the Wanderling

William Lindsay Gresham and my father were friends and drinking buddies. They came to know each other under the auspices of 20th Century Fox and the fact that my father was a onetime side show carny and roustabout. His sideshow roustabout background and midway knowledge was strong enough that studio big shots put he and Gresham together in conjunction with the making of the 1947 movie Nightmare Alley, based on Gresham's strong carnival themed novel of the same name.

Gresham's was a heavy drinker, something my dad could easily attest too as he was one himself right along with him. It has also been said Gresham was heavily besieged by demons, as the following should attest to:

"Gresham was a deeply unhappy son of a bitch whose life was one long search for redemptive meaning, and the internal horror that drove his quest screams off every page. An ardent communist in the 30s and 40s, he volunteered as a medical orderly in the Spanish Civil War. After a suicide attempt, he went into Freudian psychoanalysis, but found there no relief from his rampant and sometimes violent alcoholism. He subsequently sought relief in the Anglican mysticism of C.S. Lewis (his wife and fellow convert, poet Joy Davidman, later divorced him and married Lewis), various occult traditions, Zen Buddhism, Alcoholics Anonymous, and L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. Never able to duplicate the success of Nightmare Alley and diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, he committed suicide in 1962."

Chicago Reader

My dad left home at age 16 and never went back nor finish high school. The time was just before the start of the Great Depression and his family was was already showing signs of having a hard time. As he told it he felt one less mouth to feed would help. He rode the rails, worked as a Barker, carny, and a roustabout for a traveling sideshow as part of a circus or two, and prospected for gold on both sides of the High Sierras and into the Mojave Desert. Somewhere along the way, in a Southern California beach community and driving a Mercer Raceabout after doing well in the gold fields, my father met my mother, settling down in one of the mountain resorts located a hundred miles or so east of Los Angeles called Big Bear Lake.[1]

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My older brother was born at Big Bear Lake and graduated from high school there, although in between he was all over the map. In 1936 a movie titled "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" was released. Most of it was filmed in Big Bear and my dad worked on it. With his supply of gold nuggets and dust running low and my mother not wanting him to go back to the gold fields, even the Lost Gold of the Sierra Prospector of which he knew about personally and especially not, other than the legends of the Lost Dutchman Mine which he knew nothing about, and needing a more steady or stable income he, my mother and infant brother moved down the hill, first taking a job with Firestone Tire and Rubber, then moving to a job at the Terminal Island shipyards helping to build Liberty ships as part of the war effort. It was during that period my mother became ill, and then, after many months in an around the clock care facility, dying of an inoperable brain tumor. Right on the heels of her death, and for me even before, our family disintegrated with my brothers and I split up and being sent off to a variety of relatives, shirttail relatives, and foster parents, my father disappearing heavy into alcohol.

He struggled for several years, initially not particularly caring or trying to make things better. Eventually, however, he pulled himself up out of the mess he was in and getting his act back together after re-meeting, then marrying my Stepmother. At the time she was at the top of her game, quite wealthy with powerful connections all over --- on both sides of the law. Some of those connections were in Hollywood circles. She and my dad had met about ten years before when he helped her out of a tight situation one night along the then kind of seedy waterfront in Redondo Beach, a situation that involved a mob hit she accidentally got caught up in. As for their re-meeting, my dad, having lost his shipbuilding job because the end of the war, ran into a friend of his who had worked with him on the movie "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" who was still in the industry. After pulling a few strings he was able to get my dad a job with one of the studios. The person who would become my stepmother happened to be on one of the lots one day when my dad was working and she recognized him, remembering him fondly as getting her out of what could have been a really tricky situation. After that, one thing led to the next.

I was just a kid at the time and my dad and I weren't close, but over time I came to know he had worked on several movies during that period. As I write this I only remember three, Call Northside 777 and The Street with No Name, both 1948 film noir with The Street With No Name playing a minor role in my life later on.[2] Nothing though like Nightmare Alley did, a 1947 film noir based on a novel published the year before with the same title, written by William Lindsay Gresham. And that's the punchline, William Lindsay Gresham.

Nightmare Alley, as has already been alluded to, was from Gresham's novel of the same name. A good portion of the plot circulates around a circus sideshow and denizens so in, with an indepth look into the macabre and seedy side of carnivals, midways, and the people who inhabit them. Gresham was a volunteer medic for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. During that time he formed a friendship with a former sideshow employee and through conversations with his friend gained a deep understanding and knowledge of sideshows, midways, et al. The star of the movie, Tyrone Power, had bought the screen rights and had lots of authority over the direction of the movie. Power as well as the screen writer and studio heads had enough trouble with the movie code folks let alone between themselves, but added to the mix was Gresham who showed up uninvited to see if they were staying true to the plot. Basically all he got was the short shrift from all of them.

