Orson Welles ...
by Bill Bakaleinikoff
When you are too young to drive a car and too old to ride a bike you are in limbo which can cause zits and locked bedroom doors. I said ‘can’; I didn’t let zits linger and I always found a way not to get trapped in my bedroom; however living in Mandeville Canyon added to my transportation woes because walking anywhere was a hike. I was industrious and always found a way to migrate towards action like a moth to a lighted bulb.
My family had now been living in Mandeville Canyon for over a year and the transplant from Hollywood was almost complete. There was a big migration during the middle 1950s of Hollywood professionals who had moved westward to get away from the smog and rising crime in Los Angeles and downtown Hollywood. In short, many of our neighbors moved with us. Some of our family friends had already made the move and helped talk my parents into following suit. Lola and Jack Lighter were two of them.
I always liked going to their house as a kid, it was magic. The long westward curvy drive down Sunset Boulevard through West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Brentwood and finally the leafy turn just before we got to the old Polo Field was always exciting. They lived right on Sunset Boulevard in a house that could have been transported from an old Tom Mix western with lots of trees and land around it. One-story, all-wood, but Spanish in nature the house always had neat people about indoors and out. Always alive even when I was under 10, their house along with who and what was in it was always like a renaissance.
Lola was a very slight lady with long jet black hair and big eyes; and a born host. Jackson was a rather large and robust man who also happened to be one of Hollywood’s most successful agents during the 1940s and 1950s. Two of Jackson’s clients were Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth (the ex Mrs. Orson Welles). His client list goes on and on but that is another story. I think this is enough background to start this story.
It was 1959, I had adjusted to Unihi, but still was pretty much to myself except for a few friends in Mandeville Canyon. I still went places with my parents, and enjoyed it. I was now over six feet tall and in the European tradition accepted as an adult; I could go to parties with my parents and drink wine. Other European families would bring their young adults too; girls. See, it wasn’t that bad. Anyway, this weekend in 1959, my parents took me to Lola and Jackson’s house (now they were just down the canyon and around the corner) for a get together. These were fun because they weren’t structured parties, they were like “Hey, if you don’t have anything better to do tonight come on over and lets get silly”. These were great events. You would be surprised to find out how many big stars liked to get silly at the last minute.
The parties at Lola and Jackson’s usually started in the late afternoon and would go into the following morning. There would be endless buffet tables set up indoors and out. Live music lots of liquor and wine and most of all lots of laughter and endless stories. I loved it. In the early part of the last minute-drop-by-if-you-are-not-doing-anything-else- parties guests would stop by to get fueled for their main event elsewhere and others would stop by after they got fueled elsewhere. Lola and Jackson’s parties were spontaneous. People could let their hair down, and they generally did. My parents filled their wine transporter with some nice wines and cheeses and a case of vodka (imported from Russia direct) and we arrived at 2:30. I believe Dennis Day was there along with about twenty other Hollywood workers. Lola was buzzing around like a hummingbird and someone was playing the piano that was moved out doors under the arbor that was draped in grapes and stood over countless tables, chairs and chirping birds (years later when I saw the Godfather and the wedding scene I thought of Lola’s outdoor settings). The phone rang and Lola picked it up as in those days a professional host would. She then turned to the outdoor crowd and announced that Orson (Welles) was on his way over. At about the same time, Laurindo Almeida, the world famous guitar player had just walked in.
Part 2 ...
I am always surprised when I mention the name Laurindo Almeida and many people ask me “Who is Laurindo Almeida?” But then again Laurindo Jose’ Araujo Almedia Noabrega Neto, born in Brazil in 1917, was kind of like a Bentley parked next to a Rolls Royce; most untrained eyes would immediately drift to the Rolls. In reality, many Rolls Royces and Bentleys are the exact same car except for the grille. Bentley’s charm was that the owners could have all of the advantages of driving a Rolls but could go about their lives in privacy.
Huh! You say? Well, that is about the closest analogy I can come up with when describing Laurindo Almeida. Laurindo was (he died in 1995) perhaps one of the greatest classical and jazz guitar players in the 20th century. Most people remember Andres Segovia, Sebicas or Ramon Montoya , or his nephew Carlos Montoya, when classical or Flamenco guitar is brought up (Jazz is another story); these were the Rolls Royce names of the string world. Laurindo was just as classy and respected but he was a softer, quieter personality and like the Bentley he could go about in grand style without being noticed. Laurindo’s musical accomplishments are, however, legendary in the industry. From concert halls, recording studios, radio to the big screen, Grammy, Emmy and Oscar awards along with 16 nominations followed after him. Anyway, Laurindo is a complete story unto himself. I just wanted you to know a little about him.
