The Year Everything Important Happened

Being There


London, July 1, 2016, photograph by the author

I thought falling back into Time would be easy in London, unavoidable even.  I’d taken a break from writing the book for a trip there, but I felt certain my sensitivity to the Past would be even stronger in an old place, Los Angeles or San Francisco being so new, comparatively speaking.  I suppose I expected to feel more in a city where so many more people had lived and died. Some parts of the earth are simply more ancient than others, I reasoned; London was a thriving metropolis teeming with Romans, after all, long before California had even been invented.

In Hollywood, however, you can find yourself face to face without warning with a bloody gladiator smoking a cigarette or an eighteenth century girl in powdered wig on her iPhone; the centuries blur in this town where people come to lose their personal Past and create another, so I was no stranger to historical incongruity, and when we emerged from the Green Park Underground station on the morning of the 1st of July and met up with a troop of young men in uniforms of soldiers from the first World War, I didn’t blink.  Once I realized I wasn’t the only one who could see them, that is.  And no, I was not alone and they were quite real, in a surreal fashion, not blending in at all with the other pedestrians.  Film shoot, I quickly surmised.  Or perhaps, like a Civil War Re-enactment back home, they were members of a costume drama club for young men who loved dressing up and pretending to settle old disputes.

We followed the troups, these youthful Doughboys, through the arcade of the Ritz on Piccadilly, headed toward Fortnum and Mason, when I noticed another group moving in the same direction on the other side of the street, by the Burlington Arcade.  We stopped at the traffic light and one of the boys – truly a boy, he might have been no more than sixteen or seventeen – turned to stare back at me, passively, almost a little expectantly.

“Where are you going?” I asked.  He didn’t answer but continued looking at me mutely, and then handed me a card.  On it was written: “Private George Smith, 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916” and at the bottom, something I noticed later, a hashtag, #wearehere.

Private George Smith couldn’t speak, of course, because he had died on this day a hundred years before.  For the past few months I’d been working on the story of a dead man but it hadn’t prepared me to meet one so young and so alive and so far from home.

Later I would learn the details, the identity of the organizer, the scope and extent of this tribute to the fallen.  Later I would wonder where my actor William had been on the 1st of July in 1916.  I knew he had not been a young man and he had not been in France when 19,000 men died on the the first day of that terrible battle.  He had not been there.  I don’t think I had been there either, until that moment, looking into the eyes of a young actor on a street in London a hundred years later.

The Past does not register until you find a human connection to it.  It doesn’t have to be DNA, or a common language or heritage or the right setting, although I suppose that would all help.  So does being old. But too much life, too many people in the present can be a hindrance, a roaring white noise that disrupts, drowns out the old. History is the hardest thing to teach to the young, because they have so many distractions and so little material to work with, so little Time.  By itself, however, Time, even in ancient surroundings, will not help you conjure another era or another life.

There were moments later, walking in Russell Square, in Bloomsbury, a place I know better than other parts of London, when slipping into the Past felt easier, or possible.  Virginia Woolf’s father died in 1904, her life changed then, she walked here.  I once owned a note written by Lytton Strachey to her that year that mentions her brother Thoby Stephen, describing him as looking like a young Theseus (he would die two years later on a trip to Greece); I bought it at auction and sold it again a few years later because I was poor and had no business spending money on ephemera of people I’d never known, but the connection lingered: a tingling in the touch, like a startled recognition prompted by a look exchanged by accident on the street with another boy who died too young; a feeling of being part of something much greater and older and richer and sadder than ever seemed possible.  A sense of being connected, of being there.

Selma Ave. From “Time Fall, A Memoir of 1904”


Wilcox Hotel, Hollywood, corner of Wilcox and Selma, circa 1930s, Los Angeles Public Library photography archives

You cannot trigger a falling with physical coordinates alone.  I think this is a common mistake people make with time travel.  Visit the Tower of London and be whisked back in time to the beheading of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. It doesn’t work that way.  It takes more than an address, more than longitude and latitude.  Weather is involved as well, and time of day and angle of the light, and state of mind.  And importantly, Mood.  And more important still, Energy.

You must also be careful not to assume that every vacant lot you come upon was once the site of something historical, or that some interesting building had to be demolished to make way for something else, or for parking. Not in Los Angeles at any rate.  There are empty lots in this town that have always been empty, without significance or consequence. So you should not stand in the tour bus parking area behind the El Capitan Theatre and try to imagine what older structures stood there when the theater was built in 1926.  In 1926 real estate developer Charles E. Toberman (1880 – 1981, ten years younger than William, from Texas, his mother Lucy died in 1904) was in the process of making Hollywood into Hollywood, had already built the Egyptian (1922) and was in the process of completing the Roosevelt Hotel (1927) and Grauman’s Chinese (1927).  And yes, although Hollywood Boulevard might have been an unpaved stretch of road through orange groves in 1904, it was definitely a city street in the 20s and in the 30s when William was living on Selma Avenue and walking or taking the streetcar on Hollywood Boulevard to the theater; it was not open country and buildings did get pulled down to make way for newer, bigger, grander structures.  And yet you didn’t have to go far to get a sense of change, of a landscape in transformation, of a place being made for the first time.

