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12-24-05, 10:03 AM
Fan has personal interest in movie
Met stars from 'It's a Wonderful Life'

When Steve Conkovich of Granite City watches "It's a Wonderful Life," he's taken back to 1942 and the wartime movie stars he met at the USO's legendary Hollywood Canteen.

"The Canteen was a wonderful place to meet movie stars," said Conkovich, now 82 and a retired salesman.

Conkovich met two of the movie's actors at the Canteen, and decades later forged a friendship with the cast's only survivor.

He has an "It's a Wonderful Life" poster, other memorabilia and letters from most of the cast. He owns a video of director Frank Capra's 1946 classic, but never misses the film's annual holiday showing on NBC. The movie is scheduled to air at 7 tonight on KSDK Channel 5.

The son of Croatian immigrants once danced with Donna Reed, who later played Mary Bailey in the film about an angel saving a man from suicide and earning his wings on Christmas Eve.

Reed was among the many stars who volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II.

"I used to hitchhike up there with thousands of Marines and Navy guys," he said.

Conkovich was 19 and stationed at Oceanside U.S. Naval Base, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles. He later served in the Pacific theater.

Marjorie Reynolds, who starred in the 1942 classic "Holiday Inn," also was a Canteen regular. That's another must-see movie for him because he has a picture of himself as a handsome 19-year-old with Reynolds.

"She was a beautiful woman. As time went on, I got uglier," he said.

One night at the Canteen, Conkovich paid $5 -- a big chunk of his seaman's pay -- for a kiss on the cheek from a movie star. The star's name wasn't revealed to kiss-buyers until the last minute.

"It was Ava Gardner. I like to have died on the spot," Conkovich said.

Karolyn Grimes, who was 6 when she played the Baileys' daughter, ZuZu, has become a friend of Conkovich.

Conkovich met Grimes when she visited a St. Louis hospital a few years ago. Since then, he's gotten six letters, many postcards and a phone call from her.

Contact Jayne Matthews at jmatthews@bnd.com or 345-7822 ext. 25.