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Producers of motion pictures began migrating to Hollywood from the East Coast around 1910. They sought to escape the restrictions imposed by the tyrannical trust in New Jersey that controlled Thomas Edison’s patents on movie cameras. Hollywood also offered reliable strong sunshine to expose primitive “slow” film through studio skylights, as well as proximity to diverse settings for location shooting. The arrival of the movie industry coincided with the end of Hollywood’s seven-year existence as an incorporated city. Like nine other cities and dozens of unincorporated towns in the semi-arid Los Angeles Basin, Hollywood voted to let Los Angeles “annex” it as the price of access to the city’s exclusive Eastern Sierra water supply.
Once established in Hollywood, the movie studios’ publicity departments spun myths and fantasies as prolifically as their film production units. “Hollywood” became a brand name recognized around the world as synonymous with the glamor of movies and their stars. With the addition of radio production and later television, Hollywood’s promoters could rightfully proclaim their district the “Entertainment Capital of the World.”
In the 1960s, the movie and broadcast studios began a mass exodus from Hollywood to other parts of Southern California, where land for expansion was more readily available. But they did not abandon their famous brand. The studio might actually be in Culver City or Burbank; and the films might actually be shot in Louisiana, Canada, or other places where low labor costs and government incentives make “runaway production” irresistible to producers. But it’s all still “Hollywood.”
By the 1970s, Hollywood itself had succumbed to urban decay. Then as now, tourists from around the world made pilgrimages to Hollywood Boulevard, the very heart of Tinseltown, to stroll along the Walk of Fame. (The sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street are inlaid with pink stars bearing the names of celebrities, an attraction first unveiled in 1958.) The focal point of the pilgrimage was the storied intersection of “Hollywood and Vine.”
Pilgrims may have expected to bask in the Hollywood glamor, sight some actual movie stars, and just maybe get “discovered.” But instead of glamor they found dilapidated buildings clearly destined for demolition, interspersed with strip clubs and tattoo parlors. They had an excellent chance of being “discovered” by panhandlers, and possibly by muggers.
That began to change in 2001, when Hollywood & Highland Center opened at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. This 36,000-square-meter development includes the Dolby Theatre (called the Kodak Theatre until the Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it’s the current home of the Academy Awards), a hotel, a Metro Rail subway station, and of course a shopping mall.
The core of the complex is a three-story courtyard featuring a recreated set from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic silent film, Intolerance. This was an audacious and ironic choice: Intolerance was the most lavish and expensive film of its time, and its failure at the box office bankrupted Griffith’s studio. The film’s artistic significance wasn’t recognized until much later.
Hollywood & Highland Center indeed turned out to be an Intolerance-scale failure for the center’s original developers. They lost at least $400 million, despite the $90 million contributed by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. But the complex has become a very successful tourist attraction, often credited with catalyzing the current revival of Hollywood Boulevard. The elephant statues in the courtyard add the appropriate mega-dose of kitsch, and the faux-Babylonian archway offers both a frame and a place to view the iconic Hollywood Sign.
Hollywood & Highland Center incorporates another cinematic landmark, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Sid Grauman’s experience as a manager of vaudeville theatres taught him the Cardinal Rule of Show Business, which Stephen Sondheim later codified as “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
The Egyptian Theatre, Grauman’s first Hollywood Boulevard movie palace, exploited the latest “Egyptian Revival” architectural fad. Inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb just before it opened in 1922, Grauman made some quick adjustments to the theatre’s original Spanish Colonial Revival design. Its success led him to build another exotic movie palace across the street, this time with a Chinese theme and an entrance featuring a hallucinated Hollywooden version of a pagoda.
When Grauman accidentally stepped in wet cement in the theatre’s courtyard during construction, he got an idea for a publicity stunt that would give the Chinese Theatre its unique claim to fame. At the ceremony that opened the theatre on 18 May 1927, Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks put their footprints and signatures in wet cement, beginning a continuing tradition.
Since that opening night, more than 200 celebrities have put their feet, hands, or occasionally other things— Jimmy Durante’s nose, Betty Grable’s legs, and Groucho Marx’s cigar— into cement. Most of them are movie stars, but there are a few exceptions. Those include industry luminaries (directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; and Sid Grauman himself, who personally managed the theatre until he died in 1950); the horses of western stars Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers; and even some non-human characters (Herbie the “Love Bug” Volkswagen, and C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars).
