Posts Tagged ‘Betty White’

Have I Ever Really ‘Seen’ My Mother?

When I have pointed a camera at my mother – ever – she would respond by turning on a dime and running into another room snarling, “Oh, Billy!”

This visit to Los Angeles was the exception.  She let me put a camera on her and opened up like I don’t remember.  I began to get an idea of her persona. In fact, after viewing the clips and stories that I am about to share with you, I am beginning to think that my Mother was not the combination of cook and maid that I had expected her to be in my youth, but rather that she was actually quite a bon vivant — certainly much more of a person than my limited view of her has allowed.

And after finding the snapshot below in my late father’s archives of my mother, younger than I am now, I suspect that I may not have ever ‘seen’ my mother as she is or was.

“Billy, Why Don’t You Come Over for Breakfast?”

“I love to cook,” Mother says.  “Your sister doesn’t want me to cook for her, and since they laid me off, I have more-than-enough time on my hands.”

Life After the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) Hospital

The MPTF Hospital (affectionately, ‘The Old Actor’s Home’)

The MPTF Hospital laid my mother off at age 84 after 35 years of service.  She called me one Thursday night to say that the Personnel Dept. had asked her to come-in to discuss her separation package.  I listened patiently as she said,

“Billy, they can’t lay me off, can they?  There’s just so much to do, and these young kids they have working with me don’t care about the job; they make mistakes constantly and seem only to want to text their boyfriends.  I find so many medical samples mis-labeled all the time and I have to correct them.  And besides, I have a meeting with the pathologist tomorrow to discuss a rush job for him, so I can’t take the time go to Personnel!  What do you think?”

Having lived through some lay-offs of my own, I, with some filial hesitation informed my Mother,

“Mother, you’re already gone!  Your supervisor was probably asked to reduce a full-time-equavalent (FTE) — and you’re it!.  Maybe you can negotiate some time to cross-train someone who will be staying.  But you are history!”

Still incredulous, she said,

“What am I going to do with all that time on my hands?”

Just about everyone in my my family has worked at MPTF at one time or another.  It was my first job.  While still in a college pre-med program, they gave me a summer job in housekeeping.  That work just kept piling-up with every new day! I think at least one of my sisters and brother worked there.

Now, Mother invites me over when I am in town, and I could be mistaken, but she seems to be  less anxious for me to leave.

“Come over on Tuesday — I’ll make you waffles the way your brother likes them — with bacon in them.  Better not tell him; he’ll be jealous.”

(So, I immediately emailed my brother the following picture:)

“Don’t tell your brother that I made you waffles!”

As suggested by the above image,  Mother would not sit down with me at the table that she had meticulously set, but instead kept handing me waffles through the kitchen portal while never stopping talking.

At one point,  she sat down on the cobbler’s chair that she keeps in the kitchen and continued to reminisce about her life.

I stopped her before she got too far and said, “Hold that thought, I’m going to get my tripod.”

Continuing Life’s Recapitulation

I ran to the car, came back,  set it up and started to record her stories, very surprised that she did not object.  I have heard some of the stories before, but each time is like the first time.

“At 65 I wouldn’t have put up with this for a minute.  But at 85 ….”

She was feeling that my sister was taking her for granted, but instead of complaining, she started to reminisce about the way she had done likewise to her mother.  Seeing her filled with emotion before my eyes, I did not stop to make fine exposure adjustments, but instead started to record (I’ll know better next time):

Navigating Early-television Hollywood

Bill Leyden, Jr.

Bill Leyden, Jr.

This rogue is my late father.

(Headshots like this are usually touched-up.  But that is the way he looked.  In fact, his hair looked like that when he woke up!)

An early death probably cut short a career that had already peaked.  But there wasn’t anyone in Hollywood that he did not know.  The peak preceded a tragic personal loss.  He never fully recovered from a hunting accident that occurred in the early 60s in which he lost one of his eyes.  It made him self-conscious that the glass eye never quite matched the other.  The aftermath of the injury also gave him constant pain.  And with 20/10 vision (pilot’s eyes), he was particularly saddened by the loss.

On day, with my juvenile take on things, I said to him,

“Daddy, if you had just been one step to the left, the buckshot might have missed your  eye.”

With no hesitation, he said to me, “Or if I had been one step to the right, I may have lost both of them!”

Mother often talks about their forays in Hollywood.  And I listen eagerly, watching attentively as her moods reflect upon one other and then dissipate —  often  several times during the same sentence.

“Well , What Did You Think of Clark?”

Clark Gable

Clark Gable

I love to hear stories about the Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s.  The air was dirty, but life seemed cleaner.  My faded recollection is that you could leave the family car running outside all night (don’t ask me why one would do that) and it would still be there in the morning!

It has been my experience that kids that grew up around movie and television stars are probably more impressed by the stars on a general’s uniform than the stars on the screen, whereas a ‘military brat’ is more likely to be star-struck.

Mother, by virtue of her relationship to Dad, fell into the former group.  She would not be prone to gush over a movie star, and would at times be oblivious to one’s fame even if she had been conversing with one, as the following clip regarding  Clark Gable would seem to suggest:

“Not TullyTelly!”

Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas

I’ll have to remember to ask why Mother says that Telly Savalas was such a ‘sweetheart,’ considering that he chided her gently for mispronouncing his name.

“Agnes Moorehead – She Was Striking, Absolutely Striking!”

Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead is probably best-remembered as Samantha’s moody, red-haired mother on the television sitcom, “Bewitched.”  She was much more than that.  Here Mother gives an insight to the late Ms. Moorehead that I would not have expected:

Did Mother Just Say Nick Cravat Asked Her Out?

Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat in “The Crimson Pirate” (1959)

OK, you can think what you want of me, but one of my favorite movies as a kid was “The Crimson Pirate,” starring Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat and Eva Bartok.   Now that I have broached this subject, I might as well come clean and admit that  Steve Reeves in “Hercules Unchained” would have my brother and I in front of the TV set — guaranteed.  (Mother also claims to have had a date with Steve Reeves — he took her on the bus to Muscle Beach).

In fact, any swashbuckling adventure or feature with a character named “Machiste” would usually have my brother and I on the edge of our seats. There, I’ve said it!

Anyway, I was thrilled that Nick Cravat gave to my mother for me an autographed copy of “The Crimson Pirate.”  Not knowing anything about their acquaintance, I asked her about him:

“—-trying to look classy….”

Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles

Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles

I am not sure if I would want to come-in late to a Don “Mr. Warmth” Rickles performance; it would be a sure-fire way to be a target for quips, as Mother was soon to find out:

“…Betty White – Boy, Was She Young!”

Betty White

Betty White

Since Mother had mentioned meeting Telly Savalas at the late Dennis James’ house, I was curious if she knew Betty White.

Two days after mother had sat willingly in front of my camera for the first time ever, I was still in disbelief that she had opened up while being recorded.  I had previewed some of the footage and was unhappy with my technical performance, but let it go.  I picked up the phone to call,

“Mother, I loved listening to your stories, would you be willing to sit with me again before I leave town, maybe Friday morning?”

“Yes, I guess so.  But I know I will freeze if there is anyone else at home but you.  So come early.  What stories do you want to hear?”

“I’m not going to telegraph them — I would prefer to hear them fresh!”


On Friday, I thought that Mother might have second thoughts about being in front of the camera, but she didn’t hesitate to start talking about the past again, but not before over my feigned objections she offered to make me an omelet.

“I’ll make you a cheese omelet; that will be simple — with ham, spinach, pepper, onion and salsa!”

(That’s the kind of thing that I would never do on my own; I don’t have the patience to cut up all that stuff).

“Bill Leyden’s Wife …. That’s Nobody!”

She started right-in remembering the night club days.  Here, forgetting about the omelet on the stove, she fondly remembers Milton “Uncle Miltie” Berle and also a snide put-down by a fellow party-goer.

I rather like this snippet because at the end it shows one of my favorite Mother-stereotypes — no matter where Mother goes, she jogs!  Here she forgets that there is an omelet on the stove and jogs over (she would have done that if she had not forgotten).  I have seen her jog in the Petrified Forest in Arizona in 100 degree heat!

I continued our visit by asking her to tell several stories about which my sister had coached me two days earlier.

Lucille Ball’s Ride

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball had not yet become a recluse in the early 60s.  This story about my dad mistakenly being given her car by a valet is a scream.  I remember as a boy walking into a school bazaar in Hollywood and seeing Lucille Ball sitting at a carnival-style make up booth.  Nobody was in the booth.  I walked up; she bade me sit down, and proceeded to turn me into a bandito complete with sombrero.

‘Sick’ in Florida

My sister loves this story; it must touch for her some inner-rebel.  She advised me, “get Mother to tell you about the time she called-in sick and went to Florida for a weekend of water skiing.  She didn’t realize that her boss was vacationing at the same location in Florida!”

Just-a Dancin’ Machine

Jimmy Stewart, Dance Instructor

I am sorry, but the thought of my mother doing certain things does not set well with my stomach.  I can’t help it.  I think any detail further than those shown in the following clip of her learning how to do “The Twist” is unnecessary and probably undignified.  Let it be enough to say, that I am glad that Jimmy Stewart was the one who had to see my mother learn how to do “The Twist.”  For me, watching this clip just about crosses-the-line; the vision of my mother ‘twisting’ at any age is almost more than I can bear.  But, it’s not about me, after all, is it?

“Mother, Don’t Move the Chair — Just Get Up and Move Out-of-Frame.”

Planning a ‘Dissolve’

I wanted to do a cheap editing dissolve at the end of the first day’s recording, so I asked Mother, “Just look at the Canon Logo on the camera for a moment, then, when you are ready and without moving the chair, get up and get out of here!”

Anticipating a Broken Heart

The above clip is most likely my pre-sorrow manifesting itself before we will no longer have the waffles and the sharing of memories.  I will remember this expression that she made that seemed at-once proud, content and grief-ridden.  When that time comes, the kitchen will have never felt so empty.


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