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Authors: Jerry Ludwig

Getting Garbo

BOOK: Getting Garbo
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Copyright © 2004 by Jerry Ludwig

Cover and internal design © 2004 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover photo © Corbis

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

FAX: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ludwig, Jerry.

Getting Garbo / by Jerry Ludwig.

p. cm.

1. Autographs—Collectors and collecting—Fiction. 2. Motion picture actors and actresses—Fiction. 3. Hollywood (Los Angeles, Calif.)—Fiction. 4. Fans (Persons)—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3562.U29G48 2004

813'.54—dc22

2004013122

For Tobi,
the miracle of my life

Part One

“What we are and what we think we are are really two different things. And the discovery of who one is is a soul-shaking experience.”

—John Huston

1
Reva

Do you believe in destiny? Since I was a little kid and I first learned the word, I always thought that it applied only to people who were rich or famous, like Marie Antoinette or Charles Lindbergh. They had a destiny. The rest of us just went through life and things kind of happened with no particular rhyme or reason. But sometimes, when you stop and look back, you see a pattern, maybe even an inevitability.

This is how it started for me.

Back in the late '40s through the mid-'50s, my folks and I were living in this dinky cold-water third-floor walkup in a quasi-slum at the end of the IRT subway line in Brooklyn. Sickly and already undersized as a child, I wasn't allowed by Mother to play with any of the neighborhood kids if they even had a runny nose for fear that I would catch whatever was going around. Not that any of them were clamoring to play with me; mostly whenever they paid any attention to me it was to chant, “Reva
Hess
is a
mess.
” So basically that left me with a grand total of no friends, except for one: it was the pre-television era, and the radio became my best friend. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Fred Allen nasally calling for “Mrs. Nussbauuuum.”
Gangbusters
and the
Kate Smith Show.
“Jello everybody, this is Jack Benny…”
Corliss Archer
and
Henry Aldrich.
The stirring
William Tell Overture
that brought the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloping out of the West.

“Tired of the everyday routine? CBS offers you—
Suspense.

I feel real sorry for everyone who missed that time. Now, I know what you're gonna say: we got the tube now and isn't it much better to have words
and
pictures? Well, that's just my point. I could hear
and
see. Incredible pictures, in living color, castles and jungles, distant battlefields and planets in other galaxies, bigger and better than even Cecil B. DeMille can afford to actually create for his movies, pictures woven only of words and sound effects, and here's the best part: it was all happening inside my head. Sure, maybe you saw a different picture than me, but that was fine, too, because the only real limit on what you experienced was imagination, and I've always prided myself on having a lot of that.

My top favorite radio show was
Let's Pretend
on Saturday morning. They acted out fairy tales and I was transported to all those make-believe kingdoms. When Jack climbed the beanstalk that reached to the sky, I was right up there with him. I was Rapunzel letting her hair cascade down the length of the tower for the brave knight to ascend, and when the prince awakened Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, that was me, too. I never missed an episode. But I'd begun to notice something. Every Saturday morning, I pictured one familiar face besides mine. Sometimes it belonged to Aladdin or Hansel or even the court jester. My favorite characters. But they'd all have the same voice.
His
voice. Only I didn't know that yet. Not until I persuaded Mother to let me accept the offer made by the announcer at the end of
Let's Pretend
to write away for free tickets to attend a broadcast. Mother finally agreed as a present for my thirteenth birthday. It was 1950 and that was the first trip I'd ever made into Manhattan.

It took over an hour on the subway, but when Mother and I climbed up into the center of Radio City, I didn't know what to look at first. The skyscrapers, the neon signs, the honking traffic, Lindy's famous restaurant (with signed movie star photos in the window), men digging up the gutter with jackhammers, a novelty store where I tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Mother to buy me a pet turtle with the Empire State Building painted on its shell. We stood with a bunch of people in front of a restaurant window where a black cook in a white coat and hat flipped pancakes and omelets in the air and caught them in his frying pan.

Then there was the radio show itself, in a theater on 54th Street, just off Broadway. Unlike the movie houses we had in Brooklyn, it was clean. No wads of gum stuck under the seats or candy wrappers and sticky dried soda pop on the floor. And the floor was carpeted, which none of the theaters in our neighborhood were. Of course, there was no screen in the CBS radio theater. Just a narrow stage with a painted backdrop of fairy tale characters. The actors and actresses, all holding their scripts, sat on folding chairs, chatting quietly. They didn't wear costumes, just ordinary business-type clothes.

While we were waiting for the show to start, this young guy with shaggy chestnut brown hair wandered out. He was wearing a black windbreaker, a white shirt with no tie, and wrinkled khaki pants and brown work boots. I figured he was a stagehand because he looked like he should be pushing a broom. He adjusted the height of a microphone and placed a script on the stand in front of it. He went over to talk to the sound effects engineer, who was sitting at this complicated setup where they do all that stuff like patting their chests with coconut shells to fake a horse's hoof beats or crinkling sheets of cellophane to create the illusion of crackling flames, and they talked so long I thought maybe the shaggy guy was the assistant sound engineer.

