When Beverly Hills developer Moses Lerner last summer proposed a European-style glockenspiel facing the courtyard of his new three-story shopping center on North Canon Drive, he thought the idea would get a quick approval from the culture-conscious city that calls itself the "new Camelot."
The device, costing $100,000, would be the first glockenspiel in the Western United States, according to Lerner. This glockenspiel is not a musical instrument but like the famous glockenspiels in Munich, Prague and Venice, would feature brightly colored ceramic figures rotating on moving tracks at specified hours of the day.
Its theme would be American culture. Recognizing the impact of film on American life, the glockenspiel would include a 2-foot-tall ceramic projectionist holding a working video camera aimed at shoppers, who could view themselves on television screens facing the courtyard. Other figures, also two feet tall, might include an actress dancing, a cowboy with a lasso, a Civil War soldier, an aviator and a car mogul. Their performances would also be filmed by the model projectionist and appear on the TV screens.
Different musical themes would accompany the performances, which could be changed from time to time to reflect different aspects of American culture. There would be two identical performances each day--one at lunchtime and one during the cocktail hour.
Considered a Sign
But what Lerner considers a work of art, the city Planning Commission considers a sign. Last November, the commission determined that the glockenspiel would violate the city's strict prohibitions against moving or rotating signs. The point of the glockenspiel was not to add culture to Beverly Hills, but to attract customers, the commissioners reasoned.
Lerner, however, insisted the glockenspiel would contain no advertising and would not represent any product.
Last Tuesday, Lerner's project got a reprieve when the City Council voted 4 to 1 that the glockenspiel did not fall within the sign ordinance's broad definition of "sign," which includes "any . . . figure . . . spectacle, display, appliance . . . or any other thing of a similar nature designed to attract attention outdoors."
Council members said they were not convinced by the planners' argument that the main purpose of the glockenspiel was to attract attention from customers. If that had been the case, they said, Lerner would have built the glockenspiel on the outside of the building rather than inside facing the courtyard.
The glockenspiel's design must still be approved by the city's Architectural Review Commission, which is expected to consider the matter in mid-February. The glockenspiel would be housed on the second floor of the nearly completed "Village on Canon," 301 N. Canon Drive.
In presenting their case to the council, planners noted that the city several years ago denied a permit for a rotating statue of John Wayne on horseback at the southeast corner of La Cienega and Wilshire boulevards. A non-rotating version of the statue was erected instead because motorists might have been distracted by the moving figure. But council members countered that Lerner's glockenspiel would not be visible to motorists or to anyone else who is not in the building's courtyard.
Fears Flood of Signs
Planning Commission Chairwoman MeraLee Goldman said Beverly Hills prides itself on its tough sign ordinance and approving Lerner's glockenspiel could cause other businesses to claim that they, too, need moving signs to compete with the glockenspiel.
"What we're dealing with here is not one structure," Goldman told council members. "What we're dealing with here is opening Pandora's box. What we're dealing with is Disneyland.
"I don't think this is a glockenspiel. I think what's sitting in Munich is a glockenspiel. I think what's in Prague is a glockenspiel. . . . We do not want moving, flashing things anywhere in this city."
But Mayor Robert Tanenbaum took issue with that argument. "The precedential value of (the glockenspiel) would have the impact of a feather because of its uniqueness," Tanenbaum said. "It's just not a sign."
Vice Mayor Maxwell Salter quipped: "It's much ado about nothing, and, as I say, I'd rather see a glockenspiel than be one."
Councilman Allan L. Alexander, who was the only council member to vote against the glockenspiel, said the sign ordinance should be rewritten to allow moving signs only on the insides of buildings, where they attract less attention.
By agreeing that the glockenspiel is not a sign according to the city's definition, the council avoided deciding whether to grant Lerner a variance to the sign ordinance. Instead, council members on Feb. 7 will vote on a resolution stating their belief that the glockenspiel is more than a sign.
"It's a work of art," Salter said.