Part 39: Memories, My Sisters, Marty Melcher, Criswell and Halo
It's Sunday, August 23, 2020. The big headline for me is the California wildfires. I'll always feel like a Californian. I moved to Seattle in 1989 without visiting first. I didn't experience the famed "Seattle Chill" because I worked for regional theaters, and I made friends right away. These people who, all these years later, are still close friends. Anyway, the fires would be devastating regardless, but if I'm "from" anywhere with all our moves, it's California. The people there are "my people." Anyway, this is climate change. Politicians who don't understand that or pretend not to are simply bought and paid for, which is the biggest long con of all.
I've already mentioned that Riley's secret journal is detailed, and that he compartmentalized areas of his life in his writings; movies he saw, people he knew, women he slept with, Broadway shows he saw, and all the places he lived-- no matter how briefly. Below is a page from “people I knew." If he was keeping these lists the entire time, that's dedication. If he wrote on this down later from memory, it's amazing.
I recently had a long talk with my sister, Lisa. She's five years older than me, and has confirmed some memories, but other stories, like the one about the bird and the slingshot in Part 29 of this blog-- she didn't remember that event the same way at all. In families, memories of the past can be vastly different.
We were all there when the bird was killed in the 1970s. The three of us (me, Lisa, our mother) agree that this event happened on Pleasant Valley Road in Oxnard. In that blog, I said I was 11, but after talking to my sister, I might have been closer to 12. Lisa was 17 years old. Her memory of that event is so wildly different from mine, I decided to ask my mother what she remembered. So there are three versions of the same story.
Here's what I wrote, from part 29:
Back when I was eleven, we ended up owning a slingshot. I'm not sure where it came from, perhaps a friend had left it at our house, and it went unused. We weren't big on BB guns and slingshots and such. One day, Dad came inside, extremely pleased with himself. He began to brag to us, (me, my mother, and my older sister, Lisa) about how he aimed the slingshot at a bird in a tree and killed it on the first try. He did not get the reaction he was after.
We berated him, "Dad, how could you?" and "Why dad? What about the nest?" All of us piled on him, shouting at him that perhaps he'd killed a mother and now all the babies would starve, and what kind of a person kills birds for fun?
Riley was beaten down, and appeared to feel bad. In my memory, he felt remorse.
I texted my mother on Tuesday. I asked her if it was a peach tree, and she confirmed that it was. She didn't know what happened before the commotion. Here's what my mother remembered:
We had a slingshot. We did have a peach tree. Riley used it to kill a bird in the tree. Lisa said that he was proud of himself until he saw that you kids were upset so then he pretended that he hadn't meant to kill it. I remember coming out of the kitchen after hearing the commotion.
My sister, Lisa, doesn't remember it that way at all. She remembers birds being killed, but not by our dad. She was adamant that it wasn't Riley's idea at all, but rather our mother's idea to get rid of the birds. "Because the birds were eating the peaches," is what Lisa remembered.
Lisa said that our mother's brother, Frank participated, and that Frank was throwing rocks at the birds, and he injured one of them. In her version, there's no slingshot. You may remember that our mother promised Riley she would never contact anyone she knew before she met him, and that she went along with that demand for 9 years. Well, she bailed on that promise by 1972. So Frank, her brother, was visiting at that time.
In my sister Lisa's account, Riley saw the injured bird, and was shocked and extremely upset. In our phone call, Lisa insisted that Riley couldn't stand to see living things hurt or injured. She also brought up the blog about Jo's cat. She thinks that perhaps Dad simply didn't know how to care for a cat, and that people back then were terrible to pets because they were simply ignorant about animal welfare issues. She felt sure that Riley was upset about the cat, too.
Riley did write about the cat's death in his journal, so that says something. If he didn't care, he probably wouldn't have mentioned it. Anyway, the point is, our memories are messy and sometimes hard to sort out, and people involved might have conflicting accounts. It's hard to say what really happened.
At one point in my discoveries, I worried that my father was a sociopath, but I think now he was a severely traumatized person who didn't get the help he needed. My initial worries about Dad's behavior began when I first connected with Marion, my half-sister, because of the story she told me about how he told her bio-mom he was sterile back in the 40s, then borrowed money from her, then, finally, he vanished. Something about that story shocked me, even after all I knew about my father. It was just so....so shitty. Anyway, to refresh, Marion found me after reading Dad's obituary on a Hillbilly website around 2011.
I flew to Chicago for our first meeting, the city where Marion was conceived, born and put up for adoption. I showed Marion the photos of Riley when he was in Chicago in 1943/44, around the time Riley had an affair with her biological mother. So, another funny thing about memory. When Marion showed this photo, below, to her biological mother....
Marion's biological mother basically said to her, "No, that's not him." The thing is, Marion and I both had our DNA tested, so Riley is her biological father. Maybe it's the angle of the photo, or the lighting, but most likely after decades Marion's bio-mom simply didn't recognize him anymore.
