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Star signs

by Barry York, 2 October 2018

Andrew Sachs (‘Manuel’)
Andrew Sachs (‘Manuel’)

I first wrote to a celebrity in 1964, at the age of twelve. Back then I couldn’t have imagined that, several decades later, I’d have amassed well over a hundred signed photographic portraits of film and television actors, as well as those of a few musicians and wrestlers. Each portrait I’ve collected is fascinating, both in terms of the image itself and its accompanying tale. The back-story is inseparable from the image; the context completes the picture.

My collection is essentially a product of the isolation and loneliness of an only child. I grew up in a working-class migrant family in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick in the 1960s, a latchkey kid in an unhappy home. Television was to become my escape.

My parents purchased a television set – a Pye 23 inch – in 1960. Dad, Loreto, worked in a factory and Mum, Olive, in a photographic studio. The TV cost the equivalent of a combined ten weeks’ income, but it was worth every penny. The box not only provided an escape, but was also a great educator. One might read about the horrors of Apartheid in South Africa, or the threat of nuclear war, but television brought them into our lounge-rooms, bathed in the flickering pale blue light of a cathode ray tube.

Around 1961, a year after its first airing in America, a program came to Australia called The Twilight Zone. Its creator and main writer, Rod Serling, hosted the show, which took viewers on a ‘journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination’. Those were the opening words from narrator Serling, who employed a fantasy/sci-fi dramatic format to raise social issues. It was radical, even subversive, for its day. Is reality all it seems? My mind went wild with that question and, later, its corollary: can people create a different, better, world? How eagerly I awaited each new story in the anthology!

Rod Serling

Unsurprisingly, my first fan letter was to Serling himself. In pre-Internet days, the address was located by scrutinising the credits. There, at the very end, were the words: ‘Filmed at MGM Studios, Culver City, California’. That was it. The key. The way I addressed my aerogramme. My mother helped me draft the missive. She had also collected autographed photos by writing to film stars in the 1930s and 1940s, those very difficult, harsh years of economic depression and war in England, her homeland. With her sister, Vida, she found an escape in the local picture theatres around West Hampstead and Kilburn in London. Their father had died when Olive was only ten, and her mother worked as a domestic servant. In addition to poverty, north-west London experienced Nazi bombardment during the Blitz.

The day in March 1964 that I walked home from school to find an over-sized orange-brown envelope protruding from the letterbox remains one of my fondest memories. When I saw the words ‘Rod Serling’ and ‘MGM’ above the address, I felt like I must have entered the Twilight Zone myself!

The black and white photographic portrait of Serling is stunning. He sits looking directly into the camera – looking at me (!) – hands folded on knee, surrounded by what today looks like antique film-making equipment. His facial expression is earnest and wise, but not without a hint of self-deprecation. The autograph – ‘To Barry, All Best, Rod Serling’ – is in white. My mother, who had worked in dark rooms from the age of fourteen, suggested this indicated he may have signed the negative rather than the photo. Sadly, Serling died far too young, in 1975, aged 50.

This early success buoyed me enormously, and I started to write to other celebrities – mostly American and British TV stars, with a few locals. In the period from 1964 to 1969, responses to my fan letters – in the form of autographed photos – came from such stars as Ray Walston (My Favourite Martian); Dawn Lake and Bobby Limb (The Mobil Limb Show); Alan Young (Mister Ed); John Astin (The Addams Family); Alan Hale Jnr and Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island); Linda Thorson (The Avengers); Goldie Hawn (Laugh-In); and Marty Feldman and John Cleese (At Last the 1948 Show).

Bobby Limb and Dawn Lake

My mother had taught me the key elements of the fan letter: tell them a bit about yourself, let them know why you like them, and always sign off with ‘Could you please send me an autographed photo as a memento?’ 50 years on, I still sign off with those exact words.

My collecting entered a long pause in 1969, when I was admitted to university and – influenced by Marx and Mao, as well as Serling – threw myself into the deep end of campus rebellion and revolutionary politics. But I resumed the hobby in the 1990s, when I became a parent and sought to encourage my children to write letters. This time around, my collecting efforts came with a healthy dose of opportunism: I now understood that autographed photos had a monetary value.

In the 2000s, it was a whole new ball game. The Internet and eBay had made the hobby readily accessible to scores of thousands of new enthusiasts, and had created a trade. People were writing to celebrities and then selling the photos online. Stars would sometimes reply with a printed note inviting their ‘fans’ to visit their website, where they could purchase a photo – with an autograph at extra cost.

This happened when I wrote to Anne Francis, who I had never forgotten for her role in the sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet (1956). She also left a lasting impression for her lead role in the Twilight Zone episode ‘The after hours’, where she played the part of a mannequin who experiences a short period of life, only to finally discover that she is still, in fact, a mannequin. In 2004 I followed her advice, visiting her website and purchasing an autographed photo which showed her as the mannequin, alongside Serling. I have always put effort into my correspondence, and she appreciated mine to the extent that she sent a hand-written note with the photograph saying how much she liked my letter.

Anne Francis (Twilight Zone mannequin) and Rod Serling

Needless to say, not every celebrity replies. Most don’t, and for those that do, a reply may take some months. The longest I had to wait was for Lena Horne. I’d forgotten I’d written to the famous singer, actor and civil rights activist, only to be stunned when I received her autographed photo two years later!

Muhammad Ali, Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Brubeck, Andrew Sachs, Sophia Loren, Katy Sagal, Paul Hogan, Rod Taylor, Graham Kennedy, Walter ‘Killer’ Kowalski, Glenda Jackson, Warren Mitchell, Bert Newton, Reg Varney, Phyllis Diller, Leslie Nielsen, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Prunella Scales, Reg Varney, Jerry Lewis, Terry Gilliam (who signed his ‘Safe dreams’) … and a hundred others. They usually personally sign the photo, although some – as in the case of Ali – sent out pre-prints, with their signature on the image.

Alan Young and Mister Ed

The photos are usually studio portraits used for publicity, and predominantly head-and-shoulders shots. The black-and-white of the 1960s gave way to colour, but I prefer the old tones. Sometimes the images reflect the character of the actor. For instance, Andrew Sachs’ photo shows him almost full length, in waiter outfit, as his Fawlty Towers character ‘Manuel’. Alan Young – ‘Wilbur’ in Mister Ed – speaks on a telephone, with Ed behind him, presumably also mid-speech! Killer Kowalski, champion wrestler, stares menacingly into the camera, fist clenched, muscular upper torso on display. He signed it to my son, Joey, and me – ‘two great champions’.

Of all the portraits in my collection, the one with the most interesting back story is probably that of John Cleese. I wrote to him in mid-1969, as a fan of the sketch comedy show, At Last the 1948 Show, which featured Tim Brooke-Taylor, Marty Feldman, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin. Cleese sent a photo, signed ‘From Pom, John Cleese’, with a typed letter. He wrote that mine was the first letter he had received from a fan in Australia, and finished by discussing a new comedy series he, Chapman, Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones were working on. He wondered whether it would be popular in Australia. The new program, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was released a few months later!