Picture this, my Friends...the most powerful publisher in America, a man who could 'make or break' anyone, with so much clout that he single-handedly (or with a little assistance from Teddy Roosevelt) got America into the Spanish-American War...one of the dozen or so richest men in the entire world...a man who built a castle in California, and filled it with priceless treasures...and a husband and family man with a Hollywood star as his mistress...
Impossible, you say? Nothing is impossible, if you're William Randolph Hearst!
His parties are legendary, whether aboard his yacht, or at his estate at San Simeon...but for this event, he chose a far different locale: beneath the famous 'Hollywoodland' sign, overlooking the film capital! The theme was a 'Classic Hollywood' costume party, the guests, movie stars, all, were encouraged to wear something from our best-known films.
I chose the 'Foreign Legion' uniform I'd worn in "Beau Geste" and "Under Two Flags", and, sadly, I came alone, as Benita was out of town with Juliet, showing off my heir to the relatives.
Hearst and his lovely lady, actress Marion Davies, greeted me warmly as I arrived, and Hearst asked if I could take a stroll with him. Could I say possibly say no?
"Well, Colman," he said, looking over the crowd of screen legends, arriving in private cars and limos, "what do you think of this little get-together?"
"Little?" I laughed. "This makes an Oscar ceremony look like a bridge party!"
He didn't catch my joke, but simply nodded, solemnly. "Everybody thinks I do these things just for Marion, but she'd be happy if I suggested an evening at home, alone. This event means something..."
"Ah, that's the question of the hour for everybody!" I exclaimed. "Why this event, and why this location?"
He smiled, and pointed at the giant 'Hollywoodland' sign, up the hill. "Were you here when they first put it up, back in '23?" he asked.
"No, I arrived a few months later..."
He turned, and made a sweeping gesture over the valley. "Hard to believe, but there was a time they couldn't give this land away! Orange groves, as far as the eye could see...clean air, too. People would drive the dirt roads from L.A. to here just to buy oranges and lemons..."
I realized how few orange trees were left, and knew the day would come when they'd disappear, entirely.
"Anyway," Hearst continued, "some real estate brokers decided to promote land sales by sticking this sign on the hill...temporarily, mind you...but then the studios expanded into the area, the city began to grow, and people assumed the sign was a landmark!"
I nodded. "I always thought it was...there are a thousand postcards with that sign on them."
"Exactly!" he agreed. "But when the sign started falling apart, do you think they were willing to pay to get it repaired? Hell, no! They said the upkeep wasn't their responsibity...the city fathers said the same thing...so did the studios..."
"But it looks to be in excellent condition, now..."
"It SHOULD...I shelled out of my pocket, and repaired it!"
"YOU did?" I said, incredulously. "That would have costed a fortune..."
"It wasn't cheap," he admitted. "But it had to be done...I did it for Hollywood...and that's why I'm having this party here!"
I took his hand. "That was a truly generous gesture!" I said, sincerely. "I'm certain that when the public is made aware..."
"No!" he interrupted. "I don't mind that you all know I did it, but I don't want my competitors claiming it was a publicity stunt, simply to sell more papers!"
He changed the subject. "It's going to be a fabulous night...Kay Kyser and his band is performing, we'll have games and things, and for a finale, I purchased a thousand pounds of fireworks...it will be the BIGGEST firework display in history!"
Hearst and I had returned to the other guests. "Now run along, and have a great time!" he called, then strode back to Marion.
Acknowledging greetings from my many friends and co-workers, I saw my dear friend Bill Powell, with Myrna Loy, and Asta. "Ronnie!" he called out. "Come join us!"
"Jean was a bit under the weather, so I decided to make a 'Thin Man' night of it," he said, shaking my hand.
Myrna flashed a dazzling smile, and asked, "Where's Benita?"
"Visiting relatives...she'll be heartbroken she missed this!"
In full Shakesperean regalia, John Barrymore strode up, drink in hand, accompanied by his monkey, Clementine, who, sad to say, has a crush on me. "Still sober, Colman?" he asked. "I'm not!" Clemmie blew me a kiss, and winked, as I made an effort to ignore her.
"Bill," Myrna said, "Show everybody Asta's new trick!"
