From Leo Carrillo State Beach up to Magic Mountain, this visual tour is ”so cool”.
By Jared Cowan
Penned by Quentin Tarantino prior to the release of his breakout hit Pulp Fiction, and directed by the late Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide), True Romance had a lackluster showing at the box office upon its release on September 10, 1993. Despite featuring one of the most remarkable ensemble casts ever put together—Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, Michael Rapaport, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, and the late James Gandolfini—True Romance took in just over $12 million at the domestic box office on an estimated $13-million budget.
Perhaps general audiences outside the festival circuit weren’t quite prepared for the hallucinatory and balletic brutality of True Romance during a decade when politicians like ex-Senate majority leader Bob Dole were targeting violence in popular culture. Dole singled out True Romance and Natural Born Killers(1994), also written by Tarantino, in a 1995 speech he gave in Los Angeles. Beyond the violence in the films, he also said that the two movies reveled in “loveless sex,” which couldn’t have been further from the truth. The idea that politicians were missing, or chose to ignore, was that the violence in True Romance and Natural Born Killers—and in predecessors like Badlands (1973) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—was born of passionate love affairs.
Despite politics, 25 years after loner comic book store clerk Clarence Worley (Slater) met genial call girl Alabama Whitman (Arquette), True Romance enjoys a strong cult following. Fan art inspired by the film is rampant on the web. In 2015, Arquette and Slater reprised what is arguably their most popular roles for a live script reading of True Romance at the Ace Hotel in downtown L.A. If you so desire, you can rent the film’s original 1974 purple Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado for your next special occasion or photo shoot. Over the past few years, True Romance Fest, a fan-produced event complete with cosplay and a screening of the movie, has taken place at the film’s most oft-visited location: the Safari Inn in Burbank.
Like the Safari Inn, a few of the L.A. filming locations from True Romance are fairly well known. Aside from some exterior scenes and establishing shots of Detroit, where the story begins, roughly 85 percent of True Romance was shot in the L.A. area with a handful of locations doubling for the Motor City. You’re sure to notice the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz doubling as a Detroit movie house. Roller coaster enthusiasts are likely to recognize Magic Mountain.
Still, for every familiar location in True Romance, there’s one that’s equally difficult to distinguish. Luckily, the 2002 out-of-print, two-disc director’s cut of True Romance came in handy. The DVD has three informative commentary tracks, one each from Arquette and Slater, Scott, and Tarantino. All of them hinted at, if not flat out named, a few of the hard-to-find locations.
For the film’s 25th anniversary, I set out to visit some of the places where Clarence and Alabama fell in love, stopped on a road trip from Detroit to L.A., and toted around a suitcase full of uncut cocaine—codename: Doctor Zhivago.
The Vista Theatre
On a cold Detroit night, Clarence Worley is celebrating his birthday, alone, by watching a Street Fighter triple-feature starring martial arts film sensation, Sonny Chiba. The auditorium door opens and in a classic Hollywood entrance, Clarence’s future wife, Alabama Whitman, enters the theater.
To those unfamiliar with the Vista, which opened in 1923, the location might as well be in Detroit. The exterior shots were done at night with clouds of steam wafting from the gutters to convey the city’s freezing temperatures.
If you lighten the first establishing shot of the theatre, however, you’ll see a sign above the traffic lights that directs drivers to either Hollywood or Sunset Boulevard.
Though the Egyptian-inspired theater has appeared in other films like Throw Momma From the Train (1987), The Big Picture (1989), and Get Shorty (1995), it will forever be the place where Clarence met Alabama.
4473 Sunset Drive, Los Feliz.
Coffee shop locations are hallowed ground in Tarantino stories: the famous round-table opening of Reservoir Dogs, the bookends of Pulp Fiction, a casual breakfast between friends in Death Proof.
After the Kung Fu triple-feature at the Vista, Alabama and Clarence get to know each other over pie and coffee, a scene originally written to take place in a Denny’s.
