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Published: Tuesday, 4/19/2011

Celebrity gawking gets new twist in Hollywood

BY HUGO MARTIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
A Starline Tour bus is laden with tourists earlier this year in Los Angeles. A Starline Tour bus is laden with tourists earlier this year in Los Angeles.
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LOS ANGELES — For celebrity-obsessed visitors to Los Angeles, it’s no longer enough to take a tour of the palatial homes of their favorite stars. As the city’s $12-billion-a-year tourism industry rebounds, tour operators are now offering visits to the sites where stars and B-level celebrities have died, dined, fought, committed crimes and thrown headline-grabbing tantrums.

Next month, the largest tour operator in Los Angeles, Starline Tours, will team up with the celebrity news source TMZ to create a guided tour that cruises past the sites where TMZ has reported its biggest celebrity scoops. Later this summer, Starline will launch a tour of celebrity crime scenes, which will be led by former law enforcement officials who investigated the crimes.

It’s an attempt, tour promoters say, to attract the younger visitors who are more interested in the happenings of reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian than the homes of actors Lucille Ball or Lionel Barrymore. The TMZ tour will change with each new celebrity scandal, but operators say it may include such spots as the nightclub where Seinfeld’s Michael Richards went on a racially tinged rant, the high-end department store where actress Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting, and the courthouse where Lindsay Lohan is being prosecuted on a grand theft charge.

"People can never get too much of celebrities," Starline spokesman Philip Ferentinos said. "And today the definition of celebrity has changed so much."

As for the crime scene tour, Ferentinos said visitors will probably be taken to the Brentwood condo where O.J. Simpson’s wife and her friend Ronald Goldman were killed, the restaurant where actor Robert Blake’s wife was slain, and the North Hollywood bank where police engaged in a deadly shootout with two heavily armed bank robbers.

The new tours are only the latest offbeat sightseeing adventures Hollywood has to offer. A tour that launched in November lets tourists join up with paparazzi on the prowl for unsuspecting celebrities, and for years sightseeing tours have filled up daily down the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for trips to Hollywood’s graves and sites where celebrities died. In January, a Hollywood history buff launched a guided walking tour of the history of the entertainment industry in the city. "It’s starting to catch on," said Philip Mershon, founder of the Felix in Hollywood Tour Co.

The tourist industry has been roaring back after a dramatic slump during the economic downturn, and local tourism officials say they are rushing to give visitors as many entertainment options as possible, including sightseeing tours.

"There has been an overabundance of tour companies on Hollywood Boulevard recently," said Ana Martinez-Holler, a spokesman for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "It’s crazy."

The chamber this year is expected to hold about 30 ceremonies to place new stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, up from the usual 20 to 24 per year. She said the increase comes in response to growing demand from tourists.

Standing near Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, Dean Muller, a tourist from Australia, said he would not be interested in the TMZ tour but might want to take the crime scene tour. "I’m not really into that celebrity stuff," he added.

While in town, he planned to take in a Lakers game and the filming of a television show but would pass on a tour of celebrity homes. "With those tours, you just see the gates of someone’s house," he said. "I’ve seen gates before."

The new TMZ guided tour was the idea of TMZ founder Harvey Levin, who declined to comment. However, Ferentinos said the tour will be offered on a specially designed 24-seat bus that will be fitted with four 26-inch TV screens. During the tours, the screens will show footage of the celebrity incidents broadcast on the TMZ television show or on the Web site.

To completely immerse tourists in the world of celebrity-tracking, the TMZ tour bus will be equipped with a video camera to tape any celebrity who happens to pop up along the route. The footage shot on the tour can be sent directly to the TMZ studios for broadcast later that day, Ferentinos said. "It will be TMZ on wheels," he added.

The crime-scene tour will revive a similar tour that was operated by a former Los Angeles police officer but went out of business five years ago. Ferentinos hopes the tour will be more successful today because of the growing popularity of TV crime shows like CSI and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Scott Michaels, who founded the Dearly Departed Tours in Hollywood in 2005, said the crime scene tour seems to be horning in on his niche. His tours take tourists to the places where Michael Jackson, River Phoenix, Janis Joplin, and other celebrities died.

But he said he hopes his business won’t be hurt by the new competitor. "Ours," he said, "is one of those tours that people like to point out and say, ‘That is what the weirdos in Hollywood are doing.’"



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