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In Quest of the Gold Kazoo

January 24, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

Beverly Hills is having an image problem. It doesn't know whether it wants to continue attracting only those who can afford to plunk down $210,000 for a diamond-and-platinum Art Deco necklace, or make a new appeal to the scruffier crowd that can barely dig up $17.50 for a T-shirt at Giorgio's. I thought I might help out.

The problem began when the Visitors Bureau initiated a campaign to convince potential buyers that you don't have to be rich to shop in Beverly Hills. There were many items available, the bureau proclaimed, for $25 or less. Not exactly an open invitation to the folks on welfare, but about as close to an egalitarian attitude as the city is likely to get.

To prove its point, the bureau listed several items that thosae of lesser means might purchase from otherwise very expensive stores. A $25 silver key ring from Cartier, for example, and a $19 memo pad from Gucci, plus the aforementioned T-shirt. I'm sorry, no sheepskin seat covers or rubber dashboard hula dolls.

However, just when there was a stirring of interest among the familias in South El Monte to spend some time browsing through Hermes, Omega and Bally of Switzerland, a group known as the Rodeo Drive Committee protested that the campaign was cheapening the image of both the street of dreams and the city itself.

One committee member complained that the bureau effort gave the impression that Beverly Hills has something to offer the poor, a notion that must have had them roaring with laughter at Saint Laurent and Andrea Carrano. Correction--I mean tittering with laughter. They never roar in Beverly Hills. They titter.

The wealthy began saying that those who originated the campaign were suffering from the Gemco syndrome.

As a result of the fuss, the Beverly Hills equivalent of a Bargains-for-Everyone campaign was put on hold until Rodeo Drive can determine whether it wants to hustle $17.50 T-shirts or $210,000 necklaces.

That's where we come in, you in your hand-me-down dress and me in my 6-year-old corduroy suit with the imitation leather elbow patches.

There is something to be said for both the campaign and the protest. The Visitors Bureau is interested in attracting new business without resorting to a man in a gorilla costume waving to the passing traffic in front of Jerry Magnin's.

On the other hand, the Rodeo Drive Committee naturally fears that such a campaign might inadvertently lure men with "Born to Lose" tattoos on their bare arms who will swagger up and down the aisles of Bijan offering suggestive pleasures to the passing post-debs and their mums.

I think the real problem lies not in who ought to be encouraged to shop in Beverly Hills but who ought to be allowed in Beverly Hills, especially on Rodeo Drive. I say there should be a bridge for everyone to cross, but how do you tolerate the poor without displeasing the rich?

Finding a way out of the dilemma is to embark on a quest for what Ronald Reagan likes to call the golden kazoo, which is to say the perfect solution to everything. Naturally, I turned to Ellen Byrens.

Ellen, who is very wealthy, has lived in the city 37 years. For the past three years she has conducted a seminar on how to shop in Beverly Hills, which is the reason I asked for her help.

She began our conversation by making it clear she was not going to say anything bad about Beverly Hills, and indeed she did not. She thinks it is a marvelous place to shop and that its prices are competitive. While the merchants along Rodeo Drive do not carry what Ellen calls "end of the stick items," there are bargains available at the top of the stick.

I take that to mean if you've been eyeing a $25,000 bracelet in, say, Omaha, you are quite likely to find the same thing in Beverly Hills for $24,950.

Ellen is quick to point out, however, that one does not visit Beverly Hills to look for bargains anymore than one would fly to Paris to look for bargains. "There are those in the city who are interested in creating a 'village atmosphere,' " she said, holding her cigarette in a manner developed by the rich over many centuries. "But who the hell wants to live in a village?"

To tamper with Beverly Hill's image, Ellen suggested, would be to tarnish the Great American Dream and to deprive others of the hope that wealth is within reach of anyone who works for it.

"As it is now," she said, asking her housekeeper to serve coffee, "someone can come to Beverly Hills from Compton. Maybe they can't buy anything, but it's lovely to walk along and window shop and feel that someday they too will be able to buy on Rodeo Drive."

That's it, the golden kazoo, the perfect solution. Forget about $25 bargains. No one with big money wants to feel as though he is browsing through Sears. On the other hand, no group of people, especially the poor, who are currently very popular by the way, should feel unwelcome in any city, even in one as chichi as Beverly Hills.

A modest example of a new campaign conditioned to please everyone would at once encourage the wealthy to spend in a manner that suits their status, while suggesting to the poor that they too can participate. They can watch.

And thus will the Great American Dream thrive in a city of platinum realities.

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