I am trying to get better at seeing.  I walk from Highland east on Selma, past the white pillared “New England” style Baptist Church at Las Palmas, on to Cherokee and Schrader and toward Wilcox, to 6526 Selma Avenue which The Los Angeles Voter Register lists as William’s place of residence in 1928 when he was one of the Henry Duffy Players and possibly where he was still living in 1933 when he was appearing in Bridal Wise at the El Capitan half a dozen blocks away at 6838 Hollywood Boulevard.  6526 is now a parking lot directly adjacent to the old Wilcox Hotel which is now the Mama Shelter Hotel, a chic hipster hotel and restaurant with German speaking visitors unloading luggage from a cab at the entrance at 6500 Selma while the doorman talks to another guest and one of the kitchen staff stands around the back side of the building, a young Latin guy, smoking and talking on his cell phone.  I want to take a picture but I’m afraid he’ll think I’m photographing him.  I turn around and face another empty fenced-in parking area across the street.  In the adjacent lot to the north is a long two-story “Spanish” apartment building with tiled roof and arched verandahs on the second floor overlooking the lot, its front entrance on Schrader.  I take a picture for no good reason.  The right vintage, I suppose.  Twenties.  Not a careful or focused shot.  I question what I’m doing. Nearly all the architecture of Hollywood should be described in quotation marks. “Spanish,” “Tudor,” “Gothic,” Egyptian.” The day is already hot. Nothing is happening.

I walk to the corner of Selma and Wilcox and look around, try to determine what would have been or not been here in William’s day. The Gilbert Hotel stands across the street from the Wilcox.  To the north, The Mark Twain Hotel on Wilcox is undergoing renovation, draped in Christo fashion with net shrouds and scaffolding. I try to fill up the empty spaces around it with other structures. This was a sketchy part of town when I moved to L.A. in the 90s, a place to buy drugs and pick up hustlers or get rolled (the Spotlight was a dive a couple blocks further east, Selma at Cahuenga); now the neighborhood appears to be enjoying gentrification, a mini Times Square renewal except that back East the bad parts of town and urban decay exist in a twilight of shadows, dark alleys and gloom.  Here there are no shadows; bougainvillea blooms on crack houses, palm trees sway in blue skies.  I squint at the bright day, the façade of the Wilcox fresh white and blinding beneath a washed out sky, no clouds.  I walk back and the kid is still on his phone, smoking.

Later I find a photograph of the Wilcox Hotel in its day, in the 30s, with a drug store on the ground level where I imagine William went to buy his Clubman talc in the green and white can with the man in tux and top hat on the front, and his toiletries and cigarettes (Did he smoke? Did you smoke?) and I wonder if the store had a soda fountain like Schwab’s on Sunset.  And in the picture I see, on the very far right edge, where the guy from the kitchen was standing talking on his phone, just enough of the structure that stood next to the hotel on Selma, is visible: 6526, a two-story Spanish style building with tiled roofs and arched verandahs on the second floor overlooking the street. And I realize I was expecting an old wooden Craftsman bungalow converted to apartments, something with a low front porch and overhanging eaves.  And I understand why I noticed the kid in the first place, standing where the front door would have been, and why I looked at the building across the way, similiar in every way, a good stand-in.  I am getting better at seeing.  I realize I need to pay more attention to what I notice.  I am being told what to see by what I see.

I still don’t fall.  Not here.  It happens a couple days later, early in the morning when I’m still in bed, before I find the photograph of the Wilcox.  I wake up to the sound of an old-fashioned cash register, a metallic ca-ching and thunk. I can smell lilac water and bay rum and sandalwood. It’s night and I’m inside, a wooden floor beneath me, warm light overhead.  I am wearing a bowler hat.  Moving lights swing by outside the plate glass windows filled with displays of merchandise, bottles, boxes, hand-lettered signage, the view fussy with neon.  “Gussied up” with neon – I hear a voice inside my head correcting me.  The candy colors of the neon reflect and blur the edges of the windows, trimming the blackness outside.  It’s late.  A boy in a white apron sweeps the aisle.  His hair shines glossy black, combed back like a young Valentino sheik. Dark eyes and enviable cheekbones and lips in a pout, concentrating, aware that I am watching him and pretending not to notice, not wanting to meet my gaze too soon.  We have seen each other before.  I have been here before. I feel a little thrill of anticipation. I am excited to be alive.

