Rat Rods, Rocket Sleds and Land Yachts: Atomic Age Detroit Metal Shines At Newcastle Museum


Some people don’t get it. And, most likely, never will. Some do. Of those who get it, a few will never move beyond it. They embrace it in all its forms. The rest are spectators, no matter how inflamed their interests, they’ll never cross that great divide, turn fantasy to reality, embrace the actuality.

Although this applies to collectors in general, it’s especially so for those whose main interest is cars. Most people out there are content (happy may be stretching it) with their late model Fords or Toyotas, even with the current trend towards the bland homogeneity, that has rendered all cars pretty much the same, the choice narrowed to a handful of designs and a handful of colours. Good luck finding your car in a shopping centre car park.

Yet there are those of us who want more than mere transport. Prestige, perhaps, individuality, certainly, a statement of style or their love of design excellence or nostalgia. These people really enjoy driving. It’s a pleasure for them. An adventure.

 

I love old cars, in particular the American variety of the 1950s to 1970s. I’ll leave it up to qualified experts to explain my preferences. Certainly, my last three cars fell within that grouping – a 1968 Ford Galaxie, a 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car.

I had the Cadillac for almost 20 years and it’s appeared in previous posts, as much for its fascinating back story as the collective joys of owning and driving a classic car.

 

For those not familiar with the backstory, check out:

https://davidlatta.org/2011/08/29/a-classic-link-to-old-time-las-vegas-the-dunes-frederic-apcar-and-the-casino-de-paris/

https://davidlatta.org/2011/08/30/say-hello-to-my-little-friend-the-joy-of-a-classic-car/

 

The Cadillac has long been America’s mainstream luxury car, an aspiration noted lyrically in so much of the country’s music (especially blues and early R&B songs) and pop culture. I never doubted I’d be a Cadillac owner forever.

But it was not to be and, instead, I found myself switching alliances (perhaps a little too easily). My Caddy was what is now termed a survivor. Although mechanically excellent, the original Silver Mist paintwork needed a respray and the red leather interior (an expensive option, along with the bucket seats, in its day) also required extensive attention. I was looking at big bucks for the quality finish it deserved.

Then the engine blew a cylinder. It took me ages to mull over the options (limited as they were – fix or not) and it was probably more the case that I didn’t want to make the hard decision. What I didn’t want to face was the possibility of the Caddy ending up in a wrecking yard. In the meantime, I needed something to drive.

 

As I started shopping around, I ruled out another Caddy as they were priced beyond what I wanted to pay. In what turned out to be a timely combination of dumb luck and divine intervention, I found a beautiful midnight blue 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. It’s the default limousine used extensively in the United States for airport transfers, while it’s substantial bulk and moderate retro stylings gave it something of the flavour of a Mafia staff car.

The price was right, ridiculously so, and everything else checked out so I flew to Adelaide for an inspection. It was in immaculate condition; it’d been purchased from a deceased estate in Maquoketa, Iowa, brought to Australia, complianced and fully registered in South Australia just two years before.

Maquoketa is some 200 kilometres west of Chicago but the pristine undercarriage revealed the previous owner to be extremely fastidious; bless him, he was exactly the sort of person people like me dream of buying a second-hand car from. There was nothing to indicate the Lincoln had ever poked its shiny chrome beyond the shelter of its garage between late autumn and early spring in its entire existence. In fact, throughout the car, there was very little indication of the almost 40 years since it had rolled off the assembly line in Wixom, Michigan.

 

On the leisurely drive back to Sydney I became acquainted with the Lincoln’s left-hand drive (not as difficult or confronting as initially expected) and the rapid response of the 460 cubic-inch (around 7.5 litre) engine.

It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the idea that I should keep the Lincoln and sell the Cadillac. Still, it did take a while to finally list it on eBay, expecting a fairly low selling price considering its condition. But, once listed, the magic manifested. The opening bid landed almost immediately and, ultimately, 14 bidders duelled like wine-soaked Musketeers; it eventually realised just a little over what I’d paid for it some 20 years before (and, incidentally, more than I paid for the Lincoln). Try that with a late-model Toyota.

It’s little wonder, then, that I seek out car museums whenever I’m in the United States. Give me the opportunity to tour the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, or the America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, and I’m in like a shot.

