July, 2016:

50+ YEARS IN LA

Me & the Mustang in North Hollywood

Me & the Mustang in North Hollywood – 1965

I arrived in Los Angeles in May 1965. I was newly married and my husband and I had driven across country from New York City in our brand new Mustang. We found an apartment in North Hollywood, just a few miles from where I now live! The landlord told us we were neighbors of Bob Hope, just a few miles away in swanky Toluca Lake!

What a difference the last 50 years have made in my chosen hometown. More freeways, more people, more museums, more traffic. Disneyland is bigger, movie and television studios are larger and are located almost everywhere. Warner Bros Studios was only a couple of miles from where this photo was taken. I haven’t missed much adventure in all those years and still find the life here exciting.

In the mid 60s, there weren’t a wide variety of interesting and well-paid jobs for women, even if you did have a college degree. My bachelor’s degree was in English and I loved writing. I didn’t want to be a teacher but I could type. Secretarial jobs, though not always interesting, could lead up the corporate ladder to something better.

I was hired by the Los Angeles Times shortly after moving here. My husband, who was a civil engineer, worked for the LA County Sanitation Department. It was convenient for me to work at the Times. It was only two blocks from my husband’s job; we could ride to work together and save money by not needing a second car. We didn’t even consider public transportation. Southern California was the land of cars, lots of freeways, and an inefficient bus system. Now we’ve got subways!!

Though I’d been a reporter and editorial assistant for my college newspaper, that didn’t qualify me for the same job, even at entry level, for the LA Times. Educated women could aspire to a career as a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. A popular joke related that women went to college to get their Mrs. degree. I was hired for the secretarial pool to type envelopes or letters from the Dictaphone machine. We were also used as substitute receptionists or secretaries.

Los Angeles wasn’t the city of high-rise buildings it is now. City Hall, at 32 stories, was the tallest building in town. The impressive Music Center was under construction until 1967 and the fabulously modern Disney Hall designed by Frank Gehry wasn’t even a dream in those days. My desk in the secretarial office was on the fifth floor of the LA Times building. I worked there less than six months, but 1965 was a memorable summer.

From the many windows, we could see the smoke and fires from Watts, a few miles south of us, now infamous as the Watts Riots. It was a frightening situation, especially to relatives of mine who lived in the East and just assumed everything was close-by in Los Angeles.

Several reporters for the LA Times were honored with a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the bloody and destructive Watts Riots and its aftermath. One positive highlight of my short stay there was the week I worked as a receptionist in the LA Times executive offices, occupied by the Chandlers, Norman and Buffy, the owners of the newspaper. Dorothy “Buffy” Chandler was enjoying her success as the primary fundraiser for the new Music Center that was being built nearby. A photo of part of the Music Center is below.

Their spacious offices, which included a bathroom and shower, were paneled in oak and the windows overlooked downtown Los Angeles. Although impressive to work there, it was very boring–not many visitors or many phone calls. To look busy, I read all the material on the wealthy and enterprising Chandler family and on all their business ventures. I used the typewriter for personal letters and even had the time to type all the addresses in my new address book. I once noticed the handsome silver-haired Norman Chandler, who was very conscious of his weight, downing the diet drink of the day—Metrecal—for lunch. Dorothy Chandler was in and out of the office. Since she had issued an edict that female employees of the Times must not wear sleeveless clothing and definitely not utter the word “OK” while on the premises, I avoided her.

Funny how the 1960s were both rebellious and repressive at the same time. Life is always full of contradictions.

I still drive a Mustang, but a bit newer (1998) with a hardtop. It’s still my favorite car.

 

 

MAKING MOVIES IN LIBYA – THE BLACK TENT

A couple of years ago, Terence Sharkey, who had been a teenage British actor in the 1950s, sent me an entertaining story of his adventure at Wheelus Air Force Base in 1955. He meant it as a Comment, but it was too long and too interesting not to include it as a blog, and I’m publishing the story again. I made a few minor changes (like American spelling) for clarity.

Terry told me: I was a guest at Wheelus almost sixty years ago and I still recall the warmth of the welcome which matched the 90 degree heat everywhere. In 1955 food-rationing from WWII in England had only just ceased, and for an English youth, my eyes had popped out at steak sizes I’d never seen, breakfast portions undreamed of, and chocolate bars in abundance. (I’d never heard of Hershey bars –but I soon learned). Suddenly England seemed even more austere when I saw the goods on offer in the commissary.

