Why Do Saddam Hussein, A Domestic Cat, And Santa Claus Have Keys To American Cities?

The tradition of bestowing city keys to American cities to distinguished persons and honored guests is a long one, dating back to medieval Europe, at least.

America has proudly appropriated this tradition, as Americans are wont to do, more commonly presenting them to celebrities as PR stunts than to visiting monarchs as signs of trust. Keys to cities were probably functional in times of olden — today’s keys are merely ornamental, and don’t open anything at all.

Even so, both historic and modern keys are meant as a symbolic gesture of appreciation and welcoming. But some recipients seem strange to say the least.

Here are some of the more unexpected recipients of keys to various cities.

Beverly Hills, CA, 2010: The entire Kardashian and Jenner family, for just being famous on reality TV. The award was called by upset city councilman John Mirisch an “abuse of the city’s highest honor.”


Corona, CA, 2009 & 2010: A Savannah cat named Scarlett’s Magic, for her holding two Guinness World’s Record for tallest (16.49 inches) and longest (42.72 inches) domestic cat.


NYC, NY, 2007 & 2003: Baseball players Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, who have since been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, both were recipients of keys to New York City.


Detroit, MI, 1980 & 2010: Santa Claus is awarded a key to the city every year. Sesame Street characters Elmo and Grover received keys as well in 2010, but most infamously, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was given a key to Detroit for donating over $200,000 to a local church in 1980.


San Francisco, CA, 1916: Sam Born, a Russian-born American candy-maker,  was given a key to San Francisco for inventing a machine that put sticks into lollipops.


Dallas, TX, 2011: Michael Vick, football player for the Philadelphia Eagles, was offered a key for being a “sports hero” — in spite of serving 19 months jail time for brutalizing and killing dogs for entertainment.


Mount Vernon, WA, 2009: Glenn Beck, conservative talk show host, received a key from his hometown in 2009. About 800 people protested the sold-out event, the largest demonstration in Mount Vernon history.


Know of any other dubious recipients of keys to American cities? Tweet us @curiousmatic. 

Jennifer Markert