A Night on the Town
A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
"Of course," he said, half aloud, "a third-rate room for a second-rate production. Always appropriate."
He tossed his scuffed valise and frayed kit-bag on the nearer of the two twin beds, glancing around the hotel roomit was unremarkable: faded blue-and-white striped wallpaper, tired navy blue curtains, once matching and now faded thin chenille bedspreads, yellowing lampshades, the walnut dresser and night stand looking a bit the worse for wear. On the other hand, the floor was swept and waxed, the windows clean, and best of all, he didn't see any movement out of the corners of his eyeand he'd been in New York enough times to know what type of tiny livestock one might expect from a cheap hotel. So this one was merely aging and shabby.
He wasn't certain where Russell Stone was, but he wasn't about to worry about his roommate just yet. He'd drawn short straw when they drew lots for room sharing, as some members of the cast had looked at the production's new Guildenstern a bit askance. He had no interest in Stone's bedroom preferences and thought those nosier cast members should mind their own business.
The others, he knew, were already lining up at the Child's at the other end of the block; normally he would have joined them, having been nursing his payas he had nursed every nickel and dime that came his way since the Crash of '29by eating at any cheap coffee shop or cafeteria nearby.
Not tonight, though.
First he opened his suitcase and put away his clothing: underwear, shirts, trousers, pajamas. Next he laid his meager toiletries out on top of the left side of the bureau, carefully arranged as he had learned in the Army. He laid his spare pair of shoes and his dress shoes next to the bed.
Last but not least he took the rented suit from where he had temporarily laid it on the pillows and hung it on one of the two hooks behind the door.
Tonight there would be no Childs, no Automat, not even the New York version of the Buttery.
Tonight McKinley Cornelius Bloom was going out on the town.
In a better hotel he wouldn't have had to walk down the hall for his bath, his shaving kit in one hand, the clean towel that had sat folded on his dresser under his arm. But the bath was empty, and fairly clean, although the last man through had left a scattering of stubble in the sink. He locked the door and proceeded to use the shower, whistling throughout; only realizing as he toweled himself dry that he was repeating the theme songs of WENN's morning lineup.
Not that he was homesick, mind you! He'd looked forward for years to doing Shakespeare, especially a meaty part like Polonius, and if he wasn't on Broadway, he was working with a generally great troupe of actorsincluding the great Amelia Radcliff as Queen Gertrude, and a rising young comer, Richard Leonard, in the title role. He would have been crazy not to take the part.
Still, with supper coming on, he couldn't help thinking of rushed meals from the Buttery and he wondered...wondered if Hilary had dared let herself forgive Jeff, wondered how Victor's return was affecting Scott's campaign to woo and win Betty Roberts (and if Sherwood thought they hadn't noticed, he was conning only himself!), even wondered if the meatloaf at the Buttery was edible tonight.
He would not, he decided, be eating meatloaf tonight. Back in the room, hidden in his valise, was a store of money especially set aside for this occasion, dollars saved by taking the cheapest cut, the least expensive room, the balcony seats at the movies. It was a night he'd dreamed about since he told his parents about his career choice, his eyes set firmly on Broadway and the stage.
Mackie smiled at himself in the mirror as he shaved. Poor Momma. She'd bragged on him from the moment she'd named him"after our representative in Congress, you know," she told everyone. And how proud she had been later on when that gentleman from Ohio had gone on to become President of the United Statesand how devastated she was when he was assassinated.
She wanted him to go into the law. Pop didn't care as long as he didn't spend his life breaking his back in a factory all day.
He finished shaving, used the scissors he'd filched from the makeup man's boxhe would return them!to trim his moustache, rinsed and dried his face. Now in his bathrobe, with his dirty clothing over his arm, he tossed the towel into the hamper provided, then padded back to the room, there to dress himself in sartorial splendor.
He'd actually been interested in becoming a lawyer. He loved to speak, and imagined the courtroom would be a good place to give stirring summations about justice in behalf of his client. But it was tough going. Pop worked long hard hours at the grocery just to keep a roof over the heads of a family of five. In those days, you had to buy your own high school textbooks, have a suit and shirt and tie to wear to class every day. From the day he was old enough to run errands, Mackie was out working his way through high school, saving for college.
