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Dinner By Spotlight

Next month, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen will shuffle down the red carpet as nominees into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the 71st annual Academy Awards presentation. For those celebrities - especially Hanks and Streep - the Oscars could be called a glitzy occupational obligation.

Although television lets the general masses spy in on the awards results, armchair viewers always are just that - at a "mere mortal" distance. Consequently, how would movie fans and celebrity watchers respond if given the chance to strut their stuff down a plush carpet and into their own posh Hollywood event?

Tinseltown Studios in Anaheim, Calif., aims to re-create such a thrill for its visitors. New York-based Ogden Entertainment, together with the Pasadena, Calif.-based design team Studio Avanti, has imaged the concept as a dinner theater destination that gives the general public the close-ups they've always been ready for.

On location Created as a mock evening at a Hollywood awards show (much like the Oscars), Tinseltown Studios is an interactive, dinner-theater experience that turns its guests into movie stars. As visitors file down the red carpet, attendants pull them aside as that evening's nominees. According to Jay Sfingi, principal with Studio Avanti, guests are led backstage, put in costumes and given scenes from actual movies to act out.

"One guest could play Kevin Costner's role in 'Field of Dreams,' and actually have a line, be taped in front of a blue screen and then cut into the film," Sfingi says. "And that's what's played back as your clip or snippet for your nomination. Much like with regular awards shows, Tinseltown visitors' roles are captured on video and played back to the dinner audience. You either win an award or you don't."

All the filming is done on site. "With the latest in video technology, the mission really is to get the guests involved and make it a participatory kind of experience," he says.

According to Tom Etter, senior vice president of Ogden Entertainment's parent company, Ogden Corp., Tinseltown Studios immerses visitors into the wild rush of attention-hungry paparazzi and the blinding glow of roving spotlights.

"Tinseltown guests are part of the experience, and they're treated like actual movie stars from the second they walk in the door," Etter says. "It's amazing how people warm up to the television cameras when they are put in front of a microphone and asked questions. They really enjoy it and have a lot of fun."

Sfingi says the project is a prime example of how consumers are continuously searching for the next entertaining experience. Because the project makes such a strong visual impression, visitors begin their Tinseltown engagement before they make their entrance.

"From the point visitors drive up to the parking lot, whether they are conscious of it or not, they have begun their immersive experience," he says. "They already are beginning to picture themselves on the red carpet, and, from an emotional standpoint, making the move from their car to the stage."

The red-carpet procession occurs in an open-air courtyard, the experience beginning the moment visitors pass through Tinseltown's arched, palm-tree-lined entryway. "Even though visitors are open to the sky in the courtyard and are not yet inside the building, they are immersed before they even walk through the front door," Sfingi says.

"When the courtyard is lit up with klieg lights, it's such a beautiful place," Etter says. "It's a great place for an outdoor, open-air cocktail party. And we're already getting a huge amount of interest from local corporations for using the facility, not only for the show but for special events they want to do with their employees and clients."

The wizards of awes As the original brainchild of Pasadena, Calif.-based Garlin Productions' president Jim Garber, Tinseltown Studios was brought to Studio Avanti as a possible entertainment destination concept. Sfingi says the concept was fleshed out, shopped around by Garber and eventually purchased by Ogden Entertainment - a purveyor of other entertainment attractions such as American Wilderness Experience.

"We created key art renderings, concept models and storyboards, and we put together a presentation for Jim to take on the road to sell to somebody," Sfingi recounts, adding that Studio Avanti remained lead designer during the project's entirety. "Ultimately, Ogden got involved and purchased the concept and we stayed involved as part of the design-build team headed up by Turner Construction. But we were the lead designers and ultimately the project architect through construction and construction administration."

In order to give Tinseltown Studios a distinct personality, Studio Avanti designed the concept around Cohnwarner Mayerwyn Selznuck, a fictitious film studio head character who presides over the awards event. (The character's name is a conglomeration of various movie studios.)

"The soundstage and the whole studio notion was an evolution of a backstory that was created based on this fictional character," says Sfingi. "And because the masses like to embrace this type of nostalgic concept, the end result had to meet those glamorous expectations and be a grand vision of a stylish Hollywood studio."

