Thursday, October 28, 2010

Once more at the old movie front.

I watched one of my favorites on TV recently, “I Know Where I’m Going!”, with lovely Wendy Hiller and the wonderful Roger Livesey, and I must say it never fails to cheer me up - it may be the perfect romance film, it’s like no other. My pal Mouse loved this film, too, and this was one of the few movies we saw together where she seemed to let down her guard, and actually gave me a big hug when we got outside the theater. Come to think of it, that may have been only the second hug I ever got out of that girl, but it was one to remember.

Long ago, towards the end of our long and quirky relationship, I saw her with one of her dates and when he glanced away, she gave his arm a squeeze while looking at me thru her ever-present sunglasses, shook her head “no” slightly, and stepped through the door of a restaurant and out of my sight. When I picked her up in my car a few days later for our weekly movie, she waved as she got in, and then we drove quietly for a block or so - the first thing out of her mouth wasn’t “Hey, there!”, or “How ya doin’?”, it was, “Do you remember when I hugged you after ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’?”

“Huh?” I feigned stupidity until she punched me in the arm, then I grinned and twitted her, “How could I forget? You must’ve thought I was lovable Roger Livesey!”

“Hah! Don’t sell yourself short - someone thinks you are, I hope you know, altho it ain’t me, idiot boy.” She was talking about my future wife, with whom I’d just fallen in love, and she with me. Mouse was very perceptive and kept right on, “Don’t be in a hurry to sleep with her, ’cause even tho I think she’s prolly receptive to that - not every girl is as receptive as me.”

Christ, she was always so direct! She was exaggerating some about herself, but of the two of us, the sexual revolution had a real self-starter in Mouse, and I never did catch up with her. She had become - if not quite beautiful - very elegant, and had a full love life by her freshman year in college, of course with no one I knew, she made sure of that - this was another compartment to her life she kept locked away with no keys lent out...but on occasion she would ask advice, as I would of her.

We parked and got out into the glaring sunlight and blast furnace heat of an Arizona summer. She didn’t talk again until we got inside the theater.

“Anyway…I can’t seem to hold anybody quite that way…anymore. I like to think it was that movie, and the way the moonlight made me feel like I hadn’t left Scotland, and, yeah, maybe you being there had a little to do with it.” She blushed a little, and I think I did, too.

“I’ve never felt just that way again…like that guy you saw me with at Macayo’s this week - it turned out he was just out with me for the sex, nothing else; is there something wrong with me?”

I shook my head no. As you can see, neither of us was shy talking about anything anymore.

“I dumped that sonofabitch, just like the others. If they’re lucky, they get a squeeze on the arm when I see another friend walking past.” She grinned, and then got a strange expression on her little face, and she paled under her tan – it took me a second or so to recognize it: Fear, something Mouse rarely, if ever, displayed.

“I’m always looking for something more with guys, but I never seem to find anything that makes me want to put my whole heart and soul into a kiss. We were lucky that night - you got all of me for a few seconds, and I gave all I could just then, too.”

I knew what she meant - I can still feel the almost desperate power in that one short embrace, which made it so memorable.

I looked down at her for a few seconds - so small and vulnerable she seemed right then, I’ll never forget that look on her face, she just looked so lost. I felt she deserved somebody special more than anybody I knew; she had become something more than just a friend over the years, and would’ve resented any trite responses, so she knew I wouldn’t BS her no matter how stupid it sounded.

“Well, we both know that I’m not the one for you …now or then.” I said, “Hell, I just found somebody myself, look how long that took. Somebody’s looking for someone like you too, I bet. You just gotta keep trying for someone special, you can’t stop - don’t make that one time the only time.”

She reached up and pulled my face down, and surprisingly, kissed me lightly on the cheek.

“Stop it,” Mouse said quietly, “You’re such a funny guy, like there is somebody out there, for real.” She shook her head, smiling ruefully. “Thanks for the Gipper speech, anyway – sometimes, you almost say the right thing, you know.”

I rubbed my cheek, “Sometimes, you almost make it worth trying.” I grinned.

She smiled serenely. “Won’t happen again.”

“Ouch.” I whipped my head back like I’d been slapped. “Wouldn’t hurt my feelings if it did, tho.” We were both grinning, now.

I took her arm and we walked to our seats, me with Milk Duds and a big Coke, and Mouse with a huge tub of popcorn. I looked at her while she switched glasses – she had cut her hair to just off her bare shoulders, and her white peasant blouse and hoop earrings made her look like a gypsy waif. Stylishly, for sure, tho.

She was totally transformed from the plain, small, almost androgynous girl from 5th grade, into a naturally attractive young woman, with unlimited prospects, IMNSHO; smart, funny and usually pretty damn sure of herself. I could see where a lot of guys would feel a little intimidated, and she wasn’t one to temper the shorn lamb – you got the full force of her personality, and she told me once that she figured a lot of guys tried to deflect that by trying to get her into bed. She went thru a lot of prospects, that’s for sure.

“Okay, pollyanna-boy, I’m all better now.”

She crossed her tanned legs, and picked some spilt popcorn off her lap, then she took my Coke and had a long sip as the lights faded for the first retrospective. Yup, you guessed it, Wendy and Roger and all things Kiloran: Powell & Pressburger’s matchless B&W romance.

“I’ll keep looking. Maybe I need to take ‘em to “I Know Where I’m Going!” - it did wonders for you for a minute or so, once.”

Before I could say anything about possible hugs after it was over, she stuffed a handful of popcorn in my mouth to shut me up.

“Watch the goddam movie.”

Film and a Girl redux

“I think my nipples are too big…they would make my breasts look larger if they were smaller – what do you think?”

My only response was a completely caught off-guard, “Wha...Whaat?”

Mouse was acting dead serious, and just kept on nonchalantly walking along.

“I mean, just, you know, the areola – my nipples themselves are really perfect, if I do say so, but my boobs look so small like they are now – wish I had some way to change my nipples.” She gave me a sly, side-long look, “A male perspective would be appreciated, ‘specially from one who’s seen both of ‘em.” She continued walking with her chin high, and suppressing a grin, I could tell.

I wasn’t much more coherent the second time around.

“Uh…well….I….Mouse, that’s not fair!”

Although it really was a fair question – I doubted if anyone besides her doctor, her immediate family, maybe a few girls in her gym classes, and, oh yeah…me - albeit by fortunate accident a week previous - had seen her naked boobs since they became noticeable. She wasn’t letting up, though, and cupped her bra under her blouse with both hands and pushed up to show some skin. My face already felt hot, and I was almost beyond embarrassment by now, but dammit, I just had to watch that – I’m a man; I’m stupid, as Zorba once said.

“Come on, Rob, look how hard I have to work just to get any cleavage! Honestly, I’m sixteen next week and I’m flat as a board. How will I live up to the American Dream with teeny tiny tits like these?” She gave me a pouty look that was fake as all hell, and then just cracked up, laughing so hard she had trouble telling me, “Oh God, Rob, the look on your face – I’ll never forget this! You’re sooooo red!”

She laughed for what seemed five minutes straight, and I had to admit, by the end I was grinning in resignation to my fate – I had seen her boobs and I had paid a little for the privilege. The fact that it was completely accidental made it somehow less sexy for both of us, but I will never forget that glimpse of what passed for pulchritude, and it passed pretty damn well, I’ve always thought.

It was the first time I saw a girl’s bare breasts in real life - the old adage that there were only boys in my family rang truer than ever - and lemme tell you, for most guys, and me in particular, nothing is the same after that. It’s not like I suddenly lusted after every female that walked by - hell, I was already discerning enough in that department, thank you – but the few movie images and the fold-outs and their tits from the skin mags suddenly took a back seat in my head to a pair of real, in-the-flesh, rosy-tipped breasts. This was gonna make the day’s movie viewing tough – I didn’t know about Mouse, but I was pretty distracted by now!

