A FEW NOTES
A little background on the following short story might be in orderl. Although I hate stepping into intros like this to short stories. They seem like apologies in some way. The story was written around 2013 when I was living in Palm Desert, California and was a member of the Palm Desert Historical Society. As such, I was putting together a chronology of the history of Palm Desert in preparation for a screenplay about the dramatic development of the city of Palm Desert and the two Henderson Brothers who created Palm Desert: Randall, the great voice for the desert and also the conservationist and Founder/Publisher of the influential Desert Magazine that brought the American Desert into the attention and imagination of millions of Americans. Perhaps the greatest sales ever created by a magazine. But it’s true. The stories in Randall Henderson’s Desert Magazine and Clifford. the great developer.
Much of the story is based in the desert town of Palm Desert where I lived for about four years. It was also the last home of the legendary cowboy of early television, Hopalong Cassidy. He was a hero of mine when I was growing up. I think I had the Hopy items one could order off the backs of those cereal boxes at the time.
* * *
I had been coming to th desert since growing up in LA in the 50s and my parents moved to Palm Desert in 1970 and had lived in the same home since then.
My wife and I had moved down the desert testing out the waters on our possible return to live in Southern California. Palm Springs and Palm Desert had changed so much. We rented a condo for the first year before buying a place. The condo was OK, just a block off the big shopping street El Paseo where my wife was working as a salesperson. She transferred from the Columbus office to this one. I was a board member of the Palm Springs Writers guild and then elected president. I stayed on as head of marketing but wasn’t sure if we might be heading back to Ohio as my wife’s parents were not doing well and she wanted to be near them. Besides, I had many friends in Ohio where I went to high school and half of college before California. In Palm Desert I joined the Historical Board and helped them put together a chronology of the history of Palm Desert. It’s still a fascinating history that has yet to be written.
One of the things I found out very quickly was that the home where my childhood hero – Hopalong Cassidy – retired and spent the last years of his life. I wrote about the non-fictional life of Hoppy in my article The Black Knight. The below represents a piece inspired by the mythology of a famous cowboy retiring and trying to perhaps get back into the movies. Somewhere, there is an unfulfilled love interest. The part about Hopy was true as he spent the retired years of his life in a black and white one story home just a few blocks from the old converted fire department building the the Palm Desert Historical Society was located in. And, I was really into hiking the trails right out of Palm Desert on something everyone called the “Bump and Grind” trail. Off of this trail that most hiked on was the Hopalong Trail. It was not an easy trail but offered beautiful sights of Palm Desert spread out before you and pushed up against the mountains to the right.
I used to watch the Hopalong Cassidy Show on early black and white TV in a pretty small picture by todays 90″ super slim, 5K quality of TVs. But of course I didn’t care about the size of the picture. The led out of l on it had jumped out of the screen a long time ago no longer able to be contained in a stupid little box of a TV set of the 50s. I was all “branded” up as one might say with the Hopalong Cassidy gear of the times. Stuff you had to have if you were at all a fan of Hopy. Anyway, the below simply pulled out of many unpublished works to send to a writing group for a seminar. Not why I pulled it out at this time except it is about a fantasy based on the last years of Hopy’s life. But it is not really true he wanted to get back into films. He was making far too much money as the first Hollywood celebrity to truly cash in by sales and licensing deals in his later years.
But he was a much loved person in town and a real contributor to the life in Palm Desert. He had a wooden nickel trick he used to love to show young people. Anyway, for what its worth, here I am in the Trio Hotel in Healdsburg, California where we have been for the past five days, checking out this area of California for another one of our returns to California. I’m adding some relevant photos and perhaps the most appropriate music as well as one of Hoppy’s old radio shows to the site in the future. The story below inspired by my learning about my childhood hero Hopalong Cassidy living his last years in Palm Desert where my wife Stephanie and I just moved to. Written when I lived out in the desert.
Boots McKenzie was a popular cowboy in the early years of television westerns. When the western genre declined he retired to our little town in the desert where he shot balls at pins with white flags rather than bullets at guys with black hats. There was a lot of commotion when Boots first moved to town. He was featured on a,nger to no lo in the annual parade and a street in town was even named after him.
He lived alone in a little house along the foothills of the mountains south of town. There had been a few wives but marriage did not agree with him. Besides, it was pretty well known that he fell in love with Lillian Daniels who was his off-and-on girlfriend in his series of television westerns. There was even talk of marriage but Lillian got married to another actor at the end of the series. I heard her marriage broke his heart and that he never got over it.
Now he lived a simply life and was happy to hike in the hills, play golf and make charity appearances throughout the desert. He carried around a pocketful of Boots McKenzie wooden coins with his image stamped on them and passed them out to kids who were pushed at him by fathers who remembered Boots on television.
