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If on Safari, Check In With Johnny First

April 21, 1996|Scott Harris

One day last year, a Mr. Lawless checked out and a Mr. Law checked in.

"True story," Johnny De Lesley Jr. says.

On another day, a James Freed left and another James Freed arrived.

And Johnny De Lesley remembers the day, several years back, when there was a partial eclipse of the sun. It was harmonic convergence time. That day, the Safari Inn hosted a Lord and a Pope--"and they were traveling together." Solomon was in another room on the second floor. On the ground floor, there was a Savage.

There are a million stories in the naked motel. After 20 years working at this kitsch Burbank landmark with the African motif, the guy at the front desk knows a few.

Call him Johnny. That's what he prefers and that's how the customers at the Safari know him. He's a friendly guy with a cosmic bent. Ask him his age and Johnny might say he's taken 48 trips around the sun--in this lifetime.

How I wound up at the Safari takes a little explaining. I'd read colleague Larry Gordon's story about how a group called the Society for Commercial Archeology had convened at the Biltmore Hotel and was venturing from there to examine the gems of Los Angeles' car-culture architecture.

One stop would be Burbank's 1949-vintage Bob's Big Boy, which bears a plaque noting its designation as a state point of historical interest. But otherwise, the society didn't seem very interested in the Valley.

Tour guide John English, a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, suggested the problem is too much kitsch, too little time. Along with a few bowling alleys and carwashes, English noted such under-appreciated structures as the Casa de Cadillac dealership in Sherman Oaks, the neon Circus Liquor clown in North Hollywood and the domed Glendale Federal Bank building in Panorama City that looks sort of like a grounded flying saucer.

English also suggested the Safari. It has a sign that looms above Olive Avenue, featuring a warrior's shield and a spear. A wrought-iron warrior is displayed on a chimney and the shield design appears in the wrought-iron balcony railing. The landscaping includes soaring palms and the lobby features rattan furniture and a couple of tribal masks.

And there you'll find Johnny, whose neat, conservative appearance belies the spirit within. When I explained my mission, Johnny pointed out that I was on a safari of sorts and thus had obviously come to the right place.

Among Los Angeles' storied hostelries, there are the stars like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel Air, the Chateau Marmont. The Safari is more like the character actor who gets a lot of work.

Built in 1958, this motel has retained the period look. Hollywood types love it, both as a location and as a place to bed down.

"Diagnosis Murder" was the last TV show to stop by. They put up a door and blasted it with gunfire. In "Apollo 13," the Safari played the role of a Florida motel; skillful editing provided ocean views. In the 1993 film "True Romance," the Safari played itself, as the violent destination for desperate lovers on the run.

That film has something of a cult following. Not too long ago, Johnny says, he booked a British visitor who said he'd seen the film 126 times. (Once was more than enough for me.) The Brit was disappointed to learn the Safari doesn't really have leopard-skin rooms.

Blood flowed in "True Romance." The reality, Johnny says, "has been the opposite. The Safari has been extremely safe."

Paul Newman stayed here one night, he says. More typical are supporting actors, second-tier rock groups and artists with business at nearby Disney studios, as well as the usual tourists and other business travelers.

Many people are repeat customers, Johnny says, attracted by a pleasant, "timeless" ambience.

It has also hosted, more than once, an organization of people interested in unidentified flying objects.

This is, clearly, a subject that appeals to Johnny.

"I enjoy astronomy and creation. . . . There may be 300 billion galaxies out there. The beauty doesn't stop here. The love doesn't stop here. The intelligence doesn't stop here."

My quest had begun with the suggestion I contemplate the wonders of carwashes and motels. At the Safari it was suggested I contemplate the wonders of the universe.

"Truth and beauty," Johnny said, "is what added lift to our feet when we ran down the street as kids. . . . The images come and go, but not the beauty. And where does the beauty come from? The origin. The source . . .

"What are we doing right now? We're on a planet going around a star at 56,000 miles an hour. If it wasn't for the beauty, we're not here."

Conversations with motel guests, Johnny told me, tend to be more perfunctory. Still, meeting so many different people is plainly a joy for him. He considers several guests to be friends.

"I've had people call staying here a spiritual experience," he told me.

Johnny recalled one customer in particular who took the time to write a letter thanking the Safari staff for such a pleasant stay. It was, he said, "a reprieve" from the workaday world.

And Johnny remembers something else about that guy.

"He still owes me 10 dollars."

* Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Please include a phone number.

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