Lincoln City theater owner aces celebrity name game

Bijou Theatre’s Betsy Altomare met plenty of musicians when she worked for Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard

In these strange days, I’m game for pretty much anything that might inspire a few grins, and lately that’s coming, often as not, from Facebook, where I spend entirely too much time.

One recent “game” going around asks for the names of five (or sometimes 10) celebrities you’ve met, including one that’s a lie. Then it’s up to your friends to guess which one that is.

I listed Joe Cocker, Wally Lamb, Ty Burrell, David Ogden Stiers, and Tippi Hedren.

I met Cocker when I interviewed him at his wife’s café in Crawford, Colo., a little town about 70 miles southeast of Grand Junction. He was shy, friendly, and constantly in motion. I had lunch with Stiers as the guest of a friend who bid on the meal for a fundraiser. Wally Lamb — just as nice as you might imagine — read from one of his novels at the Denver Woman’s Press Club, and I met Hedren when I interviewed her for a story for The Oregonian. She was friendly but disturbed that I wasn’t taping our conversation. She said she had canceled interviews over a lack of recording. But she let me go ahead and later thanked me for getting it right. You can guess from the above whom I never actually met — I’ve always loved that he was raised in the Rogue Valley, where I also lived for a couple of years.

My list, however, pales next to Betsy Altomare’s. Betsy and her husband, Keith, own and operate the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City. Although the Bijou is closed for now, you can still get their famous popcorn and stream movies from their virtual theater.

Betsy Altomare remembers meeting Paul Newman when she was 16 years old. He did not give her an autograph.

But about that list. Altomare named nine celebrities she met and one she didn’t.  They are: Elton John, David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz, Tina Turner, Neil Young, Sarah McLachlan, Cameron Crowe, Paul Newman, John Entwistle, and Bruce Springsteen. How did she meet all those famous people? Turns out she worked at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, and also did marketing for music trade publication HITS Magazine.

Who was your first?

Altomare: Paul Newman. When I was 16, a bunch of actors — Newman, Joanne Woodward, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Jacqueline Bisset — came to sign a petition at a Santa Monica Beach parking lot to stop off-shore drilling. Me, my best friend, and my dad went to see all the Hollywood stars. I caught Paul Newman going into his bus and I asked for an autograph. He said, “No, I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”

What was the most surprising encounter?

I guess maybe Elton John. I was a huge Elton John fan when I was a teenage girl. When I was 25, he came into Tower and I was too shy to talk to him. He went across the street to a video store after the record store. I followed him. That’s when I finally went up to him and told him I loved his music and got his autograph.

Elton John, however, did give Altomare an autograph.

Was he friendly?

He was polite. He had bodyguards with him. It was the biggest record store on the West Coast. Elton John was known to just close down the record store and do his shopping. His song writer, Bernie Taupin, used to come in regularly, and I would help him. He would bring a list and we would help him find the records.

Neil Young?

He was a character in the movie, Human Highway.  It was pretty silly. My boyfriend and I got tickets to the premiere and premiere party and he was there. It was in a big warehouse and they had these games related to the movie. He was very, very polite. I asked for his autograph and he said, “You know, let’s wait a second.” There were a couple of guys across the room and there was something going on, and he walked over to them, then he came back and signed it.

What was the most memorable?

Probably having dinner and riding in a car with R.E.M. My boyfriend, now my husband, worked for the record company that represented R.E.M and the Go-Go’s. I was invited to go to a dinner with R.E.M. members Peter Buck and Mike Mills.

Wait, that’s not on your list.

I know, but I only had room for 10.

Altomare met Lenny Kravitz when she was working for music trade publication HITS Magazine. Photo courtesy: Betsy Altomare
Altomare met Lenny Kravitz when she was working for music trade publication HITS Magazine. Photo courtesy: Betsy Altomare

Have you met that many more celebrities?

Not a lot. I delivered something to Harry Nilsson’s house. He was having a gathering. He pulls me inside. Marvin Gaye was singing the national anthem at a basketball game on TV. He said “You gotta see this. It’s the best I’ve ever heard.” He offered me a drink and he was obviously intoxicated. I watched for a second and then I said, “I gotta go.” I didn’t look around to see who was there, but there were probably other musicians.

I guess I’m most impressed that you actually met Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen was pretty cool. He used to come into Tower pretty regularly. They had a two-way mirror above the oldies section in the cassettes, and security would look over the store from there. That was the section Bruce Springsteen would go to. We would stand there with security maybe six feet away and look down at him. I went over and stood there while he signed autographs. The whole store would buzz when he came in. It was kind of a routine. Employees would bring a short stack of records and he would sign album covers for them. He was always very nice about it.

How did you meet Lenny Kravitz?

When I worked at HITS Magazine, we would market records to the record store. The record-label people would bring the artist around to meet the people that were marketing their record. Tina Turner was also at HITS Magazine in the early ‘90s. She said hi to everybody and shook hands.

Altomare says she met John Entwistle, bassist for The Who, at a Christmas party where both had had plenty of holiday cheer. Photo courtesy: Betsy Altomare

How about John Entwistle?

He was drunk. This was at a music industry party. It was a Christmas party. I was probably the better for liquor as well. We were just messing around.

So who was the one you hadn’t really met?

David Bowie.

Why Bowie?

When he died I was telling everybody, “Oh, I’ve seen him in concert five times.” I figured people would believe I had met him. 

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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