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THE SACRAMENTO BEE — Discoveries: The Pan Am Experience a flight to the past (VIDEO)

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April 3, 2015
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THE SACRAMENTO BEE — Discoveries: The Pan Am Experience a flight to the past (VIDEO)

By Sam McManus
March 28, 2015

Original Story

Anyone can grouse and moan about his perfectly hideous airline experience, his personal flight from hell, replete with tales of woe concerning cancellations and delays, TSA body-cavity searches, cramped seating next to a hirsute man in a tank top and flip-flops, surly peanut-hurling cabin service, added charges for everything from baggage to, seemingly, the very ions of the air you breathe.

Where’s the originality in that?

Me? I’m here to tell you about the obverse. I’m going to describe a perfectly lovely flight I took recently, one that even the most devout atheist would call heavenly. From the moment I stepped into the terminal, on through the check-in process, boarding lounge wait, take-off and cruising-altitude ascension all the way to touch-down four hours later (right on time, I might add), my every need and whim was assiduously catered to, every request indulged with a punctiliousness usually afforded only to those of royal lineage.

I’m talking hot towels, warm nuts, arctic vodka martinis, Sriracha-sizzling stewardesses whose royal blue uniforms showed off theirgams, steaming Chateaubriand tenderloin carved seat-side, throat-burning Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey on overstocked libations carts, a super-cool captain whose epaulets glimmered as he glad-handed down the aisles, and just an out-and-out chill vibe.

Of course, we didn’t actually go anywhere. Never even left the ground. Well, you can’t have everything now, can you?

Wait, check that. We did go someplace. We were transported to the 1960s and ’70s aboard a painstaking and lovingly re-created First Class and Clipper Class cabin of a Pan Am 747 that once graced the friendly skies but now sits anchored as kind of an exhumed time capsule on the lot of Air Hollywood, a sound stage in a business park in northern Los Angeles County.

Twice monthly, the Pan Am Experience takes about 30 “passengers” on a time-travel trip in which those of a certain age can relive the so-called Golden Age of air travel, and those too young to remember can see what they missed and pine for days they, alas, never experienced in the first place. Taking to the air … uh, ground … a little more than a year ago, the Pan Am Experience is such a boffo Hollywood hit that “flights” are booked solid through the end of June.

What’s the appeal of dropping major coin ($345 for Clipper Class; $277 for First Class) for not moving an inch? I mean, you could actually fly, for real, from Sacramento to Seattle for less money than four hours aboard a faux fuselage, so doesn’t it qualify as a monetary extravagance, nay, an example of first-world decadence, to pay to be inert?

It’s the inexorable pull of nostalgia, said Sandy Edelstein, 56, who made the two-hour drive from Palm Springs with his husband Scott King to relive Pan Am flights from his salad days (the airline “ceased operation,” meaning it was swallowed up by United Airlines, in 1991.) It also might be the prurient, “Mad Men”-type thrill of being politically incorrect and calling the faux flight attendants “stewardesses,” or even the more lascivious-sounding “stews,” and using such archaic anatomical terms as “gams.”

“Life and the world we live in today is so crazy and hurried that there’s really a longing for days gone by,” Edelstein said before settling into seat 1-H with a flute of champagne. “We’re of an age, and we still remember it. So to have an opportunity to literally go back in time is not to be missed.”

The conceptual visionary responsible, Anthony Toth, 47, he of the epaulets and brass-button captain’s affectation, insists money was no motivator. Once you learn the anal-retentive extent to which Toth has gone to fabricate a Pan Am plane, circa 1971, fussing over every little detail, from the exact font for the boarding-pass envelopes to the color and texture of the fibers of the carpet, you understand his motives are purely aesthetic. The blue that pervades is not just royal blue. No, it’s Pan Am Blue, he’ll have you know.

“Look,” said Toth, whose day job is working for an airline he prefers not to name, “this type of air travel doesn’t exist any more, and we could get into all the reasons it doesn’t. But let’s just say, back then, it was something really special.”

(Pardon the parenthetical interruption, but a brief background digression about Toth is needed: His parents took him on a Pan Am flight to Europe at age 5 in 1971 and it “changed the entire course of my life.” He admits to a lifelong obsession with aviation and its Golden Age mementos. Over the years, he bought every piece of Pan Am-branded merchandise he could find – let’s just say he has industry connections – and even went to that airline graveyard in the Mojave Desert to purchase the last Pan Am 747-200 frame before it was stripped for scrap. He parked it at his home before teaming with Talaat Captan, founder of the Air Hollywood studio, and providing the “Experience.”)

