Who was the first celebrity you saw in person? Angelenos’ banal, weird and hilarious star encounters

The late comedian Milton Berle at the Friar's Club in Beverly Hills in 1998.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In an exploration of how celebrity has shaped the city, I spent the better part of last week being a tourist in star-search Los Angeles. I took a TMZ tour, hung out on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and even attended the Oscars.

As part of my research, I asked Angelenos on Twitter about their first celebrity sightings.

No matter what TMZ tells you, celebrity encounters tend to be pretty banal. They take place at coffee shops and supermarkets. (Gelson’s is popular.) The now-defunct Tower Records in West Hollywood was once a hub of star sightings.

But while most sightings are mundane, they can also be funny and weird. Here are some of the best responses to my query:


Pizza for Milton Berle

Phillip Rodriguez writes: “I delivered a pizza to Milton Berle. He was dressed in a robe. (Sausage.)”

Playing piano for Billy Crystal

Matthew Stromberg writes: “Billy Crystal came to my piano recital when I was like 10. (He was probably there to see his kid, but no way to be sure.)”

Buying reading glasses with Fred Astaire

Jim LaVally writes: “In the ’70s, my mom and another customer were sorting through loose reading glasses at the J.J. Newberry’s in Hollywood. After a bit, they made their selections and went to the cash register. As the man left, the clerk told mom, ‘I don’t think you noticed, that was Fred Astaire.’”

Who’s Ned Beatty?

Zak Smith writes: “Dad: ‘It’s Ned Beatty.’ Me: ‘Who’s Ned Beatty?’”

Having a celebrity neighbor or a parent who works in the business can increase the chance of sightings (and clown lamps):

Watering Mr. Drummond’s lawn

Justin Walsh writes of the late Conrad Bain, best known for playing Philip Drummond on “Diff’rent Strokes”: “Conrad Bain was our neighbor till I was two-and-a-half. My parents watered his lawn when he went home to Canada after ‘Maude’ was done shooting each season, and he gave me piggyback rides (they say). Mr. Drummond!”

A hug from Jane Fonda

Coagula Curatorial gallerist and publisher Mat Gleason writes: “1981. My gramma told me to go down the street and tell Jane Fonda that my grampa had died. JF gave me a big hug and told me how my grampa fixed some broken toys for her kids. She was shockingly short.”

A clown lamp from Betty White

Eric Spiegelman writes: “Betty White. When I was 2 weeks old. My mom was at William Morris when I was born and Betty White bought me a clown lamp.”

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw hand in hand

KUSC-FM’s Gail Eichenthal had a movie star sighting that was high on cool factor: “Unforgettable sight of Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw (sic) walking hand in hand on Canon Drive on a late afternoon. This ages me but it is worth being ancient for that memory.”

A cigarette with Tom Waits

A near accident with a celebrity is always interesting, as artist Kio Griffith writes: “Tom Waits. Almost collided with him but had a cigarette afterwards and laughed.”

A couple of my colleagues came through with especially good sightings:

Spotting Mae West

Times columnist Robin Abcarian wrote: “My first awesome celebrity sighting happened in the late 1970s when my Dad and I were driving his Dodge van over the Sepulveda Pass, and I looked down into a limo in the next lane, and Mae West was sitting in the back seat.”

Masked Michael Jackson

Books editor Carolyn Kellogg writes: “Not first, but: Michael Jackson going down the escalator at the Westside Pavilion. Wearing a surgical mask. With a kid.”

Michael Cera everywhere, and Jonah Hill’s dog

There are times when you see celebrities too often — or not enough, as Times reporters Emily Alpert Reyes and Laura Nelson write.

From Alpert Reyes: “I used to see Michael Cera so often that I turned him down for a seat next to me at the movies. (I was saving it for a friend!)”

Nelson: “Remember when Jonah Hill’s dog hid under our picnic table at Pan Pacific Park and he spent like three minutes coaxing him out, and I didn’t realize who he was?”

Little Richard shares Jesus

L.A. painter Max Maslansky’s encounter with Little Richard bordered on the surreal: “I’m 17. Little Richard. In a limo, calling me over. He’s eating Taco Bell. He gave me a book on Jesus and told me ‘I needed it.’”

Dead trip

Indiewire editor-at-large Anne Thompson gets a gold star for attempting to crash the celebrity party: “Might be when I got into a limo with The Grateful Dead tripping on acid in high school. They kicked us out.”

Waiting on Molly Ringwald

But the celebrity sighting highlight came from the Getty Center’s Amy Hood: “Molly Ringwald was at my first-ever table when I was a server. But I don’t remember if she was the first celebrity I ever saw. . . . She was very nice.”

And Ringwald responded: “Always good to hear!”

The ’80s fangirl in me is complete.

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