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Taste for the Offbeat Inspires Collectors

Diane Garrett is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Whenever Steve Converse wakes up in the middle of the night with worries weighing on his mind, he pads downstairs to browse through his extensive collection of sci-fi movies and plops one in the VCR. Something about those early alien invasion flicks--he hated “Independence Day"--soothes the 44-year-old San Marino architect.

“I absolutely have no interest in sci-fi movies after 1960,” Converse says. “I’ve always liked the simple ones.”

For David Konow, there’s nothing like a good exploitation movie from the 1960s. The 25-year-old advertising worker from Woodland Hills, who recently wrote a book about schlockmeister Al Adamson, keeps his hundreds of favorites on hand so he can watch them whenever it strikes his fancy.

“Some movies I just watch over and over, like ‘GoodFellas’ and ‘Scarface,’ ” he says.

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Converse and Konow are just two local video collectors with a taste for the offbeat. In a movie-mad town like Los Angeles, plenty of people acquire the latest hits and old classics, but this breed of collector is after a more specific quarry--be it movies by a certain actor or in a particular genre.

Take Tom Blue. For four years, he’s been hot on the trail of all movies with magicians in them. Part of the reason is professional--he is writing a filmography on the subject--but mostly it’s out of love for magic. Besides teaching flying, the Van Nuys resident, 51, also writes a column for a magic newsletter and works for Owen Magic, a magic effects company based in Azusa.

Pure passion prompted Ken Elkin to collect early horror movies. The 73-year-old retired claims manager--"which has nothing to do with horror, as far as I know"--began acquiring movies during the early Betamax days. Today, he has 1,278 movies crammed into his Pasadena home, along with several VHS and Beta machines.

“When I first started collecting movies, I wanted to get all classic horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s,” Elkin says. “I just like these kinds of movies. Like ‘King Kong'--they still haven’t made a movie as good as it. And I’m talking about the original.”

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Although Elkin stayed away from the limelight himself, his mother and aunt were actresses, a fact that has led to some serendipitous discoveries. When he put the 1928 “West of Zanzibar” into his VCR, he recalls, “there was my aunt being strangled by Lon Chaney.”

“I didn’t even know she was in it. She had a couple of stage names she went by.” (The best known was Jane Daly.)

At 39, Eleanor Goto wasn’t even born during the 1930s. Yet, like Elkin, she prefers movies from that era and has started a collection several hundred strong.

“I think in the 1930s, there was a bit of glamour in the way the ladies dressed,” she says. Goto, who does accounting for her family’s produce company, collects “Thin Man” and Charlie Chan mysteries and Andy Hardy films.

“When I have time, I’ll put on an Andy Hardy movie--it’s escapism, I guess,” she says. “I was never big on renting. If I like a movie, I’ll see it over and over again. I just like the idea of owning it.”

Converse has another motive for acquiring so many sci-fi movies.

“You can’t find these at a regular rental store,” he says. ‘You can’t find ‘The Leech Woman’ or ‘The Mole People.’ ”

And even if the quality isn’t always first-rate, Converse still enjoys watching movies like “Teenagers From Outer Space” (1959) on occasion.

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He has even passed along his love of video collecting to the rest of the family: His wife, Deanna, has amassed a number of Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes mysteries, while the kids clamor for Disney titles (like the recently released “The Aristocats”). All told, there are more than 1,000 movies in the family’s collection. “We’re all fans,” he says.

Some specialized collectors shoot for smaller collections. Though Blue has screened countless magic movies with the help of Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee store in North Hollywood during the past four years, he is more selective when it comes to his private collection.

“I don’t try to have everything,” he says. “There are some movies so bad I won’t buy them.” For example, “ ‘Wizard of Gore’ is considered a masterpiece of sleaze, but I’m not going to give shelf space to that.”

Likewise, Konow makes regular pilgrimages to Mondo Video a Go Go in Los Feliz for a fix of obscure movies from the 1960s and ‘70s. In many cases, Konow says, he just wants to check out a particular monster scene.

“If you’ve got to have it, Mondo is the place to go,” he says. “No store has the character of Mondo.”

Konow, whose father is a television agent, grew up taping late-night movies off TV and laments their absence on the airwaves today.

“Late night now, all they have is infomercials. It’s all Psychic Friends and Tony Robbins,” he says.

“I wish I had a VCR when I was 10 years old,” says Ray Lopez, a 52-year-old Pasadena accountant with a passion for Warner Bros. movies of the 1930s. Since VCRs weren’t invented when he was devouring movies off the small screen as a youngster, Lopez settles for regular visits to Starlight Roof, a Montrose store specializing in classic movies and audio.

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The store--run by John Cooper, a film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of the era--sells but doesn’t rent movies. It recently reopened after a two-year absence.

“It’s nice to go into some place where they know what you’re talking about,” says Elkin, another Starlight regular. “I go into some of these places and they’ve got green hair, and they see me with white hair, and I know they’re not going to know what I’m talking about.

“I’m an old fuddy-duddy. I like the old stuff best. Most of the new stuff is such crap.”

Elkin says the best thing about being a collector these days is the availability of old movies at low prices. In recent years, as the so-called sell-through market has grown, more and more studios have dipped into their vaults to bring out classic movies priced anywhere from $4.99 to $19.99.

“For the collector, it’s really nice, because so many things are available and they’re not that expensive,” he says.

Yet for all the classics studios have released, many collectors have wish lists of unavailable titles several pages long. Which is why some find any means to get copies--Konow got “Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror” from a friend who taped it off TV years ago--and often find themselves up until the wee hours taping some obscure movie off TNT or AMC.

“I go through the TV Guide avidly looking for things I do not have,” Lopez says. “I have stayed up very late in the evening to make sure I didn’t miss it. I didn’t want to take a chance I wouldn’t get it.”

“I think everybody should have something they collect,” says Lopez, who also collects Art Deco cocktail shakers and Depression-era glassware, “but videos are my passion.”

Just don’t do it because it’s trendy, Konow says.

“Ever since Quentin Tarantino got big, now everyone wants to be a film buff and have a big collection,” he says. “We’ve been around for a long time, and we’ll still be around in a few years.”


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