Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas in Hollywood

It's 1992 or '93. Christmas Eve, around 10:30 p.m. I'm standing on the tennis court of movie legend Robert Stack, looking up at the stars in the mild Southern California night, thinking what a kick my mother will get out of this story...

For several years - from 1988 to early 1995 - I lived in Los Angeles, where I had moved in hopes of becoming the next great screenwriter. But shortly after I arrived and settled in I decided that what I really wanted to do was act.

So I quit my job at the little graphics studio in Burbank and began to pursue my passion, taking acting lessons, having my headshot taken, doing extra work and attending any number of casting agent "workshops" (code for paying someone to be seen).

And to pay the rent -- until my inevitable discovery and explosion onto the silver screen --  I wound up as a cater waiter, working primarily for a friend who had a staffing service which provided servers for functions in private homes, large and small. I worked a lot at the Beverly Hills home of the gazillionaire former owner of Universal Studios and his wife, who had armed security on their property and their own gas station outside the six-car garage. You know, just folks.

Being 3,000 miles from home I rarely came back to the East Coast for the holidays, and one year I was asked if I'd be willing to work on Christmas Eve at a private party, for which I'd be paid extra, naturally -- always a good thing.

The party was being given by Robert Stack and his wife, Rosemarie at the home in Bel Air where they had lived since 1958. There were only about six of us working this particular gig, setting up and serving the meal being prepared by the Stacks' French chef.  We got to the house -- a great, low-slung mid-century modern place set back off the road -- where Mrs. Stack greeted us, a charming, attractive woman with a no-nonsense approach, and gave us our instructions.

Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack in "Written on the Wind"
So there we are, arranging tables and chairs on the enclosed patio, when out strolls Robert Stack, looking pretty much exactly as he appeared in "Airplane!" Gracious and down-to-earth in casual slacks and a sweater, he approached us and said, "Hi, I'm Bob Stack. Anything I can get you?" Or words to that effect. He even hung out with us a bit, pointing out the sliding glass door that Desi Arnaz, in his cups, had walked into decades before.

The dinner went fairly well, although I committed a faux-pas of some kind involving a bottle of wine I shouldn't have opened and a salt shaker that shouldn't have appeared. The guests that night weren't numerous, but very Old Hollywood, among them Caesar Romero and columnist Army Archerd and another film legend, Cyd Charisse -- older of course, but still beautiful and still in possession of the gorgeous legs that had once propelled her through lavish dance numbers in MGM classics like "Singin' in the Rain" with Gene Kelly.

After dinner, as we cleared and cleaned up, a distinguished-looking gentleman sat down at the piano, and the guests gathered around to sing Christmas tunes, including the standard "Silver Bells". I learned later that the distinguished-looking gentleman at the piano was one of the duo who had written "Silver Bells". Then we had a few minutes during which we were on our own, waiting for the guests to leave so we could finish cleaning up, which was when I stepped outside and wandered onto the tennis court.

When everyone had gone all of us staffers gathered in the foyer to collect our pay from Mrs. Stack and say goodnight. I happened to mention that years before I had been at the Sherman Oaks home of a high school friend who had gone on to become an actual Hollywood producer, the man behind "Airplane", "Robocop" and "Starship Troopers" among others, and he had a print of the 1956 Douglas Sirk classic "Written on the Wind" starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack. I told her how much I had enjoyed it -- overblown and histrionic as it was -- and Mrs Stack told me to tell that to her husband, as that was one of his favorite pictures. He later told us that he had been cheated out of an Academy Award nomination for it. (If you haven't seen it you must! If only for the performance of Dorothy Malone as the boozy nympho heiress of a Texas oil fortune who, when not out seducing gas station attendants, spends most of her time alone in her room, drinking and dancing to wild Latin music in capri pants and filmy negligees.)

Looking back, it was one of the few moments I recall feeling at peace that year. My partner Robert's health had been in steady decline, I was always scrambling to pay the bills, auditioning and being disappointed. I was often plagued with what I later learned was clinical depression, so I suppose it was the sense of reflected glory that lifted me up -- the notion that some of the glamor and acclaim shining off the guests inside somehow lent me more...importance.  In any event it was quiet out there on Robert Stack's tennis court, the night was mild, the moon was shining.

Funny where you find those peaceful moments -- unless you're a Zen master and peace and calm are the norm. It's almost a physical sensation, that washing-over you feeling that leaves you a bit limp, but also content and hopeful in the face of ... whatever might be looming ahead. I thought maybe my mother would be suitably impressed by my Christmas eve with Robert Stack story, overshadowing the fact that I hadn't exactly become the success everyone hoped I would be. I don't recall if I ever told her about that evening, but if I did my guess is that her first question was not about what Cyd Charisse was wearing but rather "Did they pay you extra?"

1 comment:

  1. Dorothy Malone won the Oscar bitch!