"Two Different Towns" by Robert Walker

MGM Lion's Roar 1945


Cities change. Old buildings are razed, new ones are built. Elevated train tracks are removed and swifter subways take their place underground. But people change more than cities. There’s the case of New York City and one, Robert Walker….


On a recent trip to Manhattan, I went down town to Greenwich Village. I wandered around Sheridan Square, then into some of the narrow, colorful streets. There was the old house, its brownstone front as tired as that of a rheumatic old man’s face, where I had lived in a sixteen-dollar-a-month apartment. There was the Italian grocery and greens store where Tony was understanding about unpaid bills. Up another street was a small Armenian restaurant where I ate, very rarely, when my usual fare of beans, doughnuts and milk could not be suffered another day.


I was pampering a case of pure, uncomplicated nostalgia in my wandering, for this was my New York where I was happy, although sometimes a little hungry, when I was acting at the Cherry Lane Theatre for fifty cents a performance in 1938. Only seven yeas ago. I mused as I looked at the small theatre on the narrow lane. Nearby there were a few new store fronts, some of the old restaurants had been given a fresh coat of paint. But my life had changed more than this memory-filled section of New York.


I took the swift subway back to Times Square, walked up to Fiftieth Street to the Capitol Theatre where I was doing four shows a day, seven days a week, and not for fifty cents a performance. I was in a totally different town.


You may think I was being maudlin in my sentimentality but this was my first trip back to New York since I left radio there in 1942 to come to California and movies. I wasn’t maudlin. I was awed. Awed that a theatre which seats 4,820 paying patrons could be filled for my Capitol shows. Awed, too, that between shows I was interviewed, photographed, had sessions with fans and autograph hunters – bless ‘em, and may they always pursue me! Awed, because those Greenwich Village days were so recent and vivid.


My Capitol appearance marked the first time I played before a “live” audience since the Cherry Lane Theatre days, and I liked it. Working before these people I could feel reactions, and subconsciously picked up things to do, and not to do, on stage or in any other acting medium. “Be natural” is the primary demand of an audience, and an actor is a dead pigeon if he does not heed that demand.


I must admit that it was flattering, too, to be recognized in New York, more often than in Hollywood. I could drop in at a restaurant or night club and get a table and a nod of recognition from a head waiter who a few years ago would have given me an icy stare.


But more flattering were the fans, particularly the older ones, who usually asked for an autograph to send to a son or daughter overseas and who often said, “You remind me of my own son.”


The younger generation proved a surprise. Those kids, in their own vernacular, are “hep.” They know more about movies than we who are in them.


Reporters from newspapers and magazines dropped in for interviews at the theatre or hotel but whole delegations of young editors from the school press showed up, note pads and pencils alerted. Their questions called for more diplomatic parry than those of seasoned journalists. “Who is my favorite actress?” Which girl in Hollywood do I think most beautiful?” “What is my favorite role?”


Some of those “editors” couldn’t have been more than eleven years old but they had carefully prepared questions. All of them seemed to agree that they like me best in “See Here, Private Hargrove” because they invariably asked about the forthcoming sequel.


I had to cut short my trip to New York to return to Hollywood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “The Sailor Takes a Wife” but I’ll go back as soon as I can. I love those two New Yorks I have known. I expect to find even more changes on my next trip but one thing never varies:


Ninety-nine percent of the autograph hunters have leaky fountain pens!


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