Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Epilogue – Stella, this ain’t Hollywood

This is the last article in my report for my November 2011 trip to a Hollywood movie premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. For the beginning of the story, click here, then follow the story by clicking "Newer Post" at the bottom of each page!

So we’ve now been to a Hollywood premiere. And it was every bit as surreal as we thought it might be. We had a wonderful but too-brief visit with DisneyMom, were weirded out by Hollywood Boulevard, saw a couple of movie stars (no NPH, though), enjoyed the glitz and glamour of a Grauman’s premiere from the perspective of both participants and outsiders, and then woke to a California sunrise with a view of the Pacific ocean. All in a little more than a day.

That was one wild movie date.

Exactly one week after our return, I’m standing on a stage waiting for the curtain to go up – the Vocal Majority chorus is in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, for four shows. The shows have been sold out for months, and there is a waiting list in case any tickets become available.

Over the next two hours a packed theater will be treated to a world-class performance of sights and sounds they won’t believe, and I can’t help but compare these shows with our Hollywood movie experience. Unlike with Harold & Kumar, there won’t be any drugs or four-letter words in our show. We will be in 3D, but no glasses are required. There will be no nudity – and looking around at the 80+ guys with me on the risers, my VM brothers, I am thankful for that!

What there will be is some amazing, jaw-dropping harmony, timeless songs – this show features a mix of Bandstand-era hits, patriotic songs, Christmas and inspirational music – and lots of love from the chorus to the audience and back again.

It’s still show biz, but of a completely different sort. And the joy and friendship we share as performers, and the heartfelt response from our audiences, pays us in ways that mere money never could.

Hollywood? Movie business? Eh, seen it. They can have it.


THANKS: Our Hollywood trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, though, and we are very grateful to those who made it possible: first to Demand Media and Cracked.com for supplying the trip, and especially to Louie & Jon at Demand for all of the arrangements and support. Thanks also to Sam our Hollywood driver and tour guide, and to my dad, who was our Dallas driver (and tour guide?), and also to my parents for letting our boys stay over on short notice while we were out of town (big sacrifice, I know). Finally, big Texas thanks to DisneyMom for being such a friendly, normal person in the midst of the Hollywood Boulevard chaos, and for your incredible generosity!

P.S.: Becky says that if I ever again enter a contest where a trip to a Hollywood premiere is a prize, it better be for a Disney movie. I’m okay with that.

Watch for the hour-long Vocal Majority special on the Daystar Network, on Christmas day!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Home again

We sleep solidly until our alarms go off at 8:00. We wake quickly but rouse ourselves slowly, if that makes sense.

Yesterday already seems like a strange dream, sometimes wonderful, sometimes not, but not really real. Except we’re in a hotel room in Santa Monica, with that gorgeous ocean view out of our window!

There were squares of Ghirardelli dark chocolate left on our nightstand by housekeeping when we returned last night, but there was no way either of us wanted or needed to eat them then. But now? Sure. So we lounge in our fluffy white bed, the California sun streaming in our windows, eating chocolate. Now this life we could get used to!

There’s not much repacking left to do since we were just here the one night, though we do have to make sure we’re ready to go through security. Hmm, we still have Becky’s unopened can of Sprite from the flight here. That can’t go back through security. She has the choice of drinking it now – warm – or just leaving it in the room. She leaves it. Hopefully since it’s unopened someone will drink it and not just toss it out.

At a few minutes until 9:00 we bid our room goodbye and head back to the lobby. There is a glitch on our checkout – their records show that the Demand Media credit card on file just held the room; they don’t have the authority to charge it. I could stay until we get it worked out, but as wonderful as Demand has been to deal with, I bet they’ll correct it promptly, plus we have a plane to catch, so the hotel charge goes on my Visa. I am a little nervous about that, since our one night at the Huntley cost over $400!

Becky tells me our driver has arrived and loaded our luggage while I was dealing with the front desk – it’s the same driver that picked us up at LAX yesterday. We hop into the car and start off. Our driver asks us about the premiere, and we try to put the experience into words for him.

At the same time, I’m firing off a quick email to my contact at Demand Media, letting him know the hotel situation. He does not disappoint. Before we’ve even reached LAX, he’s contacted the hotel, put the charge onto Demand’s card, and emailed me a receipt showing the charge reversed off of our Visa card. Like I said, they’ve been wonderful to deal with!

Once at LAX, we print our boarding passes at a kiosk and then head through security. They have the blue box type of backscatter machines. I assume the position when it’s my turn – feet spread, arms held overhead – and then mosey out until I’m cleared. The TSA agent at the machine exit sees the Vocal Majority logo on my shirt. She high-fives me and says she loves singers, and that they have a good chorus “here.” I’m thinking of our fellow championship-level Barbershop Harmony Society choruses in the L.A. area like the Masters of Harmony and the Westminster Chorus, and reply, “Oh, yes, some excellent choruses.”