Bill laughed. "You're gonna love this!" he said. "You know how, after a few drinks, it's hard to get up, to drop things in the trash? Well, we've trained Asta to solve the problem!" Wadding up a napkin, he tossed it on the ground. Asta's ears perked up, and like a flash, he dove to the discarded napkin, picked it up in his teeth, and ran to the nearest trash barrel, dropping it in! As he strutted back to us, we gave him a round of applause!
"I tried something similar with Clem," Barrymore said. "Tried to teach her to pour my drinks. But the damn girl kept sampling them first, and she'd get drunker than I would!"
We all laughed, which Clemmie must have thought was an overture from me, as she grabbed my leg and began hugging it!
"Get AWAY from me, Clemmie!" I shouted. "I don't want you!"
With a haughty sniff, she waddled away.
I decided to mingle with the other guests, and quickly bumped into Freddie March, who'd escorted Greta Garbo to the event. "Freddie!" I greeted him. "Where's the 'Ice Queen'?"
Imitating Garbo's Swedish accent, he replied, "She vants to be alone!" We both laughed. "Seriously, I'm more comfortable without her. She's carrying such a torch for Jack Gilbert, she's no fun at all."
I was suddenly dumbstruck, gazing at two of the most glorious creatures I'd ever seen...
"Who..are...they?" I whispered.
Freddie smiled. "They are amazing, aren't they?" he acknowledged. "The girl on the left is a new kid in town, Gene Tierney...she's dating Joe Kennedy's son, Jack."
"Not Ambassador Kennedy?" I said, coldly. The senior Kennedy was very unpopular in England; while Ambassador to the Court of St. James, he'd made some pro-Nazi comments to the press that had forced Roosevelt to remove him...and costed Kennedy a shot at running for the Presidency. Now it was rumored he was grooming his sons for the job.
"Yes," March admitted, "The same. Like father, like son, I guess...You know Joe 'kept' Gloria Swanson for years!"
"Really? Who's the other girl?"
"Southern girl from North Carolina, Ava Gardner."
I laughed. "Look at Mickey Rooney going after her...I guess puberty has struck Andy Hardy! Still, I can hardly blame him...what an exquisite creature!"
I was suddenly kicked in the shin! Looking down, I saw Clemmie, wiggling a finger at me, while shaking her head 'No'.
"Stay AWAY from me!" I snapped. "I'm simply looking!"
Limping away, I immersed myself in the sights and sounds of Classic Hollywood...A large crowd had formed to watch an impromptu dance competition; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would perform an extraordinary routine...then Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth would match them, step-for-step! At another location, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald sang selections from "Maytime", then Grace Moore joined Jeanette to do the "Flower Song" from "Lakme". Red Skelton performed his "Guzzler's Gin" routine in another corner; down the road, Alice Faye and Irene Dunne sang Irving Berlin tunes.
What a night!
Deciding to take a break, I sat, and was soon joined by lovely Maureen O'Sullivan, in her very revealing 'Jane' outfit...
"You know, Ronnie," she laughed, "If Cedric Gibbons had had HIS way, I'd have been topless in "Tarzan and His Mate"!"
"NO!" I laughed.
"It's absolutely true! We shot two days worth of film, before he finally gave up...no matter how many shrubs he put in, my nipples kept appearing!"
We both laughed, and I asked, "As brief as your costume is, how did you keep from showing, uh..."
"My assets?" she giggled, finishing my question. "Tape, lots of tape, in the most uncomfortable places! Of course, Johnny had it far worse...he had much more to cover, if you know what I mean..."
I felt myself blush. "Indeed, I do!"
"Still, I think I look rather fetching!"
"You certainly do!" I replied...and was kicked in the shin, AGAIN! Before I could say a word, Clemmie disappeared back into the crowd!
Maureen left to join Donna Reed and Olivia DeHavilland, and I limped to a refreshments table, where I downed a quick gin and tonic. As I pondered having a second, a female voice shouted, "Ronnie!"
I turned, and there was Betty Grable, carrying my Foreign Legion cap! "You left it," she explained, "and no well-dressed Legionnaire should be without one!" I thanked her, and slipped it back on...
"What a party!" Betty exclaimed. "They just had a 'Best Legs' competition for guys, with Ty Power, Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and John Barrymore!"
