Childhood sweethearts Sadie and Milton navigate the pranksters and wannabes of Silver Strand beach during Hollywood's Golden Age; by Nancy Lane.
Sadie pulls up her coat collar against the brisk ocean wind this sunny Thursday morning. A lady, scarf wrapped around her head, tendrils of light brown hair whipping her face, crosses Ocean Drive to meet Sadie on the sea side. "Little girl," she says, "you can't recognize me bundled up as I am against this cruel blast. Behold Gloria Swanson, famous on the silver screen."
"Glad to meet you, Miss Swanson." Sadie says. "I've seen your wonderful movies."
"What's your name, young lady?"
The lady pulls paper and a pencil from the depths of her coat pocket, scribbles, and then hands the autograph to Sadie. Sadie curtsies, thanks Miss Swanson, places the autograph in her pocket and continues her stroll south toward Silver Strand as Gloria Swanson treks north.
Sadie's friend Milton is on the beach as usual, head down, walking lines two feet apart, parallel to the shore, eyes scanning the sand for copper or silver coins.
"Milton, I just met the Gloria Swanson imposter." Sadie pulls the autograph from her pocket.
"Look, Sadie," Milton says. "I found a silver dollar, first one ever. It was right there." He points down the beach where screaming seagulls fight over their own found treasure.
Sadie ruffles his hair and obligingly observes his find. At age ten, Milton is one year Sadie's junior and, with his boundless energy and curiosity, serves as the little brother she wishes she had. Milton's a year-round resident. His father works at the sugar beet factory in Oxnard. Sadie is summers only. Her family stays at the forty-room, beachfront hotel. They'll remain through the Independence Day celebrations and return home Saturday to the upscale Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Sadie shows Milton the autograph. The paper Miss Swanson wrote on is an envelope, Oxnard address on one side. Gloria Swanson is not the addressee. On the flap side it reads, "Dear Sadie, enjoy me in the movies. Love, Gloria Swanson."
"She tries to disguise herself with the scarf and coat. You know what gives her away?"
"My father says the real Gloria Swanson is only five feet tall. The imposter is taller than my mother, and she's five-six." Milton appreciates his friend's insider information. Sadie's father works for the Max Factor Company. He meets with movie studio executives to sell flexible greasepaint and other make-up products specially developed for the new movie industry.
Automobiles crawl up Ocean Drive as Angelenos arrive after the sixty mile coast drive, the rich in Chryslers, Duesenbergs and Packards - the envious in Fords, Studebakers and DeSotos. Parking spaces fill, hotel guests withdraw leather travel bags, picnickers unload baskets and blankets, campers pull out canvas bags with essentials for a Thursday to Sunday beach stay. A dog runs on the sand nearby.
"Hey, this is worth a penny," Milton says. "My neighbor pays me each time Buster gets out and I bring him back." A quick goodbye to Sadie and the Buster chase begins. Sadie quits Silver Strand to rejoin her parents at the hotel.
The Independence Day events will take place later at Hollywood-by-the-Sea. Prime viewing spots already claimed, later arriving beach-goers settle for Hollywood Beach to the north or Silver Strand to the south. Picnickers Ted Smith and fiancé Opal Calvert are among the first eyeing Silver Strand. They traipse closer to the water. The chill wind of earlier is replaced by the calm of warm noontime air.
A young man, hair wet from ocean swimming, stands in his striped, full body swimsuit, a straw hat on the sand at his feet. He waves to Ted and Opal. "Please, can you help me?" he says. They approach.
"A dog mauled this poor bird I've captured, here, under the hat," the young man says. "I must go get my sister. She takes care of injured birds. Looks like you're staying for a picnic. Would you please spread your blanket here by the bird and make sure no one disturbs it? My sister has a bird cage. I'll be back shortly."
"Let's have a look," Ted says. He bends with outstretched hand to lift the hat.
"No, no, please! The bird can fly, but his leg is broken. If you let him get away he'll certainly run into more trouble down the beach." The young man points toward several dogs playing with children in the surf.
"Ted," says Opal, "this is a good place for our picnic." Ted nods and Opal spreads their blanket next to the hat.
Ted sets the picnic basket on the blanket and extends his hand. "I'm Trevor Daring and this is my fiancé Opal," Ted says.
Opal shakes her head. "That's his screen name. His real name is Ted Smith."
"Glad to meet you both. I'm Chase Chandler," the young man says. "Screen name, huh? Are you in movies, Mr. Daring?"