She clarifies, though, that she means that the TSA has their own singing group! She waves me on through and says that I should look them up on YouTube, and I say the same about the VM. Then she calls after me and laughingly says, “On second thought, don’t look us up!” [Sorry, too late. I found a great video of them here. She’s standing just behind the lead singer 23 seconds into the video!]

We enjoy Burger King breakfast croissants and Starbucks mochas at our gate. There’s a Qantas Airbus A380 across the way, that huge double-decker passenger jet. It’s my first time seeing one, and they are big.

Our boarding is delayed a little while the flight crew comes in on another flight, but soon enough we’re on board, and then in the air just a few minutes late. I latch my smartphone to the seatback in front of me again, finishing The Producers and then watching a couple of episodes of Newsradio, and I’m barely through the second episode when we’re descending into Dallas. Wow, that went by fast!

Before we know it, we’re at the gate and deplaning. I smack my head even harder on one of the video monitors on the way out. [The knot on my head and the bruise on my shoulder will be “souvenirs” for more than a week to come.]

We freshen up, and then exit the terminal. It’s gotten chillier here since we left, but it feels great. We’ve texted my dad that our gate is further down the terminal building than when he dropped us off, but we don’t see him anywhere. A few more texts confirm he has gone down to the arrivals level, even though we told him we’d be on the same level since we didn’t have to go through baggage claim.

Once we’re out of the airport, we make a quick call and have our boys and my mom come meet us all at Jason’s Deli. It’ll be almost 5:00 by the time we get there, but we’ve only had breakfast at LAX, so it’ll be like a late lunch & early supper combined for us.

After that, we go home, and then I turn around and head for rehearsal with the VM. It’s not Hollywood, but my own little corner of show biz still goes on!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lights out

We’re going south on La Brea when Becky lets me know she’s getting carsick. I tell Sam, and BOOM – within four seconds, top, he’s swerved into the center turn lane, signaled, crossed three northbound lanes, come to a stop in an apartment complex driveway, hopped out and opened Becky’s door. I’ll just chalk up his actions to exceptional customer service, though I’m sure the strong desire to protect the interior of his car played a large part.

Out of a (small) sense of propriety, I’ll avoid going into detail about what happens next. Suffice to say that several of our commemorative napkins from the Disney Soda Fountain were sacrificed. Sorry, DisneyMom.

We’re back on the road before too long, with Becky in the front passenger seat and her window down. The cool night air really seems to help her, and I can tell she’s feeling better when her sense of humor starts to return, as she says she feels sorry for whoever stumbles across what was left on the sidewalk at that apartment complex.

Sam dismissively counters, “Eh, it’s better than the blood they usually find in that neighborhood.” Lovely.

We’re soon back at the Huntley, tiredly thanking Sam and handing over our voucher for his services. One quick elevator ride later and we’re back in our nice, comfortable, quiet room.

Looking back, in addition to the madness and loudness of Hollywood, since arriving in L.A. we’ve eaten pizza, caramel apple candy corn, chili, an ice cream sundae, and buttered popcorn, then we shook it up in a high-speed mountain-road blender. It’s not a wonder that Becky got carsick, it’s a wonder that I didn’t.

It’s after 11 now – past 1 a.m. Central. We do the bare minimum to change, set alarms, and fall down on the bed. Neither of us takes long to go to sleep.

More than we could handle

It’s after 10:00, and about 45 minutes since we called our driver. We’re wondering what happened to Sam’s promised 20-25 minute pick-up time. We’re not being prima donnas; we’re just tired, Becky doesn’t feel great, and we’re back on Hollywood Boulevard – and it is still going at full volume. During all of our wait outside of the barricades, this time by Madame Tussaud’s, one guy is constantly yelling about how everything in the $10 store behind us is on sale for $6.99. At least he’s mixing it up the yelling with singing, chanting, and rapping, but I’ll be dreaming about “$6.99” for weeks to come.

We camp out by the barricades, scanning the streets for our car service, and watching the activity in the Chinese Theatre courtyard. It turns out that they cleared everyone out just to begin taking down the decorations.

I finally call Sam a second time. He is very apologetic, but got caught behind a wreck that happened on the off-ramp to La Brea, too late for him to go an alternate way. He says he’s moving again and is about 10 minutes out. We arrange for him to meet us by Madame Tussaud’s.

Ten minutes later, he’s pulling up to the curb on Orange Drive. We climb in, more or less grateful for the experience, but happy to be done with it.

Sam heads up Orange Drive towards Franklin, at the base of the Hollywood Hills. He points out that we’re heading right towards the Magic Castle, which DisneyMom had mentioned was here. I love magic and have even done some amateur stuff myself, and I wouldn’t mind going here someday. But not now.

