The Celebrity Collector
Tab Hunter loved antiques all his life and
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 back."

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 Angie Dickinson.

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 screen career.

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 Stacy Keach).

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, Jr.

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/.

2003


Hunter was the right guy for the times: tall, handsome, blond, athletic. Girls in the '50s swooned.


While on a tour promoting "Burning Hills" (with Natalie Wood) Tab got the singing bug.


Religious icons, highlighted by "Madonna of the Canned Hams" (at right) made from a SPAM can.


Zsa 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
all of it.


Tab's dining room features a Jacobean table and a 17th century painting, "Cleo Crossing the Tiber."

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