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Herculean block party

NEW YORK — Disney accomplished a Herculean feat Saturday, persuading New York, the city that never sleeps, to shut off its lights for the night.

For the premiere of the Mouse House’s latest animated feature, “Hercules,” the company staged an electric light parade along 24 blocks of Fifth Avenue. The scale of the event seemed just as much a celebration of the company’s formidable presence on 42nd Street, where Disney’s retail store is now joined by the New Amsterdam Theater.

The company’s decision two years ago to restore the theater was the catalyst for a flurry of development that has transformed crime-ridden Times Square area to a family-friendly haven. Yet some New Yorkers are uneasy with Disney’s influence, fearing Times Square might eventually grow to resemble one of the Burbank-based company’s theme parks.

Saturday, Disney did show that it could bend the famously ornery Gotham to its will, persuading the city to shut off streetlights along the 1.8- mile parade route, and also managing to coax nearly 5,000 businesses along 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue to dim their shop lights as well. The parade, until recently a regular feature at Disneyland, consists of floats festooned with thousands of light bulbs. For the lights to shine brightly, Disney needed a dark background.

Some 30 Manhattan blocks were closed off, tying traffic in a knot for hours, though the din of honking horns from the thousands of gridlocked motorists was cheerfully muffled by 68 speaker towers playing Disney music. An extra 2,000 police officers were hired to handle the million-plus throng of spectators. Disney paid the city $500,000 to cover the expense.

On the block that houses the New Amsterdam, blue street signs now hang on the signposts that read “The New 42nd Street,” and, indeed, on Saturday the area bore as much resemblance to the old street as the animated “Hercules” does to Homer’s classic. Red carpet blanketed the entire block as celebs arrived for the premiere at the New Amsterdam.

Disney topper Michael Eisner and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were on hand to welcome some 1,800 invited guests. Attendees included Lauren Hutton, Harvey Keitel, Andy Garcia, Barbara Walters and Marilu Henner, as well as a bevy of Olympic athletes who later rode on a float in the parade. Later the carpet was taken up to reveal an enormous “Hercules” golden thunderbolt painted on resurfaced pavement.

Following the premiere, guests sat in bleachers outside the New Amsterdam waiting for the parade to begin, looking out on the recently restored New Victory children’s theater across the street, and next to it Livent Inc.’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts, now being constructed out of two old Broadway theaters. It’s unlikely that either of those projects would have been undertaken without Disney’s investment in the New Amsterdam.

Some New Yorkers, however, were not inclined to celebrate. During the festivities a handful of union members currently on strike against Disney’s ABC gathered to protest outside the premiere.

“I think the mayor gave away the city to Disneyland,” said Tony Capitano, president of Local 16 of the National Assn. of Broadcast Engineers & Technicians.

New York has indeed welcomed Disney with open arms, providing the company with $28 million in low-interest loans for the $34 million New Amsterdam restoration project. The company also staged a large-scale event two years ago with its premiere of “Pocahontas”: in exchange for a hefty donation to the city’s parks fund, Disney was allowed to close off a large portion of Central Park for a day.

But Giuliani defended the city’s support of Disney’s presence in Manhattan, and particularly the parade on Saturday. “You can’t buy publicity like this,” he said.

Following the parade, Disney held a party at the cavernous Chelsea Piers complex, where guests munched on Greek food and played “Hercules”-themed games. Later, on a soundstage beside the Hudson River, Susan Egan performed songs from the movie, followed by the grand finale of a 10-minute fireworks display over the Hudson.

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