In 2001, a massive open-air mall opened at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. Its centerpiece was a Babylonian courtyard, built (to scale) to match the sets of D.W. Griffith’s 1914 epic INTOLERANCE. Some local residents complained that it was excessively gaudy and architecturally schizophrenic. I say, Isn’t that what Hollywood is all about?
Today, the Hollywood & Highland complex is the center of tourism in L.A. and the intersection itself is thriving. One notable exception is the First National Bank Building on the northeast corner. Built in 1927 by the same architect who designed The Egyptian Theater, this striking Gothic/Art Deco tower looms large above all of the hustle and bustle of the intersection – yet, for some reason, remains empty. Right next door is a 1928 Spanish Colonial building that currently houses two cultural oddities: Snow White Café and the Hollywood Wax Museum.
Across the street sit the Guinness Book of World Records Museum (housed in the old Hollywood Theater, which opened in 1938) and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum (housed in an old apartment building that was constructed in the 1920s and remodeled in 1935). I avoided these two tourist attractions like the plague, but I was eager to visit the Hollywood History Museum just behind it. This museum, housed in the 1935 Max Factor Building, has an impressive collection of movie memorabilia… Rocky Balboa’s boxing gloves, Superman’s cape, John Ford’s shirt, Indiana Jones’s Grail Diary (as well as the Holy Grail itself), Pee Wee Herman’s lost bike (presumably requisitioned from The Alamo), Roddy McDowall’s pink toilet (?), and the mask from William Lustig’s classic slasher movie UNCLE SAM. Currently, an entire floor is devoted to the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. (Where else can you gaze longingly at her bathroom tile?) But the real find is in the basement… where you can walk through the prison set from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and have a seat in front of Dr. Lecter’s cell. For me, this more than justified the museum’s entrance fee. Afterwards, we went next door and had lunch at Mel’s Diner – featured in AMERICAN GRIFFITI. How’s that for a schizophrenic juxtaposition?
On the west side of Highland, we saw the El Capitan Theater, built in 1926 as “Hollywood’s First Home of Spoken Drama.” This is where CITIZEN KANE had its world premiere in 1941. Soon after, the building was remodeled and reopened as the Hollywood Paramount Theater. In the early 1990s, Disney took over and started premiering many of its films there – often in conjunction with a live Jimmy Kimmel stage show next door at the Hollywood Masonic Temple, built in 1922.
One more block west is the Roosevelt Hotel – original home of the Oscars. We visited the eerie blue ballroom where the first Academy Awards ceremony was held at a private brunch on May 16, 1929 – with an audience of only 26 people. Times have certainly changed. Now the Oscars are held across the street in the Kodak Theater – which has 3,332 seats.
But the Kodak still can’t compete with the grandeur of Grauman’s Chinese Theater next door. For my money, this is still the crown jewel of Hollywood & Highland. A friend of mine convinced me to go see a movie there a few months ago, and I was awe-struck -- by the ornate interior, if not by the crappy A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake. Despite the crush of people, I must admit that I was also captivated by the plaster-casts in the courtyard... and even by a few of the “characters” (the accepted colloquial term for costumed pan-handlers) on the boulevard. I had just seen the Chinese Theater in its full opening-night glory on a sixth season episode of HBO’s ENTOURAGE, and been introduced to several of the odd-but-immanently-likable “characters” by the excellent 2007 documentary CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO… so maybe I was seeing things through rose-colored glasses... But isn’t that the point of all this?
I highly recommend, to tourists and non-tourists alike, taking the Hollywood Heritage walking tour. It’s easy to wander the boulevard and see only the painfully-glaring tourist traps, but this tour provides a great opportunity to slow down and notice of the overlooked history of Hollywood. The $10 tour begins each Saturday at 9am, and you can make reservations by calling 323-465-6716.
... And while you're at it, do check out CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO. It's a fantastic documentary.