My Afternoon With the Cowardly Lion

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I was sitting on the beach one August morning when my cell rang.   Digging it from my beach bag I saw that it was a friend of Jamie’s who worked for the American Film Institute.

“Hey, Lee. How are you?”

“Fine, fine. What are you doing?”

“Not much; reading.”

“Want to go on a field trip?”

“A field trip? What kind?” I was intrigued. Lee was involved with an oral history that the AFI was compiling and he met all kinds of interesting people in his research collection job.

“I’m driving out to the Motion Picture Retirement Home to interview a very old man, a studio employee from the golden age of big budget musicals. Wanna come?”

I gasped. “Yes! When and where?”

“I am at the office on Western, but I will be leaving the office in about 15 minutes, so, considering the distance. . . I guess I should be outside your house in about an hour.”

I hurriedly stuffed my phone, towel, and book into my beach bag and began the trek uphill to the walkstreet. I had wanted to go to the Motion Picture and Television Country House Retirement Community in Woodland Hills for years. Jamie’s studio was a big donor, always buying tables at Motion Picture and Television Fund events, and underwriting its various charitable endeavors.   Lee had mentioned the oral history project when Jamie and I had dinner with him and his wife, Erica, a few weeks ago, and immediately I began my campaign of inclusion. I didn’t care when the next interview took place or who it was talking; I loved old movies and wanted to hear from someone’s lips what it was like to work in Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s. The Motion Picture Country Home was steeped in Hollywood history, having been the final residence for such industry greats as Bud Abbott, Estelle Winwood, Forrest Tucker, Wendell Corey, Gale Sondergaard, Robert Cummings, Harold J. Stone, James Gleason, DeForest Kelley, and more – all of the people I had loved as a child as I watched old movies with my mother at the Thalia or Symphony Space or MOMA.

I punched in the gate code and glanced at my watch; not even 11 a.m. I dialed Jamie’s cell number and he answered on the third ring.

“Yes, dear.”

“What time are you gong to be home tonight?”

“Ohhhh, I don’t know; probably the usual, about 7. Why?”

“I am going to the Motion Picture Retirement Home with Lee to interview someone.”
“Cool. Who?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

“When are you leaving?”

“In about 45 minutes.”

“Okay, well, with the drive to Woodland Hills and back, plus the interview, you shouldn’t be home too much after five.   You want me to bring dinner from the Greek?”

Mykonos Greek Restaurant was one of my favorites, not just because I liked Greek food, but sentimentality always kicked in – on my first day in LA Jamie had met me at the beach for lunch with a gyro from Mykonos.

“Great.”

“Okay, I am on my way into a meeting. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I tied my hair into a loose knot to shower and, after drying, decided to wear linen pants and a coordinating top. Even though I was on vacation, Lee wasn’t; this interview was part of his job and I wanted to look somewhat like I belonged there. I grabbed a cotton sweater in case the air conditioning was blasting and trotted down the staircase.

Lee was waiting in our driveway as I ambled down the hill of the walkstreet. I smiled, waved, and slid into the passenger seat of his silver Prius. “I am so excited. Thank you for taking me.”

“No problem.” Lee peered into the rearview mirror as he backed out of the drive.

This surprised me. “Don’t you use the backup camera?” I asked.

I just can’t get used to it, “ Lee replied. “What can I say: I am an old-fashioned guy. Here,” he tossed a file folder into my lap from the car door pocket. “This is who we are speaking to. He was a grip at MGM.”

I opened the folder and read the man’s name and address plus a list of his credits. “How did you compile these?” I asked. “IMBD generally ignores employee participation at this level.”

“Old production records in the archives,” Lee answered merging onto the 10 heading east.

“Geez, he worked at MGM from the late 1930s,” I observed.

“Yep, he worked on The Wizard of Oz and since the seventieth anniversary year of the film is coming up we decided to interview as many cast and crew left alive as we can find.”

Traffic was light so we arrived sooner than I had expected.  As we stopped at the first gate and waited for the guard to clear us for entrance, I opened the window and stuck my head out. “Lots of buildings of all different sizes,” I said to Lee, returning to the car after our parking pass was affixed and we continued through the gates. “I imagined all little bungalows like the one Mary Astor lived in.”

Lee stared at me. “Where did you get that idea?”

“I saw it in her book,” I answered, shrugging.

“Well, there has been a lot of expansion since Mary Pickford and Jean Hersholt bought the property in 1942.” Lee navigated into visitors’ parking.

