Before I became an author, I had another life – in Hollywood (Victor H Royer)

Before I became known as the author of books on casino games and gaming, I had another life – in Hollywood. That was 35 years ago now, and the world was quite different. As it turned out, this was also a very important time in history. Hollywood was changing, and much of the greatness had been forgotten.  As with most people at the time, especially a young man like me, back then I didn’t realize what it all meant, and how it would be missed – and how we will today revere that time, and the things that once were. So, come along with me now, one day in late summer on a hot afternoon, a few steps in the Dream Factory.

By the time I arrived in Hollywood, it was at the end of that dream. The stars were still in heaven, but the stage was silent. I stood alone in the middle of the Boulevard, the late summer sun high in the sky. It was hot, dry, and dusty. To my left was the façade of a once great building, and in the center an enormous iron gate. Back beyond my left shoulder and all the way down the end of the street heavy concrete barriers blocked the sidewalk, and the once statuesque and imposing iron gate resplendent in black enamel, sparkling in the sun, now stood sadly alone, rusty, and locked with a large chain and a heavy padlock. The building itself looked like a sad remnant of an age gone by. The paint had long since faded, the plaster and stone were peeling and cracked in many places, and most of the windows were broken. Under their windowsills several years of rain and dirt and neglect left long streaks of darkness, as if the building itself had cried.

The air baked at the pavement and rose gently like a mirage, flickering with shining waves that looked like glimpses of scenes from the silver screen. It was almost surreal, as if time and space were alone with me in some sort of communion of past present and future, stilled in a moment between a breath and a sigh. Seconds seemed like hours, and minutes seemed like years. A dust devil formed in the heat and danced across the pavement some distance in front of me. Pieces of old magazines and newspapers were whipped up in a sudden frenzy, a kind of collage that reminded me of faces on an endless row of publicity photographs. Just as quickly as it rose the dust devil died, and those flimsy pieces of paper — as if a memory seeking peaceful rest — floated gently to the ground, settling once more where they would again remain forgotten. Toward the end of the street, and to my right, two old cars were parked by the curb, waiting for drivers who would never return.

For a while I stood there uncertain, with my mind wandering. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, the fog of decades parted. The heavy concrete barriers faded away, the paint on the façade of the building became fresh and new, the broken windows had magically been repaired and sparkled clean as the rays of the sun came floating by. The cracks in the pavement had disappeared, the dirt and dust were gone and the great iron gate again shining bright in its blackness swung open. Throngs of people appeared in that human hustle and bustle, coming hither and forth. Resplendent and colorful, it all came alive in a grand Technicolor frame. There was the studio guard at the gate offering greetings as the stars came in, and at the same time keeping throngs of fans away as they cheered and tried to get autographs from their favorite motion picture stars. I saw Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, Eleanor Parker, Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Jimmy Stewart, and Spencer Tracy with Katherine Hepburn. And many more. All in a sea of smiling faces, of people coming to work in what was The Dream Factory. More Stars Than There Are in Heaven, was their motto. This was known as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

Today not many people know very much about the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. If they do, mostly they will recognize the acronym MGM, and probably associate it more with the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But for 60 years MGM was the grand dame of Hollywood motion picture studios, a place of wonder and amazement. So much great talent in words, music, songs, dance, great dramatic and comedic acting, a legacy of filmed entertainment, all had passed through those gates, walked along the sidewalks and this Boulevard, and came and went through the pages of that history. And so in my mind’s eye I once again saw all of this in the great glory that once was.

A puff of hot wind, the rustle of an old newspaper, and a wisp of my own fantasy brought me back to the present. As I saw myself returning from that image in my mind, I saw the people fade away, the paint grow dry and old, the windows again broken, the gate padlocked and chained, and the concrete barriers once more standing guard to prevent anyone from venturing closer to that which had been the land of such magic.

