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Shy Guy from Hollywood High Brief Bio
Lots of Library
When I was told there was a public library a few blocks from where we lived, I expected it to be like the small-town ones I had been in before—basically one or two rooms filled with books.
I was not prepared for the multi-story monument to masonry that came into view as I rounded the corner up the street from our apartment. Any four libraries I had ever seen before would have fit on the edifice's front steps, and four more would have easily fit into its lobby.
When I walked through the front door I expected to see books, but saw instead a huge stone reproduction of the Sphinx set off against a panorama of stone pyramids and other Egyptian symbolism. The front entry was at least two stories high, and the cascading staircase that led to the next level looked like it could have been a set from a Busby Berkley movie—where you'd expect to see a cadre of smiling chorus girls tapping and twirling their way down into the lobby.
Lots of "How To" Books
Once I got over being awestruck by my first impression of the place, I would go there often because it was just a few blocks from where we lived and it had dozens of the kinds of books I liked—mainly books on how to make things and on how to draw.
I found lots of books on how to make toys out of boxes and cans and other stuff that might otherwise end up as trash. I found others on making games and puzzles—and even a pretty good collection on how to do magic tricks.
This last genre kind of surprised me. I had always thought that professional magicians guarded their secrets very jealously and was amazed to find a number of books explaining how many of the them were done.
However, after going through the books in more detail, I found that many of the "secrets" revealed were actually of outdated material that hadn't been used in years.
In any case, I guess that's when I first got really interested in the idea of doing magic. So I checked out every book I could find on stage illusions and sleight of hand.
In case you're wondering what the difference is—the former tend to be mechanical devices that make things seem to vanish and/or materialize in mysterious ways, while the latter is the skillful use of one's hands—with little or nothing in the way of additional props or gimmicks.
Anybody could go into a magic shop and buy some mechanical illusions and then call himself a magician. The true masters were the sleight-of-hand performers, who could mysteriously and magically manipulate cards, coins, billiard balls and other small objects (including dangerous-looking items like razor blades and burning cigarettes—and sometimes even the occasional bird or other small animal).
That's what I wanted to become. But that can take months and years of dedicated practice—so I decided to make a few mechanical tricks while I worked at learning the difficult stuff.
Doing magic tricks worked out well for me, since I was a shy kid who wasn't athletically inclined and who couldn't play a musical instrument or do any other kind of performing.
But I learned to do magic well enough to get some applause whenever I put on a little show—and that helped boost my self-esteem.
Racy Reading on the Sly
The LA Public Library also had some books on subjects such as sex, love, and marriage—but they were kept in a locked glass case, and I didn't have the nerve to ask to see any of them.
But one day I found the case unlocked—and when nobody was looking I removed a book called "The Art of Love" by a Dr. Van de Velde, which I had overheard my mother discussing with a friend one day.
So I had an eye-opening hour or so of reading that afternoon, but also had to keep my eyes peeled to make sure no one spotted me with the book. Of course, compared to what's available in print nowadays on any magazine rack, this was pretty tame stuff—but it seemed pretty steamy at the time.
I also found a lot of "how to draw and paint" books, including several on figure drawing. Since most of the "figures" were of nude women, I was glad these weren't locked up in a glass case. Anyway, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be a commercial artist, a cartoonist, or a professional magician when I grew up—but I was sure it would be one of the three. (I ended up being a sign-painter.)
Well, I still do the occasional card trick, and I've drawn a number of cartoons over the years, including a few which I actually sold. But becoming a real artist of any kind (commercial or otherwise) would have taken more time, patience and dedication than I'd ever have been willing to put into it. Nowadays if I need to do any drawing or cartooning I usually end up doing it on my computer. For instance, the "Little Bohemian" was created with Corel Draw and Corel PhotoPaint.
Toenail Painting on the Sly
As an aside, I have a friend named Patty Campbell, who was once a librarian at the downtown LA Public Library—and she says some pretty strange things used to go on there. (Big city libraries have always been a magnet for certain types who have nothing else to do—so you can usually find some pretty strange people hanging around).
