Two weeks after I turned 20 years old, I set off for the first time to California. The driven-in theaters I had called home were closing for the winter for the first time ever. Earlier that year I had just bought a new 1974 Dodge Challenger from the dealership next to the West Side Drive in, and after only six months of owning it I traded it in for a rundown 1966 dodge van. The van’s interior had wood paneling, shag carpet and two hooks in the ceiling to hold a hammock. I had planed on going alone but when I told one of my friends he asked if he could join me so, we pooled our cash and took off for California on Thanksgiving night. Gary didn’t have a driver’s license so I did all of the driving and in the back of my mind I could hear my dad’s words “that van will never make it out of Michigan” The van did burn a little oil so every third or forth tank of gas I’d check the oil levels to make sure we were okay. On our second stop for gas I went to check the oil and the dipstick broke off – not a good sign.
I drove 38 hours straight until we had to stop in St Louis when an ice storm almost made me crash the van, but within four days we were in sunny L.A. I slept in the hammock and Gary slept on the floor of the van in a sleeping bag, and we took showers at the gym, (I had membership with a chain that had a few gyms in L.A. and Detroit).
The plan was that I would continue to work for General Cinema, the company that owned the West Side Drive In, managing theaters. The district manager in L.A. was a friend who used to work with me in Detroit. But my in my last few months in Detroit I managed to piss off the Detroit district manager so much he blocked them from hiring me. Hard to believe I know. So I wound up doing the only other thing I knew at the time – magic. I found a job working at a magic shop in Hollywood right on Hollywood Boulevard.
Money was tight and Gary got a job as a cook, we rented a two-bedroom apartment right off of Hollywood Boulevard. It wasn’t much of a place, but it’s one redeeming value was that we could see the famous Hollywood sign from our bathroom window! Due to the lack of funds, we would do things like one of us paying a dollar to get into the dollar movies, then opening the exit door so the other could sneak in.
We found out that if you got to the Tonight Show early you could wait in the stand by line and most of the time they had seats available. We’re waiting in line, tickets in hand, when a producer comes out and asks the folks standing in line if anyone has a song that will ‘stump the band’. Stumping the band was a show segment that Johnny Carson would do every few weeks and a member of the audience would try to sing a song that Doc Severinsen, Carson’s bandleader, would not know. Gary came up with Elton John’s “Think I’m going to kill myself” and sang it for the producer and he loved it!
It’s 4:30pm in L.A. and they started taping the show, Stump the Band was the second bit Carson did, and we were the second people picked that night. Johnny Carson looked at me and said “are you a football player?” No I answered and without missing a beat Jonny says “You must been the stadium”. Doc couldn’t guess the song and we won a gift certificate for dinner for four at a nice Chinese restaurant!
After the show, it’s almost 6pm west coast time, 9pm Detroit time, and it’s 1974 so no VCR to record our 15 minutes of fame! We called everyone we knew in Detroit, telling them to watch the show. The next day we headed to the restaurant for a fine dining experience, only find out that we have to use all four dinners at once. We said ok we’ll be right back and walked outside and started asking strangers if that would like a free dinner. A that time, the Tonight Show was huge and the second couple we asked had seen us on the show the night before so they joined us! It was a great dinner and we went back to the Tonight Show once a week for the first few months.
© 2015 Excerpt from the upcoming book: Stories For Lambykins by James Szeles