Time Future

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You are consciousness in all planes and dimensions but you choose to focus on this particular convergence of points called the present.  Your senses are set to this map, this set of coordinates, this frequency.  In the old world we would say you are tuned in to the radio station called Now.  But there are ways to adjust the dial.  There are other stations, other frequencies. They do not cease broadcasting just because you aren’t listening.  You are here and there; you are vibrating across the spectrum, past, present, future.  You are those mysterious protons from Quantum psychics, dancing back and forth between the seen and unseen, existing in potential, waiting to be predicted to appear. Waiting for your cue to go on stage.  You are living and dying and being born, here and there, then and now.

I wake in the night to the sound of a train’s mournful air horn rising up and falling away in the distance.  It is a sound from my childhood and from some other time I know and yet don’t know.  A sound of coming close and going away. There are no trains near here now.  Am I dreaming?

The future distracts you with hair styles and modes of transportation.  Strange fashion statements and conveyor-belt sidewalks.  What is modern does not always age well.  Translation is inadequate: is this a subway car I’m in?  People packed into rows, holding onto straps suspended overhead, like racks of old clothes on hangers. The smell of toilet cake disinfectant, sweet and sour pine trees and ripe jockstraps, an aphrodisiac.  Mid-country transport. Off-world meat rocket.  I don’t know if these are terms in common usage or meant to be ironic.

My arm aches.  My field of vision is nape of neck and back of ear after ear after ear after pierced, un-pierced, cauliflower ear after shaggy, shaved, thick, cropped tatted up dirty clean collared neck, glimpse of shoulder, sweaty, sloped, hunched, swollen and I can feel a rhythm, repetition, we’re moving, where are we going? Who’s asking?  I hear the train horn again.

I/He is traveling, tired, in trouble, can’t deal and it all feels familiar.  Not the surroundings but the jumbled wheel of round and round, tumbling inside a cheap industrial front load washer of problems, slogging through an endless cycle, no way out.  No Way Out, I hear him, or rather I hear us say.  We look around.

Now I am not him, not inside him anymore, that is, I’m out of line, literally and figuratively: I’m standing outside the strap-holding queue and looking at this young man.  Shaved head, unfortunate tattoos, maybe only a kid, eighteen, but an old eighteen, tired before his time, his name is Zed.  End of the line, end of the alphabet, a weary and wary, untrusting gaze directed back at me.

What I want to do, of course, is not look back but look around, see this place, these racks of old clothes with people in them hurtling somewhere, a windowless repurposed 747 cargo-hold whizzing through space – I really do, really want to get my bearings at least but that desire is undermined by the urgent fear swimming up into his pale eyes and the realization in me that what happens next will matter more, much more somehow than anything else.  Why?

Why what? He answers in my mind.  And who the fuck are you? He adds with adolescent daring, and oh Bowery Boy, I think, oh you tough guy, the bravado of youth.

You, I reply and watch him pull back in reaction, in order to assess, readjust his balance, not what either of us expected. And then without knowing why, without understanding how I’m here at all or what’s at stake except that somehow everything is, and feeling a little dizzy in the process, as if something inside me may have shifted in flight, in the process, I say it again.  You.

I am you.


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He lets me see what he wants me to see. Something happened in the past, something went wrong, I know that or sense it rather, but before I can focus on what I’m being shown I am swept forward again, onward, and I have the nagging feeling I am only being allowed to see a part of, not the whole, and that somehow what follows will better explain the past or inform what came before, I just need to be patient. The messages continue to come – cryptic, incomplete – what changes is my willingness to accept the process, that this is how it works. This is the way the story will unfold.

He dreamt again about the boy from the future.  This is from the other night. I have learned to keep a pad of paper and pen by the bed, and to resist the urge to go back to sleep by pretending I will remember the words in the morning.  I don’t turn on a light but reach out and write in the dark.  Sometimes what I find in the morning is illegible but there is no memory to rely upon, so I know the lie I tell myself – and have told myself for years – that I will not forget is just a lie from laziness, another form of resistance.  I do not remember, what I find when I wake up is disconnected, comes from out of nowhere, literally or figuratively, take your pick.

I will help you with the past.  This is the message this morning. Who is this “I”? Is it another me?  In the idea I had for a sci-fi script the three characters were unrelated – I mean, not unrelated but connected by a deeper level of connectedness, or consciousness – I didn’t know what else to call it. “Well you’ll have to do better than that, because that’s impossible,” my friend the critic explained.  “It’s confusing, it doesn’t make sense.”  Which I suppose should have cheered me up, since the implication that the rest of my pitch – a man in the future who gets help from a man in the past – must therefore ‘make sense’ and not be confusing except for the part about the characters having the same DNA or being related biologically somehow.  Sigh.  Sometimes I think you should never ask anyone’s opinion of anything, you invite confusion.  You usher in Doubt, and you show him to a seat for a show he won’t like at all.

