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Transition

Entrance to the Culver Hotel (2017, John Fraim Photo)
https://midnightoilstudios.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/02-Over-the-Rainbow.m4a
Over the Rainbow / Judy Garland

John Fraim

Everything is in “transition” these days with nothing standing still. The world is in transition. The US economy is in a transition. People are in transition. Society is in transition after the pandemic. Will this transition stop? Or is it one of those words we need to cling on to these days when reality is so hard to try and glance at or define? Does one even know if transition is possible or it is just a type of Teddy Bear word to grab onto these days when nothing seems stable anymore? 

I grew up in another time of transition. A lot of us did. It was America in the 1950s. The war was over. America was in transition from a nation at war to a nation at peace. I kept a little journal at the time and remember writing the word “transition” many times as everyone was saying it was a time of transition. 

We lived in Los Angeles where my father owned a Lincoln Mercury car dealership in the Culver City part of LA. It was directly cross Washington Boulevard from the main entrance to the MGM Studios. In summers when I was out of school, I had a job of sweeping the showroom and service area. I became friends with a lot of the salesmen and mechanics at the dealership. Most had worked in the military for my father who retired as a full-time colonel in the Army Air Corp. 

The Lincoln was the prestige car from the Ford Motor Company. Lincoln Motor Company was founded in 1917 by Henry Leland, naming it after Abraham Lincoln. In February 1922, the company was acquired by Ford. For the 1956 model year, Ford Motor Company created the Continental Division, slotted above Lincoln as the flagship marque of Ford Motor Company.

* * *

By the 1950s, the Lincoln was a hugely popular car with movie people, and I saw many movie stars at the car dealership. A number them became customers and friends of our family. My siblings and I even called a few of them Uncle or Aunt. On Friday nights, dad would show movies in the living room of our home and many of his friends in the film business would attend. 

Also, in attendance were some of his good friends from his time in the military. Perhaps his best friend was Hank Tillis, who was also in the car dealership business like my dad. Uncle Hank, as we called him, had a chain of car dealerships in southern California and was known as being the most successful car salesmen in LA at the time.

I was the oldest of my siblings and allowed to watch the movies if I kept out of the way. One night dad screened The Wizard of Oz which was filmed in 1939 at MGM studios. I remember the evening well as I wrote about it in the little journal I kept at the time. After the film, there was much discussion about the film. Many of guests had been working at MGM a two decades ago when it was made. There was discussion of the various cast members in the film. Many guests at that screening were friends of the cast members. 

The Culver Hotel in the 40s

Much of the conversation turned to the after-hours antics of the Wizard of Oz munchkins at the Culver Hotel, a few blocks from MGM. Mr. Culver, originally from Nebraska, had travelled much of the world before settling in California, falling in love with the land as well as an aspiring silent film actress. He announced his dream to build Culver City in a perfect location between the new Venice canals and Downtown L.A. In 1917, he founded his namesake town, he was 37 years old. In 1924 he erected the Hotel Hunt, now The Culver Hotel, to house his offices and large sales force. He lured filmmakers into his young city to start a new local economy which is how Culver City came to be a mecca for studios and Hollywood’s main counterpart. His favorite slogan was “All Roads Lead to Culver City.”

There was talk that evening after seeing the Wizard of Oz how the studio had scouted out little people from all over the country and brought them to LA to make the movie, housing them all at the Culver Hotel. It was one of the largest assemblages of little people in American history. 

The bar at the Culver Hotel was a popular watering hole for MGM people and a number of guests at the screening that night were at the hotel bar when the munchkins were there. They recalled how they would wreak havoc during the evenings at the hotel. In a 1967 interview, maybe ten years after the night the Wizard of Oz was screened at our home, no other than Judy Garland referred to all the Munchkins as “little drunks” who got intoxicated every night to the point where they had to be picked up in “butterfly nets.”

