Chris Nashawaty
September 19, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

As far back as he can remember, all Hal Riddle wanted was to be famous. As an 11-year-old kid in Fulton, Ky., Riddle would risk the wrath of his mother by skipping school and sneaking off to the movies to get closer to his boyhood idol Clark Gable. It was 1931 — the year when Gable starred in half a dozen pictures and the Depression was continuing to steamroll into Riddle’s small town. The boy knew he should be saving the pennies and nickels he’d earned delivering newspapers and passing out grocery-store handbills. But even then, something inside of him needed to be close to fame. So he’d hand over the 10 cents it cost for a matinee ticket and sit in the dark, desperately trying to divine what it took to become a star. At night, Riddle would dream about Hollywood — what it would be like to own a mansion and drive expensive cars. Sometimes he thought about what it would be like to fall in love with a famous actress. And to have her love him back.

Hal Riddle is 83 years old now. But his tiny, one-room bungalow in the San Fernando Valley still looks like the bedroom of an 11-year-old kid with stars in his eyes. His four walls are covered with autographed head shots of famous leading men and women in faded black and white. It’s like a shrine to Hollywood’s golden age — and Riddle is the museum’s eager-to-please tour guide.

”There’s Gable,” he says, pointing to a sepia-tinted photograph on the wall midway between his small television and a twin-size bed. ”That’s an early one. You’ll notice he doesn’t have the mustache yet, which of course later became his trademark.”

On a bookshelf below Gable’s mischievous and cocksure grin there’s a precariously stacked library of well-worn biographies. There’s one of Marlon Brando. Another of Charlton Heston. And yet another with the titillating title Gable’s Women. The books are dog-eared; Riddle has clearly devoured them all because while giving his tour he spews anecdotes and dates like he’s auditioning to become a host on Turner Movie Classics. Excitedly going on and on about Gable, Riddle says, ”I always worried that my ears were too big to be an actor. Then I found out that Gable had big ears too!”

Riddle continues his slow stroll along his homemade wall of fame: ”Now this, of course, is Jean Harlow…. What a beauty!… And right over there is Joan Crawford…. And there’s Fred Astaire…. Oh, and look, a young Liz Taylor!…”

When Riddle finally pulls to a stop, it’s in front of a photograph that seems older than the rest. And judging from the broad smile on his face, it’s dearer than the rest, too. In it, a striking brunette wearing a white beret stares straight ahead at the camera. Her creamy skin looks as smooth and pale as alabaster. Her sparkling dark brown eyes seem almost hypnotic. There’s an inscription near the bottom. When asked what it says, Riddle answers without even glancing back at the photo, ”It says, ‘Greetings! Billie Dove.”’

The mystery woman’s name hangs in the air as Riddle walks toward a marble-green leather La-Z-Boy recliner in the center of the room. He calls it the Grampa Chair. And after flopping down into its squishy embrace, he yanks the side handle and watches his feet shoot up into reclining position. Riddle’s wearing black jeans, a tan Windbreaker, and a frisky grin. He looks like a man with a secret he’s dying to share.

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