My first day of work in Los Angeles wasn’t, strictly speaking, the first time I set foot on the lot. I had visited for a series of interviews, taken in the sprawling and neurotic construction but I was too nervous, excited and scared to think about where my office would be.
The now defunct A&M Records’ headquarters were housed in what used to be Charlie Chaplin’s studio lot. On the outside, on the corner of Sunset and La Brea, it looks like an incongruous assemblage of Swiss or Austrian chalets, deposited there straight from the Alps when no one was looking. Clearly Mr. Chaplin had very definite architectural preferences.
Inside, apart from the famed A&M recording studios towering in the center, the offices were a jumble of wooden structures dating back to the ‘20s and ‘50s and legend has it that the stairs that conducted to my department were used in countless tv episodes of Batman and that Ironside was also filmed there.
Whenever it rained, it was extremely inconvenient to go visit a colleague from another department and the entire structure, although extremely well-kept, was starting to show signs of aging. One afternoon, sitting at my desk, I heard rustling inside the waste paper basket. I figured I must have dropped something heavy in it that was making paper sink, until a giant rat popped out, making me run all the way out, screaming and dragging the headset I was wearing and the phone with me, leaving my caller under the impression I had just suffered a stroke. I refused to re-enter until the rodent was dealt with.
Sunset and La Brea were far from hip 16 years ago. Going out for lunch meant an inedible slice of pizza from Raffallo or take-out chicken from a fast food joint. Few ventured into the Chinese take-out that no doubt cooked the giant rats that infested their trash cans at the back, although at times, for variety’s sake, we broke down. Craving a gum or a candy after dark also posed some threats, as the surrounding streets were a drug selling haven and, if you dared walk around, one of the guards at the entrance booth would always warn you to be careful.
But at Halloween the most creative staff members decorated the entire lot with witches, ghosts and oversize spider webs and, even on a bad day, the place never felt corporate or sterile. Throngs of bewitched Japanese tourists would appear at the gates throughout the year, in a pilgrimage to honor the memory of Karen Carpenter (the Carpenters were huge in Japan).
The memories of the place, now owned by Jim Henson of Kermit fame, came flooding back as some of my former colleagues gathered at my house a few days ago. Some with children in tow, some still in the music industry and feeling their days numbered and some, like me, doing activities not even remotely connected to our former careers. Surprisingly, we didn’t spend much time talking about the good old days – we fell into our old lunch banter, looking at the future.
On the day A&M closed, at that point absorbed by Universal that had no intention of keeping such an extravagant place on their books, the LA Times published a front page photo of the rotating round sign that had stood atop the Swiss chalets for decades. One employee had climbed up and put a large black band over it.
Even now, every time I drive by, I half expect to see the familiar sign and I wonder if wide-eyed skinny Japanese girls still peer through the front gate, looking for Karen’s ghost.