In the early 1970’s both my sister and I heeded the call to “head west.” I was fleeing multiple failures in my attempts at higher education; a hippie lifestyle did not make for academic discipline or offer much professional opportunity unless you were a rock star or a cannabis farmer. I was neither. Most of my peers were closing in on a college degree by the time I was just getting started. My sister’s reason for fleeing was less complicated…a bad boyfriend. Pepperdine University had recently opened its Malibu campus, and through family connections, Nan and I had received music scholarships. My scholarship was based solely on the connections. Nan’s was that, but also merit-based. In that coming year, she sang in operas, musicals, choirs, an ensemble group, and for private fund-raising events. I schlepped choral risers, moved pianos, and drove the truck.
We boarded the plane to L.A., wiser for our failures, and with the immigrant’s heart for a new start in a new land. Once we reached cruising altitude, I ordered bourbon on the rocks. At some point while sipping my drink, Nan asked me for the time. I turned my wrist, the one wrapped with the watch, and yes, the same one connected to the hand holding the bourbon, and spilled the drink into my lap. I was not then nor am now a sophisticate. But from that moment on we began to laugh, and we did not stop laughing the entire academic year.
Nan and I had some money saved from different acting and performing gigs that we were able to take with us for “extras.” Our parents had little money to send, so pennies were counted and purchases were scrutinized. On Sunday nights the school cafeteria was closed and we had to adjust. At home, the Arnold’s followed specific traditions after returning from church on Sunday nights: sandwiches made of the leftover roast beef from lunch, a tray of raw veggies, tea punch, pickles, and chips…Charles Chips, of course; we ate the cheaper brands during the week and saved the Charles Chips for Sunday night. And for entertainment it was Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, and Mission Impossible. There was no way to carry on that tradition at Pepperdine, so Nan and I improvised. We would borrow a vehicle from a fellow student (they were never invited to join us), and we would head into Malibu to a burger joint for takeout sandwiches and chips, poor substitutes indeed from the culinary bounty of our Sunday night leftovers, and then go to the drugstore to buy a couple of cheap cigars. We would drive Pacific Coast Highway to a spot on the beach, eat, smoke our stogies, and laugh, always laugh.
The boys were falling over themselves for Nan’s attention. One guy gave her an opal necklace in hopes of turning her head. However, Nan saw the gift as an economic opportunity. We went to a pawnshop in Santa Monica, and Nan asked the owner how much it was worth, but he only told her how much he would give for it. Our collective experience in the art of negotiation at pawnshops was limited, and after a few rounds of “How much is this necklace worth/I’ll give you twenty dollars for it,” the pawnshop owner threw us out for being idiots.
Most of the time our desire for cultural experience exceeded our economic grasp, and so, we learned to wing it. One day Jon Voight came to the campus to talk to the students. His film “Deliverance” had just come out, and as our family was “of the theatre” as well as being white-water enthusiasts at the time, Nan and I had to meet him. We waited for the right moment after his presentation before we approached, and the timing could not have been better. We were able to walk him to his car sharing our theatrical background and canoeing stories along the way. He then told us that he was soon going into production for “A Street Car Named Desire,” at the Ahmanson Theatre with Faye Dunaway, and we should come and see the show. Here was a dilemma: we were now BFF’s with Jon Voight, with a personal invitation to see his show, however, we were economically unable to commit to such an expensive event. So the hustle and flow of creative alternatives to find a way around the quandary began stirring in our imaginations.
Borrow a car…check. Park for free a long distance from the theatre and walk…check. Squirrel away extra food for dinner from lunch at the school cafeteria…check. But purchasing two tickets to the show…not so fast. Even by pooling our money we could only afford one ticket, and even that was a student ticket. If only our pawnshop negotiation skills had been fine-tuned we might have afforded a second ticket from the sale of the opal necklace.
And here was where our criminal minds kicked into gear. There were multiple entrances into the theatre, and the night we attended, we scoped out which entrance was most clogged with patrons. We spied a bottleneck at one entrance, and Nan squeezed herself into the middle of it, and the next thing I knew, she was waving at me through the glass window from inside the lobby. I used the one ticket to get inside, and then gave Nan the stub for the legit seat while I waited for the houselights to go to half before I slipped into the theatre. Of course, I was stopped by an usher, but I explained that my sister had the ticket, and I would sit on the empty back row and join her later never specifying how much later. That was sufficient, and I took my seat in the back as the houselights went dark and the stage lights came up.
After the show we went outside to the stage door entrance and slipped in when no one was looking. We explained to the one guard at the security desk that we were here to see Mr. Voight, and Nan flashed the ticket stub for good measure. He pointed down the hall to the dressing rooms and said that “Mr. Voight’s name is on the door.”
Oh yeah, “Mr. Voight” on the door, and we knocked, a polite knock, and, oh yeah, Mr. Voight opened the door. And while he was a bit surprised to see the brother/sister duo, his new best friends and fellow thespians from Pepperdine University, he “acted” like he remembered us, invited us into the room, and introduced us to Mrs. Voight sitting in a corner, feet propped on a chair, her hands perched atop her rounded tummy. She was with child. She indulged us with a smile and patted her belly that housed the future Ms. Angelina Jolie.
Since our scheme worked so well, we repeated the exact same one-ticket artifice for “The Crucible” starring Mr. Charlton Heston. The only difference was that when he answered our polite knock on the door of his dressing room after the show, he appeared in a blue bathrobe with a shade of irritable impatience on his lips that might have passed for a smile if we had been the people he must have expected and not total strangers. We apologized for the intrusion on his privacy and complimented his performance, and then slowly backed away hoping not to be struck down by the one who had parted the Red Sea. If Mr. Heston had just invited us into his dressing room, I’m sure we would have hit it off. I mean, we could have introduced him to Mr. Voight, and then we all could have been BFF’s.
Nan and I thought it wise not to continue our one-ticket connivance for fear that wanted posters with the brother/sister mug shots would soon appear alongside the production posters that hung in the lobby of the Ahmanson. Do not judge us for our unlawful past. Brother and sister turned out fine…well, at least one of us did. But lawbreaking was in our DNA. When our mother was a college student, she secretly rode the trolley to the old Maxwell House Hotel in downtown Nashville and smoked cigarettes behind the potted palms near the women’s bathroom. During that same time period, as a student at the same college, our father would go swimming after dark in the privately owned Radnor Lake; a strictly prohibited activity then as now. Though short-lived, skirting the edges of the criminal underworld was inevitable for the offspring of Bud and Bernie Arnold.
At the end of that year in Malibu, Nan tripped off to Abilene University where she met the good boyfriend who became the good husband. I went from the sun and surf of the Malibu campus to Pepperdine’s L.A. campus located just a few blocks from the remains of many charred buildings set ablaze during the Watts riots of 1965. The University was in transition from downtown to Malibu, but the theatre department at the L.A. campus had some excellent acting coaches. When the head of the theatre bumped up my scholarship money, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Before that year in Malibu, my sister (Ms. Nan Gurley), and I had yet to work together on stage. Forty-five plus years later, we have been in so many shows that it would be impossible for me to count them. Our fleeing to the west coast resulted in creating lifelong memories that never cease to bring a smile. And even today when we are together and happen to remember a “Malibu” experience, you guessed it, we burst out laughing.
Cover Art: Photo by Bud Arnold taken with his Kodak Brownie