, Lakeside Country Club, CBS Studio Center. . . .

Unmoved by the imperatives of history, Burbank Studios had been stiffer than buckram. ("The man in the moon couldn't get in here," said publicity director Shirley Krims. "Suppose you fell in a hole?") The gate guard at Lakeside had called the manager, who had said no sweat, just submit a registered letter to the chairman of the committee on illicit ingress. Jim Gardner, CBS security chief and a font of river lore, had vacillated, but genially.

Today, then, the situation demands dead-serious contemplation, and high over the river, overlooking the Land of Milk and Money, the Explorer plots his strategy from a stone bench in Forest Lawn.

Yma Sumac and a Hip Flask

Even opposite Burbank Studios, access to the south side of the river is as arduous as it is unrewarding: Nothing to see in the vertical-sided channel but a beach ball, a full-sized bowling pin, two grapefruits, a Yma Sumac LP, a hip flask and a series of inexplicable traffic bumps impeding nothing but an already sluggish green gargle.

The Explorer crosses at Barham Boulevard, gives the forbidding Burbank Studios a wide berth and segues into nearby Buena Vista Park. In a quiescent cranny, a lovely old pine tree hard by the edge of the bank affords shade.

It is one of the river's rare idyllic recesses, disturbed only by the flutter of a breeze-blown tabloid. Resting on the pine needles, the Explorer spears a passing leaf of the Daily Racing Form. A verse of bookies underneath the bough. . . .

Across the river, 30 yards away, a hobo has determined, against great odds and for reasons known but to God, to reach the unreachable stream. Scratching and clawing, scratched and clawed in turn, he scales one barbed-wire fence, then another, then drops eight feet into a drainage channel. By chance, a sturdy 15-foot metal rod is propped against the river ditch.

Agile if tipsy, the hobo goes down the rod, hand over hand. For 20 minutes, he wanders the wadi, solitary prince of all he surveys. Finally, he picks up a discarded Styrofoam cup. He dips the cup into the runnel and anoints his matted noggin; twice, three times.

Hand over hand up the ladder is a drag, but he makes it. Scaling the ditch wall proves impossible. Undaunted, the hobo disappears up a large concrete pipe. Five minutes later, he reappears, shuffling along Forest Lawn Drive and looking mighty pleased with himself.

From across the river, the Explorer applauds spontaneously. The hobo pauses for a moment, gives an illogically gracious little bow, and hits the open road.

Inspired, the Explorer resolves to surmount his own obstacles. Burbank Studios is not nearly worth the effort: late-model cars and a row of new pickups parked on a riverfront road. For this, they post sentries? Still, noblesse oblige.

West of Burbank, it occurs to him that he is in the vicinity of at least a subsidiary source of the river. Everybody talks about Toluca Lake but nobody does anything about it. The reason becomes apparent: You can't get there from here--not unless you enter the grounds of the Lakeside Country Club.

A pity, too, because it is a bucolic little bayou--two ponds, actually, bisected by a causeway--rimmed by handsome houses, wide lawns and wooden docks. Even a couple of boats, destination nowhere. On one dock, one of those little jockey statues holding a ring for tethering horses. (Sea horses?)

Outlet is at the east end of the lake under two magnificent palms--a manhole-sized pit through which the lake water whirlpools with a Circean slurp en route to its rendezvous with the swinish river.

Virgin Golf Balls

The riverfront bushes along the Lakeside course hide the best class of lost golf ball this side of Riviera, a disproportionate number of them virtually virgins. Flower beds flank immaculate fairways, in startling contrast to the scene directly across the river: Glimpsed between Quonset huts are the outbuildings of a ghost town and the unmistakeable silhouette of a Bronx blackstone (we don't have brownstones in the Bronx any more).

What it is, just a duckhook away, is the back lot of Universal Studios, and what it leads to is a unique establishment: Los Angeles' one and only riverside cafe--three outdoor tables under green-and-white Perrier umbrellas.

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