From “Passing Thru” By John Rook
Graduating from Chadron (Nebraska) Prep in 1955, I was on a Trailways bus to California within a few weeks. Dad insisted I take a job crawling under and greasing steam locomotives at the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad or a full time job as a cook at the Niles Hotel and Restaurant. Having already sampled both of those jobs part time during the school year, nothing would hold me back from escaping to California, even if it did mean I would start my venture with only $38 left to my name after purchasing my bus ticket. Mom did pack me a paper bag with several peanut better sandwiches that lasted me most of the three day trip west. Stopping in Las Vegas for a thirty minute rest, it seemed to me to be nothing more than a two hotel town in the middle of nowhere. It certainly never dawned on me it could become a major city and the entertainment capital of the world. It was however, the first time I experienced air conditioning inside the bus depot. Unfortunately no such comfort was provided in the bus itself, but back then we just appreciated the small fans that were placed in the forward section. Trailways did furnish us with a small white hand towel and suggested me wet it with cold water in the restroom to cool our brow before we continued our trip across the desert to California. Within my first week of arriving in Santa Monica, I landed a job on the loading docks of the Sears & Roebuck store, just a block or two from the ocean. Within a few weeks, I registered to attend drama classes at Santa Monica City College. Without wheels, the distance between my day job at Sears and the campus made for a stimulating run, and I arrived most times after the evening class had already started. My weekly pay for working on the loading dock at Sears was $62 dollars a week, adding to that I collected another $20 for being responsible for feeding the animals and birds at the pet store and cleaning their cages, which usually was after my evening class at SMCC. The smell that came from cutting up the usual spoiled raw liver the owner had picked up at a bargain was dreadful. However, sorting through the pet rat and mice cages to find the sickest ones to feed to the snakes was even worse. I felt like the death row hangman in a B-movie. After a few months, I decided to end my job at the pet store and on weekends took a job at the Santa Monica Travel Service planning and writing airlines, train and bus tickets for travelers. In those first days after arriving in California, I actually slept on a Pacific Palisades bench at night, overlooking the ocean at Santa Monica. In future years it would be where the “homeless” copied what I had done years previously as they became a real problem for the local visitor’s bureau when they populated the palisades living in cardboard boxes and on the benches. I cleaned up each morning at a Texaco station before heading to my job on the loading dock at Sears. While at work, I stashed my suitcase with what clothing I had in an employee locker at Sears. Upon receiving my first pay check from Sears, I rented a room in a run down apartment house and shared the bathroom with five others. A month after arriving in California, I rented a small two room apartment, with a pull down wall bed in the living room and a kitchen, just three blocks from the ocean on Santa Monica Boulevard overlooking a liquor store. In those days a rather seedy location, today an up scale shopping center with a charming walkway with nice shops and restaurants. Without a car and usually hungry myself, I was eternally grateful to Sara, a middle-aged lady who worked at the Sears lunch stand and supplied me with stale sandwiches scheduled to be tossed out each night at closing time. Before long Sara expected special services as payment for her friendship that usually began with my catching the bus to her apartment several miles away up Santa Monica Boulevard. While Sara’s husband spent Sunday evenings in a bowling league, I paid her back for the kindness of remembering me with sandwiches from Sears. A few weeks later, I with a few more pay checks to my name, I began to purchase food the normal way…at a grocery store. While I had no telephone myself, just prior to the fourth of July weekend, Maurice Kosloff returned my call, and left word with the liquor store owner he would be in Santa Monica if I wanted to meet for lunch. For two nights I couldn’t sleep in anticipation of our meeting. We met at a lunch counter on the Santa Monica Pier and spent most of an afternoon getting to know each other. Maurice was a great guy and he complemented me on having started drama classes. He said he was willing to help me as a favor to Burt Lancaster and asked for nothing in return. He suggested I should not waste any more time as a Sears’s employee and instead he would attempt to land me an introduction for a studio job. Many years later, I would take that walk down the pier at Santa Monica, remembering the man I met long ago on that Fourth of July weekend who I owe so much to for starting my career. Maurice called a day or two later giving me the good news. He had set me up with an appointment for a job on the Wild Bill Hickok TV series. I faked illness from my job at Sears, and one week later I caught the city bus up Santa Monica Boulevard to the 20th Century lot, nowadays known as Century City, where I met Freddie Carson, assistant director and stunt man for the Wild Bill Hickok show. A transplanted Texan and a great horseman, Freddie doubled for several top stars of the day including Victor Mature and Iron Eyes Cody. My horse experience from the days of my youth got me my first part. I didn’t have any lines but I was one of those who rode with “Wild Bill” in the TV series. Through Freddy I met the star of the series, Guy Madison, and Andy Devine, known as “Jingles” in the series.
