1904

The Year Everything Important Happened

Show and Tell

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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

 

Francis

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.

More Truth

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3501-3505 Mission Street, San Francisco.  Source: Google Maps

The truth is layered, like rock sediment, like old paint, like the levels the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered when he discovered Troy in 1870, the year William Macauley was born and the ancient city, not the town upstate.  So many layers to the ancient site he had to name them, nine of them, in his efforts to prove to the world that the stories of the poet Homer were true.  Schliemann was also an adventurer and a con man.

I fly to San Francisco last weekend for fun and research and we stay at the St. Francis (Established 1904, interrupted by the Earthquake in 1906 and immediately rebuilt thereafter) on Union Square.  There are excavation pits around the Square, along Stockton, at Geary.  “For years like this,” our cabdriver says, when I ask what’s going on.  “Pipes, water main, utility lines, everything buried down there old.  Worst streets in America,” he adds with a measure of grim satisfaction, as if to underscore his prowess at navigating these treacherous thoroughfares in the rain without killing us.  An adventurer and possibly a con man with an accent from somewhere in the former Soviet Union, here to make his fortune and prove the truth of the American dream.  We give him a generous tip.

Layers that must be numbered, different versions in the same place, some buried, some bleeding like watercolor into each other, time slips, anachronisms where shifts in strata, in the sediment, co-mingle artifacts and facts.

“Don’t,” says William my co-author in Version I, in which a cynical reporter sniffing a story, a whiff of scandal if not anachronism, tries to insinuate an unsavory subplot.  Version I is the story, only barely revealed, of an actor of a certain age, a “colorful gentleman” or more obtusely, a “peculiar actor,” a “confirmed bachelor” as they say in the press in those days, who forms an illicit back stage friendship with a young visitor, only to be relieved of his wallet in the process.  Revenge ensues.  The police are summoned, the young man is forced to confess.  But there’s more: in cahoots with the old gent is his juvenile co-star, practically a boy himself, a poor little rich boy playing at being a player, acting for fun which is to say the worst kind of actor, not doing it because he has to or for the money but for kicks.  Living off Mummy and her millions.  Getting up to no good, under the bad influence of old boys who should know better, corrupting the best and the worst of our youth, rich kids and poor thieves.

Version II is different, however, because I go deeper.  I’m looking for a mugshot of our young criminal so I contact the San Francisco Public Library because common sense tells me you’ll get more from a librarian than a cop.  And there’s nothing better than talking to a librarian when you’re looking for facts, for truth, for knowledge.  Their enthusiasm is contagious.  You are on a mission together, you will find out, you will get to the bottom of whatever it is. You will get numbers, addresses, places to go. There’s more to be discovered about young Francis Long.

The San Francisco Chronicle of February 12, 1928 is the source for Version II.  Francis Long has a nickname, the “Boy Baritone.”  Unexplained but with a meaning not hard to guess.  He’s 18 years old, dressed in his disguise of overalls and screwdriver, loitering back stage with a lanky look and a deep voice; youth with a bass note of amber, smoke, danger, the eucalyptus of Dolores Park in the rain, intoxicating scent.  Irresistible.  Trust me, I know.

He lives in a room at 3505 Mission, a four story gabled structure with a corner turret, its original clapboard and shingles from 1909 now coated with stucco and some of the windows replaced with aluminum sliders, a boarding house in 1928, today with Spicy Bites on the ground floor, a potential flip, tear-down or redo with a current value of around a million three or more.  Truth is layered and so is real estate, lingering from level to level, transformed, repurposed, tarted up or down as Time passes.  I see ghosts everywhere we go in this city.  I see a younger version of myself at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, I see Francis at the window of the building on Mission, the boy with the deep voice and the bruising around his neck, waiting.

His Mother charges the police with brutality, claiming the cops beat her son to force a confession.  The police deny the charge and the prison physician Dr. A. A. O’Neil refutes the claim, saying he examined the youth soon after his being locked up and the swelling around his neck was already well pronounced “and young Long had asked Dr. Neil if he could ‘do anything for him.’”