But that was where the downfall had come. In the summer of 1914 he'd gotten a job as an usher in the largest vaudeville house in Columbus and stayed to work evenings and Saturdays during the school year. Once he'd seen the magic world onstage he'd never come back, especially after getting a better position at the Langton Theatre. No vaudeville here; they did real stage performances: Shakespeare, Greek playwrights, Shaw, Sheridan. Back then he had his first taste of what the applause could be like, filling in for background actors, helping behind the scenes.
By the time he was graduated from high school, he didn't know how he'd tell his parents he didn't want to go to law school any longer. Perhaps it was luck that his university fund wasn't quite complete, that he decided to work a little longerit certainly wasn't luck that the War to End All Wars had finally marched into the United Statesand taken Private McKinley Bloom with it.
In front of his mirror he was dressing himself methodicallystockings carefully held up with new garters, dress pants, dress shirt, stiff collar, silk bow tie, vest, finally the suit jacket itself. He had taken care to rent one that would fit him properly, not like his usual suits, which always made him look flyaway. Last of all he clipped on his grey pearl cuff links, a parting gift from his high school sweetheart.
Minette Grant. He could see her face still when he closed his eyes, a small dark-haired girl who rivaled Charles Dana Gibson's aristocratic icon for beauty and self-possession. "Mackie and Minnie," Momma called them. Min was the one person who knew about his new career choice, and the prospect hadn't frightened herbut then she was always one for taking chances: she bicycled, played lawn tennis, dared to learn a "man's game" like chess and then beat him at it. When the war broke out, she became a volunteer at the hospitals, to fill her time, she told him, until he came home.
Twenty year old Mackie had come home from Europe as disillusioned as all the boys who had grown up on the stories of glorious war, with an echo of artillery ringing in his ears that he thought would never go away, ready to start on a new life.
But he would start it alone. Spanish influenza had carried Min Grant somewhere he could not follow.
He had closed his eyes to picture her face. Now he reopened them, did a last prink of his tie, then left his room for the elevator.
The gangly elevator boy stood straight, operating the levers with studied nonchalance, but Mackie had to control himself to not smile at the young man's ill-fitting blue and silver uniform. They tried so hard here.
He'd tried hard, too. Min would have been proud of him. He went back to the theatreaway from home this timeonly to find Penelope Cominger, all propriety on the outside, all flapper on the inside, despite her money. At the theatre, declaiming everything from gravediggers to minor nobles, everything was finereal life, with the specter of the Cominger fortune at his heels, was another thing altogether. And so he'd taken to his heels for a while, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, until he'd hitched up with the Michigan Mummers and Minstrels. It wasn't Shakespeare, but it was funwhen you didn't mind the third-rate hotels.
"Lobby!" the elevator boy said smartly, drawing back the cage so Mackie could emerge.
A loud whistle greeted him. "Willya look at the swell!"
Russell Stone, with his thick blond hair flyaway around his head, stopped stock-still in the center of the shabbily plush lobby, looking him up and down. "Hell, Mackie, all you need is a walking stick."
"Don't happen to have one, do you?" Mackie returned blandly.
"Oh, yeah, along with my top hat and my spats. Always have 'em on me," Stone scoffed. "Where are you off toCarnegie Hall?"
"Dinner, dear boy, dinner," Mackie said in a comically affected voice, with a grin. "Tonight I'm painting the town red."
"You forgot your coveralls," Stone answered, returning the grin. "Planning on getting lucky?"
"If I do, I'm not coming back here," answered Mackie.
He had the desk clerk call a taxi for him; it was still some miles down to Manhattan. When the producer had said this would be off-Broadway, he meant it. Ah, well, at least he wasn't declaiming Polonius in Brooklyn...
The doorman held open the door of the Checker cab for him, and for a moment Mackie flashed on the premiere of Amorous Airwaves. He recalled standing at the Rialto with the rest of the cast, watching Trevor Zanish emerge from his limousine, looking like Rockefeller. He tried to enter the same way.
"Where ya goin', buddy?" the dour cabby asked, breaking the spell.
"The...Island Paradise Club," Mackie answered, hating the stammer that had crept into his voice.
Paradise. A place of dreams. Dreams that had lasted him through traveling with the Mummers and Minstrels, dreams that had almost lasted through the Crashfor a while people had still wanted entertainment to make them forget their wallets were almost empty and they didn't know where their next job was coming from. And then the Mummers and Minstrels crashed as well.
