When free-lance writer Chuck Wheeler relaxes at his Santa Ana home, seated on his living-room sofa with a cup of coffee and the stereo turned on softly, he’s always among old friends.
Gable and Harlow look down from the top of the fireplace mantle. Astaire and Rogers dance across one wall. Dietrich slinks in an entryway corner next to a scowling Cagney and a guitar-toting Autry.
Dear friends. Famous friends.
Of course, they aren’t for real. They’re just images--in grand and glorious color--from the original movie-theater posters of the 1930s.
It’s the very same era in which Wheeler, then a Saturday matinee movie brat, sat entranced, watching these same stars in their luminous heyday on the silver screen.
He has never deserted them. For 30 years, he has been a voluminous collector of all sorts of memorabilia, chiefly from Hollywood’s “golden era” from the 1920s through the 1940s.
His collection is staggering: 8,000 posters, from Tom Mix silent sagas to Clint Eastwood Dirty Harrys, as well as hundreds of photo stills, song sheets, books and fan magazines, filling every shelf, hallway and room of Wheeler’s two-story home.
It isn’t a typical avocation, he admits. And some people may regard him as a movie-worshiping oddball.
“Sure, what we (collectors) do is unusual, even obsessive,” says the 61-year-old Wheeler, who also produces county trade shows for movie-memorabilia collectors--the next one locally is March 25 in Midway City.
“But we’re not any different from anyone else who has a passion for collecting. Take my word for it: We’re really not all that peculiar or different.”
But it has been only in recent years that longtime collectors such as Wheeler--who is one of just a handful of movie-memorabilia dealers in the county--have finally won marketing respectability.
For decades, movie posters were regarded as lowly, forgettable artifacts to be scrapped, given away or sold for a pittance.
Today, however, they are becoming widely appreciated as authentic works of art and as telling glimpses into earlier Hollywood genres and U.S. pop cultures.
And, because of their rarity and the great nostalgia crazes of recent years, movie posters are now one of the trendiest forms of collecting.
“Now that everyone’s on the nostalgia kick, people are recognizing that (movie memorabilia) have historical and artistic values, not just the sentimental ones,” says Carl DeMaio, a film scholar and longtime county collector.
But, DeMaio adds, this also means “you’re now getting collectors who are in it mainly as an investment. Believe me, it can mean big bucks.”
The prices can indeed boggle the mind. In 1987, Christie’s in London auctioned off a set of Charlie Chaplin’s fabled props--his hat, shoes and cane--for $150,000. That price was topped last year in New York when Christie’s sold a pair of Judy Garland’s “Wizard of Oz” ruby slippers for $165,000.
The escalating prices for original movie posters are just as startling.
The most coveted posters are pre-World War II, when studio graphic art--powerful designs, shimmering colors--was at its peak. A mint-condition, standard-size (27-by-41-inch) poster for “Oz,” “Gone With the Wind” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood” now brings thousands of dollars.
Some classic 1930s works sell even higher: A prime, standard-size “Frankenstein” or “King Kong” would each bring more than $10,000.
And last year, an extra-large, mural-size poster of 1942’s “Casablanca” went for $17,600, the highest auction price for a movie poster, according to Arlan Ettinger, president of the New York auction house Guernsey’s, which specializes in movie memorabilia.
Although county dealers operate at far less astronomical levels than those in Los Angeles or New York, they also report dramatic price leaps.
One of Wheeler’s rarest mint-condition posters is a 1937 Gable-Harlow “Saratoga,” whose value, he says, has jumped in the last decade from $300 to $1,500. Another is a 1938 B-Western, “Rawhide,” featuring legendary New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig. Now priced at $950, it was worth just $15 a decade ago.
Still, Orange County is far from being a movie memorabilia capital. It doesn’t have the kind of huge, all-memorabilia emporiums that line Hollywood Boulevard, for instance. Locally, there are but a few nostalgia-oriented stores, and these basically offer only modestly priced ($5 to $100) poster reproductions of originals, including smaller-than-standard, 11-by-14-inch “lobby card” posters.
Wheeler estimates that there are just 10 movie-poster dealers in Orange County, compared to hundreds in Los Angeles County alone.
But local collectors contend that the potential is high here. For example, up to 400 collectors have turned out for the Wheeler-produced movie-memorabilia shows in the county. His next “Grand Americana Collectibles” shows, his fifth and sixth, will be March 25 and May 13, both at the American Legion Post 555 Auditorium, 14582 Beach Blvd., Midway City. And at least one major Southern California show producer is considering Orange County for a possible show this year. The county is “prime territory for any of the collectible fields,” says Tom Leonard, whose 2-day movie memorabilia shows in Glendale last fall attracted 60 dealers and 8,000 visitors.
