While attending the San Diego Comicon in 2009, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking briefly with Jim Kelly, the co-star and star of the 1970s martial arts films, Black Belt Jones, Tattoo Connection and Enter the Dragon. The unexpected encounter would mark the high point of every single one of my visits to the San Diego Comicon.
As good fortune would have it, only months before meeting him, I had put together an unofficial Jim Kelly tribute page for Myspace; there were scores of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee tribute pages at the time, but only one for Jim Kelly, and it was kinda' lame. When I made mention of the Myspace page during our brief chat, Jim was both flattered and appreciative.
Thinking of his own way to contribute something to the online altar, Jim asked if I'd brought along a camera. To my dismay and embarrassment, I'd somehow forgotten to bring it with me. Jim then asked if I was going to be at the con the next day and when I responded in the affirmative, he recommended that I come back with my camera so that we could snap a picture together.
As there is usually a monetary exchange involved with taking photos with celebrities at conventions, Jim was also quick to mention that the photographs would be a friendly, cashless transaction. He also advised that if I came back, he'd throw in one of the black and white 8x10 glossies that celebs traditionally bring along to sign for fans.
Despite his gracious offer, I was still kicking myself for bringing neither my camera that day, nor my sketchbook. (Personal note to self #1: Some effin' blogger you are!) Both had been left back at the apartment of my friends Storm and Kaz. Even more tragic, it had never even occurred to me to pack any copies of Kung Fu Grip! in my suitcase. The first issue actually has Jim on the cover! (Personal note to self #2: Some effin' zinester you are!)
Somehow, though, in the face of my dismay I remembered the back-up copy of David Choe's Cursive that I'd grabbed at the Giant Robot booth about 15 minutes earlier. As good fortune would have it, the book (mentioned in the recent Sony Boodo Khan™ Mixtape post) contained a page of Jim Kelly sketches that Dave had done for GR magazine! In case of an apocalypse, I asked Jim to sign that page for me.
"That's a good likeness," he enthused as he took a moment to study the sketches before placing his autograph in the bottom right corner.
Jim Kelly by David Choe
Handing the book back, Jim asked where I was from. Upon hearing the word "Chicago" in my response, his cheeks wrinkled up into a smile and he gushed, "Man, I've got stories about Chicago!" There were several fans waiting, though, and no time to go into those stories. But it seemed certain that those spine-tingling tales would probably have included Jim's infamous 1974 disappearing act.
An old article published in Black Belt (November, 1974) preserves a record of how Jim had been in Chi-town promoting the release of Three the Hard Way, the low-budget blockbuster co-starring Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. But the morning after his arrival, Kelly's agent would report to police that his client had gone missing in the night, and was seemingly the victim of a kidnapping.
Kelly, however, had not been abducted. On the contrary, it was the attention of the public that had been hoodwinked by an ill-advised promotional stunt. Much to the irritated relief of the Chicago police and the FBI, Jim would surface safe-and-sound in New York days later.
In the summer of the following year, Jim would make another appearance in Chicago. This time with Muhammad Ali at the city's annual Bud Billiken Parade. Surrounded by the smiling faces of cops and kids, Kelly and Ali lifted their mitts to one another in a mock street fight. Photos of the faux face-off would make the pages of Jet magazine.
It was a copy of that image taken in Chicago with Ali that Jim wanted to give me when I returned to his table the next day. He ruffled through his photograph binder, only to realize that no copies of that particular image had been included. As for me, I wasn't the least bit disappointed when he instead signed a copy of the Enter the Dragon promo in which actors John Saxon, Bolo Yeung and Bruce Lee could also be seen. And though I had never really been one for signed memorabilia, the autographed photo was one that I was more than happy to take for my studio wall.
Now three years later, for a number of reasons I have not yet made it back to the San Diego Comicon. But I've read on the interwebs and heard from various friends that Jim has been back every year sharing his stories and photographs with his fans.
Each year my friend Storm thoughtfully mails me a copy of the keepsake souvenir book, which keeps me abreast of some of the good things that I've been missing. And each year I flip through the book thinking: Maybe I'll get back out to San Diego next year...
Included with this year's book, which came in the mail today, were two related comicon publications. To my surprise, concealed between the pages of one of them was an 8x10 glossy. Contained within the photo's borders is that playful image of Jim Kelly standing hand-to-hand with Muhammad Ali on a street in Chicago.
Studying every inch of the photo, I wonder if my friend has a cool story to go along with it. And as I place the priceless treasure in one of the new picture frames that – as good fortune would have it – was just purchased days before, I quietly resolve to not let another year pass without making the pilgrimage to San Diego.
Thanks, gracias, xie xie and domo to Arashi-san.