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For aspiring actor, the dream is always at Hollywood and pine

One day, David Harwell's car will come.

An industry bigwig will drive by the corner of La Cienega and 3rd. He'll be discovered. He'll live his Hollywood dream.

Harwell feels it in his bones as he moonwalks in front of a mini-mall.

He knows it as he swivels his arrow-shaped sign that reads: "CHECKS CASHED, MoneyGram, CURRENCY EXCHANGE."

When a Starline Tours bus barrels down the boulevard, passing the Beverly Center and heading his way, he steps into the street and shimmies toward the people holding up cellphones on the upper deck.

"I see a million cars every day," Harwell says. Surely, one day, the right one will come.

When it does, he will need to be noticed. To that end, he wears colorful clothes. His shades are neon yellow, his smile electric.

As workers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center walk by wearily in their scrubs, he calls out, "Got your paycheck? We've got payday loans." "Welcome to L.A.!" he says to passing tourists. "ATM inside." He drops to the gum-splotched sidewalk, lies on his back, and pumps the sign up and down like a barbell.

On a nearby lamppost, he has bungee-corded another sign, featuring his photo, name and the words: "Like me on Facebook."

More than 26,000 people have done so — Japanese and Australian tourists, drivers who honk when they see him and then seek him out online.

But not the one. Not yet.

Harwell wants to be an actor. "I'm ready," the 32-year-old says, though in the meantime he takes great pride in his sign work.

He listens to music and sings along as he moves. He prefers "sign dancer" to "sign spinner." For nine years now, he's put his heart and soul into signs — hawking sandwiches, sausages, cellphones, sodas, fried chicken, carpet, gelato.

"Dave is a very high-energy, happy, enthusiastic individual who loves to interact with people and enjoys what he does," says Chris Dunbar, his boss at La Cienega Check Cashing, who gets a kick out of sending Harwell onto the sidewalk in costumes — turkey suit for Thanksgiving, Santa suit for Christmas, green man suit (think Blue Man Group) just for kicks.

Dunbar pays for Harwell's monthly Metro TAP card and has no problem with the Facebook plug. "A little self-promotion? Absolutely," he says. "You know, he's helping me, and if it helps him out ..."

Harwell says he charges $15 to $30 an hour. He takes the bus between the check-cashing job and another on Ventura Boulevard, where he dances with a sign for Tumble Kick, a children's martial arts and gymnastics studio. Some nights he also makes his way to Sunset Boulevard to promote Bootsy Bellows, David Arquette's West Hollywood nightclub.

Harwell, one of nine kids, grew up in Hacienda Heights. His sign career got its start in 2006 when a friend opened a flooring business up a small, bumpy mountain road in Crestline. To get people to make the trip, Harwell worked the towns below. His sign skills turned heads, which led to other jobs — in Hemet, Murrieta, Wildomar.

Before long, he was shilling his own dance exercise video for kids, and a sandwich shop had put his face on yo-yos.

In the winter of 2012, hoping to go national, Harwell set his sights on becoming a spokesman for Subway. He embarked by Greyhound on a self-funded national tour, carrying a Subway sign that he danced with outside shop after shop.

No one had hired him to do it, he says, but the franchise owners gave him food. He earned enough in tips to cover the bus and some lodging, although he also slept in shelters and parks. When he reached Philadelphia, Harwell was flattened by walking pneumonia. He'd hoped to hit all 50 states but called it quits at 19.

That summer, he moved to L.A., where he now shares an 800-square-foot downtown loft with 10 other guys. He sleeps in a bunk bed and pays $350 a month.

La Cienega and 3rd is a crazy, crowded intersection. Harwell — who stands outside the strip mall with the check-cashing shop — doesn't always get it to himself.

On this day, a bearded man in a worn suit sets up by the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, holding a sign that says "Homeless and Hungry." Julio Cordero, a fellow sign slinger who works La Cienega and Beverly, visits Harwell on a break to swap stories and demonstrate his moves, borrowed from Bollywood movies and tai chi. The 50-year-old Salvadoran swings a leg over his sign for "EYEBROW THREADING $9.99."

Then a young woman in a short dress and wedge heels arrives, holding a hand-lettered sign for an online campaign: "Help Nydia Get to Cannes!" Nydia Simone, 23, says she's an actor and producer, trying to raise $3,800 to cover the costs of a film internship at the festival.

Harwell is sympathetic. He's making a short film himself. Called "Hollywood Tours," it's a comedy about a tour bus that gets hijacked in Hollywood.

"If you like the Wayans brothers' material, you'll love this material, but we're still in production," he says.

He wrote it, he's directing and he plays Rodney, the bus driver.

"I'm going to start proving to people that I can write scripts, I can bring on writers, I can direct, I can produce and I can be more than just a sign dancer on a corner."

Meanwhile, he smiles and waves and struts as car after car whooshes by.

One day.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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