Here’s how it happened, one of the great moments in any boy’s life but vibrantly special for me:

Some background first - Mouse and I had been swapping books for some years, and they weren’t limited in content by any means, so we had already shared our thoughts on sex and such to a fair degree, at least what can be gleaned from that medium, and had been to enough films and seen some of the early attempts to bring a more adult perspective to the screen, so that we had a glimpse of what the actual mechanics might be, which were confirmed at least somewhat murkily by the Hygiene Classes and Health Books we were issued come high school, and me a little more so by “The Talk” with my Dad.

One day a few months before the Great Breast Exposure Incident, the older brother of a friend decided to invite us young’uns into his sanctum sanctorum, which had been off-limits due to its prurient nature – he had stacks of Playboys and other adult mags laying around, a poster of a scantily clad starlet on the wall facing the foot of his bed, mysterious foil-wrapped little squares in an open drawer that turned out on closer examination to be Trojan condoms, and the real pièce de résistance: an eight-millimeter projector with more than a few of those, yes, grainy porno films! Needless to say, we soon found out just how bad a porno flick could be, at least visually, if not in execution as well.

Those old 8-mils, before Super 8 with sound, were crappy, frankly, and the sex was almost as mysterious as reading about it in a bad-girl paperback – just what was going on half the time was pretty murky, so you had to exercise imagination. My introduction to the worst aspects of any sort of sexual relationship was repellant and fascinating at the same time, as most of these were copies of copies of low-budget European or US stag films from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with plenty of vaguely plain women, with real breasts and often pubic hair, performing fellatio and receiving penetration in various orifices while looking as bored as the men performing with them. On occasion, the women would seem to be moaning in simulated pleasure, or maybe in pain – it was kinda hard to tell on a silent film, and even to my untrained eye, I knew what a hard-on was and many of these guys seemed pretty limp for any sort of sex to speak of, let alone banging three broads in a 5 minute short.

There were only about ten reels in his collection, which included a couple of his experimental home made stop-motion efforts with their family dinner ware and cookery, so there were only a few really interesting moments out of all the chaff on the porno ones. Nowadays, seems like every hetero porno aimed at horny guys has to have mandatory girl-on-girl action, but there was only one very short lesbian bit on the tail end of one reel, and although that actually was the best filmed sequence of any of them, the women both seemed to have minor physical flaws that kept them from being even semi-pretty. I’ve noticed this carries over into the present day – really pretty women generally have already gone on to something more than X-rated films, and even the online porno I’ve occasionally run across is filled with damaged goods or plain girls with a fetish aspect – huge tits, puffy nipples, baby-doll chests, easily violated asses, whatever. I won’t go into the few plusses or mostly minuses about all this, but the whole pre-video underground aspect of the late ‘60s 8MM world is almost unknown and unremembered today.

After a while, it wasn’t interesting enough to go to all the trouble of setting up the projector, and it was a lot easier to look at the latest fold-outs, anyway. Mouse meanwhile, was having to make do with the rare glimpse of a Playboy or some other “men’s” mag if she wanted a so-called man’s-eye view of the feminine ideal, and gossip among her few gal-pals for any other feminine input. One of the few things she’d let on about her family was its utter lack of communication to and from their only daughter, and their adoration of her older brother – this would come back to haunt them in a few years, but that’s for a later entry – so her Mom was no help at all to poor Mouse when the birds and bees subjects started to be more important than playing with dolls or reading Nancy Drew. Like that would’ve been Mouse’s interests, anyway.

She was a voracious reader, and had no illusions about the physical end of things from start to finish – her period had started two years before and she had plenty to say on that subject, believe me, but when I eventually told her about the 8MM films, she was speechless for a moment, then quite voluble about the unfairness of it all – why was she shut out of this kind of opportunity to see sex in action?!? I imagine in today’s world, she’d’ve had ample chances to watch or even experience pretty much any of this by her sixteenth birthday, altho I doubt she’d be giving head to some shithead in middle school, or stroking some other girl’s mons – she had way too many partitions in her life for casual sex to intrude at that point.

Anyway, I told her it was really crappy and hardly qualified as a film, and after a semi-detailed rundown of one of the milder 8MMs, she was mollified, but only because she declared she was waiting for a real, honest-to-god porn film adventure with me - something that wouldn’t happen for couple of years - but at any rate films in general were beginning to break the taboo lines, and we started to see partial nudity on a regular basis pretty soon, if not the outright sex that would be a little tough to see even today in a mainstream film.

This wasn’t to Mouse’s complete advantage, tho, as even using her intellect as a measuring stick, she was still comparing her maturing body, unconsciously maybe, to the American ideal of big tits and skinny bods. She told me later that she took the view that her body was a possible weapon in a sexual manner, so just in case, she planned on fine-tuning that aspect as soon as she could. Now back then, body modification was limited mostly to rhinoplasty and other relatively minor things, and the silicone breast augmentation shitstorm was in the near future, so most racks you saw back then were natural, and therefore more intimidating if you were comparing.

I don’t care how conscious you are of how invidious the pressure to excel is in even the mundane areas of looks or beauty, but at a gut level Mouse was under a certain amount of peer and, yes, personal pressure to look sexy, mostly because, frankly, she was feeling those hormonal changes just as much as I was. I could tell when she was frustrated with how she appeared, and I wasn’t really surprised when in the summer of ’70, she began to dress in a more controlling manner – using as much allure as she had to keep a guy off balance so she could level the field a little. I figured it wasn’t meant for me, or maybe a little tangentially, so I often wondered if it was specifically aimed at someone, but not if at all, because she always had some plan in that head of hers.

She still wasn’t exactly a beauty queen, but she was careful to make the most of her looks in what she wore, which eventually became somewhat scandalous on one glorious occasion in school, where we still had a stiff dress code, and it was zealously enforced. She was thrilled that she was actually sent home to change into something more appropriate, but was disappointed that the only people who noticed were the few of us who knew her at all. We were in a big high school in a desert city, and about a dozen girls were sent home that late spring day towards the end of school because of inappropriate clothing, including some fairly BGOCs, so Mouse wasn’t even on the radar, poor thing.

Soon after that day, we were eating at Mag’s Ham Bun, a long-since defunct restaurant where the thin-sliced ham on a bun with mustard was unrivaled – even to this day, IMNSHO – and it was a fave of both of ours. We’d grab our food and eat at some old cast-iron tables down the sidewalk around the corner, kind of out of sight, where we’d swap books, talk about the ones we’d read, see what was on the bill at the movies we were going to see, and shoot the shit about anything that was interesting. I wasn’t a clotheshorse ever, so I was dressed in my usual formal summer wear for movies – jeans, a loose shirt with rolled-up sleeves, well-worn leather sandals with old tire treads on the bottom, and B & L pilot sunglasses. I had just started wearing hats with large brims, not quite panamas, ‘cause I despised most cowboy hats, and I’d given up on ball-caps – they just didn’t cut down on the sun enough, the ever present heat being the eventual reason I moved from Arizona.

Mouse had decided on a new, yellow cotton sundress with a hemline that fell just past her knees that day, and it had a bit of a Regency look to it, I think because it emphasized her boobs a little more than the usual sundresses she wore, which were cut for cleavage, something she hadn’t developed much of quite yet. It had thin straps she pulled down off her shoulders as we ate, that showed off a nice tan she was developing, and while we were talking they slipped down even more, so she kept pulling them up a little. As usual, she had some big, quirky old-lady sunglasses on, with rhinestones and a beaded keeper so she could dangle them off her finger while talking. She had taken this up recently to cut down on her habit of twirling her hair, something that she had been trying to stop since I’d known her.

One thing you could depend on in Scottsdale back then and probably now, was the never-ending parade of small critters that were looking for shady spots away from the desert sun, so it wasn’t unusual to have lizards skittering, snakes slithering, and most of all, little ground squirrels mooching near the buildings in the old section of town. We had a couple of tiny squirrels that came over every time we were there, and Mouse named them Floppsy and Moppsy, ‘cause tho they weren’t bunnies, she claimed like all good American girls, they aspired to be.

Now, Mouse’s dress had a bow in the back that kept it tight, but it was kinda low in the back, and she must’ve felt it loosening, so she reached back behind with both hands to pull it tight, turned slightly, and knocked her leftover sandwich bits onto the ground under her legs - right then things happened too fast to understand. Suddenly Mouse started making little mewling noises, and started to stand up, then sat down, then stood up real quick, and that’s when it happened.

