Digging for Hollywood Treasure
by Jay S. Jacobs
If you have ever fantasized about tickling the ivories on Sam’s piano from Casablanca, or maybe holding Han Solo’s blaster from the original Star Wars, or following the Yellow Brick Road, then Joe Maddalena is your man.
Maddalena has made a passion for the movies and collecting into a big-time business – and now he has a reality series to prove it. Hollywood Treasure, which is airing on the SyFy Channel and just had an order for twelve additional episodes after its popular initial run, follows Maddalena and the team from his business Profiles in History as they seek out some of the legendary props from Hollywood movies.
In the first several episodes, Maddalena and crew have tracked down such classic artifacts as the Wicked Witch’s hat from The Wizard of Oz, the original car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the carpet bag from Mary Poppins, one of the model planes that buzzed King Kong and a nearly priceless original movie poster from the original Frankenstein.
Then once these props have been authenticated, Profiles in History auctions these Hollywood treasures off to fans and collectors for thousands – sometimes even millions – of dollars.
It’s an exciting adventure for Maddalena to track down so many iconic show biz treasures, but in a lot of ways it was a natural progression for him.
“My parents were antique dealers,” Maddalena explains. “I grew up on the East Coast, so when I was twelve-thirteen years old going to their antique shows throughout New England. I got interested in baseball cards and comic books and post cards and stamps and coins – just kind of gravitated towards that. In the 70s, I used to go to the library and get Who’s Who and write away to celebrities. I used to write for a magazine in Florida called Big Reel. And, you know, [I] just got interested in old movies and gravitated towards it.”
It wasn’t his first career path, though. Ironically, many years before doing a television series, Maddalena aspired to being on TV. However, as so often happens in life, the path to TV work became somewhat crooked.
“I got in college in the early 80s,” Maddalena recalls. “I went to Pepperdine. At that time, I couldn’t really make an income of any substance and the road towards a career in broadcasting and journalism just seemed to be out of reach, for any way of surviving out here. I would have had to gone back east. My family was back there. So, I just started my business and something to do because I liked it and it just kind of took off. That was twenty-six years ago.”
Growing up around antiques, the field seemed a natural path for Maddalena. However, it was a learning curve for him to get to his specialty in entertainment memorabilia. In fact, early on he specialized in literature, sports memorabilia and historical artifacts – all fields that he still works on as well.
“When I first started in my business, I did – and I still do – sell historical documents,” Maddalena explains. “I sell letters by Jefferson, Washington, Beethoven and Mozart. In the 90s, one of my areas of specialty was American literature. I liked Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, William Faulkner. I realized most of the great movies were based on screen adaptations of these great novels – like The Wizard of Oz is L. Frank Baum. I got curious about the next step. I started buying the scripts and looking for things related to these great pieces of literature. I realized most of the time the screenplay was written by someone other than the author of the book.
“I just was connecting the dots. I started buying things that were important to the authors that I like. I started collecting movie memorabilia because it pertained to the genre that I enjoyed. People would come into my office – at that time I was in Beverly Hills – and they’d be like, ‘Oh that’s really cool. Where’d you get that script?’ or ‘Where did you get that photo?’ ‘Where’d you buy that prop?’ I just thought, geez, this is a natural thing for me to start doing. So, in ’96 we held our first auction for movie memorabilia. And it’s been fourteen years later.”
In those fourteen years – 26 for the business in general – Maddalena built up a huge team of workers who search out the memorabilia, work on authentication, run the auctions, do outreach with collectors and dozens of other functions. In fact, Maddalena acknowledges, Hollywood Treasure only shows a very small portion of what goes on in the business on a day-to-day basis.
