The SoCal Trip 1975

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Have you ever flown on an airplane with a head cold? With your sinuses full up and all you can do is sit there with your eyes clamped shut and teeth gritted? The take-off had been no problem, so there had been no “theatrical trailer” heralding the excruciating experience waiting in the wings.

The landing was the horse of a different color. It felt like an invisible fiend was exploring the inside of my head with the point of an icepick. I chalk it up to the change of air pressure that occurred as we descended. It was with great relief that we finally touched down, and the experience was soon relegated to a distant memory, (with a note to self – never to fly with a head cold again). Our vacation could finally begin in earnest.

This was our first ever vacation to Southern California, and to some of its choice attractions – Disneyland and “Hollywood” to be precise. I do not remember the exact details as to arrangments but we had passes (open sesames) to each stop. It was through favor of the branch managers that my Dad knew (and I would later know myself when working at Saffle’s).

Our first day in SoCal was spent in the Magic Kingdom – Disneyland, courtesy of the BV branch manager in Seattle, Homer Schmidt. It was my second visit, and I think it was perhaps the second time for my wife. The park was prepping for the big bicentennial for the United States the following year, and had already added pertinent events – like America on Parade –  a bicentennial version of the Main Street Electrical Parade.

From here on out, “Gone with the Wind” seemed to be the theme for the rest of the vacation. For, the next day we had an appointment to take a tour of the MGM studio in Culver City, courtesy of the MGM branch manager Connie Carpou. We were driving up Washington Blvd in that fair city, when my wife’s eye caught a curious sight. It appeared to be the mansion from her all-time favorite film – “Gone with the Wind.” Or to be more precise the mansion on the beginning clip that announced it was a David O. Selznick production. There it was in all its glory. And what did we do? We turned the car around and drove back to get a closer look.

We found a side street and parked the car. Nearby we found the studio gate and its guard. As I remember it now, it was a bit of a tunnel, overhung like a garden arbor. So we questioned him about the lot and the mansion out front, and he confirmed our guess that it was indeed what we had seen in the movies. They did not allow visitors at this studio, and since we had our appointment at MGM to get to, we left.

MGM was only a short distance away. We checked in at the Thalberg building to begin our tour of the lot. We were taken through the east gate and down the main street (I think there was advertising for the upcoming release of The Sunshine Boys). First stop was the MGM Scoring Stage. Here we learned that the music soundtracks for the “Wizard of Oz,” “Ben Hur,” and, of course, “Gone with the Wind” were scored. (And to my amazement, one of my all-time favorites “Lawrence of Arabia”).

Our guide pointed out to us the water tank beside the main street, and informed us that it had been built for and used by the swimming film star, Esther Williams. We next got a peek inside an empty sound stage. It was just that, empty, and big.

The rest of the tour at MGM is hazy in my memory. I thought we went briefly into the back lot, where the exterior sets stand – like the New York set; the Carvel town set (Andy Hardy’s hometown), etc. But since “That’s Entertainment” had come out just the year before, I more than likely conflate my memories of its sequences that were shot on this same backlot with those of our tour. I recall mention of certain restrictions that were in place due to insurance concerns.

The last stop on our vacation was a tour of Universal Studios, courtesy of Russell Brown the Seattle branch manager for Universal. It was not at all like the amusement park venue that it is now. We actually got to get out and walk around in certain areas. I remember walking through covered areas where props and greens were set out in the open. We attended a demonstration of movie make up in which members of the audience were “made up” as the Frankenstein monster. (I did not volunteer). But the most memorable item (especially for my wife) was an exhibit that contained a Techincolor camera – one of the cameras that had been used when shooting “Gone with the Wind.”

Our trip back was via an Amtrak train on an over night schedule to Seattle. It had been planned that way from the beginning, not because of my recent experience on the plane. In the main it was memorable because we were sidetracked some time in the night due to heavy snow. We awoke to find that the tracks had just been cleared.

We enjoyed ourselves very much. So much so, that we have been back a number of times, the next one being the very next year.

A future post or posts on that experience to come.

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Moving on Up to Booking Films

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The Seeley Theater in Pomeroy, WA

After I left the UA Cinemas 150 and 70, I applied for other “film biz” jobs in the Seattle area. One of the first places I applied was the Saffle Theater Service, a film buying and booking firm that covered the Northwest. I did not hear anything from them then, but soon after an assistant manager position opened up with Mann Theaters at their Fifth Avenue Theater, so I forgot about that application. However, the owner, Bud Saffle, must have remembered me, for a less than a year later something had changed and he contacted me with an offer for a position as his booker.

When I was hired on at the Saffle Theater Service, it was a big promotion in more ways than one. The salary was better to be sure. But so were the hours. They were regular “bankers’ hours.” A nine to five job. No more late, late nights. And there were other perks as well, but more on that later.