"Who won?" I asked.
"Johnny Weissmuller!" she squealed. "He just walked up in that jungle g-string, and Marie Wilson screamed, 'I'm going ape! I'm going ape!'"
"Please," I said, glancing around, nervously, "Be careful where you say that...Barrymore's monkey might be anywhere!"
"Sorry," Betty said, and suddenly shivered. "I think I'm a little 'underdressed', out here."
"It is a bit chilly for you, and Esther in her swimsuit, and Dotty in her sarong..." I put my arm around her. "Better?"
And from out of nowhere, Clemmie flew past me, swinging and clawing at Betty! Betty screamed, and I finally disentangled the pair.
"That's ENOUGH!" I shouted. "Clemmie, we HAVE to TALK!"
Clemmie stuck her tongue out at me, and ran. "Betty, I'm very sorry," I apologized, then I ran after the simian.
It took a couple of minutes, but I finally had her cornered...
"Clemmie, this has gone on long enough!" I said. She nodded, and held her arms out. "NO!" I hissed. "You and I can NEVER be! I DON'T love you, and I NEVER WILL!" Her shoulders sagged. "I mean it, I want you to leave me alone! I'm married, and you're a MONKEY!" She shrugged. "It may not make a difference to YOU, but it does to ME! I NEVER want to see you AGAIN!" She shook her head. "We're THROUGH!"
I thought I'd made my point quite effectively! She stood, tilted her head, looking at me, deeply...then, she reached behind her...and the impossible happened...
It was the BIGGEST revolver I'd ever seen, and it was aimed at ME!
"Put that thing down!" I cried, "Don't DO this!"
She waved to me, in farewell, then FIRED!
I felt a blackness overtake me, as I struck the ground...
...I drifted in darkness...
...there was a tiny white light, ahead of me, beckoning me to it...
...as I floated in darkness, I felt arms around me, love radiating from them! Benita, my darling Benita!..."Oh, my darling, I thought I'd never see you again!"...I kissed her, passionately...
...And the light exploded into focus around me, and I discovered it wasn't BENITA I was kissing, but CLEMMIE!!!
The ape was dragged away from me by Hearst's security people, but she had an expression of ecstatic triumph on her face!
"Somebody wipe off my face!" I howled, spitting her 'taste' from my mouth. A young doctor was quickly at my side, checking my vital signs, as a crowd of actors gathered. I felt a tremendous pain in my chest, but I was certainly still alive!
"Well," the doctor said, "your blood pressure and heart rate are high, which is to be expected, considering..." he stared at the monstrous pistol, near my feet... "...and you're going to have a helluva bruise from where the bullet struck, but I'd say you'll survive!"
"Survive?" Hearst yelled. "Doctor, that man was just SHOT at point-blank range!!! How IS he STILL BREATHING???"
Shirley Temple looked at me, and asked, solemnly, "Mr. Colman, are you Superman?"
"If I am," I grunted, in pain, "I'm certainly not getting paid enough!"
"Look at his jacket," the doctor replied, "...third brass button, up. It's mashed, completely! I'd say Mr. Colman is a very lucky man, indeed...the bullet riccocheted off it!"
I groaned, "So much for the pay raise!"
Lauren Bacall, standing next to Bogie, asked, "Where did the bullet go? Are we in any danger?"
Everyone began looking, frantically, for the bullet...then Greer Garson shouted, "Look! Up the hill! A power line's been cut!"
The bullet must have sliced through the cord as it flew away from me, and the line now bounced, ominously, on the ground, shooting off sparks...just a few feet from the barrels of fireworks!
"Whoa!" Mickey Rooney exclaimed. "We're lucky that cord didn't fall into those barrels!"
...and Asta, seeing the cord on the ground, leapt forward to perform his new 'trick'!!!
"Oh, NO!!!" Myrna Loy shouted. "NO, ASTA! BAD ASTA!"
Bill Powell waved frantically at the dog. "PAPA will give you a TREAT, if you COME HERE, NOW!!!"
Asta was nothing, if not proud of his skills, however, and he snagged the downed line, dropped it into the nearest open barrel, then jogged proudly away!
"Give me a bird, anytime," Ann Sheridan muttered...
