TINSELTOWN BOUND/”Another Serbian Explosion”
Did a little acting job last Thursday. Portrayed an aging sax player whose practice session under the George Washington bridge is interrupted by a wayward yuppie running from the cops. It’s an indie, with all the hopes and heartaches that will probably come with it, but the writer/director/producer, Jarrett Robertson, seems to have some chops, is charming up the geez and totally could make it.
The film will be very short, probably no more than 10 minutes, but Robertson hopes to get it seen by someone who will take it to the next level and/or recognize his talent and underwrite his next project.
I played alto sax in the scenes, Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” to be exact, and if Jarrett chooses the right take I may not sound half bad, considering I haven’t picked up the instrument in nearly 20 yrs. But there are many choices he can make, including ones one that work for him as auteur but not me as player. But that’s OK, I was there to act, not play, and they seemed to be happy with my performance. As George Burns said, “Fooled ’em again.”
ANOTHER SERBIAN EXPLOSION (working title)
By Allan Ross
In 1969, when I still lived in Hollywood and idolized Henry Mancini for the film scores he wrote, I hustled a job doing some cues for a little documentary called Bisbee, Arizona. It was a modest 16mm film about what happens to a one-company mining town when the company closes the mine.
The producer was either Churchill Films or Encyclopedia Britannica Films, I don’t remember which, and the budget was small. But there was one thing about the project that was very attractive to an unknown film score composer on the make: the ethnic mix of the mineworkers was equal parts Cornish, Serbian and Mexican-American, and the producer wanted the music to reflect that.
I saw possibilities for a film score with “character,” maybe something kind of Paul Simon-y, as I look back on it. I began rounding up the elements, i.e., the musicians, I would need.
These included a stand-up bassist, a mariachi trumpet player, Ry Cooder, to play specialty guitars and tipple (a sort of cross between a guitar and a mandolin), and an accordion player, but not just any kind of an accordion player, a button accordion player.
A button accordion is just like a regular accordion, except instead of a keyboard along the right side it has buttons, and they seem to be more percussive than keys. Maybe that’s just the kind of music people play on button accordions, or the kind of people who play button accordions, I don’t know. But I did know this was to be no “Lady of Spain”-er; I wanted the real South Slav deal. I wanted a squeeze-box player who could march his countrymen into battle, like the Highland Scots pipers of yore, but could still play a polka.
With these instrumentalists I’d be able to cover three musical traditions: Welsh epic ballad, Serbian line dance and Norteño Mejicano folk. Only the button accordionist could be a problem locating, and that, probably, a small one. This is Hollywood, after all.
I asked a friend in a folkdance troupe if he could help me. He didn’t hesitate a second.
“Sveta Marič,” he said, pronouncing it casually, Svay-tah Mah-reetz, as if he said it every day. “There is no one else. We’ll go there, to the club where he plays, Wednesday night. It’s kolo night,” he said. A kolo is a generic Yugoslavian line dance.
Came Wednesday night and Stuart and I went to the club, a corny, pleasant Yugoslavian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. We got in, but I think only because they already knew Stewart. If ever there was an émigré “social club,” as the Italians call it, this was it. I don’t think I heard a word of English other than what Stew uttered, for the first ten minutes I was there. Fortunately, you don’t need any other language than music’s own in order to understand it. The squeezebox player was pure fire.
He played the button accordion like Frank Yankovic possessed, punching out the darkly driving notes of the Yugoslavian scale like bullets from an AK-47.
And he had the look. Not that it mattered, because it was a film score and nobody watching the film would ever see him. But boy, did he have the look.
He was a classic, media-perfect Yugoslavian: thick, steel-gray hair pompadoured above a handsome, square face, “would-I-lie” eyes, and boxy torso preceding the rest of his body when he walked. You really could picture this guy in a hunting jacket with a shotgun draped across one arm and Joseph Stalin standing next to him, smiling uncomfortably.
My friend, the folk dancer, introduced us after the set, and I asked Sveta if he was interested in the job. He not only was interested, but he took me into his dressing room where he showed me his entire scrapbook, which consisted mainly of pictures of him and Zsa Zsa Gabor taken during a guest spot she’d done on Johnny Carson years before.
