LITTLE HOUSE ON…the Back Lot!

Tab Hunter, Lyle Bettger, Alec Guinness, Doris Day, Audie Murphy, Curt Jurgens, Sessue Hayakawa, James Whitmore and Gloria Grahame all lived in my back yard in the early fifties.  So did Johnny Lillich, Craig Langohr, Jill Whiteleather, Steve More, Lester Gaff, Jane Ann Morsches, Mary Ann and Martha Squires.  Still wishing that Bobby Morsches mighta dropped by once in awhile, too!

My surrogate grandpa whom I nicknamed “Uncle Jim”, so as not to imply his elderly status, and my daddy built a 10 ft. by 10 ft. imperfectly square Play House crafted from discarded Blue Bell button boxes and equipped with an inter-office phone system.  Uncle Jim Elliott, spelled with “two Ls and two Ts”, not only served as a Presbyterian deacon but also as master of all trades thus rating as THE accomplished architect if the truth be told.  My dad probably held the ladder steady and handed up the tools much like a surgeon’s nurse.  My mom often advised that we never ask Daddy for the “stars” since his talent for climbing ladders seemed non-existent!

Childhood’s assignment?  Play house!  As well as airplane cockpit, grocery store, tea party, army barracks, New York Madison Avenue advertising office, recording studio, Wimbledon “Croquet” Cup headquarters, and mostly movie set.  Exhausting! Young imaginations ran rampant.  History got made.  Popularity belonged to the Duncan sisters for approximately a half dozen summers.

Our side-yard served as a tennis court located somewhere akin to Malibu where PAT AND MIKE enjoyed re-enactment minus Hepburn and Tracy but instead starring a couple of sweaty seven year olds chasing badminton shuttlecocks!  World War II AND Korean War victories emerged from a command center supervised by some kid posing as a tough general, impersonating John Wayne at his highest and mightiest!  POW camps a la STALAG 17 maybe occurred when we were at our grimmest.  BATTLE CRY! 

Acrobatic, aerial, high wire routines, borrowed from DeMille’s GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, achieved perfection through exquisite configuration of a series of step ladders, jump-ropes, hammocks and lawn furniture strewn about our freshly mown lawn.  Conversations with the Chinese happened down holes we dug to the other side of the world. Toy metal cash registers often doubled as typewriters, depending upon our moods…Kroger checker-outers or secretarial pools?  Virginia Lillich’s land-scaping transformed into the over-grown jungles found in the “valley of the Kwai”!

To re-shoot NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, the kiddie pool filled to over-flowing via the garden hose, our water-bill for the following month shot up certainly as we replicated the English Channel, Pacific Ocean or a Beverly Hills pool.  Our synchronized swimming routines performed to the cadence of the sprinkler showering the grass, Esther, Fernando, Ricardo and even Red Skelton pranced to and fro from alley to the REAR (kitchen) WINDOW for hours.

Gender roles not yet set in stone, everybody portrayed everybody cinematic!  To RE-produce, from photographic memory, the soaper MIRACLE IN THE RAIN, recently viewed at Columbia Theater on the corner of Van Buren and Main Streets, I played soldier Van Johnson to Susy Alberty’s weeping, dying Jane Wyman mimicry upon the tiny stoop doubling as the majestic marble steps of a New York cathedral— caught in a downpour. Soggy conclusion.

Films featuring a wintry theme such as THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS or ON MOONLIGHT BAY achieved the loftiest of production values “on location” at the number 5 hole of Crooked Lake Golf Course so that sledding might be featured accurately—whizzing down that divinely steep hill. 

Sure, westerns got shot–pardon the pun–Mother often declaring that Hollywood Indians frightened her. My tiny nephew Jimmy soothed her soul:  “Injuns are nothin’ but cowboys – only with feathers!”  Spurs, ten-gallon hats, boots, pistols, and bows and arrows all rested, when not in use, within a closed toy chest where all of that stuff actually belonged in my opinion.  (THE VIRGINIAN Joel McRae warned, “Smile when you say THAT!”)

One tiny Spinet piano with plastic keys and a plunky sound delivery, as well as a record player covered with blue bunny decals, rounded out the furnishings.  Each time we scuffled barefoot along the concrete floor divided by a huge crevice from west wall to east wall, while placing the phonograph arm/stylus with its often missing needle onto Jerry Lewis’s The Noisy Eater, Poor People of Paris, Perez Prado’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Moonglow (the Picnic Theme), or Earl Grant’s Ebb Tide, we got miserably yet momentarily shocked.  Nothing more divine than playtime characterized by edginess! 

Two phones, one in “mama’s kitchen” and the other all ours, provided the highlight of “hit of the neighborhood” revelry emanating from the PLAYHOUSE.  Bunches of squealing, mobile kids rushing frantically about the real house and our outback house just to call one another repeatedly.  Press that mother-of-pearl button. Then listen to incessant ring-ring-ringing; conversations began non-stop.  So odd that a “freakish” electrical storm happened to terminate our out-going calls but NOT in-coming messages to “headquarters” FROM parents instructing that all drama must end for the day and that kids should return to their own homes–before sunset–to eat suppers which might be getting cold!

(Side-note:  Don and Marjorie Souder operated a “Mom & Pop” grocery store directly behind our house across the alley from the Playhouse…so If Mother failed to stock the easily accessible freezer with enough Popsicles, “Mom” Souder “would provide” in exchange for a handful of nickels.)

Recollections: of another layer of wall-paper to eradicate the mustiness each grand-opening season; of one wall consistently covered by thumb-tacked Photoplay or Silver Screen magazines’ slick pix of movie stars we adored like Glenn Ford, Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, or Carmen Miranda; of a Dutch-style front door which allowed “bikers and trikers” to ride past as if in cars while we attached recycled Blue Bell Cafeteria trays to the “vehicles”.  Our menu items? Plastic cheese-burgers accompanied by vegetable soup concocted from water embellished with cut-outs of paper carrots, beans, and peas afloat.  Yes, car-hops without the hopping!

“Those were the days, my friends. We thought they’d never end.”  I could reveal so very much more for the right price?  However, as Jimmy Cagney “might” have sneered in the Navy flick MISTER ROBERTS, “Loose lips sink ships!”  And I still know all of these play-mates and encounter them at Kroger’s—the real Kroger’s—once in awhile, so our secrets will die with me to be buried at sea.

“Anchors Aweigh, my boys. Anchors Aweigh. Farewell to college joys. We sail at break of day, ‘ay ‘ay ‘ay. O’er our last night ashore — Drink to the foam. Until we meet once more–Here’s wishing you a happy voyage home.”  ( ~Lottman-Savino published around 1950 in London)  THE END.

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