We were, perhaps, fortunate...only half of the barrels exploded, the rest scattered around the sign, although still a danger because of the pockets of flames, everywhere...still, had all the barrels blown, MGM's claim of "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" would no longer have been quite true!
The force of the blast had knocked everybody down, and cut all the phone and power lines throughout Hollywood. Plunged into the early evening twilight, people gradually came to their feet (except me...I certainly wasn't up to it!), and suddenly Hearst screamed, "THE SIGN!!! THE SIGN!!!"
The entire 'Hollywoodland' sign was teetering, obviously about to crash into the ground!
Duke Wayne yelled, "Hey, Coop! Come with me!" and the pair ran towards the wobbling letters.
Wayne was carrying his lasso, as was Gary Cooper, and he said, "If I can rope the struts on the back of the sign, and tie them down, I think I can keep that 'H' from falling..."
Coop looked at Duke, and said, slowly, "You know, we could let the fire department handle this...there's still barrels of fireworks up here, just itching to explode..."
"Yeah, I know...but by the time the firemen arrived, the sign would be destroyed, and Hearst's investment, shot to hell...he saved that sign for us, and paid plenty to treat us right, tonight...seems only right to help a friend in need..."
Coop slowly grinned. "Y'know, I was thinkin' the same thing, myself...I'll go lasso the 'O'..."
As Gary Cooper tied up the struts of the teetering 'O', he discovered Freddie March, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland, each with cords, tying more struts down. "Thanks, pards!" he grinned. Then he saw Alan Ladd, with another lasso. "We got this one secure!" he shouted. "Get the first 'L'!"
Alan Ladd saw a problem; the top of the first 'L' had gotten bent, and would need extra support to keep it upright. "Hey, Johnny!" he called to Johnny Weissmuller, "If I give you my rope, think you could tie it up on top, and throw it down to me?" Weissmuller grunted, and quickly climbed, hand-over-hand, to the top of the letter. "God," Ladd muttered, "He really IS Tarzan!"
The rope was tossed down, and with the help of June Allyson, Deborah Kerr, and Garbo, herself, the line was quickly secured!
Gable had a different idea...Jumping into a backhoe, he wedged it between the letter and struts, bracing it, securely.
Spencer Tracy was inspecting the letter, as 'The King' climbed out.
"I think it'll hold," Tracy said, slapping the 'L'. "I didn't know you could drive one of these things, Clark!"
Gable grinned. "I wasn't always an actor, Spence!" he laughed.
"There's a fair number of critics who'd say you still aren't," Tracy quipped...
Meanwhile, further down the mountain, other groups were forming...
Bette Davis gathered a small group, and quickly said, "I know we all aren't the best of friends, but a lot of people are trying to save that sign, and I see the REAL threat as those fires...if they reach any of the unexploded barrels..."
Joan Crawford interrupted. "Bette, you don't have to over-dramatize, we know what will happen!"
"Shut up, Joan," Barbara Stanwyck cut in. "Tell us what to do, Bette..."
"We need to run water up the hill, and put out all the fires!"
Jean Arthur jumped in. "There's a lot of pots and pans out here, and we could run a human chain..."
"This is like what we're doing in London, against the Blitz!" Vivien Leigh said, brightly.
"Let me go tell Hearst what we're doing, and see about getting the water as close as we can," Claudette Colbert said, and the 'Classic Hollywood Bucket Brigade' was formed!
Meanwhile, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, and Myrna Loy began tearing cloth for bandages...and were quickly joined by Marion Davies. "Willie can't raise any help, the telephone lines are all down," she explained. "Bill Powell is driving down the mountain to the nearest police station, but we're on our own, for now..."
"Well, goody!" Hepburn said. "Fortunately, my father was a doctor, so I can help, a bit..."
"We certainly do things in a BIG way, in Hollywood," Shearer laughed.
"Marion," Loy asked, "Was Asta with Bill?"
"Yep," Davies replied. "I think I scared him when I suggested hot dogs for dinner, after his little stunt!"
"I don't know, Errol," Ty Power said, dubiously. "Knocking down telephone poles, then using them to brace the 'Y'...when things get back to normal, there's going to be hell to pay!"
