Everyone from Hollywood was in the movies. Everyone! You either lived next door to Clark Gable, like my grandmother, or went to Hollywood High, where my father met my mother, a rare beauty and accomplished swimmer, when she was 'discovered' by Busby Berkely while doing laps in the pool. And later, as the story goes, she was 'forbidden' by my father to become the next Esther Williams.
My mother had the right stuff for Hollywood... I did not. Paradoxically contributing to my feelings of alienation, my parents actually worked at Disney Studios, before and after The War. The Golden Years. When the war was over, returning to Hollywood from Washington, DC where I was born, a "war baby," there was no housing, so we lived in a metal Quonset Hut, in what is now the Griffith Park Zoo. During the summer months, it was not unlike living in a frying pan.
My upbringing had an uneasy and tenuous shroud. There was a temporary aura to the place which exacerbated feelings of loneliness. It had no core, no center, no Times Square. The closest thing, I suppose, was Sunset and Vine. Terry Southern once said of Hollywood, "It's like they're waiting to see the dailies and then they are going to strike it."
Night Blooming Jasmine perfumed the crisp, damp, evening air. Rivulets of black asphalt snake across the streets, mending the consequences of a restless earth. These are the imprints from a vague recollection that was my childhood. Eucalyptus and Orange Blossoms. The familiar scents of an otherwise forgotten adolescence.
Johnny Crawford was a Mouseketeer and the object of a ferocious and heartbreaking crush at Cheremoya Grammar School. I would follow him through the labyrinth of canyons, puffing up the 300 granite steps to the foot of the Hollywood sign in hopes of a serendipitous meeting. My labored breathing, from an untreated asthmatic condition, made this odyssey, one of sadly diminishing returns, leaving my 8 year old heart pounding and broken.
Twenty years earlier, an aspiring starlet of dubious talent, Peg Entwhistle, trudged those 300 steps and leaped to her death from the "H" of what was then the "Hollywoodland" sign. When I was five, the 'land' was dropped and so it remains to this day.
Behemoth palm trees, like perfectly placed bowling pins, defying gravity, always baffled me, as to their origin. They lined Sunset Boulevard all the way to the sea, like some vestige of an alien culture, left behind for us to ponder. My grandmother told tales of Orange groves, great earthquakes, Fatty Arbuckle and Coke bottles.
There was a terrible "sameness" about the place. The temperature never above or below a certain degree. The flatline of ennui. And then, to be picked up and unceremoniously , thrashed about at a moment's notice. The hazards of growing up with a trembling earth cannot be measured on any emotional Richter scale.
"Ike" was president. A double bill of The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Man With the Atom Brain at the Pantages cost a quarter. The price of admission for a swim at Hollywood High School, instead, purloined for this delicious sin, began my life long love affair with the movies. For, if it is anything that I took away from this place, it is that. During the Great Depression, my mother sneaked into the movies and for an hour, it was she, and not Ginger Rogers, up there with Fred. The Red Car Trolleys still clattered along Hollywood Boulevard. Cachunk, cachunk. Rhythmically. On occasion they ignited a spark at the coupling of the overhead tracks.
Knees aching, on all fours, I reverently placed my childs' hand into the cold, hard cement of Grauman's Chinese Theater. First the pinky.... ring... middle... index... until my whole body sank into the imprint and for one brief, intoxicating moment, I became Marilyn.
Paranoia was abundant in 1950s Hollywood. "The Red Menace," formerly "The Yellow Menace," crept like some ominous fog, corroding our innocence. J Edgar Hoover, Unidentified Flying Objects, blacklists, Communist conspiracies, fluoride and polio, created a cauldron of free floating anxiety, smoothing the way for a lifetime of neurosis and phobias.
In readiness for the impending and inevitable Nuclear Holocaust, a paranoiac double header; the "duck and cover" and the earthquake drill were the order of the day in Cheremoya Grammar School. For the earth could capriciously, and at any moment, split open and swallow us. Particularly insidious and sprung upon us with the randomness of the event itself. At the "Brrrrrring" of the school alarm. "Stand in a doorway, away from glass, cover your eyes to protect you from the bright light of the blast!" Which, was rumored to reveal the inner workings of your skeleton right through your arm! The stuff of recurring childhood nightmares, only to be replaced by falling elevator dreams when I moved East.
Plopped on the altar of this superficial Gomorrah, I was a stranger in a strange land, ever belonging, never fitting in. Too fat, too shy, and always the dread of one
who is not destined for the silver screen, but nevertheless, by accident of birth.
is groomed and rehearsed and prodded and encouraged like some Children of the Damned... "Father, why are we different?"
The image of a pigtailed 8-year-old, freckled and totally talentless Annie Oakley, struggling through, "Doin' what comes natur'lly," was perhaps my defining moment of humiliation and self-loathing and fodder for the, wandering-on-the-stage-naked-in-your-school-play-and-forgetting-your lines dream. I simply had to get out of this place.
To this day, when I go back there and walk into a restaurant and everyone looks up, as they always do, to see if you are 'anybody' and when you're not, they return nonchalantly to their Pacific Rim food, there is a muscle memory response of feeling 'less than.' I pondered the enigma. It seems that everyone couldn't wait to get to Hollywood, and I couldn't wait to get out!