Down Memory Lame
In a classic 1955 I Love Lucy episode, Lucy Ricardo tries to figure out how to maximize her star-gazing mileage while vacationing in Hollywood.
"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."
How about a Holiday Inn banquet room in North Hollywood, circa October 2000?
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.
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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.
Certainly not Heidi Elkhill, who flew in from northern Arizona just to meet her favorite TV star of all time: bland, bumbling sitcom stalwart Ken Berry.
"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 Family and 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 Superman series.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
One of the favored few who didn't collect on Smith's largess was Clint Howard of Gentle Ben fame. "We were standing there waiting to give him all sorts of money for pictures of him and the bear," recounts Smith. "Instead, this melonhead ignored all the paying customers because he was too busy talking to Johnny Ramone. I guess he needed to talk about Rock 'n' Roll High School more than he needed our money, which is hard to believe."
Tisha Parti, Smith's wife, characterizes the shows as "a celebrity dog pound."
"You walk down the aisles and everyone's got these big puppy-dog eyes, [like they're] pleading with you to buy their autograph," says Parti, a pop culture historian who maintains a Web site on L.A. TV personalities of the past. "It's like Hooker's Row, only everyone used to be famous."
If these are the Hollywood star system's equivalent of the oldest hookers on the block, Ray Courts will be the first to point out that they've earned their proverbial respect.
"Most of these people made their money years ago," says the man who's played host to everyone from Oscar nominee Gary Busey to boxer Leon Spinks to the actress who portrayed Florence Henderson in a Fox made-for-TV movie about The Brady Bunch.
"Most actors didn't make astronomical salaries back then," continues Courts. "If they got residuals in the first place, they've long since stopped. These are not the people who you see on Friends and E.R."
Well, not for a couple years, at least.
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