16 November, 2018

Little Billy Goldman


             Stupid Courage.

Those aren’t two words you often see together, nor are they the two you’re likely to think of when someone mentions this gentleman. 

Some of you know how big a fan of his I am;  how often I’ve said the two people that taught me the most about Writing are him and my dad.  Well, if someone mentions William Goldman and you think, “Who?”  Here’s a quick cheat-sheet:

 He won two Oscars:  Best Original Screenplay for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Best Adapted Screenplay for All The President’s Men.  He wrote the Novels and Screenplays-for Marathon Man and Magic and The Princess Bride.  A few other Screenplays?  A Bridge Too Far and Misery and Chaplin and Absolute Power.  There are thirteen more Novels and twenty-three more Screenplays and he wrote the three most succinct critiques of Broadway (The Season) and Hollywood (Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?) in print.  And think about that:  he printed what he thought of both those worlds.  Yet his real legacy may be the keenest observation about The Movie Business which has surpassed haunting him to being feared as absolute truth:  “Nobody knows anything.”  

Still -- me -- the first thing I think of when someone mentions William Goldman is Stupid Courage.  But we’ll get to that.

The first time I met him wouldn’t be until High School but I, like you, knew him well before that;  because we all likely knew his Work before his Name.  And then, if you’re like me, you look for the Name behind the Talent.  “I love this, who wrote it?”  (Or, “Who painted this?”  Or, “Who sings this?”)  Well, look at the wide range of Goldman’s talent.  Something as tightly realistic as President’s Men or as hauntingly romantic as Magic or as humorously whimsical as Princess Bride and I’d think -- before I even realized I was coining Butch & Sundance -- “Who is this guy?”

And then I looked into his Novels;  and not just the ones other Screenplays were based on:  Soldier In The Rain and No Way To Treat A Lady and Heat (not that one but still).  His work continued to enamor.  One of the great Fairytales you may not know?  The Silent Gondoliers.  One of the great Hollywood Dramas you may not know?  Tinsel.  In fact, he always considered himself a Novelist who got into Writing Movies.  And that remained his sanity for his entire career life.

William Goldman was born 12 August, 1931 in Chicago and passed away today in his Manhattan home at the age of 87.  In between he was a Soldier in The Army, a Clerk at The Pentagon, graduated Oberlin, got his Masters at Columbia, taught at Princeton, wrote a little, and was -- without question -- one of the leading fans of The New York Knicks and Red Wine.  And for any writer out there who walks the tightrope of desperately wanting to write but just can’t get a break?  Of course he’s been there too.  My favorite story there goes thusly (in his own words):

I was a total writing failure growing up.  By which I mean I could never get anything published, not even when at Oberlin I was fiction editor of the literary magazine.  There were three of us who decided what got printed, two brilliant young women -- one of them the poetry editor, one the overall boss -- and moi.  All work was submitted anonymously, and each issue I would take my latest glory and stick it in with the other stories, and each time when the three of us met -- I can still feel my heart pounding -- oh God, I wanted someone here on earth to admit that I might, just might, please let me have just a fucking smidgen of talent.  “Well, we can’t publish this shit.”  That’s what my two lady friends would say.  Each issue.  “Well, we can’t publish this shit.”  About moi, the fiction editor of that literary magazine.

There are a hundred great stories like that, of his Life and Writing, and I urge you to go find them, especially if you’re a Writer … or just like to read.  For today, let’s take a look at that Stupid Courage.

Which isn’t a smooth segue in the least to that first time I met William Goldman.  Sort of.  When I was on Maverick. 

I was lucky enough to be a Production Assistant on the Richard Donner Picture (Goldman Wrote and Donner Directed).  And there was his name on the Script I got to read while we were shooting.  This was (partly) up in Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills where that location’s Hallmark Film Gunga Din was also shot (that film being both Goldman's and Donner’s favorite;  it’s why Donner wanted to shoot part of his Western there).  I wish I could say we all did Maverick together but I wouldn’t meet Goldman for another twenty years;  and we’ll get to that too.

I got to read a William Goldman screenplay at an impressionable time in my life.  More significantly, I got to read it before it was a movie so, when I was lucky enough to be on-set for portions, I got to see how those words were being interpreted by Production Designers and Actors and Mr. Donner (and eventually the Editor and Scorer and -- toughest of all -- Audiences).  It was a singular experience, being immersed in that level of movie-making before going to Film School.

Which is no segue at all to the time I actually got to meet William Goldman;  well, over the phone.  It was twenty years after Maverick and I get the crazy notion to get Donner and Goldman together -- in the same room, record the interview -- to talk about that movie and Gunga Din.  The project didn’t gel but it did yield an overwhelming phonecall one afternoon:

“Michael?  Bill Goldman.” 

