VISIT TO A SMALL PLANETPLANET HOLLYWOOD'S OPENING ILLUSTRATES THE SMALL-TOWN MINDSET OF VALLEY MEDIA

First it was Burt and Loni.
Then it was Ted and Whoopi.
And now, after one of the hottest, heaviest and most embarrassing relationships the town has ever seen, the honeymoon between Planet Hollywood and the Phoenix media finally appears to be over.

And not a moment too soon. Just ask anyone who suffered through the deluge of nonstop newspaper and TV coverage surrounding the glitzateria that nouveau restaurateurs Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone and Bruce Willis opened at Biltmore Fashion Park late last month.

In preparation for this momentous event, the Arizona Republic sent a reporter to the opening of the Planet Hollywood in Aspen earlier this year to formulate a game plan for the Valley satellite's opening. Since January 1, the R&G has run more than 30 separate articles and items about the movie-themed tourist mecca, few of them any more objective than a press release.

Channel 10, meanwhile, produced what amounted to a half-hour commercial for the restaurant, inadvertently jeopardizing telephone service across the city when thousands of viewers jammed the lines in an attempt to win a phone-in contest promoted during the telecast. The prize? Choice bleacher seats, all the better to gawk at a gaggle of largely second-string celebs.

During a preopening peek at the club, Channel 12's Wallace Reynolds was evidently star-struck by being in the same room with such classic movie "memorabilias" [sic] as the shirt worn by Jean-Claude Van Damme. So much so that he became geographically disoriented, pointing out that Planet Hollywood has "nine restaurants across the country, including one in London, England."

But at least Reynolds had the shirt off Van Damme's back. Bud Wilkinson broadcast live from Planet Hollywood on opening night, and Channel 10 viewers had to take his word that it was a stellar night: Although there wasn't a star in sight, the Critic-at-Large assured Phoenix that, yes, he actually saw Don Johnson a moment ago.

Like a small-town rube blind to the true motives of the big-city painted lady (the restaurant's garish pink, green and orange exterior would look more at home on a carnival midway than on the most visible corner of what used to be a stylish shopping center), the Phoenix fourth estate fell prey to Planet Hollywood's wiles in a big way.

Never suspecting that the celebrity-owned eatery was a Tinseltown tease that would never come across (with an invitation to the restaurant's star-studded opening on March 27, that is), many members of the local press pursued this seductive nonstory as if it were a cross between a coronation, a papal visit and an extraterrestrial invasion. And when this one-sided affair came to its inevitable end, Planet Hollywood unceremoniously gave the local media yokels the heave-ho. With lines around the building and enough press clippings to fill a couple of scrapbooks, who needs em?

And the press corps scorned? It stood out in the parking lot with the rest of the Phoenix hoi polloi, some of whom had camped out for 12 hours or more just to get a glimpse of the big bash that had been blasted all over the paper and the TV news.

So why all the excitement over an upscale tourist trap that does everything but sell film on the menu? And what of the much-touted opening-night celebration that at least one first-nighter describes as "an overblown dog-and-pony show"?

(According to the afterparty buzz, more than a few civilian partygoers were insulted that celebrity guests were cordoned off in a separate holding pen. "It was shabby treatment," grouses one guest. "What are they worried about? Like Jerry Colangelo's going to attack Sly Stallone?")

"As sophisticated as we like to believe we are, Phoenix is still waaaay back there," insists Valley society columnist Danny Medina, editor of the Scottsdale-based Trends. "You've got to remember a lot of CEOs in this town are not from California or New York--they're from the Midwest. I even know a couple of women in this town who told their husbands, 'You get tickets to the opening or don't bother to come home.'"
One of the few members of the local press corps to gain entry to Planet Hollywood's A-list opening (celebrity-free rehearsal dinners were held for B- and C-list guests on nights preceding the opening), Medina echoes the sentiments of many when he claims he's "embarrassed" by the local media's "gee-whiz" mentality in covering the event.

Recalling the Republic's feverish countdown coverage (the restaurant's logo was frequently splashed across the pages in full color), Medina moans.

"I cannot believe that a newspaper in any other city of our magnitude would run that crap in the second section, much less the first section," says Medina. "This is incredible! Planet Hollywood is not a world-class restaurant. It's not even a city-class restaurant. I can think of a zillion places I'd rather eat."
But perhaps Medina protests too much. Listening to him, one is reminded of the woman in the famous quip from Annie Hall: Complaining about the fare in a Catskill resort, she carps, "The food was terrible . . . and the portions were so small!"

In the case of Planet Hollywood, some of the people who most loudly proclaim they wouldn't be caught dead in the joint are the very same folks who, less than a week before, were the ones bragging loudest they'd landed invitations.

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