In any case, no need to sign a confession.  “’We did not need it,’” reports Detective Herlitz, “’as most of the loot was recovered, being found in Long’s room.’ Detective Herlitz adds that he “had gone to see the boy’s mother, had found her destitute, had given her a dollar and telephoned to the Associated Charities who had sent Mrs. Long a box of groceries. ‘The boy is trying to win sympathy to get probation,’ said Captain of Detectives Matheson.  ‘He is under suspicion of committing eight burglaries in Los Angeles and six in San Francisco.’”  In Version I it is eight in San Francisco and seven in Los Angeles.

Two boys, one with a millionaire mother and one whose mother is destitute.  And William in a play about boys and their fathers at the Alcazar which used to be at 260 O’Farrell Street and is gone now.  The truth doesn’t always go back to our parents, but it’s not a bad place to look.  The  first time I got to San Francisco my parents were in Ohio and I was a boy.  I was not the child of the rich or the poor but somewhere in between.  I loved the theater, I was looking for someone to be my friend.  I stood on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, waiting.

Telling the Truth

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Mug Shot of Ronald Frederick Schmidt, June 1921, crime unknown [Source] . Just to get your attention.

Excerpt from Time Fall, A Novel of 1904:

How much can you say in a few words, imply, insinuate, say without saying? Quite a lot, actually, if you know what you’re doing.  Take the following news item, from The Oakland Tribune, February 3, 1928:

BOY CONFESSES THEATER ROBBERIES, San Francisco: Following identification, Francis Long, 18, suspected theater burglar, confessed to robbing eight theaters in San Francisco and seven in Los Angeles.  William Macauley, actor in the Alcazar theater, declared Long was the man he saw prowling back stage shortly before he missed $40 from his dressing room.  John Breeden, Juvenile, son of Mrs. George McNear, millionairess, identified Long as the man disguised as a stage hand, wearing overalls and carrying a screwdriver, whom he talked to back stage shortly before missing $28 from his dressing room.  Macauley swore to a warrant charging Long with burglary, the eighth charge he will face.

Never mind for the moment that overalls and a screwdriver hardly constitute a disguise, or that Francis Long is a pretty great name for a porn star, or that John Breeden, who would go on to star in Fox’s Movietone Follies of 1929, was born in 1904 and hardly a juvenile in 1928 but only playing one in the production of “New Brooms” by Frank Craven, then at the Alcazar in San Francisco, or that his mother was married not to George but to Fred McNear, the millionaire son of the arguably more famous George McNear, oil and grain shipping magnate, the second marriage for each.

And never mind that William Macauley, actor, also starring in the production of “New Brooms” (which had already run for 88 performances in New York in 1924 and made into a now lost silent film directed by William deMille in 1925, neither with Macaualey in the cast) is mentioned twice by name in the news item (Be nice to the press, be nice to the press).  But more of that later.

“There’s nothing here,” William said to the reporter from the Oakland Trib, a small pinched man with suspicious close-set eyes and nervous hands.  Meaning there’s nothing to the story, nothing to be said or be said without saying, not in so many words.  And then, with a look and an emphasis he hoped would come across as more warning than pleading: “Don’t.”  Simply don’t.  Meaning, don’t print it, don’t pursue, don’t make more of this than you know or think you know.

Be nice to the press, William always said, and in the days before PR had become an art he wasn’t wrong. You needed a good front man; you had to have good advance copy, never mind what the critics said afterward, you were never going to be in any town long enough for a bad review to bite you, and that would never have to happen if you played your cards right (Be nice to the press, be nice to the press).  Journalists were men who wanted to be read, to be heard; throw in a desire to be seen and you had an actor, so the solution was easy: see them, hear them, have them for a drink.  Appeal to their vanity, make them your friend, give them what they wanted.  Like the boys who loitered back stage, the writers who covered the theater were drawn by the same secret urges, lured by the same rumors of forbidden pleasures and delights, a peek behind the polite surface of life, a reprieve from the cold reality of the world beyond the stage door, life on the street. Acting was not the world’s oldest profession, but it ran a close second.  Why not give them a taste of that, ladies, he would say to the company’s actresses.  Let them experience a little magic, a little mystery.  There’s a part of you, what you are to them, that scares them, he explained, and he included himself in this respect.  You are bigger than they are, biggger than their wives or girlfriends or boyfriends or lovers, you are something More than Life out on that stage; you are what they dream of.  So give ‘em a look, love, he’d say.  Have a bit o’fun yourself while you’re at it.  If he’d learned anything, he learned that.  It was part of the job.  He’d been at it a long time, over thirty years at this point.  Be charming.  Be nice.

