In Other Words: A signature obsession
Published 6:15 am, Saturday, August 8, 2015
Back when I was young enough not to be embarrassed by what according to today’s standards might qualify as foolish behavior, I hung out at stage doors for unseemly amounts of time. It was there I waited in hopes of snagging an autograph from the star du jour. I found this to be one of the more thrilling pastimes of my youth.
Back then, autograph books were the rage often given as gifts for celebratory occasions like graduations or summer camp excursions. Therein would be penned the names of friends, usually accompanied by sentimental notes reminiscent of some bonding experience shared, and now recorded in ink. One such message was from my camp counselor: “To Judith, for the most unforgettable summer of my life. ‘Blitzy.’ ”
All the counselors had nicknames like “Blitzy,” who was my bunk counselor and remembered me “fondly” for short-sheeting her bed linens and smearing Prell shampoo between pieces of her cheese sandwich. Miraculously, Blitzy survived, and while she never knew exactly whom the culprit was, she kept her eyes fixed on me for the rest of the summer.
Moving through my adolescence, my autograph books found me at the aforementioned stage doors where my friend Janie and I waited after plays and musicals for an actor to quickly jot down his/her name. Why, in retrospect, that even mattered still eludes me, but on occasion if the mood strikes, I regress by putting in a stage door appearance.
A few years back when Brian Dennehy was starring in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” I convinced my daughter to stand with me on a rainy winter night to have Mr. Dennehy sign our Playbills. We waited 45-minutes while Lizzie — the good sport she was — bemoaned the fact that this was ridiculous, while I kept imploring, “Just five minutes more.” Finally, Mr. Dennehy appeared, apologized profusely for the delay, signed his name and disappeared into the chill of night. “If only I had my autograph book with me instead of a Playbill,” I said. My daughter rolled her eyes.
My autograph obsession was inspired by my mother, who, when she was much younger, was, for a while, star-struck. She often referred to starlets of stage and screen by their first names as though she knew them personally.
It was not uncommon for her to suddenly spring forth with a quote, this one from Bette Davis.
“As Bette once said, ‘I’d luv to kiss ya but I just washed my hair.’ ”
“Bette who?” I inquired.
“There’s only one Bette,” she said.
My mother, a woman of high intellect, could be shockingly insufferable when it came to celebrities.
My favorite autograph book was given to me on my eleventh birthday. It was navy blue fake alligator (or “faux” as we now call it) and had my initials emblazoned in (faux) gold leaf. I carried it around until its cover cracked and the pages became frayed. Inside were stored a plethora of names with mawkish displays of affection from the famous, and not-so-famous, whose lives had briefly touched mine. One such note was from the late Ray Bolger, who was starring in “Where’s Charlie:” “To Judith, May you trip the light fantastic.”
It’s my favorite autograph to date, and I treasure it still.
Since those stage door days, I have accumulated numerous autograph books in various colors and sizes. Once, when I was feeling particularly flushed after the publication of a story, I treated myself to a leather autograph book from Harrods’s in London, for future jottings should an occasional mood strike when I would find myself at a stage door, ready to pounce.
My most recent signing was from Frank Langella, fresh from the matinee of “Frost/Nixon.” A woman passing by, upon witnessing the actor signing my book, nudged her friend and screamed: “Look, it’s Frank Langella.” (Pronounced with a hard “g”).
Mr. Langella stopped short, pen in the air, stared at the woman, and said: “Madame, It’s Langella ... with a soft ‘g’.”
He then returned to the matter at hand.
I treasure my autograph books and the names within. They connect me to my past, and by doing so, the memories come alive. I also understand my mother’s brief preoccupation, and forgive her those famous quote ramblings.
“As Gloria once said: ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ ”
“Gloria who?” I asked, right on cue.
“Gloria Swanson,” she looked at me indignantly, “Is there any other?”