The Dubious Value of an Autograph
I have for most of my adult life never placed a value on the autographs of famous people. I remember an old shipmate of my father Blackie giving me a personally autographed photo of Bing Crosby which the crooner signed for him on a ship he was working on in the 1930s. I did value it but more for the story attached to it than the fact that it was Crosby’s signature.
My attitude towards autographs had its genesis, I believe, in an incident which occurred in 1963 while I was spending my summer vacation in the city hanging out in the basement of Columbia Pictures on Golden Gate Avenue. This was where the poster department was. I had discovered this Aladdin’s Cave of treasures when I ventured in one day asking to buy a poster for the film Mysterious Island, and became friendly with Walt Von Hauf, the young man in charge. I wound up working there for nothing, wrapping packages, running errands and generally being a help.
My reward was access to free posters, pressbooks, radio ads on vinyl disc and any of the trinkets used to promote their movies. For Mr Sardonicus, produced and directed by William Castle, they had boxes of the ‘Punishment Poll’ ballots with an almost invisible thumbs up or down printed in sulphur.
Each movie had its own metal shelf upon which the posters, pressbooks and ad mats (from which hot metal plates were produced) would be stacked. Titles like Lawrence Of Arabia, Scream Of Fear or even Mothra, a Japanese monster movie all had equal billing down in the basement.
I answered to the name ‘Junior’ and was on hand to do anything that was asked of me. One of the perks of this so called “job” was that I got to meet visiting movie stars when they came to town. One such star was the very pretty Stefanie Powers who visited the Columbia office on a tour for her movie The Interns. I had seen her playing Lee Remick’s younger sister in Blake Edwards’ Experiment In Terror and was very excited to actually meet her. Down in the basement I took home the poster, pressbook and vinyl movie ads for Experiment in Terror with its wonderful haunting score by Henry Mancini.
There was a fellow named Mel who was in charge of the film bookers upstairs and he lived in Marin County. I used to get a lift back across the bridge with Mel who lived in Novato and he would drop me off at the Strawberry turnoff on Highway 101. I remember him telling me that the movie business was doomed as he could see no way that it could ever compete with television. Several twists of history were not apparent at that time such as the emergence of a new generation of film makers with names like Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas. In fact there would be, in the 1970s, a kind of renaissance in Hollywood with the new blood of younger film makers. Then in the 1980s the development and huge success of home video revitalised the industry all over again. But that was all in the future and in 1963 the future didn’t look so rosy. So I would listen to Mel’s downhearted prognosis on each journey before he’d drop me at Strawberry where I’d hitch a lift into Mill Valley.
Down in the poster department I learned that Walt Von Hauf actually managed a movie theatre out in the avenues though I never knew which one. My passion was collecting posters, stills and pressbooks but his was the actual clips of film. The other guy who worked in the basement was constantly having to edit reels of film which had come back damaged. So whenever he had to clip something out of a copy of Guns Of Navarone or Devil At 4 O’Clock and splice it back together Walt would always be there to pick up the trims.
The walls of the basement at Columbia Pictures were lined with these huge film canisters, big octagonal metal boxes which were different sizes to accommodate one, two or three reels of film. I was familiar with these canisters from the Bus Depot in Mill Valley as that is how the movies on show at the Sequoia came in and out of town. The canisters travelled by Greyhound bus.
When Mel would secure a booking for any of their films the paper work would be processed by the secretaries up on the ground floor. In addition to the actual receipt for the rental of the movies they would type address labels to go on the canisters. So if it was a double bill of North To Alaska and Sink The Bismarck that would mean two of the big octagonal cases. The guys in the basement would take the paperwork, find the reels of film and put them into the canisters. Then the labels would be pasted on. When the order was ready to go, the canisters would be stacked up on a hand truck and wheeled down Golden Gate Avenue, across Market to the Greyhound Depot where they would be put on the appropriate bus. It might be headed for Larkspur, Fairfax or even as far north as Guerneville.