He didn't want to think about Steubenville. Not tonight. It was behind him, because when he was at his lowest ebb after the six-month stay in prison, after he'd gone home to start over, the manager of the Langton had barked, "With a voice like yours, Bloom, why are you wasting it here? You ought to be working in radio."
After that it had been...comfortable. Not easy, but something at least guaranteed to put food on the table. At WENN, in Pittsburgh, he'd found his niche.
Three weeks into his tour now, he was wondering if it wasn't a rut instead, somewhere safe to hide. He'd made that tragic joke about going to California months ago, but perhaps that could be the next step. Oh, he wouldn't kid himselfhe wasn't going to get starring roles or find himself playing leading men. Character acting gave you nice steady work, though; they always needed a bartender, a gangster's mug, a faithful Uncle Charley. If he could do it for This Girl's Kinfolk in sound, why not for Blondie on the screen?
"We're here, Mister," the cabby said loudly.
What a rube, Mackie thought to himself with a grin, thinking of Bonneyville Mills while parked in front of the newest and snazziest club in Manhattan.
He paid the fare with such a good tip the driver actually grinned at him and said, "Thanks!", and with a bit of a swagger, strolled into the nightclub, leaving his hat and some of his humor while flirting with the hat check girl. All of twenty, with blond curls spilling down her back and big green eyes artfully made up to look a size larger, she dimpled at him and giggled and he felt about six inches taller.
He tried not to goggle as a supercilious waiter in tie and tails escorted him to a small table near the back. The Island Paradise had been copied on Hollywood's extravagant South Seas Clubalthough hopefully not backed by the original mob holdingsand the place was lushly decorated with palm bushes and trees, huge hibiscus plants, gracefully curving rattan tables and chairs. On the stage the vocalist had just finished her set and the huge shell set-piece she had retreated into was closing down for the moment. But the band, with the mellow clarinets and saxophones crooning their bars, still played. Mackie smiled when he realized the music was "Rhapsody in Blue."
His mind flickeredbut just for a second. Was Angela Colton caught up somewhere in the Blitz, as Victor had been?
The waiter stopped the memory before he could cut it off himself. "May I bring you a drink, sir?"
He had it figured down to the penny: two drinks, the least expensive entree on the menu, a small dessert, tipsand some left over for emergencies, although what emergencies would arise here he had no idea. This was the place to relax, get your bearings, decide what to do next. "Scotch and water. Thanks."
He discovered as the evening progressed that the star-watching wasn't quite as good here as it might be in Hollywood, but it was a great chance to see actors who were back in town for publicity purposes, or even stage roles. As he sipped his Scotch he had seen Spencer Tracy stroll out to the lobby, and spotted Agnes Moorehead at a table across the room. He also thought he'd glimpsed Margaret Hamilton, even if he wasn't sure it was her without Wizard of Oz mufti. Best yet were glimpses of the pretty young ingenues, including Susan Hayward in a gorgeous evening gown that fit her like a glove and the lovely Jennifer Blake, escorted by her fiancee, the pilotwhat was his name? Secord, that was it; he'd won the National Air Races two years in a row. Rumor had it a couple of years back he'd been mixed up in some government business, but right now he looked pleased as punch to be escorting such a dish.
It was when he was finishing his last bite of what he privately called "chicken on a sofa," in the quiet between musical sets, that he heard familiar laughter coming from a table half hidden behind the palm tree to his left.
Celia? Couldn't be...
He craned his head to his right, then, not wanting to look nosy, moved his chair unobtrusively until he could see the table for two. Celia for sure, with an older, balding gentlemanTrevor Zanish.
Thoughts began to collide inside his head like ideas off Scott Sherwood on a good day. Should he say hello? They hadn't heard from Celia since the premiere of Amorous Airwaves. Maybe she didn't want to talk to her WENN friends anymore. And what the heck would he say to Zanish? Would he want to talk to little Mackie Bloom, formerly of Pittsburgh, Pa.? But then if he didn't say hello to Celia, he'd be rude. What if she saw him notice her and thought he was ignoring her?
And last but not least, he wondered if there was any way she could get him some contacts, some "ins," in Hollywood.
Zanish finally made it easy for himhe rose from his seat, smilingly confiding words in Celia's ear, and she laughed and waved him off with an expressive cigarette capped in an iridescent white holder. When Zanish was out of sight, presumably headed for the men's lounge, Mackie rose, clearing his throat.
