Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a movie review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
"It happened at StarCon '97," says Jerry Franceschi, his exuberant voice shifting into storytelling mode for the umpteenth time this hour. "Down in Los Angeles. My buddy Darryl and I went down there knowing that a few of the original cast members of Lost in Space--including Mrs. Robinson herself, June Lockhart--were going to be there signing autographs. So we were excited--but we could never have anticipated what actually happened."
At the beginning of my remarkably lively conversation with Franceschi--a lifelong science-fiction fan, Star Trek enthusiast, and self-described "huckster" of "movie prop memorabilia, from Batman to Star Wars to Star Trek"--our discussion was focused on Galaxy Quest, the increasingly popular movie--it started out in 8th place on Christmas day and has so far climbed up to fifth, mainly due to some insanely positive word-of-mouth--that spoofs the aging stars and nerdy fans of a fictional Star Trek-like television show.
But it's not easy keeping Franceschi on any one subject.
On the subject of Star Trek--and anything else of science-fictionish orientation--the 37-year-old, Mill Valley-based stone mason--a natural born story-teller--exhibits enough high-energy enthusiasm and delight to power the electrical needs of 10 StarCons. In conversation, that enthusiasm sends him spinning from one topic to another like an over-powered dilithium crystal dropped into a sub-space anomaly.
At any rate, Franceschi has been to countless Star Trek conventions of the kind parodied in Galaxy Quest, first as a young, wide-eyed teen--"With shekels in my pocket," he tells, "and a serious lust for realistic looking Star Trek phaser and tricorders"--and now as a seasoned craftsman and dealer of hand-made science fiction props, with over 140 different swords, rayguns, and space-bound doodads.
"I thought the film was a very clever parody. And yes, the convention scenes in Galaxy Quest were great," he says. "Have you ever been to a Star Trek convention?"
"Well, no," I confess. "But I know a lot of people who have."
"Well," Franceschi chuckles, "they're exactly like the ones in the movie. Just like that, with all these strange people dressed in home-made costumes, drooling over the old stars and acting like nerds. It's pretty great!"
In the film, Tim Allen plays the William Shatneresque "captain" of the Galaxy Quest Crew. It's a sharp, well-honed performance.
"Tim Allen did a good job of playing poor Bill," Franceschi agrees. "He had the same kind of friendly rapport with his fans. I always call Shatner poor Bill because I remember the Star Trek conventions of the late 1980s, before the first movie came along and put a few million dollars in his pocket, when poor Bill would show up in his Bill Shatner-hairpiece--which looked kind of bad back then--and the longest his autograph line would be was about 12 people."
The movies, of course, rejuvenated poor Bill's career, much as Tim Allen's fellow crew members (including Allen Rickman and Sigourney Weaver) are spiritually resurrected when a band of actual aliens draft the actors into a real life-and-death adventure in space--complete with fiendish lizard-like enemies and unstoppable rock-monsters.
"The rock monster, by the way, was stolen from Star Trek V--The Final Frontier," says Franceschi. "Though the rock monster never appeared in the final film." It seems the original script called for six rock monsters to chase Captain Kirk across the dessert, but the budget would only afford one rubber rock-man suit. After the scene was filmed, however, "It looked like a guy in a rubber rock suit, chasing Shatner around with his hairpiece in a spin." So the scene was dumped.
"Actually, I think they should have left it in," he says. "Ask any Star Trek fan. Rubber suits and fake Styrofoam boulders are what that show is all about." Just like Lost in Space, which brings us back to Franceschi's story.
In preparation for the StarCon event, Franceschi had made up a batch of collectible trophies, with a six-inch replica of Lost in Space's Jupiter II space craft, mounted on a wooden base. "They looked like little Jupiter II Emmy Awards," he laughs. "They were hilarious." Knowing that some of the L.I.S. cast would be at StarCon, says Franceschi, "Darryll and I each dragged our own Jupiter II's down there to be autographed."
Almost immediately, Franceschi encountered Jonathan Harris, otherwise known as the evil Dr. Smith. Harris, whose presence at the convention had not been advertised, eagerly signed the trophy--for ten bucks.
"Ten bucks is the going rate for an autograph at these things," he says. "that's how these guys make their money these. Next, I ran into Bill Mumy [Will Robinson], who was also not expected to be there. So he signed the Jupiter II. And there goes another ten dollars." Franceschi and his buddy then got in a long autograph line leading past a table where all the remaining Lost in Spacers were waiting in a row--beginning with Angela Cartright [Penny Robinson] and ending with June Lockhart.
Multiple $10 bills changed hands.
"Finally, I got up to June Lockhart," says Franceschi, "And she's got these white gloves on, like she's afraid of getting a germ from the unwashed masses. I set the Jupiter II down in front of her and ask her to sign it for me, right?" He pauses for effect.
"So she picks it up, turns it to the right, turns it to the left, and says, 'Hmmmm. This is an interesting artifact. I'll sign it for a hundred dollars.'
"'A hundred dollars?' I said. 'Everyone else signed it for 10 bucks.' And she said, 'But if I sign it, it will be worth a lot of money. So I'll sign it for $100." Franceschi balked, he says, but later in the day, as the stars were packing up to go, "Darryll went up to her, dropped down on his knees, and begged her to sign for ten dollars. She looked around and said, "I'll do it for fifty.'" Eventually, he talked her down to 20, and Franceschi made sure the deal applied to himself as well.
Gee whiz, is a June Lockhart autograph really worth begging for?
"Oh, absolutely," Franceschi laughs. "All in a days work."
From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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