We agreed to meet at my place two nights from then for a collaboration-rehearsal, since I had to learn how to make his sound fit with everyone else’s. I gave him my address and he said he’d be there early to welcome the other players and “wake up” his fingers. I stayed for one more set, marveling at the dazzling, masculine beauty of his playing–part Gypsy, part Mosque chant, part Portuguese fado, part polka.
The night of the rehearsal came, the other musicians showed, but not Sveta Marič. The rest of us went over the material, mentally fitting in the accordion parts wherever they occurred, me hoping he’d show at any minute with a good excuse. But by eleven that night it was clear he wasn’t coming.
I called his house several times but got no answer. The next night I went back to Club Slav, where I’d met him. No, I was told, no one had seen him since the night I was there, and no, he’d never disappeared before, although there seemed to be some disagreement about that.
Stuart, my folk dancer friend, who’d been coming to the club for years, asked the owner for Sveta’s address. The owner was adamant about respecting his employee’s privacy, but a ten-dollar bill broke that silence.
The address was in a run-down part of Hollywood my friend and I knew well. I thought we should go there immediately, and I said so in front of the owner.
“Good idea,” said the owner. “You speak Serbian, of course.”
I looked at him. “Why do I have to speak Serbian?” I asked. “The guy spoke fine English when I talked to him the other night.”
The owner’s eyes went up, the corners of his mouth went down, and he shrugged. “Fine,” he said, and started to walk away.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “When do you get off?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I have to close tonight.
“Don’t you have an assistant?”
“Yes, but I’d have to pay him to close up for me.”
“How much?” I asked. I had my wallet out again.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said.
I thrust a twenty at him.
“I’ll get my coat,” he said.
Sveta Marič lived in one of those six-unit courts they must have built a million of in Hollywood in the ’20’s, two attached bungalows on either side of a narrow walkway, two more bungalows at the end of the walkway. Sveta lived in one of the bungalows at the end.
All the shades in his unit were drawn. The place was dark but not black. It looked as if there was one light burning behind the curling, tattered shade covering the front window, and there wasn’t about the place the abject stillness of honest-to-God vacancy.
I knocked. There was no formal response, but I had the feeling the apartment was suddenly all raw nerve-endings, its occupant ready for fight or flight at any moment.
I knocked again. Nothing. I looked into the little door-in-a-door, a two-by-four-inch peephole all California doors came with if they’d been built before the Watts Riots. I saw nothing but the little hatch on the other side of the rectangle, closed against intruders like myself. “Sveta?” I called quietly. “Sveta, this is Al, the guy that wanted you to play on his–”
I didn’t get to finish. The little hatch snapped open and a harsh whisper, redolent of too many Balkan Sobranie cigarettes and slivovitz, rasped out words I couldn’t understand. I looked at the restaurant owner, who was standing at the foot of the porch inspecting his nails in the porch light. If ever a look said “You need me,” his did.
He walked up the steps, tapped lightly on the door, hissed some words that reminded me of the Polish my father and grandmother used to use when they didn’t want me to understand something. In a second he came back down the stairs and addressed me in a confidential manner, looking both ways before he spoke.
“He’s afraid of Partisans,” the owner said.
I just looked at him. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What Partisans? From where?”
“That’s the problem,” the owner said. “He doesn’t know. They could be from anywhere. That is the nature of Yugoslavian politics, my friend.”
“But why didn’t he say something the other night?” I asked.
“Maybe something has happened since the other night,” said the owner.
“What?” I said, probably a bit more irritably than I’d meant to. “I mean, you’re Yugoslavian, aren’t you?”
“Serbian, just like Sveta,” he said, puffing up.
“Well, then, you must know what he’s afraid of.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” said the owner. “He comes from Trebonicza. I come from Saloniev.”
I looked at my kolo dancer friend.
“They’re about eight miles away from each other. About a twelve-minute drive,” he said.
I looked at the owner.
