By Anthony J. Mohr
In Beverly Hills, stars were as common as they are in the sky; I barely noticed them. They were part of the background, like the air around us.
Anthony J. Mohr‘s work has appeared in, among other places, Brevity’s blog, Cleaver, DIAGRAM, Eclectica (twice), GHLL (Green Hills Literary Lantern), Harvard ALI Social Impact Review, Hippocampus Magazine, The MacGuffin (twice), North Dakota Quarterly, Superstition Review, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. He has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize, received honorable mention in Sequestrum’s 2016 Editor’s Reprint Award, and was a finalist in Living Springs Publishers’ 2019 Stories Through the Ages contest. Currently, he is a fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard. He served as a sitting judge of the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles County, where he presided over civil and felony trials. On two occasions, Tony sat for several months as judge pro tem on the California Court of Appeal. Earlier, he was a judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, and in private legal practice. Among his numerous professional affiliations, Tony served on the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles Superior Court and chaired both the Superior Court’s ethics review and response committee and the statewide Committee on Judicial Ethics of the California Judges Association. He serves on the Regional Board of Directors for the Anti-Defamation League’s Los Angeles Region.
A week or two before my graduation from Beverly Hills High School, Mr. Gelms, the faculty adviser to the school paper, asked me to write an article about our town, in particular its high school, for a local publication. Describe what makes our campus such a wonderful place, Mr. Gelms said. This was over fifty years ago.
Shortly after I turned in the article, Mr. Gelms walked me into the flower garden next to a one-story yam-colored building called the “publications center,” where our newspaper and yearbook were produced. It was warm; the roses gave off their sweetest fragrance. Over the fence was the back lot of Twentieth Century Fox. In a quiet voice that was almost sympathetic, Mr. Gelms said, “I don’t like it. You didn’t come to grips with what Beverly Hills is all about. You missed the essence of our school.”
Mr. Gelms was not the only one to pan my work. I didn’t like it either. I’d fought every word and turned in the piece only because I had a deadline. I knew I hadn’t truly described my community. Mr. Gelms suggested I revise it. I didn’t. The article never ran. And I never tried again.
My father, Gerald Mohr, a character actor, left my mother when I was nine. To be near her family, my mother moved to New York City. After early childhood on half an acre in the San Fernando Valley, our apartment on Lexington Avenue felt stifling. The weather was too cold; the streets, too crowded; the people, too brusque. I remember my mother, dressed in slacks, a sweater, and a wool cloche, her outfit for a late March Saturday with her ten-year-old son in a Manhattan she could barely afford. She said we had to “watch our money.” Worse, she was scared.
We were lucky. A good man from California realized that she was a beautiful person, inside and out. They married, and I was rescued. He moved us back to California, back to Beverly Hills.
For the town’s fiftieth anniversary in 1964, two locals composed “The Wonderful World of Beverly Hills,” a valentine to the allegedly happy people who lived among the “parks…palm trees and beautiful drives.” “To live there is heaven,” they wrote. The streets, laid out wide and curvilinear, were each lined with their own variety of trees, which made the place feel bucolic. There were fountains bathed in lights, the scent of jasmine on the wind, mansions marching up into the hills, parties in ballrooms of the Beverly Hilton, all this and more in our five square miles, surrounded by the City of Los Angeles.
Beverly Hills almost didn’t happen, but thanks to, among other old time movie stars, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Will Rogers, Rudolph Valentino, and Tom Mix, it was born. They fought off annexation by Los Angeles, and in their honor, in 1959, the year I moved to Beverly Hills, the local fathers erected a Monument to the Stars. It’s a bronze-green spiral of sprocketed “camera film.” A plaque reads, “In tribute to those celebrities of the motion picture industry who worked so valiantly for the preservation of Beverly Hills as a separate municipality.” I was now living in, according to the head of the local historical society, “a small town with an extra special something that none of us really realized until we grew older.” He was right, but that “special something” was a singularity that I couldn’t describe.
