Is a franchised Hollywood-style Walk of Fame just the ticket for an underutilized portion of Grant Park? (This article originally appeared in slightly different and far better edited version under the title Chicago Needs More Cheese in the Chicago Reader, November 18, 2005)
What's missing from Chicago's cultural landscape? If you're answer is a Hollywood-styled walk of fame in Grant Park, you would have felt right at home at a October 24th meeting of the Grant Park Advisory Council, where just such a proposal was floated for the raised Beaux Arts walkway that runs along the west side of the Metra tracks from Balbo to 11th Street.
"When we met with the mayor, says the Advisory Council's Bob O'Neill, he said there are areas of the park that need to be activated-people don't even know they are there. You create destinations in the park that will bring people there. So this is a good example of a possibility of a sidewalk in Grant Park [bringing] more energy to the south end. It would take what is one of the more beautiful walkways of Grant Park and bring people to use it.
The idea came from Gene Martin and Ron Renke of the Motion Picture Hall of Fame Foundation, who told attendees at the advisory council meeting that they could create a promenade of three-foot-square granite stars honoring Chicago's most prominent citizens. Renke said there'd be room for 400 to 500 stars and there'd be no problem coming up with nominees - celebrities, of course, but also Congressional Medal of Honor winners, authors, musicians, architects, and athletes. The price? A mere $15,000 per star, including installation, dedication ceremonies, and annual maintenance.
This is just the kind of turnkey privitization deal that the Daley administration seems to love. There are no costs to the city of Chicago or Grant Park, period, said Renke. The Park District might even make a little money - for each star the foundation places on a similar walk along the Las Vegas, Clark County gets $2,000. The entire tab is picked up by the honorees-or by their fans, employers, publishers, etc. According to Martin, a star dedicated to Sophia Loren in a walk of fame in Palm Springs was funded by an unknown gentleman-you know, 'I've never met that lady, and here's my $15,000.'
The foundation, which has nothing to do with the Hollywood Walk of Fame, got its start 13 years ago in Palm Springs, where it has put almost 250 stars along Palm Canyon Drive, the city's prime shopping street, honoring everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Cheetah the chimp. The foundation began the Las Vegas project late last year and has signed a contract with Branson, Missouri. It's reported to be negotiating with, among other cities, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Foundation has its president promoter Robert Alexander, who also serves as president of the for-profit Motion Picture Hall of Fame, Inc.
The Chicago proposal was enthusiastically received by the council members and local residents at the meeting. I think this will be a fantastic attraction, said one woman. Someone else suggested substituting the kind of star the city uses, with six points rather than five.
We're not too far from wrapping up that agreement, Renke told the gathering. But Park District spokesperson Jessica Maxey-Faulkner says so far the district's only contact with the foundation has been a meeting where officials recommended that it run its proposal past the advisory council. On November 7 Bob O'Neill sent a letter to Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell saying his group endorsed the proposal. Maxey-Faulkner says the Park District, the alderman, various city departments, and other community groups now get to weigh in.
Would a walk of fame really become a tourist destination here? The foundation's Palm Springs and Vegas projects are no guide, since they were created on streets that were already main drags. The bigger question is, is this really the best Chicago can do? It won't be Branson in Grant Park, O'Neill insists. But isn't a sidewalk with stars too generic and mundane for a city known for cutting-edge design? Wouldn't it look dated, even embarrassing next to the high-tech wonders of Millennium Park?
It's individual character, tied to relevant locations, that makes memorials meaningful. Think of the Haymarket memorial, marking the site of the 1886 riot, or the Merchant's Hall of Fame, which consists of the sculpted heads of Chicago's storied retailers atop columns outside the Merchandise Mart. Robert Ebert has a star outside the Chicago Theater. O'Neill's own group clearly gets the concept-it's raising funds to relocate the bust of former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director George Solti from its current location near the Lincoln Park Conservatory to Grant Park just south of Symphony Center, not far from another recently rescued monument, 1923's The Spirit of Music, which honors the CSO's founding conductor, Theodore Thomas.
The original Walk of Fame in Hollywood draws on that city's historic identity as the motion picture capital of the world - stars in a sidewalk make sense there. But the Motion Picture Hall of Fame Foundation is trying to turn the idea into a franchise, creating a Planet Hollywood of memorials, one in every city. It's worth remembering that it didn't take Chicagoans long to run Planet Hollywood out of town and replace it with Gino's East, purveyor of Chicago-style deep dish.