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The Ultimate Cary Grant Pages - www.carygrant.net


AUTOBIOGRAPHY

ARCHIE LEACH
by 
Cary Grant


Chapter Four

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

At the end of the spring term, with summer in sight and the cadet corps dispersing for the coming vacation, I applied for war work wherever my services as a boy scout could best be used. In those midwar years, with everybody of every age aiding the war effort in one way or another, and even youths of sixteen being taken into the army, it was my need not only to help wherever I could but, also, to get away from Bristol for a while. I was so often alone and unsettled at home that I welcomed any occupation that promised activity. I was given work as a messenger and guide at Southampton, in the dock area where the public was forbidden and no one permitted unless wearing a uniform or carrying a special pass.

I saw thousands of young men sail away into the night toward France, packed in transport ships that were, prayerfully, fast enough to outdistance the enemy submarines that waited for them in the English Channel and if I was on gangplank duty I sadly noticed the quick moment of apprehension cross every face, the first premonition of danger as I issued every soldier a life belt and accompanied it with a few cheerful notes of instruction to hide my feelings. Hundreds of those men drowned only a few miles from their homeland before even reaching the battlefront.

Although it was not part of our duties, the scouts often delivered messages and many letters for the soldiers waiting in the sheds on their last day in England. It was a point of honor among us not to take money for our small services. So, as we had no other way of escaping their touching gratitude, we accepted mementos instead -- a military button or regimental badge -- and displayed them with the pride of collectors, attached to our belts, which were heavy with tokens. The soldiers sometimes gave us cake and tea obtained from the canteen at the end of each shed in which they were kept enclosed the day before embarkation.

All military movement into and out of the docks was made throughout the night. Soldiers poured through Southampton and rows of sheds were filled and refilled. There were no seats and the men sat or lay around the floor among their kits. Some of them had already been out to the front once and lost an arm or leg, yet were returning to fight again. One officer, a Guardsman, had been to the front twice before and had lost an arm, and leg at the knee, but was still going back again to rejoin his regiment in the trenches.

Mixed with it's tragedy there was a strange atmosphere of excitement and adventure in Southampton, and when I returned home, I regularly haunted the Bristol wharves where in those days, schooners and steamships came right up the Avon River into the center of town; and on weekends, when most of my school friends were playing cricket, I sat alone for hours watching the ships come and go, sailing with them to far places on the tide of my imagination, trying to release myself from the emotional tensions which disarranged my thoughts. I once even applied for a job as cabin boy, but was turned down not only because I was too young, but because I couldn't bring permission from my parents.

Yet coincidentally at such a dispirited time, destiny was zeroing in on my future. I've often wondered whether destiny creates the course of the man or whether man creates the course of his destiny. Probably both.

My unfavorite classes at school were algebra, geometry, trigonometry and Latin; my favorites were geography, history, art and chemistry; and it was in chemistry lab around which I loitered on rainy days when I couldn't play fives (an English version of handball) that I met destiny in the form of the science professor's part-time assistant: an electrician, brought in from the outside to help with our experiments.

He was a jovial, friendly man with children of his own, and one day, in kindly response to my eagerness to learn about anything electrical, he invited me to visit the newly built Bristol Hippodrome, in which he'd installed the switchboard and lighting system. The Saturday matinee was in full swing when I arrived backstage; and there I suddenly found myself in a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things.

And that's when I knew!

What other life could there be but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived and loved. Yet? H'm. Little did I know. But an actor's life for me. And how was I, still only thirteen years old, to join them?

I hung about that theater at every opportunity until my electrician friend, possibly to get some relief from my constant questioning, arranged an introduction to the manager of another theater in Bristol, the Empire, where I was invited to sit with and assist the men who worked the arc lamps, known as limelights, which shone from small precarious platforms, or perches, rather high up at each side of the stage.

No one seemed to pay me anything and I didn't quite know how I was supposed to assist anyone, except by getting my fingers burned while fumblingly changing some redhot carbons; but I was in the happy world of make-believe and that was all that mattered, and I dropped by the theater as often as possible. I had a place to be. And people let me be there.

At one performance while I held that splendid job I decided to wander out to the front of the theater and "assist" the man who worked the large center arc in the balcony, known as the dress circle. And, well, come to think of it, I might as well see the show at the same time.

The star attraction that week was a famed magician, The Great David Devant, the originator of many spectacular illusions which are still used by magicians today. I sat spellbound alongside the limelight man until he tapped my arm and indicated for me to hold his lamp steady a moment while he lighted a cigarette. I later learned that during certain magic tricks the balcony spotlight was supposed, according to strict instructions, to stay unwaveringly directed onto a center point of the stage; but the man didn't tell me, and I was so raptly watching to learn how the illusion was done that I unconsciously allowed the beam of light to drop downward slowly and -- holy cow -- suddenly there was a blinding flash of light reflected from under a table, where two mirrors were fixed that otherwise would have remained undetected by the audience.

