WT, Fountain of Youth (continued)

Another time, I asked Walter for a cold reading (sight reading a script without first seeing it) to give him practice in case of a slip up by one of the actors. Or another eventuality, what if the show somehow ran a little bit fast and there’s a few minutes left till closure? There can never be a silent moment in radio. What can you do? Sight read a last minute addition.” He eyed me strangely, and said, “That’s only done by professionals.” He shrugged, “Adults.” I replied, “Yes, that’s why I’m asking you to read impromptu. OK, Mr. Tetley, now let’s hear you read.” During the subsequent week, as Walter and I worked on the script, I could tell that he didn’t like one particular piece. He pointed out where it could be improved. By now, he voiced his opinion like the adult he was, and what’s more he portrayed a grown up point of view. I had learned to trust Walter’s judgment and we made the changes. We acted out the scene, and were delighted that it moved along very smoothly. After Walter and I went through the scene twice, I took the manuscript to the head writer. I told him that Walter had helped me to perfect the material. He found that difficult to believe. At that moment, if there ever was any doubt about why I was paid to be Walter’s liaison, now I knew.

One day, Walter and I finished early and I planned to take him to a local movie theater. We got popcorn, hot dogs, and soda. However, the theater manager wouldn’t allow us to bring food into the theater. We left in a huff, but I was undaunted, and made plans of retaliation. And I had drafted Walter into the mischievous plot. I don’t know if Walter ever did anything mischievous before this time. If he didn’t, then I was a bad influence. Nevertheless, Walter felt driven to be my accomplice. Either that, or perhaps he was laughing too hard to object. We took a taxi to a department store and we bought a child-size rag doll. We removed some of the stuffing, and filled it with the food. Walter was of little help as he was convulsed with laughter the whole time. Then we entered the building. The ticket booth was in the lobby, which was dimly lit. That was to our advantage. Walter and I began to “walk” the doll to make her look like a real child, and we bought her a ticket to enter the theater. It was a hilarious adventure, and I was afraid that Walter’s high-pitched cackle would get us thrown out of the theater. But a very funny movie with Fred MacMurray was playing, and no one noticed us. Walter was still laughing as we watched the movie and ate our contraband food. Walter never laughed so much in his life. It did my heart good to see the guy in such a state of hilarity.

Then in May of 1946, it was a sad moment when I received my travel orders for my military discharge in Sacramento, California. It was time for me to return home - - - and to leave the West coast. Walter Tetley insisted on taking me to the train station. When we got into a cab, he explained another woe. Because he looked like a child, he wasn’t allowed to get a driver’s license. As we rode, a thought hit me. “Next month he will be 31, and for a birthday gift, I hope, indeed how I hope, that I had started him along the avenue toward self-esteem.” He still had no friends, and he still was reluctant to write letters and sign his name. But he no longer asked for his mother’s permission to go for a swim, to have a snack before lunch, or to take something out of the garage. And he made sure people listened to him. He was beginning to know who he was, and that he rated the status of adulthood. He still had his child-like appearance, which was his meal ticket for life. But he no longer paid for it by being demoted to childhood. I wanted my parting words to be upbeat and objective. In a way, it became my responsibility since I had given him hope by being more than his friend. I was his associate and he was mine --- two adults. And it was not to my credit --- it was Walter’s. I simply talked to him like the grown-up he was, and listened to him as an equal. And he drank up the milk of professional individuality.

In years to come, I was delighted to learn that Walter Tetley did make use of his gift --- without surrendering his identity. In the subsequent years he got contracts for shows and voice-over parts in animated cartoons: Julius on the Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show (radio) (1948 -1954). Voice of Sherman on Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, and Peabody’s Improbable History (TV animated cartoons) (1959 -1964). Yes, he was a child in all of these --- the child whose face and voice never grew older. But he was loved and honored by his audience. And their memory of him never aged. He was literally the Fountain of Youth.