Star Tour Wars
A recent explosion of celebrity-seekers has gawking run amok as looky-loos ring the front door of Lucille Ball’s former house and Los Angeles considers cracking down.
Yotam Solomon was taking an evening stroll with his dog near his home above the Sunset Strip in early June when, suddenly, a bright light shined in his face. The Israeli fashion designer, who has a Los Angeles-based eponymous line, struggled to make out who was accosting him when he heard a voice over a loudspeaker: "Don't worry, this is not a celebrity -- he wouldn't be walking his own dog." Solomon found himself staring at a van filled with gawking tourists.
Like many tony neighborhoods throughout L.A., Solomon's has attracted increased attention from tour companies in the past 18 months. Spurred by an ever-growing interest in the private lives of celebrities and an uptick in tourism after the recession, the business of celebrity-oriented van and bus tours has exploded. While there were only a half-dozen or so companies a decade ago, observers say there are now as many as 40 such operators plying their trade in and around Hollywood. Some, like Starline Tours, are established firms with decades of experience; others are fly-by-night operators who troll Hollywood Boulevard in search of tourists. A canvassing of the boulevard July 9 by the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance found that 64 individuals representing 22 companies were hawking tours.
All things considered, Solomon is a good sport about the tours, which are led in buses and vans -- including the now-ubiquitous roofless models. Tours generally cost $40 to $60 and last about two hours. "I think it's amusing," he says, noting that the tours begin frequenting his neighborhood every day around noon and carry on into the night. "It's just funny when they behave in a very rude manner. At times, the drivers can be completely out of line." While it's a niche of local tourism that the entertainment industry doesn't entirely dislike because of the way it burnishes Hollywood's aura, other groups have taken issue with the rapid expansion. The proliferation of tour companies has led jurisdictions like Beverly Hills to create new regulations to deal with traffic, privacy and safety issues. Some tour companies have responded with measures designed to appease residents who have grown annoyed by the gawking and believe the tours have impacted the real estate market. What has emerged is an uneasy detente among government, touring companies and homeowners.
"It started exploding last year and became a noticeable problem," says Leron Gubler, CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. He adds that his organization has received complaints from tourists about rude drivers, operators that don't honor promises of refunds and others that falsely advertise the content of their tours. "The challenge is that there is no policy document on quality control that we have from the city," he says. But Gubler's group is working with the HPOA on a report that would offer suggestions for the city on how the touring business could be regulated. Kerry Morrison, executive director of the HPOA, says some touring companies are involved in the dialogue. Among the matters being discussed is a potential certification program for drivers so that they are well-versed in Hollywood history. "It's been a pretty fruitful experience," she says. The report is expected to be delivered Aug. 3 to the office of L.A. City Councilmember Eric Garcetti, whose district includes part of Hollywood.
The celebrity tour business generates many millions of dollars in revenue annually, though groups like the L.A. County Economic Development Corp. do not maintain such data and several companies declined to discuss whether they are profitable. Still, some said that in spite of the increased competition, business is good. Although All Star Showbiz Tours owner Shellee-Ann Kellee complains of fighting off unscrupulous competitors who drop their prices to as low as $10 on Hollywood Boulevard, she recently increased her price from $38 to $48 a tour because "people are paying for it. They see the kind of person I am and trust me over all those shysters." And Scott Michaels, owner of Dearly Departed Tours, which offers tours that look at Hollywood-related crimes and scandals, was able to open a storefront on Sunset Boulevard in April. He made the move in part to get away from the fray. "I've been on competitors' tours that are spectacularly bad, and there is no monitoring of that," he says.
Starline, the largest and oldest of the companies, has worked to address concerns of residents and officials. The company appeased the cities of Beverly Hills and L.A. by switching to a headphones system to cut down on amplified sound coming from its roofless vans. "You could imagine how annoying it would be to be a celebrity with a famous show, and every time the tour comes by your house you hear the theme song of the show," says Starline director Philip Ferentinos, who says this exact situation has occurred, though he declined to name the notable in question. "We realized this was something we had to take seriously."
Starline, which was founded in 1935 and maintains a fleet of more than 50 vehicles for its various tours -- including its TMZ-branded offering -- began using headphones about two years ago. Since then, "the complaints have dropped with respect to noise," says Beverly Hills City Councilmember Barry Brucker. And in spring 2011, Beverly Hills created a staging zone near its civic center so that tours could load customers away from businesses. But privacy issues do persist in Beverly Hills, where many tours visit residences owned by celebrities past and present. Brucker says riders have knocked on the door of the former home of Lucille Ball and asked for a peek inside. (Solomon says that about a month ago, tour riders asked him how much his property is worth.)
While no real estate brokers said that a property's inclusion on tours would devalue it, there is a belief that being in the path of tours could turn off buyers. Russ Filice, an agent with Sotheby's International Realty who has brokered many transactions that involve celebrities, says some notables have specifically sought out gated or hard-to-reach properties. And Filice says that when selling a residence that is in the path of celebrity tours, he notes this fact on disclosure documents so there are no surprises -- even though such an admission is not required by law. "The minute I see a tour bus on the street, I write an addendum to the transfer disclosure statement," he says.
Serious change could be coming. In the Aug. 3 report, Los Angeles will be asked to consider revoking a decades-old exemption in the municipal code that allows companies to sell tours in the public right of way. This would eliminate the ability of companies that don't have a storefront or kiosk to offer their wares on the boulevard.
But not all residents in Beverly Hills and other plush locales are unhappy with the tours. Showbiz attorney Martin Katz, who moved to the area about seven months ago, noticed the tours frequent his neighborhood and became curious. So in April he booked a tour with Starline and learned everything from where Lindsay Lohan once crashed a car to the residence where Tom Cruise lives (formerly with Katie Holmes), which is not far from Katz's house. Says Katz, "What was surreal was how fixated the tourists were with the whole experience."