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."
During one rebellious period, Parker struck out on his own and paid $5 for the framed autographs of Lincoln's cabinet members. Curious as to what might lie underneath the autographs (his father had found money hidden in old furniture), Parker dismantled the frame and discovered a letter from Abraham Lincoln, written with quill and ink.
"Back then it was probably worth several thousand dollars," Parker estimates. "Today it'd probably go for about $35,000. But being a kid and not knowing any better, I sold it for $85." Parker later learned that the old woman he'd sold it to wanted to be able to read the faded letter from a distance. Her solution? "She went over the whole thing with a felt-tip pen, totally ruining it," Parker blanches. "Now it's totally worthless." @rule:
@body:Somewhere along the line, Parker gave his parents' glassware fetish the slip and began focusing on celebrity autographs. The earliest ones came via autographed photos he'd get in response to fan letters to stars to whom he'd written. Says Parker, "Being as interested in autographs as I was, I learned rather quickly that most of them were signed by secretaries or an Autopen," a machine capable of duplicating human signatures at the rate of several hundred per hour.
Because of the introduction of the Autopen in the mid-Fifties, Parker claims there are now more authentic autographs of Abraham Lincoln around than there are from any president from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton.
During the early Seventies, when Parker's father was teaching part-time at a prison, he insisted that his teenage son come along, "to scare me by showing me what the inside of a prison was like." Instead, Parker used the opportunity to take a two-day graphology course being offered to G-men. "It's still tough IDing the authenticity of an autograph," concedes Parker, who now has a collection of 4,000-odd verified autographs, and another box containing dubious specimens that he'll never sell. "People often come to me for authentication of autographs and if they bought it from someone else, I don't even want to look at it. I refuse to tell them one way or the other because if it's bad, they always get mad at me. I tell em, 'You bought it from someone else, so you take their guarantee of authenticity.' I back up my stuff."
To date, Parker claims he's been asked to make good on that promise only once. The item whose authenticity was in question? An autographed photo of Roy Rogers and Trigger. "The guy brought the picture back and said, 'This is not Trigger's handwriting,'" says Parker. "There wasn't much point in arguing about that, so of course, I refunded his money."
@body:"One person who positively insisted on personally signing everything was Joan Crawford," says Parker. "She loved to sign; I really think she had no life of her own. Without someone else's recognition of herself, she was empty."
Perhaps the most fan-friendly star to ever wield a pen, Crawford was so devoted to her faithful followers that she would play pen pal to virtually anyone who bothered to write, no matter how dizzy the missive. To prove his point, Parker points to one of his most recent acquisitions--a collection of 60-odd letters documenting a longtime correspondence between Crawford and a fan named Jean. Jean originally wrote to the actress in 1934 to complain about the name of Crawford's character in the film Sadie McKee. (I'm sorry the name 'Sadie' offends you and perhaps I won't ever have to use it again," wrote Crawford, who was then one of the busiest stars in Hollywood. "But I'm glad to know that even if I have to, you'll keep on being one of my loyal friends.") A star and pen pal to the end (the correspondence ended in 1977, the year of Crawford's death), the actress laced her later letters with self-promotional pathos as she announced career updates on what little was then left of her professional life. Reduced to appearing in cheap horror films by the late Sixties, the onetime Oscar winner breathlessly wrote to another fan, "My film Berserk! will be released in January or thereabouts. I hope you'll find it entertaining. It was formerly titled Circus of Blood."
Parker himself ran across the actress while dining in a New York restaurant in the mid-Seventies. "She had just finished her meal and was drinking a cup of coffee," he recalls. "She'd put the coffee cup down and reapply her lipstick. Then she'd take another sip of coffee, and out would come the lipstick again. This process went on and on--the coffee, the lipstick, the coffee, the lipstick. It was the most neurotic thing I had ever seen!"
Realizing he was watching a collectible in the making, Parker waited until Crawford finished her coffee, then approached the actress for an autograph which she graciously scrawled across a napkin. Then, after she'd left the restaurant but before the busboy cleared the table, Parker swiped the lipstick-laden mug. Sounding as if he's seen one Crawford movie too many, Parker sighs dramatically for comic effect. "I so desperately wanted to put my lip right on her lip prints," he says. "But I realized that would just smear it and ruin it, so I restrained myself." @rule:
@body:But Parker claims autograph hunters can pretty much write "finito" to the days of Crawford's brand of bend-over-backward courtesy toward fans.
Referring to the rash of celebrity stalking cases that have occurred in recent years, Parker reports some stars are "absolutely terrified when you approach them for an autograph, even when it's an event like a party or premiäre where you'd think they'd expect to be approached." Standing outside the entrance to a star-packed Hollywood gala recently, Parker claimed he was amazed at the number of celebrities who declined requests for signatures. "I got Cybill Shepherd, but Harry Hamlin absolutely refused," says Parker. "A lot of these people are getting very nervous. I can tell a big difference between now and ten years ago."
But looking back, Parker admits there may have been times when he himself has been a little too aggressive in pursuing some of his celebrity prey.
"I almost gave poor Fred Astaire a heart attack," recalls Parker, who, working a tip, spotted the legendary dancer out for a morning trot in Beverly Hills several years back. "He was out jogging--if what he was doing at his age could be called jogging. This was right before he died and he was about two and a half feet tall. Anyway, I absolutely terrorized the poor man when I jumped out of the truck, but I was so apologetic about upsetting him that he signed a few pieces, anyway. Either that or he was just relieved that I wasn't going to murder him. In any event, hopefully he learned a lesson about the dangers of jogging alone."
