Down Memory Lame

Who's trekking to a Hollywood motel to see faded luminaries?

Among those who have traveled from Arizona for the show are Anne Taylor and her husband, Bill. Veterans of several Trekkie conventions, the Tempe couple -- employees of the Arizona Historical Society and Department of Corrections, respectively -- was lured to Courts' confab by an ad on the Internet. Although she will return home without an autograph from either Wagon Train's Robert Horton (a no-show) or Cyd Charisse (the line was too long), the movie fans did get to meet Yvonne Craig ("Batgirl"), Beverly Garland, John Agar, Lee (Rin Tin Tin's "Rusty") Aaker and dueling Catwomen, Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether.

Outside, anticipation builds as the Batmobile revs up to the curb, a $15-a-shot photo op that jumps up another $10 if you want the pic autographed by creator George Barris. ("Big deal," comments one local, explaining that the car is routinely visible in the parking lot of Barris' workshop right down the street.) Most fans are so busy ogling the vehicle that few notice onetime Batman foe Frank Gorshin eating breakfast on a nearby cafe patio. Johnnie Whitaker ("Jody" from Family Affair) draws more attention, primarily because, using sign language, he's involved in an animated conversation with a hearing-impaired fan. Then sixtysomething Julie Newmar arrives, cutting a still shapely (if frighteningly taut) figure in a hot pink sweater as she strikes Catwoman-ish poses for paparazzi before vanishing into the autograph room.

But when the gates finally open, don't expect to be magically transported into some sort of interactive Nick at Nite time warp. Instead, be prepared to plummet headlong into a living, breathing, autograph-signing object lesson in the elusive nature of fame, fortune and the artifice of celebrity. While some fans would probably argue that it's more fun than the Universal Tour (pointing at a chagrined Ken Berry, who's standing three feet away, an aging yahoo in a cowboy hat shouts, "Look, it's him, that guy we used to watch on Mayberry!"), others are likely to find it a sobering, if not depressing, spectacle that may cause more introspective visitors to reexamine their own place in the sun.

Richard Kiel, James Bond's "Jaws," accepts plastic for his John Hancock.
Universal Pictures
Richard Kiel, James Bond's "Jaws," accepts plastic for his John Hancock.
Our Gang-ster Tommy "Butch" Bond, now and then.
Our Gang-ster Tommy "Butch" Bond, now and then.

Scrawling for dollars in the foothills of Mount Olympus has left some of these dimmed illuminati introspective.

"I'd never heard of anything like this," says Berry, who learned about the autograph show from ex-wife Jackie Joseph, a sitcom comedienne whose face is more familiar than her name. "She said it was a good way to pick up some walking-around money. But for me, it's also a good time to catch up with friends I haven't seen in a long time." True to his word, Berry spends almost as much time clowning around with fellow F Trooper James Hampton as he does scrawling his John Hancock.

Another perspective is provided by Debralee Scott, looking only slightly older than she did in the mid-'70s as "Hotzie" Totzie on Welcome Back, Kotter and, later, as Louise Lasser's slutty kid sister on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. "I came from a time when I used to give [autographed photos] for free, and I hate to see that this is where the industry is headed," says Scott.

Retired from acting for 10 years, Scott now manages other performers, including several Police Academy alumni with whom she shares a table. "Still, I don't like going on eBay and seeing other people selling my stuff, either," Scott says, shrugging. "I don't make as much as some of the other people; I'm going out and treat myself to a pedicure."

Then, spotting a potential customer, Scott lapses into shtick. "Get an autograph now; I'm not even signing checks anymore!"

Across the aisle, onetime Warner Bros. starlet Diane McBain approaches the question of hawking autographs from a more thoughtful stance. "I hate it, I really do," says McBain, still radiant four decades after she appeared in the series Surfside 6 and co-starred opposite Richard Burton in Ice Palace.

"To me, [my career] is a gift," continues the throaty McBain, who can currently be seen in The Broken Hearts Club. "You know how the Native Americans used to think that anyone who photographed them was stealing their soul? Well, that's how I feel -- like I'm selling my soul."

Although she doesn't elaborate, her decision to market herself at Courts' show may be the same reason she accepted roles in exploitation cheapies like The Miniskirt Mob and I Sailed to Tahiti With an All-Girl Crew after her Warner contract expired. "It was work," she says softly.

Others, like jazz legend Anita O'Day, are more up-front about their participation in the celebrity swap meet. Just three days shy of her 81st birthday and as feisty as ever, the singer looks up from the CD she's signing left-handed with a spidery scrawl. "It's always interesting to meet people who remember what you used to do," she answers. "And if there's a little money and a free lunch, hey, you can't beat it."

Two others who make no bones about their financial stake in Courts' celebrity swap meet are Tommy "Butch" Bond and Gordon "Porky'' Lee, two of the few surviving members of the ill-fated Our Gang cast (Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Darla Hood and William "Buckwheat" Thomas all died before reaching the age of 50). More than 50 years after they left the series, both men have parlayed their childhood fame into a late-life annuity.

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