Recalling Rudolph Valentino's Hollywood

Marjie Lambert / The Miami Herald /

Published Oct 27, 2013 at 05:00AM

LOS ANGELES — People are standing 10 deep in front of me, phone cameras raised high over their heads, when the cheering starts. That’s how I know Vin Diesel has arrived for the ceremony unveiling his new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I can’t see him until he steps up on a platform to speak, and then only the back of his shaved head is visible.

Diesel’s new star is in front of the Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Academy Awards were held in 1929. Across the street at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, tourists are stepping in concrete handprints and footprints left by stars from Gloria Swanson to Britney Spears.

This stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, the heart of the Walk of Fame, is home to two celebrity-studded wax museums, the Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak Theatre) permanent home of the Academy Awards, the Hollywood Museum, several grand old movie theaters, and “the Road to Hollywood,” a winding trail with showbiz anecdotes set in mosaics that ends at an enormous casting couch.

Along these blocks, a celebration of stardom and entertainment, it is always tourist season. More than a dozen bus and van tours of Hollywood operate here, and every few feet bring a new opportunity for a cell-phone selfie.

Half a mile away is the star of Rudolph Valentino, the silent-film actor known as “the Latin lover” and one of the first sex symbols of the cinema. Few tourists wander to this end of the Walk of Fame, which is just east of the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.

I’ve come to Hollywood on a Valentino quest, looking for memories of the Italian actor, who died 87 years ago, and of the Hollywood of yesteryear.

You could say I spent most of my teen years under Valentino’s eyes. My generation of Lamberts attended Hollywood High School, whose mascot is the sheik. A mural of Valentino, in the headdress he wore in “The Sheik,” perhaps his best-known film, is painted on the rear of the school auditorium, overlooking the athletic fields.

Valentino was born in Italy in 1895 and came to the United States at 18. He ended up in Los Angeles, where he won a few bit parts in movies. His breakout role came in 1921 in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” made by Metro Pictures, forerunner of MGM. He made five movies that year, including “The Sheik” by Famous Players-Lasky, which would later become Paramount Pictures. When he died of a perforated ulcer in 1926 at 31, he had appeared in 40 movies. An open-coffin viewing in New York caused a near-riot; tens of thousands of fans lined the streets.

Now it is said that he haunts Hollywood. A website called creepyla.com lists more than a dozen places where sightings of his ghost have been reported, including Frank and Musso’s Grill, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant; the Roosevelt Hotel, where Diesel’s star is embedded; the Hollywood and Highland Center, on the site of the former Hollywood Hotel, where he had a suite; Paramount Studios; and at one time, his now-felled homes in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

Hollywood High School is on Highland Avenue, a block south of Hollywood Boulevard. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and has its own tiny museum honoring the school’s famous alumni, including Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Mickey Rooney and Carol Burnett. During the Lambert years, our classmates included John Ritter (“Three’s Company”), Rita Wilson (“Sleepless in Seattle”), Diana Canova (“Soap”) and Charlene Tilton (“Dallas”).

Changing times

Hollywood has gone through several transformations since the days of Valentino, when it was the glamorous center of the film industry. Most of the studios have since moved to Burbank, Culver City or elsewhere in the Los Angeles area. Although many small movie-related businesses are scattered throughout Hollywood, Paramount is the only major studio still there.

Nor is it any longer the gritty neighborhood of the late 1960s and ’70s, plagued by urban decay. I was in high school then, and my idea of entertainment on the boulevard was people-watching — Hare Krishnas chanting, evangelists recruiting, angry political loners ranting, conspiracy theorists trying to force fliers on passersby.

I occasionally brushed up against show biz — spotted an actor at church or in the grocery store, sat in the audience for the tapings of a few TV shows, visited a friend whose backyard overlooked the home of Mama Cass. But I was more interested in observing the heavens through the telescopes at the Griffith Observatory than checking out the names of stars on Hollywood Boulevard. I’ve never been on a tour of movie stars’ homes.

