1. Star parties regularly light up the Hollywood Hills.Photo: Jane Rahman
But not the sort you likely imagine. Each month, the Griffith Observatory, along with the L. A. Astronomical Society, the L.A. Sidewalk Astronomers, and the Planetary Society, turn dozens of high-powered telescopes to the skies for the observatory’s monthly public star parties. At 2pm (yep, in daylight) on these highly anticipated Saturdays, professional and amateur astronomers, stationed across the lawn and over the observatory’s terraces, begin captaining people to the outer reaches of the Milky Way with stops to see Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s storm, the sun’s flares, and whatever celestial bodies prominently emerge.
The on-ground star of the party always is the Zeiss refracting telescope, which has served more than 7 million people since it was mounted in its rooftop dome in 1935, making it the most looked-through telescope in all the world.
2. You can visit Gandhi’s ashes in the Pacific Palisades.
Spiritual guru Paramahansa Yogananda erected the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial in the lush meditation gardens of his Lake Shrine Self-Realization Fellowship Temple after receiving a small portion of Gandhi’s ashes from a mutual friend, Dr. V.M. Nawle. Yogananda enshrined the ashes in an ancient stone Chinese sarcophagus and set it between two Guanyin Bodhisattva statues behind a white and gold archway alongside the lake, where they have remained since Yogananda dedicated the “wall-less temple” in 1950. The gardens are free and open to the public, and the memorial can be visited any time the grounds are open.
3. The Hollywood sign was torn down in 1978, and Hugh Hefner led efforts to rebuild it.
Originally illuminated with 4,000 20-watt flashing lightbulbs, the former Hollywoodland sign was erected on Mount Lee as an advertisement for a luxury housing development in 1923, and was slated to stand for about a year. After real-estate development plans collapsed with the Great Depression, maintenance of the sign was discontinued. By the mid-1940s, it started to deteriorate, with the “H” falling over once, and residents of the thriving neighborhoods below wanted the sign taken down. By then the lights were gone, and at this point “LAND” was removed. Though the City of Los Angeles named the sign an official landmark, and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce assumed its care and maintenance, the sign continued to rust and crumble. In 1973, pranksters changed the landmark to read “Hollyweed.” In 1978, the “O” fell down the mountain and arsonists set fire to the “L.”
In August of 1978, the Hollywood sign was demolished, and Los Angeles was without its most iconic symbol for the first time in more than 50 years. In response, Hugh Hefner led the way to raise the $250,000 needed to rebuild it. At the fundraising gala he threw at the Playboy Mansion, celebrities and community leaders, like Alice Cooper and Gene Autry, sponsored individual letters at $27,500 apiece. The new sign was unveiled in November of the same year as part of Hollywood’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, and today it’s protected by the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust.
4. George H.W. and George W. are Straight Outta Compton!
George and Barbara Bush raised three-year-old George W. for six months in 1949 and 1950 on Santa Fe Avenue in Compton (albeit a different iteration of the city than the one we know today), while the future 41st president was selling oil-drilling bits in Southern California.
5. Dire wolves ran rampant over prehistoric Los Angeles.
Game of Thrones fans may be excited to learn this and to visit the La Brea Tar Pits, from which the fossils of over 4,000 individual dire wolves have been excavated. Four hundred dire wolf skulls are on display inside the museum behind the main tar pit, along with the fossils of other ice age animals like the woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tiger, and giant camel.
6. Car-obsessed Los Angeles once had the world’s largest public transportation system.
The streetcar made its Los Angeles debut in 1874, when the very first carriage was pulled down its 6th and Spring Street railroad tracks by horses. Cars ran regularly along the mile-and-a-half route between 6:30am and 10:00pm and cost 10 cents per ride. By 1897, the last of the horse-drawn railways were replaced by electric streetcars.
During L.A. transit’s ensuing golden age, Los Angeles Railway’s “Yellow Cars” offered interurban service, and Pacific Electric Railway’s “Red Cars” carried passengers from Redlands to Santa Monica for a penny a mile. The Yellow Cars ran from 1901 to 1963, while the Red Cars lasted almost as long, with ridership peaking in 1944 at over 109 million riders and more than 1,150 miles of track for 900 cars. Part of the world’s largest electric-transit system, Los Angeles trains and trolleys connected over 50 communities across four counties, from the beaches to the valleys. Though the last streetcar was retired in 1963, and despite persistent rumors that life in L.A. is impossible without a car, today’s L.A. Metro is second in patronage only to New York’s MTA. It’s efficient and rapidly expanding, with plans to reintroduce the Downtown Streetcar.
7. Amelia Earhart got her start in aeronautics in Los Angeles in 1921.
After years of fascination with airplanes, Ms. Earhart left her pre-med studies at Columbia University and moved from New York to Los Angeles, where she took her first flight with pilot Frank Hawk. Five days later, on January 3, 1921, she began flying lessons. Before the year was up, the young Los Angeles pilot bought her own plane, passed her flying license tests, and flew in the Pacific Coast Ladies’ Derby in Pasadena.
8. Los Angeles County has the most minority- and women-owned businesses in the country.
Moreover, if the county were a country, it would have the 19th largest economy in the world.
9. The Los Angeles Dodgers were the first Major League Baseball team west of Missouri.
The Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958 and played their first regular season home game in front of a record 78,672 fans in Exposition Park’s Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which remained their home until they transitioned to Dodger Stadium in 1962. Just one year after their move, the Dodgers won the World Series against the White Sox, along with the undying love of Los Angeles.
In 2008, to commemorate their 50th anniversary in Los Angeles, the Dodgers returned to the Coliseum for an exhibition game against the Red Sox that drew 115,300 fans, the largest crowd for a single game in baseball history.
10. During WWII, an artillery barrage erupted in the skies over Los Angeles, lasting an hour and leaving five civilians dead.
Controversy continues to surround the military’s massive assault, known as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, that erupted at 3:16am on February 25, 1942, to the tune of air raid sirens. Despite the 1,500 anti-aircraft shells that were launched, and explosions of .50-caliber machine guns all up and down the Southland, no enemy aircraft was ever shot down, engaged, or officially identified.
Different military departments produced widely varying reports on the nature of the unidentified objects in the sky that triggered the “Battle of Los Angeles,” and no conclusion has ever been agreed upon. Strong public debate followed and conspiracy theories evolved, including plenty involving UFOs. Careful review of the evidence today suggests that a meteorological balloon set off the event, which caused property damage and five deaths attributed to the ensuing chaos. “Battle” enthusiasts sometimes commemorate the occasion at special events, like the recent Great Los Angeles Air Raid of 1942 – An Exciting Recreation of a Historic Controversy!, featuring special guests the Satin Dollz and the Hollywood Hotshots.
11. Boyle Heights has its own miniature version of Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi.
Since the 1930s, L.A.’s own Mariachi Plaza has been buzzing with charro-suited mariachis playing little concerts all across the square, ready for hire. The large majority of these musicians live in “Mariachi Hotel,” the historic 1889 Boyle Hotel bordering the west side of the plaza. The now residential Queen Anne building is home to the largest concentration of Mariachis in Southern California and is one of the oldest remaining commercial structures in the city. The building, and the block it stands on, are designated a Historic Landmark for their connection to the city’s early Mexican history and the building’s architecture.
12. Los Angeles’ original name was El Pueblo Sobre el Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula.
Felipe de Neve, governor of Spanish California, named it so when the first 11 families, totaling 44 people, settled in what is known today as El Corazon in Downtown Los Angeles. You can get a sense of this history by visiting the Avila Adobe, the city’s oldest remaining residence. The “shortened” name was officially recorded as El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles in 1781.