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Movieland - Chapter 2
On a December night in 1964, a young woman gets lost in the dark of the Palatine Theater. In this chapter, we meet the great director Edward Thorncraft, whom many readers will recognize by a different name.
The Strange Disappearance of Annie Hammerstein
Two young women peeked out from behind the curtain that fateful December night in 1964. They were standing in the wings, and they both wore identical white bathing suits.
"Look up at that opera box on the right, the one closest to the stage."
Annie took the tiny black binoculars and did as she was told, aiming them at the bulging gold bay, the first of three, that overhung the orchestra seats in a successive ripple.
"That's Edward Thorncraft … the man we have to please.”
On a straight-back gilt chair sat the rotund director in his rotund tuxedo. The slack, somewhat haughty British face with the protruding lower lip, was instantly recognizable from his TV show, Edward Thorncraft Presents. Beside him on a separate gilt chair sat a young woman, a debutante type with a neat bubble bouffant.
"Chubby date," said Annie a bit sharply, for the girl had a moon face. "Her gown is a dream, though."
“The next Mrs. Thorncraft. You heard it here first.”
“Oh, he’s unmarried?” Annie studied the director with renewed interest. His chin was tilted upwards, and he seemed to be looking down dismissively, through slit eyes, as he spoke to the debutante.
“Don’t you read the magazines!" exclaimed the other girl. "He's very married, but he never lets his wife out in public.” Annie glanced over at the girl in the white bathing suit to catch her meaning. She popped her eyes and wound a finger at her temple. “If you ask me, it’s just a matter of time before he trades in the screwy old one for some lucky young thing.” She plucked the opera glasses from Annie’s hand.
“And this particular girl …” She squinted judiciously. “I kid you not, she looks like a young version of the wife. I’ve seen old pictures. The man definitely has a type. Yes, this is the girl most likely, the one who’s always on his arm in the movie magazines. Don’t know who she is. They never say.” She sighed longingly. “Some starlet I guess.” She handed the glasses back to Annie.
A starlet, huh? Annie held the dainty binoculars steady, but she could see nothing special about the girl in the gilt opera box. She had almost no neck, and the tight strand of pearls around the stubby neck did her no favors. Plus there was the flippy sorority-girl bouffant, its bubble of hair rolled away from the crown, exposing too much forehead. The debutante looked down. She was fishing something out of her purse. It glinted for a moment, and then Annie saw what it was. You rarely saw glasses improve a woman's looks, but the stylish, pointy cat-eye frame gave the round face much-needed angles, magnifying large, hurt eyes, which now looked about the audience searchingly. Suddenly they connected with Annie.
The girls in the wings both jumped back into the shadows as if slapped. They glanced at each other and then tittered, stifling laughter as if they had been caught passing notes at school.
Cautiously the other girl looked out, then motioned to Annie. “Is the son there?” she whispered, prompting Annie to bring the opera glasses back to her eyes. “I read he brings his son to these premieres. Isn’t that darling! I hear he’s kinda cute too”
Annie took a look. She found she was staring directly at the director’s long, slack face. He was looking straight ahead and had an air of propriety that seemed comically glum, the lower lip pushed forth petulantly. Behind him, a gilt chair was in shadow. “I don’t see anyone else,” reported Annie. She again turned her attention to the distracted debutante. It was perplexing. What set this girl apart, Annie wanted to know. What seated her so high, so close to the center of power? She was no older than Annie, yet decades younger than her date. Okay, she wasn’t really chubby, she just had a chubby face. Pretty, in a milk-fed, prize-calf sort of way.
“How old is the son,” Annie now asked. There were many roads to Rome.
"Oh, a baby. A teenager.”
Just then the debutante looked about as if she had lost something, and Annie, not wanting to be embarrassed again, quickly handed off the spyglasses to her companion. “Thanks …” She could not remember the girl’s name. They had only just struck up a conversation in the communal dressing room.
“I think we should join the others,” the girl advised. The house lights were dimming. “Well, good luck um … honey.” Apparently, she didn’t remember Annie’s name either.
“And good luck to you.”
The other girl turned with a wink. “But not really, right!”
