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MAN BITES TOWN

Guns and Buttered Popcorn : Turning the Peace Dividend Into a Piece of the Action

August 19, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

WHEN THE CHAIRMAN of Times Mirror first approached me about doing this column, he didn't have anything more specific in mind than something livelier than the table of contents and more linear than the puzzle. Noticeably not included in my mandate was the idea of public service. But--and it takes a big man to admit this--maybe there's just a little bit of Richard Nixon in me: When my community is in trouble, I feel a need to serve, whether or not anybody in my community cares.

And Southern California is in trouble. The ever-booming economy that has acted like a powerful magnet for decades suddenly can't attract enough iron filings to impress a grade-school science class.

The signs are everywhere. Hollywood, having cranked out potential blockbuster after potential blockbuster this summer, sits exhausted and confused at the block's stubborn refusal to be busted. Tourism is down, attendance at the theme parks tumbling so much that Sea World may have to lay off some dolphins. And the peace scare is really serious this time around, causing thousands of workers to be let go from the local doom factories.

In fact, if it weren't for the steady hum of the garment-industry sweatshops, we'd be hearing the dire tolling of the recession bell.

So what to do? Local political leadership, to coin a joke, is watching these trends only closely enough to keep tabs on all the tax revenue that, during this next little while, won't be pouring in.

An obvious solution for the aerospace industry is, in the words of the evangelists, to convert. Here are men and machines honed to the cutting edge of technology so that explosive things can be transported past enemy detection to distant targets. Couldn't we harness that power to help us speed effortlessly to work in the morning?

We have spent billions, and endangered lives if certain lawsuits are to be believed, to develop Stealth technology. Couldn't it be converted? Imagine how much nicer life in our neighborhoods would be if the streets were prowled by Stealth-enhanced garbage trucks.

Unfortunately, a recent report tells us that defense facilities have a difficult time making the switch to civilian production. Something about being conditioned to spend too much money on cost-plus contracts, being unable to adjust to making things efficiently and cheaply for the marketplace. What we did, it turns out, was spend two generations' worth of wealth training a select group of companies to function as effective members of the Russian economy.

OK, so they can't make anything we can use. But we could solve two problems simultaneously if we opened the defense plants to the public--as tourist attractions. Negative publicity about L.A. may be keeping out-of-towners from visiting Universal Studios and the Hollywood Wax Museum, but it would take more than headlines about drive-by shootings to keep the crowds from flocking to Missileland, or Knotts Bomber Farm.

These wouldn't be static attractions, just a crowd snaking through a once-bustling hangar filled with warplanes from a future we imagined in the past. Obviously, there'd be some showmanship: a dramatic tableau re-enacting a surprise visit by a government auditor and his subsequent wild night on the town, or a first flight test, repeated hourly, in which the weapon unexpectedly explodes in a safe, beautiful fireball.

There already are souvenir Stealth bomber mugs: The aircraft appears on the side as you fill the cup with hot liquid. I'm not kidding; I own one. So merchandising plays a large and welcome role in all of this. Cuddly characters like Rockwell the Squirrel, McDonnell Duck, maybe even Lt. Col. Oliver Northrop would not only make these attractions a must-see for the kids but they could also translate all of this revived economic activity into salvation for the third leg of our economic triad--Hollywood.

With identifiable, likable, marketable characters to build aerospace fantasies around, why wouldn't the studios embrace projects like the story of the wackily snake-bit Sgt. York tank? Unfortunately, the title "Total Recall," however appropriate, has already been taken. But "Kill Hard" is available.

But, hey, I'm just brainstorming here. The point is, we don't have to sit around fretting about peace and the tourist deficit and the fickleness of the movie audience. We can create a new Southland economy so powerful that pretty soon those sweatshops will be cranking out T-shirts exploiting our achievement.

Well, I guess, like Nixon, I've helped my community enough for one lifetime. Anybody want to help me start building my library?

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