Friday, April 18, 2014

#3. A Drugstore girl at Warner Bros.

#3.  A Drugstore girl at Warner Bros.
I should have known.  The day I became a Warner Bros Drugstore Girl, there was a major earthquake.

Earlier that morning, I had gone up to Hillcrest Country Club to drop off a script for some producer long forgotten.  This was back in '71; dressed in my hipster cowboy drag, I tooled up to the palatial clubhouse in my 1942 Ford woody wagon (license plate Fordy 2), double parked right in front, jumped out with the package and stopped dead.

There, not ten feet away, getting out of a limo was George Burns -- cigar and all -- with Jack Benny.  Pathetically, I believe my jaw was actually hanging open.  Burns looked from my pony tail to my woody and back.  "Not only do you look like your mother... but you're driving her car."  Jack Benny howled with laughter and they went in for breakfast.  I just stood there, amazed.  A total radio kid, I had been listening to Burns & Allen since that woody right there rolled off the assembly line in Detroit.  I couldn't wait to call my mother and tell her.

But first I had to meet Jim Frawley at our new office.   It was driving up Highland that I encountered my first riding earthquake: it was like momentarily rollerskating on a blanket of squirrels.  On my way to the Rexall drugstore right across from Warners.

The story was that, back in the Thirties and Forties, these sweet little suites, owned by the studio, had been set up right across the street so the executives and favored friends could take meetings with the gorgeous young starlets therein.  Meetings of all types.  And purposes.  Get it, get it?  Hubba hubba.

The chosen starlets were known, back in the day, as Drugstore Girls.  Way, way before the Me, Too Movement, yet t'was ever thus.  Ronan Farrow's mom Mia wasn't even born when the "drug store" first opened.

Down the hall from us was John Wayne's production company, Batjac.  I was sure I'd see Duke daily and once he found out about my famous friendship with Bill Faulkner, we would become best budds.  Hell, hadn't I already proved my admiration for genius over wrong-headed politics with John Milius?

But all I ever saw was Wayne's oldest son Michael trudging up the stairs and, twice, someone who looked like John Ireland, Cherry Valance from down Val Verde way out of the hallowed "Red River."  Later I heard that Ireland was so, um, graciously endowed, he was often referred to as just "Tripod."  It's not only Hollywood, I thought, there is a hierarchy to everything.  You never know where you'll get your valuable lessons.

Jim Frawley had just finished a film about Southern California tennis hustlers called, weirdly, "The Christian Licorice Store."  I think it was from some song.  And since it was a high profile small picture with Beau Bridges (then the big star in that talented family) and Gilbert Roland (say what?), the studio was inclined toward Jim.  So, both on a small payroll, us drugstore girls toiled away at our period military school insurrection epic.

Since I had been in the military and had attended a boy's prep school for four agonizing years of beatings, work-lists, betrayals, digging out stumps, and tear-stained letters home, I had some of the necessary gear to unpack this story.

But mostly what I learned in this year, thank God, was how to be -- how to live, how to survive and even thrive in the so-called adult world of show-biz.  Because I knew absolutely nothing.

Jim taught me how to and when to tip -- lots and often -- how to "take" a meeting, and how to accept script notes from well-meaning idiots (I wish I'd listened deeper to this one).

He taught me which jobs were bogus and which were worthwhile, which producers and executives were all bullshit and bluster and which could deliver true-north when they had to.  And which were sometimes both.

He taught me how to bring really good wine from Greenblatt's if you were invited to someone's house for dinner.  And how to surreptitiously pick up a restaurant check sometimes, even from rich stars and producers (which stood me in good stead years later with Jane Fonda and Ted Turner).

He taught me how to use an agent, a business manager, and a lawyer.  He taught me how to play pinball and then, when he got a new four-player pinball machine, he gave me the 'old' one!  By example, he showed me how to be generous.

Jim showed me how access to all sorts of rumors and information could be found through secretaries (now called assistants); remembering their names, treating them with the respect that comes from knowing they worked harder than you, longer than you, were better looking than you, took more shit than you...all for a tenth of the money.  In other words, they actually worked for a living.  Besides, it was easy to be nice to them once you found out how great they were.  Jim taught me tons.

The name of our military school script was "The Corps."  God, we loved it.  And although we both got paid as part of a studio development deal, it was never made.  The closer we got, the farther away it went; one of show biz's prime koans.

But apparently the script read well enough to get me a job at 20th Century Fox.  I was going to rewrite "The Last American Hero," a 'go' North Carolina stock car picture from white suit Tom Wolfe's "Esquire" piece to be directed by Lamont Johnson and starring Jeff Bridges, early on his rise to becoming the big star in that family.


My first day at Fox, walking down the wide carpeted hall (there must be a million soft walking miles of carpeted halls in that town), I bumped into the legendary dancer/director Gene Kelly on his way out.  I stopped.  Wowee wow, it's Gene Kelly!  He stopped.  Who is this hippy kid in my hall?

"Mr. Kelly, at the UCLA film school we used have these film orgies; you know, we'd run movies for days," Instantly, I was in full careening motormouth.

"The first one was for three days, the second one was nothing but trailers for 24 straight hours and I was the student/projectionist -- Jeez, I thought my fingers would fall off and I still got maybe carbon arc poisoning, like I'm gonna die for the movies  -- the big one was seven days, around the clock and we ran 'Singing in the Rain' five straight times!"

Will no one rid me of this meddlesome kid?  No!

"Mr. Kelly, we all thought 'Singing in the Rain' was AND IS the musical 'Citizen Kane.'"

Finally silence.  Then, he smiled and it grew to one of those cheek-bending thousand watt jobs that found his key light every time.  His teeth had teeth.  "Why, yes it is, isn't it?"  With that he spun around, his Burberry raincoat floating out behind him like Superman's cape and disappeared down the stairs.

This became one of my first major lessons: It's virtually impossible to praise anyone in Hollywood too much.  As embarrassing as it gets -- both ways -- sorrowfully, we are all bottomless wells of need.

When I walked into Monty Johnson's office I was in some kind of American in Paris dream.  Right up to the moment I met the former writers on the stock car picture.  "Chow Puppy, this is John.  And Bill," said Monty in his signature deep voice.  The two fired writers on the movie I was to replace were, in fact, also the producers!

Oh oh.


  1. I'm just loving this. Ok, maybe less if more. I get that. But, I could read this stuff for hours .... Good, Solid, Flight Time.................

  2. Billy: This is such a novel, great and interesting way to document your life just when it was becoming novel, great and interesting. What fun! These are only too long for those who want to print them out. I too could read this stuff for hours. Stay sharp my friend..................Joel The Hat

  3. Billy, I bless the day we met in the Tully's kitchen at one of their great Christmas parties. Chow Puppy in Hollywood is almost but not quite, not nearly quite, as good as a conversation with you in person. By the way, it's the guy in my Vietnam novel that I'm headed to be with - he's still very much alive and we are both happy about that. I leave Wednesday for the sunshine and desert...And we'll both be following Chow Puppy...We might even take a little whirl onstage together again...anything's possible as you know better than I.
    Con amore,

  4. I agree, it's only too long if you're not actually reading; for me they end too quickly.

  5. I can't believe George Burns--cigar and all--made a special joke JUST FOR YOU! Wow! "Riding on a blanket of squirrels"--beautiful! Then "the musical Citizen Kane" and "You can never praise anyone in Hollywood too much." This DOES sound like an American in Paris dream. I even love all the comments you've gotten--clearly from other great writers. Indeed: "only too long if you're not actually reading." Fabulous.
    --Megan M

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