The wannabe TV scribe meets the show’s head writer who is arrogance personified. 1,637 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Manhattan – 1954
I set up my new working area right by the only window in the room. The glass pane was so filthy you couldn’t see if it was night or day.
Milky came over to inspect. “It’s so crowded in here, Rocky, that you’re gonna have to lose some weight or park your ass out the window to make room.”
I decided to join in. “Is that a window or am I looking at a large glass of tomato juice?”
Milky thought this over and a little smile came to his face. “Okay, not bad. But take my advice: you’re gonna be dealing with four of the smartest and funniest people in television so you better stay on your toes or you’ll be eaten alive. You know how I know this? You see that Emmy award on the shelf?”
I looked over at the bookshelf that hadn’t seen a dust rag in years and found the Emmy with a bra hanging off one of its wings.
“This ’53 Emmy,” Milky continued, “tells you we are the best comedy writing team in television, at least for last year. And that…”
He stopped in mid-sentence, looking at the bookshelf and then around the room. He went to each desk and looked underneath. He even searched in the wastepaper basket and in the closet. He stopped and rubbed his chin and then threw up his hands. He looked over at Hattie.
“Where the hell is it?”
Hattie looked up from her cards, exasperated. “Where’s what?”
“The Emmy from ‘51? I’m trying to show young Rocky that we are the best in the business and I only have one Emmy in this room to prove it.”
“Oh, that,” Hattie went back to her cards. “Jack took it home a while ago. He said that, since he was the Head Writer, he was entitled to show his in-laws that he does actually work for a living.”
Milky wasn’t going to let it drop. “But he didn’t become Head Writer until six months ago at the end of ‘53!”
Finally Earl, without looking up from his paper, piped in. “Look, when Jack comes in you can arm wrestle him for it. Best out of three. Why don’t you just take this one home? Your wife will be so proud!”
“I don’t do it for the glory; I do it for the money and the hope that maybe someday Hollywood comes calling and MGM gives me a fat contract with a house in Beverly Hills and a starlet on the side. Then I can call you mugs on the telephone in the middle of February and laugh as you tell me you’re ass-high in snow and slush.”
All I kept thinking was that I’ll never be able to keep up with these guys! It would be like trying to catch for a major league baseball pitcher without a mitt, mask or chest protector.
Milky walked back to his desk and I started stashing my stuff under the card table when the door opened. Earl looked up from his newspaper and took his feet off his desk and stood up slowly.
“Well, look who decided to show up?” he said, looking at his wristwatch. “And it’s only 9:30 a.m. Were you milking cows this morning, Jack?”
And in walked Jack Donnelly, Head Writer of the Pepsodent Parade Of Stars. I’d only seen him a few times when I was bringing up the mail. He was medium height but lanky, like a first baseman. He had jet-black hair and a fair complexion that looked very pale this morning. Everything he was wearing looked expensive: suit, shirt, tie. Even his shoes were polished. But he wore it all with ease, his clothes draping casually on
his slouching frame. I would say he was a good-looking guy but his nose was slightly out of joint. No matter, from what I’d heard around the RCA building, he was a swordsman of legend, a lady killer able to conquer damsels just by riding the elevator with them.
Jack casually flipped the bird at Earl, nodded to Milky and blew Hattie a kiss, which she pretended to catch, ball up and throw in the trashcan.
Jack held his hand over his heart, as if wounded, and then laughed. He took a seat at his desk and then spun around and noticed I was there. I sat quietly wondering if I should introduce myself as Jack looked at me. He stared and stared and then a quizzical look came over his face.
He leaned over to Earl and said in a whisper everyone could hear, “Is that the altar boy I ordered or did he get lost on his way back to the mailroom?”
And then Earl responded in an equally loud whisper, “Morty’s idea, remember? The Writer’s Assistant? He’s the new kid.”
Still staring at me as if I were some new exotic snake kept in the corner of the reptile room at the Bronx Zoo, Jack pulled a pack of cigarettes from inside his jacket, shook one out and lit it with a silver lighter, all the time not taking his eyes off me.
“What’s your name?”
“Your full name.”
I felt like I was on Dragnet. “Lucius Bauderchantz.”
He leaned closer. “What?”
“What’s ‘Rocky’ short for?”
“Well, my friends from the neighborhood called me Lucky but then when I went into the service, because of my build, the hair…”
“Okay, skip it. I’m a fight fan; I see the resemblance. Saw Lulu Perez knock out Willie Pep last night at the Garden.” Jack then turned to address Milky. “Two rounds, can you believe it?”
Milky was putting ribbon into Hattie’s typewriter. “The fix was in.”
Jack straightened up in his chair. “Bite your tongue! Willie wasn’t up to it last night, that’s all. Perez was too fast.” And then back to me. “What are you doing here?”
“From the mailroom? Who do you know, kid?”
Now they were all staring at me like I was about to confess to a crime.
“No one, really. I sent a bunch of scripts to Mr. Schumacher and I guess he got tired of hearing from me and then I was sent up here.”
“Scripts!” This brought a chuckle from Jack. “So you’re a writer, Mr. Bauderchantz?” He got the pronunciation right on the first try.
“I’d like to be,” I said quietly. The truth is I was getting angry at the interrogation. The fact was I had been to war and survived, and when it came to fights I could always handle myself on the streets. And looking at Jack Donnelly, I knew had at least twenty pounds on him. I felt one more crack might send me and him over his nice clean desk.
I leaned forward on my folding chair.
Jack stood up; he sensed something. A smile crossed his face as he stepped towards me. “So you’re pulling yourself up by your bootstraps from… Where did you say you’re from?”
This came out colder than I’d intended. The room fell quiet and Jack turned back to the others and took a long draw from his cig.
The rest looked back at him as if to say, Don’t do it, Jack.
I finally said, “Brooklyn,” which eased the tension.
“From the ashes of Brooklyn, you rise up! Personally, I would’ve stayed in the mailroom; you’ll have a pension and you can take over The Duke’s book when they carry him out of here feet first. But since you want to become a television writer, we shouldn’t waste any time. You’ll be my assistant.”
“I thought I was Babs’ assistant?”
“I can see why you would want to be under Babs, so to speak young Rocky, but she needs an assistant like she needs another coat of paint on that pock-marked face of hers. No, you’ll be my assistant as befits the Head Writer of the Pepsodent Parade Of Stars.”
At this, Earl, Hattie and Milky stood up and bowed to Jack who graciously gave them a small wave of dismissal.
Jack turned to me. “So, Rocky, since you prefer that name I will refer to you as such, even though I think Lucius is much more poetic and understated and would look much better on a screen credit. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We shall go forth on this apprenticeship and you will listen and you will learn and you will fetch, beg, borrow and steal for me and you will learn your craft at the feet of this dazzling array of talent.” With this he spread out his arms to take in the whole room. “And you will sweat and you will bleed and when you get your first Emmy — and you will have many, believe me, once we’re done with you — you will thank each and every one of us, but especially me because I am taking on the role of your mentor and I will be weeping from my beautiful beach house in Malibu while I watch your acceptance speech on television. And I’ll be reaching out to you saying, ‘My son, my son…’ and it will fill my heart with pride that I was able to foster into this industry such a talent.”
Jack let out a breath to indicate the performance was over. His captive audience followed it with a smattering of applause. He then walked over to me, put a hand on my shoulder as if I was being anointed.
“But first, Rocky, let us break bread together. We’ll have lunch at the Carnegie Deli. You’ll buy.”
And a career was born.