Staging a comeback

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In his cluttered penthouse 10 stories above "the Entertainment Capital of the World," Gary Berwin is talking about glamour and Hollywood. Specifically, about how to put some of the former back into the latter.

You could say this self-made millionaire developer is in a position to know what he's talking about -- in more ways than one.

After all, this office where he now plans bold new projects was once the private hideaway of such legendary Hollywood figures as Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Walt Disney.

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Like a growing number of other community supporters, Mr. Berwin doesn't just talk enthusiastically about restoring Hollywood: He means business.

Over the past 18 months, Berwin has invested about $11 million in renovating his building -- the old Hollywood Athletic Club, which in its heyday as "the" club in town reportedly boasted a membership of celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx to Rudolph Valentino and Spencer Tracy.

More recently, in the 1960s and '70s, the building reflected the hard times that had fallen on this community. The 55-year-old landmark was a prime example of Hollywood shabbiness and a likely candidate for the wrecker's ball.

Now it is being transformed into a luxurious office complex for the entertainment industry. Already, office space in it is virtually booked -- filled with entertainment-related businesses that left Beverly Hills and Century City to come back home to Hollywood.

On the ground floor, where the old gym used to be, an exclusive supper club -- expected to attract "superstar" talents -- is being built. Around the pool where stars once swam, Berwin is planning his piece de resistance: a private club, to be "the most expensive club in the world," catering only to a foreign clientele.

The revival of the athletic club is symbol of the gradual reversal of decay and the revitalization of a community that the world has accorded almost legendary status.

"Clearly, Hollywood has turned around. We're all aware of that," says Dennis Lidtke, a local businessman who donated $28,000 two years ago to restore "D" in the dilapidated "HOLLYWOOD" sign, a landmark standing in the hills above the Hollywood.

"I think Hollywood is in a position to capitalize -- perhaps more than any other community -- on the images of its past to create its future," he says.

Image counts for a lot in this community, the spawning ground of an industry that knows what image is all about -- an area of Los Angeles that still attracts some 3 million tourists from around the world each year.

Granted, most community activists say, that image is often based more in movie fantasy than in fact. "The image thing has always been overblown," says Los Angeles city councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, who represents the Hollywood area and had played a major part in its turnaround. Even when I was a little girl, it was overblown. There's not a thing at Hollywood and Vine except a little sign."

Still, it is an image that persists -- the association of Hollywood with glamour, movie stars, lavish parties, and overnight fame and fortune.

Over the last two decades, that image -- and Hollywood itself -- suffered. Major movie studios pulled up their roots and set up shop in other towns. X- rated movie houses and pornography shops flourished along Hollywood Boulevard, as did prostitution and massage parlors. And, high above it all in the nearby hills, the HOLLYWOOD sign crumbled -- a symbol of the decay below.

Although the picture today is still not rosy, it is far from the grim portrait of urban decay evident here just a few years ago.

Renovation and new building projects in the millions of dollars are being planned. Office space is at a premium. A thriving theater district is toting up record box office receipts. A movie industry institutions like the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Filmex) and the American Film Institute are moving back to town.

The reason for the turnaround, many community supporters agree, is Hollywood itself. Legend, nostalgai, and a surge of interest in maintaining Hollywood's unique movie history are working in the town's favor, they say.

Although the current revival began attracting notice only in the last year or two, Mrs. Stevenson succeeded in pushing an ordinance through the city council which allowed for a crackdown on a burgeoning number of massage parlors.

"That really was the turning point," she says. "People were picketing in the streets, marching up and down in front of the parlors. They were finally beginning to care."

"There's an awakened consciousness that Hollywood is important. It belongs to the world," she says. "And we have to take care of it."

Further political pressure, this time on the police department, triggered arrests of hundreds of prostitutes and has resulted in an ongoing policing of the area -- somewhat to the dismay of the surrounding communities to which the prostitutes fled.

The arduous yet ultimately successful campaign to save the symbolic Hollywood sign back in 1978 and '79 became a battle that made national news and galvanized further interest in the community.

"I figured that if we couldn't at least save that," Mr. Lidtke recalls, "then I didn't think we had any hope of turning the community around."

Despite these successes, however, problems still abound. High interest rates on loans, for example, have put a temporary damper on many projects. Pornography persists. Runaway teen-agers continue to seek out Hollywood, and many get involved in prostitution. What community revitalization there has been generally marks a turning point, not a boom.

But activists say that finally Hollywood also has something it lacked during its long years of neglect -- community interest. Today, neighborhood groups are becoming increasingly active and local citizens and businessmen are playing a major role in drawing up a plan for the revitalization of Hollywood's commercial core.

A historic-preservation group, Hollywood Heritage -- the first such preservation society to be formed here -- has begun picking out historic buildings for renewal. Preservation of landmarks, like the 1913 movie studio where Cecil B. De Mille worked on Hollywood's first feature-length film, has been the object of community fund-raising efforts.

Along "the Boulevard," cheap faades covering architecturally significant buildings are beginning to come down. Local businessmen have joined to form a Bank of Hollywood, to help supply loans to refurbish the community.

In addition to the Berwin entertainment complex (the old athletic club), several other major projects involving new building or renovation are completed or in the planning stages. One such project is the Crossroads of the World, a posh shopping complex that had fallen into disuse. Now used for offices, the project has been completely restored in its original form -- that of a large boat, with a revolving globe sitting atop its "mast."

Businessman Lidtke, a Hollywood resident for the past 23 years, is in the midst of a $6 million renovation of the old Hollywood Palace into a major television production transmission center. And on the drawing boards -- although temporarily set back by financial snags -- is a $300 million redevelopment project slated to become a regional entertainment and retail shopping center.

"We've got a long way to go," Mrs. Stevenson sums up. "But the toughest thing is to take the first step. We've taken it, and then it just takes time."

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