"Not yet. I'll be discovered and movie goers will know me as Trevor Daring. You can call me Ted for now. Your name, is that real? It sounds like a movie screen name, a really good one."
Chase hesitates. "My father is part owner of Paramount Pictures. I changed my name when I appeared in one of my father's movies. He's always looking for talent," Chase says, watching Ted's reaction, which is an ear-to-ear grin. "When I come back for the bird, we can discuss the movies."
Chase turns and runs across the Strand toward Ocean Drive. "Don't let the bird get away," he shouts.
"I sure won't," Ted shouts back.
"What'd I tell you, Opal?" Ted says. "I knew if we came here often enough I'd meet a Hollywood kingpin. I'll be rich soon. I'll be able to buy you that engagement ring you want."
Early that morning Opal had made sandwiches for the picnic in the small kitchen of the North Hollywood bungalow where she lives with her parents. Opal's engaged-to-be-engaged status worries them their twenty-year-old spinster daughter may never marry, especially if she continues seeing Ted Smith.
Ted leans back on the blanket and stares at the hat to watch for any movement. Vacant picnic sites are disappearing fast when Sadie's family spreads a blanket nearby. Her father sets down a basket containing fried chicken, bread rolls, salads and slices of apple pie prepared by the hotel chef.
Milton runs up to them. "Do you remember me from last summer, Mr. Landrum?"
"Yes, of course I do, Milton," Sam Landrum says.
His wife, Beatrice, says hello to Milton. "Milton, Sadie thought you might join us today so we brought extra food."
"Gosh, Mrs. Landrum, thank you," he says. Then he notices the straw hat next to Ted and Opal's blanket. "Does that hat belong to anyone?" he says. He recognizes it as a cheap hat like ones local boys steal from the Chinese hat vendor on Ocean Drive.
"It's mine," Ted says. "Don't touch it."
"There's an injured bird underneath the hat," Opal says.
"There you go, Opal," Ted says, "spilling the beans. Now you've drawn attention. Why can't you just keep it quiet?"
"I'm sorry," Opal whispers.
"Look, son," Ted says, "Chase Chandler, whose father is a Hollywood kingpin, is coming back for the bird. He entrusted me to keep it safe. Now just mind your own business."
"Okay," Milton says. "I know his brother. Jack Chandler goes to my school."
"His brother's name is Chandler too?"
"I don't think you know what you're talking about," Ted says. He turns toward Sam Landrum. Milton flashes a half smile at Sadie.
The Landrums exchange pleasantries with Ted and Opal and learn of Ted Smith's screen name. "So Ted," Sam says, "have you acted in stage plays or taken acting lessons?"
"No, but I'm a natural. A lot of people say I look like Gary Cooper. What do you think?"
"I'm not that familiar with Gary Cooper," Sam says.
Seagulls hover, eyeing the lunch fare Beatrice and Opal distribute from their picnic baskets.
"What do you do?" Ted says.
"I'm a schoolteacher," Sam says. Beatrice and Sadie exchange a glance.
"You probably don't see many movies."
"We go often to the Egyptian Theatre and to the Broadway movie palaces," Beatrice says. "We attended the premiere of 'Noah's Ark'."
"Sam, how'd you get into a premiere?" Ted says.
"Oh, just lucky I guess. Ted and Opal, do you know the story of these beaches?"
"I know they've made movies here," Opal says.
"That's right. When filmmakers wanted Arabian looking scenes, the sand dunes here worked perfectly. Hollywood filming made the Oxnard area so popular, real estate developers built up Hollywood Beach and Silver Strand. Later, the developers flattened the dunes and stripped away the fake palm trees to transform Oxnard Beach into Hollywood-by-the-Sea. The hotel and the lots offered for sale drove the filmmakers away."
"I'm sure they're still here," Ted says. "They still come from Hollywood to relax. They probably stay at the hotel."
"We're staying at the hotel, Ted. We haven't seen any Hollywood big shots," Sam says.
"Well, you'd have to know what you're looking for."
"Well, Ted, if you sat as close to someone with Hollywood connections as you are sitting to me right now, how would you know?"
"The smell," Ted says.
"Hollywood people reek of money."
Milton jumps up. "Mr. Smith, I think that's Chase over there, sitting on that beach log with two boys." Milton points to a threesome wearing knickers and cotton shirts.
"No, son," Ted says, "Chase had on a swimsuit and he's older than those boys."
