Ready for his close-up
Retired teacher owns more than 15,000 entertainment-related artifacts
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling the various personal collections of residents of Marshalltown and the surrounding area.
Tom LaVille could be classified as a “super collector.” His lifelong passion for motion pictures and other forms of popular entertainment evolved into becoming a film historian and keeper of prized memorabilia. He owns over 5,000 movie posters, 5,000 pieces of sheet music, 5,000 autographed photos, and around 200 movie-themed lunch boxes.
Tom said it was after he and his wife, Cheryl, saw the 1984 film “Country” that he started getting interesting in collecting movie posters. Upon picking up a copy of the newspaper tabloid “Movie Collector’s World,” he learned there was a whole market for such posters.
“When I first started collecting, a ‘Casablanca’ poster would cost $400, and now it sells for $45,000. I was lucky to get in on it then,” he said.
Some posters are framed, while others are rolled in tubes. The sizes include half sheet, one sheet and inserts.
“The one sheets are most desirable because they disintegrate more quickly, so if you find one in good shape, it’s rare,” he noted.
Tom also began picking up pieces of old-time movie sheet music, mainly from motion pictures he enjoyed as a kid growing up in Mason City in the 1940s and 50s. Before long, boxes, bins and specially made cabinetry were brought in to store his burgeoning assortment of posters and sheet music.
“Tom doesn’t do anything halfway,” Cheryl said with a smile.
The collector began sending the sheet music off to a star from each production, in hopes of obtaining an autograph. Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Joan Fontaine, Debbie Reynolds and Jerry Lewis, just to name a few, returned the sheets, signed.
After purchasing a guide for how to collect autographs, he began writing fan letters in hopes of receiving a signed, glossy 8×10 photo in return. He has a membership with StarTiger, a website that connects autograph collectors with vetted celebrity contact information. He always encloses a self-addressed stamped envelope for easy replies.
“I tell people honestly why I like them. I think they know the sincerity,” he explained. “I never want people to think I’m a stalker. I start out by telling them about my background as a drama teacher, and I think that’s actually inspired a lot more responses.”
The first signed photo came from actor and stuntman Richard Farnsworth. Those other 5,000 plus autographed photos have been pouring into the LaVille household ever since. Character actors, child stars, big-time celebrities, and even folks whose names you may not know, but whose faces and company slogans you may recognize from television commercials, now all make their home in his stacks of albums.
“I send out about 10 autograph requests a month,” Tom said. “Two may come back to me signed in 1-2 weeks, while the other eight may take one month to 1-1/2 years to get back.”
He waited eight years for Paul Newman to reply to his letter. In some cases, when years have gone by without a response, the celebrity eventually writes back — and with apologies.
“I sent Howard Keel sheet music from ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ to sign, but he lost it in a flood at his house, but he apologized and sent some other stuff instead,” Tom recalled.
Some celebrities have been deeply affected by the kind words on the pages of his letters.
“Randy Newman wrote me to say my letter was one of the nicest he ever received,” Tom said.
Newman’s message extended to the photo’s back side, and included his personal phone number.
Neil Sedaka enclosed a note answering a question Tom had asked in his letter.
“I asked the origin of his name, and he sent back a note explaining it was of Turkish origin and means ‘charity,'” Tom said.
When Tom Poston replied to Tom’s fan letter, the actor jokingly told him he now expected him to send a photo of himself, to make it an even exchange.
“It makes you realize how down-to-earth these people are,” Cheryl noted.
The collector keeps his stash neatly organized, either by movie title or by the letter of the person’s last name.
“I wouldn’t say it was all exactly in alphabetical order, because that would be too hard to do with all that has come in,” he said.
The collection is a who’s who assemblage of most every actor, director, musician, composer or television personality of the mid-20th century to the present day.
From Audrey Hepburn, to Mister Rogers, Steve Allen, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Elton John, Chet Atkins, Robert Goulet, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Robert Redford, John Ritter, Julie Newmar, Orville Redenbacher, Kim Novak, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren, a full spectrum of entertainment icons is represented.
He attaches a label to the back of each photo, providing information about the celebrity who sent it, as a way to archive the material for future generations. Many of his Iowa-related autographed photos and movie posters are on display at the Orpheum Theater.
One of his prized autographs came from prolific writer Kurt Vonnegut, who not only enclosed his signature, but also drew his caricature to go along with it.
Another stand-out photo in his collection came from husband/wife actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.
“I wrote to them, asking for a signed photo of them together,” Tom said. “But I had no more gotten the letter in the mail, and she died. About 2-3 months later, Hume wrote back and said Jessica had said to make sure I got the autograph.”
Having been a drama and English teacher at Marshalltown High School from 1982 to 2002, Tom took many class trips to New York City to see Broadway plays. One of his favorite stories relates to meeting Rene Auberjonois of “M*A*S*H” fame, who later sent him a particularly noteworthy autograph.
“We were in New York City with my drama students, and I was handing each of them $10 for lunch, when I turned to hand the dollar bill to a student and it was Rene,” Tom said. “I then wrote to him about it, and he sent me a photo that said ‘you still owe me ten dollars.'”
The majority of Tom’s autographs are personalized to him, while others he obtained on eBay. Others still, are photos that were “stamped” with a pre-printed signature, or signed by a secretary. He estimates that 75 percent of the autographs he has are authentic and signed by the celebrity.
“It means a lot when they write back and connect with you — it shows they read your letter,” he said.
Cheryl noted they had a humorous experience once upon opening up a letter containing an autographed photo.
“One time, he got a photo in the mail of a woman with a signature we couldn’t read and we didn’t recognize the picture,” she said.
Tom continues to send his fan letters, in hopes of adding to his ever-growing stockpile.
“Every one of these has a story attached. It’s like a little moment of joy when you look at an autograph you forgot you had,” he said.
While there aren’t many more celebrities whose signature he doesn’t have, Tom noted that when he wrote to Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer sent back a photo, sans the signature. He also said astronaut Neil Armstrong never responded to autograph requests.
“Neil Armstrong [didn’t] sign autographs, but I do have Buzz Aldrin’s,” he concluded.
If you collect something interesting or unusual, contact the writer below.
Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org