WHY I LOVE LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve got the end of summer blues. Maybe it’s the lingering memory of last year’s winter from hell. Walter Houston is talk-singing “September Song” in my head and he won’t go away. A phone call from a dear friend who has received some bad news from his doctor just deepens my melancholy. I need to get out of this funk.

LUCILLE-BALL

Melancholy. Melancholy Serenade. Serenade of the Bells. The Bells of St. Mary. A silly word link game I play to lighten things. It suddenly reminds me of another August more than three decades ago. Late August and Lucy.

The assignment? Cover Lucille Ball’s arrival in Boston. The nation’s favorite red-head was visiting her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, who was opening in a pre-Broadway show. It was pushing 9 pm, another long day. Yes, I had the end of summer blues.  Lucy finally arrived at Logan Airport, surrounded by an entourage and a gaggle of media.

I hung back, beckoning with my TV smile and waited for things to quiet down. I was looking down at my feet for a long moment when I heard the familiar voice. “What’s the matter, fella, long day?”, Lucille Ball inquired as I looked up, face to face with that very familiar face.

We smiled at each other. Real smiles. Not the phony ones. I didn’t realize it but Lucy had already cued my camera crew and things were rolling along. I’m not sure who was doing the interview.  Mostly we chatted about the “glamour” of TV, celebrity, long working days and Boston traffic.

I signalled the crew to shoot cut-aways, beating Lucy by a second and she winked. We shook hands and Lucy gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek..and another wink as she walked away with her entourage.

Lucy showFast forward to the next afternoon and the end of a formal news conference. Lucy seemed tired as she answered the last question about the enduring popularity of the “I Love Lucy” reruns. I was just staring and marvelling at her patience. She caught the look on my face and gave me a wry smile. As the room emptied out, Lucy beckoned me to stay. We waited until all the camera crews left. She offered me a scotch neat and thanked me for not asking any dumb questions during the news conference.

I asked if she’d gotten any sleep and she flashed that wry look again. Lucy gave me that “so what’s the problem?” look. I muttered something about being burned out and a little blue because summer was fleeting. She laughed. A big hearty laugh. Her face lit up as she pinched my cheeks.

Lucy showed me some PR stills from her “I Love Lucy” days and sighed. I showed her a couple of my PR postcards and she guffawed. Another round of scotches neat.

Lucy talked quietly about how proud she was of her daughter. I just listened. She smiled as she realized I was really listening.

A PR aide interrupted and Lucy looked annoyed. We stood up. I reached out to shake her hands but she hugged me. She pinched my cheeks again and gave me that wry smile again as she walked away.

HOLLYWOOD FANTASIES, GARRY ARMSTRONG

I love movies. Old movies  Movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I grew up watching these films. They were movies from Hollywood’s golden age when fantasy really trumped reality. These were films seen in theaters. First, second and the beloved third run or neighborhood movies houses.

old hollywood glamor shots

This was before television. The movie theater experience was as much fun as seeing the film. That’s where the fantasy began.

I saw my first movie in 1946. I was four years old. The movie was “The Best Years Of Our Lives”. My Mom and Dad took me to see the film in a big glittery theater in Manhattan. New York. The city that never sleeps. My Dad, in his Army dress uniform with ribbons and medals, had just returned from Europe. World War Two had ended less than a year earlier. I vaguely remembered the headlines. My Dad seemed ten feet tall in his uniform. My Mom was more beautiful than I could ever recall. She looked like a movie actress in one of those popular magazines of the day. I felt as if we were in a movie that evening. It was magical!

I remember some of the scenes from the movie. The returning GIs, looking down on their hometown from the air. The family reunions. The men looked like my father and yet they didn’t. I was bothered, but didn’t understand. I dreamed about the movie that night. My Dad was the star. My Mom was Myrna Loy. I was the son receiving souvenirs from my Dad. I could see myself in the movie.

astair and rogers

That fantasy would replay itself many times over ensuing decades. It grew with the films of my youth. The westerns, especially. I adored westerns. I liked seeing the good guys always beat the bad guys. I liked the way the good guys dressed and the horses they rode. Curiously, none of the guys — good or bad — looked like anyone in my family but that didn’t matter to me. Didn’t think much about it. I was  all of those good guys! Most of all, I was John Wayne. Later, I was so much John Wayne I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. Another story.

