Walter M. Windsor
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Forks in the Road: Chapter 2
CALIFORNIA, HERE I AM !
The “big deal” that took us to California became tragically entangled in the maelstrom created when “talking pictures” took over from silent movies and sounded a death knell for most live entertainment of the day, particularly for vaudeville.
My dad’s deal with the theater tycoon Alexander Pantages was to produce and stage live shows to accompany the showing of silent movies in his many theaters across the nation. Just as the hopeful young Windsor family hit L.A., the stuff hit the fan. Pantages backed out on the deal.
I have never been privy to the details, but I know he welshed on the contract. There were many long telegrams back and forth (I think this was the only way that Mr. Pantages communicated), and litigation existed for some time, all to no avail. At first, Dad passed up other work opportunities, feeling he would win out in his war with Pantages. Soon there were no offers for stage work, and he was forced to accept directing burlesque shows to keep bread on the table. To a genuine vaudeville or variety showman, there was no greater ignominy. He opened a dancing school called Windsor Castle, but it failed, just after I started taking tap-dancing lessons. That was the end of my dancing career!
There was a feeler from the Warner Bros., even then a big force in the film industry, suggesting that Dad might choreograph and/or direct musical movies. He was thoroughly convinced that sound movies would fade out as a brief fad, and vaudeville would revive, so he spurned the idea. I think the fellow they eventually hired was named Busby Berkeley.
This “fork in the road” of Dad’s life was most costly. He could not support his family. He continued to dream of great productions and plan them on paper, but nothing ever came of them. His wife went to work for a real estate company that was then developing a large parcel of land that today is West Los Angeles. She would sit all day in empty new houses, to show them to prospective buyers. He would sit at home, dreaming dreams of his comeback and the return of the two-a-day, sending me to wherever she was working to borrow a quarter for two packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes. He was a chain-smoker, and had been so since the age of fourteen; there always had to be cigarettes, even when there was no food. This probably had a good deal to do with my early decision not to smoke.
I have to do my father justice on one point. He always took temporary work during the Christmas season, usually in the toy department of a local department store. He saw to it that there were gifts and toys, although most of them were defective or damaged items the customers had returned, which the employees could purchase at a great bargain.
I attended grade school at the Westwood School. On my first day, I was dressed in a fancy pongee suit that would have been appropriate in New York but not in casual California. After I was roundly razzed by the other pupils, the principal advised my stepmother to dress me in a different manner. It was also found that the level achieved in the fourth grade in Brooklyn far exceeded the level of the same grade in Westwood, so I was skipped, from the fourth grade to the fifth. This did not turn out to be an advantage; my being younger, plus a substantial overbite and a divergent “wall eye,” made me the target of most of the teasing and hazing at school.
For a while, we lived in Sawtelle, an area near to Westwood geographically but a couple of notches below in prestige. It was there that I had my twelfth birthday. My greatest wish for some time had been to own a bicycle. Every other kid had a bike. With a bike, you could become a newspaper carrier and make money. Nothing was promised, but on the birthday I was instructed to come straight home from school and not leave the house. I disobeyed and left for a short time. I was properly punished, but was also led to believe that the bicycle was to have been delivered and I wouldn’t get it because I wasn’t there. I soon realized that, if not a terribly cruel punishment, this was a cover-up for not being able to provide a bike. I have still never owned a bicycle. The closest I ever came to a paper route was peddling Saturday Evening Post and other magazines door-to-door, and selling papers on a street corner for a half-cent per sale.
The unfortunate domestic situation brewed conflict between husband and wife, which was complicated when some of her relatives from Nebraska moved into the house. After numerous battles, Virginia took Howard and left some time in 1930. I was then in the sixth grade.
Not long after my twelfth birthday, I joined the Boy Scouts. I was active in scouting for about five years, and it was one of the few elements in my early life that gave me encouragement and a sense of accomplishment. In spite of the problems at home, I advanced through the ranks to become a Life Scout, the next grade below the coveted Eagle. I could never make Eagle because I could not pass the Life Saving merit badge. I got my first taste of journalism as the editor of The Good Turn, published by my scout troop.
