Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Interview With A Legend"

How do you talk to a legend?

A nervous call, a surprising “Yes” from his agent, and before I knew it, I was heading to an appointment with a childhood idol. The dry in my mouth was made up for by the wet in my palms.

I wondered how he’d look. Out of movies for decades, would the sparkle still show? Or just the wrinkles? No need for false flattery, I thought. Hadn’t he always been my all-time favorite? Sure, he bombed in his last twelve pictures, but that wasn’t his fault. Sophisticated comedy was never his style.

He was a cowboy horse!

And not just any cowboy horse, the preeminent cowboy horse of his day. The best of the best, in the wild and woolly West.

He did everything first. All the classic stunts: jumping off a cliff, counting with his foot, eating fruit off a lady’s hat – these memorable bits and more perfected by the greatest Wonder Horse of all time:

“Blaze, the Black Blur!”

I wanted to bring him a gift. But what do you bring an aging Wonder Horse? Health problems precluded the traditional lump of sugar. And lumps of “Sweet ‘n Low”, they don’t make.

Rolling through the wrought-iron gates, I headed toward the stately stables of "The Last Corral", a retirement residence for aging wonder horses. Looking around, I caught sight of some of the most famous horses ever to have graced the silver screen: Gene Autry’s “Champion”, Tom Mix’s “Tony”, Hoppy’s “Topper” – supermounts all, once chasing thrill-packed adventures, but now content to chew grass and swap pictures of their grandchildren.

It wasn't easy seeing them that way. Now past their prime, they couldn’t jump a fence if their lives depended on it.

As I headed toward the barn, trying not to step in anything, a spotted nag limped up to see who I was. It was “Buckshot”, Wild Bill’s T.V. horse. Now nearsighted, “Buckshot” had approached, thinking I was Guy Madison, come to cheer him up with news of a re-worked syndication deal. When “Buckshot” got close enough to realize his mistake – I wasn’t Wild Bill, or even his portly sidekick Jingles - he turned away mumbling, “They never visit. They never visit.”

My knock on the door was answered by Bernie Spielfogel, "The Blur’s" close friend and long-time agent, now thrown into parasitic retirement.

“Your call was a tonic!” he chirped. “‘The Blur’s" been a little down lately. But when he heard about the interview, he got so excited, they had to give him a shot!”

Spielvogel led me down a corridor, past small but neatly kept stalls to a slightly larger corner stall. Above it, hung a cardboard nameplate bearing a single, but unmistakable handwritten word:


There, rocking contentedly in a oversized chair, was the world’s most successful Wonder Horse, dressed in a burgundy bathrobe and four worn but stylish slippers.

“Ixnay on the ig-way,” warned the agent. “Look too hard, and he’ll rear up and gallop on your face!”

“What’s with the whispering?” inquired the rocking horse. “If you’ve got time to waste, call the studios and tell them I’ll do character parts. Call Thalberg – he always liked me.”

“Absolutely!” responded the agent, ignoring the fact that Thalberg hadn’t taken calls for over sixty years. “I’ll get right on it!”

Exit Spielvogel.

“Siddown, kid,” he said, in a raspy but familiar whinny. As I sat, I tried not to notice the lopsided wig, spilling fake horsehair onto a deeply furrowed brow.

“Did you bring me a cigar?” he asked conspiratorially.

“I didn’t know you smoked them,” I replied. He didn’t in his movies. Still, I was glad I hadn’t, imagining the headline:


Shrugging off disappointment, the great horse of yesteryear leaned down, and slurped up some trough water. He then sat back, and began to tell his story:

“I was born in the tenements. My father pulled ice, and my mother gave rides. We were a crazy crowd back then. One time, a dozen of us covered ourselves in wax, and posed as a merry-go-round. We cleaned up plenty, ‘til somebody said, ‘Where’s the poles?’

“When I wasn’t horsing around, I was reading. ‘Black Beauty’, ‘Seabiscuit’, ‘My Friend Flicka’ – the classics. Later, I’d act out all the parts for my family. My father thought it was silly. ‘You’re the son of a horse that pulls ice,’ he admonished. ‘If you’re lucky, someday you’ll pull ice too.’

“After supper, my father would light up a cigar butt he’d almost stepped on, and he’d talk about a wonderful place called California, a wonderland, where horses basked in the sun all day, grazing on warm grass. He'd fall asleep, mumbling a comforting mantra of soothing words:

“’San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo…’

“He never got there.

But I did.

“When I was fourteen – in people years – I ran away to California. Well, not ‘ran’ exactly. I stole a bicycle. Not the easiest vehicle for a horse to ride. I’d have been better off just running. But I was young, I was foolish.

