By John Yager
This is the forty-ninth chapter of an ongoing series. This chapter continues the story of Rob Ballinger's life after his graduation from the University of Mississippi in 1972.
Thanks again for all your comments on this series. I always appreciate hearing from you and try to answer all messages promptly. If I am slow to respond it is only because of the pressure of work or my somewhat demanding travel schedule.
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The University of Southern California was the first school in the country to offer degrees in film. The program was begun in 1929 as a partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, amazingly, the founding faculty included Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, William C. DeMille, Irving Thalberg, and Darryl Zanuck. What school of cinema could rival a group like that?
When NSB began the Nathan Fellowships in 1964, they represented the first formal link between a major film studio and the graduate degree programs in film at USC. I'd read everything I could find about the Nathan Fellowships while I was in the process of applying for the Fellowship and knew that Patrick Langston was largely responsible for founding the program.
Patrick Alan Langston, known to all as Paddy, was generally regarded as the conscience, not only of NSB, but of the larger Hollywood film industry. It was Langston who had bullied and cajoled the studio executives into funding the Fellowships a year after Samuel Nathan's death, and naming the program in his honor.
Langston justified the cost of the program not as a public or academic service but as a way of recruiting and building the future NSB team. In that sense the Nathan Fellowships were a resounding success and more than justified the cost to the studio. I think it was in that sense that Langston's foresight and genius were most evident.
Over the next three years, as I worked towards my degree at USC, Langston served as my mentor and my boss. In the process he became, in a very real sense, my spiritual father.
The Nathan Fellowships were and are very selective and very competitive. I must admit that I didn't know how competitive they were until after I'd been selected. I soon found that top graduates from every under graduate film program, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, applied for the Nathans.
I was later surprised to learn that I was the only recipient in 1972 who had not done an undergraduate degree in film studies. My major in literature from the University of Mississippi was a distinct rarity. In fact, I was told, there hadn't been a recipient for over five years who had not had an undergraduate degree in cinema.
Academic degrees in film studies, or cinema, as the academic world insisted on calling them, were becoming more widely recognized by the mid-1960s and most larger universities were beginning to offer such programs.
At Ole Miss, which tends to take a conservative view of academic trends, Roger Bardwell had begun to advocate a program in cinema as early as 1967. It was many years, however, before the University of Mississippi formally established such a program.
In the meantime, however, Bardwell was establishing his own reputation as a scholar of film and film history. He gathered around him a few students, of whom I was among the first, who worked with him, studying film within the context of the existing literature program.
What was unique about Bardwell's approach to film was its grounding in the larger field of literature. With his guidance I had come to understand film as a literary form. I studied great scripts just as a literature student would study great novels or great poetry or great drama. I had a grasp of cinema as literature but when I arrived in Hollywood in 1972 I had little understanding of the technology or business of film. I knew nothing of the science.
Despite my obvious shortcomings, and as I said before, I own Roger a great debt.
I can also say without reservation that I had an understanding of film and film history which was unique among my peers in the Nathan Fellowship program. I soon realized what an amazing team we could become. With our diverse backgrounds, we were able to bring to the program, and later within the NSB staff itself, a view of film which marked the production of the studio from the late 1970s onwards. We became the fulfillment, I believe, of Paddy Langston's vision.
Each year four Nathan Fellows were chosen. In order to qualify, the applicants had to have already been admitted to the graduate program in cinema at USC. That was a select enough group in itself and the competition for the Nathans was intense.
With Roger Bardwell's help I had gotten through that process with minimum stress and, from the vantage point of Oxford, Mississippi, hadn't realized what elite company I was going to be in. What had interested me was the amazing opportunity to work and study with some of the most talented people in the American film industry. Without the financial support offered by the Nathan Fellowships it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for me to go through the USC program at all. With the Nathan Fellowship I was very well cared for.
On Thursday morning I was up early, probably to some extent because of the change in time zone, but mostly because I was too excited to sleep very late. I showered, shaved and dressed in casual slacks and a polo shirt. Looking in the mirror, I must admit, I was rather pleased with my looks. I'd gotten enough sun while I was at the cabin with Rick to have a decent tan, even by California standards, and while it certainly wasn't evident, dressed as I was, I was glad to know there were no tan lines. Our hours spent naked on the old dock had left me with a glowing over-all suntan.