This was how the movie business actually worked and all the guys in the basement seemed to live and breathe cinema. With Walt it was a passion for film clips but scratch any of the people who worked there and you’d find a raw passion for movies.
There was a bigwig who would come up from LA occasionally whose name was Solly Siegel and this guy was very short, probably in his 60s with not a lot of hair and he behaved like a clichéd version of a Hollywood producer. Always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, Solly would call upon me to help him run his errands and on one occasion he got me to join him on a visit to some store where he needed me to help him carry several bottles of vodka back to the office. Solly almost always had a big cigar on the go and he was very adept at convincing me that my assistance to him was always in my own interest. One of the carrots this character would dangle was the fact that he could introduce me to all the big stars from Hollywood whenever they came to town.
One such star who was coming to town for the world premiere of Bye, Bye Birdie was Ann Margaret and sure as sugar Solly said: “Junior you come down to the Warfield for the opening and be waiting by the limousine when we come out and you can take a ride with Ann Margaret.” This sounded good to me. To be on the inside of a limousine with a glamourous famous actress and to go for a ride sounded exotic in the extreme.
I was there at the Loew’s Warfield with a free pass to the movie which was one I would have paid to see anyway. One of the things I loved about Bye, Bye Birdie was that it reminded me of the phenomenon of Elvis Presley before he went in the army. In fact the show was totally based on Elvis’s story. By 1963 I had forgot that hoardes of screaming girls clamoured after him. It had been a Broadway show which Columbia made into an entertaining movie. In addition to Ann Margaret the film also starred Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde and Bobby Rydell. It was very good and I loved the songs.
When the film had ended Ann Margaret was brought out on stage, looking very expensive and beautiful and was interviewed by some local TV personality. As I became aware that the chat was being wrapped up I dashed out to the lobby and walked through the doors to the waiting limousine where I stood dutifully in anticipation of Solly and Miss Margaret. I didn’t have long to wait as this glamourous procession emerged through the doors of the Loew’s Warfield followed by a sea of people, all trying to get her autograph. Solly was very much in charge of this operation. While the theatre staff held the crowd back, Solly ushered Ann Margaret into the limousine and, turning to me he said: “Okay Junior. Inside.”
I climbed in the back of this huge vehicle and sat in a fold-down chair opposite the movie star who looked absolutely gorgeous and was wearing a mink coat.
“Sign one of these for Junior here,” said Solly to the star handing her a glossy photo from the movie along with a pen.
“What’s your name honey?” asked Ann Margaret and I told her. She then dutifully wrote something to Johnny and signed it as the car pulled away from in front of the Warfield and turned right on Taylor Street.
“Stop here driver,” said Solly. The car pulled to a halt right opposite the RKO Golden Gate and Solly leaned forward and opened the door. “Okay Junior,” he said in a matter of fact voice. “Out!”
Holding my autographed photo of Ann Margaret I clambered out of the magical limousine and stood on Taylor Street as the massive vehicle purred away into the afternoon light.
I felt a wave of conflicting emotions and was suddenly overcome with a sense of outrage at the way I’d been treated. This experience ran counter to every notion of human civility which I had come to expect of people in the family I had grown up in. I suppose it also brought into focus just how superficial the concept of celebrity was. So I put the autographed photo that Ann Margaret had signed for me away somewhere not to be seen again for many years. When I looked at it again I noticed that the ink in her ball point pen hadn’t made it to the end of her sentence so really it was more of an invisible imprint on the photo. I believe that my ambivalence towards autographs stems from this experience. There are however exceptions. Like the inscription my mother wrote to my father in a copy of War And Peace which she gave him during the second world war. Those words I find very moving indeed.
I guess it is the impersonal nature of an autograph which troubles me. A person you don’t know and who doesn’t know you is signing their name on a piece of paper. It could be the lady in the drugstore, the guy in the bookshop or maybe even Pablo Picasso. But whether or not the piece of paper is valuable is down to who signed it. Maybe that’s the problem I have with the whole concept. It’s just another way of deciding who is important and who isn’t.