The Great Plotnik

Friday, March 08, 2013

Heat Lightning and Fog over Frisco

Last night our friend Steve stood in for his sister Margaret at a double-feature homage to their Dad, Lyle Talbot. Steve told some great stories, and we got to watch two depression-era films from the early 1930s, in one of which Lyle was a gangster and in the other a stock manipulator duped by love for Bette Davis. She was very young in this film, which is called "Fog Over Frisco," and she and Lyle both get bumped off early, and there went the best parts of the movie.

People in those days put on their hats and gloves and always stayed for two movies, plus a news-reel and a cartoon, so the films had to be short, just over an hour. Last night, Steve's stories after the show were even better than the movies. He and Plottie grew up very close to one another, in an era when Hollywood Boulevard still had some caché. His stories of driving to work with his dad (Steve was a child actor on "Leave it to Beaver" while his dad was a regular on "Ozzie and Harriet") took Plotnik back to the early 1950s, when Harold, his first stepdad, had an office on the top floor of the Taft Building on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, down the block from the Pantages Theater, and down the other block from the Brown Derby. Plotnik loved going to the office with Harold, where he could pound on the big black Underwood typewriter and engage himself in his one true love, which was designing menus.

Yup, that's right. Menus. A five or six year old kid's view of the world: Turtle Soupe was one of those items on the menu, price forgotten. A few of them are still around somewhere.

On the ground floor of the Taft Building was an Owl Rexall drugstore with a lunch counter. When it was necessary for Plotnik to be made scarce, he was allowed to tell the elevator man to take him down to the Owl Rexall, grab a place at the lunch counter and order a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate milk shake. He would sit there until Harold came down and got him. Man! Heaven!

Maybe...1953? 1954? Was that lunch counter segregated, officially or unofficially? In Plot's dim memory, he thinks he remembers all kinds and colors of people there in the heart of Hollywood. Maybe, maybe not?

But it's not prejudice that's on Plot's mind this morning, as much as the world of his boyhood, when lines were drawn and people knew exactly where they stood. Your view of that world depends on which side of the line you got to stand on. Since the point of movies was to cater to the most people possible, if you watch films from every decade since we've had them you can catch a pretty good glimpse of popular sentiment about social issues.

In the first film last night, "Heat Lightning," a Mexican family is pictured driving up in a beat up old jalopy, Tom Joad style.  There are literally ten kids in that car, one per year, and the dad wears a sombrero and he says "we don' hab no money." So the good cafe owner allows him and his family to camp outside for free, and the payback is the dad is a great singer and just happens to have a guitar that is in perfect tune, so he sings one romantic bolero for the entire last half of the film. That must have made an audience feel good in 1934, to see the stereotypical Mexican, down on his luck like the entire nation was, singing his heart out while his enormous family slept on the dirt by the campfire.

Plot knows Harold got at least partially blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Maybe that was why the office in the Taft Building went away, substituted by an inferior space on Ivar Street. Plot doesn't know when the big Broadway department store across the street from the Taft Building closed, but it wasn't too long after that. Once TV came in and the movie business went out to Century City the seedbags took over the street, and they're still there.

By the way, if you'd never been to Saint Plotniko but you saw "Fog over Frisco," you would know four things:

1) There is heavy fog at all times.

2) Pacific Heights mansions have cable cars passing in front of them. In fact, there is a cable car on every street.

3) Cops are all Irish. But not too Irish.

4) You can see Alcatraz from everywhere.


At 3:53 PM, Anonymous jj-aka-pp said...

I want to see these menus!

At 8:03 AM, Blogger Linda Davick said...

The menus are what got to me, too!


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