Originally published April 11, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
“Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the Police Academy”…
If you recognize these words as part of the opening sequence to the ’70s hit TV show Charlie’s Angels then you are also sure to recognize the tall stone framed gates standing at the entranceway to the Los Angeles Police Academy. They were shown in an establishing shot in the beginning credits that was shown before every episode.
Depending upon your views of the LAPD, or law enforcement in general, you may have some trepidation about walking up to those very gates, introducing yourself to the uniformed police guard in his sentry box out front and then wandering around the grounds inside unescorted. If you are a little gun shy (pun intended) I can completely relate. I am the type of girl who gets nervous when a squad car pulls up next to me in traffic, certain that he wants to pull me over. I advise you to push past your fear, however, because the Los Angeles Police Academy is definitely a surreal piece of our city worth exploring. I was surprised to learn that civilian visitors are welcome to this sprawling training facility located near Dodger Stadium and I was doubly surprised to realize what a bizarre adventure awaits inside.
Upon arriving at the gates of the Academy I was welcomed by the aforementioned uniformed LAPD officer who was extremely chatty and regaled me with tales of the strange history of the facility. Definitely the weirdest and most interesting story that he told me was about how the elaborate stone work on the big entrance gates was laid by men arrested for public drunkenness in early 1930s. Apparently if someone had tied on a little too much to drink the previous Saturday night and was unlucky enough to get picked up for it, a future of hard labor was the punishment. Sweat was deemed the perfect detox.
The Police Academy itself was built on the site of a gun range in Elysian Park that the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club had been using since 1925. Before 1924 Los Angeles officers were completely untrained. They were basically given a gun, a badge and told something like, “Good luck, shoot before they shoot you.” During the 1932 Olympic World Games the pistol and rifle competition took place at the Elysian Park police gun range. In exchange for the permission to use the gun range, the Olympic committee gave the officers a dormitory building after the games were over. These Olympic dormitories became the basis for the early Academy and the structure for the present day Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club Café. The construction of the Police Academy itself was completed in 1935 and it’s first class of trained officers graduated in 1936.
The Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club Café, inside the gates, up some stairs and to the right, is definitely worth a visit. Serving typical diner food at reasonable prices, you might actually forget that you are on LAPD training grounds if it wasn’t for the police memorabilia on the walls and the surreality of the not too distant gun fire. As I sit in the vinyl covered booth and dip my fries into ketchup, I can’t help but notice that boys in blue are the only other patrons. Yes, this is a little bizarre.
After finishing lunch, there are two other stops to check out inside the building near the café. The first, a typical gift shop, sells the expected souvenirs. There are mugs and magnets and t-shirts and stuffed teddy bears wearing LAPD uniforms. I suppose teaching your young one to have a friendly view of authority is never a bad thing. But next, the place that will make you feel most out of place and most like you stepped into a David Lynch film, is found in the same building, down a corridor lined with police plaques and display cases full of slightly menacing guns and ammunition. It is The Police Revolver and Athletic Club Store.
This store is strictly hard-core LAPD. There are racks of guns on the walls and in glass counter display cases. There are batons and uniforms for sale along with manuals and almost anything an LAPD officer might need to go out into the field and battle crime. As I creep around this store, trying to remain invisible and not appear too interested in the tear gas for sale, I am next to officers in uniform who are actually shopping. I keep waiting for someone to turn to me and tell me sternly that I do not belong here, but nobody seems to notice how out of place I am. It is certainly another universe, one that I am not accustomed to entering. Strange, and again, slightly creepy, I decide it is time to search for the fabled rock garden that I have heard rumors about.
Designed in 1937 by the landscape architect and rock sculptor François Scotti, who a few years later designed the wonderfully weird 20-foot waterfall located downtown in Clifton’s Cafeteria, the Police Academy Rock Garden is a fairytale wonderland. Located near the shooting range, this rock garden has seemingly endless maze-like levels, multiple waterfalls, several ponds and many hidden seating areas. It is easy to get pleasantly lost on the charmingly rustic stone staircases and trails. It is quaintly peaceful and beautiful. The architecture is very reflective of the era in which it was built, making me wonder if Saturday night drunks were employed in its construction as well.
The Rock Garden is available to be rented out for private parties, such as receptions. Although it is breathtakingly idyllic, I think about how strange this is to be located next to a gun firing range. Leaving this piece of tranquility, I am again transported back to the world of the LAPD. My adventure at an end and my head swimming with the strangeness of it all, I walk back through the Charlie’s Angels gates to my car. Los Angeles, with all of its paradoxes and contradictions never fails to amaze me, and for that I am mightily thankful.
The Los Angeles Police Academy: 1880 Academy Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90012; (323) 221-5222. (Café hours are M-F, 6am-2pm)