March 21, 2011

Autographs From The Edge!

Your typical autograph show.

Why do we collect autographs? For many it’s a hobby that is simply a given. If you are enamored with a particular celebrity then their signature can represent a connection, however brief, with that person, plus it’s something you can show your friends to make them envious. Maybe it goes a bit deeper and you need to confront that personality just to make sure you haven't made a mistake in placing them above the rest of humanity. At least their presence on the screen is what you hold dear and perhaps to see them as they really are might be a mistake. In my case, that sword cuts both ways. The greatest encounter for me was, of course, Vincent Price, who proved to be not only a great actor but a wonderful human being and a pleasure to know. I recently started going through my files here at the Del Valle Archives in search of signed photos in preparation for a book I am planning called AUTOGRAPHS FROM THE EDGE (with apologies to Carrie Fisher). I chose that title because many of the subjects will be just that, figures from the world of motion pictures that perhaps fell off the radar of America's most wanted celebrities. In the current climate of reality television, anyone can be famous and admired regardless of whether or not they deserve it. In my view, if someone has entertained me, then they deserve my attention, at least for a moment.

As I began to go through my files I noticed that I chose stills from particular films, in fact, certain scenes that represented a significant moment in whatever film he or she was in. For example, I had Dean Stockwell sign a still from BLUE VELVET requesting a rather rude remark that he said in the film. It was very amusing to me that he had no idea what I was talking about.

Most of the signatures I acquired were done during an interview, either in my home or theirs. However, I could not have accumulated this many in only that manner and that brings me to the place where most of these came from, the HOLLYWOOD COLLECTORS SHOW, which I regularly attended. These autograph shows were relatively harmless venues, made up of mostly out-of-work and forgotten film and TV actors from decades long ago, enjoying a bit of attention, not to mention making money for themselves during a weekend of retro nostalgia.

When all of this began to go south, was, of course, when movie memorabilia became a very expensive cottage industry. One sheet posters from the golden age of movie making began to escalate into thousands of dollars, like some out of control Oliver Stone film. The collectors became investors with auction houses stepping in and adding yet another dimension to the mix.

Ray and Sharon Courts founded the Hollywood Collectors Show in 1991.

The mania reached a fever pitch by 1995 and Ray Courts (who ran the collectors show) had to separate the dealers from the celebrities, which seemed like a good idea at the time. The celebrities would lure them in and then the dealers would entice one and all with their wares, although at the time, you could still afford to buy some memories, as well as, chat with your favorite star without having to take out a bank loan.

Yours truly with Martine Beswick.
Now I attended many of these shows as a paying customer but it was my time spent behind the folding tables as a personal assistant to the celebrity or talent manager, if you will, that allowed me to gather literally hundreds of signatures from the known and the unknown in "cult" world of cinema. I managed at least a dozen celebrities over the years with Barbara Steele and Martine Beswick taking most of my time between 1991-1996.

The concept for my book is simple. I place a signed photo on one page and then a few paragraphs on the other to explain the personality, as well as, the film they represent. Looking over these stills I could not help but place myself in an orgy of self-indulgent nostalgia for the place and time of each moment. These pictures really captured my connection with each and every one of them.

"I'm not here with David Del Valle!"
I remember Lawrence Tierney, for example, lumbering into the Ray Courts show with a bag of his old photos, sleepy-eyed and pissed off, looking for anyone to abuse until lunch time, whereupon, he would throw a white sheet over his table and split. Earlier that morning, Ray walked Larry over to his table explaining that I would be helping him, at which point, Larry, misunderstanding everything Ray was trying to say to him, just stopped him dead in his tracks, by yelling at the top of his voice, "I AM NOT HERE WITH DAVID DEL VALLE!!!" Needless to say, I stayed away from his table until after he had his lunch. Larry stayed at my apartment on many occasions so I was not offended in the least with anything he might do or say in public.

"I want to go shopping now."
Udo Keir was another character, but a fabulous one to work with who had come over to this country from Germany and has never stopped working. This places him in a different perspective from the usual celebrity on the autograph circuit. Udo would sign a few autographs and then close his table, saying to me, "Enough already, let’s go shopping." Udo loved to see what the dealers were selling, especially if they had any of his posters for sale, like the Warhol's DRACULA one sheet.