As to Nightmare Alley, the American Film Institute (AFI) catalog makes mention of the fact that to make the movie more believable to the movie going audience, 20th Century Fox had a full working and operating carnival built on the back lot including bringing in so said circus sideshow and denizens. Re the following:

"(T)he carnival set covered ten acres on the studio's backlot. To create a further air of authenticity, over 100 sideshow attractions and carnival people were hired to perform in the background."

Although the people of the sideshow attractions were entertainers in the broader sense of the word, they themselves did not fit the typical Hollywood actor mold. They had their own culture, language, and way of doing things. Being all together in the same place all day long day-after-day as the movie plugged along, basically being no more than background material, it wasn't long before a certain discontent began to simmer just below the surface.

Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox who was ultimately responsible for the end results of Nightmare Alley, had become aware of the problems beginning to surface on the back lot, and Zanuck, always with an eye as on the bucks, was looking for a way to stop anything before it got out of hand.

As mentioned previously, my dad and future stepmother re-met one day on one of the studio lots after having known each other in the past.. One of her close friends was a man named Johnny Roselli who was not only organized crime's liaison between their mob affiliated operations and Hollywood's, but a film producer as well. My future stepmother, possibly seeking to escalate my father's standing higher up the ladder, through Roselli, brought my father's knowledge and expertise with carnival and sideshow types to Zanuck's attention.


When Gresham was on the back lot, because it was known my dad had been a carny and a roustabout, and one of the reasons why he was on the set, to kind of get Gresham out of the way, someone shunted him toward my dad. Initially my dad really wasn't very far up the chain in the scheme of things but once Zanuck heard of his expertise and put his stamp of approval on it, they made it out to Gresham that he was. The thing is, they actually hit it off and had a lot to talk about. In the quote below I allude to my dad's background as a carny as found in Footnote [11] at the source so cited:

"During World War II the Pike was a wide open place, crawling with sailors and those that preyed on them. I absolutely loved the place. It was wild, colorful, exciting and reeked with a certain sense of Terry and the Pirates danger. As we were inching our way through the crowded thoroughfare taking in all the sights and sounds, as funny as it seemed, a number of people running some of the booths knew my dad. Seems when he was on the road in his youth he worked as a 'carny' or barker as well as a roustabout for a traveling carnival and in the process learned all the secret signs and inside dope. The old timers could easily tell he wasn't a rube or mark. Soon we were in the back in a hang out come eating area set aside for workers, with my dad and a bunch of his new found or long lost cronies going over the old times --- something I never knew about my dad until then --- especially the part when one of the men began to razz him about when he was a barker and had, so he said people said, fallen in love with a star attraction in one of the shows, a woman that was only 21 inches tall. My dad said she was so small that she could stand in the palm of his hand."

The Code Maker, The Zen Maker

The interesting part was not only just Gresham's meeting with my dad, but that just the year before, the same actor as the lead actor in Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power, and the same director, Edmund Goulding, had worked together making the movie The Razor's Edge based on the novel of the same name by British author and playwright William Somerset Maugham. Prior to coming west Gresham, wanting to ensure the two stayed faithful to his book, researched both and in the process came across the fact that two of them had worked together on a movie released the year before. They could care less what he thought or wanted, Power having bought the rights outright so, except for code restrictions, was going to do as he pleased, his main concern being to make himself look good and expand his range as a more marketable actor. However, Gresham, in his vetting of the two, because of the theme of Maugham's novel, became more deeply aware of the possibility of Enlightenment as a potential route towards his own survival and well being. In the process of that search for Enlightenment Gresham wrote a whole series of letters to a man named Alfred Pulyan, with the letters and the two of them becoming famous in some circles for having done so, the letters having found their way into the prestigious Wheaton College Archives, part of the Marion E. Wade Center Repository. For more see the Alfred Pulyan link cited with the quote below:

"Alfred Robert Pulyan was a man of great spiritual prowess, an 'American Zen Master' without the Zen nor the Buddhism, yet Enlightened in the Finality of the Absolute in the same tradition as in the spiritual Awakenings attributed to the ancient classical masters."