The shirt was snug across my upper body and arms, but it wasn't so tight that it looked like I was trying to show off my physique. Tight clothes were becoming common in California in those days and I began to see a lot of guys who were obviously proud of their bodies and tried to make their muscles more visible by wearing skin-clinging shirt. I personally never thought it worked and I certainly didn`t think tight clothes looked good on me. The shirt I wore that day was just snug enough to show off my body to advantage, and its pale mint green color complemented my tanned skin and blond hair.
I had breakfast in the coffee shop and chatted with the waitress who hovered attentively. By nine o'clock I was in the lobby. By nine-fifteen, when Nita Ball hadn't yet arrived, I wandered into the news stand and looked at the headlines.
The Vietnam peace talks were dragging on and Nixon was campaigning in Florida.
"Rob?" I heard a woman's voice say from behind me. I'd stooped down to look at the newspapers. "Hi, I'm Nita," she said as I straightened up quickly and turned. She held her hand out to me and I was surprised by the strength of her grip. She was a slender woman of barely average height, and I figured a year or two one side or the other of forty.
Nita's hair was light brown and I suspected from the unnatural uniformity of its color, that she touched it up to cover a little early grey. She was dressed in a dark brown pleated skirt, which swelled over her nice hips. Her short sleeved tan blouse was made of some soft fabric which was just sheer enough to reveal the lighter colored bra she wore under it. Her breasts looked ample, even large for her small size.
"Sorry we're running late," she said, looking me up and down. "Traffic was worse than usual." As we stood there she ran her eyes over my chest and then down the length of my body. Her gaze was open and unashamed and rather than making me feel self conscious, it gave me a feeling of pride because of her interest. "You are a cute one," she said with a smile.
I quickly learned that in California, or at least in LA, comments about your appearance were quiet routine. I had never heard anyone other than my own family and a few very close friends comment on my appearance before. Back in Mississippi it would have probably been considered impolite or very forward to mention such a thing. In LA it was routine. In fact, I soon learned, "You're looking good," or more commonly, just "Looking good," was a frequent greeting, even from relative strangers.
Nita was in another NSB van but the driver, I noticed, was not the pimply faced Billy, but an older man who looked like he was on his last legs and breathing hard.
Both Nita and I climbed into the middle seat behind the driver and we pulled away from the hotel. We circled the block and headed northeast on Santa Monica Boulevard. "I told Harry to take the scenic route, honey," she said as we came into a more fashionable section of elegant shops and larger more luxurious hotels. "I guess this is your first time in LA."
"Yes," I said, smiling at her. "I'd never been further west than Texas."
"Well, Tinsel Town is a little tarnished these days but it still has its appeal if you can overlook the dents and scratches." As we drove on Nita explained our mission. "NSB owns the apartments and uses them for the Nathan Fellows and a few other short-term staff. There are three vacant units right now so you can have your pick."
"I guess they are furnished?"
"Oh, yeah, nothing fancy but they have everything you'll need, down to the dishes and the pots and pans. I think you'll want to buy some new sheets and towels though. Which reminds me," she said as she reached into her huge tan leather purse. "Here, sweetheart, this is for you."
She handed me a manila envelope which was sealed and had a bright blue NSG label typed with my name.
"There are a couple of letters in there, instructions on what you need to do about registering at the personnel office and signing up for insurance and benefits. There's also a check for twenty-two hundred dollars to cover settling in expenses." She reached into her huge purse and produced a form on NSG letterhead. "You have to sign this to show you got all that stuff."
"Twenty-two hundred dollars?"
"Yeah, after we finish at the apartments I'll take you over to the studio so you can get the rest of the paperwork done."
"Twenty-two hundred?" I repeated. "What am I going to do with that?" I had two hundred and thirty dollars in travels checks which I'd brought from home and even that seemed like a lot of money to me. Twenty-two hundred dollars was a small fortune.
"Well, like I said, you'll want to buy a few things for your apartment and since this is LA, you are going to need a car. You can use part of the settling in money for a down payment and the NSB credit union will loan you the rest."
We veered to the right and I saw from the street signs that we'd turned onto Wilshire. The traffic became heavier and our progress was slow. We seemed to go a rather long way, then entered a park, drove straight across it and turned left at the far side. At about a quarter to ten we arrived at our destination.
Alvarado Court was a U-shaped complex of buildings which Nita told me had once been individual bungalows, but had been broken up into smaller apartments after MSB bought the property for staff housing in the late 1950s. The complex was located on the southeast corner of Alvarado and Maryland Street and seemed to be oriented in a more or less east-west direction. There was an open landscaped area between the two parallel rows of buildings, which seemed to be linked by some sort of lower structure at the back.