"He must've changed clothes." Milton says. "That's Jack's brother all right."
"Shouldn't Chase have come back for the bird by now?" Sam says.
"He'll be here." Ted says. "He wants to talk to me about movies."
An afternoon breeze picks up. The hat wobbles. Ted jumps to pin the brim of the hat with his fingers and realizes the capricious afternoon breeze will require his holding down the hat until Chase's return.
Independence Day events start with the arrival of a marching band and a cadre of clowns wearing red, white and blue costumes. Two stilt walkers and a man and wife with a dog circus of five performing Chihuahuas and a Great Dane fall in behind the clowns. The Mayor of Oxnard's megaphone-broadcasted greetings cannot be heard over the band's "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" as celebrants fill in beside the parade route along Ocean Drive from Silver Strand to Hollywood-by-the-Sea.
"Beatrice, should we head back to the hotel?" Sam says.
"Aren't you gonna watch the fireworks?" Ted asks Sam.
"Yes, we'll watch from the balcony of our room. Best place for viewing. All of you are welcome to join us. We'll have hotel staff bring up plates for dinner."
"We should go there, Ted," Opal says.
"I can't go until I talk to Chase. Go on ahead, Opal."
"I'll stay here with Mr. Smith," Milton says.
Milton observes Chase and his buddies. They watch young women in swimsuits strolling to the surf. The boys turn their eyes toward Ted during lulls in the parade of beauties. Ted awkwardly lies across his blanket and holds down the hat brim. Milton hears early fireworks explosions and expects the big displays will start soon. He fears Ted Smith will not give up his wait for Chase, not even when the sun dips into the Pacific.
"Mr. Smith," Milton says. "As far as I know, Chase's father is a milkman and I see Chase watching you right now."
Ted looks as Milton points to the laughers. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" he says.
"Because, Mr. Smith, you told me to mind my own business."
Ted, red-faced, snatches up the straw hat and flings it. Milton watches the aerial fluttering, the dip to the sand and then the hat floating away in a foamy, receding wave. Ted squints at the dark, inert form on the sand at his feet. It could be a dead blackbird, but it isn't. The boys hold their sides, jumping up and down. One yells out, "Trevor Daring, starring in 'Adventures of the Dog Poop Bird'."
The chase is on. The fleet-footed boys weave between picnic blankets and hurdle shell seeking children. Milton runs behind Ted, who catches up to the boys near the crowded Hollywood-by-the-Sea concession area. Ted throws a fist upward toward the taller Chase and lands a blow to Chase's throat. Chase chokes and steps back. Ted steps forward. Chase's thrown fist meets his chin. Ted buckles and cusses. Chase and the other boys disappear into the crowd as a policeman emerges from among the onlookers. He pulls Ted up and scolds him for causing a fracas.
Starlight clusters in the sky punctuate each booming explosion as Ted trudges back to Silver Strand to retrieve basket and blanket. By the time he returns to Hollywood-by-the-Sea and enters the hotel lobby, the official fireworks display is done and beach-goers' dwindling caches of sparklers and small Roman candles are playing out.
Ted meets the Landrums and Opal in the hotel lobby. "Did Chase ever return?" Sam asks.
"Yeah," Ted says, "and that stupid skunk got his ass whipped for lying to me about the bird and his father's connections."
"Hey," Sam says, "watch your language in front of the ladies."
"Sorry," Ted says. "Opal, are you ready to go?"
Opal thanks the Landrums for their hospitality. "You did tell your father I'd be bringing you home late, didn't you?" Ted says as he opens the passenger door of the Studebaker he always borrows from his brother when he takes Opal beyond streetcar range. It will be after midnight when Ted escorts Opal to her front door. Her father will be waiting up.
At dawn Sadie slips from the hotel lobby and embraces the early morning quiet. She muses on stories of a time not long ago when sand dunes and papier-mâché palm trees dressed the beach. Today Hollywood-by-the-Sea is dressed in colorful mounds, sleeping celebrants left over from the Fourth covered head-to-toe in blankets. Milton won't look for coins on this beach.
Sadie heads toward Silver Strand. Yesterday's plethora of picnickers promises a bonanza for her friend. Milton sees Sadie and abandons his coin labor. As he runs toward her, Sadie feels his excitement.
"Something, isn't it?" Milton says. His grin hurts, but he can't straighten his face even to lessen the pain from his deliciously round, swollen shiner. "It's darker now than last night. My father says it will turn all shades of purple and green before it fades, and that might take two weeks."