Instead of wood-paneled walls and the brown and golden hues of Denny’s, Scott opted for the red vinyl booths and turquoise walls of Rae’s Restaurant. Opened in 1958, the classic Santa Monica corner diner is unmistakable in True Romance thanks to a neon-lit close-up of its space-age sign.
Rae’s has also been featured in films such as Lords of Dogtown (2005) and Bowfinger (1999).
2901 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica.
Heroes for Sale
Along with Jackie Brown, which was set in the South Bay of writer-directors youth, True Romance is arguably Tarantino’s most personal screenplay. The character of Clarence is essentially a young Tarantino, who famously worked at a long-defunct video shop in Manhattan Beach called Video Archives. In True Romance, Clarence has worked for four years at a comic book store called Heroes For Sale.
Upon first glance of Heroes For Sale, it seems to have had similar spatial dimensions to those of Meltdown Comics, which closed earlier this year. The depth of the store, which had a staircase leading to a loft, seems to match the location in True Romance. However, after taking into account that Meltdown Comics didn’t open until 1993—a year after True Romance was filmed—it couldn’t have been the late comic book store.
Listening through the DVD commentary tracks, Arquette mentioned that the location of Heroes For Sale was a comic book store “near Hollywood Boulevard.” In Tarantino’s commentary track, he confirmed that the store was “just above Hollywood Boulevard” and went on to name it: Fantastic Store, a play on Marvel’s Fantastic Four. He added that an ugly paper machete sculpture of the Fantastic Four’s the Thing was mounted on the roof of the building.
Only one Yelp review, a positive one, appeared in a web search for “Fantastic Store, Comics, Hollywood,” but it provided the address of the store’s location. It was, as Tarantino said in the commentary, just above Hollywood Boulevard.
In the location today is a health-food restaurant called Welltopia.
1718 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.
True Romance was filmed between September and December of 1992. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, temperatures in Los Angeles during the time of production reached minimums in the mid-to-low 40s. So it wasn’t just the scene that prompted Arquette and Slater to bundle up in blankets as if they were on the ledge of a billboard on a freezing Detroit night. Both actors attested on the DVD commentary that it was cold in downtown L.A. on the night they shot the scene in which Alabama tells Clarence about her very short career as a call girl.
The telling clue of the billboard location is not actually the location itself, but another building seen in the background of a wide shot. The 11-story Van Nuys apartment building, built in 1913 at 210 W. 7th St., stands to the west of Clarence’s apartment building and the billboard. Lining up that building on a Google maps satellite view showed an exposed brick wall at the Dewey Hotel Apartments one block over.
If you visit the Dewey Hotel today you can still make out the faded letters forming the word “Hotel”, as seen in True Romance, on the north-facing side of the building.
721 S. Main St., downtown.
The Phone Booth
Here’s where things got dicey in my search for the film’s locations. It’s fair to assume that many desert locations appearing in films shot in L.A. were probably photographed in the Lancaster-Palmdale area. You might remember the desert scenes in Terminator 2 (1991), the box sequence in Se7en (1995), locations in some of Rob Zombie’s films, and both volumes of Tarantino’s own Kill Bill (2003 & 2004)—all were shot in Antelope Valley just up the 14 Freeway.
On the director’s commentary track of True Romance, Scott says that the location where Clarence makes a call from a pay phone to his actor friend in Hollywood, Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport), was shot in Palmdale.
Knowing that the scene was shot there, I first attempted to find the location by Googling “Palmdale” and “Rocky’s”, the latter of which is the name on an abandoned gas station next to the phone booth. That search produced no results. The name of the business could have been added to the building by the production or the filmmakers might have put up a façade.
The next visual references to go by were the mountain range seen in the background and the utility lines that crossed from one side of the road to the other. Further investigation with Google street view led to a spot on Palmdale Boulevard where the utility lines passed over from the south side of the road to the north side.
No building currently exists at the site, but a concrete foundation is situated exactly where the gas station once stood.
170th St. E. & E. Palmdale Blvd., Palmdale.
