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Verdant Urban Retreat : The county arboretum offers a scenic backdrop for film crews, theater troupes and romancing couples.

March 17, 1995|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARCADIA — When Donna Luisa Guinan of Chatsworth went looking for the most romantic setting in Southern California for her outdoor plays, she found it at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County.

Guinan, an actress and a co-founder of A Company of Their Own, a troupe that performs Shakespeare on summer evenings, said, "It's the perfect place for the comedies, where the characters are running off into the forest to find love."

9 a.m.: Spring is in the air at this wonderland of forest and jungle, lake and rippling stream. Alighting from your car, you are enveloped with the fragrance of a million blossoms.

Plants are gathered here from around the world, nurtured by horticulturists who make the Southland a more colorful place by finding exotic vegetation that thrives in our climate and soils. Many people come here for recreation: gardeners who buy ornamental plants and learn more about their hobby, and children who toss bread crumbs to the waterfowl and romp on the spacious lawns.

Light years removed from the busy streets, the park attracts movie crews as well as Shakespearean actors. It also lures an unending procession of couples who stroll about hand-in-hand, lost to the world. "Sometimes you see them sitting on the benches, smooching," said Julie Norman, an arboretum nursery worker who had her own wedding here under the stars in a garden of perennial flowers near a waterfall.

9:10 a.m.: The waterfall is one of many sights worth visiting in the park of 127 acres--a little more than one-third the size of the Cal State Northridge campus. You'll receive a map of roads and landmarks in the entry pavilion.

Stepping into the park, expect to soon meet a stately peacock. Three pair imported from India at about the turn of the century started a thriving flock, and their unearthly screeching adds to the exotic atmosphere. Behind almost any tree or bush you'll find one of the greenish, turkey-sized birds, ready to peck at a kernel of un-popped popcorn or spread his feathery train into a brilliantly colored four-foot-wide fan.

The appropriately named Peacock Cafe is a few steps from the entry. Next door, the gift shop offers a variety of garden books, plants, pots and cards. The cafe is a good spot to start the morning with a bagel or muffin or to wind up a tour with a choice of sandwiches, soups and salads.

In offices within sniffing distance of a toasted bagel, park scientists bridge the realm of horticulture with Southlanders' back-yard gardens. If you bring in a branch, flower or clipping, you'll be directed to plant identification specialist David Lofgren. He will tell you exactly what plant it is and whether it's suffering from a disease, malnutrition or infestation. Books and articles on growing conditions and diseases are available in the library, which also has detailed plant location maps so you can find a healthy, mature specimen of your plant or tree.

9:45 a.m.: A short stroll--or a ride on one of the trams that begin running at 11 a.m.--takes us to the tropical greenhouse.

There, jungle plants grow to spectacular dimensions. Vines, ferns and colorful orchids are profuse. Spanish moss hangs in hoary clumps. Orange and stippled koi dart about in bubbling pools. As we stroll through the greenhouse, a young couple hands a camera to another visitor and asks him to take a picture of them holding hands among the lush vegetation.

10:15 a.m.: The arboretum is a favorite backdrop for motion pictures as well as snapshots. Back out on the circular road through the park, there is a good chance you'll see one of the film crews that work here several times a month. Movies such as "Dave," "Indecent Proposal" and the still-in-production "T. Rex" have included scenes here. Film crews have been a regular part of the arboretum scenery since the late Johnny Weissmuller shot "Tarzan" here in the 1930s.

"It has enough trees to give you a tropical look in any jungle you want anywhere in the world," said Peter Juliano, location manager for the television series "Murder, She Wrote," which has filmed portions of several episodes here.

A show that gave the park tremendous exposure was "Fantasy Island," which opened every episode with the character played by the late Herve Villechaize ringing a bell and calling out "The plane! The plane!" from the steeple of the Queen Anne cottage. A party house on the shore of a natural lake, the cottage is in the arboretum's historical section of restored buildings, which also includes the old Santa Anita train depot, a pioneer adobe and a coach barn.

11:15 a.m.: The Queen Anne cottage was built in 1885 by Elias J. (Lucky) Baldwin, a tycoon and the first president of the Pacific Stock Exchange. Restored in 1951, it is filled with fine furnishings from the turn of the century, which you can see through the windows.

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