The La Brea Tar Pits in Popular Culture: Part 1

[Note: this is a guest post (the first post of two) by José Roberto Villaseñor, who has been a Gallery Interpreter for several years in both NHMLA and the La Brea Tar Pits. His job is to interact and educate museum guests in both informal and formal capacities. A year ago, he gave a lecture on the human history of Rancho La Brea to the interpretation staff and volunteers. This sparked the idea of creating another lecture focused on the pop culture depictions of the Tar Pits.]

When I was growing up my parents owned a VHS rental store and one of my responsibilities was to watch movies so that I could tell my parents the plot so that they in turn could recommend them to customers. And I remember that this was the way I first learned about the La Brea Tar Pits while watching My Girl 2. When I reported to my parents about the movie’s summary I said; “well it’s a story of a girl and boy that fall in love BUT they visit this cool looking place called the Tar Pits.” I asked my parents where it was and when they told me it was in L.A. I demanded to know why we hadn’t visited this place?!

Caption-Vada and Nick arguing infront of the Lake Pit -Credit-My Girl 2 Columbia Pictures 1994

Vada and Nick arguing in front of the Lake Pit in the movie My Girl 2. Credit: My Girl 2 Columbia Pictures 1994

The La Brea Tar Pits are world-famous – the different tar pits form one of the most important Pleistocene paleontological sites and they receive thousands of visitors each year. However, to many other visitors the La Brea Tar Pits are famous because they are an iconic landmark for Los Angeles. The Tar Pits are at the same level of uniqueness as the Hollywood sign, the Walk of Fame, and the Santa Monica Pier. This is in no small part due to the Tar Pits multiple appearances in television and film. This is very apparent by how often museum guests reference pop culture when asking our staff questions. I have on many occasions had a guest during a tour mention that “I saw the Tar Pits in the movie Volcano, is there a volcano underneath this place?” and that they are “excited to see them in person” or that they were disappointed because they expected something grander or more dramatic.

 

Caption-lava explosion (the sign is still in the corner of Wilshire and Curson). Credit-Volcano 20th Century Fox 1997.

Lava explosion (the sign is still in the corner of Wilshire and Curson) during the movie Volcano.  Credit: Volcano 20th Century Fox 1997

Volcano is not an isolated reference. Many people of all age groups bring up other pop culture references – from older folks who mention that they saw the Tar Pits on the Flintstones or Lassie, to a 6 year old who said he saw the Tar Pits on Transformers Rescue Bots, and to my own generation, Millennials, who mention that they have seen the Tar Pits on The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants or Bojack Horseman. This is because the La Brea Tar Pits have been a popular destination for many decades. However, pop culture is a double-edged sword when it comes to the La Brea Tar Pits. While it helps make the La Brea Tar Pits famous the world over, in many cases the depictions are inaccurate and so they perpetuate many misconceptions. For people that have limited knowledge about the Tar Pits, pop culture references can have a very strong impact on what they think happens here and in many cases it can also be their only source of information.

Let me use this example to explain my reasoning for only using entertainment media. Imagine a person living in Minnesota who has never visited Los Angeles – the person is relaxing and watching TV, and then in the middle of what they are watching all of a sudden the La Brea Tar Pits or some other unnamed or fictitious Tar Pit appears on screen. They were not watching TV to learn anything about Tar Pits but now they have learned something new. What did they take away from seeing that? If some time later this same person makes a trip to Los Angeles and visits the La Brea Tar Pits, what preconceptions might they have about the place? What kinds of questions might they be coming with? These are the questions that I wanted to answer. So, I set out to collate all the different times in which the La Brea Tar Pits appear in the media. I only focused on appearances in media that are for entertainment purposes and did not include documentaries, podcasts or other educational purposes.

When I first started I thought I had a good idea of how many times the La Brea Tar Pits were in film or TV. After all, I’ve heard countless references over the years in my work in the Museum. I thought that there might be around 10 to 15 appearances. Well I was wrong – I came across 49 times that the La Brea Tar Pits and/or a ‘Tar Pit’ is shown in film and television!

How many references to the Tar Pits can you remember?? Please stay tuned for the second part of this blog, when I dive deeper into the different depictions of Tar Pits! The full list of pop culture references will be posted then!

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