The Year Everything Important Happened


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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.

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


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?


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.

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