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LIGHTS, CAMERA, REACTION PICTURE-PERFECT KODAK AWAITS OSCAR'S OK.

Byline: Dana Bartholomew Staff Writer

HOLLYWOOD - Imagine it's Oscar night. In the limelight as a nominee for best actress, you slither from your limo, flash your Harry Winston diamonds, plant your Manolo Blahniks onto plush red carpet.

And hope your feet, clad in 3-inch heels, survive the 500-foot strut - exactly 349 agonizing paces from Highland Avenue to the Eastman Kodak Theatre - intact. If only you'd heeded Tip No. 3 from Laura Ziskin, producer of next Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony: ``Girls (and maybe boys), start wearing in your fancy shoes a couple of days ahead ... because I promise you, there will be walking.''

On the inaugural night of the Kodak Theatre in of all places Hollywood itself, nothing is certain except that critical eyes will be cast at every little glitch that can be blamed on imperfections in Oscar's new permanent home.

On the entertainment industry's biggest, most glamorous night, the 74th Academy Awards spectacular is expected to draw hundreds of millions of television viewers from around the world.

While expectations are riding high on the $94 million Kodak and its ability to help restore some glamour to a Hollywood tarnished by decades of seedy decline, tensions before the March 24 Academy Awards premiere are as taut as a violin string.

For a shining premiere would boost the flagging prospects of its $615 million Hollywood & Highland complex - and the box office hopes of what former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan billed as ``the Hollywood Renaissance.''

``We think it's especially important to Hollywood,'' said John Duel, spokesman for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. ``It restores the glitz and glamour to the city.

``It'll provide a true international glimpse, and make a lot of people want to come to Hollywood.''

The glitterati, groggy from two hours of pre-Oscars drinks and hors d'oeuvres, will formally step from their limousines around 5 p.m., a half-hour before show time, in the midst of the tightest security ever.

They'll then sashay down the red carpet laid across five lanes of Hollywood Boulevard, flanked by media cameras and fan-filled bleachers, before making a parade-right into the Awards Walk tunnel to the Kodak Theatre.

What remains to be seen is whether regal best actress nominee Judi Dench will wince while traipsing past such middle-brow stores as Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic.

Or whether rakish best actor nominee Russell Crowe will be prompted to doff his dickey for an ubiquitous Hollywood T-shirt.

Or whether 3,300 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences guests will brave the 40 marble staircase steps or duck through a wimpy ground-floor entrance into the ``tiara'' of light within the Kodak crown jewel.

``It's like Cinderella,'' said Bobbi O'Donnell, 52, of West Hollywood, one of many gawkers last week outside the Kodak who dreamed of a coveted ticket.

``It's every woman's dream to go to the ball.''

Fern Sheets, 76, of Seattle wasn't so sure.

``I'm just looking at all those steps,'' she said. ``It would be kind of tough with a 4-inch heel.''

Following a three-hour show hosted by three-time Oscars veteran Whoopi Goldberg, the stars will retire upstairs to the Governor's Ball, catered by none other than Wolfgang Puck. What remains to be seen is whether Gov. Gray Davis will appear for a twirl across the floor.

``While we expect things to be a rousing success, we anticipate that some things will go wrong and will work to change them next year,'' said Leslie Unger, a spokeswoman for the academy.

Added John Pavlik, another spokesman, about Oscar's permanent home in Hollywood, and first appearance there since the 32nd Academy Awards of 1960: ``It'll be safe and sound, but I don't know if it'll be happy.

``We won't know until after the event.''

Until its return to Hollywood, the Academy Awards was Los Angeles' brightest vagabond - seesawing in recent years between the 4,500-seat Shrine Auditorium and the 2,600-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

But moving Oscar back to the heart of Tinseltown came not without a price.

To boost the 1.7 million-square-foot project by the Toronto-based TrizecHahn Corp., the city in 1999 came up with $98 million - including $31.6 million for the Hollywood & Highland complex and $66.6 million for a mammoth underground parking complex.

Straddling two full blocks, the project includes the Kodak Theatre, 70 stores, a 640-room hotel, multiplex cinema, spa, ballroom and architecture mimicking the faux-Babylonian sets from D.W. Griffith's ``Intolerance.''

Part of the Faustian bargain for the project included an unprecedented agreement by merchants and officials to close Hollywood Boulevard for the five days before the awards ceremony to set up bleachers and get ready for the party.

Next Sunday night, storefronts in Hollywood & Highland will be draped in black.

With tourism down since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the theater/mall has been devalued by its owners by $217 million, more than a third of what it cost.

While the hotel and restaurants are up, retailers have suffered, chamber and mall officials say. Nonetheless, they expect nothing short of a rebound in visitor traffic and sales as a result of Oscar night.

``We're very optimistic,'' Russ Joyner, vice president and general manager of Hollywood & Highland, said of the ``Little Big Man's'' return to Hollywood. ``This particular show should show us being over our teething, because this is the show of shows.''

Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the Kodak, its mall and the Academy Awards can only reinforce the Hollywood brand.

``It's the anchor of revitalization,'' he said of the Hollywood & Highland complex, topped with elephants and winged creatures in bas-relief.

``Before, people would come here and not know where to go. Hollywood is larger than life, than the world. This provides a vision, or mythos, that people are looking for - so when people get out of their cars, they say, 'We're not in Kansas anymore.'''

Tourists agreed.

``I think it's good, it's really lovely,'' said Lyn Pringle, of Perth, Australia, of Oscar's home guaranteed by a 20-year lease agreement. ``L.A.'s paid a lot of money for Oscar to be happy - so Oscar better keep his mouth shut.''

Others could only shake their heads at the Kodak flanked by such stores as Neuhaus Chocolatier and Luxe, a lingerie store, along the Awards Walk.

``It's too commercial, I think it's very tacky,'' said Charles Tan, 30, of Pasadena. ``The runway seems a little too thin, too dark. I don't think it's going to be glamorous at all.''

Whatever the case, next Sunday's Academy Awards will be, in the words of one Hollywood vendor a `` wing-dinger of a party.''

``I used to crash it, rent me a tuxedo, and carry me in a plate as a waiter. I did it seven times,'' boasted Christopher Roberts, 63, of Koreatown, hawking tickets on Hollywood Boulevard to Marilyn Monroe's grave.

``I might try to do it again, just for the hell of it.''

Staff Writer Valerie Kuklenski contributed to this story.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, map

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, the new home of the Academy Awards, faces a crucial test with Sunday's Oscars. The crown jewel of Hollywood's revitalization, the Kodak brings the glitz back to the home of the Academy Awards. Hundreds of millions of television viewers from around the world are expected to catch a glimpse of the $94 million theater next Sunday.

(3 -- color) Oscar's new permanent home, the Kodak Theatre will play host to the 74th Academy Awards, taking over from the Shrine Auditorium and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

John McCoy/Staff Photographer

Map:

OSCAR NIGHT
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 17, 2002
Words:1263
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