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The many charms of beautiful downtown Burbank

The city is home to many studios and production houses, and though emotionally tied to 'The Tonight Show,' it will survive the show's move to New York next year.

April 01, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Three of the seven dwarfs adorn the facade of a building at the Disney complex in Burbank.
Three of the seven dwarfs adorn the facade of a building at the Disney complex… (Reed Saxon, Associated…)

The city of Burbank has come in for some serious dissing since news broke that "The Tonight Show" may leave NBC studios at Olive and Alameda avenues in search of an edgier, fresher vibe in New York City.

The old "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" slam about "beautiful downtown Burbank" was trotted out of deep storage. A great town to have a toothache (the city founder was a dentist). Home to studio "factories."

Burbank Mayor Dave Golonski, a City Council member for 19 years, may have the last laugh. Turns out, he's a bit of a comedian, too.

In a letter asking the network to reconsider, Golonski told NBC that Burbank has "serious concerns about the sea level rise overwhelming 30 Rock," where Jimmy Fallon is poised to take over from host Jay Leno.

NBC has yet to officially confirm the move. But in any event, Golonski can afford to be flip. The migration won't hurt Burbank, whose Hollywood roots are both wide (hundreds of companies) and deep (the first studio in the city opened in 1926).

"It's not really a financial blow for us, " he said. "It's more of an emotional thing."

Golonski, a deeply tanned former IT executive who looks like he could be a studio honcho, is a good sport. He agreed to show me around one day so I could see if Burbank is still the stodgy little backwater that I remembered growing up in neighboring North Hollywood.

First stop was Burbank Village, the former downtown. The main strip, San Fernando Road, is a curious mash-up of offices, upper-story condos, shiny new chain restaurants and old-time shops like Movie World, selling books, pamphlets, posters and collectibles. Golonski explained the "beautiful downtown" label came about when the district, disastrously, was a pedestrian-only mall. It reopened to cars in the 1980s.

"I'm afraid it was a little bit ahead of its time," he said. "Now we have a little bit of everything." Including free parking, of which Golonski was clearly proud, pointing out structures to the right, left and behind us. "We take our parking very seriously," he said.

It's cookie-cutter mallish and funky at the same time. But I had to agree with the mayor that it was very clean and the chain restaurants seemed to be thriving.

We turned into the "paseo," a concrete plaza lined with more chain eateries leading to one of AMC's "top-two-performing" movie theaters. "Friday nights, you have to elbow your way in here," he said. And again with the parking. "Where else can you catch a movie and park for free?"

Rounding the corner, we were greeted by Barbara Holliday outside her comedy club, Flappers. Dressed in a fringed '20s dress and gleaming headband, Holliday said she thought the "Tonight" decampment was just a rumor.

"It's more than a rumor," Golonski said. "I've heard there is construction going on at 30 Rock." Holliday shrugged, looking unconcerned.

The mayor isn't really worried either. If his campaign against the move fails, he'll turn it into a tribute to the "Tonight Show's" 40 years in the city. The mayor had spoken to Leno, who is seen driving old cars around the city, the day before about the campaign.

"I wanted to let him know we loved him and wanted him to stay," Golonski said. "To us Johnny Carson and Jay Leno have been part and parcel of our community for a long time."

On our way back to City Hall, we walked up the AMC steps. "This is our version of the Spanish Steps in Rome," Golonski joked.

As we headed out of the civic center lot for the driving part of the tour, Golonski pointed out the distinctive orange lettering of Cartoon Network's logo on Olive Avenue. Among the retail stores, hidden in plain sight, were scores of Hollywood offshoots. The city's mix includes post-production houses, sound editing, voiceover and special effects studios, equipment rentals and foreign movie captioning, Golonski said.

On Alameda Avenue, there was even the headquarters of US-Armenia TV. "We could spend all day doing this," the mayor said.

Burbank's piece of Hollywood is not the glamour part. It's blue-collar Hollywood, where people work hard for our viewing and listening pleasure. But Golonski doesn't buy that NBC would move "The Tonight Show" to New York City for its glamour, or that Burbank studios are "factories," as a producer told The Times.

With Hollywood night life just over the hill, and downtown L.A. 20 minutes away, Southern California does not lack for world-class glitz or culture, he said.

New York "made them an offer they couldn't refuse," he said, referring to subsidies reportedly tucked into the state's tentative budget. "The reality is they would like to bring in a host that will attact a younger market, a market advertisers are pushing for, and they should say so. Not claiming some kind of cultural linkage."

We headed into the Media Center District, a collection of old soundstages, low-rise garden apartments and gleaming over-designed high-rises as different from the modest downtown as "Avatar" was from the first talkies.

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