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Northern Stars Are Aligned

On a brief stretch of Toronto pavement, Canada's Walk of Fame highlights the number of celebrities down here who are from up there.


TORONTO — The staid Princess of Wales Theater here may be a long way in spirit and distance from Grauman's Chinese, but the sidewalk is familiar. The walkway is freshly embedded with oversized signatures and gold stars, and photographers jostle for closer shots as the actors and musicians arrive to unveil this concrete proof of their celebrity.

But the performers being honored here are all home-grown, and even the paparazzi are impeccably polite.

This is Canada's Walk of Fame, a 5-year-old venture that some south of the border may view as a further step in Toronto's bid to establish itself as Hollywood North. Organizers and honorees insist it's just an overdue attempt to get this self-effacing society to celebrate its own success stories.

"Canada has never recognized its own," said Robin Duke, who was inducted into the Walk of Fame last week with other cast members of "SCTV," the low-budget satiric series that kick-started the careers of an entire generation of Canadian comedians.

But America has certainly recognized Canada's own: Duke's "SCTV" colleagues--among them Martin Short, the late John Candy, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy--have collectively accounted for much of mainstream U.S. comedy in recent decades. Like Duke and her Toronto colleague Gilda Radner, many were first recruited to work in the U.S. by "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels. Also of Toronto.

The Toronto show biz world feels somewhat under assault these days for its pursuit of what industry leaders in Los Angeles call "runaway" productions. But last week's awards presentation spotlighted what is seen here as a more powerful southbound phenomenon: the runaway Canadian.

Most of the Canadian entertainment personalities honored with a sidewalk star--the "SCTV" crew, director Arthur Hiller, game show host Monty Hall, Grammy-collecting composer and record producer David Foster--flew in from Los Angeles, where they have long lived and worked. Then most flew right back.

The 42-year-old Walk of Fame in Hollywood covers three miles of sidewalk and boasts 2,197 stars, with one or two more added every month. Immediately adjacent is the older, more exclusive forecourt of Grauman's, with celebrity footprints and handprints dating to 1927 (not to mention Jimmy Durante's nose print and Groucho Marx's cigar print).

In Toronto, the nine gold stars unveiled last week raised the grand total to 62; the "walk" is a brief mid-block stretch of pavement in the downtown theater district.

"This is flattery," Johnny Grant, the honorary Hollywood mayor and longtime chairman of Hollywood's Walk of Fame committee, said of Toronto's efforts. "I congratulate them and wish them the very best."

Tradition, scale and candlepower aside, Canadians see another salient difference between Toronto's star-studded sidewalk and the Hollywood original. "You buy your stars down there," said Dave Thomas, another "SCTV" veteran who went on to become a U.S. sitcom regular. "Here, we get them for free."

Hollywood Stars Carry Price Tag

Thomas is right: In Hollywood, the honoree is billed a $15,000 "sponsorship fee," an expense typically absorbed by press agents, who time the sidewalk unveilings to coincide with movie releases.

In studious contrast, the Canadian Walk of Fame is a sober, earnest enterprise. Organizers stress fairness and process: After judges submit nominations, with strict Canadian-roots criteria, any Canadian may cast a vote by e-mail. (The self-chosen electorate remains quite small: Even this year's 55,000 votes would seem to leave the door open to e-ballot stuffing.)

And to elevate the overall tone of the affair, a few stars are reserved for distinguished artists and writers, making the King Street sidewalk perhaps the only common bond--nationality aside--between Jim Carrey and Margaret Atwood.

To give them an Oscar-like punch, the awards are presented at one annual ceremony. And despite the disclaimers voiced here about the Canadian aversion to self-promotion and show biz hoopla, the most recent Walk of Fame gathering looked like any entertainment awards gala, with a theater packed with tuxedos and beaded gowns and speeches running from the heartfelt to the stagily rehearsed.

"You got your red carpet there, you got limos," Norman Jewison, the Toronto-born director of such films as "In the Heat of the Night" and a proud Walk-of-Famer, joked approvingly to the capacity crowd of 2,000.

But you know the event is Canadian when the smiling co-hosts are both skaters (Kurt Browning, a figure skater, and Catriona LeMay Doan, a record-breaking Olympian speedster). And when Rich Little gets the crowd giggling with John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson impressions. (If you're stumped, they're long-dead Canadian prime ministers.) And instead of the King of Pop getting the audience's feet tapping, it's the King of Polka (Walter Ostanek, a Grammy-winning accordionist, who presented a posthumous award to Guy Lombardo).

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