Saltwater Portrait

Rehoboth's Robert J. Schunck reaches out to the stars

Katharine Hepburn autograph a highlight of collection
Robert J. Schunck admires one of his favorite pieces of memorabilia: an autographed photo of Elizabeth Taylor and a handwritten note he said she wrote him. BY MELISSA STEELE
September 20, 2011

When Rehoboth Beach resident Robert J. Schunck began writing letters in the early '90s to former Hollywood star Ann Miller, it started a pastime that some might call obsessive.

Thousands of movies and memorabilia later, his Sea Air home is so full of items he can barely get in and out.

"My mom calls it the Hollywood garage," said Schunck.

Among his favorite pieces of memorabilia is the signed picture of Ann Miller that began it all.

"I wrote to her, and she said I would have to send her money for stamps if I wanted her to keep writing me," he said. "So I did."

Throughout their correspondence, he said, he asked Miller about Judy Garland and whether the rumors about the studios giving her drugs were true. Miller confirmed it, he said.

Then, Schunck said, Miller suggested he get in touch with Debbie Reynolds.

After writing Reynolds for awhile, the two met in 1999 when she was at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino doing a show. After that, Schunck said, he traveled to Atlantic City, North Carolina and all over to watch her perform.

"She was very nice," he said. "I love watching her perform."

A framed picture of Schunck and Reynolds is a constant reminder to him of her kindness.

Most of his photos are of movie stars who rose to fame at a time when the studios controlled their lives. Many names may not to be readily recognized by younger generations: Arlene Dahl, Alice Fay, Danny Thomas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Esther Williams, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Among the actors who were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, he has photos of Sally Field, Dennis the Menace, Doris Roberts, Nell Carter, Kathy Bates and Betty White – the latter two who continue starring in popular shows today.

As a child growing up in Dundalk, Md., outside of Baltimore, Schunck said he religiously watched movies. "Easter Parade" starring Ann Miller and Judy Garland was one of his favorites, and he said he misses the glamorous movie stars of the past.

"There aren't any movie stars like the old ones," he said.

One exception is John Travolta, who Schunck said he particularly liked in "Face Off."

"I was in Baltimore all those years. Then I move here, and John Travolta does "Ladder 49 in Baltimore," he said.

Schunck moved here with his mother 18 years ago and has worked at restaurants since he was 15 years old. He's worked in the kitchen, waited tables and tended bar first at Baltimore favorites Sabatino's and Haussner's and since moving to Rehoboth Beach has worked at Grottos, Captain's Table and 1776. Schunck currently works at Ruby Tuesday where he tends the salad bar.

His most prized possession is a tossup between a Katharine Hepburn autograph and an original Willie Wonka poster with the autographs of the child actors. Schunck said he spent $5,000 on it in 1999, but is considering donating it to a Hollywood museum that has shown interest in it.

Also high on his list of favorite memorabilia is a thank you note from Elizabeth Taylor.

"I kept writing and writing to her," he said. "I went to Walmart, Kmart and Dollar Tree and said 'You're the most beautiful woman in the world and your movies are selling for $1'."

Taylor wrote back with "Thanks for the DVDs" hand written on personalized note pad paper, which Schunck has since framed behind glass with an autographed picture of the movie star.

In fact, he said, he wrote her so much that he knew something was wrong when his letters were returned to him unopened.

He called the hospital everyday after she was hospitalized and was heartbroken the day she died.

"I cried so hard when Elizabeth Taylor died," he said in a soft, melancholy voice. "I wanted to go to her funeral, but they weren't letting anybody in."

He's thinking about going to the upcoming auction of Taylor's jewels, clothes and other memorabilia in New York City, but he's not quite sure he'll make it.

He's had to rely on friends to drive him to many of events, but despite that, he has traveled to Hollywood 39 times and watched the stars walk the red carpet for the Oscars four times. "You're there for 10 hours, but it's so much fun," he said.

While on one of his Hollywood trips, Schunck said, paparazzi offered him $100 to get Halle Berry's trash. He did, and he took it to an office, where he said they emptied the bag and lined each piece of trash on the table.

Lately, he's sought out Las Vegas as a destination because of the variety shows featured there. He's met Cher and wants to go see Donny and Marie next.

While some might refer to his pastime as fanatical, Schunck prefers to call it star chasing.

"I don't drink or smoke," he said. "I don't go out and don't drive. This is what I like to do."