Saturday, September 6, 2014


Featuring Hoot Gibson & Ken Maynard


Copyright 2014 Darryle Purcell


The new, burgundy 1934 Cadillac sedan pulled up to the curb in front of Rinty's Hollywood Bar two blocks south of Mascot Pictures. The driver got out, opened the back door and a large man dressed in black stepped out, smiled and fell on his face.

"Your star has arrived," driver Nick Danby said.

Veteran of the Great War, trick-riding and -roping cowboy star, idol of western fans and symbol of the all American good guy, Ken Maynard belched and tried to find his feet.

"Thanks, Nick. Let's get him to the studio house before he takes up residence on the sidewalk. The toilet is not very private here."

Mascot keeps a bungalow for out-of-town investors to stay or producers who need a place to entertain a friend or two away from home. A lot of special casting interviews take place in the studio house. Also, it becomes valuable when Mascot needs to keep a wayward star away from the press or, in this case, to sober one up.

Nick and I threw the big guy back in the sedan and we headed through the gate and, quickly, to the bungalow. We deposited Maynard in the back bedroom and locked the door, which was designed for such an occasion.

"He's all yours, Curly," Nick said as he left. "See ya in the funny papers."

That's me – Sean Woods. Everyone calls me Curly because, well, they're assholes. Sure, when I was young reporter on the Los Angeles Examiner I had a healthy head of wavy hair. But my locks are now thin enough to give many a chuckle when I'm introduced as Curly.

Maynard was my first assignment for Mascot. I had just started as the in-house press dude. That means I use my journalism experience to keep real bad news from hitting the streets and to fluff up the soc-pages with phony news concerning the studio's B-film Barrymores.

Maynard was working on "Mystery Mountain," an action-packed serial that was designed to bring the kids back into theaters 12 weeks in a row. My immediate job was to get Maynard to the "Mountain" on time and sober for filming.

I was warned that the cowboy would be a handful. Maynard had a reputation of being rambunctious at times as well as having a close relationship with the recently legalized sauce. No big deal. Since Happy Days are Here Again, many of us imbibe a bit, especially since we no longer have to worry about going blind from some unethical bootlegger's poisonous wood alcohol. As a former newspaperman, I wasn't about to judge someone for taking a drink or two now and then.

On that subject, with Maynard tucked away for the night, I went to the icebox and grabbed a cold beer. It was not quite midnight and I needed something to calm my demons so I could catch a couple of hours of sleep. We needed to be up at 6 a.m. and at the movie ranch in the Valley by 7:30.

Being a studio flack wasn't always my dream. It still isn't.

I spent a lot of years as a newspaper crime reporter in L.A. But then I made a big mistake. I wrote an accurate, balanced series of articles on a candidate for Congress who had too much discretionary money for fairness. It's amazing how pressure from slimy activists, threats of cancellation from weak advertisers, and rumors of litigation will bend the ethics of fearless watchdog publications.

The candidate was a well-heeled trial attorney with a serpentine smile who believed every child molester, thief, woman beater and drug peddler deserved a strong defense, as long as they could handle his fees.

The city editor gave me a choice of backing off, writing laudatory fluff features on the swine and planting my lips firmly on his ass or finding a new career.

If I had to write phony fluff news, I might as well get paid well for it. I told the editor where he could deposit his assignments in the future and called Nick who had mentioned his boss was looking for an in-house PR writer. I figured it was a better opportunity than staying on at the Examiner as an out-house PR writer.

I interviewed with one of Mascot's lesser moguls, Max Gorn. He had been a midlevel bootlegger with a reputation for handling the good stuff during the recent unpleasant years. He was rough around the edges, dressed like a racetrack tout and had the soul of a meat grinder. I spoke his language; we got along fine.

"We've got some expensive properties," Gorn said as he used a gun-shaped lighter to ignite a cigarette. "I'm talking stars, directors, stuntmen and dames. Some of them are actually talented. Others just have the look. Whatever they have, people pay to see their work."

