MY TRIP TO THE AUTOGRAPH SHOW IN JERSEY - PART 2
When you walk into a sci-fi or horror convention, the first thing you notice are the people dressed in costume. And the Chiller Theatre Expo was no different.
I'm not sure what sort of brain wiring makes you want to walk around in public dressed as a fictional character. That is a level of oddness that I have never achieved, surprisingly enough. But it is a lot of fun to watch the costumed crazies mingle with unsuspecting hotel guests.
So much for that relaxing vacation in Parsippany.
What is different about Chiller, though, compared to a Star Trek or Dark Shadows convention, is its all-encompassing nature. Gatherings devoted to specific TV shows, movies, or genres tend to attract more costumed devotees.
Attendees at those events know that their fellow obsessives will get it, that they won't be barraged with questions like, "Who are you supposed to be?" Or, "Do you dress like this all the time?" Or, "Do you live in your parents' basement?" (Likely Answers: a Klingon, sort of, and yes.)
The modern memorabilia show is totally unlike a traditional Star Trek convention, or the Dark Shadows Festivals I used to attend in my geekier youth. At those events, there are usually three days (Friday night through Sunday) of very specific presentations designed to appeal to fans of that show alone.
Cast members (from stars to background players) appear and sign autographs (usually for no additional charge), but there are also Q&A sessions with actors, producers, and creative and technical personnel. There are skits, special performances (both by cast members and fans), costume contests, memorabilia auctions, video screenings, off-site bus trips, Saturday night parties and closing banquets. There are also dedicated "dealer's rooms" where memorabilia is sold, but, again, what's for sale tends to be specifically related to the TV show being honored.
The Chiller show (and the many others like it) are generalized pop culture marketplaces, focusing far more on commerce than on the celebration of a TV show, movie or genre. As such, you will find fewer people dressed in costume, but there are still some -- and they are usually in great demand for picture taking with attendees.
"Dressing up" doesn't just mean that you wear the regulation Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 uniform you bought on EBay. The fun can also be extended to hair styles, make-up, outlandish T-shirts, body art, piercings and every imaginable mode of self-expression. The only thing you are unlikely to see is a suit and tie.
The genesis of Chiller Theatre is the classic horror film, so there were people dressed up as vampires, even a makeup artist constructing temporary fangs on goth-loving fans in the dealer's room. But at this particular convention there were also guests from the world of rock and roll, professional wrestling and pornography, as well as a dizzyingly eclectic collection of mainstream TV and movie actors.
In that sense, the Chiller con is a clearing house for all manner of pop culture weirdness.
It's not unusual to spot 86-year-old star of F Troop star Larry Storch chatting with a surgically enhanced Playboy playmate six decades his junior. Or a faded wrestling star like The Iron Sheik talking to the guy who played Eddie on The Munsters.
There is a core group of these performers who appear at shows of this nature all around the country, and they all seem to know each other. Many have the same representation. And almost all have the same career prospects.
Maggie and I walked into the Hilton on Sunday and practically stepped right into the main autograph area. There, in the spacious hotel atrium, in full view of all who had not yet paid their admission were Tony Curtis, Tippi Hedren, Dwayne Hickman, Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemmon, Erin Gray, Star Trek actors Walter Koenig, Rene Aberjonois, Michael Dorn and Garrett Wang, Micky Dolenz of the Monkees, his daughter, actress Ami Dolenz, botoxed '80s pop star Taylor Dayne and others.
Each was seated behind a 4' skirted table in front of a wall/sign adorned with their name and pictures of them in their younger -- and more successful -- days. Burly security personnel patrolled the perimeter of the square, preventing gawkers from wandering in without a wristband.
"Ya gotta pay first," one of them barked at me, in his best customer service representative voice, when I stepped over the imaginary line of death.
Guys who work at conventions tend to have the same sallow complexion and bad attitude as your local video store clerk. And they are probably paid just as poorly, which may explain their consistent level of dickishness.
After much searching, we finally discovered the line to pay for admission, hidden halfway across the hotel in a coat check room.
"That's $25. Each. Cash." said an extra large woman in a medium-sized t-shirt, grasping thick stacks of $20s in both hands.
Internal Revenue investigators take note: fan conventions are a cash business. Some of the vendors in the dealer's room now have mobile credit card readers, but admission, autographs and most of the memorabilia sales are cash-only. And no receipts either, so don't bother to ask.
