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FRAMES: A VALENTINO MYSTERY
YOU COULDN’T LIVE a linear life in Hollywood. Everything was a special effect.
One moment there you were on your fleet of telephones, bellowing at brokers and bank managers, a gravel-voiced captain of industry in a screwball comedy, and then your vision swam and someone made broad circling motions on a harp, and the next moment you were lying on a stingy mattress in a rancid hotel room with a revolver in your hand.
“Tragic case,” the realtor said. “Are you familiar with the details?”
Valentino nodded and took a hit from his five-dollar cup of coffee. He and the woman were standing in front of a bas-relief in bronze of Max Fink’s bald sad face on a plaque in the crumbling lobby of The Oracle, a ruin left over from the lost ancient civilization of Hollywood. The floor was littered with horsehair plaster and shattered chestnut shells, the plunder of some squirrel cineaste.
“Tragic, and not uncommon. He wasn’t the only entrepreneur of his time to get caught in the pinch between the Wall Street crash and the talking-pictures revolution.” He smiled apologetically at the realtor, Anita Somebody. “I’m a bore on this subect. Ask me how to spell DeMille and I’ll recite his complete filmography.”
She hesitated just long enough to convince him she didn’t know DeMille from Deliverance. She was a carefully preserved blonde in her forties, and Valentino knew her story without asking: She’d come out from Omaha or someplace like that twenty years ago, hoping for a role on L.A. Law, and when that missed the mark and she couldn’t get work in commercials, it was either realty or prostitution. Prostitution didn’t come with a dental plan. She looked obscenely well pressed in her agency blazer and tailored skirt among the rat droppings. “It’s what you call a fixer-upper,” she said.
“It’s what I call Ground Zero.”
The grand foyer was a jungle of exposed wires and broken fretwork. An ambitious spider had erected a web of Babylonian proportions across the marble staircase and pigeons fluttered to and fro among the copper coffers in the ceiling. How the building had managed to escape demolition in a city of soaring property values and cheap Mexican labor was one for Charlie Chan.
Valentino, who knew less about construction and repair than Anita knew about Cecil B. DeMille, said, “Explain to me again why you brought me here. I’m looking for a place to live, not a lifelong hobby.”
“The budget you gave us presented challenges. This neighborhood’s zoned commercial and residential. No one seems to know just where the break is. Developers are reluctant to make an offer until the county board straightens it out, and the owners are anxious to sell. I’m afraid it’s either this or Oxnard.”
“I can’t afford it.”
“You haven’t heard the asking price.”
“I don’t mean that. I love these wonderful old barns; they’re in greater danger of extinction than the spotted owl. If I bought it, I’d feel obligated to restore it to its original splendor. Did I mention I’m on salary at UCLA?”
Her lipstick smile was firmer than the foundation. “Why don’t you postpone your decision until you’ve seen all there is to see?”
“Well, I guess I can afford a tour.” Saying it, he felt an intoxicating mix of anticipation and surrender. History was his weakness and his calling.
Max Fink’s very public dream of 1927 turned into a hangover two years later, but by then everyone else was too busy taking aspirins to notice.
Fink had stumbled into millions in 1912, when he rented out his candy store in Brooklyn evenings and weekends for the exhibition of silent motion-picture shorts. When he came by one night after closing and saw how many people had lined up to pay to see painted Indians chasing covered wagons across the New Jersey countryside, he evicted his tenants, bought a projector, struck a deal with a local photo-play distributor, and went into show business.
When Thomas Edison sued his moviemaking competitors for infringing on his patent, Max Fink fled with them to Southern California and invented Hollywood. Along the way he stopped at choice locations to purchase vaudeville theaters in financial trouble and converted them into movie houses. Fifteen years after he sold his last Jolly Roger, he invested his profits in the stock market and used his credit to build a glittering chain of motion-picture palaces from coast to coast, saving the biggest and best for Los Angeles.
