The famed street of glamor and glitz fell on hard times in the 1950s and is struggling toward a comeback.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - "It's a pretty weird mix of people," says David Bell, 30, a tattoo artist who works on Hollywood Boulevard. "You can be sitting around in front of the shop and you'll see Al Pacino walk by, and then you'll see three junked-out heroin addicts walk by the other way. It's a lot of fun."
Bell has only been working across the street from the Kodak Theatre for a few months, so he isn't blase about celebrity sightings, unlike most of the people who live and work around here. The famous and infamous show up all the time, usually for some promotional event, so seeing a celeb is no big deal.
For locals, it's much more interesting to check out the neighborhood color. Hollywood Boulevard isfull of strange sights. Of sex shops, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, strip joints, chicken shacks, fleabag motels, banners, billboards and neon lights. Of artists, actors, strippers, prostitutes, skateboarders, goth chicks, punk rockers, toothless crack heads and befuddled tourists.
It is mysterious and alluring, dirty and dangerous, flashy and rusted, ruined and incredibly dark. It is like a decrepit celebrity: bloated, a shadow of its former self, but still demanding attention.
And it's morphing.
A few years ago, Los Angeles and private investors poured about $600-million into fixing up the cross streets of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, building the spiffy Hollywood and Highland Complex.
The site incorporates world-class shopping and dining with Grauman's Chinese Theatre, one of L.A.'s oldest landmarks, and the Kodak Theatre, now the venue for the Academy Awards.
Leron Gubler, 52, president and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, is proud of the complex. "When you get out of your car now," he says, "and you see the flashing lights, the big staircase leading up to Babylon Court, the Kodak Theatre - you know you're in Hollywood."
Thirteen blocks away, at the other end of the strip, is the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. In 2000, the Pantages Theatre, a live theater and concert venue, was refurbished to the tune of $10-million to house Disney's hit Broadway musical, The Lion King.
This area is also being revived, and Gubler is confident the entire, mile-long stretch will be rejuvenated within 10 years. Indeed, the boulevard seems poised to make a comeback.
But there are problems. Big problems.
The strip is overrun with panhandling homeless people, the mentally ill and runaway kids. Many of them have drug problems.
Some have been out here for years. Some look like they're a step from the grave, their skin the color of milk. Some are so caked in dirt it's impossible to tell age or race. Some have to do unspeakable things to survive.
Many of the buildings are dilapidated and have fallen into disrepair. There is a significant amount of Art Deco architecture on the boulevard, and the strip was made a historic district in 1985, but sadly, much of it is crumbling.
The ugliness doesn't exactly make it tourist-friendly. It is common to see red double-decker buses cruising the strip, the top decks packed with sightseers staring out onto this bizarro world, some of their faces registering disappointment. We came all the way here for this?
Hollywood Boulevard used to be the capital of glitz. In the 1920s, the street became famous for its flashy movie premiers. Audiences watched newsreels of Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson and Mary Pickford, the biggest stars of the day, attending gala openings while giant searchlights swiped the sky. Then, the street was glamorous.
The boulevard's opulent movie palaces were part of the razzmatazz, and each has many a claim to fame: The first talking picture, Jolson's The Jazz Singer, premiered at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre. Orson Welles' masterpiece, Citizen Kane, first was shown at El Capitan. And Grauman's Chinese Theatre, home to countless premieres, is where seven decades of screen legends have left their handprints, footprints and signatures in concrete.
But two events in the early 1950s brought a decline in tourism here: The movie studios left for the San Fernando Valley and Culver City, and television began to steal the public's affection from the movie industry.
In an attempt to lure more tourists, local authorities installed the first stars in the Walk of Fame in 1958. Since then, more than 2,400 brass stars, embedded in pink terrazzo and surrounded by charcoal terrazzo squares, have been laid into sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard from Gower to La Brea, and on Vine Street from Sunset to Yucca. The stars honor past and present personalities in movies, TV, radio, theatre and music - only the singing cowboy, Gene Autry, has a star in all five categories.
Museum Row, on the corner of Hollywood and Highland, has something for almost everyone. the Hollywood Wax Museum and the Guinness Book of World Records Museum are kitschy yet hip in their own way; the recently opened Erotic Museum adds to the goofiness.