Good Lord, she looked gorgeous. She was in a clinging white satin gown similar to the one she had worn in Amorous Airwaves, a diamond choker around her slim neck, her blond curls piled atop her head and wound with a string of small diamond chips. A three-strand pearl-and-diamond bracelet graced one slim wrist, a tiny diamond-studden wristwatch the other.
Her attention shifted, her eyes fastened on him. He swallowed.
And then she smiled, her face lighting up, and exclaimed in delight, "Mackie! Is that really you?"
"Hi, kid," he said, grinning.
She laid down the cigarette holderMackie noticed the cigarette itself wasn't lit; all part of her image, he guessedand rose gracefully, holding out her hands. "Mackie, it's so good to see you."
Her voice was high as always, perhaps a little artificial, but the greeting seemed genuine. He gave her a careful, perfunctory hug, which she returned, then she invited him to sit down.
"I- I don't want Mr. Zanish thinking I'm mashing on his dinner companion," Mackie said, still standing.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, don't be silly, Mackie!" Celia tossed her head. "He's gone to have a cigar in the Lounge. He'll be in there for a half hour, yakking about the races at Aqueduct we went to this afternoon. Have a seat and tell me what you're doing here. Are you working here nowin New York, I mean..."
He accepted the invitation and for the next fifteen minutes it was like old home week. He told her about the tour and of course caught her up on what was going on at WENNshe hadn't heard about Victor and her mouth actually dropped open when he talked so matter-of-factly about Kurt Holstrom and Rollie Pruitt, but she recovered enough to ask, "And what about Victor? Has he finally noticed Betty, for heaven's sake?"
That led into a longer explanation and when he finished she was laughing. "I don't believe it, Mackie. It sounds just like that stuff we were always doing on Valiant JourneyAmorous Airwaves didn't even begin to touch it. Maybe someone ought to do a series about the life and times of a radio station. All Betty would have to do is change the names!"
Mackie grinned. "When you took away the Nazis, who'd be interested in our little humdrum lives? Anyway, this is all peanuts, kid. What about you, what's going on?"
The waiter interrupted then, and Celia asked Mackie what he was having; despite his protests, she treated him to another Scotch and water while she ordered more champagne. And then she began to talk, waving the glass as she chattered about "Trevor" and her next movie appearance and publicity. Mackie envisioned the whirl of screen tests and studios and publicity appearances: limos, hairdressers, pomp, circumstance.
And what sounded like an endless line of men Celia had to "please" to get her next role. She laughed about it, though, speaking of "John" and "Raoul" as if they were boyfriends she had on a string. And, knowing Celia, that might have been true.
"So what about you, Mackie?" she asked, restlessly glancing at her watch. "Are you ready to make the big jump?"
Mackie could make out the tiny hands even from where he sat and realized Zanish had been gone for almost forty- five minutes. "I've been thinking about it, hon. Just...don't know where to start."
"Well, I'm sure Trevor would be glad to give you some contacts," Celia declared recklessly, pouring herself a third glass of champagne, "seeing that you're a friend of mine. You know, you could start over at Republic Pictures until you built up a reputationwhy, look at that John Wayne. He started at Mascot and now look at him. Since John put him in Stagecoach he's had nothing but great offers! Trevor says he'll be a big star one day."
"Found a friend, Celia?...what a stroke of luck!"
Mackie watched Celia's eyes glow as Zanish spoke, and she turned to him, all smiles, "I thought you'd been kidnapped by your bookie, Trevor...darling..."
Mackie had looked up as well, and there was no need to ask why Celia's voice faltered. Standing next to Zanish was a breathtakingly beautiful, slender young woman in a tight-fitting, low-cut black evening gown, thick chestnut hair artfully arranged over her shoulders and down her back.
"You remember Anita Morell, don't you, dear?" Zanish continued, his voice friendly.
Celia nodded, with a welcoming smile, but her eyes said clearly that she remembered all too well. She shook hands with Miss Morell politely, then flashed another smile at Zanish. "And this is Mackie Bloom. He and I used to work together at WENN."
Mackie offered his hand to both Zanish and Miss Morell, one eye on Celia. She was covering her distress well, but it was obvious, at least to him, that she was expecting what happened next.
"I signed Anita to a contract yesterday, but I had no idea we'd be meeting again so soon." Zanish said genially. "I'd love to take her around tonight to the various clubs and introduce her, would you mind? I promise I'll make up our night out here another time."
