In 1974, I moved from Idyllwild in the mountains above Palm Springs to Ocean Park because of a unique combination of circumstances. My girlfriend of five years and I split up; a vacationing Hollywood agent who had read my columns in the Idyllwild paper contacted me; and my sister’s friend who owned the Santa Monica Shores hurriedly needed an intelligent and reliable security guard. (But was willing to take me.)
Because there were 150 vacancies at the Shores, he also gave me a rent free apartment and said, about my 4 p.m. to midnight shift, I could write much of the time. Meanwhile the manic agent said if I wrote a book based on my column about my mother wanting me to be a lawyer and I being a hippy, “You could be the J.D. Salinger of your generation!” (After I finished I discovered he was a manic-DEPRESSIVE who hadn’t been out of his pajamas in the past six months.)
So, almost overnight I went from working for the U.S. Forest Service in a town of 2,000 to living and working in buildings that had 750 tenants. It was quite a culture shock. Long before vacancy decontrol and high rents, the Shores was filled with colorful characters. Put it this way, John Steinbeck could have written a dozen novels without leaving the building.
One such character was Dominic Mancuso who was in his mid-60’s and retired from the post office. Sadly, he was an alcoholic which some speculated stemmed from his not making it as a famous singer. In his youth Dom was handsome and had a beautiful voice. He still did. I knew because on occasion he would get drunk, set up speakers on his balcony and, using a microphone, sing opera arias well into the night waking tenants in both buildings.
Through flattery, like complimenting his voice, I always convinced him to go to bed. But one day when he came to the office to get a parking pass, maybe he had a really bad hangover or seeing me typing away he got vicious. Decades ago he had opened for some star nightclub acts but never headlined. So it was he said to me, “I got closer to my dream than you’ll ever get.” Ouch.
Years later, on the rare occasions I would hear Dominic singing late night from his balcony I would be ever so grateful I was no longer a security guard. As for my dream, I was getting closer. My writing partner, Cary, and I had been hired by Robert Aldrich, the renowned director of “The Dirty Dozen,” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” to name but a few. We were to write a script to be produced by MGM and to star Anthony Quinn, Peter Falk, Shelly Winters and a young Tony Danza.
The title was “For Export Only,” a comedy based on the Kefauver Senate Committee of 1950 where low level mafia were given a choice go to prison or be deported back to Italy. This “gang who couldn’t shoot straight” wiseguys chose the latter foolishly thinking they could easily out-con the Sicilians. One of the first things Cary and I did was attach names to our characters. And wouldn’t you know Dominic Mancuso popped into my head for one of them.
Months later we had written the script and, on this particular day, I was sitting in the North building lobby, screenplay in hand waiting for Cary to swing by to drive us to Aldrich’s office at the Ambassador Hotel. And who comes stumbling into the lobby but drunken Dom. Upon seeing me, he snarled, “So big shot what are you up to?” Holding up the script, I couldn’t resist bragging about MGM and Aldrich.
“Bulls—t!” he growled as he snatched the screenplay and began flipping through the pages. As fate would have it he landed on one where his name appeared. He went beyond berserk, threatening to sue me, MGM and Aldrich, and had to be restrained by his friend who wasn’t quite as drunk.
Just then Cary pulled in front. I quickly grabbed the script, “Nice seeing you Dom,” I said and jumped into Cary’s car, shouting. “Drive!” As Cary pulled out he asked “What the hell was that about?” I was so rattled by Dom I didn’t realize, as Cary calmly pointed out, “No big deal, we’ll just change it to Frankie Mancuso.”
A year later and no surprise, Dominic finally got evicted for his late night operatic performances and moved to an apartment on 4th Street. (Fortunately for his new neighbors, one without a balcony!) Sadly, “For Export Only” never got made but I still have hope for another one of my scripts. In fact, Google “The Amazing Mr. Z,” click on the link and you’ll see what I mean.
Jack is at: facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and email@example.com