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Folks in the Bay Area can be determinedly contemptuous of mainstream celebrity -- I have watched local dipsomaniacs resolutely ignore Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage shooting pool in North Beach, caught Bronx cheers and bare asses proffered Don Johnson from the back of a dilapidated station wagon, and seen eyes roll as Lars Ulrich was shunted behind private doors in local nightclubs. Still, these self-same disavowers of fame will fill the Castro Theater twice over for the privilege of seeing Patty McCormack talk about her performance in The Bad Seed; and they will wait in line for hours to get a still photo from Valley of the Dolls signed by Barbara Parkins (which they will display proudly next to their Don Knotts lunch box). For that reason, the Hollywood Collectors and Celebrities Show -- which raises nostalgic memories of Tarzan, Lassie, and Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold with guest stars like Jon Provost, Gordon Scott, and Stanley Livingston -- is somehow perfectly suited for the Bay Area.
Begun 10 years ago by Sharon and Ray Courts of Spring Hills, Fla., the Hollywood Collectors Show was the first such exhibition to offer live and willing celebrities alongside standard memorabilia. Ray Courts envisioned the coupling during his 22 years as a vendor of 16mm movies and television shows that he sold to similarly minded enthusiasts across the country; when home video dried up the market, the Courtses jumped into their passion with both feet, organizing small shows and inviting actors they had watched and admired as children. Response was gradual at first, but soon the Courtses had a list of over 1,000 names from which to draw. In Los Angeles, where autograph dealing has become a highly competitive, highly lucrative, if somewhat disturbed, sustenance made notorious by hounds such as Alfie Pettit of Alfie's Autographs of Hollywood, the Courtses' congenial, family-run shows have become a popular attraction among casual collectors and fans, popular enough that celebrities often sneak into the shows with glossy photos hidden in their bags, hoping to nab a table.
"Of course, any celebrity who wants to come to our show is welcome, free of charge," says Ray Courts in his leisurely Southern drawl. "But there's not always room to accommodate everybody who wants to sign. Stars sometimes show up hoping there'll be a no-show so they can plop their stuff down. I don't mind, mostly, unless they're rude about it."
In Los Angeles, flunkies and prostitutes working for Howard Stern have also crashed Courts' shows, hoping to berate the "has-beens," and Courts has shown them the door.
"They were just rude," says Courts, who, despite a decade of working with his idols, is still undeniably smitten. "We run a family show. We have Tinkerbell and Donald Duck in there. You may not understand this, but for a baby boomer like me, this is a dream come true. Sharon and I are the luckiest people in the world, getting the chance to meet our heroes and work with the icons we grew up watching on the silver and small screens. Besides our pastor, people at home don't even know what we do; they just wouldn't believe it."
Just in case cold, hard reality is in short supply, the third day of Courts' first Bay Area show is blustery and frigid. Dishwater-gray rain drips off the bedraggled palm trees that surround the Clarion Hotel in Millbrae. The roar of planes is only slightly dampened by the fog cover. Outside the hotel, 35-year-old bar manager Davis Emake sucks on a soggy cigarette while trying to protect a bag of photos from the indiscriminate rainfall.
Inside the convention hall, 48 actors, ranging from Wizard of Oz munchkin Mickey Carroll to crossover queen Traci Lords, sit at long banquet tables, casually talking to fans and selling autographs for $10 to $20. The buyers, most of whom have never been to such an event before, are quiet, respectful, and even a little timid as they approach childhood crushes like Pat Priest who played Marilyn Munster on television. It's an odd experience that takes careful navigation. In a room like this, you could walk past Academy Award-winner Margaret O'Brien without recognizing her -- a lot of time has passed since Meet Me in St. Louisand Little Women. But this would never happen to 31-year-old Sally Schabel.
"I came just to get her autograph," says Schabel, clutching a photo. "I really looove her."
According to Autograph Collector, there are an estimated 1 million people in the United States who collect autographs for their own pleasure. There is not a single person at the show, fan or fixation, who is able to give me a decent explanation for it.
"I've never understood it or tried to analyze it," says Batman's silver-haired gallant Adam West in a stately tone that could easily inspire a superhero fixation even now. "I have no idea what happens to the autographs after they leave here; kids may be teething on them for all I know. But I don't mind signing autographs -- ever. They're not asking for some precious piece of me. I respect my fans. I always have. I feel fortunate. To be aloof, to be a pretender in real life, is very uncomfortable."