By NATALIE NAVARRO
Featured in Autograph April 2009
In 1929, Joy Light started what would become her son Walter’s life work: a large Irish linen tablecloth autographed by Hollywood celebrities, presidents and first ladies, music stars and sports legends. Olga’s husband Walter Sr., owned a movie theater in Chester, Ill., and used to take Olga with him to “Film Row” in St. Louis, where movie stars made their personal appearances.
Olga’s first signature was John Barrymore. By the time of her death in 1944, she had collected 77 autographs, which she meticulously embroidered in shades of red and burgundy. In addition to film stars, sports figures Dizzy Dean and Jack Dempsey, author Sinclair Lewis and bandleader Benny Goodman all signed the cloth.
She left “The Tablecloth,” an unfinished legacy, to her son, who was nicknamed Lucky after he survived a near fall, dangling from the 200-foot water tower right behind his dad’s theater. But Lucky left it aside as he pursued his own career in entertainment.
Big band drummer Gene Krupa gave him the inspiration to be a drummer when he brushed 12-year-old Walter out of the way as the boy stood holding his mother’s tablecloth, hoping for an autograph. “Out of my way, kid. I’m in a hurry.”
A drummer in the Big Band Era, Lucky Light spent years touring the country, living out of the back seat of his car. In his late ’50s, he was earning money turning horseshoes into personalized objets d’arte, which he also presented to more than 100 celebrities. When Walter met a celebrity to give him a horseshoe, it finally occurred to him to take the tablecloth along. After 40 years stuck in a drawer, the tablecloth finally got autograph No. 78: George Gobels.
Light has added another 582 autographs to the cloth since. “I started out adding signatures to the cloth quite casually—when it fit my schedule and it was handy,” Light said. “It soon became a 24-hour-a-day mind set. This project took over my entire life.”
In 1984, as Debbie Reynolds contributed her autograph, she commented on how “funky” the cloth had become. Light washed out more than 50 years of grime—unfortunately along with conductor Leopold Stokowski’s autograph, which had not yet been embroidered. “I took it to the police station thinking they might have some technology to restore that signature, but they couldn’t get it.”
Light continued his mother’s practice of embroidering the autographs in shades of red thread. “I only have room for about 100 more autographs,” he said. “I made out a wish list about five years ago. I’ve chosen champions—award winners, record holders, Hall of Famers. Some of the people I’ve contacted have reserved a space. Dustin Hoffman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, Priscilla Presley, Martha Stewart—they all want to add their name to the cloth. But it has to wait until I can get out to California, because I won’t mail it anymore. Colin Powell is mad at me because I won’t mail it to him. My heart just can’t take it any longer.”
Light has mailed the tablecloth 17 times—the first time to golfer Ben Hogan. The last person he mailed it to was Barbara Bush, who signed it while President George H.W. Bush was in office.
When Light meets the celebrities, he takes pictures with them, collects the autographs and even the pens they use to sign the cloth with, and he collects stories. He’s compiling a book of them and shared a few with Autograph.
“I think the most memorable signing experience I had was flying to England to meet Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic. She took me on a tour of the Southampton Docks where the Titanic embarked on its maiden voyage in 1912. Millvina was the youngest passenger aboard. After signing the tablecloth in the Maritime Museum, we dashed through a heavy downpour to the Gamekeepers Pub. On the cab ride back to my hotel, Millvina and I sang every song ever written about a state in America. She also told me her mother’s maiden name was Light. It broke my heart when I learned
that she was selling off all her personal memorabilia just to pay nursing home expenses.”
Light lingers on his sadness until he remembers another one of his favorite encounters. It took three years worth of correspondence to set up an appointment with The Honeymooners Audrey Meadows. After the maid opened the door, Meadows appeared. “You have something for me to sign?” she asked.
“Yes, Audrey, I have this tablecloth for you to sign. Remember? Can your maid snap a couple of pictures of us?” Light asked.
“Pictures? Pictures? No one told me anything about any pictures,” she said.
“I’ve mentioned it in each of my letters over the past three years, Audrey.” Light finally convinced her of the importance of the pictures and she left him in the living room, drink in hand while she retired to her room to put on make-up.
“She returned looking more radiant and beautiful than anyone ever had a chance to see on The Honeymooners. She took charge—set the stage, the background and lighting, arranged the angles. You can’t imagine. Finally after eight pictures, she figured we were done. ‘Not so fast,’ I said. I moved closer to Audrey and planted a kiss on her cheek. Flash went the camera one more time.”
Five presidents have signed the tablecloth but only one, Ronald Reagan, signed it while in office. Light sent the cloth by mail and received it just three days later. His chance to meet the president didn’t come until May 23, 1994. “I met him in Los Angeles, in the Fox Building on the Avenue of the Stars. Meeting him and talking to him for an hour was not something I had expected. I think he liked that my nickname was Lucky—his dog was named Lucky. I gave him a black and white brochure on the tablecloth. He liked it, but then handed me the color brochure of his Presidential Library and suggested I go see it—and that I do a new brochure in color to better show off the cloth. I put one together and used one of the pictures of us together for the cover. It wasn’t until I looked closely that I realized his tie tack was a horseshoe—a beautiful
Light uses an old Minolta camera to take the pictures of celebrities signing the cloth. “Audrey Meadows finally showed me how to use it,” he said. “She handed the camera to her secretary and said, ‘This camera has a critical center focus.’ Sure took better pictures after she taught me that.”
When asked who has the best signature on the tablecloth, Light reeled off a list of names, but when asked who has the worst signature he quickly answered: “Uncontested. Mickey Rooney.”
Light explained how he gathers his autographs. “Once I pick a name, I’m sure I do the same thing all autograph collectors do. Read the papers. Listen to the radio, watch TV. It’s almost like detective work. You have to be persistent and want that signature pretty badly.”
When asked what his plans are when the tablecloth is completed, Light shook his head. “I’ll probably cry a lot. I’ve enjoyed the fantastic experiences I’ve had meeting these wonderful celebrities. I’ve always looked forward to the many challenges and obstacles. I often thought of it as an ongoing game of chess.”
Then Walter Light lifted his head and laughed. “How can I possibly retire? Once the cloth is filled, I still have matching napkins.”