The-Actor's-Studio-in-New York

Sunday, February 11, 2007

I almost passed the place


I was working at the Capitol Theater in Flint, as a doorman, when James Dean was killed in a car accident in California. There had been two other celebrity deaths around that time, Robert Francis and Carmen Miranda. (Well, they do go in threes.) I had a habit of posting obituaries of celebs who had died, to the front door window, so patrons could see them as they came into the theater. I had done this for Robert Francis, who had died in a plane crash, and now I was doing it for Jimmy. Robert was a Jon-Erik Hexum type, handsome and masculine. It was rumored he had been in love with Dean too. His career barely was off the ground and I think a film titled, "Bamboo Prison," was his biggest film role.

To me, Dean wasn't handsome like Tab Hunter, John Derek, Tony Curtis and Guy Madison. He was always shown sitting in his car, hair disheveled and a cigarette dangling from his lips. I hadn't even seen his first film, "East of Eden." The poster art work looked boring with a weeping willow tree and a pair of legs showing below the branches. I thought it was just a boring love story. But, we ran "Rebel without A Cause," three weeks, due to word of mouth, that this new actor had been killed. Usually a film only played one week, but each week was bigger. I even went home, after my noon shift, made sandwiches and went back to the theater every night to watch his performance. Whether it was his performance or the fact he was no longer with us, brought tears to my eyes. It was like I had known him, watching him on the big screen every night. It was hard separating his screen image from what I imagined he had been like in real life.

Like Dean's screen portrayal, I too had encountered a run-in with a leather jacket gang. These teenage gangs started after Brando's film, "The Wild Ones." A dozen or more had sneaked into the theater without buying tickets. I tried to talk them into leaving, and they wouldn't. Suddenly I found myself, knocked out, laying on the mezzanine floor after one had hit me in the jaw with a belt wrapped around his fist. I have the scar inside my mouth, yet today.

There was an usher working at the Capitol, who had moved to Flint from down south somewhere. His name was Jerry Gibson, and he was star struck and wanted to become an actor. He was tall, skinny and had a southern drawl. We had purchased the James Dean album by Steve Allen, as well as the soundtrack albums to Dean's films. We would play them in the theater, after hours, where I had taken my VM record player to play soundtrack music, from whatever film we were playing, in the lobby.

When Jimmy lived in New York, he had known a blind, street beggar, by the name of Moondog. There was even an album of Moondog playing some weird street instruments. (Moondog had been made famous because he was a friend of Jimmy's). There was a 45 rpm released of Jimmy playing the bongos. Jerry and I would stay in the theater, night after night, sitting in the dark lobby and listening to those albums.

I read in one of the magazines (LIFE or LOOK), that Jimmy's red nylon jacket had been purchased at Mattson's in Hollywood. I phoned them and ordered one, which cost around $20, a lot of money in 1955. I would later appear on television in Detroit, on Traffic Court, wearing the red nylon jacket, while re-enacting a defendant in a court case, similar to all of the court shows on television today. Like Jerry, I wanted to be an actor too. The following weekend, after my television debut, some of the patrons were surprised to see me working at the theater taking tickets. They had seen me on televison and thought I was in jail.

I recall I had joined an acting class in Flint, not recalling where it was now. But, it was some obscure school. I tried out for a play and was chosen for the lead. It was a comedy of some sort. I recall the girl who got the female lead reminded me of actress, Gene Tierney. After thinking it over, I told the teacher I didn't want to do it. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to memorize and remember the lines. The teacher and other students begged me to do it but I just wasn't sure of myself. Stage fright, I guess. When I later saw the play, in the school auditorium and watched the person who had replaced me, I wished I had been in it because I knew I could do better. He hardly got any laughs, where I had the whole class cracking up in rehearsals.

I had also taken a few dancing lessons and about "two tries" at ballet, which wasn't for me. Then I found a woman who taught modern jazz in the basement of her home. I loved modern jazz and used to really enjoy watching musicals and seeing all the guys dancing in the background. The teacher wanted me to be in a recital. My female partner was to do a ballet thing and I was supposed to "lift her...and I couldn't." Either I was too weak or she was too heavy. The teacher kept after me telling me "I could" lift her. I told her I wasn't joking, that I couldn't lift her. The heaviest thing I had ever lifted was my portable record player.

So, I came up with an idea I had seen in a movie. I had seen a dance number, that was supposed to be a serious routine, but it turned into a comedy. I suggested we do it that way. So, at the recital, to the tune of Dansero, I was in a tuxedo and the gal was in a ballerina outfit. And as the music started as we went on stage, she was on her tip toes, throwing her arms around to the music. I walked behind her with my arms stretched out..presenting her. Suddenly she swings her arm to the right, right into my face. I fell to the floor flat on my back. Then when I got up, this happened a couple more times. When it came time to lift her, I grabbed her from behind, with one arm under her crotch (it as easier to lift her, although a real dancer would never have done that), and then she ended up on my shoulder. At the end of the number, I had her hand in one hand and was holding her leg with the other, twirling her in a tight circle. The music stopped before I could stop. The audience was gasping, thinking this was a part of the routine. Then I felt her hand slipping out of mine. I had been twirling too fast. I just dropped her leg, lowering her on her butt, and she spun around and then stopped, facing the audience in that position, and bowed her head down in that position. When she started to leave the stage, I kept bowing, (a part of the act), and then she jerked my tuxedo arm so hard, the tuxedo jacket came off me.

We got a standing ovation and we had closed the recital. Art Mann, who was a stage hand at the Capitol, was the stage hand there and he cracked up laughing. He was surprised to see me there, let alone being in the recital. When I went to New York, he arranged for me to go to the backstage area of Radio City Music Hall. I was given a grand tour. They showed me the dressing rooms and the machinery that lifted equipment to the stage. As anyone knows, that theater was tremendous. I stayed at the President hotel, that he had recommended, and where a lot of show people used to stay when they visited or worked in New York.

In Flint, I used to dance in the theater lobby, after the movie was over and the theater was closed. I would do some modern jazz dance steps. There was some light from the soda machine, which dimly lit the lobby. I used the VM record player and would do my modern jazz dance steps. One night, glancing through the front door into the black night, I noticed there were some people standing out front watching me. When they saw me, noticing them, they started applauding. I was embarrassed as hell, and never did that again.

Jerry quit his usher's job, working for .45c an hour and left to go to New York and I decided to go too, for a weekend. But I wanted to register for an audition at the famous Actor's Studio, where Jimmy was alleged to have studied acting. He had auditioned with Christine White, but I heard he seldom attended once he was accepted. After he and Christine were accepted for their audition, Christine said to get over his stage fright, he had gone out and drank a couple of beers, so he could relax.

Even getting registered for an audition, was supposed to be hard. I found the studio, that was down a couple of steps into a basement, with a small sign that read ACTOR'S STUDIO and I waited for it to open. A woman soon came by and was startled to see me standing there. But, she opened up and I was easily registered for an audition. But, when I was notified months later, I didn't have money to go back.

New York was exciting, especially to a teenager who hadn't been to a big city before. I always liked to walk the streets and window shop in large cities. I liked the hustle and bustle of the crowds and the traffic and all the large neon signs and theater after theater on 42nd Street. Times Square was all lit up at night. These were the days before drugs took over and muggings were few and far between. I don't think I had the drive to be a professional actor. Just a dream.

( Garland at the Palace-Times Square-N.Y.