Street Smart Chicago

Dime Stories: The Infernal Nod Machine of Hollywood Boulevard

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

There is a not-very-good movie from the nineties that bears one lovely, elegiac passage about Hollywood Boulevard. It is an otherwise forgettable piece of grade-D chewing gum for the brain called “Jimmy Hollywood.” Luckily the moments of grace are the opening credits in which a blond-wigged Joe Pesci (never has a hair piece been a worse idea) walks the stars on Hollywood Boulevard with his eyes closed. As he stops at each one he says the name of the honored actor or actress under his feet—he knows them by heart—and by this time, without a word of exposition, we know him. He is an actor who never made it and never will and yet, in our hearts, in a weird way we begin to hold out hope for him. It doesn’t hurt that the music in the opening sequence is Robbie Robertson’s lovely “Soap-Box Preacher.” It’s appropriate this song is used: Pesci’s character, Jimmy Alto, is attending his church—Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—and he is practicing his act of faith, his stations of the cross—walking the stars and honoring those entombed in the cement forever. It is heartbreaking and hopeful in the same moment and, for any other film, would have and could have been a departure point for a wonderful story. Not this one though. Like Jimmy Hollywood, it never gets out of the gate.

When I first saw this film I thought it was an innocuous enough flight of whimsy and didn’t realize that, in Los Angeles, guys like Jimmy Hollywood actually exist. On my last visit there, I arranged a show of twenty-nine Chicago artists at East Hollywood’s La Luz de Jesus Gallery.

There is no overarching theme or anything like that. I did this the way the old purveyors of R&B music used to in the South. I put together a “showcase,” which is what the labels that recorded what was then considered “race” music did in the fifties and early sixties when a great many R&B and blues artists could not get played on white radio. Out of this came the muscular Stax, Chess and Motown labels—there are worse models to steal from. I thought that these artists, exposed to a different scene and different city’s tastes, might find or broaden their audiences. Chicago can be indifferent and condescending to its own talent, if not downright hostile at times. It was also fun to see what Midwesterners we were, as a group, staring at everything like rubes and enjoying the hell out of it. Here’s the good news: the show is selling really well and a whole bunch of worthy talent got to see a different place and maybe realize more possibility.

As I was leaving my hotel for the opening, I saw a TMZ minibus picking up people to go on a tour of homes of the stars. I chatted briefly with a couple getting on the bus. They were ecstatic at the prospect of seeing where movie and TV stars lived. The woman was damn near having multiples at the thought of seeing Luke Perry and Gary Busey’s houses. I wanted to tell her she should pray the fuck that Busey isn’t home—I’ve met the guy and nuts is too small a word—it honestly just doesn’t cover it. He’s very likable, but I suspect he’s one of those who will wind up with a tinfoil hat if he doesn’t already wear one.

A really gifted young photographer named Daniel Medel drove me around out there and, as we entered Beverly Hills, there were the kids selling star maps at intersections. It began to dawn on me the purchase electronic media has on this place—it is a one-industry town that appraises one in the most cosmetic of ways, and grinds its castoffs into dust. I thought Chicago was tough, but the casual brutality of Hollywood makes us look like Avon Ladies. East Hollywood is a lesson in the back alley of the American dream. It is the repository for the actresses who don’t make it, the big-haired boys who can’t afford a play-for-pay gig at the Whisky, the jogging-suited Armenian mob guys blasting around in Escalades with Jay-Z pounding out the tinted windows. And then there are the faithful—those wandering around Grauman’s looking up at everything—still a little high on the stardust that is Hollywood, and its grimy business of dreams.

They’re wondering, “How? How do I get noticed?” The hunger for this thing wafts off them like a wave of humidity on a hot day. In a strange way you want to pull for them because they are us; we all feel this way about something.

You also in your rational mind know that these poor bastards are truly fucked, that the black-and-white movies that pulled them into sleep are as toxic as ether. We don’t live in that world anymore. We never did.

The story about Lana Turner getting “discovered” at Schwab’s Drugstore is bullshit. The real tale is much less savory, but we want to believe the legend, to hold fast to our myths and million-to-one shots. The Lana Turner myth ought to include her real-life coda: When the past-her-prime starlet was being knocked around by a mob shit-bird named Johnny Stompanato the beatings were so awful that they emboldened Turner’s fourteen-year-old daughter to righteously shank Johnny Stomp with a butcher’s knife. When the cops got there Stompanato was as dead as a fucking hammer. Lana Turner’s career was never the same, though I loved her in one of her unglamorous late films, “Madame X,” in which some of the sordid plot points echoed Turner’s own life. She passed away in 1995, mostly alone, leaving the bulk of her wealth to her housekeeper and caretaker.

I prefer to think of her final resting place as 6241 Hollywood Boulevard, under a brass star. So, when you walk by? gently blow her a kiss.

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