As a black van pulled up to the Langham Huntington in Pasadena, a group of 30 people huddled in the hotel’s entrance perked up.
They stood, their heads snapping in unison toward the vehicle, trying to figure out who might be behind that tinted window. Some grabbed their cameras and others rummaged through binders filled with posters organized alphabetically. They were ready.
“Let the games begin,” someone said, making his way to the front of the velvet rope.
The group, a community devoted to collecting photos and autographs of celebrities, is an unofficial but familiar presence at the Television Critics Assn.’s winter press tour, which wrapped up Jan. 18.
Each year they camp out at the Langham’s entrance for easy access to the numerous entertainers who parade through this biannual gathering of journalists and the stars they cover. (The TCA’s summer event at the Beverly Hilton hotel isn’t quite as accommodating. And their presence isn’t always welcome, depending on whom you ask.)
The Times recently got a glimpse into this community bound by its shared love for the stars of TV and film. It was soon learned that not everyone is keen on discussing their lobby. Many were nervous around a reporter, declining to give their names for this story and worrying that it would attract more fans to the hotel and ruin their prospects for autographs.
“As fans, as collectors, we’re all in this together,” said Morgan King, a retired 41-year-old watch collector who lives a few blocks from the hotel and wandered over after seeing so many black limos pull up.
But there’s also a strong divide in the group. You’re either simply a fan or a so-called “grapher,” a person who collects autographs to turn a profit by selling them online. It can be a cutthroat business, since entertainers sometimes sign only a few things before heading in and out.
When someone spotted Dan Stevens, the English actor best known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” the crowd surged forward to be in his direct line of sight.
The graphers pulled out their posters, thrusting them over the heads of people up front, nabbing an autograph and whipping the copies out so rapidly that Stevens probably didn’t even know where they were coming from.
For the fans, such moments are a fleeting brush with fame and a chance to tell the stars how much their work means to them.
Although these fans don’t necessarily sell their autographs or photos, many still carry bags full of posters to be signed (which then make nice gifts) and take selfies suitable for framing. One 47-year-old woman from Moreno Valley, who asked to remain anonymous, called the winter edition of TCA “the Super Bowl of graphing.”
This group has good reasons to stay under the radar of course: One fan had called in sick and another took the day off from work to hang out at TCA. They were so worried about their identities being revealed, they even came up with aliases to talk with The Times, but we’ll just call them Woman A and Woman B.
During FX’s day, the two women staked out a corner in the courtyard. And even in a casual setting, appearances were important. At one point, Woman A smoothed out the frizz in her friend’s blond hair, making sure she was ready for the next photo op. They could talk all day about their experiences.
"I like to do this because I like seeing how they treat regular people,” Woman B said.
Then again, you don’t want to cross them.
“If people get crazy, I will rip the sign out of their hands,” Woman A said loud enough for others to overhear. They had been forewarned.
“The reality is that the group of autograph folks exist outside of our parameters. I know they're there, but I wouldn't know what to say about them,” a TCA member, who declined to give his name, told The Times in an email. “We're kind of in a bubble in the ballrooms here, and so from our perspective, they neither add nor subtract.”
Comedian Louie Anderson, who was at TCA promoting his new series “Baskets,” is a fan of the fans, though. He stopped by their designated area multiple times to chat, sign posters and take photos.
“They waited out in the rain and cold. It doesn’t hurt to stop for five minutes. Their thing is our thing,” Anderson said, adding that he even once began writing a sitcom about the autograph community called “Graphs.”
Meanwhile, Iris Ma, an outsider to this community, drifted over to the roped-off section after helping a friend inside. “Now it’s time for me to have fun,” she said as she pulled out her camera.
She was initially skeptical, unsure of why anyone would wait so long for an autograph. But then her eyes widened at the sight of a cast member from “This Is Us.” Now she, too, was waiting for a selfie.
“I just turned into one of them,” Ma said.
In another corner, a 43-year-old grapher — who, you guessed it, was skittish to give his name — stood arranging posters in cardboard holders. He detailed the darker side of the for-profit business.
“It started as a hobby for me in 1990. There was the grocery strike in 2003. That’s when I started selling stuff,” he said, noting that he uses the money to supplement his day job. “For a normal job, you put in the 40 hours and come home. In the autograph world, you have to fight to survive. … The more people who know about it, the less money you can make.”
Sold on EBay and other sites, the price tag for an autographed collectible ranges wildly — some for less than $10 and others greater than $200. A 12-by-18-inch “Taboo” poster signed by six of the cast members during TCA initially listed for nearly $400. The seller took photos of the stars signing autographs as proof of authenticity.
But not everyone is excited to take part in the annual exchange between the stars and their admirers.
Some celebrities don’t bother stopping (actress Catherine Zeta-Jones made a beeline away from the fans after exiting the Langham), but many do, seizing the moment to briefly interact with fans as a way of saying thank you.
“I owe it to the fans,” said “This Is Us” actor Ron Cephas Jones. “Fans make the show. I appreciate that very much.”
“If it weren’t for people who appreciate what I did, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” fellow “This Is Us” cast member Sterling K. Brown said.
After overhearing this, a fan calls out to him to return the sentiment: “We appreciate you.”
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