Terence Sharkey, teenage British actor

Terence Sharkey, teenage British actor, with actor Donald Sinden.

I was sixteen and had gone to Libya as a young actor for desert location scenes for a movie (The Black Tent) we were making at Pinewood Studios back in England. A couple of days after my arrival at Idris airport, the once daily flight from London’s Heathrow ended in tragedy when a BOAC DC4 Argonaut crashed in flames on landing, killing fifteen and badly injuring many of the forty-seven on board. Idris facilities were about what you’d expect of one of the world’s poorest nations with an international terminal that looked like it was the film set from Bogart’s “Casablanca,” and the boys and girls at Wheelus had mobilised immediately, with helicopters ferrying the injured to the military hospital.

A few days later, at a break in the filming schedule, I visited the base with Rosemarie, a young woman survivor of the crash. American helicopter pilots honored her with a bouquet. Their tears turned to laughter when Rosemarie discovered the bouquet was swarming with ants, which had joined the consignment somewhere locally. (Where had they had come up with fresh roses in such a desert?).

The base was enormous. I had been fearful that the sight of aircraft so soon after the tragedy at Idris airport on the other side of the city would be upsetting, but my companion was enjoying the tour as much as I was. At one stage our jeep rattled its way over the tarmac beside twenty or more very business-like looking fighter jets with US Air Force emblazoned on each silver fuselage together with the big white star. “F-86 Saber jets” our driver told us proudly. “See them swept-back wings? They’ll take on anything those Commie bastards can throw at us – they’ll out-maneuver any of Joe Stalin’s boys.”
Stalin had died two years before and his successor, Nikita Kruschev, had appeared to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards the West in an attempt to end the Cold War. Our driver, if he knew of the demise of the despot, cared little for the changes and continued to extol the superior virtues of the Saber jets over the Russian MiG-15s, which he told us he had seen in dogfights in the Korean War a couple of years before.

An international incident was narrowly avoided when this naïve British visitor took a photograph of his beautiful companion. I had not noticed that the background included some tents and several large aircraft. I still have the Zeiss camera, which I had bought cheaply a couple of days before, just a museum piece now in our age of digital photography, but I will always remember that day when I had to hand over the film to the fierce military policeman declaring us off limits.

Actually, he turned out to be quite an affable sort who, having executed his official task, seemed more than happy to assist my companion, who had discovered that the ants were now invading her blouse. Uncle Sam’s Military Police are clearly up to anything the day throws at them and the fellow produced some magic mosquito cream, which he applied liberally to her neck. His enthusiasm for the task knew no bounds and soon it was the turn of the female visitor to gently point out what was off limits.

Apart from the loss of my pictures it was a memorable day with hospitable hosts, an air-conditioned day that offered a welcome contrast to the sweltering Sahara filming days that lay ahead.
Happy days! More are captured at Terence Sharkey memoir-Love, Life & Moving Pictures

SO CAL GHOSTS

Paraphrasing Shakespeare–Hamlet said to Horatio: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I have always been interested in the supernatural; I’ve had some experiences and know many friends who have had them as well. It’s a great topic for articles and stories. I’ve written a short book on Amazon about a true fascinating positive encounter—Angels in Uniform—and I interviewed a man who was living in a haunted house. The interview, upon which I based this blog, was published in the Daily News newspaper of Los Angeles when I had a column.

Glen Peterson had bought a dilapidated “castle” in the Santa Monica Mountains and began restoring it years ago. Resembling a German castle on a hill with its bell tower, gables, decorative wood beams, courtyard and guest house, the home was built in 1939 by Theodore Spurkuhl, a Paramount Studios director of photography known for his pioneering use of spotlights. Spurkuhl worked with many of the film greats: Ronald Coleman, James Cagney and Fred MacMurray, for instance, and was noted for his work on “Beau Geste” starring Gary Cooper.

SparkuhlHome

Sparkuhl Home

Spurkuhl put a great deal of energy into building the home. Since it was wartime, he even added a secret room in case the Japanese invaded or the Germans won the war. His descendants, who visited the site while Glen was restoring it, thought the cinematographer might have put too much intensity into the building project since he died in 1940.

Before Glen bought it, the home was owned by actor Nick Nolte, who purchased it in 1975 during the filming of the TV miniseries, “Rich Man, Poor Man.” The other primary actor in the series, Peter Strauss, had also bought property nearby. Coincidentally, Strauss’ property was later sold by Glen, who had been a real estate agent, to the National Park Service. This 1970s miniseries was featured on a PBS documentary “Pioneers of Television” not long ago.