“I have a much larger staff,” he says. “Profiles in History is a pretty sophisticated business model. What you are seeing on television is a piece of that business model. You’re seeing some of my staff, but I have a much larger staff than that, obviously, to facilitate the size of our company. What you’re seeing on the show is some of the pertinent people of our team who are involved in procuring goods – who are travelling. Basically, their expertise is finding things and sourcing out leads and authenticating things. You’re seeing that element on the show. Back at the office, we have a whole support staff of people who process everything else that we do. Even when you see the show, it’s a little bit more elaborate than what you are seeing on television. That really is just a slice of what we do.”
Maddalena picked just the right time to get into entertainment memorabilia, because the market has exploded over the past couple of decades. Maddalena often sells to private collectors, but he has also worked with museums and even theme restaurant changes. In fact, he gratefully acknowledges, in the early years of his entertainment specialty, one of his biggest customers was the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain.
“Planet Hollywood is one of the reasons I got into business,” Maddalena says. “I was very fortunate that in the ‘90s, when I started my auction business, Planet Hollywood was cranking up their restaurant chain. I give Planet Hollywood all the credit in the world, because they popularized the idea of memorabilia being in a surrounding that would make people familiar with it. They popularized the idea that you could have a home theater. You could basically be in an entertainment memorabilia environment. I work with them to this very day. I was fortunate because I was one of the people they came to source out material, because I was based here in LA. They were definitely a huge impetus of my business in the old days.”
In fact, Profiles in History had gained such a high profile that Maddalena was a favorite expert on antiquities on television for years before Hollywood Treasure.
“I have been doing television shows for years,” Maddalena says. “I was on The Incurable Collector. I was in a show called Missing Reward with Stacy Keach. I produced a show called The Ultimate Auction for Fox Television about ten years ago that starred Sarah Ferguson and Robert Urich. I’ve done this for many, many years. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of appearances on television.”
Therefore, it was a natural process to create a series which focused on Profiles of History. And, eventually one of the producers of The Incurable Collector, which Maddalena was on for years, felt because of the good relationship they had shared that he would like to create a series specifically for Maddalena and his team.
“People were always like, ‘Gee, you should have a show about your business.’” Maddalena says. “Jerry Shevick, who was the executive in charge of Hearst Broadcasting way back when, when I was on The Incurable Collector, I’ve known for fifteen years. Last year he came to me and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ He basically put together this idea for the show, based upon my life – a docu-series.”
Of course, there is a huge difference between appearing on television shows as an expert and having a TV crew follow you around while you’re trying to do your job. However, Maddalena feels that this slight discomfort is worth experiencing because the show allows him to help spread the word about collecting.
“Sure, it definitely takes a while to get used to,” Maddalena admits. “But I’ve got to say… and I’ve got to make sure I get this out properly… I really feel like for years collectors of pop culture have kind of been looked upon as: ‘What do these people do?’ You go to Comic-Con and you’re like, ‘Who are these people?’ I’m one of these people. I’m so proud that this show is on the air, because it celebrates all of these collecting genres – whether it is comics, manga or whatever you’re into.
“It’s like the ultimate celebration that we finally have gotten the recognition that we’ve always thought would come with these amazing areas of pop culture. It’s an astonishing testament to the will power of the fans. It’s all about the fans. It’s all about the people that collect the stuff. That’s why I do the show. I want the person at home to be able to see what we do and go along the process and encourage collecting, because I think collecting anything is a very healthy thing. It’s something I encourage people to do because I think in this day and age it’s a very positive, healthy thing to do – no matter what you collect. It’s a great alternative to a lot of other things you could do that aren’t productive.”
However, as he says, he is one of these people. Maddalena is a passionate collector. Which could raise a bit of a dilemma – should he still get certain things for himself or does he keep them for the business? However, to Maddalena, this is no real choice.
“The business always comes first,” Maddalena says.
Still, he continues to enjoy his collecting, it is just that his own personal collections are a bit more specialized.
