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Fan conventions milk baby boomers' love for the past

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Anne O'Connell, 45, poses with a photograph she had signed by comedian Soupy Sales at the Big Apple Convention in New York City. ***Please note small file size: 960 pixels by 1280 pixels*** (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

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Ron Simon, the curator of the Museum of Television and Radio, at the museum's exhibit on ABC founder Leonard Goldenson. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Ron Simon, the curator of the Museum of Radio and Television, is fond of the television programs from his youth. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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"Sergeant Bilko" actor Mickey Freeman talks with boomer Clee James, 43, at the recent Big Apple Convention in New York City. ***Please note small file size: 1280 pixels by 960 pixels*** (Nicholas Hirshon/CNS)

Unlike other fans of the 1960s television show “F Troop,” Jeff Abraham didn’t bring a comic book or lunch box for Larry Storch, one of the stars of the show, to sign at a convention in Los Angeles. Instead, Abraham showed up with a comedy album recorded by Storch a few career moves before he became television’s Corporal Agarn.

As Abraham paid his $10 for the autograph, Storch said, “Wow, where did you get that?” Abraham proudly told the actor about his comedy recordings collection, and the pair exchanged a few laughs. It was just the type of interaction that keeps Abraham, 44, and thousands of other baby boomers coming to fan conventions throughout the United States.

Born between 1946 and 1964, baby boomers were the first generation to grow up with television. Perhaps because of the novelty, the shows boomers watched in their formative years are particularly special to them. Conventioneers across the United States are now taking advantage of that devotion, booking more stars than ever from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and attracting a growing number of fans.

The time, it seems, is right.

“You’ve now got every single baby boomer in prime nostalgia mode,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “Your oldest baby boomers have now hit a big milestone at 60 years old. The youngest baby boomer is well into their 40s now, and those are the years where if you’ve had a family, the kids are beginning to move out, life is changing, your body is changing and that’s where the thickest bittersweet nostalgia kicks in.”

But if it’s nostalgia that’s craved, why not save some cash, turn on TV Land and call it a day? Ron Simon, the television curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City, said baby boomers enjoy not only catching up with the stars but also with other fans their age who remember the same shows.

“It’s another community that you belong to,” he said, “and you don’t encounter in your daily life.”

Keeping up such a hobby takes dedication. Admission to a convention typically costs about $5, and once inside, visitors are tempted by the many souvenirs available. A signed photograph typically sells for $20, and each autograph on a DVD or book is another $25.

Then there is the ultimate personal touch--a photograph of fan and star side by side--available at varying prices. While many celebrities will not object to posing for a snapshot taken with a fan’s camera, most stars have started charging for those, too.

“You take a group photo and there are three or four stars in there, that could be $100,” said Ray Courts, 60, promoter of the Hollywood Collectibles & Celebrities Show in Burbank, Calif. “So you better like that group.”

Abraham, an entertainment publicist in Los Angeles, believes it’s worth the price. “You pay $85 on eBay, you don’t know what you’re getting,” he said. At conventions, he explained, you not only pay less but also “can meet the guy, shake his hand and say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s a very good way to connect to your past for a very small fee.”

Baby boomers seem more than ready to dish out the cash. Some even hound their local conventioneers. One woman called Courts again and again to make sure everyone scheduled to attend a cast reunion of the comedy “Here Come the Brides” would indeed be there.

At the recent Big Apple Convention in New York City, Anne O’Connell traveled from table to table collecting autographs from Storch, comedian Soupy Sales and “Sergeant Bilko” actor Mickey Freeman. O’Connell, 45, said she loved the action and humor that the shows brought into her childhood, and now she cherishes the opportunity to connect with the actors.

“They were a gift to us,” she said. “I didn’t know who these people were when I was very little. It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m rediscovering.’ Now I love them.”

As strong as the rush to conventions is today, those in the business predict even larger surges as boomers retire and look for ways to spend their time and money. In popular retirement destinations like Florida, regularly scheduled conventions may become a way of life.

Elizabeth Widera, owner of Orlando’s MegaCon convention since its inception in 1999, has already seen the signs. Based on the phone calls she has received, she expects an unprecedented turnout at a coming convention featuring David Hendison from “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” And she admitted she’ll be among the fans waiting in line to meet him.

“I’m 53,” she said, “and I can remember as a high school student watching him. It’s great to meet the people in person.”

The fans aren’t the only ones enjoying the conventions. The rush to the events is so strong that it’s also having an effect on stars who thought time had passed them by. Courts said one female actress from “Dallas”--he wouldn’t identify her for fear of embarrassing her--was among the many celebrities who believed no one cared about them anymore.

“She was also petrified,” he said. “She said, ‘I want to do a show outside the Los Angeles area. In case no one comes up to me, I won’t be embarrassed.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do the Chicago show.’ She went to Chicago. Within 10 minutes after we opened the doors, she called me to her table and said, ‘Bring on Hollywood. I’m ready.’

“She knew they had not forgotten her.”

E-mail: nhh2102@columbia.edu