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Virtual celebrity shrines

Jimmy Stewart, Ava Gardner, and Sammy Davis Jr. are some of the stars with websites devoted to them

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When a Viking warrior was slain in battle in the Middle Ages, he was rafted off to Valhalla, a sort of free-floating Hall of Heroes in the Norse cultural mind-set. We have our Valhalla in the late 20th century, too: It’s called the Web, and if it’s more of an untidy democratic shopping mall than the Viking version, it’s no less unreal. And it holds the digital ashes of our demigods just fine.

Take Jimmy Stewart. While the loving tributes that hit print last month will have long been recycled into fresh pulp come fall, the respectful Jimmy’s Page (http://www.skynet.co.uk/~goddard/homepage.htm), with its attendant photos, filmography, and anecdotes, will be there as long as Britain’s Merve Goddard keeps paying his server-host bill. This church is open all night, too, and to an entire planet of surfers — a notion that doubtless appeals to the proselytizer lurking in the heart of all true fans.

To an extent, these mausoleums reflect both the interests of the wired generation and the human fascination with stars who went out early and ugly — a search of the Web directory Infoseek proves that there are more sites devoted to Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, and Selena than you can shake a pick at. But as the Internet still tends to favor the airing of fringe obsessions, so A-list dead celebs tend to be ignored in favor of more private faiths.

How else do you explain the fact that I’ve yet to find a true fan site for a megastar like Bette Davis, while the Ava Gardner Museum (http://www.ava gardner.org/museum/) offers a vast and elegant survey of the barefoot contessa and the Sammy Davis Jr. site (www. interlog.com/~wad/sambio.html) has enough Rat Pack cool to offset its lousy design and worse grammar. TV fans seem the most attuned to the outer bands of the spectrum: While a few Nickelodeon junkies may pause to lay virtual flowers at the Ted Knight website (http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/~wjj/TedKnight/), who’s the audience for the site devoted to 1960s game-show host Allen Ludden (http://www.public.usit.net/sbeverly/ludden.htm)?

A larger question is why? Why spend hours learning HTML, scanning in photos, and maintaining space on a server to pay homage to a dead person? For the people behind the lovely but hagiographic Natalie Wood Collector’s Resource (http://www.mind spring.com/~christopherappel/natalie.htm), networking with fellow memorabilia hoarders seems paramount. At the Frank Zappa Scholars Web Page (arf.kpbank.ru/), it’s trading gobbets of faux-academic information. Over at John Belushi.com (http://www.belushi.com) and the Harry Chapin Fan Pages (http://www.littlejason.com/chapin/), it’s a simple urge to keep the flame while passing it along to others.

And, of course, there’s ego gratification. Even the most tasteful of these sites has a slightly clammy self-absorption, and some go further: Until recently, the Edith Piaf home page (http://www.smeth.demon.co.uk/) featured the grinning mugs of its two creators rather than any photos of the French chanteuse herself. The new Valhalla represents the online accretion of thousands of painstakingly kept scrapbooks and bedroom altars: testimonies that holler ”Look at my hero” while softly insisting ”Look at me.”

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