The Casting Office
The casting office where Dick Ritchie auditions for a supporting role on T.J. Hooker was another tough find. It was challenging to the point where the liaison from the location, one of the most filmed in the L.A. area, wasn’t aware that True Romance was shot there.
First thing’s first: it was most likely not a real casting office due to the headshots plastered all over the walls. If it were a real casting office, the production would have needed to track down and get photo releases signed from each and every person, which would have been unnecessarily time-consuming.
Clues: The waiting area of the casting office where Dick Ritchie was sitting is narrow. The windows on both sides of the hallway boast diamond-patterned stained glass. Classical decorative motifs are seen outside the windows. The dimly lit location leads to a casting director’s office at the far end of the hallway. The view out the windows suggests that the location is probably on the second floor of whatever building it is. Familiar white letters, “STA”, are seen on what is assumed to be a storefront across the street.
There’s only one location in town that fits these specifications: the bridge of the Castle Green in Pasadena.
The office at the end of the hallway, which was created by building a fake wall and door, was filmed in what was the central point of a bridge connecting the Hotel Green on the east side of Raymond Avenue with the Castle Green, built in 1898 as the annex for the hotel. The only surviving remnant from the original Hotel Green, which was demolished in 1935, is a storefront on the southeast corner of Raymond Avenue and Green Street.
It wasn’t until I determined this location to be the Castle Green, however, that I recalled where I had previously seen the letters that are visible from the casting director’s office window. The letters “STA” are visible within a shot of The Little Rascals (1994), also filmed at the Castle Green.
99 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena.
Driving in L.A.
Upon arriving in L.A., Clarence’s purple Cadillac is seen driving along the 101 freeway in a picturesque shot with the Capitol Records building. It’s a trademark Tony Scott image: a beautifully composed landscape with a cloudy amber sky.
More interesting though is a shot of the Cadillac going over the top of one of L.A.’s steep inclines. Both the topography and the background of the shot suggested that the location must have been in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area. Narrowing down the particular street was possible after noticing a red, oval-shaped Thrifty pharmacy sign in the distance. Thrifty ice cream, a staple of Rite Aid pharmacies, led to a search of Rite Aid stores in the suspected area.
Towering over Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, near the intersection of Alvarado Street, is an oval frame, though now encasing a Rite Aid sign. Tracking west from the Rite Aid, up Scott Ave. in Silver Lake, provided the exact vantage point of where Clarence, Alabama, and Dick, are taking a joyride through the streets of L.A.
Subsequent to the Silver Lake shot, the trio cruise down Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood when, through the magic of movies, they make a left-hand turn into…
The Safari Inn
No tour of True Romance locations would be complete without the Safari Inn. The iconic tropical motor lodge was built in 1955 and has been used since the ’70s in scores of films and TV shows, including Apollo 13 (1995), Coach Carter(2005), Six Feet Under (2004), and episodes of T.J. Hooker.
The actual hotel room, however, where Alabama faces off against Detroit mobster-hit man Virgil (Gandolfini) in a bloody brawl, was built as a set.
1911 W. Olive Ave., Burbank.
In 1992, would Southern California’s thrill-ride capital, Magic Mountain, have permitted a scene about selling drugs to be filmed at the park? It’s hard to know for sure, but the probable answer is no.
When True Romance was being produced, the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., had a longstanding relationship with the park that went back to its inception. Upon the opening of Magic Mountain in 1971 the studio’s famous Looney Tunes characters were licensed to be the park’s official mascots. They would only masquerade along the walkways of Magic Mountain during the first year of operation, but they made a return in the mid-‘80s. In 1991, Time Warner, Warner Bros.’ parent company at the time, bought up half of Six Flags, which was in financial jeopardy. In 1993 it acquired the rest of the company.
While Warner Bros. and DC Comics properties continue to be licensed by Six Flags, Time Warner sold the company in 1998.
