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Dome of Renown 

Saving circular cinema

Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
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What, after all, do we mean when we say Hollywood? The rest of America speaks of a film capital, a land of cinematic dreams and commercial mythologies, of chancy but infinite opportunity. But we locals know this idealized zone really isn't located anywhere. The real geography of movie and TV studios extends from the San Fernando Valley through the Hollywood district as far as Culver City.

This dispersed presence is what I still think of as Wire Service Hollywood: The news agency for which I once wrote mandated that any Los Angeles County entertainment story be datelined Hollywood.

Then there is that actual Los Angeles district, centered by the double-thoroughfare strip along Sunset and Hollywood boulevards that was once the movie business's own downtown. In the years since, the area's become a redundant, second commercial district for an ever-sprawling city that's already rejected its original, central downtown.

The outward movement left rot at the core. The Hollywood of 23 years ago looked like America's foremost frost-free urban environment: great bookstores, theaters, restaurants. Pleasant, affordable housing. Seven years later, when I first worked there, it was already an uncomfortable place to be: L.A. Weekly's then-offices on Sunset looked out on the nation's key venue for junior high harlotry.

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Now, after 17 more years of decline, there are signs that the skid might finally end, and that there might be yet again a geographic focus to the Hollywood world-myth. Big money is being spent, the subway is poised to open, and ground's been broken for perhaps the first intelligently planned renewal project, the TrizecHahn development centering on Mann's Chinese Theater.

The big news about this project is that, unlike any other Hollywood development in my memory, it seems to please just about everyone - except locals upset at the loss of Orchid Avenue. The project is huge: It ordains, among other things, a renewed, entertainment-centered neighborhood, including a new 3,300-seat theater designed specifically for the Academy Awards. And a two-year renovation-upgrade of the hostelry now known as the Holiday Inn. It also promises living-wage jobs in that hotel.

Council Member Jackie Goldberg deserves most of the credit for reeling in TrizecHahn. "People usually want instant everything," she says, noting the amount of labor-intensive time and negotiation she and her staff contributed. She wants to restore the nightlife that left Hollywood more than 30 years ago. For starters, the $385 million project will anchor a theatrical complex that Goldberg and the other project supporters hope will be our equivalent of New York's resurrected Times Square.

But Goldberg adds, "In Hollywood, every project is different." Which is why I'm mentioning the Cinerama Dome, a mile or so east of Trizec. It's the next target for a major revampment. I only wish the project were as promising as TrizecHahn's.

Pacific Theaters, the venue's owner, has proposed a potpourri of development around the landmark that seems intended to fill up what is now a well-landscaped location. Pacific has, in recent years, elsewhere profited from developing the sites of its former drive-ins. This seems to be the approach here: a fistful of smaller attractions, some multiple-screens, even a Koo-Koo-Roo restaurant in the landmark lobby. And oh yes: They want to dig the auditorium 10 or 20 feet deeper and put in a taller, flat screen. No wonder Hollywood Heritage, the Los Angeles Conservancy and 119 aroused citizens have protested.

To be fair, the Dome's vicinity is more problematic than Trizec's. For one thing, the intersection of Sunset and Vine is no global tourist magnet - it's long been on the professional side of Hollywood. But its film, TV and recording studios have been moving out since 1973. Some developers tried to turn it into a Hollywood high-rise/commercial area, but that's never quite caught on. Near the Dome, there are two skyscraper office buildings, a couple of banks, a defunct Mercedes agency and an upscale pod-mall that's been floundering ever since it opened.

The Dome itself is a great theater. From the outside, it's bizarrely handsome: like a cross between a giant, inside-out gray golf ball and the starship in Forbidden Planet.

But the inside is the best part. I just saw Antz there: The dome interior is actually a great insect-hive-movie venue, since it's honey-colored and the ceiling is a honeycomb-hexagon pattern. You're plumped into rows of unusually comfortable seats, broadly arrayed in what is the only round auditorium I've ever experienced with near-perfect acoustics. This alone would make it unique, even if it weren't, according to the city Cultural Heritage Commission's May 26 report, "the only example of a concrete geodesic dome . . . anywhere in the world."

The Cinerama Dome is part of film history, of course. It's the consummation of that 1950s era when the Industry tried to fend off upstart television by creating gigantic, enclosing movies with new-concept stereophonic sound. The biz tried literally to embrace its faltering audience with the all-enveloping curved screens of a few select cinematic shrines. These theaters were to draw away the entertainment-craving public from I Love Lucy into mind-jolting spectacles such as This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won. But by 1963, large-picture color TV ended the curved-screen development saga. Although it was intended as a prototype for another new generation of supercinemas, the Dome became the last of its kind.

Architect Welton Becket's Dome is all about loving enclosure, so it's all about curves: the outside bulge of the dome, the horizontal arcs of the lobby and entrances, and the interior womblike circumference, all of them focused on the greatest curve of all - the arc of the great screen, which, opened out to its full 90-foot breadth, actually envelops four rows of seats. It's the focus, the purpose, the fulfillment of the entire building; it's what the altars of the great cathedrals are to their apses and transepts.

Doug Haines, a film professional who'd like to see the Dome become a sanctuary for curved-screen spectacles, speaks for historic-preservation groups like the Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage when he says that a lawsuit will happen if Pacific Theaters' reconstruction plans go ahead. Goldberg's field deputy Roxana Tynan says that negotiations with Pacific for a more acceptable dome plan are continuing. She hopes for some resolution next month.

Pacific's preparations to make the Dome into a Koreatown-style cluster-mall certainly suggest a limited corporate vision. The kind of businesses it's seeking to attract are exactly those - chain restaurants, fast-food eateries, etc. - that have failed again and again in that mall right across the street.

Goldberg notes, however, that it's their site. "They could have torn it all down," she says. She sees much progress in the agreement to save most of the exterior and interior.

But what's deplorable, and also seems unessential to the overall scheme, is Pacific's determination to remove the big curved screen. That's like decapitating the Washington Monument. Pacific vice president Neil Haltrecht has said this "would replace a 35-year-old technology." Yes, but with a 75-year-old technology. Without getting into all the wonkish details of the process, the Cinerama creators were certainly on to something; the curved screen's embrace is magical. Hollywood Heritage official Robert Nudelman says that after great movie showings, Dome audiences often "stand up and applaud." Last Sunday, just before the feature, a little girl ran forward to touch the screen's center. It involves you that way: What that Hollywood magic is really about is bringing you into the picture. The great screen at the Cinerama Dome, even masked down to about two-thirds its full compass, as it was for the showing of Antz, can do this.

But a flat screen is just another wall.

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