Trust the process.



Edith Taliaferro (1894-1958) in Young Romance (1915)

When The Old Man in the Moon premieres in September of 1921, David Belasco has been a theatrical producer for forty years; he will be honored by the Society of Arts and Sciences with a banquet at the Biltmore in December.  Avery Hopwood’s play The Demi-Virgin will open in October, one of the biggest hits of the season, and even more so when obscenity charges are brought against it (and subsequently dropped); in November Paramount Pictures will release Miss Lulu Bett, directed by William C. deMille, the third film deMille directs in 1921.

In 1921 Edith’s sister Mabel will do two films, one with a young Mary Astor based on J.M. Barrie’s novel Sentimental Tommy, directed by John S. Robertson, which is released in May.  Mabel will retire from acting soon after although she will make a final cameo appearance (as the Dowager) in 1940 in Olivia de Haviland’s film My Love Came Back and then live on until 1979, dying at the age of 91 in Hawaii.  As for their cousin, having set up her own production company B and B Features which produced 16 films (all lost) between 1918 and 1921, Bessie will also retire from film and return to the stage: The Skirt starring Bessie Barriscale will open in November at the Bijou Theatre on 45th Street (built by the Shuberts in 1917, demolished 1982). In December, Edith’s first husband Earle Brown will open in the melodrama Alias Jimmy Valentine with Mary Boland at the Gaiety on 46th Street (built 1908, demolished 1982), and Edith’s future husband House Jameson will be 19 years old with his whole career ahead of him: his role as Sam Aldrich, the father on the popular radio show The Aldrich Family (1940-1949) almost twenty years in the future, and his work in daytime soap opera (Another World, The Edge of Night) more distant still, in a medium not yet invented.

In 1921 Edith Taliaferro, once described as the ‘greatest child actor’ is 26 years old. William Macauley is 50. An age difference like that (it was nearly the same between Buffy and me) colors a relationship, it puts a certain parent-and-child spin on the dynamic between you, at least if you’ve ever been a parent, which neither William nor I ever were, except on stage or in pretend situations as father figure to young boys who loiter backstage or petty criminals or young actors just starting out like John Breeden, or a particularly handsome extra who showed up on set once and was down on his luck and willing to do just about anything  to pay his rent and stay in Hollywood although that is another story entirely.  In any case it’s a bad idea with young ladies of the theatre unless you’re the director, which is also another story.  Big brother, older confidante perhaps, but not Daddy. I’m looking here, you see, for a way to fall, an opening to the convergence, a falling back into time.  What was she like to work with? I wonder. And I wait.

And then I fall.

At first into a brightly lit make-you-blink mirrored mobile home, the hair and make-up trailer on location and it is 1995 and I am reflected everywhere and I’m twenty years younger with a call-sheet taped on the mirror where the rest of me should be.  And then I am somewhere else, the light much dimmer and amber colored and a young girl with abundant brown hair – far too much of it, I think, and too much for the crowded little dressing room she’s sitting in, too much for her small pale uncertain face in the mirror looking behind her at someone smoking, and because I haven’t smoked in years I am almost distracted by the unexpected comfort of the slow inhale and exhale mingling with the dust and sweat and sweet face cream and talc, lilac vegetal and grease and stale smoke and old roses and a thick, sticky mechanical aroma I associate with old gears and garages and barns – motor oil? And then I realize they are talking, the girl reflected in the mirror and the man behind her who is – who? Me? And ‘we’ are talking, or running lines, and smoking (what a relief), and at the same time someone is also speaking inside my head, explaining:

WILLIAM: Luminous. I’m telling you, she was luminous on stage.  And what does it mean, by the way, this not taking it out on the camera?  That she wasn’t real? Edith was real when she was out there with you, giving you everything, fully alive in her role.  You must remember not to take Edith’s film work too seriously, she is a shadow of herself in front of the camera, trying too hard not to look like she’s trying too hard, which I admit comes off as slightly earnest and sweet but it’s still too much, whereas on stage the process is entirely different and that’s where she belonged. On stage she glowed. Of course off stage she could be difficult, to me she was a child, but to all of us she was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the quintessential little girl, and she knew that, was aware of that, it affected the way she behaved, or at least the way she behaved when she remembered – who she thought we thought she was.  She was also, don’t forget, the little sister, and that has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. Look at deMille with big brother Cecil, a famous sibling can cast a long shadow over you, not that Edith’s big sister Mabel ever struck me as all that more talented.  More relaxed, certainly, and more at ease with herself, confident.  More practiced, if you know what I mean, but then having four husbands would do that, I suppose, whereas poor Edith never achieved that quality. She was a child when it came to men, which was part of her charm on stage, but in life I don’t suspect it helped much.  I never knew the second husband, but her first, Earle Brown was – well, he couldn’t have given her much.  He was my generation, after all, my age and my – he had a similar attitude, let’s just leave it at that, and he certainly had no business marrying a girl like Edith, he must have thought it would help his own career which is a terrible reason for taking a wife as I may have said elsewhere – or intend to say elsewhere when the time comes.  In any event, it didn’t do Earle any favors, marrying her.  Or Edith either.  She was lucky to be rid of him. It didn’t last.  It couldn’t.   

