“He Wasn’t Dying to Live in L.A.”
Intrepid Journalist’s Last Dispatch Before His Collapse
Story By ROGER ANDERSON
The phone rang. I picked it up. A woman's voice. It was the chief.
"What's your schedule like for the
I checked out the B & D Hardware calendar above my old wooden desk. A lot of clean white space. Actually, I had been thinking about catching up on my sleep.
"Pretty stacked up, chief. I'm doing a story on spec for The New Yorker about the death of the 800-page novel."
"That rag?" she scoffed. "It puts me to sleep. When're you supposed to have it to them?"
I thought quick. "I said I'd Federal Express it out to them on Tuesday. It's one of those big four-parters they're always running I elaborated. "Probably come out in book form next year sometime.”
"Right" she said. "Sure. Well, far be it from me to whisk William Shawn's newest protégé right out from under him, but something just came in on the arts teletype that looks like it's right down your alley.”
I felt my blood stirring. Wire-service bulletins always do that to me. "Well, go on," I said, already starting to fold. "I guess it can't hurt to hear.”
"Seems that Paramount Studios, even as we speak, is flying journalists from campus towns all over the country down to L.A. for the weekend. Putting them up at a fancy hotel. Free room service, cable TV, open bar, the works.”
"Did you say L.A.?" My blood had suddenly stopped stirring.
She ignored me. "It's expected that everyone will have the time of their lives, and so forth and so on. It's pretty unclear just what they want them down there for. They're not going to put up 20 or 30 wild-eyed college journalists in the lap of luxury for a long weekend just out of the goodness of their hearts — that we can be fairly sure of.”
I was torn. "It does sound interesting. But L.A. — chief, you can't send me down there.”
"The ticket is waiting for you at the airport," she went on smoothly. "Only thing is you've got to get from LAX to the hotel on your own hook. After that, everything's on Paramount. Within reason."
"Chief, didn't I ever tell you about me and L.A.?" I said plaintively. "There's something
about the place . . . I don't know what it is
. . . it just gives me the willies ... and I can
never get any work done there."
"Don't hand me that bunk. A reporter of your stamp can work anywhere," she replied heartily. "You'll fly down, you'll have fun, we'll get a scoop on the competition.”
"Well. . .”
"And your money's no good down there. Follow me? Look, I know what kind of bread you're pulling in these days. I bet you can use a weekend of living on someone else's cuff."
My blood still wasn't stirring, but the balance had tipped. "Okay, I'll do it. But if I come back with no story, don't say I didn't warn you."
"There's a million stories in Southern California, Anderson,” she retorted. "You're bound to come back with one of them. And by the way—“
“Don’t forget to call Shawn about extending your deadline.” She chortled, and then the line went dead.
When I climbed off the plane in L.A. I was already feeling lethargic. It had to be 80 degrees in the shade — in February. Sweat kept pouring down from the band of my fedora into my eyes. I undid the top button of my overcoat. Women in halter tops and men in Bermuda shorts were dashing around, collecting kids and luggage. Not a Red Cap in sight. I found my steamer trunk and wrestled it to the curb. "Hotel Shuttle,” a sign said. For as far as the eye could see, stucco houses and shopping malls lay under a grayish brown haze. It was going to be a long weekend.
After an hour of slowly crawling through bottleneck traffic, the shuttle finally arrived at the West Hollywood hotel where Paramount was running its mysterious game. Le Mondrian, it was called. I couldn't decide whether you'd say, "I'm staying at Le Mondrian” or "I'm staying at the Le Mondrian.” Neither way sounded right. The whole thing was giving me a headache.
"Mr. Anderson? On behalf of the hotel and Paramount, let me welcome you to Hollywood. Here is your guest identification card — just show it whenever ordering at the bar or in the restaurant. Room service is also compliments of Paramount, of course. Enjoy your stay. Here's an itinerary."
An insanely polite bellboy ushered me up the elevator, groaning softly under my trunk. He showed me around my room — rather, my suite. Two color TVs, various nifty appointments (including, I noticed, a liquor cabinet) a huge picture window looking out on thousands of square miles of undifferentiated L.A. I slipped the kid a Washington and he vanished. I got out of my overcoat and undid my suspenders. The air conditioning was humming. Sterile, arctic air. Closer to the window it was still hot.