They took their place in line, in front of the scarlet curtain, fringed with giant gold tassels. This was supposed to be a ‘talent contest.” Actually, it was a gimmick to parade a dozen curvy girls around a stage in white bathing suits. This is what the Palatine had fallen to by 1964: beauty contests, publicity stunts, this one to sell Edward Thorncraft’s first foray into horror, The Cats — in which alley cats attack the people of Paris for no apparent reason — and to introduce his new star, a long-necked jewelry model from New York, unknown to movie audiences. A blond, of course, always a blonde. The director was famous for his cool blonde leading ladies. 'The Thorncraft blonde' was even a movie type.
The winner of the contest —that is, the woman who ‘showed the same charm, poise, and mystery’ as Thorncraft's ‘exciting new discovery,’ the somewhat distant and aristocratic Chase Cardiff, was promised a screen test. The lucky girl would walk away with a guaranteed role in Thorncraft's next film. As an extra… possibly more.
Annie had been in Hollywood almost two years now, and while men were only too happy to carry her grocery bags up the hill to her small apartment off San Vicente, they tended to be slippery Hollywood types, all fast hands and tight sharkskin suits. She needed an agent and so answered an ad pinned to a corkboard at the laundromat. The studios were hunting for new talent, the ad proclaimed in a torrent of exclamation points.
The address on Hollywood Boulevard led her not to an agency but to a bow-tied photographer on the second floor. The narrow stairway was walled with glossy photos of by-gone stars, or so Annie imagined, for she in her country way didn't recognize any of them: women from the ‘40s with big hair rolls, theatrical men with trim mustaches. The photographer, too, had seen better days. He came out to greet her with a string hanging from the back of his toupee, a short man in a snappy bowtie, who smiled as he spoke through the face of a petrified boy, looking a bit like a ventriloquist's dummy made of reddish wood. It was clear he understood her predicament completely and said she had great promise, but she needed a portfolio of glossy photos before anyone would see her in this town. He might, by the way, be able to help her out with that too, open a few doors.
The photos were expensive. She bought them in sets of 50 with money scraped together from tips and letters from home, which, for her, was her father’s hardscrabble ranch in Montana. Though Dad was barely scraping by himself after a terrible August drought, he always included a little something inside the folds of the letter.
Annie couldn’t afford to refuse. She was working double shifts. She was one of the roller-skating hostesses at Sammi's, a drive-in diner that was already outlandishly retro in 1964 with its neon chevrons and Space Age roof on a tilt. The waitresses wore silver lamé shorts and, in their angled silver flight caps, were supposed to look like space cadets from a forbidden planet — one where everyone was a pretty girl gliding by on wheels, like in a ‘50s musical. A lot of Hollywood people pulled up at Sammi's, it was said, when they were showing off the kitsch and kookery of Los Angeles to people from back East.
Annie had waited one night on Tony Perkins and Jill St. John in a turquoise blue Thunderbird. All the girls were buzzing about it at the pick-up window, earning her the enmity of one of the older waitresses who had been at Sammi's the longest, a tough, tanned Texan in white lipstick who was not above tripping a girl and sending her clattering down with a tray full of cokes and burgers. Nobody wanted to wait cars forever. It was one of the perks of this otherwise low-paying job: to be seen by the industry.
And a girl like Annie got plenty of looks. Men were always buying her breakfast or lunch on the spur of the moment. Some even said the right words about ‘contacts in the business.' But it was all a sales pitch for something else, the usual something else. And the fact was after two years of this, Annie Hammerstein had made no headway in Hollywood, had never passed the gate of a movie studio, had gone to a couple of parties maybe, that's the way things were done out here, but still no dice.
Now at last she had a portfolio. That was going to make a difference. The photos, it turned out, were of the pinup variety, skimpy bikinis, mesh tops, dark see-through lingerie, much less modest than the solid white bathing suit she was wearing presently. Still, she always took a good picture. And the photographer promised to place them, without charge, with his brother-in-law who published a pocket-size girlie magazine called Risqué. All publicity was good publicity, sugar.
It was the brother-in-law, a grubby little go-getter with morose, watery eyes, who said he wanted to ‘manage’ her, who had called out of the blue and fixed her up for this talent contest. (“Stick with me, star. Big things, big, big things!”)
A stretch limo arrived that evening. The driver gave her a white bathing suit to put on in her apartment. Throwing a light coat over herself, she joined the other girls in white, giggling in the backseat. Champagne was flowing, and some of the girls were having a great time.