"Shit, I worked with Bela Lugosi."
When I was working with a celebrity, we would have to get to the Beverly Garland Hotel (site of the original Ray Courts show) well before 9am in order to set the table up and prepare for the gates to open and then hopefully make some money. One morning, as we were waiting for the first wave of fans to come through the entrance, the only surviving African American member of the LITTLE RASCALS, Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, who was in his late 70s at the time, took up a banjo and started playing THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS to put us all in the mood. For me, it kind of jolted me back to reality that, this too, was connected to the business, even if most of the celebrities were long into retirement.

While old movie stars were encouraged to place themselves in Ray Courts hands, he would later take some of them on a traveling tour of different cities throughout the country, just like Mr. Dark in Ray Bradbury's DARK CARNIVAL. The most popular attractions were the "reunion shows" of vintage television programs like LASSIE and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, with much fanfare given to LOST IN SPACE and TIME TUNNEL reunions.

David Carradine barely awake as he signs an autograph.
There were also visits from the late David Carradine, who arrived in an expensive Lamborghini sports car, hawking old scripts from KUNG FU for $25.00 a piece. I was very amused with his 60s approach to the whole thing. I mean, he came to these venues stoned and barefoot and really didn’t care if he sold anything or not. He would sit and read a book most of time. Paul Petersen of the long ago DONNA REED SHOW was always there representing child stars whose fortunes were abused by their parents, or managers, or both. Tommy Rettig of LASSIE fame came to the shows a few times as well. He openly liked to party and always had a joint to smoke if things got a bit dull at the Beverly Garland.

"Where am I?"
I remember a frail and elderly Don Knotts making his debut at one of the shows and was he a hit! The crowds lined up around the block to see him and get a bit of the old "Barney Fife" too. The problem with Don was his age. I saw him in the morning, sitting at his table, wearing a little golf hat with a ball on top….very sweet. I went over to see him before the show started and had him sign a still from THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET, which really pleased him because while always grateful for the ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, he loved being a movie star so much more than just being Andy Griffith’s sidekick. As the lines grew longer, Don grew more fatigued and I could see his little golf hat begin to sink as his writing hand became so stiff that he could only sign his name instead of personalizing the photos as he had done earlier that morning. Finally, someone must have taken pity on Don and he was given a break. The celebrities that did the best, it seems to me, were the ones that only appeared for one or two shows over the course of a few years, or had been apart of a show that was currently seen in reruns on one of the cable channels.

When Val Kilmer showed up, that signaled the beginning of the end.
I was always surprised at which celebrities would turn up next at these shows, as the reasoning behind their appearance varied from star to star. For example, Val Kilmer decided to appear for a weekend after playing the infamous John Holmes in the film WONDERLAND just to show his fans he was a righteous dude, although he charged $25.00 just to have a photo taken with him. I never judged these people, as I assumed, for the most part, that all the money went to their favorite charities, but in Val's case, it went straight to his pocket.

Carrie Fisher.
The biggest draw I remember was when Carrie Fisher showed up, willing and ready to meet her public and that of course included the STAR WARS brigade. Carrie was a trooper and signed anything and everything put in front of her and that included a full size blow-up of her as Princess Leia. She returned a few months later with her mother Debbie Reynolds in tow and even her mom made out like gangbusters! When I went before the unsinkable Debbie, she was very pleased to see the photo I had from WHATS THE MATTER WITH HELEN? that she gave me her contact info so I could make her a copy.

"You've never heard of Mr. Kubrick?"
Sometimes it was the obscure performers that really made my day like Joe Turkel, the bartender from Kubrick’s THE SHINING. Now this guy has lived large and lived to tell the tale and his demeanor at the shows was like this: if you did not know who Stanley Kubrick was, then take a hike. Of course I got on with him at once and he proved to be a most entertaining interview.

The always under-dressed Edy Williams.
Edy Willams, the ex-wife of director Russ Meyer, as well as, the former bombshell who made films like BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS sizzle, graced with lines such as, "I’d really like to strap you on sometime", had been a showstopper in her day, but now at the Ray Courts show, she was rather out of touch, wearing Victoria's Secret until it simply wasn’t a secret anymore. This aspect of these shows  can be a downer if you give it too much thought. Seriously, what you have here is a room full of actors, athletes, stars, and sex kittens, that in so many cases cease to look like who they once were, as time does march on no matter how well they take care of themselves. The fact that they have row after row of photographs for sale as they once looked in their prime does not help matters at all. How many times would I hear some fan say as they glanced over the celebrity's headshots, "Is this really you….what happened?" It is amazing to what degree people can be thoughtlessly cruel without hesitation.

