The day Boris Karloff went his way and I went mine
DAVID E. LEWISNovember11973
MEMOIRS OF A NAME DROPPER
The day Boris Karloff went his way and I went mine
DAVID E. LEWIS
I think it is a natural impulse to want to meet famous people.
But what does one do, living in a small Nova Scotian town (pop. circa 1,107)?
I wrote fan letters.
When I was 14 I wrote my first fan letter.
It was to Boris Karloff.
“That fits,” said my father enigmatically.
I had seen Frankenstein and had run home in the dark, excited and terrified. I wrote him that he had been a wonderful Frankenstein. Fie wrote back, kindly, and probably for the only reason of clarifying my confusion.
It seems he had not played Frankenstein, but the monster. This sparked another letter to him which was an embarrassed apology but no less ardent in hero worship.
Years later I saw him in a play in New York (The House At Sly Corner) which was dreadful, but Karloff was there, leering about the stage. After the play I hesitantly went backstage and lurked around, hoping to see him. I realized that the entire cast was on stage, revising a scene. Una O’Connor was there, and Ethel Griffies, and I stood behind a discarded prop and peered out at them in utter fascination. Eventually Karloff came off stage. I ducked. I bumped into something and he turned around.
“Yes?” he said in a silky voice, and peered at me as though he had my jugular vein in mind.
I blushed and bowed my head.
“What are you doing here?” he asked in a soft gentle voice.
I looked up at him. “I wanted to meet you.”
“Me?” he echoed in surprise.
“Yes,” I blurted out, “I wrote you a fan letter once.”
He stared at me incredulously, and then smiled. “Oh . . . you live in Canada.” I nodded.
He came over and put his hand on my shoulder. I nearly fainted. “It was the only fan letter I ever got,” he said. “You will join me for coffee?”
Once in New York I was walking down 42nd Street and I saw Bert Lahr, standing on a corner. I knew it was Lahr. His eyes were as unfocused as they were in the movies. I walked up to him somewhat timidly.
“Are you Bert Lahr?” I asked.
He looked at me like a Siamese cat and said, “No.”
It must have been a personality clash.
38 MACLEAN'S/NOVEMBER 1973
Once at college my roommate forced me into a double date. I balked, but he insisted. I owed him five dollars. When we got together my girl was beautiful.
“I’ve got epidermomycosis,” she said proudly.
“Do you have to water it often?” I asked. I was saving exotic plants at the time. She didn’t speak for a while. Then, “I was Miss Tatamagouche last year,” she said proudly.
Good heavens, I thought, another celebrity. She explained that some of the girls had been bitchy, just because her father, who was mayor, and her uncle, who was Chairman of the School Board, were the judges. It shows how mean people can be. I went home and added Mabel Frumpf of Tatamagouche to the list of celebrities in my diary.
I saw quite a bit of Mabel. Once we went to a dance. Don Messer’s orchestra was there. As we danced past, I yelled out “Hi, Charlie!” and Charlie Chamberlain yelled back “Hi!” Which proves that it isn’t too difficult to meet celebrities if you really try.
A friend of mine used to manage the community concert series in Halifax. One day I was visiting him and he asked me to help him. He was meeting Suzanne Bloch and she played all kinds of obsolete sfrange instruments, and she had each one in a separate case, and she was arriving on the three-thirty train. We met her train and got all the strangeshaped cases stashed away in a taxi and drove up in front of the Lord Nelson Hotel. I grabbed four of the cases. After a few words with my friend, Suzanne had gone ahead to register. As I was coming in the door, she turned and said in a vibrant voice, “Boy, be careful of my virginals!” I dropped the cases and
David E. Lewis has lived In the Annapolis Valley for most of his life. A collection of his humorous stories was published recently by McClelland and Stewart.
fled. So I almost met Suzanne Bloch.
