Love Assassination Conspiracies?
Bugs Bunny or The Brady Bunch?
Literature, Music or Movies?
Elvis or Marilyn?
TRAVEL INTO POP CULTURE
Popular culture is an exciting travel destination. You’ve been there yourself. The desire to visit places that other people have been to is part of human nature. Some of these places are real and some are imaginary. Others exist in the past. And there are locations that only endure within the emotional realm. Pop culture inspired experiences become part of who we are. They often weave in and out of each other to reaffirm their place in our collective consciousness over and over again.
Photo Credit: James Loesch
Music is always one of the stops on The Pop Culture Tour of America. Few can say that they have ever visited a seaside community anywhere without looking for that “long lost shaker of salt” with Jimmy Buffet at least one time before they had to pack it up and go home. I’ve lamented with New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen about the highway being “jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” while sitting in traffic, waiting to pay my toll on the Atlantic City Expressway with Born to Run playing on the radio. I’ve thrown Beach Boy CDs in my suitcase to play in the rental car during trips to Southern California. I couldn’t help but grin every time I passed a bar on the Sunset Strip or Venice Beach and heard the cords for LA Woman drift out into the streets at night. And I had Sweet Home Alabama ready to go as I drove my rental car into the state from Mississippi.
Photo Credit: J_Mixtli
Despite the fact that I’m not exactly fond of country music, and didn’t even bother touring the Grand Ole Opry, by the time I left Nashville I had a newly purchased Charlie Daniel’s CD from his museum gift shop and an undeniable impulse to sing at least three Johnny Cash songs at any given moment. And speaking of Johnny, one of my fondest memories of Memphis was getting caught in a violent thunderstorm on Beale Street and hearing his song Cry, Cry, Cry in what seemed to be a spontaneous burst from the shops and bars lining the block.
At some locations, the entire vibe is set by some aspect of pop culture. I went to sunny California and landed in the Emerald City, literally. I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself in the fictional Land of Oz during my visit to the Hotel Del Coronado off of the shores of San Diego. Author L. Frank Baum used to sit in a rattan rocking chair outside of the hotel’s majestic dining room, The Crown Room, contemplating the Pacific Ocean and writing The Wizard of Oz. Many sources compare the Emerald City to the design of The Del itself.
Photo Credit: Anthony Schultz
There is always a chance that you will find Dorothy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the hotel’s television channel–that is when they are not running the comedy classic Some Like It Hot. While filming on location at the hotel with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe could frequently be seen walking The Del’s private beach. The hotel isn’t exactly shy about letting people know that “Marilyn Monroe slept here”.
Photo Credit: marilyn-monroe 2011
During my next trip to the West Coast, I couldn’t help but laugh when I learned that Marilyn, Jack and Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder are spending eternity together at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park. During the drive from Hermosa Beach to pay homage to Hollywood’s most tragic goddess, I put away that Beach Boys CD and popped in the Marilyn Monroe one that I bought from the gift shop at The Del.
The Dead Celebrity Tour of Pop Culture is traveled by many. I guess that’s because, as the only other word etched in Jack Lemmon’s tombstone other than his name says, they are always “in”. Celebrity epithaphs are quite different from those of regular mortals. Maybe it’s because more people share the memory of the person buried there. When I stood in front of Dean Martin’s resting place a few doors down from Marilyn’s, I noticed that he had Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime inscribed below his name. I was kind of embarrassed when I couldn’t help but hum a few bars. Then I laughed because the tourists who followed after me broke right out into song. When I visited Pierce Brothers again a year later, I noticed a new resident, Rodney Dangerfield. His tombstone said it best—“There Goes the Neighborhood!”
Photo Credit: Uendi Quinn
I stopped to see the Valentino Shrine at the resting place for the stars, Hollywood Forever. The cemetery borders the back lot of Paramount Studios. Since my visit, I’ve noticed that the location is often used to film cemetery scenes for television and movies.
As if cemeteries aren’t bad enough, some travelers visit the actual places where the famous have died. I sang the lyrics “Good Bye Norma Jean……..” with Elton John on the way to sneak a peek at the gate of 12305 Fifth Helena Drive, where Marilyn Monroe became immortal. On the way there, I stopped to see if there were any bloody glove prints on the gate at 875 S Bundy Drive (now renumbered 879). How could you not? Both addresses are located just a few blocks from each other in Brentwood.
Photo Credit: Sheehan Family
Some death scenes do represent something far deeper than simple voyeuristic pleasure. I looked out of a window from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depositary at the site where a handsome young President was gunned down while sitting in a convertible next to his beautiful young wife on a lovely sunny day in Dallas Texas. The aftermath was one of the first mass media events that unfolded in real time on TV while the nation watched together in horror. I also ran out into the middle of the road to set foot on the “X” that marks the spot where the fatal shot hit JFK. And I wasn’t the only one risking injury by moving car. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. I learned that a little song about an ant that pulls rubber tree plants wasn’t just something that Shirley sang to Laverne. It was also John F. Kennedy’s campaign song performed by none other than Frank Sinatra. Before leaving Dallas for good, I made sure that I took some grass from the Grassy Knoll for my scrapbook.
