Part 71: Road To Rio
Recently, my friend Tom was in a run down section of Costa Mesa (in an alley) and he snapped these two photos. He texted me the images and wrote, "I thought this might remind you of your childhood in Hollywood."
Which was both depressing and hilarious... it makes me happy to have a friend that knows me so well, and has this kind of humor.
Back to Hollywood around 1972. Riley preferred the anchorman Walter Cronkite for the evening news. Ronald Reagan was governor of California---making huge cuts to the Department of Mental Hygiene or Mental Health Services, Nixon was president, the Watergate Scandal about to bust out. My future husband, signed up automatically on his 18th birthday, was in the lottery for Vietnam, but his number was high, so he didn't have to go. Charlie Manson was in the news, he and his followers had been convicted of seven murders in 1969. Our family friend, I think his name was Dwight, was a musician and had given Charlie Manson guitar lessons. Dwight gave lessons out of his apartment, so...I mean...Charlie Manson knew where he lived...he thought Charlie was odd, (and probably not talented) but the news he was a murderer scared the shit out of him----Dwight became paranoid and made plans to leave the country.
People were freaking out because Jane Fonda, actress and the daughter of movie star Henry Fonda, posed for a photograph in Vietnam protesting the war. I think people still freak out over that, after almost fifty years.
Riley moved us again to another apartment which had small windows, it felt like a cave. We didn’t stay there long, but school districts changed. This apartment and whatever happened there is a blur.
Next, we moved to an apartment two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard, and a block from the freeway. It resembled a motel. The ceiling was rough, it looked like it had been sprayed with cottage cheese, except somehow even chunkier, and the walls were bright white— the color of Cool Whip. The place smelled like Lysol and carpet cleaner.
Jan unpacked her art supplies, Riley lit up, and the familiar scent of turpentine, paint thinner, and cigar smoke made it seem more like home. The apartment had a courtyard, but instead of a garden or a pool, it was where all the tenants parked their cars, (more tailpipes to destroy, for sure, but I’d lost interest in that secret mission) and where we would’ve parked if we'd owned a car. Our spot stayed open for Riley’s friends. Our musician friends Joe and Matt continued to work on the musical notations for the encyclopedia, but Riley stopped promoting it for a while, I’m not sure why.
My mother’s migraines increased in this place. She spent a lot of time with a pillow over her head in the dark.
Right away, before we unpacked, Riley plunked our old television set on a pile of boxes, which held the encyclopedia and sheet music. The sound from the TV made it seem more like our home, too.
We ended up watching a lot of old movies together. Our favorite series of films were “The Road Movies” starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. Riley made a chocolate cream pie, and we sat together, watching and eating.
My eyes were glued to the screen, the opening credits blaring from the set. Road to Rio. Little cartoon feet footsteps on a map illustrated the journey Bob and Bing embarked on, kissing girls and telling them fake names, the two men always broke and looking for a way to get by. I didn’t really understand some of the action. In the beginning, the guys barely escaped danger when Bob got caught seducing a young woman, her angry male relative chased after him.
As Bob and Bing were sneaking out of a hotel window to avoid paying, I looked over at Riley, his hand hanging over the arm rest, a cigar poised between his index and middle fingers, the ashes growing precariously longer. I looked back at the screen, and back to him, and back to the screen.
Now, Bob and Bing were stowing away on a ship that was about to set sail.
“Dad, why did he tell the girl his name was Frank Sinatra?” Riley’s mouth was open, his eyes closed.
“Riley. Wake up.”
He startled. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“Yes, you were. You’re missing it.”
“I was just resting my eyes.” Dad looked at the screen and shook his cigar over the ashtray. “I’ve seen this before. When it first came out, long before you were born. The Andrew Sisters are in this one.”
He was always right. The Andrew Sisters appeared in a musical number with a band.
In the middle of the sister’s song and dance, the phone rang. I looked at the phone, and then at Riley.
“Don’t answer that,” he said.
Jan came out of the bedroom, her face puffy, her hair tied back.
“Aren’t you gonna answer that? It’s too loud in here,” Jan said, clutching her old feather pillow, which she used to cover her head while she slept.
The phone rang while my parents bickered.
“Turn the TV down a little bit,” Riley said to me. I got up and slowly turned the dial until it sounded lower. The phone stopped ringing.
“That’s better,” Jan said, her eyes squinting. “Don’t let the phone ring like that.” She looked exhausted and pale, like a vampire snuck in and drained her blood.
“What can I get you?” Riley asked her.
“Nothing. I just need it quiet and dark.” She turned around and shuffled back into the bedroom.
We went back to watching. I tried to figure out what we’d missed.
“Patty is the youngest of the sisters,” Riley said, going right back into movie land. “She was married to Marty Melcher, but he left her for Doris Day.”
I had no idea what he was talking about half the time, but that never stopped him. By the time I went to college my head was full of useless information—Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and Myrna Loy had a boring last name like Williams, the love of Elizabeth Taylor’s life wasn’t Richard Burton, but a director named Mike Todd. He died in a plane crash in the late 1950s.
Back then, I wondered what name I’d be given when I became a starlet. Riley named me Stacy, but surely when I became a famous actress my agent would insist on a new name.
“Road to Rio” was my new favorite. Watching the two men wander from place to place, fooling people, sneaking out of hotel windows to avoid paying bills, (with no punishment!) was thrilling. I finished off my cream pie.
The phone started to ring again. Riley smashed the lit end of his cigar out in the chunky ashtray. He turned to me. “Ok, listen to me. Pick it up and no matter who they ask for, tell them they have the wrong number. No such person here. You understand?”
I nodded and scurried over to the phone, picking up the receiver.
“Hello,” I said quietly.
“Is your father there?” It was a man’s voice.
“You have the wrong number.”
There was a slight pause.
“Is Riley Shepard there?” The caller seemed confused.
I shot a look at Riley. He shook his head, making his eyes wide like Buster Keaton in the silent films.
“You have the wrong number.” I hung up the phone and looked at Riley.
“You did good, kid.” He smiled at me, and I basked in the glow of his approval.
I sat in front of the TV in time to see Bob Hope blowing on his trumpet, big cartoon bubbles floating out.
Rewatching "Road to Rio" as an adult made me shudder, it doesn’t hold up--- the story is downright creepy. Dorothy Lamour plays a wealthy woman who falls under the spell of a hypnotist who wants her fortune, and Bob and Bing are supposedly going to save her. Both men want to get romantic with Dorothy, she chooses Bing, but Bob ends up learning how to hypnotize her to trick her into staying in his room. Yikes.
The guys are broke and homeless, they seem to be without any relations or responsibilities, getting gigs and women where they can, avoiding paying for anything. I can see why Riley loved that series so much.