Sam asks us a curious question, whether we’d ever seen L.A. “all at once.” Well, no, I’ve just been to one part at a time. He says if we give him an extra fifteen seconds, he’ll show it to us all at once. Sure, why not.

With that, he turns off of Franklin and we start up a sloping drive that takes us back behind the Magic Castle. Ah, I get it now. I knew we were at the base of the Hollywood Hills, and Sam is using the “fifteen seconds” to take us up a bit to see the lights. My family used to have a similar show-off-the-city-lights drive we’d take out-of-town guests on when we lived in Denver, up Lookout Mountain.

The street is narrow and our driver seems proud of his ability to go as fast as possible up the twisting roadway without hitting anything. I’d be nervous except that it’s kind of fun. I could almost pretend I was on the Amazing Race dealing with an adventurous foreign cab driver.

We whip into what turns out to be the parking lot of a Japanese restaurant [Yamashiro] with a spectacular view –the lights of Los Angeles spreading out below us. Pretty cool.

Sam slings the car out of the lot and we careen back down the twisting mountain road. Okay, enough of this; let’s head for the hotel.

He’s still talkative, and I take on a discussion comparing traffic laws and court procedures in California and Texas. It’s a “work” related discussion for me as a municipal court prosecutor, but I don’t mind because it means we’re not being asked what we thought of the movie, and Becky doesn’t really look like she feels like talking at all.

In fact, suddenly Becky is frantically gesturing to me that she feels sick. Uh oh.

Walking the red carpet, for real this time

We head up the aisle of the theater and deposit our 3D glasses with others on a ledge at the bottom of the stairs leading to the lobby. As we climb we can see that maybe all the celebs haven’t fled after all. There are large clusters of people ahead of us, and a few video camera lots sticking above the crowds. It’s impossible to see who might be at the center of the clusters, though.

One of the mobs is between us and the courtyard door we entered when arriving. As different and exciting as our celebrity adventure has been, though, we’re ready to head out and call it a night. It’s getting close to midnight “our time,” and this has been one long and brain-overloading day. And Becky’s not feeling well.

There are fewer people to our right, towards the center of the lobby, so we cut over that way and exit through the main, central doors – onto the red carpet. Now that’s pretty cool!

The courtyard is abuzz with activity. It’s still barricaded off from the public, so everyone here came out of the premiere, and are hanging around talking and enjoying the courtyard. Besides the handprints and red carpet decorations, there are several SUV-limos lined up waiting for their celebrity cargo to emerge. Hey, cool, we still might see somebody else we recognize – though at Becky’s insistence I call our driver to come get us while we wait.

I am enjoying just being here, though, standing on the red carpet at the center of the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with premiere-goers milling around, limos waiting, lights shining. It’s a strange and powerful feeling being on the inside of the barricades.

Still no celebrity sightings, though, until… I see a small cluster of people, led by a female security guard in a dark jacket carrying a walkie-talkie striding very purposefully towards us on the way from the theater to one of the limos. And right behind her is a familiar face – Kal Penn, one of the two stars of the movie – and he passes not more than three feet away from me.

Yep, I could have reached out and touched Kumar as he passed.

A few minutes later, a call comes out to “clear the courtyard.” Are more celebrities coming out? I’m a bit resentful about being cleared out; hey, we paid for our tickets, we should be allowed to stay! Oh, wait, no we didn’t. Anyway, being shooed out means (1) our time on the “inside” is coming to an end, and (2) we have to head back to the clamor and weirdness of the street. This courtyard, behind the barricades, is a bit of a haven from all that.

We start moving toward the street – but without being in any real hurry. Before we reach the street, another security “handler” breezes by, heading for a limo. We recognize the young guy following her as also being in the movie; he played a foul-mouthed teenage son of a Russian mob boss who causes trouble for H&K. [Later i.d.’d as Bennett Saltzman. Hmm, IMDb says this is his only movie credit. I wonder if this was his first Hollywood premiere, too?]

A minute later and we cross out of the courtyard and past the barricade. Sigh. No more celebrity status for us.

Now where the heck is our driver?

It’s beginning to look like A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

There’s no fanfare, other than the lights dimming. No preshow, no announcements, not even any previews. The credits roll, and most of the people in the theater applaud.

When the end credits roll 90 minutes later, there is general applause…

Huh? How was the movie?

Well, this is a trip report, not a movie review, but let’s just say A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas was everything we expected it to be and more. While raunchy R-rated comedies are not my favorite kind of movie, I do enjoy one every now and then. Hey, I liked Hangover, and There’s Something About Mary was one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

Harold & Kumar aims low and hits the mark repeatedly. One of the commercials running on TV for the movie revels in its excess, saying something like, “If we cut out all the drugs, sex, and violence, this is all that would be left,” and then they show a “THE END” slide. That is an exaggeration, but not much of one.