What Was She Like?


Edith Taliaferro (1894 – 1958) in Young Romance, 1915

I think about William Macauley working with Edith Taliaferro, the once famous child actress, and I think about my few brief years working in television, except that I was not an actor (although I filled in as an extra a couple times); still, I suppose it’s as good a point of convergence as any.  Probably not fair to compare the actress who played Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to the one who played Buffy the Vampire Slayer but if you’ve been around any actress for any length of time you soon realize their lives are all about comparison – of themselves to their image on screen, in the mirror, on camera, to other actresses, other women in other realities and on other planes of existence.  “She seems so natural,” you think. Or,  “She’s so different from her character,” or “She’s exactly what you would imagine.” Or “She seems taller, shorter, older, younger, thinner…” Or, “She seems so real.  So lifelike.”

“She never takes it out on the camera,” they used to say of an actress I knew once, meaning that however difficult or awful life on set with her was, you would never know from watching the dailies.  I look at the stills of Edith in Young Romance (1915), her first film, and I wonder whether that was true of her.  What was she like to work with?  How did she behave backstage, oh Man in the Moon?

In 1904 Edith Taliaferro appeared as Puck in a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. She was ten years old.  By then she had already played six to eight juvenile roles on New York stages and in stock companies.  In 1907 she performed as a young circus rider in Polly of the Circus which ran for more than a year at the Liberty Theater on 42nd Street, and in 1910 she starred in what is probably her best remembered role as the lead in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, at the Republic Theater (New Victory, also on 42nd Street). Younger sister of the arguably more famous stage and silent film actress Mabel Taliaferro and cousin of Bessie Barriscale who was one of Thomas Ince’s major stars, Edith did only three silent films between 1915 and 1919 before returning to Broadway in a production of Please Get Married.  In the 20s she appeared in several other Broadway shows and also in vaudeville. In 1931 she was Amanda Prynne in the touring company production of Private Lives. Occasional work in summer theater and radio followed thereafter until her retirement in the late 30s. Briefly married to and divorced from the actor and writer Earle Brown, who was over twenty years her senior, Edith later married the actor House B. Jameson, who would become known for his work in radio and television, particularly as the father Sam Aldrich on The Aldrich Family (1940-1954). They remained together until her death in 1958.

The Old Man in the Moon in 1921 was a top of the bill showcase piece for Edith.  This foray into vaudeville gave her the opportunity to demonstrate her versatility and range and dramatic talent by playing a young Dutch, a young Japanese and a young Canadian girl in various romantic scenarios. She was not an unknown, of course; she’d gained fame as a child actress with her Polly and her Rebecca, and even if she was also occasionally confused with her sister Mabel, she still had name recognition.  And Man in the Moon was certainly well-received wherever it played on the Orpheum Circuit.  It really might have been her chance at a new level of stardom. It wasn’t, but might have been.

What was it like, William?  Compared to other actresses you worked with, the more or the less famous ones, the younger and older ones, the more or the less ambitious, what was she like?

Excerpt from “Time Fall, a Memoir”

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Variety, September 23, 1921

Lately I keep predicting the future.  “Don’t put that there, it’ll break,” I think to myself, and it does.  “Call so-and-so now or you’ll be sorry,” I tell myself, and then I don’t and later, as if on cue, I am.  “Don’t forget,” I say, and yet, I do.

Lately I’ve been (not “dreaming” and “remembering” isn’t the  right word either, more like) thinking about a future self who needs my help.  He’s in terrible trouble and so is the planet, off-world travel is the best option if you’re poor and he is, and oh my things look bleak.  Being adept at prediction, I can’t help paying attention.  I have no desire for a life after this one, especially not one in some brutal dystopian future where life is desperate and full of struggle of the life-and-death variety and yet I have to admit the story unfolds in such a compellling fashion and my protagonist-self looks so much like a Hollywood heart-throb, one of the Hemsworth boys or Channing Tatum maybe, that I think it might make a good screenplay and so I tell it to a friend who is encouraging and then to another who isn’t.  “Full of holes,” according to the second opinion; “it just doesn’t track.”  I’m advised to “rebreak.”  Breaking Story is what they do in this town.  Find the beats, break the story, then hang some dialogue on it.

Breaking, beating, hanging and that’s just the writing part: it’s a tough business, this business called show.

