Sunday, June 19, 2011

Name Dropping

In February, 1983, my brother was in an automobile accident. He spent close to three weeks in a hospital in Ithaca, NY. Of the many trips we made to Ithaca in that time, one was just my father and me. Dad could always fill the quiet of a forty-minute car ride with questions about classmates, talk of books, what-have-you. We reached a cross roads outside Ithaca and he broke in to a rare moment of nostalgia (unlike my mother, Dad really didn't talk a whole lot about his childhood, at least when I was under the age of 18; apparently he decided it was rated "R" or something . . .). "I remember hitchhiking down this road when I was in college," he said.

"Really," I said, being at that point in my life incapable of picturing a younger version of my father doing anything as remotely un-Dad-like as hitchhiking.

"A couple friends and I decided to go to Binghamton for a party. One of my friends had a friend there who lived with his parents, and they were away."

It was getting more interesting by the minute. A couple years later, having experienced a few college-age parties myself, I would understand even more what he was talking about.

The next question was more in the way of chatter on my part. "Do you remember who they were?"

"Well, the friend was Richard Deacon. We were hitching to Binghamton to go to Rod Serling's house for a party."

For the first, but not the last time in my life, I was quite literally speechless.

For those who may not remember the name, Richard Deacon played Dick Van Dyke's boss on his eponymous show. Rod Serling, well, if you don't know the name, you can stop reading now.

When my father graduated from Waverly High School in 1939, he received some money to study violin at an institute affiliated with Carnegie Hall in New York. When I started college - a bare few months after the aforementioned conversation - he told me that his father wanted him to go to Syracuse University and study journalism. He mentioned this because we had met one of the music performance professors at Alfred University, and Dad confessed to me that he had wanted me to study piano, then recounted his own struggles with his parents as a way of reminding both of us that being a parent includes letting our children make their own choices.

When he arrived in New York City, he ditched his fiddle and took up classes in theater. Since it was all paid for, it didn't really matter all that much, although it probably didn't please either George or Grace (he always referred to his parents by their first names). A tiny bit of his story from that time came to my attention several years later.

I was back at the homestead for a visit at some point in the early 1990's, and saw Dad was reading Kirk Douglas' memoir, Ragpicker's Son. He had a page toward the front of the book marked and since it wasn't hidden away somewhere, I checked out what it might be. Douglas was recounting his early time learning theater, and how cold his first year was. Being poor, he couldn't afford a proper jacket, and he writes in the book that another classmate of his, "Betty", gave him one. Betty would change her name in a couple years, impressing millions of American men when she says to Humphrey Bogart, "You know how to whistle, don't you? You put your lips together and blow." Apparently, Bogart was impressed, too, because he married her, only her name then was Lauren.

I asked Dad why he had marked that particular passage, and he gave me a funny look - angry? frustrated? ironic? - and said, "That was my coat." See, Dad's roommate at the time he was studying theater and acting was this really dirt-poor son of Russian immigrants. He decided to call himself Kirk. The only reason "Betty" spoke to this poor rag-picker's son at all was because he was friends with my father, with whom she was friendly (although he would tell me later that she was, well, let's just say an unpleasant person, highly ambitious, quite willing to discard some and latch on to others whom she felt might help her get what she wanted; when I told him that I thought she was among the more beautiful women in Hollywood from that era, he said she was even more beautiful in person).

At that point, I had known about my father's associations with all sorts of folks whose names were well-known. I had even known that he and the actor who would become Kirk Douglas had roomed together in New York during his first stretch of time living there. When my grandmother died in July, 1984, she left behind 95 years of collected mementos through which her three surviving children had to spend years sifting. Among them were more photos than you could shake a stick at. At home for Christmas break later that year, one night Dad was sitting in his usual chair, photos scattered about the living room in various piles. I asked if I could look at some of them - you always asked in my house before you touched anything - and he said, "Of course." I was glancing through some that appeared to be a group of young people sitting at a restaurant. One made me stop short, because in the picture was my grandmother - much younger, of course - sitting next to a young man with chiseled good looks, his dimpled chin recognizable immediately. It was then I learned about Dad's friendship with Kirk Douglas.

