Biz finding new soul in the heart of Hollywood

HOLLYWOOD — As the Oscars play their last gig at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, construction workers on scaffolding high above Hollywood Boulevard hammer incessantly, sending a cacophonous sound ricocheting off the shells of buildings and onto the Walk of Fame.

They are fashioning Oscar’s new Hollywood home, the 3,300-seat Kodak Theater, part of the $500 million Hollywood & Highland development that’s just one block from the venerable Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Oscar ceremony in 1929.

Meeting place

While showbizzers, business owners and community leaders hope for the best, backers envision a glitzy meeting place that would attract more movie premieres than other parts of town while reversing the neighborhood’s seedy image.

Michael Roth, director of communications for Anschutz Entertainment, which will operate the Kodak Theatre, says that outside of the Oscars, his firm plans to book the venue for 135 playdates, with the kind of high-profile, in-demand shows that occupy Anschutz’s other venues — Staples Center in downtown L.A. and the Great Western Forum close by in Inglewood, Calif.

(Recent concerts booked into Staples by Nederlander include Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey, the Backstreet Boys and Ricky Martin. Elton John and Billy Joel played a joint show at the Forum last month.)

Key component

“This theater is going to be a very important venue for Los Angeles,” Roth says. “The performances are going to be of a level that Los Angeles hasn’t seen for some time.”

“It’s going to be a gorgeous place to do the Oscar show,” says John Pavlik, spokesman for AMPAS, amidst a hectic weekend at the Shrine. “We’re delighted that our committing to do the Academy Awards has helped revitalize Hollywood. We have nothing but high hopes and expectations.”

A mile down the road at the Pantages Theater, Nederlander marketing director for Broadway L.A. Wayne McWorter beams: “The acceptance that this theater is meeting is overwhelming to us.”

Still, there are doubters who see the entire new development complex –TrizecHahn’s Hollywood & Highland — as little more than a homogenous and artificial mall predicated on the dubious premise that Angelenos actually want a place to congregate.

One effect of the construction appears certain: The economic impact of the mammoth entertainment center should be well into the hundreds of millions, lifting the estimated $1.3 billion that roughly 20 million tourists spend per year in Los Angeles to well over $2 billion.

The Hollywood & Highland project is a centerpiece in the re-glitzification of Hollywood, a broad campaign to repolish the Hollywood brand in much the same way the 1990s revitalization of Times Square smoothed Gotham’s rough edges.The plan calls for Hollywood to remake itself in its earlier, more glamorous image, while becoming a safer, cleaner community than it has been over the past decade.

Architect David Rockwell envisions a site that “will embody a space that is sort of mythological.” And planners hope it will be considerably less Disneyfied than Times Square.

Hollywood & Highland is skedded to open its doors in September, with the Kodak Theatre bowing in November. Complex will boast a 640-room Renaissance Hotel, a multiplex, retail shops, restaurants, nightclubs and a 30,000-square-foot ballroom to be operated by Wolfgang Puck — and, of course, the Oscars’ new home.

But the 85-block development zone, stretching from Highland Boulevard to Vine Street along Hollywood Boulevard, and south to Sunset Boulevard, has already undergone a massive face lift: The new area includes nightclubs like the Sunset Room, the Knitting Factory and Blue; the restored Pantages Theatre, where Disney’s “The Lion King” has been playing to packed houses since September; a new subway system, enabling tourists to more easily reach Hollywood; and the revitalized Egyptian Theatre, operated under the auspices of the American Cinematheque.

And Hollywood will continue to remake itself in 2002, with the $100 million expansion of the landmark Cinerama Dome, to include a 12-screen, stadium-seating multiplex and an interactive game facility. Also set to open is live-music venue the Ultra Lounge nightclub, to be housed in the rehabbed Equitable Building on Vine at Hollywood Boulevard, as well as a six-screen Laemmle Theater up the street.

Still, with only one year to go until the Academy Awards return to the heart of Hollywood after a 42-year absence, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will all the hammering be worth the headache?

Photographers, among others, are already grumbling about traffic nightmares and crowds so dense that quality celeb shots will be impossible to snap.

Construction on Hollywood Boulevard, particularly the city’s gargantuan task of building a subway system, appears to have caused nothing but trouble for shop owners. “For a while there, it looked like the city was deliberately trying to run the neighborhood down,” says one merchant.

Some stores were forced out of business due to the construction. Those that have survived say profits are way down, while rental prices are skyrocketing.

But others see the glimmer of a new beginning.

“I think Hollywood only has one direction to go in — up!” says Mitch Seigel, whose family, for 28 years, has owned and operated Book City, one of Hollywood Boulevard’s last book stores, located about 10 blocks east of the Hollywood & Highland complex.

Seigel recalls that just a few years ago, drugs and prostitution had plagued the neighborhood. He says things are already looking up, despite the fact that he’s been forced to vacate his store by the CIM Group, a developer with plans to turn his Hollywood Boulevard block into retail shops and movie theaters.

“This past Saturday, I saw a lot of foot traffic,” says Seigel, who in the booming 1970s and 1980s owned one of 25-30 neighborhood bookstores. “It was encouraging, but it’s going to take time. It’s certainly not going to happen overnight.”

Like many other store owners, Seigel hopes to rent space in the Hollywood & Highland complex, where tourists are expected to flock.California State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who as a city councilwoman had been involved at the start of the broad Hollywood revitalization project, sees the trend toward improvement as irreversible, though hardly complete. “Are we there yet? No,” she says. “Have we taken a gigantic leap? You bet we have.”

Goldberg adds that the biggest challenges the community faces are developing smaller projects to fill in the gaps between Hollywood Boulevard’s two glitzy end posts — Highland, where the Mann Chinese Theater and the new Kodak sit, and Vine, home of the Pantages and the soon-to-be rehabbed Equitable Building.

Still, all eyes are now on the new Oscar house springing forth out of the scaffolding. It is here, near the site of the first Oscar ceremony, that Hollywood can rediscover its most glamorous roots, and even out down new ones.

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