The line wraps around the perimeter of the hotel like a human moat. Giddy autograph hounds of literally every size and shape check and recheck their accordion files, making sure their memorabilia are collated for easy access. Because when the moment comes to go inside and meet their hero face-to-face, there can be no hesitation.
It’s 9 a.m. on an autumn Saturday in this sunshiny but otherwise nondescript corner of the San Fernando Valley. And many of the folks who’ve flown thousands of miles to attend this weekend’s Hollywood Collectors & Celebrities Show have been staking out their place in line for hours.
Then he appears.
Bounding past the mad scrum of groupies like a rock star, he vanishes into the safety of the Holiday Inn convention room. He nonchalantly takes his seat behind a folding table covered in white cloth. When the first person in line is given the signal, she nervously inches her way up. She can barely speak.
”I just love It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!”
He looks at her and smiles. He uncaps a Sharpie and begins to flamboyantly sign his name on a publicity still in majestic curlicues. And out of the crooked corner of his mouth, in his signature Baby Huey whine, Buddy Hackett cracks:
”That’s funny, so do I!”
She absolutely loses it. Her face turns scarlet as she breaks into a laughing jag that cannot be stopped. Not by her and certainly not by Ed Asner, who’s manning his own table a few feet away. Only Hackett can stuff this genie back in the bottle. He peers up over his bifocals and says, ”Are you all right, sugar?” She nods and stifles her giggles long enough to hand the man in a Hawaiian shirt sitting next to Hackett a crisp $20 bill, which he drops into a metal cashbox. ”Next!”
”WHO DOESN’T WANT TO MEET MOSES?”
Autographs are the proof of a communion with fame. Still, there’s a big difference between the folks queuing up to get Hackett’s signature and the rest of us. Sure, some of them are here to gawk, but for most that brush-with-fame thrill has snowballed into something larger—an addiction.
At events like this one, thousands of these signature junkies fork over $10 to enter a room full of famous (and some decidedly semi-famous) people for the weekend. It’s a bizarre world in which to be a tourist.
Once you’re inside the main hall, the place gives off the vibe of an all-you-can-eat Old Hollywood buffet. Some of the stars are instantly recognizable to the TV Land generation: Don Knotts (The Andy Griffith Show, Three’s Company), Mike Connors (Mannix), Larry Manetti (Magnum, P.I.). But others take some squinting to make out through the cobwebs: Gordon Lee (”Porky” from The Little Rascals); L.A. public-access TV host and Jiminy Glick inspiration Skip E. Lowe; and a fellow named Michael Dante, who, judging from a stack of signed videos on his table, appeared in episode 32 of Star Trek.
At any given moment, some of these stars will command lines that can top 50 people, others maybe one or two. In fact, if you were to look around the room with a particularly dog-eat-dog eye you might view this Shangri-la as a cold display of Tinseltown Darwinism. Still, everybody’s equal in the eyes of Ray and Sharon Courts.