I’m not often speechless and tried desperately not to be then.  It was brief but he could not have been nicer, including his appreciating my sending him a copy of my father’s book on the movies made in Lone Pine.  I told him of the impact he’d had on me as a Writer, which I believe he genuinely appreciated, and he wished me luck, which I believe he genuinely meant.  Five minutes and the call was over, though it still resonates with me.  That he took the time to call, that he took (even) five minutes to talk, that he was still (eighty-something years old, sixty years into a Writing Career) so charming about Writing.  I’ve had the pleasure -- honor -- of meeting and talking to a lot of “names” over the years but that one still means a lot.

Okay.  Stupid Courage.

(And I know you’re glancing down and the next appears long but, trust me, it’s worth it.) 

This goes back to Christmas, 1965 when Professor William Goldman was teaching Creative Writing at Princeton.  His novels Boys And Girls Together and No Way To Treat A Lady both came out in ‘64, and Movies were starting to take up some of his time, but he had no new Novel burning inside him (remember he considered himself a Novelist first).  So it was during that ’65 Christmas Break that he decided to try something he’d never done before:  an Original Screenplay.  It was Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.  But I’ll let him tell you …

When I begin a piece of writing, I know a lot but not enough.  I know the pulse that makes me want to attempt whatever the piece is, article, novel, story, screenplay.  What I had when I sat down in my Princeton University office to tell Butch and Sundance’s story was this:  they moved me.  These two guys, surviving for years together, and becoming legends a second time.  Famous outlaws who never killed, who traveled with a beautiful young woman, who were remarkably popular with the ordinary people of their time -- well, if I could get that down, maybe I’d have something.

You have to know this about me now:  I am moved more by stupid courage than anything else on earth.  Have no idea why.  But it has been with me for a very long time.  Three examples from my childhood.

When I was probably seven or eight, I happened to read a book titled Scarface, The Story Of A Grizzly.  I remember next to nothing of it, except that Scarface was the biggest Grizzly around, and tough enough to take all the crap life throws at you when everybody wants you dead.  But my memory is, he was decent, didn’t take advantage of being the toughest one around.  And in the last chapter he’s old, but you still don’t want to mess with him, and he is walking along this narrow mountain path when, above him, an avalanche starts.  And I figured he’s escaped worse, he’ll make it to a safe part of the mountain path.

But he didn’t do that.

He turned and faced the oncoming avalanche.  Then he stood up and as the giant rocks came down at him, he raised his giant paws and fought them, giving as good as he got until the boulders outnumbered him, carried him over the cliff to his death.

I remember Minnie’s coming up the stairs and asking was I all right -- Minnie is the woman who worked for my family and is the main reason I am still around -- and I couldn’t answer, couldn’t do anything but sob my heart out.

The second example is when I am about the same age and the great Gershwin musical, Porgy And Bess, came to Chicago.  My family went and we sat there and if you don’t know the story, it’s about this cripple, Porgy, who can’t walk, he gets around with this pathetic goat cart, towed by a scrawny goat, and we’re someplace in the Deep South.  Porgy is hopelessly in love with Bess, a beauty but weak.  Toward the end, Porgy is sent to jail (he murdered the village monster) and while he is there, Bess is wooed by a pusher, Sportin’ Life, who, using drugs as a lure, steals her away, takes her to New York City, the other end of the universe as far as anyone in this town is concerned.

Porgy gets out of jail, and I am dreading the moment when he finds out Bess is gone.  I mean, cripples don’t win beauties in this world, not unless they are very rich indeed, and Porgy is a beggar.  So he is out of jail and I am so scared for him, his life is over, how is he going to survive his loss, and he chitchats with the villagers and then he says it -- where’s Bess?

No one wants to answer but finally he finds out -- Bess is gone, she is gone                        forever, gone to New York City.

Silence in the theater.  Then Porgy says these three amazing words:

“Bring my goat.”

And the music gets magical and here comes the goat and Porgy gets on his cart and the whole cast is singing “Oh Lord, I’m on My Way,” one of the greatest songs ever --

-- I was gone again.

The show ends and wild applause.

I am sobbing out of all control.

Curtain calls, more cheers.

You know what I’m doing.

Now, we had very good seats, near the front, and people started to put on their                  coats --

-- and they cannot not notice me.

“Is he all right?” a gentleman asks my parents.  Now, they didn’t know what to answer, because they had no idea if I was all right or not.  Soon other grown-ups began patting my head (I remember this humiliation, oh, do I ever) and the aisles are filled and movement is slow and the only sound is me trying to muffle my crying while I was figuring out -- what was going to happen to Porgy?  He didn’t even know where he was going, that it was so far, that it would take him to places he had no experience of, that it was going to be so awful because what if the goat died, where was he going to get the money for another, or what was he going to do when one of the wheels came off his cart?

