Wednesday, July 27, 2011

LIGHTS! CAMERA! LEVINSON! by Robert S. Levinson

You can find some of Robert S. Levinson’s early novels and short story collections at Amazon Kindle and other ebook locations, among them THE JAMES DEAN AFFAIR, THE JOHN LENNON AFFAIR, and THE ANDY WARHOL AFFAIR. Learn more about Bob, who “mixes Hollywood fact and fiction with a master storyteller’s magic wand,” according to William Link, five-time Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award winner, at or check him out on Facebook.

by Bob Levinson

Robert S. Levinson’s bestselling crime novels and short stories have featured star-powered Hollywood settings and situations from his first book, THE ELVIS AND MARILYN AFFAIR, to his ninth, A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME, due in September, which Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Joseph Wambaugh has applauded as “a nostalgic, wisecracking, action-packed romp filled with an insider’s knowledge of show business and the movie star gossip mill.” 

“Insider,” indeed. Before turning to fiction, Bob wrote about the movies and movie stars for newspapers and magazines, created and headed what became the world’s largest music public relations firm, wrote and produced more than two dozen comedy, variety and music specials for television, and special events for the Friars Club and Hollywood Press Club.

Earlier this year, the Derringer Award winner toyed with movie history in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (“The Killing of
Stacey Janes” ) and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (“Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental.” ) He’s currently putting the finishing touches to PHONY TINSEL, a novel set, like RHUMBA, in the movie world of the 1930s. Also in the works, a non-fiction collection of memories that recount his adventures as a pre-teen chasing after autographs, CONFESSIONS OF AN AUTOGRAPH HOUND IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD, that starts:

I  got  it  in  my  head  one  day, when  I  was  ten  years  old  and collecting autographs  regularly on the most notable streets of Hollywood, one of  those "hounds"  who  clustered wherever movie stars were known  or  expected to congregate, that a signature in less than real ink was less than satisfactory.

And that's what I was getting every so often.

It  wasn't enough to carry an ink pen and, sometimes, a second in  reserve.  It wasn't  enough that a fellow collector would be there to volunteer his own in the event your pen ran dry.

There  were  some  stars  who, however  amenable  to giving  an  autograph, insisted  on using their own pen, and chances are it would be a ballpoint.

Everybody  knew that  ballpoint  ink  wasn't the real stuff. It was impermanent. No  chance  it would last the centuries these autographs merited.

Or,  it might be pencil or crayon. Edward G. Robinson carried a  thick  drawing pencil—take it  or leave it. Herbert Marshall preferred  a  black  crayon; better  anyway  than  pencil.  Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer's  resident  opera  singer, Lauritz  Melchoir,  went  them  both one  better.  He  passed out pre-signed, postcard-sized pictures. At least, they were personally signed in real ink.

Well,  I got Robinson to sign in real ink and Melchoir to sign in real ink on real paper, and I even finally got that damned crayon away from Herbert Marshall.

But  the  horrors  of ballpoint were consistent, especially with celebrities not seen  too often, visitors from another coast or another country, or those who lived normal lives outside their professional obligations.      

One  of my pals came up with a solution. Cover the ballpoint signatures  past correction  with  clear  Scotch tape. The tape would  protect  the  autographs against the eroding elements of air and water and fire and large criminals  who might  try to  steal  the  pint-sized,  2 1/2  x  4  1/4-inch  autograph books I preferred to any other type. 

I did it immediately. (Remember, I was ten years old.)

I  deprived  myself  of lunch and spent the money on a  roll of  clear  Scotch tape.  I  located  the offending autographs and, one after  the  other,  covered them  with  tape, carefully measuring out and applying bits  and  pieces, first over  the body  of  the  signature,  then  smaller  strips  for  the arc of a mountainous "b" or the last-gasp extension of a "y."

Thus, all these years later, Arthur Kennedy remains entombed in Scotch  tape. So does Robert Keith, Henry Daniell, Ann Rutherford and Elioj Mjn.

They  don't  seem any worse for wear than any autograph signed in  real  ink, except  that the Scotch tape has yellowed with age, contrasts with  the  page color and made dark patterns on the back side of the pages.

What is sad is Elioj Mjn.

That  is  how the signature reads today, to somebody who was  delighted  to collect  the  autograph,  promptly enshrined  it  in  permanent  memory,   and continued pursuing  his boyhood avocation with an ongoing  vow  to always remember how to decipher even the most illegible scrawls and flourishes.

I have failed you Elioj Mjn. 

Or were you possibly Eliot Imju thirty-odd years ago, generous enough to take the book from the young boy and to even inscribe the autograph, "To Boby"?


That was something I couldn't control.

"Will you sign it, 'To Bobby'?," I requested.

Most  of  the  time  I got "Bobby." But sometimes I  got "Bobbie"  and  other times,  mainly  from foreigners, I got "Boby." And many times I  only  got  the name.  These were celebrities either in a hurry or rude. I would like to believe, even now, after all these years, that most of them were in a hurry.

Sometimes, I got nothing.

Most  of  these  people  were  not  in  a  hurry.  Some  were constrained  by circumstance  or some personal phobia against giving autographs. Some  were polite,  but adamant, and even bothered to explain their reasons while  posing for the regular collectors who preferred snapshots to signatures.      

