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Giving up on Show Business

Aria was out of town trying to set up a summer stock company in Pennsylvania. Money was so low I lived on day-old skimmed milk (which I could buy for eleven cents a quart), oatmeal (a plain brown paper five pound bag sold for fifty cents), and bulk brown sugar (at a nickel a pound). That lasted about two weeks and I’m surprised that even today I don’t hate oatmeal. I varied it periodically, sometimes adding raisins (very good), and once even chopped celery (not recommended).

Thursdays, when I went to my parents’ for dinner, my mother had a standing rib roast and I had two big helpings of everything. As I was getting ready to leave, my father would try to push a bill in my hand, but I refused. "Thanks, Pop, but I really don’t need it." I think he was hurting for me, a little proud of me, too, though he never said anything. I always had the nickel in my pocket to take the subway home, and sometimes as much as thirty-five cents.

In November, a stock job came along. Winter stock was becoming a staple in some of the southern states that enjoyed a winter tourist season. We were to open the season. The week’s rehearsal took place at the theater in South Carolina. Room and board went with the deal.

At the end of the first week, all of a sudden, there was no producer. He’d taken off with the box office receipts and left everybody hanging. We had our train tickets back to New York and that was it. Equity always demanded a bond be posted so that the actors would at least be paid for two weeks in such an event. But this guy who’d hired us had stalled Equity through the rehearsal week and the week we played.

Back in New York, I found a job as night bartender at a little restaurant on 46th street, west of Sixth Avenue. The work was from ten-thirty at night until closing at two in the morning. I bought a thin edition of the bartender’s guide, studied up on a few dozen cocktails, and applied for the work.

If anybody asked for a sazarac, I was ready for them.

Most of the drinks I was asked for were scotch on the rocks, with water or soda. Same with bourbon. Every once in a while someone would ask if I could make a particular cocktail. I’d just open the little bartender’s guide and wade in as if I knew precisely what I was doing. Never had a complaint.

One evening about five, there was a knock on the door of our apartment and I opened it to find a little bit of a thing, wearing platform shoes (the rage then), which brought her height to about five-foot-two. She had a very pretty face with a cute figure and snapping light-blue eyes. She was dressed to the nines and had a charming manner that lit up the hall. I towered over her.

She looked at my feet and let her eyes move all the way to the top of my head, then smiled and said, "My, you’re a big one." We became instant friends and have remained so through the years, almost like brother and sister.

Lindsey Taylor had started out as an actress and had some experience as a summer stock producer at a theater in Sea Cliff, Long Island. She sat down to talk with Aria, and before their meeting broke up, Aria had rented her the front bedroom off the living room of her part of the apartment.

Money was tight and Lindsey’s addition eased the burden. I thought of Aunt Carolyn’s psychic, Mrs. Tovorazzi, whom I’d never met.

I went to see her. Her price had gone up, as had everything. She now charged, five dollars. She didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. But then she said something that made me wonder.

"You will find," she said, "your fortune in the Southwest." I didn’t, at that time, associate Hollywood as part of the Southwest, though of course it is. I came away from her reading with less hope than when I’d gone in.

By 1949, with no show business work in sight, I began to feel like I was on a never-ending merry-go-round. I would turn twenty-six that spring and had nothing to show for it; at least nothing that I could put my finger on. It seemed the harder I reached for it, the farther away it got. There were a thousand guys like me out there, and I’d come to a reckoning that there was nothing special about me that set me apart. It was a depressing and completely empty feeling.

I couldn’t associate anything with Mrs. Tavorozzi’s words. The Southwest? That sounded crazier than her telling my father she saw millions at a time when he could hardly pay the rent. For all the right things she’d said to my family over the years, it was quite possible for her to be wrong now and then. I quess when you lose faith, you lose it in everything.

I’d gotten to a point where I just couldn’t accept any more rejection. Unlike a lot of those other thousand guys I, at least, had another place to go.

I called my father at his office. When I told him I was throwing in the towel, I think he felt both happy that I was coming into his business and sad for me. He’d never seen me work so hard at anything before.

"You know," he said, "according to our agreement your five years aren’t up yet."

"I know, but almost," I said.

"If you want to keep trying a little longer, I can help you out."

I was so touched, I didn’t know how to answer him for a few moments. "Thanks, Pop, but I think I’ve about had it."

"All right. When you’re ready to start, come in and talk to Walter. I can’t get involved, and you’ll have to start at the bottom, probably in the shipping department. That’s his area."

"I know. You run the office. Tell Walter I’ll be in at nine tomorrow morning."

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