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Jack Smith

On Hollywood Boulevard, nothing goes by the book, especially what passes for culture

June 24, 1987|Jack Smith

The cultural section of Hollywood Boulevard might be described as those four short blocks between Highland and Whitley avenues.

They contain not only most of the boulevard's bookstores, but also the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Pussycat Theater and Frederick's of Hollywood, the sexy-lingerie store.

The wax museum, whose posters promise lifelike effigies of such celebrities as Elvis, Clint and Jesus, stands back of a small lobby in the first block. A person dressed in striped pants, morning coat, tie and derby leans on a cane in front of the box office, occasionally moving mechanically, like a robot.

I couldn't decide whether he was supposed to be Count Dracula or John Barrymore. Of all the ways there are to make a living on the boulevard, his looked the most tedious.

Crown Books, a newcomer, is on the corner at McCadden Place, and across the street is B. Dalton, Bookseller, the former domain of Louis Epstein and his famous Mr. Pickwick Book Shop.

On an impulse I entered the store and walked up the stairs at the back to the mezzanine, where I used to visit Mr. Epstein in his tiny cubicle. To my surprise, I recognized the young man I found sitting in Louis' chair.

He was Sheldon MacArthur, until recently manager of the B. Dalton store in the Arco Plaza. He said the Arco Tower had been sold and that Dalton had quit that location. He had been sent to the Hollywood store to see if he could restore its old magnetism. The Pickwick had once been frequented by famous literary persons, and it had been the scene of the biggest autographing sessions in town. When Lauren Bacall signed her book the line went around the corner and halfway up the block.

"I'd like authors to know they're welcome here," MacArthur said. "If they come in we'll show their books. I'm going to restore the third floor bargain books department. I'd like to put that Mr. Pickwick sign back on the roof, next to B. Dalton. I think the boulevard is still alive."

Across the boulevard between the Pussycat Theater (which was showing "Baby Face II" and "Crazy With the Heat") and the Supply Sergeant (boots, Levi's, luggage) is Larry Edmunds Books, which has been on the boulevard for 30 years.

It specializes in books and memorabilia about the movies. It hasn't changed. Old lobby posters recall great movies of the past. The store has a pleasant odor of old buckram and decaying paper. I bought a copy of Leslie Halliwell's wonderful "Film Guide" (list price $39.95) for $17.98. I'll never lose another argument about old movies.

Across the street at 6715 I looked into the lobby of the Outpost Building. Art Deco lamps, a terrazzo floor leading to a red tile stairway with a wrought-iron hand rail. A lobby directory said I would find a jazz dance studio upstairs, along with various producers and enterprises, Scratch Magazine, Self-Discovery, and Typing--Joyce Reed. I wouldn't have been surprised to read P. Marlowe, private detective.

Inside the door was a four-chair shoeshine stand. The boulevard can't be dead if it still has a shoeshine stand.

Except for fast food and books, the hottest item on the street is T-shirts. They fill the windows of little shops with their naughty or cynical mottoes: "Have a Nice Day Somewhere Else," "Life's a Beach," "My Friends Went to California and All I got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." They make them while you wait.

Resisting the Pussycat Theater, I lingered at the windows of Frederick's, which occupies a fine Art Deco museum piece, its facade an outrageous purple. The displays featured long skirts slit to the hip bone, transparent peignoirs and lacy bras and panties, and men's shortie robes.

The Cherokee Book Shop is directly across the street from Frederick's. It specializes in antique books, old prints and oil paintings, and manuscript collections. It smelled of old paper and leather. I saw a Maxfield Parrish print with the usual blue skies, gauzy mountains, marble columns and naked nymphs. In a glass case was Gene Fowler's letters collection. I saw that the loft at the rear had been boarded up and painted over.

"How long have you been here?" I asked a man who said he was Gene Blum, the manager.

"Thirty years," he said, "and only two more weeks. We're moving to Santa Monica."

I wondered why.

"Look outside," he said with resignation, "see 150 reasons on the boulevard."

He was finished with the neighborhood. "At night it's a war zone. I heard them announce that they were going to spend $900 million on it. The next morning they put in those flower pots and concrete benches. In two days the pots were full of rubbish and the benches were covered with graffiti.

"And the new owner cut the store in half and doubled the rent." He said the new owner had closed off the loft with the idea of putting in a disco joint, but that fell through.

"And those stars in the sidewalk, that's the worst thing they could have done. People get off the bus, they look down at the sidewalk, they say, 'Hey, look--Jane Wyman!' I could be standing in the doorway naked, they'd never notice me."

He looked across the street at Frederick's and shook his head: "Looking at that purple building for 30 years! What a sight!"

When I left the store I looked down at the sidewalk and saw Jane Wyman's star.

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