Last week when I was writing about having gone to Portmeirion in Wales simply because it was used as a location for The Prisoner TV series, a little train of thought took off on some narrow-gauge branch of the railroad of my brain—what about all those things we do out of some kind of devotion to a film or a star or a director or a TV show, etc.? What extremes have—or haven’t—we gone to over the years in the name of fandom of one kind or another? I mean, after all the very word “fan” is derived from the word “fanatic.” The act of being a fan carries with it an implicit label of being perhaps a little goofy on a particular enthusiasm. Whether or not actual mental instability is involved is a matter of opinion.
Being a fan carries with it a certain—often misguided—sense of responsibility. We all know this in one form or another. It’s that feeling that keeps you sitting in your car until the song on the radio is over because it would just be wrong to cut off the Beatles in mid-lyric. I had a bout of it only last night. Turner Classic Movies was running Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934) with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. I remarked at the time, “I don’t think I really need to watch this,” but I made the mistake of letting the film get started. I first saw this movie when I was 13. I’ve seen it three times on the big screen in revivals. I own a bootleg 16mm print. I’ve had VHS copies taken off TV. I bought the DVD as soon as it became available. What earthly reason could I have for watching it on TCM? None, but I left it on because it seemed somehow disloyal and disrespectful to turn it off. That’s at least a little nuts.
I suspect I hear a little snickering going on at my little display of excessive devotion. All I’ll say is: if you’ve ever lined up for a new album or book or hit Wal-Mart at midnight for that DVD you’ve been waiting to see released, you’re in no position to laugh. And, Clapton knows, if you’ve ever camped out for concert tickets or—worse yet—Star Wars tickets, you’re in even less of one.
I’m not sure what causes fannish behavior. There’s probably a good chance that it’s a treatable psychological condition, but I’m not sure of that, nor am I sure that would a good idea anyway. I’m more prone to believe that it’s some kind of genetic predisposition—there may even be a fan gene. (Go on, somebody, apply for a government grant to study this!)
Thinking back, it occurs to me that I evidenced early symptoms of fan insanity. At the age of nine when I first discovered Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and was captivated by a three page spread on Bela Lugosi, I was so fascinated that I became quite unreasonably convinced that this Lugosi fellow was my favorite actor! (Where did the idea come from that one needed to have a favorite actor?) So grabbing a pencil (at nine this is not a sign of the stalking sickness) and a piece of notebook paper, I fired off my first fan letter. It was direct and to the point (loquaciousness had yet to overake me)—“Dear Mr. Lugosi, you are my favorite actor. Could you please send me an autographed picture?”
Now, back in those days, it was quite possible to get to an actor—or at least his management—with his name and the magic address, “Hollywood, California” (this is pre-zip code). Well, there was one other consideration I had not taken into account: it helps if the person is still alive. This was 1963. Dear Mr. Lugosi had parted from his mortal coil seven years earlier. Fortunately, I asked my father what the word “late” meant in the context of “the late Bela Lugosi.”
What to do? I had put effort into this, don’t you know, and I wasn’t going to see it go to waste. With the pragmatism of youth and certain in the knowledge that my letter had been crafted with a no. two pencil and that that pencil had an eraser on the end, a little effort made the necessary alteration. “Dear Mr. Lugosi” was soon “Dear Mr. Karloff.” (The irony of this was quite lost on me at the time, since I’d no idea of the rivalry between horror’s two greatest stars.) Honestly, Mr. Karloff was not then, nor would he ever be, my favorite actor, but he had the distinct advantage of being alive. And his management did send me a “signed” (in the negative) 5” x 7” Hollywood glossy—examples of which now command three figures at horror movie conventions. Mine is long lost.
I’m happy to report that never again did I do anything quite so callow as concerns the pursuit of an enthusiasm. In fact, I can think of nothing remotely comparable, which is just as well. It was, however, hardly the end of my fandom pursuits and enthusiastic ways.
I strongly suspect that growing up in Lake Wales, Florida had a significant impact on certain aspects of my fan status that seem to me perfectly rational, yet may seem extravagant to most people. You see, there was exactly one single-screen theater in town and while the odds increased a bit in nearby Winter Haven and Lakeland, you had to travel to Tampa or Orlando if you wanted to see anything that was even mildly non-mainstream a great deal of the time.
As a result, the idea of driving 65 or 70 miles (one way) to see a movie was ingrained in me as the norm. I’ve driven 125 miles to see Ken Russell’s Mahler, 200 miles to see his Gothic and nearly 300 miles to see Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class. I was so blown away by Russell’s Tommy that I saw it 16 times on its original release in Tampa, which was 65 miles away (just thinking about the amassed mileage makes me too tired to compute it). Sitting here today, this seems a little screwy to me, I guess. At the time, it didn’t.
Seeing a movie more than once or twice is a symptom of fan mentality in itself, though it’s something that has become more acceptable than it once was. I think—but can’t prove—that acceptance of the idea is a by-product of baby boomers being subjected to constant re-issues of kid-friendly movies for Saturday matinees (I don’t like thinking about the number of times I saw Jerry Lewis in The Geisha Boy because it was just what was playing) and the impact of TV where you could see the same movie over and over without paying to do so. Movies like Star Wars gave it a wider legitimacy. Those of us who had long been faithfully showing up whenever a Marx Bros. movie was revived—and carted potential converts with us—were simply ahead of our time. I’m sticking to that idea. It appeals to me.