It was in a part of Seattle that was “new” to me, (possibly explained by the fact that it was in the opposite direction from the Fifth Avenue theater, and hence off my normal path). From our apartment on Fifth Avenue, I just had to head over to Westlake – a boulevard that cut diagonally across the regular grid. On the other side of Denny Way I took a right on John Street, and another right on Terry Avenue and looked for a spot to park.

I always took the Roadrunner and parked on the side of the small two story office building on the corner of John and Terry. The Saffle Theater Service was on the second floor on the Terry Avenue side. You entered through glass doors into a large open area, presided over by the company secretary and the company records. Mr Saffle had the office on the right; mine was beside his on the left (from its window, I could keep tabs on my Roadrunner).

Mr Saffle’s company represented about thirty independent exhibitors, i.e. theater owners, spread throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They were small town cinemas dating back to the thirties or before; or drive-ins from the fifties. Mr Saffle personally handled the larger accounts, the Mike Mercy Theaters of Yakima and the Kenworthy theaters of Moscow/Pullman. I had the smaller theaters around the hinterlands, like the Seeley in Pomeroy, WA. (It was only open a few months, being closed to store potatoes the bulk of the year). Of particular interest to me, was the Alpine Theater in Colville, WA. It was my Mom’s home town, and I was familiar with this theater, having lived in Colville when a boy.

Mornings were taken up with collecting grosses from our theaters and disseminating them to the pertinent distributors. You can be sure the distribs wanted to know, especially on Mondays after the weekend. They would press us to hold their films over (or try to get us to take off a competitor’s to bring their new title in – exhibitors and distributors have a notorious love-hate relationship). Monday mornings could be a real trial, especially for my boss, for he made all the big decisions – regarding hold overs and terms.

I had to learn new aspects of the “film biz.” Contracts, terms, booking dates and cutoff cards. Much of it was phone work, calling my counterparts with the distributors for film availabilities and terms, and advising my clients about what would perform well in their locations. Mr Saffle tutored me in the whole system that was in place governing the split of the box office monies, which is an interesting topic. Some films were flat $100 or $125, but those were always older films, usually booked as a lower half to a double bill. The newer films were paid on a percentage basis.

The stated percentage is what the exhibitor paid the distributor. So, for instance if the terms were 35%, that meant my client kept 65%. And that’s the way we liked it. Subsequent weeks bottomed out at 25%, and we liked that even better. Bigger films had bigger terms and required playtime commitments. For our bigger towns the minimum was four weeks. The first week was 70%, the second 60%, the third 50%, and the fourth 40%. If business held up the film could be held beyond that for 35%.

But there could be another wrinkle to the big term pictures – the dreaded 90/10. Each theater had an agreed upon house expense, the cost the exhibitor incurred just to open the doors for a week. (One which our firm always tried to negotiate up as high as possible). You would subtract that “nut” from your gross for the week, and of the balance you only kept 10%.  But hold on. There was an “if” involved. The distributor always took whichever was greater, the result of the 90/10 calculation, or the floor percentage for that week.

[Aside – I had heard one time that the whole 90/10 business had its origin back in the late thirties. An exhibitor came up with the formula in a bid that he put forth in an attempt to win the rights to show “Gone with the Wind” over his competitor. Then the floor was 25%]

When you ended up paying the floor percentage, you theoretically might not be covering your costs in that week. (And you always wondered why concessions cost so much. Many exhibitors would claim they weren’t in the film business, but in the popcorn business. They probably still do).

Then at multiple times during the week we had screenings to go to, (and the main reason I drove to work rather than walked). The distributors arranged these for film buyers in the exchange area to see their new product in advance of their release.

It was a much anticipated perk.

But more on that next time – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Buzzing Along Under the Monorail

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There I was on a trip, zipping along under the monorail. It was surreal, almost psychedelic.

Visions of 2001: a Space Odessey.

But I get ahead of myself.

Our world as a married couple expanded a bit when my wife took a new job at Virginia Mason Hospital. So our footprint in Seattle was enlarging. She had a further distance to travel, double what it took me to go to the Fifth Avenue Theater. She easily walked it. Or depending upon schedules I was sometimes able to drop her off at the Spring St entrance.

For the past five years we had been pretty insulated, having met each other in show biz, it seems the only people we knew were family or in show business (and a good percentage of individuals in those two categories overlapped).

At Virginia Mason she worked in the kitchen, cutting raw produce for the hospital cafeteria and for the patients’ meals. Carrots and celery for instance. In fifty pound bags – character and muscle building.

She co-ordinated closely with one of her co-workers, Dan Daniels. His job was to receive the produce, store them, then distribute them where and when needed; i.e., her cutting board. Not too long after she started there, he invited the two of us up to his home to introduce us to his wife, Mary. And for many times after.

