Enjoying Oscars season in Los Angeles, especially during a recession, doesn't require a designer ballgown, diamond encrusted necklaces or a shiny, gilded statuette.
The Academy Awards, the entertainment industry's annual, ultimate ode to the movies, takes place Feb. 22 at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre (www.oscars.org/). While celebrities spend thousands of dollars to prep for the lavish ceremony, travelers to the city can get a taste of the Oscars and movie history, plus glimpse celebs, without the big bucks or bling.
The Kodak Theatre sits in the middle of the expansive Hollywood & Highland Center, a sprawling entertainment complex at 6801 Hollywood Blvd. that includes clothing stores, a bowling alley, the towering Renaissance Hollywood Hotel and movie theaters adjacent to the famed, copper-tipped Grauman's Chinese Theatre (www.hollywoodandhighland.com).
About 300 bleacher seats along the red carpet at the Oscars become available during a one-week lottery in late September through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But revelers can still observe Oscar preparations at Hollywood & Highland until the center closes the night before the awards show.
For free thrills, stroll down the nearby Hollywood Walk of Fame, stretching down Hollywood Boulevard. Glittering stars on the sidewalk display the names of thousands of celebrities. Grauman's Chinese Theatre's forecourt showcases cement-steeped celebrity handprints and autographs, from Paul Newman's meaty palms to Marilyn Monroe's smaller ones. Impersonators dressed up as Superman, Monroe and others entertain on the street.
People itching to get in on some thrifty pre-Oscars action can snap up tickets to events held in the five days before the show by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at its Beverly Hills headquarters, 8949 Wilshire Blvd. Note that tickets, which range from free to $5, become available Feb. 2, and go very quickly.
The events include symposiums with the current crop of makeup and hairstylist Oscar nominees, plus nominees in the feature animation and foreign language film categories. Film clips will also be screened, (www.oscars.org/events-exhibitions/events/index.html).
Movie-lovin' fashionistas should go to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising's 17th annual "Art of Motion Picture Costume Design" exhibit, 919 S. Grand Ave., where roughly 125 costumes from more than 20 films released in 2008 are on display. The free exhibit includes a grip of current best costume design Oscar nominees: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Duchess," "Australia" and "Milk" (http://fidm.edu).
Studios and sets
Official tours of movie and TV studios throughout L.A. plop you into the thick of the biz, also without breaking your bank account.
A twirl around the Paramount Studios lot, 5555 Melrose Ave., where "Nip/Tuck" and "Dr. Phil" are filmed, costs $35 per person (www.paramountstudios.com). The roughly 70 minute tour of NBC Studios, 3000 W. Alameda Ave., travels through sets for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Days of Our Lives." Tickets cost $8.50 for adults and $5 for kids. Separate tickets to attend "The Tonight Show" are usually in high demand (www.nbc.com/Footer/Tickets).
Dubbing itself "The Entertainment Capital of L.A.," Universal Studios Hollywood has the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes tour, plus a theme park featuring zesty, hair-flattening rides based on "The Simpsons," "The Mummy" franchise and other TV shows and movies (www.universalstudioshollywood.com).
Current online-only packages include two days of admission for the price of one: $67.99 general entrance and $57.99 for those under 48 inches.
Trams have been taking tourists through Universal's famed backlot since 1964. The current 45-minute tour showcases working and old sets, fiery and water-logged attractions recreating scenes from Universal movies, and snappy video narration by Whoopi Goldberg.
On a recent day, tram travelers could see a crew shooting in front of a backdrop of yellow and beige houses making up Wisteria Lane for ABC's "Desperate Housewives."
Close by, robotic dinosaurs spit water in a leafy "Jurassic Park" setting. Cars straight out of "The Fast and the Furious" collide in a fiery crash. The dilapidated Bates Motel filmed for Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar-nominated 1960 thriller "Psycho" looms near the wrecked 747 airplane from Steven Spielberg's 2005 film "War of the Worlds" and the snow-powdered town of Whoville in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas."