One day my father used me as a tool in an attempted abduction of Howard, but the law soon prevailed. I never could figure out how he proposed to support three when he had no income with which to support two. Virginia sued for divorce and charged him with a crime called, in California, “non-support.” He was found guilty and sentenced to six months in the Los Angeles County Jail.
During much of this time, I had been living at 1936 Greenfield Avenue, in the house we had formerly rented, as the “guest” of an elderly woman who had been our landlady. She loved to play the card game Casino, and I more or less earned my room and board playing this game with her. Not gambling; she just wanted someone to play with. My schooling during this period was at University High School; although I was not yet in “high school,” this was a developmental school operated by UCLA which covered grades 7 through 12. I remember being scared to death of the older boys, who were constantly threatening to “pants” mild-mannered kids like me, which meant removing your trousers and running them up the flagpole. They would punctuate these threats by ripping open your fly. This was, of course, in the age of buttons; we did not yet have the convenience of zippers.
As one aspect of the experimental program at the school, the seventh grade was divided into four ten-week terms, and each student was required to become exposed to a business course, woodshop or autoshop, a foreign language, and a science. Although I made a magazine rack in the woodshop and learned a few words of French, the only course that rubbed off on me was typing. The skill I learned in those ten weeks made me an unusually rapid typist from that time forward. I could usually out-type my secretaries.
Finally I was delegated to a foster home. I never knew why, but I was moved to a different one, in Beverly Hills, after a few weeks. I lived there and attended Beverly Hills High School, for part of the ninth grade. One day my father, released from his incarceration during which he had worked as librarian, came walking up the driveway. He obtained a small apartment in downtown L.A., and was involved in some proposed business transactions with two lawyers whose acquaintance he had made during the earlier legal proceedings. One of these ventures was the operation of a souvenir stand at the 1932 Olympic Games. I helped out in selling items at the stand, and was rewarded with a ticket to attend the track and field events for one day. Dad had also developed a board game, called OLYMP-O, which we tried vainly to sell at the Olympics. I began actual high school (tenth grade) at Belmont High, where I was issued a French Horn and began to learn to play it.
About that time, the Waterman Pen Company was sponsoring a nationwide autograph contest. You received an autograph book when buying a pen; then you obtained as many celebrity autographs as you could and submitted the book for judging. While in Beverly Hills, I secured the signatures of a number of Hollywood stars. Presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt came to L.A. to make a speech at the Biltmore Hotel. My dad took me there to try to get his autograph. He wisely suggested that we wait at the back entrance, deducing that Roosevelt would never come out the front door. Our waiting there paid off, as here he came with his entourage. I dashed up to him, held out my book, and said,
“Mr. Roosevelt, could you please sign this for me?”
“Not now, son; they won’t let me,” he said, and in a moment he was whisked away in a car. I guess that was my first brush with greatness.
About this time, Dad opened, with the backing of his attorney friends, a little sporting goods shop in Westwood Village, about half a block from the entrance to the UCLA campus, called the Diversion Shop. I never knew what happened to this short-term venture, except that it ended quite abruptly.
Then the attorneys got the idea they wanted to own and operate a game attraction on The Pike in nearly Long Beach, to be managed by my father. This was a great amusement park in its day, rivaling Atlantic City in its variety of rides, shows, games, dance palaces, and other diversions. The game chosen was basically what we know as Bingo, except it was called OLYMP-O, and was based on the flags of the various nations on cards, with marbles shot to determine on which countries you would place your markers.. I think we used dried beans. Anyway, we moved to Long Beach, and I entered Polytechnic High School there in the fall of 1932. I no longer had the French Horn, but I signed up for something called “Beginning Band,” for which the school provided instruments to students who did not have their own. As a late-comer to the class, I was given my choice of the only two remaining instruments, the tuba and the piccolo. For obvious reasons, I chose the piccolo, and managed to fake my way through the term without ever learning to play from the music, mostly by virtue of memorizing the great piccolo part for Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. I even passed the course!
