By Alan Perna
I was standing on 6th Avenue and 48th Street in front of a rehearsal studio, when I saw a taxi go by. I started running after it. I ran three blocks until it stopped at a light. My mind was racing, my heart pounding, my mouth was dry. I grabbed the door handle, opened the door and jumped inside the cab. This was very out of character for me, but I knew Tab Hunter was in that cab, and was he ever surprised. I asked him for his autograph.
He said “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” As I slipped out of the cab and it sped off I realized I didn’t know where he was staying and smiled at how easily he had gotten rid of me.
Yes, I was a teenage autograph hound. For three years from 1955 till 1958, ages 13 to 16, I prowled the streets of the theatre district looking for celebrities. With a band of like-minded collectors we roamed Shubert Alley, guarded the entrance to Sardi’s, and were escorted out of the lobbies of some of the finest hotels. We paraded into places, picked up the house phone, asked for a celebrity’s room. When they answered we would say, “I’m waiting downstairs to get your autograph, when are you coming out?” Often they would say, “I’m not coming out. Why don’t you come up.”
The 1950s were a very different time.
Every Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. I would wait for Marilyn Monroe to exit a taxi in front of the Actor’s Studio for her class. I saw Paul Newman straddling a motorcycle, bleached blonde curly hair, during the run of Sweet Bird of Youth. They said at the time he wouldn’t amount to anything. Looked too much like Brando.
One of the collectors got Newman’s autograph standing next to him at a urinal.
We were pushy. You had to be.
Each evening when Rosalind Russell left the theatre she would have her chauffeur blink his lights at us—at least that’s what we were told.
Before Wednesday and Saturday matinees of Lil’ Abner, Julie Newmar would walk the length of W. 44th Street, past the New York Times truckers, camel colored coat cinched at the waist, long flowing red hair and legs that went on forever.
And it wasn’t all push and shove. Some of the collectors developed lifelong friendships with the stars. Lou Valenti with Kim Novak, Jimmy Haspiel with Marilyn Monroe and Cooky Morales with Sophia Loren.
My mother and I stood outside the stage door of the Palace Theatre listening to Judy Garland sing. We watched them filming Sweet Smell of Success one night hosing down the streets to look like rain. And when she told me one afternoon outside 21 Club “There’s Senator Kennedy—get his autograph,” I obeyed. I didn’t know who he was at the time but I’m glad I did.