HLS Letters

The Story Behind The Story

  • July 24, 1989

HLS - The Letters Of Harvey L. Slatin

July 24, 1989

their,
Hey, they’re, Udo!–
there,

THIS EXCITING TIME & CONDITIONS REPORT
IS PROVIDED TO YOU AT NO COST

TIME: 10:33 A.M.
TEMPERATURE: 82° F.
HUMIDITY: 51%
BAROMETER: 29.78″ Hg. ⇔
PRECIPITATION PREVIOUS 24 HOURS: 0.00″
FORECAST NEXT 24 HOURS: CLEAR

The Mysterious Enclosure, you will find, is…

…but before you open the envelope, you should read below.  If you don’t, I cannot be responsible for what may happen.

In any case…

…THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY.

John and I had been corresponding for some time when he mentioned in passing that a group called (I think) The Fiesta Players always put on skits at The Fiesta.  He wanted to get a part, but it turned out to be too late: the whole thing had been pre-cast.

That got us thinking about something for the state that he could control without concern over being aced out of a role beforehand.  We knew we could do it because of the ongoing popularity of “Hillz-A-Poppin’,” which as you know is still playing to packed houses worldwide.

Naturally we decided on a musical.  How about “Fiesta-Poppin'”?  The problem was that “Hillz-A-Poppin'” had the General Groves Memorial Waterline, but at that moment Santa Fe had no recent equivalent bureaucratic bungling to be ridiculed.

Then he wrote in a subsequent letter that Santa Fe had been designated a “Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area” bu the Census Bureau or some other agency.  As it turns out, the whole thing is automatic.  When a city reaches (I think) 50,000 population, it becomes a statistical sample whether it likes it or not.  The city doesn’t have to do a think: the Feds just take all the civic information like population, number of phones, number of homes, number of inside toilets, etc., and enter the data into a computer.  Each year the Statistical Abstract published by the same Feds shows how far we are ahead of Albania in self-service gas stations and other quality-of-life plusses.

Ah-ha.

“Dobbs, old boy,” he said,/”Howard, old boy,” I said, why don’t we write a musical spoof of this unwelcome intrusion by the inquisitors in Washington into the affairs of The City Different?  In the first place, the number of park benches around the Plaza, and how often they are painted, is really none of their business; and in the second place they should at least have the courtesy to wait until they are asked.  Right?  Right!

After exchanging a letter or two about this Big Brotherly intimidation, we were seething with righteous rage.  Clearly, a Pulitzer lay just beyond the Sandias or whatever horizon we selected (rejecting all horizons advocated by Washington).  We addressed ourselves with fanatical dedication to the commendable dramatization of yet another example of The Little People Crushed Under The Iron Hell Of A Soulless Bureaucracy.

The plot gimmick was this: for Ciudad Diferente to receive the benefits of a Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, it had to agree to meet Federal Requirements for One-Hundred Percent American Cities.  The Feds would provide lifetime wages and pensions, free groceries, two cars for every family, free haircuts and permanents, free utilities… free everything.  All they asked was municipal conformity: the standard one-hundred percent American city had been proved (by computer analysis) to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting of a small town where all the inhabitants spoke like the characters in a Saturday Evening Post story by Booth Tarkington.

If Ciudad Diferente agreed to be a Statistical Area, all the pueblo/territorial-style dwellings would be leveled to the ground and replaced by the kind of a house that Tom Sawyer or Penrod Schofield lived in.  And nobody could greet anyone else with, “¡Hola, señora!”  It had to be, “Mornin’, Mrs. Crebbins, ma’am.”  That kind of stuff.

The love interest was supplied by a bureaucrat with a Master’s in Public Administration from (of course) Harvard, and the lady mayor of Ciudad Diferente (naturally unmarried).

The dramatic tension was supplied by a combination of the disagreement between the mayor and the bureaucrat, plus the wrangling of the City Council, evenly divided for/against accepting the Feds’ offer.  You can see that this was a natural shift for Shubert Alley.

So John started to write in Santa Fe and I started in Sacramento.  It didn’t take long to realize that a musical required music.  Who would write and score it?  John, of course.  He played the guitar and sand “Roll Your Leg Over.”

“Dobbsy,” he admitted in confidence.  “I can’t write the music for the very best of reasons.  I can’t read music.”

“But you play the piano, organ, guitar, buck fiddle, accordion and my tenor banjo!”

“I fake them.”

