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Alaska's fight for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Alex DeMarban

Supporters of an Alaska Native movie star who became a sensation during Hollywood's Golden Age are hatching plans to get the Inupiat actor his own star on the Walk of Fame.

It won't happen easily for the late Ray Mala, the tall, chiseled performer from the Northwest Alaska village of Candle who died in 1952 at the age of 46.

Nearly 2,500 artists have their name on the 2.5-mile long Hollywood walk. It's a diverse group, said Ana Martinez, who's overseen Walk of Fame ceremonies for 24 years.

"Asians, Latins, just about everyone you can imagine," she said.

There just aren't many Native Americans, if any. Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in the Lone Ranger, was the closest Martinez could find on Friday. He's listed as Mohawk Indian, but he's from Canada. One reason for the lack of Native Americans? "There's not a lot of Native American actors out there, but we're happy to consider them if people apply," Martinez said.

That's exactly what author Lael Morgan's doing. She learned about Ray Mala in the early 1970s as she traveled to more than 200 villages writing articles for Alaska magazine. In Northwest Alaska homes, she kept seeing his handsome black-and-white mug on the walls. "I thought, 'Boy, I have to meet him. Then they said, 'That's Cousin Ray.' I out found he'd been dead since 1952," she said.

 She learned that Mala became a big movie star and cameraman beginning in the 1920s after leaving Candle at the age of 13. He was known as Ray Wise in his youth, but eventually changed his last name. After meeting moviemakers in Nome, he filmed the last musher coming into that community during the famous serum run to stop a diphtheria epidemic. He sent the work to filmmakers and that helped launch his movie career, said his grandson, Ted Mala Jr., who's working with Morgan on the effort to get his grandfather a Hollywood star.


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After making his way to Hollywood, Ray Mala became the first non-White leading actor. He was the real deal, an Eskimo who spoke Inupiaq and knew how to hunt. In 1933 at the age of 27, he appeared in Eskimo, shot by MGM in the Alaska village of Teller and dubbed "the biggest picture ever made." The movie won the first Oscar for film editing and even made waves in Europe, where it was dubbed Mala the Magnificent.

Mala starred in several other pictures as well -- including a serial that's now on DVD called Mala, Secret Agent of the South Seas. Morgan published the actor's story this spring in "Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown, the Ray Mala Story." Some of his film-work toured the state, playing to Alaska audiences around this spring.

The effort to get a star for Mala fizzled in Round I this summer. Morgan, Mala Jr. and others had applied to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. But the chamber's Walk of Fame Committee turned down the application.

Winning a posthumous star is difficult, said Martinez. An average of 24 stars are added each year to the Walk of Fame, but only one or two are given posthumously.

Last year, there were a lot of posthumous nominees, Martinez said. Singer Barry White, a multiple Grammy winner who died in 2003, won that star last year. But the Walk of Fame Committee meets again in June. Morgan and Mala Jr. will be back.

Morgan plans to present news articles and proclamations from the Legislature and governor that address Mala's significance to Alaskans. Given the lack of American Indians on the Walk of Fame, she wants to seek support from the National Congress of American Indians. She's also considering launching a Facebook page to collect supporting comments from Alaskans.

"We need a good title like, 'Get a Star for Mala,' but something catchier than that," Morgan said. Potential supporters should email her at morganlael@yahoo.com, she said. "We'd be interested in any suggestions anyone might have for making the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce understand the importance of Ray Wise Mala in the scheme of things," Morgan said in an email.

It's not just fame that earns an artist a place on the Walk of Fame, said Martinez. That helps, but the three criteria are philanthropic work, awards such as Grammys or Emmys, and longevity in the entertainment field. Mala Jr. couldn't provide details on his grandfather's charity work, but he certainly made a difference in the lives of many Alaskans, he said.

In addition to Ray Mala's three decades of work in the film industry and the Oscar won by "Eskimo," the Inupiat actor’s films inspired a generation of Alaska Natives impressed that he overcame racial barriers to succeed. Families named their children after him and kids who'd seen the movie in village centers fought for the honor to be Mala for the day.

"He was an inspiration and his work was also important because it preserved certain ways of traditional hunting and dancing on film," Mala Jr. said. "He always gave back and put his people first. In Los Angeles, he was known as the Famous Eskimo and he represented his people in a good way."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com