Sci-Fi Museum Remains Just a Fantasy

Times Staff Writer

A plan to create a Los Angeles museum for one of the world's largest collections of science fiction, horror and fantasy memorabilia remains in the Twilight Zone.

Los Feliz resident and premier sci-fi collector Forrest J. Ackerman said he has waited six years for Los Angeles city officials to make good on their offer to permanently house and display his 300,000-piece private collection, which he had agreed to donate to the city.

But now that his agreement with the city has expired, Ackerman said, he is having second thoughts.

"I am torn between altruism and becoming independently wealthy," said Ackerman, 69, who has made his living as an agent and editor of science fiction books and magazines.

Since purchasing a copy of the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926 from a Hollywood newsstand, Ackerman has amassed books, magazines, recordings, posters, paintings, movie stills and props covering an era of imaginative creators from Mary Shelley to Steven Spielberg.

Estimates of the collection's value are in the millions of dollars. Los Angeles City Librarian Wyman Jones called the collection "priceless."

In 1979, Ackerman gave Mayor Tom Bradley a personal tour of his collection and received a city promise to accept and house the creepy and fantastic stuff. It took another three years to draw up a written agreement that was signed by the mayor and Ackerman.

Within 30 months of that date, the city was to select a site and have architectural plans drawn for a permanent museum; after those steps, Ackerman was to hand over his collection.

But the agreement expired last spring with nothing accomplished by the city. Ackerman's requests for help from science fiction authors and movie makers have also gone unanswered.

In the meantime, Ackerman said, he has begun to feel his age, and he and his wife, Wendy, want to move from their four-story home on Glendower Avenue, where he keeps the collection. He said he has heard too many real-life horror stories of elderly friends falling down stairs and breaking their hips and backs.

"We want to get on to a one-level home, and in order to do that, obviously, we have to empty this out," Ackerman said.

At least a quarter of the 17-room house is filled floor to ceiling with everything from one of Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula capes to the original Creature from the Black Lagoon mask. Shelves crammed with books, magazines and props share space with file cabinets, robots and lifelike models of aliens.

As a concession to his wife, Ackerman said, he has confined his collection to rooms on the two lower floors of the house. The rest fills his three-car garage.

Ackerman said his ultimate fantasy is for the city to provide $5 million to build a 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall somewhere in Los Angeles.

Over the last six years, the city has run into problems finding a site and the money to house Ackerman's collection, said Fred Croton, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department.

But city officials say Bradley is still interested in housing the collection. The city is now "essentially starting over" because Ackerman's agreement with the city has expired, said Bradley aide Valerie Fields.

The city's Community Redevelopment Agency is willing to help find a temporary location for the collection, said David Lewis, deputy administrator for the agency. "But frankly, we do not know of an adequate permanent location," he said.

A temporary site in a downtown, city-owned building on Spring Street could be arranged in the next 30 to 60 days if a new agreement can be reached with Ackerman, Lewis said. A lease arrangement and money for renovation of the site would require approval by the eight-member redevelopment agency.

But, with a permanent museum still years away, Ackerman said he is reluctant to give his collection away.

'Not Earning What I Was'

"I would be very glad to hear some mention made of money," Ackerman said. "Money wasn't very important six years ago, but now I'm on the wrong side of seniorhood and I'm not earning what I was then.

"Whatever would be paid, the collection would still be a gift because it would be worth 10 times what the city would conceivably pay for it."

Ackerman said he could not have predicted that the stories by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne that he read as an escape in the late 1920s, when he was a shy young boy, would become the foundation of his career. But, within a few years, Ackerman said, he knew he was hooked on the tales, known then as scientifiction.

In 1953, he received the first Hugo award, science fiction's highest honor, for his seminal work as agent, editor and fan during the 1930s and 1940s. He edited the first science fiction fan magazine and organized fan clubs. Ackerman was also the editor of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland between 1958 and 1983.

Editor, Author, Agent

Ackerman continues to edit magazines and write books in the genre known as sci-fi, a term he said he coined in 1954. He is the agent for 150 science fiction authors.

But he still spends most of his days getting what he calls "my daily fix"--sorting through new items for his collection.

New York book dealer L. W. Currey, one of the world's largest sellers of rare science fiction and fantasy books, surveyed Ackerman's collection in May. He said the collection is significant, but he declined to estimate its value other than to say that, to the right buyer, it could be worth several million dollars.

"You would need more than one person to do an evaluation," Currey said. "Books, magazines, film-related material, no one has their finger on the value of all of that. I would have to do considerable research on the movie material because we are specialists in first-edition books and magazines."

Diverse Collection

Because the collection is so diverse, Currey said, "the sum may not be worth as much as its individual parts. A single buyer may not have an interest in all the material and might undervalue some pieces."

Since his visit, Currey said, he has notified buyers who are interested in purchasing the collection. Those expressing an interest include educational institutions and individuals, he said. But he declined to identify them.

Ackerman said he has thought of conducting a yearlong auction to unload his 36,000 books, 125,000 movie stills, 18,000 movie lobby cards, original movie scripts and manuscripts and the uncounted number of magazines, autographs, paintings and props. But, he said, "It would be a criminal shame to have it scattered around."

"I wouldn't sell it unless it was kept together and I had some input on its display," Ackerman said. "If somebody purchases it, they would get a bonus from me because I would go on collecting for the rest of my life, and, after I have looked at something for a week or two, I would give it as a gift."

Hopes Collection Will Stay

Ideally, Ackerman said, the collection will stay in Los Angeles so he can oversee its operation and perhaps work as curator. "I'm probably the only person who has seen all 300,000 things because every day for the last 59 years I have been putting them on shelves."

Ackerman said he can understand why city officials, more concerned with fixing potholes and paying police officers, might not put the preservation of other-worldly mementos at the top of their priorities. But he said he doesn't understand why those who have made their fortune in fantasy will not contribute to his museum.

"It does sadden me that none of the independently wealthy science fiction and fantasy people don't seem to have the same feeling about its history that I do," Ackerman said. "They could so easily make it all come true and sponsor a museum in Los Angeles where it belongs."

Poster From Spielberg

Star Wars creator George Lucas said he wasn't interested in the collection, Ackerman said. And from Spielberg, whose Amazing Stories series recently debuted on TV, all Ackerman has received so far is a poster from the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," with the inscription: "A generation of fantasy lovers thank you for raising us so well."

Should he sell the collection, Ackerman said, one of the first things he would do with the money would be to purchase the one item he has been after for years but could not afford: the first edition of "Frankenstein," published in 1818.

The book, which Ackerman said is priced at $5,000, would go nicely with the 200 other editions of "Frankenstein" he has already collected, he said.

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