Not that you can claim a deduction for an "autograph from the guy who played Jason in Friday the 13th," but it would be nice to try. I'm writing about it. Doesn't that make it a business expense?
With our official attendee wristbands in place, and my wallet $50 lighter, Maggie and I made out way toward the memorabilia marketplace.
I always tend to start in this room, although I rarely buy anything anymore. Typically you see the same vendors from show to show, often selling the same items. I can't imagine what kind of life that must be, packing and unpacking your wares every weekend, going from hotel ballroom to hotel ballroom, eating fast food and sitting on your ass for 10 hours. No wonder so many of them look like Jabba the Hutt.
When I was a kid, most vendors would sell old stuff, collectibles, valuable memorabilia from the original run of a classic show, like Star Trek, most of which was originally created and marketed for children.
For example: at one point, my collection of convention-acquired booty included the Barnabas Collins board game, the Dark Shadows View Master set and a large variety of trading cards packaged with 20 year-old pieces of gum. No, I didn't try the gum. Because to do so would have meant opening the package, thus destroying its collectible value. Duh.
Today's vendors primarily sell three categories of products: officially licensed toys and collectibles designed for emotionally stunted adult men; bootlegged (but nicely packaged) DVDS of cartoons, movies and TV shows otherwise unavailable through legal channels; and classic memorabilia, like original movie posters.
My -- actually my girlfriend's -- apartment is filled to capacity with all of my various collections, so our visit to the dealer's room was short and purchase-free. The only thing I was tempted to buy was an original poster from a cheesy horror movie called Blood Bath, but since I already have 17 horror movie posters on the walls of my -- actually my girlfriend's -- apartment, I decided against it. That decision was reaffirmed, not surprisingly, by my girlfriend.
And now it was time to get to the business at hand: autographs.
At most autograph shows, the celebrities are all packed in to the same general area, which makes sense for them and for us. But not at Chiller. There were at least six different areas of the hotel where autograph signing was taking place, and the organization of the celebrities was comically haphazard.
Noel Neill, the 89-year-old actress who played Lois Lane on the 1950s Superman TV show was seated next to LA Law star Corbin Bernsen, and diagonally across from Zach Galligan from Gremlins.
In an adjoining room, John Wesley Shipp of The Flash TV series was behind 1991 Playboy Playmate Cheryl Bachman (which I'm sure he enjoyed) and across from Sly's brother Frank Stallone (which I'm sure he did not).
And, out in a tent in the parking lot (which, by the way, was not easy to find) cast members from the 1960s adventure series The Land of the Giants were intermingled with 80's-era wrestlers like Nikolai Volkov and rock hasbeens like Mark Slaughter.
Nowhere was there a list of all the celebrities in attendance, or a grid of their locations or a map of how to get there. You just had to figure it out -- and make sure not to spend all of your money before you discovered another D-List treasure trove.
The trick is to avoid getting caught up in the vegetable soup of vaguely familiar names and faces, and to focus on the ones who brung you there in the first place. That was my plan, but not necessarily the way it turned out.
After scoping out the autograph areas in the immediate vicinity of Registration, and nearly bumping into Zacherly, the 90-year-old host of the the 1960s-era, Saturday night movie series on WPIX-TV that gave this convention its name, I came upon Elizabeth Shephard.
Shephard played the title character -- opposite the great Vincent Price -- in the 1964 horror film The Tomb of Ligeia, part of a very cool series of Edgar Allan Poe films directed by the legendary Roger Corman.
A confession: I have never seen The Tomb of Ligeia. And I wouldn't know Elizabeth Shephard if I tripped over her on the way to meet Adam West.
But she was sitting right there, looking so pleasant, with a really cool poster on the wall behind her. And there was nobody at her table. And she made eye contact with me. And I do love Vincent Price. So I asked her for an autograph.
Sensing where I was coming from, Ms. Shephard signed "Fond Memories of Vincent..." on the picture I selected from the assortment available on her table -- a picture that featured Price's character prominently. We had a lovely chat, took a picture together and then said our goodbyes.
"Tell me again why you paid to meet someone you have never heard of?" Maggie said, as we were safely out of earshot.
"I love Vincent Price, but he's dead, so I can't get his autograph." I answered. "Plus I always need a warm up before meeting someone I'm really excited about. And she was really nice."
