Don't Spill the Gravy

updated 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Walter Light Jr. never felt it necessary to clean his mother's ancient tablecloth until 1984, when Debbie Reynolds noticed how funky it had become. Light washed the grime of more than 50 years from the 5-by-7-foot Irish linen cloth—and erased the autograph of conductor Leopold Stokowski, written on it in 1935. That left hundreds of other signatures on the cloth, though, keeping intact an unusual family tradition.

When Light's mother, Olga, left him the tablecloth in 1944, it was already covered by the fruits of 15 years of her autograph-collecting, including such famous names as actor John Barry-more, baseball great Dizzy Dean and author Sinclair Lewis. The signatures—except for Stokowski's—were made permanent by Olga's embroidery.

Light, now a divorced 68-year-old retired drummer and real estate agent, kept the tablecloth tucked away for nearly 40 years. Then, in 1983, he decided to pick up the family torch. Starting with comedian George Gobel's autograph, he has added 375 names with the help of an embroiderer. The modern inductees—most of them approached when they visited Light's native St. Louis—range from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton.

"Sure I get turned down," says Light (by Dustin Hoffman, for example), "but I never get discouraged." Now he has room for only 150 more celebrities. "With so little space," he adds, "you learn to be picky."

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