|So, back I was
taken to Bristol without ever once performing on the stage;
though I told every openmouthed classmate that I had. Still, by
way of compensation, I held many an audience of small fellow
Fairfieldians goggle-eyed. Some even came back for an encore and
brought a friend. I demonstrated cartwheels, handsprings,
nip-ups and spot rolls -- my complete theatrical repertoire up
to that point. But they soon tired of me and, when I could no
longer get the conversation around to my wondrous experiences in
the theater and had slowly deflated to my accustomed
insignificance, I grew lonely for the boys of the Pender troupe
and determined to rejoin them.
Although I regret the
recollection, I did my unlevel best to flunk at everything. The
only class I attended with any interest and alacrity was the
twice-weekly instruction in the gymnasium. I never truly enjoyed
acrobatics, and wanted to keep fit, and add to my proficiency
only as a means to an end.
In all other ways I confess to
exasperating every professor who had the misfortune to come into
contact with me.
One poor man, the singing
teacher, go so choleric that he threw a bunch of keys at me.
With a will to annoy him, and at the same time cleverly amuse
the class, I'd been wide opening my mouth and forming
exaggerated words without singing a note. I think the song was Who
is Sylvia, What is She? a standard semiclassic. In
retrospect, I realize my foolishness probably went unappreciated
by everyone and was regarded as exactly what it was.
Foolishness. I didn't deserve the luck, but those keys just
missed cracking me in the mouth.
Still, y'know, I've recently seen
young people on television earning a livelihood by mouthing
words to someone else's song. So you can see how original I'd
become even that long ago.
My, how unclever of me not to
have taken cheerful advantage of every opportunity to learn, to
acquire skills of any kind, when I had the chance. Instead I cut
class after class. One afternoon another boy of equal curiosity
and I decided to sneak over to the girls' side of the school to
investigate the inside of the girls' lavatories -- known to
polite Americans as rest rooms. No one was around. I kept watch
at the end of the corridor while he went in to see what it
looked like in there. And then just as it came my turn to
explore the inner sanctum, I was suddenly, out of nowhere,
shrilly nabbed by a powerful female who must have been the
hockey teacher at least. Anyway, that did it. My fellow culprit
dashed to freedom, and in no time at all I was on the carpet in
the study of Augustus "Gussie" Smith, the headmaster.
I'd been a frequent visitor there and evidently that was the
The following morning when the
school filed in for morning prayer in the assembly-hall my name
was called and I was marched up the steps onto the dais and
taken to stand next to Gussie Smith, where, with a quivering lip
that I did my best to control, I hazily heard such words as
"inattentive ... irresponsible and incorrigible ...
discredit to the school," and so forth, and through a
trance-like mixture of emotions realized I was being publicly
expelled in front of the assembled school.
I couldn't see very well as I
went back down the steps to go and collect my books, but
remember crossing to the bicycle shed and hearing the students'
footsteps marching off to their classrooms accompanied by the
familiar tinny sound of the assembly-hall piano.
The morning march-out was often
played by one of the students as a reward for good grades or
some other accomplishments. I had proudly and loudly played it
twice. That was all I could think about as I strapped the books
on the back of my bicycle and pedaled away from Fairfield.
Though he must have been very
disappointed in me, my father did not reproach me when he found
me at home that evening. He quietly accepted the inevitability
of the news and we discussed my behavior and needs and happiness
and future, until he seemed reconciled to the uselessness of
hindering my purpose further. I had just turned fourteen, the
legal age at which a boy could work in the world, and I was the
boy who was eager to work in it. Three days later I was back
with the Pender troupe; and with three months we were playing
that very same Empire Theater in my hometown, by which time I
was actually appearing in the act. I didn't have much to do but,
with my old friends all around me backstage and my father seated
in the audience, I excitedly threw myself into a performance
that made up in exuberance what it lacked in experience.
Father enjoyed a glad reunion and
a drink as well with Bob Pender and, after the eveningís last
performance, we walked home together in the quiet summer
darkness of the Bristol streets. We hardly spoke, but I felt so
proud of his pleasure and so much pleasure in his pride. And I
happily remember that we held hands for part of that walk.
Touring the English provinces
with the troupe, I grew to appreciate the fine art of pantomime.
No dialogue was used in our act and each day, on a bare stage,
we learned not only dancing, tumbling and stilt-walking under
the expert tuition of Bob Pender, but also how to convey a mood
or meaning without words. How to establish communication
silently with an audience, using the minimum of movement and
expression; how best immediately and precisely to effect an
emotional response ó a laugh or, sometimes, a tear. The
greatest pantomimists of our day have been able to induce both
at once. Charles Chaplin, Cantinflas, Marcel Marceau, Jacques
Tati, Fernanel, and Englandís Richard Herne. And in bygone
years Grock, the Lupino family, Bobby Clark, and the
unforgettable tramp cyclist Joe Jackson; and currently the more
familiar Danny Kay, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar, and even Jack Benny
with his slow, calculated reactions. Surprisingly, Hitchcock is
one of the most subtle pantomimists of them all; itís such a
pity he doesnít do it professionally, so that everyone might
have the joy of watching him as I have.
