It’s been close to 30 years since I’ve lived in town where I grew up, Burbank, California. Back then, in 60’s and 70’s, Burbank was punchline, a national joke courtesy of shows like Laugh-In and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” was always said with a touch of irony, with a smirk. And, anyone who had visited downtown Burbank knew that it was indeed a joke. Burbank was a decidedly unglamorous town that happened to be home of the very glamorous industries of TV, movies and music.
Growing up in Burbank the “industry” was always in the background. I went to school with kids whose parents worked the surrounding studios, or were indeed actors themselves. It was no big deal. We weren’t all that impressed. It was all just a part of the scenery. Unlike today where the studio entrance is marked by a huge gate topped by giant dwarfs (so, so wrong on so many levels), the Disney Studios used to be hidden behind an ivy-covered chain link fence that ran several blocks. On the backside, along Riverside Drive, you could see the animation buildings and odds and ends props, like the original Herbie car. The Warner Brothers Studios was always a large presence, but without all the current very large signs advertising its latest TV shows and movies, it seemed like just another local industrial complex, like Lockheed Aerospace, on the other side of town.
The predominant architectural style of my Burbank was post-WWII drab. With the exception of the City Hall, the buildings were all very undistinguished, ugly even. But, as a kid, I didn’t really notice. It was just where I grew up. What I knew. My world was my friends, my family, my school and the places I hung out. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized that Burbank was really, really boring. For a town filled with studios we had maybe one movie theater. The downtown Golden Mall was neither golden nor much of a mall. It was merely a retail section of San Fernando Road that they turned into a pedestrian walkway. The JC Penny’s was the high point of the mall. It was a sad, sad, sad excuse for a shopping mall.
I moved up to Berkeley the summer right out of high school, and never really looked back. For the first few years I would come down for extended visits when my parents were still living there. But, after that the visits came fewer and farther between. And with each visit my hometown became more and more unrecognizable. Suddenly there was a thriving downtown area with real shopping and restaurants. Now there is a plethora of movie theaters. Old buildings took on new functions, or were replaced by still ugly newer buildings. Disney and Warner Brothers seemingly took over the entire west side of town. The little hospital I was born in, St. Joseph’s, was now a large medical complex. And I stopped keeping track of all the face lifts that NBC had undergone. My joke of a hometown now seems to take itself very seriously. What used to be a utilitarian area of sound production and editing houses is now the “Media District.” The downtown in now the “Mall District”. “Whatever” I say in my best Valleyese (which, by the way, despite growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I never spoke).
Yet amidst all this change is the one strong link I still have to my hometown and my childhood – my friend Carol. Carol and I have known one another since, according to my estimate, about five years old (though her estimates may vary). And while we may go months or even years without seeing or talking to each other, I know that her door is always open to me (and even if it’s not, I have a key and I’m not afraid to use it). She still lives in the house where she grew up (though she had it completely rebuilt years ago) so when I go for a visit, it does feel like I’ve come home. There is something very comforting about having your morning coffee at the same old kitchen table in the same chairs that you can remember from your wee youth. We fall into our old patterns of kidding banter very easily, but now it has to do with our gray hair (or attempts at hiding it) and her antiquated dial-up internet connection rather than about boys or who did what with whom at some party.
I swear I started this post several days ago with the intention of making some kind of point. Freak if I remember what it was. If anyone can venture a guess, please do. 🙂