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Almost famous

first_imgHOLLYWOOD Arnold Marks relaxed in his chauffeured Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, watching the crowd fight for a piece of big-screen glamour. The flashbulbs. The searchlights. The glorious red carpet, all rolled out and magnificent. Big, fancy cars stretched down Hollywood Boulevard in a train of luxury pulled from regular people’s dreams. Arnold had seen it all before. A girl snaked her way through the throng of kids jostling for a chance to see a movie star. She rapped on Arnold’s window and thrust forward a book and a pen. “Who are you?” she breathlessly demanded. “And can I have your autograph?” If only she knew, he thought to himself, she wouldn’t be so eager to take home his John Hancock. He wasn’t famous at all, just a student at Long Beach State studying auto repair. But there he was, in his black-tie get-up, hanging around with the stars. During Hollywood’s gilded ’60s, he was just a friendly guy who grew up around the San Fernando Valley’s junkyards, sporting rough hands and a smug smile. By day, he fixed cars. By night, he partied with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. He stood side by side with the world’s biggest stars and never, ever belonged. Never had a ticket or an invitation. And, for almost a decade, he never got caught. “I was at the Emmys one year, talking to a security guard, and he told me, ‘This is so secure, no one’s sneaking in,”‘ recalled Marks, now 65. “… I was just thinking, ‘You big dummy. I can point out 10 people who aren’t supposed to be here right now.”‘ Today, interlopers rarely sneak into glitzy awards shows like tonight’s Academy Awards – or are at least very clever about hiding their deception. Even A-list celebrities have to be identified and searched when they exit their limos. Meeting the president, it has been said, is easier than getting into the Oscars. “It’s tighter and tighter now,” said Murray Weissman, a North Hollywood-based publicist who’s served as marketing consultant for film award campaigns for decades. “I’ve been to a lot of functions, and whenever I go, I’ve had to fill out a form. I have to get my picture taken, show my driver’s license and get a specific, bar-coded credential for me to attend the Oscar nominations. “When I went to the Golden Globe parties, I needed a ticket, photo ID, one of those markers on your wrist, and there were big guards all over the place, watching, watching, watching. It’s harder and harder for anyone to break through.” But back in Arnold’s day, a smile and a threadbare tuxedo could get you deep into the luxurious corridors of celebrity. Armed with little more than self-confidence, he never had a problem charming his way next to Ronald Reagan or Julie Andrews. The charade begins But before he was palling around with the glittering elite, or at least pretending he was, there was the famous 1962 phone call that began the whole charade. Arnold, who’d just given up a job as a dental technician in the Valley and started learning auto-shop instruction in Long Beach, was relaxing in his apartment when the phone rang. On the line was Fred May, a childhood buddy from Fulton Junior High. “Hey, there’s a movie premiere on Westwood Boulevard,” Fred told him. “Let’s go see if we can get in.” The film was some British movie starring Terry-Thomas, and Fred didn’t think it would be too much trouble to talk their way in. They put on suits and ties and strode purposefully into the theater. “It was just so easy,” Arnold recalls. “We just stood around there, walked in the door and sat in the back and nobody said ‘boo.’ We just looked at each other later and said, ‘Wow, this is so cool.”‘ Fred was a great character who worked with his family catering business at the Valley Colonial House in North Hollywood. He dabbled in art collection and reptile import. He was known to wear a pith helmet and organize lizard gatherings in the desert. The first score, landing seats in a movie that Arnold doesn’t even remember that well today, emboldened the pair. Fred suggested they try it again. In tuxes. With dates. “He was very young looking, with this very innocent face,” Arnold said. “But he had a mind that never quit.” So they bought some penguin suits and invited friends. Arnold brought his sister, Sue, and his cousin, Linda. Mike and Barbara Bernstein, who were married and a bit more grown up than Fred and Arnold, became partners in the scheme. They crashed bigger premieres and after-parties. After a while, the band of pretenders began to notice other people who they could sense didn’t quite belong, either. You could always tell by who’d hang around after a movie ended, looking under the seats for dropped tickets and directions to the lavish parties. “On a good night, there could have been a dozen people there,” Arnold said. “We’d know them; we’d ask where the party was, who was going, all that.” Each time they got away with it, they got bolder. It was all so simple. Blending in In the image-conscious Hollywood world, no one wants to lose face and admit not knowing someone famous or powerful. With his pinkie ring, shawl-collared jacket and affable manner, Arnold blended right in. “If you look like you belong, they don’t know who the hell you are,” he told his confederates. “You could be the son of a big producer or something, so they’re not going to challenge you. It’s when you look nervous, that’s when they throw you out.” Grauman’s, the Pantages, the Cinerama Dome – they crashed all the grand movie palaces in style. And Fred, ever the