I cried all the way home, and we lived in the suburbs.

Now, neither of these outbreaks are close to what happened to me when I was eight and Gunga Din came to the Alcyon.  Cary Grant, Victor MacLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are all captured with knives to their throats while these evil Indian murderers are about to slaughter the entire British garrison who do not know they are walking into a trap.

I figure Cary is going to save them, but he is wounded and Victor MacLaglen is the strongest of the bunch but he is in shitty shape too, and here comes the British, deeper and deeper into the trap, and the Indian killers are waiting there, and suddenly, Cary Grant looks at Gunga Din, this joke of a water carrier, and whispers these words:

“The colonel’s got to know.”

By comparison, I was poised at Porgy.  Gunga Din’s all shot to shit, but he takes that bugle from a dead guy and starts this climb up this golden temple and when he gets there he blows the bugle and saves the British and is killed.

I have seen that movie sixteen times, and the last time -- true, I tell you nothing but truths -- I started crying in the credits.

Why am I telling you all this?

Remember me saying that when I begin a piece of writing, I know a lot but not enough?  Well, one of the things I knew about Butch and Sundance was this:  I had, in my head, a moment of stupid courage.  And I knew if I could get my story there, I’d be okay.

It’s the best ending I’ve ever been involved with.  And, of course, what gives me the confidence to say this is I have such faith in the stupid courage part of the sequence --

-- they don’t talk about their situation.

That made them courageous for me.  Here they were, bleeding, and in increasing pain, surrounded, outnumbered, all that good stuff.  They knew they were going to die, it was over.  And they could have had memories, not necessarily soppy stuff, but other tough spots would have been okay, they had decades of life to go over.  But once I knew they would never talk about the present, I had confidence that I, who had been wrecked by stupid courage over the decades, could finally have a moment of my own.

Me, I love that;  all of it.  As I wrote at the beginning of this, it’s the first thing I think of when someone mentions William Goldman.  I love it for the stories about The Grizzly and Porgy and Gunga Din, sure, but also that those moments from his real life stuck with him enough that he’d use their notion in his first Original Screenplay (that would win him his first Oscar).  One more tidbit on Gunga Din’s impact?  He named his first novel The Temple Of Gold after that very moment.

I also think Stupid Courage defines the life of any Artist dreaming of making it -- ‘cause, admit it, we’re all a little Stupid to try -- and then the Courage it takes to make it happen.  Well, Little Billy Goldman of Highland Park, Illinois may not have been the first to champion it all, but he once again showed us a meek fiction editor who couldn’t get any of his own stories published still very much had a shot at the gold. 

And won a lot more than that.

I’ll close with two more quotes of his.  Not quotes, sorry, but lines he wrote in his novels.

Trust me for a while.  I understand that’s really the line the spider hit the fly with, not ‘come into my parlor’ as popular legend has it, and I also realize I am not always your most Walter Cronkite type fella;  sturdy, staunch, etc.  But in this particular instance, there is just no doubt in my you-should-pardon-the-expression mind that I know whereof I speak.

            That’s the opening of Magic.  And that very first line?  “Trust me for a while.”  I love that too.  After all, it’s what all writers implore.  He just did it so succinctly, in that story and a lot more.  And then this:

Because when someone special happens, he rubs off on everybody …

            That’s how he -- not really a spoiler -- closes The Silent Gondoliers.  It’s telling of the effect any story’s hero has on the characters he or she encounters, and it’s just as telling of the effect William Goldman had -- will continue to have -- on the readers lucky enough to "meet" him.

27 August, 2018

Sunny Boy

You know his name but I'm going to throw a few reminders at you anyway.  He started in Television with Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers.  In 1966, he had four shows playing simultaneously on Broadway:  Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, Barefoot In The Park and -- yep -- The Odd Couple.  Over in Film?  You might remember him for The Out-Of-Towners (which has one of my favorite jokes as Sandy Dennis just needs a moment to breathe so she sits and prays in the church only to be told it's closed), Murder By Death, The Sunshine Boys and The Goodbye Girl.  And, sadly, just yesterday, he passed away at the age of 91.  

In 1969, William Goldman put out one of the Bibles about Broadway -- The Season (chronicling '67-'68) -- in which he notes, "Everyone knows that Neil Simon is a popular playwright, but not everyone knows just how popular a playwright Neil Simon is.  This is just counting shows that have opened on Broadway in the sixties.  Simon has had more performances than Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, John Osborne and Richard Rodgers all put together."  (Underlining mine.)

Take that in a moment.  Good?  Okay.

