I still recall an evening of Ray Bradbury coming up the escalator of May Company Wilshire, Los Angeles shortly after Hedy Lamarr had gone down the escalator of May Company, oh, many years ago.
Hedy, on those summer evenings, after perhaps doing a little shoplifting, sometimes ventured East on Wilshire to the nearby La Brea Tar Pits and likely – I didn’t know it at the time – considered mankind’s possible extinction, because she had seen incredible darkness.
Bradbury was of a more positive bent, and usually carried a manuscript. He sought out Charles Rome Smith in the sports department, asking for his support and sometimes his help. If Charles Rome Smith was on break I’d track him down, Bradbury waiting patiently.
I wrote about this several years ago, but Bradbury’s recent death makes me want to revisit it. I am not going to look at the old story, so my story may change from then and I may even contradict myself.
Time could account for that. Or imagination or changing perspective or new information. For instance, a psychiatrist recently told me that Hedy Lamarr shoplifting and being followed by detectives might have been, in her imagination, a recreation in her mind of her flight from Nazis in Austria and Europe in the mid-1930s. That the shoplifting was filling a need, no matter how seemingly perverse.
Something one of the store detectives told me at the time should have helped me guess at that even back then. A nice guy, the detective said when he was following her and she looked back at him, the fear he ``saw in her face made me feel like the Gestapo.’’
And then, I’m working off and on into turning the story into a screenplay or play or perhaps several monologues – actors standing side by side representing Lamarr and Bradbury and Charles Rome Smith and the detective and an Eastern European immigrant named Chester and maybe myself. And of course as I work I invent and reinvent and the story will change and become a different truth, my truth.
Any inconsistencies between what I wrote a few years ago and now would be interesting but I’d make no apologies. Steinbeck, when asked by a young reporter if she could interview him, said, well, he wasn’t sure, because he’d probably lie to her, not intentionally but because time and imagination would change how he explained himself and it would likely come out a lie here or there and that’s the way it goes.
Usually, when Charles Rome Smith wasn’t there when Bradbury came looking for him, I’d find him having a cigarette in the stock room or coffee in the employee cafeteria on the top floor. Charles Rome Smith and Bradbury would lean against counters covered with brand new footballs or baseball gloves or Rams’ jerseys and talk theater.
Chester and I would listen in and Charles Rome Smith and Bradbury didn’t seem to mind, and during those talks the problem was usually that Bradbury couldn’t come up with a satisfying ending for the stage adaptation of his short story ``The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,’’ which Charles Rome Smith was going to direct at the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard.
Sometimes, during those conversations, Hedy would pass through with her shopping bag, and once or twice Charles Rome Smith excused himself from Bradbury and talked to Hedy, and she looked up at him with big eyes – Charles was tall, maybe 6-4 if memory serves, and it probably doesn’t, maybe it was all illusionary – and I think he was telling her not to shoplift, that she was going to get caught.
Chester seemed to think this was what Charles Rome Smith was saying and he nodded approval. Chester worked in sports and toys and he wore heavy flannel suits and had thick, wavy gray hair that he combed back and he was impeccably neat and very much a gentleman. He pulled for Hedy because she, like him, was a survivor from Eastern Europe. He talked to me about these things when we went for coffee in the company cafeteria. I learned a lot about life from Chester, including the fear and horror he had experienced as a boy from the Germans.
While Bradbury and Lamarr were famous people, it is Charles Rome Smith and Chester who remain most clear in my mind, and then Jim, the young store detective. All three were kind, compassionate men. Jim, when he held someone for shoplifting, whether a kid or an old person or a professional thief, always treated the individual with as much courtesy and respect as they would allow.
Charles Rome Smith had come from New York, where he had danced in a successful production of ``The Three Penny Opera.’’ He had signed to direct ``Dark of the Moon’’ at the Pasadena Playhouse. Well, that wouldn’t pay all the bills, so he simultaneously worked 30 hours a week at May Company as well as with Bradbury on the preparation of ``The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.’’
Smith had energy to burn, which was good because he was always on the go, running into sports after coming from Pasadena, then rushing out four hours later to the Coronet Theatre. Then home for a few hours sleep, then back to Pasadena or May Company or the Coronet.