* * *
On Saturday mornings he held court with a few loyal fans at a popular breakfast place and discussed world events and the demise of westerns and real heroes. I was one of those loyal fans who sat around the wobbly red Formica table at the breakfast place on Saturday mornings. None of us were exactly kids anymore but we were still fans of Boots McKenzie. Most of us still had various Boots McKenzie paraphernalia acquired with allowance money. I was still in possession of my Boots McKenzie cowboy outfit and a silver Boots McKenzie cap pistol used to protect the neighborhood from bad guys. Back in those years, there was a sharp distinction between bad guys and good guys and between bad and good in general for that matter.
The few of us who sat around that red Formica table on Saturday mornings with Boots were a strange group. One was a retired golf pro at a club in the desert. Another, the owner of a nightclub featuring a Sinatra impersonator. Another, an old Hollywood producer named Marvin Goldberg who (I heard) had a drinking problem. And there was me, a writer. All fish out of the water of time you might say.
Marvin Goldberg kept telling Boots he wanted to bring him to the movies for the first time. It was twenty years since Boots had last ridden his famous horse Sage in his final TV western (Bad Man From Black Mountain) but he had kept himself in good shape playing golf and hiking and looked a lot younger than his eighty years.
The more Marvin talked about the film idea the more Boots got interested in it. He genuinely missed making pictures and rumor around town had it that his finances were not in very good shape. Although he lived a frugal life in his retirement years the royalties from his old TV shows and products had almost dried up and everyone needs something to live on.
One Saturday morning at the breakfast place he agreed to a meeting in LA with a friend of Marvin Goldberg who was still active at one of the original studios in town. Goldberg thought it might be a good idea to have a writer go along and asked me to go with them. I had a few published novels to my name and one (thankfully) unproduced screenplay so I filled the bill.
On a bright morning in early spring, we headed into LA in Goldberg’s big black Cadillac. Boots decided to wear his old Boots McKenzie outfit. It was great to see him in it: the black pants and black shirt with the two silver Colts on each side of his holster, a red bandana around his neck and the large white hat on top with the tall sloped crown taller than any other cowboy on television. I just hoped we didn’t get stopped on our way into LA.
The studio was an old one that had produced a lot of famous films in the early years of the movies but its best years were behind it. The studio was located in Culver City not far from MGM. After getting off the Santa Monica Freeway, we drove past blocks and blocks of Persian rug places, discount furniture stores and gritty little coffee shops.
The old studio stood out from all of this like some fort in the middle of enemy territory. The pinkish wall along the front of the studio had a large crack in it probably from some earthquake and a strange tangled growth pushed out through the crack and ran across the sidewalk and ended by wrapping itself around a rusty fire hydrant. We turned into the studio and went past an empty guardhouse and down a street that had the familiarity of a place you had seen a number of times before. I saw a tired old man with one of those wide brooms slowly sweeping the sidewalk of the 1950s Midwestern suburb we drove through but besides him the street looked deserted. Even in the quiet old studio I could see that Boots was getting excited at being back in the industry or at least this particular vestige of the industry.
Goldberg turned a corner and we were quickly out of the Midwestern suburb and onto a street with non-descript buildings on it. We stopped in front of a dull-looking white building that had a retro look to it like the upper decks of an old ocean liner ripped off the ship and plopped onto the studio lot.
* * *
We got out of the car and followed Goldberg into the building and walked down a hallway with frosted glass doors on both sides and old globe lights hanging from the ceiling with only the hint of light coming from them so they looked like a bunch of pale moons. Goldberg opened one of the frosted glass doors and we went into an office with a woman at a desk typing something. She recognized Goldberg and Boots, lifted her phone and announced us and then led us into Silverman’s office.
Henry Silverman sat behind a large desk in an office with venetian blinds that threw stripes of early afternoon sunlight into it. The office might have been a scene out of a noir detective movie from the 40s except everything was in color not back and white. Silverman was a heavy-set man who looked to be somewhere in his middle seventies. He wore a faded pink Hawaiian shirt just a little brighter than the wall along the front of the studio. A thick cigar sat in a big glass ashtray next to him and smoke from the cigar slowly rose from it giving haziness to the slanted light in the office.
He jumped up when he saw Boots and moved out from behind it to shake hands with Boots. I must say Boots presented quite some image decked out in his old cowboy outfit.
“I’m an old fan,” said Henry Silverman. “It’s good to finally meet you.”
Martin Goldberg introduced me as another fan that was also a writer.
“Thought it was a good idea if we bring a writer with us,” Goldberg told Silverman. “He’s written a couple of novels and a screenplay.”
Henry Silverman did not look too excited at the prospect of me writing anything for the film and waived his hand and shook his head.
“I’ve got my own idea,” Silverman said.
They discussed ideas for the film. Boots wanted to simply continue the story line from the last western he did for television. But Henry Silverman thought this was not a good idea because the Boots McKenzie character had aged twenty years and it was unrealistic that he would still chase bad guys across the screen shooting at them while riding a horse. Henry Silverman said all this was too unbelievable. Rather, he suggested Boots play the part of an aging lawman brought out of retirement to save a town. Yes, the story had been told before but there didn’t seem to be a lot of character options for an eighty-year-old cowboy. There wouldn’t be any wild chase scenes on horses or Boots jumping off buildings or taking on a saloon full of bad guys at one time.
