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My (morbid?) fascination with celebrity autograph shows came to a head with my first attendance of one: I hopped on the train and wound up in Parsippany, New Jersey, at the Hilton to cut my teeth on the popular Chiller Theatre Expo, a horror nichefest. (The most horrifying part? The bummy guy on the train who obeyed the "no feet on the seat" rule literally—by hogging four seats and kicking his stank, stockinged feet up against the wall.)
I'm not much of a horror fan; I love quite a few horror flicks, but my devotion can't compare to that of the couple thousand fans who roamed the first floor of the establishment like Dawn of the Dead zombies seeking to feast on varying degrees of fame rather than human flesh. And yet the beauty of Chiller is that the definition of a horror star is loose enough that even the likes of Debbie Reynolds is invited (for the Halloweentown series—though she called in sick).
My video extravaganza with most of the stars:
The ground rules: Stars sit at tables with their own homemade signs overhead announcing their names and their claims to fame. Usually, they have a friend or business associate (occasionally two) at their side to take money and help with photo ops. No security to speak of, so they will find themselves fielding all manner of inquiries from Tourette's-inclined admirers. Each star usually has a range of 8X10s or will sign items brought in. Most were signing for $20 or $25; photo ops were as low as $10, were more often $20 or $25 and went on up to $40. (And let's not even talk about the $125 I Dream of Jeannie cast photo taken "inside Jeannie's bottle." Well, let's. But not yet.)
At first, I was as nervous as a black dude in a horror movie—would it feel awkward asking the stars for paid autographs and photo ops? But I got over it as most of them seem to have years ago.
It was the final day of the show yet there were about 250 people lined up for the 11 a.m. opening. Don't ever fall for buying "early access" to this show; from what I observed, very few stars were there early and several were a few minutes (or more) late. I started with the main room, a sunken area featuring some of the A-listers, including 64-year-old Patty Duke, my first target. Duke had a line of a few dozen people at all times because this was her very first show ever and because the woman has more enduring credits than most of the others (The Patty Duke Show, Valley of the Dolls, The Miracle Worker).
I met a nice hubby-and-wife combo in line for Duke. The wife told me of their extensive history with autograph shows, "It's addictive!" Poor word choice considering Leif Garrett and Tom Sizemore were within earshot.
Duke took several minutes with every fan to chat, including looking at one guy's tattoos and entertaining another's trick-or-treat-jonesing kids. She's teensy in person and very huggy. "I was born loving people," she told someone ahead of me, with that emphasis.
When it was my turn, I confessed I was a Valley of the Dolls boy and she told me that she'd had a wonderful time at a semi-recent San Francisco screening, laughing so much she'd wet her pants over some of the audience questions. When she signed for me, she misspelled "Neely O'Hara" with an extra "e," but I'll forgive it. Lovely lady, and seems to be on quite good terms with her ex-husband John Astin of The Addams Family fame—he was seated across the room from her and I caught some footage of them chatting as Duke's friendly current husband looked on.
Next I grabbed a surprisingly available Nancy Allen. I told her it was a pleasure to meet her since she's not just in some of my favorite movies, she's an integral part of them—Carrie and especially Blow Out and Dressed to Kill wouldn't be the same without her everygirl persona. Hitchcock would've used her had she been born considerably sooner, which fits since her former husband Brian De Palma directed all those films and mimicked Hitchcock in a way that was either genius, plagiarism or a little bit of both. Speaking of which, at 60 she looks frighteningly good and said to me "you look good!" when we had our photo op. She was a bit shy, but nice.
I didn't want to blow my Jeannie photo op, so I crossed over to a fairly hidden little room at the back of the first floor where I became one of the last if not the last person they allowed to sign up for it—they only did 20. They banged out the 20 in like two minutes flat, having us walk assembly-line-style in front of a hidden backdrop resembling the interior of Jeannie's bottle. The three never looked back, but when I picked up my quickie photo several hours later in the photographer's room, they all had great grins—success!