The story they were doing was “The Fisherman and His Wife,” about the guy who saves the life of the magic fish. The fish thanks him and the fisherman goes home and tells his wife about it and she tells him he should go back and ask for a wish. So he goes and asks for a house, and the fish gives it to them, but the wife still isn't satisfied, so she sends her husband back again to ask for a palace, and it goes on like that, with the wife never content. Finally, the last time she sends him back, the fisherman tells the magic fish that his wife now wants to be queen of the moon and the stars and the sky. The magic fish is really irked by that and he cancels all the other good stuff he already gave them and they're back where they started—with nothing.

Mother said there was a moral to the story. I just thought it was exciting and wished the wife would slip and fall and die in the palace so he could find someone nice who really loved him. But guess who was playing the fisherman? It was him, of course.
The voice.
But big surprise to me: turns out the voice belonged to the shaggy guy in the windbreaker, who wasn't a stagehand or the assistant sound engineer after all. Actually, he acted in a bunch of different voices, as a tiny beggar boy and a witchy old hag and if you weren't watching, you'd never guess they were all him. At the end of the show the announcer rattled off the names of the cast, each actor or actress took a little bow for the audience, and that's how I first found out his name was Roy Darnell.

Afterwards Mother and I strolled down Broadway past the great movie theaters I'd heard of, like the Capitol and the Strand. Just below the Camels billboard with the man's face blowing real smoke rings out into Times Square, we found a Nedicks stand and had hot dogs and orange drinks. Because it was my birthday, Mother broke down and bought me a bag of saltwater taffy for dessert. Then we were on 45th Street and the theaters here weren't movie houses or radio studios. Mother explained that these were the theaters where the hit Broadway shows played with real actors on stage. Some of the names on the marquees I recognized, some I didn't. Ethel Merman. Bobby Clark. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Spencer Tracy. Bert Lahr. Then I spotted Sardi's. A name I know from the weekday radio show they broadcast from there
, Luncheon At Sardi's,
interviewing the stars.

Just when we approached the entrance, something really unusual happened. The fatso uniformed doorman was yelling at us, “Move it, move it, ladies, don't block the way,” when who should come sauntering out but Danny Kaye and his daughter. Now, Danny Kaye was absolutely God in our neighborhood. He grew up there and went to the same junior high school I was in at the time. In fact, he was one of only two famous people who ever graduated from J.H.S. 149. The other one was Anthony Esposito, who became a hitman for “Murder, Incorporated,” and he went to the electric chair when I was in the seventh grade.

But seeing Danny Kaye in the flesh wasn't the unusual thing.

The sidewalk in front of Sardi's was real crowded, a regular mob scene of theater customers hotfooting it to their matinees, and a bunch of Damon Runyon–type guys blocking the sidewalk and kibbitzing in front of the ticket agency next door, not to mention the horde of other people shoving by in order to get to who knows where. But at the sight of Danny Kaye, a half dozen of the pedestrians loitering on the sidewalk suddenly came out of the crowd and closed in. It was like a squadron of vultures swooping in on their prey. Well, that makes it sound mean—it was more like a coordinated ballet movement. They must have been there all along, those half-dozen, but they'd been invisible until now. They came in all sizes, shapes, and forms, from teenage bobbysoxers to a leathery old woman. But they all had autograph books and pens in their hands now. They formed a circle around Danny Kaye and his daughter—and pushed Mother and me completely aside.

As Danny Kaye began to sign his name for them, Mother poked me to get in there too. We didn't have any paper, but she poured all the salt water taffy into her handbag and gave me the empty paper bag. But by then it was too late. Danny Kaye was about to get into a taxi. I don't know where I got the chutzpah from, but I hollered: “Mr. Kaye, wait, I'm from one-forty-nine!”

He turned and looked back. Right at me. So I repeated what I'd said and he shook his head. “You're too little to be in junior high.”

“I skipped a grade,” I told him.

“So let me hear the school song.”

Everybody was staring at me now. So I started off kind of shaky.

“One-four-nine is the school for me…”

He joined in on the second line and we sang it together:

“Drives away adversity,

Steady and true,

We'll be unto you,

Loyal to one-four-nine,

Rah-rah-rah-h-h-h!”

Then everybody on the pavement clapped and he signed my paper bag. He wrote, “For Reva, Say Hi to 149 for me, Danny Kaye.” He drove off and while Mother was admiring the autograph, who else should come out but Roy Darnell with a pretty young lady. By now I was in the swing of things and asked him to sign the other side of my paper bag. The professional autograph hunters all crowded around us.

“Who'zat?” one wanted to know.

“Roy Darnell,” I said, proud to be of service to them. “He's the star of
Let's Pretend
on the radio.”

“It's nobody,” the leathery old lady said. And they all melted away into the crowd again. The pretty girl with Roy Darnell laughed.

“You still want my autograph?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah!” I said. And he wrote, “Thanks for asking, Reva, all the best, Roy Darnell.” Imagine that—
he
thanked
me.
That happened six years ago, but I can still hear him just like it was yesterday.

BOOK: Getting Garbo
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