Hollywood may have too many award shows but everyone still wants to be a winner. 1,929 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Hollywood – 1978
"And the winner is," heralded Artie Edgar, hesitating a beat in an effort to heighten the suspense.
Known mainly for his role in the made-for-cable comedy series, Geezers, Edgar had been tapped to emcee history’s first cable TV awards program, the Inter-Connected-Networks awards, or simply, the ICONs.
The program was being televised nationally on every cable channel, a joint effort to elevate awareness of the non-conventional fare now being offered by a myriad of new programming services.
The year was 1978, fifteen years before the cable industry’s first Emmy nomination. For its time, however, the ICON awards were the symbol of excellence in cable programming.
"The ICON goes to Burlesque Heaven," Artie Edgar gleefully announced.
Fed up with no media coverage, the film palace owner fantasizes revenge. 1,940 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The Casbah’s one-year anniversary was approaching and it was time to do something drastic. The next film booking would have to be a unique program. I devised a Plan A… and a cold-blooded Plan B.
But, first, I began checking the availability of prints. As a completely non-digital venue, our options were extremely limited and getting more so with every month. Then I set a face-to-face meeting with Flicker Weekly’s film reporter Tony Fortunato so this run could, finally, be decently promoted. However much the newspaper game seemed to have changed, I knew the best way to a journalist’s heart was still through his stomach, with perhaps a secondary route through his liver. I also knew that writers always accepted anyone’s invitation that ended with the words, “My treat.” So I went through several recent issues to see what was the newest, trendiest, silliest restaurant in town and made a reservation for two.
The next week we sat at a small table in a large room where the portions were miniscule and the prices gargantuan. But the drinks were enormous, too, and I had arranged with the waiter to make sure that Fortunato’s kept coming. The journalist began our dinner by launching into a long list of reasons why nobody cared about my theater or its programming.
“Those damn black-and-white movies. They’re so corny,” he railed.
A messy intersection of film journalism and the revival-house business. 2,153 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The thousand injuries of Flicker Weekly I had borne as best I could, but when they insulted Orson Welles, I vowed revenge. It had already been a long and stressful year since I had refinanced my house, cashed out my 401K and bought the elegant ruins of the Casbah.
The movie theater had been empty for nearly a decade when I spied it. It was like seeing a once great beauty with her front teeth knocked out. The screen was miraculously intact, hidden behind a cheap curtain, and the seats were all there. But the projection booth was full of pigeons, and something far less pleasant had been living in the men’s room. The whole place smelled of damp and rot and mold and despair.
“I’ll take it,” I said. That was a year ago,
Designed by the esteemed Rapp & Rapp, the motion picture palace had been built in 1924 in the faddish “Moorish” style, influenced by then-popular melodramas of exotic oases and desert passions. Intricately cut archways framed every interior door; turquoise tiled fountains bubbled invitingly outside the ladies’ and gents’ lounges. A painted azure ceiling replicated a limitless North African sky, and pictures of leafy palms waved from the walls. Patrons who bought a ticket bought a dream.
She invited him into her palatial Hollywood home so he could comfort her at this next catastrophe. 2,378 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Jill Racine, television’s biggest star, observed the vehicle full of old people pointing, chattering, struggling to take photos of her. Still smiling, she urged me to go fuck myself, then skipped over to the tour group, leaned into the nearest elderly man and asked perkily, “You guys thirsty?”
I helped the tourists out of the minivan and watched Jill usher them toward her mansion. Hot, exhausted and angry as they were, my people were frantic with excitement. Ruthie had removed the handkerchief from her forehead, revealing a small abrasion. The German, expressionless, was the last to disembark. I didn’t know whether he had the faintest idea who our hostess was.
Stepping inside, the folks luxuriated in the air conditioning and begged for selfies with Jill, which she promised them “after you’ve cooled off and had something to drink. You guys like chocolate chip cookies? I made some with Daisy.”
Damn she’s a good actor, I thought.
There were three types of homes I’d point out during my first tour of duty driving Starlight Tours to the “Homes Of The Stars” when I’d just moved here: homes where I knew the star lived because I’d seen the star, homes where I knew the star didn’t live because I’d made it up, and homes where I didn’t know if the star lived because the drivers I’d observed during training had told their customers the star lived there but maybe they’d made it up.
A dozen years later, I was encouraged to reach the point where this ridiculous job was providing an emotional release. I could forget about my dying sitcom-writing career and resultant financial woes and make actual human contact. And I could tell jokes for two hours at a time, or an hour and a half with shortcuts if my group was a bunch of stiffs. I was even blessed with brief moments when I could break through the fog of anxiety over my son’s cerebral palsy and the debilitating loneliness stemming from my wife’s long-term hospitalization and her doctors’ refusal to let me see her.
