Hollywood Shorts: Chickens

Charles Ray was a popular juvenile star in the 1910s and ’20s, but by the ’30s, his career was on the rocks, and he turned to writing. Here’s another in a series of offerings from his book, Hollywood Shorts, a collection of short stories set in Tinseltown.
 
*    *    *
 
Chickens
 
Bill Noel was a great animal trainer. He admitted it himself. Circus people lifted their eyebrows and mumbled, “Poor Bill!” when they heard he was enamored with chickens.
“And what an act I’ve got! The greatest in vaudeville. Wait until you catch it.”
Bill was trying his persuasive powers upon an indifferent booking agent, and talking rapidly to keep from hearing any disheartening reply.
“Maybe so,” the agent grumbled.
“But listen, I’ve trained these chickens for months,” Bill hurried on. “Of course, I clown about on the
 
 
stage to get additional laughs. The act wouldn’t be nothin’ without the by-play I give it, but the chickens make it all novel. See? Nothin’ ever been like it!”
Wearily his agent grunted, “I’ll see what I can do for you, Bill,” and made a note on his desk pad.
“And the billing!” the hopeful one insisted. “You know, Noel and Chickens would make the audience think of dames. Imagine the laugh on the opening, when poultry struts on to music, an’ I clown on after ’em. Swell? It makes the act start with a wow. Oak?”
A conversational pause made Bill laugh to help things along. Boredly the agent blew smoke tendrils toward the ceiling.
“Okay, Bill,” he agreed after an impressive pause. “I’ll arrange a try-out somewhere upstate, and we’ll see what bookings we can grab.’
“Get bookings toward Hollywood,” Bill urged, “’cause I’m tellin’ you one thing: those chickens of mine will make any picture they appear in.”
The try-out date was set and the act reviewed. Bill got the coveted bookings, and not toward Hollywood. Weeks later, from Owosso, Michigan, he telegraphed a hopeful message to his agent:
 

CHICKENS IN SWELL SHAPE STOP
BOOK TOWARD HOLLYWOOD

 
Receiving no answer, Bill swallowed his pride and played every vaudeville date in the northern time, began on the southern time, then cleaned up the central time. But he got no nearer the film city than the huge buses marked Los Angeles which he continually saw from the train windows.


One day in his dressing room between shows, while he was lamenting the lack of opportunity for the career of his chickens, a telegram was thrust into his hands which read:
One day in his dressing room between shows, while he was lamenting the lack of opportunity for the career of his chickens, a telegram was thrust into his hands which read:
 
CAN PLACE YOU AT MAJOR STUDIO
HOLLYWOOD AS ANIMAL TRAINER
 
Desiring to place his act intact, Bill stubbornly protested with a return message from his heart:
 
MY EXPERIENCE WITH CHICKENS
LOST IF STOP NOW
 
After days of not a little regret, Bill received a telegram which sent his spirits whirling into numerous visions:
 
YOU PLAY SALT LAKE, SEATTLE, PORTLAND,
SAN FRANCISCO, CLOSE IN LOS ANGELES
STOP CONTRACTS FOLLOW
 
A night of elation followed. After the show, the animal trainer astonished the whole vaudeville bill with a large party. He made much whoopee and much boasting as to what he intended doing in Hollywood, how he meant to leave the circuit for pictures. He was through with the road.
“My picture contract’s right there in that trunk!” Bill lied over and over again, banging a stately piece of baggage with a determined fist to emphasize his statements.
“Swell!” his friends repeated continually, as they drank his liquor freely.
“I’ll say it’s swell!” Bill widened his eyes hypnotically. “Listen, they’ve had horses in films, dogs, cats, birds, and snakes. But chickens have never had a break.”
“Why, Bill!” a comic cracked. “You’re forgettin’ musical comedies. Nobody can get a break in Hollywood but chickens.”
Day afer day, as Bill played his last week at the Los Angeles Orpheum, he became apprehensive. Day after day went by without any motion-picture representative presenting his card at the stage door.
His tour at an end, he sought Hollywood agents for a possible “in” in the film game. Vague promises left him nauseated.
Funds grew lower, and he got down to a light diet. Despair seized him as he felt deep regret in not having accepted the engagement as animal trainer. Love for chickens had thwarted a possible career.
Finally living on coffee and cigarettes, he fed his poultry bread which he collected at night during long walks down dark alleys.
Then came a telegram from New York to a live Hollywood agent:
 
LOCATE BILL NOEL
LETTER FOLLOWS
 
The letter implored the agent to intervene for a split commission. After quite a search, the local agent climbed a flight of rickety stairs to the trainer’s meager lodgings.
“How come you go hiding out with no telephone?” the agent said to be cheerful when Bill opened the door. “Got a swell job in sight for you. Metro is ready to start an animal picture. They want you to train some of their stock, and they want the chickens they saw when they caught your act down town at the Orpheum. How’s that for luck?”
For a moment Bill’s eyes widened with elation; then he relaxed, sheepishly pointing to a steaming pot on a gas burner.
“It’s too late!” he groaned. “I just ate the act.”
 

A tiny icon of a cherub

< Read "Adieu Hollywood" | Read “The Stand-in” >

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