Her dress caught on something on the edge of the table and as she stood up all the way, it was pulled right off her chest, revealing a pair of firm round breasts in all their glory. I’d seen she wasn’t wearing a bra, and maybe that wasn’t the best idea in hindsight, as I got an eye-popping view. I’ve seen plenty of breasts since then, some of ‘em damn good looking – some firm, some beautifully shaped, some fit the requirements for ‘pert’ perfectly, with all kinds and sizes of nipples and colorations, but Mouse’s stand out - for a pair on my first view, I can honestly say they were very, very pretty.

Her skin was almost white where her bathing suit must have covered her breasts, and the pale, light-blue veins just under her skin there followed the gentle curves of each breast, with a few freckles here and there, and with a tiny mole just under her right arm next to that breast as accents, but topping each breast off were her exquisite nipples – ah, what can I say about them that would convey the rosy pointed lusciousness of those nipples. They seemed slightly erect, but on reflection, it may have been just the natural shape – they were medium-sized, and somewhat conical, two red exclamation points on Mouse’s small, firm pair. In short, she made up in quality what she lacked in quantity.

Meanwhile her arms were constrained a little by the straps, and somehow she just froze up for a second, and she looked right at me, her face at first pale, then flushed. “Well, shit!” she calmly remarked, and the flush spread over her shoulders and her chest while she whipped the straps back up and pulled up the sundress to cover her breasts. She didn’t say anything else until she was finished tying the bow and straightening her dress. She bent down and picked up the sandwich bits and tossed them over a few yards on the grass, and Floppsy and Moppsy were right on ‘em, along with a few sparrows.

“Well. That was exciting.” She sat down, still blushing, and took a long drink of her soda; I think to give her time to compose herself a little more.

“Holy crap! I’ll say! What the hell happened?” I forgot completely how awful that must’ve been for her, and I was still a little dazzled by the experience - I had an instant hard-on, too, and I hoped she didn’t notice!

“Floppsy, or maybe Moppsy, ran up my leg when I shifted my foot to get some ham off of it,” then in a rush of words, “and I don’t know, somehow my dress…um…and...and all of a sudden, my boobs fell out, in case you didn’t notice. If you missed that part - which I doubt - well tough shit…I’m sorry, but I don’t care to repeat it.” She smoothed down her lap and rolled her eyes, “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.” She was still blushing and the yellow dress made it stand out even more. She put on her sunglasses, and gave me a prim smile, “Hope it was worth it.”

I finally let loose with a grin I had been suppressing – I didn’t want to laugh and make things worse. “I admit, I got a pretty good look, so yeah, I guess so. I don’t mind telling you...”

She interrupted me, “Telling me what? What? Shouldn’t we be heading to the theater by now?” She shouldered her purse, stood up very carefully, and that was that. At least until the next Saturday.

After a pair of Euro romances that had some discreet tit shots, we were walking home and she sprang her initial prank about nipples, then after calming down, she asked with a sly look, “Seen any others before mine? It’s a first for me, so honestly, what’d you think of my boobs?”

“Are you serious? What would I know?”

“Come on, you’ve seen Playboys, your friend’s smutty little home movies, and who knows what else, and so have I a few times, to say nothing of the movies lately…give me your honest opinion – I can take it, believe me.” She seemed to be almost asking for a disappointment, I thought.

I was still a little embarrassed, so it was somewhat painful to admit, “Yes. It was my first real look at any girl’s boobs, and yes, they were…are pretty nice.”

“Thank you very much. I was kidding about my nipples, but I bet they beat your friend’s 8MM boobs, if not Miss July’s.” She said it in a light tone, and maybe she meant it that way, but it kinda pissed me off – I didn’t like the way she was using worst-case comparisons.

I was a little protective of her, whether she needed it or not. “Cut it out! If you’re trying to turn me on, that’s the last thing to say. I like you too much to start fantasizing about your boobs for no reason, and you shouldn’t be using me that way yourself. What kind of friend would I be if I started agreeing with you compared to centerfolds and porn films? Do you really want that?”

She gave me neutral look, “No. I suppose I don’t, not really. I’m so screwed up about sex and looks and everything lately, Rob – guess I don’t know what I really want.” But I could tell she did know, and dammit, I hadn’t meant to be so harsh. I should’ve known fishing for compliments wasn’t her usual MO, and I’d have to work a little to fix this. I hope I hadn’t hurt her too much.

“Sorry if it came out too harsh, but tit size isn’t why you’re a friend. Movie bimbos don’t count as yardsticks, either, but just so you know, I like you as you are – don’t worry about your boobs so much.”

She was fairly quiet on the rest of the trip home, talking exclusively about the movies we’d seen until we were at the intersection where we usually split up, and she looked back at me and asked,

“Who am I fooling? Am I attractive at all? Or am I just The Skinny Little Rat, like some of the bitches at school call me?” She looked a little forlorn.

“Screw those girls. You look pretty damned good to me.”

“That’s just because you’re my friend, and anyway, I think you’re just being nice. That’s one of your faults, you know, you’re just too goddam nice.” She smiled a little, “I know looks aren’t everything, but I still somehow feel…inadequate.”

“For a girl who’s smart, maybe even brilliant, that was a dumb thing to say!” I grinned, “Shit, that wasn’t so nice, was it? I guess I can’t say I’m nice all the time – I owe you an apology for not looking away when your dress slipped and your boobs showed, but I won’t apologize for telling you right here and now, that they were well worth looking at – hell, they were beautiful. That’s no shit, either.“

Mouse laughed, “Gee, thanks, mister! That’s a little accident that’ll never happen again, believe me! And trying to make me feel good by praising my titties after that lecture? Who’s dumb now?” She laughed again, “OK, I must say, that it does seem to work…a little.” She looked at me ruefully, “Sounds like both of us are grasping at straws.” Then she looked thoughtful, “You really do care a lot about my feelings, don’t you? Thanks for that much, at least, Rob.”

I squinted a little up at the sunlight fading behind her. “I used to think it was just your smarts that I liked, but lately, I wonder if there’s more to it than that – I’ve found you’re pretty nice to look at as well, regardless of what you think. Sometimes I think maybe there’s bigger things in store – except, I know you well enough by now, that you’ll only let it be something little…won’t you?”

The shadows made her expression indistinct. She studied me for a few seconds with her head cocked a little to one side. “Sometimes I think you’re a little in love with me, and sometimes, I think maybe I’m a little in love with you, too, but we both know that’s different than real love – and that’s not something I can give, at least right now.” She looked away, “You’re right - you know me well enough by now, so you know that I can’t change, and I can’t just be in love - it’ll have to be more - much, much more. As, just sleeping with each other isn’t enough make things work, although I guess you can fake it - just look at my parents.”

She walked back to me and looked up at my face. “I’m not ready for anything big yet, but I’m workin’ on it. You’ve noticed, I can tell - I saw that boner last week.” Now I was blushing. “Thanks for the extra looks at my dubious charms - even if I have to accidentally serve ‘em up on a platter.” She flashed a quick grin. “Maybe someday I’ll love somebody all the way, but it’ll have to be my way, I can’t help that – whatever it turns out to be.” She straitened my collar in a sisterly fashion, “I’m gonna try a new tack every so often just to see if it works, so be prepared to be shocked. Wait’ll you see my new dress next week!” I could see her smile and I grinned back. She turned and started walking toward her neighborhood, and spoke over her shoulder, “Wish me luck.”

I watched her walking away for a few seconds, wondering how hard she was going to make her own life from that moment on.

I said quietly, “Luck.”
Poor Stan Carlisle

 “Nightmare Alley” was Tyrone Power’s greatest performance, and he made an indelible impression as that doomed carny. Now that it’s available on DVD, I can re-live one of my more interesting experiences in watching film – it brings its own special frisson with every viewing.  I saw “Nightmare Alley” at an unfortunately impressionable age, and I was ever after fascinated by the carny life that it delineated, having read the book almost immediately after seeing Power's awesome portrayal of Stanton Carlisle's descent into Hades.  In the deep dark recesses of my young mind, I feared the path to true Geekdom that awaited any slip or mis-step I might make in the uncertain future, so much so I would have a recurring dream about it every so often.