Dan and Mary lived in the Queen Anne District, which, as some readers may know, is north of the downtown Seattle area. We were only familiar with a few things up in that neck of the woods. Things like the Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle; and our favorite restaurant at the time, Bloch’s.  (It was great for after a show. We came for the sandwiches. I always had the hot pastrami, and my wife had the prime rib. Yum).

Dan and Mary were fun-loving, festive folks. And holidays for them were always an excuse for a party. They were also artistic souls and everything was always tastefully decorated to the hilt. They introduced us to other things as well.

It must have been a New Year’s Eve celebration. There were noisemakers and party hats. And champagne at midnight. I believe it was the first time I had ever sampled the “bubbly.” I had had beer before, and that always with food, and never to the point of drunkenness. This new concoction was definitely something different.

It’s why I found myself in the passenger seat of the Roadrunner, buzzing along under the monorail at night back to our apartment. The supports to the monorail track flicked by with rythmic regularity. Any lights we passed seemed to bend around and through the windshield and side window and funnel somehow through my wide awake eyes, directly into my brain. It really was the “light show” segment from “2001.” The swift motion of the vehicle that cradled me, instead of comforting, added an element of creepiness, an edge of unease.

That “trip” contributed a great deal to the reasons I have been a teetotaler for the majority of my life.

They Call It Screwball

They Call it Screwball

No. I’m not writing about the baseball pitch that behaves in an opposite manner to the curve ball.

I am referring to the meaning of the word when it is applied to a slightly (or totally) off-kilter personality. When it comes to film, the word is usually shackled hand and foot to another word – “comedy.” In this genre, these aforementioned personalities are thrown together into situations that range from the absurd to the downright silly.

And they’re a lot of fun.

My wife and I received our indoctrination into the form in Seattle in 1974. A little storefront theater had sprouted out of “nowhere” down in the Pioneer district. The young couple (the Curtises) who gave it “birth,” christened it – The Rosebud Movie Palace. It was all of 88 seats, to which you gained access by running the maze of plywood walls thrown up to enclose the auditorium area. To my notion it was a throwback to the old Nickelodeon era.

[Research aside – The whole film industry in these United States owes its existence to similar tiny beginnings. In New York City of, say, 1904 – these establishments in the statutes of the city were known as “common shows.” This term described theaters of under 299 seats, and were not subject to the fire code of the larger legit theaters. And because the admission was five cents, they gained the moniker Nickelodeon.]

I first ran across the Rosebud theater when perusing movie ads in the newspaper. A film title caught my eye – “The Philadelphia Story.” It was a film we had heard about, but never seen. So we paid them a visit on my day off from the Fifth Avenue Theater (a bus man’s holiday). And we were delighted to watch the trials and tribulations of the three main characters played by Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. Want to know anything more? I don’t do spoilers. Catch it for yourself.

We kept a weather eye out for other titles in the genre and soon tracked down the likes of:

It Happened One Night

Bringing Up Baby

You Can’t Take It with You – (my personal favorite)

His Girl Friday

Will you look at that  – Capra – Hawks – Capra – Hawks. I am aware that other directors toiled in the genre, but those two are easily the best. But I am thankful to Cukor, as the director of The Philadelphia Story, the “gateway drug,” as it were, to this rather mild addiction.

I come to the end of this post and hesitate to mention that we also saw films of other genres at the Rosebud. Like “Fury” the Fritz Lang thriller with Spencer Tracy; and “Queen Christina” the historical drama with the enigmatic and beautiful Greta Garbo.

But look I’ve gone and done it anyway. I didn’t hesitate at all.

Just call me “screwball.”

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

I have mentioned the Coliseum Theater in Seattle in two former posts, filed in the “Memories” category, but have not yet spilled any ink (nor emitted any electrons) describing it. When it opened in 1916, it had the distinction of being the first theater in Seattle (if not the entire country) specifically designed for showing film. The secret was in the floor. The design called for a curve to the floor of a sufficient pitch that one had a clear sight line over the people in the row in front of you – not unlike the theory behind the stadium type seating that revolutionized movie theater design in the 1990s.

Another strange detail about its design – was the lack of stage space – it was tall and wide, but had no depth. The screen was mounted on that shallow back wall. (I understand from my research that this was a choice by the owner at that time – Alexander Pantages, who, though his was a vaudeville circuit, intentionally cut down on the scale to save on the number of musicians and stagehands he had to hire).

By this time – the mid-70s, there were no muscians (except for those neon ones up on the revolving sign above the marquee), and there was one lone stagehand. Or half a stagehand, as they shared one with my theater the Fifth Avenue up the street. (Again this was the redoubtable Walt Coy).