I felt just a little sad that day, as I turned around and walked back up the street and toward the end, the point where the grand lot ended in a small strip of land. There a portion of the great studio lot had been cut off, and new, modern buildings built. As I walked up there, ever so closer, the concrete barriers came to an end with the last piece turned toward the sidewalk. At that point began a tall wooden wall which then stretched the full distance of what had remained of the MGM Studios lot. That new portion occupied the wedge at the end of what remained of the property. It was sparkling and shiny, brand-new architecture and design. Green lawns framed the concrete pathway, and several trees and palm trees swayed gently in the occasional breeze.

The building itself was small, as I remember it was only two stories, with a staircase up stairs to the main executive offices. I could be wrong about that, though, but somehow that is the image that I kept in my mind. The sign outside that building proudly proclaimed: MGM Studios. This was the last remnant of that giant, and I felt somehow as if this was built to house the undertakers who were put in charge of laying to rest a body that had passed away.

I was there that day to meet with the president of that company. I had obtained permission to visit the lot, and to walk among the soundstages and buildings that still remained on the MGM Studios lot. It was no longer a working studio, and at the time it was the subject of a power-play between billionaires who were all trying to seize control, to gain as much as they could of that which remained, and to chop up the rest. I couldn’t help but think how sad the end had become.

A short distance up the stairs I walked through the glass door, and inside told the receptionist who I was and whom I was there to see. Short while later a very nice man dressed in a designer suit and tie came out to greet me. We shook hands, exchanged a few pleasantries, after which he handed me a letter. This I was to present to the security guard at the gate outside of this building, a small wooden gate cut into the big wooden wall that separated this part of the lot from the main. The letter basically said that I am authorized to enter the premises and to walk about at my leisure. I thanked him, we shook hands, and soon I was back outside in the hot California sun. To my left there was indeed a guard standing in front of a small door with rusty hinges and a lock that probably could have been picked with a hairpin. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and handed him the letter. He looked at it, smiled, gave me back the letter, and opened the gate. I stepped through, and as he closed it behind me I was suddenly there, on Main Street at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

This was a wide street, paved and with sidewalks and curbs. It seemed like it had been a main thoroughfare, possibly used for moving heavy sets, cameras, cranes, and other equipment necessary for the making of motion pictures. It was wider than most of the streets in between the soundstages. But to me it was far more important, because I remembered the street from many great old films. I walked along, further down, until the large wooden fence to my left suddenly cut across the street at right angles, and I came to a stop. The street had ended abruptly. The fence, like a giant wall, ended my trip down that road. Beyond the fence was an area once known as The 40 Acres. That was the MGM back lot. A few years earlier — over the protests of many of MGM’s greatest stars — the studio bosses at the time sold the 40 acres back lot for real estate development, for the measly sum of $5 million. Had those studio bosses listened to their stars at the time, today that back lot could have been a museum of the wonderful motion pictures made there, and a theme park with the great sets full of memories. It would now have a value in excess of $1 billion. But such was the shortsighted thinking at the time that all these iconic sets were bulldozed, and that which had once been great was voluntarily reduced to rubble.

As I stood there on the street, so starkly cut by this tall wooden fence, I could not help but imagine that which had once been beyond. If I were able to continue along the street past that point, it would soon become obvious that this was the Andy Hardy street. Just a little further on and to the right there would have been Judge Hardy’s house, with Andy’s old jalopy parked at the curb outside waiting for yet another adventure with Judy Garland, or his many other loves. And if I were to go further still I would see the street and house from Meet Me in St. Louis, and I could easily have imagined the gigantic sets that once were the island of King Kong — set ablaze in 1939 as the backdrop for the burning of Atlanta for the filming of Gone With the Wind. And if we were to go on further, and a little more into contemporary times, in the 1960s the 40 acres of MGM Studios would have been home to such great TV Classics as the town of Mayberry, the set of Gomer Pyle USMC, and my favorite show of all time Hogan’s Heroes. All these had once been there, just beyond this point where I now stood. They were there no longer … but they still live in my mind, and in my heart.