"I'd be nice too," Maggie added. "If you paid me twenty bucks."
I am not entirely comfortable with the paying-for-autographs dynamic but, as I said to Dwayne Hickman, that's what gets the actors to show up. They wouldn't drag their aging, formerly famous bodies out of bed to hang out in a hotel ballroom in New Jersey if there wasn't some cold, hard cash involved. That's life, and it can be soul-crushing, if you don't have the right attitude about it.
As the J. Geils Band once sang, "My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold."
It can also awkward, particularly if you get to a table and the celebrity has a Chinese buffet of options: autograph only; autograph on an 8x10 we provide; autograph on an 8x10 or other item you provide; photograph, but no flash pictures, please; absolutely no video, etc.
Thankfully, most of the celebs have a second person at their table to handle the business side of the transaction, leaving them to sit there, smiling, as if they've been waiting their whole career just to met YOU. But other, lower-tier types don't have -- or don't want to pay -- someone to sit with them. They do the dealing themselves, and it can be a less-than-magical experience.
I prefer to interact with the handler first, pay my money and then address the celebrity once he commerce has been completed. Unfortunately, sometimes the actor will interrupt this plan and engage me in conversation. Sometimes when this happens I forget to pay, which leave me in the awkward position of returning after I have left with the fee. That's always fun.
In fact, that's what happened with Elizabeth Shephard. When I returned, she was already chatting with another fan. So I slid a $20 along the table toward her, like a tip to a lap dancer.
I also like my interactions with these people to be memorable both for me and for them, so I tend to prepare in advance. I do research on the Internet to learn unusual facts that I can whip out at just the right moment. That type of thing can create an interaction that goes far beyond, "I loved you when I was a kid."
You can only say -- or hear -- that so many times before everybody starts to get bored.
Next up at Chiller was an important one for me: Noel Neill, Lois Lane in The Adventures of Superman. I wasn't around for the initial run of the series in the 1950s, but I watched religiously every afternoon in the '70s, back in the dark days when kids TV was relegated to black & white sitcom reruns and Looney Tunes cartoons from 2:30-5 p.m. on the two local, independent channels.
"You look amazing," I said to the now 89-year-old actress, after she had completed signing the picture I had brought with me, and another I selected from her table. I have learned to save the small talk for before or after the signing. You don't really want to distract someone when they're trying to remember how to spell your name, particularly when they are pushing 90.
"What's the secret to your longevity?" I asked Ms. Neill, after she had put down the Sharpie. "I'm 40 and I can barely get out of bed."
She pointed at a man seated next to her, who I assume was her husband. He laughed and waved it off.
"It's not my fault," Mr. Lois Lane said, with a chuckle.
"I always played a lot of sports," she added.
"What about vitamins," I asked. "Do you take a lot of vitamins."
"Nope," she said. "I'm supposed to, but I don't."
"Well It seems like you've got a good attitude about life, and attitude is important," I said. "I'll keep watching the Superman DVDs and remember that!"
Okay, it wasn't my smoothest interaction, but she's very old. And folks in that age group aren't always chatty cathies. Anyway, I've wanted to meet her since I was 5, so I felt good about it - even though I lied about owning Superman DVDs.
Next we headed for the atrium area, where the "headliners" were arranged in a large square, with attendees milling about in the center. Each actor had their own line, leading to their table.
We started with Erin Gray who is probably best known by TV audiences as the female lead in the 1980s sitcom Silver Spoons. While that that may be true, she is best known by me -- and other former young boys of the late '70s -- as Colonel Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the short-lived sci-fi series that attempted to capitalize on the success of Star Wars.
I introduced myself (always first name AND last), shook her hand, and asked the same question I had asked Noel Neill.
"You look great," I said, not lying (for a change). "What's the secret to your longevity?"
Unlike Ms. Neill, Ms. Gray had a lot to say, and it was all about Tai Chi. She swore by it and I'm inclined to believe her because she is nearly 60 years old and still smokin' hot. Either that, or I'm getting old. Or maybe both. Regardless, she looks good.
"I just did a movie and I was the oldest one in the cast," she told me. "But I was more energetic than people half my age."
She talked about the mind-body connection and how Tai Chi builds total-body wellness, not muscle.
