Chapter 5 Hollywood Folks Page III of III
One afternoon, a gentleman knocked on the door of the manager's office at the Rialto and, when I admitted him, I was standing in front of the great actor John Barrymore. He asked if he could use the office to write a few letters while he waited for his train to leave. He had just come in from Mexico on the S.P. de Mexico and had a few hours to kill. After he finished with his correspondence, we had a delightful visit.
I had alerted Don Still, then a young reporter on the Daily Citizen, and he came down to scoop the Star and interview Mr. Barrymore. One of his questions was, "Did you drink much tequila in Mexico, Mr. Barrymore?" To which the actor replied, "Why should I drink Tequila in Mexico, when I can get such good kerosene in the U.S.?"
Barrymore looked like anything but a screen and stage star. He needed a haircut, had about four days' beard, and was using a piece of rope as a belt to hold up his pants.
One of the most fascinating personalities I ever met while I was in the show business was a man by the name of Lincoln Theodore Perry, better known as "Step 'n Fetchit," a fabulous black comedian who delighted audiences for fifty years.
He spent about two weeks in Tucson "resting," preparing some new material, and appearing on our stage in conjunction with a picture in which he had an important role. He was a natural born entertainer and extremely funny in everything he did.
One evening we ended up in a saloon where there was a piano. The joint was practically empty. He spotted the piano, opened the lid over the keyboard and started thumping out tunes. Soon he commenced telling a story about some black folks in a little southern town who owned some land on which one of the large oil companies was drilling for oil. Obviously, he had been thinking about the thing for a long time and had developed dialogue and lyrics which he sang to original music he had conceived. He went on for the better part of an hour telling the story of how this family hit it rich, what they did with the money, etc. He had us all in stitches with the humor. And we were enthralled by his music and his presentation. It was a $10 show if I ever saw one!
When he finished, I asked him if he had put the thing down on paper and he said he had not done so, but promised he would. So far as I know nothing ever came of his clever little musical. It was a shame because everyone would have enjoyed it as we did.
"Step 'n Fetchit" was a religious fanatic at that time, having joined the Catholic Church. He went to mass every day and insisted that I take him out to the San Xavier Mission so he could worship there also. He was a great talent, but he never really capitalized on it as he should have. He didn't like the idea of having a manager, which he really needed.
Another "character" with whom I became well acquainted with was Chico Marx, of the Marx Brothers. He was the piano player in the family and used the Italian dialect in a most delightful way. He spent a week in Tucson and had been referred to me by a mutual friend from one of the studios.
I was with him night and day. He liked to visit the local night spots and see what was going on. One night while in the cocktail lounge on the mezzanine of the Santa Rita Hotel, he decided to tickle the ivories in his inimitable style. There were only a few people present, and all were delighted at their good fortune of having Chico Marx play the piano for them.
However, one elderly lady, who was sitting with a younger woman and quite obviously under the influence, began talking very loud and kept repeating, "That's not Chico Marx. I know him and his whole family."
Finally, Chico left the piano and went to the table to assure her that he was indeed Chico, in the flesh. She said, "I don't care what you say. I knew all the Marx family many years ago in the East. The mother of the boys was named Minnie, and she was a good friend of mine."
With that, Chico said, "Lady, I don't know who you are, but I believe that you did know my mother because that was her name." He never pressed the issue, but I don't think she was convinced that it truly was one of the Marx Brothers.
Chico was an inveterate gambler. He especially loved to bet on prize fights and knew the records of dozens of fighters. On Friday nights for years, the Hollywood American Legion presented a card of fights, generally featuring some of the top names in the game. There was always a card of preliminaries also, making a total of seven or eight fights. When in Hollywood, Chico never missed the Friday night fights, and he would bet on each bout.
On the Friday night he was with me in Tucson, we went to the Santa Rita cocktail lounge where he could have a phone on the table. We sat there during the entire time the fights were going on in Hollywood, and he bet on every bout by phoning long distance every few minutes to a bookie at the other end of the line.
That same evening a couple of funny things happened. I introduced him to a young lady whose name was Kusianovich. He asked her to repeat her name, and then he told her, "That's what I call Groucho when I get mad at him."
Another gal I introduced him to had a couple of drinks with us. She was complaining about not feeling well, having a cold. Chico was trying to convince her she should join him for dinner and a night out.
She said, "No thanks. I'm going home and put a hot mustard pack on my chest and go to bed." To which Chico suggested, "Why don't you take me home with you and put a hot Jew on your chest." She left in a state of hilarity, without the hot Jew!
