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AROUND TOWN

On the Trail of Success With Cybersleuth

May 06, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Mace Broade--a gumshoe with one foot planted firmly in film noir, the other on the Internet.

Like Philip Marlowe, he's an L.A. eye. You might spot him at Maxwell's Diner in Culver City, washing down the house special, a "garbage omelet," with Sanka. And you can always find him in cyberspace.

The ongoing adventures of Mace Broade, private eye--hyped to Web browsers as "heart-pounding" and "mind-boggling"--unfold each Monday and Thursday to those who walk through his door at http://www.kapow.com.

Mace, who's given to saying things like, "I'd been sitting in my car so long watching Room 3A at the Beverlywood Motor Hotel, the milk in my coffee cup had formed a thin floating layer of skin," is the hero of KAPOW, a serialized drama coming to you on your computer.

"We're trying to blur the line between real life and cyberspace," says Ethan Goldstine, 30, creator of the series with partner Neal Steinberg, 31. To this end, Mace and the KAPOW cast will be acting out episodes periodically as live street theater.

On a Saturday late last month, they showed up at the Santa Monica Pier. Mace, it seems, had been tipped off that Kylie Meadows, a Tucson teenager reported missing since she failed to show up for a church retreat, had been spotted there.

Flashing Kylie's picture, actor Greg Martin, looking every inch his role behind shades, his sleeves rolled up and a checked jacket slung casually over one shoulder, was handing his cards to strangers, deadpanning, "I'm trying to find this girl. . . ."

Watching, Steinberg said, "I hope he doesn't find her right now, or the story's over."

The first person he approached, a guy playing a guitar, decided, "Yeah, she does look kind of familiar."

Others weren't buying Mace's pitch. Maybe it was the KAPOW entourage trailing him, or Goldstine and Steinberg taking all those pictures to illustrate the next episode. Maybe it was that woman reporter, Veronica, with her credentials from "The Weekly Low-Down."

As Martin said later, "I don't think you see too many private eyes operating that much in the public eye."

But a trio of Georgia State Patrol troopers, on security detail with the Olympic torch, listened intently to Mace's pitch. "He sounded convincing," drawled Hamilton Halford, adding that, with a looker like Kylie, "I might have to investigate myself."

Meanwhile, actor Jonathan Lutz, playing a bum, was working the pier, reciting poetry and collecting coins in an old shoe to further "the cultural advancement of the Santa Monica Pier."

He was lectured on the evils of drug abuse and rousted a couple of times. And when he hit up Mace Broade, he was brushed off--"I gave at the office." (Mace is a bit cheap.)

Farther along the pier, another actor was handing out fliers proclaiming, "Peace of mind is just keystrokes away: http://www.raygun.com/sanctuary." KAPOW fans know that "The Sanctuary" is the title of the first of 21 episodes, which premiered April 22.

They didn't know--yet--that Kylie is involved with an Internet-based religious cult called the Sanctuary.

Post-pier, Goldstine and Steinberg debriefed their actors, then hastily revised the script for the next episode. They're nothing if not flexible. Consider how the two--friends since they were 4, came to KAPOW--Goldstine with a history degree from Yale, Steinberg a degree in East Asian studies from Princeton.

Their first collaboration, in 1992, was a CD-ROM game for teaching English to the Japanese. It died for lack of interest--and $400,000 start-up money.

On the Internet, they began thinking, for peanuts they could play with the big boys. They knew the territory. Goldstine, a "computer nerd" as a child, has been a computer consultant. They decided on a cyberspace sleuth but, Steinberg says, one with a gimmick--thus the live performances. "The Internet is very isolating. We hope to create a little community," Steinberg says.

Steinberg got to name the characters, choosing Mace after a college acquaintance and stealing Mace's surname from a Kaufman and Broad sign. There's also a female character, a top-secret government computer expert, whose chat room is dubbed the Barca Lounge. He mentions, "In the next case, there's going to be a character named Navy Blue. That's my favorite."

First, Goldstine and Steinberg did a story outline. Then they wrote a 70-page script and began laying it out on a leased Web-server site. Artist Carvin Kidd designed Mace's office, with a file cabinet that holds e-mail and a briefcase containing the current episode. A floor fan does nothing but whir nicely when you click on it. "No one's going to do that more than once," Steinberg says with a shrug.

The day we met, they'd just had an e-mail from Luxembourg, saying, "Great story. I think I am already hooked. . . ."

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