No Sane City
EXHIBIT A: LOS ANGELES
“I am a citizen of no mean city.” — St. Paul
As I write these pages, it is autumn in Los Angeles. This is a particularly magical time here. The blinding glare of summer mellows to a gentle sunlight, mingled with the deepening shadows of late afternoon. The impossible blue of the fall sky, the abundant greenery and dizzying array of styles of interwar construction (art deco, Moorish, Tudor, French Chateau, etc.) create a dreamlike atmosphere. One feels as though one were living in someone else’s memory. Having dwelt in the Los Angeles area since my childhood, it is at moments like this that I could almost love the place. (Still, for all that, Manhattan will always feel more my home.)
Nevertheless, I will paraphrase St. Paul: “I am a citizen of no sane city.” Of course, experience jaundices one. When we moved from New York to Hollywood in the mid-1960s, the Coulombe family took an apartment in the home of Criswell, the famed fake psychic. Familiar to generations of bad-movie-goers from his yeoman work in such masterpieces as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls, and the classic Orgy of the Dead, Criswell found a new audience with Jeffrey Jones’s toned-down portrayal of him in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. But our landlord was more than just a screen idol; although just on the downward slide of his fame, he had had his own local television show, Criswell Predicts, during the 1950s, had been a frequent guest on the Tonight Show (inspiring Johnny Carson’s recurring character, Karnak the Magnificent), and had regularly performed in Vegas (as well as ridden in Hollywood’s Santa Claus Lane Parade). He had left Indiana for the lights of Broadway, and then for those of Hollywood. Like so many other Midwesterners before him, he reinvented himself in the town James Ellroy so well dubs “the Big Nowhere.” Of course, his predictions were not always accurate: Among many other prophecies, he warned the public that Mae West would be elected President in 1960; that pregnant women would be the first Americans on the Moon; that the population of Pittsburgh would turn cannibal; and that the world would end on August 18, 1999 (although this last did not happen, it allowed me to throw the “Criswell Apocalypse Party” at his favorite bar in Hollywood, Boardner’s — I was very pleased that it was written up in The New Yorker). Alas, Criswell himself had already, in the words of Tim Burton, “departed this dimension” in 1982.
With Criswell came into our lives a parade of intriguing folk; apart from various bygone third-tier film people, there were such luminaries as Maria Graciette (dubbed “the psychic who helps you” by one supermarket tabloid) and Madame Juno, the “Psychic to the Stars.” Hot and cold running predictions were the order of the day at Criswell House, and the prophecies of Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce were constantly discussed and speculated over. At the Master’s renowned Sunday Brunches, various experts took up such important questions as UFOs and Bigfoot, reincarnation and hauntings of all kinds.
Were all of this not strange enough, my brother and I were students at neighboring Blessed Sacrament School. In the 1967-68 school year, when Andre was in eighth grade and I in second, the Immaculate Heart Sisters (IHM), desperate to find themselves in accordance with the precepts of their guru, Carl Rogers, exploded. Hysterically upset with the Ordinary, James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, the IHM nuns detonated in a flurry of feminist rage. Despite his strictures, they dropped their habits and community life. When the IHM nuns handed him an ultimatum (he must either accept their changes or they would leave), His Eminence did not accept. The ladies were out.
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