Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Aging Cowboy Stars Ride to Help Karloff and Lugosi Menaced by a Real-Life Monster

I drove my DeSoto up to the gate at Republic Pictures and awaited entry approval. Blue-uniformed, security guard John McCabe had been a Los Angeles County deputy once, which took place during the lifespan of an adult mayfly. Apparently, the one thing he learned in that law enforcement position was to always exude authority. The immaculately dressed gatekeeper swaggered up to the driver’s side of my car, looked me over and checked to make sure I wasn’t trying to smuggle in an unapproved line of chorus girls.
“Identification,” he said.
“Johnny,” I answered. “It’s me, Curly Woods. I’ve worked here for two years.”
“Identification,” he repeated.
I showed him my driver’s license and he stepped back, stood at attention and waved me through the gate for the umpteenth time that year. As I drove onto the lot, I thought about the daily challenges that a Republic gate guard had to face. Although I thought McCabe should have learned to relax and just wave those of us he recognized through without giving us the third degree, I was sure he had to keep on his toes as he daily faced a tenacious crowd of teenage autograph seekers. And it would have been a tremendous blow to his ego if he had mistakenly approved the entry of a 13-year-old girl wearing a Gene Autry mask.
Unlike the gate guard, Rick Danby’s secretary, Lorelai, smiled and waved me through the door to his office. Rick always looked like he just walked off a film set where he was the immaculately tailored stand-in for William Powell, right down to the pencil-thin mustache. Sitting with Rick at a large coffee table in the center of the circus-tent-sized room were his brother, Republic chauffeur Nick Danby, and rodeo champion and classic film star Hoot Gibson. Over the last several years, I had relied on my two best friends, Nick and Hoot, during many life-threatening situations.
“Sit down and pour yourself a cup of coffee, Curly,” Rick said. “I’m sure I don’t have to introduce these two reprobates.”
We shook hands and garbled a variety of howdies. Gibson was dressed in his personal-appearance, western outfit of boots, Levis, bright red western shirt, yellow bandanna and 10-gallon white hat. Nick, as always, looked sharp in his gray chauffeur’s uniform complete with cap, flared jodhpurs and English riding boots.
“I asked all of you here today because I know how well you work together in dealing with possibly threatening situations,” Rick said as he put flame to a cigarette. “The movie business is full of competing personalities with big smiles and promises of faithful support for creative ideas. We take our ideas and construct fantasies with light, shadow and, now, sound effects. Those fantasies make us or break us, depending on the public’s reaction. And, if the public doesn’t throw money at our productions, we also recognize that those aforementioned promises are as shallow as the silver screen.”
“That’s show business,” Gibson said. “The only thing you can trust about some people is that, sooner or later, they will stab you in the back. I’ve found that, pretty much, the only folks I completely trust are in this room right now.”
“You don’t want to add any of your ex-wives to that list?” Nick said.
“Especially not them.”
“Throughout my life I’ve always been able to trust my brother,” Rick said. “And, over the last few years, you two have also earned my trust equally. Nick, you and Curly are already on the payroll. I’d like to put you on as well, Hoot, to complete my team.”
“Well, I am kind of between jobs,” Gibson said as Nick elbowed me in the ribs and snickered. “But whatever you’ve got planned for these two, you do need somebody who knows what he’s doin’ to keep them from falling off a cliff.”
“Good,” Rick said. “Now, you guys all know that Herbert Yates created Republic Pictures through a tenuous partnership between several Poverty Row studios. He basically forced the studios to unite under his leadership or he would use his film lab to force them into bankruptcy. In that process, Republic acquired Gene Autry from Mascot and John Wayne from Monogram, as well as a variety of other actors, facilities and equipment.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but the marriage didn’t last long, as the Monogram boys didn’t care much for Mr. Yates’ dictates. That company is back in business as an independent studio.”
“Exactly, Curly,” Rick said. “Monogram is no longer part of Republic, but some of us at Republic still have ties to Monogram.”
“Economic ties?” Gibson asked.
“Yes,” Rick answered, “and philosophical ties.”
“You aren’t thinking of switching studios, are you?” I asked.
