The Hollywood Walk of Fame is, according to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, “undoubtedly one of the most successful marketing ideas ever produced.” I don’t know whether to congratulate them or to sucker punch us for falling victim to the commercial.
And yet the Walk of Fame, for its attempts at crass tourism, is one of the most iconic, and oddest, landmarks of LA. Intended to publicly acknowledge the contributions of those in the industry, we end up walking all over them even as we applaud. It’s like a roast, without the snarky jokes. Muhammad Ali understood this completely, and requested that his star be placed on a wall, like a plaque or other commonplace gesture of tribute. He is the exception: one point three miles of five-point stars line Hollywood streets the way the stars line the sky.
According to Wikipedia and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the cost to build the original section of the Walk of Fame was $1.25 million, which worked out to roughly $85/square foot for each property owner on the stars’ path. Between 1960 and 1961, 1,558 stars were aligned on the sidewalk – excluding, notably, Charlie Chaplin. Foreshadowing the finicky and political nature of the star selection process, Chaplin was denied a star despite his uh, mildly groundbreaking work in film. The committee cited some vague thing or two about his morals (read: the 1960s were a bad, bad time to be a lefty). The Tramp finally was given his due in 1972.
Today, you have to survive the politics as well as the economics to get a star on the Walk. Anyone can be nominated so long as they have at least five years experience in one of five categories (television, film, radio, recording, and live theater) and so long as the nominee actually agrees to be nominated (deceased celebrities may be nominated, but they must be deceased for – you guessed it – at least five years). Of the 200-ish nominations received each year, twenty are selected every June. This year, Melissa Etheridge, Ridley Scott, The Muppets (!!), and Oprah are amongst the stars chosen for a star. If you glance through the roster of stars, you’ll notice that for every deserving recipient (Johnny Carson, the Beatles), there a few dubious ones. The Rugrats, really? Drew Carey? Kim Basinger?
In addition, there is a little issue of money: recipients must pay a mandatory fee of $25,000 to create and install their star, as well as to maintain the Walk of Fame generally. It’s sort of like adopting a highway, except you get a star instead of an ugly roadside sign.
In the rare, rare occasions I’m in Hollywood, I get a kick out of watching which stars people stop to photograph. One weekend afternoon a month or so ago, I watched as Michael Jackson’s star (in front of Grauman’s) was photographed by every person who walked by it. Some apparently made it a point to seek out his five points; others were excited to find him by happenstance. This reminded me of the other, more touching use of the Walk of Fame: as a place where we all can assemble, mourn, and pay our final respects.
Other stars that people like to photograph: Lucille Ball (I saw three separate parties snap a pic of her star (honoring her film contributions) at Hollywood and Wilcox. The star honoring her for I Love Lucy and other television work is further down on Gower); Johnny Depp (outside of Grauman’s); and Kermit the Frog (whose birthplace is “NA.” C’mon, we all know he was born in the swamps…).
So iconic is the Walk of Fame, and so successful has it been at mashing tribute with tourism, that it has spawned other similar walks. The Canadian Walk of Fame in Toronto honors the contributions of Canadians. The Dog Walk of Fame in London honors the contributions of Toto, Gromit, and other pooches of note. The Palm Springs Walk of Fame honors those who “must have, by their presence in the area, contributed to the charm, worldwide prominence and name recognition of Greater Palm Springs.” (Contrary to what you may believe, there are non-gay people on that Walk of Fame too.).
For many aspiring to make it in Hollywood, getting a star on the Walk of Fame (Hollywood) is a sign that they indeed have touched the star they tried so hard to reach. And when you are lauded one day, stepped on the next, well, you really did a swell job of earning that gold star.
Awesome aerial view of the Walk of Fame courtesy Christian Haugen under a Creative Commons license. Photos of the Dennis Hopper and Michael Jackson stars courtesy lucyrk via the Blogging LA Flickr pool.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is but one icon we’re covering in our LA’s Greatest Landmarks series. See the others here.