The Celebrity Collector
Michael Gross, his family tree and
collections are rooted in the railroad
By Ken Hall
When you scan Michael
Gross' resume -- Yale graduate, early awards for repertory theatre
and Broadway work, successful film and television career -- words
like "blueblood" or "silver spoon" might come to mind. But Gross
actually was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago. He
went through a "gang-and-greaser" phase in his mid-teens before
finally coming to in high school.
In short, nothing was
handed to Michael. He earned his stripes, first in the theatre, then
on the iconic '80s TV show "Family Ties" (in which he played a
liberal father to conservative son Michael J. Fox and daughter
Justine Bateman) and most recently as the star of a series of quirky
films in the horror-comedy genre called "Tremors". "Tremors 4" is
due in video stores this Christmas.
Actually, Gross was handed
something while growing up: train memorabilia, most of it given to
him by his grandfather, Chester Gross, who worked for the fabled
Acheson, Topeka & Santa Fe for 56 years. His father before him
worked the rails, too. These grizzled trainmen had stories to tell
and items to dispense, and Michael -- who was very close to his
grandfather -- happily took it all in.
"The first thing I remember
were the dishes we had in the house," Gross recalled. "They were
rejects, actually, from the dining cars. We'd get them because they
were chipped or cracked, or because the image on the plate was
faded. But even in their condition, they still held a special
significance to me because they had ridden the rails. It was like
they'd been blessed by the Pope."
Most of the dishes were in
one of two patterns: California Poppy (an off-white pattern with a
picture of three orange-yellow California poppy flowers); and
Mimbreno (the good stuff, used only on the "Super-Chief" dining cars
and featuring an ancient Indian design with symbolic-looking animals
set against a white background). These were the main two patterns,
although there were others.
The Mimbreno set is
displayed (and used) at Gross' residence in Santa Fe, N.M. The
California Poppy is kept in a cabinet in his California home. "I
like to eat off both patterns, especially at breakfast," he said.
The Santa Fe home is where the bulk of his railroad memorabilia is
housed. He described the decor there as "a mixture of Spanish,
Native American and early railroad."
Some of the
railroad-related items there include:
- An Art Deco-style
overstuffed armchair, taken from one of the "smokers" (or lounge
- Genuine lighting
fixtures from the old Santa Fe coaches.
- An oak station bench,
with arms, capable of seating five.
- An old baggage
- Silverware, from the
Santa Fe Railroad, most of it marked and most of it hotel-grade
(to include a soup tureen, coffee pot and other accessory
- A walnut desk once
belonging to a Santa Fe vice president that Gross bought at
auction in Topeka.
- Much paper, including
tickets, timetables, blotters, stationery and brochures.
- Posters (much of it
promoting the West and Western culture), advertising art and
calendars (featuring some wonderful Southwestern painters).
The "piece de resistance,"
said Gross, "is a beautiful old wall clock once owned by the chief
time inspector of the entire Santa Fe rail system, whose office was
in Topeka. It has a four-foot walnut case with a mercury pendulum
(rare, as most have disc pendulums). I bought it from a Santa Fe
clock aficionado who restores and repairs Santa Fe clocks. I paid
about $4,000 for it, ten years ago."
Items given to Gross
directly by his grandfather include:
- A pocket watch -- a
"Bunn Special" -- made by the Illinois Watch Company. ("Having the
correct time was critical, of course, and the trainmen's watches
were regularly inspected by the railroads," Gross said. "They had
to be within certain tolerances, which were recorded on an
inspection card. I also have that card.").
- A railroad
- A "Brotherhood of
Railroad Trainmen" wallet.
- A safety award and a
lifetime pass, entitling Chester to ride the rails free for
"By far the most ridiculous
thing I've done is become a partner in an actual railroad," Gross
said with a chuckle. "It's the last eighteen miles in the short line
leading into New Mexico on the Acheson, Topeka & Santa Fe line.
It was going to be abandoned because of a lack of freight
passengers. So a group of us decided to save the thing and run it,
too. It's fun, but a lot of work."
Gross admitted he's not
"hands-on" with his investment because of acting obligations, but he
did say the line runs freight and passengers most days of the week,
from Larny, N.M. (named for a Catholic bishop who once lived there)
to Santa Fe. "This is the first train I haven't had to put away
after Christmas," he said with a sigh. "It's not much of a
money-maker, but I'm glad we saved it."
Michael Gross was born June
21, 1947 in Chicago and graduated with honors from Kelvyn Park High
School. He played guitar with a folksinging group before deciding to
pursue acting. He attended the Yale School of Drama, where Meryl
Streep was a classmate, graduating in 1973. His stage credits have
included a Drama-Logue Award, a Drama Desk Award nomination and an
His big break came in 1982,
when he was cast as "Steven Keaton" on the sitcom "Family Ties"
(1982-89). While auditioning, he encountered resistance from a
casting director who didn't want Gross because he lacked name
recognition. Her name was Elza, and she went on to become Mrs.
Michael Gross. They've been married 20 years; Gross is the
stepfather to her two daughters.
The same year "Ties"
concluded its run, Gross accepted a part in a relatively low-budget
film called "Tremors," a tongue-in-cheek horror film about a small
mining town in Nevada (Perfection) that is terrorized by giant
killer sand worms. "Universal released the film into the theatres
and marketed it as a horror movie, which it really isn't," Gross
said. "As a result, it didn't do well at all."
But when "Tremors" hit the
video store shelves, it gained a substantial cult following. A TV
series of the same name was launched on the Sci-Fi channel, also
starring Gross. When the decision was made to produce a "Tremors 2"
movie, executives figured if the original grew legs on video store
shelves, the sequel would probably do well there, too. "3" and "4"
have since been made.
Antique weapons enthusiasts
will be interested to learn that "Tremors 4: Original Showdown" (a
prequel, due in stores soon and set in the Wild West) uses authentic
weaponry from the period, to include: a Colt single-action revolver;
a Sharps hunting rifle and Sharps "Pepperpot" (four-barrel
derringer); a Remington 45/120; a Henry Repeater; an actual Gattling
Gun; and a replica of a "Punt."
Michael Gross lives in
California and Santa Fe, N.M., with Elza and her two children from a
prior marriage, Katie (35) and Theo (33). His sister is "Saturday
Night Live" alum Mary Gross. You may write to Michael c/o Prairie
Rose Productions, 16633 Ventura Blvd. #1450, Encino, CA
"Family Ties" cast : Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross,
Meredith Baxter, Justine Bateman, Tina Yothers.
Baggage wagon marked "AT&SF" (Atcheson, Topeka
& Santa Fe), outside Gross's Santa Fe home.
loves this beautiful wall clock, once owned by the chief time
inspector of the Santa Fe line.
is part owner of a functioning railroad: an 18-mile leg of the
Atcheson, Topeka & Santa