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SOSOCAL

The Magic of Muck

March 25, 2001|LESLEE KOMAIKO

On a recent Saturday afternoon, in the northeast corner of the Mann's Chinese Theatre courtyard, mere inches from the spot where John Wayne left his prints, Rene Valadez, 25, and his girlfriend Christina Ramirez, 24, sank their own hands into cement for posterity. "If a tragedy were to happen," said Valadez, "at least my grandchildren would have this."

Valadez owns a pool cleaning business. Ramirez is a legal secretary. The Houston residents aren't exactly celebrities, but during this first visit to the City of Angels, the Hollywood Handprints stand in the theater's original pagoda-style ticket booth caught their eye.

After reviewing the half-dozen frame options, they decided on the $29.95 foot-square, gold-hued model reading "Mann's Chinese Theatre Hollywood California." They each imprinted one hand, inscribed their names and the date. Five minutes later, they had the hardened final product, which they planned to display above the fireplace in their living room.

As with so many L.A. icons--Disneyland, Spago--it took an outsider to come up with this entrepreneurial idea. Franco Vecchio of Sherman Oaks, a native of Sicily, had flirted with the souvenir handprints idea since he first visited the Tinseltown tourist trap in the mid-1980s--a natural fit for a builder's son long interested in cement as a medium. But Vecchio didn't act on his hunch until 1998, and wasn't able to negotiate a deal with the theater until the end of that year. When he did open Hollywood Handprints in May 1999, Vecchio says, "it was an immediate success."

Challenges remain. Locals aren't interested. Business is inconsistent. And Vecchio sometimes must discourage customers from memorializing unlikely parts of their anatomy. On the upside, though, Vecchio's relatives from Italy went home very happy after a recent visit.

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