MY TRIP TO THE AUTOGRAPH SHOW IN JERSEY - PART 1
There I was, standing outside the Hilton in Parsippany, New Jersey, explaining to Dobie Gillis why I had come all the way from New York City to meet him.
Admittedly, I didn't make the ninety-minute train trip from Manhattan just to meet Dwayne Hickman, the 74 year-old star of the popular 1960s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. There were also plenty of other TV and movie "stars" of various degrees of descending illumination appearing at the Chiller Theatre Memorabilia Expo, each one available to meet fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures -- for a price.
"I come to these shows because it gives me an opportunity to thank people who gave me a lot of happiness as a kid," I said to Hickman, whom I had met earlier in the afternoon. "And that opportunity comes with a price, otherwise you guys wouldn't show up. I understand that, and I am completely comfortable with it."
In Mr. Hickman's case, the price was $30 -- $20 for an autographed 8x10, plus an additional $10 to take a picture with him, or of him.
"Thank you," he said, with a trace of polite discomfort. "That's very nice."
Hickman was waiting with his suitcase for a shuttle to the airport, to take him back home to Los Angeles. He had happened to walk outside with his wife and a young man (grandson?) who had served as the money-taker and deal-maker at his autograph table, just as my girlfriend Maggie and I were in the midst of a debate.
The topic: why I like to attend events such as the one we had just left, why I enjoy meeting fading (or faded) celebrities and why paying hundreds of dollars to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon in a New Jersey hotel ballroom seems to me like a good idea.
The answer is both complicated and not entirely consistent. Because what I told Hickman was true, but only partially. I enjoy the "thank you" aspect of these events yes, but perhaps even more so, I enjoy the experience of being in a room filled with weirdos who really like the same things I do, or once did.
I've been going to fan conventions of one sort or another for 30 years.
My habit started in the late 1970s with comic book shows at various, lower-tier hotels in New York City. My mother and I would hop on the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station, walk across the street to the Statler Hilton Hotel and enter what seemed to the 10-year-old me to be Xanadu.
Back then, I collected Richie Rich comics with the obsessive-compulsive passion of an historical archivist. I would buy my new comics at the local candy store (owned by a curmudgeon named Stan and his chain-smoking wife Pearl), read them carefully and then gently slide them into specially designed, acid-free plastic bags with an archival backing board.
The hermetically sealed comics would then be placed, in alphabetical order, into large, acid free cardboard cases called longboxes. Every title in my burgeoning collection was recorded on a charmingly analog, index card filing system, with the eventual goal of collecting every single Richie Rich title published since the character's debut in the 1950s.
I never achieved my goal (I made it to about 1,300 or so, all of which I still have at home, to my girlfriend's dismay) but I had a lot of fun trying.
In the world of late-'70s comic collecting, Richie Rich wasn't taken particularly seriously by the superhero-obsessed fanboys. This was good news for me, because it meant that prices for back issues were often affordable on a 'tween allowance. As long as I could tolerate the overweight, Whopper-chomping vendor laughing at me when I asked if "he had any Harvey's" (Harvey was the publisher) I would often walk away with a big stack of comics for far less than a big stack of cash.
While I roamed the vast hotel ballroom, filled with comics and the parents-basement-dwelling adult men who loved them, my mom would sit in the ladies "lounge" reading the latest works of Erica Jong, Sidney Sheldon or Ira Levin. You might say we shared an interest in the age-appropriate popular literature of our shared time.
On the train ride home I would carefully inspect my comic booty, still buzzing with excitement like I had hit the Lotto.
By the time I reached high school, my interests had moved from comic books to Dark Shadows, a supernatural soap opera that had originally aired on ABC in the 1960s. I first watched the show in reruns in 1982 and was immediately hooked on the larger-than-life quirkiness of vampire Barnabas Collins and his extended family of witches, werewolves and Frankenstinian monsters.
I began my own fan magazine, held club meetings with local fans in my Mom's crafts studio (also known as the family garage) and soon after became involved with the International Dark Shadows Society, an Indianapolis-based organization planning a convention in New York City. Working on that event I became acquainted with actor Jonathan Frid, the star of the series, and began working for him in various capacities.
That work gave me my earliest professional writing credits and took me to conventions all across the country. In many cases, I was involved in the planning and staging of these events, laying the groundwork for the career in corporate event production that I would later pursue.
I made my last appearance at a Dark Shadows convention in the early '90s, primarily to sell off the lingering remnants of my once-vast memorabilia collection. I closed that chapter, and got on with my adult life.
For the decade and a half that followed, I was convention free.
Two years ago, the daughter of one of my old Dark Shadows buddies found me on the Internet and invited me to a convention in Brooklyn. That event (which I attended with Maggie, doing her best to stifle her smirks) ignited the nostalgia bug in me, and I've been frequenting memorabilia shows ever since.
As we stood outside the Hilton on Sunday, and Maggie asked me why, I thought back to the feeling I would get as a kid when I walked into a hotel ballroom for a convention. It felt like stepping into Oz, a yellow brick road of colorful, cool stuff stretching out before me, as far as the eye could see.
In my epically troubled teen years, the Dark Shadows conventions were my refuge. I fought constantly with my mother and hated my high school and everyone in it, but I felt relaxed and at home amongst the convention crazies. I was popular, famous even, for my work with the star of the show and my broadly comedic appearances in the skits that played to capacity crowds in hotel ballrooms across America.
All my friends during my high school years were people I met through Dark Shadows. I even skipped my senior prom to attend a Dark Shadows Festival in Newark, where I managed to hook up with the hottest girl in attendance. I too lost my virginity on prom weekend, in my own uniquely dorky way.
The excitement of those days is long gone now, but I'm still reminded of that feeling when I go to a convention. It helps, of course, if I care about the subject of the event I'm attending. In my teens I went to a few Star Trek conventions in a effort to see what all the fuss was about. But, like that goatee I grew in my early 20s, it never really felt like me.
Prior to the Chiller Theatre Expo, I had studied the guest list and plotted my strategy. You can go broke at an event like this and, just like in Vegas, it's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. I've come home empty-pocketed from enough casinos to know when to stop, for the most part.
Maggie and I arrived from the city nice and early. This is key. Many of the people appearing at these events are elderly and, even though they are trained performers, their energy wains as the day progresses. I usually like to go on the first day of an event, while they are still happy to be there and optimistic about how much money they will make.
By Sunday afternoon, reality has set in and, if turnout has been low, the end result can be a bitter has-been who feels that he or she has prostituted him- or herself for less than he or she would like.
An that's some deep-rooted, psychological shit that you want to do your best to avoid. It can definitely harsh the buzz of meeting childhood idols.
Because when you think about it, it's got to be hard for these actors. Not so much the older ones, who haven't worked in decades. But for the younger ones, the ones that you still think of as "current," it has to be hard to come to the realization that your best work is behind you, that you need to sell yourself for $25 a pop in a hotel ballroom.
That's Maggie's perspective, I think, on all of this. I can see her point. There can be an air of tragedy and desperation, at times, to these events. That's why I choose to avoid the younger, more recent "celebs" and focus on the older ones.
My hope is, the further they get from fame, the more they appreciate a rare opportunity to bask in it again - even in the fluorescent limelight of a suburban hotel.
To be continued ...