By Dan Valentine
The pink cigarette lighter, part 4
When I was four or five, early ’50s, my dad quit The Salt Lake Tribune and we moved to San Francisco.
Actor Peter Lorre, who was known for his bulging eyes and for co-starring alongside Humphrey Bogart in films such as “Casablanca,” was in Salt Lake to perform in a stage reading from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Don Juan in Hell,” with Charles Laughton and two others. I think one was Agnes Moorehead. Charles Boyer may have been the fourth.
My dad wrote: “The man with the ping-pong eyes is in town.” He was quite proud of that lead.
He woke up the next morning, picked the paper up off the front porch, and flipped to his column. It read: “The man with the table-tennis eyes is in town.”
Didn’t have same ring to it. Though, it had his by-line.
Someone on the rewrite desk had changed the lead. My dad blew a gasket and was told that “Ping Pong” was a brand name and the paper didn’t give free advertising. Back then, “Coca-Cola” wasn’t allowed in a story. Instead, carbonated beverage was substituted.
My dad quit shortly there after. One straw too many (in the carbonated beverage.) They had cut his column time after time.
Many years later, when I took over his column, one of the first bits of advice he gave me was: “Don’t read your column in the paper the next morning. It will give you high blood pressure.” I ignored this little nugget and I’ve high-blood pressure ever since.
One evening that very week, the phone rang at home. (We were living on Grove Avenue. The house is still there. I walked by it just a few short years ago.) My dad answered it and the voice on the other line said, “This is Charles Laughton. Join me for a drink.” Get outta here! My dad hung up on the voice. The phone rang again. “Seriously. I’m Charles Laughton. Let’s have a drink together.” Yeah, riiight! My dad slammed the phone down a second time. This little incident haunted my dad for many a year. Was it, indeed, Charles Laughton? I like to think, now that the two are both long parted, that my dad finally joined him for a toddy.
My dad got a job as a reporter, working for the San Francisco Examiner. He was given the Suicide Watch on Golden Gate Bridge, among other things. Yes, there was such a beat back then. Perhaps, still is, with the present economic woes. My dad’s job was to stroll up and down the bridge at night, waiting for distraught people to leap to their death, then write the story.
Noticing that there were many people with a sexual preference other than the so-called norm in the City by the Bay, and with time on his hands during the day, he asked a copy boy or girl to bring him all the files the Examiner had on homosexuals. He thought it would make an interesting human-interest story. The copy person brought him cart after cart, filled with file upon file, and my dad came to the conclusion that the story had been done before, many times, even back then.
My dad returned to Salt Lake a year and a half or so later when Art Deck, The Tribune’s senior editor, who liked my dad and liked the popularity of his column even more, asked him to return.
My first introduction to gays was, no doubt, TV and film. Liberace, Truman Capote, Charles Nelson Reilly, and rumors, just rumors at the time, that Rock Hudson was a member of the select two/three/four/ten/lord knows percent club.
Paul Lynde, who resided in the center square on Hollywood Squares for a long, long time, also comes to mind. He made many a guest appearance on Donny & Marie, filmed at the Osmond Studios in Orem, Utah.
In 1978, in Utah for a guest appearance, he had one too many drinks at the Sun Tavern, a gay bar on the west side of Salt Lake. The police were called. Finding him intoxicated and more than a little belligerent, one of the cops called to the scene reached for his cuffs. Lynde was told to take off his Rolex. Struggling to free it from his wrist, Lynde broke the clasp.
“Now, look what you’ve made me do!” he said, no doubt with that over-the-top way of saying things, sneer, snarl and all, only more so with a few drinks in him. And he slammed the Rolex to the sidewalk and stomped on it with both feet.
It’s in the police report. My dad brought a copy home from The Tribune. Also, in the report, was this: “In case of emergency contact Olive Osmond (Donny and Marie’s mom).” Soon after, he was dropped as a guest star.
The Sun Tavern.
There was a time, at the peak of my dad’s popularity (and, indeed, WAS he ever popular. He was a house-hold name in Utah and parts of Nevada and Idaho. In a well-respected survey conducted by those who did such surveys at the time, his readership in the Intermountain West was shown to be higher than that of the nationally-syndicated columnist Ann Landers)–where was I? Oh, yes, at my dad’s peak, celebrities in town for whatever reason (Myrna Loy, in town to film “Airport;” Martina Martin (Dean Martni’s daughter), in town with Holiday on Ice or Ice Capades (can’t remember which); Gale Storm, TV’s My Little Margie; in town in a play; Ricardo Monteblan, in town for a play; the list goes on and on), they all would pay a call on my dad for publicity for whatever project they were involved in at the moment.
One who walked into The Tribune city room to pay his respects (in exchange for a well-read column item) was Charles Pierce. (Wikipedia: “One of the 20th Century’s foremost female impersonators.”) He was particularly known for his impersonation of Bette Davis. He also did Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Gloria Swanson, Katherine Hepburn, Carol Channing, and Joan Crawford, among many others.
My dad interviewed Joan Crawford once. She was in Salt Lake representing Pepsi, her second career. Her fourth husband was president of the carbonated beverage company. After his death in 1959, she was appointed to its Board of Directors. At a Pepsi reception at the Salt Palace, she took a liking to him. So, someone at The Trib told me later. Of course! He made her laugh.
When Charles Pierce invited my dad and mom to come see the show at the Sun Tavern, a gay bar, my mom didn’t say, “What will people think?” She looooved Bette Davis. No matter that it wasn’t really her, it was her spirit that mattered. Bette was her role-model. A piece or two ago, I wrote that my dad looooved Elko, Nevada. Picture my mom saying, “What a dump!” and you’ve got my mom.
