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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

This week I have theaters on the mind.

The new Nokia Theatre opened last night downtown with a concert by the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks. The Nokia is intended to be the more intimate venue next to Staples Center that will lure crowds to L.A. Live.

L.A. Live is the latest attempt to make downtown function as the entertainment heart of the Los Angeles region. More on that later.

As concert halls go, the Nokia is no Disney Hall. But that might be its strength.

Those who attended last night had a good time, by most accounts. Ann Powers wrote in the Times that there was an arena feel in the building, with dancing in the aisles and singing along to familiar songs.

The bigger question about the Nokia – and about L.A. Live itself – is whether they can deliver on the promise of elevating downtown to the status of cultural center. As author Joel Kotkin says in today's Times, the Forum sold out rock concerts and play-off games for more than three decades without people suggesting Inglewood was the center of anything.

Downtown L.A. is different, of course. Ten thousand or so young artists and urban professionals have moved downtown. The skyline is busy with cranes erecting more high-rise condos.

There's plenty of legitimate buzz about downtown L.A., and I think it's good for the city. I'm a fan. But a lot of what you hear is hype.

L.A. Live, for example, has been compared to New York's Times Square.

I'm sorry -- one theater... a Ritz-Carlton Hotel... an ESPN Sports Zone... some restaurants and bars... and a nearby, under-used light rail line... do not equal Times Square.

Even Disney-fied, Times Square has the benefit of unstaged cacophony -- thousands of commuters, street hawkers, tourists, locals rushing to see Broadway shows. It's crowded, unpredictable and still a little dangerous.

Think of L.A. Live as more of a shopping mall -- like The Grove without so many stores. Or CityWalk with the Lakers and no amusement park.

In other words, a manufactured environment – a destination created for us by the real estate developers at AEG.

To be fair about it, L.A. Live isn't finished yet. So I'm reserving my personal judgment on whether it's the kind of place I'd enjoy hanging out with friends.

But sharing a bottle of wine with someone you love in Paris is one thing, and sitting under the fake sky of Paris Las Vegas is something else.

If I do go, and you too, we will probably drive. If it's too hard to drive and park there, most Angelenos will never go -– let alone the millions of potential visitors who live in Greater Southern California and wade into Los Angeles only reluctantly.

Los Angeles has a fairly long history of public gathering places that failed because they were too difficult -- or unpleasant -- for a night of fun.

Sunset Strip and Van Nuys Boulevard, for example, used to be overrun with street life on weekend nights. Changing demographics, and the cops, took a toll on both scenes. Hollywood is still recovering after years in the nightlife doldrums.

Perhaps the best example of how fickle we can be is Westwood Village. For about two decades, until street gangs moved-in in the 1980's, Westwood sidewalks were packed at night.

All big movies opened there, and sometimes ran for months. I was reminded of that era when I heard the news that the National Theatre had closed. Again.

The National was the last giant single-screen theater built in Westwood, and it was an event venue. The Exorcist debuted there in 1973 and ran for half a year.

Mann shuttered the National in April, then an independent operator took over for several months. This closure looks final, and has prompted some online hand-wringing about the future of Westwood.

It should also offer a lesson to those who think it's easy to create a heart of the city.

For KCRW, I'm Kevin Roderick and this has been LA Observed.

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