And yet, you couldn’t please everyone.  Or perhaps to be fair, no longer the manager, no longer the one in charge, the one who looked after these things, you’d let down your guard.  He wasn’t as young as he’d used to be, after all, no question of that; in his youth he’d employed his talents for persuasion without even thinking about it, in his twenties or thirties he’d have been more fun and more daring, and it would have worked too; he never ceased to be amazed at just how far flattery got you.  These boys with paper and pencil, what they wanted to do was write, to be critics of Art but their real ambition was a lot less lofty.  They claimed to be after Truth but after a couple of beers they’d settle for quick relief; bashful boys faking bravado but grateful for a helping hand, an embrace, a kiss, release. All you had to do was have their copy written for them, help them in the fumbling with buttons and shirttails, ignore their feeble protestations, assure them their secret was safe. There were worse jobs.

At nearly sixty, however, he had to find other options, rely on less demanding techniques.  A new generation had come along, more sophisticated, some of them, certainly less impressionable, not so easily played.  William found himself appealing not to prurient interests but to an appreciation of the Dignity of Art.  The tables had turned.  Now noble, not naughty, he offered respectability and scoffed at scandal. At least until he was sure of his audience and had the fellow’s trust.

“Don’t,” he said to the reporter from the Oakland Trib. “Please.”

What Do You Want?

Homestead

What did he want?  He had a house in the hills and a boyfriend and a career and probably a car too I suspect, why not? Which is to say, he already had what most of the people I know here want and think will fix them. True, he was also 70 years old and retired, not exactly in his prime and maybe Roger wasn’t quite a boyfriend, maybe theirs was a more complicated relationship and maybe he didn’t have a car and he walked down the hill and took the bus or the train, there was a time even I took the bus in this town, it happens but let’s not quibble, you could do worse. Trust me.

And isn’t this what you wanted, you ask yourself. You tell yourself it is. You think of where you came from, where you started. I don’t know about you but I certainly did. How did I get here? I think of that time in my life when I’d landed in L.A. – or crashed, depending on your point of view, long story, moving on – when I found myself in L.A. working for a talent manager with famous clients in a swank office with a Beverly Hills address, you could say I had arrived, a foot on the bottom rung, a start, not the mailroom at CAA or ICM but headed in the right direction, and I should add that strings had been pulled to get me this job which, it was pointed out on more than one occasion, people would kill for. It was 1993, the end of another century, another era, and there I am and I look up from the morning’s Breakdowns, the listing of casting calls we assistants scan religiously for friends, for our boss’s back-pocket clients, for that big break, that perfect part, and peering at me over the wall of my cubicle is Michael Jackson.

I’m lost,” he says.  His voice is muffled because of the surgical mask.  I realize he’s taken the wrong door from the executive offices to the lobby.  I am intrigued by his hair which is long and very shiny and black and looks, frankly, like a drag queen’s wig.  His eyes are the only other part of him I see.  They are startling.

“Hi, Michael,” I say and point to the lobby door.  Now I would like to tell you that he looks at me and then at where I’m pointing and understands and we have a moment and then he nods and smiles and says “Hey, thanks,” but the mask is in the way, and anyway in the next moment he’s gone.

And here I am, at last, I think: I have really arrived, I’ve been eyes to eyes with fame, I have been face to face with the kind of celebrity most people only see on TV, on album covers, in magazines, in bad paparazzi photographs, and I am not standing in the check-out line at Ralphs, this is not the National Enquirer, this is real.  Later on I will hand a script to Dolly Parton, I will hang out in the hair and make-up trailer with Buffy the Vampire Slayer but this was early in my career, I was just getting started.

The assistant from the adjacent cubicle wanders over.  “Right on,” he says in that nonchalant so-not-impressed way the assistants in this town have so that if the Pope in full papal regalia walked in and asked for someone to call him a Pope-Mobile they’d all just nod like dashboard dogs and lean back and adjust their headsets and continue running calls for the bosses in the rooms with the views behind us, like nothing has happened, like Michael Jackson stops by to ask directions all the time.  But I am new and don’t have the lounging-by-the-pool cool on, I am a little breathless from my brush with greatness, I babble something about being at the epicenter of What It’s All About.  At the Source.  The Truth.

