© www.carygrant.net


The Ultimate Cary Grant Pages - www.carygrant.net


Cary Grant

Chapter Eleven

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

In 1922, Coney Island was clean, freshly painted and well dept. There was little or no traffic on the main avenues, and people dressed in their carnival best. With a great new boardwalk and a great new hotel it was heralded to become the great new Eastern seaside resort that it never became. After extolling its past glories while driving there a few years ago with a friend of Spencer Tracy’s and min, a distinguished Boston physician, I was shocked to come upon its dilapidation and decadence. I imagine the good doctor was too; perhaps he thought I needed a doctor!

Still, to an eager, ambitious 18-year-old Englishman with, possibly, the blood of Vikings in his veins, it looked like this must be the place.

I presented myself to Mr. Tilyou for the job at his Steeplechase Park and he, true to his word, presented me with a doorman’s uniform: a bright-green coat with red braid and a bright-green jockey cap with read peak. Well! I supplied the long tubelike black trousers — specially made, too; cost a bomb — and stilts to go with them, and there I was, high in the air, striding slowly up and down, up and down, up and down, advertising the place. I wore no placards, just that resplendent uniform and an unstiff upper lip.

You see how everything we learn comes in handy? If I hadn’t been badgered, cajoled, dared, bullied and helped into walking those high stilts when I was a boy in the Pender troupe, I might have starved that summer — or gone back to Bristol. And this might never have been written. You lucky people.

I got $40 a week. P-retty good in 1922, when it bought so much more than it buys today. Five dollars a day except for Saturdays and Sundays. I got $10 for each of those two days, due to occupational unpredictablities. Y’see, with the children out of school roaming around looking for something educational, my tall figure presented a tempting target for aspiring Jack the Giant-killers. Saturdays and Sundays were hazardous. No doubt about it.

There were all sorts of opening moves, and from my altitude I could follow the beginning of each maneuver, the strategy and deploy. I could predict the concerted rush, and spot the deceptive saunter resulting in the rear-guard shove; or the playful ring-around-the-rosy, with me as the rosy, beaming daffily down on the little faces of impending disaster. I dreaded the lone ace who came zeroing in out of the sun, flying a small bamboo cane with a curved handle. One good yank as he whizzed past and he’d won the encounter hands down (my hands down), with full honors and an accolade from admiring bystanders.

After a few graceful air-clutching staggers, it still took about three lifetime seconds for me to topple — TIMBER! — and by the time I was spread-eagled on the street, those frolicsome urchins were yards away, innocently pointing at airplanes that weren’t there.

Still, I occasionally outwitted them by grabbing a nearby awning, wile parrying with an elongated wooden leg; but often some sturdy young squirt, joined quickly by volunteers of his cowardly gang, and sometimes even a crazy stranger or two, would grab the stilt’s foot and tug steadily. It became an interesting speculation which would come away first — the awning, or me. Usually I came away first, resulting in an entirely different, much more entertaining, sort of flailing parabolic descent, known as the backward high gruesome.

Well, that job didn’t last long, I can tell you.

I had kept in touch with other ex-members of the Pender troupe, and through them learned that R. H. Burnside, the Hippodrome director, was trying to round up as many of us as possible, to utilize our acrobatic abilities in h is next production. The previous season’s show was called Good Times, and the coming season’s Better Times. I hope everyone’s life makes such seasonal progress. Mine did. I am not sure how much better the times were, but I met love again! A showgirl in the show. A tall girl. And this time, this better time, we often managed to see each other after the evening performance.

One night, we attended a late party in someone’s apartment, somewhere or other. Prohibition was in force, so naturally everyone drank. I drank hard apple cider, thinking it least likely to affect me; and in no time at all was laid to rest in a spare bedroom; where I was hazily joined, thanks to the maneuvering of some well-meaning friends, by the lady in question. We awakened to find ourselves falteringly, fumblingly and quite unsatisfactorily attempting to ascertain whether those blessed birds and bees knew what they were doing. Up to that date, my closest contact with wine and women; but I cannot add it was an occasion for song.

Oh, well, I had a lot of life and improvement ahead of me. I was only 19, and neither the experience nor my age gave me confidence enough to know I was a man. Hardly. Not yet.

The young lady lived with her family far out in Brooklyn. Too far for me to accompany her after each evening’s performance and still return by subway before the cold winter’s dawn. I tried once or twice, but gave it up and, instead, spent suppertimes with other ex-Pender troupe members discussing the new act we were preparing for vaudeville after Better Times closed.

We broke in our act playing small nearby Eastern towns before embarking on a long tour of the Pantages circuit of theaters that took us, by weekly engagements, through Canada to the West Coast, and back across the United States. My romance floundered in a mist of obligatory habit. We wrote and telephoned each other dutifully for a few months, and then simultaneously ceased.

There were no cross-country commercial airlines in those days, and I caught my first glimpses of Southern California, with its vineyards and orange groves, through a train window. In Los Angeles, I saw palm trees for the first time in my life. I was impressed by Hollywood’s wide boulevards and their extraordinary cleanliness in the pre-smog sunshine of almost 40 years ago. I didn’t know I would make my home there one day. And yet, I did know. There is some deep prophetic awareness within each of us. I cannot remember consciously daring to hope I would be successful at anything; yet, at the same time, I knew I would be. Which leads me to believe that all of us, with a clear knowledge of the past and present, and an estimation of the consequence of every action we intend taking in the future, could foretell the paths of our lives. Certainly, we ourselves create those paths.

In Milwaukee, we met our old friends the young Foy family. Except, this time, unlike the previous time when we’d worked on the same bill, they were playing at a different theater. A better theater. And staying at a better hotel, where we were daily invited for breakfast and introduced to a custom with which our parsimony had kept us unacquainted: The signing of the dining-room check. Such abandon! “Put it on our check” they said, while my eyes and gastric juices popped. As an active, growing young man, I was never able to stretch my limited budget as far as my stomach; so I remain indebted to the Foy family for many a free plate of bacon and eggs, with potatoes, toast, milk and tip; and, of course, to their renowned father, Eddie Foy, Sr., who must have raised a high eyebrow and fine rumpus at the size of his Milwaukee hotel bill. So convenient, that signing of the meal check, don’t you think? Especially when someone else is doing the signing; which is rather seldom these affluent days, I must say.

<= Chapter 10 | Chapter 12 =>

© www.carygrant.net 1997-2009
Debbie Dunlap