The Hollywood Collector’s Show
Mark Metcalf continues his three-part series on conventions. Read part one here, and check back next week for Mark’s recap of his weekend at the Motor City Comic Con, May 15-17, in Michigan.
There’s an old joke about the guy whose job it is to follow the elephants in the circus around with a shovel and clean up their poop. He complains all the time, but when one of his friends says, “If you hate it so much why don’t you just quit?” The man replies, “What, and give up show business!”
I had a friend who made a good portion of his living as an actor by wearing a bunch of grapes made out of foam in Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials. He would have rather been doing Shakespeare, but there were mouths to feed.
To backtrack a little, a “show” in the context that I am using it here means a bunch of people known as celebrities, for various reasons, coming together in one place, where other people — known as fans, for obvious reasons — pay to get in, look at the celebrities, and purchase autographed pictures, DVDs, books and posters.
Some people burn out on these shows. Others mine them for everything they have to offer. I’ve seen Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street since the beginning, sit at his table right by the door and talk to people, sign autographs and sell books from an hour before the doors officially open until well after they close. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him take a bathroom break, although I suppose he must. And he’s always in a good mood.
At the Hollywood Collector’s Show, Peter, Bobby and Cindy Brady from The Brady Bunch traveled together, sat together, ate together at the end of the day and had a manager to take in money and get water and snacks, so they didn’t have to miss a minute. Working the convention circuit is work for most of the celebrities. In some cases, it is all they have left of a once-busy career.
Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in The Adventures of Superman from 1952-1958, was also there. She has a book, Beyond Lois Lane, which she is promoting. I think when I get to be 89 years old I will be very cranky, if I’m not already, but she is gracious and kind, and very understanding of the strange relationship that people who work in show business have with people who depend on it for their entertainment. She has been doing it since she appeared in Henry Aldrich For President in 1940. She is what we refer to in the trade as a trouper.
I sat next to Charlotte Kemp (Miss December 1982) and across from Cathy St. George (Miss August 1982), both of whom travel the country representing themselves and the world of Playboy. I guess it is obvious that it has been 27 years since they were airbrushed into our consciousness in the centerfold of Playboy, but they are both still pretty stunning and can boast of some magnificent body parts that seem to defy time and gravity.
On my other side was Hank Garrett, who played the Mailman with a machine gun in Three Days of the Condor. He also played Officer Ed Nicholson in Car 54, Where Are You? Remember Car 54,…? With Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as Officers Toody and Muldoon? It dates back to 1961, before cops became “pigs”, when they could still be taken light-heartedly and before everything was in color. Hank Garrett started out as a professional wrestler and now does stand up comedy. I think he may have done every job there is to do in show business. It was a slow convention, so we did a lot of talking. He has a lot of stories.
It is not a career choice you make if security is something you are interested in, so the people who are still in it after their career’s peak and beyond have a bit of the madness of the poet in them. For every Bruce Willis making $30 million for a couple of months’ work, several thousand actors put on the bunny suit to advertise the Easter sales at the local department store for minimum wage. And it’s all show business.
Guys like Hank Garrett are heroes to me. Their compulsion to entertain, the depth and breadth of the story-telling gene in them is so great that they’ll do it in a phone booth to an audience of one. I have a great admiration for the working actor and a constant fear that I won’t be one. By working actor I mean one that really works at his trade, and that work is 90% finding the job and 10% doing the job. My fear is mostly that I won’t, or don’t have the stamina, the desire, or the chutzpah to do it. In 38 years of making my living as an actor I have quit the business almost as many times as I’ve quit smoking. In a business where rejection is the air you breathe, you need to have thick skin. On the other hand, you need to stay as vulnerable and exposed to your own feelings as you can because, as Meryl Streep says, we get paid to care.