Of course, we were broke, except for whatever compensation Dad received for managing OLYMP-O. We lived in an alcove above the game room. The ceiling was only six feet, and I was six feet plus, so I had to stoop to make my way around. Directly overhead was a ballroom, where the dancing that took place nightly had a very negative effect on sleeping. There was one bed for the two of us, and they had not yet created king-size beds. There was no kitchen; Dad made a deal with a lunch-counter operator at a nearby pool hall, and that was where I ate most of my meals. There was no bathroom; functions other than bathing were accomplished in a public restroom just off the game area. This was frequently occupied by members of the U.S. Navy, who were among the main customers on The Pike, many of them decidedly under the influence and/or sick as a result of their imbibing. Altogether it was no environment for a fourteen-year-old boy just starting high school. Dad rented a locker at a nearby bath house, where I could go and take a shower. I recall taking my first shave in that place; I had so little to shave, and was so anxious to do so, that I foolishly trimmed my eyebrows!
On March 10, 1933 at 5:55 p.m., a major earthquake hit Southern California, with most of the damage in Long Beach. I remember the exact time because all the clocks stopped. It was a Friday afternoon, and I had taken my gear with me so as to leave after school to go to Scout Camp for the weekend. I was at the seventh floor apartment of my patrol leader, waiting for his father to come to drive us to the camp, when the quake hit. I had one foot slightly damaged in escaping from the building. We camped out in a parking lot across from the teetering apartment house. I had no idea where Dad was, although I knew he figured I was safely ensconced in the camp. Then the rumor began that a tidal wave was coming. We were one block from the beach, so there was a mad exodus of people leaving Long Beach for presumably safer locations inland. On the way to L.A., I thought it over and decided I should not go, but should remain in Long Beach and find my father. I was let out of the car at Signal Hill and walked back to town.
A great many victims of the quake were being housed in the city parks, and I went to one of these. Being in my Scout uniform, I was pressed into service as a messenger. Amateur radio operators (“hams”) were contacting relatives throughout the country and relaying messages, and I was running back and forth through the park, picking up and delivering these messages, with a bedroom slipper on one foot and a shoe on the other. Dad was located in a day or two; his place of business had been totally wrecked, along with most of The Pike, and he had taken refuge in the apartment of one of his employees. When the game was rebuilt, it became a regular Bingo game, like its competitors. They called it “Tango” in those days. A baseball was tossed into a bin containing sections for each number, then the number was called and you covered it on your card. It was really a gambling operation by this time, the prizes being cartons of cigarettes, which the winners could redeem across the street for cash.
Dad arranged for me to spend the entire summer of 1933 at the Boy Scout Camp at Idyllwild, in the San Gorgonio mountains east of L.A. My troop went there for the initial session; then I was temporarily attached to other troops, one after the other, to last out the season. Most of this turned out to be an unsatisfactory and belittling experience, although I did teach myself to play the bugle.
Thus did I embark on my “teen years.” The things that had happened to my life up to that point had naturally had their effect on me. I had an unusually low level of self-esteem, no particular motivation or ambition, no social graces, not much in the way of clothes or spending money.
I became interested in girls. A new partner had come into Dad’s business, a retired Navy commander. When we were stamping numbers on the Bingo cards for the re-opening, the commander brought two of his daughters and three of their friends to help, all good-looking damsels roughly my age. I attended my first dance, developed one crush after another, and these girls were the nucleus of my social life for the next few years. I was not particularly welcome to the group, which had all gone through junior high together. However, I persisted. Persistence became one of my chief assets in life, but sometimes it was a liability.