Gone for the moment were the big Hollywood productions from the Coliseum’s screen. Instead the invasion of violent Hong Kong Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation bombshells exploded daily in its auditorium. As a consequence the company thought it prudent to have a bouncer on hand to control any instances of patrons imitating the bad behavior of their favorites up on the screen. Into this latest incarnation of the Coliseum stepped my bride of just a few months.

[Aside – My uncle Bud was then the manager of the theater. She had worked for him when he was assistant to my Dad at the GCC Renton Village Cinemas. He knew what a great cashier she was, and hired her, no nepotism required.]

The box office in which my wife spent most of her time, was out in front of the entrance, situated at the corner of Fifth and Pike. It was literally all by itself – an island – cut off from the rest of the building. One gained entrance by stooping over and waddling through the low half door – the only way in or out.

All went well until the night the projector broke down. My uncle announced to the patrons inside that the problem could not be fixed and that they could repair to the box office and there receive passes for another day. They soon surrounded my wife, sitting in the glass fishbowl that was the box office. None of them wanted a pass. They all loudly demanded their money back. Strangely, to a man they all argued that they were from out of town and only in for the night, and would not be coming back any time soon. It felt to her like a riot was about to break out.

Before that could happen, the Coliseum bouncer stepped in. His name was Bobby, a black, ex-prizefighter from Chicago. (The rumor circulating the district had him on the lam from the Windy City, hiding out from a vindictive mobster). I had heard of the description “caulifower ear” before, but had had no concept of what that even meant – until I saw Bobby – and that vegetable like appendage attached to his head. Even then it was an afterthought to your consciousness, as he had an overwhelming presence. To call him “solid” is an understatement – more like a brick wall in motion. Yet for all his power and mass (and cauliflower ear), he had the sweetest and gentlest temperament.

He soon had things in hand, and when through, escorted my wife from the Coliseum to my theater.

My wife was shaken, understandably. And I did not object nor try to dissuade her when she decided to resign the next day. (She soon found a job at Virginia Mason Hospital, where she was the one weilding a knife when surrounded by carrots and celery).

We still paid an occasional call to the Coliseum. Shortly after this time, its bill of fare changed and a couple of back to back blockbusters settled in. That is where we caught The Towering Inferno, followed six months later by Jaws. The Coliseum was the only place to see them in the Seattle area.

And still under the protection of Bobby.

Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 2

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I had to laugh when I realized that this Research post had its reference point centered in 1928 San Francisco, a time and a place about which I have written five other posts.

This time around it is a starting point for unraveling a timeline problem in the life history of Walt T. Coy, the stagehand whom I knew at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, Washington. Occasionally during the 11 month gig (June 1927 to May 1928) that the Herb Wiedoeft Band put in at the Trianon Dance Hall, Walt filled in for their drummer (Walt spelled his name as “Weidoff”). Herb got an offer from a major studio in Hollywood to score a picture. He did not have a regular place on the band for Walt just then, but dropped a hint that he might be able to use him if he happened to find himself down south.

Walt did pick up a job that would serve to that end. He joined the band on the H. F. Alexander, a passenger liner that sailed up and down the West Coast, making calls at Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once the ship was beyond the three mile limit out came the booze without limit. When the ship called at San Francisco, Walt bought a San Francisco Examiner in which he learned to his dismay that Herb Wiedoeft had died as the result of an automobile accident.

I looked up the details about this event. Herb Wiedoeft died in Medford, Oregon on May 12th 1928, the day after the car accident. So, this places Walt in San Francisco, most likely in a seven day window after the accident. After this news Walt says he decided to try his hand at acting down in Hollywood. This seems logical because as I established in last week’s post, he already had some experience as an extra on the production of “The Patent Leather Kid,” the year before.

After the news in San Francisco, Walt records :

“Finding myself eventually in Los Angeles with a few extra nickels in my pocket, I decided to take a fling at being an actor. This turned out to be a rather short-lived adventure.

One of the studios I was in was called the Chaplin Studio – later changed to United Artists – and a Charlie Chaplin picture was in the process of being filmed. For a young fellow to be there, it was a big deal. Charlie Chaplin was a meticulous artist. The same scene was reshot hour after hour until it was perfect in Chaplin’s eyes. As young as I was then, I classified him as a perfectionist.” (from My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me, page 67).

I confess I was really curious to know which Chaplin film this could be. According to his filmography, “The Circus” seemed to be closest in time, but it was released in January 1928. The next film in order was “City Lights” which was not released until 1931. I remembered that “City Lights” did have a longer than normal production period, so that seemed the logical place to start. (This Chaplin film is one of my all-time favorites, and in my opinion a masterwork).

One online source listed that it was in production from 12/31/1927 to 1/22/1931. This seemed to fit the bill easily, but what if the scenes employing extras were all before May 1928? So, I did more checking.