``Dark of the Moon,’’ by Howard Richardson and William Berney, was written in the late 1940s. The story is a version of the legend of Barbara Allen, but instead of England or Scotland or any of the numerous European countries where the ballad has been set, Richardson and Berney placed their story in the Appalachians and gave Barbara Allen a lover named Witch Boy John.
I had played the role in a couple of scenes at Los Angeles City College. Although I liked the play, and Charles Rome Smith was directing it in Pasadena, I was a little shamefaced when I mentioned it to him – after all it wasn’t ``Hamlet’’ or ``Waiting for Godot.''
Charles Rome Smith immediately nailed me. ``Hey, it’s a hell of a play, kid. A little corny? . . . Sure! But tragic and from the heart! That’s why I like Ray’s work – it’s from the heart! Don’t ever apologize for work that moves you. It’s what we’re about if we’re about anything.’’
(Not long ago I looked up that production at the Pasadena Playhouse on the internet and learned that an actor named Henry Darrow had been in it and had probably played Witch Boy John, and Darrow has a website and I emailed him to ask if he had any memories of Charles Rome Smith but never received a reply.)
Over the weeks Hedy kept coming in, except for a three- or four-day period when she was absent, and I think we all missed her, even the store detectives. Maybe we were worried she was shoplifting somewhere else, perhaps Bullock’s or Robinson’s.
Bradbury was more consistent, but Charles Rome Smith was ever patient, telling Bradbury he’d come up with a suitable ending. But ``Dark of the Moon’’ was now in full production and rehearsals were scheduled to begin soon for ``The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.’’ Even Charles Rome Smith was getting worried whether Bradbury could finish the dramatic adaptation.
One afternoon when I came in for work Hedy was sitting on a stool at the jewelry counter on the ground floor, looking in a mirror while trying on a necklace. A sales lady was helping her while Jim watched her from several counters over. Hedy knew he was there, of course, and I think was checking him out in the mirror’s reflection.
I think if I do the story as a film, when she looks into the mirror there will be flashback scenes and she will be young and beautiful again in her castle in Vienna and her husband the arms dealer will be standing behind her placing a diamond necklace around her neck and he will be unsure of himself while looking at her beauty and she, still not much more than a kid, will be studying him in the mirror reflection, wondering about him.
Those scenes – and there will be several, including the Nazis visiting her home, among them Goebbels and, some say, Hitler; her overhearing snatches of the darkness to come while dancing to Strauss' waltzes; the sharpness of her mind as she listened to military conversations grasping thoughts that would lead to her invention with George Antheil years later of spread spectrum or frequency hopping – those scenes in the film will return to the ``present,’’ that time at May Company, and when she looks into the mirror her husband will be replaced by the detective, and when the detective follows her through the store she will look back at his shoes and they will become the boots of storm troopers and the look on her face will change from clever and amused to cold terror and she will be living again her flight through Venice and Europe.
And from her we might move to the concern on Bradbury’s face as rehearsal time for ``The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’’ nears and Ray Bradbury rides the escalator up to sports. It was on one of those nights that Charles Rome Smith, now getting desperate, confided in me, ``I’ve got an idea to get this play finished, kid. We’ll see if this works. Come with me. Watch and listen.’’ And he approached Bradbury and tried an amazingly simple and transparent idea and to my astonishment it worked, on a great writer at that, but then many great writers are naive, and ``The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’’ finally got its ending a few days later.
The next week Hedy Lamarr was arrested, by another detective, not Jim. The arrest depressed Chester as well as Charles Rome Smith and perhaps Jim, but Charles Rome Smith and Bradbury had a play to produce and life goes on and the two founded the Pandemonium Theatre Company and their friendship flourished until Charles Rome Smith died of lung cancer eight years ago, four years after Hedy Lamarr's death.
May Company is gone now. The building is now part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is known as LACMA West. I don’t know what happened to Chester or Jim, though Chester must be dead. And of course Ray Bradbury just died, so one realizes how transitory it all is, how it all flies by. Two or three of the escalators Hedy and Ray rode still exist in the building, but they no longer function, they are still.
Copyright Steve Hauk 2012
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