In school I was a mess. I did very poorly in the tenth grade, and this became an issue between Dad and his employers, the two lawyers and a Long Beach optician. This doctor had a son who was attending the Southern California Military Academy there in Long Beach. He was a very successful student and enjoyed the prestige of being the Cadet Captain of the student corps. It was suggested that I should go to SCMA, and the doctor would guarantee the payment of the fees involved. Thus it was that I entered the military school in the fall of 1933. I did well there, fitting into the drills and the routines, and enjoying the learning process in small classes. I played the bugle and ended up marching in the Drum & Bugle Corps. I even played on the football team, although my usual position was at the end of the bench. I was not very athletic. I made some friends, and was invited to spend the holidays with the family of one of them, who had a nice-looking sister in whom I was interested. But when I returned to the Academy, I was told that I was no longer welcome there. It seems my father had been unable to pay the bill, and the doctor had not backed him up as promised. So in January, I went back to Poly High, a year older but not much wiser, to repeat the tenth grade.
I was again doing poorly, with no discipline (self or otherwise) over my education and activities. Dad and I had moved into a small efficiency apartment a few blocks from The Pike with a Murphy bed, and it was nice to have a kitchen and a bathroom. But there wasn’t much food in that kitchen. The bingo game was closed down when the City of Long Beach decided to clean up The Pike. Again my dad had no means of support. We were “on relief,” which principally meant we could go stand in line for free food, usually potatoes and beans. Dad was too proud to stand in the line, so I was elected to this honor. It certainly did nothing to improve my self-esteem. I was chipping in with some “odd jobs” from time to time.
My father was again dreaming of the big show he was going to produce. He was always able to “con” people into believing in these projects and advancing cash for their preparation. The Clarkes, owners of the apartment house, the Natalie, were also the parents of Caryl, my best friend through most of the scout years. I think we escaped rent-free for some time while these folks were involved in backing Dad’s latest fantasy. There was an old piano in the lobby, and I nearly drove the residents crazy teaching myself to play by ear in the key of C. Even today this is the only key in which I can play.
One day there was a huge celebration at the Natalie. Dad had spun his tales of his high times in vaudeville to one and all. Mrs. Clarke was listening to the radio, and they introduced a song as being from, as she heard it, “a Walter Windsor Production.” This seemed the first real proof of Dad’s high-flying past, and everyone in the apartment house knew about it and celebrated the occasion with a party at which Dad was the guest of honor. It was years later that I realized it was a “Walter Wanger” (rhymes with “danger”) production. But it was a great day at the Natalie, and my father took the accolades with modest grace.
The “Commander” did his grocery shopping at a store near our apartment, and never failed to fill an extra bag of food, which he conveniently “lost” while visiting Dad before taking the rest of the groceries home. Dad’s repayment was founded in this man’s abject alcoholism. With a lovely wife, three daughters and a son, he could be the world’s nicest guy when he was sober. But he periodically went off on benders, during which he would disappear. Apparently my father was the only one able to find him, sober him up, and return him to his family. He “earned” quite a few of those groceries in that way.
Came the eleventh grade. They finally gave up and let me move out of the tenth. And two teachers came into my life that changed it immensely. I signed up for two elective subjects, Journalism and Oral Expression. Writing was something in which I had always been proficient, and from early school years I had frequently been called upon when someone was needed to read aloud to the class. Beyond that, I had no previous reason to aspire to a profession in either of these fields.
But John J. Frisch, the journalism instructor, was a most unusual man. He was the adviser for the Poly High Life, the school weekly which had won national awards for its excellence year after year, and he had developed a number of students who, having been High Life editors, went on to successful careers in the media. He saw something in my early efforts in his beginners’ class, and he somehow sensed my lack of confidence in myself. He took me aside and told me the I.Q. scores showed that I had one of the best minds in the school. He said that there was no reason why I should not attain success if I would just step forward and challenge it. He published a story of mine in the High Life that won me a prize in a national contest sponsored by Scholastic magazine, and after the first semester in beginning journalism, he promoted me to the advanced class which actually wrote, edited, and published the newspaper. I became its Feature Editor, then its Managing Editor in my senior year. I wrote a weekly column, first one of campus gossip, then one devoted to popular music, a harbinger of my post-retirement activities many years later.