Nita told the driver to stop in front of the complex while she explained the layout. The buildings all seemed to have two floors with stucco exteriors of soft earth tones and red tile roofs, the sort of Mexican or Spanish style popular in California since the late nineteenth century.
I later learned the original Alvarado Court buildings dated from the early twentieth century, around the time of the First World War. Even though the architectural style was certainly rather specious, the complex had an charming and rather romantic look. The central lawn was dotted with some wonderful old trees which alone gave the place real character.
Most of the ground floor units had recessed porches about twelve feet square and the upper units had corresponding balconies. I tried to count the apartments and figured there were eight on each side of the lawn, four up and four down, probably a total of sixteen units in the entire complex.
Nita asked Harry to pull the van around into an alley behind the apartments where we turned into an open carport which ran across the back of the property. It was that carport which linked the two rows of bungalows at the back. I counted sixteen stalls for cars and assumed I'd been right about the size of the complex. There seemed to be one stall for each apartment and each stall was numbered, I assumed, to correspond to the apartment numbers.
Harry came around and opened the sliding door of the van and helped Nita out. I followed and for the first time saw how small Harry was. He stood about five-five and was very thin. Unlike Billy, who'd been dressed casually, Harry was wearing a grey suit with the NSB insignia on the breast pocket. We left him leaning against the van, his folded newspaper in one hand and a freshly lit cigarette in the other.
"There used to be a couple of additional bungalows across the back," Nita explained, "but there was a fire which damaged them in the 1950s and they were torn down to make room for the carport and the swimming pool. This place has quite a history," she went on, "I'll tell you about it some other time."
We walked through the carport and out into a garden area which seemed to need some significant trimming.
"There's the pool," Nita said. "You can't have an apartment complex in LA without a swimming pool." She smiled and pointed to a concrete rectangle about twenty by forty feet in size. It was located just in front of the carport and separated from it by a high wooden fence and a sort of arbor supported by a row of classical columns. Further to the front, separating the pool area from the front part of the lawn, was a thick hedge of strange flowering bushes, unlike any plant I'd ever seen before.
A few lawn chairs and chaises lounges were scattered in no particular order around the bare concrete apron of the rather depressing looking swimming pool. The lawn furniture looked serviceable but not in all that good repair. I noticed an overflowing trash container in one corner of the paved pool area and an assortment of empty soda and beer cans which had been left under and around the chairs. The water in the swimming pool looked clean enough but the smell of chlorine was heavy in the air as we cut across the area and proceeded on up one of the two parallel concrete walks which ran in front of the bungalows.
There was nobody around but the place looked lived in. I assumed all the residents were at work or otherwise off doing other things.
"Okay," Nita said, pulling a huge cluster of keys from her purse, "apartment two." She steered me to the door of a ground floor unit and fumbled with the keys for a minute, finding the right one.
Inside the front door we found a nearly square living room with French windows which opened onto the porch. Behind the living room was a short passage way which led to two bedrooms, one about twelve feet square, the other about ten by twelve. Between them, opening off the hall, was a fairly standard looking bathroom which clearly needed a little fresh paint. The small kitchen opened off the living area and the entire apartment was furnished in an assortment of simple but functional furniture in colors which had been fashionable about twenty years earlier.
"What do you think?" Nita asked.
"It needs some work but I could manage."
"Let's look at the other units."
As we went out Nita locked the doors behind us and the led the way to the opposite side of the complex and into another apartment which was a mirror image of the one we'd just seen.
>From there she led me toward the back of the complex, beside the pool and up some stairs to unit number eight, the back apartment on what I'd figured was the northeast corner.
I immediately knew this was the apartment I wanted. The rooms were just a little bigger. Even more important than the increased size, there was much more natural light. Being on the back corner of the complex, there were windows on the side of the living room and the larger bedroom, as well as at the front and back of the apartment.
I got the feeling that Alvarado Court had lost a lot of its charm when the old bungalows were divided into smaller apartments but there were a few vestiges of the original architecture. A small fireplace in the living room had a colorful tile fascia and hearth and rustic timber beams ran across the width of the living room ceiling. I also liked the fact that the apartment was on the upper level. If the complex was at all noisy it would be good to be slightly removed from any activity on the lawn or around the swimming pool.
We walked back through the apartment to the larger of the two bedrooms. Standing by the back window, I pulled back some tattered blinds and looked out across Maryland Street to a view of the low houses with compact neat gardens. Much further north and east across the vast city were the grey outlines of distant hills.
"Those are the San Gabriel Mountains," Nita said. I was surprised she was so close, standing just beside me.
