Lester Glassner, 70, pop culture collector

By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times / August 31, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - When Lester Glassner died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 9 in hospice care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City at 70, he left behind a major part of his life that he had spent nearly 50 years accumulating.

The one-time picture editor, designer, and art librarian for CBS Records had a massive collection of vintage movie memorabilia, dime-store merchandise, and other pieces of pop culture artifacts numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

For more than three decades, Mr. Glassner’s large and diverse collection filled his four-story, 19th-century brownstone on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

It began with a Mickey Mouse lamp that he bought for a couple of dollars in a junk shop in Buffalo in the early 1960s.

“He just started building collections of all sorts from his 20s forward, and he never stopped,’’ said his sister, Freda Honig.

Mr. Glassner’s longtime obsession led to his collaborating with photographer Brownie Harris on “Dime-Store Days,’’ an illustrated book published by Viking Press in 1981 and featuring prime samples from his various collections.

The book included a foreword by a friend of Mr. Glassner, writer and gay icon Quentin Crisp. The introduction was written by another friend: Anita Loos, author of the 1925 comic novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.’’

In her introduction, Loos wrote of a young Mr. Glassner finding escape during World War II by wandering the aisles of five-and-dime stores that were laden with “treasures so colorful that they turned his whole drab life into a world of fantasy.’’

His highly personal book spurred cover stories on Mr. Glassner in antique and collectible magazines, as well as a visit to his East Village home by the “Today’’ show.

So impressively enormous was Mr. Glassner’s overall collection that a visitor once declared it to be “impossible to imagine beforehand or exaggerate after seeing.’’

“It was on every floor, and he had showcases everywhere,’’ Honig said. “There are so many collections within collections.

“There are hats - when Anita Loos passed away, she left him her hat collection. There are mechanical toys. There are World War II propaganda posters. There are antique Seven Dwarfs of various types. . . . Oh, and he had a huge collection of antique postcards of all types. And autographed photos of famous people.’’

That’s not to mention chalk, ceramic and porcelain figurines, rare celluloid toys, Halloween masks, clothes, antique sleighs, dolls, 78 RPM records, art glass, movie posters, movie stills, lobby cards, and a host of other items.

Mr. Glassner’s collection of movie stills alone numbers more than 250,000 photos, many of them rare.

Honig said the front room of her brother’s home on East Seventh Street “was kept darkened when it wasn’t being shown to protect it from the elements. And the air-conditioning was kept on, so it was climate controlled the best he could in a house of that age to keep things in pristine condition.’’

Louis Pappas, a friend and fellow collector who first met Mr. Glassner in the ’60s and described him as a “very genteel, very cerebral person,’’ said first-time visitors to Mr. Glassner’s home were no less than “stupefied’’ by what they saw.

“The collection was that enormous,’’ said Pappas. “It was almost like a museum, really, the whole place. I’d say it was one of the major collections in the world.

“I cleaned his collection at one time - the toys - piece by piece. It took me months.’’

A 1961 graduate of Pratt Institute in New York City, Mr. Glassner designed more than 50 books during his career, most of them movie-related; and he was involved in a new design for the American Heritage Dictionary.

An exhibition of selected pieces from his “Dime-Store Days’’ collection was presented in Tokyo in 1987. And in 2005, Mr. Glassner’s World War II American Propaganda collection was exhibited in Japan alongside examples of Japanese propaganda posters.