Variety gave the negative to that question, for it reported in their 1/29/1929 edition, that the Chaplin Studio had remained dormant for the first five months of the preceding year (1928).

Production reports for the studio indicate that Chaplin was working on the story for that time period, clear up to August of 1928, when set construction began. Another source confirms the construction month:

“Charlie Chaplin’s unit is building sets for “City Lights.” (from the Daily Exhibitors Review for 8/20/1928).

This very same article mentioned that Gloria Swanson’s “Queen Kelly” was to enter production after September 1st.

This gave me the idea to look into the Swanson picture. I thought that whatever time Walt spent as an extra on that film, might shed some light on his Chaplin Studio tenure.

“Queen Kelly” did not start on September 1st. In the trades there are articles showing it moving back and back. Finally Variety on 11/7/1928 (p 4) reported:

Los Angeles 11/6 – “Erich Von Stroheim’s second day directing “Queen Kelly” was a long one. During the day he worked on exteriors. In the evening, he came into the studio to kill one sequence with certain actors. There was a little delay in getting going, but the original plan was adhered to. It was 6:30 in the morning, when the troupe was dismissed. The call was for the following evening when the company again worked during the night.”

In the same edition of Variety (over on page 7) there is another short article that identifies the exteriors noted in the above quote.

Los Angeles 11/6 “…While the schedule calls for 10 weeks’ shooting it is deemed doubtful if this will be observed on account of the large number of mob scenes to be photographed out of doors – and the sun at this season is not dependable.”

Therefore, it would seem that Walt gained work as an extra on Von Stroheim’s “Queen Kelly,” before he was at the Chaplin Studio. Variety reported that the silent version of “Queen Kelly” was finished before Christmas. They then moved over to the Pathe Studios to work on the sound version, one for which they would not be needing extras, as only the leads had speaking parts. Things fell apart for Von Stroheim with the new year (1929), he was fired off the production and another director brought in for the dialog version. It was all a big mess after that. In fact, “Queen Kelly” was released in Europe and South America but never saw the light of a theater projector in the US (it was televised in the 1960s).

[Aside – with one exception – there was a clip from “Queen Kelly” that was inserted into Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” whose cast included Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim.]

This dovetails nicely with the start of filming for “City Lights.” I could not find any proof that Chaplin had ever pointed a camera at any extras in 1928. But once 1929 rolled around, (and Walt would have been looking for extra work after “Queen Kelly”), I found some substantial proofs. Variety again (for 2/6/1929, page 7):

Los Angeles 2/5 – Charles Chaplin after many delays has started “City Lights.” Previously he had done some work alone, but now he is surrounded by Virginia Cherrill, leading woman; Henry Clive, Henry Bergman, and Harry Crocker.

There are two sequences in the beginning of “City Lights” that called for lots of extras. Both, I believe, were filmed in the first two months of 1929.

The first was a scene where the Tramp character (“working alone” – i.e. not with named performers) fidgets with a stick that is stuck in a sidewalk grate. A ton of extras pass back and forth in the background. The sequence was cut from the release print, but you can view it in the Kevin Brownlow limited series, “The Unknown Chaplin.”

(The cut sequence from “City Lights.”)

The second scene covers the meeting between the Tramp and a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). I like to think that Walt was present for this segment. It does seem to fit his description above (“The same scene was reshot hour after hour”), for Chaplin famously took 342 takes on this very scene.

I watched both sequences with an eye to catch a glimpse of Walt, but I could not make him out anywhere – but I guess that is the purpose of an extra, to be an unrecognizable presence.

The Chaplin Studio shut down production on “City Lights” from mid-February until April 1st. Illness in the cast was the main cause, including Chaplin himself who was sent home with ptomaine poisoning (Variety 2/27/1929). When Charlie returned he again tackled the meeting scene with the blind flower girl (a scene that he would revisit in December, and again in 1930).

It is my guess that Walt left Los Angeles when production halted in February, and went back to Seattle. And his future involvement in film making was from the other side of the camera.

Fixing Walt Coy’s Timeline Part 1

Fixing Walt Coy's Timeline Part 1

As I mentioned in my Memories post, The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue, I made the leap of deduction that Walt T. Coy must have been an extra in Charlie Chaplin’s WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms.” For he described donning a soldier’s uniform and charging about in some trenches, all for two dollars a day and a box lunch.

When I received Walt’s autobiography I eagerly read it to find out more about the things he had told me over talks at the Fifth Avenue. In the pertinent chapter Walt dated his first time down in LA as 1928 (May or later). This timing rules out “Shoulder Arms” as that film was made a decade earlier. He lists in order – the Chaplin Studio, Queen Kelly for von Stroheim, and finally “The Patent Leather Kid” with Richard Barthelmess. This Barthelmess film is a boxing picture set against the backdrop of the WW1. I realized that this must have been the WW1 film that Walt was telling me about. He writes that he heard while down in LA that First National was going to shoot the Barthelmess film at Fort Lewis in Washington State and that the unit manager was to be Otto Lukan.

