This week’s question: What pop culture pilgrimages have you made?
I’ve made a few recently for the extensive new season of Pop Pilgrims, but I’ll let those stay a secret until the videos come out. In “real life,” though, I’ve forced my parents to drive past the house from A Christmas Story after a night of holiday drinking in Cleveland. Because of a friend who worked on Desperate Housewives, I spent an afternoon eating ice cream on that set, where I heard things like, “Oh, you walk through Bree’s house to get to the bathroom.” He also grabbed a golf cart and took me around the Universal Studios backlot, where I got to see stuff like the world’s largest green screen, the house from The Great Outdoors, a wrecked plane that’s been used in countless things, and even an old DeLorean from Back To The Future that was just sitting in the corner of a prop car parking lot, covered in squirrel nests.
One of the times I visited my brother and his family in Maryland, I ended up staying in Georgetown because I was single, I wanted to explore a part of D.C. I had never seen, and I wasn’t a big fan of uber-suburban Montgomery County. I knew that the Exorcist steps—the tall staircase where the famous scene depicting the priest falling to his death was filmed—weren’t far from my hotel. When I found the steps, with the help of some rudimentary, pre-smartphone, circa-2000 Internet searching, I stood at the top and the bottom, taking pictures all the way. I tried to frame them as creatively as I could, making them look as spooky as they did in the film. But since I was by myself, I couldn’t make the frame of reference of seeing a person perched on the stairs work.
I don’t usually share this, since I’m afraid it’ll make me come across like an obsessive who regularly attends conventions of this sort (possibly in costume), but I once went to a Twin Peaks fan festival in Washington’s Snoqualmie Valley. Though it’s not the type of thing I’m likely to do again, it was an incredible trip. The other guests were good company and a lot more reserved about their fandom than the typical Star Trek conventioneer; I had my picture taken with the wonderful Michael J. Anderson (the dancing guy from the Red Room); and the whole weekend was a scenic blur of landmarks and locations I either vaguely or specifically recalled from the series. The one that stood out the most, not surprisingly, was the diner from Twin Peaks, Twede’s Cafe (called the Double R in the show). By the time Pop Pilgrims toured the café in 2011, the interior had been overhauled beyond recognition following a massive fire, but for my visit the diner still looked exactly as it did in the show: tiled, wood-paneled, and dingy, with a lunch counter I wanted to wash my hands after touching. And as promised, the cherry pie was phenomenal.
Scott Von Doviak
Last summer I treated myself to a self-guided road trip of Texas Chain Saw Massacre locations. I started with the gas station, Bilbo’s Texas Landmark, off Highway 304 south of Bastrop. It’s actually just a shell of a gas station now, long-since closed down and probably due to be demolished to make way for the ever-encroaching housing developments. That made it all the creepier, so I didn’t hang around long. My next stop was the graveyard, about 35 or 40 minutes north of Austin in Leander, except I screwed up the directions and ended up going to the wrong cemetery entirely. Finally, just in time for dinner, I hit the Junction House restaurant in Kingsland, which, as you learned in this 2011 installment of Pop Pilgrims, is the actual house from the original Texas Chain Saw. I ate in the “Bone Room,” but chose to have a salad in lieu of any sort of meat dish. What I didn’t know is that the Junction House is BYOB, but fortunately I was able to bum a Lone Star from one of my fellow diners. See? Texas is friendly, even in Leatherface’s house. Sadly, if Yelp is to be believed, I made it there just under the wire, as the Junction House closed in August 2012. Perhaps their source of meat dried up.
I finally made it out to Home Alone house in Winnetka, Illinois, this past holiday season, and though the experience satisfied a two-decades-long curiosity, it did leave a strange, spoiled-cheese-pizza taste in my mouth. As with any private home made famous by a piece of pop culture—the Ennis House from Blade Runner, say, or the Tanners’ place from Full House—production leaves the neighborhood after a few weeks, but the legacy of the film or TV show (or even just a five-second establishing shot) takes up permanent residence and invites people over all the time. After several years on the market, the Home Alone house was finally sold in 2012, so there were living, breathing people in there when my wife and I drove by. I know, because I saw one of them come home from walking the family dog—and she probably saw the group of people who arrived shortly after us, the ones who stopped the car, got out, took a few snapshots with the McCallister house, then sped off into the darkness. I’ll cop to the allure of locations and structures that I’ve only previously known as two-dimensional images—I had several moments of unchecked awe during the filming of this new Pop Pilgrims season—but it’s important to remember that, sometimes, these places are dwellings, not props. Getting a fleeting glimpse is one thing, but to actually walk up onto the lawn of the Home Alone house is a violation of sorts. Besides, it totally flies in the face of the film’s message about the sanctity of the homestead.