I arrived late to the fair, in the sixth grade. Many whom I met had lived in Beverly Hills since kindergarten and didn’t embrace newcomers. To make friends, I needed a success, but at what? I tried acting, for example. My father had appeared on radio in such gems as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, and The Shadow of Fu Manchu, not to mention cameo appearances in movies like Gilda (1946) and Detective Story (1951). But despite my father’s genes, sound stages and I did not get along. The parts they gave me in school plays dropped from five lines in the sixth grade to one in the eighth. Not a surprise. My father had included me in one of his TV shows, and I blew my lines seventeen times.
One morning, Greg, a well-built, blond boy whom everyone liked, walked up to me. “Hey Mohr, I hear you’re doing pretty well in school.” I was, and since in those days even elementary school kids valued grades, the door to acceptance cracked open. On Saturday mornings—not too early—I rode my bike to Beverly Drive, the main commercial street, leaned it against one of the light posts, and wandered about with my new friends. We knew our bikes would still be there by late afternoon. We shopped at Burdsall’s and Rudnick’s. We sat at the Woolworth’s counter, ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and drank cherry cokes. Often, my close friend, Bobby, and I had lunch at Hamburger Hamlet, a restaurant in a one-story building (like almost all the others; the town enforced a four-story height limit) whose motto was, “Known for simply marvelous food.” We settled into one of the comfortable banquettes.
“I’ll have a lobster bisque,” Bobby said to the decorous waitress. It was dark; I strained my eyes to see the section of the menu that read, “Eat the sides, I pray you,” before ordering French fries. Farther down the street was the red and white awning of Wil Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor. I enjoyed the vanilla ice cream they served in stainless steel cups with long stems as well as the macaroon they put on the saucer. Maybe we’d watch a matinee at the Beverly theater, the town’s sole movie house with one screen and an onion domed roof.
We strolled farther along Beverly Drive to the Beverly Hills Gramophone Shop. Along with a massive record collection, the store offered listening booths. Into those tiny chambers I carried a stack of 45s. My allowance covered three at 99 cents each. “Devil or Angel” made the cut. So did Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village” and the theme from “Peter Gunn.” On the counter were sheets from KFWB, L.A.’s leading top 40 radio station, which announced the week’s leading tunes. The backside featured ads for their latest contest along with pictures of their deejays, known as “The Swinging Gentlemen.”
“To live there is heaven,” they wrote. The streets, laid out wide and curvilinear, were each lined with their own variety of trees, which made the place feel bucolic. There were fountains bathed in lights, the scent of jasmine on the wind, mansions marching up into the hills, parties in ballrooms of the Beverly Hilton, all this and more in our five square miles, surrounded by the City of Los Angeles.
Sometimes I walked a block to Rodeo Drive, location of Uncle Bernie’s Toy Menagerie with its lemonade tree, and the Luau, where many sampled their first alcoholic drink. It resembled Disneyland’s Tiki Room. And there was Carroll & Company, a clothing store that looked like a gentlemen’s club in London, with photos of fox hunts and bearded petty nobles. I didn’t go in until my mother ordered me to. Fresh from the hairdresser and dressed in a gaberdine sweater, she hugged me as she said I needed new clothes. “I don’t want you to poor-boy it.” No more need to “watch our money.”
In September 1961, I entered Beverly Hills High School.
What caught my attention each morning was the approach from the street. Atop a hill stood a long, Norman-style building with white walls, a red roof, and at one end, a watchtower. Leading up to it was a multi-acre lawn, which ran flat until reaching a stretch of hedge. Then it ascended, rolling tier by rolling tier—lower, middle, and upper—to the building. My guess is whoever designed the school must have been inspired by the approach to Carcassonne, France. But Carcassonne was not tony enough to become Beverly Hills’ sister city. That honor went to Cannes.
