Hollywood Boulevard showing signs of improvement

Whenever I see tourists wandering Hollywood Boulevard, I feel like stopping them to apologize.

I know they’re on a mission of innocence: They’re looking for Hollywood. When they go to New York they visit Rockefeller Center or Times Square, so when they want to discover L.A. they head for the famous boulevard.

And no one warned them it would be a bummer.

Here’s the news, however: Hollywood Boulevard lately is showing distinct signs of becoming something other than a civic embarrassment. Sure, the freaks still line up to exploit the photo-hungry tourists from Topeka, but many of the visitors are actually there to buy movie tickets or drop by Madame Tussauds or eat at the Hollywood & Highland mall or, most relevant, to see the new Cirque du Soleil show at the Kodak. And there’s an energy in the crowd — even a sense of celebration.

There’s no doubt about it — the Cirque’s “Iris” is the key to the transformation. The Day of the Locust is becoming an evening at the circus.

Still, a tradition of oddity pervades the ‘hood. Only in 1920s Hollywood would promoters decide to call their new movie palace the Chinese after having built a theater called the Egyptian, which itself started with a Hispanic theme.

Folks at the time assumed that the palace down the street, the Pantages, was also named for a country, only to learn that its promoter was a man named Alexander Pantages, who was arrested for rape before the grand opening. And only in Hollywood would a theater forecourt gain fame because a tipsy star (Norma Talmadge) mistakenly took a step into wet concrete. (The Spanish Colonial-themed El Capitan opened in 1926 to showcase live plays, but it is now operated by Disney.)

The reinvention of the boulevard has been a bumpy ride over the years. Grauman’s Chinese was acquired in 1973 by an overextended exhibitor named Ted Mann, who promptly renamed it Mann’s Chinese. But the chain went into bankruptcy and the new owners (Paramount and Warner Bros.) then renamed it Grauman’s. The high-rise Hollywood & Highland mall opened right after 9/11 and was something of a debacle (it’s healthy now). The Kodak, named for a company that last week denounced rumors of possible bankruptcy, was embraced by a long-term Oscar deal but then started losing major events to the Nokia downtown. It now proudly houses the Cirque.

Hollywood’s problem has always been that the Boulevard, like Los Angeles itself, is a sprawl in search of an idea. On those occasions when the boulevard is shut down for a big event, like the Oscars, the neighborhood takes on a new life. An argument could be made that traffic should be shut down all the time, using the Times Square model — the folks arrayed in the Broadway bleachers seem to be having a permanent party.

While Times Square capitalizes on Shubert Alley and the aura of the theater, Hollywood Boulevard’s mystique clearly stems from the movies. The Chinese opened in 1927 with a Cecil B. DeMille premiere (“The King of Kings”) and premieres are still its trademark. When Paramount and Warner Bros. sold the theater recently to Elie Samaha and Don Kushner, there were worries about its future.

Samaha, however, insists big plans lie ahead. Some $2 million is being spent to embellish the big theater and enhance the footprint area. A big party space upstairs called the Grauman Ballroom (after founder Sid Grauman) will seek to attract post-premiere events. There will be a new Red Carpet Cafe and perhaps a club to complement the other screens of the complex. There will be a major pitch to festivals like the AFI.

“We have 15,000 to 20,000 people coming through this area on a summer’s weekend and we should have a free movie to show them and entertain them,” says Samaha, a producer and real estate developer.

With this in mind, Samaha and Kushner plan to create a vivid new documentary dramatizing the history of cinema, which may play on a new Imax screen upstairs from the Chinese. The Cinematheque has been running a similarly-themed documentary for the past 10 years at the Egyptian and may participate in the new, greatly enhanced version.

If the new proprietors of the Chinese regard themselves as showmen, they have an extraordinary role model of showmanship next door at the Kodak. The impresarios of Cirque were inspired to model their new show, “Iris” (be careful to use the Quebec pronunciation, as even the ushers do), as a tribute to moviedom just as they attached “Viva Elvis” to Las Vegas.

For the record, the $100 million extravaganza (with a $263 top ticket) is superbly crafted — part movie tribute, part circus. Its efforts at comedy can be creaky but its gifted performers tumble and fly with high energy, even on those many nights when the huge theater is only half full.

Even Cecil B. DeMille would have been proud.

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