Laura M. Browning
As far as I’m concerned, Pulp’s “Common People” is, hands down, the best pop song of the ’90s. So when I was in London a few years ago, I insisted to my friend that we go to Saint Martins College. Of course, it’s not as though there’s much to see—I took a crappy picture of the sign and sang, “She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge / She studied sculpture at Saint Martins College / That’s where I / Caught her eye.” This was all to the great amusement of my friend, who taught there at the time, and couldn’t seriously believe I had to visit his workplace. (Though I bet the next time he’s Stateside, he’ll want to see The Onion offices.)
Two years ago, while we were in New York shooting the first season of Pop Pilgrims, I took advantage of having a rental car and made a trek out to St. Albans, Queens—specifically the intersection of Linden Boulevard and Farmers Boulevard. I’m a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest, and the legendary hip-hop group frequently references Linden in its songs, including one of my favorites, ”Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” which opens with Phife Dawg rapping, ”Linden Boulevard, represent, represent-zent.” Linden’s a long street, so I didn’t really know where to go, but Farmers Boulevard is another frequent reference point in hip-hop, so the intersection of Linden and Farmers seemed like as good a place as any. (That year, Michael Rapaport would use the intersection in the artwork for his excellent Tribe documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life.) I rolled up in my rented black minivan, took some pics, and wandered around a bit. It took a good week to get “Steve Biko” out of my head.
A few years ago, after going to Boston for a conference, my husband and I decided to tack on a few days’ vacation to Vermont, where neither of us had been. I hope you can handle the hardcore awesomeness of the pop culture pilgrimage we took: it was Cabot Creamery, whose name, as a public radio sponsor, had been drilled into my head after years of listening to NPR. (I opted not to go to the Ben & Jerry factory because I find their ice cream pretty overrated and when it comes to dairy treats that will kill me, I prefer cheese to ice cream.) Somewhere between the dulcet tones of the NPR announcers and the pastoral images of Vermont I had conjured in my head—not to mention the words “Cabot” and “Creamery,” both of which sounded fairly fancy to me—I had expected Cabot Creamery to be something like a Napa wine country tour of cheese. I would sit on a sunny lawn sampling delicious choice Brie while adorable fuzzy black-and-white calves scampered around me. Not quite. The “creamery” is basically just a cheese factory with a gift shop, and the cheese doesn’t get much fancier than a basic cheddar flavored with jalapeño that you could buy at any ordinary grocery store. We were given a tour after being shown a video about the Vermont cheese collective and how cheese is made. The most memorable part of the tour was when I asked the guide what the “cottage” is in cottage cheese and she snapped back, “That was in the video.” Never meet your heroes, folks.
One summer well before I moved to New York, I read Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence, her masterwork about aging, regret, and high society. I dog-eared every other page of my copy, trying to remember every sentence, every moment so brilliant and so tragic. Wharton was intimately familiar with the New York City elite—she grew up in those certain circles. One of the joys of The Age Of Innocence is the detail in which she relates the particulars of life for the bored and wealthy in the city at the turn of the century. The mansions on Fifth Avenue, the way rich people went to the opera but didn’t pay attention, the early days of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art—it’s all in there. But I paid my pilgrimage to Grace Church, a gorgeous but easy-to-miss Gothic-style church at the corner of 10th and Broadway. Not only is it the scene of an important wedding midway through the novel, it’s also where Wharton herself was baptized. It was a mainstay of New York high society, so walking through it feels like walking through her novels.
The first time I went to New York, I stayed in the Village on a rather uncomfortable couch (I was actually nursing a peritonsillar abscess at the time, so I was uncomfortable for a number of reasons, but that’s another story). Finding out that I was near Bleecker Street, I knew I had to bum around it for a little while. Name-checked in songs by Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, and many others, the street is, to quote Wikipedia, known as “a major center of American Bohemia.” I didn’t go into any of the music or comedy clubs (seeing as it was 10 in the morning and, as mentioned above, I was in an incredible amount of pain), but I still felt like I understood the feel of the place where Bob Dylan and so many others got their start.
I’ve taken a bunch of pop pilgrimages, both for our web series and on my own. I already pointed out my trip to Morrissey’s Manchester and the Tenenbaums’ house last time around, so this time I’ll go with something a little closer to home: Chicago, did you know that you can visit the exterior of the Winslow house from Family Matters? It’s true, you can. It’s on Wrightwood just east of Ashland, directly across from Wrightwood Park. There’s nothing to see, and if you look for Urkel’s house next door, you won’t find what you’re looking for. But if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s work a look. Here’s a Google Street View, in case you don’t actually want to head over.