But  most of these people couldn't be bothered. They were beyond their  fans and unlike the giants, the Gables, Bogarts, Stanwycks and Crawfords, who  in the course  of   becoming   "stars"  had  studios  to train them in the responsibilities of stardom. 

I'd like tell you who they are, but I don't remember their names.

One name I’ll never forget, however, is Alan Ladd, whose stardom was forged as “Sparrow,” the killer on the run in This Gun for Hire.
"Hollywood   Star  Preview."   Sundays  over  the  NBC Radio  Network.   An established  name and his personal choice for future stardom co-starring  in  a drama  tailored for them. A clever format for radio and, for  a  movie studio, clever  opportunity  to  promote a new film, generally one in which the two actors just happened to appear.

An  informal conversation followed the performance, the listeners'  chance  to get acquainted with this unfamiliar name (and the unreleased film). For us, the chance  at somebody  who might not be signing autographs one day soon, after stardom grabbed him by the box-office.      

Alan Ladd came one Sunday to introduce his choice, Douglas Dick, who had a Big Break kind of major role opposite Ladd in Paramount's upcoming "Saigon."  Ladd was  at the peak of international fame then, rarely seen  in and around Hollywood, and a coveted target for the autograph hounds.

We  missed  his arrival.  He'd been early, and we were late leaving Lux  Radio Theater rehearsals up Vine Streeet and a stakeout  on  Dana  Andrews.  We couldn't  afford  to  miss his departure following the broadcast. It would be our only shot at him.

Ladd came out of the Artists Entrance thirty yards away.  We were ready for him and broke fast from  the gate, at top speed before we saw that three uniformed ushers  were immediately behind Ladd, escorting him to his car.

We stopped.  We froze.  But we didn't retreat.

The ushers, as if they practiced drill team maneuvers in their off hours, turned as  one and leveled three index fingers in our direction. It meant, Out!  Scram! Through the gate.  You know the rules.

We  were  too  close to scoring to obey.  We  capitalized on the  momentary standoff, as we had on several previous occasions.

During  those earlier encounters, the stars left the ushers to their  duty.  They would  keep  walking  across  the driveway,  climbing  the  stairway to the network's parking lot and a waiting limousine.      

Something   made  Ladd  stop  half  way  up  the  stairs. He   observed   the confrontation, while we began calling, "Please, Mr. Ladd, please."

He pulled the cigarette from his lips, nodded, and said, "Okay."  His voice  was low, almost a whisper, and when it become obvious the ushers had not heard, he raised it. "I said it's okay."

One  usher turned to tell him, in a manner canned with simplistic  seniority, it couldn't  be okay. There were rules and they had their instructions.  We were on private property. We had to leave.  Now.      

Ladd  didn't  change  his  expression,  the  one  that  over the  years riveted Veronica  Lake,  Brian Donlevy, William Bendix, Preston Foster,  Laird Cregar, other actors and millions of moviegoers.

"I said it's okay," he said. He looked through them while instructing us, "Come on."

He  signed  autographs for everyone who had made the run. Nervous  hounds who had  stayed behind the gate because of the ushers  quickly  covered  the thirty yards  distance  to Ladd.  He signed for them, and he posed for  the cameras.

The ushers, roundly defeated, could only look on. And Ladd left only when  he knew all the hounds had been satisfied, adding a polite "Thank you" to us and to the ushers.

I  encountered  Ladd  a  few years later outside  Paramount Studios,  at the DeMille Gate, and  my memory went immediately to that scene on the steps—

The star sides with the kids against their natural enemies, the ushers.      

As  he  signed for me again, I realized that I had grown  over those  summers since NBC.  I was now taller than he was.      

Or so it seemed.

Today, upon reflection, I know I was wrong.

Alan Ladd has always been ten feet tall.

Rosie says "Arf"


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Bob - Welcome!! What a terrific piece this is! LOVE it, and love having you here.
Thanks much,

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Bob! Love your Alan Ladd story, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on A RHUMBA IN WALTZ TIME!

Pat Browning

Kate Thornton said...

I just want to brag - I once hugged Bob, in front of his wife, at a Swedish Midsummer Night party in Pasadena thrown by writer Tama Ryder & her gorgeous Swedish husband.

I love Bob and his work. And he's a damn fine hugger, too.


Tom Sawyer said...

Delicious blog, Bob.
Many thanks - for it, and for your friendship
Tom Sawyer

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Hi, Bob, I did much the same thing as a kid though I went to the Lux Radio Theater perfomances and hung around the parking lot when the stars came out. I was "in love" with Van Johnson (I think I was 12), he eluded me, got into his car and drove off. I ran after him down the middle of the street and caught him at the stop light--and yes,he signed my autograph book.


Rochelle Staab said...

Your story about autographs is so timely, Bob. In these days of Kindle and Nook, with nowhere for an author to sign for the readers, wouldn't it be fun to bring back autograph books?

So great to see you here. I'm excited to read your new book. No one writes the backstage of Hollywood and brings it to life like you do!

Dick Lochte said...

Very nice, Bob. Glad to hear about Ladd who was always a favorite of mine when I was a kid.