The Oracle as sketched by the architect was a Balinese-Turkish-Grecian temple, with a mild Polynesian influence and bits cribbed from Moorish Spain, Renaissance Italy, and the Gaiety Music Hall in Flatbush. Seating was designed for five thousand, with space in the pit for a hundred-piece orchestra. Fink commissioned a four-manual Wurlitzer pipe organ to accompany the action on-screen, a half-ton chandelier, and plaster Pegasuses to flank the grand staircase rising to the mezzanine. When word reached H. L. Mencken, the curmudgeonly magazine mogul quipped, “It just shows you what God could accomplish if He had bad taste.”
Then The Jazz Singer, the Warner brothers’ last-ditch attempt to rescue their studio from bankruptcy by introducing songs and spoken dialogue to the silent screen, opened to delirious throngs at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Overnight, Hollywood was forced to shut down its pantomime productions. Soundstages were erected, theaters were wired for speakers, and audiences were permitted to hear their favorite matinee idols speaking lines instead of having to read them on title cards. All this expensive retrofitting led to a recession in California. Reluctantly—agonizingly—Fink told his contractor to reduce the size of the orchestra pit and reconfigure the auditorium to seat a paltry eighteen hundred customers. Construction in six cities was postponed until the industry could catch its second wind.
“It was like when the dot-com bubble burst in the nineties,” Anita explained, in the singsong tone of a museum tour guide. “Millionaires found themselves lining up for free soup at Salvation Army missions. There was a song—” She broke off, stuck for the title.
“‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’” Valentino finished. “It was about a busted railroad baron; but it applied to the Hollywood elite two years before the Depression hit New York.”
“Maybe I should keep my mouth shut and leave you in charge.” Anita’s relentlessly chipper tone fell short of covering her impatience.
“Sorry. I did warn you.” He reached out to stroke a crushed-velvet seat—and put his thumb through the rotted fabric. They were in the auditorium, a vast ruined chamber where the ornate brass sconces had been scavenged for scrap, leaving gaping holes in the exquisitely molded plaster.
In spite of the cutbacks, the completed Oracle was a marvel. Fink had reduced its scope, but steadfastly refused to skimp on material or workmanship. Its marquee towered forty feet into the sky, lit by sixteen thousand electric bulbs, with colored searchlights swiveling and crossing swordlike beams far above the red-tile rooftops of Golden Age Hollywood. Attendance at the premiere of The Hollywood Review of 1929 shattered every record set since Ben-Hur three years before.
Six months later, Max Fink was broke.
After the stock market collapsed in ’29, he was forced to sell his theater chain to mollify his creditors. It was a temporary reprieve. In 1933, sick, penniless, and stripped of all his delusions, one of the industry’s great visionaries put a pawnshop Colt to his head and blew out his brains in a dollar-a-week flophouse, two blocks down from a line of customers waiting to get in to see Mae West in a personal appearance at The Oracle. A friend who had lent him money to complete construction paid for his burial in Forest Lawn. Charlie Chaplin was among the pallbearers, who outnumbered the other mourners two to one.
“There’s a quaint legend connected to the place,” Anita said. “On certain nights you can see Max Fink’s ghost roaming the aisles, counting the house. Bless you!”
Valentino excused himself and blew his nose into his Starbucks napkin. “I guess dust and mold spores don’t affect spooks the way they do us mortals.”
It was just an old building after all. Neither its backstory nor the glamorous phantasms that had glided across its screen, fly-specked now and hanging in tatters, countered the tragic truth that it should have been put out of its misery decades ago.
But Valentino was a film archivist, trained to see past such flaws as broken sprocket holes, scratched frames, and the insidious orange creep of decomposition and appreciate the glory of America’s first true native art form. He found the moth-eaten carpet and water-stained gilt no less exotic than Egyptian treasures half buried in Sahara sand. There in the elephants’ graveyard of spoiled dreams he experienced the same electric thrill he’d felt the day his mother took his hand and led him into a movie theater for the first time. But that had been only a whitewashed cinderblock box in Fox Forage, Indiana. This was Max Fink’s fabled Oracle, home of Hell’s Angels, 42nd Street, Stagecoach, and Anna Christie. He could almost hear Garbo’s smoky voice, saying—
“There’s a hidden staircase here.”