As my fantasy grew, I also discovered I was a romantic. This is a guy secret. I liked romantic movies with happy endings. I was Joseph Cotten pursuing Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters” and “Portrait of Jennie”. I was Spencer Tracy, the underdog to Clark Gable, vying for the affections of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert.

Somewhere, stashed away, I have an old notebook. One of those notebooks with lined pages used for compositions in grade school. I used to write imaginary castings for movies with myself as the star opposite Hollywood legends. Actually, I added some reality. I worked my way up from “and introducing Garry Armstrong”, to co-star, and finally star. Fortunately, that notebook was never discovered in class.

Marilyn and I have been watching (again) a series, “MGM – WHEN THE LION ROARED”. It’s a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. As we look at the series, I fantasize again, now at age 72, about being there in Hollywood during its golden age.

MGM_backlot

Fantasy dissolved into a dream last night. I was in 1930’s Hollywood. I was at MGM. I saw the legends. Gable, Tracy, Garbo, Crawford and all the others. The dream unfolded rather skillfully. I was a freelance writer working under a pseudonym in separate quarters. This is how I, a man of color, could exist in that world. It was perfectly splendid. My work was excellent. Others took credit but all knew who I was, especially Louis B. Mayer. I never asked for a raise. My scripts all had the MGM touch.

In real life, I’ve had the chance to meet many of those legends who’ve been part of my dreams. As a TV news reporter, I’ve actually had the opportunity to socialize with some of them. You’ve read about some of them in other posts. It’s funny when reality meets your dreams and fantasies.

I’ve done some extra or background acting. It’s been interesting but the hours are too long, like those I logged for almost 40 years in television. I don’t like getting up early anymore. I haven’t quite closed the door, mind you. I hang onto the fantasy I’ll get “the call” for a lead role in a major movie.

And, the Oscar goes to …

THE FIRST DAY

September 1951. I am probably the youngest kid in the class. I’m only four, but somehow, here I am. I’m certainly the smallest. Everyone seems so big. I don’t know it yet, but I will always be either the shortest or next to the shortest kid in every class for the next six years. The school looks huge. Monstrous. Many years later, when I come back to visit, it will be tiny, a miniature school. Even the steps are half the height of normal.

But I don’t know about stairs yet because kindergarten is on the ground floor. They don’t want the little kids getting run down by bigger ones.

There were no air conditioners when I went there. We just sweated.

The windows go all the way to the ceiling, which is very high. To open or close them, Mrs. O’Rourke has to use an enormous hook-on-a-pole. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows like we have at home. Our windows open by turning a crank; anyone, even I, can open them.

The teacher is kind of old. She’s got frizzy grey hair. She talks loud and slow. Does she think I’m stupid? Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

Now it’s nap time. We are supposed to put our blankets on the floor and go to sleep, but I don’t nap. I haven’t taken a nap ever, or at least not that I can remember. And anyway, I don’t have a blanket because my mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have them. I wish I had one because I feel weird being the only one without a blanket and a shoe box.

Worse yet, I don’t have crayons. I wish I had some. The ones everyone can use are broken and colors no one likes. My mother didn’t know what I was supposed to bring. She’s busy. I just got a new sister who cries all the time and mommy didn’t have time to come to school and find out about all this stuff.

So I sit in a chair and wait, being very quiet, while every one is napping. I don’t think they are really asleep, but everyone goes and lays down on the floor on a blanket and pretends. It give Mrs. O’Rourke time to write things in her book.

It’s a long day. I have almost a mile to walk home. Mommy doesn’t drive and anyway, she doesn’t worry about me. She knows I’ll find my way. It’s only that it’s all uphill. I’m tired. Why do I have to do this stuff?

By the time I know the answer, it won’t matter any more. School has become the ordinary stuff of life and why no longer applies.