However, my preliminary research on this title turned up some problems. “The Patent Leather Kid” was released in August 1927, which means, obviously, it would not have been in production in 1928. And there is no Otto Lukan listed in the credits for the film.

I knew that Walt would not give me a bum steer, but he may have confused some dates and details. So I had two lines of attack to research and set things straight. First, find out when The Patent Leather Kid went into production, and second, find out who was this Otto Lukan.

So, to find out when the production was at Fort Lewis (or more properly as it was then known – Camp Lewis), I navigated to the Internet Archive and called up its Variety holdings and beginning with the opening date, combed through its volumes backwards.

And this is what I gleaned (arranged in ascending order):

2/9/1927 – On February 8, Richard Barthelmess broke his foot playing tennis, pushing back the start of production on “The Patent Leather Kid,” 3 or 4 weeks.

2/16/1927 – Though production was suspended on The Patent Leather Kid, Barthelmess was able to work on one scene, in which his character was wheelchair bound.

And here’s the clincher:

3/30/1927 – On March 28th  Barthelmess comes up from Camp Lewis to the Columbia Theater in Seattle to promote his film “The White Black Sheep” (also a First National Picture). About 750 extras were hired in Seattle, many ex-soldiers, for the filming at Camp Lewis. The manager of the theater gave a special preview for the extras before they went to work on the new picture.

4/19/1927 – mentions that Barthelmess was on location in Tacoma. Variety reports that his ex-wife had contacted him there about assuming custody of their daughter, while she went to be with her new husband in Singapore.

I conclude that Barthelmess was at Camp Lewis (near Tacoma WA) from the end of March 1927 through the month of April. This dates the time that Walt was an extra on the film and about which he writes:

“I worked in a Hun’s uniform with a spiked helmet part of the time, then shifted to the warp [typo – should be wrap] leggings of a doughboy. I spent various days in the slop and mud of the movie battle. Later, we would go down to the parade grounds, where they strapped a dummy on your back and we would follow the lead camera. When the simulated explosions occurred, we would fall and cut our dummies loose as the sawdust and brick dust hit us. Then we would get up and repeat the same sequence until the film director was satisfied.” From “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me” p. 68

I next tackled the mystery of Lukan. After a few stumbling starts, I learned first that Otto Lukan was L. Otto Lukan. Then after more searches using that clue, I discovered that he was more specifically – Lorenz Otto Lukan. With the full name everything fell into place. Here is his chronological resume:

1884 – born in Carver, Minnesota

1900 – the census shows him living with his parents in Everett, WA

1906 – he marries Evaleigh Smith

1908 – first and only child born – Margaret

1910 – the census for Seattle lists him as an accountant in the Assessor’s Office (either for King County or the city of Seattle)

1917 – Seattle directory – in the Advertising department for the Seattle P-I

And his first job in the film business

1918 – his draft registration lists him as the manager of the Pathe Film Exchange in Seattle

1920 – the census for Haller Lake WA (his residence near Seattle) just shows him as a manager of a Film Exchange (but does not specify), though articles in the Seattle Times for 1920 and 1921 list him as manager for the Associated First National Pictures Inc.

By 1922 he was the western division manager for the First National Theater Circuit. He was in the same company through the early 1930s, and definitely for the crucial time period in question – 1927 to 1928. Now whether or not he was bouncing back and forth between exhibition and distribution, I do not know for sure. But I am inclined to think that since FNP was a creation of a film exhibition circuit, he probably straddled the fence, with a foot in both domains. He was definitely situated in Seattle, with the exception of possible trips to LA to the Burbank studio and offices of FNP (this company was later acquired by Warner Brothers).

It seems to me then that Otto Lukan in his capacity as the district rep for FNP, was no doubt present for the promotion at the Columbia Theater in Seattle, and it makes sense that he would have stood in as a unit manager for the studio in the matter of hiring extras in the local area for “The Patent Leather Kid.”

Join me next week, when I will share what my research has revealed about what Walt may have seen when working at the Chaplin Studios.

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

Walter Theron Coy

Union agreements required that the Fifth Avenue Theater employ a stagehand. I was not aware of this fact,  when I met Walter Theron Coy my first week on the job. I was behind the concession stand concentrating on something else completely when I looked up to see an elderly man emerge from out of the auditorium. It caught me off guard. He was rather shabbily dressed, giving him an unkept appearance. He put me at ease by explaining who he was and what he did around the theater.