And so, because Time is simultaneous and Life is not always chronological I set aside the future and return to William Macauley, the actor, the man in the moon, floating suspended above the stage of the Orpheum Theatre on Fulton Street in Brooklyn in 1921 and then other stages of the Orpheum circuit in St. Louis and Chicago and Wichita, a lanky gentleman in a tophat and tails, a silhouette against a sparkling starry sky of sequins, reciting Shakespeare sonnets into the darkness, discoursing in rhyme about the universal power of love.

I knew a boy once who rode an enormous cresent moon as it descended to the dance floor of ’54, and he wore nothing but a silver speedo and a smile but it was the same thing.   The past and another past and a glimpse of the futue, and a night sky full of bright promise and love.

Show and Tell


Set for Acts I and III of the New York Fulton Theatre production of 1924, not the Alcazar, San Francisco 1928 production.

Although the roles shifted as William Macauley’s name moved down the Dramatis Personae from major to minor, from leading young man to lesser character parts in his later years – as the minister, butler, quirky old doctor – the material itself remained remarkably consistent. Melodrama, if nothing else, is moral drama: family comes first, sons and daughters dutiful to parents, husbands faithful to obedient wives. Plot twists aside, transgressions need always to be punished, virtuous love rewarded and threats to the natural order firmly rebuffed by the final curtain. It is drama that is safe, that plays by the rules.  From W.B. Patton’s “The Minister’s Son” in 1904 to Frank Craven’s “New Brooms” in 1924, the story’s the same: a son must learn that Father Knows Best.

“Well, you don’t understand.  Things are different today than they were when you were a boy,” says the son Tom Bates to his father at the end of “New Brooms” and his father replies:

“Yes.  I said that to my father, Tom; and if you have boys – which, please God, you will – they’ll say it to you.  (A good pause.)  I am not trying to talk now of the world and its manners, its inventions, its increased wealth and its decreased modesty.  Those things are different.  Kids today ride where I walked – they have a dollar where I had a penny – they have their clothes made where I had my dad’s things cut down.  Things are different.  I can remember when I was a boy and went to the theatre – (Pause – Look towards house) – the girls wore tights.  My folks thought that was terrible. I didn’t.  I’ve seen some of the pictures you have in your room, Tom.  I think they are pretty raw.  You don’t.  Can you imagine what you will think of the pictures your boys will have? …”

Can you imagine indeed. Funny, isn’t it, how Change so often seems to be associated with Loss, of decency, of morality, of modesty, of clothes.  Change means exposure, means being more explicit, more real. From boys playing the parts of girls to real girls on stage to real girls in tights.  The search for verisimilitude leads to new ways to strip away illusion and depict the real.  David Belasco went so far as to have an entire tenement room, walls, windows, doors, removed and installed on a Broadway stage in order to give his audience a more authentic and real experience.

But there are limits to how real and how raw and how new.  Then as now there were censors and public vice crusaders and reformers.  In the business called show, just how much you could show was a matter of opinion, sometimes a judge’s and jury’s. David Belasco’s “Lulu Belle” (1927), one of his most controversial productions, was one of a number of plays that tested those limits.  “Lulu Belle” was the story of a Harlem prostitute who lures a man away from his wife and children only to leave him for a prizefighter, and then another man; when Lulu refuses to return to her first spurned lover, he strangles her. And as shocked as the critics were by the salacious tale, it was the actress Lenore Ulric’s seductive performance and revealing outfits that really offended. It isn’t just how much you show but what kind of story you tell.  Show and Tell.

No wonder, then, that film back then seemed so dangerous. Film was all about showing the real world, with an unsavory, morally ambivalent quality that came along precisely for that, the result of being so real. Too real. And even worse than real, accessible.  Cheap compared to live theater, and since the masses were by their very nature immoral, the last thing they needed was cheap and easy access to the real.  The masses needed lessons and order and control and constraint.  New brooms too, maybe, but not at the risk of upsetting the Way Things Should Be.  And so the need for a speech from the father that continues for another thirty-six lines until young Tom, who’s managed to make a mess of the family’s broom manufacturing business, realizes he’s going to be forgiven in spite of it all because Family trumps Change and the young man declares, “Dad, you’re a peach!” and father and son embrace.

This is theater that instructs as it reassures. It’s the kind of theater William Macauley and his partner W.B. toured with at the turn of the last century, and the sort of “wholesome” material Henry Duffy sought to bring to the stage in the 20s and 30s until cheap cinema finally took over and the world was plunged into darkness and decadence.

They say pornography drives technological innovation, that a desire to see more flesh leads to photography to film to VHS to DVD to high definition to 3D.  They also say Puritans and prudes make the best alcoholics: the greater the inhibitions, the greater the need to break those inhibitions down, I don’t know about that.  Prohibition didn’t work but it certainly made for a strange and exciting time to be alive.