Gorn was in his mid-fifties with hard-gray eyes and an enviable crop of salt-and-pepper hair. He obviously hadn't taken care of himself when he was young as his skin was rough and pitted. The bags under his eyes were a shade darker than his face. He had a scar running across his forehead above his right eye. Gorn had the essence of Hollywood success: the smell of a combination of cigarettes, booze and possibly a starlet or two.

"Some of these properties have unique interests," he said. "Your job will be to make sure their unique interests don't make it into the press. You will also write some wonderful, heart-warming, sincere articles about their good works, families and lovable personalities whether they have them or not."

For $50 a week, it sounded like heaven to me. At that price, I could make Fatty Arbuckle seem wholesome enough for children's parties. We shook hands, had a drink and I went directly to Rinty's Bar for the aforementioned meeting.
At 6 a.m. Nick showed up at the bungalow with a clean shirt for me and a fresh, black, cowboy outfit for Maynard. Together we hauled him into the shower and left him there while I got ready and Nick made coffee.
I would hope the star's young fans would never hear him spout the creative use of profanity that was wafting from the bathroom. After a while, he quieted.
"You ready to go to work?" I asked the tall, naked man holding on to the shower curtain. "There's coffee in the other room."
"Who the hell are you," the 39-year-old western hero slurred, his coal-black hair hanging wet in his face.
"I'm your friendly Mascot PR dude, Sean Woods. Some folks call me Curly."
I ignored the question.
"Now that you've got the smell of saloon hopping off you, your clean duds are on the chair. We've got to get you to Mystery Mountain."
We left the bungalow looking like a traveling vaudeville act: six-foot-plus Maynard in his black cowboy outfit and white hat, Nick at five foot six in a gray chauffeur uniform and me at five nine in my ill-fitting, three-piece, W.T. Grant brown suit and fedora. The Cadillac moved along swiftly and by the time we dropped down into the Valley, Maynard was almost friendly.
"Guess you boys kept me out of the hoosegow last night," Maynard said in his best western drawl. "I'm much obliged."
"You were about to throw a waiter and two Nancy-boys through a window when I found you," Nick said. "I got a call you were drinking pretty heavy at the new Trocadero hangout on the Strip."
"Yea. I was having a few drinks when some folks came up and asked for autographs. They were friendly and we all laughed and carried on a bit. Then this waiter told me I needed to quiet things down a tad and it went downhill from there. I was doing my best to keep things in control when these two swishes came up and acted a little too friendly."
"Well, Mr. Maynard," I said. "That's one reason not to get blotto in Hollywood. Your buckaroo outfit may have given those boys the wrong message in that part of town."
Nick gave a one-sided smile at that and Maynard clammed up for the next few miles until the windshield exploded.
We were on a dirt road about four miles from the movie ranch when the shooting started.
The first shot hit the windshield and sent glass flying over all of us. Nick held tight to the wheel and kept us on the dirt road as he floored the accelerator pedal. I found the floorboards welcoming, although I doubt I will ever be able to fold into that position again if I wanted to. We slid off onto the rough shoulder raising dust and brushing a few branches as he took a turn at top speed.
"What the hell was that?" Nick yelled.
"I think someone is shooting at us," I said as a second bullet hit the left front tire sending the Cadillac out of control.
"You think so?" Maynard said as the car traveled sideways toward a 10-foot drop into a dry creek bed.


