RIGHT THERE in the middle of Gary Wade's living room, beside his white drafting table, in front of the sprawling Peace Lily plant, sits a larger-than-life-size replica of this summer's biggest movie star, E.T.
"All right! What's happenin', E.T.!" "Can I hold him!" "Where'd you get him from?" blurt startled guests upon entering Wade's Hyattsville apartment and spotting this unexpected fixture.
From the magical red-tipped finger to the woeful eyes bulging from the face only a mother could love, Wade's E.T. is a 20-pound, three-foot sculpture of paper, wire and glue that took Wade 27 hours to assemble, initially as a gift for his wife, Ellie.
"As soon as we came back from the movie, she wanted one," said the 27-year-old artist, who works during the day as a driving instructor at Easy Method Driving School. "So I did a little research to get the specifics on E.T. and tried to make him exactly like Spielberg's."
E.T. is about No. 50 in a long line of celebrities Wade has sculpted and stored this past year. In a one-man operation based in the open space between his dining table and living room, Wade churns out head after head of famous personalities and stacks them on the shelves of his cramped, closet-sized den.
The heads are made from paper, glue and wire, but with a technique Wade declines to disclose. They are used as masks in local plays or sold at Halloween time.
"The phone and doorbell start ringing as soon as October hits," he said.
Wade's quasi-business started a year ago when his sister-in-law asked him to make a Miss Piggy costume for her daughter to wear on Halloween night. The mask of the Muppet prima donna later led to those of Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Cab Calloway and Phil Donahue, among others.
Now Wade is trying to figure out what to do with the heads after the Halloween parties are over.
"If I sold them, then that would be it and I'd have to make them all over again," he said, alluding to the eight hours it takes to construct each mask. "I don't want to let things go so easily. I have to make this worth my while."
Translation: More exposure.
So Wade rents the masks for local stage productions (like "Santa in Wonderland" at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium last December), enters as many costume contests as he can (like the one at the Foxtrappe club in which he won first place as the Tidy Bowl Man, complete with his own white toilet), and shows up at local appearances of his mask's human counterparts (like Donahue's stand-up performance at the D.C. Armory last June during which the talk show guru signed Wade's Donahue head).
Last month, Wade's E.T. replica was packed into a van with a campaign hat atop its wrinkled brown head and carted off to the mayor's headquarters. Now Wade plans to cast E.T. in a skit at the Hospital for Sick Children.
If sold, most of his masks would go for $300, he says, and the E.T. sculpture would sell for "a couple thousand." But Wade bets he couldn't part with E.T. just yet, even if he wanted to.
"Oh, I'd start to hear the blues before I could get it out the door," he said. "My wife's crazy about him."
"He's definitely a conversation piece," said Ellie Wade. "He fits right in, even though our color scheme is blue and white. E.T.'s brown, so he matches the floor."
She said that although she "can't draw a stitch," she helps her husband out by supplying him with old newspapers and glue. "I even put up a sign at work for people to give me any old wigs they don't want," she said. "You should see all the bags of old wigs I've collected."
Wade never attended art school and has yet to receive his diploma from McKinley High School here in Washington, but he has high hopes for his art career: designing costumes and stage props for Broadway plays and movies.
"I'd like to be able to make my heads move, talk, spin around and anything else if I could," said Wade, who is now working on a Sugar Ray Leonard mask, just in time for this Halloween.
When things look bleak, he thinks back to his junior high school days when it wasn't particularly "in" to daydream of an art career. "All my friends would be out playing basketball -- I would too, sometimes," he recalled. "But it was hard to get them to go to exhibits with me. So, if nobody would come, I'd do it by myself. Just like now."