WHAT'S YOUR SIGN?
At first, Tony Behrendt's room in the lower level of his parents' posh Boulder home seems like a typical college-student hovel--it's dominated by an unkempt bed, stacks of CDs, and posters and photos plastered on virtually every flat surface. Take a closer look at those pictures, however, and you'll realize that Behrendt isn't typical at all. Sure, there's a placard of the archetypal swimsuit-clad babe hanging over his pillow, but the opposite wall is marked by the images of celebrities with considerably less pubescent appeal. Bob Barker, for one. Mister Rogers, for another. And on those glossies? The signatures of the stars, scribbled to Behrendt--the one, the only, Autograph Man.
Behrendt, at 22, realizes that collecting autographs might strike many people as a rather geeky pursuit, but that understanding hasn't stopped him from his raison d'etre. Moreover, he's ready, willing and able to have the world at large rib him for his passion. His latest goal is to guest on David Letterman's Late Show. "I want to go on there," Behrendt announces, in a voice characterized by an intermittent lisp, "and let him make fun of me."
Clearly, this is a person at ease with himself and his obsession. At present, he's got well over 900 scrawls in ten separate books, and while he once felt somewhat self-conscious about approaching the famous and the infamous with pen in hand, that feeling is long gone. "I'm always polite," he notes, "but I don't have any problem going up to them and showing them one of my books and saying, `I'm the Autograph Man.'"
Even Behrendt isn't sure why he suffers from autograph fever. Because of his father Peter's job as an IBM executive, Behrendt lived in several locales around the country during his youth, including New York City--and there, on the streets of Manhattan, a thirteen-year-old Tony got his first autograph, from wrestler Hulk Hogan. But the excitement of owning a piece of paper once touched by the Hulkster didn't immediately clue Behrendt to his true calling; in fact, he admits, "I don't even know where his autograph is anymore."
In the late Eighties, the Behrendt family moved to Boulder, where Peter (who occasionally gets autographs for his son during business trips) now works for a local high-tech firm. Meanwhile, Tony Behrendt was getting more and more into music--especially that made by Acoustic Junction, a popular local act. Shortly after the early-Nineties grand opening of Boulder's Fox Theatre, he convinced the Junction's members to sign something for him. And thus was born the Autograph Man, as well as the odd, symbiotic relationship between Behrendt and the Fox staff.
"I just remember seeing him around shows all of the time," notes Ambrosia Healy, the Fox's publicist. "I never knew his name, but he seemed to be at every show at the Fox, hanging out with his book, and I just started calling him Autograph Man. And it stuck."
"He wasn't 21 yet when he first started hanging around," recalls Fox co-owner Don Strasburg, "but he was careful not to totally piss everybody off. At first I was like, `Who is this kid, and why is he in my way?' But later I realized that the bands really enjoyed him. He'd ask for autographs from the headliners, from the opening acts. He wanted them from everybody--and he got them from everybody. White Zombie might have been signing the page next to Jack Kemp."
True enough, Behrendt soon began supplementing the autographs he got locally with those he had to request from personal managers or publicity firms across the country. His standard cover letter pointedly requests "no fake autographs" ("I can always tell when they're fake," he asserts), and the public figures in question generally have been good about complying--although not always promptly. "It took me about three years to get Al Pacino," he says, "and about that long to get Danny Glover--but Danny Glover's manager sent a nice letter explaining that it took so long because Danny insists on personally autographing every photo he sends out. I respect that."
Other autographs for which Behrendt has mailed away are considerably more obscure--and fill him with even more pride. "I've got the Mayflower Madam, Sydney Biddle Barrows. I just recently started getting ones from porno stars. I don't really know anything about them; I just see them in ads. And this is a great one: Albert Kligman--he invented Retin-A."
"Tony is an equal-opportunity collector," confirms Andy Schneidkraut, the owner of the Boulder music store Albums on the Hill. "He's been that way since he was the Autograph Boy." National and local performers often appear at Schneidkraut's store, and Behrendt is usually present. And when he can't be, Schneidkraut says, "we almost always remember to get an autograph for him. And he's returned the favor. For instance, he got my son a Chris Farley."
Adds Strasburg, "There's something really innocent about Tony--something you don't see that often. And he's so good at what he does that now we're even having him get stuff for us. He got Magic Dick of the J. Geils band to sign a harmonica, Soul Hat to sign a cymbal, the Supersuckers to sign a drum head. Thanks to him, we're starting to get a nice collection, too."
Not that he's infallible. One performer refused Behrendt after a Boulder Theater show last year--"but I don't want you to say who," he warns, "because I'm going to get her next time she's here." Upon her return, Behrendt will no doubt be ready with a paper designed especially for her. "I always draw pictures and make designs on them," he boasts, producing an example. "This is one of my best ones, for this band Face to Face. See, there's a face on this side and a face on the other side. And they're facing each other."
Finding enough minutes in a day to take care of such chores isn't easy. After all, Behrendt takes a couple of classes at Front Range Community College and works part-time at a Boulder movie theater. But everything else takes second place to autographs; he's usually at the Fox or other venues five nights a week, book in hand. Barbara Behrendt, Tony's mother, tries to see her son's fixation in the best possible light. "I think he's done an amazing job--and he's really devoted a lot of time to it," she says. But when asked if she would rather he pour the same energy into, say, work or school, she laughs uncomfortably before noting, "That's not something I'd really want to talk about in print."
Behrendt is not nearly so shy. He speaks with pride about his trip to New York in February--a trip in which he actually pigeonholed the elusive Letterman. "I got the inside scoop on what kind of car he drives, what entrance to the building he uses and when he gets there," he boasts. "And then I managed to get past security and talk to him. I showed him my book and got his autograph, and he promised that he'd ask the people on his staff if they wanted to book me. Then, four weeks ago, they sent me this Late Show sweatshirt--I'll bet it's worth $45--and a letter thanking me but saying they weren't into booking me at this time.
"I'm not going to give up, though. I'm going to send him a letter once a month, every month. Just to remind him about the Autograph Man.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.