Lights. Cameras. Makeup men and hairdressers. A Washington springtime. Dozens of extras in period clothes brought from California. Antique cars running past the U.S. Capitol, recreating another era. Men in caps and colorful sportshirts, with deep suntans acquired far from Washington, dashing busily about, measuring camera distances.
In was June 1950. I was offered three days work as an extra in a movie called "The Magnificent Yankee" about the life of Justice Brandeis. I accepted. After all, who could be more suited for a bit part as a reporter than I, a copy boy for The Washington Times-Herald?
A long time later, I entered the performing field and eventually became a member of the Screen Actors Guild. At this point, however, my exposure to movies had been as a paying customer and as an usher during my high school years, and I was seduced by the razzle-dazzle on the first day of filming -- about five minutes into the first day, as I recall. (In connection with this, I should say in my defense, and it does show some strength of character, that I did not actually succumb until the end of the second day.)
Movie location trips to Washington in those days were few and far between. Washington was a long time away from the Hollywood-on-the-Potomac era of "The Exorcist" and "All the President's Men," when filming here became commonplace. The coming of a Screen Actors Guild branch office to oversee filming here was more than 25 years away. The rate for extras is now $68 per day. We received $10 a day, the going rate in 1950, paid in cash at the end of each day's work.
The big studio system still existed and the film's production crew, a talkative, convivial group, had worked together often.At lunch with the extras, they caught each other up on studio happenings and told us stories and anecdotes about the Great Ones. The names "Clark" and "Lana" and "Spence" danced in the air. "Judy had recently thrown a temper tantrum on a Hollywood set. They also told us the salaries, both reported and real, of certain big-name stars and about the unreported misdeeds (sexual, alcoholic, and otherwise) of some of them.
We drank it all in. I was ready to start packing.
An assistant director told us: "Before long you'll get an envelope in the mail with the studio's name on it. Don't expect to find a contract inside. It's your earnings statement for this movie."
Maybe. By now, I was not discounting the possibility that someone -- perhaps Darryl, or even L.B. -- would notice me in the background of the film and . . .
Late in the afternoon on the second day of filming, the buses hired to transport the extras returned us from the Supreme Court Building to the hotel where the movie company was staying.
I remained on the pavement for a few moments. And then I went into the hotel drug store.
When I came out again, I was wearing a newly purchased pair of plastic sunglasses.
I reasoned that the movie industry should be more than glad to open its doors to a young, healthy, good-looking fellow like me. And I now had two solid days of film experience behind me, didn't I? There might be room on the plane when the movie company left town.
Standing there by the taxistand in front of a hotel in downtown Washington, I could almost see the palm trees -- or maybe it was Pasadena.
An attractive woman came up and was saying something to me.
I faced her. Here's looking at you, kid.
"Beg pardon?" Somewhere a piano was playing "As Time Goes By." Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she had to walk into mine . . .
"I said," she repeated. "Are you a starter?
A what? Through my sunglasses, I stared at her blankly.
"A starter," she said. "You know, the man who gets a guest a taxi."
I stood there at the curb, in my sunglasses, my flight indefinitely postponed. CAPTION:
Illustration, no caption, By William Coulter