Looking back on 50 memorable years in showbiz

It’s a GOOD MORNING for yours truly as I celebrate the 50th anniversary of my start at Daily Variety and as I start my second 50 years writing the column. It hardly seems possible that it was 50 years ago today when I stood outside the Paramount Theater (now the El Capitan) on Hollywood Boulevard interviewing theatergoers who had just seen the 3-D “House of Wax” and asking them if they’d want to see more 3-D’s. I wrote, “With glasses raised high, patrons praised the presentation.” Well the more things change, the more they remain the same — look at IMAX 3-D today … Of course, things have changed in Hollywood in these 50 years. F’r instance, the studios. In those days, each day I’d visit a different studio lot where the stages were filled with feature-filming … I loved my dressing room tete-a-tete interviews with Marilyn, Lana, Ava, Lucy and the guys, Clark, Ty, Elvis, Bing. Back then, MGM was really three lots with lots two and three spilling across Overland Avenue into streets of the world and rivers — like the Mississippi with a full-sized showboat standing for the film of the same name. And there really was a Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer — it was the legendary Louis B. While the “Goldwyn,” was Samuel who had his own classy movie lot where his movies were filmed off Santa Monica Blvd. and Formosa in Hollywood. Further east in Hollywood, at Gower Street and Sunset, was the real Columbia Studio with a very real boss, Harry Cohn, earning his living legend title … Then heading south on Gower to Melrose it was RKO Studios stages that backed up to Paramount’s. RKO had its own legends — like Howard Hughes owning and running the place. As for Paramount, it was the gem off Marathon Street where day players could actually pick up their checks at the window to the left of the famous Paramount gates. I got my start there working in the mailroom after I graduated from UCLA … And what a joy to visit 20th Century Fox whose giant studio covered the ground now known as Century City. The lot boasted its own foreign city sets, rivers, waterfalls, a complete nursery with every kind of flora. This was Zanuck country, first Darryl, then Richard. And if this lot wasn’t big enough there was also the original 20th Western Avenue studio stages where Cinemascope was first revealed to us by Spyros Skouras. And, ah yes, there were the Valley lots. Universal didn’t know about any MCA towers, hotels or amusement parks, City Walks or multiplexes. It was just one giant countryside with stages and separate buildings for makeup, props, etc. In the roaming backlots could be found chickens and real wild life. And as you got close to Republic Studio, the scent of horse manure became obvious — many Westerns were filmed on its backlot streets with stars like Gene Autry, before he dreamed of owning a baseball team. The baseball team in those days was the Hollywood Stars, which played at Gilmore field off Beverly Boulevard … Of course, the Valley boasted Warner Bros. where a real Warner brother ruled — the inimitable Jack L. Warner. One year he barred me from the lot when I broke a story he was firing employees at Christmas time. Years later, when Ronnie Reagan invited us to the White House, he reminisced about his experiences with J.L. when he was under contract to WB. The surgeon general told me he was excitedly looking forward to discussing the good old days with me.

DAILY VARIETY WAS 20 YEARS young when I joined. Our office was on Yucca Street, having moved up from smaller offices on Vine Street. And a few years later we moved to Sunset Boulevard in the building owned by the law firm of Gang, Kopp, Tyre and Brown. Next, we moved into our own building on Cahuenga. All these offfices were in the heart of Hollywood and convenient for a short stroll to the Vine Street Brown Derby for lunch interviews. NBC was then on the corner of Sunset and Vine and its many live shows emanated from there making it also convenient for coverage. A block east was CBS which also took space for its local KCBS studio on Vine south of Sunset. I rushed over there after writing my daily column to do my nightly showbiz news seg on “The Big News.” I was the first showbiz reporter to have a seg on a nightly news program. Guest-stars dropped by regularly. … Over on the KTLA lot on Sunset, I later taped the “Movie Game” shows. It was the first celebrity-starring gameshow and I was able to invite the biggest stars to participate in the quiz about the biz. Stars like John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart would come on as participants. It was a million laughs. And sometimes not so funny when certain stars would have too much to drink during a break between the shows. For the most part, the stars were serious about displaying their savvy about Hollywood and the two best-informed players turned out to be Sammy Davis Jr. and Mel Torme.