"What happened?" Sadie says.
"Mr. Smith got mad at Chase and Chase knocked him on his keister. After a policeman broke up the fight, some other fellows started to brawl. I just wanted to watch, but Chase's brother Jack started waving his fists in front of my face like a prize fighter. I waved my fists in front of him." Milton throws up his arms to demonstrate. "It seemed like we were dancing until he threw a haymaker."
"What about him?"
"I tripped him when I fell," Milton says. "Didn't mean to, but he broke his nose. Best of all, we're buddies now. Chase is going to teach me and Jack how to swim in the ocean."
"Why didn't you come to the hotel for the fireworks?" Sadie says. "Was your eye too sore?"
"No, I went to show my father my eye. Then I went over to the neighbors' yard because they still had a lot of flash-light crackers."
"What did your mother say about the black eye?"
"She's mad at me, won't look at me. That's okay. My father's proud of me, says I'm like Jack Dempsey." More grin, more pain as Milton touches sandy fingers to the sore spot.
"I'll miss seeing it heal," Sadie says.
"Oh, you're leaving tomorrow. Are you coming back later this summer?"
"No," Sadie says. "I won't see you again until next summer. Your eye will be healed by then."
Milton's shoulders drop and he turns to face the ocean. "Let's go sit down," Sadie says. They walk to a bench near the concession area. Vendors will soon cart out their wares, but for now Sadie and Milton are alone. Sadie is the smartest girl Milton knows, maybe even the smartest person. He feels like a grown-up when he and Sadie sit and talk.
"Why did your father lie to Mr. Smith about his job?" Milton says.
"He does that when he thinks someone will hound him about knowing movie actors," Sadie says. "Mr. Smith seems fanatic about make believe. He doesn't even like his real name."
"Do you like make believe?"
"We all pretend," Sadie says. "Sometimes it's wishful thinking. Sometimes it's lying. Sometimes it's just a way of being nice."
"Like pretending to believe the Gloria Swanson imposter?"
"Yes, we were both being nice," Sadie says. "She thought she was making me happy by giving me the autograph. I wanted her to be happy believing I believed her."
"What about make believe movies?"
Sadie smiles, pleased Milton seeks her opinions. "When Gloria Swanson plays a strong woman on screen in her fine clothes, girls believe they can grow up to be somebody, not just a typist or a wife."
"So what do you want to be when you grow up?" Milton says.
"I'm going to be a reporter."
"Do they let girls be reporters?"
"They'll let me. What about you? What are you going to be?"
"I'm going to be a pilot - a barnstormer. At first I wanted to be a wingwalker. I saw them in newsreels. It's dangerous and daring. But my father says I'll get more jobs and make more money if I fly a plane, not just walk on its wings. I can get a job carrying mail or taking rich people wherever they want to go."
Mr. Wang, the hat vendor, wheels his hat trees outside. Food vendors prop up awnings and a policeman begins his foot patrol. A few of the beach sleepers stir.
"I can't come to the Strand tomorrow morning. We'll be getting ready to go home," Sadie says.
"That makes me really sad, Sadie."
Sadie pulls a wrapped taffy sucker from her pocket and hands it to Milton. "I'm going to miss you. Next time I see you, you'll be taller and your hair will have sun streaks from swimming in the ocean."
"I might be taller than you by next summer."
"I think you will be. You know, Milton, there's something I really love about you."
"What?" Milton is stunned she said, 'love.'
"You are yourself. You don't pretend. I can always count on you being you." Sadie stands up and kisses Milton's forehead before turning to leave. A few steps away, she turns and waves. Milton waves back and watches her walk to the hotel and disappear through the lobby doors.
The salty breeze picks up, ruffling Milton's hair and buffeting seagulls in flight. What a wonderful day to be ten and in love! Milton wishes he had summoned the courage to kiss Sadie and ask her to be his first girlfriend. He missed his chance, but next year he'll be taller and bolder. Today he has a black eye and a taffy sucker his girlfriend-to-be gave him.
Milton stretches out his arms and crosses Ocean Drive to run home for breakfast. He dips his arms, banking to the left, straightening and then banking to the right. He can visualize his Jenny biplane in the newsreel, theater audiences applauding his airborne feats. Today he can make believe he's a pilot married to a girl reporter. It's the best day of Milton's life, even better than yesterday when he found a silver dollar on Silver Strand.