`Oscar-land' has changed

Complex: Glamorous and artificial, the new home of the ceremonies fits perfectly.

March 23, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

HOLLYWOOD - It's got glamour. It's got kitsch. It's got natural beauty, and it's got ostentation. It's got substance, but it's all a facade.

It's so Hollywood, it's great.

Oscar's news digs, a $615 million shopping and entertainment complex and 3,100-seat theater at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, is everything its developers promised - and maybe a bit more.

With its upscale shops and restaurants, it's a promise of what this fabled section of Los Angeles would like to become, a place where fantasies can be indulged and maybe dreams can come true.

But it's also a place where, within a few blocks, there are tattoo parlors and adult bookstores and cheap pizza joints and places where you can buy T-shirts, three for $10. Hollywood Boulevard may be storied, but for years, its appeal has been all reputation; only recently has the star quality for which it became famous started to return.

So sure, it's a study in contradictions. And yes, it's gaudy; the decor of the shopping complex was inspired by the massive Egyptian-inspired sets that D.W. Griffith designed for his 1917 film, Intolerance. Understatement is not a word one often hears around here.

But it's a lot of fun walking around it, and it's one of the few places where Hollywood even acknowledges, much less celebrates, its history. It's going to look great on TV, and many people here seem to love it.

"The complex is great, really cool," says Jeff Steele, a filmmaker who's lived in L.A. for 25 years, as he squeezes his camera between rows of scaffolding in hopes for a better shot of the preparations for tomorrow's ceremony. "This used to be a real dark area, but they've really revitalized it."

Sid Limitz, who visits every year from Boston just to photograph the celebrations surrounding the Academy Awards, was even more effusive. "I took a taxi in, and here I am in Oscar-land," he says with a big smile.

At the center is the Kodak Theatre, which will serve as host for tomorrow night's awards ceremony. In so many ways, Oscar and its faithful should feel more at home here than they have at either the Shrine Auditorium or Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, both of which housed the ceremony for much of the past 30 years:

The walkway leading from Hollywood Boulevard to the theater entrance is decorated with the names of every Best Picture winner, from 1927's Wings to last year's Gladiator.

The Kodak is right across the street from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the first awards banquet was held in the Academy Ballroom.

There's plenty for tourists to appreciate: upscale souvenir shops, where you can buy officially licensed Betty Boop shirts for $16; marvelously photogenic views of the Hollywood sign; and right next door is the fabled Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where stars have been leaving their footprints in concrete for nearly eight decades.

Movie fans have greater access to the site than they ever had at the Shrine or Chandler. Granted, tight security tomorrow will keep anyone who isn't supposed to be there from coming within several hundred feet of the theater; even fans who wanted to sit in the bleachers and shout as the stars arrived had to apply for tickets weeks ago and pass a security screening. But until then, it's easy to watch the construction crews, get your picture taken alongside a gigantic plaster Oscar, or even walk on the red carpet the stars will be using.

"They've done just great," effuses Johnny Grant, a former radio personality who, as Hollywood's unofficial mayor, long has been the area's most unflappable promoter. "We're going back to the kind of Hollywood people learned about when they were growing up."

Not everyone is thrilled about the changes, however. Even some Academy members, left ticketless because the new venue is about half the size of the 6,300-seat Shrine, have been grumbling. Traffic in the area, nasty under the best of circumstances, has been especially loathsome the past week due to street closings. And many area vendors complain that the shutdowns have hurt their business.

"The mall's OK, but the Oscars [stink]," says John Cousins (a.k.a. Spike), who works in a tattoo parlor across the street from the complex. "We've been talking to the Chamber of Commerce, trying to find a number to call, so we can be reimbursed for all the lost business."

Cousins said he's made about $30 the past week, down from the $1,000 he'd expect to bring in. And the situation will get worse; the store, like all the others along this section of Hollywood Boulevard, will be closed all day tomorrow.

But Grant is determined that nothing put a damper on Hollywood's big party.

With typical bravado, he promises "this will be Hollywood's most historic ever."

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