Helga and I started making plans to leave the U.S. in 1969. In part, the cause was my own feelings about the same kind of thing Stokowski saw, the falling apart of America. That had been underscored by such experiences as in Washington, D.C. and at Grand Central Station. It felt as if the Vietnam War and the killing of young American men in a lost cause would never cease. And the many people from all walks of life spent time and energy vigorously protesting in the streets, in public meetings, in the press, in letter-writing to people we’d elected without seeming to have any effect. The phrase often used was that Washington was not “listening.” Of course it was listening. It just wasn’t responding the way so many of us wanted. I could remove myself from where it hurt the most. It took another four years after our departure before that tragedy ended.
(Here I skip parts of the memoir about some of the first months in Europe early in 1971.)
And I got myself a legitimate press card, so that I could report on any news event I encountered—a document that could perhaps smooth my way into public events, perhaps also getting free tickets. Tom Washington, WPAT’s news director, gave me that card after I asked him for it, telling him that I was going to Europe but was not certain where I’d be in the months to come. He thought it might be interesting to have a couple of stories from me, having used me a few times as an on-street reporter in recent years. But he told me that I should only call in if there was a major breaking news story.
I never did send him anything. Nothing that significant occurred when I was present. The card did, however, temporarily legitimatize my residing in Italy until I was told to leave the country. And it also garnered a few gratis movie tickets in Munich, Vienna, Venice, Lisbon, and Paris. Plus those to shows, concerts, and operas in Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome, and Genoa.
We (me age 37, Helga age 30) did not know where we’d settle, or even if we would. Pure spontaneity. An adventure.
Neither of us had any idea how or if we’d find jobs. We just assumed we would. It seemed unlikely that I would be a radio announcer on nationalized stations where everyone spoke languages not my own. As for being an actor, that seemed another improbability.
In time, I would get an interview with Armed Forces Radio, perform Shakespeare on the stage of the Roman Arena in Verona, have a shot at appearing in a Fellini film, be in a play in Genoa, Italy, and audition as a jazz d.j. for Radio Monte Carlo.
Mostly though when it came to performances I was in audiences, although with my eventual job as a teacher of English to Italian adults, my outgoing personality clearly made my classes popular.
Personal fragments from four-and-a-half years in Europe
Ever the performer, though, I still thought about reporting and so brought along my cassette recorder to gather sounds of the various places we’d go and to talk about and over those sounds.
I knew that, without some kind of radio station commitment to broadcast anything I recorded, the only people who might ever hear my descriptions and experiences would be Joe Marzano, Bob James, my family, and friends. I’d send them tapes. Nonetheless, it would be a kind of reporting.
Further documentation was to be with a simple, single-lens Canon Super 8 movie camera. I was also eager to photograph everything for myself in any case. Collecting memories.
The Alleged Journalist
My first use of the press card was for admission to a movie in Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station). I explained to the woman at the ticket window that I was researching how movies sounded in German. Absurd, of course. But she didn’t care and let us in.
The reason was not to see the movie. We had nearly a day-long wait ahead of us to take a night train to Berlin, invited to stay at the apartment of Helga’s friends Cristina and Peter Witt. The night train was the cheapest option. Spending time at the movie theater was to keep out of the cold and the rain without having to take a hotel room for the day and to be in a place dark enough where we could rest and close our eyes without hearing too much noise, rather than in the Wartesaal (Waiting Room).
One theater looked promising, seeming to attract only few people during that day. Mostly men. Maybe it was the feature: Partnertausch und Gruppensex (Partner Swapping and Group Sex). The dialogue, which I heard while awake, tended to be soft, almost whispered. Given my language barrier, I couldn’t follow it, making for relaxation. Occasional loud orgasmic screams did create an alteration in the dynamics. Nonetheless, we both were able to doze off in our cramped isolated seats, far away from customers with their raincoats.
The train left at midnight, scheduled to arrive in Berlin at 7:17 a.m. We slept fitfully on hard third class wooden seats. No one there with us.
As we neared Berlin, a conductor told us we would stop in Falkensee for East German guards to inspect our documents and our luggage. That was the last stop before crossing The Wall to enter Berlin.
I peered outside the window and, in the fog, I could see a uniformed officer pacing back and forth. I grabbed my camera to take a quick picture.
