Most of my childhood happened long before computers, on-demand iPhone movies, and seemingly infinite choices on cable. There was radio and there were movies and later, there was television. The magnificent movie studios, once rulers of the Hollywood universe, declined largely because of that insurgent boxy invention. Even MGM pioneering poohbah Louis B. Mayer would be gone by 1951.
That was likely the year I first set foot on a movie lot. My Brownie troop took a field trip to 20th Century Fox. I was so excited I couldn't sleep the night before. At eight years old, I was a media maven. I spent hours listening to radio shows, records, went to the movies whenever I could and watched the little black-and-white box in the living room until my parents shut it off and made me go to bed. I lived very comfortably in a world of fantasy.
Our little Brownie troop was heading down a backlot street when we were approached by a smiling man. The scout leader reached out, shook his hand and turned to us.
"This is Erskine Johnson, girls. He's a writer."
My mouth fell open. I was probably the only kid who knew who he was. I had listened to his show on the radio and watched him on KTLA. He was a gossip columnist, almost as visible if less notorious than Hedda and Louella. I wasn't given the chance to talk to him but I thought about what I would have said for the rest of the day. It only encouraged my fascination with Hollywood. And now, some sixty-five years later, meeting him is the only part of that tour I remember.
Years later, as the film critic for the high school paper, I was given passes to see movies before they were released. Fortuitously, sometimes the screening was at the studio. I always made it a point to come at least an hour early, park, then try to look as if I belonged as I wandered around the backlots and sets. I was surprised and a little disappointed that for the most part each studio resembled a bleak and pedestrian industrial complex. The formidable sound stages and service buildings were gray, some unmarked, others with modest signage. I was not sure what I had expected, but the low-key topography didn't come close to matching the glamorous Technicolor images I carried around in my brain. And not a hint of the wizardry was present inside. I wandered around almost holding my breath, hoping my bearing would protect me if spotted, even though I felt like a thief in the night.
In my wanderings at Warner Bros, I rounded a sound stage and came across the street where "Auntie Mame" had been filmed the year before. The theater and its marquee were still intact, sitting on a silent and deserted street corner. I stood at a respectful distance for just a moment, trying to memorize both the scene and my sense of awe. It was almost as if I had stepped inside the movie, into a scene I remembered with clarity. In my reverie, I tried to recall the other movies that had been shot there, films I had probably seen more than once. It sent chills through my body.
Before a screening of "Ben Hur" at MGM in my senior year of high school, guards briskly hustled us into the screening room directly from the parking lot. This was really the studio I had wanted to experience, where so many of my favorite movies had been made. I wondered who else had sat in my seat in that room. Could it have been Louis B., himself? Mankiewicz? Arthur Freed? Astaire?
In college, I secured a job as an all-around flunky for Bernard F. Kamins who owned a Public Relations agency on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. Bernie was old school, a white-haired, serious-minded Harvard graduate with a heavy Boston accent. He was trying to escape the pressure that came from representing capricious and often tempestuous celebrities, preferring the more stable realm of financial PR. I wrote many of those press releases, but it was Hollywood that was always calling my name. I offered to help him wrangle the celebrities who remained on his roster, hoping it might help me gain access to those studios again.
One of his clients was a middle-aged woman whose husband was rich and willing to subsidize her singing career. She had made a record and Bernie was promoting it and her.
"You won't have to bother with that, Mr. Kamins. I'd be happy to deliver the records and press releases for you."
Over the course of a few weeks, I made deliveries to Hedda Hopper (who wasn't home), Johnny Mercer (who was—I awakened him still in his bathrobe the morning after his Oscar win for "Moon River") and Steve Allen at his Sherman Oaks house on the hill. Allen had always been one of my heroes, both for his talent and his political activism, so I eagerly hoped he would be there to accept the record. I rang the bell.
"Yes?" It was a uniformed maid, something I'd gotten used to seeing in this world of conspicuous wealth.
"Is Mr. Allen at home? I'm here to deliver a record. He's expecting this. I'm with Bernard Kamins."
"No. But I can take it, dear."
Oh, no, you don't. I wasn't going to let this opportunity pass. I feigned a dry throat and a cough and asked her for a drink of water. To my delight and surprise, she let me into the house and led me toward the kitchen. I was scouring everything around me, memorizing it as I walked slowly behind her, my head on a swivel. The large and formal Hollywood Regency living room was unsurprisingly dominated by a large white grand piano. I stopped for a second, causing her to turn around.
"Is this the piano he composes on?"
"Yes, he's there late almost every night. I can hear it from my room."
"Yeah, I know he's written over a thousand songs."
"Uh, how about that water, dear?" She gestured for me to follow her.
"Oh. Sure, sure."
I had looked forward to the next stop on my errands all week. Bernie had asked me to deliver a record to Richard Lyons, the last independent producer/director on staff at MGM. After years of imagining what it would be like, I would get to see the inside of that fabled lot, the home of all those wonderful musicals. Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne. Would I run into someone famous?