The Lolipop Guild

But not all the movie people thought of them this way. When everyone had gone home after the film and discussion that evening, a leading character actor of the time (we called Uncle Charlie) and my dad retreated to the back patio of our home to drink whiskey and smoke cigars. I was allowed to sit around the patio table with them and listen to their conversation as I drank my bottle of Coke. 

Uncle Charlie talked about how one night at the bar of the Culver he had a heart-to-heart talk with one of the lead munchkins in the film. Things were hectic that night Uncle Charlie said as little people were running in all directions filled with liquor and freedom. But the munchkin was not partaking in all the craziness. He told Uncle Charlie about the little town in North Dakota he came from and how he had spent years traveling in the circus. He told him how he had always wanted to come to California and especially LA. His dream was to get into the film business. Not as just a little person but as a serious actor. He told Uncle Charlie that he wanted to “transition” from a little person living in North Dakota to an actor in the growing film business. I wrote all of this down in my journal. There was that word again … Transition. Everything at the time was in transition. Even a munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. That word transition started sticking in my mind. 

A while later, when the film was finished and most of the little people had retreated to their homes around the country, I saw the munchkin Uncle Charlie told us about that evening appearing in several films. Thanks to the contacts of Uncle Charlie, he was being cast as a character actor in B films. He was no longer “in transition” but had “transitioned” from an unknown little person in North Dakota to an actor in Hollywood. I didn’t know the little person, but I felt good that he was able to chase his dreams into the movie business. 

And I felt good for him because he was one of the few people I knew who was not “in transition” between things but had transitioned into something. Becoming something, defining oneself. A topic in culture that travels a little below any media radar out there. A question of the battle between those two symbols of definition and non-definition it seems to me. Like a type symbolic post-modern phenomenology. 

The Main Gate into MGM in the 40s an 50s

I continued working at my father’s car dealership in the summers between school through the 50s and into the 60s. Uncle Charlie stopped in a lot and often brought other actor friends. Many times, they became customers of my dad. A few times Uncle Charlie even brought the munchkin he helped get into the movie business. The sales guys would all gather around him for his stories and to get an autograph. He was well-known at the time and was even doing various motivational speaking engagements around town between films. Uncle Charlie had helped him get a little apartment off Hollywood Boulevard in a safe area of town. But nothing was ever safe for a little person in the world. Uncle Charlie told me stories about his friendship with the little person over the years. It was a true friendship.

As LA moved into the 60s, California and LA were still in transition. The word was still used by everyone around town. Transition. LA, seemed to like the word transition. In fact, perhaps the word was invented in LA. It reminded people about the nature of the movie business. People and equipment always in transition. Assembling and dis-assembling and then reassembling again. Casts, sets, props, studios. I thought about the great studios buildings that defined the streets through the studio. It seemed to me a business much like the circus or a carnival.

There seemed no real definition for the times. Or no definition that people wanted to use. Everyone seemed rushing somewhere in a hurry but not exactly sure where this was. Somewhat like the cars filling the new freeways, going in all directions. The population of LA was exploding. It was becoming one of the largest cities in the nation. But few were interested in any reflection on things. After all, this was California. Once you get into reflection, you are no longer in California. 

* * *

By the early 60s, my dad had acquired a few other car dealerships. One was a Ford dealership in Pasadena and the other was a dealership in Boise, Idaho. And, he had become a close friend of the car dealer Hank Tillis. The two would spend a lot of time on the golf course discussing business. Hank was the king of LA car dealerships, but my dad’s dealerships were right up there. Dad would let me walk around with them and take a few shots and look for balls shot into the woods. 

After golf one day, after talking almost non-stop business, they went to the bar at the Culver Hotel and took me along. Believe it or not, it was the first time I had ever been in the famous old hotel. I imagined it to be an elegant place from the stories I heard. But it was even more elegant than I suspected. The lobby area was a magnificent room with the highest ceilings I had ever seen in a hotel. Great columns around the lobby shot up to the ceiling like great square Sequoia trees. It was early evening when we arrived at the hotel and the huge old chandeliers were spilling a golden light over the dark woodwork and brass fixtures. 

