Friday, February 11, 2011

Amphicar Star

(This is the 5th installment of what I hope will become a book length project. If you're just coming on board, interested and don't want to read backwards, e-mail me at and I'll get you a sequential version)

Fulton Avenue had been part of a large walnut grove and a number of trees were spared in the sub-division, the largest of which graced our front yard. My dad stood on a ladder and knocked the hard nuts to the ground with a broom and I scrambled to collect them in a basket. The family would sit at the table cracking walnuts for hours. The valley grew up too fast and haphazard planning resulted in inadequate storm drainage. There was a big rainstorm in the early sixties. School was cancelled for days and Fulton Avenue was a brown river full of bobbing walnuts.

The original ranch house still stood and the lot abutted ours. If I scaled the rose trellis and avoided the thorns I could peek over the fence. There were half a dozen walnut trees and a spectacular elephant, like the kind in front of Quigley’s dime store that you could ride for a nickel. But this one was bejeweled and sat on a wheeled base that was pulled by a rope. I never saw anyone play with it and the adjacent big white ranch house was always mysterious. We knew a widowed pediatrician with three daughters lived there but we hardly ever even saw anyone coming or going. Eventually I managed to meet the youngest daughter who was my age. I even visited her house which wasn’t as fancy on the inside as I’d expected of people who were wealthy enough to cast off such a splendid elephant. There was a palpable sorrow in the house which was maybe why no one ever rode the magnificent beast. I was unable to forge a lasting connection with the girl so the relationship dwindled after a week or two and I never got the nerve to ask about riding the elephant. When I was in college the house was bulldozed and a cul de sac was created with six beige stucco houses.

The house next door was inhabited by two older women, Mrs. Williams and Mrs. William’s sister. My father had some brouhaha with them over a fence and a property line. Even long after the divorce the relationship stayed chilly. My mother said they were Birchers. I wasn’t sure what that was except it was the reason we couldn’t buy Welch’s products (although I’d sneak Junior Mints) or go to Knott’s Berry Farm, which was referred to as Nazi Berry Farm. I returned from elementary school one day and discovered the house burglarized. Every drawer had been dumped on the floor and all the televisions and radios were gone. They even took a couple pairs of new shoes that were still in boxes and all of our coats. My mother had a gray mink stole of which she was inordinately proud but I found creepy. This was probably the most expensive item in the house and unfortunately it remained untouched in a silk garment bag.

My mother told me later that the culprit was one of my sister’s boyfriends and I don’t know whether this is true or just Mom’s paranoid imaginings. I do know my sister, who loved animals, was as revolted by the fur stole as much as I was but either way, it sheds some light on the family dynamic. The neighbors on the other side were out, so in desperation, I knocked on the door of Mrs. Williams and her sister. It was an old lady house, drapes drawn tight to protect the furniture and futzy smelling. There were stacks of American Opinion, the monthly publication of the John Birch society. I was allowed to call my mother at work. My add-a-pearl necklace and twenty two dollars I’d saved were gone and I wept. Mrs. Williams said she’d give me the cash but she never did.

Elsie and Howard, an older childless couple, lived next door. They had a boxer named Strongheart, after the silent movie canine. He had chronic dermatitis and almost always wore a lampshade so he’d drag his itchy butt up and down the gravel driveway. Howard worked at the DMV in Van Nuys and my mother used to get me all dressed up and take me there for an outing so he could show me around. I arrived once and said, “Hi Howard. Got a potty here?” a quote that was unfortunately part of the family lore for decades. I sat on the shoulders of a number of blue smocked DMV clerks in my velvet frock and patent leather maryjanes as they ponied me through the office. I have been recently at a DMV, more frequently than I would ever have dreamed possible for a number of life times, including the aforesaid Van Nuys office, where it is hard to imagine that fifty years ago I rode piggyback.

When Elsie and Howard moved to a retirement community the house was purchased by Betty Horner, a science writer and her sister, Mrs. Nichols, although my mother said, like Mrs. Williams and her sister next door, these broads, as she referred to them, were probably not really sisters. Betty Horner actually coauthored the textbook I used at Riverside Drive elementary school, which I announced loudly whenever it was time for science, although this earned me disappointingly little prestige. Betty’s sister was an avid gardener and butterfly enthusiast and the garden was so lovely, people would stop their cars to look. She hinted that we improve our own landscaping but my mother ignored her. Betty once showed me a picture with a ring of animals and asked me if I could interpret the meaning. I stared at it blankly. She grabbed it from me and explained that each animal in the circle ate the next animal. “IT”S CALLED THE FOOD CHAIN!” I was never consulted again.

