The Super Chief
By Van Dyke ParksJuly 25, 2013
IT'D BE A LONG RIDE from Princeton Junction on the Pennsylvania Railroad. I rocked to sleep in my compartment. An escapist delirium evaporated any promise I may have made to the faculty to keep on crackin’ the books. I'd been sprung from the pen, like some feral truant.
My alma mater, the American Boychoir boarding school, was hidden in a massive, columnated Greek revival mansion on an old 250-acre wooded estate in Princeton, New Jersey, once home to pharmaceutical baron Gerard Lambert. Lambert had made a killing with Listerine, the first oral antiseptic (named for Brit scientist Joseph Lister). His ads had created a mass American phobia about the social hazards of halitosis, shortly after World War I. By October '29, he'd folded his executive tent, divested himself of all his stocks — that, a prescient choice, sparing him consequences of Wall Street's collapse. Lambert then gaily pursued his passion for sailing, and captured the America’s Cup forthwith.
I found immersion there on that wooded estate in the music of dead white guys of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as modernists like Schoenberg (still alive then). The school was worlds away from, yet just close enough to, NYC, affording us a chance to perform with such great conductors as Toscanini, Stokowski, Ormandy, and Beecham. Vienna and Saint Thomas had nothing on us. We were great in the 48 States, and toured them all, annually.
The woods surrounding us offered up sassafras roots, arrowheads, and blue berries. I’d take my turn to trundle down to the kitchen, before a cold dawn's early light, to stoke Mammy Dozier’s coal-burning kitchen stove. Mammy was big on grits and pone. Black as a Tar Heel, with eyes as bright as the Dipper. We knew no racial divide.
Deer gathered at the base of the esplanade, at the salt lick. Past the rose garden statuary, we’d cross and delve into the forest primeval. The Steinway would insinuate its Chopin faintly down from the Big House to the edge of the woods. That piano bore Rachmaninoff’s signature on its harp.
On moonlit nights, a Seminole Indian classmate named Roger Manton and I would go gigging for frogs’ legs, down at the crick. It was easy pickings, floating along in our USS Cement Mixer. Huck and huckster, we'd pole down the quiet waters. Every time I'd catch the mesmerized eyes of a giant bullfrog in the beam of my flashlight, Roger would plunge the tines of his trident into the hapless sucker, and, in one fell swoop, relieve him of his legs with a machete he'd brought from Florida. That Roger was way ahead of the curve.
Our choirmaster's wife, Mrs. Bryant, loved to pan-fry the frogs in garlic butter, and Mr. Bryant would fork out 50 cents a pair. We delivered them to their chambers. Two or three frogs later, Roger and I both had made enough to hitchhike into town. Maybe take in a movie on a Saturday night in nearby Princeton. Once, in '53, we saw the macabre House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. There was a guffaw directly behind us, and we turned to see Albert Einstein in stitches and 3-D glasses. Priceless, really!
I was never bored in that boys’ boarding school, outside of Princeton, from '52–'57. It was simply, for me, the center of the universe. I was in God's pocket.
Yet the tuition was costly enough that my parents welcomed my opportunities to pick up some acting fees. It all just fell into my lap. I started out in '52, with a live TV performance alongside the Italian opera star Ezio Pinza. Thereafter I appeared on The Honeymooners, Kraft Theatre (with Walter Matthau), Mr. Peepers (with Wally Cox), Studio One (with John Cassavetes, directed by Sidney Lumet), not to mention in live productions directed by John Frankenheimer, Reginald Rose, and Howard Clurman. I was in operas (a street urchin in La Bohème at the Met, and as Amahl at the New York City Opera). I holed up at the Algonquin, sipping cold Senegalese soup in the dining room, within earshot of tables with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Fred Allen et al, in various stages of functioning alcoholism. Party invitations were volunteered at digs like Gloria Vanderbilt’s. There were worse ways to pay one’s way through a musical education.
On one live TV show (The Pharmacist), I had the leading role. Sitting next to me, in a break at dress rehearsal, was the silent siren Lillian Gish, by now reduced to cameos. I'd been informed that Miss Gish and her sister had made, with the power of their charismatic personalities, a global film industry. Although the French had invented the medium, D.W. Griffith codified it, and the Gish sisters were his Madonnas.
All was quiet on the set at NBC’s Studio 8H, at Rockefeller Plaza. I turned to the elderly, faded actress. Boldly. (I would have been 11 in '54.)
“Miss Gish, I've been told you and your sister made film an industry with your work in the silent era, because everyone loved you all over the world.”
“That's very nice of you. So true…very nice of you...”
I wasn't about to let the ball drop. I lobbed it back.