   After the first time, I soon confided this to only one person, my film-pal girl, Mouse - she told me I worried too much, and if I ever seemed like I was descending down the Carlisle Road, she would tie me to a chair and beat me senseless.  She opined this wouldn’t necessarily save me, but while I was unconscious, she would steal all my film and sci-fi books so they wouldn’t end up in a pawnshop, hocked to pay for my liquor and opium habits. Then she asked to borrow my library copy of “Nightmare Alley”, because her card wasn’t renewed – practical girl. Her take on the movie wasn’t as vivid as mine, I’m glad to say, and she seemed more fascinated with Helen Walker’s work as Lilith Ritter, which she always maintained was one of the great villains of the screen, especially because women on screen weren’t usually that coldly intelligent.

  Anyway, I never went to another fair or carnival without that dream/nightmare in the back of my mind, and every circus visit from that moment on had a hidden side I always looked for, really hoping not to find. The traveling carnivals had their own kind of fascination, however, filled with a sort of grim laughter and forced fun. Watching the people was more fun than the actual experience, and many of the carnies seemed to be headed down poor Stan's road, or had been down there and were limping back. The collapsible rides were trucked in and set-up over the course of a few days, and the almost furtive appearances of the crews at nearby businesses were part of local lore.  Just mentioning the word carny brought on stories of Gypsies, Travelers, and how you had to watch yourself and your possibles when the carnival was in town. It didn't help that many of the denizens of the midways and sideshows seemed like escapees from the Trailer Park From Hell or a Bosch painting, and talked a brand of the King’s English that was only a little intelligible.    

 One ride in particular that was run by a heavily keloid-scarred carny who seemed to have stood too close to another kind of Lilith himself, was a test of my will to cease gawking. He had a sibilant whisper of a voice, and the fire which had marked him as a halfway-to-hell survivor had also lamed him cruelly - children glanced furtively at him as they passed by on the bumper cars, and it was some kind of right-of-passage for children of a certain age just to get on that ride. I was a bit too young to catch any real carnival kiss-offs, but the freak shows I saw had nothing on the casual horror implied by the carny with one good arm. For a while, he was part of my recurring dream, a bystander watching me walking to an Elmer Gantry-style Main Tent. Never did make it to the tent in the dream, maybe it was like one of those falling nightmares, where you don't really want to find out what's at the end of the drop. I must have exorcised that particular demon, tho, and haven’t had that dream for many years. I still have a fascination with carnivals, but that fear of the geek was very real for me – even today I have that “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling when pass by a carnival, and since my film girl isn’t there to tie me to a chair, I’ll have to continue the hostage to fortune bit for a while longer.
Never in the history of mankind, via the Internet, has there been more access to words and more words, pictures and more pictures, people and more people, than at this moment - it's a bit overwhelming, but not quite all-seeing and all-knowing. Case in point:

Many, many years ago, after a grindhouse movie, my long lost film-girl and I were doing a bit of impromptu autocrossing in my old Mini thru a local suburb while trying to find a particular Mexican restaurant - I was young and foolish, and she was young and funny, egging me on, giving me wrong directions - when we went 'round a corner and almost ran over a little girl standing on... the sidewalk. I was going way too fast and loose, and the curbs were rounded rather than edged. I said "Shit!", and did the most stupid thing you could do - I stepped on the brake, and went into an almost fatal trailing-throttle oversteer. I spun twice, and somehow avoided a parked pick-up truck, ending up half on a lawn. I reversed, and cranked her around, left quickly and more than a little embarrassed. This episode was the primary reason I changed my driving habits around town, and I still remember the look on that little girl's face. Chills me even now.

The entire time we were spinning, my "navigator" was laughing so hard she couldn't speak - I got a little pissed off, and yelled at her. I was shaking, and after I was well clear of the place I had to stop and calm down. This was one of the scariest moments of my life, and all she could do was laugh, so I told her what had made me spin, and suddenly she sobered up - she hadn't seen the little girl, and thought I'd just lost it. She didn't talk to me while I got back on the road, lost ourselves once or twice more, found the goddam Mexican place, watched me eat, left, and were half-way to her drop-off point in a mall. We were going thru another suburban hell, and she was looking straight ahead, with these funky old-lady sunglasses from somewheres, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. I looked at her quick, and she didn't even turn her head, she just flicked the cig out the window - she knew the rule - no smoking in the Mini. I slowed down 'til we were just idling along.

"You shouldn't have told me," she said so quietly, "I almost killed somebody, Rob."

She was rarely this serious.

"Shit, I almost killed her, you were just along for the ride," I said.

I was a little scared for her - she was really serious.

"No, we were both fucking around," she said, "and if you'd hit her... I couldn't have lived with myself. I've never felt so responsible in my whole fucking life. Dammit, I hate growing up that fast. Stop the car."

"You're not getting out, are you?" I pulled over quick beside a Circle-K parking lot.

She opened the door and retched on the sidewalk - I realized that was why she didn't eat. I'm so effing perceptive, huh? I always scarf napkins from eateries, and she took one of the Mexican ones and wiped her mouth carefully. I started down the road again.

"Thanks." She looked out the window for a while. "When are gonna we get freeways in this fucking town? I hate having to go through all these neighborhoods just to get anywhere."

She hadn't smiled or laughed for more than an hour, which really started to make me nervous.

"When I was little, I loved riding thru these places - I used to wish I had a million lives," she said, "so I could live everybody's life, just to experience 'em all. We'd be driving through someplace like this, and I'd wonder what life was like inside each house, if there were other little girls, living other little lives, without sisters, or brothers, and with different dolls, and books, and maybe even a pony. I wanted a pony soooo bad. I can't say I've ever ridden a horse to this day. I was pretty hopeful, back then. I didn't know how bad things could be. Then I grew up a little, and everything got more and more difficult to handle. That's when I started making everything a joke."

We pulled into the Christown parking lot, where she planned to meet her parents for a ride, and I shut the motor off. We got out, she lit another cig, and leaned against the Mini's white roof.

She looked at me now, "Remember when we met in fifth grade? I was new there that year, and you were, too, right?"

I just nodded.

 "I was pretty annoying, everybody told me so. I must've been overcompensating something fierce. The school I used to be at was smaller, and I was, like, one of the cool people - twist parties, sleep-overs, I was a class officer. Now I was nothing.” She grimaced, “Girls can be so vicious, and I didn't know anyone. Did you get that feeling?"

"Yeah, some. I got lucky - Scouts and Little League kinda team you up, but even then I've always felt a little left out, too. You weren't in the Girl Scouts or anything, I seem to remember.”

"Hmmph. I guess I'm too weird for that stuff. Somehow I can't imagine you in a baseball cap." - I was a long-haired outsider-type by that time. She cracked a grin at that, and I relaxed a whole lot right then. "When did you turn into a weirdo - was it after hanging around with me?" She actually laughed again. All to the good.

"I always read too many books," I told her, "and I learned too much. Blame the libraries - you know the high-school didn't have 'Catcher in the Rye', but they had 'Mr. Roberts' - that's where I learned what "shacking up" was!"

"Don't get any ideas, or I'll tell your girlfriend." She looked at her watch, "Well-p, the wonderful mother and father are probably inside the mall looking at clothes rather than looking for me. I guess they're lucky I wasn't wiped off a sidewalk, do ya think?" She went serious on me then, "If you ever want to shut me up, just mention that little girl, and I'm liable to start crying. I'm so thankful we didn't kill her today." She really was shook. "Thanks for the movies, Rob, I'll see you next time."

She walked into the mall without looking back.

