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OCTOBER 2012

Howdy! Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger, out where the smile dwells a little longer, that’s where the west begins.

Kelo and Gail Henderson.When I was a Sugarfoot workin’ my way up to Tenderfoot, Kelo Henderson, star of “26 Men”,  was my mentor. Taught me fast draw and ropin’. At the Gene Autry Museum there’s a film clip featuring your obedient cowpoke—Carlos ‘The Gaucho’ Rivas is teaching me the ropes of bolo twirling. I grasp bolo firmly in hand, and before your very eyes I’m rapidly twirling it above my head like a helicopter blade—Whee! Move over Will Rogers. The bolo knocks off my hat and quickly wraps itself around my body like a boa constrictor. Look, Ma, I’m a whirling dervish—Whoops! I lose control—splat! I’m on my butt in a cloud o’ dust, hogtied. I owe that unforgettable moment in the glorious history of TV westerns to Kelo’s tutoring. He also showed me how to perk up my grand entrance at rodeos. I ride around the ring wavin’ my hat. I drop my hat. I ride around the ring again, lean over in my saddle, and pick up my hat with my teeth. I ride around the ring one more time, lean wayyy over in my saddle, and pickup my teeth!

What makes Kelo and Gail so special? They sweat humanity. They keep in touch. They have been found guilty of committing random acts of kindness. Awhile ago, out of the blue, we received a package from the Hendersons containing a signed color 8x10 glossy of Kelo. It’s on display on our wall o’fame. It’s an action picture of Olé K (that’s Kelo spelled backwards) standin’ in front of a Tepee, two arrows stickin’ out of his chest. Dig the crazy acupuncture. You’d think he’d be goin’ ouch! Instead, he sports his famous smile. What it takes to wipe that smile off his face I’ll never know. He inscribes, “Will ole’ friend, In my will I’ve left you all my credit card debt. Kelo Henderson. ‘26 Men’.”

Later, another gift from the Hendersons flew in from California containing a book on the life of Charlie Chaplin. By chance, all that March TCM featured Charlie Chaplin flickers. Got ‘em all. Call me tapeworm. I love the scene in “Modern Times” where Charlie is caught in the gear works of a giant hydo-electric machine. That might not actually be Charlie tumblin’ around in there in long shots. You can’t see his face. Hutch’s Law: If you can’t see the actor’s face, it’s a stunt person. (And that includes nude scenes). But don’t get me wrong. Charlie is one of the greatest athletes ever to grace the silver screen. Take a gander at his two-reeler “One A.M”. A nightmarish clock pendulum keeps knocking him head-over-heels down the stairs. Beautiful, hilarious stuntwork.

Once upon a “Blondie”, Dagwood was supposed to fall downstairs. (I’m the world’s only living Dagwood.) The director wanted me to fake it. To kinda skitter on down, one step at a time. They’d speed it up in the camera, he said. Hmmm! Seemed a mite chicken to me. Former Munchkin Billy Curtis called me over to a quiet corner. He was standing-in for the kid who played my son. Billy whispered, “I once worked on a Laurel and Hardy movie. Here’s how they went about it. Just hold your body taut and skim down as if you’re on a slide. Trust me on this. Won’t hurt a bit.” I talked Herr Director into giving it a go. Now, that particular “Blondie” episode has long since been consigned to the lost graveyard of forgotten TV series, but I’ll be forever grateful to Billy Curtis for the thrill of that fun ‘n’ funny ‘E’ ride, gliding downhill on my back, picking up speed along with a couple of splinters…

Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last".Say, was you ever stung by a dead bee? I was. I don’t know if the bee was dead before or after I stepped on him. I do know I was just a little kid and this was my introduction to mega-pain and mega-noise. Boy, did I howl. I was hoppin’ around on one foot beside the backyard swimming pool of Foxy Lloyd. He lived next door to my grandparents, Nanow and Dadow, and he was the father of the immortal screen comedian Harold Lloyd. I first saw Harold’s face in Foxy’s garage, which was entirely papered with brightly colored posters  advertising Harold Lloyd flicks. They’d fetch a pretty penny today, wouldn’t they? They captured more excitement than circus posters, and they captured my imagination. Like Lloyd I was movie crazy. Today, nailed on our garage wall in Long Island is a huge picture of Harold Lloyd hanging from a skyscraper clock in “Safety Last”. And on the wall at the top of our stairs hangs a clock with a miniature Harold Lloyd dangling from the minute hand. He makes a complete journey around the clock face every hour, and he’s been performing that stunt for years.

I spent many a happy childhood afternoon visiting Foxy and his wife Helen and their talking parrot. I basked in the lore of his famous son and the warmth of this fairytale-like household. In 1938 Nanow and Dadow took me downtown to the palatial Paramount Theatre to see my first Harold Lloyd movie, “Professor Beware”. I loved it. Years later at UCLA’s film school I created a short 16mm comedy “It Happened at Pismo Beach”, primarily my variation on the chase sequence climax in “Professor Beware”. In one shot my cameraman laughed so boisterously that he shook the camera. I told my teacher that was supposed to be an earthquake.

One fine day I met my hero Harold Lloyd over at Foxy’s. I’d written and illustrated a western movie. Harold autographed my ‘script’ and drew his “eyeglasses” logo on it. He looked entirely different in person. His complexion was ruddy, not the youthful pale-face of his screen persona. He seemed shorter, stockier, ruggeder. He combed his hair more conventionally, and he wasn’t wearing his trademark glasses to cover his bushy eyebrows. His subtle screen makeup transformed him, and I bet he was able to walk down an L.A. street unrecognized.

Early in his career a ‘prop’ bomb with a lit fuse turned out to be a real bomb, exploding in his face, temporarily blinding him, blowing off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Amazingly, he signed with his right hand, pen held firmly ‘twixt middle and ring fingers. He wore a prosthesis in his daredevil comedies, possessing the great skill to perform all those terrific athletic feats of derringdo with only eight fingers.

In the ‘70s each weekend at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Lloyd’s masterpieces were shown to the public again, accompanied by live organ music and wall-to-wall laughter from children of all ages. One late Friday afternoon I and my three cohorts were scheduled to perform our Klowns! dumb show to a girl scout troop in Griffith Park. I didn’t want to miss that night’s Lloyd screening, so I told the gals we were going to put on our Slapstick symphony ala silent screen comedies projected at the wrong speed. We raced through our 40 minute pantomime in half the time, and I raced to UCLA just as the lights lowered. The packed house was treated to “The Kid Brother”, the funniest yet most haunting movie I’ve ever seen about mountain folk.

In 1963 I played a goofy cowboy in an unsold TV pilot, “Gun Shy”, shot on Columbia’s western street. I did a pretty good pratfall in front of the saloon, choreography based on a Harold Lloyd topple I recalled. Life plays funny tricks, and by some miracle Harold Lloyd saw “Gun Shy” (not to be confused with his “Girl Shy”). He sat up, snapped two good fingers, and proclaimed, “That’s the only guy I know of who can do my kind of stuff!” Would you believe? Lloyd wanted to star me in his own TV series, featuring his brand of visual, physical comedy. He’d produce, and I’d get to realize a life-long dream: Cavorting as a film comic. I was going to play a small town veterinarian. Opening shot: I’m walking to work, and all the neighborhood cats and dogs are following he down the street. That was the most exciting time in my life in show biz, shortly followed by the saddest time. The project fizzled-out like a stale 7-Up. Hi Ho. And so it goes…

Adios