My head swiveled as we stood in the bright sunshine. “Look there are some of the bungalows. And over there is the path to the rose garden. This place is beautiful. Where are we going, anyway?”

Lee gestured toward the folder I still held. “I don’t know which building. Look up his address.”

I opened the folder and consulted the sheet of paper. “He is in the Long Term Care Unit. Eeeek, isn’t that the one they are going to close?”

In January, the Motion Picture and Television Fund had announced the closing of the LTCU because it ran at a $10 million loss each year. This had caused a huge outcry among residents, their families, and their champions. There had been pickets outside of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the The Night Before the Oscars party that year. As the party was held as an MPTF fundraiser – as were the The Night Before the Night Before and the The Night Before the Emmys parties – I hoped that all of the attendees had been as financially generous as my husband had and that the frail and elderly residents wouldn’t lose their homes, not least because those people had created and refined the art form that I loved so much.

Lee sighed. “Yeah, that’s sad. They are trying to work something out. I hope they do. A lot of people depend on this care. Most of the people here aren’t the Kirk Douglasses and Elizabeth Taylors; they are the gaffers and grips and script girls.”

The more interesting people, I thought as we entered the glass door of a high-rise building. We made our way to the elevator and exited on the third floor. A passing nurse directed us to the room.

The room was relatively small but awash with light. It held a bed, a wardrobe, a wall-mounted television, and a few chairs. I presumed that the closed door before the bed led to a bathroom. There were shelves along each wall filled with family photographs and MGM memorabilia, including a surprising number of Cowardly Lion things.   A very small and wrinkled man was seated in a chair near the window, basking in the sunshine like a turtle on a rock. He didn’t seem to hear us enter the room; his face was pointed toward the window with his eyes closed. We each chose a chair and sat, then Lee touched him gently on the knee. “Hello Mr. Diedrickson,” he said clearly.

The man turned and gazed at us with bright blue eyes. His face stretched into an enormous smile. “Are you the young man from the film institute?” he asked.

Lee nodded. “Yes, I am and this is my colleague, Laura.”

I held out my hand. His grip was surprisingly firm. “Hello, Mr. Diedrickson,” I smiled. “You know you have the last name of a character from one of my favorite movies.”

“Would that be Double Indemnity?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Even though I didn’t work at Paramount, a lot of people here did, so I get that a lot.”

I blushed.

“I worked at Metro,” he continued, “from the very early days. I started when I was sixteen. My first picture was The Wizard of Oz. And let me tell you, that was something! The sets were big, oh, so big. Bigger than anything I had ever seen.”

“What did you do before working at MGM?” asked Lee tapping his phone’s voice memo button.

“Pumped gas. Picked strawberries. Hauled crates at the Central Market. Worked on a fishing boat out of San Pedro.  Ranch hand, sometimes. I even went down to the oil fields in Long Beach.  You name it I did it. Then a friend of mine got a job as a grip at Metro,” Mr. Diedrickson wiped at his nose with a white cotton handkerchief like my father and grandfather both used. “And he got me one, too. You see, you didn’t need much to be a grip in those days, just a strong back and a willingness to work hard.”

Lee continued asking questions, leading Mr. Diedrickson through the various stages of his career and the many interesting films he had worked on at MGM; eventually they wound their way to the changes he had seen in filmmaking from his first day until his retirement in the early 1980s. As I listened I thought of things I wanted to remember to tell Jamie. I was glad that Lee was recording this because I was sure I would forget some of the more colorful bits of the anecdotes.

Finally, Lee said, “You know, Mr. Diedrickson, this year is the seventieth anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz.”

“And Gone With the Wind,” I interjected.

Lee frowned at me sideways.

“I just thought I’d mention it,” I mumbled. The films were shot right down the street from each other and Jamie was sponsoring an event for the Culver City Historical Society at the studio to celebrate.  The last surviving cast members were scheduled to attend.

“Oh, yes, Gone With the Wind,” Mr. Diedrickson mused, then he chuckled. He turned to me. “That reminds me, do you know that hotel out the Selznick Studio gates?”

“The Munchkin Hotel?” I asked using the colloquial name for The Culver Hotel.

Diedrickson laughed. “Yes, that’s it.   Have you ever been in it?”

“Yes, I had lunch there once. It is pretty cool. My husband told me that Charlie Chaplin lost it to John Wayne in a poker game so I wanted to see it. Plus, I have heard all those Munchkin stories. Are they true, by the way?”

