Friday, February 10, 2017

My Hollywood Daze

As a youngster my family twice visited California to see relatives.  They had personal contacts that resulted in memorable trips to Hollywood.  On one we heard a live broadcast of “Blondie and Dagwood” and got to meet Penny Singleton, the Blondie of radio and movies.  Another time we had our own personal tour of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot that ended with my sitting in the office of a senior MGM vice president where he encouraged my interest in journalism.

Little wonder then that as a teen I was addicted to movie magazines and could recite the life and times of even obscure supporting actors and actresses.   Oh yes, as encouraged, I did become a journalist.  After a stint as a police reporter on the Springfield Ohio Sun, I advanced to general assignment reporter with a talent for doing feature stories.  In the latter mode I had my first journalistic encounter with a Hollywood star.

He was Basil Rathbone, whose movies still appear regularly on Turner Classic Movies.  Born in South Africa in 1892 he first achieved notice as a Shakespearean actor on the London stage.  In some 70 motion pictures he frequently played a suave villain, such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne who sought the death of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) in the 1938 film of the same name.  He became most famous for the hero’s role of Sherlock Holmes in a series of films and on radio.

When I encountered him he was 78 years old.  His career was winding down, but he apparently needed money, and it brought him to -- of all unlikely places -- Springfield, where he read to the locals in his highbrow British accent from Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other favorites.  We met in the bar of his hotel.  He did not offer to buy, but was polite and answered my jejune inquiries without flinching.  He died seven years later.

My feature writing followed me to the Milwaukee Sentinel where I became the designated interviewer of movie stars, of varying renown.  My favorite was an encounter with Pat O’Brien, who had been born and raised in Milwaukee.  He had more than 100 film credits, often playing Irish and Irish-American characters including priests, cops, reporters and soldiers.

At the end of his career O’Brien and his wife of many years, Eloise, toured in the play “On Golden Pond,” including a stop in Milwaukee.  I met him as he stepped off a train to a waiting entourage, spouting quips left and right.  Spotting me for an fellow Irishman, he asked:  “Sullivan, do you know the definition of an Episcopalian?”  No, I stammered.  “A lapsed Catholic who knows some Latin.”

Shaking loose of some of his well-wishers, O’Brien invited me to join him in his limousine for a ride to the hotel while we conducted the interview.   Somehow our trip took us on a “long cut” through his old neighborhood in St. Rose’s Parish and past a barbershop owned by an old friend. The actor reminisced all the way — making my story.

Another movie star that visited Milwaukee that year was Deborah Kerr,  famous for her role as Anna Leonowns in the film, The King and I.  Born in Scotland in 1921, she was a consummate actress nominated for the Academy Award six times and winning many acting awards.  She will forever go down in film history for her steamy kissing scene in the Pacific surf with Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity.”
She was appearing in Milwaukee in an award-winning play called “Tea and Sympathy.”  It was about a very understanding older woman who takes a young man to her bed to prove to him that he is not gay.  Ms. Kerr (“Call me Deborah”) very graciously received me back stage for the interview wearing a loosely tied silk kimono.  I fell instantly in love.  My euphoria dissipated quickly, however, when she introduced me to her husband who was accompanying her on the tour.

My encounter with Gordon McCrae was less successful.  He arrived in Milwaukee for a stage appearance after successes in Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, playing the cowboy Curly in “Oklahoma,” and the seaman Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.”  I was prepared for a productive encounter.  Instead, I found him to be conceited and almost hostile , apparently not happy to be in chilly Wisconsin rather than in sunny California.  His responses to my questions were perfunctory and I came away with a lame story.

Brigid Bazlen arrived in Milwaukee at age 17 with an ocean of hoopla and a half dozen flacks, all bent on making her the next Elizabeth Taylor whom she remotely resembled.  She had just come from the playing the role of Salome, headhunter of John the Baptist in the biblical epic “King of Kings.” 

“Precociously attractive,” according to one reviewer (read nicely-formed breasts),  she was besieged by reporters, making my attempts for a one-on-one impossible.   An open bar at the site and multiple martinis were more than ample consolation.  My resulting story was quite colorful if less than fully coherent.   The critics were scathing about Bazlen’s next film performance and she retired from movies in her late 20s. Sadly, in 1988 at age 44, after suffering amputation of a leg, she died of cancer.

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