We abandoned the concept of a musical in favor of straight drama, and pressed on.  Lights burned late in both cities.  We finished first drafts and exchanged them.

Impasse.  He was taking the plot in one direction and I as taking it in another.  The versions were so incompatible that they could have been written in different languages.

At that point I said, “Howard… you have far more experience with the stage than I will ever have.  Why don’t you write this play, and I’ll critique your version.  That way we will at least have the script in only one language.”

“O.K., Dobbs.  But first…”  First he had to take time away from the word processor to memorize lines for a part he wanted in “Uncle Vanya” or whatever the SFCT was readying.  He got the part.  Then he had to memorize the entire role.  Then it ran for something like six weeks.  Then he gave the cast party.

“O.K., Dobbs.  Now I’ll pick up the play where I left off.  But first…”  This time, “You Can’t Take It With You.”  John gets the role of Grandpa Vanderhoff.  A biggy.

So it went.  Our political Pulitzer languished.  At last John Said, “Why don’t you write it, and I;ll critique it?”

I thought about this.  Then I had another idea.  “Howard,” I asked, “do you have any connections with a local radio station?”

“I have appeared in some TV roles, but nothing on the radio.  However, I do know a young lady…”  She worked for one of the radio stations.

My idea was to write thirteen scripts, fifteen minutes each, around a character that John could monologue at home on tape.  He had about $2 million worth of recording and reproducing equipment, most of it better than the average radio station.  Thirteen scripts are, as I understand it, the obligatory number for a pilot program (thirteen weeks = three months because the year has 52 weeks; I didn’t waste my time in college).

“Sounds good,” said John.  “Who’s the character I’m supposed to be?”

“I haven’t decided.”

“Well… he should be intelligent, handsome, irresistable to women, collect antique cars, have an inexhaustible fund of unusual knowledge… like the most common last name in this country is Johnson, not Smith… or the capacity of a horse’s stomach is nine quarts… have PhD’s in several fields… and so forth.  Somebody pretty much like me.”

“That’s what I had in mind.”

In addition to all the qualities John mentioned, he had others that were too colorful to disregard: he loved to eat, and was an ounce or two over the average weight for his age and frame; he enjoyed an occasional libation; he left his house principally to shop for food and booze, and to engage in performances with the Santa Fe Community Theatre group; he red spy and detective novels; between midnight and 6 A.M. he watched television; he kept a cat; he did not jog or lift weights.

A familiar character of my youth who had many of he qualities demonstrated by John was the housebound sleuth Nero Wolfe.  I decided on a Nero Wolfe spoof, in radio monologue format.  Wolfe had been out of print for years, and his creator, Rex Stout, was no longer living.  What could I call the spoofee?

Nero Foxe!  A stroke of genius!

No sooner had I danced for joy over that highly creative breakthrough than I read in a book review that the estate of Nero Wolfe had authorized some writer to resume the series, the same way the James Bond series had been resumed.  If I spoofed a character who had been reincarnated, I might be imprisoned for plagiarism.  Now what?

Back to First Principles.  John lived in New Mexico, where the second language is English.  Wolfe in Spanish is (you may just possibly have heard the word) “lobo.”  How about Nero Lobo?

O.K.  Wolfe has an aide named Archie Goodwin.  Lobo has an aide named Mehitabel Baddwin.  (“Archie & Mehitabel”: Don Marquis.)  Wolfe the gourmet has a chef named fritz; Lobo has a chef named Hans.  (Hans and Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids.)  Wolfe is a short-tempered grouch; Archie is patient and diplomatic.  Lobo is patient and diplomatic; Mehitabel is herself.  Wolfe–even though he never leaves his brownstone–has an exotic car called, I think, a Minerva.  (I never heard of one except in the Wolfe books.)  Lobo has an Isotta-Fraschini.  Wolfe has a hothouse in which he raises orchids; Lobo has a hothouse in which he raises cactus.

So I write six first-person monologues and send four of them to John.  He calls immediately and says we are on the way to fame and fortune.  But first… he had to get his audio equipment re-rigged for recording from a mike.  But before that… he has to audition for a role in some far-out thing that I can’t remember.  He doesn’t get the role.  He tries to re-rig his equipment, and has a meltdown.  No problem: just buy a new part in town.  Problem: no part in town.  Albuquerque? No.  The manufacturer?  On order.

Another tryout.  Gets the role; six weeks of rehearsing and acting; cast party.  Back to the audio.  New problem: it is mounted so low that he has to lean over or kneel to use it, and he gets lightheaded.  It all has to be raised to table height.

