Quantcast
The Hollywood Walk of Fame Is America's Most Surreal Tourist Trap

A close look at the kitschy tourist attraction that reflects what LA is, and what it wishes it could be.

Even on days when it's not particularly busy, the 2,538 stars that constitute the Hollywood Walk of Fame are swarmed by street vendors, locals, tour guides, grown adults dressed as movie characters, and tourists eager to touch a small piece of the dream worlds they've spent their lives watching through screens.

Kerry Morrison of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance sees wide-eyed visitors fix their gaze downward, toward the names embedded in the concrete, every day as a part of her job. "It's almost the sense, you feel, that they think that that person is buried there or something," she said. "There's like this symbolic significance to seeing that name in the sidewalk. That's kind of a universal language in a sense."

Hollywood Boulevard is more than just a capitalistic land shark that swallows credit cards. It's a place that stands in, however inadequately, for over 100 years of movie history, a postcard version of all the things that Los Angeles represents to the world. LA is a 469-square-mile mega-city without a center, and for the 42.2 million visitors who came to the city in 2013, all they really know of this place I call home is the nebulous idea of "Hollywood."

Tourists aren't guaranteed to see George Clooney, a member of One Direction, or the rotting corpse of Marilyn Monroe, but you can certainly catch a glimpse of a reasonable wax facsimile for a nominal fee. The shows and films that make up the iconography of our popular culture are ephemeral, and mostly haven't left any physical trace, leaving their worshippers in a bind—where are they supposed to go to pay tribute to the things they love? If Hollywood didn't already exist, it would have to be invented in order to serve as the world's kitschiest pilgrimage destination. And here we are.

Former Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president E.M. Stuart devised the concept behind the Walk of Fame in 1953 in an effort to "maintain the glory of a community whose name means glamour and excitement in the four corners of the world." The project cost $1.25 million, which was paid through taxes levied on neighboring property owners—who sued in protest. Due to legal challenges and construction delays, the Walk didn't officially open to the public until 1961. It ended up being an enormous hit, however: In 1978, the Walk of Fame was declared a Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument, and today, an estimated 10 million visitors come to Hollywood Boulevard every year for the privilege of staring at the sidewalk. New York tourists look up at impossibly tall buildings, but LA tourists look down. I like to think of Los Angeles as the most underrated city in the world for navel-gazing.

Despite its status as a landmark, the Walk of Fame is not some kind of altruistic government operation to honor artistic achievement. This part of Hollywood is operated and maintained by a variety of different agencies: the Chamber of Commerce, the Hollywood Business Improvement District, the Hollywood Property Owners' Alliance, the Hollywood Historic Trust, and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (which has two subway stops along the Walk) among others. Getting anything done in the area routinely becomes a nightmarish game of bureaucratic flag football.

The process of receiving a star is even more complicated. A prospective applicant must be nominated by a third party—a fan, a friend, an agent, or a total stranger. That third party fills out a form, and assuming the star agrees to the nomination, the Chamber of Commerce votes on which applications they'll accept. (The Walk of Fame website says that around 20 to 24 people are chosen each year.)

Those that get picked then have to pay a whopping $30,000 for the ceremony and installation of their star. That's pocket change for the Channing Tatums of the world, but every so often, someone is picked who can't afford the cost of being honored. Star Trek's James Doohan, who played Scotty, had to solicit donations in order to afford his star, which according to his son, was a bargain at $15,000 back in 2003.

Whatever the cost for celebrities, there's a cache to having a star on the Walk of Fame. It legitimizes a career. It says to a tourist, "This person, even if you've never heard of them, is important." The Walk of Fame is a kind of conduit to the magnificent, opulent existence that outsiders imagine defines LA. Tourists must come here expecting some coked-out Beverly Hills Cop fantasy where the natives wear Speedos to dinner and Vin Diesel greets you at the airport with a bag of unmarked bills. Maybe that's why they're so disappointed when they arrive .

A Reddit thread from last month titled " World travelers of reddit, where did you go that was a total disappointment?" showed that Los Angeles is one of the most biggest letdowns in the world. What makes these travelers so unimpressed by LA's charms? In a word, Hollywood:

"I don't dislike the city by any means, I just didn't expect the contrast of homeless people sleeping next to stars on the 'Walk of Fame.'"

"LA kind of forces you to go into the crappy parts. Hell, Hollywood was the crappiest part of LA I visited."

This sort of response would be comical, if it wasn't completely depressing .You can't expect every tourist to adapt to the grittiness of an American metropolis, but some of these commenters seem to think it's shocking that poverty exists in the shiny confines of movieland.

This town isn't just a backdrop for films, of course. In a trend that was mirrored in most American cities during the 1960s and 1970s, LA's urban core fell out of favor with the well-heeled, who moved to more secluded areas like Malibu, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, and Westwood (or more conspicuously, futuristic utopian mega-developments like Century City). The industry left, too, with most of the studios (save for Paramount) abandoning Hollywood for the San Fernando Valley.

