By Henry C. Parke
September 3rd, 2013
I love being on movie sets, especially Western movie sets, where the boardwalks and wooden store-fronts, horses, costumed actors, and guns make you feel like you’re time-traveling. The last time I had the privilege, writing for the Round-up, the wardrobe mistress said, “Next time, I’ll dress you, and you can be an extra.” It sounded like fun. I’d been an extra here and there in friends’ movies. I was one, or actually did a small ‘bit’, in a picture I co-wrote the original story for, SPEEDTRAP (1977). When detective Joe Don Baker is dodging gangster Timothy Carey in the sleazy block of Phoenix (which we had to manufacture), he zips by me and a hooker, and if you strain your ears, you can hear me say, “Gee, a hundred dollars is a lot of money,” and her responding, “Well I’m a lot of woman.”
I got a call from my wardrobe lady friend that she was dressing a Western at Paramount Ranch, and I was invited! I was all psyched at my return to the screen, so you can imagine my disappointment when I got a call back that they couldn’t use me: only S.A.G. extras. Oh, well.
Then I recalled that I actually had played a small, costumed role in a period picture. It was back when I attended NYU Film School in the 1970s, and in addition to making your own films, you were crew, and sometimes cast, in other people’s films. A friend was directing a comedy, a faux documentary about a fake poverty row movie studio of Hollywood’s golden age. He needed clips from nonexistent films, and I acted in a few. One was a World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’ epic. The gag was that, being a poverty row studio making a war movie during the war, all the big studios had rented the proper uniforms for their war movies. So we had to make do: the Nazis dressed in Confederate uniforms, and the U.S. Army in Salvation Army uniforms.
I was delighted to find myself, at dawn, in Morningside Park, dressed in a well-tailored Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword. We were going to start with a big battle scene, involving both armies. But just as the camera was about to roll, it couldn’t. The director of photography had forgotten to charge the power-pack that ran the camera. He hurried off to plug it in. We would have at least a two-hour delay before we could begin. As this shoot was destined to run late, and I had made plans for the afternoon, I needed to find a payphone. It was awfully early, but if I didn’t call then, I might not have a chance for hours.
There were no payphones in the park, so I walked out of the park, onto the streets. Did I mention that Morningside Park is in the middle of Harlem? Harlem, the home of the Apollo Theatre, the Black Panthers, and in those days, zero white people? So I started walking along the streets of Harlem, at dawn, wearing a Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword.
There was not a soul on the street. The first phone booth I came to had a phone, but no receiver. The second had no phone at all, and the booth had been converted into a make-shift urinal. The third one had a complete phone, and I made my call. As I talked, I noticed an older sedan parked across the street from me. There were about a dozen Miller High Life bottles lined up on the sidewalk beside it. The engine was off, but the headlights were on, dim, like they’d been on all night. A few figures lounged around inside.
I finished my call, and left the booth, starting my long walk back to the park. The sword slapped against my left leg with each step.
From behind me, from the direction of the lone car, I heard a voice. “Hey!” I kept walking. “Hey you!” I kept walking. “Hey you! Soldier boy! Come ‘ere!” The voice was accompanied by laughter.
“Yeah!” another voice joined in. “Johnny Reb! We want to talk to you!”
I heard the engine cough. I thought maybe the headlights had drained the battery. I hoped so. Then I heard the engine start up strong. I reached a corner. A right turn would bring me closer to the park, but a left would be the wrong way on a one-way street for the car I could hear gaining on me. I turned left.
They turned left anyway. I thought it was time to start running. Try running while wearing a sword – no wonder the officers rode horses.
I heard a shattering smash as a Miller bottle hit the sidewalk a distance behind me. The next one was closer. I changed direction at every corner, but of course I didn’t lose them, not in their car. I heard a lot of laughter and hooting and hostile comments. Even as I was ducking bottles, I couldn’t help admiring the ‘Johnny Reb’ reference – I don’t think I could have come up with anything that good that quickly. The next catcall truly amazed me – someone in the sedan was calling him and his friends Buffalo Soldiers!
Finally I reached the street with the entrance to Morningside Park. As I bolted for the winding downward path, I saw three iron posts jutting up from the ground, across the entrance, perhaps to prevent carloads of Buffalo Soldiers from driving down.
As the car screeched to a halt across the street, and young men began to pile out, I faced them, drew my sword, and shouted, “F#ck you and Abe Lincoln!” Then I turned and ran like Hell down into the park.
I ran into camp, screaming for help, and as the Buffalo Soldiers appeared at the bottom of the path, they faced twenty armed, uniformed Confederate soldiers, and a cannon was being swung into position. I don’t know what they thought, but was grateful that they ran back up and drove away, perhaps never to drink Miller High Life again.Copyright October 27, 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved