Issue: Fall/Winter 2020

The Walk of Fame: 60 Years of Diversity

Ana Martinez, producer for the Walk of Fame, noted that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce prides itself for its diversity and recognition of 165 African American artists on its Walk of Fame--45 have been installed over the past ten years, over 20% of star ceremonies during that time.

Walk of Fame photos courtesy of Hollywood Chamber of Commerce

Paved in terrazzo and bronze, the 2.5-mile stretch that makes up the Hollywood Walk of Fame is the closest thing to the Yellow Brick Road this side of Oz. The Walk of Fame began in 1958, and by 1960, nearly 1,560 celebrities were honored with the first stars to grace the boulevard. Sixty years later, during one of the most challenging times in U.S. history and a national call to address decades of systemic racism, a temporary All Black Lives Matter mural painted in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard has now become a permanent fixture. Its unique placement in the heart of Tinseltown is a reminder of the remarkable impact African-Americans have had in the entertainment industry.

With 165 African-American artists permanently recognized for their achievements on the famed Walk, perhaps no other artist symbolizes the struggle for acceptance and recognition like actress Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel was awarded two stars on the Walk when it was originally installed in 1961—for both radio and film.

The first Black artist to receive an Academy Award for her performance in Gone With the Wind did not shield her from the discrimination still very present in the United States in 1940. Being the daughter of parents who experienced the yoke of slavery did not deter her from achieving the industry’s ultimate recognition. Still, barred from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta, it was only by special order that she was  allowed in the ballroom of the whites-only Ambassador Hotel to receive her Oscar.

Also among the first group of Hollywood’s elites to have stars on the Walk of Fame was Duke Ellington, bandleader and one of the most prolific and revered figures in jazz who composed thousands of scores like Take the ‘A’ Train and Mood Indigo that forever changed the landscape of American music.

Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in 1899, less than 40 years after the abolishment of slavery. “In those days, it was very difficult as you could imagine,” reflected Mercedes Ellington, Duke Ellington’s granddaughter and artistic director of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts. “He knew that he wanted to become more known and was always looking to New York to extend his career. He began working with small groups and then increased the number of musicians. Their first groundbreaking job was at The Cotton Club in New York. It was broadcast on the radio, and he became renowned worldwide.”

Mercedes reminisced about traveling with her grandfather’s band and his profound influence throughout the world. “I went with the band to Russia in 1971. A lot of the jazz musicians over there were big fans of the individual jazz musicians of the Ellington Orchestra, and they emulated them. They played like them in the same style. This music had traveled all the way around the world.”

You don't earn the title of "Mr Entertainment" unless
you're extraordinarily talented like the late Sammy Davis, Jr.

Sammy Davis Jr. was also among the first entertainers to receive a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960. From his early days in vaudeville alongside his father and uncle, Sammy Davis Jr.’s career spanned 60 years and laid the blueprint for other Black entertainers to follow.

“My father lived and breathed show business,” said Manny Davis, the only child of Sammy and Altovise Davis and current lead executor of the Sammy Davis Jr. estate. “Everyone recognized the star he was going to be. He was insanely talented, and then as his star was rising in the 50s, he had a car accident where he lost his eye. Hollywood put their arms around him and took care of him after that.”

In a 1989 televised tribute, Michael Jackson wrote and performed You Were There, honoring Sammy Davis Jr.’s legacy and 60 year career which paved the way for countless Black entertainers. “He was one of the original giant African-American stars to play Vegas,” Manny explained. “Eventually the insults he took led to stars today being able to do it. I don’t think it’s ever been taken for granted because he faced so much adversity in those early days. He just kept showing up so that one day it wouldn’t have to be so bad for the next guy.”

To date, over 2,600 entertainers in radio, television, music, film, and theater have a star on the Walk of Fame, including Vanessa Williams, the multi-platinum, award-winning recording artist and actress known throughout the world for her talent and beauty.

Vanessa Williams at her WOF ceremony
Vanessa Williams is a member of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Walk of Fame Selection Committee and received her own star in 2007. “It was the first year of Ugly Betty, and it was kind of a new beginning for me in terms of a television run,” Vanessa explained, “I had tremendous success in my recording career. I had 11 Grammy nominations, a number-one single, and sold lots of albums. The success I had in recording was the door opener to everything else—to Broadway, TV, and film, so I chose the recording field to have my first Hollywood star.”

A trailblazer herself, Vanessa was inspired by Lena Horne, another icon with a star on the Walk of Fame whose resilience and fortitude resonated with Vanessa. “She was an activist. She was outspoken. She lived through tremendous grief, turmoil, and setbacks in her own personal life, and she never stopped. She's one person that I absolutely admired.”

Vanessa recalled the first time she met Lena in 1984. “I burst into tears. I was so honored and overwhelmed, and she said, ‘It's all right, honey.’” Vanessa received the Lena Horne Award from the Soul Train Music Awards two years later and attended Lena’s funeral in 2010.

Vanessa continued, “One of the most telling points of the funeral was when a few Black servicemen who had served in the war talked about when Lena came to sing for them. She got on stage and saw all the white servicemen in the front and Black servicemen in the back. She got down off the stage, went to the back, and started her concert from the back of the hall. She was their girl because of her fortitude, her strength, and being an advocate.”

The Pointer SistersThe Pointer Sisters, who received their star on the Walk of Fame in 1994, defined an era with some of the biggest hits to come out of the 1980’s like I’m So Excited, Neutron Dance, and Jump (For My Love). Ruth Pointer, who continues to be an active member of the group today, reminisced about when the Pointer Sisters opened for Motown legend, Lionel Richie. “We had released our Breakout album and the song Neutron Dance was on it,” Ruth began. “Lionel came to our dressing room and said, ‘Look, the song that you guys recorded is being used in Beverly Hills Cop, and it's blowing up. You’ve got to put it in your set.’”

Ruth continued, “We put the song in the set, and when they started the intro the audience rushed the stage. They were screaming so loud I almost forgot the words. And in my mind, I'm thinking this is what a hit feels like.”

Viola Davis lit up the Walk of Fame with her smile.
(Photo by Matt Winkeklmeyer/Getty Images)
From singing in the Church to stages around the world, Ruth’s passion for music carried her throughout a career dripping with awards and top 20 singles. “Music is almost like air or drinking water,” Ruth explained. “Music is everything.”

Paved in terrazzo and gold, it takes buckets of talent, passion, and determination to earn a coveted spot on the Walk of Fame. From Louis Armstrong to Hattie McDaniel, Diahann Carroll to Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald to Berry Gordy, each plaque on the Walk of Fame is symbolic of someone who truly aimed for the sky and landed among the stars.