Facelift for an aging film legend Hollywood: A sense of history prevails in this city of dreams. And above it, the glittering symbol of Tinseltown offers hope for a comeback.

Sun Journal

October 09, 1997|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOLLYWOOD -- If you wander down Hollywood Boulevard, stand on Annette Funicello's star along the Walk of Fame and look left, you see it: the Hollywood sign. Through the smog, the boxy white letters appear on the hillside, a beacon to the dreams below.

As recognizable as the Statue of Liberty, as celebrated as Big Ben, the nameplate epitomizes the glamour and glitz of this town. But the five-story wonder -- now sandwiched between a hotel logo and movie billboard -- has come to represent the myth of Tinseltown. The reality is something else, down-and-out and decaying, a city more noted for tattoo parlors and T-shirt shops than movie-star cachet.

The studios, save for Paramount, moved out long ago, and real life moved in. Heavy metal music blares from an electronic shop. The homeless seek out spare change, and marquees promise "totally nude girls."

For tourists, the disappointment is palpable. At Hollywood and Vine, the once illustrious corner, there's a souvenir shop, credit association, candy store and pizzeria.

Guidebooks note how times have changed.

"Hollywood and Vine is now simply a place to stand in order to be stripped of your illusions -- and possibly your wallet," writes Gil Reavill in "Hollywood and the Best of Los Angeles."

There are echoes of the heady past. Around Mann's Chinese Theater, tourists put their hands and feet in cement prints of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Shirley Temple and Joan Crawford. Many point their cameras toward the sidewalk to photograph the bronze stars that make up the Walk of Fame.

The biggest names haven't always ended up in the best spots. Marilyn Monroe is by McDonald's, Claudette Colbert is in front of a tacky lingerie store and Guy Lombardo is near an occult shop.

But no good Hollywood script would be complete without a comeback, and some predict that here.

Hints of revitalization include new subway construction, a multimillion dollar renovation of the legendary Egyptian Theatre and a planned historical walking tour with signs marking points of interest.

"We still do not have critical mass," says Leron Gubler, executive director of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "But it's like the stars are finally in alignment for Hollywood.

"Tourists come here by the millions -- 9 million a year -- to see the real place. They want to know where the movie stars walked, where they lived, where they dined. There's a sense of history. Probably 80 percent of the buildings are still standing. The challenge is to preserve that sense of place while at the same time adding things that will enhance the tourist experience."

Gubler, who resembles Jerry Mathers of "Leave it to Beaver," has seen improvements -- a reduction in crime, an increase in business -- since taking over years ago.

He points to the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee, still standing after nearly 75 years, as a reminder of what was and still can be.

Built in 1923 as a promotion for a real-estate development, it has survived nearly every imaginable calamity: vandals, graffiti, neglect, community opposition, earthquakes and termites.

And like the community it represents, the sign has adapted to the times. It originally read "Hollywoodland," but "land" was removed in 1949.

By 1978, the symbol -- as with any aging star in this town -- required a facelift, and a massive effort was launched to save it. Benefactors donated thousands of dollars toward the restoration particular letters: Hugh Hefner saved the Y, Alice Cooper donated for an O and Andy Williams the W.

The next year the entire structure was reconstructed with sheet metal and concrete.

The 45-foot-tall sign also has been the site of tragedy. In 1932, stage actress Lillian Millicent Entwistle -- depressed over failing to break into films -- climbed atop the letter H and jumped to her death.

Some have suggested that other despondent starlets followed, although no other names have been released.

Pranksters have made the sign their mouthpiece, altering it to read "Hollyweed," "Hollyweird" and "Ollywood" (for Lt. Col. Oliver North).

In recent years, the Chamber of Commerce and city of Los Angeles, keepers of the sign, have installed tighter security -- including motion detectors, hidden video cameras and lasers -- to deter crime.

Don Selten, a Los Angeles native, recalls when misbehaving by the structure was a rite of passage for California youth.

"I climbed up there with my BB gun and shot the light bulbs," says Selten, 71, a retired restaurateur who lives blocks to the left of the H. As president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners' Association, a community of 550 houses surrounding the tourist attraction, he now protects the interests of those who live in its shadow.

While many in this neighborhood of million-dollar homes are charmed by the mystique of the symbol, they see its presence as a nuisance.

"We suffer the garbage, Coca-Cola cups, cigarettes," Selten says. "On the slowest day, 150 to 350 people stop to take pictures in the middle of the street."

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