"I think we have the makings of an infomercial here Erin," I said, as I noticed a line of fat, balding forty-something guys glaring at me for making them wait to meet their childhood crush.
"Thanks for asking about that," Erin said, after we took a picture together. "It really is my passion."
After my chat with Erin Gray, I moved down the line to Dwayne Hickman. And here is where I must add another confession: I never actually watched Dobie Gillis as a kid. It wasn't on in reruns in New York, at least when I was growing up. My awareness of the show has more to do with Hickman's co-star Bob Denver, who went on to play the title character in one of my childhood favorites, Gilligan's Island.
But, just like Vincent Price, Bob Denver has gone to the unchartered desert isle known as Heaven, where they have no autograph shows (at least as far as I know). So Dwayne Hickman will have to do in the meantime.
I pulled out a picture I had bought in advance, at a memorabilia store in Manhattan.
"I wasn't sure if you'd have pictures, so I brought this one that I've had forever," I lied. "I'm not sure what it's from though."
"Oh it's from Dobie Gillis," he said. "In the second season Maynard and I went into the military."
I might have known that, if I had ever watched the show. But I didn't mention that to Mr. Hickman. Overall it was a pleasant chat, but I found him to be a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing. I wondered if it was me, or just the experience of appearing at an event such as this for a guy who had long-since stopped acting and moved on to a successful career as a TV executive.
Also, I think his handler/son/grandson/whomever it was over-charged me, but I wasn't about to haggle. That would seem like bad manners.
"Again, you never watched him when you were a kid?" Maggie asked, after she had snapped the $10 picture.
"Nope," I answered.
"Okay," she said. "Just checking."
Next we visited the table of actor Tony Curtis, star of Some Like it Hot and The Sweet Smell of Success. The once-virile Mr. Curtis is 83 now, and mostly confined to a wheelchair, following a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. But the personality that made him one of the biggest stars of his era still shines through.
"I signed it 'Will he or won't he?'" Tony said to me, as I genuflected beside him. "Because your name is Will. Get it?"
"Yes," I said. "Thanks for that."
Argubaly, Tony Curtis was the biggest name, most successful, best known of all the talent at Chiller. And one of the oldest, and most frail. But he still made the effort to come up with a play on words, using my name. For lack of a better term, that's classy. That's a guy who is happy to feel the love and admiration of others, as he approaches his final act.
Seated next to Tony was Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds and his not-at-all-classic Marnie. She's also the mother of Melanie Griffith and a committed animal rights activist.
"May I shake your hand?" I asked, when she had not extended hers to greet me.
"No," she said curtly. "I don't do that. I think there's too much of that, all this hand skaking. I think we should abolish it."
"Well, that may take some work on your part," I replied. "How about a fist bump,"
Ms. Hedren acquiesed and we bumped fists, like Barack and Michele on Election Night. I then proceeded to ask her about her animal preserve, with Maggie (the animal lover) chiming in with her approval.
Like with Erin Gray, asking Ms. Hedren about something close to her heart elicited a lengthy answer, the kind that leads to impatient looks from the handler and (again) the line of fans behind us. But who cares? This will likely be the only time I ever get to shoot the shit with Tippi Hedren, and I was going to make it count.
"So you're almost like a lobbyist, when it comes to animal rights?" I asked.
"Not a lobbyist," she corrected me. "I have actually gotten laws passed in the state of California."
This continued for a while, concluding with a request (from Ms. Hedren) that Maggie write to her, so they could continue to chat. Maggie tends to have this effect, both on animals and those who love them.
Next we visited with Walter Koenig, who played Ensign Pavel Chekov on the original Star Trek series and in the first six feature films. Again, I have never been a Trekkie, but the sign above his head said $25. How could I turn down an opportunity to meet an origional crew member of the Starship Enterprise for less than I had paid for Dobie Gillis?
You see what happens to me at these things? It's all an exercise in justification.
"So what's going on in California with Prop 8?" I asked him, as if he was somehow responsible.
"Well, I think we're getting there," he replied.
For Maggie's benefit, I made a reference to the fact that Koenig had been George Takei's (Mr. Sulu) best man at his recent wedding (to another man), and how it struck me as odd that California and New York had been beaten to the legalization of gay marriage by the heartland state of Iowa. Koenig was perfectly polite, but clearly bored. And who can blame him. He's been doing shows like this for more than 30 years, and he'll probably be doing them until he boldly goes into the ground.