Needless to say, I never mentioned that episode to her again. I liked her way too much to ever do that. Driving with her to the movies was a tad more sedate after that, and soon after she moved away, with no warning. A complete break, as was her want. I never quite got over that part. We were close friends with an interest in film and edgy things, and as I’ve posted before, she memorized many lines from bad movies and would shout them out during the "boring parts" of foreign and 'B' movies at the grindhouses. The word "eccentric" was invented for her clothes, as in borderline sex-worker one day, and earth-mother the next. She never drank alcohol that I was aware of, but lived on cigs, iced tea, and hot coffee with me around. Small and quietly sardonic, her nickname "Mouse" among her few girlfriends was possibly due to her mouse-brown hair, which she wore in a kinda parted Bettie Page cut, the first and only girl I remember seeing do that for years. She was way more cutting edge than me, I guess.

We never hit on each other - she knew my heart was meant for another, and I never could penetrate her other persona. She completely split her life into compartments, and I never met her family, even though I knew her for years. She smoked only when out with me, which she knew I disapproved, but her parents prolly woulda punished her hard if they knew, and she was nicely careful not to in my car - usually. She always smelled like rose water, which she believed disguised the smoke smell from her Mom, I guess. Although not quite plain, or quite pretty, she looked good in a sundress on an Arizona spring day, and her bangs danced on her forehead in the wind when we did the twisties. Every so often I Google her name or image, but even with the explosion of info, no hits. She has vanished utterly, but I'll remember her wish as a little girl - a million lives to live. And maybe a pony, too.

Someone asked me not too long ago, what do I remember from the ‘60s?

 I remember a girl, 'a pearl of girl', with a funny laugh, a killer smile, and funky sunglasses she wore as much as possible. I remember walking for miles before I had a car, while the girl and I never stopped talking about books and movies, with lots of giggling. I remember sitting in a dingy theater, almost a grindhouse, with the girl shouting out scandalous lines from other movies rather than listen to the dialog, and then scrunching down next to me so the few others there might mistake me for the heckler. I remember the way she looked in a sundress on a bright spring day, as she smiled up at me and went rolling down the long, grassy hill, laughing and whooping all the way to the bottom. I remember pulling grass out of her long, dark hair for half an hour after I got to the bottom myself. I remember her weeping as she told me about her brother after he returned from 'Nam, how she was shut out from grief by her stoically uncaring family, and how she had to tell someone, so she chose me. I remember the front of my shirt was damp with her tears that day, but I had broad shoulders so I could take it, until she stopped crying and just trembled, and I remember how useless I felt. I remember I hugged her once or twice in the whole time I knew her, and I remember she kissed my cheek once or twice, and that's all the physical affection twixt us I remember. Mostly, tho, I remember when no matter how low I felt, with only a few words, that girl had a knack for making me feel like a million bucks - that girl was one of the most true friends I ever had. That's what I remember most from the '60s – I remember a girl.
Girl and a movie

Films have always been one way I’ve measured life’s progress, or lack of it, and there have been some very memorable occasions where the dissonance between the two has slapped me upside the head and changed my perception of how well my life was proceeding. This has been the hallmark of my journey with celluloid, I’m sad to say, but I’ve survived somehow with only a few scars. The long road is better when you’re not alone, of course, and for an important part of it I had a Significant Companion who added immeasurably to the enjoyment, with an impish wit and dead-on criticism. I was very much influenced by her, and it continues to this day – I can’t watch a movie without hearing her voice in my ear, smart-alecky thing that she was.

There was a time in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s when I began making a concerted effort to see as many non-Hollywood films as possible, and the going was tough. There were few outlets for unconventional movies where I lived, and it was feast or famine most of the time, so quick feet and a willingness to sacrifice some of my everyday time soon became more of a regular thing than had I ever intended. It was quite exciting, really, as I discovered the way film was meant to be used, outside the usual fare offered up as quality product at my local theaters; and I do mean product, that’s all they seem to me now.

It could be a little confusing – I would now see Japanese, or French, or even a US indie flick almost around the corner, and experience culture shock in my own back yard. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but right away I found I needed someone to bounce the experiences off of – someone my own age who shared an interest in the outré and different. The first person who came to mind wasn’t anyone on any of my other friends’ radar – she was even more of an outsider than me, but one of the few people my age whom I knew as somewhat of a kindred spirit – my little pal Mouse.

She was already a counter-cultural co-conspirator of sorts – for years we swapped the usual books that were frowned on as prurient or inflammatory, and as we labored up 6th thru 8th grade and then through high-school, our lending library would eventually include Wolfe, O’Connor, Brautigan, Chopin, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Colette, even Zap Comix - you know, just the kind of thing a good English or Art teacher would let slide with a wink when they caught you reading ‘em on a boring day. We had our own little discussion circle of two, and it was by mutual agreement – we wanted something special and private, and somehow it just happened.

We were pretty well-read by the time we got to high-school, and almost none of it thru regular channels. Our tastes weren’t totally alike, which was good – she had a weakness for well-written historical romances, and I was developing my early interest in pulp detective stories and the fantastic, so we were able to make fun of each other in a pinch. We were both hard-bitten sc-fi lovers, tho, and the explosion of new work at that time was like manna from heaven, even if this wasn’t something that we consciously considered outside the mainstream.

At first I only hooked up with her at school, but after a while we had a routine of meeting at local shopping centers or libraries as well. This was her solution to avoiding contact outside her quirky little guidelines. She held everything at arm’s length from each other, going so far as never letting me phone her at home, never eating lunch with me at school, and God forbid, never, ever letting me meet her family. All this came about in little increments, so by the time I realized it and thought about it carefully, I knew it was too late to change anything without upsetting her. She was fragile in her own way, and somehow I recognized the signals – don’t fuck with a good thing. This may have been the high point of perception in my life – I’m usually missing those kinds of obvious signs, to my great regret.

Although we already had this history of semi-clandestine meetings, don’t think it lead anywhere serious; I kind of regretted that later - hell, even now. She was more like a sister than a friend, and in a way we were somewhat simpatico – our thoughts on books and films were often more alike than not. Even so, I never had more than the part of her heart she allowed me, and that was on a brotherly level at best, I got the feeling. I wasn’t anything to write home about back when we first met – a sort of skinny, proto-geekish nerd, with the obligatory black-rimmed glasses and awkward social graces that came from long hours reading, delving into military history, and assembling elaborately painted plastic scale kits. Or maybe it was just the model glue.

Mouse helped me out of that societal hole I’d dug, although it took a while for us to become friends. At first I wasn’t even aware of her particularly, just as one of the new girls who transferred into 5th grade at the same time as I had. The first time I noticed her, in 6th grade orientation class, she was a deceptively ordinary-looking girl who was small, thin, and mouse-haired; ‘specially when her mother was on an “imaginative” bob kick - she had a coupla years of short, ratty, hairstyles that never quite framed her face enough to make her look pretty. I hardly spoke to her for the first semester, and I still haven’t figured why she started yakkin’ away at me one day out of the blue after the Holiday break. Maybe it was my obsessive drawing habit, my way of taking notes – she noticed early on my notebooks and handouts were filled with sketches and scribbles, and damned if hers weren’t well decorated too; maybe she noticed we both spent free time in the library or the Art Room; or maybe I looked as lonely as I felt and she saw a kindred soul.

She had already developed a reputation as kind of a pain in the butt, but in a harmless, know-it-all fashion. Often the choice for answers in class, teachers didn’t even need her to raise her hand, and this wasn’t a plus with most of the self-important girls who were the arbiters of feminine cool in our day. In addition, she made absolutely no attempt to fit in, and most of the girls at school treated her with indifference, sadly, which was probably worse than being actively disliked. I was also one of the answer men at school, but not in the front ranks – in my grade school, most of the BMOC and BGOC were also fairly good students. This was pretty much turned upside down in high-school where I fell into a new class of fringe, but Mouse never did fit in anywhere, which I believe was her intent all along. At this point in life, the summer after 8th grade and before high school started, I’d gotten much taller and filled out a mite, but I, too, was still on the outside of the usual cliques. Being on the outside socially was a stronger bond for us than perhaps even a brother and sister might share.