In case I missed it with Greg’s compliment, my hamlet was all about education. If there was one goal the town fathers (and mothers) shared, that was it. They were good Ashkenazi Jews who’d fought their way across the Rhine or island hopped toward Japan. Some had jumped off the Reichsbahn’s eastbound trains. Then, home as heroes, they’d earned enough money to buy houses in Beverly Hills, travel at will, and feed their families at, among other places, Maison Gerard, The Polo Lounge, Cafe Swiss, and the Brown Derby (the latter in a building that resembled a derby hat). In their libraries were coffee table art books, copies of the classics, and dozens of record albums—Beethoven’s First through Ninth, Mozart’s Fortieth, Forty-first, and everything else, Schumann’s Rhenish, Bruckner’s Fourth, Verdi’s Aida, Puccini’s Turandot. But rarely Wagner.
Their children would want for nothing. The adults threw everything they had at their four elementary schools and one high school, and then they threw everything they had at us, hoping we’d score admissions to top colleges. Our teachers received high salaries. The school plays rivaled professional productions. The football team had two uniforms—one for travelling to their games, one for playing the games. There was a dance studio. There were three gymnasiums including the swim-gym, a domed-roof structure with a basketball court that retracted under the bleachers to reveal an Olympic sized swimming pool and two diving boards—low and high—that rose on hydraulic lifts. Tanner Grey Line buses ferried us to speech tournaments. The school bought an IBM mainframe computer before knowing what to do with it. All fueled not only by property taxes, but an oil well on the high school campus. During my years there, Beverly High’s test scores routinely reached the top of the country. In a documentary produced by the Beverly Hills Historical Society, a former member of the Board of Education said, “The schools were the heart and soul of the Beverly Hills community. It is woven into the fabric of every Beverly Hills child. It stays with them forever. It stayed with me forever.”
In 1965, Beverly Hills launched a five-million-dollar bond issue to put up a new building with, among other things, a planetarium and a television station. To support their “Yes on Schools” campaign, the administration asked many of us to participate in a march down the main streets, which we did—in the rain. The school bond passed by 87%, a historic number in California. That night, seated in a corner at the victory party, the Superintendent of Schools moped and said, “Why would thirteen percent of the people vote against the kids?” I thought back to PS 6 in New York, when my fifth-grade teacher called her class “my pack of stupid idiots.” She never insulted me directly, nor Kathy, a petite girl with a bubbly personality. Maybe that was due to my father and Kathy’s stepmother, Polly Bergen. Like me, Kathy ended up at Beverly High.
They called me Pizza. The nickname originated with Gary. He never explained why he invented that moniker. But it stuck; I couldn’t get rid of it. Gary was the only kid in my high school crowd who “did the deed”—in his swimming pool, with the girl across the street. Shocking. From 1959 to 1965—the well-behaved of Beverly Hills, like me, rarely kissed goodnight on the first date. With one girl it took me six tries, an absurdity because my father had a reputation as a ladies’ man. Some compared him to Humphrey Bogart.
So, why did Gary call me Pizza? Now I think I have the answer. You can top a pizza with everything—peppers, pepperoni, mushrooms, sausages, black olives, garlic, and cheese. By the time I reached high school, I decided I wanted everything. I wanted to edit the paper, win debate contests, win fencing tournaments, win chess tournaments, win the foreign language speech tournament, win the Harvard Book Award, qualify for the state tournament in impromptu speaking, rank in the Occidental College Math Field Day, write a television series, write the senior song, write for our literary magazine, become a student body officer, become a class officer, become a boys’ league officer, sit on student court, get into the honor clubs, appear in the talent show, go to Boys State, join the California Scholastic Federation quiz bowl team, join the swimming team, join the tennis team, and pass algebra.
My scattered ambitions must have tickled Gary’s subconscious one August afternoon as several of us played Marco Polo in his swimming pool. Suddenly, each time someone tagged me, he hollered, “The Pizza is it.”
