Chapter 5 Hollywood Folks Page I of II
An event took place in Tucson in the early thirties that attracted national attention: June Robles, daughter of Fernando Robles, a life-long friend of mine, was kidnapped and held for ransom. This was soon after the Lindberg case, and the whole country became interested in the Robles case.
Newsmen from all the wire services, as well as the big city newspapers, converged on Tucson. The newsreels sent their cameramen to Tucson. I knew a couple of them before they got here and became acquainted with the others very soon after they learned that I knew Fernando and his brother, Carlos, the county attorney. I tried to keep them informed of what I knew, which actually wasn't much.
The FBI entered the case and had several men here during the period the search for June Robles was on. Fernando was instructed by the kidnappers to drive out Broadway to Wilmot, over to Speedway, and back to town on certain nights. There was practically no development in the area at that time. He was supposed to get a message while on these nightly drives, but he never heard anything from the kidnappers. It was alleged that it was an "inside" job by an unhappy distant relative from Mexico who was trying to get even with the grandfather of June for some past mistreatment.
The matter dragged along for two or three weeks. I spent quite a bit of time with Fernando consoling him and trying to find out anything new in the case. On a Sunday evening, while having dinner with my father and mother, I received a long distance call from the Fox studio in L.A. advising me that June had been returned and asking me to please try to get their newsreel cameramen into the Robles house to take shots of her, etc. I promised I'd do my best, and asked them to advise their man to come to the Robles house and ask for me.
I rushed down to the Fernando Robles place and was admitted. I saw June for the first time-she was covered with insect bites and prickly heat; she had marks on her legs made by some kind of shackles; and she was dehydrated from being locked in a large box underground in the desert for something like fifteen days. Needless to say, her family was very grateful to have her home. The newsmen got their pictures and were happy for what help I gave them.
A couple of days later I received a call from Bryan Foy, a member of the famous Foy family of theatre people and a producer of films. He wanted to know if I could arrange for him to meet with June Robles' father if he came to Tucson. I assured him I could do so and would be happy to see him.
Brynie came down and tried to get Fernando to agree to allow him to book her for ten weeks at $1,000 a week to appear in theatres around the country. Fernando was interested. A contract was drawn and, while we were explaining the contract to him, Sid Grauman, famed Hollywood theaterman, called and asked that they wait until he could present his offer for June.
Fernando decided to wait. Eventually he did nothing, because the family decided they didn't want June to appear on the theatre stages. I think they made a wise decision. Although the FBI and local police never made any arrests, the case was considered closed.
While Brynie was in Tucson he asked me to drive him to Tombstone so he could see the place again. His father had starred in the old Birdcage Theatre when Tombstone was in its heyday, and Brynie had a soft spot in his heart for the little town. He seriously considered buying the whole town, which was for sale at the time for $75,000. That sounds incredible, but it actually could have been bought, lock, stock and barrel in one full swoop.
Brynie Foy was the eldest of his generation of Foys, children of the famous Eddie Foy, who billed his act as Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys. The whole family performed on Broadway and at vaudeville houses in the larger cities. In the 1970s Eddie Foy, Jr., with his wonderful Irish puss and his clever dance routines, was still seen occasionally in movies and on television.
Brynie was a producer at Warner Brothers for years, spanning both the silent picture and talking picture era, having produced the first "all talking" movie, The Lights of Old New York. Brynie was a very talented and extremely kind man. I kept in touch with him for many years and enjoyed several nights on the town with him in Hollywood. He always had a long list of people who would make "good company" for visiting firemen.
Not long after I assumed the management of the Fox Theatre I decided that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in Tucson. The summers are long and hot as hell; I didn't like the heat then, and still don't. I began looking for an opportunity to acquire, on almost any basis, a theatre in Southern California, which has great year-round weather and where I knew most of the people in the theatre business. I spoke with my friend, Milt Arthur, of the Arthur Brothers, who operated several theatres in California and later in the St. Louis area. Milt said he would keep his eye open for a theatre in which we might invest together and which I would operate.
One day he called me and said that the Belmont Theatre in Belmont Shores, just south of Long Beach, was available. My half of the money needed was $15,000, which I felt I could raise somehow. I went to L.A., met Milt, and we drove down to look over the Belmont Theatres. It looked like a good deal, but the owners wanted a little time to think the matter over. I returned to Tucson and, with the help of my mother's signature on the note, arranged to borrow the money from a local bank.
While I was waiting to hear from Milt Arthur, something happened that caused me to change my mind about leaving Tucson. Late one July morning Fred Blanc came to my office and asked me to go with him. He had something he wanted to show me, he said. We drove to his home and went inside to his bedroom door which was closed. He said don't open the door, but put your hand on the knob. I did and it was very cool. He said, "Open the door now." When I did, cool air flowed over me. It came from a home-made evaporative cooler with a 16 inch fan propelling the movement of the air. Fred had built the cooler himself, using a crate he had obtained from the Fisher Music Company and in which had been packed an upright Victorola record player. He showed me how he had built it, and it was a simple thing to make.