Flynn laughed. "Ty, dear boy, I'm ALWAYS in trouble...what ELSE is new?"
John Barrymore stumbled up to them. "Great news, chums, I have saved the liquor!"
Jimmy Cagney, in a hot-wired plow, had just finished bracing the 'W' with four feet of gravel, on both sides of the letter, and Cary Grant, with a shovel in hand, was impressed. "Jimmy, you handle that plow like a born farmer!"
Glenn Ford, a pick in hand, agreed. "I think you missed your true calling!"
Cagney, jumping from the seat, bowed, and said, "I'll let you in on a little secret...my plan is to retire from this crazy business, someday, and buy a farm!"
"A farm?" Grant asked. "I agree, retiring is a good idea, I think about it, myself, when I'm 60, or so, but to raise chickens?"
"You both are crazy," Ford laughed. "I plan to act until I have to play 'Gabby Hayes' roles! And when I get my Oscar, I'll think about you two retired guys!"
Bogie's idea was simple; three limos, tipped on their sides, wedged against the 'O', offering extra support. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope loved the chance to destroy the cars ("This is more fun than sneaking into Dotty Lamour's dressing room!" Hope exclaimed, to which Crosby replied, "You only do that to try on her clothes!")
Of course, the real problem was having to sit through Hope and Crosby's never-ending barbs at each other, after the job was finished!
"And these guys beat me in the Yacht Race???" Bogie muttered.
"This is, without a doubt, the most hair-brained contraption I've ever seen!" Dick Powell exclaimed, at Vincent Price's collection of pulleys, winches, and cantalevers, holding the 'O' in place.
"Yeah," Jimmy Stewart drawled, "but it's working! How did you come up with this?"
Vincent Price shrugged. "Play enough mad scientists, and it's bound to rub off on you," he said, then laughed, just a bit insanely!
It wasn't too difficult, for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly...the construction workers had left chains, there were spikes in a nearby shed, and it was hard, but quick work, to hammer down the chained spikes, attached to the struts.
"You know," Kelly remarked, "It seems appropriate that we are doing the 'D'...you could say it's for 'Dancing'!"
"Or 'Dummies', 'Dames', or 'Dimwits'!" Astaire laughed. "Still, 'Dancing' isn't bad!"
"Hey, guys, sorry I'm late," Buster Keaton said, as he joined Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin enroute to the third 'L' . Welcoming him, Lloyd glanced down the hill. "Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy are with us," he explained. "It IS a long run, though...Let's climb up the 'L' and see if we can secure it!" With born acrobats' ease, the trio of screen comedy legends scaled the tall letter.
Puffing and wheezing, Laurel and Hardy finally arrived. "It's...a..good...thing I'm in such...great shape...or that run might have KILLED me," Hardy panted.
"Hey, Ollie," Stan said, "I found a candle...What should I do with it?"
"Why, light it, silly!" Hardy said. "With it getting dark, a candle is a very good thing to have!"
Stan got the wick lit, then remarked, "It sure burns funny!"
"Here, let ME see it..."
Hardy tossed the firecracker 'candle', and it rolled to the base of the 'L', and promptly EXPLODED!
Down the 'L' crashed! Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton were unharmed, but Laurel and Hardy decided a rapid change of scenery was a very good idea, and departed!
"Hey, Moe!" Curly Howard exclaimed, "There's a huge barrel in front of the 'A'! What should we do???"
"Sit on it, numbskull!" Moe sneered. "It can't blow up if we're on top of things!"
"Uh, that sounds logical," Curly agreed, the the Three Stooges plopped down on what was, easily, the biggest barrel of Hearst's collection of fireworks.
"Hey, Moe," Larry Fine asked, "Do you think we'll get an award, for saving everybody?"
"I'll be happy if Harry Cohn gives us a RAISE!"
"Well, then, let's celebrate!" Curly reached into his pocket, and pulled out three cigars.
"Don't mind if I do," Moe said, grabbing one. "'Habana Habana', my favorite brand!" He then glared at Curly. "Well, do you have a LIGHT?"
"Soitenly! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!" And he struck his match on the side of the barrel...
From out of the barrel, a massive skyrocket lifted off...carrying three unwilling passengers!
"I'm gonna KILL you," Moe screamed at Curly.
