Stardom for the price of a steak

WHAT'S THE price of fame? At Tinseltown Studios, it's an easy question to answer: $44.50 (pounds 28). That's the cost of admission to a novel southern Californian resort that promises to turn everyone who visits into a movie star, at least for a couple of hours.

Walk up to the heavy black gates of the studio - situated just a short drive away from that other land of make-believe, Disneyland - and you will be greeted by paparazzi snapping away as you approach the red-carpeted walkway. A television crew is on hand to interview you about your latest projects and who the co-stars of your next movie will be.

Inside, you are swept into an awards ceremony where, with a little sleight of video technology, you can appear in your very own film clip opposite Henry Fonda or Kevin Costner, be nominated for one of Tinseltown's very own statuettes (the "Oggies") and even give a teary acceptance speech if you are named as the winner.

Dinner is served during the all-singing, all-dancing awards ceremony, in which even the waiters profess their ambition to become a star as big as you.

Harmless fantasy or sign of the times? Tinseltown has been open to the public for just a couple of months and already it is getting packed pretty much every night. Celebrity, it seems, is a compelling draw, even when the stars are fake, the studio is fake, the awards ceremony is fake and even the steak dinner is no better than average. Only the television cameras are real - a sign that, for most people, Hollywood isn't Hollywood without the reassuring artifice of being simultaneously retransmitted on video.

Most of the guests, it seems, are out for a laugh or a birthday celebration. A few arrive in Liz Taylor look-alike outfits, or with outrageous beehive wigs; on one night last week, a gaggle of teenage girls screeched in Beatlemania- style hysteria for half of the show.

But most of them don't seem to have half as much fun as the employees, who get to emulate the cloying style of the real-life Oscars presenters, entertainment journalists and jealous would-be stars. A few of them get to sing and dance, too.

When the pre-show "interviews" are played back during the ceremony, just as they would be on television during the Oscars, there are hoots of mirth from the relatives and friends of the "star" on the video screen.

"I'm talking to the great Glen Peterson," says the breathless would-be television journalist to a balding moustachioed man of a certain age. "Tell me Glen, where did you get that fabulous outfit?"

"The Men's Warehouse," he answers bashfully. The audience erupts in laughter.

The show can seem forced, even idiotic at times, as the staff entertainers trot out every tired cliche about Hollywood superficiality and sing every obvious song from "Hooray for Hollywood" to "That's Entertainment" to the maddeningly ubiquitous theme from Titanic.

Beyond the only-in-California glamour and the obsession with celebrity, the show bears an uncanny resemblance to old beach entertainments in Blackpool - a few silly songs, a few bad jokes, and the chance to have your picture taken in costume. Is this Hollywood redesigned by Butlin's? Or is there a profound statement to be made here about the true nature of the entertainment industry?

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