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Hollywood: Is It Ready for Its Close-Up?

Boulevard: Many see a comeback for the aging star, but skeptics remain.

November 10, 1996|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the fabled home of American movie making, a marquee tourist attraction that drifted over the years into an embarrassing stretch of pawn and porn. But now Hollywood, that piece of urban geography beneath the famous hillside sign, is attempting to stage its own blockbuster comeback.

After years of roiling debate over how best to save the graying movie capital, after bold promises of redevelopment died in nasty court battles, Tinseltown is in the throes of revitalizing its famed but tired venues: Hollywood Boulevard. Capitol Records. The grand El Capitan and Egyptian theaters.

With more than 100 ventures completed or in the works in the last three years, some urban planning experts are likening Hollywood's nascent renewal to a similar turnaround of New York's Times Square, where years of mainly private investment have reclaimed the theater and shopping district from peep shows and prostitutes.

"Hollywood is up for another heyday," declared Phyllis Caskey, president of the new Hollywood Entertainment Museum.

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For the 1990s remake, investors and boosters are betting Hollywood's future on its storied past. They believe that preserving and capitalizing on a bygone elegance will satisfy hungry tourists who flock to the movie capital expecting to be dazzled by a land known for pumping silver screen magic into dark theaters.

For years, tourists and locals alike have left Hollywood Boulevard disappointed, even disgusted, by the seedy mishmash of trinket shops, tattoo parlors and boarded-up storefronts alongside neon-lit attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.

Some, especially small business owners, are skeptical that Hollywood can fully regain its past stature as its worn thoroughfares remain magnets for runaways, persistent drug dealing and prostitution.

Even so, tourists manage to leave their plentiful dollars behind, spending more than $1 billion last year by one estimate. Promoters say that upgraded attractions catering to their whims are natural money-makers.

Hollywood homeowner leaders are hoping that the surge of development will help bring about a safe, exciting cultural district that will attract locals who now spend their money in other destinations such as Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, Old Town in Pasadena and Universal's CityWalk.

Among the significant developments:

* Opulent movie palaces along Hollywood Boulevard that sat empty like dusty ghosts in recent times are reopening their doors with the kinds of cabarets and gala premieres that once played to black-tie audiences.

* Museums--one recently opened, two others in the works--showcase the trappings of Hollywood mystique. One collection featuring extravagant costumes will be housed in the Art Deco Max Factor building on Highland Avenue. Another will appear in the Warner-Hollywood Theater on Hollywood Boulevard when it reopens next year.

* Several anchor businesses--among them Capitol Records and Panavision, which manufactures cameras and lenses--are canceling plans to leave town and are expanding.

* Two Metro Rail train stations are scheduled to open on Hollywood Boulevard in 1998, and a third will open in 2000. Eventually, the Metro Red Line will run from downtown to Universal City.

* Scores of smaller ventures are springing up--from Jack's Sugar Shack nightclub near Hollywood and Vine to the chic Cuban eatery, Havana on Sunset.

"The smart money is playing in Hollywood," said Gerald Schneiderman, chairman of Colony Bancorp, which owns the Hollywood First National Bank Building at Hollywood and Highland. "If we all fix our community, we'll all profit."

The burst of activity is a dramatic reversal from years ago, when redevelopment projects went belly up as factions battled each other in court and the recession scared off investors.

But an improved economic climate is driving the recent rebound. Lured by low land prices, investors--some with financial incentives provided by the Community Redevelopment Agency--are coming forward to renovate aging buildings and shuttered theaters.

Among the new investors is Taryn Power Greendeer, the daughter of legendary actor Tyrone Power. Greendeer has pledged the income from her father's trust to help reopen the ornate Warner-Hollywood Theater, first opened in 1927.

"I was saddened by the abandonment Hollywood had fallen prey to," said Power, whose father is buried in nearby Hollywood Cemetery. "Hollywood is a part of American history, if not world history, and it's not even a century old. I think it's time we put effort and attention into it."

Recently, 41 property owners along and around Hollywood Boulevard formed a business improvement district, paying $600,000 a year for the next five years for security patrols and cleanup crews. Their effort got an added boost when Gov. Pete Wilson recently ordered in a two-month detail of California Highway Patrol officers.

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