What’s interesting to me is how, in the midst of it all, you choose to live your life.  Then and now.  How daring and risky you want to be, or how safe you want to play it.  The truth is, change happens, more is revealed, it’s how you react to that change that matters. How ambitious do you want to be when your own life doesn’t fit within the confines of the socially acceptable?  How much are you willing to show and tell the world? What do you do when you find it hard or dangerous to play by the rules, and illegal or fatal if you don’t?

Sometimes you have no choice.

You become an actor.

More Evidence



Haven’t found a mug shot for young Francis Long, the boy the old actor William befriended back stage of the Alcazar Theatre in 1928, the boy who ended up stealing William’s wallet and getting caught for it.  The boy who like William, like David Belasco, like so many others, loitered back stage of theaters because that’s where dreams are made.

The 1940 Census finds Francis Long, the “Boy Baritone,” out of jail and married to Lucille, a stenographer. His profession is listed as “Showcard Artist.” He’s the fellow who letters all the ads for the front of the house, the upcoming shows, the cast, the dates, One Week Only, Held Over, Starring and so forth and so maybe there’s something to be said for hanging around theaters after all, it doesn’t have to lead to a life of crime.  A boy with artistic leanings, with an eye, with a certain flair, a steady hand, it can take you somewhere, a decent job, settle down, find a wife, do a brisk business on the side in signage of all sorts too, cards for department store window displays, hotel lobbies, for restaurant daily specials, for the names of employees on office doors.

Chronology will kill me.  I go to bed, I dream, I get up and leave the dream behind, out of place, go about my day anticipating things that may or may not happen (some do, some don’t) while I day-dream about the things I’d like to have happen instead, and then I find myself home again and in bed again and there’s the dream again, and the semblance of order keeps me in this illusion (the repetition helps) of an overall, overwhelming, inevitable rushing onward of time to the next day and the day after that, and so forth.  No.

Life only seems to be chronological. There are different versions, alternate levels. One thing does not always lead to another. What was most important may have already happened, in another time, another year, triggered by an event that is still in the future, discovered in a dream, left behind by someone else and forgotten before you were born.

That’s why we love a mystery.  Why I do, that is, speaking for myself here. Put a dead body at the top of Act One Scene One and work backwards from there, I tell you there’s nothing better. Follow the clues and build a story out of them, figure it out. You’ll get it wrong, get close, have to backtrack again, have to reconsider, find another piece of the puzzle you missed before, throw in an unreliable witness or two, a false lead, a mistake in a newspaper article, the facts not quite right, a romantic distraction, nothing adding up or what it seems until you get to that scene where the sign artist shows up and scrapes those gold letters of the dead man’s name off the frosted glass window, starts painting a new name, and suddenly you realize and you’re running down the stairs as fast as you can, grab your romantic interest on the way, hand in hand, back to the scene of the crime.  Or wait, what about a reversal of fortune instead, not the dead man’s name being taken off the glass, but yours.

Pain so violent we put it on the first page except we don’t, not really. A body is only lifeless evidence. The hurt, the hunger, the passion is gone. I don’t know about your sorrow. You don’t know about mine. Or his, or hers. The pain stays in the past; what remains is a chalk outline, police tape at the door, other people’s memories and recollections.  But there is still the mystery, something that was lost that’s been found again and the past is not past and in the future I will know it.  Francis Long, showcard artist, sitting at his easel by the window, brush in hand, squinting at the sunlight and at nothing, trying to figure it out, to make sense of it all, while Lucille’s reflection behind him is  getting ready to go to her job in the steno pool, putting on her dress, her shoes, and dreaming her own dreams.

Even in the present moment I have the feeling I’ve been here before, that the answer’s right in front of me, staring back.  All I have to do is wake up.

Where You Are

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1570 Sutter Street, San Francisco from the SFMTA #2 Clement, 4/10/2016, Photo by the author

I don’t always know where I’m going but I think I do. I would be better off if I let myself be guided but that would involve trust which I possess in small supply. What I do instead is edit, restrict, limit, censor, narrow my choices down to a manageable list, to what I think I can get away with.

I go to San Francisco and before we’ve even landed I decide I will not be able to go everywhere.  I will try to find the Alcazar Theatre but not where William was living when he was in town performing with the Henry Duffy Players.  I can’t do everything. In fact, the Alcazar – not the first one destroyed in the ’06 earthquake and not the present theater in the old Shriners Temple at 650 Geary but the one that opened in 1911 and closed on New Years Eve in 1961 – is gone.  260 O’Farrell, barely two blocks from our hotel, is now the Handlery Hotel’s entrance to the hotel’s parking garage where in 1928 the lobby entrance and marquis would have been.