I began kindergarten at Riverside Drive elementary school in a plaid dress, with a matching ribbon, lace hemmed socks and saddle oxfords. We sang and swung, eschewing the jungle gym because the boys could look up our dresses. We made a lot of things with macaroni and paste. My teacher Miss Cartwright was tall and wore high heels instead of the sensible shoes preferred by most teachers. If you watch Mad Men, most teachers were Peggy in the first season but Miss Cartwright was Joan. We were given a tiny carton of milk and on Friday it was chocolate and then there were also little bags of popcorn. Like in nursery school we were forced to rest on denim mats but there were also fire drills and during the Cuban Missile Crisis daily duck-and-cover exercises when a siren would blast over the P.A. It felt like something big was going to happen and my parents started calling my pajamas “footsies” instead of sputniks. A ballerina costume was purchased for me for Halloween and I overheard my mother whisper, “I wonder if she’ll get to wear this.” Instead of going on about how handsome and well spoken he was when Kennedy was on the TV my mother puffed at her cigarette, clutching the toy poodle and looking grave.

Miss Cartwright was in a black mood. We were in a line to receive a piece of cardboard with three blobs of paint for one of the ceaseless macaroni projects. She handed the first kid the palette and he took it and then she said sarcastically, “You’re welcome!” This harsh “You’re welcome” ran down the whole line but I determined that when it was my turn I would say “thank you” before she had the chance to humiliate me. I moved closer to the front of the line. It was my turn. Miss Cartwright plopped the paint square onto my open palms. I froze. “You’re welcome,” she snapped. I dropped the paint and ran off to the playground sobbing. My mother was called to fetch me and was told I’d refused to keep still during naptime and was therefore overtired.

Paula Thompson lived in the house next door to the science book writer. She was my first best friend. Her mom Marge wore a ponytail and black capris and dad Lester was an agent who represented the King Sisters and guitarist Alvino Rey who was married to sister Luise and Billy Barty. Although this has garnered me about as much cache as living next door to the co-author of a science textbook, I will add that Alvino and Luise are the grandparents of Win and William Butler of Arcade Fire. Lester and Marge Thompson had parties where they’d roll sheets of rubber over the patio and dump huge pots of spaghetti on it for guests to eat with their hands. They had Siamese cats, an iguana, a tarantula and a deodorized skunk named Ban Ban (after the deodorant). Lester had an amphicar and absent a nearby body of water he drove me and Paula to the Sav-On in Studio City for an ice cream. We got back to the car and I was thrilled to see a gawking crowd surrounding it. I may have bowed.

We played at the house of Alyce King of the King Sisters and her husband, b-actor Robert Clark. They had a son our age and we played school with him. He had G.I. Joe dolls and he played with our Barbies too but quickly tossed them aside when a parent entered the room. Once Billy Barty came over to our house to buy prints of Mickey McGuire comedies. He’d played Mickey Rooney’s little brother in the series. The next day Paula and I got all dressed up in our mother’s dresses and heels. We put on makeup. We stood in front of the house hoping that drivers of the passing cars would mistake us for midgets.

My dad also sold films to Gypsy Boots. He was the subject of song “Nature Boy” and had appeared in a number of b-films and on Groucho’s You Bet Your Life series and later The Tonight Show with Carson. Up until his death in 2004 I’d see Boots arrive all tie dyed in a hippie van to sell sprouts at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. In the early 1960s he stopped by Fulton Avenue with one of his kids, a shirtless boy with long hair, in some sort of sarong thingie. Gypsy (born Robert Bootzin, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants) hopped up on a barstool and started playing bongo drums and singing gibberish while the kid leapt all over the furniture. My parents had a loud conversation later with regard to transacting future business at the office.

One of my dad’s friends knew Frank Sinatra Jr. who’d recently been kidnapped. The crime was pulled off with such comic ineptitude there was speculation that it was an inside job intended engender some sympathy and revive Sinatra’s public image which was flagging as his mob connections were coming more to light. The debacle was actually planned by Nancy Sinatra’s ex-classmate Barry Keenan and apparently was the result of a psychotic episode. Keenan approached the crime with a formal business plan and demanded $260,000. He intended to invest the money and pay Sinatra back with interest. Interestingly, the business plan actually named the investments Keenan intended to make. They were extremely sound and would have quickly doubled $260,000 many times over. Frank Sr. offered Keenan a million dollars for the safe return of Junior but Keenan refused and held firm to 260k. Keenan got a long prison sentence but was so responsive to psychiatric treatment that he was released after about three years. He went on to be a hugely successful real estate investor.

My dad’s pal wanted to show Frankie Jr. the rumpus room. My dad was admonished several times not to mention the kidnapping and he was uncharacteristically compliant. Usually, when advised to avoid a topic, my father managed to interject it into the same breath as “Hello.” Dad did however mention that he was glad Frank Sr. had switched over to arranger Nelson Riddle. Al told Frankie Jr. that he thought his dad’s last few recordings with arranger Axel Stordahl were not his finest and pointed out that Riddle was much more modern. Frankie Junior apparently found even the suggestion of criticism unbearable and he left without saying a word.