“It’s a possibility,” Rick said. “I have some differences with Republic on the studio’s focus on musical westerns. They may currently be profitable, but they just aren’t that exciting. I still think there is a big market out there for good old-fashioned adventure westerns, like Hoot used to make. And I’ve found out there are a few folks over at Monogram who agree with me.”
“Well, you certainly know that we agree with you,” I said as Hoot and Nick nodded. “But what can we do to help right now?”
“Monogram is struggling to get back on a profitable level,” Rick said. “If that studio is to have a future, it must make it through this year without any great losses.”
I scratched my head and sipped some coffee.
“What makes you think the studio might fail?”
“I have an uncle who is currently working on some productions at Monogram and he tells me there have been a few problems over there,” Rick answered. “A couple of sets have been torched and some equipment destroyed. It very well could be someone or some group trying to take the legs out from under Monogram. You guys have been pretty successful at investigating this kind of trouble and sniffing out the culprits.”
“Do you think it might be the mob or another studio?” Gibson asked.
“I don’t know, but I want the Hollywood Cowboy Detectives to find out. I’ve talked to Uncle Bill….”
“Uncle Bill!” Nick exclaimed with a smile.
“…and he’s built you some cover at Monogram so you can investigate.”
“Uncle Bill was married to our mom’s sister from 1920 until ’22,” Nick said. “But we still keep in touch. He’s one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet.”
Rick handed his brother a card.
“Here’s your gate pass. Uncle Bill is expecting you,” Rick said. “Good luck and keep in touch.”
I left my car on the lot and joined Hoot and Nick in the studio Packard. We had a relaxing ride through town on our way to Monogram. Gibson was still the happy-go-lucky cowboy who was going through a not-so-lucky period of his life.
“The traveling shows all want me to perform, but they also want me to invest,” he said. “I’ve already invested, and lost, all my money in wild-west shows. I’m just glad Rick came up with the idea to pay me to do something, whatever it is.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “I hope we can help him and Uncle Bill. How’ve you been, Nick?”
“Same old thing,” he said. “It’s either feast or famine. Last week I was driving Autry and Burnette. This week it’s you two.”
That brought a growl out of Gibson.
“He didn’t mean anything by that, Smiley, I mean, Hoot,” I said.
He growled again.
“That reminds me,” Nick said. “Let’s stop by Rinty’s Bar for a drink later.”
We pulled up to the Monogram gate. Nick showed the pass to the guard and we were waved in. He parked the Packard near what looked like a bunch of executives’ vehicles – Packards, Cadillacs and Lincolns.
“The sedan will rest better here with its own kind,” Nick said. “There’s no room for DeSotos here.”
“You may think your company’s sedan is special,” I said, “but I own my DeSoto – and it can kick that Packard’s ass anytime!”
“Oh, yeah?”
“Knock it off, kids,” Gibson said, “or I’ll ride by someday on my horse and drop fresh biscuits on both your hoods.”
Nick led the way to the entrance to Stage Five.
It took us a minute for our eyes to adjust to the dark interior of the large stage building. We walked past stacks of boxes and unused furniture into an open area where lights, cameras, sound equipment, chairs and even a ladder stood in anticipation of the next scene. On one side of the equipment was a three-walled living room set next to what looked like the inside of a barn with a haystack, pitchforks and three stalls. On the other side was what seemed to be a surrealistic alleyway in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“Wow! That’s a rather dark, spooky, deserted street,” Gibson said. “I’d feel a little better about it if there were some lights on around here – or at least a script girl or two.”
I chuckled at Hoot’s reaction, turned and walked through a door into one of the set businesses.
“There’s got to be someone around here someplace,” I said, closing the door behind me.
“There is,” said a deep voice that rumbled out of Hell from close to my right ear.
I turned slowly and then lifted my head to look up into the most evil looking eyes I had ever seen. Light glancing through the window glass from some other part of the set illuminated a side of the man’s face from below showing arched eyebrows, high cheekbones and a rock-like jaw that framed his thin-lipped smile. The man, dressed in a dark suit, reached down and placed a huge hand on my shoulder. At that point, I felt like I was a piece of rancid fish looking up at Spade.
“You must be Curly,” the man said in his deep British accent as the door flew open.
“Uncle Bill!” Nick said.
“Little Nicky, so good to see you. How’s your big brother?”
