The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Porn Stars, by Sophie Kipner & Marco Mannone

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Side A: by Sophie Kipner

Anticipation better not get the best of me. An hour before my partner in XXX crime arrives to pick me up to go to Sardo’s Grill & Lounge, the so-called home of the San Fernando Valley’s Tuesday night Porn Star Karaoke, expectations are flying around, having a heyday. We have both been assigned to check out where the valley’s living exhibits go after a long, hard day at work to relax and hang loose, no pun intended. I repeatedly tell myself there’s no point in all this anticipating, that thinking too much about what will be will kill it. But in all fairness to myself, fantasizing about it is half the fun. All I can think about is having to sing “Physical” or “She’ll Be Cuming ‘Round the Mountain” to a crowd of drunken adult film stars while my arm is draped around Roxanne Hall and the new Jenna Jameson. Singing our favorite songs, no one caring what an atrocious singer I am, and the 2 a.m. bar curfew becoming null and void in a world of mastacious women, swinger parties, roller skates, and pre-1980s sexual disease phobias… Damn! I’m anticipating again. Staring blankly at my open wardrobe, I’m hoping something will jump out as the obvious attire to help me blend in, but I am having no such luck and I’m running out of time like the Rabbit. Now a little panicked, I circle around my options and eventually throw on a t-shirt, purple leather vest, some 60s-ish pants and my worst enemy, a pair of heels.

porn3Marco picks me up because he knows I’m a lightweight. Two drinks and I’ll be telling anyone who will listen stories that should be told with reservation. I’m used to talking a lot and not being heard, but I’m starting to think Marco is actually listening which both relieves and frightens me. I’m given the task of navigating, but I’m having such a good time already that I forget to pay attention to the map. Road construction detours and MapQuest hell leave us screaming to the lords of Burbank urban planning for help. Where the hell is this place? Right when we think it’s time to go home, Marco pulls into a strip mall. Next to Vons, a neon sign illuminating Sardo’s is sandwiched awkwardly between ill-fitting businesses, as is typical of strip malls. We give each other a deadpan look, laugh, sigh, and unbuckle. The air feels seedy, which sets me in the mood. I get a waft of donuts, sex and mist. Delicious.

It’s still early, so there’s no one outside with the exception of the bouncer and a man I recognize as the owner (I watched his interactive tour on Sardo’s website so he was easy to spot). He is welcoming and gestures for us to walk in. As we do, I notice a sea of red patent leather covering all the booths and the bar stools. It’s calm and collected for what I imagined. The tone-deaf have definitely arrived, but where are all the big boobs? The tanned skin, the peroxide-bleached hair? The gangly men with long, curly man-locks? Ah, yes, there’s one. You have to really search for him, but he’s there. Marco and I look around, sussing out the premises of this should-be-but-isn’t house of debauchery. There appears to be a VIP area where an older woman with a backbreakingly enormous chest sits, alongside a blonde and a brunette. This must be where the “stars” congregate. We count about four who could pass as porn stars, although we aren’t quite sure; we are in Los Angeles after all. The mic is handed over to the MC for the night, who announces the recent release of her new DVD and proceeds to call out tame dirty names to the boys in the crowd begging for a free t-shirt. She selects one up front, makes him turn around and bend over, and gives him the kind of spanking we all predict.

It’s getting more and more crowded, which feeds me with a morsel of hope. I very much want it to be a secret gold mine of a dive bar, with locals I want to chat with, music I want to sway to, outrageous live acts I want to witness. But it’s not; porn has gone limp. Actually, it feels as if it has nothing to do with porn. If I came without prior research, I would never guess that it’s a porn star karaoke night. The bar does have some redeeming qualities: it’s funky, relaxed, well lit, and serves healthy-portioned drinks. But we are here late and not one “porn star” has graced us with his or her voice as far as we can tell, so I’m left thinking the label has been put on the wrong bottle. It’s simply karaoke in Burbank, which naturally, being the porn capital of the world, has a higher than normal chance of being frequented by a few porn stars.

DSCF3552Bad karaoke fades into the background as Marco and I comfortably settle on bar stools in the corner, familiarizing ourselves with local regulars and self-medicating with Heineken and Diet Cokes. One such local, a man by the name of Ken who smells of Marlboro Reds from the table next to us, wears a leather cowboy hat and boots, and clanks glasses with us in celebration of his birthday. We learn he’s been coming for many, many years and thinks it’s the greatest bar around. I must add to that statement that Ken and his wife live one block away. Marco and I had committed to singing if it meant we would experience more of what Sardo’s PSK has to offer, but given the less-than-mind-blowing vibe, we decide to pass.