The Caddy came to rest halfway over the cliff. The front passenger door had swung open and I was hanging from it over the creek bed. As I dropped to the ground, Maynard and Nick flew through the right doors and landed next to me. We took cover against the bank. Whoever was shooting at us was in some high rocks above the other side of the road.
"Don't put your head up," I said as Maynard peeked over the ledge and got a face full of dirt when a bullet ripped into the soil near him. "You'll get your head blown off."
Oddly enough, like a true movie cowboy, his white hat stayed on the whole time.
We surveyed our situation. The shooter was well concealed in the rocks. We were currently out of his field of fire thanks to the depressed creek bed, which was about a mile long leading toward the ranch. We either could have stayed where we were and hoped the sniper didn't move in on us and finish us off or try to run for it using the creek bank for cover.
"Stay close to the cliff and start running," I said as I did just that. Nick and Maynard followed suit. As we ran, we heard a couple more shots break Cadillac windows.
A few minutes later we came to an area where some brush was hanging over the cliff. I grabbed some branches and climbed to the edge to look back at where the car and, possibly, where the shooter had been. All was quiet.
"Did you check for snakes before you pulled yourself into that brush?" Nick asked.
"Thanks, Nick. Next time."
Then my throat tightened as I heard more shooting coming from in front of us. These shots seemed muffled.
"Look yonder, boys," Maynard said. "It's a posse."
Four riders in full western gear were headed our way in a cloud of dust, firing pistols into the air.
"Howdy, Ken," the lead rider said as the group reined their horses to stop in the creek bed. "We were shooting some chase footage when we saw your car and heard the shots. Think we chased them off?"
"Looks to be," Maynard said. "Howdy Kermit, Mo, Blackie, Red Eye. Thanks."
Nick and I looked at each other realizing at the same time that these four silver-screen clodhoppers had just ridden in like Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders to save the day, only with smoke-puffing, blank-shooting, movie pistols.
"Hey Nick. Who's your pard?" Maynard's tall, sandy-haired brother, Kermit, said as he dismounted his pinto cayuse.
"Hey, Kermit," I said. "I'm Sean Woods, the new Mascot flack. I recognize you from your films."
"We call him Curly," Nick said.
"Why?" asked Kermit.
I bristled.
"What in the ding-danged flimbaloozy is goin' on?" said a strange-looking bearded man with baggy pants, a torn vest and mangled western hat.
"Curly, meet Jack Brown," Maynard said. "We call him Red Eye, for obvious reasons."
He really didn't have much of a white part to his eyes. I thought he might have kidney problems until I got close enough to smell the odor of reefer. I assumed he was the token, in more ways than one, western comic.
"And this is our set wrangler Mojave Burns, Mo to his friends, and the wildest stuntman in the business, Arlis 'Blackie' Knight," Maynard said. "Mo. Is Tarzan onsite?"
"Polished and ready, Boss."
We rode double to the ranch house. Nick seemed scared to death as he climbed on with Blackie. I believe the stuntman relished Nick's displeasure as he brought his quarter horse to a brisk sprint. The Maynard boys rode together. And I hung close to Red Eye while doing my best not to inhale too much.
The ranch house was your typical turn-of-the-century, shiplap home with shade trees in the front yard and a white picket fence. There were two large barns – one for the horses and one for wagons and vehicles – with a corral between them. Behind the horse barn was the bunkhouse.
There was a wind-powered well pump that filled a tall, wooden water tower. This was a working movie ranch that housed stars, stuntmen, equipment, a camera crew, bit players and other staff. All the buildings also served as sets for Mascot's action-oriented features and serials. The ranch was a full section – 640 acres of wild west rocks, cliffs, trails, a lake, a couple of line-shack sets and at least two mine entrances. Cowboy heroes had battled villains here since Bronco Billy Anderson first saddled up.
We dismounted in front of the house and Mo and Blackie led the horses to the barn for a drink and a snack. We all slapped the dust off our clothes except for Red Eye, who probably considered it part of his character.
Max Gorn was seated, smoking, in a wooden chair on the front porch. A big-eyed, bottle blonde with It-girl, bee-sting lips rocked in the porch swing. She wore a loose-fitting white blouse and tan riding pants. She wasn't my type. Too cute.
"You made it," Gorn said. "What was the trouble?"
"A sniper almost finished us off a few miles back," I said. "It seems that not everyone in this neck of the woods is a fan of Mascot westerns."
"The flap-dippin' varmint plum near wasted Ken," Red Eye said. "Twarn't fur us, the buzzards'd be feastin'."
The fuzz-faced raconteur punctuated his story by spitting in the dust.
