Collector keeps TV history alive

Aficionado holds Lucy's wig, Cher's gowns and the stories behind them

— James Comisar is whistling a happy tune as he scrounges through a rack of clothing. From the thousands of items in his TV memorabilia collection, Comisar plucks out sheriff's costumes used in "The Andy Griffith Show" as he evokes a few bars of the show's theme song.

"I didn't realize I was whistling," Comisar says, lost in admiration of duds worn by Griffith and co-star Don Knotts. "I take great pride in knowing that these still exist, that Andy and Barney are back together, at least in this warehouse, and safe."

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James Comisar shows off Captain Kirk's phaser, used during the first season of "Star Trek" in 1966, which he keeps in a guarded, climate-controlled storage facility. A one-time comedy writer, Comisar's respect for television as a cultural institution lead him to assemble what seems the largest collection of privately held TV artifacts.

The secure, climate-controlled facility is crammed with TV nostalgia: Lt. Columbo's shabby overcoat, Capt. Stubing's "The Love Boat" uniform, Cher's gowns, the shoe phone used by bumbling agent Maxwell Smart ("Florsheim 9D, left, for you trivia pigs," offers Comisar), and the curtain from Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show set.

There are pieces as old as Buffalo Bob's outfit from "Howdy Doody," the children's show that debuted in 1947, and as new as the shirt James Gandolfini wears in the opening shots of "The Sopranos."

The warehouse represents just a slice of Comisar's goodies. Larger pieces, such as the spaceship from "Mork & Mindy," much of the set from "All in the Family" (the Smithsonian has Archie Bunker's easy chair) and the rest of the old "Tonight" set, donated by Carson himself, are stored elsewhere.

Building a hefty collection

A one-time comedy writer, Comisar's respect for television as a cultural institution lead him to assemble what seemed a shoo-in as the largest collection of privately held TV artifacts.

Plans are in the works to send 500 or so choice items on an extended tour of North American museums.

"This is a total calling," says Comisar, 37. "I was raised on TV. I grew up a fat kid and there wasn't much Little League for me. I came home, grabbed the Pop-Tarts, and there I was watching television."

His weight helped him develop a sense of humor "just to stay alive," says the now-trim Comisar, and he pursued a career as a writer for comedians including Howie Mandel and Joan Rivers and for sitcoms and talk shows.

Strolling studio backlots for exercise, Comisar found himself drawn to the remnants of old TV shows that often ended up recycled for new productions or just carelessly stored.

He began buying costumes intended for rental. Newspaper classified ads were his next move, and Comisar began finding out how many sources existed for TV history.

Sentimental value

Actors, directors and just about anyone connected with a program could have potentially worthwhile items to sell. So could their relatives.

Mr. Spock's ears, for example, came from the estate of an original "Star Trek" makeup artist whose family had kept them "as a great reminder of dad, who passed on," Comisar said.

He was shocked when he bought them at auction for several thousand dollars: "What a bargain that was." When Comisar is asked the value of two "Gilligan's Island" items, hats worn by the Captain and Gilligan, he reluctantly offers an estimate of $30,000.

"But to me it diminishes the value of what this is," he says. "The memory I have of sitting at home, watching the show with my dad on the horrible avocado green carpet, how do you put a value on that? I don't want to reduce them to assets."

Since Comisar's self-described "little habit" became an increasingly expensive, full-time job, he began to rely on his passion to pay for itself. After more than a decade of collecting, Comisar has become an expert hired by auction houses and by late stars' estates.

"I do all my own research. Due diligence is everything in any area of antiquity," he said. "If you handle enough Eva Gabor negligees from 'Green Acres,' after a while you know what kind of stitch the studio used."

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