“Mostly, I’d pedal with by back legs. When I got tired, I’d switch to the front ones, steering with my chin. I must have been some sight, pedaling down the interstate. my horse heinie sticking way up in the air.

“Finally, I reached the Coast. As luck would have it, Bernie, my no-good agent, saw me pedaling backwards up Wilshire Boulevard. He gives me the whole song and dance: 'The pictures are desperate for horses with your kind of moxie. Sign here and I’ll make you a star.'

Before you could say William Morris, I had a screen test at Paramount. When they asked me my name, I told them, ‘Blaze, the Black Blur.’ Was that my real name? Of course not. But did you ever hear of a Wonder Horse named Aaron Blazenberg?

“They started out me in posses. But I was so fast, I ran ahead of the other horses. Directors said it spoiled the composition. Even worse, I caught up with the Bad Guy before the story said I was supposed to. You do that at the end of the picture; I was catching them in the middle.

“After that, they made me the Bad Guy’s horse. That didn’t work either. I was so fast, the other horses couldn't catch me, and the Bad Guys kept getting away. The ‘Standards’ Department clamped down on that lickety-split. You couldn’t have crime paying in the Old West.

“There was only one thing left to do. They made me the Good Guy’s horse. Good Guys caught everyone, they needed a fast horse. The thing is, up ‘til then, Good Guys had never ridden a black horse. White or palomino – that was it.

They looked nice, those horses, and they pranced up a storm. But they were afraid to get hurt! Ask for something tricky, and they’d run and call the ASPCA.

“Me, I’d do anything – fall down, step in a chuck hole, drink poison. My specialty was running through fire. Did it hurt? Are you, crazy? It was fire!

“By my third picture, I was Horse One at the box office. It didn’t matter who rode me, the billing was always the same: Showdown at Sonora, starring ‘Blaze, the Black Blur’ and a person riding on top of him. Cooper, ‘Duke’ Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, all window dressing. They came to see the horse!

“My favorite role? The Oscar winner. The Bad Steed. Great script. Faulkner did the rewrite. It wasn’t just the same old neighing and making that p-p-ph-ph-ph-ph-ph noise with my upper lip. There was a story! The broken home, the fast crowd, the struggle to go straight. We're talking real stuff. I knew horses like that.

“Winning the Oscar was quite an honor. I was up against Olivier. Heckuvan actor, Sir Laurence, but ‘The Blur’ beat him out.

“I was riding high. Then, they decided to ‘broaden my appeal.’ They put me in sophisticated comedies: Top Hat, White Tie, and a Tail! The Blurs from Boston! The Cole Porter’s Horse Story! Every one, a ­stinkereroo. Why they thought I’d be good in comedy, I have no idea. I have no sense of humor.

“With my career on the skids, I started hitting the juice. It affected my work. Once, I forgot my moves, and instead of turning, I went over a cliff. I still can’t straighten out because of that.

“I started hanging out with dubious characters – racehorses, polo ponies with time on their hands. I was careless with money. The racehorses told me they’d win, I’d put a bundle on them, and they’d come in last. It’s funny. Even the horses don’t know.

“In six months, I was flat broke. I lost the house, the ranch – a horse raising horses, there’s one for the books. It got so bad, I tried selling my shoes as collectibles. A big star’s shoes! You'd think they'd be worth something, right? I learned quite a lesson from that debacle.

“Nobody wants a has-been’s horseshoes.

“If the right part came along, I’d be back in a flash. But nobody writes for the older type of horse. It’s all, ‘The Youth Market.’ They asked me to do a nudie once: Bob and Carol and Ted and Dobbin. I think Hoot Gibson’s horse did it. His kid needed braces.

“It’s not bad here. Three bales of hay a day, and oats on Friday. Once in a while, Annie Oakley’s horse and I... you know, horse around. They tell me I shouldn’t, but when you get the urge…

At that moment, Blaze’s nurse came in. It was time for his nap. The interview was over.

As she led him away, ‘The Blur’ suddenly reared up on his hind legs, beating the air and whinnying like a colt. Then he came down.

“Tell them I’ve got a few of those left!” he crowed, brimming with Yesterday.

At that moment, there was only one thing to say, and I said it.


‘The Blur’ turned back and winked.

And then he was gone.


Sally Roll said...

This is terrific, Earl--witty, sly and yet sweet. I look forward to more Sagebrush Memories.

Astermeds.com said...

This is an amazing blog post. Keep posting such an awesome blog post. Thanks very much!