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Lights, Camera, Auction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glen Eastman knows all about the passion to purchase your own little piece of Hollywood paraphernalia, the yearning to become the owner of something valuable and enduring like, say, Mr. Ed’s shoes. Of course, he does.

He sat in the bidding parlor of Sotheby’s auction house in Beverly Hills on Wednesday among a roomful of other baby boomers and talked about why somebody his age would so covet the four lucky shoes worn by the low-voiced horse that co-starred in the wacky 1960s television series bearing his name.

He discussed the merits of nabbing the deputy’s uniform Barney Fife wore to tool around Mayberry in the old “Andy Griffith Show.” Or Ralph Kramden’s bus driver’s jacket, that wide-lapeled, zipper-up-the-front, big-man’s fashion throwback donned each week by Jackie Gleason on the popular “Honeymooners” sitcom.

Or how about the original clay Gumby and Pokey figures used in the 1960s animated series? Or even the original medal of courage awarded to the Cowardly Lion in the classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”?

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“If you’re my age, these things are all part of your childhood,” said the fortysomething Eastman, a Bay Area producer. “You’ve seen them all so many times, that just being in the same room with them is a thrill. But to own one, well that’s just indescribable.”

On Wednesday, hundreds of hungry Hollywood-watchers--most of them raised during television’s golden era--gathered to outbid one another on thousands of pieces of memorabilia from the music, entertainment and motion picture worlds. Many were willing to pay prices tantamount to the gross national product of various Third World nations for that conversation piece to display on their wall or spirit away to some home office safe.

While not planned that way, auction organizers say, the event turned into a frenzy of baby boomers reclaiming a bit of their childhood with a checkbook and some bidding chutzpah.

“The baby boomers are coming out of the woodwork,” said Sotheby’s spokeswoman Laura Maslon. “People are going crazy for stuff like Mr. Ed’s shoes. We’ve gotten bids from Europe, Asia, South America and Brazil. But most of the bids are coming from people living right here in the United States, people born in the 1940s and ‘50s who grew up watching movies and television right there in their mother’s living room.”

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Along with items from the estates of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and actress Dorothy Lamour--items including Fitzgerald’s pearl gray Mercedes, her baby grand piano and one of Lamour’s signature sarongs--there were countless curiosities, props and costumes from golden age movies and television shows. There were gold records, jewelry, Academy Award statues, vintage cars and one-of-a-kind items that the years have transformed into valuable pieces of Americana.

But Eastman and his wife, Judi, had more than Mr. Ed’s shoes in mind when they walked into one of three auctions held Wednesday, the first of their kind for Sotheby’s in Los Angeles: They wanted the Bette Davis lighter.

Not just any lighter, but a Dunhill gold lighter with the name “Bette” inscribed on the lid, the one the actress used in the film “All About Eve.”

Eastman, a lighter collector who eventually paid more than $2,000 for the item, said: “As many cigarettes as she lit in that film, that lighter sure got a workout.”

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But there were not guarantees that it would actually work. Auctioneer Rick Wolf, the managing director of Sotheby’s West Coast offices, warned buyers that any merchandise was being purchased “as is.”

Referring to the two Fitzgerald cars auctioned in the morning session, Wolf said: “The cars have tires, that’s all we’re saying. Buy at your own risk, like you do whenever you buy used cars. We’re not even saying these cars have engines!”

In the morning session, the bids came fast and furious, some from people seated in the auction room who took the day off from work or left their children behind with a neighbor. Some bidders hesitantly raised numbered red placards, while others telephoned in bids to half a dozen operators seated at a nearby table.

Thomas Taffet of Northridge opened the auction by paying $700 for jewelry and pendants once owned by Fitzgerald. “I’m really here to buy Ella’s cars,” he said. “But while I was here I thought I’d pick up a little jewelry.”

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For days before the event, would-be buyers could peruse a showroom jampacked with memorabilia.

There was Forrest Gump’s military uniform with the “Gump” nameplate on the breast, a sweater worn by Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn’s black silk smoking jacket, even the skimpy loincloth Charlton Heston wore in “Ben Hur.”

For TV fanatics, there was Herman Munster’s ghoulish-looking stretch pants, Wonder Woman’s golden magic lasso and Richard Kimble’s 1962 wanted poster from “The Fugitive,” starring David Janssen.

From more recent productions, there was Bruce Willis’ walkie-talkie from “Die Hard,” Eddie Murphy’s police badge from “Beverly Hills Cop II” and Nicholas Cage’s Navy Seal vest from “The Rock.”

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Gospel singer Kurt Carr wanted something once owned by Fitzgerald, his hero. “I first heard Ella sing at age 13 and it’s because of her that I became a musician,’ ” he said. “I want something that will make me closer to Ella.” Glancing through the opening-price catalog, he added: “Something I can afford.”

Near the back row, Joan Howard Maurer--daughter of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges--sat with a member of her late father’s fan club, selling two autographed draft scripts used by her dad.

“I have another one of each of these, otherwise I wouldn’t sell them,” she said, pausing. “I mean how much of this stuff can you hang on to forever and ever?”

Some of Wednesday’s merchandise came with stories of how it had disappeared for years only to be rediscovered by some avid collector.

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Said Eric Alberta, an assistant vice president in Sotheby’s collectibles department: “You look around at this stuff, like Charlton Heston’s loincloth or things from the [Marlon Brando] movie ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and you ask yourself, ‘My God, how did it all survive?’ ”

There were other stories. Like one told by Russell Porte, who sold a George Burns cigar.

Porte was on hand the day Burns made his hand imprints at Mann’s Chinese Theatre and watched him make a print of his cigar as well. “Then he just handed the cigar off and I was there and I just took it,” he said. “And nobody grabbed me.”

After later meeting Burns to authenticate the cigar, Porte collected $2,200 for his souvenir.

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And then there was the Cowardly Lion’s courage medal, once owned by Mal Caplan, a former costume head at both MGM and Universal Studios. Caplan once also owned the Tin Man’s heart, but gave it away to a friend who was having open-heart surgery.

The courage medal was given to a bedridden Caplan by co-workers after he was seriously injured in a car accident.

Said a would-be buyer after seeing the medal’s $20,000 open-bidding price: “It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than courage to bring that baby home.”


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