Before the day was over I had built two of them and installed them in our bedroom and in the living room. Boy, what a difference they made! We could sleep at night, and, if you can get a good night's rest, you can stand the hot days. I was fortunate that I worked in a comfortably cooled office and theatre. On the basis of that incident I decided to remain in Tucson. The deal with Milt was dragging a little anyway, and I advised him that I had changed my mind and would not go in with him on the purchase of the Belmont Theatre.
Not too long afterwards another "happening" occurred that caused me to think again about leaving Tucson and move to California. I got acquainted with a young man named Nicholas Nayfack, who was brought to Tucson because of his health by his uncle and aunt, Nicholas and Pansy Schenck. Nick Schenck was president of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. They remained in Tucson only long enough to see him settled in an apartment.
Nicholas was an attorney who had practiced in New York but who planned to move to Hollywood if his health responded properly to Tucson's climate. He was in town for about nine months and spent most of his time with me, day and night. We became fast friends.
He left Tucson to accept a job as an assistant producer at Twentieth Century-Fox, which was being run by another of his uncles, Joe Schenck. Whenever I visited L.A. I would stay with Nick at his apartment. He told me how much he would like to have me move to Hollywood so we could get together more often. On one of my trips he told me he had a talk with Joe Schenck about my going to work for the studio in the publicity department, which appealed to me since my friend, Harry Brand, was the head of that department. He arranged an appointment for me to meet Mr. Schenck.
Mr. Schenck was very nice, told me he appreciated my kindnesses to nephew Nick while he was in Tucson, and offered me a job at $125 a week, which was about 50 percent above what I was earning as manager of the Fox Theatre. As we talked I thought about all the men I knew who had good jobs at the studios and who had told me that someday they wanted to move to Arizona to get out of Hollywood Syndrome.
I told Mr. Schenck, "Sir, I appreciate your offer. It's a nice compliment, but I think I will be better off remaining in Tucson. Many people I know here in Hollywood tell me they someday want to retire to Tucson. Why should I leave Tucson, come here and work for twenty years so that I could go back to Tucson and do what I'm doing now?"
He laughed and said I was a smart young man. He told me, "Roy, keep on doing what you know how to do, running theatres. I agree that you will probably be happier in the long run." That ended the interview and any desire I had to move to Hollywood.
I have wondered many times what my life would have been like had I gone to work at the studio. I guess it is only natural for a man to look back and ask himself questions about important decisions he made at various stages of his life. However, I don't have too many regrets. Tucson has been a good place to live, especially so long as I can afford to spend several months in my home in La Jolla, California, to avoid the hot summers.
My friendship continued with Nick Nayfack for many years. During the thirties he was a producer at MGM and was married to a young starlet, Linn Carver, whose real name was Virginia Sampson. They had a large home in Mandeville Canyon, and my wife and I spent a great deal of time with them. In fact, for two years my wife, Grace, and two children spent the whole summer with them. As I look back, I must say that they were indeed good friends to put up with a family as house-guests for three months! And to be invited back a second summer is beyond belief.
In 1941 the Nayfacks, our mutual friends the Nat Dyches, and my wife, Grace, and I took a two-week trip in two cars to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. We three men drove ahead in Nick's Cadillac each day, play golf some place and then meet the girls at some previously agreed upon hotel in the evening. They were traveling in a new station wagon, borrowed by Nick from Clark Gable. It was a wonderful vacation, and the last one for all of us for a long while, because the war started that December.
The Nayfacks were separated when Nick went into the service. Their marriage ended soon thereafter. Hollywood was never the same for me after that. The Nayfacks often had parties, and we got to know scads of Hollywood people. We had a world of fun, but like all good things, there must be an end. Unfortunately Ginnie, as we knew her, contracted cancer at an early age and died when she was only 39, in New York City, where I saw her several times. Nick died in 1960 choking on a piece of meat. He had remarried and left a son named after him.
During the period that Nick Nayfack was a producer at the MGM Studio I was in Hollywood for about a week one time. At that time The Ziegfield Girl was being produced at the studio, and every afternoon about five, Nick, one or two others employed at the studio, and I would stroll down to the stage where some fifty lovely girls were being directed in a big musical production number by Busby Berkeley.
It was truly a smorgasbord of beautiful girls that we watched daily during their rehearsals and sometimes during actual shooting of the scene. Lana Turner was just becoming a star, and I remember Bus Berkeley saying that she not only had a better figure than any of the other girls, but also could more gracefully walk up and down the flight of tremendously high stairs.
The winding staircase seemed to reach to the very top of the soundstage, at least fifty feet above the floor of the stage. Girls were placed at intervals of a few stairs from the top to the bottom of the stairway, and at a given signal they were all to start strolling down the stairs to the strains of music. Each girl had a different type of glamorous costume and a large hat. One girl near the top had a group of large papier maché balls hanging from her costume.
Bus Berkeley was directing the scene and moving the girls around to suit his fancy. He yelled, "Will the girl with the balls please step down two steps." The place broke into hysterics with everyone joining Berkeley in having a good laugh on himself.
