Al… The Friendliest Guard—
My new best pal, MGM security guard Al Marioenzi, will open up new vistas never before imagined. This obliging and approachable watchman has a playful demeanor, which is clearly why he works the entrance gates on Lot 1. Personable guards greet the stars, but crude types end up patrolling the backlots.
Al has been giving tours to my entire neighborhood. The only thing is, as he repeats, in his Brooklyn accent… ya just gotta meet across from the girlfriend’s place. He means Maureen’s apartment. The wall in front of her house now doubles as a bus bench when Marioenzi works the backlot. We know the drill now.
He especially can’t be seen driving the bus for us. But once we are safe and sound inside the Bronco, the fun begins.
I first met Al at MGM’s East Gate. That’s the studio’s main entrance. It was also where I met Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. This is his usual post…
The story begins—
Maureen and I are prowling around the city and stop by to see who is working the main gate. We’ve just come from Pronto market, just across the street, and are loaded with after school staples… specifically, licorice, gum and Doritos.
Al is the dick at the gate tonight… he sees a very excited Maureen. She looks great, as usual, and Al turns on the charm. I love bringing her to meet security. They behave much differently around her, like she is some actress or something.
I’m just Donnie, the guy the’re paid to track and hunt.
I take for granted how foxy she is… especially tonight, in her tight Ditto jeans and pink peasant top. She could definitely be mistaken for a movie star.
In his excitement, Al makes an offer we can’t refuse, as Maureen sips her Root Beer and I chew on my Red Vines. He says, in a near whisper, like a nice uncle, offering us some treasure from his war days, “How would you two like to see Louie B. Mayer’s office?”
We stare at him as I chomp away at an extra large mouthful and she slurps the last sips … “sure, I didn’t think it still existed,” I manage to say, with my mouth full.
“It sure does. I take lunch at 9PM if you two want to go.”
I offer him some licorice as a gesture of thanks. The kids’ equivalent of breaking bread. He accepts… Cheers!
Clock strikes 9—
We pass some time watching fancy cars come and go through this gate, before reuniting with Al. What star do you think is in there? we ask each other. We wonder if it’s Esther Williams or Spencer Tracy or even Katharine Hepburn, sitting low in the back seat of that shiny LTD. What do they do back there? We wave without knowing because we are friendly, like Al.
We find each other at the designated spot. He seems excited, as we begin by walking from the guard shack to a side door at the Irving Thalberg building. While we walk through a long corridor, he fumbles through what seems to be an endless mass of keys in various shapes and sizes. Each has the potential to open up its own adventure… Ohh, what I would give for that magical set of keys. I would own this place…
We next enter an elevator that brings us upstairs to another long hallway. It is decorated with fancy art that I now know to be Art Deco, but we don’t have to walk very far, Al jiggles another lock and presto… a door opens.
He smiles proudly like this is his place, but we enter cautiously, like it may be a trap. If you were to ask me what gave me that feeling, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe just that it was so deserted along that long stretch of a hallway. Besides the abandoned hanging Art Deco pieces, there wasn’t another person in sight… no one going in or out of the many closed doors that we passed along the way.
Gone, But Not Forgotten—
The room is very white, so white, that I can’t help but think of the song White Room, by Cream. Al positions himself in the power seat, occupied at one time by Hollywood’s most famous mogul. We stand as he sits. My head spins faster than Al can spin stories. I make myself slow down so I can take this all in. On some level, I realize that I am experiencing something very special, that I have stepped into an epoch that would soon be just memories. This is where many decisions were made, where life changing phone calls were made, and ultimately, where stars were made.
It is not lost on me that this is the office of THE most iconic Industry Giant, yet the only furniture that remains is his desk and chair. It is positioned in front of a window whose drapes are open, light from the official MGM Thalberg Building entrance illuminates the one small picture of Louis B…. the one item, besides his iconic desk, that identifies this place as his. Although it’s been stripped of all physical adornments, it is bursting with some invisible quality… A spell takes over those who walk in here… still. Despite the emptiness, I feel like Louis B. is in here right now.
But if you run your fingers along the stark white walls and bare desktops, where his belongings used to be, you will pick up plenty of dirt. Like the stories that Al seems to enjoy telling…
Many a Tale to Tell—
Al prattles on with story after story. Some are pretty good, but some are downright unseemly… we’re just kids, after all! “Once the Marx Brothers were here to have a meeting with Mr. Mayer, and they arrived first, so they took off all their clothes and were naked as Louie walked in.”
