Planet Hollywood lands in London

By Kevin Hilton

June/July 1993

Planet Hollywood, the star-backed burger chain, has opened a branch in London, as if you hadn't noticed.

They could have called it Bruce’s Burgers, or Sly’s Snacks, or even Arnie’s Afternoon Teas (well, perhaps not).  But they didn’t because Planet Hollywood conveys the essence of the latest high profile eating entertainment place to open in London.  It is an experience, where the food, although important, is secondary to the whole created environment, where the star-struck can feel that they are in some way close to the stars whose memorabilia adorns the walls of this cavernous establishment.

Just like many of the movies that come out of the Los Angeles suburb that lends its name to this latest chain of themed restaurants, the venue itself relies on technology to create the desired ambience, to conjure up the myths that will, the operators hope, turn this into more than just a visit to a burger bar.  While the decor tackily suggests Hollywood – palm trees, sign posts proclaiming Sunset Boulevard, all falling back from a model of the famous hill with its twinkling lights and even more famous sign – and the various props and costumes supply the fan interest, it is the nine video screens and numerous loudspeakers that build the real foundations.

The main eating area, with the video screens lowered.

Naturally the muscle lent by the triumvirate of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis and their beautiful wives and friends does the whole venture no harm.  If you were unaware of the opening of the London branch of this fast growing chain then you were probably on another planet for the pushing, shoving, shouting, screaming, flash flashing and flexing of pecs that took place on 17 May outside the Trocadero Centre in Piccadilly.

While much has been made of the participation of the three big men, and probably even more of the inclusion of Arnie’s mum’s apple strudel on the menu, they are said to be only minor shareholders in the venture, which could be seen to make them merely highly developed barkers.  Another partner in Planet Hollywood is Keith Barish, producer of 9-1/2 Weeks amongst other films, but the real power behind the throne is Robert Earl, one of the prime movers in the themed restaurant boom of the last ten years.

Until recently Earl was chief executive of Hard Rock International, which under the Rank umbrella, ran the Hard Rock Cafe chain in the east of the US and the rest of the world.  In October 1991 he, with the added hype of his trio of stars, opened the first Planet Hollywood in New York.  This was followed by branches in Costa Mesa, California, Cancun, Mexico and now little old England.  However, as the path towards world domination is never smooth Earl has run into problems.

Aside from a contractual fight with the operator of the Cancun branch, Earl is locked in a $1 billion law suit with Peter Morton, the co-founder of the Hard Rock chain who still owns the cafes in the west of the US.  Morton alleges that Earl stole the idea of Planet Hollywood from his old job, citing the use of memorabilia as just one area of crossover.  As with any situation of this kind, it is obvious that the only people set to gain out of this protracted and increasingly bitter fight are the LA lawyers.

There are obvious similarities between the two but hen there are countless other themed restaurants that have copied the Hard Rock Cafe formula of popular food, loud music, star-related exhibits and highly desirable, not to mention highly expensive, merchandising.  Baseball caps, sweatshirts, leather jackets.  All these, with the prominent Planet Hollywood logo can be yours – for a price.  The merchandising outlet in the London branch is strategically located so that you can get geared up even before you make it to the bar.

The movie artifacts are similarly placed to draw the visitor in.  After all, there has to be something to keep them occupied while they wait to be seated, on top of the time they already spent outside queuing round the building.  Conservative estimates put that at 45 minutes but others claim around an hour, depending on the time of day.  As you walk up the stairs to the bar, you’re greeted by a fairly disheveled looking Terminator, Rambo’s knife (one for all the family) and the natty jacket Orson Welles wore in Citizen Kane (although the text mysteriously spells the great man’s name Wells and his masterpiece Cane.)

A corridor showing the JBL Control 1s bracketed to the ceiling.

While this memorabilia instantly attracts the attention, it is the more pervasive audio-visual aspect of the venue that really drives the business along.  The music sets the pace while every ten minutes or so the video screens are lowered into place to show a suitable musical moment from the movies.  If anything this aspect of the whole show, which is what Planet Hollywood is in real terms, is the most crucial; the props are in place, the staff dash round like things possessed with heavily laden trays, the food is adequate but if the A/V failed then the customers would suddenly realize that something vital was missing.

This means that it can’t be left to chance, it has to be designed, just like the rest of the place.  The man charged with this task is Ted Rothstein, a figure who is, in his own field, just as compelling as Robert Earl. He’s been designing sound systems for restaurants for about ten years now, but his background is suitably varied and unstructured.  His first job out of college was under sub-contract for Grumman, working on power systems for the F-111 fighter: ‘It stopped me from getting drafted,’ he smiles.

From this heavy military, electrical grounding there was only one way to go – Media Sound in New York, the studio established by the producers of the Woodstock Festival.  This was followed by a stint as chief engineer at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York, not far from Woodstock.  It was here that Rothstein met guitarist-singer-writer-producer Todd Rundgren, for whom he designed a touring sound system.  Other work has included the ever gigging Greatful Dead and custom monitors for Roger Waters, who had earlier worked with Rothstein when the engineer designed Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row studios during the 1970s.

