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Capturing a spirit of old Hollywood

‘Twilight’ tour harks back to golden age of celebrity

Hundreds of teenage fans jammed the Natick Collection last Thursday for a meet-and-greet with “Twilight’’ actor Kellan Lutz. Hundreds of teenage fans jammed the Natick Collection last Thursday for a meet-and-greet with “Twilight’’ actor Kellan Lutz. (Adam Hunger for The Boston Globe)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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Kellan Lutz, who plays a vampire in the new “Twilight’’ movie, made an appearance at the Natick Collection last week. He signed posters for the 500 fans who persevered to earn that honor, and grinned heartily for the 75 fans anointed with the chance to be photographed at his side. Hundreds more - most of them girls, most of them shrieking - waited outside, cellphone cameras at the ready.

Lutz blew into Natick as part of a 15-date “Twilight’’ mall tour, which began in Hollywood on Nov. 6 and ends in Times Square tomorrow, the day before “The Twilight Saga: New Moon’’ comes out. Other cast members from the likely blockbuster are showing up in other cities around the country, bringing a piece of themselves to fans.

The tour is entirely promotional (fans had to buy items at Nordstrom and Hot Topic for access to Lutz), yet the promotion is endearingly quaint. It would have been easy for the movie studio’s marketing department to rely on a Facebook page or to Tweet the Twi-hards 2 death. Sending the cast on the road is a throwback to the days when Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable traveled the country to drum up excitement for their movies.

“Back in the ’30s . . . it was obviously a way for the studios to connect,’’ said film scholar Robert Sklar, the author of “Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies.’’ “Radio wasn’t national until ’36. People could read about you in a magazine, maybe. But seeing you in person or seeing your real self, apart from your screen role, was an important part of the whole publicity mechanism. There wasn’t any other way to do it.’’

These tours, with their freak-outs and fainting, reached their watershed in the 1950s and 1960s, when music and movies were cross-promoted and the tastes of American teenagers dominated popular culture. Such teen idols as Pat Boone, Tommy Sands, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell were dispatched to greet their fans, and sell records in the process.

Then TV came along, Sklar said. “Now who needs it? You’ve got YouTube and millions of celebrity sites. A tour like this is really unusual now. It indicates what a phenomenon this film is.’’

Summit Entertainment, a relatively new production outfit, is putting out the “Twilight’’ movies, which may explain the approach. While the “Twilight’’ books were huge hits, the success of the first movie still came as a surprise - and followed a cast tour last November.

Sklar admires Summit’s strategy. “They’re not Warner Bros.’’ he said. “But this is how you distinguish yourself as a major player, by reaching into the past. It’s very clever.’’

While Hollywood actors walk the red carpet for movie openings, and travel to various cities to answer questions after screenings, it’s rare for them to appear simply to meet their fans. The “Twilight’’ tours are an allowance-denting return to a simpler time, when a teen (or tween) could stand before her idol and say “I love you,’’ “You’re amazing,’’ or “Thanks for coming.’’

Seated at a table in the rear of Hot Topic, Lutz signed “New Moon’’ posters and high-fived girls. He made eye contact with each person who approached the table. Or at least he tried to. Many of the girls couldn’t bring themselves to raise their heads to meet his eyes. They just watched his hand slash a signature.

Not everybody was so timid. A girl wearing a plastic medical bracelet bounded up to Lutz and said, “I just have to tell you, I got stung by a bee, but I got out of the hospital just to see you.’’ He asked about the significance of necklaces and the content of lockets. He praised good dental work and accepted compliments about his own. He told little girls he loved their hair and that they had pretty eyes.

In making each girl feel special, he didn’t have canned quips or staged salutations. No fan’s awkwardness or borderline-inappropriate request (“Can you sign my neck?’’) fazed him. Hundreds of girls walked away from his table feeling like awesome little sisters.

A 13-year-old from Waltham named Fabiana, flanked by two friends (Nora and Jenna), arrived at the table in tears. A few minutes later, as they power-walked to the other end of the mall with their posters, Fabiana was still beside herself. “He talked to me! I can’t believe he talked to me!’’

But Lutz had merely whetted appetites for a few girls. The big event - the movie opening - is still to come.

“It’s more important than education,’’ said Haley Eagle, a student at Newton’s Oak Hill Middle School.

“It’s bigger than a bat mitzvah,’’ said Jillian Marks, her equally overstimulated buddy.

Haley and Jillian had already bought tickets to the Thursday-at-midnight show. Their mothers, Laura Marks and Michelle Eagle, were in the mall to provide a little perspective. First of all, “Twilight’’ is not more important than education. Second: Nor is it more important than a bat mitzvah (“It is cheaper,’’ Jillian’s mother added).

Third: Things like this never happened 30-or-so years ago when Michelle was obsessed with Shaun and David Cassidy. Not in Boston. She did meet Shaun once backstage. “He kissed my cheek, and I literally would not wash my face for days,’’ said Haley’s mom. “So I allow them to go through all this because I know the feeling.’’

How long did it take you to get over the Cassidys? “I’m not!’’

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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