|Stanley M. Fried|
In that time before reading, there was much to entertain my child's mind. The names of places in Hollywood like Pig and Whistle or The Brown Derby. I did not understand why it was shaped like a hat when "derby" was what my parents called a horse race. The theatres of Hollywood were a delight. Grauman's Chinese, the Egyptian, the Pantages... exotic places to enter and fall into fantasy the way I would when looking at the flyleaf of our huge set of The Book of Knowledge. Opening the cover showed a drawing of two children drifting ashore atop a volume of the Book itself. They were headed towards a strange land where the shore was cluttered with a house, factory, totem poles, cathedral, an elephant, telescope, Easter Island heads, a volcano, and Mount Rushmore. Above this land, an airplane flew, a helicopter moved, a rocked soared into space and the flying wing flew off the page. A Chinese junk moved towards the beach. This drawing fascinated me for years. I allowed myself to fall into it the way someone planned for some child to do when looking at it. I was gullible to what the world was offering me.
In the summers, we drove across town when there were no freeways to speak of. Mother drove. My father did not drive. We drove from The Valley to Santa Monica where we would stay for a week. We walked to the pier past the old Muscle Beach next to the Avalon Ballroom. On the pier, we would ride the carousel, eat fried shrimp, watch old men sit for hours to catch a fish. There were sno-cones of flavored shaved ice to suck on and slurp on the beach in the midst of crowds of people who I did not know. Nothing was ever wrong in Santa Monica. My parents were happy. My brother and I played. We would go to Ocean Park where there was an amusement park on a pier over the water. I never rode the roller coaster there. I was too young. But I would stand and watch as others sat in the cars that slowly brought them to the peak where they would fall and scream as they headed down towards the water only to be carried up along the twisting rails just before they would crash into the deep. There were delicatessens nearby where we would eat kreplach soup and knishes. There were stores where we would buy a bucket for the sand or cocoa butter for the sun.
At Muscle Beach, my parents introduced me to a man who had what seemed a funny name. Baron Leone was a wrestler who worked out at the beach. He was a large man with a dark tan, longish hair, and a big black moustache. He would carry me on his shoulders through the crowd along the boardwalk near the pier. A big man with an Italian accent who seemed to be stopped by everybody. And I was there with him on his shoulders looking over the heads of all who passed by. Baron Leone bought me sodas and ice cream and would carry me to the middle of Muscle Beach where all the men were big and had deep tans and smelled human in the sunlight. I would sit watching these men in their brief trunks as they moved on the rings or lifted weights. The Baron joked with me and teased me for being little. I liked his jokes. I liked Santa Monica.
We went across town one night one summer when we were staying at the beach. We went across town to a smelly place that was harshly lit and filled with men in hats. We went across town one night to see Baron Leone wrestle. The air was filled with cigar smoke. It was all noise and confusion. People yelled. People spat. I did not like that place. It was dirty there. It seemed something nasty was happening. My good friend The Baron would never be in a place like this. It was unclean. It was foul. Huge television cameras were aimed at the ring with the letters KTLA on their side. Then the match began and The Baron came out. I wanted to run to the ring to greet him, to see him up close, he he was too far away and looked small. I was glad when we left there.
Television programming for children consisted of puppet shows in those days. There was: Howdy Doody, Time for Beany, Flyboy, Thunderbolt the Wonder Colt: all emanating from KTLA. Flyboy was to give a live show before some film began at a matinee my brother and I attended. Flyboy would be there live, as live as a puppet could be, in front of hundreds of excited children filling the movie theatre seats. This small hand puppet was supposed to entertain all of us. He was so much smaller than he was on television. He was as small as it was possible to be. He was all but forgotten once the film began. Only the disappointment of that moment is remembered: the realization that what is on television is not the same as what there is in life.
There was another program on television with Andy Devine and Froggy the Gremlin. That big fat man with a gravelly voice telling the fog puppet to "Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy". Every time Froggy plucked his cigar box guitar, it would explode in his face to my delight. Dumb old frog.
The program serialized different movies. One movie was about a man who searched for his love and the thief who was his friend. The film encapsulated some of my favorite stories as a child. Especially the story about the genie who was trapped inside a bottle. Sabu played the thief who found the bottle. After tricking the genie, he was granted three wishes. Rex Ingram played the genie. The name of the movie was The Thief of Bagdad. The name stayed with me throughout my childhood. The memory of that film stayed with me. In 1971, I was able to see it again when there was a screening at the San Francisco Film Festival. Then to see it again. And again.
It was in a motel room in Santa Monica that I first saw The Thief of Bagdad. Froggy plucked his twanger. Buster Brown shoes were advertised by some kid dressed up as a fop with a page boy haircut reciting:
Everything on the program when the way it always did on that show. Then the movie began and I drifted into another world. With the Santa Monica summer outside and my brother on the floor next to me, that motel room became a place where the djinn were real and carpets could actually fly. That California morning of the early 1950s became Arabian night where the possible could happen. My mind's eye was confirmed by the vision given by another. When the genie brought the thief to the Temple of the All-Seeing Eye atop the highest mountain of the world, he flew through the clouds with Sabu on his shoulder holding tight to a lock of genie hair. The thief needed the all-seeing eye to find his friend Ahmed. This little thief would do anything to help his friend.
There was also the tale of Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves. There was the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. My father read these to me. These were the stories I liked best. Not the children's poems or the picture books. I liked the tales where something happened to transform a person into what they could be.
My father would take a book from the bookshelf and hold it out in front of him while he read to me who was curled up against him looking at the magic print that he could transform into words that would create images in my mind. Any pictures on the pages were only signs to denote one was staying apace of the action for in-between these drawings was motion and music of such design that no single moment captured in ink could ever compete. My father read to me with a beautiful voice that became all of the characters and sang the descriptions. It was as if my self was speaking to my self, he was so close. Nestled there upon him, there was no him or me. There was only the tale to be known in that place at that time.
There was also a poem about Robin Goodfellow that my father loved to read. I found it an awful poem that he thought delightful. He voice would fluctuate in rhythm to the writing. He would hold me next to him to read it. This is when I would notice the stubble of his beard scratching my face. This was when he smelled of cigarettes and beer. I was forced into a position to hear this tale of some silly sprite which could not move my mind into liking him. I held the pose until is passed. I learned to suffer through such times by holding poses and waiting. To play dead inside. To let the soul die for a moment until it passed. To hope that it passed soon before all breath gave out. Before all life gave way into the satisfying of another's wants. Wants distorted by the use of language to be interpreted as needs. That is what I was taught: need was to mean want. Want was to mean desire. The lessons of home and school were difficult to overcome.
The language only regained sense when the words again became as true as they had been when they stimulated the need for a child's mind to inter into that cave filled with vast treasures where an old, beaten up lamp that held a genie could grant one's heart's desire. This happened much later...after the child ceased to pose.
Most of what happens in our lives occurs without our remembering. Other things take place which we easily recall. Of those things, what is remembered is not always understood yet they remain with us beyond their moment into other times for us to live and live again. Not everything remembered is important. Not everything important is remembered. We each are given our lore to use or discard as we allow ourselves to learn.
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