“The truth?” the other assistant repeats. And leaning in with a listen-to-me-kid tone, in that way you deliver a piece of advice to the new guy,  he says: “The truth is much much stranger than you can imagine.  Trust me,” he adds and walks back to his desk.  I know he has been there for a while.  He’s been around.  He knows.  I know he knows.  He’s seen things and I don’t ask for details but I believe him.

It will happen again, as I’ve said, these moments, these encounters.  You will meet that person, you will get that job, maybe even that boyfriend and that house in the hills and that car and career and you will say to yourself, so this is what you wanted, this is what you were looking for.  At last.

And here is the difficult part.  Here is the catch.  You will tell yourself that, you will think you’ve finally figured it out, you got it right, and at the same time another part of you will say, no, not like this.  You never wanted this.  Not this way. And you will wonder what the truth is.  What do you really want?  Because maybe the truth is something else.  Something different.

Trust me.

Telling Your Story

Cemetery

Macauley family marker and grave of William Macauley, Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, NY, photo by Rose

Does a biographer ever tell anyone’s story but his own?  For that matter, does anyone?  Can you ever, really, tell a story that isn’t yours to begin with?

You think you can, of course, and you do all the time: what you saw, what you heard, what the kids got up to while you were out, what your mother was like when she was a little girl, what obviously went down in your friend’s marriage over the last few years, what must have happened to that poor child, that old man you sat next to and so on and so forth but I wonder if you can honestly give an account of another life that doesn’t bear a striking resemblance to your own. I doubt it, frankly. Which is probably bad news for Hitler’s biographer but there you are. There you are.  Not to mention fiction which is worse; fiction is just telling your story with the names changed. At least with biography you can try and pass off your personal version of history as someone else’s.

The truth, however, is you can’t: you can’t get out of you. You can’t stand outside your own atmosphere; you can never remove yourself from your own planet of self and its orbit and be somewhere beyond it, looking back at the rest of us and you and the universe from an external and therefore purely imaginary, unobstructed, viewpoint.  You can’t see you (or me) from outside you.  And no, a mirror doesn’t really count; there’s the factor of reversal first of all which you’ve surely noticed, and a time lag as well which you may not have taken into account.  The world is a mirror that reflects what you know, what you are today and also some of what you were and used to be. You may not be quite as awful these days, true, or as shameless or unkind as you used to be, or whoever it is your self-righteous indignation is focused on in the mirror of the world around you at the moment; you may have moved on, evolved, realized, become more conscious.  But oh my dear Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle, you’ve been looking at yourself even if you want to pretend you don’t recognize the face looking back at you. It’s through a glass darkly you’re seeing the rest of us but the darkness is yours.  You are a prisoner of your own narration. Your casa is indeed mine and vice versa, and that goes for your loves and desires and fears and hopes and dreams.

So why bother?  Why try breaking out, why try to escape?  Because we are so caught up in the dream of who we think we are, the tale we’ve constructed out of the past and the fantasy and the pain and the fear, that we don’t know how to stop.  We’ve become so attached to this old rhyme we keep telling everyone, to total strangers just so we can hear it again, that we don’t even realize what we’re doing, convincing others of a history that isn’t even true. Looking for witnesses to corroborate and validate our flawed version of ourselves, seeking an audience to applaud our account, to weep for our maudlin melodrama or cheer our noble, tragic efforts.

And then, once in a while, we begin to suspect we might have it wrong, or more likely we find ourselves falling into someone else’s dream, someone else’s made-up story, and suddenly we think, wait, that doesn’t sound quite true, that isn’t the way it was at all, I don’t believe what you’re saying, let me tell you how it was, let me tell you your story, for you.  Sure, it will be filtered through me, I don’t live in your world, I live in mine but I’m willing to give it a try. I’m willing to try and see you. And maybe in the process there’s a chance you’ll see me.

Sometimes I listen to people who are in so much pain from their stories I just want to stop them talking. Stop telling the old lies, I want to tell them. Let me tell you about you instead, I want to say; let me tell you my version of you, the truth I see of you, of how great and smart and beautiful you really are if you would simply wake up, stop beating that dead horse, let go of that old albatross around your neck, stop dwelling in that old dream, stop living in that made-up past, wake up.

