Activist was key figure in the rebirth of Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Robert w. nudelman, a leading preservationist who helped spearhead Hollywood’s rebirth as he campaigned over three decades to save and restore such landmarks as the El Capitan Theatre and the Cinerama Dome, has died. He was 52.

Nudelman was in Tucson visiting his ailing father when he was found dead Tuesday at his father’s home, said Fran Offenhauser, vice president of Hollywood Heritage, a preservationist group Nudelman helped lead for years. The cause of death has not been determined.

“There probably isn’t a single historic building or development project in Hollywood that Mr. Nudelman didn’t have a part in,” Offenhauser said in a statement.

He was “the conscience of Hollywood,” Offenhauser told The Times on Thursday. “He really made the village happen in Hollywood, and it’s going to take a village to fill the gap he left. . . . He was really the lightning rod who woke up an area.”


Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents much of Hollywood, said in a statement, “Robert believed in Hollywood even during times when few others did. His perseverance helped ensure that the neighborhood’s renaissance became a reality.”

Robert P. Silverstein, an attorney who worked with Nudelman on preservation projects, called him “a hero, a champion and a purist.”

“For at least 25 years, he was at the forefront of the movement to preserve and protect,” Silverstein said. “Had it not been for Robert Nudelman . . . so many icons, big and small, would have been plowed under.”

A nostalgia buff, Nudelman launched his activism in 1978 by fighting to save MGM’s old Lot 2 in Culver City, a 10-acre site that included sets from the films “Gone With the Wind” and “King Kong.” MGM had sold the parcel to a developer who planned to put houses on it; Nudelman and others wanted to turn the lot into a theme park.

The effort failed, but Nudelman dedicated the rest of his life to the preservation of Hollywood history and landmarks -- with mixed success.

By his own estimation, Nudelman figured that he had seen a third of the historic Hollywood corridor demolished. He was involved in a hard-fought attempt to prevent the replacement of the Hollywood Bowl’s acoustic shell, which had been in place since 1929. After the shell was demolished in 2003, Nudelman vowed to never visit the Bowl again.

The preservation battle was as personal as it was unprofitable for Nudelman, who volunteered “18 hours a day for 30 years,” Offenhauser said.

Friends who asked if he didn’t need to make money were greeted with a sly smile. He told The Times in 1992 that he got by on loans from his parents.

Working with Hollywood Heritage, Nudelman experienced many victories.

In 1990, he helped persuade Disney to spend $6 million to restore the El Capitan to the theater’s original 1926 splendor. Demolition was underway when he sent an investigator equipped with mountain-climbing gear behind the walls of the Hollywood Boulevard theater. The inside of the building was found to be 90% intact, Nudelman said in 2006 in Los Angeles magazine.

Most of his research methods were far less cloak and dagger. He would uncover historical details about buildings and arm himself with historical photographs, and then deliver the trove of information to property owners.

Many of Hollywood Boulevard’s theater proprietors listened, including Grauman’s Chinese, the Egyptian, the Pantages and the Music Box.

When the owners of the Cinerama Dome announced that they were going to demolish the geodesic landmark that opened on Sunset Boulevard in 1963, Nudelman threatened to file suit.

“He got right in everybody’s face. It came down to a fairly confrontational series of events,” Offenhauser said. “He succeeded, which was often the case. He was incredibly knowledgeable. . . . The dome became the centerpiece of the development, which now has a panache it wouldn’t have had.”

Robert Wood Nudelman was born in Hagerstown, Md., on Feb. 17, 1956, to Sol Nudelman and the former Ruth Donovan Wood. His father was a professor of radiology and optical science at the University of Arizona and his mother, who recently died, was a psychologist.

He grew up in Illinois and Rhode Island and spent time in Germany before studying theater arts at the University of Arizona.

In high school and college, he raised money for various organizations by screening “Laurel and Hardy” and “The Three Stooges” films.

Moving to Hollywood in 1977 was natural, Nudelman said in the 1992 Times story, because he had been going to the movies every weekend since he was 3.

In 1984, Nudelman and a group of investors launched the Hollywood Museum, a small memorabilia showplace in an old bank building on Hollywood Boulevard. It attracted about 10,000 visitors before going broke a year later.

He was the longtime director of preservation for Hollywood Heritage and had served as president of the group. He also was curator of the Hollywood Heritage Museum in the Lasky-DeMille Barn and had written several books about Hollywood.

Friends invariably mentioned his wry humor, his humility and that he didn’t own a car.

At the time of his death, he was working with Debbie Reynolds and her son Todd on the Hollywood motion picture museum she is building in Tennessee.

His home was a historic apartment building in the heart of Hollywood that he helped the landlord restore.