Pffering a Future to a Street With No Past

Jim Heimann, a regional historian and teacher at Art Center School of Design, is the author of six books on architecture and popular culture, including "Car Hops and Curb Service: A History of the American Drive-In Restaurant."

Hollywood. The name alone evokes images of glamour and movie stars. And the junction of Hollywood and Vine was ground zero--the best possible place to catch a film, glimpse a movie star, shop at a smart store or dine in one of the Southland's hottest spots, surrounded by celebrities. By the early 1960s, however, Hollywood's glitter was replaced by grit and the fabled crossroads became more a state-of-mind than a sought-after destination.

Los Angeles is continually attempting to reclaim its storied past, and has launched a series of projects to rehabilitate Hollywood Boulevard. Meanwhile, a quick solution awaits at the nearly abandoned intersection of Hollywood and Vine. A discreet corridor along Vine, from Yucca to Sunset, offers an manageable opportunity to recreate an authentic Hollywood.

Several of the Hollywood Boulevard projects are admirable attempts to instill new life. The Egyptian Theater-American Cinematheque appears to be successfully blending historical accuracy with cutting-edge technology. Unfortunately in other areas of Hollywood, concern for historical authenticity continues to be either misguided or lacking. The Cinerama Dome project seems destined to follow in the footsteps of the Hollywood Galaxy complex: a bad pseudo-pedestrian mall with veiled historical references.

This false nostalgia masquerading as something real has been a common architectural conceit of developers too lazy to seek out the genuine article. It doesn't work. But Hollywood, with its rich architectural history, can and does. Mann's (Grauman's) Chinese Theater and Walt Disney's El Capitan Theater are prime examples.

Walk down Vine today, from Yucca to Sunset, and it's almost impossible to visualize its famed past. But a review of Vine Street history reveals why the street could and should be reconstructed.

Vine's ties to movie-making date back more than 75 years. In 1912, Lasky Studios, soon to be renamed Paramount, opened at Selma and Vine. Development flourished around the new studio, and commercial buildings soon replaced the surrounding lemon groves.

Within 20 years, most of the important structures that would define the street were built. The Taft Building, at Hollywood and Vine, went up in 1924, and the Plaza Hotel a year later. The Hollywood Playhouse (later the El Capitan and now the Palace) and Dyas Department Store (later the Broadway) both opened in 1927. The Brown Derby began serving in 1929, and the Equitable Building, on the northeast corner of Hollywood and Vine, was built that year.

The intersection was complete when Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios, commissioned leading Modernist architect Rudolph Shindler to design a block of commercial buildings in the early '30s. This northwest corner contained the Coco Tree Cafe, and the roof line displayed posters of new Universal releases.

Over the years, Vine boasted some of the area's smartest hot spots. The Russian Eagle, the Hollywood Rooftop Ballroom, Paul's Ship Ahoy, Al Levy's Tavern, La Conga, Mike Lyman's, The Cinnabar, Clara Bow's "It" Cafe, Tom Breneman's Radio Room, Club Morocco, The Tropics, Tips, Melody Lane, The Swing Club, The Firefly, Hatton's, Sugar Hill, Ah Fong's and others hosted Vine's night life. Two drive-in eateries, Carpenter's and the Pig Stand, at Sunset and Vine, were also popular with the movie set.

In the mid-'30s, Hollywood Recreation, a bowling alley, restaurant and retail complex, opened. This streamlined wonder, now the TAV building, was also home to Sy Devore's haberdashery, a favorite with celebrities as recently as Elvis Presley. A series of fires has now left the TAV building a burned-out shell, and it seems poised to join the Brown Derby as a memory--despite the pleas of preservationists.

Eddie Cantor had a gift store next to the Derby. Further down Vine, were the Famous Door, the Mandarin Market (later the Hollywood Ranch Market), the Chili Bowl, Louis Prima's Jitterbug House, the Greyhound bus station (with its Grape-Vine Cocktail Lounge), the Hollywood Flower Pot (shaped as its name suggested) and deluxe apartment.