Hmm… I think, as we barely react. Lots there to picture… or, let’s not but say we did!
Al delivers another little tidbit… “Once Shecky Green was naked on a food table, so when the silver goblets were removed from the trays, Shecky is exposed. Everyone thought they were getting Prime Rib but got Prime Shecky.” He laughs a big belly laugh.
Two naked stories already, and he just sat down. What’s next?
Luckily for us, the walkie talkie he wears on his hip, instead of a pistol, goes off… “Al, we need Stage 1 locked up, are you available?”
“Copy that, on my way from Thalberg building.”
“You two stay here, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I strike my hand to my forehead… “yes sir!”
Saved by the beep!
A Private Audition—
We now have the place to ourselves, and I decide that this office needs a new mogul. And tonight, I’m that guy.
He leaves the door ajar, but as fast as he disappears, Maureen shuts it completely, while I take on the mighty VIP chair. She suddenly transforms into a temptress. As she turns around, she sashays toward me with devious eyes…
“So… Mr. Mayer,” she coos… I hear you have a part in a big MGM movie? How about… I audition?”
Then, she swivels around, to the back of my desk and I suddenly feel powerless. She continues, “Is it a big part Mr. Mayer?” She brushes up against me like a cat, “Can I see the script?” I am the one in the swivel chair, but suddenly I can’t move.
She continues to tease me. Then I remind her she was mighty fickle with her loyalties on our previous project.
I assume some sort of big shot accent, and make my voice low and powerful: “I’m still feeling aggrieved that you turned me down on the western flick we shot over at Desilu. You should have been in that, it would have looked good on your resumé… a damsel in distress, you know, a saloon waitress, and girl that could hit a moving target at twenty yards.” I clear my throat in an exaggerated way.
I take on the character thoroughly. I raise my eyebrows and assume a puffed up, affected posture: “Your response to my last offer was, AND I QUOTE! ‘it’s all just a bunch of silly boys playing with their guns.'”
Although we are playfully joking about “questionable film loyalties,” it is also my way of addressing her recent “escapades” with my best pal Jimmy. But neither of us have the guts to say what we really mean. However, I forget all of that serious stuff, as my engines fire up…
Maureen seductively puts both hands on the desk and leans in toward me…
In her best Marilyn Monroe imitation she says, “I would bend over backwards to get the part, Mr. Mayer.”
I stand up to meet her physical advances, and we begin to embrace. Then, we turn to look out the window, right behind the desk. Below is the East Gate, where we started earlier tonight, and in the distance, we see the MGM Logo, now all lit up, just atop a soundstage. Seeing it from the same angle Louis B. had is inspiring. Below the MGM logo is an advertisement for That’s Entertainment.
Did I already say that I recently met Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on that show? I got their autographs right below this very same window. It’s surreal to be standing here now… the exact same show being advertised in lights is the very one in which I met MGM’s two biggest stars!
I fall into a kind of reverie… all those movies that take us into another reality are conceived right here! For two hours, a movie can take us anywhere… back in time or into the future. To little European villages or into space. We can be war heroes or mafia men. And somewhere in the recesses of your mind, that reality lives on… In some universe, Gene Kelly will be swinging around on that lamp post, with an umbrella in his hand, forever, until the end of time. But in this moment, I have gotten to take a peek behind the curtain. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, and I have gotten a glimpse of the wizard—the man that makes all that movie magic happen.
He can also make you a star. If he likes something about your face, you get to pass through the magical gateway. It’s a star making enterprise. And he’s the one who pulls the golden levers.
A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. … We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting. ~Louis B. Mayer
Then I suddenly snap out of it. I’m 14 years old and we have to kiss before the chamber keeper returns! Just as I bend Maureen over the table, as I’ve seen them do in movies, the door flies open. No knock, just a surprise. Maureen and I quickly adjust ourselves, and Al misses out on his, ahem… Marx Brothers moment. But he does get a Gable/Harlow deep stare upon his return.
“Well, did you guys have fun?” he says with his big Italian smile and cheerful tone. “You wouldn’t believe how much fun we had…” Gee, Thanks, Uncle Al!
Written and lived by Donnie Norden and Maureen Miller
Edited by Donna Quesada