“If you come to my office, people are always surprised because I have a very eclectic collection of things that I keep,” Maddalena explains. “What I keep are things that are sentimental – things that are either given to me or things that I would maybe buy with my son. It’s all about sentimentality, so you’ll see a very eclectic group of things. Like on one wall I have all these vintage Christy Mathewson baseball card from the turn of the century, because he was my favorite baseball player. Then from my dad’s genre, I have a bunch of Mickey Mantle things. I have things from Star Wars. It’s just really about being surrounded by what I grew up with. That’s what I keep. It’s very hard to compete with your clients, so the good stuff goes to them.”
He laughs heartily at the thought. At the same time, he does acknowledge that he does have some things that he absolutely would not sell.
“I have lots of things that are signed to me,” he continues. “About ten years ago, my son was six years old and we met Felix Silla, who was Twiki [the small robot sidekick] on Buck Rogers [in the 25th Century]. He came to one of our auctions because we actually had a Twiki and he wanted to see it. We got to know him, and he told us he had his Twiki [costume] that he had kept all these years. At the time, my son was the same size as Felix [Silla was 3’11”], so he thought that was the neatest thing in the world. They became friends and Felix got Ellis his Twiki costume, so we have that. My son is now seventeen. So, we have the Twiki costume which we would never sell, because it’s one of our most intimate family mementos.”
However, as is illustrated in the series, Maddalena and his team are regularly flying all over the world in search of memorabilia which he can sell. He has long since learned that important pieces of Hollywood history can show up in the oddest places.
“In 1970, the studios were broken up,” Maddalena explains. “People don’t understand that. [It was the end of] the days of the contract players, and the studios sold everything. 20th Century Fox liquidated the lot. MGM liquidated the lot. MGM was RKO, Culver Studios. All this stuff got spread all over the world. So, we find it in the oddest places imaginable, because people from all over the world bought this stuff. We’re out there tracking it down.
“I had a guy call up from Florida and he had bought a restaurant and he had been there for years,” Maddalena recalls. “He called me and said, ‘When I bought this restaurant, I had heard that one of the previous owners had some of the things in the restaurant that were bought at the MGM auction and they might be from movies. This guy had set pieces from Mutiny on the Bounty and… See, what happened was in 1970, one of the previous owners had gone to this auction and bought set decorations and basically used them in his restaurant for decor. Thirty years later, forty years later, the new owner had heard this and was like ‘I think these things were used in a movie.’ The person at the time was buying them for décor. Suddenly, gee, your bar might be worth a lot more money than you think it is. That’s one of the things.”
Of course, the fact that these items got spread out so thoroughly creates an entirely new set of problems – beyond simply finding the things, it is vitally important that the pieces are authenticated as having been used in the movies. That is not always as easily done as said, leading to times when Maddalena can’t always sell an item – even if they are fairly certain it is legitimate. Unless they can be completely certain of what they have, it is a no go.
“I’ll give you a great story,” Maddalena says. “This lady called up about six months ago, maybe nine months ago, and said, ‘Hey, my grandfather worked in the film industry. He was a prop master. In our closet we have a spaceship that I’m sure is from Flash Gordon.’ I’m like the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon? She’s like yeah and I’m like, oh my God, it’s worth a fortune. So, she brought it in, and we did our screen matches. It looked like the ship, but it wasn’t the ship. It was very similar. You could tell it was studio construction. It definitely was a real prop, but it was not Flash Gordon. So, we had it here forever.
“One day, a filmmaker comes in and he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, where did you get that?’ I’m like, you know what it is? He goes, ‘I haven’t seen that in fifty years.’ He looks at it. He goes, ‘It’s not from Flash Gordon. It is from Superman.’ I’m like Superman? He went home and did his research and, lo and behold, Atom Man vs. Superman, which is the first Superman movie from 1950 – it’s Lex Luthor’s spaceship. So, it was one of those things that went from being great to being nothing to being great.”
Maddalena laughs. “Those are the kind of stories that there’s a lot of investigation and a lot of sleuthing and a lot of that going around. I’m very fortunate, because being based here in Southern California and having been here since, God, 1980, when I first moved here, I’ve developed relationships with hundreds of people in the film industry. I went to college with a lot of these people and grew up with them. So, when we have a question now, we’re able to go directly to the people that made the thing. We have a lot of help that we bring in. You’ll see that on the show, we’re constantly bringing in experts – model makers and costumers and designers that help us on our quest.”