And that's not all. Throughout the '30s and '40s, radio networks broadcast from Vine Street. The landmark NBC studios, on the northeast corner of Sunset and Vine, were an ideal realization of Streamlined Moderne design. CBS, before it moved to Sunset, used the Vine Street Theater (now the Doolittle) as its CBS Radio Playhouse. The Burns and Allen Show and the Lux Radio Theater originated from here. ABC found a home in the Hollywood Recreation building--also home to Louella Parsons' radio interviews and Breneman's popular "Breakfast in Hollywood" show. Across the street, Otto Olesen, inventor of the klieg light and designer of Hollywood Bowl lighting effects, had his headquarters. Through the '40s, Ken Murray produced his "Blackout" at the El Capitan.

Capitol Records was born a few doors up from Wallach's Music City, where customers could spin platters in sound-proof booths. Next door, Coffee Dan's, a googie-style coffee shop, provided java and grub for night-owl hipsters. In the '50s, Jerry Lewis opened a camera store and Capital Records built its signature "platter" building. There were drug stores, florists and stationers. The street worked.

So what happened? Like many other parts of Los Angeles, things shifted. Hollywood proper began to decline after the war years. On Vine, the rise of television closed the radio studios. As the suburban sprawl diverted the crowds, night life dried up and local businesses that had catered to nearby residents went under. As buildings lost tenants, owners gave up. In spite of Vine being in the National Register of Historic Districts, numerous structures fell to arson and then demolition. Vine Street had a past but no future.

In the last few decades, revitalization has focused on Hollywood Boulevard. Most plans ignored its real history, trying, instead, to fabricate "Hollywood" atmosphere. Yet in its current state, the boulevard features cheap discount stores, and security roll ups are common.

But the three-block area on Vine Street could stoke the fires of a genuine preservation effort. Developers and bureaucrats need to realize that until the needs of the nearby populace are met--services and stores that reflect a community--the onslaught of proposed entertainment complexes will only offer a transitory solution to a continuing problem. Styling Hollywood after Westwood in the '80s won't work.

First, disenfranchised residents, and there are plenty in the hills and flatlands, need to be reconnected to Hollywood. The custodianship of the boulevard must be returned to the folks who live and work nearby, creating a stable economic flow. One indicator of community involvement is the Sunday morning farmers' market on Ivar. Locals chat, street performers ramble and people from outside the area come, as well.

But Hollywood, and particularly Vine Street, need more than just a local outdoor market. Thats why the TAV building offers an opportunity to piggy back on an existing success.

If the TAV structure is indeed unsalvageable, why not rebuild what was there exactly as it was in its heyday. Recreate a set piece? Why not. Developers have only to look over the hill to see Walt Disney and Universal repackaging the essence of Hollywood past and marketing it for the real thing.

The real thing, meanwhile, sits in Hollywood. So why build a faux-Deco building that looks like every other mini-mall from San Jose to Orlando? Tear down what's there, but build back the original. Lease to businesses that will bring work and services to the area. Blend in entertainment venues: The TAV building first housed a bowling alley and cocktail lounge. Why not again?

Other vacant properties could benefit in the same way. Bring back the old Derby building. The original Carl Weyl structure was architecturally distinctive enough to stand on its own. A restaurant would be fine--but so would a bookstore or market. Lucky Seven, a '40s-style supper club in the renovated Hatton's restaurant, next to the old Derby site, is a contemporary attempt to breathe life back into area. Others should take note.

Investors? It's time for today's entertainment millionaires, who lament the passing of Hollywood's golden age, to start leading preservation efforts and financially support the area. It's a sad truth that the movie business rarely invests in its own backyard.

A district based on an authentic history works. Look at Miami's South Beach, Seattle's Pikes Market or, closer to home, Pasadena's Old Town. While not always ideal, these solutions have successfully marketed their heritage and are preferable to the alternative of destroy and level. In time, the tourists who wander Hollywood Boulevard looking for the myth will gravitate to something that is real--not diluted and contained behind amusement-park gates. The history is there. Re-build it--and they will come.*

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