The itinerary. It said there was a cocktail party at five o'clock, and then buses would take the guests out to the studio for the screening. Interesting. Who or what was being screened? A movie, or the guests? Screened for what?
The liquor cabinet. Five o'clock was an hour and a half away; what I needed now was a good slug of rye. But the damn thing was locked! I yanked at it. Nothing. The chief must have warned them about me.
I was starting to wish I had never come. I sipped a glass of water, smoked a few Old Golds, and watched TV till it was time to go downstairs. The thing about TVs, I realized, is that you can only watch one of them at a time.
As it turned out, the cocktail party was misnamed. There were no cocktails served. On the whole, probably just as well — from the looks of things, ninety percent of those present were under the legal drinking age.
I made the rounds. I drew some stares at first — you'd think some of these youngsters had never seen a man wearing a hat before. But after I'd broken the ice with a couple of funny anecdotes from my days as Glenn Miller's personal manager, they started opening up. I wormed important information out of them — for instance, where they were from. I was surprised (and yet not surprised, if you know what I mean) to learn that many of them came from places as far away as Tampa, Florida and Charlottesville, Virginia. Bensonhurst, if you don't mind. Paramount wasn't kidding around. And they weren't sparing any expense.
After a while, word went around that the two buses were ready for loading. Due to some logistical slipup, one of the buses took off with twenty empty seats while the bus I was on had people swaying in the aisles. It was another interminable crawl through the stucco wilderness, but at least we didn't have to worry about the movie starting without us. If, that is, that was what they had in store for us.
We pulled into the Paramount lot and filed into a screening room about the size of your neighborhood theater. A studio goon of some sort got up on his hind legs and said something about it being a rough cut. What was he talking about? Were we all supposed to be trying out for the football team?
The movie was called Gung Ho, directed (at least so the credits claimed) by one Ron Howard. Probably an assumed name. I wasn't very surprised when it turned out to be a dynamite little flick, as these kids like to say. After all, Paramount wasn't likely to go to all this trouble for a turkey.
The story had to do with this joker from a midwestern auto- factory town that had gone bust — the car company had folded, and folks were out of their jobs. Somebody hatches this scheme to get a Japanese company to open the factory again, and it works. Everybody goes back to full employment under Japanese management — meaning that Japanese managers actually move in and run the place.
I couldn't help feeling that this was a swell premise for a comedy, and what flickered onto the screen proved me right. Michael Keaton, the star — a fellow a bit older than most of the people in the screening room — had a likable line of baloney that Phil Silvers might have envied. His back-ups were good, and the whole thing moved along at a good clip. The script, by two writers going under the monikers of Lowell Ganz (most likely assumed) and Babaloo Mandel (you tell me), smartly put the situation through its paces. Sensitive issues — a certain global war, for instance — were skillfully and humorously handled. The large cast of characters — including factory workers, Japanese management types, and families of each — came strongly to life as the story rolled along. A gregarious, interesting movie. It almost made me forget that I was in L.A.
But getting on that bus afterwards and doing the automotive Varsity Drag through the humid February night brought it back to me. The bus was a hotbed of extemporaneous film criticism. Someone was talking about Godard. The bus kept stopping and starting. I was getting another headache.
They herded us back into the hotel and into the grand salon for an after-screening reception.
The itinerary had said that members of the cast might just possibly be in attendance. They weren't. But cocktails were being served — at last. I asked for a rye, neat. I settled for a glass of Calistoga water with a twist of lime. The food, spread out on tables along one side of the dimly lit room, was good — unidentifiable, but good. The reporter from Tampa remarked that it reminded him of the formless synthetic food on Star Trek. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.
I wound up in the bar with an intelligent young woman from Sacramento. This was the third trip she had been on, she said. The first in New York, the last two here. She looked bored. I said the movie had been top notch. She agreed, yawning.
I don't like to think much about the next day. The itinerary listed a single activity: a press conference with Sab Shimono, one of the supporting Japanese-American actors. It was scheduled to run from eleven till noon: after that, we were free as birds. I saw this as 23 hours in L.A., out of a possible 24, with nothing to do. The prospect wasn't stimulating.
The press conference itself was painless enough. Mr. Shimono spent a good deal of the time good-naturedly responding to impertinent questions about his hair style. He also managed to give a fair picture of what it was like to work on the project. All in all, it was the fastest hour of the day.