My customers’ biggest thrill, now as then, came from seeing a star in the flesh. It didn’t happen often but it happened. Mel Brooks, wearing a robe and slippers, politely told us it was okay to drive by his place but please don’t stop the car. Cameron Diaz ambled over in a striped blue bikini to say hi. Michael Jackson Himself once hopped out of his limo near his Carolwood Lane home and happily shook hands with my awestruck customers.
Rule #2 for showbiz assistants: don’t bed a stranger instead of the man you love. 1,927 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I walked into my apartment like a zombie.
I knelt on the floor of my bedroom. Stared at the wall. The SoCal summer sun sank outside my window. I watched shadows shift. Jake would not leave my mind or my body. He had taken over.
I had not managed the effort to switch on the light. Now shadows faded into darkness. My thoughts crashed. My power of denial faded. I absolutely loved him and I hated myself for it. I hated him for it, too.
“Why, why, why?” I asked the empty room.
I dropped my head into my hands. The moment solidified. I was head-over-heels in love with Jake Easton — a songwriter older than my father would be had he lived — and my resistance was circling the shower drain as I let the water run. I pulled myself up, out of paralysis, and dressed. I fetched my purse, walked to my car in a daze and drove the two blocks to The Brentwood, my local Regal Beagle.
Rule #1 for showbiz assistants: don’t fall in love with the boss. 1,416 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jake Easton caught me in the middle of a mani-pedi at the nail shop. I pulled one hand away from the manicurist to answer the phone.
“Listen, on your way to my house, I need you to stop by Aida Thibiant for me.”
“Aida Thibiant,” he pronounced with an arrogance that sent daggers through me. “It’s a spa in Beverly Hills. I’ve ordered a bunch of skin and hair products that need to be picked up. There’s a sale so I decided to go to town for the best that money can buy. It’s the stuff I used back when I took good care of my skin. Also, I need you to book me a facial and a massage with the receptionist. Her name is Jenny. Make the appointments for Saturday morning. Nine for the massage with Bridget and ten for the facial with Lauren. Do you have a pen? I’ll give you the address.”
This guy annoys the fuck out of me. He’s a 58-year-old legendary songwriter/recording artist who’s written tons of hit songs for notable artists on the seventies Laurel Canyon music scene. As well, Jake has enjoyed a pretty successful acting career over the years. Also, he’s a notorious ladies man/lothario who has been romantically linked to a plethora of beautiful iconic female singers. By contrast, I’m thirty years younger than Jake and hired to transcribe his lyric journals for an upcoming album, but also to perform unclear personal assistant tasks. I’m a struggling actress/writer and still hopeful that working for Jake will be my ticket into the Hollywood elite.
“No,” I snapped. “I don’t run around with pen in hand waiting for you to bark orders at me. Sorry.”
She never thought a dog’s Hollywood career would be better than hers. 1,710 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maura Downing was waiting to hear what her former employer had to say, and when it came, the last 25 years of their relationship of professional and emotional gymnastics snapped into focus.
“I’ll give you a $6,500 vintage Hermes Jane Birkin handbag…”
‘Subcontract rate for a couple of months’ work is a designer handbag? Seriously?’
The rest of the conversation was a muddle of Maura refusing showbiz work for the first time ever. While she had been underpaid for years, never had she been offered an empty purse for writing services rendered. It seemed almost funny, ironic in a tragic bad novel sort of way.
“What else are you going to do? Work at CVS?,” the Boss taunted.
The most desperate and lonely and horrific naturally find a home in Hollywood. 2,547 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
This morning, cold and hungry, I approached a woman in carefully torn jeans who was stepping out of her Bentley near the Gucci store in Beverly Hills.
“Madam,” I said, trying my best not to appear frightening in any way, “I haven’t eaten in three days.”
“I wish I had your will power,” she replied jauntily.
For a moment I was sorely tempted to gnaw on her well-toned arm or take a bite of her Botoxed cheek. But having resolved not to give in to my bestial side, even as my skin started to turn to fur and my teeth began to jut out, I did my best to shrug as the woman headed off towards Pilates or perhaps to fight for world peace.
I am what’s known as a lycanthrope, which is a fancy way of saying werewolf. Lore about my problem — or species — or whatever appellation one chooses to describe beings like me — has it that we can only be killed by silver bullets or some such nonsense. For me, a far worse fate than having some yo-yo search from gun shop to gun shop for silver bullets is being ignored. Or ostracized. Or shunned.
I suppose I should blame Lon Chaney Jr, or Universal Pictures, or whoever it was who started making the films that have demonized my breed. Even the medieval legends about creatures such as me, though farfetched and ludicrous, are nowhere near as vile or condescending as those willfully haunting but heinously incorrect movies.