“Well Miss Gish — when you heard ‘the talkies’ were coming, weren't you... apprehensive?”
“…well, that's a good question, young man. But you see, when we heard that movies would have sound, they didn't call them ‘the talkies’ right away. All of us acting in them naturally assumed that all that sound would be just music!”
Those words of hers resonated, and made an indelible impression on me, through my adulthood.
As a boy, I figured acting was easy. If I had to cry, I’d just reflect on how our dog had died. If Mr. Gleason forgot his lines, I was there to help him toss away a few pages of script and get a few laughs by deception.
By 1955, I was going somewhere. That “somewhere” turned out to be Hollywood. I played out the Pennsylvania Railroad from Princeton, and changed trains in Chicago. My mother met me there on the platform. We embarked on an epic, sentimental journey on that fabled luxury liner, the Super Chief.
MGM’s chief Dore Shary had talked my reluctant parents into the trip. Although I was a featured player with a poster credit, The Swan’s real stars were Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. It was (but for Louis Jordan, Agnes Moorehead, Brian Ahern, Leo G. Carroll, Jesse Royce Landis, Estelle Winwood, and myself) a cast of two major players, in a minor box office romantic comedy.
Bronislaw Kaper, the great Hungarian composer, wrote the film’s exquisite score. He deftly incorporated the Rákóczi March. It was roots music, all dressed up for orchestra. Then and there, I was fascinated by the obvious art potential of film scoring. It was as if Lillian Gish hovered over Kaper’s every note. The Swan’s soundtrack album was MGM's first release. For good reason.
Aboard the Super Chief, America played out in widescreen as we plied west. Past the arable breadbasket, crow cries uncovered the cornfields. The sullen sand hills played out past the prairie grasses. Lands of lost tribes streaked by in a thousand tears, opening up a low fast sky hugging a New Mexican Indian territory. I’d seen that Land of Enchantment depicted by the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams. Now I was picking up what they'd laid down.
The book I read on that journey? My Name Is Aram, by William Saroyan.
He gave me a clue about what lay southwest of Fresno. I studied this vast land from the 360-degree panoramic sweep up in the Superdome.
Another station stop, to take on water. Time stood still on the platform in Albuquerque. There, defeated Indians in slo-mo to freeze-frame sat surrounded by their wampum in the unforgiving heat. Amid their coral and turquoise silver culture, and months of warp and woof in intricate tapestry, they pawned their goods to the fleeting First World to use for cocktail jewelry and guesthouse bedding. Indian rugs were all the rage then.
I tried to make contact with the noble savages, past the guns, germs, and steel. Poor, delusional lad. What were they thinking? Were we really forgiven?
The train finally glided to a stop in Pasadena, where the quality folk detrained. Louis B. Mayer had made it policy that none of his stars would be caught dead getting off at L.A.’s Union Station. Déclassé! Pasadena was the call.
So we got off the train, and with the chauffeur who would be my driver for the next eight weeks (“Limey,” from Liverpool), we glided into Hollywood, to Suite 3D in the Chateau Marmont. That suite was directly across from Eartha Kitt, who was all cosmo and black magic. Miss Kitt wore a silken peignoir and had a butterfly screen. She welcomed the frozen dinners I brought over. (They had just been invented that year, by Swanson.)
There were afternoons of languid lounges at a limpid poolside, with Tony Perkins, on his days off from filming Psycho. Naughty Brandon deWilde and I rolled handmade cigarettes out of The Marmont’s Laurel bush leaves. A year or two older than I, Brandon was unfazed by his celebrity as child actor in Shane. Modest to the core! Others I've met since haven't shown such ability.
I’d sure arrived. In '55.
On the Super Chief.
Van Dyke Parks is a composer, musician, arranger, and honorary musical director of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His new album Songs Cycled is now available from Bella Union Records.
Van Dyke Parks is an American composer, arranger, record producer, instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, author, and actor. Parks worked with Brian Wilson (including as lyricist to the Beach Boys' Smile project), Phil Ochs, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, Little Feat, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Ringo Starr, and Skrillax, among many others. He also produced a dozen albums of his own, most recently Songs Cycled and Super Chief: Music for the Silver Screen. He lives in Los Angeles and has generously provided incidental music for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
"Well, to me, the tensile strength and the very definition of an artist is something that I would place at the top of a vertical hierarchy. To be an artist is to suffer and to lead a life without shelter. It takes a great amount of daring-do, self reinvention, imagination, familial loyalty, sacrifice, economic uncertainty, and the right to be wrong, the right to fail in order to achieve something of noticeable value. "
– Van Dyke Parks
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