So, in short, the film is occasionally hilarious and makes creative use of the 3D, but is way over the top in its raunch and vulgarity, much more than I prefer. And this one movie put me way past my lifetime quota of cinematic 3D penises. [highlight to read... if you dare]

Becky surprises me a bit – she had planned to tune out the movie entirely, since raunchy R-rated movies are not at all what she like to watch, plus 3D movies give her headaches. She had planned to read or work puzzles as the light allowed, or nap – and we have brought earplugs to help her do so. But she chooses instead to pay attention to the movie, just to give it a try. It is a decision she comes to regret, but at least no one can accuse her of disliking these types of movies without having seen any.

So as I started to say, when the end credits roll 90 minutes later, there is general applause. Some of the “riff-raff” section bolt for the exits right away, but we stay for all of the credits, thinking it’s the polite thing to do – after all, we are surrounded by the people who actually made the movie. This is confirmed as the credits continue, in an entertaining way: as different behind-the-scenes groups appear in the credit – editors, special effects companies, etc. – small clusters of people in the auditorium applaud. It is kind of fun to hear them celebrating their own work.

When the credits end and the lights come up, we turn around to leave… and find that the back half of the theater is mostly empty. Apparently, most of the movie-makers cut out once they saw their own names in the credits!

I am entertained by what’s on the floor on the seat next to me. I mentioned that we had the second and third seats from the aisle; well, after the movie started, a young man slipped into the open seat next to me without a word. I did notice him leave a couple of times during the movie, but he always came back. He left for good while the credits were still going, so I never even got a look at his face… but when the lights come up, at the base of his seat are two empty soda cups and three empty bags of popcorn.

Given the nature of the movie we just saw, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he had the munchies.

The people

One of our biggest questions about this prize trip was, what do we wear to a Hollywood premiere? Obviously the celebs dress up, but we wondered if it was required of everyone. I’ve got a couple of suits and a cheap tux, but (1) I didn’t want to haul them halfway across the country (with limited carry-on space) and have to wear them while sightseeing on Hollywood Boulevard for a few hours, and (2) even at our dressiest, we’re not going to rival the designer clothes you see on the red carpet.

We decide to dress nice, but casual. I wear black slacks and a burgundy polo shirt, while Becky wears black slacks and a colorful top that matches my shirt.

We needn’t have bothered.

When we take our seats, the front two rows of the theater are already filled, with what looks like college-age students, and they are dressed down. Over the next half-hour, the front third of the room, up to about two rows ahead of us, fills with what we come to jokingly call “the riff-raff,” very obviously members of the general public who somehow scored tickets to the premiere. And they are all casual – we see t-shirts, jeans, shorts, sneakers and sandals. We actually begin to feel a bit over-dressed!

At about 7:10, the other arrivals start coming, the ones seated in the back two-thirds of the room. They are all in nice dresses for the ladies, nice suits or tuxes for the guys. These, I presume are the red carpet arrivals.

I start trying to recognize people.

At 7:20, the first celebrity sighting, and the one that I most wanted. No, not Neal Patrick Harris (even though one of the Demand Media guys asked me to tell NPH he said he loved his TV show). No, I’m a Disney fanatic, and the only overlap between that world and the world of Harold & Kumar is comedian/actor Patton Oswalt – he was the voice of the main character, Remy, in Ratatouille, and appears briefly in this movie as a mall Santa who is Kumar’s (holiday-themed) drug connection.

The well-dressed people continue pouring in, and few of them actually sit – they gather in clumps, greet and hug, then re-clump, re-greet and re-hug. It’s a big social gathering for them.

As I’ve said, we’re almost at the front of the well-dressed section, and just behind the “riff-raff.” We realized that our “nice casual” clothes are perfect for our location in the theater – right between the two groups!

Okay, about seeing more celebrities. I’d like to, but two things hinder me. First, they are coming in at the back of the theater, so watching for them involves staying turned around and staring. Enough people have started sitting down that it’s just a bit awkward, because you’re looking back at people you don’t know who are seated facing you.

But the biggest obstacle is this: I quickly come to realized that the vast majority of these Hollywood types, dressed up like this, well… they all look alike. I find myself seeing these handsome young men and beautiful young ladies and thinking to myself, “I think I’ve seen him/her in something… or maybe not…”

In the end, I don’t spot anyone else I definitively recognize before the movie starts.

At 7:30, the supposed start time, the theater is only about 2/3 full, with lots of socializing going on. No sweat – we really did not expect it to begin on time.

When 7:45 rolls around, the back 2/3 of the theater is filled with the well-dressed types, about half of whom are sitting, and the other half are clumping / greeting / hugging. The theater lights dim on and off a few times to signal the start of the film, and… nothing happens. The socialites continue their socializing unabated.

