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Writer’s block pales next to earthquake-proofing

NEXT TO HAVING A SCREENPLAY REJECTED by a 24-year-old production executive, nothing irks writers more than noise.

Let’s face it, most scribes working at home have a hard enough time churning out pages under the best of circumstances. But throw in the slightest disturbance–a screaming baby, a nagging spouse, random gunshots–and suddenly the concentration goes, the palms get sweaty and a bad case of writer’s block takes hold.

That’s probably why the Writers & Artists Building, located on the choicest, most expensive and exclusive corner of Beverly Hills– Rodeo Drive and Little Santa Monica Boulevard–has seemed like an oasis to those lucky enough to secure an office there.

Some of the more notable tenants who have toiled away over the years are Will Rogers, Billy Wilder, Jack Nicholson and Ray Bradbury. Fittingly, Dan Petrie Jr. wrote “Beverly Hills Cop” in an office on the third floor.

And, thanks to the generosity of the building’s present owner, tenants of this place pay a staggeringly low rent–$ 165 a month–on a street where they are normally sky-high. That probably explains why there’s a seven-year waiting list to get an office here. And added to the bargain is that these lucky writers get to work in peace and quiet.

Until now, that is.

Built in 1926, the three-story, tan-colored structure–the oldest in Beverly Hills–is currently undergoing what owner Hank Fenenbock Jr. refers to as “seismic reinforcement.”

Hey, even Beverly Hills, contrary to what a lot of people believe, is not safe from earthquakes.

What that means is that the decades-old masonry walls of the Writers & Artists Building are being anchored to the floors of each of the 30 offices, making life temporarily miserable for the writers. It’s as if a stake has been driven through the heart of this sleepy little building.

“We’re doing it because it’s the law in Beverly Hills,” says Fenenbock, who took over running the building following the death of his father, Henry Sr., in 1981. It was the elder Fenenbock who bought the building in the late ’50s and began renting the offices out to writers at bargain-basement rates. “And we also think it’s a good idea to make this place safer.”

So while in the long run this may be good for the writers who bang away on their word processors day after day, right now they’re not too thrilled with the level of noise, which sometimes rivals that of a war zone.

WE’RE SORT OF SURVIVING,” admits longtime tenant and screenwriter John Riley over the din of several jackhammers drilling loudly above him. “We’re coping as well as we can. It’s driving us a little nuts.”

Ironically, a movie that Riley co-wrote called “The Tower” will soon be shown on the Fox Network. It’s about a homicidal high-rise that comes to life, wreaking havoc on its tenants–probably nothing compared to what’s going on around here.

One magazine writer arrived at her office after lunch one day to find a 2 -foot-wide hole in her ceiling, the result of an overzealous construction worker who had fallen partway through the third-story floorboards.

This might be a mixed blessing, however, considering that most writers will look for any excuse not to write.

You can almost hear her telling her editor, “Sorry, I can’t write today. There’s a construction worker dangling from my ceiling.”

And then there’s agent Ken Sherman, one of the few non-writers, who says, “This is like living through an earthquake. A rumbling starts and suddenly you feel like a jackhammer is coming in behind your head.”

Maybe this would be a good time for Sherman to merge with William Morris or ICM, as a lot of other people in this town have been doing lately. ICM and Morris might have their fill of screaming agents, but at least there are no jackhammers or power tools, unless you consider Jeff Berg’s speed dialer a power tool.

Others, though, like author and screenwriter Delia Ephron, seem to be taking the whole thing in stride.

“The truth about Beverly Hills is that it’s in a constant state of self-improvement, and we’re just part of that,” says Ephron, who notes that the parking meters in Beverly Hills have now gotten so expensive, the city has installed nearby change machines. “We’re just keeping up with the rest of the city.”

The big question remains, however, as to how many scripts and novels will be lost during the building’s renovation? Fenenbock says that while the anticipated repairs will take another five months, each writer will be displaced only about a week.

KNOWING THE WORK HABITS OF MOST writers, that works out to about three lines of dialogue, one paragraph of description or a nasty letter to an agent wondering why he never returns phone calls.

“There will be some noise, there will be some dust and there will be some aggravation,” Fenenbock admits, “but in the long run, we’re going to have a safer building.”

“We’re grateful,” Riley says, adding, “This is going to put me out of here for several days and cause a certain amount of havoc on the computers.”

And just where is everybody planning on going while the construction workers take over their offices? Where else? The very place they’ve been trying to escape all these years: “Home,” a TV writer says, looking rather forlorn at the prosepct.

Even with the earthquake-proofing, however, John Riley isn’t taking any chances. He proudly points to the middle of his office, where there sits a massive desk that once belonged to legendary producer Irving Thalberg. Riley plans to dive under it when the Big One arrives.

“I can save myself from the ceiling falling in on me,” he insists. What Riley doesn’t realize is that when the Big One finally does hit, the floor will probably go and he’ll ride down two stories with the desk on top of him.

And that really is almost as bad as having a 24-year-old production executive turn down your script.

Almost, but not quite.

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