I was eight when we went to Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Part of a trip to California with my sister and my folks. We went on the Backlot tour, as it was called then. We sat in a tram with others, everyone with their sunglasses and sun hats and sandals on. I remember the ‘Jaws’ shark. The way the tram lurched towards the water. The kind of moment where you grab onto the seat ahead of you to steady yourself. That was where Dad sat with my sister. In the seat in front of Mum and I. I made sure I had a pretty good look at the shark, but I couldn’t confirm the shark looked like it was right out of Jaws, because I hadn’t seen Jaws at that time. So I was at a loss in that way. The movie hadn’t been on television yet and when it was out in the theaters, I didn’t get to see it. It was rated PG.
At Universal Studios I felt like I had forgotten about the rest of LA. I had seen it on the way in – what seemed to me an expansive hazy combination of freeways, cars, overpasses, green foliage and sunshine, all mixed together.
On the tour there was also the Psycho set of the Bates Mansion, but I hadn’t seen Psycho before. I wasn’t big on horror movies then. I hadn’t ever heard about the shower scene. I liked to explore some scary things, but I found I usually paid the consequences.
To mention an example. One night back in those days, I had watched a TV show about the Sasquatch, or Big Foot, whatever they called him in the documentary. Then afterwards I brushed my teeth and tucked myself into bed. That night and the next night’s sleep were the same. Two night’s worth of nightmares about Big Foot, hanging around, up-to-no-good, outside my bedroom window where the holly bushes were, and looking in at me through the window. As soon as I went to sleep, I couldn’t get rid of him.
I wasn’t scared of books. At the school library there was a section of fiction where I would find all the Judy Blume and the Agatha Christie books which I was starting to read. On the other side of the library there was a non-fiction section, where I would find books about monsters and myths. I would read about vampires or werewolves, or any monsters similar to them. I would read the stories about people being preyed upon by these creatures while out walking on the trails in the dark woods in Europe, hundreds of years ago.
I discovered that a boy I knew also liked these books. One day, as our class sat cross-legged on the carpet in front of the librarian she announced there was a new monster genre book in the library. When this boy asked about it, she said that I had taken it out already. He whined a bit, in a disappointed way. I think I actually liked the fact that this boy and I had the same tastes. I never felt like a weirdo, having this dark interest. I liked reading about people who were far away, far back in time. These monsters were written about, so someone believed in them once. After that day, there were no further conflicts and we shared the scary monster books that were there, or maybe I grew out of the ‘reading about werewolves’ phase. I can’t recall. But four years later that boy died in an accident, hit by a car in the street. Then the rest of us all went up to the big school, where the library there just wasn’t the same. I missed looking up at the shelves of my first school, and seeing the books there that were familiar to me.
But I was too young for Jaws and Psycho just then, I guess. I was too young for fashion magazines, but I looked through some women’s magazines of my mum’s, and I read World Magazine, which was a magazine for young people, full of pictures of wildlife.
I had seen the movie posters outside the theater in my home town. My neighborhood was full of the makings of cinema, where the shadows lay behind the trees, the chorus of frogs hidden but heard, inhabitants beneath the ditch algae, the technicolor of the lines of chalk pictures I had drawn on the road. There was glamour – the pink roses on the trellis in the back garden, elegant as dandies out in the noon sun.
The first movie I went to see with friends was Herbie goes to Monte Carlo on a matinee. Going to the movie, we were happy, like comedians but making each other laugh. My Mum would drive us there, and I used to look out the window, thinking of the day I would know how to drive too. She would cut through the lane down the side of the building and drop us off in the back parking lot by the Chinese restaurant. Then soon we would be seated, with the lights dimmed before the production logo filled the screen, before the sound and the film began.
Leaving after a matinee was always weird, the concession shut down and the burgundy carpet and entrance empty of ticket buyers. Wandering out into the bright daylight instead of sitting in the darkness. Outside the traffic waiting at streetlights, cars pulling into parking spaces trying to get closest to the stores.
I brought my autograph book to Universal Studios. My sister carried it for me in her bag. A pastel book, about four by six inches, with gold painted edges and pastel pages. I don’t know if I still have the book. It went from a drawer in my room, to a box in storage, and I haven’t seen it since.
While we were on the Backlot tour, we were introduced to two men. They were makeup artists. One of them said his name was Tony. I think he was tall. But I gave them my autograph book to sign. After I thanked them, I opened the book and checked out the signatures. An autograph per page. Both of them wrote their names in big swishy loopy signatures, and the one named Tony wrote after his name ‘You Bet’.
I looked at the page with Tony’s autograph. You bet. I thought about this. Then as we walked away I showed my Mum and said: “He wrote ‘You bet’ in my autograph book”. I was trying to figure out what he meant, but I quite liked it. The second artist wrote something about watching out for monsters in Universal Studios, which probably should have had more an effect on me, but it didn’t. It was the ‘You bet’, that I was thinking of.
After the trip to Universal was done, I had a conversation with my Mum about my autograph book. In particular, my own signature. I told her I thought my signature was too rounded and boring with even letters, like I would write anything else I had to write throughout my day. I said I would need to work on it, I thought, to make it more interesting, more loopy like the makeup guys had going.
I did eventually watch Jaws on TV. And then, there were no DVRs, or VCRs even. If I saw a film at the movies or on TV, I might not have a chance to see it again for quite a long time. It was 1976. I’m okay with most of the things I was too young to do or understand then, except for one thing. I wish I knew to go out and buy Bowie’s Station to Station album (it had been released in January) and then, starting then, I could have listened to the title track as much as I wanted.
This is a work of creative nonfiction; it contains no composite characters and no names have been changed. I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them, but I have taken some storytelling liberties, due to my interpretation of events, fading memory, lack of time machine, and need to cherry-pick some memories over others in order to express my thoughts within the story.