Mouse had matured a little by now as well, her hair was worn long and straight, with bangs parted on one side, and I felt it enhanced her looks which were now more than ordinary, but only just so. Her smile could make all the difference, though – possibly one of the ten great smiles of all time, it was truly her best feature, even if she was chary bestowing it. I found myself looking at her twice sometimes – she was filling out in the right places, and she had always dressed distinctively well, which helped make the most of small changes. I didn’t know it at the time, but in PE at school, Mouse was a damn good runner, and her moneyed parents had her in a private swim club after school, so she was probably more fit than most of the girls I knew. I wasn’t ashamed of being seen with her, that’s for sure, as I had an exaggerated appreciation of her all the way around, but the main result of her maturing was a vague unease it inspired in me.

I didn’t consciously have any romantic feelings for her, and I was attracted to her on more than one level, I know now – but back then I thought I was uneasy because someone else might become more interesting to share books with her than yours truly. Like most of us, I was real good at worrying about myself. Looking back, I realize the elemental attraction of sex was just rearing its head about then, and I missed the signals for a while.

Turned out I never had to find out my true depth of feelings for her – she’d keep up our routine for the next few years, regardless of events outside our relationship – romantic entanglements with others notwithstanding - but always on her own platonic terms. At this particular point, all I cared about was, no matter how shallow and lame I might view myself, Mouse was there for me, listening, and, more important, she talked to me without holding back, trusting me. I took it as some sort of validation on her part - I might really be worth a damn to somebody. We shared more than books after a while – confidences and gossip, ideas and longings; questions and answers we felt we couldn’t ask our other friends were hashed out between the two of us. Broaching the idea of watching foreign movies in strange theaters came without a thought of rejection.

We were walking through one of the air-conditioned malls on a hot midsummer day, heading towards a bookstore, (what else?) and I pointed out a flyer for a matinee showing at a small local theater of “Somewhere in the Night”, a movie I had never heard of before, (but now one of my faves), something called a “film noir” which was a recent discovery for me, and asked her if she felt like seeing it with me that weekend.

She walked for a few more steps before answering.

“Are you asking me out on a date?” She looked at me side-long.

I couldn’t quite say that, although I should’ve. The element of romance had never entered my mind. What an obtuse fucker.

“I thought it might be interesting. I’ve been going to movies lately that are different. They’re sometimes foreign, sometimes American, and they’re really cool. I don’t know anyone I can talk to about ‘em, except you. But I really want you to see them with me, if you can.” Yeah, it sounded lame then, too.

She stopped walking.

“Are you asking me out on a date?” She gave me a strange look, “If you’re asking me out on a date, you can’t pick me up at my house, you know, that just wouldn’t work. Are you really asking me out on a date? ‘Cause I can’t go on dates, my parents already told me I’m too young. You’re too young to drive, how are you getting around? How were you gonna pick me up anyway? How…” At this point I held up my hand.

“Stop, stop, OK?  I’m sorry I brought it up.” I really wanted to see the movie with her, though, but I wasn’t saying it right.

“It’s not about just the movie, damn it. I really thought you’d go for it. I mean, not just this time – I want to start a regular movie thing, like with the books. You know me – we’ve talked enough about movies we like, and I know you like old movies and foreign films on TV. I…I wouldn’t ask anybody else.” I refrained from mentioning that I’d be lucky to get any girl to say yes back then, anyway. I took a long breath to steady my voice. “I really, really want you to go to the movies with me. Like a date, OK?” I gave her the sad puppy look.

“That won’t work on me, you know that.” She sat down on a bench, crossed her legs, and looked at me until I got a little nervous. “You know, ‘like a date’ isn’t actually a date,” Mouse said flatly, “So which is it? Date or not?”

I was boxed in, and I knew it. But I wasn’t going to lie to her, she was too good at reading me. I sat down and didn’t say anything until I’d thought it all the way through. That didn’t help either. Right then it ran through my mind - Why can’t life be like the movies?


“Well, that’s real comforting! First time somebody asks me for a date, and it’s crap? Thanks a lot.” She un-crossed her legs, smoothed out her dress, and looked me straight on, “Now I’m real interested in how you think you’re gonna talk your way out of this - ‘cause it’s not happening, Rob.”

She gave me a really false smile, one of her best, and not only did I know I would never win, I was sure she was gonna hit me over the head with this forever.

“I meant it for me; I’m just making it worse.” Yeah, how did I do this to myself? How did that happen, and so fast? The only person I could ask who would go with me to these kinds of movies just happens to be the only girl I even know anything about. And I couldn’t even do that right. “I kinda blew that whole thing, didn’t I? I guess you don’t have to go see it with me, if you don’t want to.” I was really disappointed, but tried not to show it.

“It’s not about a date, is it?” she looked away, “It’s just the movie, with or without me, isn’t it?”

By the look on her face, I could see this might not end well, so I had to give it another shot.

I sat down next to her, “OK, it’s not a date, even though it’s kinda like one – Please… come to the movie with me.” It was all I could get out.

“I’m sorry I took it wrong when you asked me just now, but it wasn’t anything to do with you - I mean it.” She looked sheepishly at me, “I’m ashamed to say it never entered my mind it would be you asking, but I jumped right at it, for a while there, anyway. That’s not what upset me, though. As soon as I did, I realized I was scared.” She looked away again, “You know, I used to imagine the first time a boy would ask me out, I would be excited, because he would be handsome and popular, and I would be popular just for going on a date with him,” Mouse said somberly, “It was what I was brought up to expect - the princess treatment, I guess. Later on I just hoped it would be a nice boy, it didn’t matter whether he was popular or handsome - I wasn’t holding out hope for the princess thing.”

That really slapped me down, and she saw it in my face. “I didn’t mean it that way, Rob! I know you’d never hurt me on purpose, and I hope you know I’d never do that to you – it’s just that…boys don’t seem to be interested in me very much, except for you and the books, and you caught me by surprise. Just for minute there, I thought you were being romantic, or something. I guess I’m not really ready for that stuff, and I was scared.” She reached for my hand, something she had never done before, and it thrilled me a little – I had never had any real physical contact with her, despite our lending habit.

“I’ll go to the movie with you, but it’s not a date – it’ll be just like the books, if we see more of them.” She had a very business-like demeanor now, “I think you know it already, but right now, you’re prolly my closest friend, and I want it to stay that way.”

Wow! Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have ever said a more wonderful thing to me at that age, and it didn’t even cross my mind if there was a boyfriend/girlfriend thing attached.

“I don’t know if I was more scared of the dating part, or what might happen if I screwed it up and you wouldn’t be my friend anymore. I’m not too clear, huh?” She looked anxious, “But do you see what I mean? You weren’t asking me on a date, but I thought so for minute, and I can’t make that kind of change, for anybody, right now – I just can’t.” I caught the subtext right away - I wasn’t any Prince Charming, and she was gonna hold out for something like him – dreams die hard. Maybe I had low expectations, but I could live with that. She squeezed my hand and let go. “So who’s in this movie, anybody we know?” And just like that, it started.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

                                                         Lost Childhood

Or How the World’s Greatest Kid’s Show helped me love film, and how, sadly, the show itself wasn’t preserved.

Most people today get their introduction to classic and silent films through the medium of television, more specifically the cable channel Turner Classic Movies, and to a lesser degree Fox’s cable TV stations, the HBOs, Showtimes, and Cinemaxes, and before that AMC was in the mix, as well.

Some local university based public TV channels, which would’ve been only on the dreaded UHF broadcast bands in the old days, also show old films. This gradual shift from big screens to small screens has been that way since the 1950s when the Studios began packaging their libraries and syndicating them aggressively, and largely willy-nilly.
Soon it will be computer screens or those systems connected to a high-def set that are the main intake, and already iPods and smart phones are used extensively for viewing by younger folk. But before the advent of big cable, and recordable home media, there was a glorious show on TV that had a love for film, a love for slapstick, a love for rock and roll, and above all, a love for kids. 

As a boy growing up in the late 1950s and straight through the 1960s in the Phoenix, Arizona area, my introduction to silent and classic films was through a local broadcast TV station, Channel 5. Its call letters were KPHO, and was one of the last Dumont affiliates – at one time the only TV station in Phoenix, it showed all four networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, and Dumont, until other stations came along. 

