|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
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
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.