 

I have no more understanding of the intricacies of the internal combustion engine than I would the opening chapter of Quantum Physics For Dummies, so the technicalities matter little (that’s where a good mechanic is essential); it’s the excess, the unashamed kitsch, that gets me far more than any technical appreciation.

And it’s not just Americans who still treasure the more outrageous examples of their automotive heritage. I have taken tours of Paris in classic Cadillacs and seen a fleet of 1950s and 1960s American cars on a club run through rural Finland.

Australians also have a similar fascination which is how I came to discover Lost In The 50s, a private collection at an industrial area in Newcastle, New South Wales.

 

Open just one day a month, it’s the culmination of more than 30 years of collecting American cars and pop culture memorabilia of the 1950s and 60s by businessman Glen Jennings and his family. Lost In The 50s is devoted to the Atomic Age (a sub-strata of the so-called Golden Age of US automobile design, pegged between 1948 and 1973).

It was a time when the post-war economic boom fuelled the rapid rise in US consumer culture and influenced car companies to produce ever more ostentatious designs. Immensely powerful engines, vast surfaces of brightly-hued steel panelling offset by bulky chrome flourishes and all the mod-cons consumers never knew they needed but soon came to expect (and then some – under-dash record players, anyone?).

All packaged in enormous designs that recalled missiles, rocket ships and the gleaming futurism of 1950s Hollywood science-fiction movies. The aim wasn’t so much to get from Point A to Point B but to do it in the most style and comfort.

 

The space race, honed razor sharp by the Cold War, dominated the skies while Detroit car manufacturers mimicked their own ever-skyward quest for dominance. In feverishly competing to make their products as attractive as possible to American consumers, there also occurred an inevitable competition between brands. And the late 1950s to mid-1960s saw the rise of jaw-droppingly audacious automotive design, as shamelessly brightly-coloured as metallic peacocks, the likes of which had never been seen before.

There was a staggering range of choice to entice consumers. The major automobile companies – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – along with a handful of smaller independents, including AMC and Studebaker, fought to differentiate their products. And each of these also had an array of brands.

Ford had, amongst others, such brands as the Lincoln, Mercury, Fairlane, Galaxie, and Mustang (best not mention the Edsel), while GM boasted the Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. Chrysler’s included the Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Imperial and New Yorker.

 

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1966 George Barris-designed Batmobile.

 

 

Many of these are represented in the Lost In The 50s collection. It ranges across family sedans, pick-up trucks, hot rods and a couple of notable movie cars. The most instantly recognisable is the 1966 Batmobile, from the Adam West television series. Adapted from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept vehicle by legendary US custom car creator, George Barris, an  original and three replicas were created for filming.

 

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1966 George Barris-designed Batmobile.

 

All are now in private ownership. Barris’ original, designated the #1 – which remained in his personal collection – was auctioned for the first time in 2015, fetching $US4.6 million. However, there’s a thriving industry producing driveable replicas, fibreglass bodies often mounted on Lincoln Town Cars chassis. I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen at motor museums around the world and the one at Lost In The 50s is a prime example.

 

1950 Buick Roadmaster Fastback Coupe

 

My pick from this smaller section of the museum is the pearl grey 1950 Buick Roadmaster Fastback Coupe. The front grille, with a rictus of chromed malevolence, looks like something out of a Stephen King novel (small wonder as a 1953 Buick Roadmaster was the supernatural lynchpin of King’s From A Buick 8).

But it’s the central hall of the museum that holds the most glittering of prizes and it’s here that the truly wonderful over-the-top 50s and 60s cars are in evidence. Here’s my personal favourites:

 

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1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe

 

1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe in two-tone green with a continental kit. The Pontiac was one of General Motor’s earliest brands, beginning in 1926, and soon became one of the favourites of American consumers. The Bonneville emerged initially in 1957 as the luxury convertible edition of the Pontiac Star Chief. The following year, the Bonneville became a stand-alone model.

 

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1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe

 

The 1958 was available as a two-door hardtop or convertible. The base price was $US3,481 (against an average income of $US5,100 per annum) for a V-8 370 cubic inch, 255hp engine with a Carter four-barrel carburettor. Options went all the way up to a 330hp with triple Rochester twin-barrel carburettors.

