I was on my way out to Hollywood Boulevard the other morning when I happened to catch Mickey Rooney on my car radio, pinch-hitting for Michael Jackson on KABC talk radio.
A caller asked Rooney, "What do you think of the Hollywood centennial celebration?"
"Is Hollywood still there?" Rooney asked. "Could you find it? . . . Hollywood has been dead for 15 years."
It was not an encouraging diagnosis, considering that I was on my way to Hollywood to find out if it still existed.
I parked in a lot west of the Chinese Theater ($1 every 20 minutes) and joined the throng of tourists in the famous forecourt.
Hollywood may be dead but the Chinese Theater lives on as one of the most heavily visited tourist attractions in the nation. The crowd never stops. Busloads of people arrive every few minutes. Groups and families come from the nearby parking lots. They walk irreverently over the celebrated cement squares, stepping into footprints, getting down on their knees to put their hands into handprints and taking thousands of snapshots. I estimate that 200 snapshots are made every minute in the forecourt.
The Chinese Theater probably attracts more visitors than the Washington Monument--and certainly more than the U.S. Supreme Court. It's a testament to the enduring power of our movie stars over our imaginations that this sentimental piece of kitsch is the American mecca.
People seemed to spend the most time looking down at the squares of the departed. Jean Harlow. Cary Grant. Betty Grable. Rock Hudson. Rita Hayworth.
Tour groups moved about through the crowd like amoebas. I heard one guide chattering away in an Asian language. The only words I understood were Julie Andrews as she skipped over Ms. Andrews' square. Her listeners snapped away with their little cameras like paparazzi.
A woman in a red shirt and blue shorts squatted above Clark Gable's square with her two small sons while her husband snapped a picture to show the folks back home.
A little girl stood in John Wayne's footprints while her father snapped her for posterity. "Smile," her mother said.
A young woman in red slacks and a flowery nylon shirt got down on her knees to fit her hands into Doris Day's handprints, and stood with a gratified smile.
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell had signed their squares on the same day, June 26, 1953, side by side, in celebration of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."
A resident photographer's agent roamed the forecourt under a small parasol, hawking pictures--"see your photo with the footprints of famous stars"--to be delivered in one minute. An amplified voice announced periodically that the bus tour of the stars' homes--"50 of the most famous homes in the world"--was about to start. The price: $17.
Most of the vintage stars had inscribed greetings in their squares to Sid Grauman, the showman who built the theater in 1927. "Thank you Sid," said Jimmy Stewart. "To Sid, Happy Days," said Dorothy Lamour. "To Sid We Love You," said Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor.
It has always seemed a sacrilege to me that Ted Mann should have erased Sid Grauman's name and substituted Mann's as the name of the theater, though that of course was his privilege. But I wonder whether, if he were to buy the Eiffel Tower, he would change its name to Mann's Tower.
In any case, the change is official. In the largest square of all, just in front of the massive entrance, under the green pagoda roof, is a square whose message reads:
"All Los Angeles congratulates Ted Mann and the Chinese Theater. (signed) Tom Bradley, Mayor. May 18, 1977. For 50 great years." An official city proclamation, in brass, is embedded in the square.
I wondered. Could Hollywood be dead as long as the Chinese Theater existed? It was like saying that Rheims was dead, or Canterbury, while their cathedrals stand, or that Lourdes is dead while Bernadette's spring continues to flow.
Despite its decline from the smart thoroughfare of the 1920s and 1930s, I doubt that Hollywood Boulevard will ever die as long as the Chinese Theater remains as a sanctuary to the memories of the great stars who enlarged and romanticized our lives.
I crossed the boulevard to check the renovated swimming pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt. I'd heard that artist David Hockney had painted the bottom, for free, as a civic gesture.
One reaches the swimming pool by passing through the back of the hotel and traversing a corridor whose walls are a jungle painted in pastel. The pool lies in the sun under tall palm trees. Two young women in extreme bikinis were sunning themselves beside it when I arrived. No one was in the water.
Hockney had covered the bottom and sides of the pool with hundreds of blue crescents or hooks, rather like caterpillars, relating to one another in a sort of loose basket weave.
Jan Walner, of the hotel's staff, told me that Hockney had come one morning at 6 o'clock and worked four hours on the project. She said the paint cost $75.
"It looks really wonderful, like one of his paintings," she said, "when someone's in the water, so the water moves."
I noticed that Ian Whitcomb and Dick Zimmerman were performing every Tuesday night in the hotel's Cinegrill, the famous nightclub in which Clark Gable and Carole Lombard occasionally sipped a drink before retiring to their trysting place upstairs.
It might not have their footprints but it would surely have their ghosts.
I decided to catch the show.