"Hooray for Hollywood,
That screwy, ballyhooey Hollywood!"
Traveling from the East to the West Coast in the dead of winter is always gloriously disorienting. In a few hours, you go from frigid snowcover to an astonishing groundcover of California poppies, radiant yellow hibiscus, hillsides filled with birds of paradise, yucca, and graceful swaying palms. When the final destination is Hollywood—well, we found the experience to be even more dizzying. Hollywood’s normal state of being seems schizophrenic, at best. Add the current pre-Oscar preparation frenzy, and the high profile Walk of Fame ceremony for Andrea, throw in, for good measure, the Italian film festival that would be running all week in town, and you might be able to imagine the chaotic atmosphere we were immersed in for the few whirlwind days of our stay.
Along the main drag, Hollywood Boulevard, there is an incessant din of traffic and street hawking—tours of the stars’ homes, tickets for this show or that one, invitations to have your picture taken with any one of a bewildering array of impersonators from Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Indiana Jones, Batman, Batwoman, Darth Vader, Spidey, Zorro, Captain Jack Sparrow, to Snoopy and Elvis. All were there to coax you to part with your money. At Grauman’s Chinese Theater, there is a ceaseless chaotic bustle of tourists looking down to check out the autographed footprints and handprints (and pawprints, hoofprints, nose prints, even magic wand prints) of the legends of Hollywood from Shirley Temple to the young stars of the Harry Potter films. Two doors down, wannabes are mimicking their own private red carpet fantasy moment at the entry to the Kodak Theater. Overlooking it all, serenely swathed for now in miles of protective plastic, a colossal version of Oscar himself stands vigil awaiting his big moment in a few days. It is a bewildering brew of wacky, weird, and wonderfully exhilarating! At times, my more contemplative thoughts of Andrea and his immanent appearance here formed an internal oasis of sanity that seemed somehow strangely alien to all the rest.
A few months ago, when the announcement had come of Andrea’s stellar honor, I admit to having been hard-pressed at first to find a comfortable connection between the slick and superficial glitz of "tinsel town" and our firmly grounded tenor, who was born of the tranquil serenity of rural Tuscany. The Walk of Fame seemed a more appropriate setting for glamorous and fame-addicted stars the likes of Michael Jackson than a comfortable match for our Andrea, quietly humble, classic and classical to the core.
Moreover, all week long in anticipation of our trip, I had been pondering the notion of an Andrea Bocelli event that would be completely bereft of that cherished voice lifted in song. The prospect was a bit bewildering. Yet, I realized that after all the years of Andrea giving his extraordinary gift to us in concert after concert, it did seem fitting that this would be his turn to be on the receiving end. This time, it was all about giving something back to him, and suddenly that made everything feel very "right."
Monday Morning: The Walk of Fame
No visit to Hollywood is complete without a few hours spent walking the length of legendary Hollywood Boulevard to scan the stars embedded in the walk and pay homage to names that are notorious, idolized, iconic, and beloved. People pause for a photo-op beside a favorite hero or heroine, causing intermittent pedestrian traffic jams. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Jack Benny, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, George Burns, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Jay Silverheels, Clayton Moore, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple…the list seems endless and endlessly diverse. The star of each is distinguished by a medallion beneath the name that is one of five emblems that indicate the field of entertainment: motion pictures, radio, television, live theater/performance, or recording. Some, like Bing Crosby and Dean Martin, have stars in more than one category! Gradually, as you walk along and the illustrious names of the past and present pass before your eyes, you begin to realize what an integral role these entertainers have played in our lives from toddlerhood to maturity. They give of themselves completely to brighten and distract us, bring us insight and pleasure, laughter and tears to touch our hearts and to broaden the horizons of our lives—just as Andrea has done.
A Star is Born
Rumor had it Monday morning that the tenor’s star had already been placed in its spot at the entry of the Hotel Roosevelt where the very first Academy Awards had been given out in its heyday year of 1929. Notable residents of the venerable hotel have included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Marilyn Monroe, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Will Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley Temple, Bruce Willis, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy. What we found there were two men hard at work with a water-polishing machine who were in the final stages of cleaning and polishing Andrea’s newly embedded star. With a squeegee, they cleared off the muddy-gray residue, then carefully, by hand, they wiped away the traces of grout, and peeled off the protective wrapper from the shiny brass entertainment emblem, which for Andrea was Live Theater/Performance. Finally, with very fine sandpaper, the last worker, who seemed to be taking considerable satisfaction in his work, cleaned off any minute blemishes, so the star would be perfectly presentable for the big moment. We stood inexplicably transfixed by the whole process. Rather foolishly, I found myself feeling somewhat like a proud midwife assisting at a blessed event!