I took my leave of such memories, and turned to walk a little further on. I wandered in between the tall soundstages thinking of the great films that were filmed there, and great stars that once walked along these same streets. I dreamt the dreams that had once been made in these very soundstages. But now it was all so eerily silent. Just an occasional flutter of a fleeting bird, or a puff of wind over creaking windows, or an old rusting stage door. Walking those narrow streets in between the great soundstages all seemed a little darker, a little cooler, and the hot sun only seemed to shine at the very top.

I then came upon several buildings. One of them was the old writer’s building, which famed studio boss Louis B. Mayer once proudly claimed he built with the proceeds of the films of Jean Harlow. At least that’s how I remember the story, although it could have been another actress, or perhaps I got that story all wrong. But one thing that I knew I did not get wrong was a little concrete alcove at the bottom of stairs to the main building. It was right there, right there where I was standing, where Katharine Hepburn first met Spencer Tracy. The reason I know this for a fact is because Katherine herself stood right there during a documentary about her life and told this story. And now I, too, was standing right there. I could almost see them meeting for the first time, the precursor to not only many great films together, but a great and glorious love affair that lasted for 26 years. Their last film together, in 1968, with Sidney Poitier, was the acclaimed film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Spencer died just two weeks after the filming was completed on that movie, but Katherine lived on for many years after. She was there at the beginning of MGM Studios, she was there at the end, and she lived long enough to see the great affection that many would have, and would acquire, for those great films — even past the end of the dream.

All about me there were such great memories, and to me there was still great wonder even in the loneliness and solitude of this emptiness. I was now the only living soul on that MGM Studios lot on this day.

I walked some more, and for many hours. I saw places that I had only seen in movies, movie trailers, documentaries, and I was always conscious of the fact that had I been around during the heyday of MGM Studios, I may never have walked these streets, soundstages, and sets. But at the same time I thought that perhaps I would have, at least in some capacity. Maybe on a studio tour, with a fan club, or perhaps even I would have in some way become part of it. It could have been so, but of course I would have had to be born to a different age and time. In some ways, I have always felt that I was born in between the times I should have lived. But maybe that was just the melancholy of the moment. Perhaps I was simply overwhelmed by the great sadness of it all.

Soon it will be time for me to leave. I had spent a lot of time wandering around this great expanse, walking onto empty soundstages that once held grand sets and great actors. I could see the crews and the great directors, the bright arc lights, those old bulky cameras and microphones, the projection rooms, the starlets, the tests, the writers, composers, the singers, musicians, set designers, makeup artists, carpenters, and all of the hustle and bustle that made for a living entity.

I decided that I would go around the long way before heading back to that little rickety gate at the tip of the lot, which at the time was the only access point. I wanted to take one last great look at all that I could see so that I could indelibly marry it in my mind in a way that I could never forget. I drank, and I smelled, and I felt, everything. This was, after all, not only a great adventure but a wondrous opportunity that probably was not offered to many, if at all. I was fortunate that I was able to negotiate this permission, and that I had a chance to do this.

As I came out from a narrow street between two soundstages, where the sun did not shine and the shadows were long, I turned right, and then all of a sudden I was bathed in that hot sun. I had stumbled upon an expanse in the studio where I hadn’t been before. As congested and crowded as the other streets were, with the tall soundstages on either side, here there was ample room in a large area of ground. There were grasses and weeds growing in the cracked pavement, and a few piles of rubble here and there. It looked as if some old buildings had been torn down, perhaps an old soundstage, in readiness for something. Perhaps this was the beginning of a new building, or perhaps grounds were being cleared for a movie set for a film that was never made. It looked very much like half abandoned work, but one done some time ago. Even in California weeds can grow fairly quickly, and this all looked so neglected and overgrown. But the most important thing that struck me was a gigantic sound stage which was now to my right, whose gray corrugated iron sliding door was facing the emptiness where that abandoned work had once begun.

