King Kong hasn't been the same since that fall from the Empire State Building in 1933. The "Eighth Wonder of the World" was only an 18-inch-tall movie prop to begin with, and the latex skin and rabbit fur have rotted away from his $35 metal skeleton in the years since his onscreen tussles with Fay Wray. But B-movie fandom never dies, and to collector Bob Burns, "This is history! It's an icon!"
King Kong resides at Burns' Burbank home, and he has plenty of company. Lavishly showcased in "It Came From Bob's Basement" (Chronicle Books), written by Burns and John Michlig, Burns' vast trove of sci-fi, horror and fantasy film artifacts is one of the world's largest private assemblages of movie props. King Kong's fellow icons include a "Creature From the Black Lagoon" suit cast from the original molds, a mask with Styrofoam-ball peepers from "Invasion of the Saucermen," the robot Gork's head from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and flying saucers from Ed Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space."
Burns started collecting at 13 when visiting a schoolmate whose film technician dad had the head of a cane used to fatally club the title character in Universal's 1941 classic "The Wolf Man." "I always used to play with it because I loved the film," the burly 66-year-old recalls. "One day he just gave it to me."
Burns, a longtime Burbank resident, spent decades working for CBS as a film and video editor. On the side, he put on midnight spook shows at the Fox Theater in Venice and mounted wildly elaborate backyard Halloween extravaganzas. With his wife Kathy, Burns dreamed up another sideline, simian alter ego Kogar the Gorilla; Kathy sewed the ape suit Burns wore for countless sitcom walk-ons, film premieres, parades and theme park appearances from the 1960s through the '80s.
Baby-boomer special-effects wizards such as Rick Baker and Industrial Light and Magic guru Dennis Muren honed their skills working on Burns' Halloween spectaculars; Baker's monsters from "An American Werewolf in London" are in Burns' collection.
A preservationist to the core, Burns doesn't trade or sell. Many of his pieces are donated by directors who value his careful stewardship. "I love having this stuff, but I also keep it for the people who've given it to me." Burns says that James Cameron, director of "Aliens," "The Terminator" and "The Abyss," sends visitors over to check out the 8-foot hydraulically driven Alien Queen and the aquatic "Abyss" entities laced with twinkling fiber optics that Burns gleefully activates upon request.
Perhaps it's a sense of boyish wonder that makes him a monster's best friend. Burns is still disgruntled when he recalls an offer from the Smithsonian to put King Kong in a traveling exhibition insured for $100,000. "It's like the Hope Diamond, for crying out loud. Money can't replace this!"