One Madisonian is on a quest for autographs from dozens of "Simpsons" guest stars, and he's succeeding.
"Danny DeVito signed the clear plastic bag, the thing that's just there to protect the picture. I remember taking the picture out of the bag and wondering—where did the signature go? I had to get out a razor blade and very, very carefully cut so I could fit the autographed plastic and the non-autographed picture in the frame," says Al Hart, "On the upside, I can always take out that clear plastic and have anything in my house be signed by Danny DeVito."
Al Hart is a familiar face around Madison. He's a regular improv performer at Monkey Business Institute and he's been a fixture in local theatres ranging from the Bartell to Broom Street to North Haverbrook. Hart bartends at Christy's Landing, a truly underrated gem on the shore of Lake Waubesa. He's also the head writer at the start-up comic book company Gemini Comix.
Somewhere, in the midst of all that, Al Hart has found the time to create his own category of collectable. After seeing other DIY fan projects online, Hart was embiggened to start collecting autographs from people who have guest-starred on The Simpsons. He's pursuing this collection not as an eBay nest egg but as a tribute to a show he has loved for almost 30 years.
"I've always been a fan of the show and I've been a bit a toy-collecting nerd for years, but I was never really into autographs, but I kept coming back to the idea of creating my own format and sending these out," says Hart. "The Simpsons is just such a rich pool. There [are] getting close to 800 guest stars on the show and it's about close to half of those names that I'd like to get. But I never had a sense of urgency about it until, frankly, some of the more prominent guest stars started dying."
After the recent deaths of celebrities like Leonard Nimoy and Garry Marshall, Hart decided to finally start his project in the summer of 2016. In less than a year, Hart has gotten 56 signatures back. It was 54 when we did this interview in mid-July. The signatures have taken up an entire wall of Hart's house and have started to bleed over to an adjoining wall.
The wall is charmingly eclectic. Is there any other context where you could put together Edward James Olmos, Dan Rather, Dolly Parton, Wade Boggs, Amy Tan, Mark Cuban and Yo-Yo Ma in the same collection? Hart's successful collections so far represent a good cross section of the many, many guests that have appeared on the show.
Some signatures are playful. Jane Kaczmarek, a UW-Madison alum, noticed Hart's Madison address and personalized hers with quick shoutouts to the Badgers and the Packers. Hart even got Dustin Hoffman to sign one, even though Hoffman originally performed under the pseudonym Sam Etic. The collection even veers into the controversial. Martin Sheen's autograph provides a stark reminder of Season 9's "The Principal And The Pauper," an episode that is still divisive a full 20 years later.
By design, Hart's collection has a heavy focus on Hollywood legends. Mel Brooks, Bob Newhart, Nichelle Nichols, Ed Asner, Betty White, and Tony Bennett are all striking additions.
While designing the template took Hart a while, it doesn't take him long to get each one out. He finds a headshot online for the celebrity and then he finds a picture of their Simpsons character. For older seasons, this is relatively simple as he can scrub through the DVDs until he finds a shot where there's enough empty space for a signature. Newer seasons are more difficult, because Fox stopped releasing DVDs of The Simpsons after Season 17. For those, Hart has to use whatever images Fox chooses to release to promote the episode.
Hart employs multiple strategies to build out his collection. He finds many of the addresses online through websites run by autograph seekers. Those sites often provide feedback about success rates and celebrities' willingness to sign custom items. For the items that go through the mail, Hart includes a cover letter explaining the project and that this is a personal project for him, he's not a reseller.
When a celebrity on his list is on Broadway or working in a similar production, he's mailed the theatre directly.
"That's how I got Glenn Close. The venues generally collect mail for them. At the theatre, they might be getting a half-dozen pieces of mail a day compared to a hundred or more going to their agent's office," says Hart.
He's also collected signatures by going to different conventions, though never the Bi-Mon Sci-Fi Con. Last year, at the New York Comic Con he found a kindred soul in one celebrity.
"Adam Savage of Mythbusters was going through signatures very quickly but he stopped when he saw mine. He asked me where I got it and was impressed when I told him I designed it," says Hart, "As he's a maker and a fan, it meant a lot to me that he thought it was a cool project."
While Hart started this less than a year ago, he didn't imagine he'd eventually have more than 50 signatures.
"If I had known this was going to be so successful, I probably would have made the template a little smaller. At this rate, they are going to cover the entire room," says Hart.