In real terms it was this hippy/rock and roll background that brought Rothstein to design sound systems for eating places.  ‘There was a good club in Woodstock called the Joyous Lake,’ he recalls.  ‘That was the first club that I did a sound system for.  It was high power, stereo, with big distribution.’  While this was a start it wasn’t until later that Rothstein started in earnest to design for restaurants.  He had been working on the first 24-track studio in Iceland when he came across the Hard Rock Cafe operation, which was opening a branch in Reykjavik.  Since then Rothstein and his company TR Technologies have worked on 16 Hard Rock Cafes.

Out of his association with Hard Rock and Robert Earl came the offer of work on Planet Hollywood when the New York branch was planned.  ‘It’s the same kind of thing,’ he says of the two, ‘but with a different slant.’  From this he has designed, built and installed systems for all the subsequent outlets, although he was only brought in as a consultant on the Costa Mesa Planet to work with another contracting company ironing out the last minute problems.

The brief he was given backs up Rothstein’s comment about there being a different slant’ to Planet Hollywood.  ‘There are a number of differences from the Hard Rock Cafe,’ he says.  ‘They wanted a lot more video here; there isn’t really that much in the Hard Rocks.  The screens also have to be able to raise and lower on a regular basis and, of course, sync in with the audio.  Sound is a little more hidden here than in the Hard Rocks; music is not as primary in Planet Hollywood.’

Although everywhere and ever present, the music is not as oppressive as some other rock oriented restaurants; it is possible to identify the tracks playing while not having to shout to be heard by your companions.  The music is delivered to the diners in stereo by a mixture of 40 wall mounted JBL Control 1s and132 adapted S-4s, the company’s in-wall speaker that Rothstein has mounted in the ceilings, supported by 16 hidden 4646A 12-inch subwoofers.  Rothstein calls it ‘a highly distributed array of speakers.’  This has come about through a mixture of appeasing architects and interior designers, although Rothstein tells of battles to get rid reflective surfaces and hiding of the technology.

All this has called for versatility: ‘We’ve got to be able to make these products do things that they were not supposed to do right out of the box.’  But when it comes down to it, the hardware is just hardware – in the A/V market of today it is not what you’ve got but what you do to it to make it work.  ‘We’re heading towards much more fully automated systems,’ Rothstein explains.  ‘We’re designing custom systems to run the screens and the videos, with computer control of the whole music output.  The system is able to change the parameters of the music: the right music for the right time of day.’

While much work has been carried out on complete computer control of the audio-visual environment, it is only recently that things have come to fruition with implementation of better control hardware and more sophisticated software.  Multi-play compact disc machines are not a new innovation and have now moved on from being glorified jukeboxes.  A number of companies, some of them working for the radio broadcast market, have developed software that assembles a programme of music and then plays the tracks, running one track into another seamlessly.

The screen display of the computer control system, with software by TR Technologies

Rothstein initially worked with a British system for this, while still developing his own custom version.  Running on software written in C++, the system can be customized within its own parameters, selecting tracks from a 300 disc Pioneer CD player.  The program offers up a movie track filter (playing only film oriented songs), a dance filter, while being able to set to play tracks within a specified beats per minute range.  All this information is displayed on a screen control panel in the rather cramped A/V control room that houses the CD multiplayer, video and LaserDisc machines and the various mixers and matrixes.  Amplifiers, 11 MPA400s and one MPA600, are stored in a separate room, fiendishly hidden behind the hat check counter.

Part of the main console in the A/V control room, with screen controller and LD machines.

The main reason the Rothstein eschewed a propriety software system and designed his own is that others threw up too many problems.  With this custom approach he hopes to achieve what he calls ‘complete control of the musical environment’.  For anyone with machine-phobia, there is a manual over-ride and a DJ to oversee the process and play in the film clips from either video sources or LaserDisc.  Eventually the London Planet Hollywood will be fully equipped with four LaserDisc players and two VCRs.

In the New York Planet Hollywood, the seven video screens were operated individually, with a switch for each.  Now with London the system has progressed to a box with a master switch, while still retaining the option to operate screens individually if need be.  Rothstein and his technicians are currently working on a new version of the control software that will be able to select and programme LaserDiscs in the same way it lines up CDs.  The plan is to use a 50 disc LaserDisc caddie, incorporating the same parameters as the music package.  It is hoped that this will be ready for installation towards the end of the summer.  The next Planet Hollywoods planned are Chicago and Washington D.C., with the intention of possibly upgrading London to total A/V automation after that.

Rothstein claims that the whole system developed ‘out of trying to get studio quality in a big environment.’ That would certainly explain the emphasis on the control side of the installation and the amount of speakers.  For other, less entertainment oriented aspects of the set-up, there is a zoned paging facility allowing announcements to be made calling diners to their tables.  On the pure safety side there is a separate automatic voice evacuation system with battery back-up.

Ted Rothstein estimates that ten years ago he was designing one restaurant a year, with the rest of his time taken up with about ten recording studios.  Now he says that ratio has now changed to around ten restaurants and two studios, which proves that while the production market has slowed, there is certainly growth in places that provide an outlet for the end product.  And with current interest in Planet Hollywood, and Mrs. Shwarzenegger’s strudel, there is likely to be no slow-up in the proliferation of outlets.

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