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Giant Dome’s Saga Takes Another Turn

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like every wacky story, the saga of the Spruce Goose--Howard Hughes’ monstrous, eight-engine flying boat--contains a fair number of plot twists, some nearly lost in the broad outline of events.

Consider the dome. It was created to house the historic plane when it went on public display in Long Beach in 1983. The dome was a big thing in its own right: It was billed as, and probably remains, the world’s largest free-standing geodesic structure. It was tall enough to enclose a 12-story building and roomy enough to fit a football field, plus fans.

The dome rose at the harbor’s edge, next to the Queen Mary, like nothing else on the industrial-looking waterfront--perfectly symmetrical, strangely egg-like, a white half-sphere formed of 4,000 aluminum triangles on a framework of steel. The cost was $4 million. It served its specialized purpose only nine years. Then, abruptly, the Spruce Goose was gone--sold by the city and shipped by barge to a museum in, of all places, McMinnville, Ore.

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Fast-forward nine more years: The dome still dominates the Long Beach shoreline, as mysterious as Hughes himself. Never mind what goes on inside the windowless shell; no one even knows what to call it. Spokeswoman Robin Wachner of RMS Queen Mary--the company that now leases the property--says the dome has no official name.

Some know it as the Geodesic Dome, others the Queen Mary Dome and still others merely the Dome. In the absence of any sign, most still use the name they have always used--the Spruce Goose Dome, whether or not they realize the plane is more than 800 miles away.

“Some people still think the Spruce Goose is inside,” Wachner says of the dome. “Sometimes I’ll get calls from Japanese news crews that want to come and see the Spruce Goose.”

And then there are the ultra-clueless. “People come in [to our offices] and say, ‘What is that?’ They have no idea.”

With scant fanfare, the dome has been sublet for a purpose Hughes would have found most fitting--film shoots. At his death in 1976, at age 70, Hughes left a varied legacy: He was known as a billionaire and a recluse. He was known as a record-setting aviator. He was an aircraft designer who built the Spruce Goose, with its 320-foot wingspan, to be a troop carrier, but flew it just once--for about a minute--at the end of World War II.

Hughes began investing in Hollywood at age 20 and gained renown for producing and directing “Hell’s Angels” in 1930, thus launching the career of actress Jean Harlow. He was romantically linked with Katharine Hepburn, among many other actresses. He co-created a production company in 1944, shortly before he took the throttles of his 150-ton seaplane and skimmed it above the waters of Long Beach Harbor.

The commonality between aviation and filmmaking boiled down to something Hughes prized greatly: space.

The dome has elbow room--135,000 square feet of it. Someone at Warner Bros. studios arranged to get in for a look soon after the Spruce Goose moved out. In no time, the vast empty space became the world’s largest sound stage.

“No one has a sound stage that’s 135,000 square feet,” says Ben Cowitt, the studio’s vice president of production administration. Warner Bros. operates 34 other sound stages, none bigger than 32,000 square feet. The biggest in Los Angeles, says Cowitt, had been the one-acre building owned by Sony Pictures--less than a third the size of the dome.

Warner Bros. used the dome for a number of films, most notably “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin.” The dome’s black geodesic frame and ceiling have the look of a faint web across a distant cosmos. The setting enables filmmakers to completely control the lighting, says Cowitt. Using plaster and wire mesh, they crafted a 60-foot-tall Bat Cave. They also constructed the elegant interior of Wayne Manor.

“Batman is a very dark character,” Cowitt says. “Everything takes place at night for Batman. It’s just an excellent location.”

Warner Bros. has done some of its own films and allowed other studios to use the dome for movies and commercials alike. “Virtuosity,” with Denzel Washington, was filmed there, as were many of the scenes for “Stargate,” “Jack Frost” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”

Actors in town for weeks of filming have arranged for temporary quarters in the hotel on the Queen Mary.

In recent months, though, Warner Bros. has vacated the dome and moved its elaborate Bat Cave set into a warehouse in Pacoima. New uses for the dome are being planned by RMS Queen Mary, which holds a long-term lease on the ship and 63 acres of surrounding property.

The firm negotiated an agreement to open a Carnival Cruises berth in Long Beach, with about a third of the dome serving as a U.S. Customs and luggage-handling facility.

Construction is to begin next month, says Joseph F. Prevratil, president of RMS Queen Mary. Excursions to Mexico are expected to begin in early 2003. Eventually, a 6,500-seat arena also will occupy a section of the dome, Prevratil says.

Now through Halloween, some of the space is carved up into one of seven haunted-house mazes at the Queen Mary--a holiday attraction that drew 55,000 visitors last year.

Prevratil’s leases funnel $2 million a year to the city. Before he moved in, there was a strong chance the dome was doomed, says Ronald Walker, special projects officer for the city’s Department of Community Development. The Walt Disney Co. held property rights in the early 1990s and was proposing the development of a major seaside amusement park.

That plan almost ensured the dome’s removal, but the project collapsed. Long Beach then nearly closed a deal to sell the Queen Mary to Hong Kong. “If the ship had been sold and moved out,” Walker says, “we probably would have taken the dome down and developed the property entirely differently.”

Not everyone would have minded. In a town where many stately buildings date back nearly a century, the dome has always been seen by some as cheap and irrelevant. People such as Harvey Keller, president of the preservationist group Long Beach Heritage, regard the dome as a dubious vestige of a “Johnny-come-lately” tourist stop.

“It does not have any historical significance,” he says.

Keller hosts a cable TV program, “Long Beach Treasures,” that has featured a lengthy list of landmarks, from the Alamitos Library and the Bembridge House to the Breakers Hotel and the Willmore Apartments.

The dome, however, has yet to make the list.


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