Borrowed Celebrity

In 1957 my family took the annual car trip, this time to California by way of the Grand Canyon and the Giant Redwood Forest. “Getting there” was the most miserable part of our trips, but oddly the part I remember most warmly. At 14, the exciting part was the anticipation of seeing Hollywood. Crammed in our back seat, my sisters and I begged to see a movie or a television show live. At the Los Angeles hotel at last, my dad returned from the lobby with the news that we indeed had tickets for the next afternoon; disappointingly for me, however, the only television show we could get tickets for was the “Lawrence Welk Show.”

It wasn’t the type of program a 14 year old girl would be excited to see. In fact, I couldn’t remember my parents or grandparents watching the show at all. My grandmother had talked about her friend who fell and broke her hip yet dragged herself to her television to watch Lawrence Welk before she called the ambulance. However, whenever those champagne bubbles and accordion music began on our small living room screen signaling the start of the show….it was also our signal to change the channel. However, it was a live show; TELEVISION, after all!

At the studio, we were directed into seats in a small studio theater that seemed to be all cables and lights. After we were seated, a man in shirtsleeves appeared center stage. He instructed the audience on how we must behave, demonstrating what he called “double time clapping,” so we would sound like a much bigger, enthusiastic audience. On each of the two corners of the stage stood a man who at different times held up large signs saying “APPLAUSE” or “LAUGHTER” and other audience reactions. The message I got was we couldn’t be relied on to actually appreciate the show without proper instruction.

Soon, the man himself appeared on the stage. Wearing a maroon tuxedo and ruffled shirt, very high shoe lifts and shiny hair, he was also wearing a lot of make-up. I’d never seen a man in make-up before… or wearing high heels.

Although the music was “wunnerful, wunnerful” and I was excited just to be there, the magic of television slowly slipped away as we were directed to laugh when something wasn’t particularly funny and to clap louder than we would normally. “Some magic,” we all thought.

Back at our hotel, expectation deflated somewhat by the experience, we then begged to go to see a movie studio, there to maybe see stars. A brochure from the lobby advertised tours through the Warner Brothers Studio. Wow. The next morning we headed to the address. There was a guard office at the gate. Dad went in. He came back to our car and said we were too late for the tour, we’d missed it. We sighed with disappointment. As dad was trying to turn around to leave, the guard emerged from his small office and came to Dad’s window. “Mr. West, would you wait here for a car to take you in?” What??? We squealed with excitement.

Soon, a black limousine appeared behind the big iron gates then one of them opened.  The limousine stopped and a man got out and invited us to get in. I’d never been in a limousine, not even for a funeral; that in itself was quite an experience for me. Warner Brothers seemed to be a series of huge buildings with all sorts of props and carts parked outside each one.

The man, whose name I have forgotten, took us to see television series sets. We collected autographs from Jack Kelly (Bart Maverick) and Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot.) We were dazzled. Our generous guide provided paper for us to get the autographs. This 14-year-old girl was in dazzle overload.

We moved on to movie sets, where autographs were not allowed. We watched a scene from “Auntie Mame” filmed at the bottom of those famous stairs. Then we entered a sound stage where they were filming “Rio Bravo.” The scene was using stand-ins dressed like the stars. They were working out lighting for the scene. It took a really long time. The only star we saw was Angie Dickinson, sitting off to the side of the set. We later found out the film starred John Wayne, Dean Martin and…wait for it…Ricky Nelson, my sister’s main crush. We didn’t see them, though.

Our guide kept mentioning the financial end of each project and Dad seemed interested. As he left us at the front gate, he gave Dad his card and said, “Mr. Warner said to tell you he was disappointed he couldn’t meet with you.”

Meet with you? Why in the world would he want to meet with US? All of us, even Dad were confused but we moved on to have a lovely lunch in a restaurant where we saw Joey Brown eating.  We all marveled at our experience at Warner Brothers. The rest of the afternoon we drove around with a “star map” looking at the main highlights of Los Angeles.

The next morning, Dad called down to the front desk to ask that they bring up our car. The man on the phone asked, “Which one, Mr. West?”  Big confusing pause on Dad’s part. Then, “I don’t understand. I only have one car.”

“Oh Mr. West, you know you have five here.”  Five??? Dad said he would go down to straighten out the confusion. When he came back, he told us a man called “Silver Dollar Jim West” was also staying in our hotel, only in the penthouse instead of a regular room like we were. That Jim West (James Marion West, Jr), not our Dad Jim West, was a famously flamboyant Texan from Houston who was not only wealthy from oil, cattle ranching and lumber, but also outlandish and, at times outrageous demonstrations of his wealth such as tossing silver dollars just to see people scramble for them. A diamond-studded Texas Ranger badge he regularly wore had earned him a second nickname, “Diamond Jim West.” He owned a fleet of 30 cars, mostly Cadillacs, all outfitted with an arsenal of 30-35 guns. He was in Los Angeles to perhaps invest in movies.

No wonder the folks at Warner Brothers were so nice to us and kept mentioning financial investment. As it turned out, Silver Dollar Jim West died in December of that same year, so my dad was never confused with him again, much to our “maybe” regret. However, he did inadvertently give us the gift of that day on a movie lot with a limo and sense of importance and memories.

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