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L.A., back in the day

September 07, 2003|Mark Ehrman | Special to The Times

"I'm excited because here I am at the Panorama, which is my local museum, which holds one painting, and they happen to be having an ice cream social today," says USC photography student Amanda Wilson, who happened on this recent afternoon event while shooting pictures of her neighborhood. She joins about 100 people who step into an entertainment Way-Back machine of sorts as they enter an obscure little Hollywood Boulevard landmark known as the Velaslavasay Panorama for its second annual get-together. Mint juleps, mint ice cream, Becky Thatcher outfits and all the levity of a turn-of-the-20th-century carnival are the order of the day for a place that is itself an homage to the Step Right Up era, the centerpiece of which is a 360-degree painting of what the artist imagines the L.A. Basin looked like 200 years ago. Sort of.

"The technique and concept are based on these panoramas from the 19th century that people used to go to like we go to movies," says Sara Velas, artist, proprietor and founder of the grandly titled Velaslavasay Panorama Enthusiasts Society, which solicits donations to help support the project. "We're presenting things that are reminiscent of the late 1900s but not necessarily historically accurate. They're just an inspiration."

Two years ago, Velas discovered this rotunda-shaped building and decided to transform it into a low-fi retro version of flashy attractions found at the other end of Hollywood Boulevard. She painted the 60-foot-circumference work, titled "Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes," surrounded it in layers of quaint pseudo-hucksterism and flung the doors open. Like her aesthetic brethren at the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Velas' environment blurs the line between exhibition and museum, show business and art, representation and reality.

In fact, there is a second painting here. Tucked into a corner of "the garden and grounds" is a backdrop of tropical birds, part of a much-hyped "avian alcove" that includes piped-in tweets and chirps and real caged rabbits but nothing that actually flaps its wings. P.T. Barnum, meet Rene Magritte.

For those who received word of the Aug. 31 event, today's draw is the ukulele-wielding chanteuse from the vaudevillian yesteryear whose warble almost conjures the scratches of the 78 records she learned her songs from, Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys. She delights the audience with a Gracie Allen number, "I'm a Whole Lot Wilder Than I Look," another ditty about a Jewish tailor who goes to Hawaii, and the real crowd-pleaser, "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sitting On It," a tune that turns out to be about a chair.

Those in the audience, whose tastes are nothing if not eclectic, cheer heartily.

"I'm a big fan of Janet Klein because she plays music from the '20s," says an artist, writer and banjo-playing singer of sea chanteys known as Dame Darcy. "There's rock shows every night, but I really like to come here and see something different."

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