Even if you don’t notice that the tri-colored “wall carpet mural” of a clipper ship on the bulkhead is the exact design specification and synthetic blend as on a 1971 Pan Am 747 bulkhead, Toth does. And it matters. A lot.

“Every time I walked on a plane like this, I’d immediately run up to the wall and take up an entire roll of film shooting that wall,” Toth said. “It just spoke to me. So when we were rebuilding this airplane, that was an absolutely ‘must’ to have. I took all the photos I had as a child and went to a custom carpet sculptor, and he made it for me exactly like it was.”

I tried to put the next question tactfully, even though I was aboard a plane that transported me to a less politically correct era: “Are you a little obsessive-compulsiuve?”

“I am,” he said, nodding.

“I’m just kidding,” I backed off, feeling shamed.

“No,” he smiled, “I really am.”

Captan, whose vast, hangarlike studio has been used for cinematic airplane scenes ranging from “Bridesmaids” to “The Wolf of Wall Street” to the TV show “Lost,” said he was happy to indulge Toth’s vision. A pre-boarding “Clipper Club” lounge greets “passengers,” with a check-in desk with props such as rotary phones and first-generation console desktop computers, and a wet bar featuring such ’70s alcoholic mainstays as Tom Collins, Singapore Slings and Harvey Wallbangers.

“Anthony is very, very anal about every detail,” Captan said, laughing. “He’s a pain in the ass, actually. But in a great way. That’s what makes this such a perfect experience.”

Toth was gracious about the ribbing. But he turned serious, verging on misty-eyed, when expressing the joy he feels when he sees people segue into nostalgic-soaked reverie.

“My favorite moment is when people walk in and see the two stewardesses greeting them at the red carpet, to watch people’s reaction, especially if they once worked for Pan Am,” he said. “It’s a special moment to see the brand come back to life.”

Passengers are forewarned that they need to buy in to the gestalt, via an email detailing the dress code, prohibiting jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, etc., and mandating “dresses for the ladies and jackets and ties for the gentlemen.” I felt right at home in the period-dress thing because the only dinner jacket I own (no exaggeration) was from 1987.

The surreality of the scene hit me crossing the threshold into the Pan Am “terminal.” One minute I was walking through a parking lot in 2015 filled with Chevy Suburbans, Priuses and one Tesla toward a low-slung series of identical business-park warehouses, and the next I was greeted by a clean-cut, Up-With-People friendly young man in suit and tie standing behind the Pan Am Blue podium, adorned with the company’s logo, a blue globe with parabolic curved lines. To the agent’s left stood one of the six stewardesses, raven hair tucked primly under her jaunty Pan Am Blue bowler hat and white-gloved hands clasped demurely at waist level.

“Melorine will show you into the Clipper Club,” he said, checking my ticket and not discernibly turning a nose up at me since I’m only First Class, not Clipper Class. She laid a gloved hand, oh so delicately, on my forearm and guided me into the darkened inner sanctum of the Clipper Club. She motioned left for check-in, right for the open bar in a fetching French accent, then turned on the 2-inch heel of her tan pumps and sashayed back to greet more arrivals.

Thirty minutes before boarding, and the drinks were flowing and the vibe felt much like an Updikean dinner-party scene, couples trolling with aggressive gaiety. I looked around for the key jar, but couldn’t find it. Not that kind of party, apparently. My eye was drawn to two elegant women, and a distinguished-looking gentlemen holding court, the nexus around which passengers orbited. All three, it turned out, were longtime Pan Am employees – Lynn Cook of Stockton and Saune Petersen of Manhattan Beach, former stewardesses; and Tom Hood, a sales executive.

I approached the women – Hood was preoccupied fumbling with his Marc Jacobs-designed iconic Pan Am tote bag – and asked about their careers as flight attendants.

“No, Petersen said. “You have to call us stewardesses. We only became flight attendants later.”

I asked the gals (remember, it’s a politically incorrect era) to compare and contrast air travel at present to yesteryear.

“The present is why I left,” Petersen said. “It was a good run, you know, but … when they gave us barbecue tongs to serve with, I’m like, ‘Oh, no.’ We were used to spoon and fork serving (in the Golden Age). It was like, ‘It’s time.’ I’m done.”

Cook flew in from Stockton for the “flight” and groaned when commenting about the occasionally surliness and general lack of civility in today’s air travel.

