Charles Phoenix leads the Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles. (12/09/2007)
I had read about this tour in the Los Angeles Times a while back and had wanted to take part for quite some time. So when I received his an e-mail notification from Charles Phoenix, I signed us up. And when we needed a birthday present idea for Amy's birthday, we decided to make it a foursome!
During this illuminating six-hour tour, we experienced "the charm of Main Street USA, the exotica of Adventureland, the wilderness of Frontierland, the magic of Fantasyland and the future of Tomorrowland," without ever leaving the vicinity of downtown Los Angeles. It was truly a unique experience to say the least.
Charles Phoenix welcomes guests on the Downtown Disneyland tour. (12/09/2007)
We knew we were in for a fun time when we first arrived and found the kitch-tastic Charles Phoenix clad in a bright lime green dinner jacket, white gloves, perfectly-creased burgundy slacks, a bejeweled plantation tie (think Colonel Sanders but with sparkles) and a set of personalized Mickey Mouse ears. With a personality as colorful as his attire, Charles Phoenix has masterfully transformed his love of Southern California '50s and '60s culture into a full-time business consisting of slide shows, coffee table books and tours.
And let me just say the tour was as fun as it sounds. The tour began at noon at the Downtown Disneyland train station. In this case we're talking about Los Angeles Union Station. Built in 1939, it was the last great train station to be built in the USA. Even though I've lived in Southern California since 1992, it was my first time ever setting foot inside of the building.
Union Station, Downtown Disneyland's main train station. (12/09/2007)
The detail in this place was spectacular. From the amazing marble floors, to the wood ceilings, to the leather chairs that don't appear to have been replaced in the nearly 70 years since it opened, the station was a true sight to behold. We even heard about the special acoustic tiles that were made from ground up corn cobs and old newspapers.
Union Station, America's last great railway station. (12/09/2007)
We also got a glipse of the station's original Harvey House restaurant (like the one depicted in the 1946 Judy Garland musical, The Harvey Girls, in which she famously sang "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."). We didn't get to go inside, but you can still peer into the windows and see the original counter and decor.
The now-closed Harvey House restaurant in L.A.'s Union Station. (12/09/2007)
Next we took the Monorail (aka Gold Line) to the Chinatown Station, where we boarded a yellow school bus that took us to Adventureland (a themed area of Chinatown built by the city of Los Angeles in 1938). There we saw the Golden Pagoda restaurant (now Hop Louie), which has been a Chinatown icon since 1941. Phoenix described its 1950s decor best, saying, "If Lucy and Ethel were to go to a Chinese retstaurant, this restaurant would be exactly like it."
Hop Louie in Chinatown, Downtown Disneyland's Adventureland. (12/09/2007)
Again, it was my first time in Chinatown in the 15 years I've lived in Southern California. Other Chinatown highlights included stops inside the Munky King toy store, as well as Realm, a gift store inside of a converted 1940s Chinatown restaurant, complete with the restaurant's original bar still in tact. Very cool. I can't wait to come back when we have more time to shop, but we have more Adventureland to see.
Charles Phoenix discusses Olvera Street founder Christine Sterling. (12/09/2007)
Our Adventureland tour continued at Olvera Street, the city's first pedestrian mall (pedestrian as in "on foot," not as in "lacking wit or imagination"). Although the neighborhood dates back to the 1800s, it didn't become a marketplace until 1930 when a Mrs. Christine Sterling helped convert it from skid row to popular tourist destination.
While there we walked through the Old Plaza Firehouse, the first building constructed in Los Angeles as a fire station (1884), as well as Avila Adobe, the oldest existing residence in Los Angeles (1818). We also walked by the Pio Pico House, which at one time was the most glamorous hotel in town. We concluded Olvera Street when Phoenix bought everyone a beef taquito from Cielito Lindo Cafe, which was so good (especially since we were starving).
Amy, Charles Phoenix, James and Tim at downtown L.A.'s Clifton's Cafeteria. (12/09/2007)
But food was not far away, as our next stop was Frontierland, also known as the fabulous Clifton's "Brookdale" Cafeteria, which was amazingly decorated like a wilderness lodge(very Country Bear Jamboree). This place has been feeding hungry Los Angelenos since 1935, and it is a complete injustice that I had not ever eaten here before.
