The most populous state in the union. The fifth-largest economy in the world. Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The gold rush, earthquakes, and organic farming. These were some of the thoughts taking up unaffordable real estate in my brain as I set out for the California Hall of Fame in downtown Sacramento.
The Hall of Fame sits, appropriately, just one block from that nexus of power, the state capitol. However, it turns out to be not so much a hall as a 1,200-square-foot display space carved out on the second floor of the Secretary of State Building. Organizationally, it’s part of the California Museum—what that institution terms a “signature exhibit.”
When I enter the building, the welcoming committee consists of three smiling Mickey Mouse statues and a beefy uniformed security guard in his 50s sitting behind a desk, glasses propped on top of his bald head. He’s friendly and points to the pantheon of great Californians awaiting me. “They’ve done so much in life,” he says, then mutters, “I’ve wasted my life.”
I gaze toward the displays stretching out in front of me. There are only a few other souls in the lobby. “Shout” by the Isley Brothers plays, one in a looping series of 1950s tunes. “Jump up and shout now!” It seems unlikely that I’ll do much kicking up of my heels, throwing back of my head, or shouting here.
The Hall of Fame was created in 2006 by First Lady Maria Shriver, wife of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to the organization’s website, each year the current First Couple inducts between 7 and 14 “legendary people who embody California’s innovative spirit and have made their mark on history.” The inaugural class of 13 enshrinees includes Clint Eastwood, Billie Jean King, President Ronald Reagan, and Alice Walker, together at last under the same roof, likely unwillingly.
A statue of a prowling grizzly bear (borrowed from the state flag) guards a 40-by-7-foot LCD display of the class of 2018 and an accompanying biographical display. Inducted by Governor Jerry Brown and First Lady Anne Gust Brown, 2018’s group of eight includes mountaineer and scientist Arlene Blum (leader of the first all-female team’s ascent of Annapurna; also, when you sit on nontoxic furniture, thank her), journalist Belva Davis, chef Thomas Keller, and actor Robert Redford.
On the second floor, more fame awaits. Since its founding, the Hall of Fame has admitted 123 people from 12 classes. They hail from various California eras, and all made significant contributions to something, yet the only thing truly linking them, in a sense, is gubernatorial whim.
Little shrines have been erected for each member of last year’s class. As a fellow journalist, I pause in front of the photo of Davis.
The first black TV anchorwoman on the West Coast, Davis won Emmys for covering the AIDS crisis, the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panthers, and the Peoples Temple cult. When she accepted her Hall of Fame award, she gave sincere thanks to the promise of California, saying, “There is so much to be grateful to California for in who I am today. I was born in Monroe, Louisiana…[where I] would never have had a chance to do all of those things.”
The setup for culinary genius Keller confuses me. At the French Laundry, in Napa County, Keller’s attentiveness to detail is an essential and celebrated aspect of the restaurant’s Michelin-starred perfection. Here, the details include scissors and green masking tape posed on a cutting board, the scissors pointed down and to the left. A knife, also on the cutting board, points toward visitors, as if warning them to keep their distance. A chef’s jacket (Keller’s?) hangs next to photos of the inductee. But the sleeves aren’t folded up uniformly, and one is longer than the other. The jacket looks anonymous without a monogram and lacks the pristine, pressed appearance that is a Keller standard.
On a brighter note, a replica of the mouse from Pixar’s Ratatouille is perched on a plastic stand as if surveying the clutter. It’s a cheeky nod to the chef’s role as culinary adviser for the wildly successful film.
I later email Keller and ask what it’s like to be a member of California’s Hall of Fame. “It’s an honor and somewhat of a surprise for someone with my background to be recognized in this way,” he responds. “I am proud to have been born in this great state and to live in the Napa Valley, and thank Governor and First Lady Brown.”
Next, I’m drawn to a video that’s playing at the shrine to Robert Redford. The actor waxes on and on about doing all we can for future generations. While it’s the usual pabulum, he’s passionate and it’s strangely compelling. I want to keep watching, yet there is only one cushioned bench for seating—I take it. A young boy, clearly a fellow Redford fan, rolls around on the carpeted floor, occasionally glancing up at the video screen.
Redford is as hunky as ever. In footage from 2018’s awards ceremony, First Lady Gust Brown provokes laughter from the crowd when she beckons the actor to the podium: “Just come say thank you. You’re so cute, everyone wants to see you.”
I visit other class years and am delighted to find the tiny (size 4?) skates of Olympian Kristi Yamaguchi among the displays for the 2015 Hall of Famers. Yet the flimsy life-size cardboard cutout of Yamaguchi looks like a child’s school presentation.
After my visit, I reach out to Yamaguchi and ask her how it feels to be honored alongside Walt Disney, class of 2006; Steve Jobs, class of 2007; and Joan Baez, class of 2018. She emails back, “I’ve seen many Redford films, seen Joan Baez in concert, love Disney everything and I’m writing this on my iPhone.”
Among the few, proud Hall of Fame watchers out there, rumors abound about whom Governor Gavin Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom might induct for the 13th class, and there’s been chatter about Newsom’s predecessor, Governor Brown. Usually the sitting First Couple announces its slate of legendary Californians in the fall, with a red-carpet awards ceremony held in December.
The suspense eating at me, I check in with the governor’s office. An appropriately circumspect spokesperson offers this cliffhanger of a statement: “The Newsom Administration plans to announce their inductees this Fall. The date for the ceremony is TBD, but roughly the same time frame as usual. The Hall of Fame site is updated annually after the inductees are announced.”
Like you, I’ll be watching the museum website. Everybody shout now!
Mary Ladd is the author of The Wig Diaries, a humorous guide to navigating cancer.