Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Saint Douglas Fairbanks

    Back in the olden times -1980s- it was a complicated challenge to join the Screen Actors Guild because you weren't eligible to join until you'd performed a speaking role on film or television, but you weren't allowed to audition for those roles unless you were already a member. Of course if you had family in the business it negated these rules (because nepotism is the supreme rule in Hollywood) but for the rest of us this was a formidable obstruction to our ambitions (this, and the $830.50 initiation fee). Other actors respected you for getting into SAG but not because it meant you were talented, rather because it meant you were clever enough to have dodged the Catch-22 regulation. SAG membership was the last great barrier between being a wannabe and being a real actor (or so us credulous youngsters believed in those simpler times). Anyway, it was a big steaming deal.

    Eventually, thru trickery and audacity and winning a role i wasn't "legally permitted" to even audition for, i got into the Guild. There was an "orientation" meeting for new members which was something like a brimstone and hellfire sermon from a James Joyce novel except that the deadliest sin in this case was to work non-union. The meeting wasn't mandatory but i endured it because my friend Donna told me they'd give me my card at the end (rather than mail it to me which would have taken a few weeks), and they did. On the bottom of a SAG card is a line one has to sign to make it valid. Donna said she took her first card to the Chinese Theatre and signed it whilst standing in the footprints of her favorite actress, Ginger Rogers. She described it as though she were adopting Ginger as the patron (matron?) saint of her acting career.
    In those days SAG headquarters was located on Hollywood Blvd. just a couple blocks from the Chinese Theatre. i'd always liked Donna's story so i went immediately to find my own patron saint. Naturally, it was Douglas Fairbanks, the first great swashbuckler. (i might have been torn between Fairbanks and Errol Flynn but Errol never got to put his footprints there).

    What i knew about Doug was that he'd had his own studio back in the 1920s, and total control over the movies he made; casting, scripting, stunts, directors, set design, etc. he had the final say on all of it. He built colossal sets for The Thief of Bagdad, and an entire castle for Robin Hood. Many of the scenes in his Black Pirate movie were directly modeled after Howard Pyle's paintings. He embraced the fun of life and it showed in those films. He seemed to scale every wall in his path and never came across a sword he didn't pick up to wield against injustice. For several years he'd been the biggest movie star in the world, and now he would be my patron saint. i knew i wasn't worthy, and Doug might have been affronted at the idea, but i was arrogant. Hell, i'd just gotten into SAG, hadn't i?
    Doug was among the first to leave his footprints in cement at the Chinese Theatre. i knew the spot, between the box office and the front doors. i pushed my way into the courtyard and found him. Ignoring the tourists who still crowded on all sides -even at 11:00pm, i set my feet in Doug's prints, traced my pen through his signature, then set down my card on his hand print and signed it.  
    "What are you doing?" asked one woman in a foreign accent. 
    "It's my SAG card!" i shouted, excited as hell. "It's my SAG card!!"
    She backed a few steps away, as though i were crazy. Behind me, a voice asked, "What the hell is a SAG card?"

    i never got to perform in a swashbuckling movie. Nobody was even making such things anymore. As my career fell miserably short of those first Fairbanksian aspirations, i was stuck playing roles like 'Heavy Metal Kid #1' or 'Maladjusted Student' or 'Junkie #2' on bad television shows when i should have been swashbuckling instead. Doing this when i just knew that God intended me to do this. Grateful for what i had but not at all content.
"i'm not complaining but i'd rather be boarding ships and
hacking shit up with a cutlass."
    Doug was in the Hollywood Cemetery and i would visit him frequently, even doing a picture shoot there which rendered my most successful headshot, but he never spoke to me to tell me where i was going wrong. i returned many times, hoping for a word or a sign from Saint Doug. But nothing.
  In 1993 my friend Severine brought me into a pirate group she belonged to called Brethren of the Coast. She was trying to form an acting troupe out of them but most of them didn't have the discipline or interest for it. There were a few good people though and the group got some good gigs, including opening for the CutThroat Island movie at an early screening and inaugurating the Redondo Beach Pier. So i wrote some scripts and we did a few shows, but it was futile. Even after i brought in Wolf (an actor i'd met filming The Mask), who was talented and enthusiastic, we were still outnumbered by those who -even though they'd begged to be in the show- came to rehearsals only to lounge about drinking rum. BOTC did do some cool things, like sailing a tall-ship to Catalina, but Sev and i wanted to be on stage.
    Then, after years of waiting, Saint Doug finally spoke. Probably just so i'd stop bothering him.

