Sunday, February 29, 2004


Hollywood Boulevard illuminates the night, with Grauman's Chinese Theater in the foreground. Some say the Roosevelt Hotel, across the street, is haunted.

Hollywood gets
a makeover

Hollywood’s ongoing face lift
is helping restore the old capital
of glitz

"It's a pretty weird mix of people," says David Bell, 30, a tattoo artist who works across the street from the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. "You can be sitting around in front of the shop and you'll see Al Pacino walk by, and then you'll see three junked-out heroin addicts walk by the other way. It's a lot of fun."

Bell has been working the strip for only a couple of months, so he isn't blasé about celebrity sightings, unlike most who live and work around here -- where all eyes will be focused tonight as Oscar Night drama unfolds.

Otherwise, the famous and infamous show up all the time, usually for some promotional event, so seeing a celeb is no big deal.

For locals it's much more interesting to check out the neighborhood weirdos, like the 50-something transvestite often seen drinking a venti drip at the Starbucks on Hollywood and McCadden. He is going through the long process of a sex change operation, and hormone treatments have given him large breasts, but for some reason he still has an aversion to shaving, so he looks like an old bearded lady.

He fits right in. Hollywood Boulevard is full of strange sights: of sex shops, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, strip joints, chicken shacks, motels, billboards and neon lights; of artists, actors, strippers, prostitutes, skateboarders, goth chicks, punk rockers, toothless crack heads and, let's not forget, befuddled tourists.

It is mysterious and alluring, dirty and dangerous, sparkly and flashy, rusted and ruined and incredibly dark. It is like a badly aged celebrity: bloated, a shadow of its former self, but still demanding attention.

And it's morphing.

Meritage gets in Oscar mood

If you wish you were there: The "76th Academy Awards" airs at 6:30 p.m. today on KITV/ABC. At Meritage restaurant at Restaurant Row, there'll be an Academy-sanctioned Oscar Night Party beginning at 2:30 p.m. today, complete with red carpet, champagne and live broadcast of the awards show. Admission is $100.


Workers unroll the red carpet in the arrival area in front of the Kodak Theater in preparation for the 76th annual Academy Awards. The Oscars are today.

A few years ago the city of Los Angeles and private investors poured about $600 million into fixing up the cross streets of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, building the spiffy Hollywood and Highland Complex. The site incorporates world-class shopping and dining with Grauman's Chinese Theatre, one of L.A.'s oldest landmarks, and the Kodak Theatre, now the permanent site of the Academy Awards.

Leron Gubler, 52, president and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, is proud of the complex. "When you get out of your car now and you see the flashing lights, the big staircase leading up to Babylon Court, the Kodak Theatre, you get a feeling you're in Hollywood."

THIRTEEN BLOCKS away, at the other end of the strip, is the Hollywood and Vine intersection. In 2000 the Pantages Theatre, a live theater and concert venue, was refurbished to the tune of $10 million to house Disney's hit Broadway musical, "The Lion King." This area is also being revived, and Gubler is confident the entire mile-long stretch will be rejuvenated in five to 10 years. Indeed, the boulevard seems poised to make a comeback.

But there are problems.

The strip is overrun with panhandling homeless people, the mentally ill and runaway kids. Many of them have serious drug problems. Some have been out here for years. Some look like they're a step from the grave, their skin the color of milk. Some are so caked in dirt it's impossible to pinpoint their age or ethnicity.

Many of the buildings are dilapidated. There is a significant amount of art deco architecture on the boulevard, and the strip was made a historic district in 1985, but sadly, much of it is crumbling.

The ugliness doesn't make it tourist-friendly. It is common to see red double-decker buses cruising the strip, the top decks packed with sunburned sightseers staring out onto this bizarro world, their mouths agape. Their faces often register disappointment. We came all the way here for ... this?

Choi Jang Hoon, 9 (left), and Choi Jang Won, 8, from Seoul, are photographed with Bruce Lee's star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.

HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD was once the capital of glitz. In the 1920s the street became famous for its flashy movie premieres. Audiences around the world watched newsreels of Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson and Mary Pickford, the biggest stars of their day, attending gala openings while giant searchlights swiped the sky. The street was elegant and glamorous.

City has seen its share of firsts and tragic finales

-- The first Hollywood Boulevard Christmas parade was in 1924.

-- The first movie to show at Grauman's Chinese was "King of Kings" in 1927. That same year, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were the first stars to leave hand and foot prints in the cement.

-- The first Academy Awards ceremony was held in the Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., in 1927. In 1932 actor Harry Lee committed suicide by jumping off the hotel's fire escape. It is said the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, among others, roam its hallways and rooms.