"The boys with the smoke pistols did show up at an opportune moment," I said. "Then again, we had been running up that dry creek bed for quite some time. I believe we were probably out of the sniper's rifle range by the time we met up with our heroes."
Red Eye snorted and turned away to leave, with one unhealthy eye giving the blonde quite the once over.
"I'd like to take a car back and check the area out where I think the shooter waited for us," I said. "We also need to get Nick's chariot off the rocks."
"We'll send a tow truck out to bring the car in and you can go along," Gorn said. "Sounds like quite an adventure. I'll be interested in what you find at the site. This is just not good news with all that has been happening. Why would anyone want to shoot Ken, or you, for that matter? Doesn't make sense."
Perhaps it was the Trocadero waiter or one of the Nancy boys from the night before.
I went to the bunkhouse where Maynard was cleaning himself up and getting ready for a shoot.  The inside looked like the typical cowboy barracks except there were several large mirrors and makeup tables at one end of the room. That way, the other end could be used as an inside set for bunkhouse scenes as long as the cameraman kept the beautification area out of the frame.
"Any idea who might have wanted to ventilate you, Mr. Maynard?" I asked.
"Nope. And call me Ken," he said. "Ever since we started Mystery Mountain, there have been some odd occurrences. First, an unexplained fire destroyed three days worth of film. Then Tarzan (Maynard's horse) got sick and we had to adjust schedules. And finally, Toosie, twisted her ankle. That was Toosie in the porch swing. She stunt doubles all the women and kids in the Mascot serials."
"She looks more like a vamp than a tough and tumble stuntwoman," I said.
"Yea, she's got a notion she wants to be the next Thelma Todd," Maynard said. "About the only thing she has in common with Thelma is they both like to snuggle up to gangsters."
"So you're saying there's been a run of bad luck on this shoot," I said.
"Yep, we're way behind schedule. I took advantage of the last delay to go raise a little hell in town. Guess I went a little too far last night at the Trocadero. That's when you and Nick came in."
"What's Red Eye's story? Is he the comic sidekick in Mystery Mountain?"
"Naw. He's working with Blackie on some stock chase scenes for another Oater Mascot is getting ready to shoot. I worked with him a few times in the silent pictures. But, like a lot of character actors of the silents, he just didn't transition well to the talkies. His funny dialogue just doesn't lead to laughs in the theaters. Of course, some top silent film stars found their newly recorded voices led to a lot of laughs, destroying their careers. Also, Red Eye is just not that dependable these days. He can still fall off a horse without getting hurt. In fact, he falls down a lot. But his timing stinks and he's just not that funny anymore."
Mo opened the door and waved.
"Ken. I got Tarzan all set and the boys are ready for your first scene," he said.
Mascot serials were filmed on a tight budget. Several scenes were shot each day and sometimes at night. Usually only one take was shot per scene unless something really drastic happened in front of the camera, such as a horse taking a crap or a stallion waving his Louisville Slugger and making everyone feel insignificant.
"Bud and Shuffles are about to head over and pick up the car you guys drove into the ditch," Mo said. "You can tag along if you like, Curly."
Three of us squeezed into the Ford tow truck cab for the trip back to the scene of the shooting.
The driver, Bud, was a short, stocky, redheaded handyman with coveralls, a newsboy cap, a short nasty cigar and a disposition to match. According to him, he painted the buildings, cleaned the barns, hauled what needed to be hauled and repaired whatever was broken.
Shuffles, on the other hand, was quite a character. His real name was Arthur Washington.
"So why do they call you Shuffles?" I asked.
"Because I'm a negro," he said. "And that's the name the studio gave me so every time a director wants to throw in a negro character to say something really stupid and make the white actors look smart, I shuffle in, roll my eyes and sputter my lines. And they hand me a check."
His grammar was far superior to that of my former city editor at the Examiner. I was starting to think he might be a little bitter about his theatrical options, but my perception was quickly corrected.
"I'm no Douglas Fairbanks, but I make a good living. It sure beats restroom attending. And in between the speaking parts, I work with Bud on projects here at the ranch."
Bud actually smiled at that.
"Shuffles and me – we're a pretty good team," Bud said. "A lot of the actors, stuntmen and crewmembers look down on us. They think they're better because of what they do. But they couldn't do it without us. This ranch and all the equipment have been falling apart for the last couple of years and Shuffles and I have kept putting it back together. And as stupid as the lines are that Shuffles has to speak, he never screws them up, unlike the pretty boys and bimbos who get their names on the marquees."
