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.
“Hey, fellas,” he urged, “here comes Dizzy! the rib is on! Give it to him plenty.” He nudged the extra girl by his side, explaining: “Watch for the fun! This guy’s a crazy lug. He looks like the monkey Darwin wrote about.”
“What’s it all about?” the girl in Fatima costume inquired.
“That’s right. You’ve been away on location too long to know. Well, there’s somethin’ amongst us. Get a load of the wizened bit of humanity that’s makin’ an entrance.”
It was a hot sultry day in July. The restaurant was the coolest spot which actors, managers, grips, electricians, gaffers, and cameramen could find. Whether finished with food or not, they selfishly lingered at the tables under the breeze of the electric fans.
Mr. Banks entered the cafe, remained by the cashier’s desk a moment while casting his eyes newfoundlandly about, imploring courtesy from any finished diner. His little stature of five foot two sagged in the middle, and his starched collar wilted with the moments as he moved his straw hat mechanicallyl before his face.
“There’ll be loads of laughs in a minute,” Ben Whispered to the Fatima girl. “It’s a riot to watch him every day at lunch time. He’s terribly nearsighted. When he spots a chair and goes for it, one of the gang sneaks over and sits in it.”
“What does he do?”
“Oh, he apologizes all over the place for his mistake, wipes his glasses, and tries again. Then we repeat on him. Sometimes he makes an exit to cover up his embarrassment.”
“What makes you think that that’s so much fun? It’s cruel!”
A sudden bit of laughter went ceilingward, mixing strangely with the noise of purring fans. Mr. Banks, hardly realizing that the joke was on him, moved down the lane of tables.
“Look,” Ben laughed, “the ol’ buzzard is headed for us. Watch!”
“No, you don’t!” the extra girl protested, grabbing at Ben.
She was much too late. The nearsighted little man approached the table like one in a game of blind man’s bluff, while Ben Alonzo did all he could to confuse the poor fellow by continually shifting from one chair to the other.
“You may sit by me,” the girl welcomed, spoiling the fun for the pranksters.
While scanning the menu, Mr. Banks allowed one eye to slip by and refocus upon the lovely blonde in Fatima costume who had been so pleasant. Then his nearsightedness embarrassed him again. By her side he saw the figure of a famous actor in full Western costume.
“Why,” he gushed, “aren’t you Ben Alonzo, our Western hero?”
Ben smiled his saccharine best, which he always used when discovered, then introduced his girl friend.
“My name is Banks,” the little man informed modestly. “Harry E. My wife’s a collector. May I thrill her with your photograph, Mr. Alonzo, autographed?”
To catch his studio capacity, Ben said that he would drop the photograph by his office. But Mr. Banks concluded that it was better if he came to the dressing room to pick it up.
“Funny, dizzy specimen,” Ben remarked, as he watched the newcomer pay his check and exit to the lot. “I’ll bet he’s a lousy writer and has an office up in Exit Alley, and is plenty ashamed and burnt up about it. Hah! Up in The Cages!”
“What’s all that?”
“Why, the most depressing row of offices in Hollywood. Four flights up in an abandoned stage, no water, no light, no heat, no carpet—nothin’ but a chair and a desk. They place a poor soul up there when they’re sore at him, and want him to break his own contract by walkin’ out. It’s acquired the name of Exit Alley or The Cages.”
“Cruel but sure. No one can stand that treatment long. They usually give in and go walkin’ down the road like a yellow dog. You know, somethin’ tells me to find out just who he is. Hah!” he sneered, “maybe he’s some distant relative who knows where part of the bury is bodied. Funny though, this guy seems to be on the way out before he get in.“
“You were terribly rude to him.”
“Think so?” Ben grinned, but made a decision, evidencing a worried face.
A little lateer Ben promised to hand out some very fine scotch in return for sound information.
The gateman mumbled to the telephone girl. The telephone girl accepted the standing invitation of the studio manager to lunch, surprising him. The studio managed asked the comptroller. Under pretext of department information, the comptroller asked the general manager.
“Why, he came out from the New York office,” the potentate informed. “I think they must have been under some light obligation to him, because an accompanying letter explained that he was to be our Humanitarian Investigator. Imagine that? There’s nothing that N. Y. office won’t think of to create a new job. Well, maybe they’re right,” he agreed after meditating a moment. “We’re always having plenty of grief with animal-welfare organizations. Anyway, I figured he don’t need any swell office to be Humanitarian Investigator. So I shoved him up in Exit Alley.”
Through mysterious channels the information filtered back to Ben Alonzo, who spread it with the glee of a schoolboy. From then on, the term Humanitarian Investigator was whispered with mock seriousness.
But information also filtered through other channels just as fast. After two short weeks something tragic happened.
A lengthy notice was pasted on the large blackboard in the administration building. A copy was tacked in the cafeteria, and carbons were sent to the heads of departments. It explained tersely that two weeks from date there would be a replacement of the general manager, the business manager, the studio manager, the comptroller, the telephone operator, and the gateman. The order was signed: Harry E. Banks.
The news traveled lightning-like that Mr. Banks was from Wall Street, representing the New York office.
Much sought after, Mr. Banks had his hand wrung violently and wrung again with proffered congratulations. At lunch hour each day in the restaurant, everyone smiled his best. Fawning souls often rise and offer the little-big man a chair, hoping he might sit a moment with mere employees. But Mr. Banks always passed on, shedding a certain smile of his own, walking the length of the cafe to the private dining room, leaving a wake of shivers behind, the shivers extending to bank accounts.
“By the way,” the Fatima girl asked Ben Alonzo, “did Mr. Banks ever come to your dressing room for that autographed photograph he requested?”
“No,” Ben gulped, “and I’m worried as hell about it.”
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