I mentioned last week that I was recently in Los Angeles, visiting my brother and sister-in-law (see Spinning in Tinseltown). They live in Hollywood, not just literally but figuratively as well: my brother works as the IT guy for a film studio; my sister-in-law produces food-based reality-TV shows. So they are well and truly in “the Business”, as they say in L.A.
And thanks to the Business, all of us around the world think we already know Hollywood. We all have a sense of the place, and chances are that even right now a pretty clear picture of “Hollywood” has popped into your mind. Probably one that involves tall palm trees set against a clear blue sky, film studios populated by movie moguls and celebrities, and on the hill behind town nine massive letters, each 45 feet high, spelling out the word HOLLYWOOD for all the world to see.
Never mind that this globally recognised icon had nothing to do with the entertainment industry. It was put up in 1923 as an advertising sign, for a real estate development in nearby Beachwood Canyon. Initially the sign was made up of thousands of light bulbs, and didn’t even read as it does now – the letters back then spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND (the last four letters were removed in 1945). And even though in films you might see starry-eyed lovers sitting under the sign gazing at the lights of L.A. below, in reality this would be almost impossible. Because the Hollywood sign is on an isolated hilltop, away from roads, surrounded by fences, and nowadays protected by an alarm system as well.
You probably also know that Hollywood Boulevard is the main road cutting through the heart of the world’s movie capital. Indeed you might even know the names of some of its landmarks. Like the TCL Chinese Theatre (at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard, previously known as Mann’s Chinese Theatre and before that as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Built in the 1920s to resemble an oversized Chinese pagoda, through the years this has been the location for more film premiers than is possible to count. Although you might know it more for its famous forecourt, where from time to time movie-industry notables are invited to have their signatures, footprints or handprints set in concrete. But to preserve the illusion that this in some way reflects merit, you might need to overlook the fact that movie studios often pay handsomely for the privilege.
Or like the Dolby Theatre (at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard, until recently known as the Kodak Theatre). Along with about one billion other people, you have most likely made an annual trip here, usually in early March on Academy Awards night. Since 2001 this has been the permanent home of the world’s most famous awards ceremony. This is where you watch celebs arrive in a fleet of black limousines, to strut down the red carpets in stunning ball gowns and dapper tuxedos, while paparazzi snap photos and search lights strafe the sky. This is where Oscars get awarded, vacuous thank-you speeches get made, and fabulous after-parties are held. This is where stars are born. And so on.
As I said, you already know Hollywood, even if you have never been there. Or at least you think you do.
Of all of Hollywood’s attractions, possibly the most well-known is the Walk of Fame.
It runs along Hollywood Boulevard between Gower and La Brea, for about fifteen blocks, so over two kilometres in total. On each side of the road, terrazzo tiles are embedded into the pavement, every metre or so. Altogether there are more than 2,500. Each tile is inlaid with a brass star, on which is engraved the name of an entertainment notable, in one of five categories: motion pictures, television, music, radio, and theatre (each category signified by a unique symbol on the tile). More than ten million people a year come here to walk “the Walk”, gazing down at the famous names underfoot. Its kind of like a giant outdoor museum celebrating the entertainment industry.
As it turns out, my brother and sister-in-law live pretty much on the corner of Hollywood and Gower, at the easternmost end of the Walk of Fame. On the last day of my visit they were both busy, so suggested I amuse myself for a few hours with a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard, to check out the sights and the stars.
This sounded like an excellent plan – despite many visits to Los Angeles I had never done this before – and I engaged in a bit of quick pre-research to enhance my star-gazing experience. In the course of which I learned a lot of interesting things.
Like that the Walk of Fame was initially proposed in 1953 by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, to “maintain the glory of a community whose name means glamour and excitement in the four corners of the world.” But after that it took three years for the concept to be agreed, another year for a design to be selected, and another year for the first potential honourees to be selected by a Committee.