Helga yelled, “Are you crazy? Put that away. What if he should see you?” By then I’d already taken a quick frame or two. Quickly I turned off the camera and stowed it with the rest of my luggage. Next to the tape recorder. I did not turn that on.
Helga had already prepped me what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do when an East German guard would arrive and question me. Don’t say I was a reporter. Don’t show my press card. Don’t speak German, which really wasn’t much of a problem anyway. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Allow her to do all the talking. Be sure to say that the reason for our trip was only as tourists. Say that we’d been invited by friends and try not to mention Peter and Cristina’s names. A performance. One which made both of us nervous.
A severe-looking officer, circa age 32, stomped into our compartment. His dark grey pants were so sharply creased that they looked as if you could easily slice dark German bread on them. The skin on his face gave the impression that he had just shaved about 10 minutes before. Helga greeted him with a smile. He did not smile back. He asked to see our passports, looking at us closely to make sure we were the same people as in the photos. He asked all the questions Helga anticipated, and she translated for him and for me where required.
He wanted to know if I had a camera. When I offered to show it to him, he told me not to touch it but to point to it. He then took it down from the luggage rack, opened the case and looked through the lens. Then he noticed the tape recorder. He wanted to know why I had one. I explained why and he accepted the answer.
He left. Soon we arrived in Berlin.
Once, standing on a platform overlooking The Wall into East Berlin, Peter saw me start to take out my camera. “Please, don’t do that,” he warned. “They might shoot you if they see you trying to take a picture.” I put it away.
So much for being a press card-carrying journalist.
A Job Interview
We went back to Munich by way of Frankfurt, following up on an application to be an announcer on the Armed Forces Radio network whose base was in that city. So, soon in Europe, I wasn’t sure about where I might call home or if such a job would be interesting. But why not look into it?
Before leaving the U.S., the program director at Voice of America had mailed me the name and phone number of whom to contact.
I’d auditioned for the Voice Of America when still in New York, figuring, incorrectly, that announcers for VOA would be in European studios. VOA sent an 18-page form to fill out and a script to record on my own. It contained, among other things, a page from James Agee’s Knoxville Summer 1915, some of which was already familiar from Samuel Barber’s composition of that name. One part has stuck with me.
“A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.”
I thought that I gave a good, eloquent reading. A polite thanks but no thanks.
In Frankfurt, David Mynatt was the AFR connection. He’d already received my résumé, and replying to my New York letter had said to come see him when in Germany.
In retrospect, it could seem strange that, given my opposition to the Vietnam War, I’d want to connect to the military. But, actually, I was against the government maintaining the war and had nothing but sorrow and sympathy for our young men sent there to die. In some kind of oblique way, maybe my broadcasting could take a turn towards solace, had I some choice on how I could perform.
Mynatt was very friendly, asked the usual questions about my experience and background but, clearly, was curious about why I’d come to Europe. Naturally, I didn’t talk about my negative feelings about where our nation was going but rather explained that my girl friend was Austrian and we’d come to spend time with her family and to look into settling down.
He gave me audition material to look over. A 15-minute newscast. A piece MC-ing a concert by the Armed Forces Radio Network Orchestra. A short script giving Americans directions on how to drive from Munich to Frankfurt, explaining road signs.
After I recorded everything, Mynatt listened to the tape, saying he was impressed with my German pronunciations of the signs and that I sounded really good reading the news and the concert script, but that there were few openings for civilians in general and none at that moment. He wrote down my only European address so far, in care of Helga’s mother in Vienna. And said to keep in touch, especially if I decided to live in Germany. I never followed up.
Helga and I knew that we’d not have enough money to splurge on travel until deciding where to live, assuming that we would. We’d buy a used Volkswagen van, go wherever we felt like going and mostly stay at camp grounds in as many parts of Europe as we could afford.
During our two-day stay at dreary Romeo e Giulietta campsite just outside Verona that month, I stood on the stage of L’ Arena di Verona.
