Fame has its price

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Just the words “Hollywood Walk of Fame” conjure up an idealized vision of Tinseltown.

Those terrazzo-and-brass stars that line Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in Los Angeles take us back to Hollywood’s golden age. A star on the Walk of Fame means you’ve really made it. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando - the best of the best are represented on that storied walk.

The tradition continues to the present. Joining those luminaries in recent years were Tom Cruise, Kim Basinger, Sean “Diddy” Combs… Donald Trump and Judge Judy?

It might seem they don’t make stars like they used to. The fact is, though, that a star on the walk isn’t the uncomplicated prize you might think: The recognition comes with a price - and in some cases, it even can be bought.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame is run by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and was created in the late 1950s, when city fathers were trying to buff up Los Angeles’ image. The first star of more than 2,000 was given in 1960 to actress Joanne Woodward. The city designated the walk a cultural/historic landmark 18 years later. Stars are awarded for achievement in five categories: motion pictures, television, theater, radio and music. Besides actors and musicians, a handful of fictional characters (including Kermit the Frog) and animals (such as Lassie) have stars on the streets.

“In the old days, people used to walk on the boulevard to catch a glimpse of the celebrities,” says Ana Martinez-Holler, vice president of media relations for the Walk of Fame. Now people fly from all over the country to see a particular star unveiled. It’s a major tourist attraction.

Not only people and characters get honored by the chamber. Companies can be, too - for a price. Absolut Vodka just got a plaque and a ceremony, for example, not because of anything it has contributed to the industry but because it made a big donation.

“They did not get a star,” Ms. Martinez-Holler points out. The company’s logo appears, with five little stars, on a plaque on private property adjacent to the walk called the Friends of the Walk of Fame. “We have a $4 million repair issue. We are trying to raise money.”

The celebrity gossip site TMZ.com cried foul, complaining that a “talentless Vodka company” got an honor when Cheeta the Chimp, “a veteran of 12 Tarzan movies,” was overlooked multiple times.

Talent is not chief among the selection criteria for Walk of Fame induction: How else to explain why young “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest already has a star but neither Al Pacino nor Robert De Niro does?

You must have the candidate’s permission to nominate him. “I was approached about Robert De Niro, but I got the feeling he might not have been interested, because he didn’t follow up. Clint Eastwood isn’t interested, I hear,” Ms. Martinez-Holler says. “I don’t think Julia Roberts is interested.”

A seven-member selection committee, looking at charity work, awards and longevity, meets yearly to choose about two dozen honorees. It’s mostly executives; the only celebrity type is Gary Owens, the announcer from “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Once selected, you have five years to schedule your induction. Al Pacino was selected but never set his date. Neither did Madonna.

Those selected have to pay for the honor: The chamber charges $25,000 for a star to pay for the ceremony and upkeep. The fee went up from $15,000 just a few years ago. Few candidates pay the fee themselves. Usually the fan club or studio picks up the tab.

It makes financial sense for them: A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame offers some nice publicity, and honorees usually take advantage of it. “They like to wait until they have a certain film coming out. It’s all hype,” Ms. Martinez-Holler admits.

Tinkerbell, the fairy from Disney’s animated “Peter Pan,” just got selected. Coincidentally, Disney is using the character to launch a new franchise, Disney Fairies, this year, with a direct-to-DVD movie starring the creature.

Howie Mandel is getting the next star next month. Coincidentally, his game show “Deal or No Deal” starts syndication next month.

“I think Hollywood insiders understand that the Walk of Fame is frequently used as a public relations tool,” says National Public Radio’s entertainment correspondent, Kim Masters.

The Walk of Fame is hardly the only “honor” studios help fund.

“The Golden Globes, pre-TV, was driven, as many awards events are, by studios paying vast sums for tables at the event,” says film critic David Pollard, editor of Movie City News. “This is still true of most of the untelevised critics awards.”

At the end of the year, the public sees studios advertising all the critics awards their movies received. Most people don’t realize some mean more than others.

“National Board of Review is not a legit awards-giving organization by any standard except longevity and being the first group to announce each year, well before the year ends and all the movies have been seen. But they sell tables to studios the same way that [New York Film Critics Circle], a very self-serious, legit group of critics, does for their celebration,” Mr. Pollard says. “One group chooses ‘winners’ to spread it around to get maximum income. The other would never consider thinking about such things. But no one can tell them apart, it seems.

“A star is a lovely thing to get,” Mr. Pollard concludes, “but it is a gimmick and a moneymaker to promote Hollywood, lining some of the least glamorous streets of Los Angeles. Like the Golden Globe, it is not an honor earned by the working standards of any legitimate actor. But no one is giving back their Golden Globe.”

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