Twenty five years ago this month, a group of local merchants banded together to pursue the lofty goal of elevating a three-block stretch of retail shops to international prominence.

The Rodeo Drive Committee, as they called themselves, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Which is part of the problem they face today.

The international fame Rodeo gained has drawn busloads of camera-toting tourists, many of whom buy little more than souvenirs. It has also drawn mass-market retailers to the neighborhood, such as Niketown and Planet Hollywood.

"We have become the Disneyland of shopping and that's what we are known for now," sighed Herbert Fink, owner of Theodore, a designer boutique. "Movie stars no longer walk the streets, and when they do shop here, they come through the back door or schedule an appointment when the store can be cleared out for them."

Many local shoppers also are less-than-pleased with the emergence of Rodeo as a tourist destination.

Mary Marshall of Los Angeles said she spends less time and money now on Rodeo Drive than at any other time in the 30 years she has shopped there.

"When the tourists in rental cars and buses pull in a few minutes before the stores open at 10 a.m., it's impossible to find a parking place," Marshall complained. "You have a half hour to kill because you need to be in a parking place by 9:30 a.m. I would spend more time, and of course, more money, if they had efficient valet parking."

Ron Michaels, manager of Louis Vuitton and current head of the Rodeo Drive Committee, said the committee is trying to offer valet parking to ease access for locals as well as for tourists.

In general, the committee's main focus today has shifted toward wooing back local residents, said Fred Hayman, owner of Fred Hayman Beverly Hills and a founding member of the committee.

New incentives include a Rodeo Drive Visa card, slated to debut Sept. 1, whose users can get valet parking and product and store previews. Also, a special advertising section in the October issues of Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair will detail the history of Rodeo Drive.

The committee also has a beautification plan in the works that calls for sidewalk widening, new street lights and landscaping along Rodeo. "And we would narrow Rodeo Drive itself, to lend itself to more of a pedestrian area," said Michaels.

Despite its image problems, Rodeo Drive is in solid shape from an economic standpoint. Annual retail sales on the street are in excess of $500 million and occupancy is about 100 percent.

Gilbert Dembo, president of Dembo and Associates, a real estate firm that specializes in property on Rodeo Drive, said monthly rental rates have climbed steadily in recent years. "They have more than doubled since 1972 and jumped by about $5 per square foot in the past five years," he said.

Merchants are paying monthly rates of between $11 and $15 per square foot. Bang & Olufsen, an audio/visual equipment retailer and one of Rodeo's newest tenants, signed a lease last year with the City of Beverly Hills for $18.88 a foot, Dembo said.

He said every major tenant on New York's Madison Avenue or 57th Street has either located to Rodeo or has expressed interest in doing so.

"There's no doubt about it, the street has an appeal that will keep it lively for a good long time," Dembo said.

That appeal, while still considerable, is not what it was in the past. "I think the bad economy throughout the beginning of the '90s opened up the opportunity for a lot of less-expensive stores, like fruit-juice stands, to come in and change the typography," said Fink.

But retail analyst Richard Giss said today's broader array of merchandise can help Rodeo Drive thrive.

"There is room for all types of stores in term of retail dollars," said Giss, a partner in the trade retail services group of Deloitte & Touche LLP.

Rodeo Drive has not always been the glitzy, glamorous tourist destination of today. Its beginnings, in fact, are quite humble.

In the late 1800s, Dona Maria Rita Valdez was raising cattle on the site, at a ranch she called Rancho Rodeo de los Agua, which is Spanish for "a gathering of the waters."

When a group of investors bought the land from the Valdez family in 1906, they decided to honor the name by christening the main street of their envisioned residential/commercial development, Rodeo Drive.

The Spanish pronunciation "Roe-day-owe" has remained intact.

Well into the 1920s, Rodeo Drive remained a dirt-covered road traveled by horse-drawn carriages.

But the opening of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on New Year's Eve in 1928 ushered in an era of opulence. Restaurants such as the Brown Derby sprang up, catering to a clientele of rich and famous.

Merchants, noticing that celebrities were spending time around the restaurants and hotels, eyed storefronts along Rodeo Drive. In the 1950s, stores began clustering along Rodeo Drive, including jeweler William Ruser, David Orgell's antique and modern silver store and men's clothier Carroll & Co.

Hayman opened his store, Giorgio Beverly Hills, in 1962. But it wasn't until the early 1970s, when Hayman was joined by other like-minded merchants, that a vision for elevating Rodeo Drive to global prominence was formalized.

There have been struggles, Michaels admitted, sometimes beyond the control of any merchant or the committee.

"There was a backlash against designer products in the 1970s when it wasn't cool to wear status symbol items," Michaels said. "And then in the 1980s, as the economy soared, it became chic to wear designer clothes again."

But then the Gulf War and fear of international terrorism slowed down international tourism in the early 1990s, followed by riots, earthquakes, fires, floods and economic recession that kept shoppers away, causing Rodeo to fall into a slump.

As the economy started to climb in late 1994 and throughout 1995, so did the purchase of status symbol items.

Rodeo Drive will continue to flourish, Michaels said, because of its extreme concentration of luxury items and the relationship to the entertainment industry.

"Rodeo is still a magical place," Michaels said. "Where else can you see Demi Moore, Rod Stewart or Arnold Schwarzenegger on a regular basis?"

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