Orange County, Leonard notes, “has high numbers of people who have both the time and money for serious collecting--be it movies, comic books or baseball cards. The area seems ready for a (memorabilia) surge.”
Serious collectors are a single-minded lot.
They often focus on a certain star type, movie-maker or genre. Some collect only Shirley Temple, Three Stooges or Alfred Hitchcock; others just horror films, sports-oriented works or anything to do with “Gone With the Wind.”
Their search is relentless, not only for posters but also for photo stills, press kits, books, magazine articles and videocassettes. Anything and everything.
One more common denominator: They love to dwell on the past.
Bill Weakley of Fountain Valley is one such Hollywood devout. He’s just 27, seemingly too young for someone who dotes on long-gone eras. Yet he has been an avid collector for nearly 2 decades.
“I started with comic books,” says Weakley, who works as a draftsman and advertising artist.
“As a kid, I owned some of the first Supermans and Batmans. Then I went into coins and baseball cards. A few years ago, I even had a ’55 Studebaker.”
His true calling, however, is movie posters, particularly of the old-time stars. “They had something that stars today don’t have,” Weakley says. “Bogart had it. So did Grant and Astaire, and Davis and Hepburn. They had style, a real star charisma.”
But Weakley concentrates on collecting just one star: John Wayne. “It’s his old-fashioned heroics, the pure action and adventure of his movies, and the fact that I grew up watching all his films on television and in theaters.”
His search covers the usual movie-poster circuit, hoping for “cash bargains” or “heavy-duty trading.” He not only scours the memorabilia stores along Hollywood Boulevard but also attends trade shows in California, Texas and Ohio and checks the hundreds of ads in the movie-memorabilia collectors’ publications.
Now his Wayne gallery is considerable. He has original posters for each of the 72 movies Wayne made from 1942 to ’76. Some of the posters from this period, such as “The Searchers” and “Red River,” are worth $400 each.
He is building up his collection from Wayne’s obscure B-Western period of the 1930s. Because of their rarity, some of these posters command prices up to $800.
His most prized possession: an original poster from “Stagecoach,” the classic 1939 Western directed by John Ford that made Wayne a star.
“No, I can’t quote a ‘Stagecoach’ price,” Weakley says. “It’s one of those that almost never goes on the market. If you have one, you never let it go.”
Nancy Lewis, 51, a Costa Mesa housewife, collects Elvis Presley--and only Elvis--since his 1956 film debut in “Love Me Tender.”
She has since amassed an original poster for each of Presley’s 31 feature films (the posters cost her from $45 to $200 each), as well as hundreds of picture stills and articles, many of them printed since Presley’s death in 1977.
“Elvis was one of a kind. He’s timeless. He’s still fascinating and exciting,” says Lewis, who also has a huge collection of Presley recordings and all his movies on videocassettes. “If he was tragic toward the end, it made him seem more human, more vulnerable.”
Fullerton secretary Sylvia Giovanni, 47, also collects memorabilia about just one star: James Dean.
A decade ago, Giovanni founded “We Remember Dean International,” a fan club that now has 400 members, including many from Southern California.
“Jimmy projected that maverick quality but also a wonderful sensitivity. Our generation felt an instant rapport with him,” says Giovanni, who was 14 when she first saw Dean in “East of Eden.”
Dean, who was 24 when he was killed in a highway crash in 1955, made just three films. But like Marilyn Monroe and Presley, his death seems to have made him an even greater celebrity.
Her club is “not a cult group,” Giovanni insists. “Sure, we talk about Jimmy’s life and films, about his impact and legacy.”
But, she adds, “we’re a real cross-section of people. We’re not kooks. We’re not some fringe group.”
Some collectors say the unkindly image--that they are some sort of nostalgia freaks--persists. But it doesn’t seem to faze the longtime collectors, such as Wheeler and DeMaio, who were into movie posters long before the field became financially chic.
Or Joseph Barone.
The 51-year-old Orange County dealer, who first started collecting Western stars when he was a teen-ager in Chicago, now sells movie-poster reproductions and originals at the Orange County Fairgrounds swap meet.
“Oh, you hear those put-downs all the time. I guess you always will,” says Barone, sitting in the office of his Nostalgia Poster & Photo firm in Fountain Valley, surrounded by posters that range from “The Birth of a Nation” to “Citizen Kane” to “Shane.”
“But it’s funny because everyone has shared the same experience, of sitting in the theaters as a child and having a wonderful, thrilling time because of a marvelous movie or great star.
“Now, that’s a universal experience. And these posters are but pieces of those same memories. There’s nothing weird about that.”