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.
The children all heard about the fire, too. They were told about it like it was a bedtime story or Hollywood fable. The fire that happened on the Universal lot, on soundstage number 12, in the winter of 1929. It occurred while Tommy Shaw was filming his first talkie, The Beast Of Midnight. There’d been rumors of trouble on the set before the accident.
Tommy, for so many years, had been the classic leading man; always in popular drawing room comedies or romantic adventures. But wasn’t Tommy petty and vain? And what was that story about him firing an elderly actress who kept blowing her lines? As if that wasn’t enough, he had her thrown off the set by security guards! Poor woman had been in the business since its infancy and Tommy humiliated her in front of the crew and had her tossed in the street like yesterday’s garbage.
There’s no exact timeline that can be pinned down on exactly what happened that night. A police report or a fire department investigation may have the whole incident spelled out neatly on paper somewhere in a vault at City Hall. But the adults, as rumors and speculation took over for hard facts, hammered together their own scenario of the events and the aftermath of that tragic day. And this is where the story gets a little murky and speculation takes over. This is where the grown-ups, in endless discussions over the years at cocktail parties and picnics and baseball games, came up with what probably happened that day
Their story goes that the elderly actress, before she was cast out into the street, put a curse on Tommy and the whole production. She was still in costume and wore the habit of a Catholic nun for the picture, adorned with a heavy wooden cross around her neck. Before the security guards came, she held out the cross, nearly touching Tommy’s nose with it, and said, “It’s all on you, Mr. Shaw, and everything that happens here!” Some crew members swear she uttered the words in Latin, but they all said Tommy Shaw walked away laughing that the old bat was crazy after all.
The next morning started as normal with the actors getting into their costumes and Tommy getting his make-up applied. It took nearly three hours work to transform him from a handsome leading man into the gruesome Beast Of Midnight. Heavy slabs of dark make-up and mortician’s wax had to be applied, and dentures inserted into his mouth to make the fearsome grimace. He turned to his make-up man, one of the Westmores, and asked if Chaney had to endure all this pain and suffering for his roles, and Westmore told him, “Yes — but, of course, Mr. Chaney applied all his make-up himself.”
Meanwhile, the sound man was having trouble with the wiring inside his tiny booth. Twice, shooting had to be shutdown as he fiddled with dials and knobs because outside frequencies kept interfering with the overhead microphones. Tommy, steaming away in his make-up and burdensome costume, tried hard to control his temper. Helen Porter, his fiancé, co-star and the only being on the face of the planet who could control him, took Tommy to the side and gently reassured him that with a little patience the scene would commence. Shaw nodded towards the assistant director who called for an early lunch break.
After the cast and crew were sent to the catering trucks outside, Tommy, his girlfriend and the sound man stayed behind to investigate the sound problems. So primitive were these early sound booths that they were made of balsa wood. Worse, the sound man would regularly suffer electric shocks just by touching the sound board. Meanwhile, backstage were the usual cans of paint and turpentine for quick touch-ups and repairs. The high arc lights gave off incredible heat and floor-to-ceiling drapes were hung everywhere. The air inside the soundstage was dry and stale with hardly any ventilation. With these conditions it was no surprise when a spark set the entire building ablaze within minutes.
The first indication that something was wrong came from the crowd that surrounded the catering truck; someone noticed black smoke blowing from the roof of Soundstage 12. Several crew members dropped their lunches and ran towards the large barn doors and heaved them open. Now more smoke and flame shot out the doors and drove the men back. A woman, a bit player, ran to one of the outside telephones and called the studio fire department: six men with one hook and ladder truck and one pumper. But the men were well-trained and got to the fire in a matter of minutes.
To no avail.
As the trucks pulled up and the firemen scrambled for the hoses, it became clear that the building, now engulfed in flames and black smoke, was beyond saving. Two firemen made the gallant attempt to enter and try to save someone while two others manned the hoses and followed them up to the burning doors. Within a minute the firemen emerged dragging two people out of the fire and to the safety of the studio courtyard. One, a woman, was laid gently on the ground. A fireman, still choking and coughing up smoke, covered her body with his soaked raincoat. Another fireman leaned over the other body, a man, and listened to his chest. Quickly the fireman turned to the crowd gathered in the courtyard and shouted, “Hey, this one’s still alive!”
In seconds an ambulance appeared, racing up to the courtyard. The firemen gathered up Tommy’s body, still smoldering, and shoved it onto a stretcher and into the back of the vehicle. One of the ambulance attendants pointed towards the courtyard. “What about her?” A fireman looked over at the lifeless body lying on the ground that now wore his coat. He looked back at the attendant and shook his head.
After they rushed Tommy Shaw to the hospital and sent Helen Porter’s body to the morgue, the fire was brought under control but after the soundstage was destroyed. As they went through the ruins, the police and firemen found two more bodies, Nicholas the Soundman and Charlie, who’d manned the Klieg lights up in the rafters. The elderly vet
always took a nap up there whenever a lunch break was called.
A vigil was kept for Tommy at Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles by cast and crew members, old friends from his early silent days and Mike Watts, one of his favorite directors and his best friend. Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, dressed in formal wear complete with top hat and cane, rushed to Tommy’s hospital room and grilled the doctors for answers. Once he heard the prognosis, Laemmle looked down at the figure that one of his most exclusive properties, then turned and walked out of the room without saying another word. In the hallway a few reporters tried to stop him and ask some questions but the grim look he gave them told the whole story. Instead of waiting for the elevator, Laemmle put on his top hat and hurried down the stairs.
Two weeks went by and although Tommy’s vitals improved, there could be nothing done about his appearance. The heavy make-up had fused to his face, chest and arms; he was able to move but every motion of his body caused excruciating pain. A skin graft was suggested but the doctors quickly ruled that out because so much tissue had been damaged that trying to remove and replace all that skin could kill him. So Tommy would remain encased in this terrifying mask for the rest of his life. Even with the around-the-clock security that the studio provided, an orderly with journalism ambitions managed to take a grainy photograph of a figure lying in a hospital bed that looked to be half wolf, half wild boar with bandages and rubber tubing wrapped around its head. The picture found its way to the front page of Daily Variety with the caption, “IS THIS THE NEW TOMMY SHAW?”
A day after the photograph was published, Clovis showed up. He was Tommy’s valet and had taken care of all of Tommy’s personal concerns, from running the mansion and its staff, to party invitations, to pay-offs to the press. He was tall and courtly with the countenance of a Prussian general, which he may have been at one time. Clovis wasted no time in controlling his master’s care. He met with the hospital administration and, over protests from the medical staff, arranged for Tommy’s release that night and trip by ambulance to his Sunset Boulevard mansion. Once there, Clovis directed several bodyguards to bring Tommy’s stretcher up the winding staircase to his bedroom followed by a private nurse and two large suitcases full of medical equipment. It would be the last time anyone outside the mansion would see Tommy Shaw until 1939.