I never expected Sardo’s to be a live and breathing dictionary of all things pornographic, but I did expect something slightly entertaining. I can safely say that Marco, my delightful and funny partner on this PG-rated night, was 10x more engaging than what was going on in the corner of the VIP booth. So what do I think of Sardo’s? I think it’s a bar in Burbank with good drinks. Period. Do you need to venture across town for it? No. Is the allure of porn stronger than porn itself? Probably, but I’ll leave that for the experts to debate.

Anticipation turned out to be the most efficacious act relating to porn of the night, as it is quite masturbatory in itself. But if my expectation of tonight was my mental foreplay, I’m pretty sure Sardo’s gave my dear friend Marco a bad case of blue balls.

Side B: by Marco Mannone

Topanga Canyon twists before me in pitch darkness. One wrong move, and I’ll have a healthy ten-second free-fall to let my life flash by before exploding on the jagged rocks below. Keep it steady and let Nick Cave croon “Moonland”. I’m venturing into this perfect slice of darkness to pick up Forth writer/online editor Sophie Kipner. She lives in the lush heart of Topanga, and it feels thoroughly nice to be off The Grid.

When I pick Sophie up she is surprised at how punctual I am – and I must say, I am as well. It’s a long haul through the winding wilderness before we make it into the Valley and jump on the 101. Our destination: Sardo’s in Burbank to listen to Porn Star Karaoke. Why? Because it has become an L.A. tradition. In Italy, you ride in Gondolas. In Spain, you watch a bull-fight. In New York, you go to Broadway. And here in Los Angeles, you see people who get paid to have sex belt out their favorite 80’s rock ballads in a grimy little bar in a strip-mall of a Von’s parking lot. Who says L.A. doesn’t have culture?

We veer off at the Pass Ave. exit and the evening is going swimmingly until we realize that Pass Ave. doesn’t feel like cooperating and ends prematurely at Olive. We back-track, only to end up in the parking lot of a dry-cleaners and MapQuest has failed to clarify Burbank’s impossible infrastructure. Construction and poor city-planning drives us in circles, and we come to find – over much laughter – that there is no feeling quite as despairing as being lost in Burbank, CA.

Eventually, Sophie calls the bar and we get a new set of directions that circumvents the construction detours and lands us at Sardo’s. Since 2003, the establishment has been hosting Porn Star Karaoke, a novelty that has caught on as a must-see local experience. The lounge is small and modestly crowded at 9:45pm. We saddle up at a free corner of the bar and Sophie gets a Jack & Diet Coke while I get a Heineken. The clientele is typical for the Valley: a strange mix of frat-boys, middle-aged divorcees, Nascar cowboys and, oh yeah, a few porn-stars thrown in for good measure. But the image of a “Boogie Nights”-style disco scene is quickly erased as we settle in and absorb the average, blue-collar atmosphere.

An aging gentleman in a 2006 Nascar champion jacket and cowboy hat (I wasn’t kidding) introduces himself as “Ken”. It’s Ken’s birthday tomorrow and he’s out celebrating with his wife over some chicken-wings and cocktails. They’ve been coming to Sardo’s for years, much like a majority of the people here, and he swears by it as a good time. The meager collection of porn stars are sequestered into a modest “VIP” booth by the stage and they don’t appear obvious in any way – save for the giant breasts on one worn-out woman which look as if they might go down like the Hindenburg.

Waiting to be impressed – or even vaguely amused – Sophie and I turn to each other for drinks and conversation that turn out to be far more entertaining than anything the evening could present. When I catch the dark wing of a bird sticking out of Sophie’s shoulder-blade, I inquire about the tattoo and she pulls her sleeve back to reveal a magnificent crow frozen in glory. She explains that when her grandfather was dying in England, that a crow had perched itself on his hospital window-sill for an entire week without moving. Moments after he passed, the crow squawked and flew away leaving Sophie enchanted. Despite her general fear of birds – stemming from a hilarious “Emu incident” in Australia when she was nine years old – she decided to brand herself with this bird as a symbol of her grandfather and, perhaps, a reminder of fears that need to be overcome in this life.

Excusing myself to the bathroom, I am nearly molested by a crowd of people as I squeeze myself across the bar. There is a line to the men’s room, which plants me squarely between porn-star Julia-Anne singing “Rebel Yell” and a fortune-teller’s glass bowl with a plastic witch head floating inside of it, cackling obnoxiously. This could either be a decoration for Halloween, or the very spirit of pornography: a fake woman trapped in a bubble, stimulated by electricity and doomed to a bar in Burbank.

