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Kane Mutiny : Culture: A giant mural of Michael Jackson is planned for a Hollywood building, but some people would rather see Orson Welles honored.

April 12, 1992|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Nudelman wants Michael Jackson to know one thing up front: This is not personal.

Nudelman, a Hollywood activist and film buff, acknowledges that the entertainer--although not exactly his cup of tea--has talents that deserve recognition. If properly located, Nudelman says, an 80-foot, three-dimensional mural of Jackson might prove to be a popular addition to Hollywood Boulevard.

But ever since Nudelman learned that the Hollywood Arts Council is planning to install such a mural on the east face of the historic El Capitan Theater building, he has had a hard time keeping quiet. He wants to keep Jackson off the wall. And he wants to put Orson Welles on.

Nudelman, who in 1990 helped persuade the Walt Disney Co. to spend $6 million restoring the El Capitan to its original splendor, says that instead of a flashy monument to the Moonwalker, a simple black-and-white portrait of the late actor-director would be more in keeping with the elegant movie house.

After all, Nudelman said last week as the scaffolding for the Jackson mural was installed on the side of the theater, Welles' 1941 classic "Citizen Kane" was the first film shown there. Jackson may be world famous, but Welles is a Hollywood legend, said Nudelman, founder of a group called Citizens for Kane.

The man-in-the-mural muddle--the latest controversy to engulf the 66-year-old El Capitan building--is much more than an artistic squabble or a skirmish between fan clubs. Coming as it does amid the city's 30-year urban renewal project in central Hollywood, the debate about whether Jackson or Welles--or nobody--should be allowed to peer down from the whitewashed wall has become a battle over the neighborhood's future.

Nudelman, who has gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition in support of a Welles mural, believes that the Jackson mural will set a poor precedent, promoting glitz over grandeur and discouraging future refurbishment of historic buildings. He is not alone.

"My personal opinion is this is not the best idea for the city's efforts to restore the boulevard to a delightful place," said Crosby Doe, vice president of Hollywood Heritage Inc., a Los Angeles preservation group that has come out against the "scale and scope"--though not specifically the content--of the Jackson mural. "People will see the sign, not the building."

But supporters of the project--including Councilman Michael Woo, who represents Hollywood--said the mural will complement the building, enlivening the street by attracting visitors.

"Aside from our goal of preserving historic landmarks, we should not be afraid to create new landmarks," Woo said. "We want to encourage a real pedestrian environment that appeals to the executive carrying the attache case as well as the kid with the boombox. It's hard for me to imagine a person who represents that popular appeal better than Michael Jackson."

During the past two weeks, the Jackson project has cleared what appears to be the last of its regulatory hurdles, winning approval from the Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the city's Hollywood renewal project, and from the city's Cultural Heritage Commission.

Earlier, the project won the support of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which has authority over the building's facade. Linda Dishman, conservancy executive director, confirmed last week that the Hollywood Arts Council will pay her group a monthly "administration fee" in return for the conservancy's expertise, but she declined to say how much.

According to CRA officials, the Heritage Commission and the conservancy, their duty was to ensure that the mural, which will be painted on canvas and mounted on the wall for up to 10 years, did not damage the historic fabric of the building. They had no authority, they said, over content. In fact, not one of them saw a detailed model of the mural before they signed off on it.

"I saw a very rough sketch--Michael Jackson sort of jumping up in some kind of formal costume doing a dance step," said Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. But because the mural is an "applique," not an architectural addition, Nodal said that no matter what the subject matter, "we couldn't stop them from doing it. . . . Whether we like it or not, it's not our jurisdiction."

The building's owners, who say they are charging the Arts Council "very low" rent for use of their wall, say they, too, have no power to change the mural.

A year ago, co-owner Nick Olaerts said, he and partner Tom Harnsberger signed a contract allowing the mural to be mounted to the El Capitan building because they believed that any project that had the backing of the Los Angeles Conservancy must also have the support of the broader community.

Given the scrutiny that several groups had focused on all aspects of the El Capitan Theater renovation, he said, "when we didn't hear from anyone on this large an issue, we had to assume it (the mural) had support. I thought: 'Geez, how do I argue with that?' "

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