Sinatra Senior rented films from my father for years, his secretary Kay would call in his orders and a driver would pick up the prints and deliver them to either Trousdale or Palm Springs. Sinatra made a public service film about religious tolerance in 1945 called The House I Live In. It won an Oscar and was directed by Mervyn Leroy. Sinatra sang in the film a song by the same name that was part of his repertoire for years. It was also performed by Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson. “The House I Live In” was written by Abel Meeropol using the name “Lewis Allen.” Meeropol was incensed that the line “my neighbors black and white” was omitted from the film version. After their execution, Abel Meeropol and his wife adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

The film’s message of tolerance obviously did not extend to who lived next door and also, having been made very soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it does not extend to “Japs,” as Sinatra refers to them in the film, either. In the late seventies Kay called my dad and said that Mr. Sinatra had noticed the film “The House I Live In,” in the catalog, and due to Mr. Sinatra’s unfortunate reference to “Japs.” Mr. Sinatra politely requested that Mr. Drebin withdraw it from distribution. My dad said he’d be happy to comply with Mr. Sinatra’s wishes. Kay sent over a fifth of Scotch. The film remained in the catalog and Al promoted it heavily, renting it often to film societies. Maybe he was still stinging from Frankie Jr.’s rebuke.

My dad met a lanky Irish guy named Billy O’Hara who’d been to art school and could draw and had also trained as a finish carpenter. O’Hara resembled a gaunt Christopher Walken with a bright red pompadour. Billy couldn’t a land a job that made advantage of his talents so he’d rented some warehouses and told Al that he was doing pretty well storing and transferring merchandise that was in limbo somewhere on the manufacture/wholesale/retail trajectory. Al had been approached by a TV distributor asking if he could inspect and ship a portion of his library but the La Brea office was too small. Given the mercurial rental business, a guaranteed receivable sounded excellent.

O’Hara said he knew of a warehouse in Silver Lake and that he had some ideas about improving my dad’s business. He noted that the Albin Films catalog was a little amateurish and with his artistic flourish he could give it a more dignified look. My dad was happy to move from La Brea because the landlord had increased the rent a number of times and had been pokey about plumbing and electrical repairs. He signed a contract with the TV distributor to house the collection and begin shipping in a month. He gave notice and cleaned out his bank account of $3000 which he entrusted to O’Hara to secure and equip the building.

There were about two weeks left on the La Brea lease and O’Hara couldn’t be found. My father was about to eat crow with the landlord and try to reinstate his tenancy although he didn’t have enough on the books to cover a month’s rent and payroll. He called O’Hara’s house day and night. O’Hara’s wife Kay answered and politely told Mr. Drebin that Mr. O’Hara wasn’t in. Dad drove by the building and saw that the “for lease” sign was still erect and peeking inside saw that the walls were unfinished and the wiring exposed. It was bad form to drag a man’s wife into his business but my dad snapped and told Kay O’Hara that if she didn’t hear from Billy by the end of the day he was going to notify the police.

Billy showed up at my dad’s office about three hours later. He threw $3000 cash on my dad’s desk and told him that the building would be ready to occupy in a week and if it met his specifications he could fork back the three grand. My dad figured that having the money back, the worst case would be he’d have to beg the landlord for another month to find a new location. A week had passed without a word from O’Hara. My dad called the house and Kay told Mr. Drebin that Mr. O’Hara was not at home. Al picked up a paper and looked in the classifieds for commercial space. The phone rang and it was O’Hara who said he’d meet him at the new office at 11:00 p.m.

My dad arrived and the windows were papered over and there was no sign of O’Hara. He waited in his car for a few minutes until Billy came screeching down Sunset in his big Olds. O’Hara was freshly showered and pomaded and wearing an expensive tie. He unlocked the door and turned on the lights. The space was finished. There was an inlaid wood front counter and a stand for the film scheduling books. One door had Mr. Drebin painted on it and led to a private office. There was a smaller office for Mr. O’Hara himself. An ingenious swing arm had been created for the film inspection machines so they could be easily serviced. There was a projection booth and a theatre area with red velvet seats and a built- in screen. There was a large storage room with shelving designed for all lengths of film and a special area for the collection they were shipping. A postage meter had been installed and stacked by it were five thousand copies of the new “Economy Films” catalog. It was a lot better looking than the Albin Films catalog. O’Hara assumed he’d earned the right to a name change. He was wrong.

© 2011 Layne Murphy

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I miss the lemon groves of my own vanished childhood landscape as perhaps you do the walnuts. We had a big tree in the farthest lot of the place in Temple City, itself once full of walnut groves. There was a decaying plank or two in its branches I used to hoist myself up to so I could look out over the concrete wash over the fence. We find our beauty where we can as kids.

Speaking of attraction, the image of Strongheart's lampshade inspires me to suggest the same for our Rover, in heat it seems often for our year-old Oprah. Apropos, what are the odds of two "sister"-spinsters moving in next door? They used to call them "Boston marriages," I dimly recall. xxx me