Patty told me about this one guy who would crawl under the tables and look for people wearing sandals or any kind of open-toe shoes. Then he would surreptitiously paint their toenails in a variety of vivid colors. And, she says, he rarely got caught.
Just visualizing this cracks me up. I really should get Patty to tell me about some of the other things that used to go on there. There's probably enough material for a whole book.
There were a lot of other interesting attractions in downtown LA, but many were beyond the reach of a 10-year-old. There were several elegant first-run movie houses downtown, but I had just gotten used to the idea of paying 11¢ to see a double-feature—paying 30¢ to see a single movie seemed totally outrageous.
Olvera Street was (and probably still is) a fun place to go. It's reputed to be the oldest street in Los Angeles (whose original name, by the way, was "el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, la Reina de los Angeles" or "the Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angeles") and the street was preserved as a block-long brick-paved ensemble of Mexican restaurants, gift shops, and other tourist attractions.
My favorite place was an outdoor stand where they made the best taquitos. But we'd only go there on weekends, since it was a little too far for a 10-year-old to be traversing alone from our apartment. The same was true for Chinatown, which was a few blocks farther away.
The Griffith Park Observatory and Planetarium were other wonderful places to visit when my stepdad was available on a weekend.
Griffith Park even had a small zoo in those days.
Main Street Fantasies
There were also a couple of theaters on Main Street, where I wouldn't be allowed in regardless (well, not for several more years, anyway).
The Burbank and the Follies were LA's two burlesque theaters, where I'd sometimes pass the time looking at posters of Lili St. Cyr or Tempest Storm or Gypsy Rose Lee (while wishing I was old enough to buy a ticket). Of course I'd never tell my parents about any time I'd spent hanging around Main St.
Another popular attraction was Angels Flight—but I never went on it. It was a pair of cable-cars that traveled just one block up and down a hill in the middle of town. Many locals used it as a practical means to get from one street to another—but it was also very popular with tourists who took the brief ride up and down the hill just for of the novelty of going on the "world's shortest trolley ride."
Ill-Fated Amusement Pier
I guess the reason I never went on Angels Flight was because it didn't strike me as being all that exciting. One of the very first things we did when we arrived in Southern California was to go to the amusement pier at Venice Beach.
We only went there once, because shortly after our visit the pier burned down and was never rebuilt. But I remember quite vividly how I enjoyed riding the rollercoaster; and I've been hooked on rollercoasters ever since.
This particular rollercoaster was different from any I've been on since in a couple of ways. At the beginning of the ride, the cars would go down through a dark tunnel before starting their ascent to the top of the first steep dip. The tunnel just seemed to add an element of spookiness to the ride. Then the ride would end by having the cars splash into a big tank of water.
Of course nowadays many amusement parks have "log rides" that end in the water, but I believe this one was one of the first of the genre.
Another thing I remember about the Venice Beach Pier was its Fun House. It had the traditional hall of mirrors and obstacle course (moving stairs, sliding walkways, etc.) plus a "ski jump" slide that dropped you onto a big mattress. But they had one thing I've never seen anywhere since.
It was a huge "turntable" mounted on a hardwood floor and surrounded by a cushioned fence. When stopped, kids would scramble on and try to sit as close to the center as possible. Then it would begin to rotate and slowly build up speed. The centrifugal force would eventually send everyone flying off into the cushioned fence.
The idea was to be the last one off. If one could succeed in fighting his way to the exact center of the platter, it would be possible to stay on a little longer (depending on his tolerance for being rapidly twirled in a tight circle). Of course, the last one off also flew off a lot faster than his predecessors
In any case, it was a lot of fun—and there was no limit to how long you could stay in the Fun House—so a kid could really get his money's worth inside. I was sorry to hear that it all went up in flames.
Ch.1 Alameda - Los Angeles 1939-40
Ch.2 Echo Park 1943
Ch.3 Virgil Jr Hi 1944
Ch.4 Le Conte Jr Hi 1945-46
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Since I have no personal photos from my youth, I've used pictures found on the Internet to help illustrate some of the stories told on these pages. In a couple of instances I've used photos of people who just happen to closely resemble someone I once knew. However, if it's found that I'm using any images in violation of someone's copyright, please let me know and appropriate action will be taken.