Boots was not all that excited about this idea but it was hard to disagree with Silverman’s idea that an eighty-year-old cowboy hero had to act like an eighty-year-old cowboy hero. The two producers and Boots discussed the idea of the character of the aging lawman for a while and when the basic character outline was sketched out, Silverman picked up his phone.
“Get me Wink Carlson,” he said into it and then put it back on the receiver.
Silverman took a long draw on his fat cigar and tapped an inch of ash into the glass ashtray.
“One of the best in the business,” he said. “Made a lot of pictures with him. Trustworthy. On time with script changes. One of the best in the business. Up for an Oscar a few times. Barely missed it.”
There was more discussion about the film for a few minutes and then the phone rang.
“Wink,” said Henry Silverman. “Have an exciting new project for you. A film with Boots McKenzie!”
Silverman listened to the response for a few seconds.
“No way you can get out of it?” he asked. “This isn’t just another film. It’s a Boots McKenzie film! First one in twenty years.”
“I see,” said Silverman. “I understand. What about Bill Worthy?”
“Busy also,” said Silverman. “How about Lester Williams?”
“Jesus Christ,” said Henry Silverman. “Everyone’s busy. Well thanks Wink. Good luck on the picture.”
Henry Silverman looked at me when he got off the phone.
“So a few novels and a screenplay,” he said with a resigned tone in his voice. “Guess you’re the writer on the picture.”
It wasn’t exactly a warm welcome to the project but I didn’t mind. It was an honor to be able to work on a film starring my old hero.
The next few weeks I met with Martin Goldberg and Boots a number of times down in the desert. We played some golf with the golf pro in our Saturday morning group and discussed ideas for the movie. We spent a number of evenings at the nightclub owned by the other member of our group and discussed the movie. Plot lines and dialogue were scribbled on cocktail napkins and golf scorecards. Martin Goldberg put everything on his credit card and I can tell you there was a lot of alcohol consumed on those evenings at the nightclub with music of Sinatra in the background. During the days when we were not together I went home and typed everything up and tried to fit it into a screenplay I was developing. In a few weeks I had a hundred pages or so and gave a copy of it to Boots to review. I didn’t hear from him for a few days and then got a call from him. He wanted to meet me to discuss some changes in the screenplay.
We got together one evening up at his home in the foothills. It was a simple place that mirrored the simple hero cowboy that lived there. Nothing ostentatious or overdone. No gold-flecked mirrors or velvet paintings or marble statues of Greek Gods. Just a simple desert home filled with memorabilia from the westerns Boots was in. I recognized a lot of the stuff.
“This is good,” Boots told me.
This made me feel pretty good.
“I do have a few changes,” he said. “You know how the aging lawman I play is a single guy. I think it might be better to make him into a married guy. He has retired and married this wonderful woman. He returns to being a lawman because someone takes his wife away from him. It’s a lot more at stake this way than if some town is threatened.”
We discussed this idea for a while over a bottle of wine sitting out on his patio that overlooked the town. I agreed that it made sense to change it this way and went about correcting it during the next few days.
When it was finished I gave a copy to Martin Goldberg and sent a copy to Henry Silverman at the studio. Silverman liked the idea and put together a film crew and then a call through his contacts in Hollywood for an actress to play the wife of Boots McKenzie. In a few days he called and told us he had a number of actresses lined up for the part and told Boots to come into the studio and make a decision on the one he wanted for the part.
The three of us drove into the studio again and met on one of the old sound stages of the studio. Henry Silverman had made up one of those canvas chairs for Boots with “Boots McKenzie” on the back part of it in large letters.
When everything was set up, lights on and a camera rolling, the actresses began to appear and read their lines from my screenplay. A group of older women who had been around Hollywood for a long time. A number of them looked vaguely familiar like the street in the studio.
Boots observed all of them but I could tell he was not all that excited about any of them. An hour or so passed and we got towards the end of the auditions and I could still see that Boots was not too excited about any of them.
When the final one was finished Henry Silverman walked over to Boots and asked what he thought.
“A few of them are OK,” Boots said. “But not exactly what I as thinking of.”
The big lights in the sound stage went off and we got our things ready to go in the dim studio.
Then there was the sound of a voice reading lines from the script coming from somewhere in the dimness. It was a voice that made Boots quickly lift up his head and listen. Out of the dimness came an old woman and as she got closer I recognized that it was Lillian Daniels.
Boots was speechless.
She walked over to Boots.
“It’s all ended with him,” she said.
Then she put her arms around Boots and they held each other for a long time.
NY Times Obituary on William Boyd
Read my non-fiction article The Black Knight on the last years of Hopalong Cassidy