John Frisch was a patron of the arts. He had a huge library of books, a sizable collection of music recordings, and some valuable paintings and etchings. He lived with his mother in a little house north of the city, which he called “Frisch-aire,” and his dog was named “Newshound,” or “Newsie” for short. He chose to expose those of his students who appeared to be culturally adaptable to symphony, opera, theater, and art. He took me, with a group, to see my first “Broadway” show, a touring edition of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes which starred Shirley Ross in the role originated by Ethel Merman. We went to concerts, to operas, to art museums. Only the latter did not intrigue me, but the performing arts captured my devout attention.
Lillian Breed was the Oral Expression teacher, also the drama teacher and the adviser of Masque and Sandal, the campus dramatic society. On one of the first days in her class, she announced that each student was to come in the following week with a poem to recite. I chose Casey at the Bat. It caused a sensation. Never had I experienced such a reaction to anything I had done. Miss Breed invited me, then a Junior, to attend the tryouts that afternoon for the Senior Play. The play was entitled The Melting Pot, by Israel Zangwill, and it was about as poor a choice for a high school play as one could imagine. I was asked to read the role of Mendel. Since I knew nothing about the play, I asked “who is Mendel?” and was told that he was “an old Jew.” Well, my only familiarity with “old Jews” was listening to comedians like Benny Rubin on the radio. So I gave Mendel the Benny Rubin treatment, greeted by howls of laughter. Not laughter because of my talent, but guffaws of ridicule, because Mendel was actually a very tragic character. But I gradually caught on to what the play was all about, and I was chosen to understudy the boy chosen for Mendel.
This fellow was a very prominent lad on campus named William Woodson, who had performed for some time on local radio station KFOX in a daily drama called Billy Swift, the Boy Detective. He was Billy Swift. And this was my “break.” It turned out his radio schedule conflicted with the rehearsals for The Melting Pot. I found myself playing Mendel. In later years, Woodson appeared frequently on Broadway, and his distinctive voice has graced many a radio and TV presentation.
Miss Breed taught me, encouraged me, helped me over rough spots in my life (financial and otherwise), way above and beyond what would be expected of any teacher.
The play was set for the Grand Opening of the new high school auditorium, built following the earthquake. Construction delays postponed this opening from January, month by month until May, when the building was finally ready. This had to be the most over-rehearsed production of all time; we had been practicing for six months. The first night we moved our rehearsal from a tent classroom to the auditorium stage, Miss Breed sat in the back row as we ran through the first act. At its conclusion, her voice came booming over the 1,000 empty seats, saying “The only one I can hear is Walter.” But we managed to finally perform the play just before school closed for the summer of ’35. The other two main roles were played by Joe Helgesen (more about him later) and Thais Dickerson, who went on to Hollywood as Gloria Dickson. She made an auspicious movie debut in the classic film They Won’t Forget, but died in a tragic house fire without ever fully realizing her considerable potential as a serious actress. But she and Joe had a very embarrassing moment during The Melting Pot. At a dramatic and tender moment, there was a kiss. Some kid in the audience let out a noisy smacker and the audience roared. Thais took it fairly well in stride, but Joe was devastated and had to be coaxed our of the dressing room for the second act.
My father came to the performance. He had only been dimly aware of my being involved in this activity, and he had qualms about my performance. There was an early scene in which Mendel, looking out the window of a fourth floor flat, says “I think I see David coming.” Dad said that when he saw me look down as well as out, he knew I, as he put it, “had the stuff.” Maybe I could bring back vaudeville!
