Issue: Spring 2020

A Tree Grew in Hollywood

Judy Raphael

One Magical Day

We lived above the Boulevard. Past Franklin Avenue, on La Brea Terrace, where the road forked to the right. It was an old-fashioned two story house with storybook windows, built in 1910 nearly 40 years earlier (by a producer named Schulberg whose son became a screenwriter). And trees to climb.

A towering tree reached the western-most upstairs window, shading a sloping ledge, big as a balcony.

It was the ledge outside my room.

I had passed early childhood shyness and it was brief window of time that curiosity forged a new boldness in me.

I could stand across the road, outside the ivy-covered mansion of the actress, Linda Darnell, cajoling her to come out, as she sunned herself on the patio, while my brother stood by with his nervous crush.

He was eleven, and it was he who Mother armed with two quarters to walk us down to the Egyptian Theater to see the latest John Wayne matinee on Saturdays. With his superior knowledge of life, he knew where Superman hid in the canyons of Outpost Drive—though each time he led me there, the caped crusader had mysteriously fled.

But he who could be my protector could also turn tormentor and taunt me with the scariest verses of Ghost Riders In the Sky, changing them so that the souls of bad sisters forever roamed the sky.

Or, as this one time, when the teasing got to be too much, my mother was resting with a book. No anguished plea on dramatic cries of  “punish him, mommy!” swayed her.

There was a blueprint for running away set by TV and movie children in shorts like The Little Rascals.  They would tie ropes or knot sheets from an upstairs window to the ground.

I didn’t have a rope, but I did have a tree.

The tree would be my escape.

One thick leafy branch of the tree had grown so that it hung onto the ledge, within grasping distance. Could I?

I shook my piggybank of its lifetime savings (100 pennies), and wrapped them up into the red bandana and tied it to a stick, hobo-style (another blueprint set by movie children and especially wily cartoon animals).

I ran to the window, opened it and gingerly climbed out onto the ledge. I reached for the sprawling shelter of the uppermost branch, and swung out onto it, and to the branch beneath, grasping the trunk I went. And down and down. I shimmied down, skinning my knees in my blue gingham sundress as I went—landing on the soft plot of earth below. Freedom!

Down the driveway I ran, past the blue, flower-bearing hedges that shielded the gates to the Spanish courtyard apartment house below, and its longing tenants in Hollywood sunglasses. And down to the foothills, past rows of bungalows. I was on a mission.

The Boulevard. In trips with my elders, I’d witnessed the treasures that lay beneath the hill: the cigar store with its wooden Indian out front, the red and white-striped barber pole, and right near Woolworth’s, where writing pads of every color and pencils with odd-shaped erasers could be bought for a penny.

Just went of the Egyptian theater, its door opening into the courtyard, sat a fancy restaurant, The Pig’n Whistle, where Mother often took us for special lunches and children’s “Shirley Temple” sodas. Later, I’d learn all kinds of movie stars came there after premieres. But my main attraction to it was the pigs—flute-playing plaster pigs on the marquis, carved pigs on the wooden bench backs and best of all, pig-faced menus with strings to turn them into masks. The restaurant also had an ice-cream parlor and candy counter up front. That would be my destination.

I ran to the Boulevard, and then one, two, three, four, five, six blocks, seven blocks down… I was there. I straight-arrowed toward the soda fountain and climbed up on a stool. Amazingly, no one found in strange to see a small child alone carrying a hobo’s knapsack. The waitress, serious-faced, took my order for a cherry coke, as I carefully counted out ten pennies from the bandana.

Coke in hand, I happily watched the passing parade of Boulevard regulars and freaks: the dwarf who sold the Citizen News and his friend, a giant, the Boulevard “Buffalo Bill”, in old-west regalia, who greeted passersby ringing a cowbell, and countless bearded, sandaled nature boys, and cowboys (probably extras from RKO and all the nearby studios).

Thus I sipped away the afternoon, accepting refill after refill, taking in the new world, but shielded by plate glass.

Then I saw the little girl. “She” was in a frilly pink pinafore, huge pink bow atop yellow curls, and patent-leather dress-up shoes. We often saw her from the distance of the car, walking around the Boulevard, the back of her head to traffic. But I’d never seen her up close. Now she was coming my way from across the street, her patent-leather Mary Janes audibly tip-tap-tapping against the pavement.

Tippedy-tappedy tapedy. Tappedy-tappedy-tip. Closer and closer she came, and… as she turned her head toward the window… why—it wasn’t a little girl at all! As she turned, she revealed the painted-on eyebrows of a Raggedy Anne Doll, and a mouth garishly swiped scarlet. The hair was a yellow cotton wig! She was old—maybe 50!

I stared at this Boulevard Baby Jane as politely as I could, as Mom and Dad had taught me—awe and fear overridden by a child’s fascination and amusement. Her eyes, vacant, seemed to zero in on me. I kept looking. The scarlet mouth opened into a grin that turned into a silent laugh, as she seemed to be looking at me. Then into a scowl. I closed my eyes tight, opened them, shut them again, she was gone, tip-tap-tapping her back up the street, away from the plate-glass window, growing smaller and smaller. Tappedy-tappedy-tap.

Had she really said, “Go home, little girl?” before she tip-tapped away?

Outside, the afternoon sun had begun to wane, casting long shadows out onto the street. The scene’s cast of characters had drifted off, each one slowly metamorphosing into normal shoppers returning from the London Shop or tobacco store, stopping for a newspaper at the stand on their way home.

“I bet your mother’s thinking about you right now,” said the waitress as she pushed the ‘cherry’ button and squished liquid into a glass, her light remark cutting into my resolve. “I better go,”  I said, to nobody in particular. I got down, scraping the floor with the stool, leaving a look of surprise on the waitress’ face, I went out the door. Then I was out and back on Hollywood Boulevard.

I wound my way up the hill—a steeper and far harder trip going back, and slipped in through the front door. From the hall entrance, I could see Mommy in the kitchen. She looked up and greeted me vaguely. If she’d noticed that I’d been gone, she did not show it.

I gripped the banister and made my way upstairs, where my brother was nowhere in sight—a strangely hollow victory.

Back in my room, I lay down on the red and white spread, and clicked on the pink portable radio, where Sky King was just beginning. Soon, Daddy would be home.

I glanced out the window. The sky was darker now, and the leaves of the tree silhouetted against it, made patterns against the pane if you half-closed your lids, in the dim light, you could see worlds beyond the Boulevard, worlds filled with every kind of character imaginable—hobos, actresses, midgets, friendly strangers and cowboys, Superman, and any number of caped Crusaders. Someday I would find where they hid.

(Editor’s note: Through the years, the late Judy Raphael wrote several articles for this publication. This was her last. We shared a deep love of Hollywood and its quirks. She is missed.)