A minute or so later, the lights flick off and on again. Still the Hollywood types continue their social hour.

Finally the curtain parts, the lights dim, and the movie starts, with a good portion of the crowd still on their feet gabbing. Apparently, that is the only signal that works for them, and they quickly quiet down -- and then spend a few minutes bumping into each other as they grope for their assigned seats in the dark.

It’s showtime!

Inside. We're inside!

We pass through a metal detector – I wonder, do the red carpeteers get any screening? (I’d be more worried about some of them!) I forget to take a spare phone battery out of my front pocket, so that the guards do a little extra wanding, and then we’re in.

We are standing in the lobby of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre!

It’s ornate, but also very dimly lit. I take a few pictures to try and capture the detail.

There are also display cases showing off various costumes from past movies. There’s a steady flow of people through security, though, so we can’t really linger in the area.

There is a large sign on an easel at the portal to the main theatre room itself, full of warnings and disclaimers, mainly about the perils of doing any audio or video recording.

Then I take a look at the snack bar. It looks much like any other movie theater snack bar, except for two things: one, it’s in the midst of the luxury of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; and two, there are cups of soda and bags of popcorn waiting on the counter, free for the taking! In spite of having just eaten, we grab a bag and a soda each, add some butter-flavored grease to it and get a few napkins at a side table, and then it’s time to head into the theatre.

I take one last picture of the lobby, and one of the security guards tells me, “Just so you know, you can’t take pictures in the theater itself.” Okay, I did not know that – the sign says no audio or video recording, but says nothing about still pictures, and I had hoped to get a lot of pics of the inside of the theater. But then, he’s a security guard and he’d be one of the ones enforcing the rules, so I’m going to go with his interpretation of them.

Becky and I step to the theater entrance, collecting a set of 3D glasses from an attendant on the way in. They’re the standard issue Real3D glasses, not a commemorative set like the round ones I got at the Harry Potter 7B first showing.

There are no doors separate the lobby from the theater proper, which is probably good since there’s a flight of steps down to the seating area right inside.

The theater itself – oh, wow, it is beautiful. Heavy red curtains, very ornate oriental décor, red… well, hey, I can’t take pictures here, but the internet can. Just follow this to a Google image search for “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre interior.” It’s a gorgeous place.

The floor seats are in a standard theater layout, with a large central section, two aisles, and smaller sections on the sides. Our tickets say we are in Section RC, Row M, Seats 211 & 212. I can figure out the row and seat numbers, and I’m guessing that RC stands for “Right Center,” but I don’t know exact where that means. Since we won our tickets, though, I’m not really expecting good seats.

We show our tickets to an attendant at the base of the steps, he directs us down the (right) aisle, then says we are to turn left at row M. Left? Hey, that means we’re in the center section!

Row M is a little over a third of the way back from the front of the theater, and our seats are the second and third ones off of the aisle. Not bad at all – in fact, they are pretty decent seats!

There’s a weird audio mix playing over the speakers – several holiday classics, including Bing Crosby’s "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Perry Como singing "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," and "Sleigh Ride," but also some less familiar songs like "Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?" Interspersed with the familiar Christmas songs are songs which are both jolly and include foul language, and what sounds like clips of the dialogue from the movie, which have even fouler language. I suspect they’re playing the soundtrack from the movie as people arrive.

I notice a few others in the theater taking pictures, some with the flash on, and no one seems to be stopping them or confiscating their cameras. I don’t want to risk too much going against the security guard’s instructions…

...but I’ve got to take one to prove we were here!

Walking the red carpet, almost

We walk back down to the Kodak Theatre atrium and find a bench. Soon DisneyMom and DisneySon pass by – hey, didn’t we just say goodbye to you? – and after a quick explanation, we say our goodbyes again.

The time passes quickly. The visuals of the street take on a new, exciting look as the sun goes down and the neon comes on.

At 6:35 we head back to the barricade. Still not open, but they’re close, it appears. We wait there.

After another few minutes, we’re waved into the barricaded area – which is a cool feeling all by itself – along with another ten or twelve people who have been waiting there.

There’s a long table set up for Will Call. The signage isn’t perfectly clear, and I first go to a table meant just for the press. The Will Call table itself has about five different stations divided by portions of the alphabet. Becky & I then go to the station marked M-R. There’s one guy ahead of me in line, and then it’s our turn.

Here’s the moment of truth. I give the person my name and show her a photo i.d. She thumbs through her box, and… yes! She pulls out a white envelope and hands it to me!

I take a look at the envelope before opening it. It has a Warner Brothers logo, and a sticker in the upper right with three lines: my name, “Cracked eCard Winner,” and “SCREENING ONLY.” No after-party for us, I guess.