Not just the student but two obnoxious colleagues are driving him out the door. 2,098 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Berger girded himself, then entered the classroom. "Okay," he said, "any problems? Questions? Strange or unforeseen developments?"
After dealing with the issues that were presented, then getting progress reports from several students, he turned to Candace. "Any questions before you start?"
"How many pages can my script be?"
"Let’s say 135 max."
"Why a duck?"
"I don’t follow."
"It’s a line from a Marx Brothers movie."
"I still don’t follow."
"This is supposed to be a place where students learn to be members of the professional film community."
"But isn’t that limiting?"
Why is there always one really annoying student in every film school class? 3,053 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
At the first meeting of his new seminar, Berger had the nine graduate students introduce themselves and discuss their backgrounds, then he stated his credo.
"I can’t make you a writer," he announced. "For that you’d need a magician, not a screenwriting mentor. But I can make you a better writer. And I can help you think, function, and carry yourself like a professional. Any questions before I go on?"
A woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, which meant nearly twice the age of most of her classmates, and older than Berger as well, raised her hand. "The script each of us will eventually get to write –" she began.
"What about it?"
"What’s the limit on page count?"
"Candace, right?" Berger asked, trying his best not to cringe. When she nodded, he went on. "Why’s that more important to you than character, structure, theme, or tone?"
"It’s the kind of thing I like to know."
"Instead of answering your question, I’m going to ask one. What’s the difference between plot and story?"
"What’s that got to do with page count?"
He must make a choice: become the out-of-control young starlet’s BFF – or her babysitter. 2,778 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jimmy Sakamuru talked a lot about art, but he cared more about money. It’s the only way a director can get anything done. Jimmy would try to stick to dollars and cents around Barney but he was sure to look for a chance to tell us how his movie was like Italian neo-realism or some damn thing. He had directed a few studio pictures but none of them had been hits. It meant that now he could make a studio distribution deal but he’d have to find his own financing. Jimmy had lost his pipeline to studio financing. To claw your way back from that took a fierceness that wouldn’t be denied. The ins and outs of this were tricky.
And now Jimmy was bringing Caitlin Harper to our office. We mostly got business people coming through our doors. This would be our first pop diva.
Barney was wearing his best suit — a blue pinstriped double-breasted model that he wore to bank meetings. He seemed a little anxious. It hadn’t occurred to me to dress for the occasion. I was in my usual khakis and an old grey herringbone jacket. Jimmy was dressed in leather, jacket and trousers, though not the James Dean-Marlon Brando biker sort. Jimmy’s leather was buttery and so tight that it must have caused pain. He was wearing Japanese running shoes that had air pumps in them. The shoes looked like the 1980s to me but, as I came to see, those shoes and much else with Jimmy were worn in an ironic manner that mostly went over my head and certainly over Barney’s.
Jimmy showed up solo with a song and dance about Caitlin being ill. Her absence was an unmistakable sign of how things would go if we got in the Caitlin Harper business. Jimmy was full of assurances about how well he could handle her. Before Barney could throw him out, we were treated to a disquisition on the finer points of the shooting scheme for Overdrive. "I don’t want to just tell the story. Not a biopic, you know?" Barney knew what a biopic was but not much more. “The influence here is the nouvelle vague," Jimmy added with an aggressive French accent that irritated Barney.
Who’ll be tapped to tame a young starlet with wild ways? 2,762 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was two o’ clock in the morning and Caitlin Harper was weaving her way east on Sunset Boulevard in her Cadillac Escalade. She’d had a lease on that enormous black beast for all of two days. Three of her pals were on board. Caitlin had sworn up and down to her agents, her manager (who was also her mother), her lawyer, possibly her accountant and to her one friend who had some common sense, that at night she would always have a driver. She would never, day or night, drive after drinking. She probably meant it when she said it, but Caitlin was twenty years old and famous. She did whatever she wanted to do whenever she wanted to do it. Caitlin had recently seen Bonnie And Clyde and was in a Faye Dunaway mood. She’d taken to wearing a black beret, imagining herself an outlaw on the run.
Caitlin Harper might have been the only pop diva I had heard of. That’s because everybody had heard of her. You couldn’t look at a screen or a magazine without encountering her round and lubricious face. She pouted her way across the American media with her high and swollen breasts pushed nearly out of her famous swooning necklines. I couldn’t name any of the songs she was associated with though I had seen a few of her movies.
