HOLLYWOOD -- The day begins 18 miles southeast of here at 7:45 a.m. Candee Kennedy maneuvers her brown 1981 Ford Mustang into the McDonald's parking lot in the suburban community of Downey, where Rose and Jeannie Bitters are waiting to be picked up and ferried to Hollywood Boulevard.
The mother and daughter are decked out in their aqua blue "Official Barry Manilow Star Polisher" T-shirts, and they're armed with the requisite supplies: Brasso, Fantastik, Johnson's Paste Wax, fine steel wool, ammonia, paper towels, a bag of toothbrushes and two one-gallon jugs of water -- "holy water" is what Harry Bitters, Rose's husband and Jeannie's father, calls it, smirking.
Rose and Jeannie Bitters are not amused. This is, after all, the morning of their monthly pilgrimage to Hollywood's main street, where they will drop to their knees on the sidewalk and perform a ritual they have not missed in more than six years. (Okay, so Jeannie skipped out once, but that was because she was off in Washington attending the biannual Barry Manilow International Fan Club Convention, so her transgression was forgiven.)
Bitters mere and fille are among the 125 or so zealots who have "adopted" one or more of the brass and terrazzo stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, meaning that they appear on the first Saturday of each month to scrub and polish the particular icons to which they have devoted themselves. As their shirts indicate, Rose and Jeannie Bitters are responsible for the upkeep of Barry Manilow's star, which is planted directly in front of the Pantages Theater. Occasional rain does not deter them, nor would sleet or snow should it somehow materialize out of the smog.
Candee Kennedy is also a Manilow worshiper, as evidenced by the 44 times she has seen the singer perform. Alas, the Bitters women beat her to his star, a fact she is willing to overlook in light of their obvious Manilowmania. So Kennedy has adopted Bette Midler's star, which is located about a mile west of the Pantages, at 6930 Hollywood Blvd. Midler, after all, once employed Manilow as her musical director. "She's not Barry, but she's close enough," muses Kennedy as she loads the Bitterses' cleaning supplies into her car.
For his part, Harry Bitters will have none of this. He is spending his Saturday at home. "I've got better things to do," the retired beer truck driver proclaims as he departs the scene, "than wash off the sidewalk."
Littlebird couldn't make it today. A k a Henri Towers, Littlebird is a local Sioux who polishes the stars of Jay Silverheels (the Mohawk who played Tonto on "The Lone Ranger" television series) and Iron Eyes Cody (the Cherokee who has appeared in several movies and has become a kind of American Indian ambassador to Hollywood). Rumor on seedy Hollywood Boulevard has it that Littlebird is in London trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records for standing completely still, surely an appropriate goal for a man who bills himself as "the World's Only Living Cigar Store Indian."
The American Friends of Julio Iglesias Fan Club is on the scene, however. Oh my, yes. About 20 of them have gathered in front of the restored Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, decked out in matching T-shirts of navy blue.
"A great entertainer," declares club copresident Millie Lucker, who is wielding the brass polish.
"A great artist," corrects copresident Lydia Hernandez, in charge of buffing.
The others in this little band, who have driven as far as 200 miles to get here this morning, hover in low-key celebration. Today is the second anniversary of the very day that Iglesias' star was unveiled here, surely an event for his followers to cherish. Club members have set up a poster, a few balloons and a banner, while a guest book is being circulated among those passers-by who bother to stop. These include tourists, wise guys, punks, punkettes, derelicts, be-boppers, hip-hoppers, degenerates, bimbos and businessmen.
Out-of-towners in particular are startled to come upon apparently otherwise normal folks crawling around on 2.4 miles of sidewalk. Curious minds want to know: Do they get paid? (No.) Have they ever met the people whose stars they polish? (Yes, in some cases.) Do the stars themselves ever show up on cleaning day? (Never.) "There are actually people who think the stars are buried under the sidewalk," marvels Michael Kellerman, a local tour operator who is cochairman of the Hollywood Clean-Up and Restoration Council. "They ask, 'Are they buried standing up?' "
The Star Polishers were Kellerman's idea, one of many that have been tried in an attempt to rid Hollywood Boulevard of its run-down look. "Also, it's a way for them to get a piece of the rock," he says of his hard-core devotees of fame, who have been working the street since 1981. "It gives them status of their own."
But of the 1,859 stars that have been dedicated since 1958 by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (leaving 659 as yet unassigned), Kellerman says that only about 400 have been spoken for by polishers. Ronald Reagan, Greta Garbo, Liberace, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow and Mickey Mouse are among the chosen. Michael Jackson, Joan Collins, Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Arthur Fiedler, Jackie Gleason, James Cagney, Bill Cosby, Sylvester Stallone and Donald Duck are not. Kellerman himself tends Walt Disney's star. For a while, a dog assisted in the cleaning of Rin-Tin-Tin's. And Larry Boyle, a local actor who is responsible for keeping Johnny Carson's star shining, achieved a kind of Star Polisher nirvana in 1983: As a result of his diligent polishing, he appeared on "The Tonight Show."
This is serious stuff. There are printed instructions for the neophyte ("Pour a small amount of Brasso on center part of star," etc.), while the proven polisher is awarded a Certificate of Adoption ("Starpolisher agrees to maintain the star in the proper prescribed manner," etc.). Of course, many of the polishers are like fame itself: fleeting. "They come and they go," Kellerman laments as he watches his troops, perhaps 50 of whom have shown up today. "Hollywood attracts transient people. Their bubble bursts and they go back to Iowa, or wherever it is they came from."
Rose and Jeannie Bitters are well into their morning's work. The syrupy voice of Barry Manilow himself oozes from a cassette tape player that rests between them. Like many other polishers, the Bitterses also brighten the stars around their principal star -- sort of like keeping up the neighborhood. "You want to do Lana Turner over there?" Rose Bitters asks Candee Kennedy, who gladly grabs the Brasso.
Jeannie Bitters has had several serious operations, including surgery for a brain tumor. She explains that she is convinced that Manilow's music has been a factor in her recovery, even her survival. And yet, one might ask, if Barry Manilow didn't have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, wouldn't Rose and Jeannie Bitters be out here anyway, faithfully giving over their Saturday morning to someone else?
"That's a hard question," Rose Bitters replies, setting down her roll of paper towels for a moment. "There's Neil Diamond, of course. But he doesn't have a star, even though he deserves one. I don't know ..."
"Dick Clark?" Jeannie Bitters interrupts her mother.
"Yes, Dick Clark," Rose Bitters confirms quickly, nodding. "I'd polish up Dick Clark." So many stars, so little time