Long before I moved to Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard held an elevated place in my imagination. As I knew from countless movies and TV shows, Sunset was a magical ribbon of asphalt that wound its way from Dodger Stadium on L.A.’s Eastside (where it morphed into Cesar Chavez Avenue) all the way to its western terminus at the edge of the sparkling blue Pacific. Along the way, Sunset also unfurled directly in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, which as a teenager I’d seen on the cover of the Eagles’ 1976 album, “Hotel California.” Palm trees silhouetted against a golden Angeleno dusk. To my snow-suffering Michigan eyes, it looked like Oz. This was a place—and a thoroughfare—I wanted to get to know.
I did. In fact, when I moved to L.A. in the early 1990s, I bought a condo practically on top of the Sunset Strip, just a few steps from the famed Whisky a Go Go nightclub (where go-go dancing got its start and where in the 1960s The Doors were briefly the house band). I was still unpacking boxes when, one afternoon, I heard wild screams from a crowd followed by an amplified voice booming through the open window: “Ladies and gentlemen! Duran Duran!” The British synth-pop band was giving a free concert a block away in the parking lot of Tower Records. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Sunset was where it was happening, all right. I was enjoying a coffee one afternoon when Pamela Anderson took a seat at the adjoining table. I almost literally bumped into Raquel Welch in the produce aisle of the grocery store. And one evening while I was browsing VHS tapes at Tower Video, I realized Sylvester Stallone was standing right next to me. I picked up a copy of his movie “The Specialist” and turned his way. “This one any good?” I asked with a grin. Stallone laughed, played right along: “Yeah!” he replied in that famous Rocky voice. “I think you’re gonna like it.” Other evenings weren’t so pleasant. On Halloween night in 1993, I was almost home from a late evening out when I passed a frantic crowd outside the Viper Room nightclub. Actor River Phoenix, just 23, was dying of an overdose on the sidewalk.
But it’s not the celebrities or the clubs or even the Hotel California that keeps me coming back to Sunset despite my now living a few miles away. It’s the cars. For on that star-spangled tarmac called Sunset Boulevard on any regular day of the week, one can peruse, drool over, or even drive right alongside some of the finest wheeled machinery ever known to mankind.
I realized that early in my decade on the Strip, when at a stoplight I looked over into the next lane and saw—No way! … Couldn’t be!—a 1962 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder. This was no Ferris Bueller fake. Uh uh. I was 2 feet away. The Ferrari was real, one of barely 100 ever built, just idling along with the rest of us on a warm L.A. morning, a veritable museum piece worth, what, maybe $ 5 million even way back then? The driver was an older gent, very distinguished looking, clearly as rich as Croesus. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead (the better, I suppose, not to be sullied by us hoi polloi). Then the light turned green, and in a cloud of exhaust, the California sprinted away, the glorious wail of its Colombo V-12 echoing off the facade of The Comedy Store.
The thing is, that day was anything but rare. On Sunset I’ve seen Bugatti Veyrons (one of them driven by Arnold Schwarzenegger), $ 2.5 million Pagani Huayras, pristine 1953 Chevrolet Corvettes, even the occasional Model T. One afternoon I was turning off Sunset toward Coldwater Canyon when Jay Leno passed going the other way. What was he driving? A 1941 American LaFrance fire truck, of course.
On Saturday afternoons I’ll often take a streetside seat at Le Petit Four cafe in Sunset Plaza and over lunch just watch the delicious metal roll by. Being at the epicenter of the Strip, Sunset Plaza is where everybody driving a cool ride comes to preen. Lambos, Ferraris, custom Porsches, vintage Mustangs—you’ll see it all here. And it’s funny: The passing drivers know there’s a big crowd of onlookers at the cafe. Nine out of 10 can’t help but rev their engines as they roar past. It’s like a National Geographic special with Maseratis instead of peacocks.
So what did I do the day I found myself driving one of George Barris’ very own Batmobiles? I headed straight to Sunset Boulevard. And as I slowly rolled through Sunset Plaza, I turned to the cafe crowds. And waved.