Saturday, June 18, 2011

Adventures in the Hollywood Skin Trade

On childhood Sundays Jiminy Cricket crooned “When You Wish Upon A Star,” as Disneyland came on the TV. Chilling. This song was performed by Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike. Cliff was a funny little, frog-faced man, born in 1895 in Hannibal, Missouri. He left school to become a vaudeville crooner. Taught himself the ukulele and recorded hits like “California Here I Come,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams, and “Singing’ in the Rain.” Cliff was responsible for millions of ukuleles selling in the 1920’s! My mom played the uke, and it was the perfect axe for campfires and boring car trips. “Aint A Gonna Rain No More,” she’d sing. Indeed. Cliff Edwards went on to star in films, but his personal life was “Hollywood” messy. It began to rain hard on our little crooner.

Cliff paid alimony to three former wives, went through bankruptcy four times, and suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. He hung out at the old Tam O’ Shanter, near the L.A River, trying to get voice-over gigs. He ended up in a home for indigent actors, and died in a charity hospital. The body was unclaimed, until Disney bought a burial plot. Yikes, Ike.

Couple this American vignette with my earlier story of Bobby Driscoll…the voice of Peter Pan…dying in a vacant lot in New York…further adventures in the Hollywood skin trade. You might say: why dwell on the dark side? I say, what happened to my childhood dreams? Where’s the star we’re supposed to be wishing on? Mommy never told me Jiminy Cricket could bleed…etc. Farewell Never Never Land.

Now Consider Sterling Hayden. Actor: The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Johnny Guitar, The Godfather. Dozens of great flicks. He stood six feet five and sailed round the globe with his children in a three-masted schooner. The author of two great sea books. One of the most popular character actors to appear on TV talk shows - he sat there with cigarette smoke whirling up into his Captain Ahab beard and told it like it was. I saw him on the Johnny Carson show, declaring: “Just give me a cheap room overlooking the Hudson, a mattress, and a typewriter, and I’ll write you one hell of a novel.” Last seen on a barge in Paris - bottle of Johnny Walker between his legs, declaring how it made him feel to fink during the McCarthy hearings.

And… Liz Taylor, who resided, briefly, a few miles from us, in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in El Paso. I imagine her looking out at Juarez, Mexico, with a salty Margarita in her hands. Liz chased furious love through her furious seasons. Her ghost stands looking out the penthouse window…day-dreaming of James Dean dying ‘neath the Tree of Heaven, near the old Jack Ranch CafĂ© in California. She begins to sing: “Oh, his Porsche car was burning, as the hawks took to the air”…..fade to oblivion.

(A few little stories behind the songs on Mesabi.)