His old haunts
Wax museums. Costume shops. Young Tim Burton loved them. Revisiting L.A., he has a nightmare before Christmas.
By Scott Timberg, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Tim BURTON knows the dark side. No, 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 the most 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.
Famously, Burton wears clunky black specs with dark-blue lenses. They seem to be literally, and figuratively, the opposite of rose-colored glasses.
"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.
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. A short distance away, his high school, Burbank High - which he remembers as an imposing building alone on a hill, like the hotel in Hitchcock's "Psycho" - has changed too much for it to be very evocative. "It looks more like an airport terminal now." He's still a bit haunted by the return. "Everybody said, 'These are the best years of your life.... ' Are you kidding me?"
The years before were even worse; he describes himself as "quiet and kind of anonymous." His junior high - now Luther Burbank Middle School - looks even less inviting than he remembered it. Between chain-link fences, a sign announcing 24-hour surveillance and yellow "Caution" tape, it doesn't exactly welcome him back.
"Is this a school or is it some sort of strange prison camp?" Burton asks. "All you need is a little barbed wire on the fence and you could shoot a new 'Dirty Dozen' film here."
He walks around the campus and comes to the gym, which Burton says resembles a weapon bunker. "It's got a sinister quality to it. Like, 'This is where we hold our executions.' "
As he starts to reflect on his memories, planes take off loudly behind him. Burton's sure he couldn't go in, even if the place were open. "It's like a vampire entering a church," he says. "You can't do it."
The director seems much cheerier as our car passes the Smoke House and heads onto Barham Boulevard past Forest Lawn, one of several cemeteries where he used to play as a kid, and toward Hollywood.
"This was amazing," Burton says of the route. "Here you start to get a sense of Universal Studios, that there was a bigger world out there.... I would take the bus; I used to love making that trip to Hollywood Boulevard. It was a bit more seedy."
Burton, like many native sons returning home, can't believe how cleaned up Hollywood is. "Oh, my God - it's Vegas," he says, as the car pulls up to the Hollywood & Highland complex. "All this new .... Oh, my God ....Yecch!"
On a less polished stretch of Hollywood east of Highland, he finds what he's looking for: costume shops that sell fake hand grenades and real pepper spray, even more wig shops than in Burbank, palm readers, a bondage shop and run-down magic stores. Burton, after all, went on a magic and ventriloquism kick as a kid.
"You ever been to the Magic Castle?" he asks. "I saw how angry they were - there's nothing worse than an angry magician. I realized that I had anger issues, and that if I became a magician it would be really bad."
He wanders down the street to Boardner's, the kind of old-school Hollywood bar that filmmaker Ed Wood (the subject of another celebrated Burton film) and his associates would frequent. But at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday, it's not quite open yet.
Who's drinking at 3:30 on a Sunday, anyway?
"Are you kidding?" Burton asks. "Most of the people who go in here!"
One of his old haunts, Hollywood Toys and Costumes, however, is open for business. In fact, the place, which seems to be the size of two basketball courts, is teeming. "Look inside," he says. "It's every mask you could ever hope for."
Burton has good memories of buying masks, plastic vomit and rubber hot dogs at such places. This emporium is stocked with monster masks, fake snakes, wooden coffins, Styrofoam headstones, simulated human organs and severed plastic arms.
But the highlight for Burton is a return to the Hollywood Wax Museum. "I don't know why I get so excited," he says. Burton remembers being at the wax museum one day when the air conditioning broke and the figures started to melt. "Wax figures, when they're hot - they really stink."
His return visit doesn't start off well, though. Most of the figures are from recent movies, whether the new "Miami Vice" or "Master and Commander" or lesser-known Sylvester Stallone projects.
"All new," Burton says with a sigh. He's unmoved even by figures from his own movies, like the wax figure of Johnny Depp from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or of Michael Keaton as "Batman."
Appropriately, the first really old figure he comes across is Vincent Price, one of Burton's boyhood idols, whom he later cast in "Edward Scissorhands." And there are some other classic monster-movie figures - Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera, Boris Karloff as the Mummy - thrown in with old wax museum evergreens like Christ's Last Supper and the cast of "Bonanza."
Thanks to his obsession with the Hollywood Boulevard locale, the adult Burton visits wax museums at whatever city he's in. In fact, after the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park closed last fall, he bought its Sammy Davis Jr. figure and had it shipped to London.
"I forgot to tell the housekeeper, though," he says. "She came in and thought there was a dead body on the sofa."
Later, Burton makes a quick stop down the street at Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store. It's next door to the El Capitan Theatre, where the new 3-D version of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is playing and where there's an exhibit of the original puppets from the film.
"We do a themed ice cream for every movie that comes here," says manager Cary Khatab, offering Burton a sundae based on "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Burton, after posing for a picture with virtually every member of the staff, gives it a thumb's up. He's sold on the pumpkin ice cream. "I think that's what sets it apart," he says weakly, "from other sundaes."
But "I just want to point out, I don't normally come here," Burton says. "Unless it was a strip club before it turned into a Disney store."
Always and forever
Even with all the attention and good vibes at the El Capitan, Burton is at his most comfortable at the next stop: the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Like most of Burton's haunts, this wasn't a place he typically visited with a posse. "Actually it was very private; I spent a lot of time by myself. Making up stories, that kind of thing. Wondering about the scary guy who works for the cemetery, you know? There was this element of danger."
He especially likes the quiet, the expanse of nature, the palm trees and the elaborate crypts, some with their own lakes and arrays of birds.
"That's pretty much what I'd do when I went out: brood. I wouldn't really go out with other people." He recalls spending one Christmas Eve in the parking lot of a Valley Bob's Big Boy. With a girlfriend, hopefully?
"No, I think it was because I didn't have a girlfriend," says Burton, who's done better since. (He's lived with actress Helena Bonham Carter, with whom he is engaged and has a 3-year-old son, for five years now.)
After high school, Burton went to CalArts, where he generally had more fun.
His college evenings working at nearby Magic Mountain for Fright Fests, dressed as the Mummy and other monsters, weren't among the happy part, though.
"You'd get so abused," he recalls. "Once we got chased around by gangs of teenagers. I think there's some natural response: People just want to abuse characters in a theme park, punching out Winnie the Pooh or something. Then add Halloween into the mix: It's pretty rough."
Finally, there were other spots Burton was fond of because they appeared in movies. He enjoyed staring off into the distance from the heights of Griffith Observatory, which appeared in "Rebel Without a Cause" and other films.
Another place was the Santa Monica Pier. "I used to like sulking on the pier a lot," he recalls. The fog, the crashing waves and the striking Byzantine architecture allowed the dramatic teenager in him to act out. (It was also the setting for one of his favorite oddball movies, the 1961 Dennis Hopper thriller "Night Tide.")
Even humble Burbank had a few significant locations: He enjoyed hanging out in a cemetery near his house, Valhalla, because it resembled the graveyard in Ed Wood's 1959 sci-fi film "Plan 9 From Outer Space," considered by some the worst film ever made. And parts of Burbank showed up, Burton thinks, in the 1968 B movie "The Astro-Zombies."
But as the day nears its end, it's clear that Burton has gained some perspective on his life as a young man. He just may have spent more solitary time - in graveyards, wax museums, beaches and dodgy bars - than was good for him.
"I'm just now realizing how much time I spent alone," Burton says. "Kind of frightening, really."