We owe Andrea’s star (the 2,402nd on the Walk of Fame) to Pascal Vicedomini, the head and founder of the L.A. Italia Film Festival, who first made the nomination to honor Andrea in this way. There are sixteen other Italians on the Walk, among them Sophia Loren, Ezio Pinza, Frank Capra, Mantovani, and Rudolph Valentino. Pascal is apparently a big advocate for including more Italians for this honor, and according to Leron Gubler, President of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which manages the Walk of Fame, Maestro Luciano Pavarotti is next on Pascal’s list of hoped for candidates. Rightly so. Andrea’s star is in good company. Among those in his constellation are the inscrutable Glenn Close, the dashing Errol Flynn, the versatile beauty Natalie Wood, sexy Vanessa Williams, and, well, Soupy Sales. (So, four out of five isn’t bad.)
Monday Evening: The Documentary
The fabled Grauman’s Chinese Theater, built in 1927 for a cool $2 million, is an impressive space. The theme of the orient is carried out throughout with no expense spared—the truly ancient, giant Foo dogs guarding either side of the entrance; the hand-carved 30-foot-high stone dragon at the entry wall; the imported temple bells; the rich crimson and gold lobby carpet with the fierce, custom-woven dragon motif; the elaborately ornate Chinese lanterns hanging ponderously from the ceiling; and the wall coverings intricately patterned in cherry boughs, pagodas, and the like in shades of jade, shimmering gold, and claret. Monday night in the outer courtyard, the famed red carpet treatment awaited the arrival of the guest of honor. Somehow though, it all seemed an alien and exotic setting for the film we were about to see that captured the unlikely odyssey of the adorably scrawny boy from Lajatico. But hey, this was Hollywood.
Most of us have seen "Andrea Bocelli: The Story Behind the Voice" online, but I was not prepared for the impact of the film when projected on the BIG SCREEN with Dolby surround-sound…and from the perspective of the second row in that grand theater. The Grauman Chinese theater seats nearly 1,200, and although it was not full, this was a solidly devoted Andrea crowd, many of them Italian. The experience was almost like a live concert—with the curious twist of having Andrea with us in the audience! Thunderous applause greeted the moments when his glorious voice boomed out with an intensity that was physically palpable … Nessun Dorma, Pieta Signore, Di Quella Pira, and other arias from precious filmed moments from his staged operas: La Boheme, the Detroit Werther, Tosca and Madama Butterfly from Torre del Lago, Carmen in Rome. Once more we relived the excruciating sorrow of Andrea’s participation in the Ground Zero Memorial after 9/11. And we rejoiced again to see him conquer the operatic stage as well as audience after audience in concerts the world over. The reality of Andrea’s life story is powerfully moving, and the insight and honest tributes of his close family and friends is emotionally charged. But throughout the film, it is the wisdom and commentary of a larger than life Andrea himself that touches even more profoundly.
"Through my singing, my goal is to make people understand that whatever happens in life, however sad or terrible, there are still thousands of reasons to go on living this life fully."
When the movie had finished and Andrea walked to the front of the theater to a standing ovation to receive his award, he commented with all sincerity: "I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am!" remarking that after sitting through the film he felt like he was "almost naked." I hadn’t thought what it would be like for a man of a naturally humble nature to have to hear all the unabashed praise and accolades and also the perhaps painful descriptions of private moments wash over him in the company of a theater full of people who were mostly strangers. Andrea’s evident vulnerability and honest acknowledgment of embarrassment were touching. He then noted that the next day he would receive his star, but confided that if he thought of it as being considered as worthy of the company of such stars as Beniamino Gigli and Enrico Caruso, he would just go back home and "not go there." Instead, he said, he preferred to see his star as a symbol of the affection of the American people. Well, he got that part right!! These few remarks did not take long, and Andrea was gone before we had time to realize it.