Bud wasn't a bad guy after all. He was just a little gruff and looked like he should be threatening Billy goats from under a bridge. But he was proud of his work and loyal to his friend. And that pretty well sums up what people should care about.
When we arrived at the crash site, Bud and Shuffles hopped out and got to work hooking the Cadillac up to drag it off the ledge. I started for the rocks from where I thought the shots were fired.
"Take your time, Curly," Bud said. "Once we get the Caddy on flatland, I want to give it the once over. I also have a cigar I want to finish."
Taking Nick's earlier advice to watch for snakes, I crossed the road and started up the rocky hill. Once I got to some boulders that seemed ideal for an ambush, I started looking for disturbed ground. I found an area behind a large V-shaped pile of rocks where a couple of shrubs had been broken. Someone had obviously set up within the cover to await our arrival. Whoever the sniper was cleaned up his brass pretty well. But as I kicked a little dust around, I found a shiny, single .30-06 shell, just like the ones we used in our Army M1903 Springfield rifles in France.
Something about that casing sent a chill through me that I hadn't felt since my time in the trenches. During the war, I knew we were up against a well-armed, uniformed, enemy military and, at any time, a German bullet was just waiting for me to be in the wrong spot.
The war had been over for almost 16 years and I didn't like to think about those days. But for those of us who served, some feelings are involuntary. I chalked mine up to the aging process and a slight case of the willies.   
I returned to the tow truck with my find and we headed back toward the ranch.
"You guys have any idea why someone would want to kill Ken Maynard?" I asked.
"There might be quite a few reasons," Bud said as, thankfully, he tossed his stinky cigar butt out the window. "Ken is a complex man. You never know how he is going to react from one moment to another."
I had seen the drunken dummy side of Maynard as well as the grumpy hung-over guy, but he hadn't seemed any different from anybody else on the tail end of a bender.
"One moment Mr. Maynard can be happy and cracking jokes and the next minute he can just go berserk and start screaming at you," Shuffles said. "It's like he's two people."
"Now, his brother, Kermit, is a genuine nice guy," Bud added. "I talked to him about Ken and he said this has been a lifelong condition. They were country boys, part of a large family, and Ken, the older of the two, was the wildest. Kermit said his brother would behave just fine and then he would get this look in his eye and start thinking everyone was out to get him. His wildness helped hone his skills with trick riding and rodeo events. But competing in that world also increased his feelings that people wanted to get him out of the way. Becoming a western movie star didn't make it any easier, either; especially recently since he has taken a couple of steps downward from Universal and other studios to land at Mascot.
"And his drinking has increased to the point that he may not be with Mascot much longer."
There are a lot of temperamental movie stars in Hollywood, and a lot of drunks, but that usually doesn't lead to someone wanting to murder them. I thought of all the silent movie stars who didn't make it into the talkies because they sounded like Disney mice. Many of them became drunks. But they were only abandoned by their hypocritical peers; not murdered.
"There has to be more to this incident than just an angry coworker who got his feelings hurt by a prima-donna cowboy star," I said.
Perhaps someone really was trying to kill Nick or myself and didn't even care a whit about Ken Maynard. I didn't know how Nick could have ticked off anyone that much, as he was just a working, family man who drove folks to and from typical Hollywood functions and workplaces. And I certainly had made a few enemies in my newspaper career covering crime and politics, which are pretty much the same thing. But, I don't think my former city editor would lean toward murder just because I told him where he could deposit (insert) his future assignments. I'm sure he has been told worse things he could do to himself. And the venomous Congressional candidate got what he really wanted, which was a pandering press and my departure from the newspaper. 
When we got back to the ranch house, things were not getting any better.
I walked from the vehicle barn toward the ranch house when I heard the breaking of glass and saw the front door swing open. A large man in western clothing came out not facing the direction he was traveling. He landed in the dust sounding like a bag of cement. I looked down and recognized the Oater King of the bad guys, Charlie King, as he puffed dust through his famous mustache.
"Now that's how you throw a realistic punch," Maynard slurred as he tossed King's black hat toward the horizontal victim.
"I'm goin' to tear you apart, pretty boy," King sputtered as he jumped to his feet. "You've never been able to throw a realistic punch on screen and now I'm going to repay that sucker punch with interest."

