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Keystone Nostalgiacs 

They love Hollywood, but can they save it from themselves?

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

At the Wattles Mansion, L.A. Cultural Monument No. 579, located at the western terminus of Franklin Street in Hollywood, cracks in the foundation below the pillars riddle the entryway, while the inside ceilings and walls show obvious signs of water damage. Out back, a sandbag berm has been erected to stanch the mud brought down by winter rains.

Five blocks away on Highland Avenue stands the Hollywood Heritage Museum, L.A. Cultural Monument No. 554. Distinguished as the shooting site for The Squaw Man, Hollywood’s first feature-length Western, the 2,000-square-foot museum has been closed since a 1996 arson fire scorched the attic and an interior wall.

At a time when politicians and developers are betting millions in public and private dollars on convincing the world that Hollywood Is Back, the neglect of two of Hollywood’s most historically significant buildings stands as testament to a more tangible truth: Movie nostalgia draws plenty of enthusiasm but precious little know-how.

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Both buildings are operated by Hollywood Heritage Inc., a nonprofit known for its commitment to preservation — the group was active in the drive to save the Cinerama Dome — but beset internally by bitter infighting. The Wattles Mansion is owned by the city and the Hollywood Heritage Museum sits on ground leased from the county, yet inquiries into how they are operated are steadfastly ignored. Board president Eric Stogo declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to an attorney, who curtly refused to answer any questions.

Former member Ken Denton was one of the few willing to comment, and he said he was bitter about his experience at Heritage. "These are people who are in charge of millions of dollars worth of public trust," said Denton, who left the nonprofit in 1996. "These are supposed to be people who are here for one reason and one reason alone — for Hollywood heritage — but instead it is a control thing."

They’re not alone. A prior, unrelated preservation project, the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, has devoured close to $3 million in public funds over the course of a decade while producing a handful of lackluster exhibits located in a rented space in the basement of the Galaxy Thea ter — itself an early Hollywood redevelopment boondoggle.

In the view of one sharp-tongued critic, attorney and Hollywood activist Jerry Schneiderman, "The museum is a bleeding sore on Hollywood’s behind, and no one wants to lower its pants to expose it."

In the coming year, yet another clique of quasi-professional movie buffs plans to launch yet another venue for the display of Hollywood knickknacks, costumes and still photos from long-ago sets. The Hollywood History Museum is to be situated in the old Max Factor Makeup Studio, which was purchased in 1996 by Beverly Hills developer Donelle Dadigan with the aid of $1.5 million from the Community Redevelopment Agency.

That project, like other Hollywood happenings, enjoys the enthusiastic endorsement of Johnny Grant, the glad-handing unofficial "Mayor of Hollywood" and a member of the board of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. But the new museum may share the same drawbacks as its predecessors: It’s being run by several defectors from Hollywood Heritage and, according to critics, is already sinking in debt.

Grant, 75, himself is one of the original standard-bearers of the Hollywood preservation clique, a mercurial Mickey Rooney look-alike whose enthusiasm seems boundless, but also seems stronger for projects in which he has a hand. The Hollywood Walk of Fame, controlled by yet another set of nostalgia mongers, the Hollywood Historic Trust, is one of his projects; another is that annual hybrid of B-grade entertainment and seasonal schlock, the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

For a professional booster, though, Grant can be hard to get ahold of. It took four calls to get through to him for comment on this story, at which point he declined to speak until he met this reporter face-to-face. He finally agreed to sit down over a glass of lemonade at his Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel headquarters, but continued to dodge questions on any of the groups vying for the leadership role in Hollywood preservation. Some suggest that Grant fears official attention — he had to intervene in 1991 when the chamber itself was sued by the state attorney general over misallocation of funds. Others say Grant’s caution reflects his anxiety about Robert Nudelman, his longtime rival for the mantle of screendom’s most enthusiastic preservationist.

A soft-spoken counterpoint to Grant’s vaudevillian bluster, Nudelman is known for being passionate to the point of obsessive. "We call him the Wizard of Was," says local gadfly and activist John Walsh. In pursuing his passion, Nudelman likes to give impromptu tours of Hollywood Boulevard, reciting detailed histories of each building — along with a running commentary on the failures of Grant and his Chamber of Commerce, the MTA, and anyone else with a hand in the film district. When subjected to tough notices in the media, Grant now complains that he’s been skewered by the "Nudelman school of journalism, whose motto is ‘Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Hatchet Job.’"

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