During the CHiPs Reunion that Sue Walsh put on for the entire cast of CHIPS, she talked to me about attending one of those autograph sessions where you sell your photos. I said I was no longer in the media and I do not think anyone would pay for my autograph but I do have fond memories of the old car shows when we used to do this and leave with cigar boxes of cash! Sue reminded me that Erik and Robert Pine do these from time to time. I said yes of course, because they are still in the media and they are marketing their names and brand.
During the reunion Sue also introduced me to Calvin Spikes who said that he does these celebrity events and they make good money. I was distracted by the reunion and just kind of shrugged it off like it was no big deal and really it was not for me.
Later Sue politely nudged me again and wondered if I would like to do the upcoming one in New Jersey. I said for her to get me more information and what do people really make at these things because they sound cheesy to me and I do not enjoy that phony celebrity environment of Cheesy! Sue talked to Calvin and informed me that some people have made significant money for a day or two and it can be very lucrative.
So, I decided I would try it but I was very dubious about the whole thing and a bit nervous. First I was concerned about what pictures they would use and could I have approval because I have never done this kind of event in 25 years or so. I then had my own pictures printed up and brought them in case they used some humiliating picture they found somewhere and cavalierly used that pose. Hmmm!
As I arrived Calvin and the trooper, Sue, picked me up in Calvin’s Jaguar. I sat in the back and the headliner was sagging way down so I had to push it up to keep it out of my eyes. I had a kind of shrouding blanket and I am not even a Muslim. I thought to myself….uh oh…..you are in for some dark and dungy basement where some drunks and low life will want your autograph and a slobbery kiss.
So we drove Sue to her home and I got to see a little of Staten Island, cross over the expensive Toll Bridges and gaze at the wonderment of NY and New Jersey. I forgot to mention I landed in Newark. As we pulled up to Sue’s home Mike was outside and so I finally got to meet him in person and he is a great guy….what you see is what you get…take it or leave it. I like that kind of candor in a person. No pretense whatsoever. The only fear I had is Sue’s antagonist may show up and I would have to arrest him……but I forgot the CHP Badge Sue gave me so I am not sure he would adhere. I am of course talking about her infamous dark character….THE LANDLORD. He did not appear.
I then took off my Head wrap, and moved to the front seat on my drive with Calvin back to the Hotel. Calvin checked me in and he reminded me that the next day in the afternoon he would meet me and we would begin signing photos. I went to the room and it was a Junior Suite and was really done very nicely with lots of marketing gestures that showed a lot of sensitive thought went into this room and its décor. I enjoy nice hotels as I am not into Motel 6 and or a sleeping bag anymore….not after Vietnam anyway.
The next few days flabbergasted me as I felt like I was outside my body watching me sign autographs and watching the other actors and the experiences of all. I was truly flattered and educated. First some of these men and women would come up and say they never go to these things but they saw I was going to be here so they came just to see me. Policemen came and some of these were very macho NY and NJ men, and yet when they talked to me their eyes would glisten with moisture from their youth and explain they became a cop because of me. Some of these policemen would come back the next day and honor me with their badge or a Police memento. The NY and NJ police departments have been through hell, and I felt so touched that I had an influence on a few of them. We looked deep into each other’s soul and on parting I told them to keep their head down…..God Bless. I could see it meant so much to these grown men and it still amazes me and humbles me. Thank you NYPD and NJPD.
I had lots of families visit me from as far away as Ohio and they drove all the way to just get an autograph. I found the women to be especially cute and entertaining. It is a fascinating experience to see a 40 year old woman, with her husband and kids watching her in a seizure of emotions trapped in her child psyche. For a brief moment the conflict is so clear….who is the mother, who is the child, who is the wife? They, She, would be trying their best to skirt the child psyche, especially in front of their husband who probably heard of Jon Baker 100 times, or….perhaps Jon Baker and the crush on him had been veiled and so this was disrobing in some cases. There was gushing, the red cheeks, the momentary loss of equilibrium, and the teary eyes that were overcome with pure joy and memory. This is truly dimension skipping! The subsequent photographs were normally polite and platonic. When I would hug them good bye, it often was like I was hugging the anxious teen who was not sure how to handle the anxiety of the first kiss. I found myself so amazed and humbled by this deep sincerity and I wanted to make sure I watered the flowers with some sensitive but gentlemanly gesture…something sincere like a deep eye gratitude or a subtle but gentlemanly wink or a kiss on the cheek.
Now remember, this can be a tightrope as you look back at her husband faking cavalier strength and indifference or bristling with the ole…..”Are you kidding me” attitude. Now when it was the male who wanted to talk to me for hours, then I had to deal with the female who could not believe her husband wanted an autograph from anyone let alone some old actor. Some of these women were polite but I could tell they lost a little faith in their husbands that day……LOL, notwithstanding they did not even know who in the hell Jon Baker was. They would leave shaking their heads saying “whatever” as their macho husband was overcome with mumbling joy about that is the real Jon Baker.