“What?” He had to put on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the realtor. He’d followed her up the center aisle, across the apron of the orchestra pit, and back along the right wall toward the exit to the lobby. She’d stopped abruptly to pry with her fingers at a seam in the plaster. A six-foot-tall rectangular section came away, squealing on parched hinges. Dust motes swarmed up the current of air in a narrow shaft filled with steps.
“It leads to the projection booth.” Anita frowned at a split nail. “Fink’s crew seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to keep it out of sight.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“They called Hollywood the Dream Factory. A dream doesn’t work if you know where it’s coming from.”
“Do you teach film?”
“No, the university pays me to look for them.”
“Do they go missing often?”
“Since the beginning. Ninety percent of the movies made before the advent of sound are lost, mostly due to deliberate destruction back when no one thought there would be profit in reissuing them. Carelessness and neglect has seen to the rest, and it’s not only silents. Poor storage conditions have decimated films made as recently as the nineteen fifties. My job is to scrounge up what’s left before it vanishes.”
“Huh. Well, all this gussying-up is lost on me. I just like to pop in a tape or a disc and veg out on the sofa in my sweats.”
He smiled. “Bet you liked Moulin Rouge.”
“Oh, yes. It was fabulous! Now, watch your step. I’m sure these stairs aren’t up to code.”
In the stairwell he thought he smelled stale popcorn and the residue of thousands of Lucky Strikes and nickel cigars. It was probably dry rot, or possibly phantom Fink sneaking a snack and a smoke. Valentino had to turn sideways to avoid brushing the walls and soiling his shirt.
The booth was actually a spacious loft, with a square opening overlooking the remains of the screen. He remembered that The Oracle had been one of the last L.A. theaters to show 3-D movies during the brief heyday of Bwana Devil and Dial M for Murder. That process had required twin Bell & Howell projectors, each the size of a VW Beetle. They’d have needed plenty of room, but not this much. He could have put all the furniture in his apartment into this space.
Anita seemed to sense the source of his curiosity. She pointed. “There used to be a wall there. On the other side was a sort of lumber room where they stored posters and props. I probably don’t have to tell you they had live shows during the Depression, to entice people who wouldn’t normally spend money on a ticket. In the sixties this was a hippie commune.” Her voice dropped to a whisper on the last two words, as if she were referring to a colony of lepers. “There’s a bathroom through that door, which the projectionist used. It’s a comfortable bachelor arrangement. Is there a Mrs. Valentino?”
He wondered if she was hitting on him, then discarded the thought as embarrassingly narcissistic. In any case a romantic relationship with someone who thought Moulin Rouge was fabulous was doomed.
“I barely have time for a private life, much less marriage. What’s in there?” He pointed to a shallow alcove whose back wall curved to follow the shoulder of the roof.
“Just some cans, the flat kind they put film in. They’re empty.”
He felt a flash of disappointment. He’d once found two hundred feet of Theda Bara’s Cleopatra being used to demonstrate a toy projector in a junk shop in Oklahoma City, and on first glance that place had held far less promise than this. “Is it all right if I look?”
“Be careful. The floor’s in bad shape.”
The enclosure was six feet wide and four deep. Stepping inside, he felt with his feet for the joists beneath the curling plywood.
“It was plastered over too,” she said, “probably to conserve heat.”
The air was stale but dry and cool. There was no light fixture. He peered through the dimness, groping at built-in wire racks holding jumbles of film cans that made a tinny empty noise when he moved them, a melancholy sound. He placed a hand against the cantilevered back wall to support himself and reached down to tug at the first in a row of cans standing on edge on the bottom rack.
Something thumped inside.
Copyright © 2008 by Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
Edited by James Frenkel
A Forge Book