His cherubic Irish face, resonant voice, infectious laugh and an enormous mass of keys jangling on his hip made for a memorable introduction. Gaelic charm oozed out of him as well as a stream of patter that he later confessed to be straight out of the days of vaudeville. (At the age of 13 or 14 [1921 or 1922] he had been a candy butcher who operated evenings among a group of three Seattle vaudeville theaters. Incoming acts came to rely on him for intelligence on what routines had been employed by the outgoing performers, so they could adjust theirs accordingly). And prior to high school he even performed on stage, singing popular songs of the day accompanied by the theater organist.

[Aside – In his autobio, Walt states that he learned a lot about show business from the consumate pipe organist Oliver Wallace at the Liberty Theater down on First and Pike. Wallace later went on to work for Walt Disney, writing music for shorts and then features, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” up through “Lady and the Tramp”].

The more I talked with him over the weeks that followed, the more his life experiences surprised and impressed me. By the time he was in high school, he was playing drums or banjo in speakeasys around town. His love of the banjo led him to share stories about the Banjo King, Eddie Peabody, (aka the Banjo Maniac and the Rajah of Rhythm) who had headlined many of the vaudeville acts at this same Fifth Avenue Theater, from 1927 through the early 30s.

But what really raised my eyebrows was his tales about working as an extra and a cameraman in Hollywood. He had gone down to LA when he turned 20 to try to break into “pictures.” He was an extra at the Chaplin studio on one of Charlie’s films. His description of the action made me think that it was his WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms,” but upon reading his autobio almost a decade later it proved to be something else altogether (stay tuned for my Research post this Monday).  He then lined up for extra work over at the FBO Studios (owned by Joseph P. Kennedy) for director Erich von Stroheim, who was hard at work on the infamous “Queen Kelly,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Walt found getting work as an actor a tough go. So he switched to the technical side of the business. He had always been adept mechanically, having built his own radios when a youth. He joined the Naval Reserve in Seattle to learn more about radios and sound equipment. (And to fly, for he liked planes). He made a trip down to LA and called on Gordon Sawyer, the head of the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios to learn all about sound reproduction on film. He used this knowledge to build and sell bootleg sound systems to small theaters throughout the Northwest. (The systems by Western Electric were all by lease only, and unaffordable given the small amount of business these towns generated).

Sometime in the 1930s, Walt joined Local 659, the Hollywood cameraman’s union. He served on the camera crew for Paramount’s production of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” with W. C. Fields and Zasu Pitts.

He wasn’t often down in Hollywood to my calculation, for he had many businesses in the Seattle area that he ran – a printing business in the early thirties, a film exhibition company (one theater to begin with) which he acquired in 1937, and the Seattle Motion Picture Studio, a commercial film enterprise that made sound films – advertising, novelties and gimmick offerings. During the Depression, he kept fingers in a lot of pies, for he said, you never knew what would keep you afloat.

At the time I met him (1974), his studio was closed, but he still had some of his gear. He had sound equipment, of course, but he also had a 16mm self-blimped Auricon camera, that did not need a sound recorder as it had the capacity to directly record onto the film stock. A custom built camera dolly which could be cranked up to a six foot crane rounded out his holdings.  And he allowed me and my cinema-struck friends to use them. We just needed to rent some lights. (We used the lobby of the Skinner building and the backstage area of the theater as settings).

I last heard from Walt in 1980, when he sent me a signed copy of his autobio “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me.” In telling his life story, he details his trials and tribulations with a vindictive IRS which twice sent him to prison. When people styled him as an ex-con, he disagreed, and said he was just a convicted tax evader, whose case was under appeal. The appeal he won, and the judgement was reversed.

Walter Theron Coy was a true one of a kind.

[Aside – Walt preferred to write his name as Walt T. Coy, but I spelled it out completely so as not to confuse him with an actor that came out of Seattle around the same time. That actor was Walter Darwin Coy. He was on stage and screen, and notably, played the brother of the John Wayne character in “The Searchers.”]

Swashbuckler

The long drawn out rasp of metal on metal accompanied the image of the sword being drawn from its scabbard. So began Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers. Throughout the title sequence a series of stop action multiple images of two figures locked in combat beautifully set the tone for the next hour and an half.

I was standing on the stairs of one of the exits, checking something behind the screen, when a customer who had recently entered came bounding up these stairs to bump the exit door open and let his pals in. I stepped forward and told the “doorman” that he could join his friends outside. Too bad, they missed out on what was going to happen next.

My friend Dave liked the film too. And it may have been the reason behind our seeking out a fencing club to join. We found one that met in the community center in the Green Lake area north of Seattle.