Inside the claustrophobic commode, a Mexican gentleman is busy mopping the floor with a bucket of dirty water, and I make a mental note to burn my Converse when I get home. A white yuppie uses the urinal next to mine — the kind of guy who wears a silk, burgundy button-down tucked in his jeans. Julia-Anne can be clearly heard through the wall behind us, and the Yuppie breaks my personal bathroom etiquette by engaging me in conversation.

“Oh my god, these girls sound like HORSE-SHIT!”

“Well, what did you expect?” I respond.

“I don’t know man, but of all the places we could have gone, I am regretting coming here. Vegas, New York, shit – even Tucson for Christ sake!”

He is drunk and the Illusion men across the country must have of L.A.’s porn scene has been efficiently soiled by his visit here.

“Well hell,” I tell him, “Keep your sense of humor intact, and go down laughing.”

When I make my way back to Sophie, the evening’s host – adult actress Nikki Hunter – is making a man pull a free T-shirt out of her manufactured cleavage with his teeth.

“What’s this?” I ask Sophie, who watches the scene unfold with a wry smile.

“They’re handing out free stuff to whoever makes the biggest fool of themselves,” she responds.

viewA free DVD is waved around and the drunk apes in the lounge roll around and beat their chests for a chance at “earning” it. One lucky hominid is singled-out and Nikki asks him, “So what will you do to get this?”

“Anything you want!” he grins.

“So I can spank your ass as hard as I want?”

“Sure!”

The man – presumably apart of the work-force, a relative to some family, a tax-payer and quite possibly a patriot – bends over with his elbows planted on his table, and endures the brutal hand of Ms. Hunter as she WHACKS his buttocks.

“So what was your introduction to porn?” Sophie asks me, a not-so-typical work-related question.

“Like most red-blooded American males of the 20th Century: the glossy pages of Playboy. My best friend’s father had boxes full of every issue dating back to the 1960’s.”

We both agreed that was innocent stuff compared to today’s brand of gonzo porn.

“In essence, you were apart of the last generation of men who had a classy introduction to the opposite sex,” Sophie tells me, “Playboy Bunnies were modest, playful and respected.”

“True,” I elaborate, “And the act of appreciating them required effort. Back in those days, you had to be covert to sneak magazines around. Not like today, where kids can say they’re doing their homework and surf the Internet. Christ, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a kid these days. They can see and hear things that most adults can’t even comprehend at the push of a button. We’re gonna have a generation of sexual deviants on our hands soon, and a good deal of them will become teachers and politicians.”

I ask Sophie what her introduction to porn was, and she confides it was at a girlfriend’s father’s house when she was at the edge of puberty. She and her girlfriends would watch the father’s VHS collection and proceed to prank-call random boys by emulating the breathless dialogue of the women on TV.

“Shit, where were you when I was 12?” I ask her, “All the prank calls I got were insulting.”

Sophie ponders the future of pornography, “How could it possibly get any more graphic? At what point will we be unable to push the envelope any further?”

“I agree,” I tell her, switching an empty Heineken for a full one, “On one hand, it’s desensitizing us, necessitating more and more elaborate fetishes. On the other hand, and I think this is the optimist in me, but I think that at a certain point the sensory overload of the Internet will hopefully re-establish the need to have a meaningful, connected and loving relationship with the opposite sex. Because at the end of the day, an orgasm without love is as empty a physical gesture as sneezing.”

We’re just two young writers for an arts & literature magazine, philosophizing about human sexuality and relationships in the 21st century, all the while a woman with thousand-dollar breasts croons “Pour Some Sugar on Me” in a way that Def Leppard probably never imagined.

Not too long after midnight, we decide we’ve had enough and head out to my car and jump back on the 101 – where we continue to laugh all the way back into the sweet heart of darkness that is Topanga. At the end of the night, the tacky lure of drunk sex objects singing cheesy music pales in comparison with the genuine connection I end up enjoying with Sophie. Connections in L.A. are hard to come by (regardless of their platonic or romantic nature) and when two members of the opposite sex create one, it’s in the same ballpark as a tiny miracle. As much as Burbank seems designed to confuse, L.A. seems designed to alienate, and I am thankful I have gotten to know this girl with a bird on her back a little better. After all, Sophie is proof-positive that it’s not where you go in this strange city we call home, but who you go with.

Ass-spanking optional.


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  1. May 3, 2010 @ 6:53 pm david h

    thanks for saving me the trip out there although truthfully i cant say im surprised by your findings. anyway, nice job. thumbs up…PS – is there a budding romance here? what about a first date story? hearing both sides of a first date would be fascinating dont you think?

  2. March 31, 2011 @ 7:22 pm Lysandra

    very cool and funny article. I had no idea Sardo’s had porn star karaoke. and yes… Pass Ave is confusing as sh!t.

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