It's another Monday morning at the Mail Mann fan-mail answering service, and already the week's mail is beginning to roll in--10,000 letters a week for 64 assorted TV actors, movie stars, singers, talk show hosts and soap opera players who depend on Mail Mann to answer their mail.
"We read every letter," says Mail Mann founder and co-owner Mackie Mann, who runs the service out of an open, airy garage behind her house on a quiet, wooded residential street in Sherman Oaks.
It sometimes leaves the five women who work at Mail Mann laughing, crying or even gasping in astonishment. After eight years at Mail Mann, they know as much about lonely people, latchkey children and teen-age illiteracy as many sociologists.
The typical letter writer is a lonely 9- to 15-year-old elementary or junior high school student. Both parents work. They don't have a home life. They come home to an empty house. They listen to music. They all have VCRs and they watch TV.
"People write their life stories," mail reader Susan Dubs says. "They tell you things they wouldn't tell their parents, but they do tell the star."
They send photographs of their rooms and school photographs of themselves. ("I know what you look like. I wanted you to know what I look like.") They write about sexual abuse. ("I tried to tell my mother but she didn't want to hear me. I'm embarrassed to tell my friends.")
They invite the star to their birthday party or high school graduation. They ask for signed photographs, occasionally for a telephone call, college tuition or help in buying a car. They send cookies, needlepoint, candy, chains, necklaces and (in the case of Japanese fans) folded paper origami.
Many fans write love letters to young male stars, ask if they have girlfriends and speculate that "you probably think I'm silly." Occasionally, Mail Mann gets 20-page letters written on both sides and folded into little triangles.
Some letters are quite moving: "My best friend just died, and I wanted to let you know how much she liked your music."
This to a TV comedy star: "My dad and I watched your show in the hospital. It was the last thing he laughed at before he died."
This to a black female vocalist: "I was going to commit suicide and I think of your song and now I have the courage to go on."
Letter writers mention suicide frequently enough that Mail Mann co-owner Marla Bishop keeps a list of suicide hot-line numbers pinned to the shelf behind her desk. Once Mail Mann received a letter from a woman in New York who said she was going to jump off her balcony with her child. Dubs had to call three police precincts in New York City before she found someone willing to check it out. "That's typical," Dubs says. "No one wants to deal with it."
In the past, letter writers had names like Jennifer, Sara and Kimberly. Now, Mackie Mann says, "we see Lashondra a lot and Debbie has come back." Most of the letters come from rural parts of the United States; other countries such as Germany, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Poland and Romania, and increasingly from the former Soviet Union.
"Eight years ago, we got very little mail from Russia," says Mann, who on this cool, bright Monday morning is sitting behind her small desk, smoking a cigarette and wearing a Minnie Mouse sweat shirt. "A lot of stars are doing tours over there now."
When it comes to fluency and coherence, the best letters by far come from Japan. The grammar and spelling are impeccable, Dubs says. "They say what they mean. They write in complete sentences. And, most importantly, the writing is legible."
On the other hand, the illiteracy in the United States is unbelievable, says Dubs, slowly shaking her head. The handwriting and spelling are pathetic--"picture" is "pitchur"; "send" is "sind." The fans mean to write "I'm your biggest fan" and instead write "you're my biggest fan."
In the middle of all this, Mann's two shaggy black and white collies start barking as a deliveryman arrives with a spring bouquet in a green vase. Bishop sets it on top of the TV and opens the card.
It's from devoted fan Tommy Destlund, home town illegible, Sweden:
"Dear Air Supply members: I love your music. I need your music. I really respect your music."
"I don't even know how they got our address," says Mann, who likes to keep her location private for fear that fans will start showing up at the front gate en masse, thinking that they have found the secret home of one of her clients.
Except for a few select clients such as Air Supply or Elvira, Mann carefully avoids mentioning her clients' names. One reason, she says, is that some stars go on TV and say, "I read every letter." Since the fans think that the replies come from the stars, she says, "I don't want them to know any different. We try to make everything as personal as we can without answering every piece of mail individually."
To have their mail answered, clients pay $75 to $1,000 a month depending on volume. Mann says she doesn't advertise her service, which she thinks is the only one of its kind in Los Angeles. "It's all word of mouth. We started out eight years ago with two clients and now we have 64. My husband is a dolly grip in the movie business. He's my best rep. There's not a picture he does that we don't get a client from."
Although most fan mail comes from teen-agers, sometimes adults write, offering their services as an escort the next time the star shows up in town. During Desert Storm, many soldiers wrote. Mail Mann also receives a lot of letters from men in jail.
"It's funny," Dubs says. "They always write, 'I am presently incarcerated.' They never say, 'I'm in jail doing five to 10." Still, they are loyal fans. They ask for pictures of the celebrities wearing bikinis, underwear or nothing at all.
"When the letters are sick, they are real sick," Dubs says. Some fans ask for the star's underwear. "And it's not just men," Dubs says. "Women send some pretty incredible Polaroids."
Mann doesn't pass judgment on the people who write (unless she receives an ominous or threatening letter, in which case she contacts the star's security service). Her job is to send back a pre-printed response from the star, perhaps an autographed photo, and to enter the fan's name in her computer for future notification regarding concert dates or merchandising.
She said she is amazed by the naivete of shown by many letter writers--it's clear they can't distinguish between the star as a person and the character the actor plays on TV. "Dear So and So. I can't believe you are letting Chuck get away with what he is doing to Sally. Don't you know Martha is sleeping with him?"
"A lot of people are living in never-never land," says Bishop, opening yet another letter.
"It is sort of sad," Dubs says.
"So many people need that," Mann says. "They need to feel they know these people and make them part of their lives." They live and breathe for that."