New star rises in Hollywood - made of bricks, mortar

A grand theater - at once glitzy and intimate - adds architectural heft to a nondescript district at the heart of America's dream factory.

Hollywood may never become the fabled Emerald City from one of its most famous movies ("Wizard of Oz"), but it's working on it.

The mythic home of America's cinematic dream factory now has an actual, real palace to go along with its crown as the world's entertainment capital.

The centerpiece of an ongoing $1 billion revitalization effort here, the palace should become a household name soon as permanent home to the Oscars.

First Oscarcast: March 2002.

The building's official name is "The Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland."

The appellation doesn't quite ring like the better-known "Hollywood and Vine," just blocks away. That's where Gable and Lombard frequented the legendary Brown Derby, where the headquarters of Capital Records still marks the corner like a giant corncob, and where out-of-towners first head in search of action.

That may change. Hollywood and Highland cross right in the heart of town. The new, giant complex - with adjoining hotel and retail shops - is sure to be a center of attention.

On Oscar night, it will draw the hundreds of star-toting limousines to a far different part of town than the show's previous homes in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, - beneath skyscrapers downtown - or the Shrine Auditorium, on the edge of gang-ridden South Central Los Angeles. Rising next to the well-known Mann Chinese Theater and across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel (site of the first Oscars), the complex is at once welcome and a bit jarring.

Jarring because its oversize angles might fit better in Chicago, City of the Big Shoulders, than this hillside hamlet within flat, sprawling Los Angeles.

But it is welcome in that it gives architectural heft to an otherwise nondescript boulevard only slowly outgrowing its history as a seedy string of strip joints, bars, and bawdy souvenir stands. Maybe the most apt description for the new complex is Cecil B. Demille-esque, true to the legendary director's penchant for grandeur and panorama.

"It looks like a giant movie set," says a woman exiting 'Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum' just across the boulevard. "I keep thinking Cleopatra is going to come down those stairs."

On Oscar night, limos will pull up in front of two giant arches forming an arcade leading into the theater. To the right, a giant staircase ascends several stories to an Egyptian-style facade replete with outsized carvings of kings and animals. Inside, at a recent unveiling, the central theater impressed most viewers as spectacular. With wine-colored walls, cherry-wood bannisters, and a tiara-shaped dome, the space is both cavernous and, because of its height, intimate. Three balconies and 24 boxes keep audiences near the stage.

"What impresses me most is that I can see the eyes of everyone in the audience," said singer Barry Manilow, who was trotted out to belt out piano ballads to show off acoustics.

Although the stage is one of the largest in the country, 113 ft. wide and 60 ft. deep, one stagehand privately complains that it's not big enough to do the kind of set-changing needed for first-rate Oscar performances.

At 3,500 seats, the venue is larger than Dorothy Chandler (2,800) but smaller than the Shrine (6,000). But it has state-of-the-art sound and video facilities, such as special lifts throughout the seating area for cameras, lighting, and performers.

The question for now is how this new complex will be received by the surrounding community as it operates year-round, showing dozens of events from Broadway plays to ballets, operas, and rock events.

And in March, the complex faces its Oscar test.

"This will be an interesting thing to watch. We've never tried to put on a show from a shopping mall before," says John Pavlik, spokesman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He also admits that if it doesn't work out, the Academy has escape clauses that will allow it to move elsewhere.

"We're hoping to be there for 20 years," he says. "We think its going to be cool."

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