Part 1 – California/Nevada Road Trip – December 2016
In 2016 I undertook a three-week solo road trip covering parts of Southern and Central California and Nevada in the pre-Christmas weeks of December. The route was planned for the usual ‘Michaeling’ (i.e. Michael Jackson-related) opportunities and to take in new or seldom-visited locales. The result was a holiday that was both exhausting and incredibly satisfying.
It began with a visit to Forest Lawn, fresh from LAX after I’d collected my rental car. Here I ordered flowers for Michael for Christmas, and bought a small bouquet to leave by the entrance of Holly Terrace with the tributes of other visiting fans. I took photos, paid my respects at Michael’s earthly resting place and spent some minutes in quiet meditation and contemplation before taking in an exhibition at the Forest Lawn Museum.
The exhibition featured some artworks – paintings and sculpture – by Eyvind Earle who provided the concept art for Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ animated feature, which I had been enamoured of as a child. I still have a copy of the vinyl soundtrack LP, and the movie has only recently been reissued on DVD. Thank goodness – because my VHS copy is unplayable due to many years of viewing!
I was surprised – and pleased – to discover that photography with a mobile phone was permitted in the museum, whereas previously there had been a total prohibition on picture-taking. So, I tucked my big camera away in my bag and happily snapped away guilt-free with my phone.
From Forest Lawn it was a relatively short hop to the Rose Bowl Stadium, which, as all Michael Jackson fans will know, was the location for the Super Bowl XXVII game where Michael performed his landmark half-time show.
The date was 31 January 1993 and the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills 52-17, not that many people remember that. The stat that made the history books was for the TV ratings of the half time show, when Michael’s mini concert boasted more viewers than either half of the actual game. He also started the trend for the appearance of big name artists at the Super Bowl and set a performance standard that others have been attempting to top ever since. (1)
Although no appearance fees are paid to Super Bowl halftime performers, in 1993 the NFL and sponsor Frito-Lay agreed to donate $100,000 to Michael’s Heal the World Foundation, as well as providing airtime promoting an appeal for the foundation’s Heal L.A. campaign. The campaign – a pre-curser to the Heal LA student charitable group co-founded by Michael’s eldest son Prince at Loyola Marymount University in 2016 – aimed to provide health care, drug education, and mentorship for Los Angeles youth, particularly children affected by the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (2)
I’m not sure why I haven’t been to the Rose Bowl before… but this was definitely the year to tick that off my ‘wish list’.
Arriving in LA just prior to the first weekend in December also enabled me to attend Parents Day at Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve for big cats in Acton, Ca. on the first Saturday of the month. Michael Jackson’s tiger Sabu, formerly of the Neverland Zoo, had turned 18 years of age on 20 November 2016. As his sponsor, who has visited him every year commencing 2011, I didn’t want 2016 to close without seeing him again.
Tippi herself lives at Shambala and is usually there on Parents Days to give us all a warm greeting and to sit and chat and have photographs taken with us. This year though the windy weather kept her inside for the sake of her health. But the rest of us toured the compounds and enjoyed the big cats being fed their treats by the animal crew before we retired lakeside for our potluck lunch.
Sabu was no longer where I had always seen him previously – in the enclosure he’d shared with his sister Thriller (who died of lung cancer in 2012). Now he was next door, so photographic angles were a little different from what I was used to. But, thanks to having a zoom lens on my camera, I was satisfied with the results (see two of my images above).
More importantly, of course, was Sabu’s apparent good health despite his maturity.
Not far from Shambala lies the scenic area of Vasquez Rocks, a popular movie location and the place where the scenes in Michael’s ‘Black or White’ video featuring the Native American dancers were filmed. I came here last year in October, but filming at the base of the rocks prevented me from getting to the other side – the spot where Michael danced. This year I simply drove through the rocks to the car park on the far side and walked back through, photographing everything as I went.
Being a weekend, and great weather for hiking, climbing, biking and whatever other outdoor activities take one’s fancy, there were plenty of folks about enjoying the spectacular scenery. A couple of guys were flying a drone over the rocks to get aerial shots, and there was even a fashion shoot in progress against the dramatic sandstone backdrop.
Vasquez Rocks has a fascinating geographical and anthropological history, and if you have time, I recommend following some of the trails using the free leaflet from the Visitor Centre and reading about the Tataviam Indians who lived here from approx 200 BC to the late 1700s AD – the beginning of the Spanish period in California. (3)
In his Handbook of Indians of California (1925) Alfred Louis Kroeber wrote:
“They cannot have been numerous. Taken to San Fernando or San Buenaventura missions, they dwindled rapidly, and the few survivors seem to have been so thrown in and intermarried with people of other speech that their own language became extinct in a couple of generations.” (4)
These Native Americans weren’t like the familiar Plains Indians we saw dancing with Michael here at Vasquez Rocks. In that instance the Rocks were standing in for an archetypal Wild West backdrop as they have done in many Hollywood westerns of yesteryear. Only this ‘wild west’ location is just approximately 50 miles from downtown LA.
On the way back to the San Fernando Valley and our hotel, a premature exit from the freeway prompted a visit to the Historic Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana in Mission Hills, founded in 1797. (5) It is a beautiful property (as you can see from the photo at the top of this story) with an extensive museum which is worth exploring. In the mid-late 70s and 80s I made a point of visiting any of the historic missions that were within reach of my travels, but had never been to San Fernando Rey until now.
The legacy of the missions in terms of the local Native American tribes is understandably controversial. The fate of the aforementioned Tataviam being just one example of dispossession, relocation and decline/loss of cultural identity or actual extinction.
Nevertheless, there were a couple of delightful surprises in store for us here… a Sweet Sixteen ceremony taking place in the mission church, and in one of the museum rooms, the old organ (on the left in the photo opposite) that was used in the classic black and white comedy movie ‘The Ghost Breakers’ (1940) starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. (6)
Willie Best is wonderful in this film as Hope’s black manservant – a role that would definitely be considered demeaning and insensitive these days, and an example of how, historically, black actors were often typecast in dumb sidekick roles, secondary to the lead actors. But, despite these failings, Best’s performance is a testament to his considerable comedic acting skills. (He has the best lines in the film!)
Having arrived back at our temporary ‘home base’ of Sherman Oaks, it was time to pack in preparation for our early departure next day. It was also time for any final photos to be taken of our surroundings – which, not coincidentally, happened to be the hotel where Kent Twitchell’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ mural of Michael Jackson was proposed to be installed. (7)
The Courtyard by Marriott at Sherman Oaks has comfortable beds, friendly staff and a nice cafe where I got delicious, inexpensive meals on both nights of our stay here. There are local stores within walking distance, and the Sherman Oaks Galleria is just one block away.
But that will have to wait for another visit, some other year. After two days of busy activity, I was ready to head north – to Sacramento and California’s ‘Mother Lode’ country, where more adventures awaited my miniature travel companion and I.
Story and Photos by Kerry Hennigan
(4) Alfred Louis Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1925) pp. 613-614.