Quest for the Holy Autograph

In which I try to get John Cleese’s autograph.

flashback, waterloo, 1985

In 1985 or so, I went with some friends to a lecture in the Humanities Theatre at the University of Waterloo by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. (King Arthur, from the Holy Grail, as if you needed a reminder.) Graham Chapman Portrait

I remember Chapman came out and said “I’d like to start this lecture with two minutes of abuse. Go on. Let me have it!” and we all started yelling silly insults at him. It was a fun talk – he told stories, talked about his involvement with the Dangerous Sports Club, and after the talk a few of my friends and I decided we’d get an autograph, and met him in the green room at the theatre.

He was gracious, and charming, and kindly signed my copy of the script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which I just happened to have with me. “To Steve, with best wishes, from Graham Chapman” and he drew a giant arrow pointing to his own name just in case it wasn’t clear which one he was. I loved that flourish.

Autographed Script

Of course he then went and died a few years later, so this remains one of my most prized possessions, stored in a place of honour on my office bookshelf (right next to my autographed copy of K&R, “The C Programming Language”.)

Autographed copy of The C Programming Language

Incidentally the Kernighan and Ritchie autographs happened about 8 years apart. I saw Kernighan give a lecture on Software Tools in 1981 in London just as I’d started my first job, and that really got me hooked on Unix. Happened to meet Dennis Ritchie many years later at a USENIX conference and, naturally, I just happened to have my copy of the book on hand in the elevator. Two of my technical heroes, and I got to meet them and say hi.

more time passes

For years I have been meaning to get a few more autographs on the Python script. Terry Jones. Terry Gilliam. Michael Palin. Eric Idle. John Cleese. They are all comedy legends – and some of them occasionally wind up in Toronto for one reason or another.

Terry Jones, alas, is not well, suffering from dementia and has withdrawn from public life.

Michael Palin was here a few months ago promoting his wonderful book “Erebus” on the Franklin Expeditions, and I found out about it too late (like, five minutes before the show) to get a ticket. (My brother in law went, thanks for not telling me about this.)

But wait, what’s this? John Cleese will be speaking at Roy Thomson Hall in May 2019? How cool would it be to get a 2nd autograph on the script, 34 years after the first one? And how many more chances will I ever get?

I dropped a serious hint with Cathy that this would be an awesome surprise present for me, and she got us some great seats WAY ahead of time, and accompanied me to the show last night.

Naturally I was pretty excited, and brought the book and a pen with me in the hopes I might be able to get an autograph. To my dismay I discovered that there was an official Meet and Greet reception after the show – for another $275 – and I would gladly have paid to get in there, but it was sold out.

I took a shot in Twitter in the chance that somebody – maybe the event’s host, John Moore of CFRB 1010 radio – would have an idea about getting an autograph.

John Moore graciously replied and of course he had other priorities than worrying about me –

but we went anyway and hoped for the best.

the show

The lecture was great fun. Cleese spoke for an hour about how there is no Hope, and nobody knows what to do about anything, and that it is perhaps better if we just accept that and enjoy life. He then took (emailed) questions from the audience for another 45 minutes.

IMG 9950

Cathy urged me to email a question. “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t.”
I did send one in – “Can you tell us a good Graham Chapman story?” – but they didn’t get to it.

after the show

A reception took place for people who had the foresight to buy a meet-and-greet ticket, and I wandered around to the Roy Thomson Hall stage door in the hopes of getting a last minute autograph. I could see into the reception room. People were lining up to get a picture, people were getting memorabilia autographed, I was standing outside in the rain, hoping against hope that I might be able to show John Cleese this autograph of his friend Graham Chapman and get him to add one more. I was imagining the witty repartee we’d engage in.

Then a few things happened.

  • A professional autograph seeker was also hanging around. One of the sort of people who have just turned autographs into a business and probably ruined it for normal people. We talked for a bit. He was obviously interested in getting signatures he could sell. He told me he’d got Christopher Plummer to sign something from this exact spot a few months ago. I guess he’s only after the 80 year old celebrities. Maybe that makes sense.
  • Big security guy came out and shooed us away. You can’t stand here. Go stand over there 200 feet away if you like.
  • Pro autograph guy says “See that white volvo? That’s the car he’ll be getting into.”
  • We wait, far away from the white volvo
  • The lights flash on the volvo! Someone has opened the door! Someone’s coming out!
  • We scurry back. One professional autograph reseller, and me, someone who I think is just a genuine fan wanting to say hello to one of his comedy heroes.
  • Several security guards step out and shoo us both away. But but but but ….
  • Cleese comes out, bundled up against the cold and rain, heads straight into the car and is driven away.

Sigh.

I guess I could have been more assertive there and yelled something but the guy is 80 years old and it’s cold and raining and I’m sure he would just like to get to the hotel and if I was a REAL fan I would have ponied up for the expensive meet and greet somehow, along with all the other people who I’m sure are not real fans.

The script remains bereft of any additional autographs.

It’s certainly uncontaminated by Cleese.

But … he’s speaking again in Buffalo next Tuesday, hmm…..

Or maybe this can just remain a fond memory of a chance I had to actually see and enjoy John Cleese, even if I didn’t get the autograph. I can tell the story of the near miss for years, just like my other annoying story of the Time I Almost Met Marvin Hamlisch (blog post on THAT to come.)

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