Alfred Pulyan

A few paragraphs back, writing about my father, I related that following my mother's death he disappeared heavy into alcohol. Gresham was known as a big time heavy drinker and at the time he and my dad met, although my dad was just going into a transition period from being a major sot to being less so, he was still a heavy drinker. So said, they went from the back lot to two or three days of drinking and conversation. My dad was a voracious reader, but not a best seller type, being more of a Amazing Stories pulp type guy or westerns by Zane Grey, Luke Short, and later Louis L'Amour, of which of whom both my dad and uncle knew for a variety of reasons. Although somewhat off topic, for those of you who may be so interested the variety of reasons thing is spelled out more clearly in: P-40 Fighter Pilot Dan Rowan. Gresham was a pulp guy too, only having just moved into the best seller category.

"Following the death of my mother but before I returned from India, my father dissolved the family and disappeared into the hinterlands heavy into alcohol. After returning from my trip to India I ended up staying with my grandmother on and off for an unknown period of time. It was she who was initially concerned about my seemingly askew perspective on things. In turn, because of her concerns, she contacted my uncle to see if he had any idea where my father was. Almost immediately my uncle came out to assist, one of the first of several trips before he actually remained on a permanent basis."

The Wanderling and His Uncle

It just so happened at the time of the meeting between my dad and Gresham my uncle was on the west coast. He and my dad were supposed to catch up, but when he didn't show as scheduled, or even the next day, learning he hadn't been to work either, he went searching for him. He eventually found the two and, although he wasn't an alcohol type being more of a mescaline type, he still joined in. It was because of his joining in that through my uncle I eventually became privy to the whole story. For more see Pulyan's Teacher. To watch the full movie click the image below:

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As to the subject of donations, for those of you who may be interested in doing so as it applies to the gratefulness of my works, I invariably suggest any funds be directed toward THE WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT and/or THE AMERICAN RED CROSS.

Footnote [1]

My mother was only 17 when she graduated from high school and still in high school at that young age when she and my father met, he being quite a few years older than she. My dad, after leaving home at age 16, was headed west when he got caught up in the Tulsa race riots on May 31 and June 1, 1921. A couple of years later he was traveling with the Hagenbeck and Wallace Circus where, because of my uncle, he met the just a boy at the time and one day to be author of over 100 cowboy and western books, Louis L'Amour, who joined the circus in Phoenix, Arizona. By August 27, 1929 my dad was in Los Angeles at Mines Field, which would become Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), to watch the Graf Zeppelin leave L.A. on the way to Lakehurst, New Jersey after watching it come in the day before from San Francisco and Tokyo. I know because my dad called my uncle to make a quick trip down from Santa Fe to El Paso to watch the Zeppelin come through.(see)


Being at Mines Field in August of 1929 put my dad in the vicinity of the California beach city of Redondo Beach, located not even seven miles south of Mines Field, during the summer of '29, the exact same time he met my mother, with the Mercer playing a huge role in that meeting becoming permanent. Re the following:

Both my mother and her sister had beautiful long bright red hair. In that the two were so close together in age and looked so much alike almost everybody mistook them for twins. Although I do not remember much about my mother I remember my aunt very well, and because of their look alikeness I always felt I had a good idea of what my mother looked like. My dad met her and her sister, i.e., my aunt, at the beach one day and after spending the day together offered them a ride home. My one-day-to-be future mother turned him down, telling him that her mother told her under no circumstances was she to ever get into a car with a stranger. If you recall from he photo in the main text the Mercer was an open bodied sports car with huge flat fenders. My dad took the two girls home riding on the fenders, so in essence, even though my dad was a stranger, they never got in the car, only on the fenders.


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Footnote [2]

One day the person I have long given title to as a gorgeous raven-haired beauty in my writings told me through friends that she met a minor actor at a party that had the same last name as mine and for no other reason but to make small talk with the actor she mentioned me and the fact that my dad had worked for the studios in the late 40's. She said the man expressed interest in meeting me and when I told her I had no reason not to, she set it up.

We met at the location-shoot of a movie he was working on that ended up being given the title The Ghost In the Invisible Bikini, the last in the series of beach party movies that included such era-specific hits as Beach Blanket Bingo. They were shooting a dance scene around a pool with a gaggle of bikini clad well built girls and a few guys. During our talk, as it came out, he had a part in the 1948 film titled The Street With No Name, which was one of the three movies I cite my father having worked on while with the studios. The otherwise minor actor that had the same last name as my dad and my dad met during the production of that film.


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