Who are the forgotten stars of the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Though fame is evanescent for most who are unfortunate enough to experience it, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is, ostensibly, forever. A few weeks ago when I was staying on Hollywood and Vine, I was surprised to realize how many of the luminaries who received the honor of a star for film, music, television, radio, or live performance are completely forgotten today. Even with my uber-homo, way-above-average-knowledge of American pop culture history, I was stumped as to who at least a third of the honorees were. I almost felt guilty, as if I was stepping on them twice: once literally as I walked down the street, and twice figuratively, because of the deficits of my entertainment history knowledge. This made me feel sad because…well, because I’m the kind of person who feels sad about things like this.
Since I figure very few who aren’t scholars would bother to research arcane bits of history, I decided to do it myself and create some context for a few of those stars of the past, now so ignominiously trod upon. I think that beneath each of these stars is not only a person’s life—their story—but also the tacit wish for people to take the time to discover that story and why they mattered enough to be honored.
Here then, is a short list of folks whose stars I traversed, all located within a block of Hollywood and Vine, the spiritual epicenter of the entertainment business.
“To die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead.”
– Novelist Samuel Butler
The Westmores were a dynasty of make-up artists who virtually invented then reinvented the craft of film make-up from the art form’s inception through the 1950s. Look at the credits of almost any film of the Golden Era from any studio and the chances are excellent you will see a Westmore credit. English wigmaker George Westmore opened the very first make-up department at the Selig Studio in 1917 and then became a freelancer. According to Wikipedia:
He understood that cosmetic and hair needs were personal and would make up stars such as Mary Pickford (whom he relieved of having to curl her famous hair daily by making false ringlets) or the Talmage sisters in their homes before they left for work in the morning. He fathered three legendary…generations of movie makeup artists, beginning with his six sons—Perc,Wally, Bud, (pictured above), Ern, Monte, and Frank—who soon eclipsed him in Hollywood. By 1926, Monte, Perc, Ern, and Bud had penetrated the industry to become the chief makeup artists at four major studios, and all continued to break ground in new beauty and horror illusions until the end of their careers. In 1921, after dishwashing at Famous Players-Lasky, Monte became Rudolph Valentino’s sole makeup artist. (The actor had been doing his own.) When Valentino died in 1926, Monte went to Selznick where, thirteen years later, he worked himself to death with the enormous makeup demands for Gone With The Wind (1939).
There are still Westmores working in the film business today and continuing the tradition begun virtually at the inception of the film business in Hollywood.
King Baggot (1879-1948)
King Baggot was an American actor, screenwriter, and director of immense stature, which makes his obsolescence surprising. His career spanned the silent and early sound period (he appeared in 269 films from 1909 to 1947, wrote 18 screenplays, and directed 45 films from 1912 to 1928). Apparently Baggot was the first individually publicized leading man in cinema history and was so ubiquitous he was alternately known as “King of the Movies,” “The Most Photographed in the World,” and—in what may be the most cumbersome sobriquet ever created by a Publicity department—”The Man Whose Face is As Familiar As The Man In The Moon!” His struggles with alcoholism ruined his career, which ended with him taking bit parts and, sadly, even working as a background actor. I wonder if Michel Hazanavicius knew about King Baggot when he was developing The Artist.
Nita Naldi (1894-1961)
Naldi was a siren of the silent screen, usually cast as the vamp or femme fatale. She was actually Irish (born Mary Dooley), began on stage in New York and became famous in the Ziegfield Follies of 1919. Her first major film role followed the next year in the Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount Pictures’ production of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, opposite John Barrymore. Some other notable accomplishments were making several films with Rudolph Valentino and starring in the Cecil B. DeMille version of The Ten Commandments (1923). She never made a sound film and worked occasionally on the stage after her film career ended. One of the more odd details of her later years was her being hired to coach Carol Channing in the “art” of vamping for her 1956 Broadway musical Vamp! I wish those sessions had been filmed. Alliterative names don’t come more compelling than “Nita Naldi.”