Memoir Madness – Weekly Writing Challenge

AN AFTERNOON WITH ROBERT “MITCH” MITCHUM – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn and I watched an old Dick Cavett interview with Robert Mitchum on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) last night. We laughed a lot. It was a reminder of how good late night talk shows were. It also showed the legendary tough guy Mitchum as an affable and literate man who didn’t take himself seriously.

The Cavett show originally aired in 1970. I met Robert Mitchum the following year. Turned out to be a memorable encounter.

Robert Mitchum was in Boston to shoot “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, a film about small The_Friends_of_Eddie_Coyletime criminals. There was nothing small time about Mitchum. I lobbied for and got the TV interview assignment. Those were the days of “The big three” television stations in Boston. Two of the stations had prominent entertainment reporters. I was the “go to guy” at my station.

The established entertainment reporters had first dibs on Mitchum. Fine by me. I waited until shooting had wrapped for the day. I lucked out because they finished just before 1pm. The star was in a good mood because his work day was over. We shot one reel of film and I got everything I needed.

Mitchum seemed surprised we weren’t shooting more. Actually, he smiled when I said we had a wrap.

I was getting ready to leave when Robert Mitchum asked what was next for me. Nothing, I told him. I was through for the day unless I was called for a breaking news story. I also assured him I probably would not be reachable. He smiled. He asked if I knew any quiet places where he could have lunch without being bothered. I nodded and he invited me to join him.

It was a small, dark place. It could’ve been a setting from one of Mitchum’s film noir of the 1940s. He smiled approvingly as we walked in. Several people greeted me. No one gave Mitchum a second look. We settled back with the first of many rounds that afternoon. At one point, Mitchum took off his tinted glasses, looked around the place and said I should call him “Mitch”. I nodded. He wanted to know how I could just disappear for the rest of the day. I told him I had recorded my voice tracks, shot all my on camera stuff and relayed cutting instructions after the film was “souped”. Mitch smiled broadly and went to the bar for another round of drinks.

robert_mitchum_by_robertobizama-d4ktib7We spent the next couple of hours talking about sports, music, women, work and celebrity. He noticed how people would look and nod but not bother us. I told him this was one of my secret places. Blue collar. No suits. He wondered why I hadn’t asked him about the “Eddie Coyle” movie or shooting in Boston.

Not necessary, I told him. Everyone knew about that stuff and it would be mentioned by the anchors introducing my stories. He smiled again, lit one more cigarette, and ordered another round.

It dawned on me that Mitch was leading the conversation. Talking about me. How I was faring as a minority in a predominantly white profession. Just like the movies, I told him. I explained I did spot news stories to get the opportunity to do features which I really enjoyed. He laughed and we did an early version of the high 5.

We swapped some more war stories, including a couple about Katherine Hepburn. He talked about working with her in “Undercurrent” with Robert Taylor when he was still a young actor. Mitch said Hepburn was just like a guy, professional, and lots of fun.

I mentioned meeting the legendary actress after I was summoned to her Connecticut home during my stint at another TV station. Mitch stared as I talked. I had tea with Katherine Hepburn who had seen me on the Connecticut TV station. She liked what she saw but had some suggestions about how I could improve what I did. I never could fathom why Katherine Hepburn would choose to spend time with this young reporter. No modesty. Just puzzlement. Mitch loved the story and ordered another round.

I glanced at my watch and figured I couldn’t stay incognito much longer. This was before pagers, beepers and, mercifully, long before cell phones. Mitch caught the look on my face and nodded.

Mitch walked me to my car and asked if I was good to drive. I tried to give him a Mitchum look and he just laughed. We shook hands and vowed to do it again.

Mitch headed back to the bar as I drove away.

THE COAT OFF HER BACK

The year I was 16, I entered college where I discovered the true meaning of angst. I’d had a difficult childhood, but no one except a teenager can fully engage in suffering. By the following summer, at 17, I was deep in the thrall of breaking up with my first love. I had become a moaning, weeping, sodden wreck for whom life was worthless. What stretched before me was a vast puddle of lachrymosity. Pathos. Loss. Oh woe was me.