THE NIGHTLIFE IN HOLLYWOOD was glamorous then. Ciro’s and Mocambo, the Interlude and Crescendo on the Strip were my regular hangouts. And there was the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel where every top name played and was backed by Freddy Martin and his band with a singer-pianist named Merv Griffin. There was also Slapsie Maxie’s where Martin & Lewis bowed, Earl Carroll’s, Grace Hayes Lodge and Charle Foy’s in the Valley. And the restaurants. Chasen’s, of course, “Prince” Mike Romanoff’s, the Restaurant La Rue, Perinos, Scandia, all of which boasted superstar diners nightly. … I started covering the Academy Awards when I worked for the Associated Press with Bob Thomas, who made it possible for me to start my journalistic career. But it wasn’t until 1958 that I started my new “career” as the host on the red carpet for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Previously I had m.c’d major premieres at theaters all along Hollywood and Wilshire Boulevards so the promotion to the Oscars was a hefty one. It was never easy — you never really knew, in those days, who would make his or her way up to the platform. It was never dull. Sometimes at the awards held at the Santa Monica Civic, fog would be so thick, I’d never know who was coming up on the stand till we were nose to nose. And at the Dorothy Chandler, with the stand facing west into a blazing afternoon sun, I was guaranteed a sunburn. One Oscar arrival there was particularly memorable — when Herb Ross directed a scene of “California Suite” with Michael Caine and Maggie Smith. For the scene, I introduced them with their character names from the film. The next day, a reporter wrote that I didn’t even recognize Michael Caine and Maggie Smith when they came up to my platform. Ross wrote a letter on my behalf demanding a correction. Ah that’s showbiz … My backstage stories at the Oscars included “host” Joan Crawford pouring vodka from a Pepsi cooler … My stories have been joyous when a baby joins a showbiz family. The column is in the baby books of half of Hollywood … I also unhappily revealed the breakups, happily the makeups. Thanks Frank and Ava, Elizabeth and Richard … I loved using a “secret” phone in the heart of the White House to call the paper to dictate a story about the goings-on in the next room during the Kennedy Center weekend. It is always a thrill to be in the receiving line to shake hands with the presidents and their first ladies … During the J. Edgar Hoover reign, I had been the target of the FBI when they tried to plant a phony story with me about Jane Fonda. I didn’t print it, but when their attempt to use me was revealed years later, that story made the paper’s banner … When I broke the story about an actor named Bob Evans coming over to run Paramount, people thought I’d lost it. And of course there was my story about Rock Hudson having AIDS, the most difficult story I’ve ever had to print. It was July 23, 1985 when “AIDS” was an almost-unknown word. In that column about Rock heading to Paris for medical help from the Pasteur Institute I wrote, “Doctors warn that the dread disease (AIDS) is going to reach catastrophic proportions in all communities if a cure is not soon found.” Hudson’s camp denied that illness. Four years later, Feb. 15, 1989, the New York Times’ Anne Taylor Fleming wrote: “Army Archerd, who printed the information a few months before Rock Hudson’s death, was both applauded and scorned at that time. However, without Army Archerd’s column, there is a very real chance that the world might have suspected but never known what killed Rock Hudson.” Today, AIDS remains a major killer and the showbiz community sadly mourns its losses in repeated fundraisers to try and find that cure. Like I said, it was the most difficult story I’ve ever had to print. But, as Time magazine’s essay in its April 28 issue notes, “The trouble with sitting on the story — even when journalists have good reasons to hold back — the cost is public trust.” I hope I have earned your trust for the past 50 years — and as I reach what I like to call the midpoint in my career, I promise to continue to justify that trust for the next 50.