"I like the view."
"Well, enjoy it while you can," she said. "We don't get many days as clear as this, at least not this time of year."
"So you said I could take my pick. Is it okay if I take this apartment?"
"Sure, Honey." Her hand brushed against my arm as she turned back into the room. "I'll tell the maintenance guys they'll need to do a little work here before you move in."
"It looks fairly good," I said, not wanting to sound picky but hoping she'd get some painting and repair work done.
"Are you okay with the off-white walls?"
"Yeah, I'll get some prints, maybe some posters."
"I'm going to ask for a complete paint job and new carpets in the living room and in this bedroom. I'll also see if we can find you a bigger bed."
"Yeah, this one looks a little small." I think it was a three-quarter, not even as large as a standard size bed.
"I can get you a king size bed but it sure won't leave much space in this room."
"That's okay," I said. "I'll put up with less space for a big bed."
"As tall as you are, you need it." She looked me up and down again and smiled. "Besides, as good looking as you are, you'll probably be sharing it a lot."
I guess from the hot feeling of my face that I blushed, which seemed to amuse Nita.
"What about the smaller room? Do you intend to use it as a bedroom, too?"
"Maybe for guests, if I ever have any, but I think I'd prefer a single or a pull-out bed in there so I can have some room to work."
She smiled. "Anything else?" By then Nita had pulled out a notebook and was making a list.
"Is there any chance of getting a desk and some bookcase - lots of bookcases? I think with a single bed I`d have room for them in the smaller bedroom."
"Sure, sweetheart, but you don't look like the bookish type."
"I left six boxes with my folks. They'll ship them once I know where to have them shipped."
"Anything else you want?" she asked with an expression on her face which I couldn`t figure out. "You just ask and it's yours."
"I think that's about it for now."
"Okay then," she smiled as she wiggled the notebook back in her gym bag sized purse. "If you think of anything else you want, just let me know." As she locked up, she looked at me again and said, "let's find Harry and get some lunch."
Before we drove to the NSB studios Nita had Harry make a detour through the USC campus and pointed out the buildings where I'd have classes in the fall.
"Alvarado Court works well for the Nathan Fellows," Nita said. "It's close to both the university and the studios, but any way you figure it, Rob, you'll have to buy a car. Close in LA means four or five miles and decent public transportation is a pipe dream around here."
We drove into the NSB lot and I gawked like a tourist as we pulled through the gates and into the motor pool. I told Harry goodbye as Nita grabbed my arm and took me off to the commissary for lunch.
That afternoon Nita took me on a fast walking tour of the NSB studios and then marched me, in quick succession, from the personnel office to the insurance office to the credit union. I filled out forms, got an ID card with my photo on it, and opened an account for one thousand dollars at the credit union. I was told that I could borrow up to five thousand toward the purchase of a car. The interest rate they charged seemed very low. All told, I felt good about the situation but needed to look at a few cars to get a better idea of prices and options. I also figured I'd call my dad and talk about it with him. If nothing else, I knew it would please him no end that I asked for his advice.
When we finished, Nita took me to her office, a small cubicle in a large block of cubicles, and gave me three telephone numbers, assuring me that at any time, day or night, she could be found at one or the other of them.
As she walked me back to the car pool where I would be assigned a car and driver to take me back to the hotel, Nita gave me her business card, which said Juanita Marie Ball, Special Programs Coordinator.
"What, exactly, does that mean, Nita?" I asked.
"I'm the den mother, sweetie," she grinned. "I take care of the Nathan Fellows and don't ever try to tell me it isn't a full time job."
"Are there twelve of us?" I asked, assuming that with four new Fellows chosen each year and us all being in a three year program at the university, it should work out to an even dozen.
"In theory," she said, "but it usually works out to about ten who are actually here at any given time. We lose one from time to time and we usually have one or two overseas or on location, working with one of the studio's projects."
"Will I have a chance to meet Mr. Langston soon?"
"Yes, love boat, but not till Monday. By then all your new buddies should be here and the great man will have you all come by as a group. There's a schedule in that packet I gave you." Then, holding her hand out to me, she said, "let me see that envelope," and took the manila envelope I'd been carrying most of the day. She opened it and rifled through the papers, finding one which she pulled out and handed to me. "I never knew of a new Fellow being asked to meet Dexter Cohen before, so you must be something really special."
The letter she'd handed me asked that I come to Mr. Cohen's office at ten o'clock on Friday morning.
It was just then that Billy Bowen came bounding over.
To be continued.