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Twice a year, the Parsippany Sheraton overflows with ex-sitcom stars, cult movie sidekicks, aging action heroes, and their rabid fans for the hugely entertaining Chiller Theatre autograph convention, which serves up celebrity at its most unapologetically commercial. Positioned at tables throughout various rooms on the main floor, the fondly remembered stars make money off their signed photos, and so do you if you end up selling them on eBay, making for a win-win. But most of the fans exude the ruddy glow of earnestness, clearly wanting pieces of collectible nostalgia strictly for comfort, plus the chance to dine off them for years (but not as placemats). Working the room like a nicer Rupert Pupkin, I noticed that Lorenzo Lamas and Antonio Sabato Jr. still looked do-able, the Raging Bull crew still looked a little scary, and pop star Debbie Gibson seemed happy, telling me, “This is my second autograph show. I should have done it sooner. I’m a people person and everyone’s in a festive mood!”
Patty Duke sure was. When I asked the Oscar winner if Neely O’Hara—her messy character from the 1960s musical melodrama Valley of the Dolls—would be in a reality show if she were alive today, Patty replied, “Yes! From her therapy sessions!”
Another ex-child star, Dennis The Menace‘s Jay North, succumbed to my psychiatric skills when I asked him if he overcompensated as a kid by making sure everyone knew he wasn’t really as horrid as Dennis. “I was the antithesis of the character,” Jay assured me. “I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I didn’t have a big ego.” To make sure I didn’t give him one now, I refused to buy an autographed photo.
Once troubled Todd Bridges from Diff’rent Strokes told me his dark, icky days are way behind him and things are diff’rent now. “I’m 20 years sober,” he said. “Is it one day at a time?” I wondered, sipping a Diet Coke. “No,” replied Todd, plainly. “I just don’t do it, and that’s that!”
Cheers also to Mark Lester, who was so good in the title role of Oliver!, though it turns out there was help from various clowns and magicians. Lester told me director Carol Reed placed all sorts of circusy entertainers behind the camera to get the desired reactions from the kids (which would have scared the living crap out of me). But Lester, who’s now a chiropractor, told me it’s not an act of legerdemain to say he ended up being a sperm donor for Michael Jackson. (Yes, he apparently “beat it” for the king of pop.) “I don’t regret saying it,” confided Lester, who feels he may well be the biological father of Paris Jackson. So he stands by his claim? “Yes,” Lester stated, solemnly. (“Consider yourself one of the family . . .”)
Everybody’s eccentric uncle, piercing-eyed character actor Udo Kier, was selling DVDs at his table and telling me that Andy Warhol had nothing to do with birthing Dracula and Frankenstein except for producing them, which partly meant showing up on the set with his dog and taking pictures for glamour magazines. But Kier doesn’t think bitter auteur Paul Morrissey should feel slighted, since he does get a director’s credit. “I’m happy Paul is not here. He’d destroy my posters,” said Kier, pointing to the wall hangings with Warhol’s name in monstrously large typeface.
In another corner, Peter Tork—of the ’60s pre-fab four, the Monkees—was hawking a blues album as his handler added her own capital letters by shrieking, “He’s doing a tour! Check out his Facebook page!”
Rocky Horror had a separate section of stars, including Nell Campbell, who went from tap-dancing with drag queens to being an ’80s club entrepreneur for upper-crusties. “Remember when Peter Stringfellow sent you a bottle of Cristal at my club?” Nell asked me, bemused. Yes, ’80s club owners were so ingratiating—and rich—that they’d even forward your free booze to a rival establishment!
At the next table, Rocky Horror‘s Barry Bostwick and I got into a sober discussion of old miniseries and kitsch films, with Barry concluding, “Sometimes the trashy things are fun. I love the cheesy ’80s stuff.” Talk about preaching to the perverted.
In the big room, an ’80s leading lady, Mariel Hemingway, was signing photos for $25 bucks, though her old Playboy nudes cost a whopping $60. Nudes, Mariel? “You worry about it when you’re younger,” she confessed to me, “but when you’re older, you’re like. ‘I was hot!'” Especially when you get the photos home and take the stickers off the titties.
Curvaceous Tia Carrere told me she wondered if she should ask Mike Myers to do another Wayne’s World, this time with her singing Hawaiian songs in a muumuu. “But no, we can’t do Wayne’s World 3,” she concluded. “We’d all have to come out on walkers!” As I limped to the exit, a pudgy girl in an appliquéd T-shirt spotted a rock drummer signing autographs and moaned, “But he’s not even one of the famous ones from the group. They’re dead!” A tragic state of affairs—but the lord giveth again when a guy pulled a copy of my latest book out of a paper bag and feverishly asked me to sign it. I started to, then wondered if I should charge extra for the nude shot.