When I mentioned that Maggie was not "indoctrinated" (meaning that she wasn't a Star Trek fan), Koenig finally cracked a smile.
"And that is probably to her credit," he smirked.
"I'm going to make believe I didn't hear you say that," I replied. I laughed. He didn't.
"You don't even watch Star Trek," Maggie said, as we walked away. "I've never seen you watch in the 10 years I've known you."
"Yes I do. I mean I did, when I was little," I shot back. "Sort of."
"Do you even like him?" she asked.
"Ummm, yes," I said. "But less so now."
And that, of course, is the biggest risk in all of this. What if you meet your childhod idol and he turns out to be a dick? Let's put it this way: thank God Walter Koenig was never my childhood idol.
The final stop --or so I thought -- of my autograph tour was Micky Dolenz from the Monkees.
Unlike the majority of the celebrities I had paid to meet so far, I actually did grow up watching Micky. I enjoyed Monkees reruns on TV in the '70s, and went to see him in concert many times when the Monkees reunited periodically in the mid-80's and early '90s.
I had already met Micky once -- for free -- backstage at a Broadway theater when he was appearing in a play with the husband of a friend of mine. I thought that sharing this fact with Micky might inspire him to regard me as something more than a pathetic groupie, but sadly, no such luck.
He barely looked at me when he signed my picture, a group shot that also included a Peter Tork autograph I got last fall at a show in Boston. I then struck up a conversation with his wife about our mutual friend. She was interested. Micky was not. So I chose to forgo the extra $20 for a snapshot with him.
A note to celebrities charging fans to meet you: at least make an effort to feign interest. You can do it. You're an actor.
And then, much to Maggie's delight, we prepared to leave -- until somebody mentioned "the tent."
"Who's in the tent?" I asked one of the security guards.
"I don't know," he said. That right there is what you should expect if you ever go to a Chiller convention. You're pretty much on your own.
"Really, haven't you had enough?" Maggie asked.
"Let's just go look," I pleaded. "I don't want to miss anybody significant."
"There isn't anybody significant," Maggie shot back.
"You know, you're becoming very saracastic in your old age," I said. "Let's find the tent."
We found the tent and it was packed with all manner of odd characters - dozens of D-list celebrities of all ages, shapes and sizes.
"There's Pat Harrington," I said to Maggie. "He played Schneider on One Day at a Time. I'd like to meet him."
"Why?" Maggie deadpanned.
"Because I actually did watch that show when I was a kid. And I actually did like it."
Harrington, who looks great at age 74, was seated next to Richard Kline, who played Larry on Three's Company. I briefly thought about getting Kline's autograph too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Even I do.
"Your dad was in Vaudeville, wasn't he?" I asked Harrington after we shook hands.
"Oh yeah," he said, with a charming smile. "He was a song and dance man, and in between songs he'd do..."
"A little bit of patter?" I interrupted.
"Exactly," Harington laughed. "But the best part was the people he'd bring home with him. I'd wake up and there would be Pat O'Brien and Bing Crosby at the breakfast table. And my moher would have to make them all eggs."
Harrington stood up to pose for a picture with me, and laughed when Maggie kept shooting.
"Jeez, how many pictures is she gonna take," he said.
"She's just doing what she's told," I added.
"Hey thanks for asking about my dad," Harrington said, as he shook my hand. "Those are some great memories.
And that was it. My best, sweetest, most fun interaction was the one that almost didn't happen. I had spent a lot of money, more than I had planned (as always), but I had a great time, and ended up with some stories to tell.
We headed out to the front entrance of the hotel, I chatted awkwardly one more time with Dwayne Hickman, and Maggie and I boarded the shuttle to the train station, along with a KISS fan who had come to meet original drummer Peter Kriss.
"So how many of those people did you ACTUALLY watch when you were growing up?" Maggie asked me, as we rode the train home.
"That's not the point," I said.
"How is that not the point when you say that's the reason you like to go to these things?" she said.
"Whatever." I said. "It was still fun."
And it was. For a few hours, I got a chance to remember what it was like to feel like I belonged, like I was amongst people just like me. I got a chance to be a fan again.
Because no matter how cool I try to be, deep down I will always be that dorky kid, sitting on the train, proudly admiring all the cool new pieces in his collection.