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The Real Heart of America's Dream Factory

Hollywood may get all the hype, but 'beautiful downtown Burbank' is where all the action is.

As more and more heat-scorched tourists are finding out this summer, Johnny Carson was being both cruel and kind when he uttered with mock enthusiasm the phrase: "Beautiful downtown Burbank."

The all-time king of late-night TV used the frequent, on-air plug as a kind of self-effacing, full-disclosure statement. He wanted to let audiences know that, in fact, "The Tonight Show" was not broadcast from the "entertainment capital of the world," Hollywood. Truth be told, Mr. Carson said with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink smile, America's most-watched talk show was actually produced nearby in this nondescript, San Fernando Valley town of 100,000.

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The oxymoronic tag line was kind because it made Burbank world famous. It was cruel, as I reminded myself with a leisurely drive this week, because there is no beautiful downtown - and the mean-spirited might add, anything - in Burbank. Directly across from the posh NBC studios that bring you "Days of Our Lives" and "Saved by the Bell" are a startling array of uncompromisingly nonposh establishments that include radiator repair shops, taco stands, and rundown homes the size of Monopoly houses.

"Yeah, it pops your bubble a bit to come all this way to see your favorite stars and be stuck in such a teeny, sleepy little town," Delores Delmonico says. The Nike-wearing, plaid-clad tourist had come all the way from Yakima, Wash., to wait in line for tickets to see Carson's successor, Jay Leno.

But now, the full-disclosure people are getting the last laugh.

Although no tourist buses pass through here, and no historic sites draw families in station wagons (yet), Burbank is increasingly where the action really is. That means actual movie and TV production as opposed to Hollywood hype.

For example, Paramount Pictures is the only major film studio that still exists in Hollywood. Burbank is home to three: Walt Disney, Warner Bros., and NBC. Cable giant Nickelodeon this year moved into an Art Deco building near Disney, and Dreamworks SKG - the new studio formed by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg - opened its animation campus just over the Burbank city line in Glendale.

With Universal Pictures just blocks away in Universal City, Burbank has become prime real estate for every manner of pre- and post-production facilities, including set-building, sound and visual effects, film editing, and music scoring.

"Production companies of all kinds have leased up all the space to where Burbank has the tightest commercial real-estate market in southern California," says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "It has become a power center of Los Angeles's burgeoning entertainment industry."

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Power center? Yes. Tourist destination? No. Despite the town's newfound identity (it had centered around Lockheed before the aerospace giant exited two years ago), there is no great spot to send visiting relatives so they can feel the cosmic convergence of America's dream factory.

Instead, there are three distinct nodes - "downtown," the "media center," and an airport district - all separated by miles of warehouse row, circuitous neighborhoods, and isolating freeways.

"I cut back and forth through the city twice before I knew I'd missed it," says Carl Neuhagen, a construction worker from Marietta, Ohio, and another Leno audience wannabe.

Actually, many of the same tourists are similarly shocked to find that Hollywood itself is a somewhat disjointed amalgam of seedy boulevards and decaying hotels. But the legend has lived on partly because of famous spots such as Mann's Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame, and the hillside "Hollywood" sign.

Without such landmarks, Burbank seems destined to remain in the shadow of its neighbor, even though a merchants' group has launched a "Valley of the Stars" campaign to draw attention to the region's studios.

"It's part of the American mystique that one person or place holds the reputation for something while another does all the work behind the scenes," says William Logue, a visiting high school teacher from Brunswick, Ga. "To me, this trip bears that out yet again."

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