Channel 5 had lots of old movies, in seemingly endless categories, including what I now know to be pre-codes, and even some I believe are now lost or too damaged to see. They showed lots of B&W and even a few silent films, and must’ve been on a tight budget, as many seemed to be pretty obscure. 

They had a silent comedy series, although not locally produced I seem to remember, and a serial series as well, also syndicated, but at least they showed Commando Cody, and Flash Gordon, and other episodic wonders. In addition, a local car dealer had married Acquanetta, a minor star of Universal’s B- and Z- adventure and monster films, and she hosted a late-night show of older films, as well. 
                                                                  Acquanetta in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman

All this was just part of the attractions on local TV that had classic film connections, but children growing up there had much more on their plate:

              The Wallace and Ladmo Show, simply the World’s Greatest Kid’s Show. 

And I do mean kid’s as opposed to children’s show, because The Wallace and Ladmo Show wasn’t like the others: some children’s shows were relentlessly didactic, some were relentlessly static, some seemed aimed relentlessly at five-year-olds, some were relentlessly cute, but Wallace and Ladmo were above all relentlessly funny, and entertained the kids and their parents. 

It started as It’s Wallace?, then morphed into Wallace & Company unchanged, and finally as The Wallace and Ladmo Show, (but every kid called it Wallace and Ladmo all along) and ran from April 1, 1954 to December 29, 1989, before a “live” audience, a thirty-six year run, which made it the longest-running, locally produced daily kid’s show, ever, and won many local Emmy awards. This record probably won’t be broken, either - local children's programs aren’t produced in the U.S. much anymore, if at all, and certainly none like The Wallace and Ladmo Show.

                                                                                Wallace and Ladmo 

    A full house at the old Fox Theater in Downtown Phoenix, AZ for a live Wallace and Ladmo stage appearance.

The Wallace and Ladmo Show had music, sketches, and slapstick, and was closer to an Ernie Kovacs kind of show, with some Soupy Sales and Mad Magazine thrown in, than an ordinary children’s show, even having guest appearances by the likes of Jack Benny, Mohammed Ali, Steve Allen, and especially, a famous, huge fan of the show: a local band called "The Earwigs" made their first ever TV appearance on Wallace and Ladmo; you’ll prolly know that group better by a future name - Alice Cooper. Also an occasional guest was a local young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg, who would show excerpts from his early efforts. The show gave out locally famous prizes, the legendary Ladmo Bag, a grocery bag filled with chips, candy and coupons – Alice Cooper was presented with one at the end of the show’s run in 1989, the last one besides the one given to Ladmo himself.

                                                                            Ladmo with Ladmo Bag
                                                                   Alice Cooper gets his Ladmo Bag

Started as a way for KPHO to show syndicated cartoons, it starred all locally developed performers: Bill Thompson, the actual writer of the show, as Oliver Hardy-like Wallace Snead, (mostly called just Wallace, or Wallboy by his sidekicks) usually wearing a bowler hat; a tall drink of goofy water named Ladimir Kwiatkowski, an ex-ballplayer, who played Ladmo, the very Stan Laurel part, with huge top hats, (much like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland) and his trademark large, loud ties, worn even with a t-shirt; and the amorphous and prodigiously talented Pat McMahon, a veteran of a vaudeville family, who played a myriad of roles, a host of parts that generally spoofed film, TV, and popular culture, including the villainous Gerald, the station owner's fictional nephew, in a Buster Brown outfit and big glasses. 

Gerald was the evil little kid everybody hated, and would spout lines like this about the kids in the audience: “You invited these little jerks down here; you got them out of the alley where they usually hang out. Reminds me, I should pick up a new copy of Lord of the Flies.” Not your children’s show’s usual dialog, by far, and it was the show's trademark – they talked to kids like ordinary human beings, so they got the first part, and were also talking to the adults and teenagers whom they knew watched it, too, for the literary reference. 
                                                                      Wallace, Gerald, and Ladmo

For much of its run it had superior music, due to the contributions of Mike Condello, a local rock and roll musician. Far from running away from popular music or becoming mired in mediocre taste, Wallace and Ladmo embraced it: the show had their own R&R band, a spoof of course, called Hub Kapp and the Wheels, who played on the show, and actually had some radio airplay; enough to show up on Steve Allen’s show for a gig. Occasionally videos of that show with Hub Kapp and the Wheels’ local hit ”Work, Work” (A dirty word, the dirtiest word I ever heard) show up on YouTube today. They even had a recording contract until McMahon and the boys in the band decided they couldn’t keep up the façade that long. Condello also wrote and performed a number of Beatles spoofs for the show, as well, and also the show’s theme song, “Ho Ho Ha Ha Hee Hee Ha Ha”, which replaced the Ernie Kovacs-like ditty they had used for a while.

The show's film connections started early, as it was basically a sketch comedy affair with cartoons thrown in, and many of the sketches lampooned and parodied specific films and film conventions. One of McMahon’s many incarnations was a deadbeat former movie cowboy named Marshall Good, (former Guy Good, last of the Good Guys),who made it so I could never watch Gene Autry or Roy Rogers with a straight face ever again – Marshall Good was always bumming quarters from the kids in the audience. 
                                                                           Ladmo and Marshall Good

The show parodied other children’s shows with McMahon playing both Aunt Maude, a crotchety senior citizen whose “gather ‘round fairy-tale Children’s Stories” always ended badly, and a TV clown named Boffo, who hated kids – the first name they chose, by the way, was Ozob the Clown, who dressed suspiciously like Bozo, until they were rumored to have been pressured to change both by the Bozo Franchise. The show had a superhero loser character, too, in McMahon’s Captain Super, a weasily faker. Here's Aunt Maude:

My earliest remembrance of a silent film isn’t Chaplin, or Keaton, or any Studio efforts, though - no, it’s the silent homemade films that Wallace and Ladmo produced for this show. You might see their stop-motion little shorts with Wallace herky-jerking around, or the real gold mine: their silent Western serials, often with the bad-ass Nasty Brothers, which included railroad train shots and lots of horses. These were locally made short films that didn't invoke their earlier counterparts simply because they lacked sound; they had the cinematographic cadence of silent films and even intertitles. Ladmo was the veteran studio cameraman for the regular show, often locking it and running around to the front for various gags in the early days, and this made their films so much more like mini-studio productions.Here's some of the few surviving shorts:


Wallace and Ladmo also had a running gag with little slapstick bits involving Ladmo getting into trouble over a particular park bench with cranky Mr. Grudgemeyer, played by Thompson with a cheap Styrofoam skimmer, a fuzzy black wig, and googly-eyed glasses, with a Kovacsian, cheesy recording of “Emery and his Violin of Love” playing “I Love You Much Too Much” accompanied the mayhem. 
                                                         Ladmo and Mr. Grudgemeyer start in to fightin’!

The Grudgemeyer comedies were unabashed homage to Laurel and Hardy, according to Ladmo himself, and often they were having so much fun they couldn’t get the sparse dialog straight. This included lines like Mr. Grudgemeyer’s, after tearing off parts of Ladmo’s coat, promptly holding them up and in the tradition of all great matadors, said, “Grudgemeyer is awarded two ears!” This was obviously not played for the kiddies in the audience.

And one shouldn’t forget the main reason for Wallace and Ladmo’s very existence: they showed cartoons – syndicated rather than network produced or initiated, and the grandest of them all was one of the best ever: 

                                                                             Roger Ramjet.


This biting, snarky, enormously funny cartoon from 1965, deliberately sketchily (some say, badly) drawn, fast-paced and witty, had a long-running relationship with movies and their foibles. Most of its 156 episodes had some sort of film-based satire, and many of the character’s lines were aimed well over the heads of the little kids watching, and smack into brains of older kids and parents, and were much like the contemporaneous Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons in looks, and even surpassed them in attitude. A Snyder-Koren Production, in association with Pantomime Pictures, Inc., it was a small animation outfit that took chances, with edgy minor character names like Speed Merkin, (!!!) and was written by Gene Moss and Jim Thurman.