Inside the incredible Clifton's Cafeteria. (12/09/2007)
It's definitely a flashback in time. It's 100% cafeteria, where you pick what you want and pay for it at the end. And believe me, did we pick! By the time we walked away from the cash register, we each had an enormous tray of food that none of us finished completely. As hungry as we were walking in, that's how full we were walking out.
James, Charles Phoenix and Clifton's Cafeteria Jello. (12/09/2007)
We then toured the Broadway Arcade, Los Angeles' oldest shopping center (since 1922), as well as a one-time Dutch Chocolate Shop (1911) where we saw a great example of a Batchelder Tile interior. Batchelder tile was made by Ernest A. Batchelder (1875-1957). His tiles were hugely popular in their day, and today are coveted by owners of Craftsman-style homes.
Next, we toured the iconic Bradbury Building, a true architectural landmark set in the middle of Downtown. Built in 1893, this building is known for its spectacular lobby, which features cage elevators surrounded by beautiful wrought-iron grillwork. The lobby was featured prominently in the film Blade Runner.
The amazing lobby of LA's Bradbury Building. (12/09/2007)
We then walked through the nearby Grand Central Market, downtown's supermarket alternative since 1917. It's just across the street from the "shortest railway in the world," Angel's Flight, which is no longer in operation. But we did walk up the seemingly endless stairway to Tomorrowland, a water garden nestled beneath downtown's skyscrapers.
By 3:45 we were on our way to the Westin Bonaventure, the largest hotel in Los Angeles. We were there to check out the sweetest holiday display in downtown. It was a gingerbread cityscape decorated with thousands of holiday lights. At the top was an actual gingerbread version of the Bonaventure Hotel.
The awesome Christmas display at the Bonaventure. (12/09/2007)
At that point, we were given a five-minute bathroom break before heading to our next destination. That's when Tim and I quickly dashed to one of the Bonaventure's famous external glass elevators for a quick ride to the top so I could snap a few pictures. Tim, as you may or may not know, hates heights, so I have to give him credit for going up with me.
The view from one of the Bonaventure elevators. (12/09/2007)
Next stop: The Haunted Mansion, which was on Carroll Avenue. Charles Phoenix described this street perfectly when he said, "If Disneyland's Main Street had a residential district, this is what it would look like." And he was exactly right.
Tim in front of the Charmed house on Carroll Ave. (12/09/2007)
Carroll Avenue is Southern California's largest concentration of Victorian houses. While there we saw the house that is used in Charmed, the set-in-San-Francisco TV show that for some inexplicable reason Tim loves. We also saw the house used in the TV series Journeyman, another show set in San Francisco.
The Journeyman house on Carroll Ave. (12/09/2007)
Our final stop at 5:00 p.m. was to Fantasyland, which is found at Bob Baker's Marionette Puppet Theater. Built in 1961, this unique theater could easily fit into any mid-century decade. We experienced scenes from the Holiday Spectacular, followed by a performance by the master himself, Bob Baker.
Charles Phoenix in the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. (12/09/2007)
Bob Baker is a legend in the marionette field. He performed the marionette scenes in films such as the 1960 G.I. Blues with Elvis Presley and Leslie Caron, the 1954 A Star is Born with Judy Garland, and my childhood favorite, Escape to Witch Mountain in 1975. He was responsible for many of the effects in 1971's Bedknobs & Broomsticks, one of Tim's favorites. You can also see his work on Bewitched and Star Trek original series.
Still spry at age 83 (although looking at him you would think he's much younger), he re-created a classic tap-dance by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson using his Bill Robinson marionette. It was incredible. Afterwards we enjoyed strawberry and whippped cream cake and ice-cream cups complete with wooden spoons in the children's party room. While there we had a Q&A session with Bob Baker.
Bob Baker discusses the art of marionette puppeteering. (12/09/2007)
By 5:50 we were back on Autopia (the Freeway) for our 6:00 return to Union Station. Although we saw and did things that anyone can do on their own, I would heartily recommend the Charles Phoenix tour since it conveniently fits all these things into one afternoon. Plus he provides transportation, which would be a logistic challenge on your own. Most of all, however, his entertaining storytelling along the way made it a day well spent.