As engrossing as it is, I will terminate this mini-history: the rest is more of the same.  I was finally forced to ask, “Do you really want to do this Lobo thing?”

He admitted that he didn’t.  “I need instant gratification.  When I act on stage, the applause is instant gratification.  When I record something at home and it goes out over the air, I get deferred gratification.  If it flops, I don’t get any gratification at all.  I’m into acting for instant gratification only.  It’s the same thing with a drink or a cigarette.  I never postpone either one.  Deferred gratification doesn’t appeal to me.”

I didn’t want to waste the scripts.  How would it be if I converted them to short stories, and put them together to make a book?

“Love it!  I’ll agent it here in Ciudad Diferente!”

The Mystery Envelope contains the first of these script conversions.  It is based to a certain extent on facts: the mayor of Santa Fe who preceded the present mayor had the creative idea of building some kind of waterway/shopping mall to rival the River Walk in San Antonio.  I would put millions into the city treasury and the pockets of the merchants.  He did not run for mayor again.

This narration may read like a complaint.  I didn’t feel that way.  I kept after John because he was highly literate and had the talent to write as well as act.  In view of his physical limitations and medical problems, I felt that the day was coming when he would not be able to perform on the stage.  Playscript writing and tape recording Nero Lobo would be manageable.  He actually wrote a full script for the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area gimmick, but it “needed work” (as they say in Hollywood when the script written by their nephew is clearly superior).  John did not have the patience to re-write because that would not yield instant gratification.  But I felt that he was enough of a realist that he would eventually talk himself into re-writing if that was the only way.  And with his SFCT connections he could get a play produced, because the character of the group obligated them to produce plays by new writers not staged before.  The end came too soon.

I have printed out the story in the closest book-like format my computer and printer can produce.  The idea was to wave a book-format version at John and perhaps get his “gratification” juices flowing, even though “deferred.”  This fictional version is about three times the length of the original monologue.  Unfortunately it was not finished in time for John to see it.

The dedication to The American People is the result of an understanding John and I had that we did not write for money or glory, but for The American People (who were loudly demanding every word.)  I’m sure you have been under the same relentless pressure yourself.

This one-of-a-kind manuscript is of course priceless.  As a former member of The Boy Allies, you should have it.  (I turned down The Smithsonian and The Library of Congress.)  You may want to install an expensive security system to keep it safe, and I don’t blame you.

This has never before been exposed to the eye of man (other than mine and Mary’s).  Comments are invited.

OVERSIGHT: When I listed John’s medical problems in an earlier letter, I forgot his eye operations.  He developed cataracts, and underwent operations first on one eye, then a few weeks later on the other.  One of the two had to be repeated, maybe only in part; I think blood collected during the healing process, and was pressuring a nerve or eye muscle.  After John could see again, he shouted over the phone, “I have twenty-twenty vision for the first time!  The best I ever had in my life was 20-200!  I should have had this operation years ago!”

If I develop cataracts, I’ll follow his example.

MANY THANKS for the copies of the two pages about John that you received from your “adopted daughter” in Santa Fe.  I enclosed a xerox of a tribute to John from the latest SFCT bulletin.  You said you were a member, but their “administration” sometimes lapses.  During the time I have belonged, I didn’t get half of the promotional material they sent out.  John inquired about this and was told that they couldn’t afford to send the bulletin to every member because the postage bill was excessive.  They were sending it on;y to locals who might attend, not to exiles who probably wouldn’t be all-year attendees.  He admonished them in his customary diplomatic manner.

COLD FUSION: In your last letter to John you explained your ideas about cold fusion.  Now the “scientific community” concludes that whatever is going on is not fusion, cold or otherwise.  Do you know either of the Utah researchers personally?  What do you think is the nature of the reaction they observed?  I will not divulge any of your interpretations to The Bee, and risk a headline like “Electro-Chemise Gives Vues On Coal Fussin.”

COMMENTS ON COMMENTS: I had intended to comment on the comments in your last letter (11 July: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Anthony Powell, Bierce, Burgess, O’Hara, Henry James, Oppenheim, Sayers, Nick Carter, Christie, Edgar Wallace), but this letter is already too long.  Comments on comments may become exponential, but with your log-log decitrig slide rule you can extract the roots handily.

SEMPER POTHOEGDUS!

Fred C. Dobbs

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