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From the Walk of Fame to the Walk of Neglect

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Let's here it for Philadelphia's Walk of Fame!

That refrain sounded big in 1987 when the Philadelphia Music Alliance put into action its plan to create a Walk of Fame along South Broad Street, or the Avenue of the Arts. The idea then was to install commemorative sidewalk bronze plaques with the names of famous-born Philadelphians who made it big in the music world--- music, of course, meaning jazz, classical, gospel, rock, R & B, and opera. Developed as a way to showcase the musical legacy of a great city, the Philadelphia Music Alliance, a community-based, not-for-profit organization founded in 1986, announced that among the first plaque inductees would be city greats like Marian Anderson, Mario Lanza, Dizzy Gillespie, Bessie Smith and Chubby Checker.

The buzz the Walk of Fame generated at that time was over-the-top. The new plaques on Broad Street were shiny and bright, and the accompanying inductee parties, photo ops, champagne toasts and gala dinners were given a prominent place in the news. Over the years new names were added to the Walk, such as the 1996 addition of Joan Jett, who was present when her commemorative plaque was installed. In 1995, the Delfonics were photographed beside their plaque, as was talk show host and singer Mike Douglas in 1997.

The Philadelphia Music Alliance has a great archival record of the various parties and sidewalk events that took place, including photos of many of the 100-plus inductees like Ethel Waters, Leopold Stokowski, Samuel Barber, Pearl Bailey, Dick Clark, and Fabian.

(Fabian was a pompadour-high teen heartthrob in the late 1950s and early 60s, but once the Beatles surfaced, that was it for this South Philly native, although the man still performs.)

As far as I've been able to determine, the last Walk of Fame commemoration in bronze was laid in June 2010 when The Tonight Show's band leader, Kevin Eubanks, was awarded a plaque. Since then the Walk of Fame has gone the way of Philadelphia's abandoned, boarded up houses: into the Walk of Neglect.

While walking along Broad Street recently I made it a point to study the condition of the plaques near the Academy of Music. Not only are quite a few of the plaques partially sunken into the sidewalk, many are so dirty and eroded it makes you wonder if anybody in Philadelphia even cares about these bronzes anymore. Gone are the parties, the plaque galas, the on site photo ops with fans reeling behind police barricades. In fact, the only people who pay attention to the Walk of Fame seem to be the people who manage to glance at them while flicking occasional cigarette butts on random plaques like the one commemorating The Oak Ridge Boys.

In the 1990s there were periodic "Star dust" cleaning parties where music and radio celebrities would lend a hand scrubbing city grime off the various plaques. Events like this are no more, which seems to indicate that 1) PMA has lost interest in the project, 2) it has become too expensive to maintain the plaques, or 3) there's been a real change in the way the normal citizen perceives celebrity.

Our age, after all, is the age of instantaneous celebrity when people expect to become famous for nothing at all. A musician working for decades may never achieve the star power of a silicone lipped reality TV bit player who happens to catch the eye of a lascivious producer. Gone are the days when celebrity-hood was more often than not viewed as something acquired through great effort, talent and skill.

In the 1990s, at the height of the Walk of Fame hoopla, I wrote the Music Alliance and asked if they would accept a proposal for a commemorative plaque. Today the PMA has an online submission form for nominations, but in the 1990s that was not the case. Obtaining a nomination form then was more difficult.

I nominated Beryl Booker, a jazz pianist who played piano and toured Europe with Dizzy Gillespie, and who even accompanied Billie Holiday. My story on Ms. Booker was printed and then reprinted in several newspapers, including The Philadelphia Tribune.

PMA asked for a discography of Beryl Booker's work, so I sent them everything I had, including duplicate copies of the interview. I was told that the nomination process would take several months. The waiting game lasted over 2 years with intermittent phone calls asking for a status report, during which I asked to resubmit the Beryl Booker info because they had lost the original mailings, etc. I waited another year, called again and was once again asked to resubmit. After that I was told that there was a freeze on nominations. I eventually threw in the towel, although I contacted PMA a couple years later to get a progress report.

"We remember something about Beryl Booker, but we cannot say definitely," I was told. "Can you resubmit the package?"

I did everything one more time, but when there was no follow up after that I figured they were just too embarrassed to tell me that they thought that Beryl Booker was chopped liver.

But Beryl Booker wasn't chopped liver! She was the star of at least one film and had made many records. She even hung out and got drunk with Billie Holiday!

Just recently I submitted Beryl Booker's name for the fifth time, but I'm not so sure that it matters any more.

But do I really want Beryl Booker's name to become corroded and dirty or sink down into the sinkhole cement on the Avenue of the Arts?