Brian O'Neill: Tim Bendig's pop culture nostalgia is old-fashioned business


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I’m in the memorabilia-heavy basement of a Whitehall man who represents, among others, Eddie Munster, the surviving cast members of “The Addams Family” and that kid in the snowsuit from “A Christmas Story.’’

It’s an odd way to make a living, but at 45, Tim Bendig’s life already has had more twists than a 1960s dance party. It almost makes sense that this former emergency medical technician now is piecing together a career in much the same way TV Land fashions its schedule.

He wrote requesting his first celebrity autograph when he was 6, receiving it from the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton. Fast-forward four decades and he has 2,800 signed photos, but an awful lot happened in his life that all those toothy smiles on the basement walls belie.

We were well into our conversation before he told me something he assumed I knew: He had been an altar boy who was repeatedly molested by a priest. Years later, Mr. Bendig sued the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. That ended with a pretrial settlement and set in motion the long investigation that ultimately led to Pope John Paul II himself stripping Anthony Cipolla, the former assistant priest at the old St. Canice parish in Knoxville, of all ties to the priesthood.

Mr. Bendig, an unfailingly polite man who sprinkles answers with “sir,” doesn’t dwell on that time. He doesn’t even like the word “victim.’’ He was strong enough to move on, he says, and he’d much rather talk about all that has led to old sitcom characters crashing at his home when they’re in town.

We’ll need to zip through a couple of decades quickly first. After getting the settlement money in 1993, Mr. Bendig opened a country and western bar, Two Steps South, in South Park, but that went south after a couple of years. That’s when this man who once thought he’d be a priest became an EMT. He worked everywhere from Braddock to Ground Zero in Manhattan after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

He moved on to Children’s Hospital, where he became patient liaison for the emergency room, and then he took a job Downtown as a troubleshooter for a radiology firm. That was the best-paying job of his life, but he walked away from it in 2011 after getting some advice from The Bionic Woman.

When Lindsay Wagner, who played the surgically enhanced battler of evildoers in the hit ‘70s TV show, was in town for a convention, Mr. Bendig paid $2,000 to sponsor her visit.

“I was like 12 years old, 11 years old, again,’’ he said, walking around Mount Washington with his boyhood heroine and acting as deferential as a butler. When the weekend was over, he said, Ms. Wagner complimented him for his uncommon etiquette and suggested his future might be in representing people like her.

In Person Productions — “creating exclusive promotional venues designed for pop culture celebrities’’ — was born. It’s been growing by word of mouth among nostalgia figures since.

Ian Petrella, 40, who played Randy Parker in “A Christmas Story,’’ said his own life can be pretty surreal. He’s done everything from photography to acting to working in Starbucks, but he’s just an anonymous schmo until he arrives at a convention and is surrounded by the joy of fans over something he did when he was 8. He appreciates how Mr. Bendig can make that happen.

“He’s very dedicated, ambitious,’’ Mr. Petrella said. “He’s just a big fan of movies and television, so this is a hobby and a job at the same time. Sometimes he’ll call me just to geek out.’’

John Maggio, who ran the Hollywood Theater in Dormont when Mr. Bendig brought a “Munster” show there on Halloween weekend 2011, smilingly said of Mr. Bendig’s full-on salesmanship, “He reminds me of Robert Preston in ‘The Music Man’ — before he met Marian the librarian.’’

Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick, who was the star of that show, has mentored Mr. Bendig since a somewhat shaky start. Mr. Patrick, 62, is at Steel City Con at the Monroeville Convention Center this weekend with his co-star, Pat “Marilyn’’ Priest. Staying in Mr. Bendig’s home while here, he said, makes this like a “friendly working vacation.’’

Is it odd that so many are drawn to celluloid heroes decades after the last show was made? Mr. Bendig doesn’t think so. He was a poor kid in the 1970s, one of five children surrounding a TV set with but three channels. While watching fans react to his clients, he told me, he relives the warm and fuzzy memories, too.

Brian O’Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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