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Culture as Hollywood’s Top Draw

Like half the population of Hollywood, Nyla and Oscar Arslanian have strong opinions on what it takes to make the town healthy again.

A dose of the arts. A shot of culture.

The Arslanians are the most visible members of an increasingly visible group of Hollywood self-helpers known as the Hollywood Arts Council. She’s president, he’s a trustee of the organization that has been putting on street art shows, jazz concerts and children’s art programs for 13 years with a membership of about 500 and an operation almost exclusively of private and individual financial backing.

Efforts to save Hollywood may be the major growth industry left in the town. At least six citizen organizations and a covey of politicians claim territorial rights in redeveloping the community that seemingly fell from grace 90 years after its founding.

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The most recent sighting of the Hollywood Arts Council came earlier this month when the organization planned on having artist Kent Twitchell execute a mural featuring Michael Jackson on one wall of the recently restored El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. That idea is still being moon-walked around town.

Michael Jackson aside, what the Hollywood Arts Council is staking out for the future is a two-front campaign: One is the promotion of multicultural events in a Hollywood that in recent years has become home for new arrivals from Asia, the Soviet Union, the Middle East and Latin America. The other is an idea called cultural tourism.

It lacks a certain lilt but cultural tourism may just be what might work for Hollywood’s split personality. Southern Californians think of the town in terms of grime, slime and crime. Visitors, especially foreign visitors, think of Hollywood in more traditional terms as the home of movie and television stars.

In its simplest form, cultural tourism is what you do when you plan a vacation in London and spend nights at the theater and days in museums. It’s what New York tried to do to get out of its financial problems with its I N.Y. campaign and emphasis on theatergoing.

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Santa Fe, N.M., and Ashland, Ore., aren’t Hollywood, but they’ve developed cultural tourism to a fine art of its own. In its nine-month season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gets tourists to spend more than $50 million on tickets, restaurants and B&Bs.;

In Santa Fe, tourism of the cultural kind is a major player. Almost 1.5 million people go there each year. For every night spent in Santa Fe, 1% of a bed tax goes toward arts programs in a city with its own opera company, two symphony orchestras and more than 200 art galleries and museums.

If cultural tourism works elsewhere, it may have potential closer to home.

In a March, 1991, report by the Los Angeles-area Chamber of Commerce, researchers found that the 62 million people who visit this region spend close to $9 billion a year. The researchers found the major attractions were “the motion picture industry, the weather and the beaches.” They found something else, too, that the pull of cultural institutions is beginning to be felt, “starting to creep into the local tourism picture,” is how the researchers describe it.

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At the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, officials like Gary Sherwin and Patti MacJennett are saying good things about cultural tourism. Sherwin refers to a recent study that describes Los Angeles as an “emerging cultural center.”

MacJennett, of the marketing department, sees other signs of tourist interests in Los Angeles arts.

“The traveling public is more sophisticated today and is looking to experience the city’s various presentations,” she says. “In the last five years, Los Angeles’ reputation as a cultural city has grown greatly. What we are also seeing is greater competition in getting people here. We are seeing more niche travel groups being developed, more affinity groups. Art tours, movie tours, specialized culturally themed tours.”

Jeanne Westfall, the tourist director for the United States during the Carter Administration and now a public relations counselor in Miami, Fla., sees cultural tourism working strongly in Europe but in “need of nurturing” in the United States. She does believe however that cultural tourism is “just about ready to explode.”

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Glen Alder views cultural tourism somewhat differently. An official with the Starline Gray Line Bus Tour, he says, “Culture doesn’t sell the tourists. It’s a tough sell.” What does get about 25,000 people on his Los Angeles tour buses each year are movie star homes and the “grand tour” trips to the Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Bowl, Olvera Street, Chinatown, La Brea Tar Pits, Rodeo Drive, Universal Studios tour.

“We’ve looked at a tour that includes the zoo and the Gene Autry Western Museum, but we don’t have any visits scheduled to museums or theaters,” he says.

How to change that situation is what the arts council hopes to do. It operates on the theory that “Hollywood is a festival of the arts.” That’s why earlier this month it held its annual Children’s Festival at the Barnsdall Art Park, a joint effort with the city’s cultural department with the support of Hollywood producer Stephen Cannell. And why next month it will hold another annual event, its outdoor art sale and exhibit at Sunset Boulevard’s Crossroads of the World complex near Highland.

The council gets its message out in promotional banners and campaigns and in its annual Discover Hollywood publication, a directory of arts events in Hollywood, a territory that for the council extends from La Cienega Boulevard to the Silver Lake area and from Beverly Boulevard to Universal City.

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That’s a lot of territory and a lot of big numbers. Oscar Arslanian claims there are 65,000 seats that want to be filled in all of Hollywood, 18,000 at the Hollywood Bowl itself. There are more than 20 major motion picture screens on Hollywood Boulevard. There are such major legitimate theaters as the Doolittle, the Pantages, and the Henry Fonda, and almost 50 midsize and small theaters. This week alone seven new plays opened on various Hollywood stages. Pop music is a staple at the Universal Amphitheatre, the Greek Theatre and the Palladium, and at almost 20 dance and music clubs.

Apparently enough fun and games for everyone. But enough to rival Santa Fe at night and London at high noon?

If you’re a member of the Hollywood Arts Council, you think it just might happen.


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