Then I decided I needed Barbara Eden's autograph. Luckily, the photo op had broken up her line so I didn't have long to wait. She's lovelier in person, very elegant, and had the best set-up of anyone at the show—perched on a stool behind a small table, allowing for less awkward photo ops. (She wasn't sitting on the cool Jeannie pillow a fan had recently given her; instead, it was on display on its own chair.) She seems to be a good sport about being remembered almost exclusively as Jeannie despite her desire to be a singer and to branch out in other roles. She's lived through some tough times and seems happy to soak up some positive energy. As she signed for me, I confessed, "I'm one of those little boys who wanted to grow up to be you." She liked this and we posed for a terrific picture, then she made sure to extend her hand and tell me it was a pleasure to meet me. All things considered, she was definitely the biggest star to me at the show, so having a nice moment with her was invaluable.
Next, I wound up going for the Dallas cast one by one:
Patrick Duffy is superhot still and strapping in person, not to mention having no problem dealing with my Man from Atlantis gushing (it wasn't the scripts I admired)!
Aggressively pro-gay Charlene Tilton was exactly as she was on Drag U, which we talked about before she urged me to visit her Web site. Larry Hagman's area was relentlessly policed for any non-paid photos and he didn't look at or speak to me during our photo op, refusing to shake my hand and instead offering a fist bump. I can let Hagman slide since he's no longer on his first liver so why risk getting sick, but another fan told me he'd been drinking nonstop the whole show. (No idea if this is true or just gossip.)
But the biggest surprise for some reason was just how earthy 70-year-old Linda Gray was. She looked fantastic and was very bubbly and chatty with me, confessing she hates horror, has never made a horror movie and would never want to. She said, "Someone came up to me in a vampire suit here and said, 'We worked together!' and I said, '...When???'"
I was able to leave the Jeannie/Dallas area without buying a $200 reproduction of Jeannie's bottle, so that's something.
Roaming about, I spotted raunchy rocker Lita Ford and Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters amidst countless trivia-ready horror names and tables sagging with merch. Sandahl Bergman of Conan fame was attracting the attention of Michael Musto, who I complimented for his BearCity cameo. Apparently, it was originally longer than a cameo but hey—when they cut out your performance but leave in your make-out scene, that counts for something!
The Golden Boys—me with Paris "Mike Teevee" Themmen
Nearby, I felt compelled to interact with Paris Themmen, "Mike Teevee" from the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. He gamely told me his opinion of the new film—good, not great, with an inherent coldness/weirdness in Johnny Depp's Willy (so to speak) that never resolves itself. I agree and so I agreed. His package offered a free photo along with a pair of autographs, though meeting him just made me crave chocolate.
More wandering and found The Warriors co-stars Deborah Van Valkenburgh (perhaps better known for Too Close for Comfort) and Michael Beck (perhaps more infamous for Xanadu) seated next to each other. Incredibly, she's 58 and he's 61! Time flies. She was still very striking and comported herself well considering she was making her own change. She was surprised when I told her The Warriors had been "racy" for me; well, at 10 years old any R-rated movie was. (Thankfully, inserting a folded playing card into our cable box let me in on that world.)
Beck asked me something that led to my saying I'd been at the Rally to Restore Sanity—he was just like, "Oh." Later, after a Warriors-sandwich photo op, I noticed he signed the photo "God bless" so perhaps he in real life prefers Keeping Fear Alive. Or not since he voiced Bill Clinton's autobio. Either way, both couldn't have been nicer.
In the same chamber, past blaxploitation star Fred Williamson, I snagged David Naughton, on whom I was pre-sexually fixated during his Dr. Pepper/Makin' It song (he was the originator of Ellen DeGeneres's dancing style) and series/An American Werewolf in London era. He was a friendly guy whose attitude seemed to be indulgent amusement. As he signed for me, a woman came up and blurted out, "You look the same. Just all your hair went gray!" A similar comment directed at me would get a death-ray stare, but he rolled with it.
Back in the main room, I decided to give Theresa Russell a go. I walked up at the same time as another fan, so I let him go first. Would you believe he took 25 minutes with her??? This guy had two giant bags filled with bizarre books with no spines and spilling pages and he had very exacting instructions as to what he wanted her to sign. She was beyond amazing with him, flirting with him (he likey) and teasing him ("You're a maniac!") and drawing him out. When she draped herself on him for their photo, a guy behind me moaned, "I hope she does that with me!" She has that effect on people.
