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The Walker Brothers No Regrets
By John Walker, Gary Walker
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2009 John and Gary Walker
All rights reserved.
OUR EARLY YEARS
A VERY SPECIAL TIME IN OUR LIVES
Of all the towns and places to be born, Glendale, north of Los Angeles, was one of the best. I was very lucky. California has permanent sunshine and within an hour or so you can get to the desert, the mountains, or beaches with miles of golden sand. It's a paradise; there is no other place like it in the world. It has everything you need for the good life.
Glendale is the ideal American town: it's the kind of place where you might expect to bump into Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland, or star in a movie with them. The famous director Stephen Spielberg uses Glendale and its surroundings in his movies because it has a feel-good atmosphere and is visually appealing; he filmed E.T. at a house in nearby Sunland Tujunga, where lived for most of my life, although by then it had changed so much over the years that I didn't even recognise it when I saw the movie.
Glendale enjoys mild weather, with the sky always brilliant and clear. It has several claims to fame. Number one would be John Wayne; number two is beautiful Forest Lawn, one of the most famous cemeteries in the world, known for all the movie stars buried there. When I was a teenager, I would take my lunch up to Forest Lawn, and I'd sit and eat it next to WC Fields and Errol Flynn. When I returned, years later, I would discover a little stone statue of a fairy sitting on a rock, which marked the resting place of Walt Disney. It was the final time that my path would cross with his.
The third most famous thing about Glendale is that I was born there: 'Glendale Memorial Hospital proudly presents live at 2:10 am on 9 March 1942, Gary Lee Gibson!'
My father's name was Don Gibson. He came from the Great Plains, a region best known for ranching and farming. My mother's name was Violet Irene Bowen. She hailed from Oregon, and was to have a big influence on me. She had an hourglass figure, dark hair and brown eyes. To me, she looked like a film star, a cross between Jane Russell and Rita Hayworth. Everybody liked my mother; she was very friendly and outgoing, a strong, confident person with high principles. All she ever cared about was that I would have good health and great manners, and she taught me those well.
We lived in a white bungalow, a small, timber-framed house, quite plain compared with many others, but we were happy there. My mother's family was very close-knit; its members all lived together in one house and were very supportive of one another. There were my father, my mother and me; my grandmother Helen ('Mama'), who very strict; and my mother's sister Joyce, nicknamed 'Ant', whom I could talk to in a way I never could to my mother. Ant was married 11 times but she could never have children, so, in time, I effectively became her child and she had a strong influence on me. Later, because of her marital difficulties, she became an alcoholic. My mother was teetotal, which led to my aunt's departing in acrimony. They didn't talk to each other for 15 years.
I was very upset, as I really liked my aunt. When I was about 16, Ant called in a drunken stupor from her home in San Bernardino and told my mother that she had slept with me. It was untrue, of course, but that did it for my mother, even though Ant was drunk. But they say that time heals all things, and it did in this case. When my aunt genuinely quit the drink, with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, they got back together again.
Don, my father, owned a shop and sold doughnuts. He liked girls, and was not the family type. They split when I was too young to be shaken up by their divorce and the reason for it was never discussed. My mother then married an Italian guy called Phil Baloumo, a Glendale taxi driver and a very nice man. That's when we took a small house in Burbank, and when I first became interested in planes. Grand Central Airport was near our house and I would go stand at the end of the runway to watch the bombers coming in to land, passing just above my head. I loved the airport and the planes, and eventually everybody at the airport got to know me. They let me sit on the planes because Phil was taking flying lessons there. But that marriage lasted only a year and I have no idea what became of Phil.
To compensate for her two divorces my mother went to great lengths to make me happy. We used to go bike riding together or play baseball, but she was always overprotective and became obsessed with my health. As I grew older her possessiveness became a problem. She never really liked any of my girlfriends, thinking none of them were good enough for me. Nor did she like my being away from home for too long and all her life she would constantly call, trying to blackmail me into coming home, saying she wasn't well.
After my mother's second marriage broke up we moved to a bigger house in Glendale. She went out to work as a switchboard operator for the Ritter Corporation and met Jack Charles Leeds, a wonderful man who was to have a deep and lasting influence on me. Jack was a chemist who would eventually become general manager of the company, and he helped to develop the Dr Pepper soft drink. He looked like David Niven, with a thin moustache and blue eyes. He was very intelligent, with a good sense of humour, and he'd tell stories with a lot of gesticulation, like Walt Disney. Jack came from New York and had quite a rough childhood, which he never talked about. He was a highly principled man, warm and kind, and you would never have known that I was not his own child.
He came out of the United States Coast Guard after World War II and bought a motorboat, which was moored in a marina at San Pedro in California. Next to it was one belonging to Humphrey Bogart and on the other side was Orson Welles's boat.
