By Ray Stern
By New Times
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"Tracking them down one by one takes so much time," complains the country's biggest autograph hound after her sidekick Ethel Mertz suggests driving up and down the street, in search of luminaries. "I wonder if there's any place where they get together in a big herd."
Were she on the prowl today, the redheaded rubbernecker could hardly ask for a bigger herd than the 100-plus celebs who attended the Hollywood Collectors Show, a two-day event in which celebrities press the flesh with fans -- for a fee.
And if this star-studded flock -- a motley mélange ranging from two of My Three Sons and Family Affair's Cissy to an ex-Bay City Roller, TV's Batman and two Catwomen -- happens to be currently plying its trade in the far reaches of Fame's South Forty, no one seems to mind.
"I don't know why, but he's always been a favorite of mine," says Elkhill, who came bearing gifts -- packages of cactus candies and jellies from the Grand Canyon gift shop she manages. "Mama's Familyand Mayberry R.F.D. were okay, but for me, Ken Berry will always be F Troop."Fortunately for the promoters of the Hollywood Collectors Show, one woman's "Captain Parmenter" is another man's "Catwoman" -- or someone else's "Arnold Horshack."
Having fanned the flames of America's celebrity worship for the past decade, promoters Sharon and Ray Courts got into the business of autograph shows after they became disillusioned with other movie memorabilia conventions.
"It sounds cornball, but I'm the world's biggest fan," says Ray Courts, who sounds like a voice double for Jim Nabors (one of the few stars of '60s TV who has never appeared at one of Courts' autograph weekends). "We'd go out to these shows in L.A. expecting to see stars, but the people who were running them would say no, the celebrities would just get in the way and nobody would pay attention to the dealers who were selling stuff."
Convinced that the presence of vintage stars would actually lend a wider appeal to conventions primarily aimed at movie geeks, Courts staged his first event in a motel ballroom just off Hollywood Boulevard in 1991. A minor success that attracted 250 fans, the inaugural convention boasted only one "name" -- character actor Robert Shayne, who played the police inspector on the George Reeves Supermanseries.
Relocating to Beverly Garland's Holiday Inn (she's the self-styled "drive-in diva" whose résumé includes It Conquered the World, Swamp Women and The Alligator People), the second show -- featuring Will Hutchins, star of the '50s Western series Sugarfoot -- fared considerably better.
"It just sort of took off from there," says Courts, who now holds conventions tri-annually in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. According to Courts, the events are so successful (the recent North Hollywood show attracted nearly 5,000 fans at $10 a head) that many L.A.-based performers (who receive no payment for appearing, but do keep 100 percent of what they sell) make so much money peddling their autographs, photos and videotapes that they can travel to his other shows at their own expense and still make a profit.
Others make a killing, like Don Knotts and Charlton Heston, both of whom raked in thousands of dollars during Courts' show in North Hollywood last spring. Although Knotts' exact take is unknown, Heston collected more than $20,000 (and an additional $9,500 in autograph orders signed offsite), all of which he donated to a Hollywood museum.
A logistics nightmare (the lines virtually cut off access to Mr. Blackwell, Steve Allen and a number of other names, none of them reportedly too happy), the situation could have been worse. Says Courts, "We heard that the PETA people were going to come down and throw blood on Chuck or toss a pie in his face. Thank God, that didn't happen."
Unlike Heston, "Some of our celebrities need the money," says Courts. "Others donate the money to a charity. And others say they're going to donate it."
"In the beginning, we had to contact the stars; now they call us," explains Courts of a situation fraught with potential embarrassment. "As much a fan as I am, I can't keep track of everyone, particularly the younger stars."
That became apparent when, upon receiving a phone call from Corey Feldman, Courts mistook the '80s teen pix star for a dealer who wanted to rent space. "I'll never live that one down," he says, laughing. "When my daughter heard what I'd done, she ripped me a new one."
An hour before the doors open on October 7, several hundred fans are already queuing up outside the hotel for Courts' latest celebrity circus. Except for a late-period Elvis impersonator, a sprinkling of Cocktail Nation hipsters and a few comic-book-store habitués hauling around Batman figurines, the crowd is largely middle-class, middle-age and middlebrow. In short, they're the very same folks who helped performers like Batman's Adam West, Carroll (Harlow) Baker and George (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) Lazenby get where they are today -- inside a freeway-adjacent motel meeting room, arranging stacks of photos of themselves as they appeared 30 years ago. In one corner, actor Richard Kiel (perhaps best known as "Jaws," The Spy Who Loved Me villain) hangs a sign on the wall announcing that he accepts credit cards.