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Tim Burton revisits his old L.A. haunts

Wax museums. Costume shops. The young artist loved them. Returning to L.A., he has a nightmare before Christmas.

October 26, 2006|By Scott Timberg | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

TIM BURTON knows the dark side. He's not evil, exactly, but his films often take grotesque elements and twist them into something more endearing than repulsive.

Take the Pumpkin King in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" who scares good boys and girls with well-meaning presents that explode or chase them around the house. Or the tender young man in "Edward Scissorhands" who can't fit in because of those enormous shears at the end of his arms. Or "The Corpse Bride," a brokenhearted beauty whose eye pops out at inopportune times and whose body is infested by a maggot who won't shut up.

So it's only natural that, with Halloween fast sneaking up on us and a new 3-D version of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" just out, we turned to Burton to take us on a tour of frightening spots in Los Angeles.

By day's end, we had gone to a wax museum, a cemetery or two and a bizarre costume shop spiffed up for All Hallows' Eve. And we had talked about some of the public places that inspired him creatively as a youth.

But what scares Burton the most is not in any guidebook of L.A.'s famous haunts. In fact, it looks perfectly normal. Because, as it turns out, for Burton, the scariest place in Southern California is the suburbs.

"I still get the creeps, I still get a funny feeling driving over to Burbank," Burton, dressed head to toe in black, with a mop of disheveled-genius hair, says in a slightly adenoidal voice. He grew up there, and still hasn't entirely forgiven the place.

A place lost in time

The thought of Burton's hometown and his childhood is making him squirm as we start our tour by heading there in a black SUV. We set out on an appropriately gloomy, overcast day -- the kind when L.A. offers none of its Mediterranean charm.

Cruising around town with Burton is a lot like going driving with any former Angeleno who's visiting after years away. Over the last decade he's spent most of his time in London, where he now lives.

So most of the stuff Burton loved in Los Angeles is gone, he says. (Not the first time we've heard that one.) Traffic has gotten a lot worse. (Check.) The lack of seasons seems kind of eerie. (Ditto.)

But his memories are a bit darker, more unrelieved by warmth, than most natives returning to L.A.

"The Valley," he says. "I get freaked out just coming here: It's all flat. There're even less seasons here in the San Fernando Valley, aren't there?"

Born in Burbank in 1958, when the city already seemed lost in time, Burton grew up in a middle-class neighborhood just under the airport's flight pattern. "You could watch the exhaust come down," he says.

"The thing about Burbank was, life sorta ended at the Smoke House," he says of the landmark 1946 restaurant near the Universal, Warners Bros. and Disney studios. "You didn't venture outside. You didn't get a lot of residents making that trip over the hill to Hollywood."

All artists are shaped by their upbringings, but Burton's childhood as a misunderstood loner who lived in his head ended up feeding directly into his work as a filmmaker.

Famously, Burton wears clunky black specs with dark-blue lenses. They seem to be literally, and figuratively, the opposite of rose-colored glasses.

As he drives past Magnolia and Victory, the main drags near his old house, he's not charmed by what he calls "that weird '50s quality" of his old neighborhood, and he's amazed by how many old liquor stores have survived. "A lot of wig shops -- is there a lot of hair loss in Burbank, or what?"

But the old movie palaces -- among the few oases of his childhood -- are just memories now.

"There were five or six great movie theaters, including a couple of drive-ins on Burbank, all gone," he says, pointing out where each used to stand. "There was this one called the Cornell, my favorite, which showed triple features for 50 cents.... You could see 'Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde,' a Godzilla movie and 'Scream Blacula Scream.' Or three Japanese science-fiction movies."

This is where he discovered horror films from England's Hammer studios and the Italian monster movies of Mario Bava.

After passing by the church he attended as a child, we turn onto his old street, Evergreen Street, past a series of squat bungalows that becomes increasingly claustrophobic, and pull up to his boyhood house. "There's something frighteningly ordered about it, and also unknown," he says of the area. "When you look at these houses, they're so small and close together. You kinda knew your neighbors, but you didn't really know them, so there's a secretive nature to it."

For Burton, recalling "the private hell" of childhood produces various disappointed groans and sighs, as we continue on to the schools he attended.

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