“Nothing is as bad as Nerves!”
My mother: Attracted by a pungent odor, she came into my room when I was a still a baby in a crib. I had busied myself by dipping my tiny left hand into my diaper, and with the sepia-color material I discovered in there I smeared a reportedly interesting abstract image on the wall next to the crib. At that moment, my mother had a flash of insight that her young son, Eugene Merril Deitch, was A. left-handed, and B. an instinctive (no pun intended) graphic artist. From that time on she promoted me far and wide as an artiste, in spite of my father’s opinion that anyone who could sell shit was actually a born salesman, which happened to be his own saintly profession. So the battle lines were drawn. My mother won out – partly – as I actually did become a professional cartoonist.
Ruth Shirley Delson was born a rich girl. Her father, my grandfather, had a large knitwear factory in Chicago. It all unraveled in the 1929 crash, when I was five, and thus we were poor the whole time I grew up. But my mother never lost the pretense of being rich and of her dreams of becoming an actress. It was all beyond reality, but she projected onto me the goal of becoming not only well off, but mainly famous! She claimed that I gave her the nickname “Midge,” because she was a tiny woman. I don’t remember when I first called her Midge, but she reveled in it, and to the end of her life she was “Midge,” never “Ruth,” or even “Mother.”
She divorced my father when I was 13, and spent the rest of her life feeling sorry for herself, and continuously declaring she was ill with a rare disease she termed, “Nerves,” yet she lived to be 100.
In the meantime, I carried the responsibility to bring renown to the family name, so
I suppose I owe to Midge my drive to succeed.
For her, my father didn’t exist. She actually told me she never loved him, which opened
a disturbing question to us, the sons.
Her further piece of news was that the middle names of my brother Jim and I, James Morton Deitch, and Eugene Merril Deitch, derived from her early twin suitors, named Merril & Morton. She took delight in informing us of that, as a surreptitious slap in the face to our father, who never suspected. Is that a great thing to tell your kids, or what?
She instructed us that we should look only to the Delsons as our heritage. To this day, she claimed, there is a street and a library in Riga named after them. The Delsons, (originally Judelsons or Yudelsons), “were all singers, musicians, professors.”
So how is it that I cannot carry a tune, play any musical instrument, nor teach existential philosophy?
On the other hand, my grandfather Deitch was a humble decorative ironworker. That is at least a graphic art!
I began to exert my creative genes when we lived for a few golden years in the early 1930′s on Cherimoya Street in Hollywood, at the fabled Somerset Arms Apartments,
a typical Hollywood layout, including tennis courts for the occupants. A rich piano dealer named Birkel owned it. The Birkel Music Co. was a biggy at the time. I was in the 4th grade at the Cherimoya grammar school. (Named after an exotic tropical fruit tree).
It was here that I put out my first little “newspaper,” using something called Hektograph Gelatin to print it. All about that in Chapter 3.
About two or three blocks from the Somerset Arms was the Marcal movie theater. That was my boyhood Saturday matinee dream palace, where I saw all the adventure serials. The Marcal was one of those smallish movie houses that still had uniformed ushers, velvet curtains, and an organist at the “Mighty Wurlitzer” which rose magestically out of a pit at the side of the proscenium. It would roll out those great dramatic melodies as the audience entered, and continue playing as the lights slowly dimmed, and a few film announcements were projected directly onto the closed curtains. Then, as the Wurlitzer organ slowly sank, the curtains would open, and the show would begin – series of short subjects, cartoon, and mainly the serial. Those wine red curtains would close and open again between each film, thus adding great drama to the movie experience. Most of all, it was effective for the adventure serials. Just as the hero was trapped in the burning cabin, and the flames were licking at his face, the curtains would slowly begin to close, right over the action, getting it all wavy within the folds, and as the chapter end title flashed on: “DON’T MISS CHAPTER 11, FLAMING DEATH!”
That neighborhood show business really grabbed me. At the time I was called “sensitive” by my mother. And the domestic hell between her and my father, Joe Deitch, added to my anxieties. I was at that time subject to terrifying anxiety attacks, called “fainting spells” by Midge, who was not yet called Midge. I was still very small, pale, and thin. I didn’t get my growth until I was about 15.
So between my general weaknesses and nervousness, I was a set-up for the premier showing of KING KONG at the Marcal Theater. The anticipation, the long wait to see the movie, and all that I heard about it, added another level of anxiety. So when that famous title zoomed forward I flipped out. Seeing it now, it’s not all that dramatic a zoom, but it was magnified in my churning boyhood skull. I ran screaming from the theater. That title frame was all that I saw of KING KONG, until a week later, when I worked up my courage, and got another 10 cents, to return and actually see the movie.
Being a divorced woman with three kids on her neck forced Midge into a category we would today call a “single mother,” and as such she had a hard time renting an apartment in the Los Angeles of the Depression Years. No landlords wanted to risk three kids messing up their apartments. She had to resort to cheap digs right on the seedy Ocean Front boardwalk, 601 Ocean Front, centered between the gaudy but faded Ocean Park and Venice amusement piers. So I spent my first teen years at Venice Junior High School, where I was introduced to cartoon animation – covered in the next chapter.
