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Cary Grant

Chapter Five

o, back I was taken to Bristol without ever once performing on the stage; though I told every openmouthed classmate that I had. Still, by way of compensation, I held many an audience of small fellow Fairfieldians goggle-eyed. Some even came back for an encore and brought a friend. I demonstrated cartwheels, handsprings, nip-ups and spot rolls -- my complete theatrical repertoire up to that point. But they soon tired of me and, when I could no longer get the conversation around to my wondrous experiences in the theater and had slowly deflated to my accustomed insignificance, I grew lonely for the boys of the Pender troupe and determined to rejoin them.

Although I regret the recollection, I did my unlevel best to flunk at everything. The only class I attended with any interest and alacrity was the twice-weekly instruction in the gymnasium. I never truly enjoyed acrobatics, and wanted to keep fit, and add to my proficiency only as a means to an end.

In all other ways I confess to exasperating every professor who had the misfortune to come into contact with me.

One poor man, the singing teacher, go so choleric that he threw a bunch of keys at me. With a will to annoy him, and at the same time cleverly amuse the class, I'd been wide opening my mouth and forming exaggerated words without singing a note. I think the song was Who is Sylvia, What is She? a standard semiclassic. In retrospect, I realize my foolishness probably went unappreciated by everyone and was regarded as exactly what it was. Foolishness. I didn't deserve the luck, but those keys just missed cracking me in the mouth.

Still, y'know, I've recently seen young people on television earning a livelihood by mouthing words to someone else's song. So you can see how original I'd become even that long ago.

My, how unclever of me not to have taken cheerful advantage of every opportunity to learn, to acquire skills of any kind, when I had the chance. Instead I cut class after class. One afternoon another boy of equal curiosity and I decided to sneak over to the girls' side of the school to investigate the inside of the girls' lavatories -- known to polite Americans as rest rooms. No one was around. I kept watch at the end of the corridor while he went in to see what it looked like in there. And then just as it came my turn to explore the inner sanctum, I was suddenly, out of nowhere, shrilly nabbed by a powerful female who must have been the hockey teacher at least. Anyway, that did it. My fellow culprit dashed to freedom, and in no time at all I was on the carpet in the study of Augustus "Gussie" Smith, the headmaster. I'd been a frequent visitor there and evidently that was the last straw.

The following morning when the school filed in for morning prayer in the assembly-hall my name was called and I was marched up the steps onto the dais and taken to stand next to Gussie Smith, where, with a quivering lip that I did my best to control, I hazily heard such words as "inattentive ... irresponsible and incorrigible ... discredit to the school," and so forth, and through a trance-like mixture of emotions realized I was being publicly expelled in front of the assembled school.

I couldn't see very well as I went back down the steps to go and collect my books, but remember crossing to the bicycle shed and hearing the students' footsteps marching off to their classrooms accompanied by the familiar tinny sound of the assembly-hall piano.

The morning march-out was often played by one of the students as a reward for good grades or some other accomplishments. I had proudly and loudly played it twice. That was all I could think about as I strapped the books on the back of my bicycle and pedaled away from Fairfield.

Though he must have been very disappointed in me, my father did not reproach me when he found me at home that evening. He quietly accepted the inevitability of the news and we discussed my behavior and needs and happiness and future, until he seemed reconciled to the uselessness of hindering my purpose further. I had just turned fourteen, the legal age at which a boy could work in the world, and I was the boy who was eager to work in it. Three days later I was back with the Pender troupe; and with three months we were playing that very same Empire Theater in my hometown, by which time I was actually appearing in the act. I didn't have much to do but, with my old friends all around me backstage and my father seated in the audience, I excitedly threw myself into a performance that made up in exuberance what it lacked in experience.

Father enjoyed a glad reunion and a drink as well with Bob Pender and, after the eveningís last performance, we walked home together in the quiet summer darkness of the Bristol streets. We hardly spoke, but I felt so proud of his pleasure and so much pleasure in his pride. And I happily remember that we held hands for part of that walk.

Touring the English provinces with the troupe, I grew to appreciate the fine art of pantomime. No dialogue was used in our act and each day, on a bare stage, we learned not only dancing, tumbling and stilt-walking under the expert tuition of Bob Pender, but also how to convey a mood or meaning without words. How to establish communication silently with an audience, using the minimum of movement and expression; how best immediately and precisely to effect an emotional response ó a laugh or, sometimes, a tear. The greatest pantomimists of our day have been able to induce both at once. Charles Chaplin, Cantinflas, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Tati, Fernanel, and Englandís Richard Herne. And in bygone years Grock, the Lupino family, Bobby Clark, and the unforgettable tramp cyclist Joe Jackson; and currently the more familiar Danny Kay, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar, and even Jack Benny with his slow, calculated reactions. Surprisingly, Hitchcock is one of the most subtle pantomimists of them all; itís such a pity he doesnít do it professionally, so that everyone might have the joy of watching him as I have.

