By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
David Parker lovingly unwraps a plastic baggie and carefully flattens it on the coffee table. Inside the bag are the remains of a badly disintegrated cigarette butt. Most of the tobacco has long since fallen out, and one end of the crumpled paper bears a faintly visible crimson smear. As cigarette butts go, this one appears to be no more memorable than millions of others that are routinely stubbed out in ashtrays and sidewalks every day.
But as the 39-year-old Parker is quick to point out, this is no ordinary cigarette butt. In fact, as far as he's concerned, it's a priceless artifact.
This cigarette once graced the mouth of Miss Bette Davis, who thoughtfully applied a fresh coat of lipstick and rolled the butt around her lips before presenting Parker with his nicotine-stained souvenir.
David Parker will not sell Davis' cigarette butt. But as proprietor of a Valley-based celebrity memorabilia business called Reel Memories, he has sold such star-spangled castoffs as Mary Pickford's bloomers, Judy Garland's canceled check and Joan Crawford's thank-you note to a thank-you note.
Most of his business, however, is autographs. Movie-struck, with a mordant streak of humor, the dream-peddling Parker has spent the past two decades tracking down celebrity signatures for fans, most of whom don't get any closer to their idols than the Late, Late Show. "This business is different from any other business I can think of," says Parker. A Phoenician for 14 years, Parker now operates the appointment-only business as a sideline to his regular job as a registered nurse in AIDS hospices. In that capacity, he cared for a person suffering from what's believed to be Arizona's first case of the disease, long before the disease even had a name. And during that time, Parker has also seen the pastime of autograph collecting transformed from a benign hobby that often triggered condescending snickers into a full-fledged industry that has some Hollywood quarry running scared.
"The autograph market has gone crazy," agrees George Sanders (no relation to the late actor), co-author of The Price Guide to Autographs, the autograph hound's bible. "I bid on 15 things at an auction a week ago and I was lucky to get one.
"Eight years ago, there were eight galleries dealing exclusively in autographs; today there are 600," continues Sanders, owner of Autograph House in Enka, North Carolina. "There used to be five autograph auction houses; now there are 56. On a national scale, the autograph market is absolutely booming."
Phoenix's David Parker personally mounts and frames all of his autographed pieces (whether it be a canceled check, old contract or merely a signed card) with an 8-by-10 glossy of the star. The finished framed pieces (all mounted to museum standards) sell for a minimum of $100 and often considerably higher, depending on the star and the item. A particularly rare piece, like a copy of the novel Gone With the Wind signed by the film's principal cast members, has fetched bids in the five-figure range. @rule:
@body:"Some of the people I run into are real fanatics," says Parker. "You have to realize that for many of them, these things are as close as they're ever going to get to Bette Davis or whoever. Now that Bette is dead, the closest they can ever hope to get to her now is to own something she once touched. People are in awe of someone who's bigger than life."
The star-struck Parker, whose personal taste runs to older celebrities, may well fall into that category himself. This is, after all, the same man who joined a specific health club so that he could brag that he'd taken a shower with former Tarzan Buster Crabbe. The same man, mind you, who is still dining out on the story about his encounter with character actress Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz fame, who appeared to be blissfully unaware of her chronic flatulence, a condition Parker discovered over the course of a very long lunch while Hamilton signed some Oz pieces. And it's the same man whose closet at one time held more than 35 authentic costumes worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Esther Williams, Betty Grable, Susan Hayward, Yvonne DeCarlo and other screen queens, before the cost of collecting fab frocks went through the roof.
"Everyone would always ask me, 'Did you try any of them on?'" Parker confesses slyly. "And I always said, 'What do you think?' Hey, to wear Doris Day's outfit from Jumbo is to find a new meaning to life."
@body:Twenty-five years ago, Parker began his collecting career on a rather reluctant note. The son of a pair of Ohio schoolteachers who were weekend auction buffs, Parker says he was expected to participate in his family's weekly auction outings by specializing in a certain field. "My dad liked furniture, so he'd read up and study that. My mom was into turn-of-the-century kids' stuff," explains Parker. "I was interested in paper, but my parents insisted that I do glassware instead. So whenever the other kids would come over to play, I couldn't, because I was expected to study old glassware patterns. At school, during study hall, I had to study these damned glassware books. I hated it, but my mother refused to let me do paper because she thought there was no money in it."