LIGHTS! CAMERA! LEVINSON!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"|