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Once a Glamour Venue, Palladium Is Tarnished by Persistent Violence : Sour Notes

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Through years of big bands, Saturday nights with Lawrence Welk, and an array of club singers, boxers and punk rockers, the Hollywood Palladium has mirrored the changing face of popular entertainment.

But the aging ballroom is also a metaphor for what ails the Hollywood community--a sometimes violent flash point where bullets fly and police helicopters swirl overhead while officers on the ground struggle to control unruly crowds.

In the last four months alone, Los Angeles police say, seven people have been shot or stabbed at the Palladium during rampages by patrons unable to get inside for events that were either sold-out or oversold.

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Twice in the last two years, authorities have taken the unusual step of declaring a tactical alert there, most recently during a Christmas night deejay dance where 130 police--including 60 in riot gear--were called to quell a disturbance that left two people wounded by gunfire.

After years of complaints, the latest incident may have done more than any other to galvanize critics who contend the landmark has become a cancer on the Hollywood landscape and who say the Palladium should be shut down unless it can clean up its act.

“It’s tragic,” said Joseph Shea, who heads a community group long critical of the Palladium’s operations. “The Palladium is like a once-fine, upstanding young man who has deteriorated into an old drunk.”

The venue that has hosted five Presidents and countless entertainers in its 52 years was dealt a severe blow in August when a key city official took steps to revoke its liquor and dance licenses.

Citing an epidemic of law enforcement problems, Zoning Administrator James J. Crisp recommended that the ballroom be turned into a supper club.

The Palladium’s owners, a politically influential group of investors including parking company executive Steve Ullman, likened the ruling to a death knell. They later persuaded the Board of Zoning Appeals to spare the licenses.

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The owners then took the further step of requesting an appeal before the City Council of certain restrictions imposed by the zoning panel.

But that was before the Christmas violence further outraged merchants and residents, who complain that the Palladium’s problems have driven away tourists and who say taxpayers should not be stuck with the bill for the heavy police presence often needed there.

Now, with a City Council committee set to hear the appeal Jan. 19 as a prelude to a decision by the full council, the future of the legendary ballroom appears less certain than it did just a few weeks ago.

Councilman Michael Woo, who represents Hollywood, added to the drama last week by announcing that he intends to reopen the revocation hearing and called on the Palladium’s owners to voluntarily foot the bill whenever extra police services are needed, something they have resisted.

“I don’t want to see the Palladium dark or out of business, but we can’t stand idly by and see the current inadequate conditions there result in more violence,” Woo said.

Neither Ullman nor Donald P. Baker, an attorney for the owners, responded to interview requests.

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One veteran city investigator, who asked not to be identified, called the alleged violations presented to zoning officials the worst he had ever seen.

“We’re used to dealing with little bars where all they do is fire guns at the ceiling,” the official said. “There’s never been anything like this place.”

In recommending revocation, police investigators painted a picture of an entertainment hall run amok, where officers routinely confront suspected robbers, drug dealers, drunks, vandals and perpetrators of violent crimes.

As a measure of the kind of police headache the venue has become, the LAPD puts new supervisory personnel assigned to the Hollywood Division through a training exercise designed specifically to simulate a Palladium riot.

Police have designated the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Argyle Avenue to the west of the Palladium as a permanent command post, complete with a special phone line that can be plugged in at a moment’s notice.

There have been at least a dozen serious incidents at the Palladium in the last few years. Nearly all of them involved events that cater to young people and were usually oversold, authorities said.

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“When we’ve had to we’ve gone in and pulled the plug on the amplifiers,” police Sgt. Mike Schneider said. “Sometimes pandemonium breaks out, sometimes not.”

Police documents show many of the incidents to be remarkably similar.

For example:

* In 1986, a rowdy mob threw rocks and bottles at police who had asked them to disperse from the front of the building after a rock concert. Five people were arrested. A policewoman was injured after being pelted with a bottle filled with sand.

* In 1988, 200 young people went on a rampage after they were unable to buy tickets for a sold-out concert. Three people were arrested for investigation of assault with a deadly weapon.

* In September, 1991, a man who had tried to get into a rap concert that was apparently oversold opened fire on a crowd milling around outside, wounding two people.

Until the holiday outburst, the most violent episode had occurred on a warm June night in 1991 when more than 500 young people rioted outside the ballroom during a sold-out rock concert.