A Pretty View

ShermanOaks

William Macauley residence, 1935 – 1940s, today.

It’s difficult getting a good view; the sun’s at the wrong angle, there’s a car parked at the curb, a child’s playhouse in the front yard and a bird bath and of course the picket fence and arbor, and several ornamental trees.  Still you can see the bones of the 1935 bungalow, or what was left after the Hollywood Regency additions were made, a second floor above the garage with French windows and Juliet balconies, and a curious but rather dramatic stair tower, not quite octagonal, rising next to an even taller chimney. Was that William’s idea?  A little Paris meets Georgian country house meets Paramount Studio backlot meets San Fernando Valley? Possibly.

In any case, it is here, at _____ Avenue, in Sherman Oaks, above Valley Vista, south of Ventura Blvd, that William Macauley (Head of Household, 70, actor, retired, place of birth Ireland) and Roger Edward (Lodger, 23, unemployed, place of birth Pennsylvania) were living in 1940 and had been living, according to the census, for the last five years since, checking property records, the house had been built or Roger turned 18, take your pick. The view has certainly changed over the years; the lush and mature growth seemingly unaffected by the current drought, the neighboring properties aggrandized and modernized and the daylights renovated out of them in a variety of stucco Mediterranean or Post-Modern Clapboard Colonial styles, so it is not very easy to see what William and Roger might have seen coming out the front door, from the French windows, on a meandering walk up to Mulholland or down to Ventura 76 years ago. Did William have a car?  He was 70 after all, but he got around.

“I’ll say he got around,” observes Rose. “70 years old and a live-in boy toy a third his age. Not bad, darling. Not bad at all.”

I don’t have the courage to go to the front door, knock, disturb the occupants.  What would I say?  “A ghost and I are telling the story of his life and he lived here, would you mind if we just took a quick peek around?”  I’m not sure the answers to the questions I have will be found inside anyway. What happened to Roger? What happened to the boy sunning himself in the chaise lounge on the other side of that picket fence?  I stand in the street and try to will my eyes to see it all the way it was, to hear something, to feel something, to fall back into time and be there. I only manage to make myself dizzy.

This isn’t the only place William lived in Los Angeles but the other residences, one in Hollywood on Selma, and another closer to Ventura Boulevard, down the hillside from here, are gone now.  I was parking my car to go to the Egyptian for a silent film festival a couple months ago.  As I got out and started walking away I looked across the lot at a rather shabby old Craftsman cottage, one of those turn of the last century shingled affairs circa 1904 with a dark furrowed brow of a front porch and down at the mouth stoop and the thought that came to me was, oh look, they pulled off all the morning glory vines, how sad, it made a pretty view.  And for an instant I am standing at a bathroom window, shaving brush in hand instead of car keys.  And before I realize what’s happened, the moment is gone.

Census

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In the beginning 1904 wasn’t a year but a number, a series of numbers; a code, a password perhaps, a combination, four digits jotted drunkenly on a matchbook, maybe a partial address, part of a phone number. One Nine Oh Four what, for what?

And isn’t that the way everything starts?  In the digital world certainly, zeros and ones, one repeated nine times and zero times four, building that way, creating the pattern, endlessly.

Numbers.  A Year.  A census always gave him pause, and there had been several he could remember, in different cities.  It was not the census, however, as much as the census taker, or rather what he represented: government, law, the recording of one’s life, deeds, misdemeanors, open to interpretation, consequences.  The War especially, he thought, had brought so much into focus, this War even more so than the last, boys who’d never been off a farm before had seen the world and what they’d seen they liked and wanted more of; it had happened in the last one as well but that had been another time, more forgiving at any rate, and he’d been younger.  Gravitas of an elder statesman, now it worked in his favor, thank heaven. Just a few years earlier, height of conflict, soldiers everywhere, fit young men in uniform and a misunderstanding in the bus station lavatory in Sherman, a nowhere part of town really, down from the Sunset Strip, home to chorus boys and girls and boys in wardrobe and set design, Dorothy Parker and that husband, Adrian and that ghastly wife, oh the parties…

