As I embark on my second book for Angel City Press, I am appreciating some of the unexpected rewards of having put my story out there the first time. Writing involves such gasps of courage and vaults of faith. My husband tells me sometimes he hears me take a little gasping breath when I am writing. Funny, I wasn't aware. Those sounds must punctuate a satisfying idea... or a worry... or an aha! moment. I like to think it's the aha! As for a faith-vault, we've just come off of the Olympic Games, and I'll bet others marveled, as I did, when U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney catapulted herself impossibly high in a close-to-perfect vault during the team finals. Imagine her thoughts as she twisted in the air, knowing she could stick the landing, but not knowing if she would. In fact, Maroney missed badly, later in the competition.
But we take the leaps. My next book, like Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer as Impresario, will be a biographical art history. Is this the right direction for author April? Will my audience for the Stendahl story be equally interested in the life and works of artist/activist Corita Kent? And - of great interest to my publisher and to me - will readership grow and expand beyond my first effort?
These questions are important, but they are not uppermost in my mind. I'm still enjoying the Exhibitionist ride. I have PowerPointed my way across the country, selling and signing, talking to readers - my favorite people. (You who read this blog are in the club, and I thank you!) Husband Ron (Stendahl's grandson) and I have hosted many groups at the Stendahl Galleries of Art in Hollywood, where much of my book's history unfolded. I presumed, rightly, that once people had an idea of Stendahl's remarkable impact on Southern California's art scene, there would be a revival of interest in early Modernism and in Pre-Columbian art. The Getty's Pacific Standard Time program of exhibitions was timed perfectly to shine more light on the story I was sharing. It was all falling into place. What I didn't expect was the feedback which so enlivened the conversation.
One day a package arrived in my mail from Menomonie, Wisconsin: the birthplace of Earl Stendahl. I had had brief correspondence with an elderly journalist there, who writes columns under "Wisconsin Lore & Legends." He was enthusiastic about my relationship to the Stendahls and about Earl's origins in his hometown. In the package: Swiss Miss Cocoa Powder (who knew this is a Menomonie company?), magazines, newspapers, photographs, postcards and monographs about the town's history, including ephemera that related directly to the Stendahls. A gift, truly. On another occasion, a cousin brought over something I had no idea still existed. While clearing out his mother-in-law's garage, he came across an original Stendahl fine art puzzle from 1931. These puzzles were a crucial part of Stendahl's survival during The Depression; here was a lovely little example in good condition, the colors still vibrant. Thank you, thank you.
Others have been in touch to tell me their own experiences, relating to my book's revelations. "Your grandfather-in-law gave my father his first show when he was a starving artist." "Stendahl was a son-of-a-bitch. But I say that in the most positive way. There was no dealer more respected."
I am already looking forward to the response from my book about Sister Mary Corita. Of course, the real trick is to collect great tidbits before publication. I will make every effort to do so.
Friday, January 6, 2012
During my senior year at Hollywood High School in 1964, my family lived in an apartment complex called The Franklin Villa. It was ordinary in every way, squeezed between other similar buildings on busy Franklin Avenue, just two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. There was a swimming pool with cracked concrete in the middle of sixteen units occupied by singles, marrieds and families. The tenants were mostly down-and-outers, trying for Hollywood careers. In a way I was one of them, beginning my writing life within those faded green stucco walls.
At age 18, I was a part-time employee of Samuel Goldwyn Productions, hired to turn people’s brief story ideas into teleplay format. I had learned the ropes from my dad, a local disc jockey with his own dreams of a bigger stage. It didn’t occur to me at the time that whoever was running the Goldwyn operation was exploiting the hopes of naïve folks, promising that a script in hand would bring them success in Hollywood. Lesson learned: My first company was named “Don’t Tell Me the Odds Productions.” I had witnessed—up close—the showbiz struggles in our building, not knowing that three of the Villa’s occupants were actual stars-in-the-making.
My favorite Hollywood hopeful at The Franklin Villa – and the person I found most inspiring for my own future performing and writing – was Virginia Capers, a single mother with a gorgeous voice, Juilliard-trained, who generously coached me when I won the lead role of “Fiona” in Hollywood High’s production of the musical Brigadoon. For one semester I was lost in the magic of the mythical Scottish village rising out of the Highland mist once every hundred years, so that love might bloom for a lucky few. Learning to sing, to write… those were months of heady creativity for me, and Capers’ guidance made all the difference. Ten years after I knew her, she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for Raisin and founded a noted company of African American actors. From then on, Capers worked constantly on TV and in movies, until her death at age 78. Virginia is someone who made it.
“Plastics, son. Plastics.” Walter Brooke memorably uttered those words to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. That was in 1967. In 1964 character actor Brooke lived downstairs, spending most of his days poolside with his curvy girlfriend. My sister Ruth and I giggled and averted our eyes (sort of) from Brooke’s Speedo. He had a habit of resting one hand nonchalantly on the bulging front. The girlfriend was always in the briefest bikini, and the two seemed to enjoy their cigarettes and each other. I knew Brooke had hit the big time when he landed a TV lead on The Green Hornet and dozens of guest starring gigs. He died at age 71, and Ruth and I went to his funeral.
When young actor Brandon De Wilde moved in below us with his bride, I was overcome by adolescent envy (of her) and desire (for him). Those blue eyes. The shy “hello”s. He was my teenage dream – blond, a little sad, the kind of boy you want to love and protect. De Wilde grabbed Hollywood’s attention in roles as the kid in Shane and Hud. My God, he had an Oscar nomination by age twelve. And who could forget him as the boy who got the girl in trouble in Blue Denim? In fact, Mrs. De Wilde was pregnant at The Villa. That meant they had done it—fuel for my imagination, as I wondered where in the first floor apartment their bed was located. I learned much later that he and wife Susan were divorced after their son was born and that De Wilde was killed in 1972 in a car accident, married only months to his second wife. Gone. On the cusp of a big career. He was thirty years old.
My son is that age. And I live less than a mile from the Franklin Villa in a home which has been declared a historic-cultural monument. I always considered my Hollywood story with its cast of characters to be one of a kind. But I’ve changed my mind. Now I imagine nondescript apartment buildings all over Los Angeles, Chicago, cities large and small – where there are ambitious strivers sharing their lives and dreams. I am lucky to be able to say about a few, “I knew them when.”