Back when I first started managing the Rialto, a couple of old time vaudevillians used to come through Tucson and stop and see me once or twice a year. They had a youngster with them who was the child of the woman by a previous marriage. The kid's name was Mickey McGuire, and he was the meal ticket, having been featured in a series of shorts by one of the Hollywood companies.
As soon as they'd come into see me, Mickey would say, "Mister Manager, can I go in and see the movie?" He would sit through the same show time after time, watching every move the actors made. He'd always sit in the front row, like most normal kids.
Later he changed his name to Mickey Rooney and has proven over and over again that he is one of the most talented performers in the business.
I also became acquainted with many other screen personalities during the years I was in show business. Some of the ones who stand out include Walter Brennan, Chill Wills, who remained a good friend, and a great many more.
Jake Erlich, who was the tallest man in the world at the time and who traveled for several years with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, also was a good friend. Jake was 8 feet 2 inches, was born in El Paso and was a hell of a nice guy. His brother, Ben, went to college in the same class with me. Jake was good natured and loved to surprise people with his great height.
I first met him the night my wife and I returned from our honeymoon. About 2 a. m. Dooley Bookman, owner of the very popular pool hall, lunch place and hangout, brought Jake and a group of others to our house to serenade us. Jake played a small saxophone, which looked to be about as big as a large tobacco pipe in his big hands.
When I went to the door to let them in, Jake, whom I had never seen before, greeted me. I just couldn't believe my eyes! My wife nearly fainted when she came into the room and saw him with his head against the ceiling.
Jack Conway, who directed many of the Clark Gable pictures, used to spend quite a bit of time in Tucson also, and he was a fine gentleman and good company. His wife, Virginia, was the daughter of the early stage and screen matinee idol, Francis X. Bushman, and a lovely lady.
One of the road shows to play the Rialto Theatre featured Helen Morgan, who in her heyday was one of America's most popular torch singers. She was famous for her custom of sitting atop a piano while doing much of her act. In the middle thirties, Helen Morgan was still a very big attraction and her show drew a packed house when it played Tucson.
After the show, a group of the cast and some local stage door johnnies took Helen Morgan and a couple of other members of the cast to the Santa Rita hotel's mezzanine cocktail lounge for a late evening party. Naturally, someone lifted Miss Morgan onto the grand piano where she sang some of her songs for her admirers.
One of the local fans was Frank Cooper, a local political hack, who was trying to get as close to Helen as he could. He brought her a drink and felt that he should be rewarded with a kiss. When he leaned over to kiss her, she shoved him away and said in a very loud voice, "Get away from me. You stink! " Thus ended a great romance!
She was a gal who had been around the track a few times and knew how to handle herself in such situations. She could also sing a bit, to put it mildly, and entertained her listeners that evening way past the closing hour. She had the reputation for being a party girl and burned the candle at both ends, which probably contributed mightily to her early demise.
While I was managing the Rialto and later while at the Fox, we would occasionally have a private showing of some outstanding picture for an important visitor who would be staying at the Arizona Inn, the El Conquistador Hotel or the Desert Sanitarium (later to become the Tucson Medical Center). For several years, General John J. Pershing spent the winter months in Tucson, and a couple of times each year we would invite him to come to a private showing and see a picture in which he would be interested. I got to know him quite well although he was not a very warm individual. Sometimes he would bring former Vice President Charles Dawes with him.
The Mayo Brothers, Dr. Charles and Dr. Will, of the famous clinic in Rochester, were also our guests several times. I remember what Dr. Charles once said when I asked him about why he and his brother bought homes in our city. "Everyone else goes to the Mayo Clinic for their health, but the Mayos go to Tucson," he told me. (It sounds almost like an advertising slogan!)
Eddie Mannix, for years general manager of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios, came to Tucson a couple of times with his lady love and mistress, Toni Lanier. One of the producers at MGM, a friend of mine, called me to learn if there was a nice place where Eddie could rest for about a week. I assured him that the Arizona Inn was a very nice place but suggested that I check to determine if reservations could be had.
When I called him to confirm the availability of rooms, I was asked to please come to L.A. to tell Eddie about the place, and, if he decided to come down, to accompany him on the train.
I went in on one night and returned the next with Eddie, Toni and the Howard Stricklings, whom I had known for several years since Howard was in charge of the publicity department for MGM. (Howard and Gail had been married in Tucson a few years before.)
Toni shocked the natives, the guests, and management of the Inn when she sunbathed her first day at the hotel, stripped to the waist. The Inn would have none of that and told her so. Eddie was irate but I calmed him down, explaining that Tucson was not like Hollywood or even Palm Springs.