I open the flap and look inside – there are two large, full-color screening tickets with the movie logo! There’s also, comically enough, instructions on where to park and a voucher for free parking if you follow the instructions. Doesn’t affect us, but a guy standing nearby laughs, “It would have been nice if they’d given us this information, oh, I don’t know, maybe before we were standing in front of the theatre???”

Since the Will Call table is to the right of the courtyard, and we’re already past the barricades… there’s no more waiting to do. We are cleared to walk right on in to the theatre!!!

Not that we do, of course. Hey, the courtyard, with all of its amazing celebrity handprints and footprints, is closed to the public – but we are now no longer the public, we are insiders.

We only have a portion of the courtyard available to us – the red carpet is right down the center, so we’re restricted to the right side of the courtyard – but we might as well look while we’re here.

I take several pictures of the handprints, as well as of our unique perspective of the red carpet.

And then, on we go into to the Theatre. It’s not the main central doors, which are for the celebrities, but still a front entrance to its right. We show our tickets – and we’re in!!!

On to the premiere

Our food arrives, and it’s very tasty – made all the better by the great company. Being stunned at the pin gifts, though, I forget to take a picture of our food like I usually do.

Once we polish off Becky’s chili bowl and my chili dog (and I must say, it’s pretty good chili, even if it wasn’t made in Texas) (but mine is still better), it’s dessert time. We’d probably skip dessert on any other occasion, at least for the sake of my diet, but how often will we get to do something like this? We decide to share a sundae with chocolate mint and peppermint ice creams, with hot fudge and M&M’s.

DisneySon orders a Pin Special sundae for he and DisneyMom to share. It comes with the latest Soda Fountain pin, of Tinker Bell flying over a couple of scoops of ice cream. And… DisneyMom gives that pin to us, too, saying she already has one. Wow again.

Before we dig in, DisneySon takes our picture to commemorate the meeting. And this being Hollywood, we use props – in this case, his sundae is pushed in front of Becky to make it look like we each have one!

The ice cream is perfect; the peppermint ice cream with the hot fudge is especially tasty. Time is flying, though, as time with good friends often does, and once the ice cream is gone it’s almost 6:15. We need to head to the premiere.

We settle the bills; I pause to snap a picture of a couple of the celebrity pictures on the wall of the Soda Fountain; and then all four of us head back out onto Hollywood Boulevard. They’re coming with us to take pictures of both of us with the Chinese Theatre in the background. So nice.

We make our way down the street and find a place to take the pictures.

And then it’s time for quick goodbyes, with hopes that we’ll see each other again someday. (Maybe in Texas next time, DisneyMom???)

It’s almost 6:30 now, and Becky and I head right back to the barricade close to the box office. We tell the security guards there that we’re there for Will Call.

It’s still not open – ten minutes, we’re told. Sigh.

Wow, really?

DisneyMom had told me online that she had a “thank you” gift for me for something I’d done last year. Her veteran father-in-law turned 70 and she solicited her friends from all over to send him a birthday card. I did that, but then also had the Vocal Majority sing Happy Birthday to him and sent her the recording. To me, it was not that big of a thing and certainly no major effort, but it was apparently very well received and appreciated. I assured her that no thanks were necessary, but my protests didn’t seem to have much impact.

DisneyMom asks us about our Disney pin collecting. Older son Brandon and I have a few dozen pins, but we’re not able to visit the parks often enough to be avid traders. Benjamin and Becky each own a few, but aren’t much into the collecting. Still, we all appreciate the ones we have.

Well, DisneyMom then lets us know that she has a pin for each of us – she assures us that she owns a lot and loves to give them away. But she’s gone even further above and beyond… she’s picked out a pin for each of us individually based on what she knows about us from our trip reports!

As she lays out each pin, our jaws hit the floor. Each pin she’s chosen is perfect for each of us. For Benjamin, knowing he loves Stitch, a wonderful Stitch pin.

Brandon’s a big Mickey Mouse fan, and his pin is an awesome Sorcerer Mickey. Becky’s is amazingly right for her – a pink, Hollywood-like star with Minnie Mouse dressed as a movie star.

And for me… well, I enjoy all things Disney, but I know my love for Disney’s monorails shines through in my reports. DisneyMom pulls out a beautiful pin commemorating the Mark I monorail, the first at Disneyland. It features monorail pilot’s wings, and a monorail train rotates around the pin back. It’s one of the coolest pins I’ve seen!

She’s nailed it, for each of us.

I’m stunned, and very profusive, I hope, in my thanks. But DisneyMom isn’t done!