The two were well-known at the hotel and their presence was met with hugs from a man in a tuxedo I assumed was the manager. My dad introduced me and the man in the tuxedo said he had heard much about me. 

He led us to a square table with a white tablecloth close to the bar. It was early in the evening and a piano player was stroking out some nostalgic tune on the grand piano. A few people came over and said hello to dad and Hank. They were well known around town. Especially, if you were looking for a good deal on a new car. 

Part of the Lobby of the Culver Hotel Today

Dad ordered drinks and a Coke for me. 

Their talk was soon about politics. Hank pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to my dad who read it and handed it back to Hank.

“What are you going to do?” he asked Hank.

Tillis folded up the note and put it back in his pocket. He took a slow drink of the special bourbon the guy in the tuxedo brought to the table. The piano player was playing the song from Wizard of Oz, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was one of my favorite songs since first hearing it during the screening of the movie at our house. 

“I want you as my assistant,” he said.

* * *

So many years later, I can remember everything from that night. It was a special night. My first visit to the famous Culver Hotel that became part of the Wizard of Oz movie in my mind it seemed. I asked my dad to take me to the hotel lots of times after watching the film and hearing about the munchkins. The story of Uncle Charlie talking to a munchkin in the film and perhaps setting in motion a true transition in the world. There’s that word again. Perhaps transition is really the theme of this memory? This story?

Maybe that was why I remember this time in my life so well. In fact, parts of this time in my life so vividly. My days on the car lot across from the entrance to the MGM Studios. My dad selling Lincolns. the prestige car of the times. The car so many in the movie business wanted to buy. To be seen in. Those screenings of movies on Friday nights where a growing list of customers from the film business attended. 

The times I relate in the story. Even though I was a young boy. In the story, though, the young boy often gets caught in the current persona of the author of this story. My third person perspective on the time in my life (the narrator) is reflecting back on telling this story. Mixing reality with fiction. The things he knew about when he was young, growing up in Los Angeles of the 1950s. The things he did not know about but suspected. Reality and fiction. The latter rules youth while the former age. 

It’s a story that experiments with narration and symbolism it seems to me. This is what we need more of today. The story moves from first to third person and mixes an overall symbolism to its narration. It suggests a use for the word transition in the 1950s. I can certainly see its use in the present.

An Ad for Continental in the early 60s

Dad and I got into his Lincoln Continental and headed down Washington towards the car dealership rather than home. I want to get a few things out of the office he told me.

It was around nine or so and the new streetlights on Washington were pale gold globes against the darkening LA sky. After a few blocks, the massive wall around MGM Studios appeared on the left and ran on for blocks. I imagined that the Great Wall of China must be like this. 

The studios carved out a great triangular shape in Culver City. A colonial looking estate was on the tip of the triangle as it spread out into wide western sets on the wider side of the triangle. There was street and street of huge air hanger sized studios with big letters on the outside and people rushing all about down streets between the studios. All living in a different world, in a different time. My dad had a lot of friends in the movie business and often took me over to the studios. He got passes from his actor friends. He often let me just wander around on my own. He always thought this was the best way to learn things.

We pulled into the car lot. The big neon sign was still crackling high above Washington broadcasting my dad’s name into the night sky. It was a large dealership. An entire block. He got out of the car and walked to the edge of the lot and leaned against the hood of one of the new Lincoln Continentals. The latest models had just arrived on the lot and they were causing quite a stir. I followed him and leaned against the hood of the car next to him. There was a crazy greenish-pink tint to the scene from the big neon sign above us, casting this strange glow over things against the crackle of the neon electricity above. It was around nine at night but there were still cars coming and going from the front gates of the studio.

“Hank wants me as his assistant,” he said. 

“Assistant?”

“Assistant treasurer of a political campaign.”

“What type of political campaign?” I ask.

“A political campaign for governor.”

“Are you going to accept it?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “I think so. I know the person running. Seen him at a few of those parties Hank throws.”

There was silence for a while as the neon sign above us crackled.

“Can you imagine,” he said. “An actor wanting to transition into politics.”

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