schemer, decided they needed to make increasingly stylish entrances. He bought a cheap Mercedes and fixed it up. Then they went really big. Fred laid down $4,000 for a beat-up old Rolls-Royce, and Arnold helped make it run. The engine wasn’t much, but it looked good enough to fool parking lot attendants and the red-carpet crowd. They hired a kid to wear a chauffeur’s uniform, dark glasses and cap. He’d cruise toward the theater and one of the group would hop out, sneak into the lot and swipe a pass off one of the parked cars. That person would hot-foot it back to the Rolls, and the whole thing would look legit when they regally stepped from the vehicle onto the red carpet. As soon as their well-polished shoes hit the crimson swath, there was Al Studley to record it all. A celebrity photographer, he’d seen them hanging around the shows and volunteered to take shots of them with the celebrities. Stoking the fire This only stoked their ego-fueled adventures, and soon they were posing for pictures with everyone they could throw an arm around. Arnold’s scrapbook of the era looks like a vintage tabloid mag, only with the same grinning face next to Gene Kelly and Jack Benny. The stars were all very gracious, beaming and shaking hands as Studley’s flashbulb fired and froze the scene in history. Once you’d been seen with a Gabor sister or two, with your own entourage and a photographer, no less, no one would dare question your right to be there. Not that he was always immune from suspicion, however. After he’d been working the scam for a few years, Arnold was on his way into the Egyptian, fresh out of his limo, when a doorman asked to see his ticket. He, of course, had none. “Umm, gee, sir,” he stammered. “I’m actually here with my parents and they’re already inside with my ticket.” The man wasn’t buying it. “Oh, then it won’t be a problem for you to go in and get it from them,” he said. “Right?” Arnold gulped, nodded and walked in with a suspicious usher’s watchful eyes boring into his back. He slowly trailed down the aisle, looking for someone, anyone, who could get him out of this tight spot. After all these years of sneaking around, the jig was apparently about to be up. “Excuse me,” a voice called. Arnold snapped his head around and saw a man motioning. He was an older guy, all dressed up nice, wife by his side. He’d mistaken Arnold for an usher and wanted him to fetch him a program. The young schemer sensed his opportunity and leaned in conspiratorially. “OK, mister,” he whispered, “I’ll get you a program, but you’ve got to let me borrow your ticket for a minute.” The guy looked a little taken aback, but his wife elbowed him and told him to cough it up. He slipped it to Arnold and the imposter turned, grinning, and returned to the door triumphantly. He presented it to the guard, who apologized for doubting him, and sailed on in like royalty. Fred and Arnold got so good at the routine that they became picky. They considered crashing the 39th annual Academy Awards in 1966, but it seemed like it would be too easy. Besides, Arnold reasoned, he could see the show better on TV. This did not, however, prevent them from showing up uninvited to the after-party. They had a blast. The ringleader But it wouldn’t have been anything without Fred, the mad genius and ringleader of it all. One evening, after they’d successfully conned their way into a premiere, Fred went over to Barbra Streisand’s table. All the guys were crazy about her back then, and she was already a major star, but Fred remained undaunted. He sauntered over and struck up a conversation about art nouveau furniture, of all things. She collected it, and, what a surprise, he happened to be a devotee. They got to chatting and pretty soon he’d sold her some pieces. Arnold helped him drive it up to her Beverly Hills home, loading it into the back of his pickup truck and lugging it in. Her mother was there, baking strudel. Arnold changed a light bulb, loving every minute of it but playing it oh-so-cool. And like everyone else they had encountered, Barbra was never the wiser. But one day in 1968, Fred thought he’d caught a cold. He felt awful, complained to his mom and went home to take a hot bath and ride it out. He was found lifeless in the bath, dead of an embolism. He wasn’t even 30. After that, it just didn’t seem the same anymore. Without Fred, the nights out weren’t so special. The stars didn’t shine so brightly; the get-ups got a little boring. Gradually, the gang broke up and moved on. Mike Bernstein became a professor at Cal State Northridge, then he and Barbara moved out of state. Arnold became an auto-shop teacher in the inner city, then got into car sales and repairs. Today, Arnold runs Mustangs Etc., a classic Ford restoration shop in Van Nuys. His interest in Hollywood glitter has waned – the stars aren’t as classy as they were in his day, he says, and the shows are just a big pat on the back for people who don’t really deserve it. “Do the plumbers have an affair every year for being a good plumber?” he said. “It’s their job to make movies, so to idolize them, to put them on a pedestal? I couldn’t care less.” But he still fondly recalls the wild thrills of his youth. He ponders writing a book about his misadventures, thinks it would make a good TV series one day. At the very least, he’s got old books full of photographs, souvenirs and memories. “It showed me,” he said, “that if you have enough chutzpah, you can do anything you want.” [email protected] (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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