“He’s fine. I see you’ve met Curly. And I’m sure you know Hoot.”
Gibson walked in.
“Well, well,” Gibson said. “Uncle Bill Pratt a.k.a Boris Karloff. How ya doin’, Pug?”
“Just peachy, cowboy,” Karloff laughed. “In case you didn’t know, Nicky, I played a character named Pug Doran in a 1928 Hoot Gibson oater. But we go back a lot farther than that.”
“We sure do, Bill,” Gibson said. “We met back in the early 20s while hamming it up in the silent days.”
“Yeah,” Karloff said. “You had top billing back then and I usually didn’t get any billing at all. I’m really glad to see you, Hooter. You’re still the all-American good guy.”
“And you seem to be making a fortune out of being all kinds of bad guys.”
“I do,” he said. “And I love it. However, as Mr. Wong, I’m a good guy. What were they thinking?”
Slowly I thawed my frozen position and shook hands with Boris Karloff, also known as William Pratt.
A man wearing a flipped up fedora, white shirt and brown vest carrying a clipboard walked up to us.
“Hey, Boris,” he said. “Nice work yesterday. The fog machines really did their stuff here in Chinatown. The boss loved the dailies this morning.”
“That’s great, Allen,” Karloff said. “I do my best work surrounded in fog.”
“I’ll have the boys get the machines out of here,” Allen said. “We’ve got a couple of close-ups to shoot this afternoon near the lamppost.”
“I’ll be ready, Allen. My cowboy friends and I are going to chew the fat a bit, and then I’ll get in character.”
“Uncle Bill,” flanked by his nephew “little Nicky” and his old cowboy pal Hoot Gibson, led the way to the Mr. Wong’s dressing room in the far back of Stage Five. I trailed along behind them, hat in hand.
“Relax, gentlemen,” Karloff said, as he removed an oriental robe from one of the four chairs in the room. “I’m pleased to see all of you.”
“So, what do I call you? Boris, Bill, William?” I asked.
“You can call me Bill, Curly,” he said. “With my nephew and the Hooter here, you are now family. When I’m on stage or promoting my work, I go by Boris. But to family like you guys, I’m still old Bill Pratt.”
“Well, Bill, do you have time to go over what we are up against and how you think we can help?”
“I do,” Karloff said. “I’ve got a couple of hours before I have to become Mr. Wong again for a few close-ups.
“Rick and I came up with a cover story for all of you. I’m going to be taking a week off starting tomorrow and I’ve told several people that my old cowboy buddy Hoot Gibson and I will be hanging out together, perhaps doing a little fishing. And, as of today, Nicky is my new chauffeur.”
“What about Curly?” Gibson said. “He’s pretty well known as Republic’s cowboy flack.”
“That’s true, Hoot,” Karloff answered. “And many show-business types also know that he was once a reporter with the Los Angeles Examiner. So as far as anyone is concerned, Curly is working with an un-named investor on the development of a new fan magazine targeted for those folks who love Frankenstein, The Mummy and other monster movies.”
“That’s kind of a stretch, isn’t it?” Nick said. “Aren’t most fan magazines designed for lonely housewives and teenage girls? Do you think a picture of Lionel Atwill on a magazine cover could outsell one of Gable?”
“Not if they know Lionel,” Karloff said, “but one of me might. Of course the idea of a spooky fan magazine is bogus, but this is Hollywood and people will believe anything. The explanation is that the publication is targeted toward young people who love a good scare. And Curly, being a good feature writer, is working with me to develop a style of PR for a new group of fans.”
“That sounds like a good plan, Bill,” I said. “Now, what are we really looking into?”
“At the moment, I’m not sure. We’ve had some destroyed props, torched sets and what looks to be sabotage. At this time, I don’t know who would want to do such things, or why. One thing is, it has to be stopped before someone gets hurt.”At that moment, the dressing room shook as a large explosion sent all of us up and out of our chairs. I yanked the door open to a stage filled with dust and the sound of pieces of scenery dropping to the floor. We fought our way through the smoke and debris toward the stage entrance. As we got near what used to be the Chinatown set, I tripped, falling on top of two legs sticking out from under part of a storefront and lamppost.
Allen must have been right near the center of the blast.

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