My dad looked important, as did my mom. On a flight once a passenger sitting next to him, turned to inquire, “Are you somebody?” My dad replied, “I’ve always thought so.”
When I caught up with my first ship in the Navy, it was docked in Guam. I was buffing a passageway or whatever, as a member of deck force, when a boatswain’s mate, extremely excited, hurried below to tell everyone that Jackie Gleason and Carol Channing were on the pier. You must be kidding! Guam!? We all were allowed to go topside to take a gander and, lo and behold, there they were. My dad and mom.
In my mom’s middle-years, when dressed to the gills, she could pass as Carol Channing’s twin. Both were blondes. (My dad looooved blondes. He used to say, “I don’t know if blondes have more fun, but the people with ‘em do.”)
And my dad, he was often told he looked like Jackie Gleason. Same bulging eyes (ping-pong like, not tennis-table like), same weight near-bouts, both funny as can be. The territorial governor of Guam at the time was from Utah–local angle–and he had flown there, along with my mom, to interview him. Yeah, sure!
I mention this because I can picture my mom dressed to the nines, standing in line to use the Sun Tavern’s only restroom–no need for two!–in between acts and the fellow in front or back complimenting her on her impersonation of Carol Channing. My mom, bless her soul, she was a trouper! But that’s how much she loooooved Bette Davis.
My first recollection of what could be called a gay experience happened in Bountiful, Utah, at a theater-in-the-round musical production of Peter Pan, starring Victor Buono (reputed by some to be gay) as Captain Hook and Ruta Lee (reputed, without question, to be straight) as Peter. I was thirteen or so.
Onstage–scene/act/whatever/I’ve forgot–Tinkerbell was dying, poisoned by Captain Hook, the deadly brew meant for Peter. Kneeling beside her and beside himself, as they say, Peter asked her what he could do to help. She told him that she thought she could get all-better if children just believe in Fairies.
So, in desperation, to save her life, Peter (Ruta Lee) ran to the footlights and asked the audience, “Do you believe in Fairies?”
Children, one and all, me included, shouted, “YES!” (Si, indeed! Hey, Fairies depend on the belief of kids, of all ages.) A very poignant moment … ruined just a tiny bit by a few grown-ups – not many but enough to be heard by me and others – snickering in their seats, aloud, to themselves. (Oh, yeah! I believe in fairies. One styles my wife’s hair.) Very sad and truly scary when you stop to think about it.
A few weeks or months later, another play came to town. It was called “Pajama Bottoms.” The gist of the play: A gay man – though, the word “gay” was never uttered – doesn’t want to be a gay man. So, he decides he is not going to be a gay man. He starts pursuing women. Finally, by the end of the first act, he meets up with one who makes his wish come true. The first act curtain falls as he walks out of the bedroom, a smile on is face. He’s a straight!
The second act consists of him dating woman after woman, sleeping with each of them, because now he’s a man. Still, something’s missing. Love. By the time the final curtain falls, he has found true love.
Very politically incorrect! But, oh, how I loved that play! And I’ll tell you why. The male lead was a friend of Victor Buono’s. I can’t remember his first name, but his last name was McMurtry. And he was told to look up my dad. He got us front row seats and after the show, my dad, mom, and I joined him and the cast (and the cast, other than himself, were all beautiful actresses, six in all) for drinks at the Manhattan Club in Salt Lake. I was, like, fourteen or so then, way underage. But Tony Hatsis, the owner, sat us at a table in the back, and, oh, what a night! When you’re fourteen, you’re not a threat. So, all the young actresses loved me. Oh, what a night! They signed my program and I kept that treasure until just a few months ago. It is now in a Houston dump. But, oh, what a night!
I didn’t give gays much of a thought, good, bad, or indifferent, until I moved to San Francisco in the late ’70s for some-two years.
I was there the night Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the state, was assassinated. It happened just a few blocks from where I was living at the time. Parked cars were set on fire. Police sirens screamed all night long. I’m a very curious fellow, but I stayed put in my room that evening.
Once, while having a drink in a bar, an older gentleman sitting next to me, after conversing some, inquired politely if I wanted to go home with him for the night. I politely declined. I took no offense and went on my way.
In San Francisco, I met a nightclub entertainer at a piano bar on Powell Street. Lucina! German-born. Sang Marlene Dietrich songs. Still is German. Still sings Marlene standards. Still lives in the Bay Area. She used to call me Dahling.
Late night once, she took me to one of the many after-hour gay dance clubs in town, where those dancing up a storm on the floor would inhale Poppers, amyl nitrate, that came in small ampoules. “Pop! Release the fumes! Snort!” Back in the ’70s, in Baghdad by the Bay, young, old, straight, and gay, were “enhancing their lives” with ‘em. I can’t remember my charming, street-wise chantreus taking a trial sniff. But, fool that I am, I did. Just a whiff or two. Research for a future whatever. Yeah, riiiight!
Flip the calendar pages.
After two years in San Francisco, I was given the opportunity to write my dad’s column. He was written out, as they say, and ill. First, it was complications from diabetes. Then, he got shingles. Then, anorexia. And, then, he fell and, well, I’ll write about that some other time …
So, anyway, one day I was flipping through some out-of-town newspapers, looking for a germ of an idea or two for a column, when I came across an item that read: Virtually all the early patients diagnosed with AIDS have used Poppers at least once. My heart sank. I thought to myself: Man, oh, man, am I in trouble!
Soon after, Poppers were found not to be the cause of AIDS. I wiped the sweat off my brow. Whew!
In 1982, Paul Lynde was found dead in his Hollywood home with a bottle of Poppers. Double whew!! I’d only had a whiff or two.