They were in Tucson over the New Year's holiday and on New Year's Eve threw a little party. They filled the bathtub with ice, champagne, caviar and other goodies. They asked me to hire a couple of Mexican troubadours to provide the music. There were only about ten of us there, but it was a party. A problem developed after we left about 1:30 a. m., when Eddie insisted on having the troubadours serenade other guests who had long before finished their celebrating.
The next day I received a call from Mr. Comstock, then general manager of the Inn, who told me that he was going to have to ask the Mannix party to leave because of the problems they had created, first by Toni at the pool, and then by Eddie and his musicians. I told him I was very sorry that he had troubles with the people for whom I had made reservations.
I went out to see Eddie and he told me that Mr. Comstock had said to him that the Inn did not "take Jews," but since I had made the reservations he had accepted them. Comstock had said that Eddie and Toni would have to leave, but that the Stricklings, since they were not Jews, could come back anytime. Eddie thought that was extremely funny since he was as Irish as Paddy's pig and Howard Strickling's father was a rabbi. He was about ready to leave anyway and did so without much rancor.
Later that year, I got a call from Eddie to tell me that Frank Orsatti, one of Hollywood's most important talent agents, was coming to Tucson to spend four or five weeks. They were good friends, and Eddie wanted me to take good care of Frank.
Orsatti was a very nice guy who had come up the hard way. He represented some of the biggest names on the screen and had built up a very successful business. His brother, Vic, fresh out of USC where he had been a football star, was associated with Frank. His other brother, Ernie, was a star outfielder with the St. Louis Gas House Gang.
Frank stayed at the Inn also, but it closed for the season before Frank was ready to leave Tucson, so he rented a house and hired Mrs. Carter, the kitchen manager at the Inn as his housekeeper.
Frank was a gourmet cook, especially with Italian dishes. I had introduced him to Joe De Luca, formerly with the Sousa Band and at this time director of the band at the university.
These two Italians got along famously. Joe's wife, Reba, was the best Italian cook I ever knew -- even to this day. We had dinner at Joe's house on several occasions, and one night Frank said he would show the De Lucas how to cook a real Italian dinner at his home the next night.
The following morning I took him down to Steinfeld's Grocery, which was the finest food store in the city, and he spent over $100 buying things he needed for the evening's meal. And that was when $100 was $100! He proved his ability to cook, for certain. It was a toss-up as to whether he or Mrs. De Luca had prepared the best meal.
Frank loved to play pool, and, since I liked it also, we spent many hours in Dooley's around the tables. We'd play until midnight every night for modest bets, but that Frank didn't like to have anyone beat him, which I did about half the time.
One evening while playing pool with Joe De Luca, we got to talking about Edward G. Robinson and some of his films. Joe said that he thought he was the greatest actor of them all. Frank could hardly disagree, since he managed him. Joe said he'd love some day to meet Robinson.
The next day, Frank called Eddie Robinson and had him come down to see him in Tucson. We didn't say anything to Joe about his coming, and that night we went over to Dooley's -- Frank, Robinson and I -- as we usually did.
Joe was playing pool and didn't see us come in. Frank and I went ahead and spoke to Joe, who greeted us as he was making a shot. He sank the ball in the pocket, and Eddie Robinson said, "Nice shot, Joe" in a rather loud voice that caused Joe to look to see who was complimenting him.
He saw Eddie, turned away, did a double take, and said "Mr. Robinson, what are you doing here?" To which Eddie replied, "I came to town to watch you play pool, Joe."
Joe dropped his cue and shook hands enthusiastically with Robinson. We had a lovely evening talking with the movie star, and of course we had to end up at Joe's for midnight supper.
Frank asked Joe how much money he was making at the university and when he told him it was about $4,000 a year, Frank couldn't believe it. He was used to handling people who made that much money every week!
He said he wanted to do something to help Joe make more money and suggested that, when he returned to Hollywood, he send a wire to Joe offering him a job as a musical director at one of the studios at a good salary. Joe could then take the telegram to the president of the university and ask him for a substantial raise.
A couple of weeks later, Joe got his telegram offering him a job at $350 a week! Joe was ecstatic and rushed to the office of the president of the university to show him the telegram. Dr. Homer LeRoy Shantz was then president and told Joe that he was very happy for him that he had such a fine offer, but when he asked who Frank Orsatti was, Joe told him he had met him through me.
Dr. Shantz called me to ask about Frank, and I could judge that Joe thought the offer was a genuine one, having forgotten about what Frank had said he was going to do to help him get a raise. I told Dr. Shantz I would talk to Joe about the matter.