Orson Welles and Laurindo Almeida were opposite personalities, however both liked and respected each other tremendously. Orson bellowed like a lion and soaked up life like a giant Renaissance sponge. He had a twinkle and spark that flashed around his face as his eyes would constantly look for something new. Orson’s head was always in motion even if his body was not. By this time Orson wanted to spend as much time as he could in Europe and his visits to Hollywood were to make a quick picture and get his check. Hollywood had already squandered his genius and Europe was now enjoying it. The parties at Lola and Jackson’s house were always a safe haven for both Laurindo and Orson; and anybody else for that matter.
By the time Orson had showed up the late afternoon get-together started to take shape and cars were piling up in the drive way and out on Sunset Blvd. and around the corner. The vodka and wine and tall glasses of beer were working their charm under the West Los Angeles sky. A slight breeze carried the smell of Mexican food hot from the oven and giant iron skillets squatting on the burners. Roast beef slabs were stacked and skewered waiting for their turn on the out door BBQ. Platters of fried chicken and potato salad and cucumber tricks and treats dotted the outdoor tables as the quests dodged in and out while balancing their drinks. Women’s high heels carefully clacked down the brick paths that suddenly turned into dirt. The back and side yards were a maze of rose bushes, trellises and winding paths of garden interests.
The house was also open. The den and living room were also packed with guests, food, and drink. And drink. I would dart in out of the house and make the rounds of the party. I grew up with many of these people and felt very comfortable with them. By the time I was fifteen I was wise to the ways of Hollywood and the pecking order it so proudly hailed. I knew all of the gossip, and who was doing what to whom. My mother had a dress store in Hollywood ‘Yvonne’s of Hollywood’ and many of the female stars used to frequent it. My mother always knew what was going on and passed it on to me. I could hold a fairly good conversation with most people at the party….especially after two or three glasses of wine. I was headed into the kitchen to see how the Mexican food was doing when I overheard my father’s distinctive voice out-doing Orson’s. His thick Russian accent was working overtime. “My son Bill can’t read music…I have tried to teach him….his mother has tried to teach him…I’ve sent him to the best music schools……but he can play by ear……but you can only do so much on a piano by ear…he will never be a musician……A Bakaleinikoff that can’t play music!”. I’ve heard the speech a thousand times but now it was Orson’s turn. Orson was teasing my dad and said “Mischa, so the kid can’t play music….with his looks he can become an actor and never have to work for a living…..how old is Billy now?”
I decided to join the fray “My birthday is coming up next month Mr. Welles and I will be…” He cut me off and said “Just because you can’t read music doesn’t mean you can’t play it!.....Damn! maybe you’re playing the wrong instrument ….Did you know that some of the greatest guitar players in the world can’t read music Mischa?....hell, look at Laurindo…..he plays jazz and most of those guys don’t read music…..do they?” Mischa cut in…”You have to read music”. Orson looked around the room and said “Where is Laurindo……LAURINDO….WHERE ARE YOU”. Lola heard the bellows and guided Laurindo and his plate of food into the living room. As Laurindo got within sight of Orson, Orson put down his drink and said “It’s Billy’s birthday and he needs a guitar so he can start learning how to be a musician…….you don’t need to read music to play a guitar………Come on Laurindo….lets go get Billy a guitar…..you can pick one out for him and I’ll buy it!.....”
Laurindo had the patience of a saint. He was a very pleasant man to be around. He never seemed to get ruffled or upset about anything. Laurindo looked over at Mischa with his usual half smile and then back to Orson. “ Does Billy want to play the guitar? I thought he played the piano”…….Orson shot back….”How can Billy play the piano Laurindo, he can’t even read music….ask Mischa”…….Laurindo replied “Orson, guitar players read music too” My dad piped in “All musicians have to read music!” Orson got to his feet and said “Maybe it will be easier to learn music on a guitar than! a piano………..Billy can learn Flamenco…….I met many Flamenco players in Spain and Italy that couldn’t read a note of music”………”Come on Laurindo let’s get Billy a guitar”. My dad looked over at me and said “Bill, do you want to learn how to play the guitar?” I replied sure (hell yes, why should I let Ricky Nelson get all of the chicks).
