The fool in question being me.
I had not known until today that former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley had died back on December 9th. And I was immediately reminded of the story of the only connection that she and I ever had.
Back in 1978, I was just starting my second year in Hollywood–an absurd notion that I could be a writer that EVERY adult in my life, save one, my bel0ved Aunt Mary, who passed away nearly a year ago, told me was impossible, ridiculous, idiotic, foolish, absurd and what the hell was I d0ing dropping out of university to pursue this idiotic notion?
Being the person that I am I ignored their sage advice.
My first wife and I had obtained an apartment on Poinsetta (sic) Drive, a little forking street with Sam Goldwyn Studios (the original United Artist Studios, from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks days) at one end, across the street on Santa Monica Boulevard and Charlie Chaplin’s old house (now converted to apartments) at the top of the fork, where Poinsetta Drive and Poinsettia Place (both sic) reunited to head up to the Ralph’s Supermarket on Sunset Boulevard (the one featured in Frank Zappa’s Just Another Band from LA, where Studebaker Hawk assembled his flying contraption to confront Billy the Mountain about his draft status).
The tale of Studebaker Hawk
I had started to make inroads, selling a book review to the Los Angeles Times, and then becoming the first and regular free-lance reviewer for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner [RIP]. I was selling ‘radio’ scripts to a sound producer near Duke’s Tropicana, and I was selling articles to ADAM Magazine within walking distance down on Melrose Avenue.
The Old Charlie Chaplin house, for which I filled out an apartment
application, but was rejected because I was a low-life writer. The manager told
me that writers kept people awake with their typing. I got the other apt instead.
And I was making inroads in screenwriting, up for s0me Quincy, ME scripts and waiting for a reply from David Gerrold, who was then story editor for a new series at Universal, Buck Rogers, which would go through more than one staff and iteration before becoming the lousy dreck that we know so well today.
Or don’t know so well as the case may be.
We lived on the second floor of a renovated old Hollywood home, converted to seven or eight apartment units, with a landlord who had no compunction about entering the apartment any time he felt he had maintenance to do (he and his sons had once knocked while my wife and I were having sex, and, hearing no immediate response, walked straight in on us, the bedroom being in a straight line-0f-sight from the front door).
The multi-colored shag carpet was brand new and cheap, and shed pr0fusely, leaving little fibers of red, orange and goldenrod in everything, including our food, no matter how often we vacuumed. Meals were prepared with Hamburger Helper AND shag rug fibers.
It was pleasant and close to things, and the bay window was the perfect place to write, which I did, a lot. That day, I had just spent a rough morning cranking out yet another 30-page cassette script, and so I was taking a nap on our waterbed (we had waterbed insurance, so it was OK with the landlord). That night we’d have another $300 in cash and I’d have to pick up my wife, having borrowed the car for the day to do script ferrying.*
[* I had this bad habit: since I needed the car to get to the studio, I would tell my producer that the script was ready bef0re I’d written any of it. Then, I’d write it, knowing that crapping out could kill the goose laying the golden eggs, s0 I never failed. BUT it was stressful.]
Our apartment just off Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood
And the phone rang.
Was it Universal calling about my Buck Rogers “letters”?*
[* Note: the song and dance of Catch 22 Hollywood was that the studio couldn’t ask you to write them anything, even on spec, because they would be in violation of the Writers Guild of America contract, BUT, no matter h0w good your verbal pitch was, they couldn’t do anything without ‘something on paper.’ At this point, the ex-Bonanza story editor who was my sole screenwriting instructor at Hollywood High School Adult Night School, gave us the “open Sesame” that made things work. The new writer was to say, “Say, what if I wrote you a LETTER, outlining what I just told you?” The story editor would then ritually reply, “OK, but I didn’t ASK you to do this. This was YOUR idea.” And you would then say, “YES.” Mr. Gerrold and I then danced the dance, and said letter was drafted and mailed. In my case, this worked, and I sent f0ur script 0utlines. I was waiting on pins and needles to hear back.]
The dreck that it became
I sat straight up, collected my wits from my nap and picked up the phone.
“This is Gary Collins. You wanted something from my wife?”
The modern term for my reaction was, WTF? I don’t know what the popular expression at the time was. I knew who Gary Collins was. I had no idea who he was married to, nor would I have given a damn to find out. Collins was, at that time, a fairly well-known game show host.
Promo head shot from “The Sixth Sense”
“I don’t … know,” I stammered out.
“My wife is Mary Ann Mobley,” Mr. Collins added helpfully. It didn’t help.
“I don’t know what this is in reference to,” I said, “Can you give me some hint?”
“I got a message from our service,” Gary Collins said.
And we were able to piece together what had occurred.
Back in those pre-techn0l0gical days, before answering machines became ubiquit0us (the producer I was writing for had shown me the TIME magazine squib on his OTHER product, voices impersonating famous people answering your answering machine, which was a novelty item for the then-new novelty of the cassette answering machine, which were very pricey then), Hollywood had “answering services,” with actual operators who would write down messages and when you called, would read them back to you, or, if you stopped by, they’d hand you the little stack of messages from your pigeonhole.
An old Record-A-Call, which I used to own. It and its kin put the older
answering services out of business and forced an entire class of
telephone operators out into the streets to waiting and waitressing jobs.
At the end of the day, I had called someone ELSE on that service, and, as nearly as Gary Collins and I were able to piece together, someone had stuck my message, noted ambiguously as merely “call me,” in Mary Ann Mobley’s pigeonhole, rather than whoever it was I had called — whose identity remains a mystery to this very day.
Mississippi’s Mary Ann Mobley,Miss America 1959
Gary Collins, attempting to protect his wife, called me on her behalf and we were able to determine that, with a Hollywood spin of the late 1970s — where there were still vestiges of the old “call EMpire 3-9000” phone numbers and why you have letters on your phone today, as well as numbers — what we had here was a failure to communicate. As in “wrong number.”
Several years later, I ran into Gary Collins briefly at an event, and reminded him of it, and he didn’t remember it.
I never did meet Mary Ann Mobley, wrong numbers notwithstanding.
David Gerrold DID call eventually, and had very nice things to say, which fueled me for a long while thereafter (compliments on my writing were few and far between in those desperate days), but soon he and the first staff of Buck Rogers were summarily canned, and a second and then a third staff was brought on to produce the monstrosity that the series turned out to be.
So, if there is an “April’s Fool” in this story, it is me.
But what the hell. Only in Hollywood.
And that’s sort of the story of my Hollywood career. I eventually became a screenwriter, yes, but of a different sort.
But that’s another story.
This one is entirely true. Scout’s Honor.