Last act for Hollywood memorabilia

Movie magazines, including a 1918 edition of Motion Picture with silent film star Norma Talmadge on the cover, are part of a 3-million-piece collection of memorabilia at the Collector's Book Store in Hollywood that are moving to storage in Newbury Park before being auctioned six months from now.
(Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

They are packing up Old Hollywood and moving it to Newbury Park.

That’s where about 3 million film studio publicity stills, 50,000 original movie posters and 20,000 vintage fan magazines will be stored until they are auctioned off six months from now.

The huge cache of movie memorabilia, gathered over the last 43 years by film fan and collectibles dealer Malcolm Willits, includes original scripts and studio contracts signed by such actors as Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra and Vincent Price, and one that was signed by Elizabeth Taylor -- and her parents.

The collection, housed in a storefront on Hollywood Boulevard near the Pantages Theater, is considered by some experts to be second in size only to that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


“I have a huge respect for this,” said collection manager Craig Gilbert as he worked Wednesday to catalog the contents of large envelopes stuffed with movie publicity photos, press kits and other original materials.

“I’ve worked here six years and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what we have in here. The owner couldn’t know what was in every envelope. Actors and studio people would sell their entire estates to him.”

At the front of the sprawling shop, which bears the name Collectors Book Store, Willits’ partner Mark Willoughby leafed through large movie posters -- some bearing the autograph of local studio artists who created the colorful ads.

Willoughby, 51, has worked with Willits for 30 years. He recalled how stars such as Mae West would come in to inspect the still photos of her that were stored in Willits’ steel file cabinets.

“Mae was so nice. She would trade us better pictures of herself for the ones that she didn’t like. Janet Leigh was another one who was always nice. She would come in and sign things for fans.”

The star of “Psycho” balked only once at an autograph request, Willoughby said. “A man said, ‘I hope you don’t take this the wrong way’ and unwrapped a butcher knife for her to sign. She said she was sorry, but she wouldn’t autograph that.”


Some Hollywood figures were less appreciative of the memorabilia. Willits ran afoul of Academy Awards officials in the 1980s when he auctioned off Marlon Brando’s Oscar from “On the Waterfront.” He has sold about half a dozen of the statuettes over the years.

Younger actors sometimes objected to their likenesses being sold and demanded that glossies of them be removed from the collection. Actor Sylvester Stallone complained when he heard that a copy of the script from “Rocky” was in the collection, Willoughby said.

Willits, 74, now retired and living in Palm Desert, was a Washington Preparatory High School history and English teacher when he teamed up with a friend, comic book collector Leonard Brown, to open Collectors Book Store in 1965.

“The big studio system was collapsing right when we opened. They were closing back lots and moving out of Hollywood. They were throwing things away. We were able to buy some excellent material. We could buy a poster for $1 and sell it for $20,” Willits said Wednesday.

One poster -- for 1924’s “Alice in Wonderland” -- sold for $5,000. “It went for more than the film cost to make. It only cost $3,000 to make the film,” he said.

The shop moved several times before landing in its Hollywood Boulevard location 10 years ago. Six years ago the store was closed to the public, and sales of photographs and posters were switched to the Internet.


Liquidation of the entire collection will take place at an auction planned for mid-December in Calabasas, said Joe Maddalena, president of Profiles in History, a firm that specializes in the sale of authenticated historical documents and Hollywood memorabilia.

The rarest and most valuable items -- things like formal, 11-by-14-inch studio portraits of stars of the 1930s by photographers such as George Hurrell -- will be sold separately. But much of the material will be sold by the file cabinet, Maddalena said.

“Each drawer holds 5,000 stills. This one has movies starting with the letter ‘F,’ running from ‘Fame’ to ‘Fort Apache,’ ” he said, picking one filling cabinet at random and pulling open drawers filled with well-preserved 8-by-10 glossy photographs.

In an upstairs storeroom, Maddalena, 47, of Topanga Canyon walked along rows of orange crates crammed with fan magazines. Even titles dated 1919 remained in remarkably good shape.

The magazines will be sold by the complete run, he said. The room next door to them houses 150,000 original photo negatives and 50,000 color transparencies of actors and film scenes.

Downstairs by the front door, Willoughby was remembering how tourists once snapped up movie posters for as little as $25 a pop -- and how a king-sized “Casablanca” poster went to a collector for $300,000.


Willoughby, who lives about a mile from the shop, plans to do volunteer work with Hollywood’s Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church once the last of the Tinseltown trove is carted off. He figures that Collectors Book Store was done for when it became clear that rent on its storefront would soar once the W Hotel being built across the street is finished.

Hollywood is changing, he says. And it’s time to go.