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Hollywood lore lures tourists to the TCM tour

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There's a Chick-fil-A on the Sunset Boulevard corner where Lana Turner was said to have been discovered, a public school at the former Ambassador Hotel site where Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft filmed their trysts in "The Graduate" and a CVS in the Art Deco building that once housed the offices of Hollywood's chief censor, Will Hays.

But despite how it has changed over the decades, Los Angeles is still a magnet for classic film fans who are drawn to the city's starring role in cinema history. As more and more movies are made in other states and countries, it's a role that seems to be fading into all but memories.

On a recent morning, 36 cinephiles climbed into a glass-roofed bus for a three-hour tour of movie locations featuring such sites as the white-tiled Second Street tunnel that represents future L.A. in "Blade Runner" and the arched Paramount Pictures gates that Gloria Swanson drives through in "Sunset Boulevard."

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The cable network Turner Classic Movies created the expedition, the "TCM Movie Locations Tour," to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Operated in partnership with sightseeing company Starline Tours, the bus tour was designed to overlap with the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, an event that will draw about 25,000 people to screenings of decades-old films running Thursday through Sunday in Hollywood.

Both the tour and the festival, a kind of Coachella for classic film fans, bring out a surprising mix of people: those who remember when — and those who just wish they did.

The TCM tour is one of dozens of bus excursions that rumble through Hollywood, some visiting stars' homes, some hitting supposedly haunted sites and one run by celebrity news site TMZ. Because it's curated by TCM, the TCM tour has attracted a distinctly polite and film-savvy ridership, according to guide Jim Jepson.

"Let's just say the Audrey Hepburn crowd is very different from the Kim and Kanye crowd," he said.

In response to heavy demand, the bus tour, which TCM has offered free on a trial basis, may become a permanent fixture, according to a representative from Starline.

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The tour winds from the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood past Hollywood High, where, Jepson tells passengers, Carol Burnett edited the school newspaper, and proceeds on toward the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood where Humphrey Bogart drank his Scotch. (Jepson, like many L.A. tour guides, is an actor, having played a series of small roles in TV movies and short films and served as Turtle's stand-in on "Entourage.")

On a 65-inch TV screen at the front of the bus, scenes from films play as the tour rolls past their location. As Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy drop a piano down a flight of stairs in their 1932 short "The Music Box," the bus passes the base of the staircase on Vendome Street in Silver Lake. As Tim Robbins hears a movie pitch from a car valet in the 1992 show business satire "The Player," the bus rolls by the 95-year-old Hollywood Center Studios on Las Palmas Avenue, where that scene, along with others from "I Love Lucy" and "The Addams Family," were filmed.

Many of the sites on the tour have survived thanks to the efforts of Hollywood history preservationists. When a shopping center with a Target and Best Buy went up by the Formosa Cafe a decade ago, the city of West Hollywood forced the developer to keep the 1925 restaurant.

On the bus, the crowd was roughly split between visitors from places like Spain, Houston and Cincinnati and Southern Californians like George and Glenda Nicholas of Arcadia.

"It takes us back to when we were young," said George Nicholas, 72, as the bus stopped at the Bradbury Building, the Romanesque downtown landmark that appeared in the 1950 fim noir "D.O.A." and, more recently, the 2011 best picture winner "The Artist."

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Like so many native Angelenos, Nicholas has a tie to show business — his uncle was a stand-in for Errol Flynn. He and wife Glenda recalled taking a street car from their homes in Highland Park as children to see movies at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway. Watching classic films, Glenda Nicholas said, is a way to revisit what in some ways felt like a simpler time.

"For a lot of people, these movies are calming on an unconscious psychological level," said TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who also appears onscreen during the bus tour to share bits of Hollywood lore. "It's a nostalgia for a way of life."

While the Nicholases represent a demographic that saw many of these movies in theaters the first time around, classic film has an equally passionate, if smaller, fan base among viewers like Tiffany Vazquez, 27, who will visit this week from her home in Bayside, Queens, to attend the TCM film festival. The year Vazquez was born, "Three Men and a Baby" and "Fatal Attraction" were box-office hits, but she said she feels closer to earlier cinematic generations — in particular film noir titles of the 1940s and 50s like "The Naked City" and "Sunset Boulevard."

"I've always liked older things, things from another era," said Vazquez, who works as an intern at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. "I love the fact that people are dressed differently, talking differently. I've always felt I was born a few decades too late."

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Vazquez is one of 20 people who won a contest that TCM held for fans to introduce a favorite film on air with network host Robert Osborne during April. She won for a video introduction she shot introducing "Naked City." After watching a YouTube video on retro hairdos, she styled her hair in a '40s wave, donned a trench coat and filmed a black-and-white, noir-style short set against the backdrop of the New York skyline.

Another contest winner, Robert Best, a 45-year-old Barbie doll designer from L.A., described meeting fellow classic film fans at TCM in Atlanta. "It was interesting to me to meet people who talked the same language," Best said. "Like, 'Oh wow, these are my people. Names like Myrna Loy actually have some meaning to these people.'"

On the bus, a woman who identified herself only as "Ms. Faye" described a two-week classic film binge she indulged in after her son left for college. "It was my time," she said of her viewing marathon. "That whole era from '25 to '39, I could live there — the fashions, the cars, the ambience."

Rattling off trivia questions that the crowd fielded handily, Jepson doled out prizes including a Doris Day CD and Marx Brothers DVD.

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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