Photo Credit: s.v.e.n.
I was greeted by Elvis singing “Welcome to My World” as I entered the front door to Graceland. I couldn’t help but think that the King has left the building. I got the impression that I was touring a monument to the excess that finally killed the poor boy of humble beginnings from Tupelo, Mississippi. I ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich in the restaurant across from Graceland as a form of communion with The King of Rock and Roll.
Fans have been writing messages to Elvis on the wall surrounding Graceland since Elvis had it installed in 1957. Since his death in 1977 the unique cultural and sociological phenomenon has intensified. Some of these personal tributes sound like petitions to Saints instead of graffiti. Fans ask Elvis to bless them with everything from money and happiness to a cure for cancer. Someone named Julie once scrawled a message that said “Your blue suede shoes kept running through our minds—all the way from Chicago!” I can relate. I played Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock over and over again during the drive from Nashville to Memphis.
Spontaneous tributes pop up to honor the dead all over the Dead Celebrity Tour. Marilyn had a bench dedicated in her honor near her wall of the mausoleum where people leave flowers, money, jewelry and notes addressed to Norma Jean. At the Kennedy assassination site, people carve their conspiracy theories into the back of the fence that surrounds the train station parking lot where some say a second assassin stood to deliver the final blow to the President’s head. The scribes don’t seem terribly fond of Senator Arlene “Magic Bullet Theory” Specter. While living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I had to laugh when I would frequent Independence Mall and see people throwing pennies onto Ben Franklin’s gravesite. I often wonder if he would be insulted since he did say that “a penny saved is a penny earned”.
Photo Credit: dicksonk
When the Lorraine Hotel was a foreclosed property, prominent citizens found a way to keep the site sacred as a memorial to the fallen civil rights leader, Dr, Martain Luther King, Jr. The balcony where he was shot now exists as part of the National Civil Rights Museum where, with a little help from my imagination, I rode on the infamous Montgomery bus with Rosa Parks.
The act of traveling itself is a destination in Pop Culture. Many people have gone searching for their kicks on “America’s Main Street”, Route 66.
Photo Credit: rjyuu
I followed the Mother Road from Santa Monica, California to Flagstaff, Arizona with a stop at the Grand Canyon since it was in the neighborhood. At some points during the road trip I felt very “Brady Bunch” since I’ve relived their fictional sitcom trip to the Grand Canyon numerous times thanks to reruns. When I stopped in Oatman, Arizona, an old gold mining town where donkeys roam freely on the streets and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their wedding night, I was reminded of the Brady Bunch episode that featured none other than Gilligan Island’s Mr. Howell as a deranged prospector who locks the Brady’s in an old ghost town jail. Did I mention that Mr. Howell is buried at Pierce Brothers? The tombstone of Jim Backus reads “Darling Husband” and I’m sure that Lovey would agree.
During my trip along Route 66, it occurred to me that the ghost towns are actually from a different era comprised of abandoned gas stations and overgrown diners with rusty neon signs.
California Coastal Highway 1 is another drive that has earned its place in American pop culture.
Photo Credit: PatrickSmithPhotography
Jack Kerouac went On the Road along the coast between San Francisco and Big Sur while he was writing the book that has inspired generations of rebels without a cause. Ansel Adams captured the images of earth, sky and sea in Carmel-by-the-Sea. I ate dinner at the Hog’s Breath Inn, the restaurant owned by Carmel’s most famous mayor, Clint Eastwood.
Photo Credit: Happy Tinfoil Cat
I also stopped by Cannery Row in Monterey California to pay homage to John Steinbeck’s book of the same title. I visited the Aquarium that now sits on the site of the Hovden Cannery. And before reaching Los Angeles, I was inspired by Bugs Bunny to spend a night in Pismo Beach, the place that he and Daffy were headed to when they made that wrong left turn at Albuquerque.
Popular travel destinations often have diverse meaning to people of different generations. While visiting San Francisco once in July, I thought of Mark Twain, who is often quoted as saying “the coldest winter I ever spent was my summer in San Francisco”. If he really did say it, he wasn’t kidding! I also couldn’t help but wonder why Rice a Roni is still the “San Francisco treat” since Ben and Jerry’s has national headquarters in the Bay Area.
Photo Credit: bigrigbearsea
Apparently my daughter went to the same destination with Tony Hawk because his video game keeps you skating past the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. When we stood at the top of Lombard Street, I was recalling a comedy routine by Bill Cosby about driving in San Francisco while my daughter was grabbing her skateboard out of the rental car, saying that she wanted to live the experience that is part of “Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam”.
Each person who visits and experiences a place during their own Pop Culture Tour contributes to that destination becoming part of the American lexicon and history along with our shared illusions and conventions. And that’s exactly how it should be.