"I swear, I'm a victim of soycumstance!" And as the trio zoomed off in the direction of Tijuana, the 'A' toppled over...just as Abbott and Costello arrived!
"ABBOTT!" Lou screamed, "They're gonna blame me for this, they always blame me!"
"Don't worry, Lou, I'll back you up!" Bud Abbott reassured him. "I'm your pal, I'll always stand by your side!"
Basil Rathbone arrived, stared at the fallen letter, and asked, "What happened?"
"HE did it!" Bud exclaimed, pointing at Lou.
"Well!" Rathbone said, staring haughtily at Lou. "What have you got to say?"
Lou shrugged, "I've been a baaaaad boy..."
Red Skelton arrived, to discover the 'N' already down, and W.C. Fields standing on it.
"What happened, Bill?" Red asked. "Did the struts give out?"
Fields shook his head.
"Did the explosion knock it down?"
Fields shook his head.
"Did the ground give out, beneath it?"
Fields shook his head.
"Well, what knocked it down???"
"I breathed on it," Fields replied.
"I guess that alcohol content would do it!" Red agreed, lighting a cigar. "I'm glad the fireworks are over...I'd really hate having one blow up in my face..."
"Wow, smoking really IS hazardous to your health!"
"Well, here we are, where are the girls?" Groucho asked, as the Marx Brothers arrived at the last letter.
"Down the hill, they're not-a crazy!" Chico replied.
Harpo started whistling, frantically. Barrels of fireworks were sitting, open, with lit fuses burning down into them!
Groucho shouted, "Either we better run really fast, or get into those barrels and put out those fuses!"
"That's-a crazy, boss!"
"We can work that out later!!!" And each Marx dove into a barrel, extinguishing a fuse!
"Remind me NEVER to do anything that stupid again," Groucho remarked.
"We got another problem," Chico said, slowly. The three watched as a fuse in another barrel burned down.
"Where's Zeppo when you need him?" Groucho asked, as an explosion knocked over the 'D', and launched them into the stratosphere!
...And where did they land?
"Nobody's gonna believe this," Groucho sighed...
At the bottom of the hill, I sat with Hearst, and waited for the smoke to clear, to see if any of the sign would still be standing. Gradually, this is what appeared...
Hearst was silent, for a moment, then asked, "What do you think?"
I looked at the abbreviated sign, then replied, honestly, "I like it! When people get accustomed to it, I think they'll even forget it ever was 'Hollywoodland'..."
"You think so?"
I laughed. "Absolutely! And it seems appropriate, don't you think, that Hollywood's 'own' saved the 'Hollywood' sign?"
"Well, probably, but I'm going to bury this story! Too many questions might get raised...I'll just say it was always intended to remove the 'land'..."
The police wagon arrived, to take Clemmie away, and she looked suitably depressed...
But just as I felt a twinge of sympathy, she blew me a kiss, and pointed at herself, to remind me that I actually KISSED her!
...and she sent this from her cell, to me...
The story, I'm afraid, is NOT over!
THE RONALD COLMAN SAGA
"The Dinner Party for Erich von Stroheim"
"The Misadventures of John Barrymore's Cheeky Monkey, Clementine"
"The All-Star Surprise Party for Laine"
"The Classic Hollywood Long Beach-Catalina Yacht Race"
"The Ronald Colman Seance"
"My "Lost Horizon" Surprise!"
"A Night at the Hollywood Canteen!"
"But I Thought You Were..."
"The People vs. Ronald Colman"
"The Epic Hearst Costume Party..."
"The Monkey on Ronald Colman's Back Saga" (A 9-Part Adventure):
"A MAN, A MONKEY, the MOB, and RONALD COLMAN!" (A 5-Part Adventure):
"Introduction: Broadway, 1920..."
"Chapter 1: A LONG Memory..."
"Chapter 2: Barrymore's Reply..."
"Chapter 3: Barrymore in Cement!"
"Chapter 4: A Desert Grave..."
"SURPRISE PARTY for RONALD COLMAN!"
"The RONALD COLMAN Banner Collection"
Finally, if you'd like to 'go to the source', with over 200 photos of Ronald Colman's life and career, please visit Myspace.com/Ronald Colman...the page that started it all!