 

 

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1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe

 

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1958 Pontiac Bonneville Coupe

 

 

Lost50sOldsmobile8508
1958 Oldsmobile Model 98

 

 

1958 Oldsmobile Model 98 4 door sedan in cherry red. Until 2004, when the company was shuttered, the Oldsmobile was America’s oldest operating car company, dating back to 1897 when Ransom E. Olds started manufacturing in Lansing, Michigan. General Motors purchased the company in 1908.

By the late 1950s, the Oldsmobile was powered by an 8-cylinder Rocket V-8 engine (it first appeared in the 1949 models) and was the first post-war overhead-valve V-8 engine. The Oldsmobile was one of the fastest American cars of its time, capable of 0-60mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit more than 12 seconds and an absolute top speed of 97mph (156 km/h). In 1949 and 50, 88s won more than half the NASCAR Grand National Races. General Motors had the OHV V-8 market pretty much to itself for several years.

The 1958 Oldsmobile had an option of a J-2 Golden Rocket with three two-barrel carburettors. Revolutionary as the Rocket 88 engine was to General Motors and the automotive industry in general, it also played an indirect role in the development of rock’n’roll.

 

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1958 Oldsmobile Model 98

 

A paean to speed and power (and ipso facto sex), “Rocket 88” was a song written by Jackie Brenston in 1951 at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, MS. Brenston was saxophonist with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm band. The song was recorded by the Kings at the recently-opened Memphis Recording Service studios in early March 1951 but released as Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston sang vocals while the sax breaks were by 17-year-old Raymond Hill.

In the petri dish of American culture that was slowly but surely fermenting gospel, rhythm and blues, and country music during that decade, black and white influences travelling parallel tracks, many music historians identify Rocket 88 as the first rock’n’roll song. It’s passionately argued for and against but within that Memphis studio was recorded one of the first, if not the penultimate, song in the development of modern music by people who would also play their own important roles.

In 1956, a precocious 16-year-old by the name of Anna Mae Bullock, first sang with the Kings of Rhythm and soon became a regular member of the band. She started dating Raymond Hill and they eventually had a baby; when the relationship floundered, she began dating Ike Turner. In 1960, she adopted the stage name of Tina Turner when Ike formed the Ike And Tina Turner Revue.

 

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1958 Oldsmobile Model 98

 

But the most enduring of rock’n’roll’s fickle flourishes of fate involved the Memphis Recording Studio. It was opened in 1950 by Sam Phillips who, two years later, inaugurated his own label, Sun Records, there. For the first few years, Phillips concentrated on emerging  black musicians such as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf although he was intrigued by the possibilities inherent in finding a white singer who could convincingly handle black music.

In July 1954, a nineteen-year-old blonde blue-eyed Memphis local, Elvis Presley, recorded a number of tracks, of which “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, became the first of five releases on the Sun label. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

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1958 Oldsmobile Model 98

 

1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe

 

1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe two-door in ice blue. The Imperial was Chrysler’s luxury brand from 1955 until the mid-70s and it was to Chrysler what Cadillac was to General Motors or Lincoln to Ford. As beautiful as this car is externally, some of its more notable refinements are inside.

Although dash-mounted push button transmissions were available in a handful of American cars, only Chrysler maintained it for any great length of time. The two-speed PowerFlite transmission was available in all Chryslers from 1954 to 1961, with the three-speed TorqueFlite appearing in 1956. Push buttons disappeared at the end of the 1964 model year.

 

1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe

 

The oblong steering wheel and seeming lack of steering column is another stylish Space Age design feature. The tyre-shaped hump on the trunk is known as the FliteSweep Deck Lid and was an option on 1957-61 models. In 1961, it cost $US55.45 extra.

At 227.1 inches (5.76 metres) long, it was the longest non-limousine car on the market.

 

1961 Chrysler Imperial Coupe

 

 

1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

 

1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser gold two-tone with continental kit. This is one car that polarised the market back in the day and continues to bedevil collectors today. Is it amazing design innovation or just amazingly kitsch?

The flagship of Ford’s Mercury division, the Turnpike Cruisers (which included a convertible option) were only available for the 1957-58 model years and didn’t exactly set the market afire; only 17,000 were sold in 1957, for example.

