Hollywood: The fall and rise of Tinseltown
As Los Angeles celebrates the 85th Academy Awards, Nick Boulos reveals the district's humble history and recent revival
This evening the eyes of the world will turn to a small patch of southern California. The red carpet has been rolled out, the golden statuettes polished and a constellation of stars will parade down Hollywood Boulevard in their finest to mark another year of big-screen bonanzas.
But of all the tales to emerge from this slice of north-west Los Angeles, the greatest is that of Hollywood itself. This bustling collection of skyscrapers, immediately below the Hollywood Hills, occupies 24 square miles sandwiched between Franklin and Melrose Avenues. To many, its name stands for everything embodied by tonight's awards ceremony, but it is only starting to regain its shine again. Once plagued with crime, drugs and prostitution, the district has had a transformation over the past decade, a revival in which it has cleaned up its act.
"The change is extraordinary," says Tony Hoover, founder of Red Line Tours, who has been sharing the secrets of Hollywood for the past 15 years. "Back then, it was infested with gangs and drugs. It was one of the most dangerous parts of LA."
The game-changer was the Hollywood & Highland Center, a glossy Babylonian-style $625m (£404m) shopping and entertainment complex. Also housing the newly renamed Dolby Theatre (it was the Kodak Theatre until the photographic company filed for bankruptcy in 2012) home of the Academy Awards, it opened in 2001 and sparked the start of widespread investment in the area.
In the years that followed, derelict buildings were overhauled into trendy bistros and all-night diners, intimate theatres popped up and landmarks of historical significance were lovingly restored.
"Hollywood was very glamorous in the early days, but it evolved in the 1960s and became quite seedy and tacky," adds Tony as we stroll along a neon-lit stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, passing skateboarders, preachers and Charlie Chaplin impersonators.
We paused outside a café with a red awning at number 6769. The Snow White Café may be unassuming from the outside, but its interior is adorned with vivid murals of the porcelain heroine and her seven chums painted in the 1930s by the original animators. They came here to practise their craft under orders of Walt Disney himself.
Hollywood's story started a century ago when pioneering film-makers relocated from America's east coast. They were lured, in part, by lower taxes, cheaper labour and California's varied and accessible landscapes of sea, mountains and desert. The year-round sunshine helped, too. Back then, Hollywood was little more than poinsettia fields and seemingly infinite orange groves. As the industry started to grow, Hollywood Boulevard – formerly a dirt track known as Prospect Avenue – started to take shape. This slice of history is captured in countless grainy black-and-white photos that hang on the walls of the Hollywood Museum.
Housed in the old Max Factor building (a pink and green Art Deco confection in which Rita Hayworth became a redhead), the museum boasts the most extensive collection of movie memorabilia in the world – everything from Elvis's bathrobe to Superman's cape. This September, a new exhibition opens, focusing on Hollywood's "Blonde Bombshells", with another on Laurel and Hardy planned for next year.
As well as looking to the past, Hollywood is learning to embrace the future. A wave of sophisticated new bars and restaurants includes Sassafras, a new saloon bar that has brought a taste of the Deep South to Los Angeles. Sassafras's centrepiece is the façade of a reconstructed turn-of-the-century townhouse from Georgia. Saved from demolition in Savannah, it was brought to LA and rebuilt piece by piece inside the bar.
Hotels have also had the star treatment. In April, Hollywood will have its Moment – in fact, a 39-room property of that name set to bring design-driven dwellings to Sunset Boulevard. Beyond the modern decor – oversized glass showers and slanted walls with bold splashes of colour – guests will be treated to sweeping views over the Hollywood Hills.
More exciting is the long overdue renaissance of the grand dame of Tinseltown: the Hollywood Roosevelt. Now part of the Thompson hotels stable, the 86-year-old landmark's $15m renovation has had it shake off the tired image that once threatened its legacy. The 300 rooms have been spruced up, with special attention given to the 60 poolside cabanas. (Think hardwood flooring, white marble bathroom and contemporary chaises longues.) Mindful of the heritage that lingers in every nook and cranny, the restoration has been sensitively carried out: the David Hockney-painted swimming pool remains (though the diving board on which Marilyn Monroe once posed has gone), as does the tiled staircase where Shirley Temple learnt to tap dance. Also largely unchanged is the Blossom Ballroom, site of the very first Academy Awards in 1929.
Despite these grand projects, Hollywood is by no means trouble free. The change is slow and ongoing. Some areas – such as North Cahuenga Boulevard after dark – are still best avoided. "Hollywood still has an edge and maybe it always will," said Tony.
Locals are optimistic though. Many are campaigning for a huge urban park to be built in the heart of Hollywood (hollywoodcentralpark.org). If plans go ahead, it will sit atop a roofed section of the 101 Freeway, similar to the High Line in New York. Whether or not it materialises, most remain hopeful that the story of this once blighted neighbourhood will have a fittingly Hollywood ending.
Nick Boulos travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk) which offers three nights in Los Angeles from £839 per person, including return flights from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic, room-only accommodation at the Hollywood Roosevelt and car hire.
Los Angeles is also served from Heathrow by British Airways, United Airlines, American Airlines and Air New Zealand.
Hollywood tours with Red Line Tours (001 323 402 1074; redlinetours.com) start at $15 (£9.30).
The Hollywood Museum, 1660 North Highland Avenue (001 323 464 7770; thehollywoodmuseum.com).
Snow White Café, 6769 Hollywood Boulevard (001 323 465 4444; snowwhitecafe.com).
Sassafras, 1233 Vine Street (001 323 467 2800; sassafrassaloon.com).
The Moment Hotel, 7370 Sunset Boulevard (001 323 391 4808; themomenthotel.com). Doubles from $199 (£124), room only.
Hollywood Roosevelt, 7000 Hollywood Boulevard (001 323 466 7000; thompsonhotels.com). Doubles from $289 (£181), room only.
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