It is the fabled home of American movie making, a marquee tourist attraction that drifted over the years into an embarrassing stretch of pawn and porn. But now Hollywood, that piece of urban geography beneath the famous hillside sign, is attempting to stage its own blockbuster comeback.
After years of roiling debate over how best to save the graying movie capital, after bold promises of redevelopment died in nasty court battles, Tinseltown is in the throes of revitalizing its famed but tired venues: Hollywood Boulevard. Capitol Records. The grand El Capitan and Egyptian theaters.
With more than 100 ventures completed or in the works in the last three years, some urban planning experts are likening Hollywood's nascent renewal to a similar turnaround of New York's Times Square, where years of mainly private investment have reclaimed the theater and shopping district from peep shows and prostitutes.
"Hollywood is up for another heyday," declared Phyllis Caskey, president of the new Hollywood Entertainment Museum.
For the 1990s remake, investors and boosters are betting Hollywood's future on its storied past. They believe that preserving and capitalizing on a bygone elegance will satisfy hungry tourists who flock to the movie capital expecting to be dazzled by a land known for pumping silver screen magic into dark theaters.
For years, tourists and locals alike have left Hollywood Boulevard disappointed, even disgusted, by the seedy mishmash of trinket shops, tattoo parlors and boarded-up storefronts alongside neon-lit attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.
Some, especially small business owners, are skeptical that Hollywood can fully regain its past stature as its worn thoroughfares remain magnets for runaways, persistent drug dealing and prostitution.
Even so, tourists manage to leave their plentiful dollars behind, spending more than $1 billion last year by one estimate. Promoters say that upgraded attractions catering to their whims are natural money-makers.
Hollywood homeowner leaders are hoping that the surge of development will help bring about a safe, exciting cultural district that will attract locals who now spend their money in other destinations such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, Old Town in Pasadena and Universal's CityWalk.
Among the significant developments:
* Opulent movie palaces along Hollywood Boulevard that sat empty like dusty ghosts in recent times are reopening their doors with the kinds of cabarets and gala premieres that once played to black-tie audiences.
* Museums--one recently opened, two others in the works--showcase the trappings of Hollywood mystique. One collection featuring extravagant costumes will be housed in the Art Deco Max Factor building on Highland Avenue. Another will appear in the Warner-Hollywood Theater on Hollywood Boulevard when it reopens next year.
* Several anchor businesses--among them Capitol Records and Panavision, which manufactures cameras and lenses--are canceling plans to leave town and are expanding.
* Two Metro Rail train stations are scheduled to open on Hollywood Boulevard in 1998, and a third will open in 2000. Eventually, the Metro Red Line will run from downtown to Universal City.
* Scores of smaller ventures are springing up--from Jack's Sugar Shack nightclub near Hollywood and Vine to the chic Cuban eatery, Havana on Sunset.
"The smart money is playing in Hollywood," said Gerald Schneiderman, chairman of Colony Bancorp, which owns the Hollywood First National Bank Building at Hollywood and Highland. "If we all fix our community, we'll all profit."
The burst of activity is a dramatic reversal from years ago, when redevelopment projects went belly up as factions battled each other in court and the recession scared off investors.
But an improved economic climate is driving the recent rebound. Lured by low land prices, investors--some with financial incentives provided by the Community Redevelopment Agency--are coming forward to renovate aging buildings and shuttered theaters.
Among the new investors is Taryn Power Greendeer, the daughter of legendary actor Tyrone Power. Greendeer has pledged the income from her father's trust to help reopen the ornate Warner-Hollywood Theater, first opened in 1927.
"I was saddened by the abandonment Hollywood had fallen prey to," said Power, whose father is buried in nearby Hollywood Cemetery. "Hollywood is a part of American history, if not world history, and it's not even a century old. I think it's time we put effort and attention into it."
Recently, 41 property owners along and around Hollywood Boulevard formed a business improvement district, paying $600,000 a year for the next five years for security patrols and cleanup crews. Their effort got an added boost when Gov. Pete Wilson recently ordered in a two-month detail of California Highway Patrol officers.
But some question whether the movie capital can rebound from a spate of setbacks, from Metro Rail tunneling that badly hurt retail business along segments of Hollywood Boulevard to the Northridge earthquake, which damaged many old, fragile buildings.
"The future doesn't look bright to me," said the owner of a near-bankrupt electronics equipment store just off Hollywood Boulevard. "Businesses are dropping like dead flies."
Hollywood historian Greg Williams is among the skeptics.
When he looks out his office window near Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, he sees what he calls "burned-out shells."
Williams takes a philosophical bent on the prospect of change, likening it to the disappointment of so many would-be stars waiting for the big break that never comes.
"People come here with a dream and get duped," said Williams, who is writing a book about Hollywood Boulevard. "It's not as magical and easy as they hope."
Los Angeles city officials acknowledge that significant change will take several years to accomplish. But they insist that Hollywood is headed in the right direction, and that investment in the historic core is the logical place to begin.
"We don't think the boulevard is ready for prime time yet," said City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who represents the area, "[but] we think it's very close."
Some urban planning experts agree with Goldberg's assessment.
The changes in Hollywood, they say, mirror those in Times Square. Both locations have privately funded business improvement districts, renovated theaters and a new spurt of restaurants and retail outlets.
"The track record in New York has been one of big wins," said Jeff Finkel, executive director of the National Council for Urban Economic Development. "There's no reason for being pessimistic [in Hollywood]."
There is one other key similarity: the Walt Disney Co. is playing roles in both revivals.
Disney has opened a retail store in Times Square to hawk its sweatshirts, mugs and other memorabilia. And the company is spending $34 million to restore the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street.
In Hollywood, Disney already has spent $6 million to refurbish the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The company was among the first major investors in the area when it reopened the theater in 1991.
