By Richard Grayson and Fred Bernstein
Updated April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

In New York, paparazzi, driven insane by a growing shortage of celebrities, begin to photograph each other. In Los Angeles, tables at Spago are suddenly easier to get than splinters on a boardwalk. All over the country gossip columnists are beginning to reveal their own indiscretions.

Then just as it seems as if things couldn’t be worse, officials at Walt Disney begin making plans to thaw out their founder. Syndicated TV’s Robin Leach offers to interview “The Rich but Practically Unknown.” In Washington, the President personally appeals to Elizabeth Taylor to marry somebody the public hasn’t heard of yet. And all three Gabor sisters appear on a single episode of Merv.

These scenes could soon become reality if the United States doesn’t take action to stop the rapidly dwindling supply of celebrities within its borders. The problem, according to dozens of star watchers on both coasts and maybe one or two in the middle of the country, is that the American public has been consuming celebrities at an ever-increasing rate while failing to take steps to replenish the supply. Analysts estimate that to keep up with demand, the United States needs to produce at least two new celebrities every day. But in 1985 that didn’t happen, and the demand for celebrities outstripped supply for the first time in our history.

For centuries there were plenty of celebrities to go around. (Did you ever wonder why the the U.S. government bothered with a $50 bill? There were too many former Presidents for just the useful denominations.) As recently as 22 years ago, talk show host Ed Sullivan had so many guests waiting to get on his program that the Beatles, in their first U.S. television appearance, got only 13½ minutes. And when the powers that be in Hollywood tried to memorialize the early movie stars on a sidewalk, they had to settle for footprints; total body prints, which were originally planned, would have required too many sidewalks. Today we have sidewalks to spare.

With the explosion of celebrity journalism in the ’60s and 70s, the demand for stars continued to increase, while the number of household names leveled off. For a while the problem was kept under wraps. Although the U.S. had formerly been the leading celebrity-producing nation in the world, it imported just enough foreign stars, such as Boy George (Britain), Olivia Newton-John (Australia) and Michael Jackson (Uranus), to alleviate the immediate shrinking of the available pool of famous people. At the same time Americans resisted what they perceived as a flood of low-quality celebrities from foreign parts. Meanwhile other countries have been importing U.S. stars in record numbers (France can have Jerry Lewis, but only Lewis).

Some star searchers scoff at the notion of a shortage. They believe it’s all a plot on the part of a cartel of greedy agents to drive up the price of celebrities. But, according to a source close to Pia Zadora (who may soon be the most talented person in America), the fame drain is a real, not a manufactured, development. Reports of celebrity-filled cruise ships floating outside New York harbor, waiting for prices to go up, are almost certainly false. (It’s easy to understand how such a rumor might have started: Someone watched Love Boatand thought it was a documentary.) Nor is it any accident that an article about Madonna and Sean Penn appears in every edition of your hometown newspaper. There simply aren’t enough celebrities to go around.

Why is this a problem? Imagine if Barbara Walters had to interview trees (“If you were a star, what kind of star would you be?”). Imagine the chaos in Manhattan if thousands of writers, directors and limousine drivers were suddenly without work. Imagine if there were no one to join the President for White House photo-opportunity sessions.

In the optimistic ’60s, Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But Warhol could not have foreseen that nearly 20 years later, few young Americans would want to serve their society as superstars. Recent surveys of high school and college students indicate that the percentage who plan to be celebrities has fallen to its lowest point in 50 years. Embarrassed by attention, wary of the lack of a clear career ladder in the world of celebrityhood, young Americans are avoiding the spotlight in record numbers. Only three percent of college freshmen agreed with the statement that “becoming a celebrity is a worthwhile goal.” Sadly, the few who do intend to become famous tend to have lower SAT scores and less photogenic faces than their media-shy classmates. The youth of the ’80s seem set on low-profile, high-security careers in accounting, computer programming and corporate law. These students have spent their lives watching and reading about celebrities, and they have seen that making it as a star requires more hard work, stamina and plastic surgery than they can stand.

It takes so long to become a successful celebrity,” said one Fort Lauderdale marketing major. “Look at Don Johnson. Sure, he’s made it now, but it took him a long time. If I waited that long before celebrityhood paid off, how could I pay back my student loans?”

Long hours, “flashbulb blindness,” writer’s cramp from signing autographs—these are the reasons the new generation has decided to drop out of the celebrity sweepstakes. The heavy price the famous pay in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and bad haircuts has not gone unnoticed by the youth of today. “These kids are conformists,” one professor complains. “They just don’t like to stand out in a crowd and have people crawl all over them. What, I ask, has happened to the values that produced such role models as Ed McMahon and Dr. Ruth?”

Are there any solutions to the shortfall of stars? Celebritologists say that drastic measures are necessary. Certainly future celebrity creation is vital, but that will not solve the short-run problems. The American public must learn to conserve celebrities, to make do with just one supermarket tabloid, one juicy tidbit about Larry “Bud” Mel-man each week. President Reagan, a celebrity for most of his 75 years, is cognizant of the crisis, political analysts say. But faced with problems like the federal budget deficit, the Gipper believes that individual initiatives, not government programs, are the answer. Others have proposed a variety of solutions:

(1) A federal regulatory agency should monitor celebrity levels around the country. This agency, using convoys of stretch limos, would allocate celebrity resources where they are needed most and issue strict guidelines on such matters as how many times a person’s photo could appear in USA Today.

(2) Displaced workers, debt-burdened farmers and unemployed inner-city teenagers should be retrained. Small-scale efforts, like the proposed George Hamilton Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, are already getting under way.

(3) Youngsters should be encouraged to volunteer their services. Chapters of Future Celebrities of America could be set up in every grammar school, and programs in celebrity literacy (i.e., how to talk back to Joan Rivers) instituted in the primary grades.

(4) Academics should recognize celebritology as a distinct discipline and should create departments and majors in the field. Scholarships would be offered to students who composed the best answer to the question, “Why do you want to sit next to Madonna at the Grammys?”

(5) Penalties for celebrity abuse must be made more stringent. Otherwise our most talented celebrities will decide that being on Donahue just isn’t worth the effort. Too many authors are already spending the majority of their time writing rather than hitting the talk show circuit.

Though the future seems bleak, dramatic breakthroughs are possible as technology progresses. Some scientists, for example, believe it is entirely likely that celebrities exist on planets outside our solar system. There may be enough talk show guests and magazine cover subjects in the Milky Way galaxy to satisfy all of America’s celebrity needs for the next 200 years.

After all, Americans are relatively lucky compared with others with whom we share Soundstage Earth. In Communist Eastern Europe, men and women live and die without ever seeing a single celebrity. Cruising Moscow’s back streets are sinister black marketeers who whisper to passersby and then fling open their raincoats to reveal tantalizing photos of Princess Stephanie and Rambo.

But the real answer lies not in our stars but in ourselves. We must look for our future celebrities in unexpected places: in our own communities, on the job and even among members of our family. The best and the brightest of us should prepare to meet the challenge. If Mike the Dog can make the sacrifice, can we expect any less of ourselves?