Of course, a case can be made that I took all this kind of thing and parlayed into a professional concern that at least provides the illusion of something like a living wage. And that’s true and I admit I’m very fortunate in that regard—though I will note that this follows years and years of writing for publications that often paid in contributor copies, and having books published that were the very definition of the phrase, “Don’t quit your day job.” So even this is in many ways a fannish pursuit—and the unpaid fan aspect is still very much there. I spent a day not so long ago doing on-camera interviews for a box set of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage films that’s coming out soon. I got lunch out of the deal (the producers and I made sandwiches)—and I hope to get a box set, since I understand it fetches about $190.
I don’t think anyone ever quite gets past that business of being a fan—and if they do, I feel rather sorry for them. When I was 23 I went to see Valentino a number of times—driving a disused Ford Ranchero that had seen service as a paint truck. I picked it up for $75. If you raised your left foot just-so into the wiring under the dash board, the turn signals would usually work. Jugs of water were a requirement because the radiator leaked. I think this actually adds something to the experience—probably more so when you’re 23. The prospect of it at 54 is less enticing, but I realize I’d probably still do it.
The most extreme fannish things I ever did, though, were the result of that same trip where I visited Portmeirion. There were a couple of other movie-related places I was determined to see. I’m a little vague on exactly why I was determined to see the Greenwich Tunnel in London, since it had only been used briefly in a Ken Russell TV film, Bartok, which I’d merely seen an excerpt from, but then tunnels are cool anyway and I was nearby. (Others would more likely recognize the tunnel from the Dire Straits “Walk of Life” music video.) So to the Greenwich Tunnel I went by way of a mini-pilgrimmage.
What I was really determined to do was to climb what I referred to then as “the Tommy mountain,” even while realizing that it was the height of improbability that a giant yellow sun in a red sky would greet me at the top as it does Roger Daltrey at the end of the movie. This was much more difficult. It required a long trip to the Lake District. This was complicated by two other factors—I’d no clue what the mountain was actually called, and I’d managed to hit England while the man who could tell me, Ken Russell, was in Hollywood shooting Whore. The best I could do was leave a message for him to call a friend of mine in London as soon as he got back and said friend could tell him where I then was and how to reach me.
That finally occured whilst I was in a dreary hotel in Belfast. I was told that the mountain was called Walla Crag and that it was up from the Lodore Falls from Borrowdale in the Lake District. Fair enough. I was also told that I should call his then-wife, Vivian, and he was sure she’d be glad to help me find it. Also fair enough—sort of. You see, what Mr. Russell failed to tell me—until some days later at lunch in London—was that he and Vivian had split up. This, I suspect, accounted for her somewhat cool tone on the telephone at having been volunteered to help me in my quest. The upshot was an attempt to locate the place based on her scant directions.
Looking at the topograhic model of the region in the museum in Keswick wasn’t a lot of help, but we set out on the quest all the same. I made the mistake of inquiring of a local, “Could you tell me how to get to Walla Crag?” Said local turned out to be what guide books refer to as a “character,” answering my question with, “I should hope I could,” followed by a rambling discourse on how he’d lived in the area all his life so he certainly could tell me where the damned thing was. Fortunately, after his display of local color, he relented to actually impart the requisite information—with that special sort of helpfulness that includes referencing landmarks that had been gone for years and inside information peppered with things like “till you come to the stile at old Farmer Trelawney’s pasture.” Not only was old Farmer Trelawney and his pasture a mystery to me, I had only a vague notion of what a stile was.
Daunted, but determined, we trudged onward—and upward. Now, I’m hardly a mountaineer. My idea of exercise is cross-country sitting, but this was a quest. And besides, Ken Russell had described many of the hills in the area as “suitable for grannies in carpet slippers,” so I was sure—in my purple high-top Converses—could handle this. (OK, so later he revealed that he hadn’t been in reference to this particular hill when he made that statement.) I quickly learned the God put heather on this earth to give you something to hold onto in situations like this. Twice we arrived at locations that offered a view of the right lake that were similar to that in the film, but weren’t quite it. By the second time, I was quite prepared to call it “close enough,” but my wife wasn’t having it, hitting me with that maddeningly irrefutable “you’ll always regret it” logic.
Truthfully, of course, I would have regretted it had I not trudged on—and the pay-off was well worth it. There was no possibility of doubt when I got to it. It was unmistakably the very spot that was ingrained in my memory. As a testament to this, I offer photographic evidence off to the side—of both Mr. Daltrey and myself. I grant you that Daltrey is, shall we say, far hotter than I am. Then again, we are, you’ll note, garbed somewhat differently, and I assure you that were I clothed as he is, Roger would look hotter still.
Now, I should say that I don’t find this undertaking to be in the least embarassing, but, trust me, I have no illusions that it isn’t an expression of the height of fannishness.