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.
"I just met Carol Lynley and Stella Stevens from The Poseidon Adventure," says Emake, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "How cool is that?"
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. Louis and 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."
"Zorro inspired me to take up fencing," says Sacramento resident Yvonne Wong, who placed second in this year's nationals, and today met Guy Williams Jr. of Zorro and Lost in Space fame while her 12-year-old daughter Krystal hung out with Superboy Gerard Christopher and Richard Kiel, the actor who brought the terrifying character of Jaws to life in Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me.
"Everyone's so friendly and kind here," says Wong. "They take time to talk to you and laugh. It's pretty amazing."
"It's actually really nice to meet people," says the soft-spoken, and immediately likable, Kiel, "working at a grass-roots level, talking. And it's fun to see all your old friends, other actors you've worked with over the years. It's like a family reunion."
"Last night, I was sitting at the hotel bar with Batman, Tarzan, the Swamp Thing, and the Riddler," says starry-eyed first-time vendor Mike Zaccaria, just after being hustled by a 9-year-old for his TV Land pin. "It was amazing. I used to rush home from school to watch those shows. I had to call my dad."
"This is really giving back to all those fans who have watched my movies," says a red-eyed Academy Award-winner Gary Busey, who will not chat with anyone un-less he purchases a photo. "It's not a big money thing, but it's greater than money. It's a connection between people."
At the end of the day, it doesn't even matter if Busey is feeding us a line. Suspension of disbelief is half of the battle, and most of the fun.
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