Harry Brand, director of publicity for the Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, was one of Hollywood's most able men. He did much more than run the publicity department. He was involved in many top-level decisions regarding policies, politics, and union relations. He was a very valuable aide de camp for Joe Schenck and later Darryl Zanuck.
He visited Tucson on occasion with his wife, Sybil and their son, Georgie. We remained good friends over many years. Sybil is without doubt one of God's finest creations; she has done so much for people over the years that it would be impossible for even her to list them. The Sybil Brand Institute is named for her as a token of the high esteem in which she is held. Harry has retired, but Sybil was still working in the 1970s.
While I was at the Fox Theatre the company sent a man by the name of Burton Jones to Tucson to manage the Lyric Theatre, a second-run house on West Congress. He was just my age, and we became fast friends. This was in 1935, and for over forty years we kept in touch. He resides in San Diego where he owns a couple of theatres. He remained in show business and has prospered by shrewd decisions, good operations and wise investments.
He was a committed bachelor, at least until he reached 50. He always dressed beautifully, drove a big car and lived well, even when he was earning a small salary running the Lyric. When he first arrived in Tucson he did nothing but work, getting the Lyric turned around from an unsuccessful operation. Once he got his business attended to, he was in the market for some female companionship.
My cousin Oliver and I recognized him as an ideal fellow to meet "Agnes." We built her up to him over a period of weeks, but told him she was not always available since she was married to a railroad man. Finally, after properly baiting the trap, I told him I had seen Agnes, and she would be expecting him that night after he closed the theatre box office.
Burt had his shoes shined, put on his best outfit, bought a bottle of whiskey to give Agnes and joined me to go to Agnes' house. We each took our cars and I asked him to park in back of my car as she didn't want the neighbors to see a car in front of the house when her husband was out of town. We parked around the corner, just off East 8th Street, near Tucson Boulevard.
The neighborhood was very dark, and we quietly walked up the street and the walkway to Agnes' doorstep. Although the screen door was closed, the front door was ajar about a foot. I softly asked for Agnes. Then a little louder, a couple of times. Suddenly, the door was pulled open and a man came out shouting, "I'll Agnes you, you son of a bitch! You're the guy that has been seeing my wife!" With that, he fired a gun a couple of times, I fell as though shot, and yelled, "Run for your life, Burt. Her husband's home."
But Burt didn't run, I'll have to say that for him. I was lying on the lawn as Burt tried to explain that he didn't even know Agnes. I was shaking with laughter. Burt said I was a prominent man and that I should be helped since it appeared I was dying.
The irate husband said, "I don't care who he is. I don't want the son of a bitch dying on my lawn. Get him out of here or I'll shoot a hole through you big enough to drop a dog in!"
About that time, the lights in the house came on, and the cars which were parked around the house and on the street turned on their lights as the "witnesses" made their presence known.
Of course, the whole thing was a frame-up. There was no Agnes. The house was the home of Hi Corbett, who had a crowd of friends inside to see another sucker fall for the "Agnes Party" trick. The "husband" with the booming voice, the foul mouth and the blank-shooting revolver, was none other than Frank Eyman, then a police captain of the Tucson Police Department. He later became warden of the Arizona State Penitentiary at Florence.
Burt Jones was a game sport and gave the bottle of booze to Hi to serve to the more than twenty people who enjoyed "Burt's date with Agnes" -- even if Burt didn't.
The "Agnes Party" was a standard gimmick used every year in Tucson, especially in the fall with the beginning of the college school year and the arrival of many likely "Agnes" prospects. Before I got married, and when my family was out of town, we used our house as Agnes' home. We pulled the gag on several fellows and, on occasion, would make a major production of it by having an ambulance pick up the wounded, having a psuedo-reporter from one of the newspapers enter the picture and, of course, the police, who were always glad to be in on such fun. With all this attention, the victim would think of only one thing -- leaving town immediately!
One time we set up a man who was traveling across the country with an act called "Wolf, the War Dog." He and his partner were in town for about a week, and we had time to get well enough acquainted, so I felt he was the kind of man who would enjoy meeting Agnes.
We set the thing up for our house, had about fifteen friends there inside the darkened place, and arranged for deep-voiced "Shotgun" Snyder to be the husband and do the shooting.
When he and I reached the front porch, I softly called, "Agnes. Agnes." After a few seconds Snyder opened the door and shouted the usual threats and started shooting. Before I could say or do anything, my friend threw me down on the porch floor, slipped out a revolver, stuck it through a pane of glass in the front window, and started firing inside the house.
I tried to grab his arm and was pleading with him to stop shooting, that it was all a gag, that my brother was inside the living room, and that he should let me explain.
He ignored my pleas and said, "I'll go around in back and clean this place out!" I finally convinced him it was all a big joke.
The lights came on, and I introduced the "victim" to my friends, who didn't have as much fun as they normally did at an Agnes Party.
The next day I figured out what had happened. Ben Goldsmith, my dad's partner, had tipped the victim off, and he had gotten some blank shells to use in his revolver when he turned tables on us and "fought back."
We had the window pane replaced and never told our parents about what happened. It was a while before we had another "Agnes Party."