Orlando's dream of becoming "Hollywood East" never was nor will be. Yet during my recent West Coast visit, I kept encountering echoes of the City Beautiful in the City of Angels. For starters, both sport year-round sunshine (zero humidity makes L.A.'s heat much less hellish), snarled traffic (though I found Interstate 5 more navigable than I-4) and tax bases built on fantasyland. Both burgs boast robust farmers markets (Third and Fairfax's famous maze offers everything from gumbo to sushi, along with books and barbers) and folk-art focused museums. Both towns tout swimming pools and movie stars: Did you catch veteran Orlando actor Brett Rice as the Sheriff in Super 8? I did, inside the ArcLight Hollywood's 1963-vintage Cinerama dome! And while Orlando has most of the hillbillies, I'll admit to driving through Beverly Hills in search of 90210 filming locations.
Another Orlando mainstay I met up with out west was the Fringe Festival, which was in the middle of its second annual Hollywood edition during my trip. Though young, the Hollywood Fringe Festival already features hundreds of productions in dozens of venues across town, plus a website that puts the Orlando Fringe site to shame. Hollywood's fest also has a distinctly downscale bohemian vibe; Theater of Note, the black-box space I attended, was in fact little more than a black box with a booze-friendly drinking policy but just one lone bathroom, located backstage.
On the advice of friend and former Cirque du Soleil La Nouba star Elena Day, I attended Ineffable , a marvelously morbid gothic pantomime by talented L.A. clowning duo Jon Monastero and Stephen Simon. Watching them splash-battling the Grim Reaper midstream on the River Styx or staging a full-audience funereal photograph, I wished they'd bring their act to Orlando's Fringe; their macabre mimewould make a great successor to past hit artists like Miss Hiccup and Schave & Reilly. While the Hollywood Fringe's decentralized setup led to a less unified event and a lot more driving, it was fascinating to see a different approach to our familiar festival.
During my trip, I gazed down on the city from the roof of Griffith Observatory, dined at the Palm and dodged traffic along the Miracle Mile. But you can't really say you've had the true Hollywood experience until you've had a studio tour. Sure, you could pay $80 to Universal for a tram ride past plastic sharks and 3-D monkeys. Or you could give $50 to Warner Brothers and get a couple hours of golf-carting around their back lot.
But nothing beats a drive-on pass through the iconic gates of the historic Paramount Studios and a walking tour guided by one of Orlando and L.A.'s most talented working artists. If you've ever seen Pee-Wee's Playhouse or any number of live-action Nickelodeon shows since the early 1990s, then you've likely seen the wildly imaginative props and puppets created by "Wavy Davy" David Jordan, whose designs have also been seen in local productions for Ibex Puppetry and the Orlando Theatre Project. A proud fifth-generation Floridian, Jordan possesses skills that are in enough demand to keep him in Hollywood at least until the fall, but his heart is never far from his Central Florida roots: He and his siblings (including local artist Aimee Jordan) banded together to relocate and restore the historic Apopka Seabord Air Line Railway Depot.
Jordan is currently living in L.A. while designing special-effects props for the hit Nick Jr. musical The Fresh Beat Band ,which recently premiered its third season. Despite being exhausted from the previous week's Wizard of Oz-themed double episode, Davy took his lunch break to show this film geek around the sets and soundstages where classics such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and Star Trek were filmed. Better yet, I got to peek behind the scenes as the Fresh Beat Band rehearsed, marveling at the eye-popping colors of the elaborate sets and the surprisingly unglamorous catering (all the baby bottled waters and Brussels sprouts you could want!).
Poking around the workshop where Jordan builds breakaway palm trees and sequined Converse that walk on their own, I was awed by the depth of creativity and talent employed in creating this kiddie confection: Even the stunt coordinator was a double for Jeff Bridges in True Grit.
On my way out, I finally had my obligatory celebrity semi-encounter: I obliviously ambled past Jeremy Piven as he was en route to the Entourage set. But at least I wasn't knocked to the ground by a bicycle-riding Daniel Craig, as an anonymous employee passing by claimed to have been. If I'm going to be a pedestrian fatality, I'm sure it'll happen back home in Orlando.