But still—that “extra something” the head of the historical society mentioned. It hovered in front of my face, but until I graduated, I didn’t notice it, the significance of names like these:
Melinda Marx, Amanda Levant, Dena Kaye, Eleanor Martin, Claudia Martin, Larry Bishop, Joanne Hall, David Mann, Walt Odets, Julie Cobb, Bobbie Godfrey, Tina Schnee, Hallie Ephron, Mary Owen, Rob Reiner.
Had someone compiled this list of high school classmates, I wouldn’t have known what it meant. The names ranged from close friends to those with whom I exchanged at most one or two “hi’s” in the halls.
It’s a partial listing—I could add at least another dozen—of celebrity children, the offspring of actors, singers, directors, writers, producers. Among them, Groucho Marx, Oscar Levant, Danny Kaye, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Monty Hall, Delbert Mann, Clifford Odets, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Stanwyck (godmother, virtually Bobbie’s parent), Charles Schnee, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Donna Reed, Carl Reiner.
If someone explained this to me, I probably would have shrugged and continued worrying about an English test. In Beverly Hills, stars were as common as they are in the sky; I barely noticed them. They were part of the background, like the air around us. The same for their children. A classmate who became a Superior Court judge said, “They were just part of the herd.” Like me, he wasn’t aware of who begat whom until after graduation. Danny Kaye’s daughter lost a school election to a boy whose father was not famous. Barbara Stanwyck’s goddaughter didn’t brag about family spaghetti dinners with Frank Sinatra (he gave her Juicy Fruit gum) or telling Henry Fonda, “You’re such a sad sack. Why don’t you smile?” “I played with celebrity kids,” said another boy. “I didn’t make a big thing out of it. If anything, I never saw their parents. I’d go to their houses and they were empty. The celebrities were never there.”
Nor was I cognizant of the dark aspects of the town—the daughter who hung up the phone on her friends because she didn’t want them to hear, in the background, her movie star mother, drunk again. The psychiatrist’s wife who secreted flasks of bourbon in the lampshades. The shouting matches between one comedian and his wife, so loud you could hear them a mansion away. Nor did I know about the Oscar winning father of a girl next to me in French class. He rarely left the house. Every so often, a taxi would arrive, its back seat loaded with books the man had ordered from Martindale’s, one of the town’s two bookstores. Over the years, I learned of more incidents. As one lady, two years ahead of me, said, “Some of the sickest people I know live in Beverly Hills, California.”
The world had yet to arrive. No one I knew pursued friendships based on renown. My step-brother dated Troy Donahue’s sister and did everything not to cooperate with reporters from Photoplay Magazine when they tried to include him in a spread. Now I’m grateful that in a town founded by stars, the children all but ignored—were oblivious to—their lineage. Until years later. That’s when our ties with fame started to matter. Roommates, colleagues, and anyone else who learned where we were from bombarded us with questions. At first these interrogations surprised me. To avoid them, some claimed they attended other high schools. Others, hoping the matter would drop, said they lived in Los Angeles. But the follow-up questions were inevitable. “Where in Los Angeles?” “West Los Angeles.” “Where in West Los Angeles?” To graduate from Beverly Hills High School was, as a former student body president said decades later, “to be marked, in a good way and in a bad way depending on whom you meet in life.”
Nor was I cognizant of the dark aspects of the town—the daughter who hung up the phone on her friends because she didn’t want them to hear, in the background, her movie star mother, drunk again. The psychiatrist’s wife who secreted flasks of bourbon in the lampshades. The shouting matches between one comedian and his wife, so loud you could hear them a mansion away.
