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Ryan Johnson, Published June 23 2012

Another heyday for Fargo’s Celebrity Walk of Fame?

FARGO - A former downtown landmark has been relegated to a “great hidden treasure” in recent years, but the man who started the Celebrity Walk of Fame said he is hopeful the attraction now housed in the city’s south side can once again draw crowds of visitors – and famous actors, musicians and politicians who will agree to enshrine their handprints and autographs in slabs of concrete.

Mike Stevens came up with the idea when he visited Hollywood’s world-famous “Forefront of the Stars” that boasts about 200 celebrity-marked slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

“I just thought that was a cool idea and thought, ‘Why not do this in Fargo?’ ” he said.

Stevens convinced visiting trumpet great Al Hirt to be the first celebrity to leave his mark in 1989, and later that year got pop singer and Fargo native Bobby Vee to join in. Over the years, he built up the collection to 97 slabs and installed them in the sidewalk in front of his former downtown print shop, Express Press, at 520 1st Ave. N.

When his business left downtown in 2000, he donated the slabs he had invested about $100,000 in to the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau at 2001 44th St. S.

But only 16 celebrities have been added since, with the last addition in November 2007 when “Full House” TV actor and comedian Dave Coulier left his handprints and “cut it out” catchphrase in one of the slabs that now line the loop in front of the visitors center.

CVB President and CEO Cole Carley said there has been some success in getting big names in the past 12 years, including the Eagles, KISS and Bill Gates, but it has become a rarity recently.

“We go after them, and usually somewhere between the venue and the booking agency and the people that do this stuff and the controllers, the gatekeepers for the celebrities, somebody says, ‘We’re really not interested,’ ” Carley said. “So, it’s getting harder and harder to get those things.”

Glory days

Stevens said the Celebrity Walk of Fame started as “kind of a joke,” but it wasn’t long before it took on a life of its own.

By reaching out to management groups, record labels and concert promoters, he was able to get many of the biggest stars who were performing in or visiting the area to agree to public induction ceremonies.

“We started to get serious acts like Aerosmith and Metallica, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and these major, major acts,” Stevens said. “And then, all of a sudden, it was a cool deal. People weren’t laughing anymore.”

Some of his requests were snubbed – Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor and Reba McEntire each have the “distinction” of turning him down three times.

“But for the most part, it was relatively easy to get people to come,” he said. “It just took a little discipline and hard work.”

Garth Brooks stopped by in the ’90s when he was in town for a concert. Stevens said the country star skipped his own sound check so he could stay downtown to sign autographs for hundreds of fans.

Many of the names on the Celebrity Walk of Fame are still well-known today, including Toby Keith, Tim McGraw and Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie.

But Stevens said the “really surprising” star who managed to draw the biggest crowd was country star Billy Ray Cyrus, who then was topping the charts with “Achy Breaky Heart.” About 2,000 people packed two blocks along First Avenue North for a chance to get near Cyrus that day, he said.

“When he left in the limo, it looked like he was the pope,” he said. “He was driving through the crowd of people and there was a sunroof in the top of this white limo, and he stood up and was waving and shaking hands over the top of the car.”

Return to glory?

Despite the attraction’s lack of activity in recent years, Stevens said he has high hopes it can thrive again.

He said its current location is better than the old downtown spot because it is easier for tourists and Interstate 94 drivers to find.

Another thing that could help, Stevens said, is the approaching change of leadership at the CVB. Carley will retire after 22 years at the end of the month, when former KVLY, KXJB and WDAZ TV anchor and producer Charley Johnson will take over.

Stevens said he tapped Johnson to host some of the walk’s induction ceremonies over the years and said celebrities seemed to like the “charismatic” local figure.

“Charley just gets it,” he said. “He’s a people person.”

Johnson said CVB officials would like to see the Celebrity Walk of Fame once again become a major attraction. But with the difficulty of getting in touch with stars now – and getting past “levels” of management and public relations teams – he said the CVB might need to find someone on its staff who can take on the responsibility and keep sending requests to get new slabs added to the walk.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing to have here, so we’ll have to look at all the options,” Johnson said. “It’s never been the plan to abandon it. It’s just that it gets harder and harder for people to come and do it.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587