    In June of 1996, the Los Angeles Conservancy presented a screening of The Black Pirate at the uber-historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. The film, made in 1926, had just been released on video with a newly recorded soundtrack by the 20 piece Robert Israel Orchestra. The orchestra would be performing the score live during the screening. A stage show would precede the film with two singers followed by a comedy skit. At some point during rehearsals the director realized that his sword battle wasn't going to work at all. Instead of swords the actors were using flimsy foils and just didn't know what to do with them. Hell, i wouldn't have known what to do with foils either. 
    An acquaintance of ours, Louis, was in the cast and he phoned the Brethren of the Coast about coming in with some pirates and doing a big sword fight to close the show. This seemed to me a great opportunity and, with the Douglas Fairbanks angle, like a destined gift of fate. We could finally get pirates into the real world of show business. The BOTC agreed to do it, and then -a couple days before the event- decided not to. i was heck-bent to do it though, with or without them. Sev and i phoned Louis and told him we were still in. Wolf and Christina joined us.
The four of us rehearsing during the Brethren days.
   Wolf and i had some half-arsed duel choreography which needed a lot more work, whilst Sev and Christina had nothing, so we weren't prepared at all. But when opportunity rings you answer the door whether or not you're dressed. Anyway, we four were the disciplined pirates and this time we'd be able to work without any drunken, lazy fools hindering us.  
    We showed up at the Orpheum next morning and rehearsed thruout the day whilst the musicians tuned their instruments in the orchestra pit. It was a gigantic stage and the director, Stanley Sheff (alias Maxwell DeMille), seemed grateful to have us there and worked our fights into the plot of his show.
    Sev and Christina did just some very basic sword moves, switching off attack and defense so they each did both sides and stretched out the fight. Then they added a few slashes and a disarming. There were only four cutlasses between the four of us so the hardest problem was finding a graceful way for Wolf and i to get hold of the girl's swords in time for our double-cutlass segment. We all went thru our fights over and again for about eight hours and became confident with the choreography but the sword acquisition part still seemed like it could go terribly wrong. And it did, even in the final dress rehearsal.

Here's a video that illustrates the sword procurement problem:

    We hoped to go thru it another few times, focusing on just that element, when the woman from the Conservancy ran up to the stage and asked, "Can we open the doors a little bit early? Those people are lined up across Spring street!" Spring st. was around the corner and a block east.
    "Cool!" shouted our videographer.
    The show was SOLD OUT. 2300 people. And i knew that Doug was smiling down on us.

    Sheff said a few words at the opening, and introduced the singers. They each sang a song and then the spotlights followed a couple pirates as they chased some screaming women thru the isles of the theatre. The curtain was raised to reveal a stage full of pirates with a giant skull and bones backdrop. The audience cheered at this point. It seemed to be going well but the dialogue was hard to follow after that, and some of the actors seemed lost trying to wield their flimsy foil blades. Wolf and i stayed at the front of stage left, waiting for our moment.
    "Prepare to save the show," he said. Wolf -like me- was an arrogant bastard.
    "Sure. If we don't fuck up completely..." i was worried because we'd never gotten thru a single rehearsal perfectly. This might go really badly for us.
     Sev and Christina did their fight and didn't screw up, thus raising the bar of audience expectation. By the time Wolf and i began we had their full attention. One strike went wrong in the second sequence but we didn't even pause. As the tempo of the fight picked up so did the orchestra and i felt more powerful. Wolf pushed me across the stage and i landed, pulling off my baldric as he did a long leap and brought his cutlass straight down at me. i rolled and picked up Christina's sword, raised the two blades over my head to deflect his attack, then taunted him. 
    "i have two swords!" i turned and spun them in front of me. "i have two and you have only... Two??"
    "Aye!" he shouted.  
    Having taken Sev's sword, he beat the two blades together -they rang like church bells- then charged. A few seconds into the double-cutless duel the audience gasped and began cheering and clapping. It was the first glorious moment i'd ever had as a pirate performer. The fight got faster and the music along with it. The choreography was simple but flashy, with a few silly moves. We kept it a trifle slower than rehearsal speed to avoid disasters. One sword did slide into the orchestra pit at the end and a musician had to dodge it to avoid being impaled, but it all worked.              

The duel ended with "baseball sword," a gag Wolf and i had come up with that got a big laugh. The other actors finished their skit quickly and the curtain closed to great applause. The stage went dark and as the cast lined up for the curtain call i searched frantically for one of the other swords and found it just in time. The curtain opened and Wolf and i crossed our swords overhead as we took our bows.
And, thanks to the sorcery of 21st century technology, you can watch the whole thing HERE .

     Afterward we finished up backstage, got our pay in cash, then rushed to one of the balconies where some seats had been saved for us to watch the movie. The Black Pirate was filmed in two-strip Technicolor but most video releases of it had been in black and white. The color had been restored for this new version we were seeing tonight. Also restored was the original musical score composed for the film. Silent films were never really silent but were intended to be seen with musical accompaniment, whether a single organist in the small venues or an entire orchestra in the great movie palaces, like this one. So the sound and sight combined again as they had in 1926, and Douglas Fairbanks' masterpiece got its due that night.

On my way out i pirated the lobby poster -which hangs over my desk as i type this, a fitting prize for a night of piracy. Thanks, Doug.