During these three days it was important to not just sign autographs and quickly move people through the line….that would be like going to Santa and not get a present. So each person I tried to get to know in a few minutes with conversation, with helping them talk when they were gasping or tongue tied, and enjoying their admiration for the old Jon Baker character. For some it was a youthful crush and fantasy; for others it was a character mentoring and modeling that meant so much; and for others it was an escape, an island of refuge when they were young and abused by mean parents. I met all kinds of gems during these days and I soon realized that God brought me to Santa Claus…..not the other way around.
I also got to meet some actors I had never met that were major stars and I got to meet some old friends. There was an actress named Kay Lenz I saw there and she was always the best actress and always so real and humble. She was one that had all the talent to become a major star if the planets aligned. Then I had this actor, Michael Du…… come up to me and say hello. He was like my old buddy and I forgot who he was. Later he came up to my autograph signing table again and began to outline the last time he saw me. I said when was that….half scared of the answer. He said I was holding your head in my arms. I said what? He said Yes….you had just won a BMX Celebrity Race and you were doing one more race and you went up off the first jump and came down crossed up and you crashed big time and it knocked you out and I was trying to help you regain consciousness. I said….oh yeah…that was not the half of it.
I was with Derek and Heidi, my children and I could not breathe. They finally took me in the ambulance and my kids were in there with me and the ambulance driver did not know how to turn on the red lights and siren and did not know where the hospital was. To add insult to injury, when I got to the hospital they did tests and they were worried that I had ruptured my aorta. So they called in this heart specialist and said they wanted me to call my loved ones. I said why? They said because we have to inject dye and pressure into your heart to see if it is leaking. If it is you will die almost immediately and if not you should heal in a week or so in the hospital. I called a few “loved ones” I shall not disclose and could not reach anyone. I sent my children home with a friend and then told the doctor to go for it, as I could not reach anyone. The doctor and his beautiful wife were standing in emergency when I said this and I could see she was about ready to cry. Anyway, they did the procedure and told me I would get very warm which I did but nothing burst. Broken ribs, punctured lung and bruised ego, on a bicycle.
We laughed and Michael Du had to leave and go sign autographs. It was so nice of him to come up to me and share this as I would never have known. The whole event was full of these treasures! I ran into Mariel Hemmingway and introduced myself as my wife Marlene Harmon when she was training for the Olympics in track and field did a movie with Mariel, called Personal Best.
And then there were the “collectors’ who are really quite serious. They knew exactly what they wanted; they knew your biography better than you did. Some collectors would bring various books with stars of the 80s or some decade and ask you to sing with only their pen, and within a certain portion on a certain page. Others would bring photos of me that even I had never seen like the one of me sitting on a Brahma bull in the bucking shoot in some show I did about rodeos. Others would bring out collected photographs that were in sealed plastic containers. These photographs were obviously purchased a long time ago and they had been waiting for this or that celebrity to appear. They were very specific on where and how to sign these photos, and then would blow on the ink signature and when dried they would re-insert them in their proper protective covering. Others brought memorabilia, like lunch boxes, tricycles, little cars and of course the action figures with Erik Estrada’s signature on them but they had been waiting for mine so they had both to make them valid and complete. Others would walk up with a wad of cash……and they did not want to know anyone….they wanted to buy one of every photo I had available and they also wanted me to stand with them for a photo which I always did with almost everyone.
Actors usually come to realize they are marketing something but unfortunately some actors begin to believe their own marketing. I realize that I was simply an actor on Lassie, on CHiPs and other such shows. I am not impressed because it was a job but it sure was fun indulging!
If you can imagine the diversity of characters here, I met them all. Each person could have been labeled somewhere and somehow…..but to me, they were all glistening gems, all sensitive little kids in older shells. Some were Porsche engines in a 53 pickup and some were Volkswagen engines in weathered and rust 32 coupe. They all had special interiors filled with wisdom and the innate ability to jump right back into their youth and memories. I felt sad to say goodbye to them and I know they felt the same way. As we moved in and out of reality and into the lightness of being of yesterday with CHiPs, I sensed the dread that the simple and light yesterday is gone. I sensed they did not want to lose that gift of a free dimension of joy and safety mixed with zestful hope and faith.
You know….when you are a little boy or girl, and you dressed up as a cowboy or nurse , a soldier or Superman or something it was so much fun. I thank all of you gems, for allowing me to dress up and play Jon Baker on the series CHiPs. And I also thank you for allowing me to wallow in your genuine appreciation of that character and what he stood for on the show. God Bless that wonderful time and all of your pure, dynamic, wonderful and youthful souls. Don’t ever forget how to skip and hop into yesteryear!
Sincerely……..Jon…..oh, uh…I mean…Larry Wilcox