Disney executives said they banked on the Hollywood name to draw crowds. And they figured that the grand El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from Mann's Chinese Theatre, would become a showpiece for their exclusive engagements of family-oriented films such as "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King."
The gamble paid off. The El Capitan has become the highest-grossing single-screen theater in the country since reopening five years ago.
"The El Capitan provided an enormous opportunity to bring back some real showmanship to the business and the feeling that if you have the right project, people will come," said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. "This gorgeous old theater was clearly ripe for redoing."
City leaders say the El Capitan's success points to the vast economic potential of a rejuvenated Hollywood. They cite a recently released economic study showing that 9 million tourists spent more than $1 billion in the movie capital last year, accounting for 11% of all visitor spending in Los Angeles County during that period.
Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles, said the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce-commissioned study overstates the impact, but not by much. He estimates that Hollywood rakes in about $750 million a year, adding: "Hollywood is a gold mine right under our nose."
Top Los Angeles officials also see Hollywood as a cash generator.
"We look at Hollywood as a strategic asset of the city, like the port or Los Angeles International Airport," said Deputy Mayor Gary S. Mendoza, who is coordinating renewal efforts for Mayor Richard Riordan's office. "What we have to make sure of is that when people come, they see what they expect."
What they expect is grandeur. What they find hardly lives up to the big billing.
"It's got what we call seedy, back-street shops," Mark Swindell, 30, of Birmingham, England, said of Hollywood as he shot video footage on a recent afternoon in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre. "Makes you wonder if it's safe to get out of your car."
Down the street, Jim Pripusich, 40, of Villa Park, Ill., spoke of his own disappointment as he wandered the Walk of Fame with his wife and son.
"We spend our whole lives seeing Hollywood in the movies and building up a romantic image but everything kind of looks like a pawnshop," said Pripusich, 40, as he snapped pictures of his family. "This is a very hard city. I guess time does that."
Hollywood's homeowner leaders are eager for their community to shed that image, but are more guarded in their prognosis for change.
"It's going to take a while before some of my friends from Beverly Hills will come, but it will happen," said Merle M. Singer, president of the Yucca Corridor Coalition, a group of property owners just north of Hollywood Boulevard. "If you create a neighborhood that is commodious and has a quality of life worthy of a middle class, then you will chase away the grungy people."
The property owners are pushing for more city investment in the basics: street lights, graffiti removal, better landscaping.
Historians trace the roots of Hollywood's demise to the 1950s, when television grabbed the spotlight from films and interest in the movie capital began to wane. The Walk of Fame was devised by a member of the Chamber of Commerce in the late 1950s to stimulate renewed interest in the area.
The decline continued through the 1960s with the exodus of entertainment companies, including NBC, which moved to Burbank from Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street.
Retailers struggled as the entertainment businesses moved. Shop owners suffered a major blow in 1979 when the huge Broadway department store, an anchor at Hollywood and Vine, closed its doors, said Robert Nudelman, a historian who is helping plan the Museum of Hollywood History in the Max Factor building.
City officials sought to revitalize the area in the mid-1980s by creating a massive, 1,100-acre redevelopment zone. Plans called for pumping $922 million into the area over 30 years. Homeowner groups blocked the effort in court, saying that the redevelopment plans were written to favor big businesses and that multimillion-dollar projects--including one that would have wrapped offices, stores and a hotel around Mann's Chinese Theatre--were too large for the neighborhood.
Although the creation of the Hollywood Redevelopment Project was upheld by the courts, the recession took hold and projects touted by city leaders died for lack of financing.
But some of the seeds that were planted during the days of big redevelopment plans came to fruition when the economy improved, including the El Capitan renovation and construction of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum.
At the same time, the political players in Hollywood also changed. City Councilman Michael Woo, who had been at the center of redevelopment battles, stepped down to wage an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 1993.
His successor, Goldberg, has made the Hollywood renewal a top priority, focusing on keeping businesses in place by streamlining city bureaucracy. Riordan recently played a role in bringing to Hollywood the prestigious American Film Institute's annual festival, which previously had been held in Santa Monica and elsewhere on the Westside.
"I get my phone calls returned immediately. I got my permits in a week. I get variances in three days. I get amazing stuff," said John Krasno, vice president of Panavision, a film equipment manufacturer that had considered moving after 10 1/2 years in Hollywood.
Now the company is planning to expand into new quarters a few blocks from its building on Selma Avenue. "I feel like for once in my life, I'm in the right place at the right time," Krasno said.
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A New Hollywood
More than 100 projects in Hollywood have recently been completed or are in the works in what local leaders are calling a renewal for the movie capital. Among the projects:
* 1. The El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard has become the highest-grossing single-screen theater in the country since it was renovated and reopened by the Walt Disney Co. in 1991.
* 2. The Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which opened Oct. 5 features the original set from the television sitcom "Cheers" and is expected to attract 500,000 visitors annually.
* 3. The shuttered Max Factor building on Highland Avenue is being renovated and will house the Museum of Hollywood History, scheduled to open in 1997.
* 4. The Egyptian Theater will reopen in January 1988 as the new home of the American Cinematheque, a nonprofit organization that screens films and videos from around the world and presents retrospectives of filmmakers and actors.
* 5. The Warner-Hollywood Theater on Hollywood Boulevard is being restored and will feature live musicals, as it did when it originally opened in 1927. It will accommodate 1,000 people for dinner shows when it opens in late 1997.
* 6. Three Metro Rail stations are scheduled to open on Hollywood Boulevard by 2000. The Metro Red Line will bring thousands of passengers each day from downtown and Universal City.
* 7. Capitol Records, which at one time had considered a move from its famed stacked-disc headquarters, has decided to stay in Hollywood.