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Making an impression

Lighting up. 2:30 PM. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Friday, May 31, 2013. Summer hot here in New York. Likely to stay that way through the weekend.

Several topics in the Diary this week were Hollywood related. No reason not to finish it off with another Diary eight years ago – January 10, 2005 – when it was verrrr-y cold in New York. And grey, as you’ll see; and then we went off on Hollywood again, and a book about it that I’d just read that had made an impression.

Without further ado:

It’s raining in California, it’s snowing in Connecticut and it’s just plain grey here in New York City. Where, since the holidays, I’ve been in a state I’d call brain-dead, incipient depression and mental fatigue; take your pick. I whined about this to a friend (an email cohort), mainly to explain why I hadn’t been keeping up with the messages. She told me she felt the same way. It dawned on me that there are a lot of us. Of course, in the world we’re living in these days, this should be the least of anybody’s problems.

I read a book over the holidays which I picked up at the Lenox Hill Bookstore and bought because of its cover. And its title. (Its cover was designed by a woman named Carol Devine Carson, just for the [sales] record).

The book is called The Whole Equation; a History of Hollywood (Alfred A. Knopf). By an Englishman, biographer and film critic, David Thomson, who now lives fulltime in San Francisco. The cover is a closeup of Rita Hayworth (circa 1942) , in sepia, with her chin touching the shadow of her right shoulder. It is a dreamy, sensual image, and it compels the imagination to wander far from the day-to-day, back to childhood, where images were the conveyor of dreams, and dreams were far-off places even better than Oz. The future, as seen through the eyes most innocent.

“For a movie star, ultimately there really is no such thing as Hollywood. It’s a name, and it’s a map. It’s not an industry. It’s a very fickle business where you’re here today and gone tomorrow. After one hell of a ride."

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in "Singin' In the Rain."
That’s the opening paragraph, Chapter One of Debbie Reynolds’ autobiography (Debbie; My Life. William Morrow; 1988) which I wrote for her (in her words) almost seventeen (ed.’s note – 25) years ago when I was living out there.

The seeds of the idea of living in Hollywood (I’m a born and bred Easterner) were planted early – age six or seven – in the Park and Strand Theaters in Westfield, Massachusetts.

Admission to the Strand was 14 cents, and 20 cents at the Park. The Strand had wooden seats, the Park’s were upholstered. My mother once told me a man was shot while watching a movie at the Strand. Wooden seats and murdered movie-goers. Mayhem meets the magic, to this kid. This was back when only criminals had guns, of course.

What was going on in, and up on the big screen of those dark movie houses was, after all, a hell of a lot better than what was going on in my mother and father’s house. In fact, I often imagined how wonderful it would have been to actually live in the Park Theatre with its (faux, but I didn’t know) crystal chandeliers, grand staircases, soft cushy seats and warm thick carpets. All that and a daily diet of popcorn and Caramal Cremes. With a movie up on the big screen. The perfect reality.

The Strand played the pictures from Warners Brothers, Columbia and Paramount as well as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The Park played the movie musicals and the comedies from MGM and 20th Century-Fox. Obviously, at six cents more a ticket, the Park had the class. Although quality was never an issue for the kid; it was all the stuff of popcorn dreams.

I first saw “Singin’ in the Rain,” the picture that made Debbie Reynolds a star, at the Park Theatre on a late Indian summer afternoon in 1952. I’d got there just after the feature began and so I stayed to watch the beginning and ended up sitting through the entire film for a second time. I could have watched it a third and maybe even a fourth, except of course my mother was waiting supper.

Hollywood. All singing, all dancing, palm trees, clean, neat houses, bright sunlight, Technicolor skies, pretty girls, handsome men, white picket fences and happy endings -- always happy endings, after no matter how many tears. Hollywood. Supper at my parents’ table would be an adjustment. Going back to reality was always an adjustment.

Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire
Many years, a lifetime later, when I was almost thirty, I finally visited Los Angeles (or Hollywood, since the names are interchangeable for most of us) for the first time. Coincidentally I had just read Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust with its gritty dark moods just around the corner from the sunshine, its air rife with fragrance hovering over the quiet desperation of its characters. I was amazed getting off the plane at LAX, that in a moment, the place felt like the book. I knew I had to live there someday.

