What is the best part of being honorary mayor of Encino?
“Free food,” recalled former honorary mayor and entertainer Steve Allen.
And the worst part?
“Having to eat all the free food.”
Indeed, being able to eat luncheon and banquet food is a vital skill for honorary mayors. On Wednesday, Allen and other past holders of the imaginary post--including Mike Connors, Fred Travalena, Ronnie Schell and Cesare Danova--demonstrated that skill as they gathered at a luncheon sponsored by the Encino Chamber of Commerce to celebrate its 55th anniversary.
The chamber has appointed stars to honorary posts ever since its founding in 1936, when Al Jolson served as both chamber president and honorary mayor. But the job does have its drawbacks.
“I haven’t been able to fix any parking tickets,” quipped Schell, the current mayor. “The job isn’t as powerful as I thought it would be.”
Each year, chamber officials appoint a mayor from a bevy of luminaries who have settled in the community, affectionately referred to by residents as “the bedroom of the stars.”
Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and F. Scott Fitzgerald have all called Encino home, although none served as mayor. And rumors still circulate that W.C. Fields roamed neighborhood streets in his bathrobe.
Michael Landon, Dick Van Dyke and George Gobel were among those who were honorary mayors of Encino.
The roster has included contemporary figures, such as Jerry Dunphy and Tim Conway, to those from an earlier era, such as announcer Harry Von Zell and Danova, a veteran movie actor.
And Jerry Van Dyke, Jermaine Jackson and Dennis Weaver swore to do their duty as honorary sheriffs--keeping imaginary law-and-order for make-believe mayors.
The honorary titles aren’t so strange in Southern California. This is, after all, the home of Hollywood. At nearby Universal Studios, the honorary mayor is Ernest Borgnine and the honorary sheriff is Don Knotts.
Honorary mayors generally don’t make headlines, although Martin Sheen gained national attention two years ago when he declared Malibu a nuclear-free zone and sanctuary for the homeless.
No such controversies have embroiled the mayors of Encino. But some people, perhaps confused by the mayoral victories of Clint Eastwood and Sonny Bono in Carmel and Palm Springs, respectively, have asked some rather odd questions of some past mayors.
“Some people honestly asked if I was going into politics,” said Travalena, impressionist and honorary mayor in 1986.
Encino, a tony community in Los Angeles, is actually under the jurisdiction of Mayor Tom Bradley. Nonetheless, the job has inspired at least one former honorary mayor to consider higher office.
“Honorary president, perhaps,” mused Gary Owens, a radio personality and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” regular who served as Encino’s honorary mayor in 1973 and 1974.
And Gisele MacKenzie, who sang on the television show “Your Hit Parade,” said that her 1962 stint as mayor presented an opportunity she will never forget.
As part of her duties, MacKenzie presided over the opening of a large grocery store and found herself face-to-face with special guest John Wayne. “I just about died that the Duke was there,” MacKenzie sighed. “It goes to show you what wonderful things can happen to you if you turn out to be honorary mayor.”
But Schell, a character actor known to many for his role on “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” said the job still has its limitations.
“I’ve been mayor for two years and I haven’t made a damn cent,” he said.