The courtyard continues to accumulate celebrity footprints. When I visited Grauman’s Chinese in April 2011, the latest set— those of British stage and screen actor Peter O’Toole— had just been placed on a red carpet to dry.
A redevelopment project in 2006 accelerated the transformation of Hollywood Boulevard into a theme-park mall dedicated to Hollywood’s glamorous years. Developers added palm trees, and installed markers in front of restored historical buildings to describe their history and the celebrities associated with them. Some of the buildings have been converted to condominiums and loft apartments to encourage gentrification.
Visitors who throng the revamped Walk of Fame on a sunny summer or weekend day need no longer fear muggers. But they might be repeatedly accosted by hucksters hawking tours that drive by the (former) homes of (long-deceased) movie stars. Reminders of Hollywood’s more recent un-glamorous years remain in a collection of tattoo parlors. Visitors specifically seeking un-gentrified seediness can easily find it by taking a short walk on any of the streets that intersect Hollywood Boulevard.
(A notable exception worth a side trip is Crossroads of the World, a restored 1936 office complex that was originally an outdoor shopping mall with an “international” theme. From Hollywood & Highland Center, walk two blocks south on Highland to Sunset. Then turn left and walk two blocks, until you see a white Art Deco tower with a rotating globe on top. It’s a hidden gem not usually mentioned in guidebooks, and a nice break from Hollywood Boulevard’s crowds and bombast.)
The Hollywood Pacific Theatre opened in 1928 as the Warner Brothers Hollywood Theatre. In the visual language of the 1920s, the ornate beaux arts architecture announced “opulent elegance.” It was one of the first cinemas specifically built for showing sound films. It also housed the studio, transmitter, and twin antenna towers of Warner’s radio station KFWB. The station (which still broadcasts in Los Angeles) has been sold and relocated several times; but the towers remain as a kind of billboard, festooned with letters originally spelling WARNERS.
Warner sold the building to Pacific Theatres, a local cinema chain, in 1968. Pacific reversed the letters on the towers and painted PACIFIC on them. The original WARNERS letters still face the inside of the towers. The theatre showed movies until 1994, when the combined damage from subway construction and the Northridge earthquake required its closure. The building is currently rented to a church.
The intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street was the epicenter of glamorous Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. Radio announcers would begin programs with “coming to you from Hollywood and Vine,” and it was a frequent dateline for newspaper gossip columns.
The iconic symbol of this fabled intersection is the Capitol Records Building, although it wasn’t built until 1956. Anyone born before the Digital Age can’t miss the resemblance to a stack of records on a spindle protruding from the roof. But in fact, the conservative president of Capitol Records was adamantly opposed to the 1950s “functional architecture” fad, in which buildings fancifully reflected their owners’ businesses. He specifically told architect Welton Becket that the new building must not suggest anything like records or a jukebox.
When Becket assigned the project to Lou Naidorf, a young associate in his firm, Becket did not reveal the client’s identity or the building’s purpose. Naidorf thus designed the world’s first cylindrical office building strictly to make optimal use of a small lot. A range of artists have made notable recordings in the building’s studios, including Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, and the Beach Boys. Anyone with enough money can rent a studio, but otherwise the building is closed to the public because of “heightened security.”
Also at this intersection is the Art Deco Pantages Theatre. The last theatre built by Alexander Pantages for his once-thriving vaudeville “circuit” of theatres around the country, it opened in 1930. It’s the main Los Angeles venue for touring productions of big Broadway musicals.
The Los Angeles City Council designated the intersection “Bob Hope Square” in 2003 in honor of the entertainer’s 100th birthday, although everyone still calls it Hollywood and Vine. Whatever the name, ambitious developers apparently believe it retains enough faded glamor to support a retail and entertainment complex that will rival the one at Hollywood and Highland. The boutique W Hotel, with adjoining condominiums, opened in 2010. It’s next to the Hollywood/Vine subway station, which features a ceiling covered with film reels.
Hollywood Boulevard is one of the few tourist attractions in Los Angeles that’s most conveniently reached by mass transit. The Metro Rail Red Line subway lets you avoid the traffic and parking hassles of what might be Los Angeles’ most popular visitor destination. You can begin a morning or afternoon of Hollywood Glamor by riding the Red Line from Union Station, a hub for buses from around Southern California (and a landmark worth a visit). Get off at the Hollywood/Highland Station, and then take your time strolling east for a kilometer and a half to the Hollywood/Vine station. You might also stop at one of those stations on the way to the Universal Studios theme park, at the western end of the Red Line.