It's February of 1968 and here comes Plaza Suite which, for the purposes of this little write-up, is three short plays all taking place in the same suite at The Plaza Hotel;  the third of which is "Visitor From Mamaroneck" which has George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton as a married couple in trouble.  And, in Goldman's words again, "is not only the best of the three and the best thing Simon has yet written, it is the watershed moment of his career."

Why?  More from Goldman:  "Simon writes sunny.  That, I think, is the main reason why he is so beyond-words successful;  there is a sunny quality to his work, and you feel good when it's over.  Not smarter;  not cleansed;  just good.  And even though his thoughts are filled with shadows, his writing landscape is always bright.

"'Mamaroneck,' then, is so crucial to his development;  the man can go on doing 'entertainment pieces' till the world looks level.  The question is, will he?  Or will he continue in the same direction as the first tentative step taken here?  God knows it is tentative;  it was all he could do to end the play enigmatically, without some kind of contrived happy ending.

"The morning after Plaza Suite opened, I was down at the theatre trying to look casual while moronically counting the number of people in line [to buy tickets] when a camel-coated figure in sunglasses walked quietly by the crowd and headed for the stage door at the Plymouth [the theatre housing the play].  It was Simon.  No one noticed him as we stood there talking, more and more people queuing up as we talked.  I wondered if the line was the biggest he'd ever had for one of his plays.  He took off his sunglasses and watched the people a moment.  'I think Odd Couple.  It's like Odd Couple.'

"I asked him how the [Plaza Suite] opening had gone and he said, "We stood backstage ("we" being Simon and [Director] Mike Nichols) and we said we just couldn't hope for a better reaction.  The best it ever got.

"We shook hands and said good-bye and he started into the Plymouth.  Then he stopped;  turned back to me:  'You know, [the New York Times Critic Clive] Barnes didn't like it.'  (Get this now:  here is a man who, with the opening of the night before, has earned anywhere between $1,000,000 and $4,000,000 [you do the math on what that means in today's dollars], who had brought in the third blockbuster of a seven-year career in a decade when no other active writer has had more than one.  If ever a Broadway figure had the world by the short hairs, this is the man, and what's on his mind and genuinely troubling him is that the most important critic in the city found his first attempt at a serious work a failure.)  We said good-bye again, and he slipped unnoticed into the theatre."

Me again, just so you're aware:  Critics were all over the map with "is Plaza Suite good, is it too serious, is it too new, is it Simon?"

Goldman again:  "Reports kept coming in while Plaza Suite was out of town that audiences simply could not stop laughing, whether they were supposed to or not.  It was Neil Simon, goddamit, and they were gonna laugh.  After Plaza Suite opened, he was asked about this.  'It's true.  Night after night we took out laugh after laugh.  It got so insane:  there was a moment in 'Mamaroneck' where George said something to Maureen, gestured, turned and walked to the door, and they laughed.  We cut the line;  he just gestured, walked to the door.  They wouldn't stop laughing.  Finally we had him go straight to the door, and they laughed at that.  I don't know;  [Elia] Kazan and [Jerome] Robbins, they don't work Broadway any more.  It's so crazy:  I hate it when they knock me, and I hate it when they say 'Fantastic.'"

Me again:  I've had the pleasure -- honor -- of meeting and having conversations with and even working with some real talent, true talent, a lot of them celebrities.  Never met Mr. Simon and I genuinely feel it's one of the great misses.  And when I heard of his passing yesterday, this piece in Goldman's Book was the first thing I thought of.  Because I love the moment he talks about it being one of the biggest openings ever yet Mr. Simon can't get the leading critic out of his head.  And how Simon took a risk.  And how he was down at the theatre the day after opening night to see how everything was going (and, likely, to tweak to keep making it better;  one of the true beauties of Theatre over Film).  And even though I love --  still laugh out loud at --  Sandy Dennis' Out-Of-Towners church moment, it was this Goldman Write-Up I really wanted to share.  So, yeah, I'll close with more Goldman.  You remember him standing there outside The Plymouth looking at the line for tickets?  Let him paint it thusly, because I don't think Mr. Simon -- even with yesterday's passing -- will ever really be out of town again ...

"At 9:50 A.M. there were 43 people standing in line.  At 9:55 there were 50.  A digger -- someone who buys large numbers of seats in advance for himself or, more usually, an illegal broker -- was at the head of the line, buying a ton of seats, slowing things up.  Finally, he left, and the next man in line asked for two seats for a Saturday night.  'April 13 is the next Saturday night I have open,' the box-office man said.  This was February.

"At 11:25 there were 150 people in line.  Now, understand, this isn't Radio City Music Hall.  You don't get in for the next show;  there's no instant gratification here.  These people were standing there knowing they would have to be content with the future.

