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Why fame comes with 'sell-by' date

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
LeBron James is the talk of the country as he turns in his Cleveland jersey and heads to Miami, but how long can that fame last?
LeBron James is the talk of the country as he turns in his Cleveland jersey and heads to Miami, but how long can that fame last?
  • LeBron James is an incandescent celebrity, with tens of millions paying attention
  • Bob Greene notes that even the greatest celebrities eventually become part of history
  • Marilyn Monroe, Milton Berle, Joe DiMaggio once were household names
  • Greene notes that for such stars of the past, fame proved fleeting

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- On the day that LeBron James announced that he would accept an employment offer from the Miami Heat, I had a conversation with a person you would not automatically associate with basketball expertise.

But it wasn't basketball I wanted to ask him about. It was the fleeting nature of celebrity -- even of the most incandescent celebrity.

James is enjoying that kind of fame right now. It seems that you can't walk down a city street without hearing someone mention his name.

But a person's moment in the sun comes and goes. The passions, both good and bad, that a star inspires can cool off in a relatively short span. Which is an instructive thing to keep in mind at times like these.

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The person with whom I spoke was Steve Auerbach, co-owner of the famous Stage Deli on Seventh Avenue in New York. For generations, the Stage has been a part of New York City life.

The triple-decker sandwiches at the Stage have traditionally been named for famous men and women. The idea is to appeal to customers whose eyes will be drawn to an item on the menu because of the celebrity associated with it.

So I asked Auerbach about the No. 8 -- the sandwich called the Katie Couric. It features turkey, ham and swiss cheese.

It wasn't always known as the Katie Couric, Auerbach said. Its name was changed in recent years from what it was formerly called. Diners, it seemed, were no longer quite as attracted to the old name of the No. 8:

The Marilyn Monroe.

Same with the No. 18 (turkey, chopped liver, lettuce, tomato, onion). It's a hit, in large part because of the bigger-than-life New York figure for whom it is named: Alex Rodriguez. The A-Rod sandwich appeals to a new generation of customers who might not feel as strong a connection with what the same triple-decker was called until not so long ago:

The Joe DiMaggio.

"The clientele changes," Auerbach told me. "It happens. Younger customers come along who might not be as familiar with the old famous names."

Milton Berle, 60 years ago, was as famous as a person could be in the United States. He was the first major television star -- magazines and newspapers referred to him as Mr. Television. His Tuesday evening broadcasts were so popular that in some cities, restaurants and movie theaters closed their doors on that night because they couldn't compete with him.

The world and all of its rewards were his, and so was the No. 12 at the Stage Deli: roast beef, chopped liver, onion. No one's eyes could scan the big menu without stopping at the Milton Berle.

But that was long ago. The No. 12 has a different name now, one with more cachet:

The James Gandolfini.

"The Sopranos" took care of that.

"The celebrity thing is hard to keep up with," Auerbach said. "It used to be that fame lasted for 30 or 40 years. Now, it seems to pop up and then it's gone. Someone like Britney Spears comes along, and everyone is talking about her, and next thing you know you don't hear her name and everyone's talking about someone else."

For all the hyperbolic verbiage during that LeBron James television special ("You're now looking live at the king"), for all the incomprehensible financial figures being thrown around about other NBA players who recently have agreed to terms (one, it was said, signed a six-year deal for $123 million, another signed a four-year deal for $80 million), perhaps a small dose of perspective is needed.

The sports analysts often ask if events like the frantic courtship of James are a distraction for the various teams involved. But of course, that's what professional sports are: a distraction. That's what the public is buying: a few hours of distraction from the matters in this world that are genuinely troubling, the ones that can't always be solved with certainty when the final buzzer sounds. The welcome distraction that all of this provides is at the core of its inherent value.

Is it any wonder that the players in the middle of it sometimes can become a little disoriented? During the Chicago Blackhawks' recent National Hockey League playoff run to the Stanley Cup, many fans in the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, wore the replica jersey of the team's captain, Jonathan Toews, who turned 22 years old this spring.

One of the people in the arena wearing a Toews jersey was a 47-year-old fan: Michael Jordan. What must it be like for Toews, knowing that Jordan is not only watching him play, but also wearing his jersey? It all moves along so quickly; on the day in 1988 that Toews was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the papers carried stories saying that Jordan had scored 50 points in a playoff victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on this same stretch of West Madison Street where he now sat cheering for Toews.

No one could be more famous than LeBron James, this week. Even the president of the United States was talking about him.

At the Stage Deli in Manhattan, Auerbach had a decision to make.

"People want to see recognizable names," he said. "Names that are popular."

For years, the No. 24 (twin rolls of pastrami and corned beef) was known as the Raquel Welch. Then, as the sands of renown shifted, it was changed to the Dolly Parton.

Auerbach believes that it's time for the No. 24 to evolve again. He is considering various candidates.

No offense to Dolly.

"Nothing lasts forever," he said.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.