Times Staff Writer

It was starting to look as if New Year’s Eve had arrived early on West 44th Street.

With a cold rain falling Thursday night, the block had turned into a crowded sea of security guards, photographers jockeying for position and hundreds of onlookers, some of whom had been there for several hours waiting for a glimpse of a star.

For most of them it was worth the wait. They saw Sophia Loren wrapped in fur. They roared for Faye Dunaway. And they screamed in approval as Rick James, dressed in a purple-sequined outfit, waved to the crowd.


Inside the lobby of the Loew’s Astor Plaza, Paramount Pictures Marketing President Sidney Ganis, hands tucked into his suit pockets, paced intensely. “Come on, Eddie, come on,” he said to no one in particular. Half an hour after “The Golden Child” was supposed to have started, Eddie Murphy had not yet arrived.

Minutes later, Ganis’ prayers were answered as a midnight-blue stretch limousine snaked its way up the street. Led by his tuxedoed walkie-talkie-toting bodyguard “Fruity,” Murphy, wearing sunglasses, dressed in all black and escorting co-star Charlotte Lewis, bounded out of the car, briefly waved to the crowd and was quickly ushered to his seat as the lights dimmed and the film rolled.

So began the gala premiere of Murphy’s first feature after the phenomenally successful 1984 “Beverly Hills Cop” (now ninth on the all-time box-office leaders list with $235 million in U.S. ticket sales to date).

For a film that had few advance screenings and had generated little positive advance word of mouth, the New York debut was a glittery and potent send-off. In effect, Paramount had created an event, a glitzy star-packed old-fashioned gala premiere.

It was a moment Paramount executives and much of Hollywood had been anticipating for months. In addition to the success of “Cop” (Murphy took a day off from shooting the sequel to come to New York), the 25-year-old Murphy is also credited with two other megahits, “48 HRS.” ($78.9 million in U.S. ticket sales to date) and “Trading Places” ($90.4 million).

Paramount brought in veteran press agent Bobby Zarem to help attract the right guest list. (It was Zarem who staged perhaps the most famous New York premiere party when he arranged a sit-down dinner in a subway station to follow the movie “Tommy.”) The studio rented out the cavernous West Side 4D club where, after the movie, 750 guests were bused over to join more stars like Sylvester Stallone, Gregory Hines and John Denver gathered for poached salmon, Peking duck and pounds and pounds of fresh shrimp and giant oysters.


Though they are becoming more and more of a rarity, such events are not merely designed as elaborate thank you’s to the stars and film makers. No one was quoting figures, but such parties can cost as much as $150,000, which may not seem all that much for a movie with a budget of $24.5 million. “The Golden Child” premiere was part of an elaborate marketing strategy. “This is the kind of movie that calls for a big event,” Ganis said. “We know this kind of thing can generate a lot of press and hopefully what will come from that press is consumer interest in our product. In short, yeah, we want more people to go to the movie.”

But why New York? In this case there were numerous reasons. This is Murphy’s home turf (he was raised on Long Island and now lives in a New Jersey suburb). More important, New York is home to most of the major print and television operations. “Because of the media concentration here it enables you to get a larger number of magazines, newspapers and wire services to cover the event,” said Zarem, a moon-faced Ben Franklin lookalike, who helped create the “I Love New York” campaign. “That’s incredibly valuable in terms of formulating opinions and getting the word out.”

Surprisingly, almost no such “buzz” had been generated on “The Golden Child” as it wrapped production. In Hollywood, no news is often bad news, and insiders suggested that perhaps Paramount was not thrilled with the results of “The Golden Child.”

But according to producers Edward S. Feldman and Robert D. Wachs, the film was not shown in advance because of last-minute adjustments. In the final weeks, an entire score by veteran composer John Barry was removed from the film and replaced by a more contemporary version from Michel Colombier. The decision to change the score was based upon audience research, Wachs said. “It (Barry’s score) was magnificent but the research told us it did not move the picture along.” According to Wachs, both versions of the movie were tested and the audience response improved dramatically with the new music.

In addition, said Wachs, a number of short scenes were added to show more of Murphy’s familiar and funny side. “Some of the jokes just needed buttons,” he said. Finally, the special effects, supplied by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, were not completed until just days before the film’s opening. “The strategy was that a movie is not a movie until it is completed,” Wachs said. “Why show the film until it had a fair opportunity to realistically present itself?”

Another reason the film may have had its debut in New York was a somewhat negative undercurrent that had filtered throughout the industry. Part of that is the predictable desire to prove that Murphy is not bulletproof and that he is capable of winding up in his share of turkeys. “It’s the usual. In L.A., they are all waiting for him to fail,” said producer Feldman. “But I don’t think he’s going to.”

According to Feldman and Ganis, “The Golden Child” tested almost as highly as “Beverly Hills Cop” in special research screenings.

“What we have is a big, sprawling entertainment of a film,” Ganis said. “It worked out great regardless of what the mill is cooking up.”

So how did “The Golden Child” play in its final form when presented in its sophisticated Gotham surroundings? The Manhattan audience responded positively to almost anything Murphy did. A cocked eyebrow, a hammy grin or even a trademark chuckle was enough to ignite the audience in laughter. And if the majority did not seem to see “The Golden Child” as a blockbuster, they seemed to enjoy Murphy’s performance.

“I liked it but this wasn’t ’48 HRS.,’ said a hometown pal of Murphy’s who insisted on anonymity. “It’s something I would tell my friends to see, but the story wasn’t realistic enough for me.” Sixteen-year-old Michael Apitol gave it a rave though. “I thought Eddie was just great,” he said. “This was a different role for him and it shows he can do other things than just be Axel Foley.”

At 12:30 a.m., only a few hours after the first major screening of the movie, all of that suddenly seemed secondary. With Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You” blaring, the party looked like a convention of entourages. Rick James and his security team moved in one direction as Sylvester Stallone and his group headed the other way. Then, with managers, bodyguards and neighborhood pals blazing a trail, Eddie Murphy emerged from a back table. “You aren’t leaving, are you?” an older man asked Murphy. “Nope, just heading for the bathroom.”

And then the entire entourage disappeared into the men’s room.