The 1st-Century CE structure is a still-active and famed venue for summer opera performances. When we walked onto the grounds, carpenters and electricians were constructing sets. Hammers banging. Drills squealing. Then everyone took a lunch break at noon. Quickly I ascended the platform, telling Helga to take the tape recorder and sit on one of the seats within a curve distant from the stage. Eschewing the Balcony Scene from fair Verona where we laid our scene, thinking that it didn’t call for enough volume, I declaimed the Prologue to Henry V. After having spoken to an audience of six—Helga and five puzzled workers eating their sandwiches—we listened to the tape. My voice was faint but the words could be understood. Natural acoustics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verona_Arena
In Venice a few days later I tried using the press pass to get into a movie, not just any movie, but a link to my past as an actor 11 years before. In a way-off-the-tourist-beaten path, Dorsoduro, we’d found a reasonably inexpensive pensione. Exploring the little bridges along tiny canals, wandering among the winding, mysterious, dark and damp alleys, we’d come upon a small neighborhood movie theater, showing La ballata della città senza nome (The Ballad of the City Without a Name). Not a title you’d recognize. But, looking at the poster, we could recognize that it was Paint Your Wagon. In late November 1960, I’d been in a production of that musical at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. How could we not go in to see it?
The somewhat unshaven, middle-aged man in the ticket booth was friendly enough, but English was not among his responsibilities. This wasn’t a tourist zone. Why would he have to know English? This wasn’t Germany or Austria, either, where so many people knew some of my language. I showed the man the press card. It made no sense to him. I said “giornalista.” Useless. With a shrug and a smile, he made it clear that he didn’t understand what I wanted. We paid.
The movie was already in progress. The chorus was singing “They Call the Wind Maria.” It was in English. Then the dialogue started. Dubbed Italian. I figured I’d be able to follow what was happening, storywise, but it turned out that the 1969 movie had scant resemblance to the very familiar original which I knew so well, having presented the cast recording on WNCN and WBAI. Most of the time, I had only the slightest idea about what was happening. Not that it was all that easy to catch every word. The house was full of its own Italian dialogue, neighbors gabbing with neighbors, getting up to sit somewhere else to talk with someone else. There was almost as much action in the theater as there was on the screen.
Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg’s characters seemed to have some remote connections to characters I knew from the 1951 version. There was no one resembling my role, Edgar Crocker. Ray Walston was recognizable amid the cast. Later research revealed that he played Mad Jack Duncan, another invention in the new script by Paddy Chayefsky. And new songs had been added by André Previn and the original’s lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.
Later, back in the U.S. in the mid-’70s, there was no immediate chance to see the movie. Nor much interest. I still haven’t seen it. Certainly it was no classic. “It just lies there in my mind—a big, heavy lump,” said Roger Ebert that year. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/paint-your-wagon-1969.
Fellini and me
I had a chance to be in an Italian movie. Fellini’s.
We were in Rome for eight days. I’d tried getting interviews at schools that taught Italians English, exploring possibilities for the fall if we decided to live in Rome. The Shenker School, at a great location right above the Piazza di Spagna, gave me a test. Amid the multiple choices, grammar-wise, were questions about the present indicative, the present subjunctive, the conditional imperative, and the future conditional. In English. Huh? Those words and their meanings were totally alien. Following my complete disqualification, the young Englishman who interviewed me was very helpful in suggesting where to earn a few lire in Rome, saying that there was usually something going on at Cinecittà where actors, such as I, might find work dubbing into English or, at least, getting parts as extras. Even though the sword-and-sandals epics were no longer being made.
Heading to Cinecittà, steering the van through crazy Roman traffic was a great game. No terror for this fearless weaver of New York streets. Given that the VW tended to dwarf so many little cars, such as the little Fiat 500, nicknamed Il Topolino (Mickey Mouse), I could be as charmingly aggressive as the Romans. Never looking right. Never looking left. Few side-view mirrors. Tooling along in traffic lanes whose lines were taken as suggestions, not imperatives, I followed the examples around me. Rule of the road: sempre diritto (always straight ahead).
Besides, what was the hurry? I was on vacation.
Green fields, many pine trees, and far-off stone fragments looking like ancient ruins surrounded the Cinecittà gates. The parking lot was not crowded. Probably nothing happening that Friday circa 7 p.m. I drove through the entrance without hindrance and found an office with a sign over it: Ultra Film Federico Fellini Produzione: Roma. Inside the office about six men sat around talking. They didn’t seem curious why I, such a stranger, had entered their space. I asked for someone who spoke English and a man, seeming in his mid-20s said, “I speak. I am Tonino. Fellini’s assistant. Can I help you?”