Like many small towns, Beverly Hills was bisected by a railroad track. To maintain the rights to the route, Southern Pacific ran a train daily. Slowly, so as not to hurt anybody, but it ran. And it thrilled Roy, a boy in my high school class. A devotee of rolling stock, Roy thought nothing of getting up at 6, hopping a train to San Francisco, and returning late that night. Eventually the student body officers named him Commissioner of Transportation. Never mind that the job entailed little more than handing out parking permits; Roy took his sinecure seriously. He showed up every day in a coat and tie. He wanted the government to raise the driving age to twenty-one. Said he in an interview during his junior year, “It would really alter the social structure at Beverly.” He may have had a serious face, but Roy had a superb sense of humor. In the senior talent show, he donned swim trunks, lugged a surfboard onto the stage, and became “Surfer Roy” as the Surfaris’ hit “Surfer Joe” played over the speakers.
Who were these kids? To get a better picture, I looked through the Avant Garde, the school literary magazine, for titles that hinted at answers: “The River of Nostalgia’s Typewritten Minute,” “Antique Golden Afternoons.” There’s a story about the straight-A kid who feels abnormal and talks to the school psychologist. A lyrical piece about graduation involves a valedictorian destined to become an investment banker once he leaves Dartmouth. The 1964 Avant Garde contains a poignant contribution by Richard Dreyfuss about a boy and a sixty-year-old man in a barber shop. (Sixty. How far away that number must have seemed to the teenage Ricky.) The old man is beaten down; his face, “pallid, droopy.” He almost trembles, “like old men sitting outside the Main Street mission do.” These works say nothing about movie stars, but there are clues. One story features a coffee shop waitress who spends her nights alone, reading Variety.
The authors have a talent for words, due to what? Their industry parents or the Phi Beta Kappa teachers the school could afford to hire? Future Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Yergin interviews Ray Bradbury. How many high school kids would have such access, or even think to telephone him? The Avant Garde’s prose and poetry disclose teenage minds free to soar and question the world, and, at times, recognize their privilege. David Ansen, a future film critic, writes in a 1962 poem “They Say You are Starving,” that he can “almost” hear the screams of starving people, but they are “so distant…drowned out by the sound of my pleasure.”
In the end, I passed algebra, albeit with a C. I won a couple of laurels I’ve listed, but far from all, which is why, along with my flop of an article for Mr. Gelms, I felt like a failure at graduation. It would take years before I realized that I might not be alone in my inability to capture the town. The editor of our school paper, a perceptive journalist, said, half a century on, “Beverly Hills still fascinates me. It’s so unreal, a strange bubble.” I agree.
Like the glow in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Merlin and the Gleam,” the town of my school days would spin, morph, then skip away the moment I thought I’d caught it, leaving me with a muddle of memories.
The gun of Falcons and Sting Rays and GTOs entering the parking lot every morning. The caramel taste of an “Alpha Sucker” sold by the girls’ honor society, whose members wore blue cardigan sweaters inscribed with the letter A. The click of Pappagallo shoes in the halls. The waxy feel of a cut stencil, followed by the sweet smell of blue ink on paper moist from the mimeograph. The grease of print shop and the heft of lead type as we put the school paper to bed every Thursday. The metallic odor of language lab microphones and the cool grip of the earphones as we parroted, “Comment allez-vous, Robert?” The squawk of seagulls, circling until the bell ended lunch hour and they swooped down to eat the remnants of our sandwiches. The din of naked Beverly boys wading through a medicated foot-pool, en route to the showers. The fit of my honor club sweater, black with a white Maltese cross on the right, its thick material absorbing the winter sun while I stood on the upper tier looking down and laughing with the crowd. And amidst the laughter came an observation by a close friend, “This Beverly Hills pressure cooker society is hard.”
It was. The town brimmed with idyllic cruelty, advantages to the point of embarrassment, wealth to the point that my friends and I didn’t think about it. Nor did my mother, anymore.
Our parents kept us busy. I took piano lessons, tennis lessons, and fencing lessons. Briefly, I took boxing lessons and scuba diving lessons. Beverly Hills was not a fun machine. Our best-known political consultant said, “Beverly Hills is a small town that takes itself very seriously.” People looked out for each other, and in return, they expected attainment.
That, among so many other things, is what my article missed.∎