I met Rita Hayworth a few times at the beginning of the end of her life. To meet, as in how-do-you-do; not to know. The first time was at a dinner party at the old Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills where she was with her old, close friend, Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire’s choreographer. The party was given by a woman who officially called herself Contessa Cohn. Contessa, whose birth name was Alice, was a tiny little lady with bright eyes and long and wavy highly hennaed hair. As hostess she was always dressed in long, drapey numbers of white lace or pastel chiffons. She had a sweet and gracious manner on introduction, far from the flamboyance of her noble “title.” She often took over a restaurant to give these large parties, which her wealthy husband always seemed happy to accommodate.

Contessa also loved to dance and she had her own private dancing teacher – who was always present – a much younger man with bouffed and bleached blonde hair and tight-fitting suits showing off his body’s curves for anyone who might be interested.  He was a pleasant fellow looking like he was just a little bit too old to be her son. But young enough to be her gigolo. However, this was Hollywood, and business-being-business, he was just ... her dance instructor.

Just before dessert, Contessa and her supple yet wiry partner performed for her guests. This turned out to be a hallmark of all her “evenings.” It was always a ballroom number. The lace and the chiffon streaming, she’d be twirled and swung, then lifted and twirled again, and practically flung close to grazing the chandeliers; at which point the dancing couple would close, with a swoop ... and a dip ... and a bow. Applause applause. It was quite an interlude. Like Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth once upon a time. Except sort of not really.

Except, and now Rita Hayworth was sitting across the table from me. The real Rita Hayworth, as opposed to the girl up there on the screen. She was then in her early sixties, about thirty-five years after that picture on David Thomson’s bookcover was taken.

She still looked like Rita Hayworth but time had moved in and there was a hint of disorientation (or bristling rage) in her eyes. This was attributed to booze. She already had the reputation publicly for being a drunk. Which she was not. It was a mystery to all around her, even Hermes, who knew that she rarely had much to drink. No one knew that she was already in the initial stages of Alzheimers. Few had even heard of Alzheimers.

In time I came to know her friend Hermes Pan very well. Hermes, who was one of the gentlest and sweetest men, had worked with Fred Astaire for his entire film career. He’d worked with everybody – Fred, Rita, Grable, Debbie, Cyd. “All dancers,” Hermes used to say, “are children” including himself. “They have to be to move so freely and without inhibition.”

Both Hermes and Fred loved Rita. They loved dancing with her. She was Fred’s favorite partner. And the two men loved her shoulders. Hermes said she had the most beautiful shoulders in the business, and used them in her dancing like nobody else. On Sunday afternoons a lot of “the kids” would often gather by Hermes' pool up on Cherokee Lane in Beverly Hills, turn on the radio and dance. This was how they relaxed – more dancing. Rita used to come too, even though by then she was a big, big star.

Hermes recalled one afternoon when everybody
was up and dancing but Rita and an actor who’d been one of the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.” So Rita asked him to dance, and they did. “That was Rita,” Hermes said.

She was a dream. She was a Hollywood star.

But only on-screen. Off-camera, except for those carefree moments, like dancing with her Mr. Munchkin by the pool up at Hermes Pan’s, it was, and always had been, a hard life -- ultimately a study in abuse which started with her father, followed by long term disintegration.
Hermes Pan caught on camera having lunch with Rita Hayworth whom he met when she first signed on at Columbia Pictures. Rita and Hermes were lifelong friends.
David Thomson in The Whole Equation takes us back to the phenomenon of Hollywood and all those rich and exquisite moments in the dark where we formed our idea of what the future should hold in store. He explains in exquisite and sometimes almost gossipy detail (well fortified by the reader’s nostalgia) how The Movies and Los Angeles (Hollywood) changed the world and in many many ways made us into ... this ... everything ... Iraq; us.

A friend of mine who is an authentic book reviewer said he felt the book was “intellectually overwrought” but that it had “some of the best high level stories (he’d) read in a long time.” First rate if you love The Movies. It sent me back, segueing between the Park Theater of my childhood, to those balmy, fragrant early Spring nights in L.A. in the late '80s, listening (and taping) Debbie Reynolds in her living room, as she recalled her often hilarious, often shocking hop, skip, and a jump of a life, and the ride along the Yellow Brick Road of a Life in the Movies. A long and winding road. For all of us, it turns out. The road to here.

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© 2013 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com