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Saturday, Mar 2, 2024


It’s a tale of two communities that tried to develop major tourist attractions to revitalize their cores: Long Beach with its Aquarium of the Pacific and Hollywood with its Hollywood Entertainment Museum.

In Long Beach, the aquarium opened to huge crowds and is now drawing about 9,000 visitors a day. The lines to get in are so long that during the recent heat wave, Aquarium officials passed out water to prevent people from fainting. The success has not been limited to the aquarium: Both the Queen Mary and nearby Shoreline Village saw significant upticks in their business this summer.

Switch to the 2-year-old Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which has struggled to snag visitors despite the global allure of show business and its location in the heart of Hollywood. During a 45-minute span on one recent Saturday afternoon, less than a dozen people passed through its doors. There were so few visitors that three docents stood idly by the entrance, talking among themselves.

That’s despite the fact that 9.2 million tourists a year pass within a block of the museum as they follow the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visit the nearby Mann’s Chinese Theatre, according to figures from the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

Hollywood Entertainment Museum officials refused to talk on the record about the problems or to disclose attendance and revenue figures for the taxpayer-subsidized facility.

But industry experts say the museum’s creators made a series of critical mistakes, including the most basic: failing to build an attraction that captures the excitement of Hollywood.

“There needs to be a sense of ‘Wow!’ that will make people want to get in their cars and go there,” said Gary Goddard, chairman and chief executive of North Hollywood-based Landmark Entertainment Group, which designs and develops themed attractions, including the recently opened “Star Trek: The Experience” at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“What’s unfortunate here is that the backers of the current version settled for a smaller facility,” Goddard said. “Just building something in this case may not be better than nothing. You’ve got to do it right, or you will wind up redoing it.”

Ironically, even though the museum was originally envisioned to revitalize Hollywood, it is the redevelopment of the Hollywood core with Trizec-Hahn Corp.’s Hollywood and Highland project, the renovation of the Egyptian Theater and other projects that officials hope will eventually bring a few more visitors through its doors.

“In order for this museum to succeed, we’ll have to have the TrizecHahn development and other projects to build a critical mass, so that visitors will want to stay in the area for a longer time,” said Ann Marie Gallant, deputy director for economic development with the CRA.

So why is Long Beach off to such a roaring start and Hollywood struggling after several years? Put simply, it comes down to a combination of vision, risk-taking and execution.

Long Beach civic and business leaders had a grand vision to make an aquarium the centerpiece of the city’s waterfront makeover. They then took the risk of selling $117 million in bonds to build the facility and market it to a tee. The result has been the biggest buzz in town since the opening of the new Getty Museum last winter. In its first four months, the aquarium has raked in about 650,000 visitors, 2 percent ahead of projections.

In Hollywood, what started out as a grand vision for a $60 million to $70 million entertainment center to rival Cleveland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum eventually withered to a $6 million museum that was a shadow of the original concept. There was little support from the major Hollywood studios that were to have been the major financial backers and were to have provided the backbone of its exhibits.

As a result, the museum has had to turn to the public sector for funding. For each of the past two years, the museum has been given $2 million grants from the state to support its educational programs. It also has received a $2.5 million loan from the city to help cover its rent.

Museum officials won’t disclose attendance figures or revenues, even though they had previously promised to do so after their first full year in operation. But if that one recent Saturday afternoon is any indication, the museum would only appear to be drawing roughly 100 people a day (not including private functions).

Goddard of Landmark Entertainment, who along with partner Tony Christopher had submitted plans in the 1980s for a “Hollywood Exposition” attraction that never got off the ground, said Long Beach succeeded by thinking big.

“The whole city really got behind (the aquarium),” he said.

During its planning phase, the aquarium was a tough sell for leaders of the recession-ravaged city. Aerospace jobs the backbone of the employment base were disappearing by the thousands. Tourism, another economic engine, was down, especially at the Queen Mary. City leaders were disheartened further after Walt Disney Co. scuttled plans to buy and revitalize the struggling ocean liner.

In this environment, the $117 million price tag of the Aquarium carried big risks. If it were to fall short of revenue projections or be a complete flop, the city, which had to guarantee the revenue bonds, would have been left holding the bag.