Then, America being America, two lawsuits were filed to stop the walk being built. The first by local property owners, who didn’t want to pay a special levy raised by the city to finance the construction. The second by the son of Charlie Chaplin, who objected to the fact that his father’s nomination had been withdrawn due to “questionable morality” (in the 1940’s Chaplin had been charged, but ultimately acquitted, for having a relationship with a 24 year old woman). It was only once these lawsuits were dismissed that the Walk of Fame was built, starting in 1960. (Incidentally, Chaplin was finally awarded a star in 1972, the year I was born, and the year he won an Academy Award).
The first star is commonly believed to have been that of actress Joanne Woodward, although she was actually one of eight names drawn at random and installed simultaneously as “display stars” while litigation was still underway. Since the initial construction phase, in which over 1,500 stars were laid down, about two dozen new stars have been added each year. More than half of all stars to-date are in the motion picture category, reflecting the centrality of the movie business to Hollywood. The 2,000th star was that of Sophia Loren; the 2,500th star Jennifer Lopez. The most recent star (September 2013) is that of super-crooner Barry White (of “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Baby” fame). Initially stars were plonked down without any fanfare, but nowadays a new star is accompanied by a formal ceremony and all the attendant razzamatazz that you’d expect from the Hollywood machine.
Some people have more than one star. Like Michael Jackson, there both in his own right and as part of the Jackson Five. There is also a third star with the name Michael Jackson on it, but this is for a radio personality, not the singer we all know. Apparently when Michael Jackson the singer died in 2009, the star of Michael Jackson the radio guy got mistakenly covered in flowers and wreaths by distraught fans. There are also two Harrison Ford stars (one for a silent film actor, the other for Han Solo / Indiana Jones).
The only person with an individual star in each of the five categories is Gene Autrey (director, actor, TV personality and singing cowboy from the 1930s). Fifteen unrelated people with the surname Williams have stars; the Barrymore family is the most starred family with seven members honoured. One former US President has a star (Ronald Reagan), and two former California Governors have stars (you guessed it: Ronnie again, joined by Arnie). A number of fictional characters have stars too, like Mickey Mouse and Shrek, not to mention my personal childhood favourite, Kermit. Although thus far Miss Piggy has been cruelly overlooked by the Walk of Fame selection committee, those porkist bastards.
In short, who knew? So many fascinating bits of trivia; so many famous names; so many slices of popular culture! I couldn’t believe I had not done the Walk before. I was pumped, and armed with information, a map and my camera I set off to explore. I was totally ready for the glamour of Hollywood Boulevard. This was going to be a fabulous, fabulous afternoon.
Which just goes to show how right Shakespeare got it when he famously wrote: “Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises”.
Or put another way, the Walk of Fame is possibly the most disjointedly bizarre “attraction” I have ever visited. It is a place where the mental image you bring with you is instantly trashed, different in every way to what you find on the ground. On Hollywood Boulevard expectation and reality are about as far apart as Elton John and the Duck Dynasty guys, say.
The reason is simple: the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard between Gower and La Brea, which is where the Walk of Fame is, can best be described as a human flea-pit. Apart from the stars beneath your feet, there is nothing at all pleasant about this strip of road. If it were not for the associated glory of the cinema industry, it would be a place to be avoided at all costs, unless you are a pimp, gangster or drug-pusher.
OK, maybe that is not quite true. There is one small section of Hollywood Boulevard, running for a few hundred metres just in front of the Chinese and Dolby theatres, that more or less meets expectations. In this area the street is well lit, the surrounding stores are well kept and pleasant, and the tourists outnumber the local degenerates.
Here as I was walking past they were setting up for the premier of a new (and unspeakably awful) buddy cop movie, Ride Along. Which meant that here at least Hollywood Boulevard looked a little bit like what I had been expecting: clean and glitzy, crowded with visitors, stars on the pavement, a red carpet lined with crowd-control barricades and curious onlookers straining to catch a glimpse of the stars.
But outside of this, you have no idea how seriously shitty Hollywood Boulevard actually is. It is lined up and down with vacant lots, and plenty of unoccupied stores, that are either boarded up or have tatty “To Let” signs pasted on their cracked windows. Graffiti covers just about every wall, and there is litter lying everywhere. And that’s just the empty stores. Those that are tenanted are worse, in that they seem to be exclusively purveyors of tattoos, medical marijuana and associated smoking implements, crappy take-away food, naked women, cheap clothes, souvenirs, and porn.