"At 11:30 a man bought two tickets and left.  He had waited in line 90 minutes to make the purchase.  But the line was only 50 people long when he started;  now it was triple that.  At 1:15 there were still 150 people in line.  (There was only one box-office window open.  There are two box-office windows at the Plymouth, but if you open them both, you can obviously handle the crowd twice as fast, and the line will disappear in half the time.  And since that's exactly what you don't want -- the line to disappear -- you keep only one window open.)

"It was a sunny February afternoon and the people in line didn't care how long it might take them to get up to the box-office window;  three hours, maybe five.  They were well dressed, most of them --  men with briefcases, women with children in strollers --  and they were perfectly content to stand there, waiting for their turn to buy tickets for the first real blockbuster play to hit Broadway in 798 days.

"Neil Simon was back in town."

15 September, 2017

Immediate Seating! No Waiting!

One of the bits in Fred Allen’s It’s In The Bag has him and his wife in a movie theatre trying to find their seats --  the whole movie’s about them trying to find seats, really --  and there they are in the movie theatre and The Usher keeps moving them further along, promising, “Immediate seating!  No waiting!"  Further and further they go, further and further being assured, “Next aisle to the right!  Immediate seating!"  Well, if you know Fred Allen’s luck, you can see where this is going.  As I say, the whole movie’s about their trying to find some seats, and this funnily frustrating bit kept ringing in my ear as my wife Diana and I were on our own similar adventure …

Diana and I love adventures, big and small.  We’re off to Paris for our Wedding?  Great adventure!  We’re off to lunch somewhere we’ve never been?  Another great adventure!  It’s one of those “us” things.  Well, one of our earliest advntures --  back when Diana and I’d just started dating --  was touring The Tower Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles.  Yes, the old, closed theatre that was opened for a morning by The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation for its Members (of which Diana was one).  Look that group up;  suport them if you can;  very generous work.  Through them Diana and I have been lucky to tour most of The Downtown Theatres --  including The Los Angeles where we’d eventually be engaged --  and even The Wiltern and Grauman’s Chinese (both, obviously, still very much open and in-use).

In August of last year, Escott O. Norton --  a premiere member of The Historic Theatre Foundation --  let some friends in on a very special opportunity:  we could go out to The Rialto Theatre in Pasadena and go through its Backstage where hundreds of old theatre seats were being stored.  They’d be --  it still pains me --  tossed the following week but, that weekend, we could go down and take whatever we wanted for $20 a piece (proceeds going to the curation of The Rialto, a passion project of Mr. Norton’s).  Well, Diana and I jumped on it;  at least the opportunity.  If we saw something we liked, $20 was a steal.  And if we didn’t --  if they were too old, too dirty, too anything --  at least we’d tried.  And why not?  What an adventure!  So that Saturday morning, we were at The Rialto waiting for the doors to open.

If it looks familiar, it’s been used in a bunch of Movies and TV Shows, most recently --  inside and out --  where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone see Rebel Without A Cause in La La Land.  First off, I should mention that The Rialto --  while not nearly as restored as The Chinese or Egyptian or U.A. (now The Ace) --  is a charming place (it has since been reopened as a Church).  After a quick tour by Mr. Norton himself, he took us Backstage where there were stacks … and stacks … and stacks … of tan theatre seats.  And some blue ones?  No, they were all blue, those tan ones were just dusty.  And I should note they weren’t even seats yet, but stacked in pieces:  a “bottom,” a “back” and four times as many “arms.”  What were we dealing with, looking at, looking for?  Mr. Norton had been nice enough to put one together so we could see.

As I was standing there looking at the stacks of theatre seat pieces, it was the first time Fred Allen began ringing in my ear.  How long had these pieces been sitting here?  Collecting what all over them;  what was living in them?  Mr. Norton said, “Been sitting in here nearly seventy years, ever since they were pulled out of Downtown.”  That rang in Diana’s and my ear too.  “Excuse me … Downtown?”  “Oh sure,” Mr. Norton continued:  “These weren’t used here in The Rialto, but pulled out of a Theatre Downtown and then stored here, right where you’re looking at ‘em.  Haven’t been touched since.” 

Downtown L.A. Theatre Seats.

I tried sounding casual but it likely came out as Henry Aldrich:  "Which theatre?"  Mr. Norton didn't know, didn't think anyone did anymore, just that the seats were likely switched out in the economic boom after World War II.  Still trying for the casual but I'm sure it was Henry Aldrich again:  "You don't say!" as Diana and I started digging a little deeper into the dust.

What’s that piece there, is that a good bottom?  And that, is that a good back?  Here are couple good arms.  Hey look, the arms are numbered!  We should try to find arms in order!