The trick was ruined. Mr. Devant shot an exasperated look toward the source of the light, the operator yanked it out of my hand and, with some choice swear words ringing in my ears, I stammered an apology and slunk off appalled at my blunder.

Well, I didn't seem to be welcome at the Empire again after that, so I began to reappear backstage at the Hippodrome. I hung around anyone who'd put up with me. I couldn't stay late; only for the early part of the evening. I ran all sorts of messages and earnestly strove to learn the fascinating reasons and beliefs behind an actor's vernacular. Much more interesting than Latin.

Don't milk your bows. Pick up your cue. Never walk on the other fellow's line. Playing to the gods meant performing to the gallery, or top balcony. Six-sheeting out front referred to actors who stood around the theater lobby or stage door hoping to be recognized by the audience as they came out; a six-sheet being the term used for a life-sized theatrical poster. An actor was never out of work. He was "at liberty." Waiting for a ghost to walk meant waiting for the manager with the weekly salary. There seemed to be no left or right side of the stage; just a prompt side and an O.P side, meaning opposite of prompt.

Oh, it was a fine language, and one evening while my ears were cocked for other phrases to absorb I learned about Bob Pender's troupe of young performers -- or knockabout comedians, as they were called -- the ranks of which were being regularly depleted as soon as each boy came of military age; and before I knew it I was writing a letter to Mr. Pender purportedly from my own father. I enclosed a snapshot and, since I was tall for my age and thought I looked older, conveniently neglected to explain that I was not yet fourteen and, therefore, not legally allowed to leave school.

You wouldn't believe it, but in no time at all, although it seemed weeks to a fellow with a surreptitious eye on his father's mailbox, back came an answer from Bob Pender suggesting to my father that his promising-looking son Archibald should go to Norwich, where the troupe was performing, for an interview; what's more, he enclosed the railway fare!

Never was there such inner excitement. Of joy, disbelief, fear, confidence and indecision. In the secrecy of my room I could neither sleep or sit. I packed and unpacked; and after hours of coin spinning and head scratching found myself quietly leaving the house in the middle of the night and walking the deserted streets toward the railway station where, dizzy at my own daring, I waited for an early-morning train. To Norwich. And adventure.

I can't remember anything about the journey. I was probably trying to figure out what my father would try to figure out. He and I often awoke and left the house at different hours without seeing each other. So it might be quite some time before I would be missed. After traveling for at least four hours I arrived at about 10 a.m. and went directly to the theater where, putting his troupe through their morning limbering-up exercises, I found Bob Pender.

He was a stocky, strongly built, likable man of about forty-two who had been renowned as the great Drury Lane clown. I suspected that he suspected that Archie and Elias James Leach were the same correspondent, but he introduced me to his kind wife Margaret, a well-known dancer whom he'd met when she was ballet mistress at the Folies-Bergere in Paris, and they questioned me about my birth certificate, which I said was home. Which was true. It was. After looking me over carefully they agreed that if it was still all right with my father they would apprentice me to their troupe. They gave me a short handwritten contract stipulating that I as to receive my keep and ten shillings pocket money weekly. And hallelujah, I was an actor!

Over the years I've signed many lengthy, involved typed contracts calling for me to earn great sums of money, but no employment contract since has ever matched the thrill of that one sheet of ordinary notepaper stating that I was to have the opportunity of learning a profession that appealed to me more than any other in the world.

I was taken to live in the same digs (another actors' term: short for diggings; meaning room-and-board in a private house) with Mr. and Mrs. Pender, and two or three of the youngest members of the company who were also kept under the proprietor's parental wings; and the following morning, on the bare theater stage, I began instruction in ground tumbling and acrobatic dances along with an athletic group of ten or eleven teen-age boys from all walks of life. As the newcomer, the novice, I felt, and looked, clumsy and inept among the others, and my progress suffered from the disparity. But slowly, and too often painfully, I showed improvement and began to feel the pride and confidence of accomplishment. I was resigned to the fact that it would be some time before I was proficient enough actually to join the others in front of an audience.

I practiced making up and thickly covered my face with greasepaint that took hours to apply in imitation of what I took to be the prevailing theatrical mode. Nowadays I don't wear any at all. In truth, I find myself embarrassed in the company of most actors and actresses who do. Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one's own past failings.

It as inevitable, of course, that my father would find me. It took him a good ten days, though, by which time we had moved on to a town called Ipswich. One night between shows the stage-door keeper told me that a man who said he was my father was waiting to see me. And there he was all right.

Luckily, Bob Pender was just coming out of his nearby dressing room, and I managed to introduce them to each other before father and I were able to exchange too many unamusing words which we might later regret. Now my father was a high-degree Mason, whatever that meant, and so was Bob Pender. There was as lucky a stroke of fate as ever took care of matters! They wore similar insignia dangling from their watch chains, and within the space of a handshake seemed to have arrived at some special understanding. So, while I anxiously twiddled my thumbs and thoughts, they went off together for a drink at the next-door pub. In order, they said, to decide my future. How do you like that? It was decided I needed to finish my education.

<= Chapter 3 | Chapter 5 =>


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