-- In 1930 many reported seeing the ghost of actor Lon Chaney haunting a bench on the northeast corner of Hollywood and Vine. The ghost was seen sporadically over the years but never reappeared after the bench was replaced in 1942.

-- Actress Elizabeth Short was seen at the Four Star Bar & Grill (now a tattoo parlor) at 6818 Hollywood Blvd. on Jan. 10, 1947. Five days later her mutilated body was discovered in a vacant lot. This would become one of the most notorious crimes in L.A. history, known as the Black Dahlia murder.

-- Screen legend James Dean ate his last meal at the Villa Capri restaurant, one block north of the boulevard on Yucca and McCadden, on Sept. 30, 1955. He died in a car accident a few hours later.

-- The first movie to run in Hollywood showing a female breast was Russ Meyer's "The Immortal Mr. Teas," 1959.

-- In 1961 actress Joanne Woodward became the first person to receive a star on the Walk of Fame.

-- In 1970 blues legend Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose at the former Landmark Hotel, 7047 Franklin Ave. It's renamed the Highland Gardens Hotel.

To find out about upcoming Star Ceremonies, call the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce information center at 323-469-8311.

The boulevard's opulent movie palaces were part of the spectacle, and each has many a claim to fame. The first talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," premiered at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre; Orson Welles' masterpiece "Citizen Kane" first screened at El Capitan; and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, home to countless premieres, is where seven decades of screen legends have left their hand prints, footprints and signatures in cement.

In an attempt to bolster flagging tourism, the Walk of Fame broke ground in 1961. Since then more than 2,000 brass stars, embedded in pink terrazzo and surrounded by charcoal terrazzo squares, have been laid into the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard, from Gower to La Brea, and on Vine Street from Sunset to Yucca. The stars honor past and present personalities in movies, TV, radio, theater and music. Some are familiar names; many have been forgotten.

Museum Row on the corner of Hollywood and Highland is a good place for those who like a little cheese with their sleaze. The Hollywood Wax Museum and the Guinness Book of World Records Museum are kitschy-hip in their own way, and the Erotic Museum, still under construction, promises to add to the goofiness when it's finished.

But the fromage de la fromage is the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium. Want to see a shrunken head, or a mural of John Wayne created entirely from colorful laundry lint? Then this one's a can't-miss. Just look for the rooftop with the life-size, bird-spotted T-Rex munching happily on a giant neon clock.

Head east from Highland, toward Hollywood and Vine, and the boulevard becomes, well, not exactly Baghdad dangerous, but unnerving to explore, especially after dark.

Abel Peterson, 54, who makes his living polishing the stars on the Walk of Fame, knows better than to take chances. "I leave before the sun goes down. Or try to," he says.

"You shouldn't feel safe walking down Hollywood Boulevard at night," says Eric Winzenried, 35, a rock singer who volunteers with the Los Angeles Food Coalition, an organization that feeds the homeless. "It's full of people who need money for drugs. There are a lot of little dark places around there where people can pop out of nowhere."

Friday and Saturday nights are somewhat safer as that's when the boulevard is hopping with weird and wonderful L.A. culture, and a private security force called the Green Shirts does an excellent job of patrolling the area and keeping it safe, though it is always a good idea to be watchful.

LAPD patrol officer Katherine Massey, 41, who has worked the Hollywood beat for six years, adds this advice: "If you're carrying a purse, don't carry it around your arm. Carry it around your shoulder."

Celebrity impersonators pose for pictures and work the crowds for tips in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Sundays.

IF THE BOULEVARD were a Hollywood movie, it would be the story of the good girl gone bad. Hollywood started changing in the 1950s when the movie studios left for the San Fernando Valley and Culver City, taking the good jobs with them. The upscale businesses and restaurants that catered to this high-earning clientele did not survive, and economic hard times followed. Families fled to the suburbs.

Then, in the late 1960s, the courts liberalized obscenity laws, and suddenly many ramshackle Hollywood theaters were making big bucks showing XXX fare. With the porno movies came the hookers, with the hookers came the drugs, and Hollywood had gone to seed.

Hollywood Vice eventually cleaned up the streets, relentlessly busting prostitutes, driving the business underground or, at least, into the "escort services" listed in the yellow pages. But the damage had been done, and the boulevard has never recovered.

There is some debate as to whether it can recapture its past glory. It is possible that no amount of gentrification can fix its ills. A government-mandated cleanup worked for Times Square, but Hollywood Boulevard will never be the Great White Way. It will always be the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Its very nature fights against success.