Now you probably think I am exaggerating for the sake of this story. But I am not. Indeed, as I wandered along in shock I wrote down a small sample of the stores that I passed: Hollywood Cabaret (which advertises peep shows and “totally nude girls”), The Cave (with its “famous dancers”), Tabu Smoke & Gift Shop (allowing you to shop for your dope and souvenirs in the one convenient location), Hollywood Tattoo, Sandy Burger, and rather bizarrely alongside this lot, the L. Ron Hubbard Life Extension Centre.
And that was just a few places, side by side on the north side of the road on the single block between Vine and Ivar streets. Now multiply that out to both sides of the street, and then stretch it out for fifteen blocks. Got the image in your mind? Good. Now that’s the Hollywood Boulevard of real life, as opposed to the one that might have been lurking in your imaginings until a few moments ago.
Most of the people I encountered as I walked along seemed perfectly matched to the setting, being pretty much exactly the type of folks you’d expect to find frequenting a mall of sleaze. There were homeless people panhandling for change, in almost every vacant doorway. I passed weird guys with dreadlocks talking to themselves; tough looking dudes hovering in packs on corners; bikers and hustlers and vagrants, delinquents and thugs. Away from the area of the Chinese and Dolby theatres the tourist numbers thinned out rapidly, although here and there I still came across some strays. Like a Japanese couple, who I spotted wandering around in a more dodgy part of Hollywood Boulevard,obviously lost. They looked incredibly fretful and anxious, but still dutifully photographed the stars on their massive (and clearly expensive) camera, all under the watchful eye of a thoughtful street gang.
And again, I am really not exaggerating all that much. It got to the point where the whole atmosphere felt so menacing I quietly slipped my watch off my wrist, and popped it into my pocket. I didn’t want to give any mugger an excuse.
But here’s the thing: in and amongst all of this slime, the Walk of Fame continues uninterrupted. So for example, in that very same section between Vine and Ivar streets, around 60 stars are arranged neatly along the pavement. Including those of Laurence Olivier and Grace Kelley, acting luminaries who appear to have now been relegated to rubbing feet, as it were, with pizza shops and derelicts. A bit further down the road Frank Sinatra is remembered forever in front of a cheesy t-shirt shop. The Village People have a star outside of the Scientology Testing Centre. And I wonder what Rudolph Valentino would say if he knew that people literally have to walk over his star to gain access to a crummy parking lot.
But they are lucky, relatively speaking. Count Bassie’s star, for instance, is on the footpath just by the Hollywood Hookah smoking lounge. Lucille Ball’s star can be found in front of Playmates, a naughty lingerie store. Queen’s star is just a few steps away from the front door of Vice Nightclub, the name of which says it all. And then there are Dr Suess, Pee Wee Herman and Orson Welles, who share space along a section of footpath with a smoke shop, a tattoo parlour and the Lady Love fetish emporium.
I could continue, but I think you get the point. The Walk of Fame might well be a permanent memorial to the legends of the entertainment world, but it is set in a modern-day environment that is far more in keeping with a red-light district. And not at all in keeping with the reflected shine you’d expect from the silver screen.
All in all Hollywood Boulevard may not have been what I was expecting, but I will say this much: it was oddly fascinating. So I went up and down it for more than two hours, engaged in the slightly weird game of reading the name of a star under my feet, and then matching it up to the grim reality surrounding it.
All too soon it got dark though, and as the light faded I felt a growing and very real sense of fear for my personal safety. So I didn’t linger, and instead hot-footed it back to the safety of my brother’s living room, as fast as I could.
In any case I had seen enough to have all my preconceptions turned completely upside down. Hollywood Boulevard is nothing like you might imagine. Globally it might be the centre of the most glamorous industry in the world, home of the movies and the stars. But locally it is a thoroughly seedy bit of asphalt, best avoided after dark unless you are in the market for sex toys and strippers.
I suppose though that’s Hollywood for you – a place which can take the crud of everyday life, sprinkle it with fairy-dust, and then sell it right back to you as being something special and alluring.