Hollywood's has-beens wash up at swap meet

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The Independent US

Gary Busey used to be a big Hollywood star. His title role in The Buddy Holly Story (1978) won him an Oscar nomination and lavish contracts and, briefly, made him an object of adulation. But then the drugs got to him, and the alcohol, and the failed marriages. In 1988 he almost died in a motorcycle crash. Three years ago he was diagnosed with cancer.

Now, eyes bloodshot, face worn, he is reduced to peddling autographs. A few days ago Busey, with other washed-upstars, participated in the Hollywood Collectors' Show - in effect a giant swap meet for autograph hounds, professional collectors and curious members of the public willing to pay the $10 admission to engage in conversation with the faces that once graced their favourite shows.

The "stars" sat with stacks of old publicity stills behind long wooden tables, offering to sign and sell them to anybody interested. Busey was charging $15 for a black and white, $20 for colour or a poster.

"It's worth it just to see the delight in the fans' eyes," he said with the sort of earnest sincerity that could be taken either as genuine enthusiasm or a mask of deep despair. "It's an opportunity to give something back, because without the fans there would be no motion picture industry."

The ballroom of the Beverly Garland hotel - a grand name, but really a down-at-heel venue near a freeway off-ramp - was packed for the two-day meeting with middle-aged women in cowboy gear and chubby men with sideburns and thick glasses.

It was a dismal setting, like something out of Paul Thomas Anderson's bittersweet portrait of the Los Angeles porn industry, Boogie Nights. But that didn't stop Busey and his colleagues from saying they were having a swell old time.

In a corner was David Carradine, the gaunt star of kung fu movies and brother of the more successful Keith, trying to flog his autobiography. In another was Cynthia Myers, Playboy's Miss December 1968 and star of Beyond The Valley of the Dolls. Her nude pin-ups were going for $20 a pop - a bargain for a certain kind of collector - but were kept off display in deference to the organisers and children.

Charlton Heston made a brief appearance to promote his book. Geoffrey Scott - Mark Jennings on Dynasty - admitted cheerily he was there to help send his 19-month-old twins to pre-school. "Sure it's corny and tacky," he said, "but I get to meet old friends and it's fun. Hey, a man's gotta work."

For the public it was all simply marvellous. "It gives the common man the chance to get close to the stars," said Winnie, a 40-ish nurse from North Carolina. "In other settings meeting a star would be intimidating, but here I don't feel intimidated."

Even she, though, acknowledged the cruel pathos in seeing someone like Corey Feldman, once a promising member of the 1980s Hollywood brat pack, pushed out of the limelight by drugs and rehab. "He's the youngest one in here and he's already a has-been," Winnie said sadly.

The Collectors' Show is not just a showbiz version of panhandling. For some it is a genuine opportunity. Cynthia Myers was promoting her website, recognising that the internet offers a new chance for glamour-pusses such as her, too old now to contemplate taking their clothes off. "It's a fan site, with old photos and merchandise for sale and a members-only area for subscribers," she said proudly.

The show's organiser, a Florida entrepreneur called Ray Courts, has undeniably struck gold, playing host to a subculture of people trading off the celebrity of others. He holds shows four times a year in Los Angeles, and others in the Midwest and rural South.

At the back of the ballroom were the real pros, the dealers and autograph collectors who lurk in shadows outside award shows, restaurants and theatres ready to pounce on a celebrity with a pen and a clipboard of publicity shots. Most of the stars' signatures went for $55. Julia Roberts was worth twice that. Real rarities - recluses or reluctant autograph givers such as Marlon Brando or Michael Jackson - fetch more than $500 a pop.

Star Trek star DeForest Kelley, on the other hand, seems to have done little other than sign autographs before his death last year; his photos, personal sketches and posters were everywhere.

Giving something back to the fans, the actors like to say. It has launched an industry.