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A Hollywood Childhood

by David Westheimer

 

To many folks who live outside of Southern California, Los Angeles is synonymous with Hollywood. And the Hollywood of their imagination is not the Hollywood of reality which, while lively, can be tawdry and no place to see movie stars except those set in the sidewalk.

That imaginary Hollywood has little to do with the real thing but is a mixture of Beverly Hills and the movie and TV studios. The imaginary Hollywood is a place where you could get a crick in your neck trying to take in all the famous faces and a dent in your wallet paying the tab at chic restaurants and boutiques. And the imaginary people who live in imaginary Hollywood--out every night where a $100 dinner is just getting by or at parties with guest lists out of fan magazines. Glamorous folks all, living glamorous lives.

The real Los Angeles is less like the imaginary Hollywood that it is like the real Houston, where Dody and I were born and raised, without the mosquitoes and humidity. The citizens live their lives pretty much like regular people. Ill give you a typical evening out for an ordinary Los Angeleno.

Dody and I sometimes go out to dinner with a writer friend and her writer husband. Do we go to Ivy At the Shore, where theres a chance of seeing someone weve seen on the silver screen? No, we go to Hamburger Hamlet, where there are folks like us except they mostly arent writers, except the waiters and waitresses who havent sold anything yet. Afterward we go to their condo for a little excitement, like the time our friend had a little gadget she wanted us to try. We sat around her dining room table doing just that. Taking our blood pressure. Because that was what the gadget was for. Of course it was a Saturday night. Weeknights are kind of dull.

However. There are those who did live something close to the imagined Hollywood life. There was this12-year-old girl who accepted as a matter of course evenings that a full-grown woman anywhere else would consider special. She saw her first stage musical at four. She saw The Wiz, Evita, Annie, Pirates of Penzance, Sophisticated Ladies, The Nutcracker, Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles . And saw most of them from house seats. Usually she went backstage to visit the stars. When I asked her about it she was surprised. Doesnt everyone? she said. When she first started going to stage shows she wanted to go backstage and visit at intermissions. Took her a while to understand that wasnt done. Even by her.

At the age of nine, after Hello, Dolly she went to visit Carol Channing in her dressing room and when she came out demanded, What we gonna do now? It was after midnight. She went home. Her parents needed the rest.

A few days before New Years Eve she asked her parents what party would they be taking her to.

Not Sidney and Joannas, I hope, she said. When we went there last New Years and it was so boring.

I said, Sidney and Joanna?

Sidney Poitier and his wife, Joanna Shimkus, her father explained.

She went on school trips to Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Marine Land and visited the San Diego Zoo, Wild Animal Park (where you stay in the car and the animals roam free), the moored Queen Mary (she spent the night in a stateroom on it) and Santa Claus Village.

Her favorite restaurant was Chasens (closed now) , where she had the good taste not to like the chili. She was familiar with fettuccini Alfredo, pommes du terre soufflé, sushi and virgin strawberry daiquiris. She ate Japanese and Chinese food with chopsticks, dexterously.

There was a time she said she was going to follow in her fathers footsteps.

Im going to be an actors agent, she said. The best because the best is going to teach me. My father.

Then she began going to a tutor not far from her fathers office. Her tutorial sessions ended about an hour before he left for the day. Her mother thought it a good idea for her to go to his office and wait there to drive home with him. Which she did.

She went through his desk, examined his memos and correspondence, appropriated some of his personalized notepads, interrogated his secretary and observed him on the telephone, where a busy agent spends much of his time and all the closing hours of his working day.

When she got home, she announced shed changed her mind. She didnt want to be an agent.

Its boring, she said. All he did the whole time was talk on the phone.

If you dont want to do what your father does, then what do you want to do? I asked.

I want to do what my mother does. Nothing.

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