@body:If Parker gave Astaire a lesson in jogging, Barbra Streisand gave the collector a crash course in quick getaways--his own.
Fully aware of Babs' well-publicized aversion to autograph books and those who brandish them, Parker and a pal nevertheless pulled up in front of the star's mansion on the off chance they might catch a glimpse of the elusive diva. Luck was with them; the lady of the house soon emerged from her home with several large dogs in tow.
"I wanted that autograph so bad, I just started up the driveway," recalls Parker, who barely lived to laugh at his naivet. "While I was waiting to see whether she'd wave me on or whatever, she just dropped the leash and pointed at me. Suddenly, all these dogs came running at me and I dove into the back of a moving pickup." The friend who was driving the truck thought it was so funny, she took a snapshot of the incident. "Somewhere around here I've got an out-of-focus picture of myself nearly being attacked by dogs outside Barbra Streisand's house." What he does not have is Barbra Streisand's "John Hancock," which is why the singer's signature is currently one of the most valuable of Hollywood scrawls.
"She hasn't signed anything in years," explains Parker.
@body:A star who won't sign is one thing; a star who can't sign is something else altogether.
That's why Parker is currently hoarding autographs of Hollywood's elder statesmen, those stars who, alas, will soon be returning to the heavens. And when that happens to a legendary star, the value of the deceased's signature soon follows: An uncanceled $12.22 check written by Marilyn Monroe several days before her death reportedly sold for $15,000 the last time it changed hands. Parker admits to "hocking just about everything I have" to purchase a cache of canceled checks signed by 85-year-old actor Jimmy Stewart, checks that he's squirreling away until the day Stewart checks out. "I really like Jimmy Stewart," he says. "And I've done everything I can to meet him. I've heard how he takes his dog out for a walk every day, but I always just miss him. I've heard that some people have just gone up and knocked on his door, but I won't do that."
@body:Parker was considerably less shy about obtaining a memento from Stewart's famous neighbor, Lucille Ball. As long as he was in the neighborhood anyway, Parker decided to empty the contents of Ball's garbage can into the back of his pickup truck, a heist that yielded several personalized scorecards (Gary owes Lucy $27" was scribbled across one used sheet) from one of Lucy's famous backgammon matches.
"What a bitch!" recalls Parker, who subsequently ran into the beloved redhead several times, most memorably when he asked her for an autograph during a celebrity golf tournament in Sedona. "She was the nastiest woman you would ever want to meet," says Parker, who claims Ball was angry because she recognized him as a professional autograph dealer. "She stood there and just cussed me out, calling me every name in the book. Was she drunk? No, she was just Lucy. I just stood there staring at her, thinking, 'Lucy's cussing me out--what an incredible experience!' Then, after she spent all this time cussing me out, she signed three times, anyway. Go figure, huh?" One of the most coveted autographs in Hollywood memorabilia circles, Lucille Ball's signature represents something of a rarity in the autograph-collecting pantheon. According to Parker, the autographs of most TV stars aren't worth the 8-by-10 glossies they're signed on.
"Back in the Seventies, when Happy Days was big, everybody wanted the Fonz, Henry Winkler," says Parker. "But I was really cautious. I only bought a couple of Winkler pieces for really dedicated customers because, like most hot TV stars, their popularity fades relatively fast. And as it turns out, I did the right thing. Today you couldn't give away a Henry Winkler piece." That's why Parker stresses upon his customers the importance of buying what they like, as opposed to buying a piece simply as an investment. "I never push value," he says emphatically. "Let's face it, this stuff is totally useless--but it adds an extra quality to your life. It should be fun."
@body:To the true fan, no celebrity-linked item is too mundane, no price too high. "I have one customer, an older man with a lot of money, and he calls up once a year to see if I have any personal items of James Dean," says Parker. "This man doesn't care what it is--an ink pen that he might have touched, a napkin that he used, a shoestring, anything that James Dean might have touched. And each year, it's the same story. I have to tell this man that I don't have any Dean items, he gets very disappointed and he always winds up crying." Parker shrugs. "How you'd ever go about proving that James Dean--or anyone else, for that matter--really used a particular ink pen 40 years ago, I have no idea." Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped any number of unscrupulous dealers from filling such needs with all manner of fakes and forgeries. "I went to an autograph show in California two years ago and there wasn't one authentic Lucille Ball," claims Parker. "There were probably 15 Judy Garlands, and none of them were authentic, either. As soon as something becomes big business, the forgers move in. And there's nothing easier on Earth to forge than an autograph. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil."
@body:Although Parker now obtains autographed items through a national network that includes auction houses, dealers, estate sales, personal stakeouts and other avenues of acquisition he'd rather not discuss, his favorite method appears to be chance meetings decreed by the Fates.
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Such was the case when he was wandering through the fresh produce aisle of a Safeway supermarket in Los Angeles in 1978. "There was this old woman in a lime-green spandex pantsuit," Parker recalls. "The only reason I paid any attention to her at all was that she had three colors of blond hair--her own hair, plus two mismatched wiglets. I looked closer and it was Mae West!
"She looked horrible," says Parker, who wasn't about to let the aging sex symbol's appearance interfere with a request for an autograph. "Her eyes were literally going in different directions. She was trying to smile, but she had no muscles in her face so her false teeth were just kind of rolling around in her mouth. She looked a wreck, but she signed that autograph." @rule:
@body:Parker jokes that, ideally, he dreams of the day when he can combine his nursing career with his autograph business.
Referring to the movie-industry rest home located in Woodland Hills, California, Parker laughs. "What I'd really like to do is get a job at the Motion Picture Country Home. That way I could hold all these stars' pain medicine and heart medication for ransom and make them sign for it.