On this night all that weaving from lane to lane, complicated by those Dunaway dreams, sent her diagonally across Sunset, over the lushly planted road-divider and into a telephone pole near the Beverly Hills Hotel. The pink palace as it was known was the property of the Sultan of Brunei, a personage that I’m sure Caitlin had never heard of though it’s entirely possible that the Sultan had heard of her. A woman in one of the big houses on Foothill Road was awakened by the noise and called in the accident. Caitlin had been drinking, which is what she was usually doing at two In the morning, unless she was having sex or possibly both at once. She was wearing her seatbelt, though I doubt it was buckled at the moment she wrapped the Escalade around that pole. It was a triumph of ingenuity that despite the inconvenience of interference from two airbags, Caitlin had enough of her wits about her to buckle up even if It was too late to do much good. Caitlin had banged her head on the side window which caused a mild concussion, but that was all. Concussions are one of the many things that seatbelts prevent. No one seemed interested in such pesky details. Her chums were bounced around a bit though the serious damage was to the pole and the Escalade.
Short or tall. Blond or brunette. Whoever women are, Hollywood wants someone else. 552 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
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FEMALE LEAD: Allison is effortlessly sexy but not intimidating: a true leading lady in every sense. She’s the girl next door to the girl next door; a classic beauty with an edgy quality that we cannot describe in words… but we’ll know it when we see it. Her imperfections make her who she is. Maybe she’s got a quirky birthmark on her thigh, or two different color eyes, or a penchant for wild lipstick. Surprise us!
Slowly and painfully, the one-time movie star comes back from near death. 2,232 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
He tried but he couldn’t move; restraints held his arms and legs down. There was something over his face, something heavy and damp, and there were tubes in his nose feeding cool air into his nostrils to control the rate of his breathing. Pain vibrated throughout his body but it was a dull ache, not a sharp piercing, that ran from his neck to his toes. Something was masking the real feeling. Just when he felt he could open his eyes, he would pass out again.
There were times the famous movie star Tommy Shaw heard voices hovering above but he remained in a constant state between dreams and consciousness so that the voices hardly seemed real. Were they talking to him or amongst themselves? One time he could clearly hear the conversation:
Take it easy on the morphine, Mr. Clovis… We do want him to wake up some day. Can he handle the pain, Doctor? He moans so in his sleep… Gradually, okay?… We need to lower the dosage over the next few days… We must concentrate on getting Mr. Shaw back to full consciousness and then we can regulate the pain… You can see him trying free himself… Mr. Shaw, please try not to struggle… Your wounds will bleed… Please, sir, listen to the doctor.
Then Tommy would obey the voices and stop fighting against the restraints and fall back to unconsciousness.
Tommy Shaw’s recovery from his near coma, to his weeks-long stay in bed, to his standing and trying to walk, took over a month of painful rehabilitation. He couldn’t attend Helen Porter’s funeral; her family came and took her body back to Springfield, Illinois, and they made it clear that no one from Hollywood was welcome to be there. Fans left flowers and postcards with their condolences and hopes for a speedy recovery outside the gates of the mansion. Universal Pictures sent over food from the town’s best restaurants and Carl Laemmle sent over a signed blank check for whatever Tommy needed. No visitors were allowed in the house. It fell solely to Clovis to prepare his master for life as his new self.
A 1920s Hollywood film star undergoes a shocking change in life and lifestyle. 1,843 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The children on Sunset Boulevard would play catch or kick-the-can or hide-and-go-seek in front of the dilapidated mansion and shout, “The Beast is in the house!” whenever they looked up to the top window and saw the curtain move. They did this on purpose and would scream with delight and also a touch of fear. Because they knew that they’d attracted the attention of the Beast and that he was watching them.
The children had heard all the stories from their parents. That the house belonged to the once great silent picture star, Tommy Shaw, and had been beautiful in its day. “Such a shame! What a waste of real estate to have this house, now in shambles, in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country.”
The front yard was overgrown with wild bushes and fallen limbs. So different from ten years before it happened. Back then, the mansion stood majestically behind the carefully trimmed shrubs and bushes, the trees in constant bloom. And the walkway, all gray slate, led to the white marble staircase with the black iron railing that ended at the large front door made of oak with a brass doorknob and knocker. The mansion back then stood three floors high and had three gabled roofs; it was said to have twenty-five rooms, including twelve bedrooms and a ballroom where Shaw would entertain all of Hollywood on a Saturday night. Also on the estate were even more magnificent gardens with a tennis court, riding stables and a swimming pool. They said it was a house that Jay Gatsby himself would have built if he’d had the money!
Tommy Shaw built this mansion in 1925 when he was one of motion pictures’ highest paid stars and his name was mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin, Chaney and Fairbanks. Some said he was making ten thousand a week, some said it was more. He planned on marrying Helen Porter, a young star in her own right, and bringing her here and raising a family. Of course, that was before early 1929 when Shaw’s life and dreams were swept away within minutes.