|The Celebrity Collector
Tab Hunter loved antiques all his life
even owned an antiques shop in Beverly Hills
By Ken Hall
Some people actively court
fame, while others have fame thrust upon them. Tab Hunter falls into
the latter category. "I was never completely happy or comfortable in
the role of teen idol or famous celebrity," he said, "and I was glad
when the whole thing subsided." But when fame came calling, in the
early 1950s, it followed him through a slew of movies and a #1
record, "Young Love."
Tab Hunter was simply the
right guy for the times -- tall, handsome, blond, athletic. Just
what post-war American teens were in the mood to swoon over when he
burst on the screen at age 19 in "Island of Desire." Critics weren't
crazy about him, but young audiences were. Over the next 15 years,
he acted and sang non-stop, pausing only when the beach-movie wave
of the 1960s crested.
After that, Hunter could
pick and choose his roles and dabble in producing, which he
continues to do today. It also allowed him time to pursue a love
he'd cultivated since childhood: antiques. "I love all antiques," he
said, "but I've always been fascinated by items from the Orient --
bronzes, screens, lacquers, scrolls, that sort of thing. They're
very serene and peaceful. They speak to me."
Hunter's mother was a nurse
on a steamship line and on trips to the Far East, she would bring
home souvenir items. That got him interested. Hunter has been to the
Orient only once, on a cruise. That hasn't dampened his enthusiasm
for what's produced there, though. "But it's got to be truly
antique," he pointed out. "I don't even pay attention unless
something's 150 years old or more."
In the 1960s, Hunter
co-owned an antiques shop on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. "I had
two partners, a couple of friends named Eddie Stevens and Billy
Widener, and we just opened up shop," he said. "It was wonderful,
but short-lived." The store specialized in Japanese, Chinese and
Thai antiques, and featured many of the aforementioned bronzes,
scrolls, lacquers and screens.
Hunter became more
antique-savvy later on when he did legwork for an antiques dealer in
Dallas named Rose Driver. "I had gotten to know Rose because I'd go
into her shop when I was in Dallas," he recalled. "I was doing
dinner theatre at the time, so I agreed that in my travels I'd go
out and browse around for her. It was great fun. And it gave me the
bug to buy more on my own behalf."
Religious art and icons
figure prominently into Hunter's vast accumulation of artwork and
objects. He has Staffordshire figures, Santoses, crucifixes, Thai
heads, bronzes and more. Asian "rank badges" (worn by the social
elite hundreds of years ago) are framed and mounted on the wall.
There's also the "Madonna of the Canned Hams," fashioned by an
artisan -- out of a SPAM can!
Remarkably, Hunter is not
sentimental about the things he buys. "I find antiques very
embracing, but ultimately nothing is forever. Once we tend to our
immediate needs -- a roof over our heads, a meal on the table -- the
rest is just frosting on the cake. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the
antiques I have and I love going to antique shops. I'm just not very
sentimental about it. It's all very temporal."
One exception, he concedes,
was a collection of 50 or so Thai bronzes he assembled that included
standing and reclining Buddhas and Kamakura panels. "They were the
first group of antiques that amounted to an actual collection of
like items," Hunter said. "Over time I sold some and traded others.
And I really do regret that. I wish I had those pieces
But Hunter added he still
has some nice Chinese panels, horse statues and pieces that occupy
space at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. The 1920s Spanish-style
house is well-appointed, showing off not just his penchant for
Oriental items but period furniture, too: French, English and
German. "I love Jacobean furniture," he said. "I also have a
Tyrolean armoire I bought in Rome."
Everything Hunter owns is
set out and proudly displayed. That includes 15 or 20 Chinese
porcelains and more than 50 Mason's English ironstone pieces, dating
to 1820. He also has a pair of leather chairs from the dining room
set belonging to Rock Hudson. "I bought them from his estate before
they got to Sotheby's," he said. "I wanted them as a remembrance.
Rock was a good friend."
Tab Hunter was born July
11, 1931, in New York City. His father's last name was Kelm, but
when his parents divorced a couple of years later, his mother retook
her maiden name, Gelien. So he grew up as Arthur Gelien until years
later, when a studio executive tabbed him Tab. He, his mother and
his brother, Walter (who would later be killed in Vietnam) relocated
to the Los Angeles area.
