Where Stars Are Born
HOLLYWOOD – the land of dreams. Liza Perky could barely believe that she, a little Cockney sparrow from the East End, was in the Californian home of the movies!
As she waiting for the
Walk sign on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, the Hudsons, Studebakers and Model T Fords were racing by so fast they might have been in a Buster Keaton film of their own.
It felt like a lifetime since she’d sailed out of Southampton on the
Mauretania for the choppiest week of her life.
For five days, she’d spent her nights kicking her legs in the air on a stage that was going up and down like a seesaw, and her days cleaning cabins and making beds, all the while trying to keep her breakfast down.
In the three months since then, she reckoned she must have seen every town and city in America as she worked her way across the country with the circus.
Looking back, it was a blur of high-kicking in fishnets and feathers in a three-ring tent that held 15,000 people; noisy nights chatting with the other dancers in the bunk car as the circus train weaved its way from state to state; back-breaking mornings mucking out elephants and horses.
There had been times when she’d thought she’d never get the smell of dung and candyfloss out of her nose, but it was worth it to clap eyes on the higgledypiggledy letters of the Hollywoodland sign, high on a wooded hill above the valley and city streets lined with palm trees.
What she hadn’t expected was the chilly mist blowing in from the ocean, completely blocking the sun she had thought she would be basking in.
The Christmas shoppers hurrying along the pavements were all as tightly wrapped up in coats and hats as she was.
“Lor’, luv a duck!” she exclaimed, catching the eye of a man in a fedora and pinstripe suit who was standing at the kerb beside her. “Who’d ever fink it would be this cold in California?”
“Say what?” He frowned at her as if she were talking Chinese.
“It’s warmer than this in blinkin’ Bermondsey!” Liza grinned.
“Well, er, enjoy your stay in America, ma’am,” the stranger said as the traffic stopped and he hurried across the street.
Liza picked up a suitcase decorated with a rainbow of travel patches from every city she’d stopped in on her journey west.
Inside it was everything she’d accumulated in the 22 years since she’d been abandoned as a baby on the stage-door step of a music hall in Cheapside with the sound of Bow Bells ringing in the air.
In the steamy interior of the Green Front Café on Hollywood Boulevard, Digby Lewis was frying bacon and wishing his chef’s hat were a movie director’s eye-shade.
When he’d stepped off the train from Ohio, blinking in the dazzling sun, he’d thought he’d soon be working in the big studio lots across town.
He’d never dreamed he’d still be flipping eggs in a diner three years later and barely making the rent on a rundown apartment where he sat up late every night, typing screenplays.
Still, at least he was
Hollywood was the land of dreams, and Liza was just beginning to realise hers . . .
closer to the action than he’d have been if he’d stayed on his parents’ farm.
His stomach tensing with anticipation, he glanced at the clock and waited for one of the biggest producers in town to walk through the café door.
“Morning, Digby, my boy!” Cornelius Copperman bellowed as the bell above the door jangled right on cue.
“Mind the step, Miss Amber,” the huge man continued as he stepped with practised nimbleness down the tricky step from the door in a homburg hat and a matching overcoat that was never buttoned across his ever-growing belly. “Is my breakfast ready?”
“English, Danish and coffee for two coming right up, Mr Copperman.” Digby grinned from behind the counter. “Cold out there, this morning?”
“Colder than a censor’s heart, wouldn’t you say, Miss Amber?” Copperman shuffled his bulk around to face his assistant – a tall, slender woman of around forty, with hair bobbed in the latest style and a pillbox hat perched at a jaunty angle.
“I can barely feel my toes, Mr Copperman,” she agreed in an icy voice.
Digby watched Copperman cast a wistful glance down his assistant’s nyloned calves to her dainty buckled shoes while Amber looked away with a haughty expression.
They were a curious couple who ought to be in a screen comedy of their own, Digby couldn’t help thinking. But, of course, he shouldn’t be speculating about Copperman’s private life when he had more pressing matters on his mind.
“Mr Copperman,” Digby ventured, trying to sound casual as he put the producer’s order in a paper bag. “Have you ever thought of filming ‘The Little Match Girl’?”
“Can’t say it’s crossed my mind, my boy,” Copperman replied, taking a cigar from a silver case.
“Imagine a female Charlie Chaplin as the match seller,” Digby continued, his voice quickening with his heart rate as he seized his daily opportunity to interact with Hollywood’s biggest player. “The clowning, pathos . . .”
Copperman turned away, cigar in mouth, to Amber, who produced a lighter and flicked up a flame.
“Right now, I’m looking for another Douglas Fairbanks,” Copperman said, puffing smoke.
“What’s wrong with Cecil Starr?” Amber asked.
“He has a voice made for the silent screen, Miss Amber.” Copperman huffed. “We need a star who can talk!”
“All ready, sir.” Realising his moment had slipped away, Digby fought to keep smiling as he put the order on the counter.
