22 July 2009
Make 'Em Laugh
In today's world where paparazzi surround very minor starlets and major ones are hounded to the point of high walls and intense security, it is probably hard to believe that there was a time when just bumping into the famous on a Los Angeles street wasn't cause for any excitement. A short while back I heard some notable saying that they liked New York, because "New Yorkers have seen everything and don't bother you."
Los Angeles of the 1950s and early '60s had a certain code. If the performer was at a public appearance such as a premier, then asking for an autograph was acceptable as long as you didn't make a nuisance of yourself. These people were studio trained and considered it part of their job. If they were going about doing normal activities, then you smiled in recognition - it would have been cruel to make them think they had become a has been - but unless spoken to, you went about your business. Disturbing them was rude and left to the tourists. Their homes weren't behind high, gated walls. They had lawns fronting on the streets of Beverly Hills and some were known to wave at the "See The Homes of the Stars" tour buses.
A word about "premiers". Under the studio systems, except for major releases, these were rarely the huge events you can still see in some motion pictures, but rather were held at local theaters with review cards passed out to the audience. This could result in complete re-cutting of a movie or control the advertising program. During high school at my part time job as a cashier at the Paradise Theater in Westchester, these premiers were frequent. The fact that Rock Hudson just walked by for a screening of "Come September" was a normal occurrence. The theater did reserve a row for the star and studio entourage, but that was about it for excitement.
Paradise Theater then and office building now
Even up to the early 1980s when I left Los Angeles, no one thought it strange to run into motion pictures and TV series being shot other than to gripe if they were blocking the street. Then there was my griping when I couldn't find my son who entertained himself by trying to get into background shots. His favorite after school bit was taking a bus up to the studios, faking that he knew where he was going and having the guards so used to him that they didn't even blink. End result, he helped out with the drudge work and ended up as an extra in several movies. The one where you can almost identify him if he is there to point out the fast passing dot, is a crowd scene in one of the Star Trek films. That and walking by in several Starsky and Hutch episodes were the extent of his film career. Our apartment was two blocks from the famous scene above. That is Palisades Park in Santa Monica and a favorite of camera operators and directors as a background for movies and TV series set in the area along with the Santa Monica pier and the bike path into Venice.
This story is about Donald O'Connor . I was really racking my brain to figure out when it happened. One of the disadvantages of moving constantly is that you sometimes lose track of where you were when without a whole lot of head scratching and trying to figure out where the people in your life were located so that you can place yourself among them. So, I was living in Westchester with my Aunt and Uncle which makes it sometime before 1957. It was after Singing In The Rain was in the theaters which makes it after March 1952. Mom was temporarily unmarried. That really narrows it down to before 1954, and about the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which was June 1953. See what I go through to tell a story?
So what some people have called the greatest musical ever made had been released and Donald O'Connor who had been well known thanks to a career from youth on and the post war Francis the Talking Mule movies was now very, very famous. My mother was waitressing at a nice coffee shop/family diner up on Sepulveda or Manchester (I hope no one wants addresses) next to a service station. Anybody still remember full serve gas stations? Now these particular thoroughfares just happened to be the connecting points between studios, the beach, and places often used for film locations. End result: The natives were pretty jaded when a famous face put in an appearance for a hamburger. Now if one showed up at the Currie's Mile High, the teens might have dithered a bit, but not at dinner out (heaven help the 1950s child who misbehaved after being allowed the privilege of eating away from home with their parents). On this particular day, it was really unusual that the natives lost it when Donald O'Connor had car trouble and strolled in to wait for repairs.
By the above sentence you know that it was a truly different world. No limo, no darkened windows, no entourage, no screaming to be rescued from photographers, just a guy inconvenienced by a vehicle walking into a restaurant and being stunned when almost as one, everyone stood up to applaud. This just DID NOT HAPPEN in Westchester. No one rushed him, they just clapped and kept clapping. So what does an accomplished dancer do when applauded, why he starts dancing to the background music and if you just happen to see an empty table and can do a leap from the ground to the top of same, why you make the leap and keep dancing. Then because it is Westchester, you leap down, stroll to the counter, sit down and place your order as everyone else sits down and goes back to eating.
Once his meal was finished and he was on his way out to pick up his car, a few autographs were requested and signed, but for the most part the only thing left was a great memory and lots of smiles.