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The Return of an Incurable Romantic

Onetime guide to all things amorous is back with a history of Hollywood.

February 11, 2001|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He called himself "Mr. Romance," and for a brief, shining moment the name stuck. At his peak market value in the mid-1990s, Robert Badal was L.A.'s self-styled oracle of the amorous. An aficionado of Southern California's coziest cafes and most rapturous vistas. A gentle, laid-back Valley guy with a knack for dispensing earnest advice to dazed survivors of the Sexual Revolution.

Today Badal is an $11-an-hour Universal Studios guide. He regales tourists with backlot banter and spends his downtime trying to reinvent himself as an amateur Hollywood historian. His fleeting celebrity is a fading memory.

But for a while it seemed that Badal and his smooth alter ego, Mr. Romance, were everywhere: on TV chat shows proffering Valentine's Day tips to would-be Casanovas; lecturing at colleges and corporate seminars on "50 Unusual and Romantic Things to Do in Los Angeles"; waxing poetic over the Southland's best places to sample Japanese udon noodles or savor a lonely landscape.

Once, Badal and his wife, Terra Shelman, were even profiled on a CBS story about romantic couples. "He's definitely the most romantic person I know," says Shelman, an actress who moonlights as a Wolfgang Puck hostess. "He's really like a man from another age, like the Knights of the Round Table."

Smart, charismatic and ambitious, Badal was a telegenic salesman with an irresistible marketing pitch: better living through better loving. "It gave me an identity," he says reflectively. "In L.A., everything is how the media defines you, and it's like a drug. Everybody wants to be a star."

Then, almost as quickly as it began, Badal's wild ride was over. His champagne-and-roses shtick fell apart. His guidebook, "Romancing the Southland," a 710-page valentine to the region's seductive charms, sold 7,500 copies, then promptly dropped out of print. Reporters stopped calling for sound bites every Feb. 14, and "Mr. Romance" tumbled from the pop-culture radar screen.

In desperation, Badal was forced to take a minimum-wage video clerk's job--a far cry from the previous months he'd spent holed up in a rented Hollywood Hills flat writing his book. At one point, he was reduced to selling his own blood plasma for cash. "There's nothing romantic about selling your blood in Van Nuys," says the former commodities broker and aerobics instructor.

Now, at age 45, Badal is on the comeback trail. Shorn of his swingin' moniker and flowing heavy-metal-rocker coiffure, a less driven, more self-aware Badal has found a new form of minor renown on the Universal back lot, where his encyclopedic film knowledge--and the genial bedside manner he inherited from his physician father--have won rave reviews from guests and bosses alike. "He's so warm and personable, he just comes across right away as someone who cares about people," says Julie Harders Mazer, manager of studio guide casting and development at Universal. "I think [the studio] is magical for him, and he passes that on for our guests."

Badal also is hoping to jump-start his stalled writing career with his second book, "Romance in Film," which is being published by Carson-based Jalmar Press. The two-volume work chronicles Hollywood's endless infatuation with the on- and off-screen cavortings of stars and starlets. Badal says he wrote much of it during 15-minute coffee breaks in Universal's staff room.

"The heart of the book is trying to get people to have a little bit of that innocent love of the movies, where they wanted to be told a story, not just hit over the head with sensationalism," he says. "It's also about how the film industry became this kind of mirror to people's hearts, our foolishness and the things we want to believe."

The first volume, which traces movies from the silent film era to 1950, will be in local bookstores March 5. It's also available at Universal Studios or online at http://www.jalmarpress.com. He expects the second volume, covering films after 1950, to be published later this year.

"This comeback has been the most validating experience in my life," Badal says with his usual buoyancy, making his way through the courtyard of the cramped, book-strewn Studio City apartment where he and Shelman live with their two cats. "The flip side to having a valley in your life is that the peak tastes sweeter."

*

For Badal, romance--or, as he prefers, "romanticism"--never was a simplistic silver screen formula. It was an affinity for life's temporal pleasures, a childlike capacity for infinite wonder.

Living romantically, Badal emphasized, required more than an active libido and an American Express card. It required imagination, sensitivity to one's partner and a certain swashbuckling nonconformity. Above all, it meant striving to live in and for the moment. "People think, 'Oh, we can have romance when we have more time, or when we have a larger house,' or whatever," Badal said in a 1997 interview. "That's not romance. Romance is feeling something in your heart and going with it."

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