But after it was over, the torpor set in. From the window in my room I could see a few of the others lounging groggily around the swimming pool below. Beyond, an unnaturally warm day rested like a fresh corpse on the litter of houses and malls. I ordered up a large orange juice. Vitamin C — maybe that was the ticket. Someone brought it and gave me a voucher to sign. It said that Paramount was shelling out four and a half bucks for a ten-ounce glass of the stuff. I signed. Thank God it wasn't my money.
When I woke up the next morning, the television was still on. I checked the time. Half an hour till the press conference with Michael Keaton and Ron Howard, or whatever their real names were. I ordered a pot of coffee from room service.
'Way to go, Rich:
"Joanie, you get back in your room.”
Some program about teen life during the Cold War period was on the tube. One of the main characters was an improbably bland, fatuously earnest youth with furry eyebrows and reddish hair. A real loser. Probably hadn't seen a day's work from that day to this.
A little later I was waiting in the grand salon with the other visiting members of the fourth estate for the two big pieces of creative cheese to arrive. I was amazed when they walked in and one of them — the director, Ron Howard — turned out to be the same wide-eyed youngster I'd just been watching on TV. I rubbed my eyes. It didn't seem possible.
Except for the movie, this press conference was the one redeeming feature of an agonizing weekend. The two youths handled themselves with the aplomb of Zen octogenarians. Good questions, bad questions it was all the same to them. A pleasure to see and hear. But when it was over, I felt the weight of terminal lethargy press down on me again.
Indeed, I barely made it back to my suite. With every step, ennui dragged me closer to the center of the earth. Walls and doorways loomed crazily, like something out of Lady From Shanghai. My hands were limp; I could scarcely turn the knob on the door to my room.
The TV was still blaring. Hadn't I turned it off? It seemed that I had. The place had been tidied. Maybe the maid had switched it on while I was downstairs.
Some movie about teen life during the Cold War period was on. Not bad. It had a smooth-flowing, dreamlike quality about it. Guys tooled around in hot-rod cars. A gang of juvenile delinquents tried to break open a vending machine. A troll-like boy in a borrowed car kept playing up to a dizzy blonde he'd accosted on the street. Pretty engrossing. But what was this? It couldn't be. The same guy! Ron Howard! Bland, wholesome as you please! Again!
I felt myself losing control. There was no escaping him. His image, his body, his ingratiating voice seemed to lurk everywhere. Glancing fearfully behind the furniture, I got up and tried the liquor cabinet again. Still locked.
I began to feel dizzy. Spots appeared before my eyes. I tried calling the hotel medical number on the phone, but the dial kept getting away from me.
The rest is a blur. I vaguely remember presences, voices.
"His pulse is low. So's his temperature."
"Get him out of that overcoat. What about his eyes?"
"Maybe we should get him to the hospital."
"Better to get him on a plane. Look here at his driver's license. Bay Area address. I've seen it before. Geocultural shock. They come down here, far from their fog and cappuccino, and they never make it back. This one's lucky. We may have found him in time…”
I don't remember checking out, or the trip to the airport. All I remember is the plane touching down at Oakland and the stewardess giving me funny looks as I staggered toward the ramp.
The chief was waiting for me by the baggage claim with a bottle of rye and a shot glass. I stepped behind a pillar and had a blast. It was damn good to be back.
"Give me the lowdown,” she said once we were in the car with my steamer trunk.
There was a chill in the air. Rain clouds were settling over the Oakland Hills. I buttoned my overcoat as far as it would go.
“The lowdown," I said softly, "is that Gung Ho is an excellent movie that Michael Keaton is as funny as a crutch both on screen and off, and that Ron Howard - as he likes to call himself — is everywhere. And we might as well get used to it.”
She thought for a moment. “Anything else?"
"Yeah." I lit an Old Gold and sighed. "You can't go home again."
A Note from the Chief:
The Association of American Entertainment Journalists announced yesterday that former Southern Californian Roger Anderson has been awarded the Lifetime Service Award for his unflagging service to the profession. Anderson. who was reached (after much investigation, bribery, and thinly veiled threats) at a convalescent home for the mentally drained, was speechless. His nurse did, however, say that his speech therapy was coming along quite nicely and that he will be fully recovered from his nightmarish trip south before too long. We on the arts staff congratulate Anderson on the occasion of this prestigious award and wish him all the best in his speedy recovery. And, a final, personal word from me — hurry back, Roger, your rye is curdling.
back to top