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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ex-TV writer preserving boob tube's history

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LOS ANGELES -- James Comisar is the first to acknowledge that more than a few have questioned his sanity for spending the better part of 25 years collecting everything from the costume actor George Reeves wore in the 1950s TV show Superman to the entire set of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson chat show.

Then there's the pointy Spock ears Leonard Nimoy wore on Star Trek and the guns Tony Soprano used to rub out a Mob rival in an episode of The Sopranos.

"Along the way people thought I was nuts in general for wanting to conserve Keith Partridge's flared pants from The Partridge Family," the good-natured former TV writer says of the 1970s sitcom as he ambles through rows of costumes and props from the beginnings of television to the present day.

"But they really thought I needed a psychological workup," Comisar, 48, adds with a smile, "when they learned I was having museum curators take care of these pieces."

A museum is exactly where he wants to put all 10,000 of his TV memorabilia items, everything from the hairpiece Carl Reiner wore on the 1950s TV variety program Your Show of Shows to the gun and badge Kiefer Sutherland flashed on 24 a couple TV seasons ago.

Finding one that could accommodate his collection, which fills two sprawling, temperature-controlled warehouses, however, has sometimes been as hard as acquiring the boots Larry Hagman used to stomp around in when he was J.R. on Dallas. (The show's production company finally coughed up a pair after plenty of pleading and cajoling.)

Comisar is one of many people who, after a lifetime of collecting, begin to realize that if they can't find a permanent home for their artifacts those objects could easily end up on the trash heap of history. Or, just as bad as far as he's concerned, in the hands of private collectors.

"Some of the biggest bidders for Hollywood memorabilia right now reside in mainland China and Dubai, and our history could leave this country forever," says Comisar, who these days works as a broker and purchasing expert for memorabilia collectors.

What began as a TV-obsessed kid's lark morphed into a full-fledged hobby when as a young man writing jokes for Howie Mandel and Joan Rivers, and punching up scripts for such producers as Norman Lear and Fred Silverman, Comisar began scouring studio back lots, looking for discarded stuff from the favourite shows of his childhood. From there it developed into a full-on obsession, dedicated to preserving the entire physical spectrum of television history.

"After a couple years of collecting, it became clear to me," he says, "that it didn't much matter what TV shows (I) watched in the early 1970s but which shows were the most iconic. In that way, I had sort of a curator's perspective almost from the beginning."

In the early days, collecting such stuff was easy for anyone with access to a studio back lot. Many items were simply thrown out or given away when shows ceased production. When studios did keep things they often rented them out for small fees, and if you lost or broke them you paid a small replacement fee. So Comisar began renting stuff right and left and promptly losing it, acquiring one of Herman Munster's jackets that way.

These days almost everything has a price, although Comisar's reputation as a serious collector has led some people to give him their stuff.

If he simply sold it all, he could probably retire as a millionaire several times over. Just last month someone paid $480,000 for a faded dress Judy Garland wore in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. What might Annette Funicello's original Mickey Mouse Club jacket fetch?

He won't even think about that.

"I've spent 25 years now reuniting these pieces, and I would be so sick if some day they were just broken up and sold to the highest bidder," he says.

Comisar sees his collection serving a real purpose, tracing societal changes TV shows documented from the post-Second World War years to the present. He believes he's finally found the right site for a museum, in Phoenix, where he's been lining up supporters. He estimates it will cost $35 million and several years to open the doors, but hopes to have a preview centre in place by next year.

But really, why all the fuss?

"In Shakespeare's time, his work was considered pretty low art," Comisar responds.

Oh, he'll admit that Mike and Molly, the modern TV love story of a couple who fall for each other at Overeaters Anonymous, may never rank in the same category as Romeo and Juliet.

"But what about a show like Star Trek?" he asks.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2012 D3

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