My grandparents suffered much less than many families during the Great Depression because my grandfather never lost his job. In 1931, when many people were abandoning the land, he bought a hundred acres and a house in Lockwood, NY, about seven miles north of Waverly. I think he did it because living in the big red house on Waverly Street had become intolerable to his wife, inconsolable after the death of their oldest son three years previously. My father's family was hardly wealthy, but having a job, farm hands, extra cash was a rare thing for far too many people at the time. Douglas, coming from extreme poverty and looking it, aroused a bit of pity on the part of my grandmother, who told my father to give him his, Dad's, old coat and she would buy him a new one. Thus the source of the coat which Douglas either misremembered coming from Lauren Bacall, or perhaps simply erased by father, who had not become a household name, from the record of his life.

The picture was from a party thrown by some of Dad's theater friends after he got out of the Army in 1946. He was struggling with the decision of either going back to New York or returning to Ithaca College and finishing his degree. He told our English class that his early experience in theater taught him how important education was; so many of the other young hopefuls around him had college degrees. He realized that he wouldn't make it unless he got some education, for the simple reason they got the better parts. He had hopped back and forth between New York and Ithaca between 1939 and 1945 when he entered the Army, with an autumn in Hollywood trying to get a studio contract. He ended up going to Ithaca, putting him on a road to that hitchhiking trip to Rod Serling's. Before then, though, he had a little party thrown for him, and someone took some pictures, including one of my grandmother sitting and laughing at a table with, among others Kirk Douglas.

In the late 1940's, after college but before he settled in to his decision to teach, he was back in New York City, the hub of early television. He did some work on Playhouse One and some of those other anthology shows. I remember him telling me about an appearance with Boris Karloff. Karloff was a Capt. Bligh type, with my father an equally unpleasant leader of a gang of mutineers. He told me he had to do the entire thing shirtless, his skin oiled and dirty to look tanned. The set was a cutaway of an old sailing ship, cramped, and extremely hot, he said.

He was in a summer company in Rhode Island in the 1950's that featured Eva Gabor (let's just say she was not well-liked by the company), Claude Rains ("Hark, I hear the Assyrians!"; my father missed his cue, having fallen asleep standing up backstage waiting for it, and Rains had to scream the line three time before he dashed on stage; he apologized to Rains after the performance, to which Capt. Renault replied, "That's OK, Dan. The show is a piece of shit, anyway.") It was there my father worked with an aging, but still vital, Mae West, laughing about the young "bodyguard" she dragged behind her on an invisible leash.

While I was growing up, my father did community theater work, summer stock at Bristol Valley Playhouse in Naples. In the early 1990's he landed the role of Sam Clemens' father-in-law at the Mark Twain musical drama in Elmira. Later he would work at Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott, finally landing a part in the Caucasian Chalk Circle in Ithaca, probably the late-life role of which he was most proud (I remember hearing that he kissed another man full on the mouth in that show, not something light but a good old-fashioned snog, and thinking that his acting skills had to be top-notch; there are just some things I cannot picture my father doing, and that's four of them).

Both my parents led the most interesting lives before they met, married, and settled down to the impossible task of raising a family, and I had always wanted to live that same kind of life - living in all sorts of places, meeting interesting people - and now, looking back, I think I did. There is a part of me that has always been a little in awe of the life my father led before he ended up settling down, marrying my mother, spending the bulk of his working years teaching - the old Van Etten school, Sayre High School, Tioga Center High School, then Waverly High School, from 1964 until he retired in 1988 - with his summers spent in various locations doing odd jobs (mowing at a Christmas Tree farm outside Athens,PA has always been one my favorite jobs he did), working at a local furniture store, a hardware/automotive store. On this Father's Day, I just wanted to honor the life Daniel Safford led in the real passion of his life. Whether he ever was frustrated by not achieving the kind of recognition, not to mention financial independence, some of his acquaintances achieved I cannot answer; that's one of those questions I have always been afraid to ask him. All the same, more than anything else he did, I know Dad was always happiest under the lights, a crowd in front of him. I want to remember him that way.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. Love you.

Virtual Tin Cup

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