Gorn stepped between them.
"That's it!" he said. "This is your last mistake, Maynard. You cause one more problem to me and you're out of here and no longer with Mascot. Nat Levine is sick of your behavior and so am I. We're not so far into this picture that I can't put that fairy suit of yours on just about anybody and complete it."
His last statement didn't make much sense, but we all understood what he meant.
"And as for you, Charlie, I apologize for this drunk. I know you drink a bit too, but you are a professional and we will work together again, many times; just not on this picture. We'll talk in town next week."
"Thanks, Max," King said. "But you better get your boy some loony pills. Because if he continues like he is goin', he will receive a bundle of bruises from any stuntman or black hat he has to fight a scene with. I guarantee that."
Things quieted down a bit as King dusted himself off, just like in the movies, and walked over to a little Model A Ford near the horse barn. Without a word he drove away.
Gorn turned to me.
"Inside, Curly! Time for you to earn your keep," Gorn said. "This picture has had too many delays; too many unexplained and possibly deadly problems. And, you just saw what could be described as the demise of a once-stellar, now-struggling career. The Mighty Maynard has almost completely struck out."
Gorn had, with reservations, reported the shooting incident to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
"You need to write a report for law enforcement that keeps our star out of the picture," he said. "That means it will keep Mascot out of the picture as well. This kind of press we do not need. The deputies are spread mighty thin these days, so if you write the report judiciously, it will be filed and no follow up will take place. And the press will not have any reason to get involved. You do get what I mean?"
"Loud and clear, boss."
"And then I want you to try and find out what is behind all these problems, other than the fact that Charlie is right about Ken," Gorn said as he paced the room. "Maynard's mood swings and alcoholism are beyond our abilities to cure. But you still have to wet nurse the SOB, and keep him out of jail and away from reporters, until this picture is complete. Then, you can drop him off at the Trocadero for good, for all I care."
I asked Gorn about the delays and what he thought might be motive for someone to hamper, if not shut down, production. He was obviously frustrated with the problems and the fact that costs continued to increase with no possibility of the low-budget serial completing on budget. But he couldn't think why anyone would want to sabotage the film.
Gorn lit another cigarette and sat down on a wooden chair in front of a roll-top desk.
"I'm sending some of the crew over to Griffith Park to get some chase and stunt shots this afternoon," he said. "Kermit will double for Ken. Verna (Hillie), our leading lady, likes Kermit better, anyway. You and Nick need to get Ken, sober and pleasant, into town for a meeting with a new property we have coming along. Nick has the lowdown. Once the meeting is over, get Ken to the studio house and you can write your report for the sheriff there.

No comments:

Post a Comment