“I had her all to myself,” says the now-hard-of-hearing, 91-year-old San Diegan, who speaks loudly and excitedly. “I’d had a couple shots of bourbon while her helicopter was landing. When she got out, her press guy said, ‘Stay back!’ But I didn’t. I stepped out and said, ‘Chicago Tribune!’ I have to get this out to AP!’ Man, I’m sure I was drooling. She looked so good in that pink dress. She wasn’t wearing any brassiere.”
Carlson did indeed have a press card -- but it wasn’t his. He was a Hollywood “sound man” who brought his cameras to gigs. He provided audio for the Academy Awards, Rose Bowl games and celebrity galas in the 1950s and ’60s. Along the way, he shot Fred Astaire, Ernest Borgnine, Yul Brenner, Doris Day, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Liz Taylor and nearly any star of the era. Carlson also has exclusive shots of the Beatles promoting their “Help” album at Capital Records (George Harrison pleasantly chatted with Carlson about his equipment).
But until recently, nobody had seen his photos. Since Carlson didn’t really work for a news service, he had nowhere to put his shots -- except in boxes in the Poway house he shares with his spunky, 93-year-old wife, Daphne. When the Carlsons showed an acquaintance the Marilyn photos -- some of which were shot in 3-D -- it set in motion a plan to sell the collection.
Nobody’s quite sure what Carlson’s photos are worth. An agent and a lawyer are working in the background to sell or possibly license some of the images. A single Monroe image used in an advertising campaign once sold for $150,000, says agent Dale Picolla. Last year, a Monroe sex tape was sold to a memorabilia collector for $1.5 million.
Carlson’s Monroe pictures are from a party thrown by bandleader Ray Anthony, celebrating a song about the blonde bombshell, called “Marilyn.” Mickey Rooney is in one shot, playing drums. Carlson recalls the fête as if it were last week, not more than half a century ago. This was months before the movie which thrust Monroe into the Hollywood stratosphere, “Niagara,” would be released. The starlet wore the same clingy pink dress to the party that she’d shown off in the movie.
The three-dimensional photos are especially captivating. Carlson shot Monroe with a David White Stereo Realist camera. These heavy, dual-lens cameras create a 3-D effect. Remember View Masters, with those wheeled photo disks you click around? The Stereo Realist photos, when seen through a special viewer, jump right out at you. These one-of-a-kind pictures exude remarkable depth and clarity. It’s like looking into a museum diorama.
And what serious fan wouldn’t be overwhelmed to own photos of Marilyn Monroe jumping right out at them? Certainly not Carlson. “You know,” he says, “I followed her around at the party for half an hour to get a shot of her rear end.”
Ron Donoho, formerly executive editor of "San Diego Magazine," is a regular contributor to NBCSandiego.com who covers local news, sports, culture and happy hours.