LOS ANGELES – If it weren’t for two guys with a bunch of crushed granite, Hollywood might not have its iconic Walk of Fame.
The 2 1/2-mile-long sidewalk monument, with its parade of pink and black stars bearing names of Hollywood luminaries, draws international media coverage for each new star placement and an endless line of camera-toting tourists from all over the world.
They find their favorites and pose for pictures standing or kneeling atop stars like Marlon Brando and Michael Jackson, or any of 2,312 others. The Walk of Fame, almost all of it running along Hollywood Boulevard, is a tiny piece of Tinseltown magic anyone can experience.
The latest crop of honorees – including Sean “Diddy” Combs, Michelle Pfeiffer and Barbara Walters – was announced last week by honorary Hollywood mayor Johnny Grant, who considers getting a star “equivalent to the Oscar.”
“The Oscars have three months of hype,” says Grant, 83, who also serves as chairman of the Walk of Fame committee. “We have hype year round.”
These days, this glamorous symbol of Hollywood dreams-come-true is very much a business arrangement. Star-dedication ceremonies are usually timed to big movie openings or record releases, and famous folks, or their studios or sponsors, pay $15,000 to see their name in brass.
When it began, though, it was all about selling terrazzo.
In 1955, Garrie Thompson and Gordon McWilliams, proprietors of Anesco Construction Co., were looking for new clients at the same time the Hollywood Improvement Program was looking to spruce up the community. The two men had an idea: Why not pay tribute to the movie business and improve the look of Hollywood Boulevard with mosaic stars bearing celebrities’ names? And, of course, use their company to do the construction. They brought the improvement program a prototype: a brown terrazzo star emblazoned with John Wayne’s name in shiny brass.
Community shot-callers loved it. They held meetings at the legendary Brown Derby restaurant to discuss which performers and industry giants might be worthy of a permanent place in Hollywood history.
Eventually, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce approved 1,558 famous names from radio, recording, television and film – including Marilyn Monroe and William Fox, the founder of Fox Studios – to be honored in terrazzo perpetuity. None of the honorees was asked for a contribution. The work started in 1958 and the Walk of Fame was officially dedicated on Feb. 8, 1960.
By the late ’60s, Hollywood Boulevard was a haven for hookers and druggies. The Walk of Fame was dormant.
The star-granting committee still existed – with one representative from each of its categories: film, television, radio, recording and live performance – but no stars were awarded for 10 years, Grant says.
When he signed on to help resurrect the landmark in 1980, Grant, then a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce member and recent star recipient, established two new rules: Stars have to show up to get their star on the Walk of Fame and they’ve got to help pay for the upkeep.
The original criteria for the awards stayed the same as it was in the ’60s, Grant says. Candidates must have a “level of recognized professional achievement,” at least five years of longevity in their field and have made charitable or civic contributions.
With the celebrity presence, each star-dedication ceremony became a show for the cameras. Grant brought out marching bands, motorcycles and major media. Walk of Fame presentations were nightly news staples.
The nomination process helped make it a fan favorite, as anyone could nominate a celebrity for a star.
David Rossi of New Jersey created the Weird Al (Yankovic) Star Fund in 2003 to raise money for a possible Yankovic star. It took three years to collect $15,000 from fellow fans, Rossi says. He’ll have to wait at least another year. Yankovic wasn’t one of the 23 honorees named for 2007, but applications are good for two years.
Weird Al fan Joe Lavelle, who helped raise the $15,000, says if Yankovic gets the award, “It will feel a little bit like it’s my star too.”
That’s what makes the Walk of Fame unique, Grant says: “It’s an honor the celebrity can share with the people who made it happen.”
The Walk of Fame committee, which Grant says has remained virtually unchanged since he joined 26 years ago, now reviews more than 200 applications a year. Grant and the four other members – who are seated for life by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce – meet each June and award about 20 stars annually.
The fee to sponsor a star wasn’t always so steep. In 1980, it cost $2,500. But as the boulevard has aged, maintenance of the 300-pound terrazzo tiles has gotten more expensive, Grant says. Most honorees don’t mind the $15,000 fee, he adds.
“These studios, when they want a star and they’ve got a picture opening, they’d give you $100,000,” Grant says.
Some honorees never collect their stars, Grant says.
“Just about everybody wants one,” he says. “But some people get voted in and I think it’s just the ego that they got in. They don’t want to spend the $15,000.”