The Pan Am mystique lives on – in Pacoima

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Uniformed attendants Roger Garcia and Holly Gray check passengers into this mock journey to the past.

Uniformed attendants Roger Garcia and Holly Gray check passengers into this mock journey to the past. Photos by Avishay Artsy

Want to relive the golden years of aviation? In a warehouse miles from Hollywood, you’ll find a high-class tribute to the beloved airline, Pan Am.

KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis took on a trip on the Pan Am Experience.

Every other Saturday night, customers line up outside a warehouse in Pacoima to relive a nostalgic experience.

History buffs Andrea and Anthony Welch came from Houston, Texas for the Pan Am Experience
History buffs Andrea and Anthony Welch came from Houston, Texas for the Pan Am Experience

As a small boy, said Anthony Toth, “I started collecting airplane models, and small things like timetables and luggage tags. But as I got older, the desire to have more and more aircraft things became greater and greater.”

So much so that Toth visited so-called airport graveyards in the deserts that sold larger pieces of fuselage… “sidewall panels, and overhead bins, and galley modules and seats. And as I became a young adult, no matter where I lived, I always had a small aircraft mock-up in my house. And fast forward about 20 years later, this is what happens.”

What happened was Pan Am Experience, Toth’s tribute to the beloved Pan American Airways, complete with original Boeing 747 parts, first and coach-section seating, staircase to a dining and cocktail area, and a crew in full retro stewardess attire.

Pan Am flew to destinations all around the world, at a time when the rest of the world hadn’t started flying. Only the affluent got to spin around the globe.

Flying was different then, and the Pan Am experience recreates it for paying customers – many of whom have their own stowed memories.

Three flight attendants from the Pan Am Experience
Three flight attendants from the Pan Am Experience

Josh Defelice and Brent Kaspar are flight attendants who live in West Hollywood, and came to see what flying used to be like when it was “actually glamorous,” they say.

Barbara Norberg worked as an attendant on the real Pan Am, from 1970 until the company went out of business in 1991. Handling clipper service customers who meandered throughout the cabin, in and out of first-class

“Passengers were different,” Norberg, the Pan Am Experience hospitality director, said. “You see tonight, everyone’s here, dressed up, looking nice, looking like they’re going to travel around the world. Now you get on an airplane, people barely dress, let alone dress up, so, it’s a kind of a different atmosphere on airplanes. It’s a bus with wings.”

Norberg, like others who are here, reminisce in this experience. One that begins at the front of the sound stage, in Pacoima, before passengers are gently shooed onto the plane.

Uniformed attendants Holly Gray and Roger Garcia check passengers into this mock journey to the past. Both are actors, and they’re fully dressed in 1960’s Pan Am blue and white.

“We’re flying all over the world, so every day is new,” Garcia said.

Betsy Holt serves up shrimp salad and other appetizers aboard the Pan Am Experience.
Betsy Holt serves up shrimp salad and other appetizers aboard the Pan Am Experience.

“Plus, it’s different every night. You meet new people with interesting jobs. People that have worked in the airline industry before and you get to hear wonderful memories,” Grey said. “So it’s a really cool experience to feel like you’re part of this big family, that was Pan Am.”

Inside the plane, in first class, the velvet blue and red seats, the passenger information cards, even the glasses and silverware, it’s all vintage Pan Am.

And, of course, there’s the food.

“You have a plate with caprese or you can get shrimp. And then we serve either the pasta or we have the meat with the chateaubriand sauce, or we have the chicken. And then we have a plate of fruit and cheese and then we serve the cake. Five course meal, yes,” said our attendant, Melorine Adler.

The flight attendant actually carves a roast on a rolling cart. Similar to how it was done on-board a flight, decades ago.

The Pan Am Experience is actually part of a complex of old airplane cabins and cockpits. You see an inside airplane scene on TV or in a movie? Chances are it was filmed here, in Pacoima, at a place called Air Hollywood.

“We did the pilot for LOST. We did the movie Bridesmaids,” said Air Hollywood general manager Rob Shalhoub. “We have a wide body jet, it’s a 767, we have two narrow-body jets, a 757 and a 737, we have a G3 private jet, we have a Lear jet, a bunch of cockpits, a lot of props, an airport terminal.”

Vintage airline handouts are tucked into every seat of the Pan Am Experience
Vintage airline handouts are tucked into every seat of the Pan Am Experience

There’s even the cockpit to the famous comedy Airplane, where a version of Otto, the automatic pilot, still sits.

But who cares about the big screen, when this experience feeds the memories of a grateful employee?

The real-life movie that plays in the mind of Barbara Norberg, who wore the outfit, served the drinks, made passengers and customers smile – this experience keeps Pan Am alive.

“I walked into the first class door there, and tears came to my eyes, because it was so real. It was so well done. It was really amazing,” said Norberg. “Now I’m over that, because I just enjoy watching people have a good time.”

That good time is first-class, in price and experience. A glimpse – even if for an evening – of what it was like up there… way back when.