Photo: Hugh Herbert, honorary mayor of Studio City, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Tomorrow is election day. Elections and politics are important to everyone, be they Joe Citizen or Joseph Kennedy. Over the years, celebrities have entered the political arena, some to support candidates, some to raise their fading glory, and others because they truly hoped to provide public service. In the 1930s and 1940s, many Hollywood stars served as honorary mayors in their communities, bringing recognition to their local neighborhoods and advocating for public services, roads and parks to better people’s lives.
Will Rogers appears to be the first celebrity to serve as an honorary mayor, when he served as Beverly Hills unofficial mayor for three years in the 1920s, per the Aug. 17, 1935, Los Angeles Times. He entered service to help bring attention to the area as an attractive place to live and work for ambitious Angelenos.
By the 1930s, the San Fernando Valley’s population was exploding as many Los Angeles residents moved to the far-flung farming communities for larger lot sizes, a more rural existence and work opportunities. Expanding municipalities required publicity to promote their charms, but also to help lure businesses and the government to spend money to improve infrastructure.
Encino inaugurated the trend of celebrity service by appointing Al Jolson its honorary mayor in the mid-1930s, and by 1938, he also served as president of the Chamber of Commerce as well. He helped lead a booster campaign to double the population that year, in which he “inaugurated an ambitious program of community service which resulted in the opening of a fourth-class post office, paving of the principal streets, installation of street lights, and the erection of lighted boulevard markets at the East and West boundaries on Ventura Boulevard,” according to the Nov. 25, 1938, Los Angeles Times.
Studio City named woo-woo man Hugh Herbert honorary mayor on September 24, 1936, in a ceremony presided over by George C. Andet, President of the Laurelwood, Universal City, and Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce. Herbert lived on a small farm off of Landale Street in Studio City, and jumped right in. He also served as honorary police chief, fire chief, and President of the Chamber of Commerce in 1939 in his community, along with writing columns for the “Studio City News.” In 1939, he pledged to work on improving transportation, roads, fire prevention, civic beautification and removal of unsightly billboards, and tax reduction, along with fellow honorary mayors Jolson, Andy Devine, Glenda Farrell, and Bob Burns.
Andy Devine was seated as Van Nuys honorary mayor on May 18, 1938, a post he would hold for more than 11 years. Like any good politician, he appeared at business openings, street repair announcements and local celebrations. He led a delegation of San Fernando Valley honorary mayors to the Golden Gate Exposition goodwill luncheon at Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel on Feb. 18, 1939. At the start of his third term, Van Nuys presented Devine with a pair of diamond-studded spurs to thank him for his service. The Feb. 21, 1940, Los Angeles Times reported that an excited Devine exhorted, “Golly! If Ma and Pa could see me now!”
North Hollywood joined the political parade in 1938, searching for an honorary mayor after the March 1938 floods caused devastation. They decided on a special election in which residents would write in candidates for the position, to be decided by popular vote. Actress Glenda Farrell earned honorary mayor honors, and Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron attended her inauguration ceremonies at the El Portal Theatre on Dec. 8, 1938.
Comedian Bob Burns assumed the mantle of honorary mayor of Canoga Park on Nov. 30, 1938, before leading that city’s inaugural ball on Dec. 13 in which such residents as Irene Rich, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Paul Kelly, Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, Joe E. Brown, and Francis Lederer were invited. Burns soon gave $500 towards $5,000 needed to buy 13 acres for a park in his fair city, according to the March 16, 1939, Times. Lederer also donated toward the cause. On Aug. 10, Burns acted as master of ceremonies for the opening of Canoga Park’s new $75,000 post office, which Democratic Rep. John Steven McGroarty also attended.
Culver City named Carole Lombard honorary mayor for a day for publicity purposes, and she turned around and “declared July 8, 1938, a legal holiday for Selznick-International employees and threatened to call out the Culver City police force to arrest anyone reporting for work on the lot,” according to “Daily Variety.”