By this time there were more people there, talking to Mr. Norton and starting to look for their own seats.  How many were Diana and I looking for?  Hadn't really thought about that yet.  We decided on four, so that meant four bottoms, four backs and (quick thinking) six arms, in case we wanted to pair the seats in twos instead of four-in-a-row.

Finally we found some good full sets --  not too dusty, the metal not too bent, the cushions not too stained --  with decent arms, their numbers in a row.  And, again, at $20 a piece --  sorry, that’s $20 a complete chair --  indeed a steal!  So we happily paid Mr. Norton and pulled the car around to the back of the theatre (where they filmed the “murder” in Robert Altman’s The Player) and loaded everything into our little Jeep;  a lot bulkier than you’d think.  But we’d made it --  that weekend’s adventure a success! --  and started home.

At this point I’d like you to picture two things:  one, The Rialto being in Pasadena while we lived just off Miracle Mile.  So not around-the-corner.  And, two, we lived in a Studio Apartment;  so not much extra space for the bulky pieces of four 1940s Theatre Seats.  But home we got and I lugged the pieces upstairs (our vintage building, of course, having no elevator). 

It’s Saturday afternoon now, and I start cleaning them as best I can while Diana looks up proper Upholstery Cleaners.  She finds one and books him for the following weekend.  I get the chairs clean enough that we decide to put one together and see how it looks.

Hmmmmm, why does the back look different than the bottom?  Doesn’t it seem … wider?

Here, friends, is the second time Fred Allen rang in my ear:  “Immediate seating!”  Because the back was wider.  By a lot.  Not as in it didn’t look like it fit but it was a different seat.  How could that be?  I mean, they clearly look like they match;  but I suppose theatres could have different seats:  Main Floor versus Balcony?  Diana does a little research and it turns out --  duh, we think, because we should have known this from all those Downtown Tours --  seats curved in old theatres.  Because most of them started --  and continued, even when Movies began showing at them --  as Live Theatres.  Imagine them thusly --

See the way they curve?  Well, what does that mean for our seats?  The arms seemed universal but the physical bodies --  bottoms and backs --  would indeed be wider in the middle and become gradually thinner as they got to the sides.  Uh oh.  What sizes did we come home with?  Turns out three different ones.

(“Immediate seating!" The Usher’s smiling at Fred Allen, “No waiting!”)

Diana calls Mr. Norton but by this time it’s Saturday evening and he’s closed The Rialto for the day.  “For the day?”  “Sure,” he says, “I’ll be back tomorrow morning if you’d like to come down again!” 

Sunday morning now and I lug the pieces back downstairs from our Studio Apartment, back into our litte Jeep, and Diana and I are back in Pasadena waiting for the Rialto doors to open.  It turns out there are only three different sizes, two inches apart from each other, and we already had two matching sets.  And we had two bottoms we liked for the third and fourth chairs, so we were now just looking for two new backs.  Again through the dust we dug but --  it’s Sunday, the second day;  people have heard about this now --  there a lot more nostalgic scavengers Backstage.  But we found the backs we needed and --  we’d brought back the two we couldn’t use --  Mr. Norton was kind enough to waive our paying an additional $20 each, excited we were excited to make it all happen.  (And Diana, being the Saint that she is, even warned newcomers about the different sizes so they wouldn’t face our same fate.)  Two new backs in our little Jeep and we’re off again to our little Studio Apartment where I lug them up the little 1920s stairs to clean as best I can.

And they all fit.

All in all fine, of course, and a week later The Upholstery Clearner came and did wonders on the blue --  at least the cushions were indeed blue now --  and Diana and I were fairly pleased with ourselves.

Now --  digressing only slightly --  one of the other bits about digging through that Rialto Backstage is Diana was, at the time, three months pregnant with (our now eight-month-old son) Nicky.  So there’s all the usual first-time-pregnant excitements and concerns compounded by, “Let’s try not to think about what we’re breathing Backstage.”  Thankfully all turned out well.  But --  in prep for the blessed event (this is August, remember, and Nicky’s due in February) --  this is the time we decide to move, because our little Studio isn’t big enough for a Newborn.  So there we were now dealing with theatre seats:  in pieces, cleaning them, moving them too.

(“Next aisle to the right!  Immediate seating!”) 

Well, there we are in the new apartment --  the seat pieces (at least clean now) sitting in a corner --  and the holidays come and go and Nicky is born and life couldn’t be better and suddenly it’s Spring and we think to ourselves, “Sure, let’s finish those theatre seats!  ‘Cause how cute would it be to see Nicky sitting in them?!”