Somewhere along the way, my mother thought a chat with Aunt Kate would help pull me out of the Slough of Despond. She gave me a few bucks for subway tokens and bus-fare and packed me off for lunch in Manhattan with my favorite Aunt.

Even a despairing teenager can’t avoid perking up a little at the prospect of an elegant lunch in New York. On someone else’s dime.

We met in front of the New York public library, our family’s traditional location for liaison. After ritual greetings and appropriately flattering commentary — “You look wonderful, Aunt Kate!” and “So do you, darling!” — we headed to a hotel for lunch.

In my sudden enthusiasm, I pointed out to my aunt that I was still wearing the fake fur coat she had give me many years ago because I loved it that much.

“OH!” she cried. “You’re still wearing that old rag?” And there, in the middle of downtown Manhattan, she pulled the coat off her back and said I had to have it.

“Aunt Kate,” I pleaded. “We are in the middle of 6th Avenue. And it’s the middle of winter. You’ll freeze. We’ll be mowed down by traffic! Can we at least discuss this indoors? Please?”

Acceding to my wishes, as soon as we got to the restaurant, she made me swap coats with her. Hers was nice, even luxurious. Also a fake fur, but plusher and 5 years newer. She wore mine (the one with the torn lining) home. You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something — or accidentally suggested you might like something similar — you would own it.

Spode Tower Pink

Spode Tower Pink

The ultimate example of family caring were the dishes. Blame me. I started it. I bought the dishes at a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of old pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition. For $30.

Of course I bought them, but they were delicate, so I never used them. They remained in the closet gathering dust. Years passed. One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them.

One day, Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need, the days of dinner parties being long past.

My mother also had no need for a large set, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave them back. Of course, we never used them. I eventually gave them to the kids, who sold them on eBay. They knew they’d never use them either.

In life you find kindness and love, sometimes in the form of dishes. And there is the coat off your aunt’s back, proffered in the dead of winter in Manhattan.


WEEKLY WRITING CHALLENGE – Honey versus Vinegar

FEAR OF FLYING (UMBRELLAS)

75-BroadBoardwalkHP-1

Once upon a time, my father had a business partner. I don’t remember his name, but he was a big, bluff Russian who used to come over the house and make gallons of cabbage soup.

He must have thought there were a lot more kids than there were because my mother couldn’t figure out how to store so much soup, even though we had a 24 cubit food standing deep freeze in the basement as well as a huge fridge in the kitchen.

Bob and my father would go into the kitchen and produce these gallons of soup and laugh a lot. We all had to eat it for weeks until we were sure we were turning into little cabbages.

Bob (or whatever his name was because actually, I’ve forgotten) was accident prone and an enthusiastic teller of stories, most of them about his own misadventures.

“So I was at the beach, at Coney Island” he says, almost shouting because he never said anything except very loud. “Very sunny. Blue sky. A nice day to take my mother to the beach, let her relax in the sun by the water. She is just settling down with her chair. And she asks me if I’ll set up the umbrella for her. I mean, she didn’t have to ask. I always do it, but she always asks anyway, like if she doesn’t ask I won’t do it. I took her to Coney Island, what did she think, I’m going to leave her to cook in the sun?”

75-BeachAtConeyIsland-707

We all nodded dutifully. Because he was my father’s partner and we were kids, so what else was there to do?

“It’s a big umbrella. With stripes. Red and yellow. I got it myself, on sale. Umbrellas are expensive and this was a good sturdy one and I paid bupkas for it. If you ever need an umbrella …” and he paused to remember what he was going to say. “Anyway, this was one of the good ones, with a heavy pole so it would stay put.”

We nodded some more. Our job. To nod. Look very interested.

“I opened the umbrella and had to find the right place to put it because, you know, if it’s in the wrong place, the shade isn’t going to be where you want it. So I walked around a bit until I found just the right place. Then I took the pole and a jammed it into the sand as hard as I could and it went pretty deep. Seemed good and solid.”