She then reminds me of the trip report I wrote of our 2009 Anaheim trip, where I recounted our once-in-a-lifetime visit to Disneyland’s exclusive private gourmet dining club, Club 33 (arranged courtesy of another friend on StupidGuestTricks.com!). Well, not only is the club exclusive – you can only get in at the invitation of a member – but Club 33 merchandise is exclusive, too – you can only buy it there in the club. So at the end of our amazing meal, Brandon and I hoped to buy Club 33 pins. We found out, though, that the pins had been discontinued, so we settled for buying Club 33 hats.

Well, DisneyMom remembered that story, and says that she almost immediately started hunting for a Club 33 pin to give to me. It took her months, she says – but she finally found a cast member wearing one and traded for it.

She reaches into her bag and pulls out a stunning silver and black Club 33 logo pin. And slides it across the table to me!

I am stunned almost speechless. Wow. Just… wow. I cannot fathom, well, not just the generosity to give away something like that, but the selflessness that would lead her to think of me over the time it took to find the pin, all with the thought that she might be able to give it to me someday.

DisneyMom is now one of my favorite people in the world.

Long lost friends we’ve never met

I mentioned earlier that we’re meeting friends at 5:00 at the Disney Soda Fountain. That’s literally true: we’re meeting them for the first time. That’s the nature of online communities – you can make friends all over the world without ever being in their presence physically.

There’s a website called StupidGuestTricks.com (SGT), which began as a place for Disney and other theme park employees to vent and express their daily frustrations about unreasonable visitors, since they have to be pleasant and cheerful on the job. (And those stories can be very amusing, too!) Those stories still happen, but the site has developed a pretty close-knit group of regulars, sharing life’s adventures remotely. I’m blessed to be among the non-cast members who have been accepted as “family” there, and over the years have had the opportunity to meet several SGT regulars in person during my travels – Zazu and Big Wallaby in Orlando, Purpura in Anaheim, DragonFox in Philadelphia, and of course Ktulu back in the DFW area. (Online identities are a wonderful thing.)

When this prize-trip came up, I let my friends at SGT know about it, naturally. I knew I wouldn’t have time for a detour down to Disneyland, but one of the regulars, who goes by DisneyMom online, keyed in on the fact that the premiere would be held on the same block as the Disney Soda Fountain, and we worked it out to get to the area a little early so we could meet anyone who could make it. Because of Disneyland and the other SoCal theme parks, there are many SGT regulars in the L.A. area, but the trip happened on pretty short notice. With Disney work schedules notoriously demanding and inflexible, I’m not sure who if anyone besides DisneyMom will be able to make it, but we’ll be happy even if it’s just her.

We head back to the south side of the street. I spot adjacent stars for Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick -- okay, I watched The Producers on the way here, so I have to get a picture of them together.

It’s a few minutes before 5 when we walk into the Soda Fountain. I scan the shop – it’s not terribly big – but don’t see anyone that matches the pictures I’ve seen of her on Facebook. No big deal; we’re early, and we wanted to shop a bit in the Studio Store.

We’ve just started perusing the merchandise when a female voice behind me asks, “Excuse me, could you tell me what time it is… in Texas?”

It’s her!

DisneyMom and I hug – we are old friends, even if we’ve never met – and then I introduce her to Becky. She in turn introduces the one of her sons (I’ll call him DisneySon) who accompanied her so she wouldn’t be coming here alone. She then leaves us to shop and goes to claim a table.

Becky and I find several little things, which I won’t discuss further here since they will likely show up at our house on Christmas morning… assuming we can get them to Santa, of course. (Yeah, my kids are in high school, but we keep up the show just for fun.)

After I make the purchases, we join DisneyMom and DisneySon at the table. Turns out DisneyMom is the only SGT’er who can make it after all. I’m absolutely thrilled to meet and visit with her, but it is always a little disappointing to be so close to others and miss connecting.

DisneyMom had already told me online that she wants to buy us ice cream as a “welcome to California,” but first Becky and I need to get some “real food.” We’re not excessively hungry, since it’s only been a little over three hours since we shared a pizza. Our next stop is the movie premiere, though, so we know we’d better eat something more substantial than ice cream.

The Soda Fountain doesn’t have a large menu, so it doesn’t take us long to decide. Becky orders chili in a sourdough bread bowl, while I order a chili dog.

DisneySon occupies himself with a handheld game while DisneyMom and us talk. I don’t feel like we’re carrying much of the conversation – quite frankly we’re still a little shell-shocked from the craziness of Hollywood Boulevard. But it’s a very nice visit nonetheless – DisneyMom is sweet, outgoing, friendly, and just a pleasure to spend time with.

And, I’m about to find out, very, very generous.

Getting our tickets. Or not.

Four-thirty rolls around and we head back out to the street, but before going back to the box office, I want to see if I can get a closer picture of the Hollywood sign overlooking the area. It’s to the northeast of us, and I know it’s not visible from this stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, but I’m wondering if I can get a glimpse of it on a side street.

