Gripped by Popular Culture
by Stephen Harrick
Journalist Sam Maronie has been writing about television, film, and comics for more than forty years. The Wood River native can now add another credit to his résumé: Memoirist. His new book chronicles the pleasures and pitfalls that come with writing about celebrities and popular culture.
Planet of the Apes. Wonder Woman. The Incredible Hulk. Escape from New York. Star Trek. Batman. Sam Maronie has seen it all, and not solely on the screen. While writing for national magazines Starlog, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Fangoria, Maronie interviewed the creators and stars responsible for some of the biggest science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and horror films, and television series. He was frequently present for filming, which allowed a unique perspective on the subjects and their respective industries. This led to an appearance as an extra in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. He also has an impressive array of credits with Marvel Comics, publishing several articles in Savage Sword of Conan and Planet of the Apes magazines. Mr. Maronie’s most recent venture is writing and publishing his memoir, Tripping through Pop Culture!: (Mis)Adventures of an Entertainment Writer. With a Foreword by comic book legend Howard Chaykin, Maronie has crafted a delightful tome on his lifelong fascination with popular culture.
Growing up in Wood River, a teenage Sam Maronie regularly wrote articles for the Alton Telegraph, reviewing television and interviewing actors and designers. He remained in the area after high school, studying journalism at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and later went on to write for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. One might think that living in the Metro East would preclude him from interviewing celebrities, but his passion and perseverance paid off. In this exclusive interview with Straight Up Magazine, Sam Maronie discusses his first book (published in February), his career, and covering celebrities while living in Wood River.
Straight Up: What spurred you to write this memoir? You previously considered an oversized coffee table-type book, featuring many of the still images in your collection. Will such a project see fruition?
Sam Maronie: I hope so. When you get to using movie stills and copyrighted material, you could do it easily before. Lawyers are getting involved now and it gets very stinky, so I would have to get a major publisher to do it as a book. I originally wanted to do a book of photographs of comic book celebrities. I had one publisher interested. In life, timing is everything. Someone else came out with a book, and that torpedoed my idea. The publisher lost interest. I decided to do this on my own. I looked around one day and I had all these great memories and memorabilia and I wanted to put my story together.
Straight Up: Well, you have some incredible stories. One of them involves you meeting the comic book legend Jack Kirby, who co-created the Avengers, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Panther, and more. You wrote about being an aspiring comic book writer at one point. What did you discuss with Mr. Kirby?
Sam Maronie: When Jack talked to me, I was too in awe. I just listened. He gave me one of his “you-know-the-trouble-with-comics-today, these-kids-don’t-know-how-to-write-comics.” I found out later he was famous for that speech. He thought comics were too wordy and not enough action. He thought comics should move and carry you from one page to another, and he’s 100% right. Nobody did it better than he did.
Straight Up: Throughout your career, you have interviewed an impressive array of subjects involved in science fiction, fantasy, horror, action movies: directors David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, cast members Lou Ferrigno, Lynda Carter, and Roddy McDowall, make-up designers John Chambers and Dan Striepeke. Do you have a favorite?
Sam Maronie: I had so many people that were really kind to me. I think my personal favorite was Forrest Ackerman, who was editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Of all the people I came across, he’s the one that influenced me the most. Forty years ago, it was not like it is today where you get a DVD and see all these extras like behind-the-scenes. They had no concept of their past or history. Part of Hollywood’s past was destroyed because they didn’t see the merit of keeping it. I saw Forrest Ackerman was doing his best to preserve that.
Straight Up: You seem to have a soft spot for “Old Hollywood,” having rubbed elbows with Bob Hope, Ernest Borgnine, Don Ameche, Virginia Mayo, and more. What do you attribute to this fascination for the films and stars from that period?
Sam Maronie: They had talent and class. I don’t see anybody now who has that kind of class, dealing with the press or the public. That was part of their training as much as acting was. I really respect talent that way.
Straight Up: You worked for Marvel Comics in the 1970s, a time period highly regarded as the Bronze Age. What were your experiences like writing for Savage Sword of Conan and Planet of the Apes magazines during that era? What was your process like, working with the editors?
Sam Maronie: The Planet of the Apes articles, they regarded those articles as fillers, something to put in between the comic book stories. But on the other hand, all of the editors I worked with tried to do the best job that they could. They pretty much let me do what I wanted to do. Writing for Savage Sword, I got to work with (editor) Roy Thomas. He’s a terrific human being and a great writer and editor. He was always very kind to me. He paid me above the average rate. He took care of me.
Straight Up: You had a unique opportunity to appear in a big budget Hollywood film (Battle for the Planet of the Apes). Tell the readers about that.
Sam Maronie: I had loved all of the Planet of the Apes movies from the beginning, and to be part of one was one of those things in life. When I watched the first one, would I ever be part of one? And here it happened. They treated me like royalty. They had a still photographer that followed me around and took pictures. I got to stand there and watch Roddy McDowall get made up and talk to all of the make-up people. Just fascinating. People on the crew were so kind to me, they’d explain what they were doing and why they were doing it.
Straight Up: Your upbringing was in the Metro East area. Do you think that this gave you a unique perspective in writing about the entertainment industry?
Sam Maronie: Absolutely, because I had to work harder, I had to think harder. A lot of these celebrities I met were doing theatre and things like that, so they had no entourage and no publicists. You could talk to them, it was very low-key. I guess I was one of the first “celebrity stalkers,” too. A couple of times I called celebrities up at their hotels, ask if I could meet them. Nine times out of ten they were very nice and say sure. I don’t think I would see that nowadays. The industry has changed.
Straight Up: You got your start writing professionally at the Alton Telegraph, and later, while you were a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. What did you learn during those formative years at those two institutions? What advice would you give to budding writers?
Sam Maronie: I learned to be disciplined and to keep pushing. I’m a big believer nothing worthwhile in your life just falls in your lap. You have to get out and make it happen. You just have to be persistent and believe in yourself.
For more information or to purchase a copy of his book, visit www.trippingthroughpopculture.com.
Sam Maronie has enjoyed incredible success in the publishing world, and there are no signs of slowing down. He runs the blog “Sam Maronie’s Entertainment Funhouse,” a veritable treasure trove of pop culture images, interviews, anecdotes, and more. Recent posts focus on his encounters with actor George Takei and make-up designer Rashaad Santiago, his take on the latest Planet Comic-Con in Kansas City and an obituary for Anne Meara. His passion seeps through the prose—he proclaims that, “The best part of this business is I’ve met so many wonderful people.” He is also planning to launch a downloadable magazine, tentatively called Popped Culture, later this year.
Publishing is not his only endeavor. Mr. Maronie remains active on the convention circuit, attending and participating in multiple comic book and popular culture conventions each year. I first met him in June, at the annual Super Celebration in honor of Superman in Metropolis, Illinois (if you have not yet attended, do yourself a favor and go). He mentioned that he has also attended several of the annual Archon conventions in Collinsville: “Went to the first one. George Martin was the guest.” That’s George R. R. Martin, writer of A Song of Fire and Ice, the series of books upon which Game of Thrones is based. As for upcoming appearances, he plans to attend the aforementioned Archon, as well as PROJECT: Comic-Con in St. Louis— the latter of which will include his presentation featuring photographs of comic book celebrities. If it is anything like his other work, it will be another in a long line of successes for Sam Maronie.