I looked at it, and it struck me as if this large soundstage stood as a sentinel, a sort of guard, to that which had been, and perhaps had been tried to rebuild. This must have been one of the original soundstages, dating back decades. It definitely looked like the style of soundstage that could have been built as far back as the silent era. It was huge. At the top were windows, now broken, and I could see skylights. This is what led me to think that this must have been a very old soundstage, because in the days before freely available electricity natural sunlight was used to light the sets. It looked shabby, and much of its façade was rusting, and there were many holes. I walked toward it quite slowly, pebbles and broken glass crunching under my feet. The great sliding door that once would open the front entrance to the stage, tall and heavy from floor to ceiling, resting on casters on an iron rail, was almost closed, but not quite. There was a little gap where the door had been slid but not locked into place. The space was not enough for me to fit through, so I tried to slide that huge door, but it wouldn’t budge. It was simply rusted shut. But there was another, smaller door, cut into this big one. It too was rusty, and the hinges looked like this door had not been opened for many years. I pulled and pushed at it for a while until it finally gave way. I pulled it open, specs of rust and dust falling about me and on me. I brushed myself off, sneezed, and stepped inside.

It was unusually dark. I was quite surprised at this, because I thought there would be plenty of light streaming in through the windows, or at least through the holes in the building, and skylights. But except for a few beams of sunlight it was pretty dark, and hard to see. The skylights looked black, probably covered with many years of grime and dust. As my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, I began to see the truly massive expanse of this cavernous soundstage. I also noticed that it was cluttered with huge wooden beams, some broken, and lots of other wood and large planks, much of it in splinters. As I stepped forward I also noticed that the ground was heavy with dust and dirt, and what looked like pieces of sawdust. I bent down to pick it up and realized that this was not sawdust but instead pieces of rotting wood that must have broken off from the rafters, or from all of that pile of junk that seemed to be cluttered everywhere, in many places stacked almost as high as the ceiling. A flutter of wings and a puff of dust were the only visible signs of life, as a few pigeons flapped and flitted their way outside, resting on old wooden poles that looked like they once may have carried electricity to this area of the studio lot. Other than that the silence was thick.

I had to step cautiously. The ground seemed unsteady with so much debris, and although the passage through the center of the soundstage was fairly wide, the fact that so much heavy wood and other materials were piled so high on either side made me wonder if some — or possibly all of it — would come crashing down at the slightest disturbance of a mere step. For a few steps, I wasn’t even sure if this was such a good idea, but my curiosity certainly got the better of me. I stepped forward and proceeded on as cautiously, but as curiously, as I could. At this point, I thought that it would have been a good idea if I had brought a flashlight. Of course, I knew that this was a ridiculous thought, because how could I have imagined that I would be needing a flashlight.

I walked about halfway through the large soundstage, and then the passageway took kind of a turn to the right. That pile of stuff to my right reached higher than I could see, and at this point it had jutted out into the middle of this great expanse. It was right at this point that a bird flew by high up, at the skylight, its wings briefly fluttering by the light that came in through a somewhat small hole in the ceiling at that point. Just at the instant of this flutter of light and darkness I suddenly noticed a hint of a flicker of reflected light, kind of like the flash of a small mirror, about halfway up this pile of debris. I looked way up there, and there it was again, that brief flicker. The rational part of my brain said that it was probably just a piece of metal that was hit precisely at the right point by that beam of sunlight, and briefly sparkled so that I could see it. But the imaginative side of my mind began to think of it as some kind of a long forgotten treasure. After all, I was in the dream factory.