Then Midge discovered something called “Parent Homes,” which specifically catered to divorced and widowed mothers. After one dismal experience, she heard of a woman named, Mary Bedworth, affectionately called “Auntie Mae,” and thus began the greatest times of my youth. Auntie Mae had a huge corner house on Oxford Street in L.A., where she reigned as a benevolent but strict Queen Mother. She had two grown daughters of her own, both getting married when we arrived there. The tenant mothers, including Midge, paid room&board rent, and virtually surrendered their parental disciplinary rights to Auntie Mae, a devoted catholic and iron-willed mistress of the household, who thus acquired 13 new “virtual” children. I, coming in at age 13, was the eldest. With four “guest families,” and two full-grown single youths in the house, Auntie Mae relegated her husband Art Bedworth to sleep in the cellar, surrounded by jars of jam and cans of carrots and peas. Her mysterious cousin, a loner name Duane Collette, lived in the garage. Whenever I innocently asked him what he was doing, he would answer in mock felicity, “Oh, pardon meeeeee. I’m just minding my owwwwwn business!” Great guy, but weird. Living in the garage, he had but one item of entertainment, a small wind-up phonograph. Weirder yet, he had but one phonograph record, which he played over and over. Weirdest of all, that endlessly played record was weirdly prophetic for 13-year-old me. The record was by a European group led by Will Glahe, and the tune was “The Beer Barrel Polka.” In case you don’t know it, that song is an English language adaptation of the classic Czech song. Škoda Lasky,” („The Pity of Love“), which has nothing to do with beer. Czech soldiers fighting in Britain during WW2 sang the song as they drank, and, some Brit put the “Roll Out The Barrel” words to it., an homage to Czech beer. Little did I dream, at age 13, that 22 years later I would find a Czech love! That Duane Collette was a true beer-seer!
Being Jewish did not exclude us from reciting catholic “Grace” at the communal dinner table. That was no deterrent for me as a boy in puberty, always hungry. The upside was that with so many kids, there were always birthday parties. Also, Auntie May owned a stretched old Chrysler that could handle all of us, and took us on fun excursions to the beach and museums. Halloween was my red meat. I decorated our rooms with a precursor of the future Disneyland Haunted House, with cardboard boxes painted to look like gravestones, a pan of cold cooked spaghetti calculated to be stepped in with bare feet in the dark, announced as worms, and a wind-up phonograph, turning slowly, to sound like ghostly moans!
At Christmastime we had especially big doings. There was always a huge tree and a many-generation collection of glass ornaments.
I noticed on the boxes that they were “Made in Czechoslovakia.” Where in the world was that? My stamp collection showed me!
Auntie Mae’s house had a huge back yard, and we older boys built a private clubhouse right next to the garage. I painted the name, “NEMOWON” on it, “NO WOMEN” spelt backwards. Real foxy. We made the entrance so we had to squeeze around behind the garage to get into it. That didn’t stop Auntie Mae, who sensed everything. She popped in while a couple of us were in there, reading raunchy comic books! Bummer. No dessert for a week!
But the real crisis involved my younger brother, Jim. Right across the street from Auntie Mae’s was a mystery mansion, occupied by the never seen, semi-well-known R. Dewitt Miller, author of science-fiction and super-natural stories for pulp magazines.
Miller’s deformed wife, Laurette, was also a writer. Never seen? Well, one of Auntie Mae’s solo residents was a college student named Keith, who earned pocket money as a beer pourer and errand runner for the DeWitt Millers. They drank and smoked continuously, playing Scottish bagpipe music on their enormous wind-up gramophone. Keith became freaked out at the Millers, and offered to introduce me to them. One breath inside that smoke-fogged haunted house, confronted by that weirdo pair, was enough to turn me off instantly. Anyway, I had a good job as an after-school stock boy at the neighborhood A&P, surrounded by good food and pretty women customers. But my younger brother Jim jumped at the chance. After all, the Miller manse had an attic full of antique toys, and a fully functional photographic darkroom. For Jim, it was a bonanza not to turn down. Even though one of his tasks was to douse flames coming from Dewitt Miller’s pocket. The besotted author would often wander about his house looking for something, and when he needed to pick up an object for closer look, he would absently place his smoking briar pipe in his pocket.
In fact, Jim lucked out…. The Millers took to him so much, they actually offered Midge $10,000 dollars to buy him, promising to send him to university and give him an automobile!
Of course this freaked out Midge so much that she decided to move us away from the vicinity of the Mad Millers. We all missed living in Auntie Mae’s Christian household, just across the street from the anti-Christ. But Jim had become hooked on them. The Millers were not able to actually buy my brother, but they did in fact give him a car, and they did in fact send him to university, making him the only one of we three Deitch brothers with a college education. He eventually became the editor of The Las Vegas Sun. He took care of the fading Millers in their old age….. But sadly, he had learned to drink and smoke in their bosom, and he tragically died of lung cancer at the age of 60.
Midge actually had an affair while we lived at Auntie Mae’s! We were too young to know the details, but we kept hearing whispers about a man called, “S.M.” He turned out to be an old widower from Santa Monica. She broke off with him when she was introduced to a younger man named Bill Goodman at a typical Jewish matchmaker party. He was called “Goody,” and he was in fact a Good-Man. They married and had good times together for the rest of their lives. She had been afraid she would lose him because she was considerably older than he. A fervent pretense of youth was her mantra. She claimed her birth certificate was lost in a fire at the Chicago Department of records. (No one actually checked up on that story.) So she had a friend lie for her, and was actually issued a U.S. passport which stated her age as five years younger than she actually was! For years, the craftily hooked Bill would sidle up to Zdenka and me, asking in a half-whisper, “How old is Midge, really?” He never found out.
The truth was 1899-1999.
Now follows a series of authentic photos, when folks got dressed up to have their pictures taken!