Right before I moved back to Chicago, I took a trip to Seattle. I have a second cousin who lives up there, but I hadn’t been to the city since I was about 10 years old, when my family went to the Space Needle and to newly opened Safeco Field to see a Mariners game. More than a decade later, having already been to the usual tourist attractions, I wanted to see some filming locations. Most of my friends lapped up pictures of Gas Works Park and the Fremont Troll—anything used as a location in 10 Things I Hate About You. (The Troll is awesome if you catch it during a lull in pedestrian traffic; there’s no area at Gas Works full of hay bales and paint-filled water balloons, and the gigantic Stadium High School is actually in Tacoma.) But my favorite film is Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut, Say Anything, so personally, I had more fun seeing things like the Aurora Bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which Lloyd and Diane drive over while returning a drunk kid (played by Barbra Streisand’s son Jason Gould) to his home after a high school graduation party.
Not long after I saw the original Dawn Of The Dead for the first time, I got to visit the Monroeville Mall, where it was filmed. While it was kind of cool just to be able to say I was there, I have to say a mall is a mall, and it didn’t make a huge impression on me. Of course, like I said, it was after the first time I saw the movie, so maybe if I went back now that I have seen it roughly fifty times, I’d feel differently. My favorite pop-culture pilgrimage of recent years was visiting Hell’s Half Acre in Wyoming, where the alien-planet scenes from Starship Troopers were filmed. It’s basically a miniature Grand Canyon in the middle of nowhere, and one look at its weird, colorful geology makes it clear why director Paul Verhoeven chose to use it to represent the alien homeworld. It had special meaning because I spent much of my childhood living less than an hour away from the place and visited it many times before it ever became film-famous, but somehow, as a kid, I always appreciated the gift shop more than the bizarre landscape of this giant hole in the ground (hey, they sold disappearing ink!). Revisiting it as an adult was much cooler now that it was the site of one of my favorite movies. It also didn’t hurt that I was finally old enough that I could crawl around down in the dangerous parts without anyone yelling at me.
I have yet to make my ultimate pilgrimages (Athens, Georgia, for all things R.E.M.; Manchester, England, for all things Smiths), but several years ago, I did a drive-by photo tour of John Hughes ’80s movie ephemera with a high-school friend in the suburbs of Chicago. Mainly, this meant scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—including an exterior shot of Glenbrook North High School and the sun-drenched winding road Ferris and Sloane drive on after she escapes school. We also hit points of interest at the Art Institute Of Chicago—I too had to stand in front of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte, just like Cameron—and, of course, Wrigley Field. However, since we were tooling around the suburbs of Chicago, we also made sure to snap a pic of Shermer Road—the street which gave The Breakfast Club’s high school its name. For me, seeing in the flesh these movie scenes I knew so well wasn’t at all disappointing; if anything, it made Hughes’ movies that much more alive.
At the risk of being predictable, I must admit that, during the course of planning out my college graduation present—a trip to the U.K. back in ’92—the one location I knew I needed to visit more than any other was Liverpool, so that I could be a total tourist and take the inevitable Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour throughout the city and stop at all the key locations in Fab Four lore. Yes, I saw all the Beatles’ houses, had a beer downstairs at the Cavern Club (it’s not the original, but it’s close enough), and had my picture taken in front of the gates of Strawberry Fields. When I went back in late 2001 on my honeymoon, though, I took my wife on the same expedition and—by wonderful coincidence—we took the tour on November 11, a.k.a. Remembrance Day, which meant that we were literally able to buy poppies from a tray while we were on Penny Lane. Brilliant.
I wrote a bit of a novel for the last Pop Pilgrims (for those who read it, I did end up going to see the Field Of Dreams diamond in Iowa and the Mill Valley club where Huey Lewis shot the cover of Sports, though I still haven’t made it to Michael Jackson’s childhood home in Indiana), so I’ll keep this one short. I’ve been kind of obsessed with Jim Jones and Peoples (yeah, no apostrophe) Temple ever since I saw the TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones, starring Powers Boothe, as a kid. So when I ended up near Redwood Valley, California, earlier this month, I knew I had to visit the Redwood Valley Assembly Of God, which is housed in the same church where Jones got Peoples Temple rolling in California. I felt a little weird going to actual church, especially since I had only brought a T-shirt and jeans for the drive home on Sunday, but I figured if I was going to visit, I may as well take in a service. It turned out that Pastor Zach is also fond of wearing jeans to church, and the Redwood Valley Assembly Of God is probably the most subdued Pentecostal church you’ll ever attend.