Maddalena and his team have pointed out several times on the show that a particularly fertile ground for entertainment memorabilia is 1960s television props. This is perfectly natural to Maddalena, who himself came of age on the shows. However, he also sees it as a bit of a generational shift in the antiquities business.
“I’m a perfect example,” he says. “I’m 49 years old. I grew up watching ‘60s television as it came out and then reruns in the ‘70s. So, I’m a ‘60s television junkie. If I was going to buy something, I’d want something from Lost in Space, Hogan’s Heroes, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched…. These are nostalgic for me. These are what I grew up with. I think people that are my age to ten years older than me – in that age, say 45 to 65 – this is our nostalgia. This is our childhood. These are our memories. As we get older, we want to be surrounded by things that are nostalgic. That’s why these things are so popular, because we tend to be the collectors of today’s era.
“Twenty years ago, people collected American furniture. They bought Chippendale. They bought great pieces of china and porcelain, because that’s what their parents collected. Our generation doesn’t collect that. That’s why if you look at the New York art markets American furniture has completely tanked. They’re not buying that any more. I wouldn’t buy a Chippendale chest. I think it’s great, but it’s not what I’d be interested in. I’d rather have a Lost in Space spaceship. You’re seeing a generational change in the idea of collecting. That’s a very general statement. I’m not saying that’s for everybody, but for a lot of people, that collect this stuff, that’s definitely a consideration.”
As someone who has built a career around searching for iconic lost Hollywood props, of course Maddalena has a wish list of items which would be hard – if not impossible – to track down at this point in history. However, an optimist, Maddalena will never say die and still hopes to someday be able to track down some of these rarest of treasures.
“I hate to keep saying it, because it’s like the Holy Grail but I feel like I’m beating a dead horse – of course, [is] the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz,” Maddalena says. “There are four known pairs. One of the four pairs was stolen in 2005. The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota was robbed, and the ruby slippers were stolen, and they are still missing. Most people don’t know the story, because it happened the same week as Hurricane Katrina, so it didn’t get any news at all. It kind of got buried in the papers. We’re actively searching. There is a legend that Toto [Dorothy’s dog in the movie] ate a pair. There’s also a legend that there was also another pair. There could be a missing pair of ruby slippers.
“There are so many things. The Tin Man costume I’ve heard is in Colorado. The Wicked Witch had a broomstick that could be in Los Angeles. There are so many artifacts that are just missing, so we’re out there trying to find them on a daily basis. Some of the ones that we’re looking for we don’t find but find other ones that are just as good that we didn’t know were missing. That’s the fun part of the show. You never know who we’re going to meet. You never know what we’re going to find. That part of it is really real. It’s always a surprise. It’s not contrived. The viewer that watches the show goes on the same ride as me. You’re genuinely coming on the ride I go on. You’re meeting the people and getting a real idea of who buys this and who collects this and where it comes from.”
Sometimes, even when Maddalena is able to track down an important artifact, he is unable to get the owner to part with it. For example, in early episodes of Hollywood Treasure, he tracked down what seemed to be one of the original Bruce the sharks that was used in the filming of Jaws, which is now being used as an outdoor decoration in a Southern California used car lot. Former child actor Harvey Stevens – who played the little devil Damien in The Omen – still has the tricycle that his character used to knock his mother (Lee Remick) over a banister to her certain death, but his children still use the bike. A New York comic shop has an original 6-sheet (81” x 81”) movie poster of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein – which is so rare because of its size and the fragility of paper that it would be worth millions of dollars – but the owners were just interested in an appraisal, not in selling the piece.
Maddalena realizes that he can’t get everything he goes after and he takes these little setbacks philosophically.