The 70s were wild and crazy for Nolte. I remember seeing his old yellow Cadillac broken down by the side of a mountain road one day. Nolte and his friends partied quite a bit and the house suffered a good deal of damage. It was finally abandoned to birds of all types, squirrels and various other animals. It was a mess of animal droppings and the like when Glen began his restoration.

One evening after the house was beautifully finished, Glen was home alone enjoying a quiet evening. While listening to a new Terence Trent Darby recording and near the end of the song, Glen heard a loud knocking on the back door. He checked both inside and out and found no one. Back inside he restarted the song. The knocking began again at the exact same place.

This time he checked the windows, “I had repaired the windows just that morning,” Glen recalled, specifically to keep them from opening due to strong winds. They were all still closed, and he began the recording once more.

Glen played the song eight times, and he told me, “the pounding kept happening at the same time each time.” Every time it happened, he checked for a reason for the knocking, but found none. On the ninth try, the record played through to the end, and there were no further knocking sounds.

The mysterious last two lines of the song that finally played were: “No grave can hold my body down; this land is still my home.”

ENCOUNTERS WITH THE FAMOUS AND THE UNIQUE

I love “accidental” encounters with interesting people of all types; they don’t have to be famous or notorious. Because I enjoy it so much, I’m sure I probably attract it. A couple of years ago I attended a fundraiser luncheon for a local private Catholic high school and sat next to Catherine O’Hara, an actress who had been in several of Christopher Guest’s movies, like “Best in Show,” which I had really enjoyed, as well as in “Home Alone” and “Frankenweenie,” and is very active in show biz. Since we were next to each other for a couple of hours we discovered we had things in common–liberal views, enjoying people, and movies, to name a few. Afterwards, I saw her in a TV documentary and read her opinions on the last page of Vanity Fair magazine, a publication I’ve subscribed to for years.

Catherine O'Hara, comedian and actress

Catherine O’Hara, comedian and actress

Airplanes are an ideal place to meet people. I have had some very entertaining conversations with seatmates. On the flight to Dallas for Thanksgiving not long ago, my seat mate volunteered that he had been raised in Puerto Rico and had worked all over the US. He and I had no trouble bonding over Stephen Sondheim songs from West Side Story—“I Want to Be in America,” for example. Soon he was telling me about his childhood in Puerto Rico, how the females in his family firmly ran the household, and the foods he liked. We laughed a lot.

On the return flight, my neighbor turned out to be an LA sportscaster on the local ABC-TV station. He was returning from a family visit in time to cover the yearly classic USC-UCLA football game. If I’d been a sports fan, I’d have known his name. We talked about how life had changed because of the Internet, and how we could use it to further our careers. It didn’t hurt that he had a great smile and was very attractive.

Ventura Boulevard in the Valley has every type of restaurant. I particularly enjoy the inexpensive Chinese food at Bamboo. Next door is a ritzy French place, Cafe Bizou. After one lunch, while waiting for the valet (shared by the two restaurants) to get my car, I spotted actress/singer Della Reese a couple of feet away: she had eaten French food. I decided to approach her and told her I was a fan and we talked a bit. I even gave her my business card. Was she being polite or did she keep it?

Lunchtime can be an ideal time to spot the rich and famous and perhaps spark a conversation. I was with a friend at a place called Gaucho Grill a few years back when she spotted her lawyer. At the table right behind us, my friend’s lawyer was with TV and Broadway star Kelsey Grammar. At that time I was writing a weekly column for the Daily News newspaper and was always looking for new interview possibilities. Besides, Kelsey had met my son at a restaurant not long before and had invited him and a few other young men back to his home. I introduced myself, mentioned my son, and Kelsey couldn’t have been more gracious and down to earth. Before I had a chance to schedule the interview with him, my life changed and I ended my column.

My daughter and I love Hamburger Hamlet, which has been on Van Nuys Boulevard for many years. Last time we had a late lunch there, Heidi spotted “Mr. T,” who had been on TV’s “The A Team” and also in the famous “Rocky” movie. Our favorite waiter was telling us the most famous person he’d seen in the restaurant over the years was Marlon Brando. Brando was very overweight by then and ate a lot, the waiter said.