We walk east to Highland Avenue and turn north. After half a block or so… yep, there it is, just barely appearing above and between some buildings. I take a couple of pictures, and we reverse course.

After braving the hawker/costume/CD-pusher gauntlet again, we arrive at the box office… to find that it’s still closed. Hmm. Not much to do but hang out and wait.

Even more numerous than the workers setting up the Theatre courtyard are dark-suited security guards, all with patches on their suit coats reading “Special Event Management,” and most sporting walkie-talkies. One lady so attired tries to shoo us away from the barricade, thinking we’re there to gawk at the red carpet arrivals three hours from now. Heh. As if. I explain that we’re waiting for the box office to open, and she turns and leaves us alone with a disdainful sniff.

Hey, lady – do you even know who we are? We (theoretically) have tickets to the event you’re guarding, so mind the attitude. People will line the barricades to see us arrive, not the other way around!

Yeah, maybe not.

Okay, 4:30 is well past us, and still no box office attendant. Even though the main Chinese Theatre is closed to the public for the premiere, there are still six other screens that they manage here, and those shows are starting soon, so you’d think they get someone here to open their box office.

At about 4:45 a guy comes into the box office… and then promptly leaves. What is up? I finally get the attention of one of the other security guards behind the barricades to ask if he knows how we’re supposed to get our tickets, and he points to a table set up behind him, to the side of the Theatre courtyard, and says that that will be Will Call for the event – but it won’t open until 6 or 6:30.

Okay, we don’t have our tickets, but at least we know more than we did.

Things to do, places to be, people to see

Even though we have plenty of time built into our schedule – Demand Media was very gracious and helpful in scheduling our transportation to fit our desires – we do have a couple of things we need to do.

We want to do some souvenir shopping for our kids, and older son Brandon has made a special request: he collects pins, both Disney and others, and has a growing Hard Rock Café collection. His grandparents brought back one from their recent trip with the Singing Men of Texas to Ukraine (it actually says Hard Rock Café: Chernobyl!), and he also has ones from San Antonio from a choir trip there, and from Philadelphia when our family went there last year with the Vocal Majority. (Affiliation with singing groups is apparently our primary reason for traveling in my family!)

Oddly, he does not have one from the Dallas Hard Rock.

Becky and I cross over to the north side of Hollywood Boulevard at the middle-of-the-block crosswalk, which thankfully has a traffic light. We duck into the Hard Rock Café store, and immediately Becky relaxes. It is loud in there with the music blaring, but amazingly, it seems quieter than out on the street. The main thing, though, is that it’s a break from the crush of people and, um, interesting characters all around us.

(There’s one guy dressed as Michael Myers from the Halloween movies, wearing a pale mask and carrying a large cardboard butcher knife, that especially is creeping Becky out, in spite of my reassurance that he is just a guy in a costume. It would help us both, though, if we ever saw him pose for pictures. Instead, he just silently follows people up and down the street with the “knife” slightly raised.)

A Hard Rock employee pulls the pin display out of the case for us to examine, and we settle on a blue drum set pin which prominently displays the words “Hard Rock Café Hollywood.” Brandon should like that! Once we complete the purchase, we start back out for the street – with Becky asking me, “Do we have to?”

Well, yes, we do, because we have more shopping to do, and we still need tickets for the premiere! We’ve been told that they will be held for us at Will Call, so we turn towards the Chinese Theatre. I’d spotted the Theatre’s box office facing the street between the Theatre courtyard and the Hard Rock Café, and just outside the barricades blocking the sidewalk in front of the Theatre. And… the box office is closed. Hmm.

A couple of signs in the box office window say that it will open at 4:30, and it’s a little after 4:00 now. I snap a few pictures of the work going on in the Chinese Theatre courtyard preparing it for the premiere, and then it’s time to shop.

We passed by a big souvenir store, The Hollywood Experience, on the south side of the street, and Becky wants to take a look inside. We head back across Hollywood Boulevard and to the store.

It’s a fairly sizeable place with all sorts of tchotchkes and memorabilia of all prices, from pencils to magnets, to keychains and t-shirts, to snow globes and autographed items. We browse around and find some little goodies to bring back – fridge magnets for us and my parents, a Hollywood keychain for Benjamin, and a small stuffed bear for Becky, all festooned with Hollywood symbols.

Okay, shopping didn’t take up all of our time, and there’s still time until the box office opens. We could stand around on the sidewalk, but my surgically-altered ankle especially would like me to find a place to sit.

We cross the street again and turn right, past the tour hawkers and CD pushers and costumed superheros and creepy Michael Myers, and head into the Kodak Theatre atrium. Hey, it’s nice and spacious and not at all chaotic in here, and there’s a open bench were we can sit and rest a bit and watch the madness. From a distance.