Gag Me With a Spoon


There's like the Galleria/ And like all these like really great shoe stores / I love going into like clothing stores and stuff / I like buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff / It’s like so BITCHEN

-- Frank Zappa, “Valley Girl”

If there were a “Greetings From the Valley” postcard in 1979, the dominant image would have been an indoor mall. Capitalism in a box was the pride and joy in places like Northridge and Woodland Hills, yet the Sherman Oaks Galleria was a morgue when it opened for business in 1979. It had much in its favor, including an affluent South Valley location and eyesore marketing – you couldn’t miss its enormous sign as you zoomed past the Ventura exit on the 405. Yet the Galleria was nearly DOA, unable to capture the retail magic that sprinkled from the vents in the climate-controlled confines of the Fashion Center and Topanga Plaza.

Now those places were landmarks! The Northridge Fashion Center was my personal place of worship. I had first glimpsed the Taj Mahal of Tampa Avenue soon after it opened in 1971. It was like the United Nations of shopping: From the Tinder Box to Spencer Gifts to the creepy religious smorgasbord Hodels, I had never seen such a disparate array of stores under one roof. Inside the darkened cash-driven cathedral, time was irrelevant. It was all about the sanctity of spending.

The mall put Northridge on the map, and its clout was so overpowering that a spend-and-play fortress (Tower Records, Malibu Grand Prix, Wild West Store) emerged across the street and a mini-restaurant row sprouted down Tampa (which at one time included the mind-blowing Jeremiah’s Steakhouse. Yum.).

By contrast, Sherman Oaks already had its own, vaguely iconoclastic identity before the Galleria emerged, and wasn’t cool enough to impress locals who’d rather cruise down Beverly Glen to visit the City’s contribution to retail bombast, the Beverly Center (Kiddie Park RIP).

It was the fickle finger of popular culture that saved the Galleria. First, Frank Zappa name-checked it in his 1981 goof “Valley Girl.” The biggie came a year later, when teenage angst was played out in front of Hot Dog On a Stick in the classic 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Suddenly, the Galleria was The Valley. Non-Vals began trolling the food court looking for Van Halen ducat-scalping greaseballs and inarticulate teen babes adorned in day-glo leg warmers. When wayward tourists made their way north of L.A. proper, the Galleria was on the short list along with Universal Studios. The Valley dream, the Valley myth was perpetuated inside those walls.

But like the career of the once-babelicious Phoebe Cates, the ravages of time took its toll on the Sherman Oaks icon. The Galleria faded like an aged Hollywood prop that had been cast aside; By the late 90s it had once again become a ghost town, a passe pock mark of Valley history.

And then it was blown up and a new Galleria was created from scratch. Whereas the old mall was an ugly box with stores wedged inside, the new concept, according to its developers, is a “24-hour business/lifestyle environment.” That’s focus group-ese for ”let’s design an office park with room for a smoothie shop and a Starbuck’s.”

Construction began in 1999 and the new facility opened in 2002. Now an outdoor environment, the new Galleria is a pleasant enough place in which to walk. The movie theater is comfortable and Tower Records is reliable. It’s a socially pleasant vibe, yet it still leaves me cold. Perhaps I’m a sentimental sap, sad that a dried-up landmark was put out of its miser. The old mall had a slipshod quality that the new venture lacks. The new Galleria feels corporate, and there’s not enough to do. Empty office and retail space outnumbers the tenants, and aside from movies, the gym or Tower, there’s not a lot to do except to people watch for porn stars. Unlike the similarly conceptualized Grove, the Galleria does little to foster a sense of community.

More importantly, there’s not a Hickory Farms or Spencer Gifts for miles around… and what good is a mall when you can’t find fuzzy black-light posters and calendars of fat nude women riding bicycles. That’s my kind of place.