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The Plastic Side of Tinseltown

July 11, 1996|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a bit painful to imagine what aberrant view of Southern California souvenir-hunting tourists take home with them. To be blunt: We sell them some weird stuff.

Like the magnetized Dress Me David, a replica of Michelangelo's David with optional boxer shorts and leather jacket. Like a miniature bikini-clad skeleton lounging on a little painted beach with a tiny boom box.

In our defense, this is a tough place to distill into plastic imagery. No Eiffel Tower, no Statue of Liberty, no Taj Mahal in central Pacoima that merchants can miniaturize and multiply. The city lacks a singular, defining inspiration.

Sure we've got a lot here--the entertainment, garment and aerospace industries; multiculturalism; freeways; a veritable plague of plastic surgeons; Angelyne; breathtakingly dull Equity waiver theater--unfortunately it just doesn't translate well into mementos.

But laws of commerce insist this vacuum be filled. Most commonly this tourist relic gap is plugged with items representing "Hollywood." As residents know, Hollywood is, at best, an ephemeral concept. On the boulevard itself, it translates into faux Oscars, Elvis belt buckles, dust-covered Laurel and Hardy statues ($399), sentimental James Dean and Marilyn Monroe plates and a flood of tasteless junk that makes Sally Jessy Raphael look like the Archbishop of Canterbury by comparison.

Where but Hollywood Boulevard could you find displays of matchbook-size packages gaily embossed with the word "Hollywood," the sentence "Condoms custom fitted for . . . " and scores of names to chose from? And one of the choices is "Grandma"?

The boulevard and a tour of other tourist stops offered up these souvenirs of a visit to Southern California.

The Tourist Stop: Hollywood Boulevard.

The Ambience: Decay, tackiness and transients combine to make European families realize they should hide the video camera and quickly get back to the bus.

What Sets the Tone: "You break it, you buy it" signs.

What Sells Best: What's cheap. Postcards, key rings, cups. The tastelessness is just an extra added attraction.

What's for Sale: $7.99 ceramic napkin holders shaped like film clapboards; $2.99 miniature "Hollywood" beer stein toothpick holders; $2.99 thimbles decorated with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star; $5.99, 6-inch statue of Harpo Marx standing on a film reel.

Quoted: "Tourists always ask for the same thing--posters from 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Casablanca,' 'Gone With the Wind' and anything to do with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe," said Eric Caidin, owner of the Hollywood Book & Poster Co. "These are all reproductions. When I tell them what the originals go for they almost faint on the spot."

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The Tourist Stop: The gift shops at LAX.

The Ambience: Slick professionalism. The feeling that marketing committees have been studying product placement. As opposed to Hollywood Boulevard, where the decision-making process seems dominated by ex-carnival barkers turned merchants.

What Sets the Tone: Signs in Japanese.

What Sells Best: Oddly enough, 8-ounce boxes of chocolate-covered California almonds at $9 per. "Apparently it's a tradition in Japan to bring small gifts back," said Mara Bushanksy, assistant manager at the W.H. Smith store in the Bradley International Building. "They buy in multiples."

Civic Distortion: There's the impression that Mickey Mouse, Tweety Bird and Hideo Nomo are L.A.'s most famous residents.

What's for Sale: $19 gold-plated "Beverly Hills" champagne glasses; $10.95 gold lame "Hollywood" baseball caps; "Gourmet L.A.," a $30 recipe book from the Junior League of Los Angeles; $25 T-shirts with the words "Beverly Hills" on the pocket and fake $100 bills sewn inside.

Sure Bets for Next Year's Discount Bin: The stacks of O.J. trial books by Christopher Darden, Robert Shapiro and Alan Dershowitz.

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The Tourist Stop: The Forest Lawn Memento shop.

The Ambience: Like being in an unusually serious museum store.

What Sets the Tone: Dead people being buried right outside the door.

What's for Sale: Loads of religious icons. Imagine the Vatican gift shop but with more nudity. Reproductions of reproductions on display in the cemetery include a $24.95 framed "Last Supper," a $5 Liberty Bell, a 12-inch white stone copy of Michelangelo's "David," $75 stained-glass miniature windows, $16 Aztec masks.

What Sells Best: $2.98 souvenir spoons with scenes of New Testament high points on the handles.

Quoted: "When you first come to Forest Lawn, you think 'Omigosh, it's a cemetery,' " said shop supervisor Yvette Ludka. "I want people to appreciate the beautiful artworks we have here."

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The Tourist Stop: Olvera Street.

The Ambience: This is the original CityWalk. Los Angeles history done as an outdoor shopping mall.

What Sets the Tone: Day of the Dead art. This works well here, would have been spectacular at Forest Lawn.

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