To give you an idea of how the seats “sit,” the bottom cushion is hinged so it raises and lowers on brackets that slip into the arms, the back bolting to the arms.  To be fair, it’s simple and works well.  Except --  and this wasn’t a surprise --  the bottom of each arm --  the thing that sits on the ground --  is metal.  Not great on hardwood floors.  So we knew we’d have to pad them.  Not the most difficult thing in the world, although, even padded, while the seats would then “sit” (stand on their own), you couldn’t sit in them.  Why?  Because if you so much as stretched, you’d tip back.  Why?  Because originally the seats --  those metal arms --  bolted directly into the concrete theatre floor. 

Hmmmmm.  Diana and I wanted our seats to be functional, if we could, so we were willing to do a little something to them if necessary (they didn’t need to remain truly vintage;  we could make them ours).  So here’s where our friend Steve Bissonette enters our story.

I’ve known Steve for fifteen years.  Artistic in his technical handywork, I knew this would be a great job for him.  And he was excited to dive in.

First up was his own “cleaning.”  Not only did he sand and repaint the metal arms --  matching the blue “highlighted” by a matte gold --  but he took the wooden armrests off, sanded and stained those (while retaining the original number plates).  It may not sound like much except to say it’s a great mix of his being both creative and technical;  and make it look easy.  I hope the before-and-after pictures do his work justice.

Because --  as important and impressive as cleaning-up the arms was --  they weren’t the real work.  No, that came when he dove into how to make the seats functional.  How could we sit in them and watch a movie?  Well, that came with his devising the new “feet.”

He knew he’d have to add a little length at the bottom so that, when you leaned back, something was bracing that.  But how to make them functional and still look right (‘cause we still wanted them to at least look vintage)?  Ah, again, the creative and the technical.

More metal.

Which Steve mastered beautifully. 

Art Deco-looking --  each foot is nine different pieces welded together --  which the arms bolt into (and are, of course, padded on the bottom for the hardwood floors);  then painted to match the matted-gold “highlights” of the arms themselves.  Functional without being bulky;  looking the part while doing the job.  In fact, look at the overall work.


Much like Fred Allen in It’s In The Bag --  not really a spoiler if you haven’t seen that film --  Diana and I had our adventure and found the chairs we were looking for.  (Though if you haven’t seen it and are any fan of Jack Benny --  not really a spoiler either, the movie’s full of ‘em --  it has my favorite of his cameos.  Anyway …)  A year after that Saturday Diana and I drove to The Rialto in Pasadena, she pregnant with Nicky, before we moved apartments (and before we got an SUV into which we could have easily fit everything), there they are:  our Vintage 1940s Downtown L.A. Theatre Seats.  That now sit in our Living Room and Nursery.

This is one of Diana’s and my adventures --  now Diana’s and Nicky’s and mine --  I especially love because of how tangible it is.  Diana and I have both always wanted real theatre seats.  (What kid growing up loving Movies hasn’t?)  But where would we get some?  What theatre is left from which we could?  Would we have to buy them;  if so, for how much;  $500, $1000 each?  And, ugh, they’d already be refurbished, and who knows where they were from, what their story was.  Nah, that’s not for us.  So to be able to have these;  to have been able to walk into an actual theatre and find them, build them --  thanks again, Steve! --  know they came from a theatre in Downtown L.A.  To now see them sitting in our home, and see Nicky play on them;  to enjoy them together.  Yeah, that’s more “us.”    

And well worth the wait.

17 May, 2017


          Joss Whedon made a Short Film.

            Those words should be cause for grand cheering (and they are) but they’re also cause for me to write a little something more on The Quiet Place.  You remember the last time we were here, two years ago.  That wasn’t because of a Short Film but because he’d made the $250 Million -- grossed $1.5 Billion -- Avengers:  Age Of Ultron and some people had issue with the way he treated its ladies.  I only digress to that because it caused him to leave Twitter for a while.  Then, in September [2016], he returned to Social Media to release a round of Short Films about Voting (yes, against Trump, but mostly just, “Get out there and do it.”)  These were cheered grandly and life seemed to move on (as well as it has given November).  Then, just recently, some people felt he stepped into it again with a Tweet about Paul Ryan (this is the least Alt Right one I could find) and another on Mother's Day (ditto).  Much like the issue with Age Of Ultron, the fervor was bonfired by people that don’t know Whedon too well -- if at all -- and, well, mountains from molehills.  Of Paul Ryan and his Mother, Whedon himself said, “I tweeted something that inadvertently offended everyone except the people I was trying to offend. I'm sorry. I'll be quiet for a bit.”  (And I only link to all this so you have full disclosure.  I can’t rightfully support or condemn without acknowledging.)  In any event, grand cheering or not, life moved on again.

