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

Advertisements

In Atlanta, Things Go Better At The World Of Coca-Cola


You have to feel sorry for Atlanta, Georgia. It’s suffered more ignominy than Anna Nicole Smith. During the Civil War, it was just about destroyed. The city rebuilt but what General Sherman and the Union Army couldn’t achieve was carried out with brutal efficiency by the mid-twentieth century blights of modernisation and urban renewal.

Vast swathes of the southern edge of downtown were decimated in the 1960s to allow three cross-country interstate highways – the I-20, I-75 and I-85 – to join up. Through that decade and well into the 1970s, whatever historic charm remained in the CBD was laid waste. In its place came parking lots, characterless office blocks and sprawling multi-block travesties such as the America’s Mart that encompassed all the originality of Stalinist architecture minus the whimsy.

When Atlanta was selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, the wheels of destruction were again set in motion. Eight hectares of the north-western end of downtown were bulldozed for the Centennial Olympic Park. It functioned well as a public meeting space during the Games but was quickly forgotten afterwards and now primarily functions as an area where the homeless can ambush tourists for spare change.

While it might be a little difficult to see and touch history in Atlanta, you can at least drink it in. The city is headquarters to a number of the country’s largest corporations, among which is Coca-Cola. Invented in 1886 by pharmacist John Pemberton in nearby Columbus, Georgia, and first sold in Atlanta, the shrine to all things Coca-Cola and then some can be found in the aptly-named Pemberton Place, across the road from Centennial Park.

The World of Coca-Cola is just that – part museum, part corporate cathedral – a vast and entertaining homage to that which all things go with. Admittance is $US16 per person (a $US26 personally guided tour includes a special limited-edition gift) but is one of the few touches of value in the city.

The facts and figures of the Coca-Cola Company are truly staggering. Coke is consumed by more than one billion people every day and is sold in 200 countries around the world. The value of the brand itself is estimated at $US50 billion. Aside from the dark, sticky beverage so beloved of bourbon and dark rum drinkers, the company markets around 3,000 different drinks.

In the Taste It! area, visitors can try some of these different drinks. There’s Fresca from North America, yellow Inca Kola from Peru, Apple Kiwi Fanta from Thailand, Pineapple Fanta from Greece, Stoney Tango Wizi (a somewhat questionable name for something that tastes like ginger beer) from Zimbabwe, and a remarkably foul Peach Nestea from France. And, of course, Coke itself, though regrettably a shot of Jack Daniels is not an option.

The Coca-Cola Loft is packed to the rafters with memorabilia and advertising material harking back to the late nineteenth century. These include original advertising materials and endorsements from such celebrities as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as well as Norman Rockwell paintings specially commissioned by Coca-Cola. The first thing that springs to mind when browsing this treasure chest of collectibles is what would this stuff be worth on eBay?

The World’s examination of all things Coke doesn’t shy away from the more embarrassing moments. While the expansion of the brand yielded such successes as TAB, Fanta, Sprite and Diet Coke, there was also the train wreck that was “new” Coke. On 23 April 1985, a “new” version of Coca-Cola was launched, a move that resulted in exactly 79 days of universal public condemnation until the company backed down and reinstated the “old” version. It was a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; paradoxically that term is generally considered to have originated in Georgia.

The Perfect Pauses Theater shows Coke advertising from around the world including the hugely-successful Hilltop television ad from 1971. This featured a jingle with the line “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” sung by The New Seekers and co-written by British songwriters Billy Davis, Roger Cook and Roger Greenway; Davis had written Reet Petite for Jackie Wilson while Cook and Greenway’s hits included Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress) for The Hollies. The ad was directed by two-time Oscar winner, Haskell Wexler, responsible for Medium Cool (1969). The song was re-recorded by The New Seekers, removing the Coke references, as I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, which went to Number 1 in the UK and was a Top ten hit in the US.

The tour ends, as these things so often do, at the merchandise store. Even the hardest to please anti-consumer will find something to come away with. Even if it is just a new appreciation of the siren call of popular culture.

Words and photos © David Latta

Universal Appeal: The VIP Experience At Universal Studios Hollywood


Amidst the theme park rides, thronging tourists and assorted hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Universal Studios in Los Angeles is a working film studio and has been since the earliest days of movie-making. In 1915, German immigrant Carl Laemmle, who had spun a career as a bookkeeper into a thriving nickelodeon and silent film distribution business, opened a film studio in Los Angeles.

Ever the self-promoter, Laemmle gathered a crowd of 15,000 to celebrate the event on 50 hectares of land he had purchased for $US165,000 in the San Fernando Valley, just beyond the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. So was born Universal Studios, which went on to produce some of the most iconic movies the world has ever seen. From the first days of operation, Universal invited fans onto their sets and it quickly became a must-see attraction.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and Universal Studios continues to give the star-struck public an insider’s view of the movie-making process. The modern period of tourism began in 1964, when pink and white tramcars whisked visitors through the backlots. To handle the increasing numbers, some years back Universal extended the general admission policy (which had begun to see long queues at the various rides and attractions), into a three-tier system.

The first is general admission, the second is general admission with front-of-line privileges which takes visitors to the front of any queues at any attraction and reserved seating at any show. The third is the VIP Experience. Current pricing from the Universal Studios website (and keep in mind that discounts on these packages are widely available) is: General Admission – $US74.00. Front Of Line – $US139.00. VIP Experience – $US259.00.

Investors Wait For Their Returns From Waterworld

The VIP Experience is the ultimate and is available to only a limited number of guests each day. During my recent visit, the  majority of customers were Australian, taking advantage of the Pacific Peso’s above-parity exchange rate. In the comfortably-appointed VIP Lounge, guests milled about waiting for their guide while drinks and snacks were served. The first half of the day was taken up with rides, shows and attractions then it was lunch at a private dining room before boarding a small trolley car for the backlot and studios tour.

You have to feel sorry for those with general admission tickets who only get a 45-minute dazzle through the backlot. The VIP Tour lasts two-and-a-half hours with, among other things, a visit to a working sound stage (on this day, it was the chance to wander through the house from the television’s Parenthood) and unhindered access to an outdoor set left over from the 2005 Steven Spielberg-directed remake of War Of The Worlds. It was bizarre to say the least to wander through the smoking remains of a massive 747 that had crashed (at least on film) into a suburban streetscape, crushing everything in its path. But, as they say in Hollywood, that’s showbiz!

The highlight for this committed film buff and widely-pitied celluloid bore, however, was time spent in the prop warehouse. Ranging over several floors, the collection has everything needed to dress any film set. From ordinary glass vases to 1930s food packets, from tiki trinkets to authentic-looking human skeletons, each and every item has a film provenance that most likely goes back decades.

As an active eBayer, I couldn’t help speculating what some of the smaller, more easily-transportable items might be worth with a Universal Studios imprimatur. Only my highly-refined sense of honour, along with the fear of getting busted, prevented me from finding out.

There’s A Bear In There

So, at the end of a long day, is the VIP Experience worth $US259? The rule of thumb, when it comes to travel journalism, is – would I pay to do it again? In this case, I’d have to say yes.

Universal Studios in Hollywood isn’t just a do-it-once-and-never-have-to-do-it-again tourist trap. It changes on each visit and the VIP Experience is the best way to do it. And it sure is fun to by-pass the crowds to the head of the long queues just like you’re a close personal friend of Carl Laemmle himself.

NOTE: In the interests of tranparency, I flew to the US with Air Pacific via Fiji and stayed at the W Hotel Hollywood.

Words and photos © David Latta