WT, Fountain of Youth (continued)

Walter’s brother volunteered to pick me up at my Military Post, and as he drove, he asked me why I didn’t drive. I explained that I had lost an eye in service, and that I had not yet learned how to judge distance. So I was a potential hazard on the road. However, I was studying to be an engineer. We arrived at a small ranch, about 120 by 250 feet in the shape of the state of Nevada. It had a huge ranch-type house with built-in garage, a stable with two-horses, and a sizable built-in swimming pool (which was quite uncommon at that time). This was Walter Tetley’s home. Noting my Army uniform, Walter asked me to sign his guest register. He had always wanted to befriend a real soldier, and he treated me like a celebrity. He wanted to show me around the place, but his brother interrupted to tell him that I had lost one eye and was a wounded soldier. Walter immediately got me a chair, and he asked if I wanted something cool to drink. As I walked about, he ran ahead to move things out of my way. It was obvious that Walter was very sensitive to a handicapped person’s needs. I knew he wasn’t a child, but it certainly was a notable revelation to learn that the actor who played the role of ten-year-old Leroy was a thirty-year-old man. He was neither a midget nor a dwarf. He was a perfectly formed undersized man with a child’s voice, appearance, and mannerisms --- with a round cherubic face.

Walter and I sat poolside and we had a long conversation about show biz. We laughed at the notion that silent movies had no sound, and that radio had no picture. We rehashed a number of the old movies and old radio shows. Then he said, “I wondered what a radio show would be like if the audience could see the actors on stage. But then they couldn’t be allowed to read scripts. It would be like a movie.” He scrunched up his mouth. “That wouldn’t be any good. Radio would then be the same as movies.” He thought about that for a moment. “Movies. I was in movies. And I appeared in movies with famous stars. I asked how he felt about working with celebrities. “Being on the same sound stage with an actor that I had seen in movies was a tremendous boost for my morale. It made me want to do movies forever. But later, I changed my mind and preferred radio. But I still was in about 50 movies --- bit parts, and I was told, ‘There’s no bit parts --- only bit actors.’ Nice phrase, but I still continued to call them bit parts.” I asked, “How do you feel about “The Great Gildersleeve show?” He huffed, “Well that sure isn’t a bit part. How do I feel? I know I’m somebody. I just wish I could make friends with the cast. I sometimes feel like an outsider.”

“Do you like reading a script instead of memorizing it?” Walter tilted his head in thought. “I never had trouble memorizing, but with a script I can do more with my voice. And in movies I never had such a large part. On this show, I don’t feel limited.” I explained, “That’s because the show is a departure from comedy show history.” “How do you mean?” I sat back and shrugged, “In the theatrical past, comedy shows consisted of a group of unrelated comic sketches --- not one overall plot like a book, play or movie. The objective of such comedy shows in the past was merely a collection of jokes.” “I never noticed, but thinking back, I used to listen to all the comedy shows, and you’re right. Yes, a lot of short skits.” He thought a while. “But I thought there was a few that had a story for the whole hour. What about the Marx Brothers? And Cary Grant? I smiled, “Those were movies.” He chuckled, “Let me think. There must be one that had a story for the full hour.” He pondered a while and said, “OK, I give up. What’s the name of a show that had all one story?” I replied, “This wasn’t a riddle or a puzzle. The reason you can’t think of one is because there were no comedy shows like that.” He wrinkled his brow. “I wonder why.”

I pondered How deep can I go? Walter certainly is following me. I decided to proceed, “Hmmm. There never was a show like that in the past. But there is one now. It’s called “The Great Gildersleeve” show.” He was a bit annoyed. “Hey that ain’t fair. I’m in that show. Now that you mention it, yes, but how come?” “Your show is a pioneer in the world of comedy. It has a single story, where each scene advances the plot, as it does in a book, play or movie. That demands a lot from the writers, and performers. And you are doing wonderfully.” He grinned broadly. “Really? And they do give me the lead in some of the shows.” I chuckled, “They’re businessmen, and they know you draw an audience. And the people who pay for the ads also like that.” Walter scratched his head. “You and I have been talking grown up stuff. Thanks.” I was stunned. Had no one ever spoken to Walter Tetley as an adult?

Walter’s brother came over to us and said, “I figured that since you were an engineer, could you assemble and install an electrified trap for insects?” “I replied, “Sure it’s the least I can do to repay you for giving me a ride." It was a metal structure about 3 feet long, and 4 by 4 inches across. There were two wires the length of the device, and when an insect passed between them, a high voltage sent a spark across the gap and electrocuted the bug. It had a protective grille to keep a person from harm. I worked well into the night before the job was completed. I tested the trap, and when a bug entered it, I heard the snap sound of the spark. Yuck. It was quite late, and I was ready to return to the Army Post. “Army Post!” I yelped and froze. “I had forgotten to report in to the Army Post before curfew.” Before I died, Walter calmly told me, “I could tell you were going to be busy a long time. So, I phoned the Commander at your Army Post and notified him of your predicament. I hope you don’t mind, but I kind of emphasized that you were half blind and could not make it back before curfew. He said OK, and he signed you in.” I was stunned by the thoughtfulness of this guy. He knew exactly what to do on my behalf. This certainly was not the behavior of a child. Walter said. “You don’t want to be traveling at night. You can sleep here.” Then he and his brother set up the guest room for me, and I slept well that night.

The next morning, I didn’t have to travel to Walter’s home. I was there already. Walter and I began our teamwork. As Walter’s liaison, one of my tasks was to write comedy material, and another job was to listen to Walter read his lines. I discovered that he read his lines immaculately. While he didn’t have the natural style of a comedian, if the script called for a humorous atmosphere, he adapted perfectly. A humorous script made him a great comedian, for several reasons: one, he read the lines with perfection. Two, he knew how to add just the right sparkle to his youthful voice. Three, he knew when to pause and how long. He really was the writer’s ideal model of an actor. He fully understood the script and never misread a part. It was Walter’s prerogative to decide whether we’d work all day or a half, how many days a week, and this changed as he saw fit. It was a bit startling for a guy who looked like a child to be so adult in his work habits. I was beginning to see a conflict in the dichotomy --- he looked like a child but was really an adult. In fact he was 10 years older than I was. And this dichotomy permeated his entire life . I noticed that Walter never had any friends and we talked freely about it. The problem was that he looked, spoke, and acted like LeRoy, the child he played. So adults were NOT drawn into friendship with him, since he appeared to be a child. And 10 year old kids could not identify with him, since mentally he was a full-grown man. This was the down side of his non-aging features. I became acutely aware that he must have had long bouts with loneliness.

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