A Local’s Guide to Rome
According to this long-time resident, Rome today is an eclectic fusion of ancient riches and modern delights.
The writer revisits the iconic, lost establishments from the era that inspired his new ’80s novel, “The Shards.”
ONE NIGHT DURING the first month of the pandemic — with nowhere to go, no one to see, everything locked down — I found myself in the office of my condo watching YouTube. I took in the news of the day, weighing my odds against the virus, and watched various movie clips and long-forgotten ’80s videos. After another glass of wine (the bottles were getting opened earlier in the day during the pandemic) and stirred by the music of my adolescence, I found myself looking for a high school classmate I had a crush on and whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated in 1982. I quickly realized he had no social media presence — no Facebook, no Instagram, no trace of him online. Feeling both saddened and haunted by this fact, I started searching for the places my friends and I hung out in Los Angeles as high school seniors. Unfortunately, many of those places were just as invisible as that boy I hadn’t seen in almost 40 years.
As I stared into my computer, clicking from link to link to link, I realized that so many locations we inhabited weekly — if not daily, in a few cases — were now gone, erased. They simply hadn’t been recorded the way things are today because no one had their own cameras in 1981. Plus, the idea of photographing your sandwich at a restaurant, your friends dancing in a club, the mall during an afternoon spent, or the movie marquee in Westwood while standing in front of it was so far beyond our notion of teen life. It wasn’t until that night in April 2020 when this struck with an aching force — the LA world we lived in and the various spaces we went when we were young had disappeared, and there seemed to be very little or no visual proof that they’d existed.
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This was the impetus for returning to “The Shards” (Knopf; January 2023), which was an unfinished semi-autobiographical book that took place in 1981 that I’d visited repeatedly throughout my life but could never fully unlock. Something always inhibited me, and it wasn’t concerns over the rumors and gossip or the depictions of sex — all the lust and unfulfilled desire. I never knew exactly what was holding me back. The book was set in a prep school very much like the one I attended in LA, and many of the scenes I’d planned but never written took place in malls, movie theaters, coffee shops, and nightclubs popular in 1981. But that night, something finally activated me, and though I knew many of these places had shut down decades ago, what surprised me was how little online evidence there was of their long-ago selves, such little visible proof they had existed or were even popular. I hadn’t noticed this before because I’d never looked, but the revelation stirred a wave of nostalgia for that time and place — for LA and 1981. It was a nostalgia attached to an era and teenagehood that I hadn’t felt before, until that spring of 2020 when I was 57. And the book I’d been thinking about and toying with when I was 18 began writing itself in ways it never had in the decades since I first imagined it. I finished it 16 months later.
The Sherman Oaks Galleria opened the day before Halloween in 1980 and quickly became the epicenter for SoCal high school kids. It was the dawn of the Reagan era, and this place foreshadowed the heedless materialism of the upcoming decade, when teenagers began to rule mall culture, the airwaves, and the multiplexes. The Galleria was considered slightly tacky, but we didn’t care: An atrium gave the impression that it was a three-story open-air shopping mall, lined with mauve carpeting, white-chrome railings, and glass-walled elevators. In 1981, Los Angeles was the focal point worldwide for youth and lifestyle trends due to its proximity to Hollywood. The Galleria became even more popular in 1982 when it was immortalized in the novelty hit “Valley Girl” and the teen-exploitation comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” It became the central teen hangout not only for the San Fernando Valley, but for all of LA. This was due in part to its vast food court, which catered to teenage dietary tastes (Hot Dog on a Stick, Chipyard Cookies, Kaboby), the adjacent state-of-the-art arcade, and the fourplex where Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) worked as an usher in “Fast Times,” pining away for Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who waitressed at Perry’s Pizza across the concourse. Our interest in the Galleria waned when the Beverly Center opened in March 1982; it seemed the more sophisticated alternative, especially with the super-trendy Hard Rock Cafe as its anchor on the corner of San Vicente Boulevard.