And I did meet Pops Foster. I went down to a little bar on Massachusetts Avenue, in Boston, called the Savoy. There were two Dixieland bands there, Bob Wilber’s and Edmund Hall’s. I watched Pops all through one session and then sent him a note asking him if he’d like a drink. He did. In fact, he liked a special drink which shortened my vacation by two days. I sat until the music was all over. As I was reluctantly going out the door, Pops appeared. “You gotta go home, sonny?” he rasped.
We ended up in a bar farther down the street. All the musicians in town were there and I never have heard such Dixieland in all my life.
So for a small-town boy, I guess I can drop a few names. For instance.
A teacher friend of mine and I drove to Montreal one time. We went into the Chicken-Coop. The head waitress asked if we minded sharing a booth. We didn’t. Our eating partner was a goodlooking, clean-cut young fellow. (I must interpose here that I am not a hockey fan, which makes me sound anti-Canadian, I know.) We talked about the weather. My friend was the physicaltraining instructor at our school. He didn’t speak. I held out my hand.
“My name is Dave Lewis,” I said.
“Mir*e is Frank Mahovlich,” said our booth-mate.
“I’m a school teacher,” I explained. “What do you do for a living?”
Frank Mahovlich stared at me, uncomprehending. I turned to speak to Jack. He had slid under the table.
When I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, during the war (the second one) Hal Holbrook was in the American army stationed there. He was a member of the St. John’s Drama group, and I did their publicity. When I saw him on TV as Mark Twain, I couldn’t identify him with the slim young soldier who took the leads in our productions. One was a murder-comedy by A. A. Milne. At the last minute one of the actors took sick and I was the inevitable replacement because everyone else was in the play. I had three lines. I had never been on the stage in my life. But I had no excuse, really. Opening night I was paralyzed with fear. My appearance was at the beginning of act two, I was to come on stage through French windows, walk over to another window, pick up my spyglasses, look out and comment: “I never expected to see partridge here.”
I got through the doors without calamity, although they were newly painted, and looked out onto a sea of faces. I froze. I could hear the prompter hissing “Partridge! partridge!” Without
going over to the window, I just stood there, and leveled my glasses and peered straight ahead. “I never expected to see partridge here,” I shrieked.
Afterward I learned that I had a perfect bead on Sir Humphrey Walwyn, who was the governor of the island, and symbolic of the native hatred for the English. He was sitting in the front row, sound asleep. The audience gave me a whistling ovation which broke up the play. Even the cast on stage were screaming. Later, backstage, Holbrook, even then a professional, told me he was going to kill me. There were two reasons why he didn’t do it right away — one, we had to run for three nights and; two, he couldn’t at the moment think of a method torturous enough.
It’s not everyone who gets threatened by a first-rank actor.
Another fan letter I wrote had repercussions.
Years ago one of my luxuries was to wake up Sunday morning, realize that I
didn't have to get up, turn on the radio, and lie back in voluptuous relaxation. One morning I heard a talk by someone called Farley Mowat, who had lived with an Eskimo tribe that was almost extinct. I listened to the series and wrote him a letter, telling him that anyone who could arouse my interest in a semi-
extinct Eskimo tribe had magic. Years later, I had a bookstore in Montreal. One day someone walked in, short, disguised in a bushy red beard, and bursting with hormones. He introduced himself. I told him I had written him a fan letter. We had a long pleasant talk. Years later I took a schooner trip from Lunenburg to Baddeck. As we sailed gloriously into Baddeck harbor, the focus of a thousand eyes, I saw Farley Mowat standing on the wharf.
“There’s Farley Mowat!” I yelled.
“Yeah?” said one of my crew buddies. “You and your name-dropping.”
“It is Farley Mowat,” I assured him.
As we got the ship up the wharf, I jumped ashore with my buddy, and ran up to him.
“Farley,” I said enthusiastically, “how are you?”
He looked at me with a bristling beard.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
“Would you believe Mazo de la Roche?” — and fled up the street. ■
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