The scene as it was originally written by Tarantino had Clarence, Alabama, and Dick meet Elliot Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot) at the L.A. Zoo. Blitzer, an assistant to film producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), is there to get information for his boss about purchasing a large quantity of cocaine from Clarence. Unfortunately, as Scott says on the DVD commentary, the zoo wasn’t interested in working with the production because the representatives wouldn’t permit Scott to film at his desired proximity to an animal enclosure.
After seeing a Magic Mountain commercial on TV, much like Alabama does in the film, Scott had the idea of instead setting the scene at the theme park.
Scott put Slater, Arquette, Pinchot, and Rapaport aboard the Viper rollercoaster, which was only two-years-old at the time of filming and is still in operation today.
26101 Magic Mountain Pkwy., Valencia.
The Burger Stand
Subsequent to the Magic Mountain meeting and dropping Alabama off at the Safari Inn, Clarence goes to pick up lunch for the couple. A big Elvis fan, Clarence ends up talking to another customer at the burger stand that’s reading a special Newsweek edition on the King. Simultaneously, Alabama is being bloodied and pulverized at the hands of Virgil back at the Safari Inn.
No restaurant signage is visible in any of the shots of the burger stand. It wasn’t until this publicity photo of Slater was recently posted on the True Romance Fest Facebook timeline that I had any clue as to the whereabouts of the location. With a sign in the background of the photo directing traffic to the westbound 10 Freeway, I searched for fast food joints along the 10 corridor.
It only took a short time to find Lucy’s Drive-In on the corner Hoover St. and Washington Blvd. in West Adams. The restaurant’s Yelp page said it was permanently closed, but the Google street view from January 2017 still showed the building. Since the Google image was captured, the building was demolished and a CVS was built in its place.
1300 W. Washington Blvd., West Adams.
Upon scouting LAX for a scene in which Clarence tries to nurse Alabama after her confrontation with Virgil, Scott saw a beat-up couch on the side of the road and decided to play the scene as though it were a family room. The couch that was used in the scene was the actual one that inspired Scott. It was brought into the scene after a couch provided by the art department was deemed by the director to be too clean.
Northside Pkwy. & Colegio Dr., Westchester.
The Beverly Ambassador Hotel
The setting for the film’s climactic drug deal, police raid, and manic Mexican standoff was the combination of two separate locations about 15 miles away from each other.
The exterior the fictional Beverly Ambassador Hotel was that of the Athenaeum, a private club and event venue on the campus of Caltech in Pasadena. The Mediterranean-style building opened in 1930 and has hosted a handful of films including Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), which was also directed by Scott.
The lobby of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard was dressed to become the interior of the Beverly Ambassador. The hotel—where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968—opened in 1921 and closed its doors in 1989. From then until its demolition began in 2005, the location was used primarily for filming having been featured in countless movies including That Thing You Do! (1996), Almost Famous(2000), and Catch Me If You Can (2002). One of the last films to shoot at the famous Ambassador was Emilio Estevez’s ensemble drama Bobby (2006), which was set around the assassination of RFK. The production was granted permission to shoot some footage in the hotel about a week before demolition began. Today, the hotel’s original annex still stands in front of what is now Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, which opened in 2009.
The Athenaeum, 551 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena; RFK Community Schools, 3400 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown.
Alabama and Clarence barely escape the hotel room mayhem alive. In fact, Tarantino’s original script had Clarence die, the result of a sawed-off shotgun blast to the chest. Scott’s ending was much more optimistic: the couple retired to Mexico and started a family after making off from the hotel with a briefcase full of drug money.
Doubling as a Mexican beach was the rocky shoreline of El Matador in Malibu. Prior to arriving in Mexico, the couple drives past a sign that reads “Last US Exit, Mexican Border 5 Miles.” The sign and a replica El Camino Real bell-marker were placed on Pacific Coast Highway along Leo Carrillo Beach, about four miles west of El Matador.
El Matador State Beach, 32350 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu.
Leo Carrillo State Beach, 35000 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu.
Please keep in mind that some of these locations are on private property. Do not trespass or disturb the owners. Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.