"Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star,
And everybody's in movies, it doesn't matter who you are.
There are stars in every city,
In every house and on every street,
And if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard.
Their names were written in concrete!"
"Celluloid Heroes" by the Kinks' Ray Davies Copyright Darray Music Ltd.
Play a child's game with adult ramifications: Pick the name that doesn't fit and explain why. Blue Barran, Marguerite de la Motte, Louise Fazenda, J. Peverell Marley and Paul Robeson.
It's Paul Robeson, obviously, but he is different, not just because he was one of the 20th century's premier acting and vocal talents, with abilities dwarfing those of the others named. Paul Robeson also stands out because he is the only one of the group considered not well enough known, not enough of a "household word," to merit a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Frame, thereby touching off a Tinseltown tempest which has managed, in typical L.A. fashion, to alternate between the somber and the ridiculous.
The stars in question are not made of tinsel but rather of sturdy bronze embedded in the five acres of specially constructed charcoal terrazzo sidewalk which runs up and down a good part of both Hollywood Boulevard and intersecting Vine Street.
The idea behind the stars, says the official Hollywood Chamber of Commerce history of the project, was "to reestablish Hollywood as the Entertainment and Glamour Capital of the World," thought being that these tributes, each dedicated to a notable in the motion picture, TV, recording or radio fields, plus "the world's most brilliant street lighting system," would help cheer up an area that had begun to look more like the Sleaze Capital of the World than anything else.
With the cooperation of the city of Los Angeles, which in 1959 authorized assessing property owners along the streets involved 85 cents per square foot to help pay for construction, the walk, all 2,518 stars worth, was completed in 1961.
Though the Chamber's claim that its stars "rival the Academy Awards as one of the most coveted goals of achievement in the entertainment world" is little more than hyperbole, the stars have become increasingly popular in recent years, rivaling, if anything, another classic promotion, the footprints in cement at Mann's (formerly Grouman's) Chinese theater.
Not all the stars, however, have names on them: only 1,600 plus do. To heighten the excitment and fun, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, subject to the approval of the L.A. Board of Public Works and the City Council, is slowly filling in the blanks by picking a maximum of 12 new star-worthy luminaries per year. Which is where Paul Robeson does, or rather doesn't, come in.
Robeson, who among other things was a Walter Camp All-American football player as well as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers and the 1962 Stalin Peace Prize winner, is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" on stage and screen and in Edward Steichen's glowering photograph. He made Broadway history in the '40s when he portrayed "Othello" in 296 performances, a record for a Shakespearean drama. He appeared in both the live and film versions of "Snowboat" and in a total of 13 films and 21 theatrical productions.
However, early in June the Chamber's Walk of Fame selection committee, headed by Mann Theaters executive William Hertz, decided that Robeson, who had been nominated for the honor by both Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild, did not meet the walk's demanding standards of excellence. The successful applicants in 1978 included local drivetime d.j. Dick Whittinghill, the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and Mickey Mouse.
The world at large found all this out in mid-July when Daily Variety's Will Tusher broke the story under the sui generis headline, "Nix Paul Robeson; Not Renowned Enuff," quoting Hertz amplifying his statement that Robeson wasn't a "household word."
"I don't think Mr. Robeson met the criteria, probably," Hertz said. "How many motion pictures did he makes? How many records did he sell? How many Emmys did he win?How many Academy Awards? There are a lot of factors that had nothing to do with his political side," a reference both to Robeson's well-known radical sympathies as well as to the decade-long battle, won in 1972, to get a star for another political iconoclast, Charlie Chaplin.
Immediately a torrent of protest inundated the slightly baffled Chamber. Everyone from actor Ben Vereen who offered to dedicate his star to Robeson, to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who decried Robeson's missing out on "the distinction of one of Hollywood's most coveted symbols, a star he sought to grasp during his lifetime," chimed with protests.
The local National Public Radio station asked men and women on the street what they thought of Robeson's exclusion - most thought the questioner was joking - and former child star Jackie Cooper appeared both in the newspapers and on television demanding the physical removal of his star if room couldn't be found for Robeson.
Buffeted on all sides, the Hollywood Chamber issued its last word on the subject last Friday. It was a long letter to Actors Equity and SAG deploring the "unwarranted and vitrolic innuendo, gossip and rumor that has been broadcast from coast to coast." In reaction to its decision, the politely suggesting that the Robeson forces try again next year. Chamber officials have refused to answer any further questions on the matter, and William Hertz is most especially unavailable for comment.
"You can see all the stars as you walk along Hollywood Boulevard,
Some that you recognize, some that you're hardly ever heard of.
People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame.
Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain."
Copyright Davray Music Ltd.