Below is a section of Riley's secret journal where he writes down, or is trying to remember, where he was during each year. He leaves a lot out, so I'll fill in the blanks. This page deals with 1964--1974. We did move to Oxnard around 1974, but we moved three times while there. He left off two addresses, Aleric Street where we lived in an apartment, and Cypress Street, where we lived in a house at the end of a dead end street.
In 1965, Riley and Jan moved to Portland, where I was born. Dad had a job as a cook in a bar. Suddenly, when I was weeks old, Riley said he had to go to San Francisco. He wanted to see his friend, the writer and teacher Leonard Bishop, but who knows what else he was doing there.
Riley left us in a rented apartment on 1910 West Burnside. Only, he hadn't paid the rent for months. So we got evicted. Locked out, we had to stay with a woman who felt sorry for us. She was the upstairs neighbor. After several weeks staying with this lady, she cried and admitted to my mother she felt really bad, so bad about herself, because she'd been having an affair with Riley the entire time we lived in the building. We had to stay with that lady for a week or so after that confession.
My mother forgave Dad. She didn't want to be a single mother. Riley wrote some bad checks for plane tickets for us to join him in San Francisco. Once there, we lived in a shitty hotel. We moved four times in that city. Riley worked as a cook for a short time at The Cliff House.
"I think that he was trying to get to places where no one knew him," Mom said.
Eventually, we did move where people knew him, in 1966. Dad's friend, Marty Melcher, (Riley and Marty met in New York when Melcher was married to one of the Andrew sisters. He was an agent in Los Angeles by 1966, and married to Doris Day) helped us move to Hollywood. We stayed with Foy Willing at his house, then at the Lido Hotel. Riley resisted getting work in restaurants because he didn't want his friends to see him working as a cook.
On this page, "Apr. 20, 1967--Billboard" seems to refer to the sale of "The Encyclopedia of Folk Music." Perhaps that is the year he got an advance from them, which was quickly spent. Except they never got the work from him. He was upset that the publishers wanted to edit the manuscript down.
"The Encyclopedia of Folk Music" was simply too expensive to publish, and the publishers pitched a smaller version of his project, which Riley railed against. I think that was the first time he realized the whole thing was probably just too enormous, too expensive for any one company to produce as it was. I know Dad was deeply disturbed that anyone, even publishers, would change or diminish his life's work.
He also didn't want to give the cash advance back, and he never did.
"June 3, 1967 --6620 Selma Criswell" is his notation about where we lived. It was a fourplex owned by "The Amazing Criswell" and his wife, Halo Meadows. More on them in blog 67,
I'm rarely doing hyper links anymore after reading that book about what the internet is doing to our brain...but if you don't know who Criswell is, you really should. He was our landlord. Here he is in all his glory.
Criswell's wife, Halo, was the one who really owned the property. There’s a YouTube video of her singing a song she wrote on “You Bet Your Life." As mentioned, Riley got free rent at 6620 Selma Avenue because he was supposedly helping those two make it in show business, he also coached Halo with her songwriting. It was a barter of sorts. I was in the first grade when we left that address. Halo and Criswell lived right upstairs from us.
Sometimes I feel like I remember them much more, because of all the wacky stories my mother tells, especially about Halo. See more in blog 67.
We moved from that apartment when I was in the first grade. Before we took off, my father and Criswell got in a shouting match. It was so loud, the two men bellowing at one another, it felt like the walls were shaking. We moved quickly and often after we left that apartment. My parents were so hostile towards Halo and Criswell that it's hard to see them with fresh eyes.
I'd never seen these photos before. They were taken during the time we lived on Selma Street. We didn't have pictures taken often, my mother said we couldn't afford the film. If Larry Bastian hadn't contacted me and returned these boxes, I wouldn't have these pictures. I know they aren't great shots, but they are literally the only ones I have from this time with my Dad and sister.
Dad kept photographs of his children in an envelope hidden away, deep inside one of the boxes. Below, Lisa has her eyes closed, and I'm distracted by something. I can see Dad's cigars in his pocket. He smoked constantly.
Above: Me and my mother in front of Criswell's and Halo's place on Selma and Cassil. I spy a creepy doll in the left hand corner. Hollywood, April, 1968. I was three years old. The movie "The Producers" came out that year, a big turning point in my Father's life. It was his favorite film of all time. More on that, later.
I don't claim to have strong and detailed memories from an early age. My early memories are like a collage. I remember the brown sunsets in Hollywood, how our eyes would burn from the smog. We didn't have a car the entire time we lived in Hollywood, and Dad would bum rides from friends and neighbors. When it rained, my mother would point out the gasoline rainbows in the puddles, and we decided to think of that as beautiful. I remember learning about pollution, and that the source of smog, "exhaust", came from the tail pipes sticking out from all the cars. One day, I decided it would be cool to sabotage the smog makers, so I collected rocks and then I'd run behind parked cars and put them in the tail pipes. I was five years-old.
At least that's how I remember it.
Next up, blog 40. What was Riley doing with all that ASCAP stationary?