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For a Night, It Was a Party Train

February 26, 1996|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It probably wasn't like this on opening night, 1901.

On Friday night, there were hot and cold running valet parkers and cocktails and hors d'oeuvres (including Spago-style pizzas) served inside the spruced-up Grand Central Market. Soft tacos were on the house for the fur-clad crowd who lined up at tiny Taco House No. 1 on Hill Street. And dinner was served beneath a behemoth of a clear-paneled tent that allowed for a view of the city's towering skyline.

The "shortest railway in the world," as Angels Flight is billed, reopened on Bunker Hill with what could only be called a'90s-style fund-raiser for nearly 1,000 supporters of KCET, the Los Angeles Conservancy and Angels Flight Railway Foundation. The evening's underwriters were GTE California and First Interstate Bank.

How '90s? Dinner included mesquite-grilled free-range chicken breasts along with that retro favorite, mashed potatoes, served family style on Lazy Susans at each table. Guests could even buy souvenirs such as logo-stamped bottled water and T-shirts.

But the 65-second trip, which opened to the public Saturday, was the star. "I almost cried--it was lovely," said Helen Chaplin, a retired vice president of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, who recalled riding the cars in the '40s after Philharmonic concerts. "I'm that old," she said, chuckling.

Ninth District Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters had brought her children to experience the funicular the week before it closed in 1969. "And now they're middle-aged folks," she said, adding that she lives just up the hill. "Just think, with this running, any time I walk to the office and don't want to walk back up the hill, I can use it. Hopefully it's going to be here for another 100 years."

Even Mr. Blackwell got a little mushy. "I rode it in the '30s when I was a kid," he said. "So much time has gone by between then and now. I'd love to say it brought back nostalgia, but it's almost like seeing it for the first time."

"It's a happy night for Los Angeles," said John Welborne, who heads the Angels Flight Railway Foundation and also remembers riding the cars in times past. "And it's a wonderful, wonderful event on a personal level."

Of course for many, the funicular, with its two tiny orange and black stations, was a revelation. "It's Princeton colors, some love that," offered interior designer Suzanne Rheinstein, of her husband, Fred's, alma mater.

Huell Howser, KCET's resident California historian and host of its "Visiting" and "California Gold" shows, admitted that having lived in Los Angeles 16 years, he'd heard so many Angels Flight stories that he was "psyched" for the debut. "It's these funny, Halloween-orange colored cars that go just a few yards up and down the hill and the ride is over before you sit down," Howser said. "But look at the effect it has on people. It's really a phenomenon."

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