For we wrestle not with flesh and blood,
but against powers of this world.
But… but don’t worry, here we meet,
in this castle of lost souls. In the land
of the black Swan, the Prince of Darkness.
Welcome little captive, to the waterfall of sweet dreams.
—from Inside Daisy Clover
After spending my early years with a father who believed strict discipline and restriction was the only way to raise an adventurous son and keep him “out of trouble, ” I moved to California and was free to do whatever I pleased. I spent my days laboring in a lumberyard with men I didn’t like. At night I listened to music and wrote bad poetry inspired by it.
On weekends I explored the Pacific Coast Highway, from Santa Barbara to San Francisco and Mill Valley. The variations of texture in the wide beaches, rocky alcoves of aquamarine water, and the imposing cliffs of Big Sur transported me out of time, mesmerizing me until dreams collided with the magnitude of a new reality. I visited small towns like Carmel and Solvang, filling my mind with their endless fields of tulips and sunflowers. The windmills, thatched roofs, and rock-born cypress trees swept with ocean mist returned me to childhood stories I hadn’t thought of for years. Within hours I could go from the parched dunes of Death Valley to the mountain snow around Big Bear and Arrowhead Lakes. I spent one spring day in the Mojave Desert, rife with color unlike any other landscape. That night I lay on the hood of my car, legs propped over the windshield, as I lost myself in an ocean of stars.
I also went to the movies a lot, and 1966 was a good year for films, foreign and domestic. I liked the romantic short stories, like Skaterdater and Mirrors, both about young people falling in love. One weekend, I saw an early Robert Redford and Natalie Wood movie called Inside Daisy Clover about a young girl raised in captivity in a trailer on the Santa Monica pier with a mother deranged from alcohol. Daisy was “discovered” by a director and became a movie star. I identified with her plight, meeting each day in a scramble of dreams, wanting to find something equal to her emptiness. Even though it did not go well for her, the movie ignited a fire in me. I decided to be in the movies.
It’s embarrassing now, but that is exactly how I thought of acting—as just another job. One day I looked up the number of Columbia Pictures Studios in the Los Angeles phone book and called. A woman answered, and after briefly considering hanging up, I asked her if there were any openings for young men in movies. I had no idea what was entailed in securing a role in a movie or how movies were made. I had heard stories of young people being “discovered” sitting in a diner or visiting Schwab’s drug store. I felt I was just giving this a push, showing incentive. I wouldn’t have called it faith to do such a thing, but that’s exactly what allowed me to drive to California from Ohio and free myself of a dysfunctional family. After doing that, all things seemed possible.
Probably because the woman who answered the phone could not believe her ears, I was connected to a very understanding man who asked, “Do you have an agent?”
“No, ” I answered. “What’s an agent?”
“Do you have any pictures?”
“They’re all back in Ohio, where I used to live.”
There was a long pause, where I’m sure the understanding man on the other end of the line was wondering if this was a friend of his playing a prank.
“You sound sincere. Go to the Oxford Theater just east of Western Boulevard and Santa Monica in Hollywood and speak to Jack Donner. See if he will accept you for acting classes. If he does, you need to ask Jack to put you in touch with a professional photographer and have some photographs taken for a portfolio. You need to enroll in an acting workshop to see what your abilities for acting are, and the Oxford Theater is one of the best. Do you understand all this?”
“Yes!” I replied. I was out of my shoes with enthusiasm. I thanked him and hung up. I’m going to be in the movies, I thought.
For six months I had been working and living in Anaheim, about an hour south of LA. From exploring up and down the coast, the mountains, and even into Mexico, I felt experienced with stories to tell. I thought I would be a natural at acting.
I had called in sick from work that day. I immediately drove down Santa Monica Boulevard to a phone booth near Oxford Avenue. Looking around, it was an eclectic neighborhood. Santa Monica Boulevard was lined with small, cheap motels, diners with 89-cent breakfasts, porn theaters, and several foreign film and live theater venues, including the Royal, still in operation today. Western Boulevard boasted Jewish and Armenian delis, small shops, and a homemade donut bakery.
I dialed the number I was given. A very strong voice answered the phone. “This is the Oxford Theater.”
“Hello, my name is Rick Maxson. I called Columbia studios about a job and they told me to call this theater for training and pictures.”
“Who told you this?” the voice replied.
“Who at Columbia?”
“I don’t know his name. He just said to call Jack Donner at the Oxford Theater. He said I needed training. I’m sorry if this is the wrong number. ”
“This is Jack Donner. Are you interested in our workshop?”