I had a hard time convincing Joe that the telegram was not for real but instead was an effort on Frank's part to help Joe get a raise. The amount offered in the telegram was so far above what Joe was being paid at the time that it really had no effect. It was completely unrealistic. Joe finally told Dr. Shantz that he really didn't want to move to Hollywood and would remain in Tucson, despite urging by Dr. Shantz to accept the offer.
While I was operating the Fox Theatre, one of my bosses was Homer Gill, a wonderful man, with a great sense of humor who had been in the business most of his life. We got along very well. He was headquartered in Phoenix but came to Tucson a couple of times each month and always stayed in an apartment near the downtown area.
Once when he came down, he brought a man with him whom he had known for years in the Midwest as one of the top executives with the RKO theatre chain. We went over to the Pioneer Hotel for lunch as we usually did and took his friend with us. During lunch, I was handed a message by the waitress to come to the lobby. It was from Lee Orndorf, one of the owners of the Pioneer, who showed me an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times with a picture of the man who was having lunch with us.
The article stated that he was sought by police for having committed some kind of a fraudulent act and having gotten away with over $100,000 from the theatre company for which he was employed.
As soon as I could, I took Homer aside and showed him the article. He broke out in a cold sweat and told me that he had just cashed a check for $300 for his friend. That was a sizeable amount of money then.
He watched the guy like a hawk for the rest of the day. I took the article to the police chief and told him where the man could be found. Of course, he had to contact the L.A. Police Department to get confirmation that he, indeed, really was wanted.
The day dragged on. Homer was scared to death that his friend would give him the slip and take off for parts unknown with Homer's dough. Night came, and Homer asked his friend to share his apartment with him. He wanted to make certain that the police knew where they would be.
We had a lot of pleasure kidding Homer about his "buddy" whom he had built up to us as a very important executive in the theatre business. We suggested that Homer move his own bed against the door of the apartment so his pal could not escape.
Word came during the night. The cops went to the apartment to pick up the missing thief. Homer recovered most of his money, although some of it had been spent when his friend took us all to dinner. Homer knew, and we knew, who our host really was. The guy was returned to L.A. and served time for his misdeeds.
During the time I was running the old Rialto Theatre in Tucson for the Paramount-Publix theatre chain they launched a nationwide campaign to dispel the pall that had fallen over the country as a result of the Depression. The program was called "February is Prosperity Month." It was started early in January, 1932, and was an unfulfilled prophesy, as all those old enough to remember will agree.
All of us theatre managers were sent posters to display in our lobbies, window cards to be distributed to merchants, banks and offices throughout the community; also "trailers" to run on our screens, and cuts to be used in all of our newspaper ads. The idea was that the Depression could be lessened and eventually whipped if the people could be convinced that things were not as bad as they appeared and could be encouraged to more freely spend money.
The manager of the Paramount-Publix Theatres in Yuma was successful in having one of the banks there post a large poster on the window of one of the two doors at the entrance to the bank proclaiming to all Yumans that "February is Prosperity Month."
However, before Prosperity Month ended, an announcement was placed on the other door, right next to the one containing the cheerful news, by the State Bank Examiner stating that the institution was closed until further notice. It hasn't opened yet!
Once when Will Rogers came to Tucson for a benefit performance at the Fox Theatre to raise money to send theUniversity of Arizona's polo team east to compete in the National Collegiate Tournament, he made a comment about education that I have never forgotten.
Will Rogers said that he had read where half of the boys who finish high school go to work, the other half go to college. When the ones who go to college graduate, they then go to work for those who didn't go to college.
Soon after the Second World War, Sam Goldwyn brought a film production company to Tucson to film some of the outdoor scenes of a new picture. One of the more important sequences in the picture involved a cattle stampede. The producer found a cattleman who had a herd which he was willing to allow to be stampeded, but he was asking a high price to compensate him for the weight loss the cattle would suffer from the hard run.
When Goldwyn found out that the cost of the stampede was going to be very high, and that the price was expensive because of the long run the herd would be forced to make, he asked, "Why don't we have the stampede without running the cattle?" Thus was born another Goldwynism, perhaps heretofore not revealed.
Another scene involved the making of smoke signals by a couple of braves atop a mountain. A couple of young men from the Papago Indian reservation were found who knew how to cover the fire with a blanket, which was removed from time to time, thereby making the smoke signals desired.
After they had completed their task, the producer was complimenting them on their ability to make the signals as he wanted them. He asked them if they had learned to do this from their ancestors, to which one of the young men replied, "Naw, we learned it from the movies."
CONTINUE with Three VIPs