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Hi. Welcome to the podcast, “A Thousand Words”, for April 12th, 2019.
Another spring is here. Temperatures are rising. Trees and plants are blooming . Zoo animals are making strange noises. So, naturally, my mind wanders to things like deserts, and the past, to Thomas Edison and the passing of time. My story today is about all of these.
During spring break one year, I was in the desert visiting my mother. She was remarried at the time, and her husband had a small holiday home in Palm Springs. Palm Springs is a small desert town, back then with about 30,000 people. If you leave Los Angeles and drive mostly east, and just a bit south, in less than two hours you’ll enter the Colorado Desert and find Palm Springs.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was then, but it was a time in my life when waking up early and being outdoors before the sun rose seemed a good idea. I was walking through the quiet neighborhood, amused  at the names on the street signs I was passing - Walt Disney Way, Bogart Lane, Judy Garland Avenue, Bob Hope Drive, Gary Cooper Boulevard. Up ahead, an elderly man in a flat cap and blue jogging suit  was walking my way. He was leading an equally elderly dog by leash , pulling the small animal behind him who seemed to want to stop and smell things on the ground.
“Good morning,” he said to me in a heavy German accent as we passed. It was only then that I got a good look at his face under his hat. It was Billy Wilder!
Billy Wilder! In the desert!
I turned around and watched him get smaller, pulling his dog behind him along the sidewalk. Slowly, I began noticing the classic cars that were parked in the homes’ long driveways  - Studebakers, Coup de Villes, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles. Where was I? It was like I stepped out into a parallel reality. I wondered if I was still back in bed sleeping and this was a dream.
If you don’t know who Billy Wilder was, you should look him up … afterwards. Very briefly  – he was born in Austria over a hundred years ago and moved to California in the 1930s to get away from Europe of the 1930s. He was a scriptwriter and worked on other people’s films at first until he started directing  his own scripts. Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Irma la Douce, The Apartment – those are just a few of his movies.
When Billy Wilder moved to Hollywood, the town was already over 70 years old. Hollywood started as farms and farmland in the 1850s, until a town slowly grew and then a movie industry. The movie industry grew because of Thomas Edison, who patented the first motion picture cameras in the US. At the time, he owned the patents, so that if anyone wanted to make a movie they needed not only to pay Edison for using his cameras, but also to make the kind of movies that Edison wanted to see. Edison was strongly against immigration, and if a movie showed foreigners  in any way other than dirty  or uneducated, he had the right to stop production. Back then, the movie industry in the US was exclusively in New York. So, to get away from Edison’s patents, a few filmmakers went all the way west across the country to Los Angeles. When Edison’s agents came looking for them, the film crew would simply go down across the border to Mexico and wait for the agents to leave. These first movie makers were men and women who did not accept Edison’s monopoly. Soon, more and more filmmakers went to Los Angles, and by accident they stumbled across  nearby Hollywood just to the west.
Edison’s patents came to an end in 1915, and studios then legally began popping up  all over Hollywood. In 1918, a wave of French filmmakers left Europe at the end of World War I and came to Hollywood. And years later, another wave of Hollywood immigrants arrived, men and women who came to get away from Hiltler’s Nazis. By the beginning of World War II, Hollywood was populated by rebels and immigrants, all who came to find a better place to work and live.
Wilder arrived during this pre-World War II wave, not long after sound came into movies. Which meant he wasn’t in Hollywood from its filmmaking beginnings, for the first 15 years of its life. He wasn’t around during all the scandals of the 1920s, when Charlie Chaplin kept marrying younger and younger girls, when Mary Pickford was accused of  bigamy , when Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape  and murder, when drug overdoses and mysterious deaths filled the headlines of newspapers. He wasn’t there before Hollywood added morality  to their contracts , which gave them the right to cancel any actor’s contract if they were involved in media scandals. He came after that and was part of the golden age of Hollywood.
As time went by, many of those same people who first fled  to Hollywood, now escaped to Palm Springs. Like one of their own movie productions, Palm Springs – this oasis in the desert – was made up of  men and women who helped build Hollywood.
I went back to my mother’s home. She was making herself coffee in the kitchen.
“You want some?” she asked.
“No, thanks. I never really liked the taste,” I said. These days, I drink three cups a day.
“I just walked past Billy Wilder,” I told her.
“Yeah,” she said. “I see him sometimes at the post office. We go to the same coffee shop, too.”
“Billy Wilder!” I said again.
“He always gets a bagel with his coffee,” she said. “I bumped  shopping carts once with Lauren Bacall at Vons.”
“Was Bogey with her?” I asked
“Honey, that was a little before my time. Humphrey Bogart died in the ‘50s.”
The next morning, I went out early again and waited for Billy Wilder, or one of the other movie legends I expected to step out of their home so I could cross paths with  them. But no luck at first, just quiet, empty streets in the desert morning. Until a door opened… and an elderly woman in a large hat shading her face  stepped out. She had large black sunglasses and was dressed casually, but not without style. She moved slowly and carefully, but not without grace . She was too far away to see who she was, if she was someone I thought she might be. Rita Hayworth? Kim Novak? Joan Crawford?
In the desert, about an hour south-east of the movie industry that most of them helped create, these early pioneers  of American cinema moved away to find another safe place for themselves, a town in the dry desert air where time seemed to stop. Or where they themselves tried if not to stop time, at least to slow it down.
Thanks for listening.
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I’ll be back on April 26th with a story about my very short career as a movie critic. Bye for now.