They've come home--Rhett and Scarlett, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth, even E.T. and Darth Vader. Home in this case being Hollywood, or more precisely Beverly Hills, where the latest addition to the Planet Hollywood chain of restaurants opened to the public Monday after a gala Rodeo Drive block party Sunday.
The old-time stars may be long gone, and the classic characters may exist as memories and videos, but their props and costumes linger in the here and now. For collectors of Hollywood memorabilia, items worn or handled by screen icons can continue to radiate as much star power as the stars themselves did.
The 4-year-old Planet Hollywood chain--whose co-owners include Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore--has found global success catering to movie fans who enjoy munching burgers and fries while basking in the reflected glow of Hollywood magic. And perhaps the most powerful reflections come by way of the Hollywood memorabilia on display in each of Planet Hollywood's 28 locations.
In Beverly Hills, Planet-goers will be able to ogle Chaplin's jacket from "The Great Dictator" and Hayworth's outfit from "Gilda," along with costumes that Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh wore in "Gone With the Wind." Super-nanny Mary Poppins is represented by a carousel horse from that film, while crisp hospital whites recall the less-friendly Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Much of the memorabilia will evoke Hollywood's Golden Age, but also on display are such recently screened objects as an ape from "Congo" and Forrest Gump's box of chocolates.
Efforts to establish a serious large-scale museum of Hollywood memorabilia have faltered through the years (although organizers say the long-discussed Hollywood Entertainment Museum will open next spring in the Hollywood Galaxy building.) The library at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has worked to preserve the films themselves and makes Hollywood's history available to the public in the form of books, magazines, papers, posters and screenplays. But for now the new restaurant will serve as Hollywood's most visible celebration of its own ephemera.
"People are surprised that there's no Hollywood museum," says producer and Planet Hollywood chairman Keith Barish, "but the interesting thing is that there's no Hollywood. You come here and you see the Paramount gates and the footprints at Mann's Theatre, and that's it. 'Hollywood' is still working, but there isn't much to look at. People still make an emotional connection with movie memorabilia that's incredibly powerful, though, and to bring these treasures back to the movies' hometown is very important to us."
Hollywood miscellany hasn't always been considered the stuff of treasures. For decades, props and costumes were routinely stockpiled by studios without much thought to careful storage. An outfit worn by a star in one picture might be altered to fit an extra in the next film, and a gun fired by a leading man in one Western would simply be returned to a prop house or gun dealer until it was rented out again.
"For a long time, the studios had a real blase attitude about this stuff," says William Sutton, a private collector based in Mission Viejo. "I've seen beautiful gowns worn by Judy Garland or Grace Kelly that were just rags because they weren't ever stored properly or taken care of. Hollywood didn't care about these items as much as some of us did. It's the collectors and the public that have given these things their value."
Barish says that because so much from older films has been lost or destroyed, Planet Hollywood can't be too selective about what memorabilia it goes after. "It's more a matter of what we can get. It's almost surprising when anything has survived, but you never know when or where something's going to turn up. I was ecstatic when we found the plunger used in 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' because that's a personal favorite of mine. It was at a prop house and it was still being rented out!"
Collecting memorabilia can be lucrative--six-figure sums have been raised at tony auction houses for such items as the ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," and Leigh's "Gone With the Wind" Oscar sold last year for $550,000. But primarily it is passion rather than profit motive that keep most collectors on the hunt.
"Money doesn't necessarily equate to rarity or value," Barish explains. "A lot of our memorabilia is donated, and anything we buy, we never sell. These things shouldn't be treated like commodities. They belong to the public and they should be seen."
Collector Richard Wilson of Bethesda, Md.--whose prized possessions include a jeweled gown worn by Greta Garbo in "Mata Hari" and a bra worn by Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot"--sometimes finds himself bidding against Planet Hollywood for items. But he agrees with the chain's philosophy toward memorabilia.
"I have a real custodial feeling about this stuff," he says, "and if I donate or sell something to a place where hundreds of thousands of people are going to see it, I'm very happy. The idea of putting these kind of treasures away in a vault as some kind of investment just appalls me. These are pieces of history that should be out where people can enjoy them."
Finding those pieces of history isn't always easy. When the studios finally divested themselves of old props and costumes--such as at MGM's gigantic back-lot auction in 1970--many of those items took some bizarre and circuitous journeys. Over the last decade, as studio "junk" has become increasingly recognized as valued collectibles, those journeys have been painstakingly retraced by collectors.
Evan Todd has worked as Planet Hollywood's treasure-hunter since the chain began. He's become accustomed to finding important loot in attics, garages, and junk shops, and even managed to find the slave ships from "Ben-Hur" sitting in the middle of a Nebraska cornfield.
Todd has developed a keen eye for what makes a quality piece of memorabilia. "If you can remember a whole movie just from one object in one scene, that object is excellent memorabilia," he says. One such piece coming to Beverly Hills is the ax Jack Nicholson wielded in "The Shining."
"That's the perfect prop from that film," he explains, "and we found it in the garden shed of a guy who worked on the film. He was using it to chop wood, even though it still had the fake bloodstains on it. We asked what he wanted for it, and he said, 'Well, I'll need another ax.' That was an easy deal."
One of Todd's proudest finds for Beverly Hills came about in an even more serendipitous fashion. "I'd been looking for the camera Jimmy Stewart used in 'Rear Window' for a long time. We contacted Hitchcock's daughter and anybody who had anything to do with the film, but all the leads came up empty. One day on Hollywood Boulevard I ran out of film for my camera and ran into a camera store. As I went in the door I looked in their window and there was the 'Rear Window' camera next to a picture of Jimmy Stewart holding it. The owner had gotten it from Paramount, and he agreed that it should be on display. That was really exciting. Here we were trying to bring these Hollywood treasures back home, and it turns out that some of them never left town."
* PLANET WELCOMING: Celebrities turn out for Planet Hollywood festivities. E6