Nonetheless, the city went ahead with its plans, banking on the increasing popularity of aquariums and marine exhibits around the country. Both Baltimore and Monterey, for example, staked the futures of their waterfronts on aquariums, and both have seen huge returns on their investments.

But the explanation for Long Beach’s success and Hollywood’s disappointment doesn’t simply turn on the ability to dream big. After all, size cannot explain the relative success of places like the Petersen Automotive Museum, which draws 150,000 annual visitors, or the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, which draws 100,000 visitors a year.

Marketing is a crucial ingredient for success. In Long Beach, officials created a pre-opening buzz through a $1 million marketing campaign that blanketed local and national media. By contrast, all the Hollywood Entertainment Museum could afford were brochures for tour operators and others, according to former Marketing Director Monica Polling.

Also important is the competition. The Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific has a big advantage over the Hollywood Entertainment Museum in that it is has the market to itself following the closure of Marineland in Palos Verdes in the 1980s. Its closest competition is Sea World in San Diego, which is more amusement park than aquarium.

By comparison, the Hollywood Entertainment Museum competes with several other bigger and better-known attractions that offer many of the same things, like the Universal Studios Hollywood tour and the Hollywood Wax Museum, notes Dominique Hanssens, a professor of marketing at the Anderson School at UCLA.

“The Hollywood Entertainment Museum is squeezed between several products in the same general area that partially overlap what it does,” Hanssens said. “They may be suffering from a lack of ability to differentiate themselves from these well-known incumbents.”

Perhaps most important is the presentation itself.

The aquarium’s planners could have chosen to construct a series of rectangular tanks and display them in long rows; instead, the tanks have alcoves that invite the viewer in.

The Hollywood Entertainment Museum has separate exhibit rooms for costumes, makeup, editing, sound effects as well as replicas of the set of “Star Trek” and the bar from “Cheers” but there is no common theme or progression. Most of the exhibits are presented like paintings in a museum.

“It’s a very old-fashioned museum,” said Landmark Entertainment President Tony Christopher. “It’s like a static thing, the way Hollywood was 50 years ago. It needs to be more fun, interesting and quirky to draw people in.”

Because the facility had such a small budget, Christopher said, the ability to move beyond traditional museum displays is even more important.

“In London, there is a moving-pictures museum. The entire museum is comprised of moving images. That’s quirky, that’s different,” he said.

Part of the problem is that the museum has not been able to convince many of the major Hollywood studios to part with their collections.

“The major studios have a poor track record when it comes to saving memorabilia and history,” said Johnny Grant, the honorary mayor of Hollywood and a board member of the museum. “It’s a shame because when you go through the studios, there is just so much history that the public never sees.”

Grant defended the track record of the museum and its administrators, including Executive Director Phyllis Caskey and Earl Lestz, Paramount Pictures president who is chairman of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum board.

“The museum has done well with the limited resources it has,” Grant said. “Phyllis Caskey has done a good job. And God save Earl Lestz. Without him this museum would never have gotten off the ground.”

Both Caskey and Lestz, however, refused to comment on the criticism that the museum has suffered from a lack of vision and planning.

And vision isn’t the only problem visibility is another.

With the exception of two small signs pointing the way to the box office, there is virtually no street-level signage, which is essential for an attraction that is not visible from street level, tourist-industry experts say. Museum officials were aware of the need for better signage, according to former Marketing Director Polling, but were barred from doing so under the lease agreement with the landlord, Citicorp.

In Long Beach, signs for the aquarium line local freeways and the downtown area. And the aquarium itself, with its wavy top, is prominent along the Long Beach waterfront.

UCLA’s Hanssens suggested that the Hollywood Entertainment Museum try to become part of a package tour of Hollywood museums, much in the same way that the Queen Mary recently gave half-price admissions to visitors who presented stubs from the aquarium.

“Besides the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, you’ve got the Hollywood Wax Museum, the Guinness Museum, and the soon-to-be-opened Hollywood History Museum,” Hanssens said. “What about making one ticket good for all four sites? That could tip the scales and bring more visitors to each museum.”

Indeed, all of these museums have explored such opportunities in the past; each time, though, the concept foundered because some of the owners were not enthusiastic about participating in a package tour, according to Polling.

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