You won’t find any breadcrumbs or beverage stains on Walter Light’s Irish linen tablecloth. What you will see are nearly 700 autographs by cinema stars, presidents, sports heroes, crooners and more. A hobby that began with his mother in 1929 continues as the Ocala resident fills the few remaining spots on his legendary cloth.
By Mary Ann DeSantis
Walter Light of Ocala is no ordinary autograph hound. Instead of a store-bought autograph book, he carries a piece of history that began with his own family. His father, Walter Sr., was a successful motion picture film salesman on “Film Row” in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother, Joy, attended a dinner party where guests had signed a tablecloth, and she decided the idea would be a perfect way to capture autographs of performers who came to St. Louis on personal appearance tours.
“She bought the finest Irish linen tablecloth she could find,” says Walter. “She originally wanted only movie stars to sign it, but she was such a baseball fan that it wasn’t long before she began including St. Louis Cardinals players. Next were heavyweight-boxing champions, including Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard, who all signed between 1935 and 1937.”
One of Walter’s first memories of the tablecloth is the day he accompanied his mother to get Katharine Hepburn’s signature.
“He’s too pretty to be a boy,” the actress said as she ruffled the little fellow’s hair.
“I didn’t take to that very well,” he says with a chuckle. “It was a long time before I ever liked her movies.”
Joy Light collected 77 autographs on the tablecloth before her death in 1944. The heirloom was stored in a drawer for the next 40 years, except for a brief moment when Walter had it in the back seat of his car as he was moving away from home for the first time in 1946 to pursue a musical career.
“My mother left it to me, and without thinking, I threw it in the backseat,” he remembers. “My father saw the tablecloth as I was about to pull out, and he suggested that he keep it until I got settled. It was a blessing I left it with him because I would have probably lost it.”
Music and performing have played an important role in Walter’s life. He began studying piano at age 5. As an adult, his band, Lucky Light, played Las Vegas and other venues around the country, and he was a drummer for Eddy Howard, Del Courtney and other big band performers. Since moving to Ocala 10 years ago, he has sung with the First United Methodist Church choir. He also is a volunteer pianist in the lobby at Munroe Regional Medical Center on Tuesdays.
In 1983, Walter decided to resurrect the tablecloth from a drawer when comedian George Gobel came to St. Louis. By then, he and his wife, Julie, had returned to St. Louis permanently, and he rediscovered his mother’s unique treasure. He wanted to continue her dream of filling the tablecloth with signatures of people who were legends in their time.
He discovered, however, that dream was not always easy. He learned early on that autograph seeking takes a lot of patience and persistence, and success isn’t always guaranteed. He missed adding actor Cary Grant by one day and singer Sarah Vaughn by less than a minute.
Nevertheless, Walter has added 620 signatures to the rectangular tablecloth since 1984, bringing the total just three shy of 700.
“I might be able to fit another 100, but not many more,” he says. “I would love to add Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. I have spots reserved for them.”
To gain access to celebrities, Walter deals with secretaries, agents, backstage managers and theater personnel. He is on a first-name basis with many of them, including Jeffrey L. Hartzog, operations director for Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, who helped Walter get Woody Allen’s and pianist Yanni’s signatures.
“Walter’s enthusiasm is infectious,” says Jeff. “Most of the celebrities are amazed at the uniqueness of the tablecloth, just as I was the first time I saw it.
“I think this is a piece of history that is absolutely Smithsonian worthy,” continues Jeff. “I don’t think even Walter realizes the impact this piece has, especially in terms of Americana. It’s not just movie stars, but presidents, first ladies and other historical figures.”
Walter’s blue eyes twinkle as he describes some of the most notable signatures, including one from the last survivor of the Titanic, Millivina Dean.
“I flew to England to meet her in 1998,” he remembers. “She was the youngest passenger aboard the Titanic in 1912 and just delightful.”
His favorite autograph is that of the late President Ronald Reagan, who signed the tablecloth when Walter mailed it to the White House. Reagan was so impressed that he invited Walter to visit his California ranch.
“I went a few years later, and I was one of the last people to see him before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “We spent more than an hour talking, and he called in his photographer. It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
To preserve the autographs, Walter’s mother embroidered over them, and his late wife, Julie, embroidered more than 300 before her death in 1991. Since then, Walter has hired friends to continue the needlework over the signatures that are written with simple felt-tipped pens.
Hanging in his small Ocala home are photos of Walter with almost every celebrity as they signed the tablecloth. The tablecloth is kept in a bank safety deposit box, but Walter hopes it will someday be displayed in a museum so that others can enjoy it. That is, after he’s finished collecting famous signatures.
“And as long as I can walk and get there, I’ll keep going after autographs for the tablecloth,” he says with a smile. “I am blessed to have such an exciting challenge.”
Want to know more?
Find out if your favorite celebrity signed Walter Light’s tablecloth by visiting thetablecloth.com for a complete list.