The city of Chatsworth held an election between Irene Rich, John Barrymore, and Marian Marsh for their honorary mayor position on March 26, 1939, which Marsh won. An induction barbecue was held for her on June 25, 1939, with Lionel Barrymore officiating and Paul Kelly chairing. Marsh worked actively in the position, visiting residents at home and touring the city on the inauguration day. She told the Los Angeles Times, “If I’m going to be a good public official, I’ve got to know what’s going on in my community.” During her service, she helped open firehouses, police stations, and post offices, and led drives to build parks and pave streets. She announced, “I’m going to prove that a career girl can be just as efficient in the house and the community as any other woman, or man for that matter.”
Robert Young was elected honorary mayor of Tarzana on March 29, 1939, and an unidentified civic leader from Encino announced, “Little did we know what we were starting.” A radio program which Young was emceeing on March 30 would devote 10 minutes to Tarzana and his election, helping bolster the town’s name recognition.
Tom Keene’s swearing-in as Sherman Oaks’ honorary mayor occurred during a rodeo competition at Joe Flores Rancho on Aug. 17, 1939, with a parade kicking off festivities. Mounted group Los Charros would take part in the parade, with Clark Gable, Leo Carrillo, Buck Jones, and Edgar Bergen riding.
Several honorary mayors took part in the dedication of the new Cahuenga Pass Freeway, now the 101 Freeway, on June 15, 1940, with Keene, Gene Autry, and Richard Arlen taking part in the snipping of a ribbon of film to open the eight lane highway, and featured in a photograph which ran on the front page of the Times.
Roy Rogers and Trigger led Studio City’s first Christmas parade down Ventura Blvd. on Dec. 3, 1941 when Rogers was elected honorary mayor for the area, per the December 3, 1941 “Daily Variety.”
Funnyman Bud Abbott challenged and beat Sherman Oaks honorary mayor Cliff Arquette in the selling of war bonds at a Feb. 10, 1944, rally, taking over the position. Arquette claimed that Lou Costello helped Abbott win by telling mothers he would watch their children while they bought bonds. Abbott took his position seriously. He and other Sherman Oaks businessmen held a protest rally on Feb. 15, 1944, petitioning the government to issue a charter for the establishment of a federal bank in the city, as residents conducted their financial business in Van Nuys or Studio City.
In February 1945, radio man and restaurateur Tom Breneman beat out Mischa Auer, Paul Muni, and Wild Bill Elliott for honorary mayor of Encino.
Studio City went retro in 1946 in its election of an honorary mayor. The community intended to hold “an old-fashioned torchlight parade, soapbox oratory, and fireworks before the election,” per the Jan. 17, 1946 Los Angeles Times. Announced candidates for position in May 1946 included Judy Canova, Bonita Granville, Ken Niles, Roy Rogers, Bill Goodwin, and Penny Singleton.
Encino’s 1946 race for honorary mayor grew heated as well, with Breneman, Auer, Mickey Rooney, Phil Harris, Jim (Fibber McGee) Jordan, Carmen Cavallaro, and Ann Sheridan throwing their hats in the ring for the prize. Sheridan believed “that a woman’s place is in politics as well as in the kitchen,” per the April 23, 1946 Times.
Other celebrities serving in honorary positions in the 1930s-1940s included Edward Everett Horton as honorary governor of the Valley (1937), Mischa Auer as honorary mayor of Universal City (1939), Leo Carrillo as honorary mayor of West Los Angeles (1939), Marjorie Rambeau as honorary mayor of Girard (1940), Gene Autry as honorary mayor of North Hollywood (1940), Roy Rogers as honorary mayor of Valley Village (1940), Smiley Burnette as honorary mayor of Studio City (1940), Virginia Bruce as honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades (1944), Brian Donlevy as honorary mayor of Malibu (1944), Warner Baxter as honorary mayor of Malibu (1946), Dennis Morgan as honorary mayor of La Crescenta-La Canada (1947), Arthur Treacher as honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks (1945), Gary Cooper as honorary mayor of Brentwood (1949), Ann Blythe as honorary mayor of Toluca Lake (1949), Ginny Sims as honorary mayor of Northridge (1944), Rex Allen as honorary mayor of Studio City (1949), and Jack Oakie as honorary mayor of West Van Nuys (1940), working to improve transportation in his area with convincing the city to pave roads. Actor Richard Arlen served in a variety of places, starting as honorary mayor of Toluca Lake in the mid-1930s, before serving in Sunland (1940) and later Sherman Oaks (1949).