Disney trial set on a real Main St.

No room to let: Lawyers and Disney officials attending the shareholders-Ovitz court battle can't stay in town, and meals are driven in.

October 30, 2004|By Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GEORGETOWN, Del. - Michael Ovitz stayed in a hotel with no room service.

High-powered Los Angeles attorneys learned that there are places where "freeway accessibility" means there is one. One and a half hours away.

Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne ate in a restaurant where the salad dressing came in plastic packets and, for a minute or two, no one knew who he was.

Hollywood has come to Georgetown, Del. The suit filed by Walt Disney Co. stockholders trying to recoup $200 million in payments and interest tied to the exit package given to Ovitz after being fired by Disney chief executive Michael D. Eisner in 1996 is finally being heard. It's hard to tell who's the most disoriented - the 5,000 residents of the tranquil Sussex County seat or the West Coast and New York litigants struggling to cope in a town with only one restaurant, no juice bar, no gym and a coffeehouse that closes at 1 p.m.

Delaware, the self-proclaimed First State, has three Electoral College votes, no sales tax and a reputation for very good scrapple. It is also the state in which many Fortune 500 companies, including Disney, choose to incorporate.

If the Disney case had been heard a year ago, testimony would have occurred in Wilmington. But a new Chancery Court building opened on the Georgetown Circle in May and, since William B. Chandler III, chief judge of the state's Court of Chancery, lives nearby, this is where he decided to hold the trial. So lawyers and witnesses on both sides of the Disney debate found themselves two hours from any major airport, walking past half a dozen historic red brick buildings that, with their patriotic bunting and ornate weather vanes, could have been transported directly from Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Inside the courtroom, which is so small there is room for only seven reporters, Ovitz defended his performance during his 15-month tenure as Disney president. Money? Well, money was not the point. "I took a million-dollar salary, which in this country is a lot of money but in the entertainment industry isn't even a base salary. So it wasn't about money; I didn't even think about it."

Outside, local lawyers and their clients scuttled in and out of the family court, men in hunting hats stood smoking outside the county courthouse, Hispanic workers came home from their shift at the local chicken factory and people in the cafe discussed the parking problems of Returns Day, a 200-year-old festival that occurs the Thursday after general elections, the highlight of which is an ox roast.

Various defense lawyers have their lunches brought into offices around town by the Lighthouse, a restaurant from nearby Lewes. "I heard those [defense] lawyers cost too much to take the time to eat like regular folks," sniffed Debi Marker, a waitress at Smith's, the town's lone sit-down restaurant, as she dished out the pork barbecue and crab soup, sweet tea and Parker rolls.

None of the attorneys is staying in Georgetown because there is no place to stay in Georgetown - the only hotel in town is a Comfort Inn out on DuPont Highway. So both teams, representing seven law firms in Los Angeles, New York and Wilmington, and their witnesses are putting up in Rehoboth Beach, 15 miles away. Every day the litigants board minivans supplied by Eagle Limo out of Dover and ride past the oceanside strip, then along the two-lane rural route that leads to Georgetown.

The plaintiffs are at the Boardwalk Plaza, which is the only hotel in Rehoboth with room service, and the defense, along with Dunne and other members of the media, is at the Bellmoor Inn and Spa, a relatively new establishment catering to business trade that, with two outdoor pools, an indoor hot tub and a gym that consists of two treadmills, a recumbent bike and a Nautilus machine, is considered the swankiest place in town.

"It's really lovely here," said Ovitz when he arrived in court for the first time Tuesday. "I spent last night eating at Friendly's and walking through Wal-Mart. The two things the West Coast needs is Friendly's and Steak 'n' Ale, and you can learn everything you need to know about America walking through Wal-Mart."

The Bellmoor has put up other teams for big legal trials but none as high-profile or extensive as the Disney case. Ovitz and some of the defense lawyers stayed on the fourth, or club, floor where there are 12 suites with Jacuzzis, marble showers and private sitting areas.

A few glitches have marred what will be a monthlong stay for some of the lawyers. A local dry cleaner is swimming in court-formal shirts and suits, and some things sent out seem to have disappeared. And there's always the question of where to eat. "The most powerful man in this whole proceeding is our concierge," said Ovitz. "Because he tells us where we should have dinner."

Although the Bellmoor does serve a full breakfast, it has no real kitchen, restaurant or bar; dinners are being catered by a rotating group of local restaurants and served en suite and in the hotel's dining room.

"All the restaurants involved are trying to be very innovative," said Shawn Xiong, owner of Confucius, one of the restaurants doing the catering. "Although I can't imagine what people from Los Angeles are doing here. It's pretty lively in the summer, but now. ... " He gestured toward the window, through which could be seen an empty street and several restaurants closed for the fall and winter.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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