By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
"We do all right," says the gregarious Bond, Alfalfa's pugnacious nemesis in the Hal Roach shorts. "It all depends on where you are, who's putting it on and how many fans you've got."
Retired from a longtime job as a TV director at Channel 11 in L.A., Bond makes his home in Modesto but travels to fan conventions around the country several times a year -- and always on his own dime. "We even pay for our own hotel rooms, so we're always taking a chance," reports Bond. "If you've got a good-sized show like this one, you make out all right. But if you're not lucky, you can lose your shirt."
Lee, meanwhile, finds himself in the strange position of capitalizing on a childhood past he spent most of his life living down. After growing out of the part, Lee left the business and became a teacher in Texas with no one ever suspecting the 6'2" instructor was once the chubby Our Gangster. "It just didn't seem very important at the time," say Lee, who has since rethought his place in the cultural marketplace.
Operator of the official "Porky" Web site, the reluctant rascal now sells autographed photos and "O'tay" tee shirts over the Internet; Bond, meanwhile, uses his site to sell copies of his autobiography Darn Right, It's Butch!.
In the unlikely event that Ray Courts ever decides to pen his own tell-all, it's a cinch to be a juicier read than anything most of his once-were celebrities could crank out. Among the stories that he could -- but almost certainly never will -- recount in detail are the legendary (in fan circles, at least) incidents like the one involving a former Warner contract player. Now well into late middle age, the former teen idol had a high-profile clash with a TV news crew covering one of the shows when he refused to be photographed unless he was paid $500.
"You've got to remember that a lot of these stars have really been exploited over the years," Courts says apologetically. "He's mellowed since then, though, and still does our shows from time to time."
And then there was the fan who asked Adam West to autograph a poster that had already been signed by every other regular in the cast of the 1966 Batman movie, several of them already dead. Realizing he was the only one who hadn't signed, the star held out for an exorbitant $200. According to at least one account, an incensed Courts confronted West. Although astonished and angered that the story has somehow become public ("That was five years ago!"), Courts doesn't deny that the incident happened. Still a big draw in collectors' circles, the chastened actor continues to appear at Courts' shows.
But even the ever-gracious Courts admits that some celebrities are simply not worth the trouble.
And while Courts isn't one to name names, he was so steamed by the rude behavior of another celebrity non grata that his description of the star -- "a former child actor who's been in the business for 70 years and is still working on a semi-regular basis" -- makes formal identification of the pintsize thespian almost superfluous.
"A woman walked up and very nicely asked him for a personalized autograph," recalls Courts. "His answer? 'Hey, lady, I don't have time; I ain't writin' a book!' So he signed his name only and tossed the picture back at her. Him? He'll never be back. If you're not a 'people person,' you've got no place at our shows."
Still, a few of Courts' chosen "people persons" give the impression that, given a choice, they'd rather be almost anywhere else.
Witness the sad sight of a now matronly Carroll Baker (a 1956 Oscar nominee for Baby Doll) filing her nails while a group of people standing directly in front of her table ignore her while they loudly debate which celebrity they should "get" next.
When a fan does approach, the Method actress suddenly turns on the charm, reeling off the prices of a variety of glamour poses with all the aplomb of a seasoned trade-show huckster. Ironically, however, virtually all of the stills are from Harlow and The Carpetbaggers, films that could not hold happy memories for Baker. Both movies were shot during a period of Baker's life that was so unpleasant, both personally and professionally, that the actress later reported she almost committed suicide.
"As you get older, you kind of come to peace with it all," explains Baker, who apparently still has a ways to go. Asked to pose for a photograph, she abruptly snaps: "No."
Had autograph shows like this been around in the early '60s, Bette Davis would have been robbed of one of her most famous roles. Baby Jane Hudson would have been too busy hawking her John Hancock to abuse her crippled sib.
And for a small but dedicated sector of Ray Courts' audience, that's precisely the appeal of autograph shows like this -- an opportunity to experience a post-millennium Sunset Boulevard firsthand.
"We like to think of this as a food stamp program for celebrities, only we get to decide who deserves them," says Dan Smith of Sylmar, a computer-game designer who has been attending Courts' shows with his wife since the early '90s. "We're particularly partial to 'off-brand' celebrities."