I froze. There was a long pause.
Again Jack Donner spoke, “Are you still there? Are you interested in our workshop?”
“Yes … yes, I’m interested”
“When can you come for an interview?”
“Now, if it’s okay?”
“It’s okay to come now.”
I thought I heard a chuckle.
“Do you know how to get here, 1089 North Oxford Avenue?”
“Yes, I’m near there now.”
“When you get here just come upstairs; you’ll see the office.”
Oxford Avenue was one block east of the phone booth where I had made the call. It wasn’t the best part of LA. Across from the theater were six old, small mill houses. The theater exterior was stone on the bottom, red brick on the upper floors. There was an open casement window I could see from the street, and laughter tumbled from it in stops and starts. An ominous dark green door was at the entrance. When I pulled it open, it rattled loudly. Closing it was even louder. The stairs leading to the second floor were bare except for tattered rubber tread mats, and there was a black metal handrail, cold to the touch. The walls looked green, but I couldn’t tell for sure. They were smudged from being touched all the way up the stairs. The laughter became louder until I heard someone shout.
“Who’s there? Come on up. We’re in the office.”
I crossed the black and white tile floor of the small lobby. There were framed photos of theater productions on two of the walls, photographs of Marsha Mason, Sam Shepard, and others I didn’t know. On another wall were posters for upcoming plays. I followed the conversation and sporadic, loud laughter coming from the door up ahead. Behind the doorway was a small office with two desks perpendicular to each other. Two of the walls had casement windows, the ones I had seen from the street. I met Jack Donner, a man with a chiseled face and intense stare, sitting behind the far desk. I had seen him in a Star Trek episode as a Romulan. Lee Delano leaned back against the desk. Behind the remaining desk was David Banks, a distinguished looking man with glasses and a well-trimmed mustache and goatee. David looked at me with a welcoming smile, unlike Donner and Delano, who both seemed to be sizing up this shy, skinny kid wanting acting lessons.
“Have a seat, ” Delano said.
At this point in my life, I was deathly shy, even with folks I knew. Self-expression had not been encouraged in my childhood development. My voice was soft to the point of inaudibility. During the interview I was asked several times to repeat what I had said. I suffered the expected questions: Where are you from? How did you get to Los Angeles? Why do you want to be an actor? After most of my answers, there were a few minutes of joking among the three men. I learned the word kibitzing and sat straight-faced in the midst of their laughter around classic Yiddish and Italian jokes.
“You have no prejudices, do you?” Donner asked.
“I guess not, ” I replied.
“Do you have a job?”
“Yes, but it’s in Anaheim, in a lumberyard.”
“What do you do in a lumber yard?” Delano asked.
“I unload boxcars of lumber and put it away in the yard. But I will quit to do this.”
“The tuition is $50 a month. How will you afford it?”
“I don’t know yet.”
These men, except maybe Banks, had come up hard, scratching out a living from poverty first, and then the poverty induced by a profession in the arts. Only other artists, I would soon learn, understood the long-standing sacrifices required to provide entertainment to the working class and elites in our culture. My answer gained their respect.
Donner and Delano had opened the workshop together, but the theater needed remodeling. It had been an old factory that was marginally converted to a theater before they purchased it.
“If you help us rebuild this theater, we will pay you $50 a week, plus tuition. Could you do that?”
“Yes!” I replied.
I was accepted into the workshop to start the following week. If I was excited before going for the interview, my head was now rushing like a torrential river headed for a falls. I needed to find a place to live in Hollywood. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I saw a For Rent sign in front of one of the mill houses across the street from the theater. It was a tiny house with one “furnished” room (a bed, a chair, and a nightstand) and a kitchen for $25 a month. I called the number and rented the house that day.
The next day I packed my car with my belongings and left the apartment I had been renting in Anaheim. I went to work at the lumberyard and went into the manager’s office to tell him I was quitting in a week.
“What do you mean?” Leon Szchocke said in a loud voice. We called him Z, because no one could pronounce his name. “You just got here! What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to study acting in Hollywood. I’ve enrolled in a workshop.”
Z looked at me like I’d said I was going to be an astronaut. “I don’t want people working for me who don’t want to. You can leave now, ” he said. Then looked down at his desk and proceeded to work as if I wasn’t there.
Shocked, I left without another word. But as I climbed into my car, I smiled to myself. I’m going to study acting, I thought, then headed back to Hollywood.
Browse more Memoir Notebook
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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