As a boy I had grown up seeing Andy in many western movies at those Saturday afternoon matinees. As I sat on my horse the first few days, my eyes and ears were glued on him, often in disbelief that this enormous man could move so fast. Andy disappointed me with the way he treated horses, but then I would always be labeled as someone who displayed far too much sympathy for animals. He taught me how to deal with the repetition of shooting scenes over and over. “When that light comes on or you hear action, be ready to act. It’s a good way to stay employed,” he said. Tired or not, each take needed to look fresh regardless of how many times it was repeated. Following years of black and white filming, my arrival also coincided with the first time the series would be shot in color. Andy broke me up when he told his horse, Joker, a big white animal with a black ring painted around his eye, “how purdy he was going to look in color”. I gave notice to Sears and dropped out of my classes at Santa Monica Community College to become an extra on the TV series. At $92 a week, I could finally purchase a car. I chose a 1946 Dodge convertible with fluid drive. Only a few cars had automatic transmissions and city traffic was a breeze to negotiate as I cruised around listening to the radio. Switching back and forth from station to station listening to the ‘Big Five DJs’ on KLAC, Dick Haynes at the Reins, Peter Potter, Larry Finley, Earl McDaniel, Art Way on the Mighty 690 and Johnny Grant on KMPC, not to mention ‘Old HH’ – Hunter Hancock, who along with Huggy Boy introduced so called race music, or Rhythm & Blues, to a white audience eager to include Johnny Otis with Big Maybelle, Otis Williams & the Charms, The Dubs, Shirley & Lee, Timmy “Oh Yea” Rogers and dozens of other new names to their previously vanilla record collection. Chuck Blore’s KFWB had not yet been introduced to Angeleno’s, I heard it for the first time during a vacation visit a year or two later on…and I knew then I wanted to make radio my lifetime vocation. Suddenly disc jockey’s were more…they too were entertainers. Until I heard Fats Domino’s version of “Ain’t that a Shame,” I thought it belonged to Pat Boone exclusively. Almost overnight, Patti Page’s “How much is that doggie in the window” was very square and some guy by the name of Elvis was just beginning to change the pop culture of America and the world. Life in California beat my previous summer jobs of working the hayfields, scooping grain and driving a tractor with hot exhaust blowing back into my face. It was paradise, and every day was a fresh new experience. Growing up a cornhusker, my diet had been limited to beef, potatoes, corn and what I’ll refer to as American food. Tacos, enchiladas and pizza were an especially new experience. I carried a pizza home not knowing it had a top and a bottom and when stringy cheese stuck to the top of the lid as I opened it, I almost swore off Pizza after one sampling. Scantily clad young ladies that roller-skated right to your car window to take your order introduced a whole new way of eating out for me. Regular visits to Norm’s Drive-In in Hollywood always included a stop at Wallich’s Music City on Sunset & Vine, to audition the latest recordings in their listening booths. From there, I walked a block up Vine to watch Juke Box Jury, as Peter Potter challenged his panel of show biz personalities on TV, “Will it be a hit…or a miss?” The “Champagne Music” of Lawrence Welk’s early television show originated from the Aragon Ballroom overlooking the ocean and became a favorite place of mine. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon to spend time at the amusement park often ended with an evening of dancing with two or three regular young ladies who appreciated my jitterbugging. I discovered Paradise Cove, Will Rodgers Beach, and the beaches at Malibu and Zuma. I also looked forward to drives up Topanga Canyon from the ocean across to the San Fernando Valley, a vast area of orange groves and grazing cattle, owned in the most part by Bing Crosby, Lawrence Welk, Bob Hope and Art Linkletter. When I parked my car curbside at night, I seldom put the top up unless rain was forecast because the weather was always so perfect. No concern was given of it being stolen, it just didn’t happen back then. Gang wars were unheard of as blacks, Latino’s and whites attended dances sponsored by Hunter Hancock. In the 1950’s the beauty of southern California was just being discovered by a nation seeking a better life. Jobs lured thousands and the orange groves began to vanish, replaced instead by a sea of humanity moving west to live in the sunshine of paradise. When Maurice called and said he could get me a small part in a new comedy starring David Niven and June Allyson he suggested I should consider changing my name to ‘Johnny Rho.’ I was so excited I didn’t even question the name change. Maurice said my tanned, “swarthy look” reminded him of a Greek god named Rho. Thus, Johnny Rho was born, later changed to Johnny Rowe the disc jockey as Maurice assured me I could give another young actor, John Saxon, a run for his money. He told me the director of the film, My Man Godfrey, would be Henry Koster, who had been nominated for an Academy Award for directing The Robe, a religious film starring Richard Burton & Victor Mature. Koster was also the favorite director of someone I would meet much later and would serve as a conversation subject when I met the legendary Jimmy Stewart while I was program director of KABC radio.
June Allyson was a sweetheart. She was more like an older sister who without saying a word could melt most men with her smile. Her laugh was unique in its volume and I thought her voice always sounded like she had a cold. Others called it “a whiskey voice.” My contact with her was limited to the few days I worked on the set but I always remember her as wonderful, warm person, someone I would have enjoyed knowing better.
David Niven was all business and his eyes seemed never seemed to blink. His concentration was totally on the job at hand. While June Allyson was the same on-and-off-screen, her co-star transformed into a totally different person the second “action” was shouted. Upon being introduced to him, he simply nodded at me, not bothering to shake my hand. They were both the epitome of professionalism, rarely required more than one take for each scene, and little direction. However, it wasn’t long before I found the long wait between filming takes, more than I could appreciate. It only took one mistake in the eyes of the director and everyone involved had to do the same scene over. I was impressed with how well the big name stars took direction. Always with such professionalism, they eagerly accepted and make every attempt to deliver as the director requested. Being interrupted in the middle of a take by the director shouting “cut”, didn’t seem to bother them at all. They took his advise and proceeded to reinvent the scene until his, ”that’s it..that’s a take” was heard. So much of what I witnessed and learned on the lots of Hollywood would guide me in the years ahead as a program director in radio. The big talents, the big stars in motion pictures and in radio, all took direction easily. It was those of lesser talents in both fields who found taking direction a problem and slowing down the wheels of progress.