Where Stars Are Born

The People's Friend - - News - by Ju­lia Dou­glas

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.

“Good luck!”

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

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