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Q&A: Steve Lichtenberger and His Celebrity Friends
The guy who always knows a guy
By Elyse Notarianni

Steve Lichtenberger is pictured with: Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dick Van Dyke, Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney, Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Elvis Presley 

Cherry Hill resident Steve Lichtenberger has met a lot of celebrities – and he has the photos to prove it. It’s his thing. From the time he was a kid, it wasn’t enough just to see his idols in the movies, on TV, or read about them. He wanted to track them down and try to have some chat time. Call it luck, a second sense or good timing – he was good at it. This started way back in the ’60s, during the Golden Age of Hollywood when icons like John Wayne and Rock Hudson still graced the big screen.

Lichtenberger with Jake Gyllenhaal

By his last count, he has more than 10,000 photos with A-list stars and has formed relationships with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. His stories range from rubbing elbows with Bruce Springsteen and Elton John to attending star-studded dinner parties with John Travolta.

Lichtenberger, 62, has lived in South Jersey since 1985, but that hasn’t kept him from crossing paths with some of Hollywood’s most elite names.

 

Q: How did this all get started?

I grew up in a poor section of Philadelphia, and as a kid I would hop on the El to Center City to watch “The Mike Douglas Show.” [FYI: that was a popular TV variety show produced in Philly.] I became a familiar face. From the time I was 13, I was focused on celebrities. I would ingratiate myself with everybody. Not just celebrities, but the doorman at the hotels, the men and women working in gift shops, the assistants. I’d spend hours waiting outside to see someone after a show or leaving their hotel. When Mike Douglas started filming at CBS in California, I moved there too and got a job in security. He saw me on the first day of filming, recognized me immediately and hired me on his show. It really took off from there.

 

Q: So you just…met people?

It can’t be that easy. Here’s an example: I was in the gift shop at the Warwick Hotel. Suddenly the actor Van Johnson comes running in frantically looking for flowers for a dinner party. The closest place to buy them was 4 blocks away, and he didn’t have time. I ran like lightning. I came back with the flowers and he said, “What’s your name? I won’t forget you.” Sure enough, every time he came to Philadelphia or when I saw him at the Camden County music fair, he made special arrangements to see me. I showed celebrities and everyone around them the ultimate respect. When I saw them out again, it became easier and easier to run in their circles.

 

Q: Are celebs strutting the streets of South Jersey?

They’re here more than you’d think. I used to meet a lot of people at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, the music fair and the Garden State Park Racetrack. I met George Kirby, the impressionist, at the Rickshaw Inn in Cherry Hill. We spent 3 hours one Saturday afternoon doing impressions for each other.

But also, sometimes stars seem to follow me. When I worked in New York, I had gotten friendly with Al Pacino because we both went to the same restaurant. I told him the best pizza I ever had was Manco & Manco in Ocean City. Just a summer or 2 ago, I learned that Al had his driver go to Manco & Manco. I guess some of what I talked to him about rubbed off.

 

Q: Do you just meet old- Hollywood types?

I’ve met people like Katy Perry, Ryan Reynolds and Tom Hanks too. I ran into Khloé Kardashian at a McDonald’s, and it didn’t faze me. To me, most celebrities now don’t have the same longevity as Elvis or Elton John, but maybe that’s just because it was a different time. Now, if I see Justin Bieber hobbling around a concert stage in 50 years, I might have a different opinion.

I was with a friend of mine in New York when Jennifer Lopez walked by. I didn’t know who she was but my friend begged her to stop and talk. She could have blown right by him, but she said, “Don’t ever beg anybody for anything. You are just as important as I am. I am not better than you just because other people know my name.” I really respected her for that.

 

Q: Does anyone stand out?

I got to know Dick Van Dyke very well, and he’s a good friend now. When he was 50, he came out as an alcoholic. He wasn’t doing interviews at the time, but I came to him and said I’d love to interview him for my school newspaper. It wouldn’t be anything big, but it would help me, so he did it. After I sent him a copy of the interview, he invited me to come to Arizona, where I spent 3 days in his ranch house hanging out with him and his son Barry. A few years ago, he invited me to a 50th-anniversary screening of “Mary Poppins.” The last time I saw him was in 2019.

 

Q: Have you ever had a bad experience?

I love Frank Sinatra, but one day in New York, when he came up the steps of the Waldorf Astoria at 5 am, his eyes were big as saucers and were bright red. He went wild. I felt so bad because I really respect him. But I wasn’t put off. The stars were everything to me, so I was going to make any allowance for them.

Years later, I met him again at the original Bookbinders in Philadelphia. He apologized and said he likely had too much to drink that night. I saw him 5 or 6 times after that, and every time he was really nice.

 

Q: What’s your go-to celebrity story?

I was 15, and I hopped on a bus to New York City to try to meet John Wayne. But when I got there, I found there were so many doors and underground entrances at NBC that it would be impossible to find him. I wandered for what felt like 15 miles passing every major hotel. I got to The Pierre and saw a group of kids outside with John Wayne photos who told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I got near him they would beat me up. The last bus to Philadelphia came and went, and about 11:30 pm John Wayne arrived at the hotel and handed out autographed cards. He saw me and said, “What are you doing back there?” I told him I was from Philadelphia and I missed the last bus waiting for him. He started to laugh and took me to the hotel, took a photo with me and signed everything I had brought. His team offered to get me a room, but I said I’d figure something out. I slept in a phone booth that night waiting for the first bus home.

 

Q: Is anyone still on your bucket list that you’ve always wanted to meet?

Of the 10,000 celebrities I’ve met, I have never met or had my picture taken with Kelly Ripa, who was born and lived just a few miles from me. If anyone has any contacts, let me know.

March 2021
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