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THREE ON THE TOWN

SELDOM-SEEN L.A. SIGHTS : Looking for Stars in All the Wrong Places, or This Little Celebrity Went to Market

March 06, 1994|Wanda Coleman

In 1950s L.A., it was our family duty to show visiting kin the stellar parts of town. Mom and Pop would don Sunday best for the obligatory tour of Hollywood, stopping for the mandatory comparison of hand, foot and hoof prints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, then heading into the hills to see the homes of stars.

It wasn't unusual to catch celebrities at home, like the time Uncle Ben and his bride not only got to eyeball the infamous piano-shaped pool but exchanged gracious small talk with Liberace. Or to discover a celeb or two chowing down at the next table, like the time my parents found themselves ogling the Mills Brothers over fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

But these days, try and find a real, live celebrity when you need one. Increasingly rare glimpses are more apt to occur in a highly ordinary context, the unglamorous realm of daily commerce:

* I gasp over my Hilton dinner roll and stare at Myrna Loy and Gloria Swanson seated at the next table. I squeeze in as others ring the table and join the chirping about Loy and William Powell in those charming old "Thin Man" movies and Swanson as the immortal Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard."

* Hurrying to lunch in Beverly Hills, I see a horror-film legend heading toward me. I'm carrying only a coin purse, so an autograph is out. A simple greeting will have to do. "Hello, Vincent Price," I say softly as we pass. My words startle him. He walks against the light into traffic as brakes and onlookers screech.

* Impatient, I cut off the slow-moving luxury car on Beverly Boulevard, cursing the driver to an eternity of right lanes. In the rearview mirror, I recognize Charles Nelson Reilly.

* Racing along Sunset, I'm inched over by a huge red Cadillac convertible, David Carradine behind the wheel.

* Late to a Westside social event, I bump the fender of a Rolls-Royce, narrowly beating it to a convenient parking space. Dionne Warwick steps out to check for damage.

* As I board the bus in front of Brentano's, a white-haired, ruddy-faced man, clutching a leather writing caddy, excuses himself as he jostles by. It's science-fiction author Ray Bradbury.

* I'm entering the lobby of the Taft Building in Hollywood when the blur I recognize as Karl Malden pushes past.

* As I exit the City Hall elevator, I hear the clatter of heels and hold the doors. Barbara Bain and a companion leap inside, disappearing as the doors snap shut.

Less elusive than personalities, places are more reliable fare. Visiting kith are as interested in famous Southern California sites as in sightings of the rich and famous. The Watts Towers, the Rose Bowl, Universal's CityWalk, the Faith Dome and the Crystal Cathedral rank high on a list that also includes notorious landmarks, like the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Manson ranch, Marilyn Monroe's death house, Sal Mineo's Holloway Drive apartment and, more recently, the Florence-and-Normandie riot flash point, the nightspot where River Phoenix collapsed and the Northridge earthquake damage.

But when disappointed glitter-seeking cousins complain about the tarnish, we gently explain that even with paparazzo determination, they'll be lucky to see one star, let alone two. What the folk from back home reluctantly realize is that it's easier to spot a star among the veggies at Pavilions than up on Hollywood Boulevard.

* At Big & Tall Books/Cafe, Bill Murray slips in to peruse the stacks. My 14-year-old seizes the opportunity to tell him the latest joke making the junior high rounds.

* Speeding down Gower toward Astro's, on my way to score a burger, I spot Henry Winkler exiting the Paramount lot.

* "Whatever you do, don't ask him about his days as Bud," the Valley party hostess cautions before introducing me to Billy Gray, formerly of "Father Knows Best." "Talk to him the way you'd talk to the average person."

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