"That's my wife, FOOL!"

Many times I would find myself seated next to someone like say, Woody Strode, a great character actor who worked for giants like John Ford, being the first African American to play a lead in a Western. I noticed this really beautiful young lady sitting with Woody and after awhile I simply assumed that she must be his daughter, complementing him on having such a lovely offspring, only to have the great Woody glare at me, replying, "This is my WIFE!" I guess it’s better not to know, or at least, not verbalize it if you do.

Romeo and Juliet, together again...NOT!
Another less than stellar moment came during a reunion of the Zefferelli film ROMEO AND JULIET, whereby Olivia Hussey, looked remarkable and very much like she did in the film. Now co-star Leonard Whiting had long been a favorite of mine. I made a point of seeing THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, as well as, his little seen take on Casanova. One of the magazines I wrote for back then was FILMS AND FILMING and the editor had a crush on Leonard, showcasing the young actor at every opportunity. So after all this time I was finally going to meet our glamour boy face to face. When I arrived near their table, he was nowhere to be found, although Olivia was already seated, awaiting her Romeo, as were we all. I decided to take this moment to hit the men's room before I had to stand in anymore lines. I went down the corridor to the gents room and found myself standing next to a rather elderly fellow, balding etc... As it happened, we finished our business about the same time, so we walked out sort of together and began walking in the same direction to where Olivia Hussey was still waiting for her dashing Romeo. Imagine my dismay to discover that as we were walking towards her, she jumped up from her chair shouting, "Lennie, there you are my darling." If you have not already figured this one out, Lennie turned out to be the rather ordinary gent that I just took a whizz with moments earlier. So much for fatal attractions. At least the editor of Films and Filming was spared the shock of just how cruel nature can be.

While the list of celebrities that did this kind of venue is a long one, so is the list of people you may never have heard of that were given tables right along side stars like Hayley Mills and Jane Russell. I like to call them "Press Kittens", a term created by an editor pal of mine to describe 30-something women that did nude scenes in straight-to-video movies who filled their tables with head shots and boob shots, completely prepared for the fanboy that never got laid much. These ladies may not have made a film with Stanley Kubrick but they were better known, in many cases, because of the brisk market for online soft core porn, as well as, the hundreds of similar cinematic send-ups produced by other fanboy-turned-filmmakers like Jim Wynorski.

Gordon Scott: "Me Tarzan, me bloated."
The really memorable celebrities were not always the most pulled together, needless to say, because of age or perhaps the result of a life not so well lived. A real case in point was Gordon Scott, the former TARZAN, who, at one time, was one of the best looking young men in the business, buff and tan with a killer smile. Yet the man I observed behind the fold up table was, by the mid-1990s, an out-of-shape, bloated shell of his former self, utterly unrecognizable from the 8x10s that littered his table. He was, at that moment, living on a houseboat, courtesy of, as he put it, some old dame who still had the hots for him. Not long after this show, he was asked to move out of the houseboat, even Ray Courts could not locate his whereabouts. However, not 10-feet away from Gordon Scott's table sat the man millions remember as the definitive HERCULES, Steve Reeves, Gordon's former co-star, still looking remarkably fit and well groomed. Steve invested well and lived the good life, raising horses near San Diego. Steve was being managed by one of his fans and maintained a website. In fact, all the celebrities at that time were beginning to go online and sell their autographs and memorabilia without the hassle of doing these shows. I know Steve really enjoyed meeting his fans, as I certainly enjoyed chatting with him about his days in Rome when he was living La Dolce Vita, which was much more than the title of a Fellini film.

"Find your own photo, I'm here for the free lunch."
It was commonplace to see actors like Kevin McCarthy, a real character off screen, who came to these shows mainly to see friends like former co-star Dana Wynter, as well as, the fans who would never forget his manic performance in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Kevin did not give a crap about organizing his photos, as I observed one afternoon, when he arrived at the show and sat down right across from me, emptying his briefcase full of stills, upside down on the table and just left them that way for the fans to rummage through without caring in the least if they bought anything or not.