Now the area around Hollywood High School is primarily a tourist destination. The Hollywood & Highland Center, which opened in 2001, is credited with attracting other businesses and helping the area’s comeback. A few blocks beyond Hollywood & Highland, however, Hollywood Boulevard is a mix of glitter and seediness.

In that half-mile walk between Diesel’s and Valentino’s stars are the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium; tattoo parlors; Frederick’s of Hollywood, the original naughty lingerie shop; souvenir stores offering not-quite-exact miniatures of the Oscar statuette; a substantial chunk of real estate owned by the Church of Scientology; a plaque marking the historical corner of Hollywood and Vine; and Musso and Frank’s restaurant, where a notice posted in the window on the day I visit says scenes for a movie will be shot there later in the week.

One of the anchors of what you might call the tourism area is Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The theater opened in 1927, an ornate and opulent pagoda with imported Chinese artifacts and custom-made statuary, including a 30-foot dragon and two giant Heaven Dogs that guard the entrance. Its first movie was Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings,” which drew thousands of spectators who massed along Hollywood Boulevard to see the stars. That was also Hollywood’s first red-carpet premiere, the inspiration of Sid Grauman, a master showman.

The theater has changed hands and names and been refurbished several times. Now named TCL Chinese Theatre and newly redone as an IMAX theater, it claims to be the most popular attraction in Hollywood, with four million visitors a year. The Heaven Dogs still guard the door and it still hosts premieres for the studios, with celebrities walking the red carpet.

The first footprint

The first footprint was created when Norma Talmadge, a silent-movie star, accidentally stepped in wet concrete days before the grand opening. Grauman immediately realized the promotional value and got two of his business partners, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., to leave footprints as well. Today the forecourt has 265 sets of prints — but not Valentino’s; he died the year before the theater opened. Movie studios pay thousands of dollars for one of their stars to leave handprints there. In addition to hands and feet, the concrete blocks also hold the imprints of noses, knees, glasses, Groucho Marx’s cigar, R2D2’s tread marks, Sonja Henie’s ice-skate blades and Trigger’s hoofprint.

Some of the most popular prints today are those of Michael Jackson (made posthumously last year when his children pressed his sequined glove and dancing shoes into the concrete) and the casts of the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” movies (the latter also made impressions of their wands). On an ordinary day, the plaza is jammed with crowds of tourists posing with a hand or a foot in a favorite celebrity’s prints.

The Walk of Fame was created in 1960-61, with 1,558 stars along Hollywood Boulevard between Gower and La Brea and along a short stretch of Vine Street. Since then, almost 1,000 more stars have been added.

Getting one’s name on a star is not a gift though — entertainers must be nominated, and the sponsor pays $30,000 for the star. Several hundred people are nominated in a typical year; 15 to 25 will get them.

Valentino was one of the 1,558 entertainers whose star was part of the original Walk of Fame. He had been dead 34 years when it was installed.

Just months before Valentino died, Paramount moved from Hollywood and Vine to its present location about a mile away on Melrose Avenue. The imposing gates of the new Paramount grounds — featured in “Sunset Boulevard” — had an extra filigree of iron added to the top after some of Valentino’s fans tried to climb over them. He is rumored to haunt a former apartment building that was converted to Paramount office space and is now called the Valentino Building, but he never lived in the apartment, and it’s not even clear that he ever set foot inside the new Paramount gates.

Directors like Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock once made movies here. Their stars included Mae West, Elvis Presley, Audrey Hepburn, Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie. Since Valentino was one of the studio’s early stars, I signed up for the two-hour tour of Hollywood’s last major studio.

Rudolph Valentino himself is not hard to find. His remains are in a crypt in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard, on the back side of Paramount Studios.

The cemetery — which has its own troubled history and whose current owners reportedly inspired the TV series “Six Feet Under” — holds the remains of about 90,000 people, most of them not famous.

Here, the Latin lover is not forgotten. For years, the Lady in Black — and at times, multiple Ladies in Black — left roses by his crypt on the anniversary of his death, Aug. 23, 1926. And to this day, a memorial service is held every Aug. 23 at 12:10 p.m., the hour of his death.

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