By now, I had learned the importance of demeanor. After lowering the top on my silver MGA roadster, I donned my jaunty sports cap and confidently pulled into the gate on Washington Boulevard. I announced to the guards who I was and was directed to a parking lot just to my left. My uncontrolled quivering made it challenging to control the steering wheel. It was so easy to imagine what it must have been like to be under contract here in MGM's heyday, to pull into this lot every morning and head to a movie set to rehearse a complicated production number. Film clips played through my head, one after another.
I took a few seconds to compose myself, got out of the car and looked up to see the towering Irving Thalberg Building where I would be meeting Lyons. Another unexpectedly strong jolt to my nervous system. Irving Thalberg had been the low-key, short-lived wunderkind head of production, supervising many of those glamorous films from the Depression Era. Many thought he was the model for Monroe Stahr, the anti-hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished last novel, The Last Tycoon. Mayer at first considered him as a surrogate son but subsequently a rival as Thalberg's talent for making movies seemed to threaten Mayer's arrogant dominance.
Not only was the building itself iconic, but it was where Louis B. Mayer himself had ruled the studio from his all-white office. Here, he would summon errant contract players or even big stars, then manipulate them toward his own ends using his well-documented emotional theatrics. If that failed, he'd merely exert the power of his position. Though he was long gone, I wondered if his office was left intact, like a religious shrine. Could I sneak in to see it somehow? My heart quickened at the thought.
I examined the lobby directory to find Lyons' office. No mention of the Mayer name. Then my eyes landed on "Gene Kelly, 3rd floor." Had he taken over Mayer's old office? My adrenalin took another precipitous leap. Gene Kelly? Really? Maybe if I just hung out here by the elevator...
But my sense of responsibility got the better of me. I made my way to the second floor and entered Lyons' stark waiting room. The desk fronting the inner office was empty and looked as if it had been that way for a long time—no art, no nothing but old, chipped furniture. As I entered, I almost tripped over a man about my age sitting in one of the chairs, apparently also waiting for Lyons. He looked familiar. He had short brownish hair and devastatingly blue eyes. He seemed shy, his eyes on his shoes.
"Hi. Are you waiting for Mr. Lyons?"
He looked up briefly. "Yeah. Dick's shooting a film on a sound stage across the lot. He went to meet with someone."
"Oh. I'm here to make a delivery. Do you have any idea how long he'll be?"
"No, not really. I have to get back to work soon, myself. I just had a question."
As the silent minutes passed, I began to be concerned that I might not be able to make my other deliveries. I was on a tight schedule.
"Would you mind giving this to him when he gets here?" The man appeared to jump at the sound of my voice.
"Sure. No problem."
"Please tell him it's from Bernie Kamins. Thanks very much."
The minute I got into the elevator and watched the doors close, I realized I had been talking with Keir Dullea. He was starring in a film being directed by Lyons, "Mail Order Bride." I had seen him in "David and Lisa." What an idiot. I had read about the shoot in Daily Variety. How did I miss that?
I reluctantly left the aura of the Thalberg Building and looked around for some way to get into the backlot.Each area around me was guarded by someone in a uniform. It looked like I had missed another chance for my own tour of MGM. But I had vicariously experienced Thalberg—and Mayer, really. Not to mention Kelly and the real Keir Dullea.
I would return to the MGM studio six years later in 1970 when the studio held its heartbreaking, terminal auction. I still had my long-expired press pass and found the part of the lot where all the used costumes and props were being set up for the following week's sale. One of the sound stages had its huge doors wide open so I strode in with great deliberation, while fighting off a butterfly attack in my stomach. There were a few people working but no one seemed to care that I was there. Nothing in the big building was labeled or in any order; there were racks of costumes, boxes of what looked to be deconstructed sets, flats standing against a back wall, and thousands of props. How I wanted to pick through it all, grab a souvenir from a favorite film and head out the door. Instead, I wandered back out to the studio lot to a lonely group of bungalows where the independent producers had once had their offices. It was quiet and deserted, like a set of an abandoned little town.
My exuberance suddenly darkened, overcome by a leaden sense of melancholy. This era had ended, my childhood, too, really, as the grandest studio of all was preparing to roll its last closing credits. The Hollywood star system and the megalomanic studios it had created was dead. MGM, in fact, had been sold to a Canadian investor, the beginning of many ownership turnovers. And across town, more than half of the 20th Century Fox lot had been parceled out for commercial real estate, much of that devoured by a giant shopping mall aptly named Century City. And all this was well before the advent of the internet, the videotape, the digital world and the mass proliferation of media. Television had done the deed in just a few years, as studios were slow to adapt. Fewer people would pay to see a movie when entertainment was now as close as their living room. The symbolic desolation of the MGM backlot brought tears.
The studios were largely responsible for my being in Hollywood's thrall. They created a magical world where anything was possible and, no matter the odds, all stories ended well. Economic realities required that the looming sound stages be rented out to others, no longer to members of that exclusive club. Soon the studios developed newfound profit centers by offering commercial tours to the public. But what they saw wasn't the real deal. Like my Hollywood, it was all fake—just a different kind of chicanery. As Oscar Levant famously said, "Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you'll find the real tinsel underneath." The reincarnated, tourist-oriented tinsel was not nearly as poignant—or as transformative as the Hollywood that once was.
Title image "Sign of the Times" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2018.