My dad pulled out his wallet and offered Orson a wad of greens. Orson said no Mischa this one’s on me. Poor Laurindo stood there with his full plate of food as Orson bolted for the door…”Come on Laurindo lets go to the music store and pick out a guitar” Laurindo put down his plate shrugged his shoulders with a smile and followed Orson and me out the front door. By now there were cars parked everywhere. The car Orson came in was buried in the queue in the driveway. At the end of the line was an old mid-1930’s Bentley; Orson shot back into the house and yelled “Who owns the old Bentley in the driveway….I have to move it” The car belonged to a (un-named) director who prized it as part of his small rare collection of cars, he never drove the car more than a few blocks from his house (his house was in Mandeville Canyon). He handed Orson the keys thinking he was just going to move the car. Orson surged back out of the house and ordered us to get into the car. Laurindo climbed in the back seat and I got into the front passenger side.
To the poor director’s amazement Orson ground the car into reverse and with a loud display of further grinds, lurches, and a popped clutch, the pristine Bentley took off down Sunset Blvd towards Hollywood. The 1936 4 ¼ litre Sedanca coupe with coachwork by Hooper quickly disappeared from its owner’s fearful eyes. Orson and I were fortified with red wine, but I think poor Laurindo was trapped in sobriety as the Bentley negotiated Sunset’s curves. One quickly got the idea that Orson didn’t drive all that often. I think Orson thought the car came with automatic pilot because his eyes seldom focused on the road ahead. He immediately started in on the film ‘Compulsion’ which he was either working on or just finished…… “The movie turned out better than I thought…..is your uncle Costia coming over to Lola’s, Billy…….heck I was working with him on ‘Journey into Fear’ the year you were born……..I can’t believe he still works for RKO……You know Costia don’t you Laurindo……..Oh that’s right…..you worked with him too….Has Rita been over Lola’s lately…..” We small talked our way into Hollywood and up to Hollywood Blvd. There was an old music store we used to go to (and I have been rattling my brain trying to think of its name--I can’t even remember if it was on Sunset or Hollywood Blvd for sure).
I remember walking into the store with Orson and Laurindo to no real fanfare. The store was full of drums and guitars along with records and a few pianos. Laurindo looked up at the wall and then looked over at me and said hold out your fingers. “You have good large hands for the guitar Billy…..Do you know the difference between steel and nylon strings?...............Do you want to learn classical or rock and roll or maybe jazz?”……I replied with “I don’t know……..” Orson jumped in and said “He should learn to play flamenco……the women love it….and besides rock and roll is only three chords, he can pick that up any time”…….Laurindo then asked if I had thought about playing bass. I said no. Laurindo then picked up a nylon-stringed guitar, after plucking and handling most of the nylon guitars that were available, and tuned it. No one in the store paid much attention until he started to go into a Flamenco piece. The seven or eight customers in the store looked over. Laurindo played for about twenty minutes going from Flamenco to Jazz then Brazilian. The crowd had grown by now as word got out to the street that Laurindo Almeida was playing inside.
After he finished he said “I think this would be a good guitar for you Bill…..you can always trade up when you master it…..but this is a very good guitar”. It was a Harmony Classic and Laurindo was right, he had picked up the best guitar, not because of price; as a matter of fact it wasn’t that expensive, he just knew that it was a very good guitar. (Years later one of Carlos Montoya’s understudies was at our house and I gave him my guitar to play. After a few chords he looked over and said “where did you get this guitar? It has a wonderful sound to it). Laurindo signed a few autographs for the excited musicians who knew who he was and we all headed to the counter. Orson asked how much the guitar was and then reached for his wallet. The guy behind the counter said “Your friend picked the best sounding guitar in the store….it is a freak guitar….your son will be very happy with it…does he play yet? Orson looked over and said with a sinister grin….”Oh don’t worry, my son is going to learn how to play this damn thing and read music too!”
It is funny how life turns out. As I got older I was told many times that I looked like Orson Welles (before he gained weight), years later in a bar a young lady who was into old movies said “You know, you remind me of Orson Welles…are you related?” I said yes. He was my father for about ten minutes. Oh, the poor guy with the Bentley was really upset when we got back……But don’t worry, Orson put him in his place.