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Welcome to his planet

Forrest J Ackerman, perhaps science fiction's greatest collector, keeps a dwindling trove open to the public.

January 06, 2003|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

Forrest J Ackerman, a.k.a. Mr. Science Fiction, answers the door to his bungalow. Dressed all in black, except for a red shirt, he is the gracious host of his own haunted house. On his left hand is the ring worn by Bela Lugosi when he played Dracula in the 1948 film "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

Ackerman's little home is crammed floor to ceiling with Hollywood horror memorabilia. There is a life-size replica of the robot from Fritz Lang's 1927 film "Metropolis." The real robot was destroyed in the film, but 15 years ago Ackerman hired two guys, who spent 600 hours reconstructing her. There is the single remaining Martian machine from the 1953 film "The War of the Worlds." In front of the fireplace stands the very first Hugo trophy -- the equivalent of the first Oscar in the science fiction world -- which Ackerman received in 1953 at the World Science Fiction Convention. In a glass box nearby, Ackerman has the beaver hat and the ghoulish teeth that Lon Chaney wore in the lost film "London After Midnight." Ackerman saw the film on opening day, in 1929.

"These are the things that have been most important to me over the last 75 years," Ackerman says. He's selling the rest.

Fame and obscurity

Ackerman is perhaps the greatest science fiction collector of all time, but outside of fandom, his name is virtually unknown.

He is the founder of the cult magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. He was Ray Bradbury's literary agent, and L. Ron Hubbard's, too, long before Dianetics and Scientology. He has inspired Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and was sought out by Michael Jackson for advice on his "Thriller" video. He started reading science fiction as a child before the genre had a name and claims to have invented the abbreviated term "sci-fi."

Unlike a lot of collectors, who hoard their troves, Ackerman has always shared his private collection with the public, gratis, every Saturday. An estimated 50,000 visitors traipsed through his hillside home -- a 5,800-square-foot, 18-room home on Glendower Avenue in Los Feliz. The "Ackermansion," as it was called, became a mecca for local science fiction fans and a pilgrimage spot for visitors from around the globe.

"There was nothing like it anywhere in the world, and there never will be again," says Jerry Weist, an author, collector, and comic book and science fiction consultant for Sotheby's who is selling part of Ackerman's collection. "The heritage of modern collectors is based on the Ackerman collection. It's as if one guy in Europe had most of Braque, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, as if one person had an overwhelming collection."

Part of what distinguished Ackerman from other science fiction collectors was his interest in film. Ackerman embraced Hollywood. Over time, he has collected hundreds of thousands of movie stills, press books and rare movie posters.

"If you include science fiction memorabilia as well as literature, no one could touch him," says David Kyle, 84, a pioneering science fiction book publisher, novelist and fellow "survivor" (as they joke) of the first World's Science Fiction Convention in 1939. "All because fortunately he was in an area, Hollywood, where the fantastic filmmaking which he was so interested in gave him the opportunity to collect these things."

Over the decades, Ackerman has had offers to buy his collection and convert it into a museum. The failure to preserve it has made some fans weep. It makes Ray Bradbury's blood boil.

"We live in a stupid world," said Bradbury, who at one time or another has begged executives at a variety of companies, including Rocketdyne, to help preserve the collection. "I said, 'A special room with all of that will be more fascinating than all that junk you have.' They didn't believe in the future. I believe in the future. Forrest Ackerman believes in the future. No one else cared."

Weist estimates that at its peak, in the mid-1960s, Ackerman's collection would have been worth about $10 million in today's market. Instead, over the last 30 years, Ackerman, now 86, has slowly had to sell piece after piece to survive. Then, this past summer, as a result of health problems and an expensive and still unresolved legal fight against his onetime business associate, he was forced to dissolve what remained of his collection.

Last summer, he moved out of his beloved Ackermansion. He is selling all but about 100 of his favorite objects, including more than 50,000 books. But though he now requires round-the-clock nursing at his small bungalow in the flats of Los Feliz, Ackerman still shares what's left with anyone who comes to his door. Once again, his doors are open to fans on Saturday mornings.

"I call it the Acker Mini-Mansion," he says.

Master storyteller

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