We were still nodding. I must have been — maybe 10? — and had been taught to be polite, no matter what, to grown-ups. We did not call adults by their first name. I think my teeth would have cracked if I had tried or my tongue would have stuck to the roof of my mouth.

“What with everything looking okay and my mother settling down in her chair with a book, she looked happy. So I figured it would be a good time to get something to eat and I told her I would go get us some hot dogs — and something to drink. She said that was good, tell them to leave the mustard off because — she’s always reminding me but I know, I know — she doesn’t like mustard.

“I walked all the way over to Nathan’s — pretty long walk, all the way at the end of the boardwalk — because they have the best hot dogs” at which I was nodding with enthusiasm because Nathan’s does have the best hot dogs, “And fries. I got five, two for her — no mustard — and three for me. I was hungry,” and he paused to pat his substantial belly, “I started walking back. I could see where to go — I could see our striped umbrella all the way from the boardwalk.”

Nod, nod, nod.Nathans at Coney Island

“The weather began to change.  Suddenly. Big clouds coming from the ocean. And getting windy. This was all happening fast while I was out getting the dogs. Funny how weather changes so fast at the beach, you know? So now, I’m almost there when up comes a big puff of wind. That umbrella pulls right out of the sand and flies at me. Whacks me over the head. Boom. I thought my head was gonna come off.

“I dropped the food and fell over. Like a rock I fell and just lay there. My whole brain was like scrambled eggs. They had to come and take me to the hospital. I was completely compost for TWO DAYS! Two days! Compost!”

Be careful of flying umbrellas. They can turn you into compost, especially when your hands are full of hot dogs.

I CAN’T REMEMBER THE DETAILS

Back of the Queue — Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to starting (an activity, a hobby, or anything else, really)? Tell us about it — and tell us about what’s keeping you from doing it.


I’m totally sure there’s something I planned — intended — to do with my life and didn’t get around to it.  The problem is, I can’t remember what that was.

Did I plan to get famous, write the great American novel? Yeah, that was one thing but you’ll have to forgive me. I think when this was my dream, I was 10, maybe 11. It didn’t even survive into my high school years. I can’t clearly remember If I had anything specific in mine or how I intended to reach my goal. It was a long time ago.

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When I was even younger, I wanted to be the Lone Ranger. Except the job was already taken. I didn’t have a horse, and (minor detail) I was (am) a girl. The details of this “plan” elude me now. I just remember the vague outline. Maybe this plan was never more than a vague outline. I was so young and it was a long time ago.

I was going to travel the world, live in another country, get absorbed in a different culture. Wait … I did that, didn’t I? I remember. A bit fuzzy, but these memories linger long.

I was going to be a working writer. A journalist. Run a newspaper, cover issues and events. Interview important people and see my byline on the front page. It’s coming back to me. I did that, though it was in another country and almost 30 years ago. I’m sure I enjoyed it a great deal, but time has softened the edges. Life does that. I may not remember every detail, but I know it was a great time.

So I’m looking back and I think I lived the life I wanted including pretty much all the stuff I wanted to do. It didn’t always work out exactly as expected, but that’s life. Man plans, God laughs.

Add another old saying: “Too soon old, too late smart.” If I could do it all over again … and believe me, I don’t want to do it again … I’d fine tune my plans a bit and maybe have a more profitable outcome. Because I had a good time. Even the bad times were good. I had fun. I laughed. I worked hard doing things I thought were worth doing. Some of my worst paying jobs were the most fun of all.

So maybe I wouldn’t do it differently after all. Because changing anything might ruin the experiences. The old butterfly effect, you know?

I can’t remember the details anyway, so this is my story. I’m sticking to it.


In real life, you have only two choices. They are fundamental, irrevocable, etched in stone.

You can die young … or you can grow old.

How you grow old — gracefully, grumpily, in good or poor health — isn’t up to you. But these are the only choices. I didn’t die young, so here I am. And I can’t remember a lot of detail, but I remember fun.

Laughter stays with you. I highly recommend not spending a lot of time grieving over what you missed and more time laughing with people you love.