That summer, I made an abortive start to my eventual broadcasting career. On KGER in Long Beach there was a Saturday night program called Daddy Rango’s Midnight Frolic. Rango was a medicine man huckster of the old school; instead of hawking his miracle tonic from the back of a wagon, he bought the late night hours on KGER. His program consisted of local talent, anyone who wanted to perform and could pass an audition which was almost impossible to fail. I auditioned and went on the show in June, singing Stay as Sweet as You Are. It seemed to be well received, and I was invited to come back weekly. After a couple of weeks, I got too big for my singing britches; I decided to sing Chlo-E. When I arrived at the station, there was a different pianist than before. When I asked her to play Chlo-E, which is written in the key of C, in the key of A-flat, she informed me that she did not transpose and I either sang in C or I didn’t sing it. I made the terrible choice to try it; the high notes did me in, and it was a terrible flop. At that point, Daddy Rango invited me to not return.
As result of The Melting Pot, I became a member of Masque and Sandal, and the following year I was cast in other productions, including the senior play, Peg o’ My Heart. Miss Breed also pointed me in another important direction. When Mary Shouse, the head of the music department, asked her to recommend an actor to play the major comedy role in the upcoming production of the Victor Herbert operetta Sweethearts, she suggested me.
I had to audition for Miss Shouse, as you were required to qualify for the Glee Club in order to participate in the operetta, whether you had a singing role or not. She had me sing Old Black Joe, and I passed the audition. Joining the bass section of the Glee Club, I faked my way through all its renditions, specializing in hitting the low note at the end of a song. I really could hit that low note!
In December of 1935, my father negotiated his latest dream production to the point where he believed it would be bought and produced by the Texas Centennial Fair, scheduled for Dallas in 1936. This was to be on the level of a World’s Fair. He somehow scraped together the cost of moving to Dallas and announced his intentions. I was expected to go with him. But (and here comes the first of my Forks in the Road), I chose not to do so. I did not want to leave my journalism and theater activities just as I was beginning to make my mark in school. So Dad left, and I remained in Long Beach, without any visible means of support.
I still can’t figure out how I survived the next several months. I know there were people who helped out. I was permitted to move into what was called the “boiler room” at the Natalie, where I had a cot, a table and chair, and a basin, in exchange for keeping the lobby clean. The toilet was a public restroom across the hall. Every now and then, I was able to borrow the use of the apartment manager’s bathroom to take a bath. I performed some more of those odd jobs. One was as a singing waiter, but, whereas my version of River, Stay ‘Way from My Door was a hit, I spilled an entire dinner on a customer, and that career ended on the same night it began. Somehow I got through the first half of 1936 and graduated from Poly High.
The production of Sweethearts was a great success, just preceding graduation. In two years, thanks to Frisch and Breed, I had gone from "wimp" to "BMOC."
But I did not receive a diploma. There was something called the “Student Body Fund,” from which students could borrow from time to time. I had done so, and I owed the maximum amount, which was a hundred dollars. My sheepskin consisted of a note telling me that they would hold my diploma until the debt was paid. You’ll have to move ahead fifty years in this narrative to find out what finally happened to my diploma.
Graduation night was a memorable experience. The custom was for all the grads to migrate, after the ceremony, to one nightclub or other in the Los Angeles area, celebrating their newly found “freedom.” I had a date for this, but did not have the transportation. I talked Caryl Clarke into borrowing his father’s car and found him a date. My own chosen date fell through, and at the last minute I lined up a cute sophomore who was in the band and had made a goo-goo eye or two in my direction. We went to a place called Omar’s Dome, all very glamorous and mid-eastern. When we examined the menu, Caryl and I, knowing our financial limitations, chose to order the lowest priced entree, which turned out to be “Turkey Livers in Burgundy with Fried Apple Rings.” So help me! When we finished the meal and prepared to leave, it took nearly every coin in our pockets to pay the check.
At that point the waiter, in a heavy foreign accent, held out his hand and asked.
“Haven’t you got someting for de vaiter?”
We knew nothing of tipping, so we just made a fast exit. The sophomore got fresh with me in the car on the way back to Long Beach; it was the first time a girl had behaved in this manner toward me, so I guess I graduated that night in more ways than one.
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Walter M. Windsor
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© Copyright 1997-2007, Walter M. Windsor -- Copyright 2008, Bill Windsor