LAGUNA HILLS — One of those news stories that seems to pop up with regularity is some account of how firefighters break into a house and find it insanely packed and stacked with old newspapers and magazines. In the worst cases, one of these stacks has toppled, pinning the occupant under hundreds of pounds of old newsprint.
That, but for fortune, might be the fate of Connie Thompson. "That certainly has crossed my mind several times. It's a fine line," she says of her 50-odd years of hoarded magazine and newspaper clippings.
Instead, her still-growing collection of fan magazine features, photos and snippets on movie stars wound up in the USC Film and TV Library, where library head Steve Hanson says it's been an invaluable tool for researchers and film students. "It might be worth $100,000, but putting a cash value on it doesn't say anything, because there's nowhere you could take that money to replace it. Outside of a few special collections, these sources just don't exist anywhere," he maintains.
Until it became housed in the library as the Constance McCormick Collection (her last name by a previous marriage) in 1966, the clippings Thompson had saved since she was eight filled a garage and part of a house. Her first husband was instrumental in prompting Thompson into finding a more suitable home for it.
"We were going to be moving from Palos Verdes to Fullerton, and the boxes of these were all over the floor," she recalled. "My husband said to me, 'You get rid of it or I will.' "
She and her present husband Paul share a small Leisure World home--"I have the only computer room with a john in it. There's no room in the places here," she says. She generally spends six hours each day clipping articles out of the Hollywood Reporter, The Times' Calendar section and other sources, placing them either in one of her 1,200 separate files or in a general alphabetized file for those artists lacking sufficient clips or clout to warrant their own. She also is in the midst of checking her files out of the library and pasting them into books.
For much of her life, she says, "I was like a secret drinker. I would only work on the files when my children were at school and when my husband was at work, because I had no idea of what to tell them of why I was doing it."
She worked outside the home for most of the last 20 years, spending only six or seven hours a week on her hobby. The recession forced the active 66-year-old into retirement, and now she sees the files as her full-time work.
"If I'm 66 now, I figure I've got about 10 good years before I go a little dingy. It can be difficult enough to be separating out a file and say if something's from 1936 or 1937 or what magazine it's from. And I'm the only one who might know that," she said.
Thompson started amassing her paper pile in 1934 when she was 8 years old and on a train trip to the Chicago World's Fair. She was getting antsy on the long trip so her mother gave her a dollar, which she spent on a stack of 10 movie fan magazines at the next stop.
Her mother suggested she pass the time by cutting out stories on different actors, perhaps starting with ones they knew. That was no small number, since her father was the film character actor Lucien Littlefield, whose career spanned both silents and talkies.
Her parents met when Thompson's mother, a reporter with the Philadelphia Public Ledger, was sent to Hollywood in 1921 to interview Rudolph Valentino on the set of "The Sheik." Not many people have a photo of their parents on the day they met, but on Thompson's wall of framed, autographed movie star photos is a shot of her parents flanked by on-screen lovers Agnes Ayres and Valentino, with Littlefield staring transfixed at the woman he was to marry a few weeks later.
Thompson said, "It's been suggested that in collecting these files I'm honoring my father, who had a long, desperate career in movies. It's a dreadful, dreadful business; there's constant rejection. I was the one who cued my father on his lines. I know how it is to anticipate getting a part, how it is to rehearse for one, to wait for the phone to ring for the next one.
"There's a lot of time spent 'between pictures.' It may be that I saved all these clippings just because of my childhood environment, where I hardly ever threw anything away. I think being the child of an actor, it becomes an inbred thing that you'd better save something because we might not have the money to buy something else."
She never had an impulse to enter the business herself. "I don't think it's worth the suffering. You have to have the drive to act or write or whatever more than anything, and you have to care about that more than anybody, and I'm too much of a romantic for that," she said.
Though she grew up inside Hollywood and isn't enamored of the life, she still is beguiled by the magic it produces.