The Universal Experience — a recent addition to the theme park — houses dozens of movie artifacts, from the silky dresses in "Atonement" to Gregory Peck's glasses in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the 1962 film that nabbed him a best actor Oscar. The exhibit displays the gleaming best picture Oscar statuette for 1973's "The Sting."
Greystone Mansion and park is one prime film location tucked away in Beverly Hills, on 905 Loma Vista Dr. (www.greystonemansion.org). TV shows such as "Gilmore Girls" and dozens of movies, including "The Witches of Eastwick," "X-Men" and "The Big Lebowski," have filmed there. A-list stars have also been known to tour the grounds on their off days.
The massive 80-year-old mansion is perched on 18 hilltop acres of spiraling staircases, waterfalls, ponds, fountains, cypress trees and grassy lanes that tourists can roam for zilch moolah.
Organized group tours are allowed inside the house, plus guests for "The Manor: Murder and Madness at Greystone," a play inspired by the real-life demise of Edward "Ned" Laurence Doheny Jr. and his male secretary (www.theatre40.org/the-manor.html). Doheny Jr. and Hugh Plunkett were found dead inside the mansion in 1929, just months after the building was completed and Doheny Jr. moved in with his family.
Various movie productions have left their mark on the estate, from ornate black gates with looping Rs from 1994's "Richie Rich" to the house's bowling alley, renovated by Paramount over six weeks for Daniel Day-Lewis' pivotal bloody scene in "There Will Be Blood." All that blood won him last year's best actor Oscar.
Those not opposed to traversing cemeteries (attention fans of TV how "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") will be sweetly rewarded by a free treasure trove of dead-and-gone movie icons throughout the city.
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., is a 62-acre urban expanse of grass, trees and tombstones flanked to the south by Paramount Studios (www.hollywoodforever.com). Classic film stars including Rudolph Valentino and Oscar-winning director Cecil B. DeMille are buried there. Memorial markers for blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield and punk rocker Johnny Ramone attract fans from all over the world.
"Some of the graves and the stones here are just amazing," gushed retired nurse Gaye Culos, 62, recently visiting from Canada. Culos and her husband stood next to DeMille's huge marble tomb, decorated with orchids beside a lake. DeMille's circus spectacle "The Greatest Show on Earth" snagged him a best picture Oscar in 1953. Nearby, dried roses and a sign in red ink saying "I love you father" sat next to Valentino's crypt in the cemetery's white marble mausoleum, brightened by newly restored stained glass windows.
Glendale-based Forest Lawn, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., is another destination, stretching over more than 300 acres of grass-covered hills north of downtown L.A. Here you'll find grave sites for the likes of Clark Cable, Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole, Carole Lombard and Walt Disney (www.forestlawn.com).
A good place to stuff your face while watching for live celebs is the Farmers Market, 6333 W. Third St., plus its immediate neighbor, The Grove, an outdoor mall (www.thegrovela.com). A litany of stars, from Rihanna to Al Pacino, Kate Bosworth, Victoria Beckham, Lindsay Lohan and Heidi Klum, have all been photographed there, not so incognito, (www.farmersmarketla.com).
The market, this year celebrating its 75th anniversary, is one of the city's most charming spots, offering everything from side-by-side stands bursting with fruits and vegetables to French, Italian, Korean, Brazilian and Mediterranean cuisine, plus quirky tchotkes (cheap, colorful gifts can be found at the sticker store).
Sit down at an outdoor table, rest your feet. For just a few bucks, pick up a coffee and pastry from Bob's Coffee & Doughnuts to jump-start or top off a day trolling Tinseltown.
L.A. is known for its car culture, but public transportation has been on the rise. A Metro day pass is $5, and a weekly pass is $17, with unlimited rides on trains and buses (www.metro.net). The Metro Red Line sweeps from downtown L.A. through Hollywood. Various companies offer values on train and walking tours (www.hollywoodchamber.net).