Oct. 25, 1954: Betty White becomes honorary mayor of Hollywood.
During the 1930s and 1940s, neighborhoods and cities surrounding Los Angeles named celebrities as honorary mayors to help gain their areas vital city services like flood control, better roads, and new schools, post offices, and banks. Most who served did so as an act of public service, gladly giving back to their communities for all the success they had achieved. By the 1950s, however, serving as honorary mayor often meant earning greater publicity opportunities rather than performing a needed civic duty.
The city of Los Angeles boomed after World War II, with many veterans returning to a city they had passed through on their way overseas. African Americans flocked here for what they saw as greater opportunity and freedom. Manufacturing plants exploded, leading to a higher standard of living for many people. This growing prosperity allowed the city to provide more and better services as the metropolitan area expanded.
More celebrities were named honorary mayors, but many seemed to be merely window dressing for photographs showing ground-breakings, store openings, banquets, and festivities. The “job” functioned more as a highlight of a resume rather than public duty, becoming a revolving door of famous names acting as the face of their communities.
North Hollywood’s honorary mayors in the 1950s came from the film industry: Elyse Knox in 1953, Julia Adams in 1954, Barbara Britton in 1955, Martha Hyer in 1956, and Gordon MacRae in 1957, who visited the North Hollywood High School students presenting the first Southern California high school production of “Oklahoma!” that year.
A cornucopia of other celebrities served as honorary mayors in their communities. Jerry Lewis served as honorary mayor of Pacific Palisades in 1952, Roy Rogers acted as Van Nuys’ honorary mayor in 1953, replacing Andy Devine after more than 14 years of service, Charlie Ruggles served as San Fernando’s honorary mayor in 1953, Liberace served as Sherman Oaks’ honorary mayor in 1954, Walter Brennan acted as Panorama City’s honorary mayor in 1955, John Wayne replaced Spade Cooley as Encino’s honorary mayor in 1956, and Jack Webb served as Studio City’s honorary mayor in 1957.
By the late 1950s, television stars replaced film stars in those positions. Many communities, however, were beginning to replace celebrity figureheads with important civilian members of their communities, people already contributing their time and talents in public service.
The city of Hollywood, however, found a way in the 1950s for making the position of honorary mayor actually provide funds for charity. In 1952, the Kiwanis Club began sponsoring a “race” for the title to raise funds for underprivileged children – each vote required a payment of a dime to help buy playground equipment, movie projectors, hearing aids, crutches, and the like. Celebrities from the fields of film, radio, TV, and recording threw their names into play.
Actress Barbara Britton won the position in 1952, with The Los Angeles Times noting that she planned to name the following celebrities to honorary positions: Red Skelton as fire chief, Hal Peary as water commissioner, Vince Barnett as universal service, Jean Hersholt for health, Jack Benny as treasurer, Bob Cummings in charge of airports, John Wayne in charge of building and safety, Dick Whittinghill in charge of administration, James Cagney leading harbor, Barbara Stanwyck as librarian, Richard Denning as police chief, Art Linkletter leading public works, Marilyn Monroe in charge of parks and recreation, Rosalind Russell leading social services, and Robert Stack in charge of traffic.
Anyone anywhere in the country could vote in 1953, as long as they mailed their vote with a dime to the correct Hollywood address. Stars with nationwide shows promoted their “campaigns” to their viewers, asking for votes. Thirty people entered the race that year, including Liberace, Betty White, Elena Verdugo, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Lawrence Welk. Jack Bailey, emcee for “Queen For a Day,” won the election.
White really wanted to win in fall 1954, mentioning the race every day on her nationwide show. She won a strong race over Pinky Lee, Welk, Ford, Hugh O’Brian, and others. Over $14,000 was raised that year, with funds coming from as far away as Maine. During her service, White issued a proclamation honoring the 20th anniversary of Social Security during the week of Aug. 8, 1955.
In 1957, Art Linkletter, as Hollywood’s honorary mayor, spearheaded a fundraising campaign for a large number of charities under the sponsorship of the Hollywood Charitable Foundation. By 1960, the drive to raise money seemed to be gone.
An April 16, 1965, Times story noted that the San Fernando Valley’s honorary mayors had long been merely figureheads, but an organization called Honorary Mayors Assn. of Los Angeles was formed “…to find how to serve a more useful and functional purpose to our communities and the city of Los Angeles,” as explained by Frances O’Farrell. They hoped to hold monthly meetings at City Hall, and wanted to bring their communities more directly to the city, as well as help Mayor Sam Yorty entertain special dignitaries visiting the metropolis. O’Farrell explained how Chambers of Commerce picked honorary mayors. “The chambers usually want someone who will create a favorable public image for the community.”
The position of honorary mayor continues to be awarded by many communities to this day. Community leaders as well as celebrities serve, once again merely as figureheads at grand openings, special events, and the like. Gone are the days when these positions advocated important services instead of being merely a ceremonial role.