“That’s because (airlines) pack them in tighter, and they charge for everything,” she said. “There’s nothing gracious about it anymore.”

Their glance descended upon Adler, the professionally perky stew working the room while her colleagues prepped the plane for boarding.

“Look at that,” Petersen said, with a sharp intake of breath. “Those are the exact same tan shoes we had!”

Passengers Phil and Anna Montejano, who drove in from Sacramento just for the flight, were chatting with Adler about her uniform. Anna asked, boldly, about whether Pan Am had a weight rule for stewardesses. Ask a flight attendant now about weight, and you’re liable to get the imprint of a plastic tray across your face, but Adler merely chuckled.

“The food they serve is so good I understand why, back then, the girls were weighed all the time,” said Adler, who, for the record, was petite and slim. “It’s a five-course meal, and I’m sure they ate and they were flying all the time, so they might have worried about getting fat. … One of the girls (now) told me, ‘I can’t fit in my uniform anymore.’ And I said, ‘That’s because you eat that meat all the time, you know.’”

Whoa, this really did seem a throwback conversation, to a time before body-image awareness took hold. Adler told me she is an actress, as are many of the “girls,” and they really get into the part.

“In the beginning, wearing this outfit, we looked at each other and said, this is kind of funny,” Adler said. “Then, we’re like, ‘OK, we’re in the ’70s, baby!’ When we put the uniform on, we really believe it. We even …”

The passengers were called to board before Adler could finish. People boarded carrying their cocktails (to hell with that TSA-mandated 3.4-ounce maximum). Frank Sinatra was warbling “Fly Me to the Moon” as people found their spots, the uber-jet setters taking the corkscrew staircase upstairs, the rest of us making do with wide “sleeperette” seats with manual footrests. The legroom was huge, ridiculously so, at least 3 feet. To reach the in-flight magazine (yes, period-specific) in the seat back in front of you, you had to scooch almost out of your seat.

All night, except when flight announcements were made or sound effects such as “turbulence” intervened, easy-listening muzak played: Montovani’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; “The Look of Love,” by Dusty Springfield; “Strangers in the Night,” Sinatra; Connie Francis’ rendition of “Danke Schoen;” Sinatra again with “It’s Nice To Go Travelin’.” This last song, seemingly played in a loop every 15 minutes, featured the lyrics, “It’s very nice to just wander/The camel route to Iraq …” Oh, how we long for the days when we only heard about Iraq in terms of exotic travel adventures.

The food service, too, harkened to simpler times, back when few considered red meat an artery-clogger, and passengers blithely powered down foods of gout-inducing richness. The high intake of alcohol consumption was offset, somewhat, by the five-course meal – highlights: jumbo shrimp cocktail on endive, asparagus so fresh it could’ve been helivacced in from Bakersfield that very afternoon, chocolate cake that almost brought on sucrose toxicity. If this is the first class fare, I wondered, what must they be dining on upstairs in Clipper Class, foie gras and beluga cavier?

All this pampering quickly went to my head. Maybe it was just that third shot of Claude Châtelier cognac, but I could’ve sworn there was a hint of flirtation evident when stewardess Tammy Munro lowered a basket of rolls toward me and asked, with a 400-watt smile, “Can I interest you in a hot bun, sir?”

It turned out, darn my luck, that Munro just had a wry sense of humor. When she was carving a generous slab of Chateaubriand for the man in front of me, she quipped, “That piece of beef is actually from one of our original Pan Am flights, too, sir.” When, during the comical pre-flight instructions, she expressed mock mortification at having to wrap her lips around a nozzle and manually inflate the flotation device, laughter filled the cabin.

Only occasionally, and always sotto voce, would a stewardess break character. A woman two rows behind me asked Holly Gray, handing out hot towels, about her pouffy blond hairdo, a veritable tonsorial helmet with a cascading front bang that resembled nothing less than a wave breaking upon shore. “Takes lots of time and hairspray,” she confided. “It’ll stay this way for three or four days.”

Alas, I knew the sedulous service had to end. As piped-in Dionne Warwick warbled the final chorus, “What the world needs now is love sweet love,” the purser, Rachel Scorpio, cut in, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just about to land at our destination in Pacoima. We hope you enjoyed …”

And then the passengers rose with great difficulty, bellies distended like 9-year-olds on Halloween night, and returned to 2015.

I cannot lie: It was a difficult landing.