“I wouldn’t say disappointing,” Maddalena says. “Once we identify where something is, we try to keep a relationship with these people. So eventually we’ll get it, I hope. Yeah, it’s frustrating, but there’s always something else. That’s why I’m always pushing the team to keep looking. Keep looking. No is not going to be acceptable. There are always other options. Just because three doors close, the next one could be the best door ever. It’s not getting trapped into something that’s not available. More like let’s look at the possibilities of what is available, what is missing. Then, what will happen is two years later the phone will ring – like the Wicked Witch’s hat: we sourced that out four years ago. Four years later, the Wicked Witch’s popped up. By doing that sleuthing, we’re able to find these things. That’s the most rewarding part of the show. Now we have identified it, maybe next season we’ll get the Frankenstein poster. You never know.”
Maddalena and his team are constantly tracking down enough new treasures that there is always a new high bar to reach. However, he does admit that he thinks he knows which prop was the coolest piece he ran across – personally for him, at least. Once again, it was something that just popped up when he least expected it.
“Everybody has a personal favorite,” Maddalena says. “A couple of years ago, this man called us. His name was Jeff Walker and he was the publicist for Blade Runner. Blade Runner is probably my favorite science fiction film. He called us up and said when Blade Runner wrapped, Warner Brothers had a tag sale on the lot and sold all the assets from Blade Runner off to people on the lot. He bought Deckard’s blaster – Harrison Ford’s hero blaster. That’s like the Holy Grail of science fiction weapons. It’s amazing. He brought that in. That to me was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. We sold that for $265,000. It literally broke my heart to see that thing leave. That was one of the best things ever.”
It is this kind of passion for favorite television and film that Maddalena feels is the reason that people are willing to spend thousands and thousands of dollars – occasionally millions – to own a little piece of it.
“The argument I always make is why do people spend $70 million dollars on a [Willem] de Kooning [painting]?” Maddalena says. “Or a Faberge Egg? Or anything? Literally, it’s pride of ownership. There’s no difference in buying the Deckard Blade Runner gun than paying a million dollars for a painting. It’s the exact same thing. You are buying it based on some nostalgic or important need. These are pop culture artifacts. People all over the world know what Blade Runner is, know who the Wicked Witch is, know who The Terminator is. These objects being made are works of art.
“People are now realizing that culturally filmmaking is important,” he continues. “It’s an important part of our society. It influences how we dress, who we aspire to be, our weight. For good or bad, it does. It influences everything we do. So, people are starting to realize that culturally these are really important. The important artifacts like something from Star Wars or the Deckard Blade Runner gun, these are important things. An Aston Martin from I think Goldfinger just sold for $4.7 million. But, you know, there are cars that sell for $10 million that have nothing to do with film. It’s just the recognition that this stuff is starting to see its day.”
And, in the meantime, ironically Joe Maddalena years ago gave up the idea of being on television, only to end up back on TV by following his career into a totally different direction. Looking back, Maddalena sees the irony in his career path.
“Oh, absolutely,” he laughs. “This is a bit surreal. It is a bit surreal. But again, every day I get ten to thirty emails from people who are so appreciative and so happy about the show and have such great comments and memories of things that were important to them. It makes it all worthwhile. There is no great Hollywood museum. There’s never been one built. So, it’s like I’ve saved these things from the trash.
“We’ve built people’s awareness now where this is a very active area and growing. Probably one of the fastest growing areas of collecting in the world – because these things are not manufactured. It’s not a baseball card, a comic book or a stamp, where something is made millions of and you’re buying it based solely on rarity of condition. This is a totally different thing. Most of these things are one of a kind.
“It’s very surreal,” Maddalena concludes. “I’m happy to be able to do this. I’m honored. I’m doing it for every collector out there who is like me. For every little kid who was twelve years old, who grew up with their comic books in their bedroom, who wanted to be a superhero or whatever they wanted to be. It’s like, hey, you know what? We won. We got our show.”
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Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 24, 2010.