Apologizing for not speaking Italian, I asked if anyone at Cinecittà was making a film currently.
“Oh, yes. Fellini is making film about Rome.”
“Does he need actors?”
“It could be. Are you actor?”
“Have you picture of yourself?”
“Get one and bring; Fellini likes looking at pictures.”
“OK. Where? When?”
“Tomorrow is OK. Come here. We shoot something tomorrow afternoon. Probably finish 6 p.m.”
I drove back to the campsite and told Helga. She suggested that we find a photo kiosk at Termini station and take pictures. It looked less glamorous and exciting than it did in that De Sica film Indiscretion of an American Wife. Johnny Mathis’s version of a song from it, ”Autumn in Rome,” resonated in my head.
In my six small pictures, sometimes I was looking straight ahead, sometimes doing goofy faces.
With my name inscribed on each, I took them to Cinecittà that Saturday afternoon at 6 p.m. Entering the same office I didn’t see Tonino. “C’è Tonino?” I asked what looked like some of the same men as on the day before.
“Non c’è,” said one.
“But I thought he’d be here,” I responded, disappointed, of course, not that I expected anyone to understand.
“Può essere là,” the same man said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the studios. I understood “là” (there), which was enough. So he meant, I guess, that Tonino was not in the room, rather that he was somewhere else in the vicinity.
I went walking through the nearby lots. Open-doored, empty studios. A costume shop full of all kinds of elaborate, ecclesiastical robes. Within the vast hall, it felt as if the costumes were waiting for actors to parade in them in a religious festival. Two women sewing in the vastness.
“C’è Tonino?” I asked. They looked up and smiled and shrugged.
Another studio seeming to be an unfinished living room. No one there.
I passed a group of five work-clothed men carrying tools and a ladder. “Tonino?” I asked.
“Non c’è,” replied one.
Maybe that meant he’d gone, or maybe just not near us.
After wandering enough, without ever encountering spectacular outdoor sets, as I’d hoped, I returned to the office.
“Ciao, Gordon!” Tonino greeted me. “How are you? Have you pictures?”
He told me to write a phone number on them. Explaining that we had no phone, he said. “Well maybe Fellini can talk to you today. Maybe a part for you.”
I nearly fell over.
Then he laughed. “No. I’m joking. Fellini is not here. But leave photos and call me, next week, maybe four or five days.”
In retrospect, the whole idea of me being there at all seemed pointless. What did I expect? That instantly Fellini would be thrilled to see my face and ask me to hang around for a few days until filming started? I was a tourist after all, with no plans to stay in Rome much longer. We’d been there five days already and had many cities, towns, and villages ahead waiting to be explored, along the Italian and French rivieras, in the vastness of Spain, in Portugal, southern France.
We stayed three more days. Before leaving I called Tonino. He wasn’t there.
Then, late in 1972, the movie came out. It was called Roma. A long, colorful, ecclesiastical fashion show was in it, with priests modeling all kinds of bizarre clothes, on roller-skates. That must have been the wardrobe I’d seen stumbling around the back lots. One of the priests looked like me. My role! Except I would’ve fallen on my face. I never learned to roller-skate.
Before we left, I’d been leafing through the Rome Daily American, an English language newspaper. There was a small ad saying that Tony Scott, one of my long-time favorite jazz clarinetists, was appearing at a night club. The ad also mentioned pianist Romano Mussolini. The family name was certainly familiar. Naturally I hoped to hear Scott, even meet him, minimally, to express my admiration.
Entering the darkened club during the day, I found a bartender setting up glasses and bottles on the shelves. He spoke English. I asked if Scott would be performing there that evening. “He’s American playing with Mussolini, yes?” Different reputations, no?
“Yes. When will they play this evening?” I asked.
“Oh. Sunday was last night. They have left.”
“Do you know where they’ll perform next?”
He didn’t know.
The following year, living in Genoa, Scott and Mussolini had a gig there. I introduced myself to Tony and we became quite friendly, hanging out together quite a few times. More later.