And the city has its own Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium. Want to see a mural of John Wayne created from colorful laundry lint? Then look for the rooftop with the life-size Tyrannosaurus rex munching happily on a giant neon clock.
Head east from Highland, toward Hollywood and Vine, and the boulevard can become unnerving to explore, especially after dark. Abel Peterson, 54, who makes his living earning tips for polishing the stars on the Walk of Fame, says, "I leave before the sun goes down. Or try to."
"You shouldn't feel safe walking down Hollywood Boulevard at night," says Eric Winzenried, 35, a rock singer who volunteers with the Los Angeles Food Coalition, an organization that feeds the homeless.
"It's full of people that need money for drugs. There are a lot of little dark places around there where people can pop out of nowhere."
While that might be true for weeknights, Friday and Saturday nights are different. The boulevard is hopping, full of weird and wonderful L.A. culture. A private security force called the Green Shirts does an excellent job of patrolling the streets, though it is always a good idea to be watchful.
Police Officer Katherine Massey, 41, who has worked the Hollywood beat for six years, adds this advice: "If you're carrying a purse, don't carry it around your arm, carry it around your shoulder."
Once movie production shifted to the outlying communities in the 1950s, taking the good jobs, upscale businesses and restaurants that catered to a higher-paid clientele did not survive, and economic hard times followed. Then, in the late 1960s, the courts liberalized obscenity laws, and suddenly many ramshackle Hollywood theatres were making big bucks showing XXX fare. With the porno movies came the hookers, with the hookers came the drugs, and Hollywood had gone to seed.
The police vice squads eventually cleaned up the streets, relentlessly busting prostitutes, driving the business underground or, at least, into the escort services. But the boulevard has never fully recovered its luster.
There is some debate as to whether the gentrification that worked about 10 years ago for Times Square in New York can fix Hollywood Boulevard. Its very nature fights against success.
Then there is the stuff of dreaming. Three blocks off the boulevard, at 1738 N Las Palmas Ave., is the Las Palmas Hotel. The Las Palmas is a depressing, shabby $35-a-night dive. It's also a tourist attraction, getting visitors from all over. This is where Julie Roberts supposedly lived and was eventually rescued by Richard Gere in the movie Pretty Woman.
In a town that loves the happily-ever-after, it is uncertain whether the boulevard will it have its own.
- Will Kern is a freelance writer who has lived across the street from Grauman's Chinese Theatre for two years. His Web site is www.willkern.com
If you go
GETTING THERE: To reach Hollywood Boulevard from downtown Los Angeles, take the Hollywood (101) Freeway north to the Hollywood Boulevard exit, then head west (about a mile and a half) to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which will be on your right.
From West Los Angeles, take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Sunset Boulevard exit, and go east on Sunset for about 7 miles to La Brea Avenue. Turn left (north) on La Brea, and go three blocks north to Hollywood Boulevard. Turn right (east) and go three blocks east on Hollywood Boulevard to reach Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Hollywood Boulevard trivia
* The first movie to show at Grauman's Chinese was King of Kings, in 1927. That same year, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were the first stars to leave hand and footprints in the concrete.
* The first Academy Awards ceremony was in the Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., in 1927. In 1932, actor Harry Lee committed suicide by jumping off the hotel's fire escape. It is said the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, among others, roam the hotel's hallways and rooms.
* In 1930, many people reported seeing the ghost of actor Lon Chaney haunting a bench on the northeast corner of Hollywood and Vine. The ghost was seen sporadically over the years, but never reappeared after the bench was replaced in 1942.
* Actor Elizabeth Short was seen at the Four Star Bar & Grill (now a tattoo parlor) at 6818 Hollywood Blvd. on Jan. 10, 1947. Five days later, her body - cleanly sliced in two pieces and also mutilated - was discovered in a vacant lot. This would become one of the most notorious crimes in L.A. history, known as the Black Dahlia murder. It is still unsolved.
* Movie icon James Dean ate his last meal at the Villa Capri restaurant, one block north of the boulevard on Yucca and McCadden, on Sept. 30, 1955. He died in a car accident a few hours later.
* In 1998, action superstar Jackie Chan had his hand and footprints moved from Grauman's to a retirement home he had built in San Francisco. (To find out about upcoming Star Ceremonies, call the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce at (323) 469-8311.)