I’ve been honorary mayor of Toluca Lake for nearly 25 years — since fall 1995. I can hear homeowners up and down Riverside Drive screaming right now, “What happened to term limits?!” But it’s an unelected, unpaid position. No political super PACs backed by anonymous moguls. The only way you lose the job is by malfeasance or disinterest, and neither has happened so far.
The honorary sheriff when I started was Denver Pyle. He was this larger-than-life television star from programs like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dukes of Hazzard, Grizzly Adams and The Doris Day Show. Denver looked the part of a town sheriff who was keeping the sidewalks safe from the likes of Johnny Ringo and the Clanton Gang.
I was mayor for three years before I got to see the actual lake in Toluca Lake. It’s an extremely exclusive enclave not open to the general public. Since I’m only honorary mayor, I’m still considered part of “the general public.” Better that way; it keeps me grounded. When I first got “appointed” as mayor, I was blindfolded and driven to the lake in a golf cart. When we arrived, my blindfold was taken off for only about 30 seconds. Then Sheriff Denver made me swear on a Gideon Bible from the Beverly Garland Hotel that I would never describe to anyone what or who I had seen at the lake. To this day, the secret is safe.
There isn’t a vice mayor, an assistant mayor or a deputy mayor who would step in should I be unable to fulfill my duties — not an issue. My only real duty as mayor is to light the Christmas tree in front of Ramsey-Shilling Real Estate on the first Friday of every December. This simple yet important act represents the official start of the Toluca Lake Holiday Open House. The greatest number of comments I get throughout the year are about how wonderful the Open House is. It seems to represent another time, another attitude. On that night, folks who aren’t residents wish they were. I have fat files of great memories from the past 25 years, and the Open House would be at the top of the list.
Every year on that night I stand at the podium in front of Ramsey-Shilling, waiting to lead the onlookers in the countdown to the tree lighting: “5-4-3-2-1 … Merry Christmas!” I look out over the throng gathered at the corner of Forman and Riverside. Even if it’s 75 degrees, most people are wrapped in cold-weather outerwear. It’s as if they’re trying to will a real winter into existence. In Southern California, you can be in flip-flops but wearing a scarf and a stocking cap makes it winter! There’s the 5-foot tree to my right. Directly in back of me, behind the podium, sits Santa with a line of kids all the way back to the freeway overpass on Forman, stoked for a picture and a Christmas wish. He’s a pretty darn convincing Saint Nick, too, ensconced in his ornate golden throne that looks like it came from the foyer at Mar-a-Lago. The scene always seems so perfect! It reminds me of a tiny Christmas town in a very large electric train set.
I love the fact that the store owners participate so enthusiastically on that night. Good for business. Great for fellowship. Most are cozy, family-owned nooks on both sides of Riverside. Here’s hoping that the smaller, village-type shopping experience lives on! I’m afraid a Holiday Open House will become a quaint, bygone concept when everything we buy comes directly to our homes in a suspiciously clean, white Amazon van — or, God forbid, a drone!
Since we started this, here’s another of my favorite memories: The greatest Halloween tradition with my children was Cinema Secrets. After the first of October, Cinema Secrets became a self-contained haunted house, packed with creative costumes, hideous rubber masks, and racks and racks of the scariest scary accessories. They had all the movie-caliber glue, goo and lifelike ooze that you needed to convince homeowners on your trick-or-treat route that you’d actually lost an eye to an eye-chomping zombie. My kids would insist on buying costumes as soon as the display first went up a month before Halloween. But by the time Halloween actually got here … those getups had lost their spookability. So, we’d head back to Cinema Secrets for another round of costumes. I spent a fortune in that place.
OK, one last cherished experience from the archives: the Garry Marshall Theatre (or, when I worked there, the Falcon Theatre). In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful small venue in Southern California. Performer-friendly stage, sound and lights. Wonderful crew. Kathy Marshall and the family and staff have even kicked it to a higher level over the last couple years. I did two of my one-person shows there and they were important moments for me — very exciting and very intimidating.
When you were rehearsing or doing a show in that space, you always knew that Garry might be on the premises. You could feel his presence. He was like the phantom lurking on the catwalk at the opera. He never made you feel judged. But, you thought, how could you not be judged by one of the most revered writers of television and film? Writing jokes can feel anywhere between “effortless” and “like passing a kidney stone.” I was more the latter; Garry, the former — one of the fastest, funniest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. Without even thinking about it, he could make brilliant a line that had taken me an hour to coax out from under whatever rock that jokes hide under. He was the master. Working in that space is one of the fondest times of my career.
Other tidbits that explain the perfection of Toluca Lake:
- Chicken Parmesan at Patys
- Poached eggs, fruit, turkey sausage and buttered wheat toast at Bob’s Big Boy
- An early morning window seat and a medium nonfat cappuccino at Priscilla’s Coffee
All that’s good in the world in one place. Toluca Lake.