Across the street, Foley’s Irish House, a brick structure with elaborate turn-of-the-last century cornice work clearly dates from the days when William performed in “New Brooms.” It’s raining. I wait for the dizziness, the shift in equilibrium. Nothing much, or if anything a faint buzz from the arsenic green tiled arches of the Skechers store a block away at the corner of Powell and O’Farrell but anyone would get an Art Deco contact high from a place like that, more Hollywood or Disneyland it’s so iconic and obvious. It’s architecture that makes seeking the past seem too easy.  I look away. The clock over the door at Foley’s hangs from a bracket with a sign that reads “Time For a Pint!” Again, too easy. Yes, how many times did my old Irishman and his young friend John Breeden head across for a few pints after the show? Put on a brogue and faith and begorrah ’tis a fine thing yer doin’ Johnny, flyin’ in the face o’ yer family’s fortune, troddin’ the boards, goin on the stage, aye laddie… way too easy.

Or maybe that’s the point. I’m the one being difficult, trying so hard to make sense of it all.  Stop making sense. Stop editing. Let go.

The Census for 1930 has William Macauley, actor, 60 years old, living at the Kenmore Apartments at 1570 Sutter Street but I don’t see us finding our way there even if it’s only a mile from the site of the old Alcazar, it’s a mile out of our way, the lower Pacific Heights or Specific Whites as we used to say when we were young and poor and flippant about the rich, and then the next day it is not raining and we are on a Muni transit bus headed to Golden Gate Park and a little boy boards with his grandmother and they sit across from us and he calmly stares at me the fearless way some children do, as though he knows perfectly well why I’m meeting his gaze and who I am and where I am going.

For your safety keep your eyes up and phones down” the Muni voice announces in English, Chinese and Spanish.  The little boy seems to be a mix of at least two of these.  He is a beautiful child, and he knows it.  Then for less than a moment he is still a little boy but he does not have little boy eyes.  For just an instant they are not eyes at all but windows, and someone unexpected is there on the other side looking out at me, and in spite of nothing else changing I see someone seeing me, and we know each other. Like suddenly recognizing a friend left behind at the bus stop as you pull away.  Like every movie with a train and a train window and a waving goodbye or hello. No, it’s more than that.  As if a friend is dressing a department store display window and you happen to walk by and even with the bright sun backlighting you and the street in the glass reflection you see him within that cloudy interior, through a glass darkly, and the two of you connect in surprise, your friend putting shoes or a dress on a mannequin, an inadvertently private moment, how funny, what a coincidence, what perfect timing, what are you doing here, no what are you doing here and although this isn’t exactly what happened it is close enough, and I disobey the warning and look down and check my phone for our location.  I glance up again as we travel into the 1500 block of Sutter.  How did I not realize we were on Sutter? How did I not know? I open the camera app on my phone as the front steps and awning for 1570 sweeps by outside the windows of the bus.

I’m making this sound complicated and it is, and it’s not. “Walk-In,” although the commonly accepted term for what happens, usually for an extended stay, doesn’t really capture the experience, and “Quantum Leap” makes it sound a whole lot more exciting than the reality. Granted, Scott Bakula was a hirsute dream to watch – whose heart didn’t leap a little at that moment in every episode when he took his shirt off? But watching the dramatization of a mind slipping inside another mind on television was just that, a drama. That’s show-biz, that’s entertainment, that’s why they call it acting.  “I become the character,” says an actor, and you know what he means. Until it happens to you, and you find yourself without warning seeing someone or place or thing as if for the first time, or you spontaneously offer surprisingly wise advice and wonder where the words came from. Or someone else does and shivers and says, woah what was that? And then you both shrug and move on.  Hardly a leap, darling.  Unexpected, yes, but neither of you is Baryshnikov.  We are in San Francisco for the ballet.

‘Walk-In’ also sounds a little too pedestrian, like someone didn’t have an appointment, which is partly true. Just passing by, passing through. Walk on by. I think of it more as a slip of the mind, like a slip of the tongue.  Yours, theirs.

The truth is, the world is a lot less permanent, a great deal more fluid, malleable, richer, more layered and profound and boundary-less than you might think, and that’s okay.

Please tell me you’re not taking pictures of that child,” my companion leans over to advise me, sotto voce.

“Absolutely not,” I lie.  Or, not exactly lie because it’s not what it looks like.  They’re not pictures of the child.  They’re not pictures of a ghost either, or a visitor, or a walk-in. They don’t show anything out of the ordinary, just a view out a bus window and a little boy with his grandma, going somewhere and looking at the man across the aisle looking back.  And I hear a voice in my mind say to me, You see where we are?  And the child turns away, disinterested.  And I nod.  Isn’t it funny, an inadvertently private moment, what a coincidence, what perfect timing, what are we doing here?

But I do know. I see. I do.

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