The version of Hollywood that remained was both a rotten tooth of a neighborhood and an eerie reminder of a different time. The 1970s and 1980s were a troubled time for Hollywood Boulevard. It wasn't a hub for the film and TV industries anymore, but it had yet to begin its transformation into the cartoon wonderland it is today.

Movie theaters closed and were turned into churches, and strip clubs and tattoo parlors popped up on street corners—not the end of the world for the adventurous sort, but a major turnoff for the kind of people who like to blow cash on "I Love LA" t-shirts and fake Oscars. Even with the redevelopment, many of these seedier storefronts remain. "Mid-BID (the middle of the business improvement district) is probably where the per-capita number of stripper stores, tattoo parlors, and bong shops exceeds anywhere else in LA," Morrison told me.

In the midst of this economic and cultural shift, Hollywood stubbornly held onto its image, like a crazed Norma Desmond screaming about how the pictures got small. Stars continued to be added to the Walk of Fame, even though the streets around them were far grittier than the illusion being sold. Those stars were commemorated by the "Mayor of Hollywood," a fake civic leader for a made-up city.

The title " Mayor of Hollywood," like the Walk of Fame, was a Chamber of Commerce initiative to drum up business in the area. Community leaders, old-timey movie stars, D-list personalities, and newscasters traded the honor every few years. The job entailed slinging handshakes, raising money for neighborhood needs, and acting as a booster for an area of the city that was in dire need of attention. Most importantly, the mayor was master of ceremonies for the installation of new Walk of Fame stars.

A contest organized by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce would periodically be held to choose who would get to slap "mayor" onto their business cards. Band leader and TV presenter Lawrence Welk held the office twice, in 1958 and 1972. Charlton Heston was mayor in 1962. (As far as I know, he didn't run around Sunset Boulevard with a shotgun screaming about apes, but if he did, maybe he would have been reelected.)

Game show host Monty Hall was replaced by former local disc jockey Johnny Grant in 1980, and Grant would serve in the role until his death in 2008. In the new, gentrified Hollywood, the idea of an honorary mayor strikes me as a bit antiquated, and it seems like the Chamber of Commerce agrees. Leron Gubler, the current president of the Chamber, told me that the "board made a decision that they didn't see that there was any real need to rush into having another honorary mayor."

The disinterest in continuing the mayoral tradition didn't stop various local eccentrics from lobbying for the job not long after Grant's death—a list that included model/actress/singer/writer/pink enthusiast Angelyne and TV host Gary Owens. Gubler now hosts all Walk of Fame star ceremonies and functions as a de-facto "mayor" of sorts, which seems appropriate, as he's been here for over two decades and has seen the evolution of Hollywood Boulevard from a great place to get stabbed into an even better place to take a selfie.

"We are very lucky, I tell people, that redevelopment failed in the 60s and 70s and 80s, because they would have probably torn down a lot of the historic buildings in that era," he said. "Because it failed, most of those buildings are still remaining." The new construction that's sprouted up around the Walk of Fame in the last decade has tried to preserve the area's history while also seeking to make it more palatable to the tourists who flock to places like New York's Times Square in numbers that dwarf even the Walk of Fame's.

Kerry Morrison's job is to move the transformation of the neighborhood around the Walk of Fame forward, which means changing it to fit the times. "I've got a 30-year-old [kid] and a 23-year-old—they do not wanna live in the suburbs! They wanna live in the action," she said. "They wanna be able to walk to the grocery store and get food for the night. It's the whole New York experience. That's what we're trying to create." Officials are doing much to pacify the area and squash the complaints of random Redditors, but problems persist. A Walk of Fame street performer was shot by the police this month after witnesses said he was threatening visitors with a knife.

But just as LA isn't New York, Hollywood Boulevard isn't Times Square—a giant public gathering spot and transit hub that resembles a theme park more than an organic part of the city.

When I go to Times Square now, I can't help but think of the giant squid monster from the end of the Watchmen comic book. In the moment before it exploded and wiped me off the face of the planet, I wouldn't spend a nanosecond being surprised that a garish creature like that showed up in the middle of all the corporate neon, glowing screens, Guy Fieri-themed restaurants, and talking chocolates. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is more important to the city it calls home than Times Square. It's a blinkered, daft reflection of what LA is, and what it wishes it could be.

Hollywood is just LA in miniature, a straight shot of economic disparity, delusion, perfect weather, and unflitered desperation—but it wants you to think of it as a place where America's dreams come true, or the place that gives America its dreams in the first place.

Tourists don't come here for potholes, parking tickets, and poverty. That's what they're trying to escape when they board their plane to California. They're here for the dream of Hollywood—the gilded excess, the glamour, and the notorious lack of a moral compass. No star map will direct you to the places you've manufactured in your head. To all those innocent souls in search of a land where fake breasts grow on trees and all the dogs have modeling agents, I apologize. All you have is LA.

Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.