            To just this morning when Joss Whedon released his new Short Film, this time in support of Planned Parenthood.  It’s beautiful and poignant and heartbreaking and hopeful -- and, PS, has no Dialogue -- and is the kind of thing we expect from him while still being surprised impressed by his masterful simplicity.  I support Planned Parenthood.  I say that to -- again -- disclose fully.  Because “for or against” isn’t what this piece is about;  that is, it's not why I wanted to write today.  No, this piece is about a ridiculous -- read "deserves ridicule” -- part of what I expect to get bonfired from his Short's release:  the inevitable, “Who gives a shit what a Celebrity Millionaire thinks?!"

           Because the answer is a lot of people.  More significantly, there are a lot of shits to give.

             I saw this Short early this morning and as I was driving into work I thought -- this is true now, this is what I was thinking about;  not how important Planned Parenthood is (undeniably so) or how much I liked the Short (admittedly, and a trivial point) but -- “Thank God there are people out there doing this.”  Doing what?  Saying something.  Thank God there are people that matter saying something.

             Hold on.  Joss Whedon matters?  Maybe not to you, but he sure does to a lot of people.  And there are a lot of Celebrities out there using their stardom for a little greater good.  (And, sure, we can say Stephen Colbert and other Late Nighters comedically spar but that's their job.  Some of it's honest and some of it's ratings and -- I mean this -- good for them, I thank them too.)  But I'm looking at you, Ms. Meryl Streep at The Oscars.  And you, Ms. Leah Remini taking on Scientology.  And you, Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio defending our, you know, planet.  (Christ, we can even throw one at Scott Baio.  Now you really might not care, but the man stood up and shouted.)  Look, [fill in any name] may not matter to you, but they are voices and they have a stage -- to thousands, millions, countries -- and they are heard.  So while you may not give a shit, there are many people out there whose opinion may very well be swayed by a thank-you speech, a TV Show, a Short Film.  More importantly (I hope) their awareness is raised and they can research more and decide for themselves.  But -- sorry, folks this is the very nature of Pop Culture -- sometimes that very awareness -- much less opinion -- starts with a Celebrity saying something is or isn't cool.  And, me, I appreciate when Star-Studded So-And-So shows up just for the cause.

            Why is Joss Whedon showing up now?  This, from a Huffington Post article:  The House of Representative recently voted to pass a Healthcare Bill that would defund Planned Parenthood, which is a critical provider of women’s healthcare. As Whedon shows in his video, Planned Parenthood provides in the form of general care, cancer screenings, contraception and education.  Most of the clinic’s controversy stems from abortion procedures which only account for 3 percent of its services.  According to CNN, the majority of services are in regards to birth control (about 34 percent) and treatment for STDs (about 42 percent).”  Whedon said, “If politicians succeed in shutting down Planned Parenthood, millions of people lose access to basic health services.  How can these be at risk?”  (This in a statement to Entertainment Weekly.)  Whedon’s Short Film -- titled Unlocked ­-- is what a world without Planned Parenthood would look like.  The piece rewinds to the exact moment that sparked these situations:  when Planned Parenthood closed.  In a reverse reality, where the clinic is open, the women are able to change their future with a cancer screening, birth control and a peer educator program on safe sex.  A girl goes to college, a mother lives to celebrate a birthday with her family, and a teenage girl is able to prevent her friend’s STD with a class on safe sex.  Unlocked asks, “What world do you want?”  Whedon again:  “I’ve supported Planned Parenthood in the past, but until I worked with them closely on this, I didn’t understand how many services they -- and for some, they alone -- provide.”

              So why do I care what Joss Whedon has to say?  Because, once again, he came out of The Quiet Place.  After Ultron and his Save The Day Campaign and the recent Twitter hits -- and, yes, still with a career and wife and children to consider -- he showed up.  Full disclosure again, I am a fan and have worked with him.  But none of that matters as much as the dude doesn’t need to say anything but still does.  He doesn’t need to make Short Films about Voting (on his own time, on his own dime) but he did.  He doesn’t need to make a Short Film about Planned Parenthood (ditto) but he did.  More significantly than “he can,” he knows he’s going to get flack for it and does it anyway.  You and I post something on Facebook?  We start a chit chat among our friends.  Joss Whedon posts something and -- they like it -- his (“nearing a deal”) upcoming Batgirl gets a boost at the box office.  They don’t like it?  Warner Bros gets death threats (and, worse than that, Batgirl doesn’t do well at the box office).  He knows this, is fully steeped in the consequences (not to mention berated by his PR People for doing it) yet, still, there he is.  And not quietly at all.  For me, I'm grateful there are still Celebrities using their stages -- and time and money -- to say such things;  to do something about their causes.  Doesn’t matter if you agree.  Joss Whedon says it because he needs to.  And -- as I was driving into work this morning I thought -- that’s something to cheer.