They were going on about being singled out that afternoon by a movie scout who was walking the sands of Venice Beach. “How would you like to win a screen test, ladies, and be in the next Edward Thorncraft picture?” It was a freakishly hot day in December, the temps had spiked into the 80s, and all of the solar fires seemed focused on the young man’s ill-concealed bald spot as he waited. It took a moment for the question to register on the sun-dazed blondes.
“Um … what?”
The scout mopped his brow with a rumpled handkerchief. “And in return, we’ll provide you with a beautiful one-piece bathing suit from Jantzen that you can keep!”
There was another delay before mews of appreciation drifted up from the beach blankets.
So this was the big thing. The big, big thing, opened to anyone lying on the beach that day. Annie took a sip of champagne to be cordial, then left the plastic glass in the cupholder. She was going to win this thing — she had to.
The bright spotlight came up on the announcer, a blandly good-looking radio personality with a pleasant, Southwestern twang. Behind him, in a line before the gold tasseled curtain, the girls stood in dimmer light. Now Annie could size up the competition at full length. Most of the girls were blonde with a beachy California look that in no way resembled the sleek, angular model that was being introduced in The Cats. Blondes, but not Thorncraft blondes. There were two lonely brunettes who foolishly stood side by side, but Annie was the only redhead in the bunch. She was sure to catch the director’s eye, high up in his gilt opera box. Her hair was her most striking feature. It wasn’t a frizzy ball of orange or a coppery blonde streaked by the sun, but a rich mahogany, like an Irish setter’s coat.
Perhaps the great connoisseur of blonde hair was noticing her now as the announcer rolled on through his mellifluous introduction. She would feign unawareness. She would pretend not to know that though the announcer was in the spotlight and the girls in semi-shadow, they were all perfectly visible on stage. So as if on impulse, she raked her hands through her rich heavy hair, bent low, then whipped it back up again, imitating, in her mind, Rita Hayworth’s hair-whipping entrance in Gilda, a film that had colored her mother’s daydreams on the ranch in Montana, a powerful daydream Annie had inherited.
The hair tumbled to her shoulders in slow, slinky curves. Annie lifted her chin toward the director and arched her brow, assuming the importuning, half-lidded gaze the photographer in the walkup studio on Hollywood Boulevard had coaxed from her. She was a vixen, he said as he urged her to be more and more daring before the camera. And she did look like a fox with her pert little nose that scrunched up when she smiled too enthusiastically (a big no-no) and the slightly feral slant to her brows. Annie had rated her expressions in the mirror. She had tried out props. With a headband, she could be a peppy cheerleader, scrunchy smiles and all. In dangle earrings, a sleepy-eyed Hollywood siren. All she needed was a break, and winning this screen test was everything she wished for at the moment.
One of the more troubling girls in the line waved to someone in the dark. This girl had not come with the others in the limo, nor was she already in her white bathing suit when she arrived at the theater. With glowing skin from Max Factor, she had swept through the stage door in a big, swaggery trench coat, belted at the waist, with 1) an agent, 2) a manager (a real one), and 3) a silent little mouse of a mother, primping and plumping the young woman’s hair.
On the lapel of her trench coat was a stunning brooch that for a long moment focused all of Annie's attention. It was a large sunburst: an orange topaz set in a circle of zig-zaggy gold rays — Annie knew it was an orange topaz for that was her November birthstone, and she had long been fascinated by precious gems. The faceted topaz glittered about like a tiny sun as a great to-do was made over the girl’s arrival. The manager in pinstripes made excuses. He was a large man and quite long-winded about their last-minute appearance. From his chatter, it was clear who these people — the agent, the manager, the mother —were in relation to the young, photogenic blonde. Peculiar thing, though, while Annie and the others had been corralled into a communal dressing room where they could lay their coats and vie for the three hard-backed chairs in front of the three theatrical mirrors ringed with light bulbs, Miss Princess was shown to a dressing room all her own.
"… the great Edward Thorncraft," the announcer finished off and with a grand gesture indicated the director in the golden opera box closest to the stage. A spotlight followed the sweep of the announcer’s arm as if it were a ball of light he was hurling up. The great man stood, quite pear-shaped in his black tuxedo, acknowledging the applause with a wry twist of his lips. This set off a murmur of laughter from knowing fans who loved the director as much for his curmudgeonly persona as for his psychological suspense films. Edward Thorncraft made the requisite noblesse oblige nod to those below, then another at the fulsome announcer, before resuming his seat beside the debutante, who was clapping along with the rest, again setting his chin high in the manner of a gloomy judge.