Jack would tell me what happened when Bogey went sailing with his then wife, Mayo Methot, a well-known movie star in the thirties and forties. They would speed out about two miles in their boat, called Sluggy after Mayo's fiery temper and her ability to hit Bogey hard. My father said you could hear them, arguing, screaming and throwing stuff, fuelled by alcohol. They were well known as the Battling Bogeys, and divorced in 1945.
Orson Welles was the idol of my future fellow Walker Brother, Scott Engel. Both men liked my father because he shared their love of boats and they would throw garbage at each other for a laugh when they were all cleaning them at the same time. When studios invited guests on board Welles's boat for a party, he'd sneak away and hide on my father's because he didn't like those Hollywood party people. Bogey was the same. I didn't realise when I first heard these stories that Humphrey Bogart, like Walt Disney, would feature uncannily often throughout my life.
After Jack had been around for about a year, we had to go and meet Don, my real father, at a motel to sort out some things about the divorce. I was about five then and I was afraid of Don's new girlfriend, Mildred, who had black hair and looked like Olive Oyl in Popeye. I'd asked my mother why Don wouldn't come back to us.
'Mildred's got a gun,' she replied, 'and, if he tries to leave, she'd kill him.' So there I was, cowering on the floor in the back of the car while Jack went to talk to Don and my mother tried to calm me. I was really scared. I couldn't figure it all out.
Don married Mildred and moved back to Nebraska. It was hard going to stay with them on their farm for the summer. Mildred was more of a tough cookie than my mother and I remember that on one car journey, when I needed to go to the toilet, Mildred said, 'No, you can wait a bit longer and don't be such a baby.' That was unkind.
Don and Mildred had a large white house; it was exactly like the farmstead in The Wizard of Oz. There were corn fields and wheat fields stretching for miles with dirt roads leading to the country stores and the supply shops. Don took me fishing at a nearby lake and bought me new fishing gear. I was the only kid there with good equipment – and the only one not catching fish. Don bought fish from some of the boys which we told Mildred we'd caught ourselves. She told me to clean the fish before she cooked it, but I wasn't sure I'd like doing that so I deliberately cut out its eyes. Deep down, I think I was trying to make her sick, although it didn't bother her at all.
On 4 August 1950, Jack married my mother and he proved to be the best stepdad ever. His presence had a major effect on me: I knew that they both loved me totally and I felt a lot more secure than I had been. Jack would explain things and help me figure them out. I particularly loved to watch and help Jack cooking. He was very good at it and that's probably why I love to cook many different kinds of foods from different cultures and find it very relaxing and rewarding.
I had a vivid imagination and I didn't need entertaining as I was always able to amuse myself while my mother was working at Ritter's with Jack. Grandmother Mama took care of me when they weren't around. Times were tough and they needed extra money, so they took a job managing an apartment house at 311 East Cypress in Glendale, which became my home until 1954. It was owned by a Mrs Grosse. She was a genuine, immensely kind soul with a huge smile. She just loved our family and made a great fuss of me. Her dog, Pal, had starred in the Lassie movies.
The first elementary school I went to was Horace Mann in Glendale in 1948. I was good at art, drawing and sports, but terrible at maths and English. It was there I first learned to perform in public. I was elected business manager, to my shock, and had to stand on stage in front of the whole school and talk about picking up waste paper and keeping the yard clean. It was torture because I was very shy. My friend Dean Gerard was sitting in the front row, making me laugh, which got me into trouble, but it was better than being frozen stiff on the stage. I knew I had to conquer my fear of being on stage and kept forcing myself. The first time I enjoyed it was when my friends and I put on a puppet show, which had all the other kids laughing and cheering, especially when the blanket fell down and you could see us holding the puppets.
Dean Gerard was my best friend and we grew up together from when we were toddlers. We did everything together. Dirt road alleys ran behind the houses and we would play up and down them all the time. Life was just one big adventure after another and there were no limits to our imagination.
I was in the third grade, just eight years old, when I got my first girlfriend, which was quite unusual. Most people didn't have girlfriends until they were about 15 – certainly no one else in my class had one. Her name was Barbara Stump and she was a giggly little thing with dark, curly hair. I made her play kickball (a bit like baseball) among other sports. She was the first girl I kissed. This kissing was very exciting and made us laugh and giggle because we thought we were getting away with something naughty. It seems hard to believe, the way things are nowadays, how innocent we were, though I did talk her into taking her panties down and showing me her body. We boys had heard that girls differed from us. She and I were scared of being caught but, even so, time seemed to stop as I tried to take in what I was seeing. It was all over in 15 seconds, but the memory would stay with me for ever. It was my first encounter with sex.
