When its first movie-themed restaurant opened in New York on October 22, 1991, the name Planet Hollywood was just a cute moniker. Twenty years later, a visit to Planet Hollywood really does feel like a trip to an alternate Earth, where the 1990s never ended, digital effects never reshaped mainstream movies, and Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are still the biggest movie stars in the world.
I was at the Planet Hollywood in Times Square yesterday for a press junket; it was my first time inside any Planet Hollywood in at least a dozen years. But back in the day, I was a regular PH customer. All through the 1990s, I probably ate at at least half a dozen different Planet Hollywoods on two continents. I don’t remember much about the food — which is probably for the best — I just loved the point in any meal when my parents would let me and my brother walk around and look at all the props and costumes from movies. It was a big deal at the time; my “Planet Hollywood Disneyland Paris” T-shirt was one the prized possessions of my teenage years. Can you believe I didn’t have a girlfriend until after I graduated high school? Me neither.
I fully acknowledge that I was a pathetic dweeb, worthy of all the wedgies and book checks I received as a kid. But you have to remember that Planet Hollywood was born of a era before DVDs special features and Internet video. Nowadays, we have access to “movie magic” at our fingertips. Every great movie has its own comprehensive making-of documentary and commentary tracks. If I’m too lazy to walk over to my DVD shelf to pick one out, I can probably find what I’m looking for in the web with a few keystrokes. But back in the ’90s, going to places like Planet Hollywood or the old Universal Studios theme park were some of the only ways to see and learn about this stuff.
Planet Hollywood was just one member of a whole fraternity of weirdly themed restaurants in the 1990s inspired by the success of the Hard Rock Cafe. The apparent goal of these establishments was to see who could find the least appetizing ambience for tourists to eat popcorn shrimp in. During the height of the theme restaurant craze in New York City you could go chow in a oil-soaked racetrack pit (The NASCAR Cafe) or a mad scientist’s torture lab (The Jekyll and Hyde Club) or even in a sweat-soaked locker room (The All-Star Cafe). “Honey, your chicken fajita sandwich smells so good, it totally drowns out the odor of Dennis Rodman’s game used Reebok Pumps!” Deeeeelish.
Most of the theme restaurants are gone, but Planet Hollywood endures. The branch in New York City — one of only 14 left in the world out of dozens during its heyday — is actually housed in the old All-Star Cafe location (PH’s parent company owned both chains). Walking into it was like walking back into my childhood, and not just for all the nostalgic connections I had with the place. No, the restaurant looks almost exactly as it did back then, with most of the same memorabilia. Apart from a couple costumes from the recent movie “Beastly,” and Jason Statham’s jacket from “The Mechanic,” I didn’t see a single item on display from anything made after 1998. The juxtapositions were jarring, with legitimate pieces of movie history (like Jimmy Stewart’s camera and telephoto lens from “Rear Window”) sitting right next to head-scratching footnotes (like Salma Hayek’s spangly hat from “54”). In a dark corner upstairs, a Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers jersey hung next to Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen’s power suits from the original “Wall Street.” All the pieces I remembered from my childhood were still there. Schwarzenegger’s T-800 costume and makeup from “Terminator 2” still greeted you at the entrance. Sylvester Stallone’s cryogenically frozen body from “Demolition Man” still hung, nakedly and unappetizingly, from the main dining room ceiling.
In other words, you don’t take a trip to Planet Hollywood anymore; you embark on an archaeological dig. And the restaurant seems to encourage that vibe with dark, dingy lighting, even on some of the props — I felt like I should be wearing one of those flashlight pith helmets as I walked up the dim staircase to the main dining room, past the giant piano from “Big” and a phaser from “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” When Planet Hollywood opened, these weren’t relics; they were representations of cutting-edge filmmaking technology. Now they’re souvenirs not just from a bygone era in the restaurant business, but in the movie business as well.
The owners of Planet Hollywood surely made some missteps along the way to two different bankruptcies, but they’ve also been laid low by forces beyond their control. In the pre-DVD age, Planet Hollywood was a magical place. Where else were you going to see a giant model of the Death Star from “Return of the Jedi?” Now documentaries about the making of “Star Wars” air on basic cable four nights a week. They’ve been hurt even more badly by the rise of CGI, which have by now totally replaced the kinds of analog special effects that Planet Hollywood fetishized. Sure, Planet Hollywood celebrated the sometimes crass and comercial world of mainstream filmmaking. But the stuff they displayed represented the remarkable work of skilled artists and craftsmen who rarely got the recognition they deserved while they toiled away in model shops and effects studios.
Today’s blockbuster don’t leave behind as many trinkets to commemorate their creation. Everything’s made with computers; there’s nothing tangible to hang on to. What are they supposed to hang from the ceiling from “Revenge of the Sith?” A giant green screen? One of the hard drives that rendered Yoda? No wonder there’s so few post-1998 SFX props on display. They just don’t exist in Hollywood anymore, let alone in Planet Hollywood.
Dated though they may be, there are some truly impressive pieces at Planet Hollywood if you’re a big enough movie dork to appreciate them: Redford and Newman’s costumes from “The Sting,” a Slimer from “Ghostbusters,” Matthew Broderick’s hideous leopard print vest from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” At first I felt like they deserved a better fate, maybe hanging in a museum somewhere. But then I thought, what better testament to the faded glory of movies past than a Planet Hollywood? I didn’t eat anything — which is probably for the best — but I’m going to recommend people go and check it out for themselves. Yesterday was the first time in my life I actually felt like I was time travelling.