Celia swallowed and raised her chin. "That's quite all right, Trevor. In fact I was telling Mackie-" and he raised his head, blinking at her. "-that I was feeling a bit under the weather anyway." She smiled sweetly at the redhead. "I'm sure Miss Morell understands. Anyway, I was going to ask if we might go home early."
"Poor dear!" Zanish said in such a fake hearty voice that Mackie was tempted to punch him out then and there. "Why don't you and Mr. Bloom just enjoy yourself here and I'll sent Manuel to pick you up at eleven. Or do you need him immediately?"
Celia responded coolly that eleven was fine, and she and Zanish nattered on for a few more minutes, him telling her to have the cook fix her a hot water bottle and a nice warm toddy when she got home, caressing her neck before he left with Miss Morell decorating his right arm like an overperfumed bouquet.
Celia watched them until they were out of sight, then turned back to Mackie, her smile switched on like a glaring overhead light. "Thank God you're here, Mackie," she chatted, reaching for the champagne bottle to freshen her drink. "I simply detest when Trevor has business deals that come up unexpectedly. You've no idea what you've rescued me fromhours of dragging after him from club to club, listening to him and his contacts discuss bookings, and his client and I having to make small talk. I can't imagine anything more boring..."
She sipped the champagne and Mackie supplied the rest of the sentence in his head, "...than being the fifth wheel."
"So, now tell me what part you're doing again," she asked with a little laugh. "Shakespeare was never one of my strong pointsalthough that version of Hamlet Victor cooked up for Mr. Acton that time was something, wasn't it? Only Victor Comstock could turn Shakespeare into some fast-talking detective and his moll..."
He finished his Scotch and water and helped her with the champagne. At some point she ordered another bottle. He'd only planned on staying until ten, but it seemed impolitehell, cruelto leave her here alone.
She held her liquor well, he admitted afterward. After a couple of hours of talking about everything and nothing, but mostly, Mackie realized, about the "good old days" at WENN, she was only slightly tipsy when he helped her to the front door, claimed her wrap and his hat from the checkroom, and waited with her until Zanish's limousine driver came to collect her.
The air outside was sharper, with a hint of rain, but Mackie suddenly preferred it to the smoke of the club, not just the actual tobacco leavings, but the other smoke, the invisible kind that covered events no one wanted to talk about. For something so transparent, it certainly kept you from seeing clearly.
The long, dark car finally glided to the curb, and a deferential Mexican in muted livery emerged from the driver's seat to help Celia into the sprawling back seat. Before she entered, Mackie put on his brightest smile. "Hey, hon, don't be such a stranger. You give us a call or send us a wire once in a while."
"Oh, I'll try, Mackie," she laughed back, clinging to the false gaiety she had donned inside the Island Paradise like some feminine armor. "You know me, always busy with my career."
Manuel had the door open.
Mackie said, insistence creeping faintly into his voice, "But you'll call us if you need us."
For a minute the armor fell and Celia gave him a genuine smile. "I promise, Mackie. Don't you worry about me. If I don't make it one way, I'll make it another."
And then she was swept into the car and was gone.
"Call you a taxi, sir?" asked the doorman, without expression.
Should he bother with dessert? Or wasn't he hungry any longer?
"Yes, thank you," Mackie said quietly.
He tried not to think as he waited, as he was driven back to the third-rate hotel so very off Broadway, as he rode up to the elevator in silence, as he returned to his roomRussell still, thankfully, "on the town"and removed his suit and tie and collar.
He needed another shower. The smoke was clinging too much for his liking.
He looked at his pocket watch as he laid it down on the dresser. Eleven thirty. Bedtime Serenades should be starting now, just following A Book at Bedtime. He wondered what Betty had chosen tonight. Since Victor had returned, it seemed her choices were always uncomplicated family dramas. Mackie was sure they pleased Mr. Medwick. He liked stories where home and Mother were inevitably victorious in the end.
McKinley Bloom thought so, too.
He'd give Betty a call tomorrow, with the cash he'd saved from that second drink and dessert. She'd be glad to hear he'd seen Celia and that she had said hello.
And while he was on the phone he could update her on their tour schedule as well.
It would help her prepare scripts, he thought, smiling at his reflection in the mirror, give her a better idea when he was coming home.
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