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The original footprints from the Grauman's Chinese Theatre were hidden for decades in a Southern California airport hangar.
It's an iconic event known throughout the world. For the past 85 years, only the biggest stars in Hollywood have been immortalized with their hands and feet in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
But NBCLA has discovered a critical piece of Hollywood history is missing from the theater's famous forecourt.
The original footprints that started it all have been hidden for decades. In fact, not even the company that owns Grauman's Theatre knew about these potentially priceless footprints.
"I was not aware that the ones we have in the forecourt are not the originals," said Peter Dobson, CEO of Mann Theatres, the company that owns Grauman's Chinese. "If they are missing and we just got the practice slabs in there, I'm devastated to know that."
"I have no interest in giving them back to Grauman's," said Nick Olaerts, a former Hollywood developer who claims to own the slabs. "Decades ago, I had wanted to give them back to Grauman's, a donation in the name of my children, but the theater's owner at the time, Ted Mann, wasn't interested in taking them back."
Instead, Olaerts gave the slabs to his friend Larry Buchanan, an airplane mechanic who put them in storage at his airport hangar east of Los Angeles. Over the years, Buchanan and Olaerts have tried numerous times to sell the slabs, Buchanan even at one point put them on eBay.
"Grauman's knows I have them and they are not interested in that era; it's an era gone by," said Buchanan.
"That's based without foundation," said Dobson, who said he has never been contacted about the original footprints.
The men are just three players in the forgotten footprints' long and mysterious journey from Hollywood Boulevard to that airport hangar.
The iconic hand-and-feet-in-cement tradition began by accident in the spring of 1927, when Sid Grauman asked silent film stars, Douglass Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge to take a short walk from the Roosevelt Hotel, to come check out his still under construction theater, located across the street on Hollywood Boulevard.
"When they stepped up off the curb, they accidentally walked on wet cement and left a trail of footprints from the street to the front doors of the theater," said Marc Wanamaker, of Hollywood Heritage Museum. "The stars, seeing what they had done, grabbed a nail on the ground and signed their names next to their footprints, Pickford even dated it."
Wanamaker adds, "These slabs are so important to Hollywood because if that accident didn't happen we wouldn't have the forecourt ceremonies at the Chinese Theatre."
A tradition was born. Grauman kept the original "accidental" slabs at the curb. And a few months later on May 18, 1927, he held the first official ceremony in the now famous forecourt, with Pickford, Fairbanks and Talmadge taking part.
The original slabs stayed on the sidewalk for decades, until 1958, when they were jacked up to make way for the Walk of Fame. No one knew they were missing until 1981, when then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley received a letter from a woman in Arizona.
She was the widow of a man named J.W. Nicks, a building contractor who was in charge of the Walk of Fame's construction. Nick's widow informed Mayor Bradley that she was in possession of three of the four slabs: Pickford's, Fairbanks' and Grauman's. It's unclear what happened to Talmadge's footprints.
In the letter, Nick's widow informed Mayor Bradley that it was part of her husband's job to remove all existing pavement and cart it away. She also said that her husband took the footprints as keepsakes because no one wanted them at the time. And she was writing to see if the city wanted to buy them back.
"Mayor Bradley asked the newly formed Hollywood Heritage group to get them back," said Wanamaker. "There was a collector named Richard Brian, who bought them for a few hundred dollars and paid to transport them back to the Hollywood area."
But they never made it back on display at Grauman's. Instead they ended up in the possession of Olaerts, who stored them in the basement of a building he owned across the street. That building now hosts "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
NBCLA anchor Chuck Henry literally stumbled upon the slabs in mid-December at that local airport. He went to see Buchanan and noticed the cement slabs covered up by a tarp in a corner of his airport hangar.
"It's a fluke, 10 million to one that Chuck Henry would have happened on this storage place where the slabs are kept," said Wanamaker. "It's not really a secret; they've just been forgotten."
After nearly two months of research, NBCLA was able to verify the authenticity of the slabs.
Olaerts tells NBCLA that he hopes renewed interest in the footprints will flush out a potential Hollywood memorabilia collector to buy them from him. But the people in charge at Grauman's Theatre are holding out hope that Olaerts will change his mind and return the slabs.
"I'd like them donated to the Chinese Theatre," said Dobson. "And I would like the three slabs put in front of the forecourt, back to where they truly belong."