They may say that "nobody walks in L.A.," but there are a few notable exceptions here in Tinseltown, a rare handful of neighborhoods where walking is appreciated where people like to take a stroll, see a movie and grab a bite to eat. And one of the oldest of these is Westwood Village.
Not long ago, "The Village" (as it's known to locals) was the undisputed king of these outdoor, pedestrian shopping areas. But lately, its title has been usurped by newcomers such as The Grove, CityWalk , the Third Street Promenade and Old Pasadena.
Essentially a charming college town, located at the entrance to the giant UCLA campus, Westwood was always a popular shopping and entertainment destination. Long before the dawn of the movie megaplex, Westwood offered the largest concentration of movie theatres in any one place (and it's still the first choice for gala movie premieres today.)
But the Village really caught fire in the 80's; its streets became so insanely crowded on weekends that parking became impossible, and traffic was banned from its streets to allow for the burgeoning foot traffic.
It seemed to offer everything: restaurants, boutiques, quaint Old World architecture, an upscale crowd, a party atmosphere after dark, and more movie theatres than you could shake a stick at. All of this nestled in the safety of the posh West Side.
But that public image took a bruising in the late 1980's, when the weekend party atmosphere eventually attracted the wrong element to the West Side. Through the early '90's, there were a number of gang-related incidents (including a shooting and a small riot) which resulted in very negative publicity for the Village, and temporarily shattered the traditional image of Westwood as a safe place. Crowds fell off, merchants moved away... By the mid-90's, Westwood was in the middle of a major slump, with few people on the streets, even on weekends. And the arrival of new rivals, such as The Grove, didn't help.
Today, however, the Village is staging a comeback, trying to recapture its popularity. There are several major projects underway and things are definitely looking up. And a number of upscale new restaurants have opened in the Village (including Eurochow in the landmark Dome building.)
The crowds may not be as dense, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Westwood has always had a lot to offer. And it still does.
Admiring the Mediterranean-revival architecture (specially designed by the Janns brothers to complement UCLA's Romanesque buildings) and exploring the unexpected nooks and crannies and patios located throughout its winding thoroughfares is half of the fun.
The Village offers a wide assortment of shops, restaurants, and even though a number of movie theatres have closed there in recent years (including the National, the Crest and the Regent), Westwood has more than its fair share of movie theatres - including the handsome old Fox Village Theatre (built in 1931) and the slightly more modern Bruin Theatre (1937), both the scenes of countless movie premieres over the years.
The Village remains one of the prime locations for major Hollywood premieres. and it's not unusual to see spotlights criss-crossing the skies over Westwood as yet another celebrity blowout takes place on the streets of this college town.
(When I was a student at UCLA, I remember watching Barbra Streisand lead a parade of celebrities from the Bruin Theatre down to a local dance club, following the premiere of one of her movies. But even then, the locals were so jaded that they scarcely paid attention.)
Westwood can still be a wonderful place to visit, but it has lost its innocence - and most of its party atmosphere. For your own safety, I would recommend being careful in the Village during the late hours, especially on weekends.
To savor the excitement of the old days, try visiting during one of their giant movie premieres. Click here for a Calendar of upcoming premieres throughout L.A..
Another place of interest in the Village is the Geffen Playhouse. This small theatre is located in a tranquil courtyard just south of the entrance to UCLA. It was built in 1929 by the Masons, and didn't become a theatre until 1975. It was then called the Westwood Playhouse. The first production performed on stage was Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, starring Carrol O'Connor, Lee Grant and Burgess Merideth. It was renamed "The Geffen Playhouse" in 1996, following a major gift from producer David Geffen (the "G" in "Dreamworks SKG"). Since then, the theatre has concentrated on dramas, and it's stage has already been graced by quite a few Hollywood celebrities, including Columbo's Peter Falk, Seinfeld's Jason Alexander, Annette Bening, Fame's Debbie Allen, Frank Langella, The Mummy's Brendan Fraser, Martin Short, Parker Posey, Dana Delany, Rita Wilson, M*A*S*H's Wayne Rogers, Ed Begley, Jr., Alice's Linda Lavin, Father of the Bride's Kimberly Williams, Fraiser's John Mahoney, Beau Bridges and Lawrence Kasdan. The address is 10866 Le Conte Avenue. (310) 208-5454.
(Also try to visit the beautiful U.C.L.A. campus while you're there. And just around the corner, off Wilshire, you'll find the tranqil Pierce Bros Westwood Memorial Park, containing the graves of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Donna Reed, Natalie Wood, Burt Lancaster, Roy Orbison and many other stars..)
Getting there: Westwood Village is located in west Los Angeles, bounded by Beverly Hills (on the east), Century City (on the southeast), Brentwood (on the west) & Bel-Air (on the north). The Village is located just north of the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard & Westwood Boulevard, and just south of the U.C.L.A. campus. The main street of the Village is Westwood Boulevard. / From Rodeo Drive, take Wilshire Boulevard west (about two and a half miles) to Westwood Boulevard, and turn right (north) into the Village. / Or from the San Diego (405) Freeway, take the Wilshire Blvd (east) exit, and go east on Wilshire Boulevard a few blocks to Westwood Boulevard. Turn left (north) on Westwood Boulevard, into the Village.
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