While playing the great Gulliver
circuit of vaudeville theaters in London, most of us boys lived
with Mr. and Mrs. Pender in their big suburban home in Brixton.
It had a long garden walk at the front and a smaller garden at
back, and was quite near (as we always brightly informed every
other vaudevillian) to the house of Lady de Frece, better known
as Vesta Tilley, the greatest music-hall star of that day.
We slept in dormitory-style
rooms. Lights out at ten; up, washed, dressed, and downstairs
for breakfast at seven-thirty; followed by an hourís reading
or recreation and later the morningís limbering-up exercises.
One day a lady in the next-door
house walked to the front gate, past the trees where she could
get a clearer view of a daylight air raid, and was swiftly and
shockingly decapitated by a piece of shrapnel in the morning sun
of her English garden.
The day that first world
war ended we were playing in Preston, Lancashire. There were
very few people in the theater that evening, and after the show
I walked around the center of town with some of the other boys.
The streets were filled with people, but there didnít seem to
be any particular gaiety. As in every other town in England, so
many of Prestonís families had lost a husband or son, or
someone close to them, that the finish of the war was hardly and
occasion for revelry but rather for reverie. Their only
consolation was that there was never, never again to be another
war. No. Never. That was on November 11, 1918.
I spent the following Christmas
at Colwyn Bay, a small seaside town in Wales. Playing in a
theater built on, of all windy wintry places, a pier. So many
young former members of the company were already being
discharged from the army that Bob Pender obtained engagements
for two complete troupes in the type of Christmas shows that so
particularly suited our tumbling talents: the traditional
English pantomimes. Which arenít pantomimes at all, by the
way, but fairy stories such as Cinderella, Mother Goose, Puss in
Boots, and so on, told in part musical-comedy and part slapstick
form. Theyíre colorfully and quite expensively presented in
most English towns for usually, a packed eight-week run. The
best troupe, the older troupe, played the better pantomime in
So thatís how I came to
be in cold Colwyn Bay; walking the next-to-highest stilts in a
graduated line of other stilt walkers, with my head inside a
huge papier-mache mask on which sat a large, white, limp
ladyís bonnet with a frill around it, and my elongated body
and long long legs encased in a great calico dress that had
frilled collar and cuffs to match the hat. Well, naturally! It
was the most spectacular of the many acts we performed to
delight children who yearly sit entranced at the magic of
But it was the London tours to
which we all looked forward most, and I nostalgically remember
scrambling for the front seat on top of open-air buses or top
decks of the tramcars in order to have an unobstructed view of
every journey. It was on such trips that I learned to love each
district, each section of London. I still do.
At each theater I
carefully watched the celebrated headline artists from the
wings, and grew to respect the diligence and application and
long experience it took to acquire such expert timing and
unaffected confidence, the amount of effort that resulted in
such effortlessness. I strove to make everything I did at least appear
relaxed. Perhaps by relaxing outwardly I could eventually relax
inwardly. Sometimes I even began to enjoy myself on the stage.
The troupe prospered and expanded
and I got a raise to 1 pound a week pocket money (almost $5 at
the rate of exchange in those days, and whatís more it bought
more), and one day Bob Pender announced the longed-for news that
heíd booked an engagement for himself and a company of eight
boys to appear in a Charles Dillingham production at the Globe
Theater in New York City!
And who do you think was one of
those eight boys selected to go? I was. I. Thatís who.
In July, 1920, we sailed for
America on the S.S. Olympic and cloud eight.
Among the fellow passengers were
newlyweds Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, the worldís
most popular honeymooners and the first film stars I ever met.
They were gracious and patient in face of constant harassment,
by people with cameras and autograph books, whenever they
appeared on deck; and once even I found myself being
photographed with Mr. Fairbanks during a game of shuffleboard.
As I stood beside him I tried with shy, inadequate words to tell
him of my adulation. He was a splendidly trained athlete and
acrobat, affable and warmed by success and well-being. A
gentleman in the true sense of the word. A gentle man. Only a
strong man can be gentle; and it suddenly dawns on me as this is
being written that Iíve doggedly striven to keep tanned ever
since, only because of a desire to emulate his healthful
Some time later, when our company
played in Los Angeles, he invited us to watch him work at his
United Artists Studio on the Thief of Bagdad sets; and
later again, at a preview of mine, he complimented me on a
performance Iíd given, and my cup overflowed. I felt no urge
to remind him that weíd met twice before; it didnít seem
necessary; it was enough to feel the glow of his goodwill. His
son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with whom I share a long friendship,
is endowed with the same friendliness of manner and
consideration for his fellowman. Each year, as his family grows,
I pleasurably look forward to a Christmas card bearing their
latest photograph taken at their home in London.
But I wasnít thinking about
London aboard the S.S. Olympic. London was behind me. I
would soon be in New York City, and unlikely ever to meet any
more film stars. I was sixteen and, therefore, knew that I knew
everything. It was just that I hadnít seen everything.
And I hadnít.