Kermit the Frog and that ‘bitch’ Joan: the starry story of the Walk of Fame
The time-honoured LA institution, which has just unveiled its 2,660th star, is probably Hollywood's best piece of marketing
It’s 82 degrees on Sunset Boulevard, and Izan has been queuing for four hours to catch a glimpse of the Hollywood Walk of Fame’s 2,660th star being unveiled. Beads of sweat trickle from beneath the wool beanie he’s unaccountably wearing, a bottle of Gatorade is Velcro-bound to the chest strap helping to hold his backpack in place, and the camera phone he’s been holding up since I arrived – despite there being nothing to see yet – is trembling.
While I am unfamiliar with the recipients of today’s star – a Latino group named Cypress Hill – Izan is clearly a huge fan. “Of Cypress?” he flings back, without taking his eyes off the empty stage. “No. But I never miss a new star. Haven’t missed one in three years. Piece of history, right?”
More than a piece of history, the Walk of Fame is probably the best piece of marketing Hollywood has yet come up with. You might not think a place with that many magical connotations needs help being sold; you’d be wrong. As celebrities eschew public appearances in favour of safer social media, Walk of Fame ceremonies are one of the only regular opportunities left where fans and the media can revel in genuine, old-Hollywood-style glamour.
Those ceremonies tend to throw up uniquely touching photo opps: in 2018 we were able to witness Michael Douglas sharing a tender moment with his wheelchair-bound father, Kirk, “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin being honoured posthumously and Minnie Mouse still looking fine (if unavoidably plastic) on her 90th birthday. And given that the first stars were laid in 1958, after the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s president, EM Stuart, came up with the idea, the Hollywood Walk of Fame is pretty much as ancient as LA history gets.
But for avid fans like Izan who turn up twice a month, 12 months a year, desperate to watch those stars being presented, it’s generally more about celebrity, according to Ana Martinez, the powerhouse behind the 15-block stretch of pavement: “Not one particular celebrity, but celebrity itself and Hollywood.”
That motivation attracts 10 million tourists to visit the Walk of Fame every year. “It’s the one award that can be shared with the fans,” says Martinez. “Because an Oscar, a Grammy or a Tony are all on someone’s mantel in their house.” Added to which, because honorees are duty bound to come to the ceremony, they tend to be in their fan-friendliest moods, working their way through the penned-in public, taking selfies and signing autographs.
Given the dodgy part of town we’re in, the closeness of the crowds and the blank fervour in Izan’s eyes, I’m wondering whether some of the 40-odd honorees who turned down a star – including Cher – had safety concerns. Barbra Streisand is the only person to have one, despite bottling it at the last minute. “I wasn’t working here at the time,” says Martinez, “so I don’t know what happened and she later turned up to her husband James Brolin’s ceremony, but I hear she got very nervous.”
There are LAPD cars stationed at every corner and the podium itself is guarded by half a dozen security guards, but I’m conscious of a febrile atmosphere that would make me nervous if I were a celebrity. But in the 31 years that Martinez has been working for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, she’s only witnessed two real incidents, she says. “The first was at the unveiling of David Bowie’s star, when a woman jumped over the fence and had to be restrained, and the second was with Shakira, when this young man went kind of crazy and again jumped over the fence. But he must have been very light, because this security guard picked him up by the elbows and took him out immediately.”
Any real acts of excessive fervour or aggression tend to have been perpetrated against the terrazzo-and-brass stars’ namesakes – at night. And while stars from Bill Cosby’s to Mariah Carey’s have been vandalised, Trump’s has overwhelmingly been the most defaced, having been spat on, spray-painted with a swastika, a “mute” icon, and the words “Putin’s Bitch” – “not to mention smashed with a pick axe twice”. But the most perplexing act of vandalism occurred in 2005, when Martinez received a call early one morning to say Gregory Peck’s star had disappeared.
“We went over there to find that a big square had been cut out of the sidewalk, and those stars are 300lb (136kg)!” Did they ever find it? “Nope, but witnesses reported seeing some guys in high-visibility vests digging it up in the middle of the night. Everyone just thought they were workers.”
Although Martinez is clearly relieved that Harvey Weinstein was never given a star, she is adamant that even the most controversial celebrities’ stars will never be removed. “Because the committee votes on their work, not their personal lifestyle.”
The process by which the chamber selects their honorees has attracted its share of controversy. While it’s known that anyone with five years’ experience in the five categories – radio, TV, motion pictures, recording and live performance – who practises philanthropy can be nominated for a star, and understood that only 24 to 30 of 300 nominations will be selected yearly, the fact that the “sponsors” nominating the names are usually a film or music company with a stake in the star’s celebrity has led some to question the legitimacy of what could be construed as a “pay to play” promotional game. Those sponsors pay $50,000 for that star to be handed out, which according to Vice, makes the whole thing a far cry from the “kind of altruistic government operation to honour artistic achievement” that it purports to be.
All of which is nonsense, says Martinez, who swears the committee does not get lobbied. “The majority of the money goes to the Hollywood Historic Trust, a non-profit that repairs and maintains the stars. And the rest goes to the chamber: we pay for the ceremony, we hire security and we have a photographer archive the photographs. We’re promoting our community and giving the fans a free event that benefits everyone.”
Although Martinez buzzes around throughout Cypress Hill’s ceremony, I catch a glimpse of genuine emotion as the group reveal their star. As a Latina, she admits, it means a lot to her to see the first Latino hip hop group honoured – and another historic boundary broken. And although there have been many memorable moments over the years, from the misspelling of actor Dick Van Dyke’s name in 1993 to the entire cast of the Muppets supporting Kermit the Frog in 2002, one moment will remain memorable: the day Johnny Grant was awarding a star to Joan Rivers, whom he accidentally called Joan Collins. “It’s okay, Johnny,” said the comedian, stepping up to the podium. “I’ve been called a bitch before.”
There are some glaring omissions that Martinez is hoping to see rectified. “I’d love to see Julia Roberts there, Gwen Stefani and George Clooney – I’ve been waiting for him forever.” Haven’t we all? But at their current rate, won’t they one day run out of sidewalk? “Oh no: it’s two and a half miles! And back when we were outside the Roosevelt Hotel and we found we were running out of space, Johnny Grant said to me, ‘let’s just do a double row’. So we did. And now we’ll just keep adding more.”
A suitable approach in a town where less has never been more, and more will always be better.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)