Miss Rambeau began her career concurrently on Broadway and in silent film in the teens and worked steadily in the silent period, primarily for the Mutual Company, without becoming a star. Rambeau transitioned easily to sound films as a character actress, receiving two Oscar nominations over the years, the first for the 1940 drama Primrose Path, which starred Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrae and the second for 1953’s camp-fest Torch Song, in which a somewhat disoriented Joan Crawford performed the song Two-Faced Woman in blackface. Though it strikes me as possibly apocryphal, according to The New York Mirror’s Bernard Sobel, the Reuben sandwich was created for Rambeau upon a visit to Reuben’s restaurant in New York. Two Oscar nominations and your best remembered for a sandwich? I think it’s important to note that his is the historical equivalent of people someday remembering the brilliant, two-time Oscar nominee Laura Linney as the inspiration for a tuna melt. It’s just not right. Dorothy Parker wrote this lovely verse for Marjorie Rambeau:
If all the tears you shed so lavishly / Were gathered, as they left each brimming eye / And were collected in a crystal sea / The envious ocean would curl up and dry / So awful in its mightiness, that lake, / So fathomless, that clear and salty deep/ For, oh, it seems your gentle heart must break / To see you weep…
Ted Mack (1904-1976)
Ted Mack began his career in radio as a talent scout and director for the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. After Bowes’ death, Mack revived the show on the ABC Radio Network and DuMont Television Network. According to Wiki, the show “lasted on radio until 1952 and until 1970 on television, where it ran on all four major networks, ending as a Sunday afternoon CBS staple. A success in the early days of television, the program set the stage for numerous programs seeking talented stars, from The Gong Show to Star Search to American Idol to America’s Got Talent.” Obviously whomever wrote the Wiki entry is unfamiliar with the genius of Stairway to Stardom, which ran on Staten Island cable from 1979 until the early 1990s. But I’m digressing. In addition to its longevity and its influence in shaping later contest shows (down to the idea of the winners going on tour), the show is significant for having launched the careers of Ann-Margret, Gladys Knight, Teresa Brewer, Irene Cara and Pat Boone.
Vera Vague (1906-1974)
“Vera Vague” was, in fact, the name of her best known character, not originally the name of the person who was named Barbara Jo Allen and was tremendously popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The “Vera Vague” character was that of an excitable and easily confused spinster and best known for her catch phrase “You dear boy.” Barbara Jo was frequently billed as “Vera Vague” and, ultimately, changed her name legally. She appeared in over 60 films and TV programs from 1938 to 1963, started her own orchid business and served as the Honorary Mayor of Woodland Hills, California. Watching her for the first time in this short from 1946, she reminds me a bit of actress and comedian Julie Halston.
Nelson Eddy (1901-1967)
Nelson Eddy was the phenomenally popular baritone who is best remembered today (if at all) for the eight films he made with Jeanette McDonald in the 1930s at MGM. He was the Andreas Bocelli of his day and, in a 40-year career, he introduced many still-famous songs (Stout-Hearted Men, Lover Come Back To Me, Indian Love Call), received three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for film, radio, and TV), sang at the inauguration of F.D.R., and inspired generations of young people to pursue careers in classical music.
There is another reason I personally remember Nelson Eddy, and it ain’t quite so upbeat. When I was about 11, my dad took me to a little “antique” store called “The Collector” in scenic Garfield, New Jersey (I put “antique” in quotes because it was really more of a junk store). “The Collector” was owned by a woman of a certain age, a chain smoking broad named Joan, who initially found my interest in old things very endearing. In the mid-70s, I was already collecting autographs and I admired an autographed pictured of Nelson Eddy that Joan had in the back of the store. Now I didn’t really have a particular interest in Eddy per se, but I’d read about him in one of my favorite books, The MGM Stock Company, vaguely knew who he was, and felt that with the Eddy autograph I could begin to diversify my collection beyond the contemporary TV stars of the day who comprised the bulk of my burgeoning collection. If memory serves (and it generally does with arcane matters such as this), the Nelson Eddy autographed cost $37.00, which was a great deal of money to me. With that in mind, I took the $15.00 dollars I had saved in my Hellman’s Mayonnaise jar (that’s Best Foods if you’re west of the Rockies) and offered it as a downpayment. Subsequently I began saving to pay off the balance but as my allowance was probably 50 cents at the time and “The Collector” was at least 40 minutes from my dad’s house, well—the months kind of flew by.