Then there was Karen Weaver, who I met when I was about 12. She was a chubby little thing with light-blonde, wavy hair and the best smile in the school. I think we went around together for about six months. All we did was laugh. We couldn't stop! She almost got me expelled from school. When we moved classes we were split up – deliberately, I'm sure. But by then I was then becoming more interested in sports than girls.
I was very fast at running, but never big enough for American football, although I did play really good baseball. Everybody was a big baseball fan and when the children's Little League Baseball teams came to Glendale, I would go with Jack. I played for a team called Krieger Realty. When we got to the last games of the summer series and were ahead of the other team for the first place in the league, 12–11 in our favour, it was I who caught the winning ball. The crowd went wild: people jumped the fence and ran screaming and yelling at me, they picked me up and carried me across the field with everyone cheering. It was my first taste of stardom. My mother and dad were so proud.
My other developing interest was in music. Jack had a lot of big-band and jazz records, and I would listen with him to these and a lot of tunes from shows such as Oklahoma and Carousel. He used to have his own group of musicians and played the trumpet. I still have that trumpet. He said it was fine if I wanted to do something with music later, when I was older, so long as I got a good education to fall back on, or some sort of trade.
For us kids, Saturday was the best day of the week. It was the day we got to go to the movies. This was when my imagination started running riot big time. Those movies had a huge influence on me. Our local theatre was called Cosmo's, and it showed all the films we liked: The Lone Ranger, The Rocketman and Hopalong Cassidy. They also ran serials such as Superman and Batman, shown over several weeks and always ending on a cliffhanger. In 1949, my mother went to work at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, taking tickets and serving popcorn and other treats. I knew Bob, the manager, very well and the girl at the booth would let me go upstairs to see him so I didn't have to pay for a ticket. Once he was up there talking to a man I learned later was Walt Disney – the first time our paths crossed. Walt showed his cartoons in the theatre to check the colour and the reaction to them. I'd often sit near him.
The Alex Theatre staged premieres and the stars would come and sign autographs. In 1949, I met Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello when they showed Africa Screams. He patted me on the head. I got another pat on the head from Jane Russell when I gave her directions to an air show at the Glendale Grand Central Airport. My mother was a big fan of the movie stars. I suspected that she loved those stars more than me and I reasoned that if I were famous she would like me a lot more. I couldn't think of anything better than playing a cowboy or an Indian.
My mother's favourite was Lana Turner, famously discovered – or so it was thought – sitting at the soda fountain in Schwab's Drug Store in Hollywood. It later emerged that she had actually been discovered at a malt shop about a mile away called Top Hat Café, across the road from Scott Engel's school – he must have gone there all the time. Mother took me to the church when Lana Turner got married for the third time. We followed her and the wedding crowd to her house in the Hollywood Hills where she came out in her wedding gown to wave to the crowd screaming her name.
Away from the cinema, one of the most exciting annual events was Hallowe'en, when we would go out to play trick- or-treat and collect candy. We were all dressed up like the little monsters we were and as we got older the trick aspect got a bit out of hand. We got bored with soaping windows or ringing the doorbell and running. I remember an old man who seemed to hate all us kids. We got a brown paper bag, put some dog muck in it, took it to his front door, set it on fire, rang the bell, then ran and hid. It was dark and we knew he would never see us, let alone catch us. He came to the door and of course he saw the bag on fire and started stamping on it, only to get dog muck all over his socks.
Another Hallowe'en, my mother made me go dressed as a Disney Mouseketeer around the stars' houses in Hollywood. It was the only time of year you were allowed to knock with no one trying to stop you. Part of the deal was that I would get to go to Walt Disney's house but it was only the maid who answered the door. Lana Turner's house off Sunset Boulevard was a must and her husband, Lex Barker, who played Tarzan in a couple of movies, came and gave me some candy. They were directly across the street from Jayne Mansfield's house, which Engelbert Humperdinck later bought. At Judy Garland's home, a bubbly little girl answered the door. We struck up an instant rapport and I asked her to come out with me. Someone indoors told her that she couldn't – later I realised that the little girl was Liza Minelli.
The last house was Bing Crosby's. There were big gates and I rang the bell but nobody answered. At the time it was a bit of a disappointment not to see wholesome family icon Uncle Bing, though I got a different view of him years later. Bing's son Gary Crosby came to see The Standells when we played at the Peppermint West club in Hollywood. He told me – to my disbelief – that Bing never gave him any money and never took him anywhere. He felt that his dad didn't love him, that he was a creep and a terrible father.
Excerpted from The Walker Brothers No Regrets by John Walker, Gary Walker. Copyright © 2009 John and Gary Walker. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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