The director begins to rant, “Okay, let’s go through this again. You have squandered your riches. Men no longer find you attractive. Marlow, proprietor of the Lucky Horseshoe Saloon is eying voluptuous younger women. Customers wince each time the curtain opens as you begin to sing a number. You are desperate. You knock on the office door and prepare to beg Marlow, your old sweetheart, to keep you on. Got it?”
“Yes, I’m ready.”
“Alright, not asking you for a Sarah Bernhardt. Just do the scene, so we can all go home!”
“All quiet on the set, quiet on the set! Action!”
Lord, please don’t let me foul this up.
I saunter across the bar room floor. Cowhands are playing poker, others drink dregs from shot-glasses; several make time with painted-face ladies. Sounds of meaningless chatter and spinning roulette wheels fill my ears as I pass the bar. My stiffest competition, leaning against a brass railing, sneers as I reach past her to rap on Marlow’s door. “Come in.” The scent of trailing cheap lilac perfume turns my stomach, as I turn the glass knob.
Rich and famous, I once named my price when offered leading roles, mingled with the jet set and hired auditors to play watchdog over accountants. Now I jump at the chance to land a walk-on part.
Entering the office, I see the leading man light a $10-cigar and straighten his diamond stickpin on his lapel. He glances in my direction, sarcastically saying, “Belle, I don’t have time for another one of your sob stories. We’re through; sure we had some fun in the old days, but…”
That’s my cue.
I face him unflinching, as if clinging to scraps of dignity.
“I know it’s over. I’m just asking you to keep me on until I can find another position.”
Sounds like a conversation I had with my last theatrical agent.
Marlow’s contrived laughter echoes in the sound booth.
“Position? Position? The only position anyone would offer you is cleaning lady!”
That’s my final cue.
“I gave you the best years of my life!” I take a quick breath.
“Cut! That’s a wrap!”
Stage managers shut down spotlights, prop men gather tools of their trade; cast members begin to filter out and I feel a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I see a warm smile on the face of Savannah, the aspiring assistant director. She reaches for my clammy hand; hurriedly I first rub it briskly across my velvet costume. Chattering, she introduces herself, and then encourages me to join her for a cup of coffee. I need something to steady my nerves and gladly accept her offer.
Dreamy eyed, she shares her story of attending a state college and majoring in drama. Taking a gamble, she moved from Iowa to Hollywood. In the midst of a sentence she falls silent, looks me in the eye and says, “Ms. Hayes; I’ve seen every movie you starred in, several more than once. I saw you on Broadway too, in “Lilacs for Linda.”
My memories of that leading role and the evening’s earlier stench of lilac toilet water are ironic.
She continues with admiration and tact. “I’ve wondered why I haven’t seen you in any starring roles lately. I’m sure, for a lady of your rare talent, quality scripts are hard to find these days.” I smile with a facade as easy to detect as those of any building used for studio street scenes. What’s the use in pretending? There are still a few rags-to-riches stories in tinsel town; yet, producers fill file-thirteen with crumpled phone messages from riches-to-rags castaways.
I remove the mask of hypocrisy and self-deception. “You read the tabloids; I’m washed-up, finished! If I hadn’t received this bit part, I’d be kicked out of my dingy apartment!” I play with my linen napkin on the table, folding and unfolding it, as I try to avoid eye contact. The break in our conversation is deafening, and I begin to formulate an excuse to leave.
“Ms. Hayes, if there is any way I can be of help…”
I interrupted. “Savannah, you’re heaven sent. I had dreams too. All I cared about was Hollywood, a talent-agent discovering me, transforming me into a movie star, making me rich and famous! Me, me, me! I’m only an aging woman playing a part. I’ve had my name up in lights, and cruised Hollywood and Vine in chauffeur driven limousines. Tomorrow, I’ll pawn my jewelry and buy a bus ticket back to Ithaca.”
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