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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: August 2011

Celebrity status is fleeting. Nowhere is that more clear than on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Household names can become where-are-they-now trivia questions in a matter of months.

On a recent visit, I noticed stars of many performers who were once perhaps household names during Hollywood’s Golden Age that are now mostly unknown.

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Getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard isn’t cheap. A 2003 report notes that each star cost $15,000 (paid by the star or a sponsor), with $5,000 of that devoted to cleaning and upkeep.

The price of fame has apparently gone up, it now costs $30,000, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Not just anyone can have a star, though. The article mentions that the Walk of Fame currently excludes reality stars (but “television personalities” can have stars….)

A star’s upkeep doesn’t last forever. Some of the stars are in a state of remarkable disrepair. As you can see below, Spanky McFarland’s name (a child star from Our Gang), is all but obliterated by dirt.

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Actress Ella Raines’ star is also dirty and hard to read.

Perhaps a metaphor for celebrity itself, the stars on Hollywood Boulevard are physical manifestations of fame itself. People who were once considered highly important can be all but forgotten by fans, despite the “eternal” star on the walk of fame.

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The Walk of Fame also has blank stars for names yet to be known. Stars occasionally get vandalized, like the one below. And even the blank ones are already cracked and pockmarked by gum and dirt.

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While having a star on Hollywood Boulevard remains a marker of celebrity status, it also reminds us that even the famous can be forgotten.

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When I first started doing research for Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, I wanted to trace the history of celebrity coverage to see how we got here today.

Before I began reading old fan magazines (I ended up reading hundreds over the course of four years) it seemed to me that coverage is now much more invasive, obsessed with celebrity’s private lives and Schadenfreude—building up icons only to tear them down.

What surprised me the most while doing the research was how much less things had changed than I once thought.

Today we tend to think of the 1950s as an era cloaked in innocence. Here are some examples of stories from that decade that might remind us a lot of coverage today.

While not exactly a fan magazine, Confidential—“Uncensored and Off the Record”—exposed celebrity secrets until a 1957 lawsuit effectively stopped it from publishing rumors. This story (left) from a 1954 issue alleged several actresses had cosmetic surgery, just as fare from a contemporary tabloid might.

Pregnancy and babies were big news in the 1950s, much like today. This 1957 Photoplay story featured actress Jeanne Crane checking her weight. One big difference—I did not observe mainstream fan magazines speculating about “baby bumps” and running unflattering pictures as “evidence.”

Magazines did speculate on possible marriages, though, as this 1957 Photoplay article about actress Kim Novak does (Novak did not marry the man mentioned in the article).

And also like today, there were many photo spreads featuring celebrity’s private lives, implying they were “just like us.” Below in this 1954 Photoplay story we see several actresses pictured with their dogs.

OK, celebrity coverage is a lot different today. There is no more studio system controlling a celebrity’s image or the content in mainstream celebrity magazines. And Confidential-style coverage is much more common than it was a half century ago. Television made celebrity coverage daily, and the internet made it instantaneous.

But there are still some thematic threads from the past with us today.

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