Tuesday Morning: The Ceremony
Bright and early Tuesday morning, Jack, Glo, and I reported to our spot (to the right and slightly behind the podium) for the dedication ceremony scheduled for 11:30 am. There was a nip in the air, but we were warmed by the excitement of anticipation. A sizeable crowd was already bunched behind the street barrier. We were soon joined by Mary, Janice, and Beth, who rounded out the very fortunate group of fans so graciously included by Andrea on his special day. Unanimously, we felt we held all fans everywhere with us in spirit.
Andrea and Veronica were still inside the Hotel Roosevelt, with a group of Italians, some individuals representing the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and friends who were in the Bocelli entourage including Carlo Bernini, Carlo Tomba, David Foster, and Marc Johnston. Tony Renis came out first, dressed from head-to-toe in winter white. Tony is a consummate musician, movie star, songwriter, composer, and producer and has been the artistic director of the San Remo Festival since 2003. Mr. Renis might be considered the "Godfather" of Andrea’s career in the United States. He was among the first to predict Andrea’s success with American audiences, and he introduced him to David Foster. He greeted the fans warmly and thanked them for coming to support and celebrate with Andrea. While we waited for the honoree to make his entrance, we were entertained by the young singers of the Janet Adderly School of Performing Arts. Appropriately, they chose two Bocelli hits, The Prayer and Because We Believe, and were warmly received.
Finally, to the unmistakably flamboyant strains of "Hurray for Hollywood," Leron Gubler took the podium and announced the arrival of the man of the hour (actually, man of the day, since they had officially declared this Andrea Bocelli Day in Hollywood!). Andrea, impeccably attired in a handsome, dark-blue pinstripe suit with a tie of delicately shaded mauve, was beaming from top to bottom as the crowd lavished applause on him. His smiling Veronica was, of course, at his side. Throughout the nearly hour-long program that ensued, Andrea’s face was lit by incandescent smile after scintillating smile! He was clearly the happiest of men—it simply radiated from him.
Mr. Gubler began with a review of the highlights of Andrea’s career, and the crowd punctuated each impressive musical accomplishment with approving shouts and enthusiastic applause. Andrea seemed genuinely pleased to reminisce too and allow himself satisfaction with a job well done, again acknowledging with glowing smiles or a quick comment to Veronica each landmark moment that was described.
When Gubler had finished speaking, he introduced once more the children’s choir, who serenaded Andrea with their rendition of Con te Partiro. It wasn’t long into the rendition before the tenor could no longer contain himself and began to sing quietly along from the podium, at which point they called the soloist Claire Nordstrom, a very young lady with a very big voice, to come up. She finished the song at Andrea’s side, clearly thrilled at the privilege. The impromptu duet was a definite highlight, and Andrea gently thanked her and all her young colleagues with his hearty applause for their musical gift to him.
David Foster’s Tribute
David Foster outdid himself in his tribute to the man he obviously admires, praising Andrea’s musicianship, unique artistry, zest for life, profound love of family, and moral courage. He noted that among the tenors honored in the Walk of Fame, Andrea was in good company, which he undoubtedly merited—Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza were the two David mentioned, although he could have included Beniamino Gigli and Placido Domingo.
Foster catalogued Andrea’s impressive list of hobbies and accomplishments, "more than those of any three men put together," he bragged. "You name it," he said, "and Andrea has done it or tried it"—skiing, skydiving, skating, bicycling, windsurfing, horseback riding, chess. He reiterated his favorite claim that Andrea is the "greatest singer on the planet." He named the many instruments Andrea plays—piano, trumpet, flute, guitar, drums—and he noted that he does not just make "a noise," but plays them well. As he has many times before, David again marveled at the fact that Andrea truly walks in two worlds, classical and pop. At home with Andrea during the course of a day, David recalled that his host might play a classical piece at the piano "like a virtuoso," then sing some obscure German classical aria "in a thunderous voice," then walk into the music room to climb on the set of drums and sing an Elvis Presley song. This, he assured us, was the definition of "true virtuosity." He pointed out Andrea’s fascination with technology, leaving all of us "in the dust" with his mastery of these gadgets. "He thinks like a teenager," Foster marveled with a big grin.
