Gentlemen ... start your engines!
Editor’s Note: This was written by our L.A. correspondent Randy Fuller, who just happens to be the afternoon traffic guy on Los Angeles powerhouse AM station KABC. Thanks, Randy!
The town I grew up in, Port Arthur, Texas, had a “Dead Man’s Curve.” It was a microscopic piece of blacktop that bent 90 degrees around a house situated very close to the road. It was extremely hard to see the oncoming traffic, and there wasn’t much room to swerve out of harm’s way. On the other hand, it was almost impossible to take the turn at more than 10 mph, so it’s highly doubtful that anyone actually died there, unless it was from boredom.
It made for a catchy name, though. That’s due in large part to the 1964 Jan and Dean hit of the same name, written by Jan Berry and Roger Christian. The lyrics describe a fictional drag race right down one of the biggest streets in the city that has been my home for nearly 20 years, Los Angeles, California.
Look who has a star on Vine - just north of Sunset!
The song is believed by some to have foretold the 1966 car accident that nearly killed Berry. Digging around a bit shows that the smart money believes the Dead Man’s Curve of the song is not the place where Berry crashed his Stingray, although it was rather close by. It does appear, however, to be the same place where actor and voiceover genius Mel Blanc was nearly killed in an accident. It is that incident that is believed to be the true inspiration for the song. Apparently Christian wanted the race in the song to end in a tie, but Berry insisted on a melodramatic, fiery, tire screechin’, glass bustin’ death crash.
The actual Dead Man’s Curve in Los Angeles is a stretch of Sunset Boulevard near Bel Air, just north of the UCLA campus, with a series of hairpin turns. In my experience with it, I can see how it got the name. That part of Sunset looks almost rural due to the tree-shrouded property there. Drivers encounter few cross streets and fewer traffic signals, so the speeds are generally close to 60 mph. It’s too fast for the situation, but the alternative is usually a BMW pushing you along so the driver can get to his/her drug deal/pilates class/studio screening on time.
Just for grins, I thought I’d take a Sunday drive along the route described in the song, the route that was the course for the race between the Stingray and the XKE. I didn’t operate under cover of darkness, like the drivers in the song. I drove the route during broad daylight, on a nice sunny weekend, headed in the general direction of the beach. Although the traffic moved at pretty decent pace, I didn’t do any racing on this trip.
Here's the view at LaBrea
The route starts at one of the more well-known intersections in Hollywood, Sunset and Vine. The site is just down the street from the historic Capitol Records building and southwest of the famous “Hollywood” sign. A couple of blocks to the east the Hollywood sign is visible in the north up Gower Avenue, in the Hollywood Hills.
At Sunset and La Brea there’s nothing much of note now. Just south of Sunset, on La Brea, is the location of the old Charlie Chaplin Studios, which later became A&M Records and is now home to Henson Productions. That’s where the Muppets live.
The next mention in the lyrics is Schwabs’s, a long-defunct drugstore where legend has it Lana Turner was “discovered” while having a soda at the fountain. As with many Hollywood legends, that’s disputed. It made great studio copy- in Hollywood, that’s better than truth. Schwab’s was at 8024 Sunset, which doesn’t exist anymore due to a mall that was built there a number of years ago. This mall now houses the newest location of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain. This one is decorated with movie star and rock’n’roll imagery. It’s right across Sunset from The Laugh Factory.
Crescent Heights is the street that crosses Sunset right about where Schwab’s was. This, by the way, is also the location of the famous Pandora’s Box, a rock club that was a real hotspot in the 1960s. So hot, in fact, it was the scene of a protest over a 10 p.m. curfew that was then being enforced at the clubs on the Strip. This rumble became known as the “Sunset Strip Riot,” which was the subject of the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth.” The club was located in a triangular traffic island which was destroyed when remodeling plans called for a more high-speed intersection. Today the locale bears no resemblance to its past appearance.
This is where the Jaguar started to swerve.
Curiously, the lyrics jump right to Doheny, bypassing any mention of the heart of the Sunset Strip. It may not have appeared in the 1964 lyrics, but just west of Crescent Heights is the Chateau Marmont, the hotel where John Belushi did his last speedball. Also in that area was the famous “Marlboro Man” billboard, a towering tough guy who stood for years having a smoke while watching the traffic pass beneath him. The actor who posed for that immortal advertisement died of lung cancer. I think it was about that time the ad came down. This week it sports an ad for iPhones. Also missing in the song is the Hyatt House Hotel, known as the “Riot House” due to all the rock stars who stayed there. A lot of televisions flew out of those windows.
Other locales that are MIA in the song include The Rainbow Bar and Grill, The Roxy, Gazzarri’s, Duke’s and the Whiskey a Go-Go. Bill Gazzarri, the self-proclaimed “godfather of rock and roll” used to dress like a gangster and hang out at his club. Some pretty good acts played there through the years – the Doors and Van Halen were regulars there. The cross streets Clark and Hilldale are on the Sunset Boulevard race route. They were made famous in Love’s classic ode to the Sunset Strip, “Maybe The People Would Be The Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” These two side streets are the boundaries of that club-laden stretch of Sunset Boulevard.
In the lyrics, it is just after Doheny that things turned bad for this race. Doheny Drive, though, is all the way across Beverly Hills from Dead Man’s Curve. The race course which ends as described at Doheny would be about 4.5 miles long. If the race course extended to Dead Man’s Curve, you’d have a track of a little more than 8 and a half miles. Today it’s hard to imagine an actual road race down Sunset Boulevard. Traffic signals are seemingly timed to stop traffic, not keep it moving. Nowadays at least one lane is given away to tour buses and stretch limousines most of the way. Throw in the usual assortment of the homeless, jobless and brainless who have their own special ways of affecting traffic in L.A., and you have a race that would run at an average speed of about 15 miles per hour.
You might come back from Dead Man’s Curve, but when you do you’ll take Fountain, not Sunset.
“Well, the last thing I remember, Doc, I started to swerve
And then I saw the Jag slide into the curve
I know I’ll never forget that horrible sight,
I guess I found out for myself that everyone was right’
Won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve…”
Randy’s complete Picasa photo gallery from his “Dead Man’s Curve” drive
MP3: “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan & Dean
YouTube: Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve”
YouTube: Blink 182’s “Dead Man’s Curve”