And so ‘The Parade of Talent’ began. In the wings watched the agent, the manager, and the little mouse who, as Queen mother, was provided a seat in the passageway, which Annie was sure was some violation of the fire codes her high school drama coach was always fretting about. The girls promenaded in a circle before the scarlet curtain, each one pausing center stage to wave as she passed. These were the sort of mild faces, Annie told herself, that the camera welcomed, the slender noses, the friendly blue eyes, welcomed, but did not love. The camera might flirt with the familiar, but it only fell in love with the particular, that kind of beauty that was a tiny inch off, a twist, a surprise, not too much, just a little. As each blonde paused, Annie found that she needed to reassure herself. She was built along more after-hours lines. Leggy, bosomy mistress material, not little sister fare. A Gilda, not a Gretel.
Out beyond the lights, the audience was dutifully enthusiastic, and one of the brunettes, a local girl, rated cheers and whistles from a group in the back. But below the sunny twang of the announcer’s voice, Annie was becoming aware of a metallic clicking. She glanced at the wings. Mouse mother had taken out two lethal-looking knitting needles and was click-clacking away like a fly cleaning its forelegs, her tranced-out eyes not on her work but steady on her daughter, who had just been invited into the announcer's circle of light.
It was then that Annie noticed something off about Princess' bathing suit. There was a subtle blue-striped piping outlining the bodice and the thighs. Everyone else's was a solid white, but Miss Princess was looking a bit more voluptuous than she had a right to.
"And our next lovely lady is a waitress at Sammi's, the famous Sammi's." Annie straightened. The announcer was about to read off her name from an index card. "Are you one of the Silver Fleet, Miss Annie Ham … Hammerstein?” He laughed, winking to the crowd. “Whoa, that's a mouthful!"
Annie stepped into the spotlight, tamping down a flutter of nerves, assuring herself that this kind of direct lighting was setting fire to her highlights — her hair must be a glorious thing to behold at the moment. Yes, she said brightly, she was indeed one of the roller-skating space cadets of Sammi's 'Silver Fleet.'
"And do you wear one of those crazy little thunderbolt nameplates?"
"I do. 'Space Cadet Annie. May I take your order, Commander?’”
There was a titter of recognition beyond the lit stage.
Now came the important question.
Why should you, Annie Hammerstein, be "Mr. Thorncraft's new discovery in his next thriller?" All the girls had been advised that this would be the question, and Annie had prepared a little speech, enunciated many times into the mirror, by turns wistful, saucy, and winning. Now she pitched it up into the darkness, toward the Olympian gilt opera box, half visible in the shadows.
But Thorncraft's head had turned! He was distracted. That chubby girl, that chubby chubby debutante had risen to her feet and was saying something to the great director, which made him, after a moment, shrug. In a huff, for so it looked to Annie, the debutante gathered up her midnight blue gown and breezed out the door. Good. Now the old man could pay attention to her. And she smiled up at him with renewed hope, with the belief so close to her heart that all things were possible, that she, after all, was one of nature's lucky children. But Annie's little time in the spotlight had come to an end.
"Our next contestant …"
The fix had been in, of course, the moment Princess arrived.
Annie had seen it in the relief of the flacks backstage. Now their little darling stood under the spotlight with her peaches and cream Max Factor glow, suppressing little gasps of gratitude with a slender hand. Even more galling, the announcer was placing a rhinestone tiara on her head. Annie felt the rage rising. She had been had! The screen test was never on offer, was it! Not even the promise of a walk-on. It had all been a cynical push for an already signed starlet, a sexy narrative hook for the Rona Barretts and Rex Reeds to work up: “Discovered by Edward Thorncraft!” “Beauty Contest Winner!”
Annie didn't wait for the hoopla to subside. She broke formation and stormed off through the wings, dodging the horrid little mother who was rushing on stage to embrace her shining daughter.
Annie just wanted to grab her coat and leave, but passing through the narrow corridor she glimpsed the private dressing room. An usher sat in front, guarding the door, frowning over a newspaper. He was a weathered old thing, looked like a jockey in a bellboy cap, and she slipped past, into the communal dressing room, without raising his gaze.