The Man From A.S.S.H.O.L.E.
Robert Vaughn, on the other hand, was there to make as much money as possible without messing up his toupee and really seemed to feel it was beneath him to have to suffer such indignities. I chose well my moment to go over to his table and look over all the MAN FROM UNCLE material he had carefully placed $25.00 price tags on. He kept looking at me as if to say, "Are you going to buy something or what?" Finally I said to him, "Well, Mr. Vaughn, I want to get your autograph but only on a still from S.O.B." (the Blake Edwards film, in which Vaughan played an asshole film producer). When I told him this, he glared at me and said, "Well I don't have anything on that one HERE!" I then replied, "Oh that’s too bad, because I really wanted the one of you wearing the baby doll lingerie, remember that?" Having said that, I retreated, leaving Bobby Vaughn (as his former girlfriend Joyce Jameson used to call him), sitting at his little fold up table with a sense of distaste, permanently planted on his well made-up face.

"Who's got my lotion?"
Lou Ferrigno was also in attendance, hulking away his wares, carefully putting on loads of tanning oil on those ham hock arms of his, so while he autographs his green man photos, he would look all shiny and a virgin. The Ray Courts show also created strange bedfellows, such was the case when Alfred Hitchcock star, Tippi Hedren (THE BIRDS, MARNIE) shared a table with the director’s daughter, Patricia. Oh to have been a fly on the wall! Tippi had made it quite known in the press and in her autobiography that Hitch had a thing for her, in which she rebuffed his advances, basically accusing him of sexual harassment whilst in her dressing room. So the thought of Hitchcock’s daughter, fully aware of Ms. Hedren’s accusations, sitting quietly next to her father’s accuser must have been fairly uncomfortable, to say the least.

Robert Blake before his murder trial.
At some point, we all had to trek into the hotel coffee shop for lunch and one day I had just gotten a booth by the window (where one could watch the celebrities park their expensive or vintage automobiles, at least the ones that could afford such items, like David Carradine or Dan Haggerty). Once seated, I realized that sitting at a table with a couple of industry types was Robert Blake, at least a month before his wife's murder, looking grim and humorless, so much so, that I quickly decided not to make my way over to tell him just how great I thought he was in David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY.

After the O.J. trial, these autograph shows took on a new kind of edgy feel, as you began to wonder just who among these former idols would flip out next. Would it be Mickey Rooney, whose few appearances always seemed to make him appear to be all the more lost and irritable? Or Gary Busey, who never seems to be normal, even in the best of circumstances?

Corey Haim getting some much needed love from his fans.

The actor who best exemplifies this type of odd behavior is the late Corey Haim, who sat right across from me for three days. Corey seemed like a lost boy in real life as well, as he wanted to be liked by everyone, which, in itself, is not uncommon among actors. In Corey's case, he really needed to make money and it showed. Twice after I purchased a still of him (which featured the other Corey, the ever distasteful Corey Feldman), he signed it for me as "FROM ANOTHER LOST BOY....COREY." He would then ask if I wanted to have some photos with him and if I did, he had been given a room at the Beverly Garland for just that purpose. This all seemed a bit uncool for a number of obvious reasons so I politely declined, always wondering who among the LESS THAN ZERO crowd at these shows might have already taken him up on the offer. The price was always negotiable and he was also in hopes some film producer would show up and perhaps offer him a job. It was this encounter that eventually led me into calling my first book LOST HORIZONS BENEATH THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN. I mean, who was ever more lost in this town than poor Corey Haim?

I am still sitting here surrounded by photographs, trying to select which one's will make the transition to this latest project of mine. I am using the late Roddy McDowell's idea that worked so well for him with his three volumes of celebrity photographs which he chose to call DOUBLE EXPOSURES, in which each photo was followed by a comment from another celebrity. My book will have a photo on one side with a comment by me on just how I acquired it and what, if anything, transpired at that moment.

The more I remember the circumstances regarding  each of these encounters (some of the fourth kind), I have come to appreciate that all of these signatures deserve to be called AUTOGRAPHS FROM THE EDGE.

1 comment:

  1. This has been my favorite article of yours, David. I LOVED IT!! We both share a passion on collecting autographs and film stills among other things. I thought the stories were funny and really amusing to say the least. You have some great insights and a good way at looking at these cons and the guests that come out to these shows.