Officers arrived to find five men on the parking lot trying to “lynch” another man, police documents show. Police literally pulled the plug on the concert after patrons lit their programs in an attempt to set off the ceiling sprinklers.

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Investigators said violence was narrowly averted last year after the promoter of a “Persian All-Stars” show oversold the event, leaving 200 patrons who had paid $50 apiece stranded outside.

In a bid to calm the crowd, a police officer ordered the promoter to face the group and promise refunds. Instead, the promoter told the crowd, in Persian, that there would be no refunds, causing a scuffle.

Residents complain that even when a show of police force is not needed, noisy, unruly crowds attracted to the Palladium create disturbances for blocks around.

“That place is a cancer on the entire community,” said Michael J. Venegas Jr., who manages the Gower Gulch shopping center on Sunset Boulevard.

Merchants there hire extra security and barricade the parking lot with heavy chains on nights when events are scheduled at the ballroom.

“I used to use the Palladium to tell my customers how to find me,” said a shop owner who did not want to be named. “Anymore, I figure it’s bad for business.”

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According to news accounts, the first time the Palladium was overcrowded was opening night, 1940, when several thousand people poured onto the dance floor to hear Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra play and a young Frank Sinatra sing.

A favorite venue during the Big Band era, the Palladium quickly became a hangout for movie stars. A few, such as Betty Grable, wound up marrying boys in the band--in her case, bandleader Harry James.

Lawrence Welk became synonymous with the ballroom in the 1960s, staging weekend dinner dances (although not his TV show) and New Year’s Eve parties there.

Through the years, the Palladium has also proved to be an equally glamorous venue for diverse icons of rock and roll, from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to Barry Manilow.

“When bands from England or elsewhere come to the United States, they all want to play the Palladium. . . . The place still has this mystique,” said Paul Tollett, whose company promoted 38 rock concerts there last year.

Aware of the Palladium’s value as a landmark, even some who complain about it fret at the possibility of seeing it disappear.

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During the 1970s, when it was owned by Mobil Oil, there was talk of razing the Palladium to build a Montgomery Ward store. There has been occasional talk of plans to build a high-rise hotel on the site virtually since the current owners bought it in 1983.

The building’s physical deterioration has helped fuel speculation about the owners’ plans.

“It’s the kind of thing where no one wants to kill it off,” resident Andre Zitouniadis said. “We just want to see it restored to its earlier glory so that it will be an asset to the community.”

Complaints about the way the Palladium is operated began to surface about five years ago, after the owners leased the building to another company, which in turn hired an independent management team.

Police and community leaders have met with management numerous times since 1989 but complain that because the owners until recently declined to discuss the Palladium’s problems, little was accomplished.

“The drill is they make promises, and nothing changes,” Shea said.

In documents submitted to the city in October, Baker contended that the owners had been cooperative in dealing with complaints, that the current lessee had agreed to no longer book heavy metal and rap groups, and that many of the venue’s problems were a thing of the past.

Mark Midgley, who was named general manager early last year, said the venue is being unfairly blamed for problems not of its making.

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“(Our critics) want to see a return to the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Hollywood was in its heyday,” Midgley said. “But Hollywood has changed, and they want to blame everything negative that happens on the Palladium.”

Midgley said the venue has been blamed unfairly for providing inadequate security and for overselling events. The ballroom has a capacity of 3,875.

He defended the Christmas security detail of 15 off-duty police officers and 45 other personnel as more than adequate.

Despite initial reports attributing the violence to angry patrons unable to get into the dance because it was oversold, Troy Marshall, the promoter responsible for the event, said fewer than 1,700 tickets were sold.

“It’s a prime example of how we and the Palladium took a bad rap,” Marshall said. “What they said just wasn’t so.”

Marshall said gunshots were fired from across the street, causing some of the 400 people waiting outside to rush the doors and others to duck behind parked cars.

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“It wasn’t a case of people trying to get out of the building because of a problem inside,” he said. “It was people trying to use the Palladium as refuge.”

But others, who view the Palladium as if it were a misbehaving favorite child, say the Christmas incident fits a familiar pattern.

“You’ve always had groups that catered to young people, but you haven’t always had this kind of violence,” said Carol Simpson, a former Palladium employee. “The community and the people who go there deserve better.”

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