 

1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

 

This is despite some entertaining innovations including the Breezeway power rear window, the Seat-O-Matic automatic adjusting seat, and a push-button transmission known as the Multi-Drive Keyboard Control, which lent the vehicle severe sci-fi street cred. A 383 cubic inch 330hp Marauder V-8 was standard under the hood, with a 430 cubic inch optional upgrade available. Zero to 60mph in well under ten seconds.

The Continental Kit, which extends the rear bumper and mounts the spare tyre externally, was perhaps the ultimate in flash. Despite all the bells and whistles, the Turnpike Cruiser was short-lived, with 6,407 produced in 1958. It didn’t help that the US was in the midst of a recession at this time and, when consumers had fuel economy at the top of their shopping lists, a shiny aircraft carrier on wheels seemed an unnecessary indulgence.

 

1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

 

Its rarity these days, however, along with a renewed appreciation makes it highly prized.

The electric retractable rear window, a somewhat dubious innovation, was maintain by Ford for some time, possibly hoping the marketplace would eventually respond. Mercury revived the Breezeway in 1963-66 in its Monterey, Montclair and Park Lane models; within the Lost In The 50s collection is a beautiful black 1960 Lincoln Continental Sedan with a Breezeway back window.

 

1958 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

 

 

It’s easy to spend the entire day at Lost In The 50s. Members and friends of the Jennings family act as docents, answering questions and generally acting as proud hosts of an extraordinary collection. Car clubs often set up in the forecourt along with food trucks. Check out their website for upcoming opening dates. Purchasing tickets well in advance is recommended.

https://www.lostinthe50s.com.au

 

 

 

 

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The Collector’s Life: The Mexican Spitfire – Lupe Velez and Hollywood’s Ultimate Indignity


Lupe in East Is West (1930)
Lupe in East Is West (1930)

 

Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.

Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.

And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.

I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931
Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.

It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.

Larry Edmunds was always good for movie stills, even if they were modern restrikes. Later, on eBay, I would uncover a couple of reputable sellers of wonderful vintage photos at ridiculously good prices (see my earlier blog –  https://davidlatta.org/2013/09/19/the-collectors-life-lester-glassner-and-the-nobility-of-the-continuum/ ).

Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)
With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.

Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).

While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.

East Is West (1930)
East Is West (1930)

From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.

It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.

However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.

Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)
With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.

Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.

What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).

In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s own collection

The Collector’s Life: Lester Glassner And The Nobility Of The Continuum


Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett in Mr Skitch (1933)
Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett in Mr Skitch (1933)

It’s the realisation that chills many of us, haunting those early morning hours before dawn, when our subconscious is at its most vindictive.

You live, you collect, you die. And a new generation of collectors are waiting and eager to pick through the pieces and the cycle starts all over again.

I’m not even sure when I started collecting, or even why, but it would have been sometime around the mid-1970s and I was drawn to Hollywood movie posters, lobby cards and stills. Collecting was in its infancy and there were few places, especially in Australia, to acquire such pieces. Prices were ridiculously low. An avid movie-goer, it was a way of extending my interest in film, of acquiring things that other people didn’t have.

In those pre-Internet days, collecting was a solitary occupation. I had no idea how many others, with interests like mine, were out there. Eventually, with eBay and other on-line marketplaces, the market exploded and I discovered many, many others like me. The walls came down and we were able to obtain choice items, often from the other side of the world.

No matter how obscure our interests, whether it was vintage Hollywood memorabilia (like me) or barbed wire, airline sick bags, fossils, shellac 78rpm records, 19th century cookbooks, farm machinery, or anything else people collect (and it’s likely that there’s nothing out there that doesn’t attract a hardened core of collectors like birds of prey on roadside carrion), the Internet brings us all together to discuss, critique, evaluate, acquire, disperse and/or regift.

The Net giveth and the Net taketh away. Collectors like to think they’re in control. They buy what they want, decide on the extent on their holdings, and sell their duplicates or weaker pieces to acquire better ones.

Bing Crosby in Here Is My Heart (1934)
Bing Crosby in Here Is My Heart (1934)

The elephant in the room is the one thing they can’t control – their own mortality. They can spend their entire lives amassing the most fantastic collection, ticking every box they’ve ever envisaged. But time is running out. Eventually, the fruits of their labour will outlive them. And, in most cases, it will be dispersed. At fate’s most humiliating, it will be simply dumped or destroyed by relatives who have no idea what they’re dealing with. Or it will go to auction houses or eBay, parted out, item by item, to people with the same interests, merging into other collections.