A misunderstanding or understanding too well, his blood still ran cold at the memory. Young lad in uniform, wagging himself, catching his eye with more than his guard down and then that heart stopping moment on the ride to the Sheriff’s Station and the realization, now stone cold sober, that this would have to be his greatest performance or there would never be another.  Consequences too terrible to think of, his record stamped in red, pervert, undesirable, deportation, prison, shudder, “In High Dudgeon” the only way to go, “Take umbrage” taking on new meaning as he would tell his friends at the Fox and Hound on Ventura later, every good officious line of threat and innuendo he’d ever had to deliver, with gusto, panache, heartfelt, he’d used them all. “Outrageous,” he exclaimed with a sputter and in an Oxbridge stutter, “P-p-p-preposterous, extraordinary miscarriage of justice, I shall raise a question in the House, as a loyal subject of His Majesty, I demand an audience with the ambassador, the constable, the magistrate, this will reach ears in the Palace it is only fair to warn you…” and so on, and so forth until he’d worn them down with his best lord of the manor, master of the hunt, peer of the realm, Belgravia gentleman in a grand mal fit of pique.  Until he was left alone and heard the chief in the hallway dressing down his subordinate with a dismissive, “For Gawdssake Charlie he’s not a faggot he’s a Brit, git ‘im outta heer.”  And Scene and Exit with a threatening look from a pissed off Charlie, and finding himself back on Santa Monica boulevard in a cold sweat on a cold dawn, but free.  One more time.

He’d moved to the other side of the hills, Sherman Oaks, sister city to Sherman if you would, although city was hardly the word for it in those days, a collection of shacks, a general store, a couple saloons, the wild west only slightly tamed, a cluster of sound stages, Mack Sennett first, and a blooming of cottages on the hillside, bungalows in the American version of the Raj but here in the San Fernando Valley, not Kashmir.  As far as the eye could see a dusty grid of orange groves and country roads, a trolley line, a railroad spur.  Some mornings looking out his front door, past the picket fence (oh yes, my darlings, a bloody picket fence and a bloody rose arbor too) down over the hill to Ventura Blvd below he thought not of India but of Australia, the Great Outback, those six months of touring Melbourne to Ayers Rock, no young constable waving his business at you in front of the trough, more than likely if you were lucky a cowboy with more experience in sheep than girls or other boys, hungry but as liable to leave you with a black eye later, skip the trip to jail.  There were always risks.

We will call you my lodger, he said to 23 year old Roger, and so he was listed on the Census, Roger the lodger and William chuckled at his joke. A lodger in England was always Roger after all.  Or had been, once upon a time.  William was 77 years old now, he reminded himself, and he hadn’t been in England or Ireland or the Irish Free State for that matter in how many years, since the last war, customs changed, he supposed, and language, and …more memories.  Roger was in the backyard sunning himself; William stood in the knotty pine breakfast nook at the “Ye Olde England” style diamond-paned casement window looking out, the sun beading up and down the boy’s body multiplied in lovely wavy diamonds and William, lost in thought, adjusted his breath to the slow rise and fall of the boy’s stomach glistening in the sun. There were advantages to a lodger, a memento mori of his very own.  “Ah youth, youth,” the doctor exclaims in Chekhov’s Sea Gull, “when there is nothing left to say, people always say, ‘ah youth, youth…’”

Cast of Characters

RosePainting

Ratislav Racoff (Russian 1904-1982) A Pink Rose and Shell, 1960, oil on masonite, 10.75″ x 8.75″

“I hear you’re writing the story of an actress named Rose,” a friend I ran into recently told me.

“I’m actually ghost writing the memoir of an actor named William Macauley,” I explained.

“Oh yes,” my friend replied.  “I’d heard there was a ghost involved.”

In pretty much any good story someone does something to someone else and we find out why.  Rose gave me a book because she thought it would help, and we find out why.  The book belonged to William Macauley who partnered with a fellow named W.B. Patton, and they went on tour in 1904 and we find out why.  And what happened.  And what didn’t happen, and why.  And why it matters.

I’m going away for a few days, and you’ll find out why; some of you already know or have heard, but there are still questions to be answered and matters to be resolved, researched, revealed.  Meanwhile, William is getting impatient.  “I’m right here,” he says, “looking over your shoulder.  Waiting.”

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