Los Angeles can feel like an endless expanse of smog-choked traffic jams, sketchy marijuana dispensaries, and massage parlors offering rub and tugs to discreet businessmen. But high above the din and infernal stink of the streets stands Griffith Observatory, an otherworldly haven for dreamers, cinephiles, and star-gazers of all stripes. It earned a permanent place in the pop-culture pantheon for the role it plays in the 1955 youth-gone-wild melodrama Rebel Without A Cause.
The planetarium has been a ubiquitous fixture in television, film, and movies ever since, popping up in projects as disparate as Transformers, Bowfinger, Flesh Gordon, Midnight Madness, 24, Earth Girls Are Easy, and the Paula Abdul music video “Rush Rush.” (The latter was a loving homage to Rebel Without A Cause, with Keanu Reeves in the James Dean role—though he’s no one’s idea of a contemporary James Dean—and Abdul recreating the Natalie Wood role of Dean’s star-crossed love interest and fellow brooder.)
In Rebel Without A Cause, the Griffith Observatory is the center of much of the film’s climactic action, positive and negative. It’s where James Dean is bullied by toughs (including a very young Dennis Hopper) during a field trip, and faces off with one of his tormentors in a knife fight that has been parodied, ripped off, and paid homage to in countless films and television shows. It’s the hostile realm where Dean is challenged to a “chickie run” (a form of automotive Russian roulette where two drivers drive toward a seemingly deadly abyss to see who pulls away first in a fit of frenzied self-preservation, and consequently qualifies as “chicken”). It’s where Dean’s effete sidekick, Sal Mineo, is ultimately killed by cops. But the Observatory is also a place of refuge for Dean, Mineo, and Wood when they’re on the run from teen thugs and the police. It’s an oasis of peace in an otherwise violent adolescent realm.
As movie lovers, James Dean fans, pop-culture obsessives, and teenage partisans of The Smiths (who reference Rebel Without A Cause and its Griffith Observatory scenes in the song “Stretch Out And Wait”), The A.V. Club had enormous reverence for the Griffith Observatory long before it brought its cameras to this holy pop-culture cathedral.
The reality of the Griffith Observatory was somehow even more spectacular than its reputation suggests. It is one of the most beautiful places in Southern California. The observatory is an elegant architectural marvel built by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration in the ’30s, on land donated by Welsh-American philanthropist Griffith J. Griffith. (The observatory is technically named after both his first and last name.) But the wonder of the place is equally attributable to its gorgeous, tranquil setting high up in the hills, and the view it affords of Los Angeles, the wilderness, and the world-famous Hollywood sign.
When not mooning about like star-struck tourists, we caught up with film critic and journalist James Rocchi, who previously served as our guide to Nakatomi Plaza (a.k.a. Fox Plaza) during Pop Pilgrims’ first season. Rocchi served as an expert on all things Griffith Observatory, beginning with the planetarium’s origins as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sinister plan to end the Depression with large-scale public-works programs on through to its Rebel Without A Cause fame and some of its more inspired later uses, from The Rocketeer to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. And, of course, that Paula Abdul video.
If talking about movies were a sport, Rocchi would be an Olympian on par with Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner. The man is a bottomless font of information on films past, present, and future. We spoke with him for a good 50 minutes and barely seemed to skim the surface of his knowledge about the long, interconnected history of Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, and the movie business.
We then wandered over to the most nightmare-inducing element of this waking dream of a cinematic and cultural landmark: an eyeless, disembodied James Dean head that’s as macabre as the rest of the establishment is serene. The Dean statue is a ghoulish, tacky monstrosity seemingly designed to terrify small children, but even it could not break the hypnotic spell the Griffith Observatory cast over us. We’ll always have our fond memories of the afternoon, as well as a Pavlovian shiver of nostalgia whenever we see this shooting location pop up in a movie or television show.