As Sammy Davis Jr. was wont to observe: the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.

Take Lester Glassner, for example. Ring any bells? No, thought not. No reason why it should. I have no idea whether Lester was a Catholic but, for collectors, he must rank as a patron saint. To be a collector, it’s necessary to have something of an obsessive nature. Lester turned obsession into an art form, in the nicest possible way.

It all started, innocently enough, for Lester in the early 1960s when he purchased a Mickey Mouse lamp from a junk shop in Buffalo in upstate New York. It was the mere hint of a breeze, an almost imperceptible dropping of barometric pressure that quickly built into a cyclonic frenzy of collecting which never abated.

He gained such recognition as a collector of what became legitimised as pop culture that, on his death in 2009, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both published lengthy obituaries.

He concentrated not just in one area but across an almost unlimited range and scope, with so many different collections that he was probably uncertain of what he had. His holdings of vintage movie stills, for example, eventually totalled more than 250,000 pieces and he made a considerable income from licensing these for newspaper, magazine and book reproductions.

His four-storey townhouse on East 7th Street in New York City became crammed with his holdings.

Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

As the New York Times observed: “Dolls and wind-up toys, plastic fruit sculptures and costume jewelry, sunglasses and makeup kits, greeting cards and matchbooks, salt and pepper shakers and Christmas ornaments, not to mention movie stills, posters, cardboard cut-outs, books, magazines, records and 8- and 16-millimeter films: they made up a museum-sized collection. And they turned his long-time home, a brownstone on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into, literally, a private museum, one that Mr Glassner would gladly show to friends, and friends of friends.”

His personality had much to do with affection and respect he generated. Again from the New York Times: “Soft-spoken, with a gentle manner, Mr Glassner was by most accounts an eccentric man but not an antisocial (or even unsociable) one, as consumed hobbyists have been stereotyped. He was apparently gifted (or cursed) with the contradictory attributes of an avid collector. He could be terrifically discerning but he could also be omnivorous. He was a relentless browser of antique stores, Internet marketplaces like eBay and collectors’ catalogues.”

He published a book about the influences on his collecting in Dime Store Days (Viking Press, 1981). It had a foreword by Quentin Crisp and introduction by Anita Loos, author of the 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; when Loos died in 1981, she left Glassner her hat collection.

Some of his collections remain intact. In 2001, he donated almost 500 vintage movie posters to the Library of Congress. The earliest was a 1921 poster of The Adventures of Tarzan, starring Elmo Lincoln, while others included Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz (two of his favourite films), Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, and Rebecca.

A collection devoted to vintage African-American memorabilia including some 2,500 rare children’s, theatre and film books, was donated to Buffalo State College.

Many other items were dispersed through auction houses and eventually made their way onto eBay. While most movie stills available on eBay are modern reprints, and to the practised eye readily distinguishable as such, it’s still possible to find original vintage stills at remarkably reasonable prices.

An elaborate soundstage fantasy in The Dolly Sisters (1945)
An elaborate soundstage fantasy in The Dolly Sisters (1945)

An original movie publicity still is a remarkable item. The weight, wear and look (a sepia-like tint of age), with a back marked by photographer or studio stamps, archive notations (from such as Lester Glassner’s collection) or press releases. Some in my meagre collection (at least compared with Lester’s) are 80 years old and it’s not entirely necessary to be a romantic to feel the hands they’ve travelled through in that time – from studios to newspapers or magazines, buried for years in filing cabinets then liberated to collectors and archivists such as Lester and, finally, to me.

I’ll let them go one day, these treasured pieces of Hollywood’s lost art, carefully arranged, hair and make-up exactingly so, costumes draped and stylised, poses held stock still, breath in, backs straight, while bulky plate cameras drew agonisingly long exposures under the florid heat of arc lamps on airless soundstages for movies that no-one now remembers and indeed may no longer exist.

I may let them go voluntarily or not. But it’s a cosy realisation that I’m part of a continuum, a guardian of sorts for something special. That I’m in rarified company with people like Lester and, although I’ll never be in his league, I recognise some of his qualities as my own. And, hopefully, what I will pass on will continue to be treasured as others who preceded me did.

It’s all a collector can truly hope for.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s collection