He held up his hands. “Yugoslavian politics,” he said.
[It’s hard to find a map of Yugoslavia that shows how Sveta and his friend were probably seeing it. These are “Antient” maps from an antique book I have. One shows where Serbia was in relation to Italy (just to the right of it across the Adriatic); the other one zooms in on the area, tho’ you’d never know it. I know these maps are worthless, but they are atmospheric]
“Can’t you help me?” I whined. “I mean, can’t you get him to realize there’s no danger rehearsing folk music in the Hollywood hills?”
“But that seems to be just the problem, my friend,” the owner said. “He thinks there are Partisans wherever there are hills. He is not worried about the recording session, in a big, glamorous, well-lit studio on Sunset Blvd. It is rehearsing in the hills that he fears.”
The little hatch snapped open again, as if whoever was behind it had been listening to the conversation. There was a loud hissing and spitting sound behind it, and the owner excused himself from his conversation with me to confer again with Sveta. Again, the sibilant exchange. Again, the owner walking down the three steps to confide in me.
“Sveta says if he can see the music now, he won’t need to rehearse.”
I looked at the owner. “But I need him to help me write it. And I thought he couldn’t read music.”
“Oh, he can read, all right,” the owner said. “He just doesn’t want anyone to know it. He feels it detracts from the, how do you say–”
Now there came an even louder hissing from the little hatch in the door. The owner listened, then continued.
“–primal authenticity of the music,” he explained, “its earthy spontaneity, its–”
“Okay, okay,” I said, “I get it.”
I had the music with me, the conductor’s score, and I went back to my car to get it. I figured I’d call Sveta’s bluff. But when I came back, Sveta refused to open the door. “How can I show him the music?” I said to my two companions.
There was another exchange of hisses. Then, from the owner, “Hold the musical score up to the door.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “What’s he going to do, mental it through an inch and a half of oak?”
“No, no,” the owner said. “Hold it up to the peephole. He can see it that way.”
I began to understand why history teachers always tell you “You can’t study Yugoslavia, it’s too complicated. All you have to know is, when Marshall Tito dies the Balkans will fall apart.” For the first time in my life I began to feel bad for Marshall Tito.
My patience was growing short, and I knew a house of mirrors when I was caught in one. But I’d come this far and I figured I might as well see the thing through.
I went to the door and held the score up to the peephole.
Sveta said something, and the owner told me to hold the music even closer, and to stand to the side of it, as I was blocking the porch light, which the accordionist needed in order to see the music. I felt like an idiot, but I did what he said.
Sveta spoke again, and so did the owner.
“Closer,” he said. Now the score was right up against the peephole. I started to pull a face to make it clear that I really wasn’t falling for any of this crap and that we’d all be getting back in the car and leaving in–
“KAH-WWWHHHUUMMPPP!!” went an explosion so close to my head I thought it was inside it. So close, in fact, I didn’t know which way to dive. It so completely filled the space in the universe that, up until then, I thought I alone filled, I didn’t jump anywhere, because why bother?
So I just stood there, ears ringing, holding up this musical score with a big, shredded hole in the middle of it and the barrel of a 38 revolver poking through it. I have a feeling I looked like someone in a newspaper photo with a caption reading, “Found Wandering in Subway After Bender,” or something like that.
Both my companions had hit the dirt and stayed there for some time. Finally, the restaurant owner looked up and said something like, “Perhaps this isn’t a good time for Sveta.”
My dancing friend agreed, and the three of us walked, double-time, close-order drill, across a little alleyway that led to a side entrance of the complex not visible to the bungalows in the rear.
I was petrified and still could not hear a thing. Stuart had to drive my car, a broken down stick shift Plymouth which he mastered in seconds.
For the recording session I got another accordionist, not a button player, but a traditional keyboard accordionist, and told him to think hora using just the black keys. It sounded fine.
I don’t know what happened to Sveta Marič, if the Partisans got him or what. I never went back to the restaurant. As far as Yugoslavian politics are concerned, I think it’s true what our Poli Sci professors always told us: all bets are off when Marshall Tito dies.