To mark her 65th year, son Jerry Wolski wanted to give his Hollywood-obsessed mother the perfect gift. So he spent about a year and half mailing out autograph requests on her behalf.
When Barbara Wolski found out that Paul Newman rented her camper while filming a movie, she made a frantic call to the RV leasing office in Wisconsin.
“I put it on lock-down. I told them not to clean anything until I could get up there and comb through everything he touched. I love him so much that I stripped the sheets and saved them for my celebrity memorabilia collection,” said the former Lombard and Wheaton resident. “So when I got an autographed picture from him wishing me a happy birthday, I couldn’t get over it.”
To mark her 65th year, son Jerry Wolski wanted to give his Hollywood-obsessed mother the perfect gift. So he spent about a year and half mailing out autograph requests on her behalf. Last weekend (April 19-20), during a surprise family celebration in Lake Geneva, Wis., he presented her with a couple of albums holding 173 famous signatures. Actors, musicians, politicians, athletes, journalists, astronauts and other recognizable figures sent personalized messages.
“I knew she’d go nuts when she saw it. She already has high blood pressure, and I didn’t want this to put her over the top,” Jerry Wolski laughed. “She was just blown away and overwhelmed and very emotional and choked up. It was outstanding — we got her good.”
While Newman’s John Hancock is Barbara Wolski’s favorite, many others stand out: James Garner, Carol Burnett, Dolly Parton, Michael Jordan, Phyllis Diller, Tom Selleck, Paula Zahn, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Dole, Ray Romano and Arnold Palmer.
Jane Fonda doodled hearts on her note, Jay Leno sketched his famous chin, Al Roker drew a sun, Henry Winkler signed with “Hugs to you,” and Candice Bergen wrote “Happy 65 — I’m right behind you.” Robin Williams signed a picture of himself dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire, which elicited a few chuckles from the new senior citizen. Barbara Wolski was particularly impressed with Betty White, who is pictured with her dog Panda, because her legible, feminine cursive is head and shoulders above the chicken-scratched handwriting on other glossy headshots.
Jerry Wolski, who recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue a comedy career, came up with the concept for the ambitious project when he was navigating www.ContactAnyCelebrity.com to network with industry bigwigs.
“It’s like a little black book with addresses or e-mails for 10,000 celebrities from all walks of life,” he said. “So the wheels started turning, and I thought it would be fun to be a dork by sending out a bunch of letters for my mom and see how many responses I got. It was game on.”
So Jerry Wolski typed up a generic form explaining his goal and periodically mailed batches of 700 to 800 envelopes from February through July. Jacqueline Bisset was the first to reply, and more than a year later, others still are trailing in.
Coming home every day to sort through the mail was a “hoot” for Jerry Wolski, who preferred filing away autographs to opening bills.
“I will never forget ripping apart this big envelope from Dom DeLuise. I know he signed and sent it himself because there was a ripped-off Cheerios box stuffed in there to keep the photo from bending,” he said. “I just had this image of Dom DeLuise rifling through his recycling bin to find a piece of cardboard so my dear ol’ mom wouldn’t get something wrinkled. It still cracks me up.”
The swag was alphabetized and kept safe in a storage unit while Jerry Wolski was chomping at the bit to grow his mom’s impressive cache of celebrity keepsakes. She regularly attends publicized signings and owns everything from autographed footballs to Wayne Newton’s signed scarf from a Las Vegas performance.
Barbara Wolski’s fascination with amassing souvenirs from notable personalities started when she was 11. Her aunt bestowed her with a Lucille Ball collection and gradually handed over a collection of mementos from big-screen stars of the ‘20s.
An avid Academy Awards fan, Barbara Wolski, who now lives in Crest Hill, gets dressed up each year to sit at home and watch the Oscars from her couch while eating maple nut ice cream and drinking wine. While spending a weekend up in Gurnee shopping at the outlet malls, she refused to return to her lodge without purchasing a special blouse so she could watch the ceremony from the hotel room.
“Everybody laughs at me, but it’s a tradition I’ve done all my life because I love movies,” she said.
But Barbara Wolski’s seemingly innocent fixation might have put her son’s life in danger.
“I mailed a request to Rip Taylor — that obnoxious confetti guy with a mustache — and he sent me a letter ripping into me for being impersonal and inconsiderate with a mass mailing and for not including return postage,” Jerry Wolski said. “Three months later, I get another letter with a copy of my request that had all of the errors highlighted. He even included my original envelope.
“So I have a stalker now. If I go missing, I told my family to follow the confetti trail to the body bag,” he said, laughing. “Rip’s like the most random guy — some old drunken B-list actor — so for him to think my mother genuinely wanted an autograph from him... I just thought some of these long-forgotten guys would appreciate someone thinking of them, but apparently not.”
Nonetheless, the albums doubled Barbara Wolski’s collection in one fell swoop. Jerry Wolski estimates 85 percent of them to be authentic signatures rather than generic studio shots.
“We spent the whole time at the party flipping through the pages and going ‘Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness!’” Barbara Wolski said. “The books are incredibly insane — I just will never believe this. It’ll be hard to top this.”
Jessica Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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