year in culture 2018

Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is the Perfect Monument-as-Metaphor for This Moment

Donald Trump’s star after an admirer made some modifications. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

“People call, and then they go away.” That’s how Ana Martinez, vice-president of media relations for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, describes the demands to remove stars of controversial celebrities from its world-renowned Walk of Fame. She’s sitting in a small library at the Chamber’s Sunset Boulevard headquarters, which looks like any other anonymous office space save for a massive conference table inlaid with stars that resemble the 15-block sidewalk attraction. Martinez, who is 57, and the 67-year-old Chamber president and CEO Leron Gubler, who sits across from her, greet these periodic public outcries with equanimity. “The Walk of Shame,” says Gubler drolly, citing the typical response to their refusal to oust Bill Cosby’s star, among others, from the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard in this notoriously seedy part of town. “Once a star goes in, it’s there forever,” he says. “We view it as part of history, and we don’t erase history.”

Martinez and Gubler are in a situation typical of 2018: how exactly to deal with Bad Men. It’s one thing to fire them from a show, like Kevin Spacey, who was written off Netflix’s House of Cards after reports of sexual misconduct surfaced last year. Or to oust them from a company, like CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, who stepped down in September amid accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation during his two-decade-plus tenure. Or to end a development partnership, as Warner Bros. did with Brett Ratner following similar reports of misbehavior by the director. But the enduring positions of predators in wider culture remains a source of uneasiness for many onlookers, especially now that some of these men, who retreated from the public eye after their misconduct was revealed, are beginning to reemerge.

As a literally concrete manifestation of a celebrity’s legacy, the Walk of Fame has suddenly found itself caught in much thornier issues than the Chamber of Commerce ever anticipated for its historically harmless attraction. Gubler and Martinez give the impression of people who would prefer to be going about their usual business — for Martinez, who has been with the Chamber for 30 years, this includes deciding on the location of the stars, while Gubler officiates roughly 25 induction ceremonies per year — rather than answering for the reprehensible actions of some of the Walk’s honorees. “You can go online and look up ‘walk of shame’ and find a list of all the people who’ve made mistakes, to varying degrees, or [committed] very serious crimes,” says Gubler, offering as an example the big-band leader Spade Cooley, who murdered his wife in 1961. Even before Cosby was found guilty of sexual assault in April, petitions were circulated — about 3,000 signatures in total — demanding the removal of the comedian’s plaque, and the word rapist has been scrubbed from its surface on multiple occasions. But the Chamber hasn’t budged. “It is regrettable when the personal lives of inductees do not measure up to public standards and expectations,” read the press release following Cosby’s conviction. “However, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce does not remove stars from the Walk of Fame.”

In some cases, other people have tried to handle the removal themselves. Donald Trump’s star was reduced to rubble by a pickax-wielding protester for the second time on July 25, and just as with the first time, a brand-new square of terrazzo and brass appeared in the spot — catty-corner to Kevin Spacey, and in spitting distance of Brett Ratner — within 24 hours. (Trump’s star has since been vandalized again, with swastikas and fake blood.) Two weeks after that second pickaxing, in a largely symbolic move, the West Hollywood City Council, which oversees a nearby but separate district of Los Angeles, voted unanimously to remove the star. “They mailed us their resolution,” says Gubler. “But [the WeHo council] has absolutely no authority.” In this case, neither does Gubler, Martinez, nor the six-member selection committee that meets annually to select new honorees. Any change to policy regarding the Walk of Fame requires a vote by the board of directors, which is comprised of 48 businesspeople. “The issue was discussed,” Gubler says, “but I can tell you there’s absolutely no inclination at all to begin removing stars.”

What many people don’t realize is that, of the 2,646 stars on the Walk of Fame, almost half of them weren’t awarded strictly on the basis of merit. Aside from the original 1,558 stars, which were unveiled when the Walk opened in 1960, and an additional 33 that were added when it expanded by a block in 1994, the rest are the result of nominations, usually by a third party such as a movie studio, record label, or fan club. Each year, a selection committee made up of past honorees from each of the five categories — motion picture, television, recording, radio, and live performance — meets with chairman and board member Vin Di Bona to sort through roughly 300 applications and select between 25 to 30 new honorees. (LL Cool J and Kristin Chenoweth are among the current committee members, who can serve for a maximum of four years.) To qualify, nominees need a baseline of five years of accomplishments within their industry, which usually includes award nominations, and must have made “significant philanthropic contributions,” says Gubler. For instance, Trump, whose star was unveiled in January 2007, played a critical role in rebuilding the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park and served as a board member for the Police Athletic League. Gubler says that an existing controversy would probably damage a contender’s chances, and he believes this has happened over the years, but notes that “we would never divulge that.”

Once selected, celebrities must agree to attend the unveiling ceremony, and also cough up $40,000 — a portion of which pays for the induction festivities, with the remaining $25,000 going to the Hollywood Historic Trust, a separate organization responsible for assisting the city in the maintenance of the Walk. Many big names are absent from the attraction — among them Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, and Bruce Springsteen — either because they haven’t been nominated, or they never set a date for their ceremony, which is when the money changes hands.

As for posthumous additions, like Prince or Carrie Fisher, the Chamber of Commerce waits five years before considering them, and they still need to be nominated and subsidized. “When somebody passes away there is a tremendous outpouring of emotion, and we want to get beyond the period to evaluate their nomination,” says Gubler. Prince was approached several times over the years and never accepted, but when one mourner took a Sharpie and drew his likeness on a blank star, Martinez left it there for more than a week. “People need to mourn,” she explains.

This is in line with what the Chamber of Commerce has viewed as the Walk of Fame’s ultimate purpose ever since volunteer president E.M. Stuart proposed the idea for it back in 1953. “Tourists come to Hollywood looking for movie stars, and even then they were disappointed when they didn’t see them,” says Gubler. “He said, ‘Let’s give them stars.’” Criminals, alleged and otherwise, are hardly new to the Walk: One of the inaugural honorees on the Walk, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, was accused of rape, as was Errol Flynn. Gig Young, like Cooley, murdered his wife. Charlie Sheen has been accused multiple times of violence against women, and was convicted of battery in the late ’90s. The list goes on.

In this regard, the Walk is a perfect distillation of a currently raging debate: On one hand, no matter how despicable an individual, their achievements cannot be denied, and the Walk was never intended to be a moral compass. At the same time, someone like Cosby has been stripped of honorary degrees and other distinctions; theoretically, the Walk of Fame could make an effort to take character into account. Gubler admits that the high profiles of Cosby, who had been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 60 women, and Trump, who finds new ways to offend, belittle, or endanger people on a regular basis, has led to “obviously more comments, mostly online, especially with the advent of social media.”

For Gubler, who will retire at the end of this month after 26 years, the uproar is not that different from when he fielded angry calls early in his tenure over a Jesus star that a local church had installed without permission. Some people were preemptively outraged that the Chamber would remove it. (They didn’t). Or the time in the late ’90s when people wanted to strip Marlon Brando of his star following reports of anti-Semitism. “It ebbs and flows,” says Gubler. “Usually something triggers it. Each time Trump’s star was destroyed, there was a spike in complaints.” Martinez fields these calls and emails, and claims that the communications include “not-nice things. And then it dies down.”

In January, 38-year-old Rana Ghadban will take over for Gubler. But for the foreseeable future, Gubler thinks the plaques honoring problematic men will remain. “It’s a historical perspective of some of the most prominent entertainment figures,” he says. “People need to understand there is a value in preserving history, both good and bad.”

Hollywood’s Walk of Fame Is the Perfect Monument-as-Metaphor