A retro coffee shop on the corner of Wilshire and Glendon was a main late-night hangout, even though it opened in 1958. Ships was a prime example of midcentury Googie architecture — futuristic and space-age, its boomerang-shaped roof and atomic neon sign calling to us like a beacon. Atomic Age culture had made a comeback in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and this throwback style was evident among new wave bands (the B-52s, Devo) and in fashion (skinny ties, taffeta skirts, capri pants). Another lure: Ships was open 24 hours, so it would be the last stop on a Saturday in Westwood. In fact, it was the only place to hang out after we saw a midnight movie at any of the dozen first-run theaters that dotted the streets of UCLA’s Westwood Village. We’d order Cokes and vanilla milkshakes and smoke clove cigarettes. There was an ashtray — and a separate toaster — on each table. The food was never the point at Ships — it was the retro-cool style we seemed to sync with. It symbolized the “Back to the Future” ethos that defined the decade’s first half, just as the Galleria defined the burgeoning yuppie culture that would warp its second half.
The National Theatre was the grandest movie palace in Westwood (its closest competition was the Fox Village Theatre, which is still standing under a different name, having merited historic status). It was also the newest, having opened in 1970. There we saw everything in that movie-mad decade, from “Electra Glide in Blue” to “The Last of Sheila,” “The Deer Hunter” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Reds” to “American Gigolo.” The theater itself was so glamorous it made seeing any movie there an occasion — the building was all softly rounded curves. Beyond the ticket booth was a marble-floor foyer that led to a grand staircase with a sparkling crystal chandelier. Upstairs was a lobby with a massive bronze mirror, 26 feet wide, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the adjacent Lindbrook Drive. The walls were gold, red, and orange, and past the concession stand, oak doors led into the largest auditorium in Westwood. It seemed so vast as to be its own world. The 1,100 seats and the carpeting that lined the theater were the same burnt-orange color, and the huge screen was hidden during intermissions by persimmon-colored drapes. The decor was late-’60s modern, but by 1981 it was gorgeously retro. It’s hard to believe, but this was the last single-screen movie theater built in the U.S. — only multiplexes were constructed afterward. In a time when movies mattered in ways they simply don’t now, the National Theatre was a monument to film-going and the theatrical experience. It closed in 2007.
The Odyssey was the first club we went to — opened in West Hollywood in 1976. By 1981, it had become the premier all-ages disco in LA, seven nights a week, where local teens could drink 7UP and Perrier and twirl the night away as DJs spun new wave hits in the glass booth above the dance floor. The club’s walls were mirrored, and clouds of dry ice swirled while massive pylons wrapped in glowing neon lowered from the ceiling, whirling ecstatically. The Odyssey closed at 5 a.m., which suggests it was also for the adults who congregated there. Hanging out there was our first step toward adulthood, and though the Odyssey was mostly straight, it was definitely mixed, and the first place I encountered older gay people. Despite the low-key decadence on display, the Odyssey was an artifact of a more innocent time — pre-AIDS, pre–Just Say No, pre-political correctness. It burned down in a mysterious fire in 1985 — we didn’t know it then, but the club had a wild, secret history (it was owned by famed LA criminal Eddie Nash, known for his role in the “Wonderland Murders”). A LensCrafters and an AT&T store occupy the location now.
So why does any of this matter? Memories of those places, particularly on that night in 2020, offered a kind of reality to what had been, for me, until then, the hazy past. Remembering them as intensely as I did was clarifying. It brought me closer to the emotions I needed to connect with to complete the novel that I’d been stuck on for so many decades. Remembering them was a reminder that they once actually existed, that this world had happened and we had moved through it. The past we shared wasn’t some kind of collective dream or fantasy that occasionally drifted into my thoughts over the preceding years.
I was also haunted by the ease with which these places disappeared and how this is endemic to the geography of Los Angeles. There seems to be so little permanence because of the endless, wide-open spaciousness of the place and its breathtaking sprawl, which lends the city an ability to effortlessly reinvent itself, over and over, tearing itself down and rebuilding constantly. This is part of the apocalyptic aura of LA: Destruction seems designed into the fabric of the city (earthquakes, fires, and droughts), so who cares if this place is gone or another has been razed? Also, it’s not as if I’m remembering disappeared skyscrapers and museums, long-forgotten amusement parks, an airport, or a sports arena. I’m only referencing the disappearance of a lone movie theater, now an apartment building; a coffee shop, now a series of offices; a small nightclub, now a mini-mall. These familiar places from our youth are on one level seemingly mundane, but in memory are endlessly mythical — as is everything when looking back at one’s life.
Bret Easton Ellis is the author of six novels, a short story collection, and a collection of essays. His seventh novel, “The Shards,” will be published in 2023. In addition, he hosts The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast on Patreon.
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