April 27, 2013
SLATER — It’s a safe bet that the largest collection of Steve McQueen memorabilia ever brought together in one room was found on Saturday at Slater City Hall. And like the legendary actor who was raised on a farm near Slater — 42 miles north of Sedalia — all you needed was a fast machine to get there.
Unfortunately, the vintage car show at the seventh annual Steve McQueen Day was canceled due to the rain (an underrated McQueen movie: “Baby the Rain Must Fall”; an overrated one: “Soldier in the Rain”). But despite the belief of the owners of the neighboring The Great Escape antique store that McQueen Day had been entirely wiped out, the memorabilia show went on, and it was a treasure trove for anyone interested in the actor, particularly his 1958 TV Western breakthrough, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
The exhibit combined the collections of the country’s two McQueen museums: Slater’s, which is open year-round; and the one in Beech Grove, Ind., which was on loan for the day.
“We started the collection in 2010 because nothing had been done to commemorate the anniversary of his birth and death, and it was a nice round figure that year,” said Steve Nontell, the volunteer curator of the Steve McQueen Birthplace Collection, who made the journey to Slater with his wife, Jhoni.
“For many years it was like an unfounded rumor that McQueen (who died in 1980 at age 50) was born in Beech Grove, but there wasn’t enough documentation. Finally a librarian at the Beech Grove library found that he was born at the Catholic hospital there.
“From age 4 to 14, he spent his time here growing up (at his great uncle’s farm), so Slater has a greater claim to his formative years. But we have the claim that he was the most famous person born in our town.”
Because Slater already had a good collection showcasing McQueen’s entire career — visitors can see book and magazine covers, photos and more — and because most historians had focused on his film work, Nontell decided Beech Grove’s collection should zero in on the “birth” of McQueen’s career.
Every available DVD from the actor’s catalogue was on display Saturday, but a screen exclusively projected “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the 94-episode series starring McQueen as always-cool bounty hunter Josh Randall.
“It’s like people race right past the TV show to get to the movies,” Nontell said. “I think they ignore the fact that with 94 episodes at a half-hour each, you can see McQueen literally changing his character from a very talkative person to a very quiet, tight-lipped person. So you see him learning his craft.”
The exhibit featured all the toys from the series, including five versions of the Mare’s Leg gun, plus one paperback novel, two Dell comic books, two board games, a Topps trading card set and various promotional photos.
The oddest “Wanted: Dead or Alive” collectible: A complete episode guide — written in French.
“It’s the only book written about the complete series,” Nontell said. “It’s very detailed. The only problem is it’s in French. The show was a huge hit in France.”
Somewhat wistfully, Nontell added: “There were 20-plus comics issued in France that we know about, but haven’t seen.”
For many years, memorabilia from “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was easier to collect than the show itself. That was finally corrected with the DVD release in 2009. But Nontell is anxiously hoping that McQueen’s two episodes of the Western “Trackdown” will hit DVD someday, as well as two movies — “The Honeymoon Machine” and “Love with the Proper Stranger” — that are only available on VHS.
The latter’s lack of a DVD release is confounding, considering that it stars not only McQueen, but also Natalie Wood. The 1963 film rates a 7.1 on IMDB and the comment thread is filled with posts shouting “What, no DVD?!!!” and “Underrated!!!”
“It’s a neat film,” Nontell said. “It explored abortion years before it was a national issue; it has two big stars. Why it hasn’t been released on DVD, we have no idea.”
It’s clear that Nontell and his wife are not just McQueen historians, but also fans. Nontell is looking forward to the recently announced biopic starring Jeremy Renner and based on Marshall Terrill’s four books about McQueen.
“We’re impressed with how much he was able to do with the life he had growing up, with his mother handing him off to various relatives, a bad stepfather or two in the mix, some stability out here at the farm in Slater, but then getting yanked away because his mother wanted him back.
“To look at what he did after what he grew up with is one of the neatest things we’ve learned. You have take your hat off to that.”
In Nontell’s case, that would be a replica Josh Randall cowboy hat, naturally.