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Commentary

My Life as a Movie Set

November 17, 2003|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah

In my downtown neighborhood, a stretch of sidewalk is again blocked by a film crew. A security guard argues with a fast-walking pedestrian who ignores the moviemakers' orange cones. They argue until she turns in to a store displaying tiny mannequins dressed for their first Communion. The guard turns and swears.

I am the next pedestrian in his path. But a huge hydraulic lift carrying a set-construction crew is in mine. The crew is covering the facade, taking down the awning of the building at 3rd and Broadway, turning the Giant Penny discount clothing store into a bowling alley. Thirty-nine lanes.

Once, I saw the Giant Penny on TV, behind a luxury sedan parked on gleaming asphalt. A fine couple in black tie crossed under the awning, now an elegant, urban porte-cochere.

I can't remember the brand of car being advertised, but I can't forget how beautiful the Giant Penny looked, sparkling in the evening. It was TV, so you couldn't smell the urine on the walls. You couldn't see the four empty stories that usually serve as backdrop and soundstage for filmic death, doom and disaster. The Giant Penny looked like what it could be with a little investment, not like what it is: urban blight, available for filming.

This is one of L.A.'s busiest intersections. A 121-unit apartment building sits across 3rd from the Giant Penny. For 18 months, the sidewalk outside it has been closed, waiting for city repairs. Cement barriers, the kind placed in front of government buildings since 9/11, make a path for pedestrians in the street. Across Broadway, two more lanes are closed for street improvements.

A block away, 1,300 seniors and disabled people live in the Angelus Plaza towers. With their wheelchairs, motorized carts, canes and walkers, they compete for sidewalk space here with shoppers, jurors on lunch break, commercial deliveries, parents with children, the mail carrier (Bobby) and people waiting for the 15 MTA bus lines that use these streets. Strike that. No one is waiting for those buses this week.

Into this atherosclerosis, the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., or EIDC, granted a film permit, and from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. things just got tighter.

Eventually, they'll strike the set. In some ways, we'll be disappointed. We'd like a bowling alley. "Ah, well. The building would've needed another 40 feet on it," my neighbor says. The Giant Penny will be just the Giant Penny again, with the sign of the times tacked to an upstairs window: "trendylofts.com."

Trendy tenants be forewarned. With your city views and granite countertops comes this: In your first year here, there will be permits written for 7,500 days of filming in two City Council districts that contain downtown. That's 20 years of filming in one year, which is exactly what it will feel like.

You will complain, which will get you elected building captain, like you need a purgatory do-over of student council.

You will chuck your Thomas Bros. Guide and instead carry the L.A. Garment & Citizen, a free local paper that lists the week's filming locations.

You will be told by elected officials, property owners and EIDC reps that only your patriotism can prevent all future celluloid from being shot in Canada. It all hinges on your willingness to live with hovering choppers, the sound of gunfire, Klieg lights in your bedroom window.

You will learn that permits for hovering choppers require special signature approval, but never yours.

You will follow this story in the paper: Former EIDC president indicted on charges of embezzling more than $150,000.

Sure, sure, you will have moments of Hollywood whimsy. Tom Cruise will scratch your lovable mutt behind the ears. One day trees instead of cars will line your street, with fall leaves imported for actors to crunch through. Adonis will ride up Broadway on a white stallion. A treasure of an old building will get a new coat of paint. For a moment, you will glimpse something you really want: a superhero, fall, a 39-lane bowling alley.

But today in the neighborhood, the film company's security guard wants me out of his location. We argue. In my mind's eye, I see the day's location fee changing hands, somewhere far away from us. There's no one else to yell at, so we yell at each other.

He herds me toward the street. Dozens of downtown pedestrians evade his cones while he watches me. I step off the curb. As luck would have it, traffic is gridlocked, and nobody mows anyone down.

Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah is at work on a book about downtown L.A.

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