                                                                                Roger Ramjet

Roger Ramjet himself, voiced by the great Gary Owens, was a rather thick-headed jet jockey, who would always end up downing his “Proton Energy Pills, which gave him the power of 20 atom bombs for a period of 20 seconds” to get out of whatever trouble his obtuseness had gotten him into, and his sidekicks, the American Eagles, always had to help. Roger worked for clueless General G.I. Brassbottom, the very short, very loud military chief of a special, but mysterious, military organization.
                                                                         General G.I. Brassbottom

The villains were classic Hollywood creations, like the Gangster: Noodles Romanoff, (a combination of George Raft, Jimmy Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson) and his Gang of No-Goods, native New York speakers all, who were useful for classic crime spoofs; the Evil Aliens: the Solenoid Robots, who spoke in mechanical tones with lots of buzzes and clicks,(literally the spoken words, “buzz” and “click”!) rolled on one wheel and fell over a lot, and were the Sci-Fi films punching bags; The Evil Mad Scientist, Dr. Frank.N.Schwein, so they could spoof horror films; the Superspy Femme Fatale: Slavic-sounding Jacqueline Hyde, for the espionage thrillers; and an anachronistic favorite of mine, the Freebooter: Red Dog the Pirate, who sailed in a classic square-rigger,had a parrot, Punjab, that screeched out “Pieces of Seven!” Red Dog spoke in a wonderful Robert Newton-ish pirate accent, “Aaaarrrhh”, and plenty of pirate lingo, for the swashbuckling spoofs. 

                                                                           Solenoid Robots

Many episodes featured Lance Crossfire, Roger’s rival for the attentions of the Girl: Lotta Love – and she was a lotta. Lance spoke in a clenched-teeth manner, like a Cary Grant/Errol Flynn/Burt Lancaster combination, and was the foil for many Hollywood inspired romance plot lines. Lance was an egotistical buffoon, as opposed to Roger who wasn’t egotistical, as evidenced by this exchange:

Roger: “Tell me, Lance, did you crash into that mountain…‘because it was there?’” 

Lance: ”NO! Because it was HERE! If it was THERE, I would’ve missed it!!” 

Of all things, the gag was based an obscure reference to doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s response to why he would climb Mt. Everest! This is typical Roger Ramjet-style writing.
                                                                          Roger and his American Eagles 
Yank, Dan, Doodle and Dee were his American Eagles sidekicks, young kids going up those old crates, you might say, and were honest and true. Ma Ramjet popped up on one early episode, and Doodle told her how excited they all were to meet her, “Roger’s told us all about you!” “LIES! All of it!!” Ma Ramjet promptly screeched. She was often involved in the plots, or her pet gorilla was, who followed Roger around a lot, and would lead to one classic exchange between Roger and the Pirate:

Red Dog: “Aaaarhhh! It’s Ram-jet, an’ e’s brought ‘is brother!” 

Roger: “He’s not my brother, he’s a friend of my Mother.”

Red Dog: “Who, yer father?”

This was not the expected dialog in any other cartoon, quite adult for its time, and we relished it for its snark. 

                                                    Ma Ramjet’s Gorilla, Roger and G.I. Brassbottom

When the announcer spoke, his words popped up in intertitles on the screen, sometimes with deliberate misspellings. The plots were often straight parodies of classic films, like High Noon, (“Bernie Miller’s outta prison, he’ll hit this town like nuclear fission!”), or sci-fi spoofs that were clever and thought provoking, such as when the Solenoid Robots began stealing all the government agencies that used acronyms, FBI, CIA, COMCINC, and any other letter combination the writers could think up.

Another episode had a running gag when it was discovered the Navy’s anchors were disappearing, and sure enough, starting with the Admiral of the Navy, someone would say “We’ve got to find out who’s taking our anchors away!” and the nearest door would fly open, a Busby Berkeley chorus line of sailors would burst through singing “Anchors Aweigh!”, and someone would yell, “Get those midshipmen out of here!” There were other episodes that played with Hollywood musicals, too, and episodes like The Three Faces of Roger were obvious film spoofs, as well.

Roger Ramjet didn't skirt the cultural edge aspects, though, it jumped right in – a trip to the fictitious South American country of San Domino had the bandito Enchilada Brothers, Beef and Chicken, true heirs of Alfonso Bedoya’s Gold Hat from Treasure of the Sierra Madre; a feisty Hispanic gal, Tequila Mockingbird, and the President of San Domino, who would confer with his Cabinet, literally a wooden cabinet that he would open to ask, “Hey Cabinet, S’Ok?”, a voice inside the cabinet would respond “S’awright!” and end with the cabinet saying, “Close de box!” A quick Señor Wences and Pedro ventriloquist bit!! Of course, this probably wouldn’t fly today.

The key to The Wallace and Ladmo Show, and Roger Ramjet, too, was the audacity they showed in treating kids as intelligent beings, and knowing they had adults and teens watching, the fearlessness to assume their entire audience was in the know at different levels, too. They knew the older kids would get some of the allusions, and the teens and adults would probably get the higher flying jokes, gags, and topical references, and they expected their cleverness would be appreciated. They may not have assumed their show would become beloved and respected as a local cultural institution, but by the time the show ended, they knew how important they’d been to hundreds of thousands of kids in Phoenix, Arizona - there were Wallace and Ladmo spin-offs, burger joints, live shows, some syndication around the country, and most of all, a hellacious amount of fun – a glorious run.

And then one day, it was gone.

And I do mean gone – outside of a handful of later episodes towards the end of the run, no complete episodes survive. The station had mercilessly taped over every episode it could, re-using the tapes over and over, driven by the bottom line, something that’s no small factor in an independent station’s survival, but heartbreaking none the less. Even Roger Ramjet has a few lost episodes, but thankfully survives on DVD almost complete. It wasn’t a death by the whole show’s recordings being lost in a cataclysm, like a fire, and there wasn’t a gradual loss of existing material – no, it was a slow death by inches, starting from the very beginning, a disposable reality, born anew every day and murdered that same night. There are bits and pieces of the older episodes of Wallace and Ladmo online occasionally, but for all intents and purposes, especially the era I grew up in, the wonderful, glorious, side-splittingly funny Wallace and Ladmo Show, the World’s Greatest Kid’s Show, is gone. Preservation never entered the equation until the very end – it was erased, rubbed out, as if it never existed.

Could someone have saved those episodes? I guess not, unless some secret stash of tapes shows up, an unlikely occurrence, sadly. I doubt many watchers realized it, and in the absence of home recording media, even a legion of fans can’t bring back that special moment in time. I barely touched on the long history of Wallace and Ladmo, and it lives now only in the collective memory of an aging fan base. There are fan pages online, interviews, and some transcripts, and it’s possible the scripts survive with Bill Thompson, but the images, the immediacy of their performances, are now mostly stills and snippets. Ladmo passed away in 1994, and Mike Condello in 1995, but Bill Thompson and Pat McMahon, and most of the rest of the cast are with us still.

Preservation wasn’t in the cards for The Wallace and Ladmo Show, and Roger Ramjet survived because it’s been shown off and on since its inception, in many countries, and enjoyed a cult following even in its darkest hours. Syndication saved it, and many other children’s cartoons and shows, but so many locally produced television shows, no matter how popular and groundbreaking, were simply erased from the tapes, day after day, year after year, and most were forgotten. The absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to The Wallace and Ladmo almost happened, to have been completely forgotten, but the show is fondly remembered and although it was considered a brilliant success by most who watched it, even this is only a pale shadow of what it was.

Please donate to the National Film Preservation Foundation, and help save films and maybe some old local TV programs someday:
And have a look at their website:

or have a look at the Movie Preservation Blog:

This worthy worthy endeavor was ramrodded by Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren:

and Marilyn Ferdinand at:
I’ll always be grateful to The Wallace and Ladmo Show ,and Roger Ramjet, (not just for molding me into the smart-ass I am today!) because at first, they just made me want to watch films to make sure I could get the jokes and allusions, and through this I found I loved watching films for what they were, not just as adjuncts to a kid’s show. As for The Wallace and Ladmo Show itself, Ave atque vale, old friends, a fond farewell to The World’s Greatest Kid’s Show.
                                                                                So long, old buddies!