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Doing the Hollywood Shuttle

Celebrities and other clubgoers are coming back as the area is reborn. To handle the heavier traffic, Holly Trolleys are introduced.

January 15, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

It was nearly 1 a.m. Saturday, but Jong Won Kim and his three buddies were far from done partying when they jumped aboard the Holly Trolley, Hollywood's improbable mass transit system for club hoppers that debuted this weekend.

Hearing the saxophone solo of Mel Waiters' "Hole in the Wall" blast over the trolley's speakers, the 24-year-old Portland, Ore., native clenched his fists and said: "This rocks!"

Inspired by an undetermined number of whiskey and cola drinks, Kim and his friends debated taking a food break or immediately hitting another nightclub as the trolley (really a bus made to look like an old street car) glided past the flashing neon and velvet rope lines of the new Hollywood Boulevard.

"Coming from Oregon, Hollywood had a reputation for being ghetto," said Kim, who moved to L.A. a year ago. "It actually has a different persona. I love it."

The Holly Trolley is just the latest sign of Hollywood Boulevard's transformation into a nightclub district that rivals -- and by some measures surpasses -- the famed Sunset Strip a few miles to the west.

It's been an unlikely comeback. A decade ago the once-bustling boulevard was still largely a symbol of urban blight in Los Angeles. There were jewels like the Pantages and El Capitan theaters, but subway construction had crumbled parts of the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a crime wave was keeping many away -- save out-of-town tourists -- especially at night.

But what started as a few small clubs luring young urban adventurers has burgeoned into a strip of about 50 nightclubs and bars stretching from Vine Street to La Brea Avenue that throb with dance music. Some are the size of warehouses and pack in hundreds at a time; others are ultra-exclusive, with customers willing to pay $1,100 for a bottle of fine vodka and a reserved booth to sit in.

Come sundown on weekends, patrons -- mostly twentysomethings, some from far-flung suburbs looking for a night in the big city -- converge on the strip.

Hollywood's new nightlife is also marking the return of regular celebrity sightings along the boulevard for the first time in a generation -- especially young stars whose late-night travails end up on the pages of US and People magazines.

"If you said five years ago that Paris Hilton was going to get into a car accident in Hollywood, no one would have believed you, because Paris Hilton wouldn't have been in Hollywood," said City Councilman Eric Garcetti, referring to a recent incident that made tabloid headlines.

But this new popularity has caused near-gridlock across Hollywood -- it can take more than half an hour to travel just a few blocks.

The Holly Trolley is designed to reduce congestion and make it easier for clubbers to get around. The trolley picks up clubgoers and barhoppers at a handful of parking structures, one being the Cinerama Dome/Arclight. A $1 token grants unlimited access between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.

"The infrastructure has been stretched in Hollywood," Garcetti said. "People are paying $10, $20 and $50 for valet. The last thing we wanted to do was strangle success. Here, the city can step in and solve a transportation problem and protect jobs. Government doesn't have to be boring."

Indeed, the city and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce are trying to give the trolleys a club feel. Each is manned by an "ambience director," a professional nightclub doorman dressed in a dark suit and tie and trained to keep the peace.

"Whatever they want to call me, I don't care, as long as it's not a bad name," said Sean Scott, 27, whose lazy smile lured a handful of revelers aboard.

Two of the three 55-passenger trolleys are on the road at any one time. It will cost about $600,000 a year to keep them operating. The cost will be split between the Community Redevelopment Agency and local businesses, especially nightclubs.

The trolleys' sound system on the inaugural weekend was blasting tracks from Public Enemy and the Ying Yang Twins, to name a few. But soon, dance clubs along the boulevard will provide recordings mixed by their resident DJs. Officials also plan to add breathalyzer tests to encourage people who have drunk too much to wait before getting in their cars.

While business owners and city officials have cheered the new Hollywood, some longtime residents complain about the cacophony of sirens, screaming, shouting and screeching that comes with the all-night partying. And some critics doubt the trolley system will do much to change that.

"People will drive around and around the block for 30 minutes to avoid walking five minutes," said Robert Nudelman, a director of the preservation group Hollywood Heritage.

Some of the scene's stalwarts include Avalon, Cinespace, LAX, Level 3 and Ivar, clubs with expansive dance floors, no shortage of mannequin-esque patrons and swank decors. Getting in can be as challenging as finding an empty parking space.

Three acting students from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts had no such difficulties getting past the velvet ropes Saturday morning.

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