LOS ANGELES — Fifty years ago, the Hollywood Walk of Fame began as a gimmick to lure visitors to a Los Angeles neighborhood that had fallen on hard times in the post-World War II years.
In the same year that “Ben Hur” won the Academy Award for best picture, Hollywood leaders and actors gathered near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street to install the first pink terrazzo stars rimmed with bronze to launch a $1.2 million venture that some skeptics called excessive.
Now, 2,400 stars later, business groups and local boosters say the sidewalk attraction has played a crucial role in making tourism the biggest industry in Los Angeles County, drawing nearly 26 million visitors and $14 billion a year.
The walk itself — which attracts an estimated 10 million visitors annually to an 18-block stretch lining Hollywood and Vine — helps make Hollywood and Los Angeles a destination rather than a brief stop on the way to bigger tourism hubs such as Disneyland or Las Vegas.
“The Hollywood Walk of Fame is an important anchor for Los Angeles and Hollywood,” said Eliot Sekular, a spokesman for Universal Studios Hollywood, another top Los Angeles tourist stop. “It establishes critical mass in Hollywood.”
On Monday, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce will begin the 50th anniversary celebration by unveiling a star for former Beatle Ringo Starr in front of the Capitol Records building. Other events are planned throughout the year.
Among area attractions, the Walk of Fame draws more visitors than the Sunset Strip, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Queen Mary and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, according to a 2003 survey by NFO Plog Research, the most recent study on Hollywood tourist sites. The average out-of-town tourist who vacations in Hollywood spends about $1,500 per visit, according to the survey.
Economists say the findings of the NFO survey remain true in 2010.
The idea for the Walk of Fame was born in the 1950s when Hollywood began to lose its luster as urbanites moved to the suburbs and the television industry shifted to the East Coast.
In a bid to return glamour to Hollywood, E.M. Stuart, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, proposed the walk with construction costs to be paid by an improvement association. A star bearing actor Preston Foster’s name was laid down first during a demonstration project in 1958, but producer Stanley Kramer was the first celebrity immortalized when construction began on the official Walk of Fame in 1960.
From the beginning, complaints and quarrels have been part of the walk’s story.
Even before the walk was built, a group of Hollywood property owners mounted a campaign to keep Charlie Chaplin’s name off the sidewalk, claiming the silent-screen legend’s morals and left-leaning politics discredited the entertainment industry. Chaplin’s son sued to put his father’s name on the Walk of Fame. The suit was later dismissed and the project moved forward. (Chaplin got his star in 1972.)
Hollywood residents and others have more recently complained that the Walk of Fame has become overrun with panhandlers and street hustlers who prey on tourists. Last year, fistfights between costumed characters who pose for photos with tourists and compact disc peddlers with whom they share sidewalk space led to several arrests.
By itself, the Walk of Fame wouldn’t attract many tourists, said Neha Singh, a tourism expert and assistant professor at Cal Poly-Pomona. But along with other attractions, including the shops on Rodeo Drive and the nearby beaches and restaurants, the Walk of Fame gives visitors a reason to stay more than just a day, she said.
“It creates a one-stop shop for tourism,” she said.
That was true for several visitors on the Walk of Fame this week.
Amid crowds of tourists on Hollywood Boulevard, Celeste Aguilar of Tijuana, Mexico, said she was checking out the Walk of Fame between visits to museums, restaurants and the Hollywood sign. “I want to see it all,” she said before venturing off to look for the star of Johnny Depp.
Even with its dusty reputation, the walk helps make Hollywood Boulevard real estate more valuable.
While the median square-foot rental price for storefront space along the Walk of Fame is $2.75, the price increases to about $5 a square foot for property near Grauman’s and the Hollywood and Highland shopping center, said Kathleen Silver, a commercial real estate broker with Collier International.
“It has to do with the high foot traffic in the area,” she said.
Theme park giant Merlin Entertainment Groups opened the $55 million Madame Tussauds wax museum in August next to Grauman’s, to draw paying guests from the regular parade of tourists along Hollywood Boulevard.
“Having a Madame Tussauds next to the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and frontage on the world-famous Hollywood Walk of Fame was definitely a prerequisite when bringing the Madame Tussauds brand to Hollywood,” said Adrian Jones, general manager of the attraction.
The Walk of Fame is also valuable turf for an army of costumed characters who collect tips on the Walk of Fame.
Christopher Dennis, an actor and model who has worn a Superman costume on Hollywood Boulevard since 1991, said he believes tourists visit the Walk of Fame to feel close to the celebrities they love — even if it means only standing near their idol’s star.
“People are even lying down on the ground with the stars,” he said. “You go to New York and no one is going to lie on the ground and take pictures of anything on the ground.”