John Prine, who promised “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long” in his final album’s final song, “When I Get to Heaven,” died on April 7, 2020.
November 28 marked the death of real-life body builder turned big-screen Sith Lord, David Prowse, who donned black cloak and breathing apparatus to portray Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” films.
Less publicized was the death 16 months ago of Dyanne Thorne, the actress who was a statuesque and sadistic villainess in “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS” and its three follow-ups, “Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks,” “Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia” and “Ilsa, the Wicked Warden.”
Local author Harris M. Lentz III had planned to chronicle these deaths and hundreds more in the latest edition of “Obituaries in the Performing Arts,” an annual book series that since 1993 has tabulated the passing of each year’s notable actors, singers, directors, writers, professional wrestlers, ballet dancers, porn stars, animal celebrities and other notables in the world of arts and entertainment.
Most Lentz volumes contained from about 700 to 1,500 obituaries. In other words, for every household name on the level of David Bowie, Ronald Reagan or Prince, there were dozens of entries for the likes of Larry Pennell (who played Dash Riprock on “The Beverly Hillbillies”) and Tura Satana (the reform-school graduate turned exotic dancer and martial artist best remembered as a thrill-seeking go-go dancer in the1965 cult classic “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”).
But in 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic was swelling the ranks of Lentz’s celebrity obituary files, McFarland & Co. Inc., the North Carolina publishing house that has been home to Lentz’s meticulous research for decades, pulled the plug.
The explanation was familiar to anyone following the fortunes of print media: With the internet placing the world’s news at the world’s fingertips, why bother to collate Lentz’s data in a handy physical format, on actual paper, between actual covers?
McFarland’s disinterest was bad news. The good news is that (to paraphrase Mark Twain) reports of the obituary book’s death were greatly exaggerated.
Lentz won’t miss a year: He’s organized the latest edition of his annual series himself, through Amazon’s “Kindle Direct Publishing” model, under the slightly altered title, “Celebrity Obituaries 2020.” Published at the end of May under his Dancing Griffin Press imprint, the 590-page, oversized paperback lists at $34.95; an “e-book” edition may come later.
“I had the option of stopping or going forward on my own,” said Lentz, 67, who now lives in Arkansas near Horseshoe Lake, in a sanctum sanctorum of a converted garage stuffed to the Black Lagoon gills with monster masks, autographed movie star photos, film books, comics and — more specifically — Green Lantern memorabilia and penguin tchotchkes (the “power ring”-wielding Justice Leaguer being his favorite superhero and arctic aquatic fowl being his favorite type of bird).
“I decided to do it on my own, and I frankly enjoyed figuring it out,” he said, referring to the guidelines for books published through Amazon. “It was easier than I thought it would be. I got to pick the photos and do the layout.”
For example, for the book’s cover mosaic, Lentz chose eight famous faces: Chadwick Boseman, Sean Connery, Robert Conrad, Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, Little Richard, Diana Rigg and — “just because it was me doing the picking” — José Mojica Marins, the extravagantly taloned Brazilian horror auteur known as “Coffin Joe.”
Said Lentz: “I was torn between him and Andrée Melly, the really cool vampire girl from ‘Brides of Dracula.'”
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A volcano registry to TV and film credits
An affable, eccentric figure, Lentz since his teenage years has been known for always wearing a suitcoat and often a tie, no matter how informal the setting.
He also is an agoraphobe, which means he becomes anxious if he is in an unfamiliar place or situation — which means he rarely travels beyond the boundaries of his daily routine (he works as a librarian at Crittenden County’s modest Horseshoe Lake Branch Library).
Combined with his obsessive-compulsive nature, Lentz’s condition perhaps benefitted the painstaking and time-consuming nature of his work as a professional researcher whose exhaustive and specialized tomes are the products of countless hours of library and internet sleuthing.
A lending library of Lentz titles includes no joke books or light verse. It does include such books as “Assassinations and Executions: An Encyclopedia of Political Violence, 1865-1986”; “Biographical Dictionary of Professional Wrestling”; “The Volcano Registry: Names, Locations, Descriptions and Histories for over 1500 Sites”; “Heads of States and Governments: A Worldwide Encyclopedia of 2,300 Leaders, 1945-1992”; “Popes and Cardinals of the 20th Century: A Biographical Dictionary”; “Western and Frontier Film and Television Credits: 1903-1995”; and multiple volumes of “Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film and Television Credits.”
Most of Lentz’s books were published in relatively expensive hardcover editions by McFarland, with most of the purchases made by libraries and aficionados of the subject matter. Even so, Lentz — as should be no surprise — wasn’t collecting big bucks for his efforts.
“It’s kind of a hobby and a labor-of-love situation,” he said. “My royalty checks have been enough to keep me in beer and cigarettes, now that I’ve quit smoking and barely drink.”
The labor-of-love aspect has become even more pronounced in recent years, as more people turn to home keyboards than to library shelves for information. Indicative of shrinking demand, the list price for McFarland’s 2018 edition of “Obituaries in the Performing Arts” was $49.95, but the 2019 version was $95 — a price aimed more at libraries than individual readers.
From before videocassette recorders to the days of internet influencers
Lentz started writing celebrity obituaries for pay in the 1970s for Famous Monsters of Filmland, Classic Images and other movie-fan magazines. He developed numerous sources, innovated an extensive database, and subscribed to about a dozen daily newspapers to harvest obituaries for what The Commercial Appeal dubbed his “necrology” of names, when the Memphis newspaper started running annual highlights from Lentz’s researches.
Initially, Lentz’s labor-of-love efforts required a lot of, well, labor. For example, his first books of horror and science-fiction film credits predated not only the internet but the home videocassette recorder.
“Back then, I would see that ‘The Slime People’ was coming on at 3 o’clock in the morning, and when the credits came on, I would turn on a cassette recorder and talk into the microphone,” he said. “I would read out the credits as fast as I could.”
The internet has made his job easier, of course, but it also has made its results less exclusive: These days, multiple websites run end-of-the-year “necrologies.” But none are as extensive as the alphabetical roll calls in Lentz’s books, which have tripled in size over the decades, as more death news became available to him.
Lentz tested the Amazon waters for his “Celebrity Obituaries” book with an earlier self-published volume. Released in January, “Comic Book and Super Hero Television Series of the 21st Century, an Episode Guide: 2000-2020” is a 500-page, $24.95 investigation of close to 80 network, cable and syndicated shows with comic-book origins, from A (“Agent Carter”) to, well, W (“Wynonna Earp”).
“All of this information is pretty much available from other sources, but having it all inclusive in one spot is what justifies the book,” Lentz said. “To track down every series that fits this description requires a good deal of work.”
The new obituaries book features about 1,500 listings — a near-record, thanks to the pandemic. About 15% of the deaths in the new book were attributed to COVID-19, Lentz said.
Another sign-of-the-times change is the definition of what constitutes an arts-and-entertainment celebrity.
Said Lentz: “I don’t even know exactly what an ‘internet influencer’ is, but I have several of them in my book.”
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