I have paid a $20 admission fee and I already feel slightly ill. There are too many people. Too many things happening at once. I feel out of place and yet this is preferable to feeling that I belong here. Richard Roundtree walks past me on his way to lunch. I feel slightly better, but still on edge. I should be better at this - this is probably my 30th visit to the Hollywood Collectors’ Show.
For those of you unaware of this bi-annual Los Angeles tradition, the Hollywood Collectors’ Show is basically Comic Con for the baby boomer set. If you’ve ever wanted to meet Lassie’s Timmy, I Dream of Jeannie’s Major Healy or Dick Van Patten – you have a reasonably good chance of finding them here. In a large room, rows upon rows of tables are set up. Half of them are occupied by the stars of movies and TV shows that have come to rest at Turner Classic Movies and TV Land. The rest of the tables belong to dealers – middle-aged men and women schilling everything from Super IV: The Quest for Peace half-sheets to unopened packs of Harry and the Hendersons trading cards.
My connection with this show began before I ever attended it. In a shrewd move to give me the same childhood that they had, my parents raised me on a steady diet of retro VHS tapes. Instead of Captain Planet, they put on The Howdy Doody Show every Saturday morning. Instead of watching Saved by the Bell, I watched The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Topper, and Family Affair. As a result, I still have trouble relating to children of my generation. But, by God I knew who Jean Stapleton was when I met her.
My reward for allowing my parents to raise me in the nineteen-fifties was my collection of eight by tens, chosen by and made out to me. With a few rare exceptions, I was always the youngest one at the Collectors’ Show by at least a few decades. Because I was so young, polite, and still had several years before my ugly stage kicked in, the celebrities doted on me. I was so cute! Did I really know who they were? I’d seen all thirteen chapters of the 1941 Captain Marvel serial! Thank goodness someone’s parents are showing them the good stuff.
Although my parents paid for these autographs, often the stars gave them to me for free. They were thanking me – a representative of the future – for the promise that they would live on. While I did my best to live up to this promise, I often only half-knew who they were to begin with.
In hindsight, I believe that my awareness of the show directly corresponded with my cuteness level. As my looks and personality descended into the dregs of pubescence, I was no longer an adorable anomaly. As the focus shifted off of me, my focus shifted to my surroundings.
The people who looked through old piles of Mexican lobby cards next to me suddenly seemed strange. They were adults, yes, but somehow they were different. They breathed heavily through their mouths and when they spoke, it was always one pitch louder than necessary. They talked to dealers for long extents not about what was being sold, but about their own collections at home. Sometimes the dealers appeared interested, but often they seemed bored – eager, in fact, to end these conversations. Oddly, the collectors never seemed to notice.
My fascination with these people grew as I began to watch them interact with the celebrities. Some stayed too long – holding up lines. They yammered on incessantly about their favorite episodes of whatever TV show the actor or actress was associated with. By the age of ten, I could clearly sense Dawn Wells’ boredom and growing annoyance at an unprovoked, five-minute lecture on the superiority of watching Gilligan’s Island on LaserDisc. How could a man four times my age not pick up on this?
With age comes the realization of age. At sixteen, I decided to skip buying Buddy Hackett’s autograph in order to pay for the latest Good Charlotte CD. A month later Buddy Hackett died. I had missed the opportunity to meet a legendary comic, one who had appeared in everything from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to my childhood favorite The Little Mermaid, in order to buy the music of a lame rock band from Maryland. The lesson was clear – celebrities are mortal. I must collect the signatures of the elderly and of those with continuing substance abuse problems before they die.
From that realization onward, I began to feel less like a fan and more like a harbinger of death. Deciding which former Oompa Loompa seems more prone to pneumonia before plopping down $25 really takes the fun out of things.
Although I have always disliked being in large crowds, in recent years I have nearly panicked while trying to negotiate my way through the sea of mouth-breathers. The trek is made that much more arduous when combined with my attempts to look at celebrities without making eye-contact. While seeing one of your favorite childhood stars surrounded by adoring fans is a heart-warming sight, watching a former celebrity pass the time at a vacant table covered in stills from their glamour days is just the opposite. They look like shelter puppies who you know aren’t going to good homes.
In what must be a side-effect of my parents’ original plot, almost all of my clothes are vintage or look like they could be. I take special care to wear these pieces to the show, as if to tell the celebrities – I may look young, but I know who you are where you’re coming from. Perhaps I’m giving to much credit to my felt hat.
As I age, the antics of socially awkward collectors no longer amuse me – they make me uncomfortable. When my interest shifted from autograph hunting to poster collecting, I initially found it necessary to create a feeling of distance – otherness – from these people. After several excruciating minutes of listening to a middle-aged man in an ironic Krull t-shirt intricately describe his unrolled poster collection, it will become painfully clear that not only is he not going to buy anything, but that there is no end in sight to this conversation. I’ll often flag over the beset dealer and ask him the prices of certain lobby cards until the clueless collector leaves. Then, with a sly grin I’ll say, “You’re a saint for listening to him for as long as you did.” Often, the dealer will just shrug. It comes with the territory. I’ve since stopped my practice of ‘rescuing people.’
With the final shreds of childhood long behind me, the process of meeting the celebrities is now daunting. Waiting in a long line means that I’ll only have a moment with them, before their handler brushes me aside for the next paying customer. Getting the autograph of a celebrity who has no line means the possibility of being trapped in an awkward, endless conversation. But, regardless of who I’m meeting my prerogative is always the same – show that I’m an intelligent fan, not a collector. Since I tend to clam up, I often prepare a few things to say. And, just as often, I still end up tripping over my words, just barely getting out “I’m such a fan…”, or smiling like an idiot until their friend/manager waves on the next person.
Of course, the stars are polite. Many were groomed by the big studios of yesteryear, and their training still shows. Smile. Shake hands if it can’t be avoided. What’s your name? Why, that’s a lovely name. Oh, this is one of my favorite stills. Should I make it out to you? Oh yes, he was an absolute darling to work with.
Even if a celebrity meeting goes successfully, I have to ask - Did I meet them?
I want to say that I am different. That I did not pay $20 to enter a building, to wait in a line, to pay $30 to have someone I’ve admired for years sign a poster I bought two weeks ago in preparation for this moment. But, I have collections of autographs, posters, metal lunch boxes, and it is slowly dawning on me that my collection of vintage apparel is the female equivalent of an ironic t-shirt.