I wanted to see what it was, but to get there would be very difficult. At this particular point there were several large wooden beams, the kind that are used for structural support in buildings. These were definitely not two-by-fours, but thick construction pieces. And in addition to all of this, there were very large and tall flat pieces of wood stacked next to each other from the wall and to the center, kind of like you would stack flattened cardboard boxes. There were also other pieces of stuff that went jutting out at various points, many of which were broken and looked like they had pretty sharp corners. All in all it would definitely be a very precarious climb to get up to the point of the shining flicker. It did not seem like a very intelligent decision, but I made up my mind to climb up and see what it was. Needless to say I started cautiously, but on the very first step I nearly brought the whole wall down upon me. I stepped on one of the big beams but the wood was so rotten that it snapped, and a cascade of dust, dirt, and other debris came raining down as if it was some kind of an avalanche. Fortunately it came down either side of where I was standing. It was at this point that I thought of abandoning my climb, because who would find me here? If I was injured, or buried under this pile, it could be hours, or even days, before anybody would come looking for me. Yes, those were the rational thoughts of a rational mind. But I was not in a rational state. I was consumed with imagination and determined to find out what it was.

With foolhardy bravery and an insane amount of recklessness I continued climbing up that pile, at every step holding onto rickety and rotting wood and rusting pieces of metal the nature of which — nor their original purpose — I could possibly have known. For a moment I thought of myself as Odysseus from the Homeric epic, or perhaps Don Quixote chasing and climbing windmills. As with the great hero Odysseus, or the foolhardy Don Quixote, I persevered and finally reached that point. It was at the convergence of two large wooden beams one on either side, and two others one above and one below, that formed a sort of a V-shape with a large dark empty space reaching deep inside. The sun had now moved and so that light was no longer shining in this area, and therefore it was really dark in there. I simply could not see anything. I climbed a little further up, and hoisted myself about waist high into that emptiness and reached in as far as my hands would permit. At first, all I managed to do is stir up a bunch of dust. But as I fumbled about eventually I touched something. I had to push myself up a little bit further and that left me dangling almost in midair, supported at the waist only by the grace of God and the strength of that piece of old wood. I leaned forward and grabbed at whatever it was, and just at that point that beam gave way, and I slid right out. Fortunately, I didn’t fall very far, as my feet caught a ledge just a few inches below. At first, I was frightened and then relieved that I didn’t fall all the way down. And once I realized that I was not injured, or in imminent danger of a catastrophe, I realized that in my left hand I was clutching something. I looked at it, and it was very dirty.

Talk about dust and dirt! It was literally caked, with only a small part flickering. It was this small point that the sunlight must have hit as the bird fluttered by, and it was the reflection of this that I saw. Nevertheless, even as dirty as it was, I could easily see that it was a pair of shoes. They must have been sitting there fairly side-by-side, because as I grabbed for them I managed to grab both of them at the point of the instep, and that’s how I was able to hold onto them as I fell out of that perch. I shook out the dust and dirt as best as I could, grabbed my handkerchief and cleaned off the rest. Just then the late afternoon sun shone through another break in the skylights, and a beam of golden rays came shining down as if God himself had turned on the light of heaven. As I held those shoes, they suddenly began to glow. When the sunlight became stronger and wider it was as if the shoes had come to life, and became illuminated by the key light of a studio spotlight, ready to film a scene in Technicolor. In reality these shoes were just ladies’ pumps covered in red sequins. But as they rested gently in my hand, bathed by the golden beam of sunlight, they glowed ruby red, and I knew that I had captured the dream.

There, in my hands, I held the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. I knew instantly what they were. But to be certain I looked inside, and sure enough, written there in a faded but strong marker was the name: J. Garland. These were Dorothy’s slippers from that great film, and in them once stood the great Judy Garland herself.

All of a sudden it all began to make sense. This huge, old, soundstage. These strong gigantic wooden beams. The nearly ceiling tall planks of wood, and wooden poles. And all of that other debris. It all made sense. Not only was I holding the ruby slippers, but I was actually standing in the land of Oz. This was the soundstage where the Wizard of Oz was filmed, and the debris that I now saw strewn all about me were the remnants of the set that was built for the land of Oz itself. These were the pieces that once were Dorothy’s house in Kansas, the Munchkin Land, the Wizard’s Castle, the forest, and the yellow brick road. This was the land of the greatest dream to ever come out of the dream factory. It was all here, all about me, all resting in peace.