He paid tribute to Andrea as devoted father, who "drew a steadfast line in the sand" and, no matter what, would never leave his sons for longer than two weeks at a time. He lauded Amos and Matteo as disciplined, polite, and accomplished young men, which, he said, was a tribute to Andrea’s parenthood. Finally, he admired Andrea’s steadfast values. With Andrea, "it’s never about the money," Foster confided. "Every decision he makes comes from his true artistry and his unique and moral compass."
Before he closed, Foster did not forget Veronica, who, he noted, feels the constant pressure of Andrea’s career but "always has the right answer for everyone." To conclude, Foster reminisced that he had attended these Walk of Fame ceremonies since he was a boy, but, he said, if you walked "up and down all of these streets, there could not be a more deserving honoree." The crowd whooped and clapped their agreement. David exchanged a truly heartfelt embrace with Andrea, who could not have looked more overwhelmed at the praise his friend had showered on him or the warm response from the audience gathered there.
Then, at last, it was Andrea’s turn to speak. As he so often has in the past when the precise communication of what he holds in his heart was most important to him, he stated quickly in English that he would speak in Italian, "so he would not make any mistakes." He began by noting that he first took the stage at an even younger age than the young singers who had performed for him earlier. This "stage" was the hearth of the fireplace in his parents’ kitchen. At that time he longed only for the applause of his family. But he made a point to emphasize that the real purpose of his grown-up career has been to try to bring "joy and some peace of mind to those who are listening to my music." He hoped he had done that, he said. He had tried his best to do it. We let him know that he had! Now, he stated, one of the most precious memories he always takes back with him from his tours in the United States is the strong affection communicated to him by the overwhelming applause American audiences have always bestowed on him. For him, the star he had received today represented this affection. For this, he gave his heartfelt thanks. These last remarks were greeted with another wave of applause from the crowd.
I cannot say enough what a delight it was to see Andrea so profoundly and supremely happy. When he finished his speech, Veronica accompanied him down the steps of the small podium and over to his star for the unveiling. Naturally the crowd responded with long applause that was warm and affectionate. Andrea knelt eagerly to touch this already treasured new landmark of his life story—Veronica knelt by his side describing to him the deep rose-pink color of the five-pointed star that was outlined in brass, the medallion relief with the familiar smiling and frowning twin masks of drama and comedy that signified his category of live staged performance, the special limited edition 50th anniversary insignia, and the beloved name in shining gold letters: ANDREA BOCELLI. His simple gesture to touch this symbol of such significance to him set off a dazzling wall of flashes from the bank of press photographers anxious to capture the moment that we had all just shared with overflowing pride and affection…but no one was beaming more radiantly at him with unabashed love and tenderness than sweet Veronica. In a final burst of exuberant triumph, Andrea stood, grabbed her round the waist, and lifted her high off the dark terrazzo of the famed walk of Hollywood Boulevard…their broad smiles mirror images of mutual joy.
The "fortunate five" (and very grateful) fans who had been invited to share the moment with Andrea mingled with the other "VIPs" at the champagne reception in the Dakota Room of the historic Hotel Roosevelt. Andrea and Veronica circulated among the guests, and Andrea posed graciously for pictures. There was a lovely and sumptuous buffet, but while the tenor was present, who could think of food! The "entourage" would not be staying for lunch but were to leave for Italy within the half hour, assuredly with stars in their eyes, but I’m betting they were equally eager to have the solid Tuscan earth firmly beneath their feet after the heady, disorienting atmosphere of Hollywood.
When the tenor had left the building, I was left for the first time in days with some quiet thoughts. All through the day, the famous "Wish Upon a Star" lyric from Disney’s Pinocchio was running through my mind. "If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme." Did the little boy in Lajatico wish often upon a Tuscan star? No one’s heart could have been more firmly in his dream than Andrea’s has been. We have heard him remark often that reality has now far surpassed those dreams.
Our journey with Andrea has spanned more than a decade and led us from one end of this country to the other and across an ocean, multiple times. Landmark moments through the years have forged strong links between this singular man and those he strives so earnestly to touch with his art. Stardom, as it adorns our Andrea, was just the natural effect of his willingness to give all of the best that was within him to reach our hearts. We willingly bask in the incandescent starlight generated by that effort. As David Foster said, on March 2, 2010, Andrea’s star is the brightest in the universe and because of this day his star "will shine forevermore."
Star light, star bright—
Make a wish, caro Maestro…but be careful what you wish for!