The Hard Rock Fills Unique Role: A Museum With 'Good, Hot Food' : The new cafe at CityWalk showcases artifacts of musicians and groups ranging from James Brown to White Zombie.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fact that the Hard Rock Cafe employs a full-time curator indicates its level of seriousness about displaying autographed electric guitars and the soiled garments of famous rock 'n' rollers.

Yet, at dozens of the cafes around the world, such memorabilia has been relegated to nooks and crannies. Perhaps because this granddaddy of themed restaurants has recently come under competitive attack by newcomers such as Dive! and Planet Hollywood, its newest venue has been built with room enough to elevate the display of pop jetsam to another level.

The Hard Rock Cafe Hollywood at CityWalk, opening Friday at 5 p.m., stands two-stories tall and airy, with wide glass cases that prompt its designers to use such heady terms as "museum-like."

"It's going to be really important to the world of rock 'n' roll," said John Rosenfield, the curator who spends more time backstage at concerts than at auctions. "We're doing more serious memorabilia now."

So a Johnny Cash display includes not only a signed Martin acoustic guitar, but also one of the singer's black outfits, a gold album and a 1955 handwritten copy of the lyrics to "Folsom Prison Blues." Nearby, an exhibit of guitars and colorful costumes is accompanied by television monitors that play the White Zombie video in which the instruments and clothes were featured.

Even the many booths, upholstered in imitation leopard skin, are meant to document the medium.

"They are a tribute to Rod Stewart's trousers," said Warwick Stone, who designed the restaurant. "What could be more rock 'n' roll than Rod Stewart's trousers?"

The new venue arrives on the heels of the $98-million Hard Rock hotel and casino that opened last March in Las Vegas. It was there that Rosenfield and Stone first learned the economies of scale.

Instead of squeezing his collection into available spaces, the curator received ample square-footage to display one of Elton John's pianos and the Stone Temple Pilots' drum kit. He filled a 20-foot case with memories of the soul era, including James Brown's childhood shoeshine stand.

"That's where he first started to sing," Rosenfield said. "He'd sing while he shined shoes. He danced between strokes."

Stone, meanwhile, found himself designing a casino with piano-shaped roulette tables and a gift shop where the counters look like oversized guitars.

At Universal City, he was entrusted with creating the centerpiece for a planned expansion that would nearly double the size of the popular CityWalk.

As a result, this is the first two-story Hard Rock and its 440 seating capacity is twice that of the chain's average location.

A 65-foot Fender Stratocaster towers in front of the restaurant, whose exterior was made broad and white to accommodate special-effects lighting. Inside, a chandelier of 32 saxophones adorns the lobby and a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado rotates above the central bar. A giant globe, encircled by musical notes from the Beatles' song "Across the Universe," fills a domed ceiling that continually changes colors.

To make the space seem even larger, Stone chose blond oak paneling and tall windows in place of the pub-like dark woods and red leather booths that have been a Hard Rock trademark since the first restaurant opened in London in 1971.

"After 25 years," he said, "it was time for a change."

To celebrate the new venue, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony of Van Halen will teach guitar to 1,000 Los Angeles students at a semiprivate gathering prior to Friday evening's opening. The restaurant is providing the guitars, which will then be donated to the Los Angeles Unified School District. Owner Peter Morton will also donate $100,000 to the Grammy in the Schools music education program.

In the coming months, the Hard Rock Cafe Hollywood will hold parties for the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards, plus a series of free concerts.

"A lot of people in the Valley just don't go into the city very often. Maybe they've never been to the Hard Rock at Beverly Center," said Jeff Wagner, the chain's vice president of marketing. "We want to show people that Universal City isn't just a place where you bring your aunt from Nebraska."

Of course, the cafe will also serve lunch and dinner, the fact of which can be overlooked amid so much hoopla and visual stimuli. A long-standing menu of decent-tasting and moderately priced entrees, hamburgers and sandwiches remains intact. "Good, hot food," is how Wagner describes it.

That sounds just fine to Rosenfield. He probably wouldn't want visitors to be too distracted from the vision of rock 'n' roll that he has assembled for them.

"When kids come in, they're going to see Tripping Daisy and Garbage and they're also going to get some history--from an hour ago to 35 years ago," he said.

So Chris Isaak's surfboard adorns a banister not far from a case displaying clothes once worn by members of Cream. Courtney Love's guitar hangs near Ringo Starr's old drum kit. And in the lobby, Kurt Cobain's glasses and Fender Mustang stand opposite the peacock-feathered vest that Jimi Hendrix sported in the well-known photograph taken by Linda McCartney.

"My focus is to preserve the history of the music industry," Rosenfield said.

Then, for a moment, he puts aside all the attention to detail, the talk of giving overdue respect to pop artifacts.

"This will be a really fun place for people to walk in and look around."

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