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Fame Is Fleeting for Original Hall of Fame

Opened in 1901 to honor the greatest Americans, it has been overshadowed by halls honoring accountants, dogs, even cockroaches.

June 20, 2004|Larry McShane | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Tucked away in the Bronx, just a short stroll from the No. 4 subway line, the greatest Americans in history assemble in obscurity: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain.

A bust of each sits in a magnificent colonnade at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a tourist attraction from an era when prominence didn't come from getting voted off the island.

Few guests visit anymore. The collection remains unknown and unappreciated -- its 15 minutes past? -- even as dozens of other halls of fame sprout nationwide: the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. The Celebrity Lingerie Hall of Fame. Even the Cockroach Hall of Fame.

Despite the competition, the new director of the Bronx hall -- the first of its kind in the United States -- hopes to resurrect its former glory.

"It does seem like the time is right for a Hall of Fame renaissance," Dennis McEvoy said, sitting in his office near the Beaux Arts hall designed by architect Stanford White.

When New York University Chancellor Henry MacCracken proposed honoring America's greatest citizens at the turn of the 20th century, fame meant something different than it does today.

The hall made its debut on May 29, 1901, igniting a debate about candidates' worthiness that raged around editorial pages, barrooms and street corners.

Induction ceremonies, with the unveiling of the bronze busts, drew attendees like Edison himself, President Herbert Hoover and movie star Mary Pickford.

A committee of 100 prominent Americans selected the Hall of Famers. Over the years, voters would include ex-Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, singer Marion Anderson and scientist Dr. Jonas Salk.

And who qualified for the hall?

Its initial class numbered 29, with members including Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson. Big names. For the next 35 years, it remained the nation's lone Hall of Fame.

These days, it's just the oldest tree in an overgrown forest of celebrity.

You're now more likely to find an International Hall of Fame for (fill-in-the-blank) than an International House of Pancakes. You can't get IHOP's "Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity" breakfast in Fairbanks, Alaska, but you can visit the Dog Mushers Hall of Fame.

Although Pete Rose can't get into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on a bet, tens of thousands of other Americans -- the living, the dead, the famous, the infamous -- can't manage to stay out.

From coast to coast, halls of fame are inducting rock stars and real estate agents, your neighbors and even, well, Jim Nabors (Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2001).

At the International Clown Hall of Fame in downtown Milwaukee, this year's gala induction was held under a cloud: a squabble over who created the immortal Bozo.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron is one of several in Ohio, including the rock and roll hall in Cleveland and the Ohio Accountants Hall of Fame in Columbus. The St. Louis-based International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame includes an homage to

Why so many halls? Why so many millions of Americans lining up to visit, or stepping up for induction?

"They daydream about being famous themselves," psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers said. "There's a study that showed 75% of people fantasize about being famous."

And the other 25%? Apparently, they're already inductees.

Cast a line anywhere in this great nation, it seems, and you'll hit a hall.

There's the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, housed inside a 140-foot-long, 4 1/2-story-high replica of a leaping muskie in Hayward, Wis. And the International Game Fish Assn.'s Fishing Hall of Fame in Dania Beach, Fla., where the inductees include Ted Williams.

Before he went into the cryogenic tank, Teddy Ballgame was inducted for his fishing skills; 34 years earlier, he was honored for his batting stroke. If that's not enough, the double Hall of Famer launched his own hall: the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla.

Williams is an inductee there too.

The Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano, Texas, was the brainchild of pest control specialist Michael Bohdan. In a rare twist, the honorees are actually present here, although dead: cockroaches dressed in bizarre outfits. There's Liberoachi, sporting a white cape, seated before a piano holding a tiny candelabra.

Admission is free -- just as it is at the original hall.

Yet tourists are not battering down the Bronx hall's gate for a look at the great Americans inside. McEvoy won't hazard a guess at the meager annual attendance, which peaked at 50,000 in the 1920s and '30s. The attraction's post-World War II slide mirrored the decline of the surrounding neighborhood.

When it opened, the hall's home was as impressive as its roster: a 630-foot colonnade on the verdant New York University campus. It rose behind one of White's greatest works, the Gould Memorial Library, offering a panoramic view of Manhattan from the highest natural point in New York City.

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