As for all beginners, there was no jumping into things the first day. Nor the second. Nor any time soon. Basics had to be learned first. How to stand. How to move. Forward and back. The stance at first was awkward, and self-conscious, but as you began to move, it became the most natural thing in the world. Your favored foot was pointed forward and your other heel in line with the front one and pointed at the perpendicular. And you sat into a crouch, with both knees bent, and with your weight balanced over the rear or anchor leg. The lower half of your body was changed into a giant spring, so it was explained. And you felt it, especially in rapid movement.

Then practice, practice, practice. Lunge and recover, lunge and recover. And then we were taught how to hold the foil. (Dave preferred the pistol grip; I preferred the regular). Lectures followed on the geometry of fencing. Everything comes down to two points: the point of your foil and that of your opponent, your line of attack or parrying of his.

I kept waiting for a reference to The Three Musketeers, but was surprised when the instructor mentioned a sequence from another film instead. He was demonstrating the balestra – a movement used to close distance quickly between yourself and an opponent. It is a fast hop, followed by a lunge at the other fencer. This was a movement that Basil Rathbone employed against Errol Flynn in the Adventures of Robin Hood. I remembered seeing it, but it was all so fast – a blur really – that it took this extra knowledge of what the move was to understand what had taken place.

[Actually at the time I was more fixed on another realization. When I saw Robin Hood – at the Harvard Exit, of course – it was double billed with another Flynn flick, The Adventures of Don Juan. Watching them back to back you notice things. In Robin Hood, I saw a scene in which a drawbridge drops down and a number of riders charge out in pursuit. The exact same footage was repeated in Don Juan. It was my introduction to library footage. Say the director or the editor needs to fill a gap in his story, rather than setting up everything for another shoot, you just see what you can use from what the studio has in its “library.” In this instance the makers of Don Juan (1948) went back and borrowed this footage from the older film (1938).]

The Three Musketeers had a long run at the UA Cinemas, from the end of March 1974 through to September. And I was able to check in often and observe the swordplay. About the time it left, I was also leaving the UA (that story later) and moving on to the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. And you bet I was back when the sequel – The Four Musketeers – opened the next year. And I kept on fencing, even when we moved down to the Portland OR area. But that’s another story for another day – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Apartment on the Monorail

Apartment on the Monorail

Some people can look back with nostalgia about living in New York on the elevated train, or in Chicago on the El. We look back with fondness on our first “home,” the Sheridan Apartments on Fifth Avenue in Seattle on the monorail. It was a tiny studio on the second floor in the back – two rooms, a kitchen and a bath. Green was the theme – green walls – green chair cushions and the shaggiest green shag rug ever that overspread the two rooms: a living/sitting room in front, which opened onto the bedroom complete with murphy bed. If there had been a window in the wall from which the murphy bed dropped, we could have seen my old workplace, the Cinerama Theater. The UA Cinemas 150 and 70, my new workplace was also close by, a short two and a half block walk. Consequently our Roadrunner sat most days down in the parking lot, viewable from our kitchen window.

And talking about the kitchen. A postage stamp would have been bigger. We used to joke that you had to step out of the kitchen to open the fridge. You definitely could not open the doors on the fridge and the oven at the same time. Despite these little drawbacks it was a nice place to entertain friends. We had family over – from both sides – and friends – from our schools, Dave our best man, and co-workers from the UA.

Our space was not limited to the second floor. One could wander down to the basement for the laundry, or up onto the roof where an urban garden offered a place above it all. Karen used to sun herself up there in the summer. The Space Needle peered down on it from the north, with Queen Anne Hill frowning from behind.

Across the parking lot, on the corner of Lenore Street and Fifth Avenue sat the Trojan Horse Restaurant / nightclub. For the years I stood at the door at the Cinerama tearing tickets I saw a parade of famous names from the music world cross its marquee – Glenn Yarbrough, The Modernaires, Frank Sinatra jr., The Shirelles, The Platters, O.C. Smith, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Della Reese, and the Kingston Trio. The parade continued now that we were “neighbors,” – the Checkmates (in a reunion engagement), Ray Charles, Lloyd Lindroth (the Liberace of the harp), Lou Rawls, Bonnie Guitar, Harry James & Orchestra, and B. B. King. We never caught any of their acts. Number one, we had no money in our entertainment budget, and number two, I was always working during the times of their shows. However, there were some late, late nights, when I caught a few stray notes that escaped via the back door when some employee was out for a smoke.

The memories began early in this studio apartment (the most memorable I will cover in a future post that I’ve entitled “Thunderball, Mr. French”). On our very first morning there, we were awakened – no startled – actually shaken out of our murphy bed by an unholy crash and clatter from the alley just the other side of the bedroom wall. We thought the walls were caving in. It was only the Monday morning garbage truck making its way down the alley, welcoming us with the only concert we could afford – the Urban Gotterdammerung.