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Jack Smith

Our etymological sleuth is tracking the origin of the term La-la Land for L.A.; all leads point to snobs up north

March 10, 1987|JACK SMITH

I admit to having been unaware that La-la Land, as an epithet for Los Angeles, has been around for a long time.

I thought I had discovered it in a recent issue of Atencion San Miguel, an English-language newspaper published in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

First, Daniel Fredgant of Woodland Hills advised me that Stevie Wonder had an album in 1986 with a song about Los Angeles called "Land of La La."

"La-la Land" is also the title of an original song by saxophonist Tom Scott on his new LP "One Night/One Day," for Soundwings.

Evidently, though, the phrase is a lot older than 1986.

It seems to go back many years, and it may have originated in San Francisco. That seems probable, since San Franciscans have always thought of Los Angeles as cuckooland. I wouldn't be surprised to find that San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the phrase himself.

"In the summer of 1983," writes Richard Chente, "I had the pleasure of attending a brief talk by James Earl Jones at ACT in San Francisco concerning the vagaries of professional acting. During his talk, he spoke about the difficulty of keeping one's artistic integrity 'in La-la Land,' and he used this phrase in such an off-the-cuff manner that it was clear that he (and I assume his friends) use it often when referring to Los Angeles. . . .

"I have heard the phrase used many times since, but never by locals. It is my guess that other cities have been laughing at La-la Land for quite some time."

"La-la Land is a phrase I have been using for at least five years," writes Marie B. Hall of Long Beach. "I picked it up from my sister. She is a nurse in a locked psychiatric unit, and 'La-la Land' is a place where most of her patients spend most of their time. I have used it to describe people who seem to be veering past reality. . . . "

"It is too soon to put to rest your attempt to date the origin of 'La-la Land,"' writes Kenneth H. Goldman of La Crescenta. "My fellow artist Marcus Villagran spoke of returning to 'La-la Land' from Northern California in letters to me 10 years ago."

Gerry B. Wilcox of Burbank writes: "My husband pointed out to me that he had run across this phrase in a book by Jill McCorkle entitled 'July 7th,' which was published a few years ago by Algonquin Press.

"The book describes the characters composing a small community in North Carolina in a very earthy manner. One of the characters was Juanita, who had the habit of withdrawing into 'La-la Land' in her fantasies on a regular basis as a means of sexual gratification. . . . "

Isn't that what San Franciscans think we do down here?

"I moved here in June of 1985 from the Bay Area," writes Anne Zimmerman of Venice. "At the time of my move and before, my friends always wondered why I was moving to 'La-la Land.' It seemed a common enough phrase back then."

"Wake up!" writes Mary Hsia. "The term 'La-la Land has been around for many years. I remember a trip to San Francisco about eight years ago where it seemed to be common knowledge. Several people I was introduced to said, 'Oh, you're from La-la Land.' I liked the phrase and have used it ever since."

"I do believe (the phrase) came from the novel 'Day of the Locust' (by Nathanael West)," writes Delia Fernandez of Long Beach. "I'm sorry I don't have the exact reference. . . . "

I have thumbed through "Day of the Locust" and can't find La-la Land.

Maybe someone will come to my assistance as Max Hodge of Sherman Oaks did when I said that I had looked in H. Allen Smith's "Lost in the Horse Latitudes" for his reference to the invention of "Double Dubuque" (as an epithet for Los Angeles) by Rufus Blair, but couldn't find it.

"You print things like that," Hodge wrote, "to get letters , knowing full well 'the reference' is smack dab on the very first page of Chapter 1."

Hodge obligingly quotes the reference as follows:

"I spent six months in the town Rufus Blair calls Double Dubuque and came pretty close to catching a disease known as the Beverly Hills botts. . . . "

And Marjorie Mundy quotes a paragraph from another Smith book, "Two-Thirds of a Coconut Tree," which also documents Blair as the author of that etymologically obscure but enduring term.

"Rufus has always had a towering dislike for Los Angeles, which he calls Double Dubuque, whereas San Francisco has long been his favorite town in all the world. . . . "

That proves that Double Dubuque was coined by a San Francisco snob, and I have little doubt that La-la Land was too.

While we have Rufus Blair in the spotlight, it might be interesting to know something more about him.

Jack Hirshberg, an old-time Hollywood press agent, writes that Blair was also one of that glib breed--a San Francisco newspaperman who was lured south in the 1930s to do national publicity for Paramount.

"Rufus was never taken in by Hollywood," Hirshberg says. "His irreverence for the sham he, himself, helped create in order to build audences for the studio's films and stars was one of his many endearing points.

"Rufus was first of all a newspaperman. . . . His wit was sharp, his typewriter articulate. Rufus was a lovely man. He died two or three years ago in San Francisco."

Well, at least he got out of Double Dubuque.

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