Hunter's athleticism became
evident early on. He was a champion ice skater for his age category,
as well as an accomplished equestrian. "My brother loved horses, and
he introduced me to riding," he said. As a teen hanging around the
stables, Hunter met Dick Clayton, an acting agent who's client
roster has included names such as Jimmy Dean, Burt Reynolds and
Clayton encouraged young
Tab to consider acting, seeing in him a mix of good looks and an
athlete's build. But Hunter had other ideas. At 15, he lied about
his age to get into the Coast Guard. "I was stationed in Groton,
Conn., at the submarine base," he said. "On weekends a few of us
would hop the train to New York. We went to a few Broadway plays and
I decided acting looked like fun."
After his discharge in
1947, Hunter looked up Clayton, who put him in touch with Henry
Wilson, another agent who specialized in young, raw talent. With
virtually no formal acting training at all, Hunter was sent out on
casting calls. He got parts, and a big break came with the release
in 1952 of "Island of Desire." Then, in 1955, he was chosen over
James Dean for a role in "Battle Cry."
In 1956, he co-starred
opposite Natalie Wood in the film "The Burning Hills," and it was
while on a tour with Wood promoting the film that his career took on
another dimension. "We were in Chicago, and one of the better known
DJ's in the Midwest, Howard Miller, came up to me and asked if I had
ever considered singing. I told him no, and he suggested I consider
it. I told him I would."
Miller set up a meeting
with Dot records, one of the biggest labels at the time, and Hunter
scored a #1 hit with his very first release. "Young Love" shot to
the top of the charts, where he bumped Elvis Presley out of the #1
spot and remained there for six more weeks. His other hits -
"Ninety-Nine Ways" and "Apple Blossom Time," also charted, but not
nearly as high.
In 1958, Hunter's acting
career hit a high note when he landed a role in "Damn Yankees," the
Academy Award-nominated movie co-starring Gwen Verdon and Ray
Walston. Two years later, he starred in his own television series --
The Tab Hunter Show -- a sitcom in which he played a cartoonist. It
was cancelled after one year on NBC and Hunter resumed his stage and
The 1960s saw Hunter appear
in the beach movie "Ride the Wild Surf" (with Barbara Eden and
Shelly Fabares). He also appeared in "Operation Bikini" (with
Frankie Avalon and Jody McCrea). His career went into a bit of an
eclipse after that, but he made a comeback when cast in the 1972
film "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (with Paul Newman and
In the following years,
Hunter often picked projects that seemed to parody his clean-cut
image of the male ideal. In 1980, he played a cocaine-sniffing
lothario, Todd Tomorrow, in John Waters' outrageous comedy,
"Polyester," which co-starred the late cross-gender actor Divine. In
1985, he teamed with Divine again to make "Lust in the Dust," which
he starred in and co-produced.
In 1982, Hunter played a
schoolteacher in "Grease 2". In one scene, he led a classroom full
of biology students in a rousing rendition of a song titled
"Reproduction." In all, Hunter has appeared in over 50
feature-length films. He wrote and co-produced the 1992 movie "Dark
Horse," a family drama starring Mimi Rogers and Ed Begley,
Today, Hunter prefers
producing to acting. Projects in the works include a film about the
'40s screen actress Evelyn Keyes titled "Blues in the Night" (Keyes
played Scarlett O'Hara's younger sister in "Gone With the Wind" and
was married to bandleader Artie Shaw and legendary actor-director
John Huston); and a love story/historical drama set in Ireland
titled "The Road Rise Up."
Fans of Tab Hunter may
visit the star or purchase an autograph online at http://www.tabhunter.com/.
was the right guy for the times: tall, handsome, blond, athletic.
Girls in the '50s swooned.
on a tour promoting "Burning Hills" (with Natalie Wood) Tab got the
Religious icons, highlighted by "Madonna of the
Canned Hams" (at right) made from a SPAM can.
Zsa Gabor, like Tab, is a fan of horses. She was featured in his
video, "Hollywood on Horses."
Ironstone, Staffordshire, Thai heads, old bowls and
pottery -- Hunter collects & displays
dining room features a Jacobean table and a 17th century painting,
"Cleo Crossing the Tiber."