“Thank you, my boy.” Copperman swept up the bag and headed for the door.
As he stepped nimbly up the step, he called over his shoulder, “Tip my boy, Miss Amber. It’s Christmas!”
“How do I look, honey?” Further down the Boulevard, in the opulent foyer of the Sunset Hotel, Gene Gracey lifted his chin and adjusted the knot of his white tie against his black shirt as he spoke in a Texan drawl.
“Like the star you’re gonna be!” his wife Dianne replied. She still couldn’t believe she’d found such a handsome man from her own part of the world out here in Hollywood.
“Like this, or like this?” He tilted his black fedora with the white band one way and then the other.
“Like this.” Dianne stood on tiptoe to adjust his brim.
While she was close, she kissed him with a fervour that made him blink in surprise.
“Wish me luck!” He grinned nervously.
Hollywood Boulevard! Liza gazed in wonder at the street sign.
If only her friends from the music halls could see her now!
Liza’s eyes looked from the restaurants to the hotels and theatres.
Was that Rudolph Valentino going into that men’s outfitters? She craned her neck for a better view. Was that Mary Pickford in the back of that car?
Everyone on the busy street looked famous – or beautiful, handsome and stylish at least. She couldn’t believe how well dressed everyone was, even wrapped up for winter.
A rack of postcards in a shop window caught her gaze: sepia photographs of the Hollywoodland sign and the bright lights of Sunset Boulevard.
She thought of sending one to the not-so Great Alberto back in the East End. That would teach him to laugh at her dreams!
But she should forget him. His Vanishing Lady had disappeared for the last time.
Everyone knew the halls were finished and talkies were the future, and here she was in Hollywood, just in time for breakfast!
Gasping for a cup of tea, Liza fingered the handful of coins in her coat pocket and ducked towards a café with a green frontage.
Just as she reached the door, she thought she saw her heroine, Clara Bow, on the other side of the street. It was hard to tell in the mist.
Distracted, she almost bounced off a man in a black overcoat and matching homburg hat who was coming out of the eatery.
“Oh, Gawd ’elp us, I am sorry, guv’nor!” she apologised, regaining her balance.
“Is that supposed to be the King’s English?” the big man asked, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
“’Tis round my way! London born and bred, sir!”
“Well, welcome to Tinsel Town, English girl. Have a merry Christmas! Come along, Miss Amber. Mind the step.”
Liza watched the big man squeeze his bulk into the back of a Rolls-royce with his breakfast bag, and wondered who he was.
Someone important, no doubt. He looked like one of the theatre impresarios back home.
The man’s tall, stylishly dressed companion handed him a pair of steaming paper coffee cups, then sashayed round to the driver’s seat.
Across the boulevard, Liza realised it wasn’t Clara Bow she’d spotted after all.
Digby flipped his tip in the air, caught it and slipped it in his pocket.
With a sigh, he wondered if the shiny quarter was the only money he’d ever receive from a major studio.
He wasn’t too put out that Copperman hadn’t latched on to “The Little Match Girl” idea, though. Some things you couldn’t describe. You had to show people what you meant, and that was what Digby was planning to do.
He’d sunk every buck he’d earned frying bacon into hiring the Scotsman Theatre on Van Ness Avenue for a one-week production of “The Little Match Girl” with a cast of his unemployed actor friends.
He’d invite every producer in town and slip front row tickets for Copperman and Miss Amber into his breakfast bag.
He was sure they’d turn up, and once they saw what he had in mind he was convinced they’d give the movie version the green light.
His cheeks glowing and eyes shining, he pictured the
If only Liza’s friends from the music hall could see her now!
illuminated marquee outside a movie theatre in New York’s Times Square: The Little Match
Girl, starring ... Digby sucked his teeth as he remembered the one snag in his plans. He still needed to find a leading lady!
He looked up as a pretty blonde girl came through the door and completely missed her footing on the tricky step.
“Gordon blinkin’ Bennett!” she yelled as her multi-coloured suitcase flew across the floor.
She dived after it, landing full length on the deck.
“Are you OK, miss?” Digby ran anxiously round the counter to her assistance.
“Nothing’s broken apart from my dreams of a stylish entrance.” Liza grinned, adjusting her hat as she leapt up with a dancer’s ease. “But you want to get that blinkin’ step fixed before someone does themselves a mischief!”
“Wow, what an accent!” Digby grinned as he fussed over her. “Let me get you a coffee on the house.”
“Cor, thanks! Don’t suppose you could make it a cuppa char?” “Char?”
“Rosie Lee. You know – tea.”
Mimicking her accent as he ran behind the counter, Digby said, “One cuppa tay coming right up!”
Two hours later, Liza leaned against the heavy revolving door of the Sunset Hotel and cautiously poked her head into the plush foyer.
The mirrors, marble columns, grand staircase, triple-height ceiling and enormous Christmas tree made her head spin.