My turn, my turn! I told her I was surprised my two favorite Russell films—Insignificance and Track 29—weren't listed on her sign, but she said they're just not mentioned as often as Black Widow. (Perhaps the fact that they were directed by her ex-husband Nicolas Roeg was in the mix.) She reminisced about working with Tony Curtis on the former; she'd worked previously with him as an 18-year-old and couldn't get over how clearly he remembered her whenever she'd see him around town. (I'm not really as surprised as she was!) She apparently filmed a spot for a documentary about him that has yet to come out. She also talked a bit about being pals with Sandra Bernhard still from the Track 29 days. (They follow each other on Twitter—@SandraBernhard and @TheresaRussell1—as I knew.)
As I was leaving, Russell's assistant said I should get a free photo for waiting so long and handed me one that Russell whispered "isn't a very good shot, but..." Still, it was a nice gesture for a black widow.
Russell was seated next to Apollonia and Cheryl Tiegs, neither of whom floats my boat, but both of whom are still gorgeous babes (maybe there's a connection...). I did decide to get a pic with a polite Ralph Macchio. He's not much older than I am and seemed a bit shy in general and embarrassed by the attention (read: "I wish I didn't have to be here"). In fact, he took off a couple of hours early, right after I nabbed him.
But you know who was absolutely delightful? Lesley Ann Warren. I've always loved her and I would argue she is one of the most currently active of all the performers on hand. Yet she was buried in the billing and kind of hidden off to the side. I told her I loved her in everything and complimented her on how pretty she looks—which she does. I was leery of telling these people how good they look; on the one hand, everyone likes to hear that, but on the other, in this setting, it made me feel like it just called attention to the fact that everyone is inspecting them head-to-toe. But she was very kind and dubbed me sweet. Oh, my Victor/Victoria!
John Astin had a long line all day, but nothing prohibitive. When I got up to him, I was shocked how tall and hearty he still is at 80. He was completely charming, telling me when I asked that he really enjoyed The Addams Family on Broadway—especially Bebe Neuwirth—"even though it has absolutely nothing to do with The Addams Family and Charles Addams."
I have to say LeVar Burton was a bit disappointing; not that I had high hopes and not that he was rude, but he had on his sunglasses except during photos and he, too, was gearing up to get the hell out of there. Due to his Star Trek history, he was the priciest photo op of the show at $40. I informed him he is ageless, which I think he knows because he didn't seem impressed with my powers of observation.
I was frustrated by my Linda Blair run-in. No pea soup, but having decided I'd get in line for her (it was a horror show), I wound up being the very last person she would see due to having to catch a flight. Her assistant—a volunteer provided due to the fact that all her proceeds go to support her charity to rescue dogs—was holding off any others after me, and when I got up to her things were a bit frantic. She happily posed for a great photo with me, but when I asked her what her memories were of having been in the teen-magazine world in the '70s, she didn't really get to answer me after saying, "That's so weird! Nobody ever asks me that, and yet I was just talking about it with my friend here who works with Bobby Sherman—well, I have to catch a flight. She'll tell you about it!" I could understand her rush, but then when I went to eat, I saw that she stuck around another 30 minutes at least signing things. Ah, well—she was nice, it was just bad timing.
No, I didn't give drug money to Tom Sizemore and Leif Garrett. I heard the former tripped on one of the other days he was there and the latter seemed to come and go a lot.
The fans at the show were fun to talk to. I met a nice male couple from Connecticut who've met everyone at these types of shows, including Shannen Doherty, who said, "You got that right!" when they told her Charmed was never as good once she left. One woman told me she favored the stars who, you know, didn't act better than us. (Which really must be hard to pull off when you're receiving cash on the barrelhead as a bribe to talk to the little people!)
All in all, by chatting up the attendees, I learned a lot, such as the fact that Lee Majors pissed everyone off at another show by charging $60 for autographs and Lou Ferrigno is an asshole. But the best nightmare story I heard was about Richard Dreyfuss! At another show, a man presented him with an American Graffiti lobby card or poster to sign, one that had already been signed by every other star from the movie. Dreyfuss signed his name across the top (and across several other autographs), then drew a big arrow to his face, then drew back over that. The fan was enraged and Dreyfuss's handler promised to do a replacement and Dreyfuss said, "No. I will not. You don't seem to understand how this works—the more my signature is out there, the less it's worth. I won't give it away." Apparently, things got really heated and again the accusation was made that he was tipsy. Even if he wasn't...can you imagine?
Luckily, all of my encounters had been harmless or exciting—despite the fact that it's always more fun to meet a star and get a pic-with sans money changing hands, there were no horror stories from the horror convention, just happy endings.