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Life Between Hollywood and Pine

* Many entertainment workers are fleeing the city for woodsier climes, thanks to electronic communications tools.

July 22, 2001|DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Weary of the hustle of Hollywood and urban life, television actor Conor O'Farrell moved his wife and three young children from Los Angeles to the mountain village of Idyllwild eight years ago.

Here in this town of 2,000, where sheer granite cliffs and towering sugar pines replace the city skyline, O'Farrell has joined an enclave of entertainment industry professionals--actors, film editors, musicians and others--who have left the city but not the industry. Instead of sacrificing his fast-paced profession for a rustic existence, O'Farrell shuttles between the worlds of Hollywood and pine.

Most days, O'Farrell putters around the house, coaches soccer, directs local plays and volunteers at his children's school. Once or twice a week, he drives to Los Angeles to audition for roles or to act in episodes of television shows such as "The X-Files," "ER," "Ally McBeal" or "NYPD Blue."

"I just think it's a great thing to be out of L.A. and out of that scene," O'Farrell said. "And I get to live like a king for about a third the cost of L.A."

Some entertainment observers see the exodus from Los Angeles increasing.

"I definitely think it is a trend, because people want that lifestyle, they want the land," said O'Farrell's agent, Ro Diamond of SDB Partners in Century City, who represents several out-of-town actors, including one in Berkeley and another in North Carolina. "I think they just prefer country living."

The choice to keep one foot in Tinseltown and the other in the great outdoors has long been a privilege of marquee stars such as Robert Redford, with his Sundance film institute in Utah, or Demi Moore, who set up housekeeping in Hailey, Idaho. Now, technological advances have opened that option to working performers and white-collar entertainment professionals as well.

These professionals rely on electronic communication in lieu of the power meetings and social networking that traditionally have fueled Hollywood careers. Thanks to fax machines, the Internet and desktop recording and editing equipment, these entertainment industry emigres can live on horse ranches or in alpine cabins while scanning audition scripts or producing albums, soundtracks and documentaries at home.

"People are no longer stapled to their chairs in the office," said Stephen Unger, an executive recruiter for entertainment and media with Los Angeles-based search firm Heidrick & Struggles. "They have been liberated by the various technological devices at our disposal. The result of this is that people have been freed to live and work wherever they want for large segments of their professional time."

For O'Farrell, a native Angeleno, disenchantment with urban ills led him to relocate. Contrasting the safety concerns of modern L.A. parents with those during his own carefree childhood in Echo Park and West Covina, he resolved to raise his kids amid the innocent freedom of a quiet community.

"Between air quality and crime and housing prices and the school system, it was just a much better quality of life up here," he said.

O'Farrell remains poised to run to the city for auditions on a moment's notice and estimates he has missed only a couple of calls in eight years. But he minimizes the commute by getting scripts by fax or e-mail instead of driving to his agent's office or the studio to pick them up. And whenever possible, he sends audition tapes to avoid pre-reading parts in person.

He keeps the travel time in perspective by noting that a well-timed commute from Idyllwild--about two hours on a good day--isn't much worse than a rush-hour drive between, say, Woodland Hills and the Westside.

"Whenever the drive starts to get to me, I just think that the drive enables me to live up here," he said.

Like O'Farrell, guitarist Chuck Alvarez had burned out on city life when he moved to Idyllwild from San Pedro five years ago. Holed up in his urban home composing music or traveling on tour, he began to feel that he was working simply to earn the chance to work.

"The thought that kept coming to my mind was, what is the quality of life worth if I can't open my door and see trees instead of cars?" he said. "What's all this work worth if I'm still bumping into traffic and smog and too many people?"

In his new mountain home, he assembled a digital recording studio that allows him to record virtually an entire album from start to finish, adding the remaining touches in just a few sessions at professional studios in Los Angeles.

He writes, arranges and records much of his own bluesy rock in his home studio, produces music for other performers and scores television and movie soundtracks there.

"Ten, 15 years ago, that wouldn't have been possible," he said. "You would have needed the facilities that are available in L.A."

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that he still sometimes treks to the city for special recording sessions.

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