That's what put the idea in her head. She was going to get that brooch somehow! It was an old brainstorm, the klepto compulsion, racing over her whenever she felt demeaned, the wild rush to fiddle with other girls’ school lockers, the quick sleight of hand when a little something 'fell' into her shopping bag. They nabbed her once in Butte. Just as she was exiting the big glass door at Hennessy's. A store detective clamped down on her twisting, reddening wrist. Lady clerks and lady shoppers looked on mortified. Girls today!
She was taken to a back office. The detective was big and stocky with a crewcut that was more scalp than hair. The little pendant heart framed in garnets that he fished out of her bag had gotten there she knew not how. As he dangled the trinket in front of her, she couldn't help but think really it should be hers, gold always looked great with her coloring, even while at the same time she was convincing herself she had never seen it before. Convince yourself so you can convince others, the high school drama coach had taught them. She began to sob. It was quite sincere. The crewcut called in another crewcut, this one from the police department. They were unmoved. Her first bad notice.
But Hennessy's had been the odd quirk. She was — so many things told her — one of nature's golden children, and usually, or so it seemed to Annie, when these rages took over, fortune would step in, and, with a wink, conspire in her favor.
And that was what was about to happen now.
As Annie swung her coat over her white bathing suit, flipping her hair over the collar in a tumble of red, she heard voices outside the dressing room. She peeked out just enough to see whom the usher was talking to. Of all the improbable people it was the debutante in head-to-toe midnight blue, satin shoes to match.
The jockey-size usher stood at attention. He was easily a head shorter than the young woman. “No, Miss, he’s not back here. I haven’t seen Trevor, or yourself, Miss, since Mr. Aubrey’s Memorial.” The debutant’s shoulders sagged, and seeing this, the usher screwed up his creased, sunburnt face and, as if embarrassed, added, “Might he have wandered onto the stage? He has done that before, as we both, I’m sure, remember.”
In alarm, the debutante plucked up her satiny gown, and, turning, strode to the wings, the usher hurrying after her.
Annie seized her chance.
Into the private, unguarded dressing room, she made a direct line for the trench coat, hanging in the open closet. Quickly the sunburst was detached, the orange-yellow topaz flaming with reflected light as she worked the pin. She couldn’t resist examining the treasure, alive and on fire in her hand. It was intoxicating: the gem, the risk, the imperative to get away. She had long been infatuated with precious stones. As a schoolgirl, she'd stop to collect rocks packed with silica because they twinkled in the stream, or pretend the large speckled stones she found behind the ranch were petrified dinosaur eggs. Annie closed her fist around the sunburst, holding onto it in her coat pocket.
She peeked through the door crack. The usher and the debutante were leaning out from the wings, their backs to her. Quickly Annie slipped into the corridor, which, as if to aid her escape, had darkened dramatically, for the film had started. The girls were returning, and to avoid discovery, Annie stepped behind the ropes, slipping further into darkness. She was now behind the Palatine’s enormous screen. It occurred to her that she might discretely cross the stage and leave from the other side.
There were surprises in the dark. Ropes in tangles, sheets of scenery left behind, metal things that bumped against her. The movie score filled the theater, echoing hollowly across the cavernous backstage, a deep-voiced male chorale intoning a Gregorian chant full of anxious foreboding that made everything seem that more tense.
Something had caught on to her coat, holding her in place. She took the coat off and pulled it free, hearing a soft rip in the lining. The clearest way across was to go alongside the screen, so she made her way to the lit-up canvas with the images playing in reverse. Now she hurried along, a dark silhouette against backward scenes of Paris, the coat bundled to her chest, the sunburst topaz clutched tightly in her fist. In passing, she happened to brush against the screen.
That’s all it took.
Perhaps had you been there, with your present omniscient privileges, you would have felt the whoosh and turned in time. Seen the vapors whirl. Heard, as she did, but only in her head, the sizzling sound of breathless, helpless laughter. The coat dropped to the stage, the brooch slipped from her hand, and the last thing Annie Hammerstein heard as she was swept into darkness:
Squealing, sniggering high-pitched giggles, unmistakably that of a child.
Preview: Don’t go up to the balcony, the sign warns. But a cocky student thinks rules are made for other people.