Guest blog: Here's why Jewish-convert Sammy makes the sign of the cross in an emergency…
Hollywood is a long way from my home in Taiwan, but I like to keep in touch. I recently came across a movie maven in California who knows a few things about Hollywood and tells a good story. Meet Stephen Schochet.
Schochet (pronounced ”show-het”) has worked for over 10 years as a tour guide in L.A., collecting hundreds of Hollywood stories and anecdotes — and jokes — to tell to tourists from home and abroad.
Now he has written a book about it all. The idea started when he bagged a website with the domain name of ”hollywoodstories.com” and word began to spread. Now he's out with the book titled, of course, “Hollywood Stories.” We had a short email conversation about him and his love of Hollywood lore — an about some of the stories he's learned over the years.
He first fell in love with Hollywood legend and lore, he told me, when he was six, reading a National Geographic story about Walt Disney. The article mentioned Disney giving a tour of a the studio to a little girl; he described in great detail what his each of his employees did but seemed flustered when the girl asked him what his own specific duties were. “That was the first time the creative process took on a mystery and curiosity for me,” he told me.
He became a tour guide because he wanted to be a writer, taking a job as a limo driver “so I could write while I was waiting for the customers. I wrote all sorts of things, but mainly short stories. Then I was asked to give tours, did a little research and just found it fascinating. Rather than just drive by and point at something I tried to share a little anecdote that I had picked up and it a got a great response.”
He decided to become a fulltime tour guide, “and my attitude was to make the tour as interesting as possible, so for a while the writing went on the back burner and the research took over.”
“When I first started I had a study buddy named Ivan,” he said. “During our breaks we would research information about old Hollywood and share it with each other. I remember one time we met on Hollywood Boulevard, and he said to me in a low, conspiratorial tone, ‘Steve, man, you what I found out today? That Thomas Edison owned the rights to the movie camera, and the early moguls like Mayer, Warner and Cukor had to pay him tributes. They why they left the East Coast and came west — they were outlaws, baby!'”
The more information he found out, the more fun he said it was to give the tour. Eventually he had the idea that these short anecdotes could be told anywhere — and that's what led, after a few other projects, to the idea for the book.
So who are Stephen's favorite movie stars of all time?
“George Burns, Sammy Davis Jr. and Spencer Tracy.”
The first two, he met — so he says he is biased.
“While working for a limousine company, I once had the privilege of driving Sammy Davis Jr. who was totally warm and friendly to me. This was shortly before Davis’ death in 1990 at age 64, due to throat cancer.
“Just before Sammy came out of his Beverly Hills house, his security guard had told me this anecdote: He previously worked as a freelancer and protected several celebrity clients before breaking his leg. After six weeks, the disabled employee got out of the hospital and approached his mailbox, dreading the prospect of unpaid bills. To his surprise, Sammy — and only Sammy — had never stopped sending him paychecks.
“He now worked for Davis exclusively, and his boss had never mentioned the very generous act. I noticed there was a plaque by Sammy’s front door that read: ‘This house welcomes anyone with peace, love and brotherhood in their hearts.’ The security man told me that if anyone came over the singer’s fence without those traits, he would shoot them dead.”
One, time, he told me, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra were asked to perform at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas with Leo the famous lion who roared at the beginning of movies. “They were assured it would be safe; the very old, very tame animal would be handled by a trainer with a choke chain.
“In the middle of the number, the lion looked at Sammy and licked its lips. The King of the Beasts hunched back like it was going to leap for Sammy, and the 110-pound scared-to-death entertainer made the sign of the cross. The trainer yanked the chain and nothing happened.
“After the show, the two shaken singers went into the casino and had drinks and cigarettes at the blackjack table. Sinatra couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. He wondered why Davis, who years before had converted to Judaism, had made the Catholic religious gesture on stage. ‘
“Well babe, when that cat came at me, I didn’t think I’d have time to make the Star of David!'”
Favorite film directors?
“Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra and then a lot of different people, it changes all the time. I like early Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, George Cukor. I’m not a big fan of Orson Welles movies, but I love stories about him.”
He told one: “In 1985, the last year of his life, 70-year-old Orson Welles was approached by a young man who wanted to ask him yet another question about ‘Citizen Kane.’ His admirer surprised Orson with a query about the film’s famous opening scene. When Charles Foster Kane uttered the phrase ‘Rosebud,’ he was alone in his bedroom. A few moments later, his nurse came in and discovered him dead; how did the other characters in the movie know it was the newspaperman’s final word?
“Welles hesitated then pulled the fan close and whispered, ‘Promise you’ll never repeat what you just said to another living soul.'”
And he had this story about John Garfield:
“Before he signed his first contract with Warner Bros., the tough-guy actor battled with his potential boss Jack Warner not to have his name changed. The son of Abraham Warner wanted all his stars to have all-American personas; the actor was informed that his current name, Jules Garfinkle, was not acceptable. It was way too ethnic-sounding to make cinemagoers feel comfortable.
Undiplomatically, Warner told his new prospective employee that if he wanted to work there from now on he would be called James Garfield. The 26-year-old street kid, from the Lower East Side in Manhattan, reacted fiercely. Did Mr. Warner realize that James Garfield was the name of a former president? It was ridiculous; people would laugh at him. Why not just rename him Abraham Lincoln?
“He was astonished when Warner told him, quite seriously, that the name ‘Abraham’ sounded way too Jewish, and the studio would never allow it.”