I don’t remember how long I stood there, looking around, remembering, imagining how it must have looked at one time, holding those ruby slippers and looking upon them glowing brightly in that beam of sunlight. What magic in just a shoe.

In my mind the film was playing. In my mind the studio was again the hustle and bustle of its days of glory. It took quite a while for me to regain reality, and only when the sun had moved again and slowly the golden beam of sunlight itself had faded, and so did the glow of the ruby slippers. Yes, the dream was over. It was time to go.

I wondered what to do with the slippers. As part of my permission to walk the lot on that day, I also had permission to take with me whatever I found that I wanted to take, as long as I could carry it with me. The intent was that I would find some kind of a trinket, or perhaps a memento of my visit, and that I could take it with me without having to go and ask for further permission. I thought about the slippers, and that I should take them with me. At that moment no thought of their potential value ever crossed my mind. I was feeling flushed and flooded with emotion, and with memories. Oh how I loved Judy, and wished I could have been there. It didn’t seem right for me to take the slippers. From the look of it, the soundstage and all in it were here getting ready to be demolished and taken away. At some time in the near future bulldozers and dump trucks would come and they would load up what was left of the dream, and take it away somewhere where it would be laid to final rest, to remain there for ever after in anonymity. We should bury that which has died. We should honor the memory, and let them lie in peace. I put the slippers back where I found them.

I climbed back down as quickly as I could, and headed back toward the creaking little door through which I had stepped just a little while ago. I struggled with the door to open it, just enough so that I could fit through, and as I half stepped out I took one last long look back in that big space, back in time, back into the land that once had been Oz. I closed my eyes and then stepped through that door and closed it behind me. I walked quickly now back to the entrance, back to the world of today. I knocked on the gate, the guard opened it, I showed him I did not have anything with me, we exchanged a few pleasantries, and I left.

I stood alone on the boulevard that day. The sun was setting in the west now, and the day was cooler. The concrete barriers were still there, and the great iron gate through which once passed more stars than there are in heaven, still stood silent, rusting, locked with a large chain and a padlock. There was not even the rustle of wind anymore, and no more dreams flittering in the mirage of hot air rising from the baking pavement. I took one last, long look, to etch this all in my memory as much as I ever could hope to remember. And I turned, and walked away. I have never been back since.

It is now some 35 years since that day in the hot California sun. To date, as far as I know, only four sets of ruby slippers are ever known to have existed. The last pair that went up for auction sold just recently for over $2 million. I have never found out if that fourth pair was the one that I had found in that old soundstage, and held in my hands. Was it that fourth pair? Did someone find it, after me? Probably. Or, was this a fifth pair, one never previously known? I have always wondered about this. But somehow I think that perhaps no one found those slippers that I saw. Perhaps when the wreckers finally came, all those old sets were simply loaded up on to trucks and hauled away, and somewhere among all that were also those two ruby slippers. Perhaps that pair found peace, and are now resting along with all those that once lived, and had once worked in the dream factory.

A little while after this day the great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios sign was finally taken down. The studio became known as Lorimar Telepictures. Today it is known as Sony Pictures Studio. It is once again a working, functioning, living studio. But it is not the same. It could never be.

I have never been back since. I don’t know what happened to all that I saw there, that day. But I do know that for one day I walked in the footsteps of the great days of grand and glorious Hollywood. I spent a day among the stars. And – for a brief moment – I held in my hand the ruby slippers, and I was part of the dream. Whoever would have thought that a simple shoe would mean so much.

Such is the stuff that dreams are made of….


This post is contributed as a Guest post by Victor H Royer.

Victor H. Royer, known as Vegas Vic, is the author of more than 50 books. Mostly known for books, articles, and columns on casino games & gambling, he is also the author of “Great Casino Slots” “Gambling Legends: True Stories and Amazing Facts” and several titles of fiction, including the Western: “Riders on the Wind”, and the action “Another Day”.

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