One of my favorite places to start a conversation is Trader Joe’s, the unique grocery store that started in Southern California. They hire sociable, highly individual people who may have tattoos or wear crazy hats; perhaps that’s just part of the SoCal lifestyle. I wonder if they take a friendliness test before they’re hired! The atmosphere must affect the customers because they’re usually quite affable as well.

A few months ago, I spotted Sally Kellerman, famous for playing “Hot Lips O’Houlihan” in the original 1970 MASH movie. She and I were shopping for fruit and vegetables, and I took the opportunity to tell her how I’d enjoyed her acting. She welcomed the conversation and told me she really enjoyed singing professionally. Her distinctive low sultry voice is very much in evidence and I can imagine it would translate easily into song. Her photo is below.

SALLY KELLERMAN

SALLY KELLERMAN

When I was much younger, I remember being a little embarrassed by my mother, who was a friendly Southerner who loved to talk to everyone. Now I find I have been doing the same thing for years. From mothers or fathers of babies to clerks or fellow customers, I’m not afraid of making a joke or coming up with a witty comment, and these days I can sometimes embarrass my own daughter!

CELEBRATING JULY 4th

Celebrating July 4th has always made me feel proud to be an American, no matter where I might have been living at the time. Fireworks are the capper: exciting and a bit ethereal.

Fireworks by Heidi Giraud

Fireworks painted by Heidi Giraud

The fireworks in Washington, D.C. are probably the most spectacular of any I’ve seen. I remember going with friends Ellen and Braxton, in the early ‘60s, to see them at the Washington Monument on the Mall. Since the crowds were dense and the parking sparse, we drove into D.C. early, way before it got dark.

With a blanket (no folding seats like today) and a few snacks, we explored the grassy area around the Monument for a likely spot. We were soon surrounded by hundreds of people. There was probably some entertainment, but I only remember the incredible variety of fireworks—all sorts of colors and types of explosions, including large frames standing on the ground that displayed patriotic graphics like the flag or faces of presidents in exploding fireworks.

Lying on my back watching the pyrotechnics explode above the white spire of the Washington Monument was an amazing experience.

Thanks to public television, PBS, I’ve watched the July 4th entertainment and fireworks from Washington D.C. for years. It’s presented on a stage across from the Capitol. In the summer of my college years, there were always concerts and plays to attend around that area. When I was in high school my church group put on a Christmas play there (I played a large toy rabbit in “The Little Match Girl”). It’s fun to reminisce about my connections to Washington, especially as I get older.

I'm the Rabbit in The Little Match Girl

I’m the Rabbit in The Little Match Girl at National Mall in D.C.

This week PBS presented a documentary about the National Mall, and it brought back many memories. One college summer I worked for the Navy Dept. in a WWII temp building, a short walk from the magnificent Lincoln Memorial. Over the years, I have visited the Smithsonian Institute Museum (the older “castle” with Lindberg’s plane, and the newer one), the wonderful Art Museum designed by I.M. Pei, visited Congress (both Senate and House of Representatives), seen the Air and Space Museum, enjoyed the cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial, appreciated the summer Watergate Concerts on the Potomac close to Lincoln Memorial. I hiked up the Washington Monument twice! I also attended the marvelous Shakespeare plays during the summer on the Mall. Some day I’ll be back to enjoy some of the new museums.

In the 1950s I was living in North Africa. I no longer recall if there were fireworks in Tripoli on the 4th, but it was hard to beat the camel and donkey rides on Thirteen Kilometer Beach, not to mention the hot dogs and other goodies. The more recent Sex and the City movie featured the stars riding camels, which reminded me of my camel ride. The camels we rode on that Tripoli beach weren’t as well groomed or attractive; they looked a bit mangy, and were muzzled since camels do bite. I can still imagine the way it felt to be so high up, grasping the horn of the swaying saddle as the camel moved in a sandy circle while the owner held onto a rope.

There’s a German celebration in Heidelberg in the summer that uses fireworks quite effectively. The “Burning of the Castle” commemorates the few times the castle was actually burned, twice in the 17th century. My family joined my brother’s Cub Scout troop on a boat on the Neckar River and watched while all the lights in Heidelberg were turned off. The impressive fireworks, that looked like real fire, came from the Old Bridge across the Neckar and from the ruined Castle on a hill above the famous old city.

Here’s a toast to the Chinese invention of fireworks in the 12th century and to our Declaration of Independence in the 18th century!

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