Stars in My Eyes: A Memoir


Los Angeles native Elena Burnham Willets loved growing up in the San Fernando Valley during the golden years of California, 1948 to 1984. You could not pay her to live there now, nor could she afford it if she wanted to. She divides her time between Estes Park, Colorado, and Tucson, Arizona.

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It has taken me many years to realize there was anything at all unusual about the way I grew up. After having spoken to recent acquaintances about my brushes with famous people, the response was often “I didn’t know that. Why didn’t you tell me before?” One, it’s not that easy (or important) to work these anecdotes into a conversation, and, two, there are so many!

Like many kids growing up in Sherman Oaks during the golden age of Hollywood, it wasn’t unusual for Elena Burnham Willets to catch glimpses of TV and movie stars. But Elena’s celebrity sightings were far more frequent than average because her father, Weldon S. Burnham, made his living as a portrait photographer of the stars. Among his long list of clients were Douglas MacArthur, Vidal Sassoon, Esther Williams, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton, and Art Linkletter. Weldon also took the iconic portrait of Roy Rogers sitting on his rearing horse, Trigger, which was used on posters and other promotional materials worldwide.

In Stars in My Eyes, Elena recounts her many serendipitous meetings with famous personalities. As a child, she chases Gordon MacRae’s son through the hallways at her school only to wind up crashing into Gordon MacRae himself. As a teenager, she dates Rob Reiner. In her early twenties, she goes to a private party with Elvis and his friends. Later, her connections as a hairstylist provide many more opportunities to make friends with those working in Hollywood—both the well-known and the unknown. When she gets married, the band that will become Toto plays at her wedding.

The colorful encounters Elena has on the road to pursuing her own dreams teach her not to take life too seriously. A good experience is a good story; a bad experience becomes a funny story over time. Her anecdotes bring back memories of an era when the whole world was infatuated with the dazzle of Hollywood.


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