Finally, we went back to see Joan after about a year and I excitedly rushed in with the remaining $22.00 I owed. When I asked for my Nelson Eddy picture, Joan’s smile turned to a scowl and she told me in a voice not unlike the character of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) “well young man, too much time’s gone by and you couldn’t expect me to hold on to a piece like that forever, now could you?” as if the musty Nelson Eddy autograph was a Fabrege egg. To make matters worse, she refused to give me back my $15.00, citing some fine print on the bottom of the crinkled receipt. When it came to layaway, Joan from “The Collector” was a real bitch. My dad snapped at her “C’mon Joan, you’re really gonna take advantage of a kid whose been saving up for a year, give him his autograph!” which was unusual because my dad was always very polite to strangers. “I don’t have his autograph Mr. Munk and even if I did this is our policy. Next time don’t lollygag!” Yes, she actually said “lollygag!” I remember because that’s how I learned the word. We never went back and I have nurtured my resentment to Joan from “The Collector” for almost 40 years, during which time it has been my steadfast companion, providing succor whenever I need an anecdote about parsimoniousness, Dickensian characters in the modern world, or the risks dawdling.
Nina Foch (1924-2008)
Miss Foch was a Dutch-born actress who was featured in over 80 films and TV shows, beginning with Wagon Wheels West (1943) and ending with an episode of The Closer (2007), which is quite a run. Along the way she starred in A Song To Remember (1945), An American In Paris (1951), Executive Suite (1954, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Spartacus (1960). My personal favorite Foch performance is her role as Miss Evans in Diana Ross‘ unforgettably awful Mahogany (1975), which I cannot recommend highly enough. Interestingly, she was married to James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio fame and taught a class in directing actors at USC for many years where she was an absolutely beloved mentor to many of today’s best known actors. She worked and taught right up to the time of her death in 2008.
Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973)
Hayakawa was a Japanese/American actor who became a star of world cinema during the silent-era. He was one of the most popular Asian actors in film history, though he is pretty much forgotten today. As improbable as it seems, he was, according to my research, the “first male sex symbol of Hollywood before Rudolf Valentino.” Usually cast as the villain, Hayakawa worked consistently both in film and on stage, beginning in 1914. His biography goes on to say “his popularity, sex appeal and extravagant lifestyle (such as hosting wild parties and driving a gold-plated Pierce Arrow) caused tension within American society resulting in discriminatory stereotypes and the de-sexualizing of Asian men in cinema. Refusing to adopt to negative stereotypes he decided instead to leave Hollywood and moved into European cinema where he was treated equally, as would his female counterpart Anna May Wong.
Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1921 because of bad business deals and worked successfully outside the country. He made talkies in the 1930s but his accent and growing anti-Japanese sentiment made work harder to find. He ended up in France selling water colors during the war years, but the last chapter of Hayakawa’s life has a happy ending truly worthy of a Hollywood film. In 1949, old friend Humphrey Bogart‘s production company tracked down the actor in France and offered him a part in a film called Tokyo Joe. This revived his career and he continued to work. The climax of his post-war career was playing the role of Colonel Saito in David Lean’s The Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957), which one the Oscar for Best Picture and, at long last, earned Hayakawa long-overdue recognition: an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Because of his success breaking down racial stereotypes, Sessue Hayakawa legacy has extra import; more than a great star of the silent era, Hayakawa was a trailblazer. Even though most are unaware, every working Asian actor today is indebted to Sessue Hayakawa .
Ramon Novarro (1899-1968)
Novarro was one of Hollywood’s leading romantic actors in the 1920s and early 1930s. He moved from his native Mexico to Los Angeles in 1913 to escape the Mexican revolution and began with bit parts in the late teens. He became a star in 1923 in the film ,Scaramouche. His greatest success came in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, though his popularity did increase after the untimely death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 left him as the premiere Latin lover in Hollywood. Novarro transitioned well into the sound era, most notably starring with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931). In the late 20s and early 30s, Novarro was earning upwards of $100,000 a film and he invested well, including a Hollywood Hills home that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
His popularity dipped in the mid-1930s and MGM declined to pick up his option. He acted sporadically in films through the 1940s and 1950s. Novarro was gay and supposedly struggled all his life trying to reconcile his religious beliefs and his sexual orientation. He was also an alcoholic. Today Novarro is, perhaps, best known not for his life, but for his tragic death in 1968—he was murdered by two hustlers he had invited to his home who beat him to death for $20.00—events that were later chronicled in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. This sad end to the life of a great star was also the inspiration for the Charles Bukowski short story The Murder of Ramon Vasquez, and the Peggy Lee song, Tango, which was written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller and appeared on her 1975 album Mirrors.