Blimey, she thought, that Digby had seemed like an honest bloke – as well as being a real treat for the eyes – but he must have been having her on. She’d told him she needed somewhere cheap.
Still, he’d said his friend would see her right. Maybe they had a spare bed in the maids’ quarters.
She wondered if she should have gone round to the tradesman’s entrance, but he’d said go straight to the front desk.
“Well, nothing ventured,” she muttered under her breath.
Straightening her back, she brushed down her coat and was glad she’d always spent every penny she had on decent clothes.
“Look like you’re doing well even if you ain’t” – that was the lesson she’d learned growing up on the boards. She knew she could pass for someone posh at a glance. Or until she opened her mouth, at any rate.
Unlike her namesake, she’d never found a Professor Higgins to help her talk properly.
“’Scuse me, darlin’,” she said to the brunette sitting behind the desk. “I’m lookin’ for Dianne.”
“That’s me.” The receptionist smiled.
“Pleased to meetcha!” Liza stuck her hand across the desk. “Digby Lewis said you might have a room I could stay in.”
“We have the penthouse suite for a hundred dollars a night . . .”
“A hundred!” Liza’s jaw dropped. “I could buy a street full of houses back ’ome for that!” Dianne laughed.
“I’m just kidding. Digby phoned and said you were coming. I think he meant the spare room in my apartment on Yucca Street. How does three bucks a week sound?”
“Cor, that’s a relief!” Liza giggled. “I thought this place looked a bit posh for the likes of me! You sure you don’t mind, though? I know it’s short notice.”
“It’s Christmas Eve. You can’t sleep on the street!”
“It is a bit ’taters out there. I thought California was gonna be ’ot!”
“In summer you’ll melt,” Dianne drawled. “I’m from Texas, so I’m used to it.”
“Oh, yeah, I spent a month in Texas with the circus,” Liza replied. “There was such a dust storm in Lubbock you couldn’t ’ave seen an elephant if it were standing on your blinkin’ foot!” Dianne laughed.
“So you’re swapping the big top for the big screen?”
“That’s the plan. Digby said you’re an actress, too?”
“Me and my husband.” Dianne nodded. “In fact, Gene’s at an audition right now. I’ve got everything crossed, hoping he gets the part.”
Dianne sagged back in her chair with a heavy sigh.
“To be honest with you, Liza, if he doesn’t I may not be able to let you have a room for too long. Five years I’ve been out here now, and Gene for seven.
“I always hoped one of us would get a break, but I saw a doctor yesterday and I’m gonna have a baby. I’m wondering if we should quit chasing dreams and head back to Texas.”
“Hey, don’t give up,” Liza urged. “I always thought my mum was someone who wanted to be on the stage but gave up too soon. Maybe that’s why she left me outside a theatre as a baby, in hopes I’d live the life she didn’t.”
“You were abandoned as a baby?” Dianne asked incredulously.
“Right outside the stage door. I suppose they could have sent me to an orphanage, but that’s not what we’re like in this business, is it? They took me in.”
Gene thought they were going to keep him waiting till Boxing Day, but eventually he was the last man in the room.
Sweating in his shirt sleeves and waistcoat, he stared at the script trembling in his hands, but the words were a blur.
The buzzer on the secretary’s desk almost made him jump out of his skin.
“Next!” A voice crackled through the intercom and the redhead behind the desk said, “Please go through, Mr Gracey.”
He found himself standing on an expensive rug in a room lit by little more than the lights of a Christmas tree.
A ceiling fan swirled wall to wall cigar smoke.
“Thanks for wrapping my wife’s presents, Miss Amber,” a voice said in the gloom. “What did I get her?”
Gene gulped as he realised the huge figure behind the desk was Cornelius Copperman himself!
A tall woman with bobbed dark hair sat beside the desk.
“Silk pyjamas and perfume, Mr Copperman, and you got me an alligator purse.”
“No more than you deserve, Miss Amber. Now, Mr Gracey? You’re the good-hearted chuckwagon cook and the hero’s best friend. Give it your best shot, my boy.”
Gene cleared his throat and began to say the lines in his deep Texan drawl.
“Hold it right there, my boy!” Copperman interrupted. “Miss Amber, I do believe we’ve found our Douglas Fairbanks! Forget the cook, Mr Gracey. I want you to read the lead role.”
Letting herself into Dianne and Gene’s apartment, Liza opened her suitcase and began laying her loose silk flapper dresses on the single bed in the tiny spare room.
She wondered which one she should wear for the party Digby had invited her to. Maybe the black one had a bit of a Cockney match seller about it.
She couldn’t believe he’d invited her to try out for the part after Christmas.
True, it wasn’t a paid role, and there was only a small chance that a big producer would spot her, but hearing about Dianne’s struggles had reminded her that the chances of making it big in California were as slim as they were in London.
She didn’t regret her decision to come, though, because the more she thought about spending time with the talented and handsome Digby, the more she was starting to think that Hollywood really could be the town where dreams come true. ■
Set in the 1920s