Tinseltown Studios' exterior aims to be a grand interpretation of a 1950s-era sound stage. The building's light plaster exterior boasts a barrel-vaulted roof form, complete with an 80-foot-tall water tower and giant klieg lights.

An old-style, polished stainless steel canopy and marquee jets out from a backlit glass block wall behind it.

"Ogden put a challenge on us from day one that they want patrons to walk through the front doors and feel that they're at a world-class facility," says Sfingi. "And so we took great pains to make sure that customers got the message when they first walked into the lobby."

Once inside Tinseltown Studios, guests and stars file into a 35-foot-high pre-show gathering area, complete with large art deco bar and bas-relief mural. The dining area itself is appointed with terraced floors and set-covered walls, intended to embody a fully functional soundstage. Exposed structural truss work, theatrical rigging, lights and catwalks above the dinner area further the Hollywood stage illusion.

The final scene for Tinseltown Studios is the Prop Shop, a retail store within the destination. Offering Tinseltown keepsake items, the Prop Shop is designed with grip-box fixtures, stage wall and speed-rail catwalks to round out the immersive awards ceremony experience.

"Clearly, this was an opportunity to do something completely different," says Paul LoNigro, partner with Studio Avanti. "It wasn't necessarily a challenge to create something new for Ogden. The challenge was more in keeping the project on track to maintain a level of quality that we all anticipated. To their credit, they went in feet first and pulled out all the stops to make this thing work."

An on-budget blockbuster Despite Tinseltown Studios' aggressive design plan, Studio Avanti was given clear instructions by Ogden to work within a predetermined design budget. According to Etter, the budgetary constraints did not hamper design ingenuity in the slightest.

"We wanted Studio Avanti to work within a budget on theming," Etter says. "And I had some concern early on that maybe we wouldn't be able to get what we wanted within those parameters. But we were delighted with the outcome. Studio Avanti did a wonderful job of being creative within the budget we gave them."

Tinseltown Studios' flooring installation is one of its more unusual - yet cost-moderate - design elements. The retail shop and exterior floors, Sfingi says, are stained concrete, while the interior, pre-show bar area is customizable, Forbo vinyl flooring material. The Forbo installation was done on-site by hand, with Studio Avanti selecting the colorpalette of each pattern.

Both the exterior and interior walkways reflect a pattern reminiscent of 1950s style and elegance, according to LoNigro. "The pre-show area flooring is a literal translation or interpretation of the starburst pattern, and the exterior courtyard is more of an abstracted version of that same pattern," he explains. "Both (installations) are directly taken from a glamorous time in Hollywood in which art deco and that starburst pattern were prevalent."

The flooring, Sfingi adds, was of moderate cost. "I'm sure you could have done this in terrazzo and spent a lot more," he says "And it's a bit labor intensive because of the installation's patterning. But it comes packed in rolled sheets, so I imagine that one could just roll this out like carpet in a solid color and it would be not a big installation issue."

Tinseltown Studios is an obvious fit for a locale like southern California, but the concept is currently under review for expansion in other parts of the country, Etter notes. In fact, the design - Etter's favorite aspect of the project - could be duplicated anywhere.

"The area that came together the best was Tinseltown's design," he says. "One of the benefits that we didn't even consider in our projections was that this is just a cool place to be, even over and above the shows. It's a great place for parties, catered events, and breakfast and lunches. I give all the credit on that to Studio Avanti for the job they did in creating that type of atmosphere."

Although the movie buff masses may never actualize their dream of accepting a real golden statuette, Tinseltown Studios does its part by giving patrons their 15 minutes under the spotlights and in front of the cameras.

"Tinseltown Studios is the excitement and the hub-bub of a night at a big, televised ceremony," Etter says. "The project reflects a time reminiscent of the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes (of days past). And in order to do that, you really have to create the feel of a truly elegant evening."

w When Tinseltown Studios opened recently in Anaheim, Calif., a star was born in the world of themed dining. Designed by Studio Avanti, the 54,320 sq. ft. dinner theater casts visitors into the action of a night at a Hollywood awards show. From the moment guests drive up to the building, a red carpet, palm trees and klieg lights set the mood for the evening. Inside, design elements such as patterned flooring remind visitors of the art deco style prevalent in 1950s Hollywood.

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