While playing the great Gulliver circuit of vaudeville theaters in London, most of us boys lived with Mr. and Mrs. Pender in their big suburban home in Brixton. It had a long garden walk at the front and a smaller garden at back, and was quite near (as we always brightly informed every other vaudevillian) to the house of Lady de Frece, better known as Vesta Tilley, the greatest music-hall star of that day.

We slept in dormitory-style rooms. Lights out at ten; up, washed, dressed, and downstairs for breakfast at seven-thirty; followed by an hourís reading or recreation and later the morningís limbering-up exercises.

One day a lady in the next-door house walked to the front gate, past the trees where she could get a clearer view of a daylight air raid, and was swiftly and shockingly decapitated by a piece of shrapnel in the morning sun of her English garden.

The day that first world war ended we were playing in Preston, Lancashire. There were very few people in the theater that evening, and after the show I walked around the center of town with some of the other boys. The streets were filled with people, but there didnít seem to be any particular gaiety. As in every other town in England, so many of Prestonís families had lost a husband or son, or someone close to them, that the finish of the war was hardly and occasion for revelry but rather for reverie. Their only consolation was that there was never, never again to be another war. No. Never. That was on November 11, 1918.

I spent the following Christmas at Colwyn Bay, a small seaside town in Wales. Playing in a theater built on, of all windy wintry places, a pier. So many young former members of the company were already being discharged from the army that Bob Pender obtained engagements for two complete troupes in the type of Christmas shows that so particularly suited our tumbling talents: the traditional English pantomimes. Which arenít pantomimes at all, by the way, but fairy stories such as Cinderella, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, and so on, told in part musical-comedy and part slapstick form. Theyíre colorfully and quite expensively presented in most English towns for usually, a packed eight-week run. The best troupe, the older troupe, played the better pantomime in Liverpool.

So thatís how I came to be in cold Colwyn Bay; walking the next-to-highest stilts in a graduated line of other stilt walkers, with my head inside a huge papier-mache mask on which sat a large, white, limp ladyís bonnet with a frill around it, and my elongated body and long long legs encased in a great calico dress that had frilled collar and cuffs to match the hat. Well, naturally! It was the most spectacular of the many acts we performed to delight children who yearly sit entranced at the magic of English pantomime.

But it was the London tours to which we all looked forward most, and I nostalgically remember scrambling for the front seat on top of open-air buses or top decks of the tramcars in order to have an unobstructed view of every journey. It was on such trips that I learned to love each district, each section of London. I still do.

At each theater I carefully watched the celebrated headline artists from the wings, and grew to respect the diligence and application and long experience it took to acquire such expert timing and unaffected confidence, the amount of effort that resulted in such effortlessness. I strove to make everything I did at least appear relaxed. Perhaps by relaxing outwardly I could eventually relax inwardly. Sometimes I even began to enjoy myself on the stage.

The troupe prospered and expanded and I got a raise to 1 pound a week pocket money (almost $5 at the rate of exchange in those days, and whatís more it bought more), and one day Bob Pender announced the longed-for news that heíd booked an engagement for himself and a company of eight boys to appear in a Charles Dillingham production at the Globe Theater in New York City!

And who do you think was one of those eight boys selected to go? I was. I. Thatís who.

In July, 1920, we sailed for America on the S.S. Olympic and cloud eight.

Among the fellow passengers were newlyweds Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, the worldís most popular honeymooners and the first film stars I ever met. They were gracious and patient in face of constant harassment, by people with cameras and autograph books, whenever they appeared on deck; and once even I found myself being photographed with Mr. Fairbanks during a game of shuffleboard. As I stood beside him I tried with shy, inadequate words to tell him of my adulation. He was a splendidly trained athlete and acrobat, affable and warmed by success and well-being. A gentleman in the true sense of the word. A gentle man. Only a strong man can be gentle; and it suddenly dawns on me as this is being written that Iíve doggedly striven to keep tanned ever since, only because of a desire to emulate his healthful appearance.

Some time later, when our company played in Los Angeles, he invited us to watch him work at his United Artists Studio on the Thief of Bagdad sets; and later again, at a preview of mine, he complimented me on a performance Iíd given, and my cup overflowed. I felt no urge to remind him that weíd met twice before; it didnít seem necessary; it was enough to feel the glow of his goodwill. His son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with whom I share a long friendship, is endowed with the same friendliness of manner and consideration for his fellowman. Each year, as his family grows, I pleasurably look forward to a Christmas card bearing their latest photograph taken at their home in London.

But I wasnít thinking about London aboard the S.S. Olympic. London was behind me. I would soon be in New York City, and unlikely ever to meet any more film stars. I was sixteen and, therefore, knew that I knew everything. It was just that I hadnít seen everything. And I hadnít.

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