Hollywood strives to recapture its glamour

HOLLYWOOD Boulevard has the unenviable reputation of being the most disappointing tourist spot on the planet.

More than nine million people spill out of coaches each year, hoping to see the landmarks that created the myth of the American film industry in the 1920s and 1930s. What they get instead is a ragtag collection of dilapidated art deco facades, traffic, noise and dirt, tacky restaurants and museums, a sprinkling of vagrants and the hint of the real trades - drugs and prostitution - that have been downtown Hollywood's after-hours mainstay for years.

No wonder the average visitor stays for just 20 minutes - snatching a quick glimpse of Mann's Chinese Theater and the footprints of the stars on the pavement outside before jumping straight back on the coach.

If the Los Angeles city council has its way, though, such evasive action may not be necessary much longer. Hollywood Boulevard is about to turn into a billion-dollar building site, involving renovations, restorations and a vast entertainment complex on a vacant lot behind Mann's Chinese that will include cinemas to host premieres, a recreation of the Babylon set from DW Griffith's silent masterpiece Intolerance, a ballroom, restaurants and open-air cafes, and a permanent theatre in which to stage the annual Academy Awards.

In a part of town that has become a byword for dinginess, the city and the Canadian property developer TrizecHahn held a colourful ground-breaking ceremony for the new complex last week, complete with an all-star line- up, and - a strange sight to behold at breakfast - a fireworks display.

"We're going to put Hollywood back where it belongs, right here on Hollywood Boulevard," announced the impresario and music producer Quincy Jones, sounding as though he were warming up for 2001, the year the Oscars are due to reach their new home.

Beyond the hype, there is good reason to take Jones at his word. Inspired by the example of Times Square in New York, property owners on the Boulevard have formed a Business Improvement District, a scheme whereby they agree to tax themselves for five years to clean up the place and hound out the criminals with private security guards. On top of that, the notoriously bogged-down Los Angeles public transport authority is providing an underground train line that will stop on the corner of Hollywood and Vine on its way from downtown to Burbank.

The redevelopment strategy seems to be working, since a number of film companies have already moved back into the area, including Disney, with its animation centre, cinema and museum in the 1930s El Capitan building.

One note of caution: Hollywood has heard all this before. A decade ago there was a very similar ground-breaking, except that at that time it was scuppered by lawsuits from local property owners. Instead, Los Angeles nosedived into calamities, from recession to riots to the 1994 earthquake, which devastated a number of Hollywood landmarks and forced several theatres to close.

The difference now is that the economy is doing well and the politicians are in rare agreement. Hollywood's councilwoman, Jackie Goldberg, has managed to rally the community to the cause, and the investors are slowly rolling in. In a way, the previous failures laid the groundwork for the current revival, because property prices fell to a point where the project again became attractive.

Indeed, Hollywood appears to be coming full circle from its origins early this century, when film companies preferred it over downtown LA because it was cheaper and had good transport links - by streetcar, in those days - to the city.

One can take heart that Hollywood has resisted the LA trend of demolishing landmark buildings. At one point it looked as though the earthquake-damaged Egyptian Theater might be knocked down, but now it is being fully restored as the new home of the American Cinematheque. It will reopen in December with a 75th anniversary showing of Cecil B DeMille's Ten Commandments. Don't stare too hard, and it could almost feel like magic again.