“Are they true? Ha! More than once my friend, Ernie – the fellow that got me the job – had to go down there and corral those . . . little people . . . that were playing the Munchkins. They were mostly circus people, you know, and weren’t used to movies; they didn’t understand early morning call times. Well, they drank like fishes and played poker every night until dawn. So, one day Ernie says to me, ‘you have to come with me. I can’t make those little fellows do anything’ so I followed him out the gates and we drove down to collect some of those Munchkins. We went up to their room – you shoulda seen the whisky bottles everywhere, all over the furniture and the floor and cigarette butts everywhere. Seems they’d played strip poker the night before and what with the drinking, they were passed out all over the room. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a roomful of drunk and naked Munchkins.”

Lee and I burst into laughter. I gestured to the stuffed Cowardly Lion on the bed and the Cowardly Lion figurines on the shelves. “Was Bert Lahr your favorite?” I asked, “or did you just like the Cowardly Lion?”

Diedrickson blew his nose. “Lahr? He was all right, but a real ham. I liked Ray Bolger better; now there was a gentleman. No, those aren’t because I liked Lahr. My daughter and granddaughter buy them for me because my first job was the Cowardly Lion’s tail master.”

Lee and I exchanged glances. “The Cowardly Lion’s what?” asked Lee.

“Tail master,” the man repeated. “The tail was attached to a long piece of clear fishing twine, you see, and I held the end. It was my very first job at Metro.”

Lee frowned. “Didn’t the tail have wire in it?” he asked.

“Oh, sure it did, son, but wire won’t make it do anything. It just bounced up and down when Lahr walked, but then he would tug at it sometimes – you know the Lion was supposed to be nervous – and bend the wire all out of shape and we’d have to stop so it could be stretched out again.  It made Fleming wild – he was something of a drinker you know and could be impatient – so he and Adrian’s assistant . . . a costume supervisor . . . I can’t remember her name . . . anyway, they decided that the tail should be attached to a pole and that way it would always move with the Lion but it would be out of Lahr’s reach for the rest of the time.”

“So you held the pole at the end of the twine tied to the Lion’s tail!” I exclaimed. “Where were you?”

“On a catwalk above the set.”

“What did you do?”

“Mostly I just held the pole to keep Lahr from grabbing at his tail.  I walked along the catwalk when he walked and switched it back and forth when he had to show some emotion.”

“That is so cool!” I exclaimed.

“Sometimes I did other things. Have you ever seen the movie?” he asked me.

“Sure, every year growing up and about ten times since. I love it.”

Mr. Diedrickson looked at me of the corner of his eye. “Do you remember the scene where he cries?”

“Of course, that is my favorite one. The Lion reaches out a paw and grabs his tail and wipes his eyes with it.”

“That was my idea,” he said shyly.

“Really? What do you mean?” Lee interrupted, excited.

“Oh, Lahr. He was just wiping his eyes with his paw and I was standing up there holding the end of the tail pole, pretty bored – I was sixteen, you know – so I moved the pole just a bit and let the tail bob in front of his face just to see what he’d do. Lahr never missed an opportunity for a piece of business – he was such a ham – so he grabbed the tail and wiped his eyes with it. Made quite a show of it, too, even more than I thought he’d do. And everybody loved it. ‘Cut! Print!’ ‘Great, Bert, so inspired!’   Good thing he was such a ham that he took the credit because I could have gotten in a lot of trouble for that stunt.”

I stared, delighted. My favorite bit of screen business had just been explained to me, yet I wasn’t disappointed; it didn’t destroy the enchantment like when you figure out that the Tooth Fairy is really your mom. It made it more magical, in fact, knowing that film was such a collaborative art that character creation came not just from the biggest of vaudeville comedians but also from the smallest of grunt workers.

Lee had nearly completed his interview and it wasn’t long before we were leaving Mr. Diedrickson, who seemed to be growing weary – but not so weary that he let me leave without gifting me with a tiny Cowardly Lion beanbag to remember him by.

There must be a lesson here about friendship, about cooperation, and about how everyone from the largest to the smallest has a part to play in the success of any endeavor.   Yes, I am sure there is but I don’t want to dwell on it now. I just want to remember one August afternoon when the magic of movies fell right into my hands and I met the man who had made the Cowardly Lions’ tail twitch.

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