A block from the Chinese Theatre on Orange Drive sits the Nirvana apartment building. Several years ago two junkies who lived there killed another junkie in a drug deal gone bad. They hauled his body out to the trash bin, then went back inside and got high.

The corpse was found the next day, and all the cops had to do was trace the blood trail back to the room where they found the junkie killers passed out and literally up to their elbows in evidence. This is a true Hollywood story.

But in this strange world of fact and fantasy, who knows what's possible? There is also the stuff of dreams. Three blocks away from the theater, at 1738 N. Las Palmas Ave., is the Las Palmas Hotel. The Las Palmas is a depressing, shabby $35-a-night dive. It's also a tourist attraction that receives visitors from all over the globe in search of the place Julia Roberts supposedly lived and was rescued by Richard Gere in the movie "Pretty Woman."

In a town that loves the happily-ever-after, it remains to be seen if the boulevard can be rescued. Will it have a Hollywood ending?

A tourist poses with the imprints of Julie Andrews at the entrance to Grauman's Chinese Theatre.


If you go...

Eating and drinking
-- Frolic Room: One of L.A.'s most notable watering holes, famous for its Al Hirschfeld mural and laid-back ambience. It's said to have one of the best jukeboxes in the world. At 6245 Hollywood Blvd.
-- Pig and Whistle: This English pub and restaurant was popular in the '20s but shut its doors and became a bargain clothing store in the '50s. In 2001 it was brought back to life by a couple of restaurateurs. When construction workers tore away the old ceiling, they discovered a perfectly preserved and elaborate wood-carved ceiling underneath, circa 1927. At 6714 Hollywood Blvd.

-- Yamashiro: Built in 1914, this Japanese restaurant nestled in the Hollywood Hills boasts excellent cuisine and a breathtaking view of the city. At 1999 Sycamore Ave.

-- Upper end: Roosevelt Hotel at 7000 Hollywood Blvd. Costs $155 per night for a premium tower room. A single petite can be had for $109, for one double bed that sleeps one adult. Call 323-466-7000.
-- Middle: Hollywood Celebrity Hotel at 1775 Orchid Ave. Costs $74 per night for a standard room. Call 323-850-6464.

-- Lower middle: The Highland Gardens Hotel at 7047 Franklin Ave. Costs $66 per night for a standard king. Call 323-850-0536.

-- Budget: Hollywood International Hostel at 6820 Hollywood Blvd. Dorm beds start at $19 per night, or $117 per week. Call 323-463-0797.

Will Kern is an award-winning travel writer, playwright and screenwriter. He has lived across the street from Grauman's Chinese Theatre for two years. His Web site is


Protesters and terror
are a pain for residents

I live on Orange Drive in Hollywood, across the street from the Kodak Theatre, the permanent home of the Academy Awards.

Last year, the streets were blocked off, and the newscasts said the neighborhood was in lockdown. Presidential security. Helicopters filled the air with a relentless thudding noise. TV crews and the LAPD. The extra security was in case of a terrorist attack.

Two blocks away on Sunset Boulevard, there was a massive anti-war rally scheduled to coincide with the telecast.

Earlier, I had walked down to Santa Monica Boulevard to see a friend in a play. I didn't take my car. I didn't want to get caught in traffic. When the play was over, I returned to my neighborhood and found my street was closed at Sunset Boulevard. A police officer told me I would have to wait until the Oscars were over before I could go home.

I didn't believe him and figured I'd try my luck on a side street. This meant winding my way through the anti-war rally.

There were lots of burly cops in riot gear lined up like a big blue wall, thousands of protesters and a lot of shouting. This was no peace-and-love thing. The signs being carried around were all very graphic and scary, pictures of the world blowing up, angry signs with letters dripping blood. Protesters were dragging around mangled and bloody mannequins.

One woman had a sense of humor, a sign that said, "Chirac for President." Lots more were chanting, "Impeach Bush." People drove by honking their horns. One woman drove by in a pickup truck, honking her horn, with a Bush/Cheney sign taped to her door. She didn't look at the protesters, but they sure looked at her, shouting and giving her the finger. It was a very volatile situation.

All I kept thinking was, if there were a terrorist attack, we would all be screwed. It would be pandemonium. Thousands of people running for their lives in no particular direction. And it would be easy, in spite of the presidential security.

The cop who told me my street was closed off was wrong, but I had to walk 10 blocks out of my way to get to my apartment. When I got to my street, a lot of cops were there, just standing around.

Being Hollywood cops, I think they were interested in seeing who was pulling up in the limos, and figured the protesters were far enough away where they didn't have to block access to the general public. I got home without incident, just a case of jangled nerves.

"Chicago" won best picture.


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