Some Hollywood Stars Are Fading Away
Famous five-starred streetlights are being replaced with a vintage style as area's revamp continues.
By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer
September 8, 2005
Hollywood Boulevard, that aging starlet, is getting another face-lift. And right now, they're doing the eyes.
Workers are busily pulling down the distinctive boxy street lamps adorned with five stars that have welcomed visitors to the boulevard since the 1960s.
Sure, the lamps are famous enough to have adorned postcards. But to many in Hollywood, they are just an unpleasant reminder of Hollywood Boulevard's sad old days of decline.
In their place are rising faux historic street lamps modeled to look like the ones that lined the street during its heyday in the 1930s.
Which is another way of saying, "Let's forget about the unfortunate '80s."
Twenty years after the Community Redevelopment Agency and other city entities began to clean up the boulevard, Hollywood is the closest it has been in decades to freeing itself of its seedy side.
Today, tourists swarm the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, snapping pictures with Star Wars characters in front of the multistory mall, drinking ice cream floats at the Disney-owned soda fountain or catching a film at the Disney-owned El Capitan theater. Even the Roosevelt Hotel has reinvented itself into a hipper-than-thou hangout, where fashionistas and paparazzi drool over the prospect of entering the hallowed grounds of the poolside Tropicana Bar.
There has been much debate over the years over whether the city's extensive and expensive efforts to revitalize Hollywood Boulevard have worked — and to what degree the city's efforts are responsible for the current boom. The redevelopment agency has spent $120 million in Hollywood since 1986, including $90 million in subsidies just for the Hollywood/Highland complex and millions more for an earlier boulevard face-lift that involved adding statues and spotlights on the street. (The five-star lights were the product of an even earlier redevelopment effort, in the late 1960s.)
The latest effort is comparatively cheap: about $1 million to renovate 154 street lamps. But backers say it's an important move.
"The streetlights are another piece of the puzzle," said Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "They symbolize the coming together of the city and the businesses to restore the ambience of the neighborhood. You have to start somewhere."
The outgoing five-star lamps may be recognizable the world over during broadcasts of the Hollywood Christmas Parade. But they had also become a headache to the city and organizers of that event.
The wiring was deteriorating, shutting off some of the Christmas lights, connected to the streetlights' wiring, during the parade. The wattage was not bright enough to illuminate both the street and the sidewalk, especially on a misty day. And those red stars on the sides of the lamps? Those were supposed to light up.
The new lamps have teardrop heads on two arms at the top, giving them a similar look to the vintage lights that line the Miracle Mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard. But these lamps also have a third arm hanging over the sidewalk.
"The new lights will help pedestrian traffic," Gubler said. "We want people to feel safe."
They're already paying dividends for Saeid Askari, manager of Hollywood Tourist Gifts, across the street from the Hollywood & Highland Center.
"It's brighter and it looks better," said Askari, 28. "There used to be a lot of drug dealers outside."
Two years ago, he said, someone tried to hold up his store, a high-ceilinged space draped with posters of movie stars and stocked with Academy Award replica statues, refrigerator magnets and Hollywood T-shirts. The would-be burglar didn't get away with any money, but he broke the cashier's hand while lunging for the cash register, Askari said.
"We can close at 1 or 2 in the morning now because people feel more safe," Askari said.
Ruben Bailon, a liberally pierced tattoo artist who runs a parlor near Hollywood and Vine, touts the new lights with the conviction of a Chamber of Commerce official.
"I'm behind anything that will help Hollywood become more positive and get rid of the filth," said Bailon, 31. "Without being tacky, they should give this town a sense of age again."
The lamps have even won over some longtime Hollywood stalwarts who are not completely happy with the district's sparkling new look.
"I think they fit the Hollywood look better," said Gita Bull, an afternoon-shift bartender at the ageless Frolic Room next to the Pantages Theatre. "I mean, I don't sit outside looking at the lights all day, but I like them better."
Ask her about Hollywood/Highland — the mega-development of restaurants, shops and an auditorium that plays host to the Academy Awards as well as concerts — and her face contorts in disgust.
"I don't even go down there," Bull said. "The only attraction is Sephora [a cosmetics shop], because I'm a girl. But it's so tourist-oriented. We need it, but how about the locals?"
Gubler appreciates Disney's investment on the boulevard and said it would not result in a so-called Disneyfication of Hollywood, as some New Yorkers have charged Times Square of undergoing.
"It's in no one's interest to push out the things that make Hollywood unique and edgy," Gubler said. "The intention is not to turn the whole thing into Disneyland. The nightlife is a major attraction. The sex shops I'd rather see elsewhere; I think most businesses would."
Hollywood Boulevard was developed as the Los Angeles area pushed west out of downtown. During the 1920s and '30s, it was considered one of the region's most fashionable districts, home to various boutiques and a slate of department stores.
But after World War II, the boulevard began a gradual decline. By the 1970s, it was known much more as a tourist trap — and a slightly seedy one at that — rather than an upscale shopping area. Crime rose. In 1994 another slap in the face came when subway construction caused the sidewalk to buckle and sink, forcing workers to remove 27 Walk of Fame stars from the terrazzo.
Hollywood's turnaround began later that decade as trendy bars and restaurants opened along Hollywood and Sunset boulevards. Large developments such as the ArcLight theater complex and Hollywood/Highland followed.
It feels safer now, Bull admits, while adding that the sense of danger in 1980s Hollywood was overblown. "You just had to be cautious and not walk on your own at 3 a.m.," she said.
Hollywood historian Robert Nudelman cannot count how many times Hollywood has undergone a face-lift. This time, he says, they've gotten it right with the lights.
"A lot of the time it was basic maintenance that was needed rather than more froufrou" street renovations, said Nudelman, director for preservation issues at Hollywood Heritage. "Then they'd find there was no money to maintain the changes. So then the new things become part of the problem, like the old lights were. The new lights solve that problem because they're brighter and cheaper to maintain."
Nudelman called the old five-star lights "cheesy" and said the new ones adhered to other historical renovations such as the El Capitan and the Hillview Apartments, which were set ablaze in 2002 and have been restored in all their pink glory as in the 1920s, when they were home to silent film stars of the day.
But he's not so kind when it comes to Hollywood's modern updates, such as the Hollywood & Highland Center or many of the bars and clubs.
"They look like boxes with holes punched in them," said Nudelman, 49. "You can't build anything without billboards."
The thriving nightlife only means that life in the daytime is dormant, he said.
And for the resident of Whitley Avenue off Hollywood Boulevard, weekends can be unbearable.
"There's never any parking," he said. "And at 2 a.m., you get the first wave of yelling and screaming, bottles smashing and cars screeching. You talk about the edgy part of Hollywood — try sleeping at night."
The noise may only get worse as redevelopment continues.
There is a $325-million plan to revamp Hollywood and Vine with a hotel, retail shops and condominiums. The historical facades will be preserved on some buildings, while the others will receive a modern makeover.
For those worried that the face-lift will scar the neighborhood's history, Hollywood's honorary mayor, Johnny Grant, points out that touch-up work can always be done.
"The lights aren't historic," Grant said, "but they look it."