Michael Barrier is a former actor in Hollywood films and on TV in which he portrayed Lt. De Salle on Star Trek. He served in the U.S. Navy where he was trained as a fighter pilot and later in the U.S. Coast Guard as an attorney. He has taught public school in California and Washington where he now resides.
Childhood Memories of a Regular Guy
By: Michael Barrier
One of my earliest memories is of sitting around in a circle on the floor of the Bank Street School in Manhattan, with a few other kids of about the age of three years. The teacher was going around the circle asking what type of work each of our fathers did. I was three at the time, and as far as I was concerned, my daddy was just a daddy. I didn’t have any idea that he worked at all, although I guess I knew that he didn’t drive one of those noisy Mack trucks or steam shovels, or operate one of those even noisier drills that I so often heard and saw on the New York streets, where construction was a constant in 1936. And I didn’t think he was an engineer or a fireman on a train.
I was anxious to make a favorable impression when the teacher got to me, and certainly didn’t want to say “I don’t know!”, as a few had before me. I was saved by the boy ahead of me, who was a taller, older guy, and who impressed me as a regular guy, like I wanted to be. He answered that his father was the captain of a ship. I have no idea whether or not his daddy was really the captain of a ship, but it sure sounded good to me, so when I was next in line I responded that my father was the captain of a ship too.
To the credit of the teacher, I don’t recall any embarrassing reaction. Later in the afternoon, at home with my mummy, I asked her what Daddy did, and her answer was that he was an actor; that he pretended to be other people in stories on the radio or on a stage in a theater. It certainly didn’t sound as glamorous as driving a train or a tugboat or something, like a regular guy, and I vaguely felt that there was something a little wrong with it, but I adored him, so it was all right.
While I was still attending nursery school at Bank Street, I remember that we (my mother, father and a little white dog called Betsy Trotwood) lived in a basement flat in the Hotel Robert Fulton, which I think was only a short walk to Bank Street School. One very cold morning, the first time I can remember the delight of being able to exhale steam that looked like adult cigarette smoke; my parents dropped me off at school by taxi. They told me I might get picked up early, that they might have a surprise for me. I didn’t remember about the surprise thing, until a couple of other children mentioned that the circus was at Madison Square Garden, and they were very excited. I had never heard of Madison Square Garden, nor did I have any idea what a circus was. However, when the excited kids got picked up shortly after nap time to go to the circus, I kept anxiously glancing at the big door where parents showed up, and my heart pounded when I finally spotted mine. Sure enough, a taxi was waiting, and it took us to the Barnum and Bailey Circus, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth!’ The sideshows before entering the main arena were sensational. We saw Gargantua, the biggest gorilla in the world and his bride, Toto. We saw the tallest man in the world, who sold us one of his finger rings. It was so big that I could wear it like a bracelet. We saw the menagerie, with lions and tigers, and horses and elephants.
After seeing a display of human freaks, the exploitation of which my mother strongly disapproved, we got pink cotton candy, entered the main arena and found our seats. And then came my introduction to the wonders of the big top (although it was in Madison Square Garden instead of a tent): clowns, trapeze acrobats, a brave lion tamer, high wire walkers, performing elephants and other animals, and a man at the finale, who was shot out of a cannon.
During 1937, my dad was working in Orson Welles' Mercury Theater modern dress version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a study of fascism in which my dad played the ambitious Cassius. I recall taking a train with my mom that summer from New York to California. We went via Chicago and Salt Lake City. I’m not sure if we actually changed trains in one or both of those cities, but I know we left the train for some period of time in Salt Lake City. I got a miniature lamp, like the train guys used, but full of red candies instead of real red light, and we visited the salt lake. I'm not sure if we swam in the lake, but I remember learning at that time about the Lake's high flotation that made it it difficult to sink.
I was very impressed with San Francisco, with streets so steep the sidewalks had stairs, and with the brand new Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars. I was fascinated with the turn table at Market Street, where the round area with a little piece of track with the cable car on it, and all was manually turned around by a cable car man. I also was impressed with Fisherman’s Wharf, with the tanks of live crabs, fishing boats, etc.
For some reason, my mother went a day or so ahead of me from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and I was left with an old family friend named Anna, and her mother. I knew Anna from before, in New York, where she frequently visited us. It was my first experience, however, with her cranky old mother. In fact, I think it was my first experience with any unreasonably strict and unpleasant adult. Anna drove me, along with the mean old woman, all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the central valley. It was summer, cars in those days weren’t air conditioned, and it was my worst and seemingly longest travel experience ever, before or since. I got car sick for the first time I can remember, and threw up all over the back seat, and was hot and thirsty the whole way. They stopped and let me strip down to my underpants to run through some sprinklers. I remember being so thirsty that I tried to drink from the sprinklers, but the water tasted awful.
In Hollywood, I stayed with my mother in an apartment hotel on the Franklin Hill, where Franklin Avenue used to go up an extremely steep hill, just east of Cahuenga Boulevard. Franklin Avenue has now been graded and widened, but even today there is some of the sidewalk that used to be beside the steep street, and I think the same building we stayed in is still there. A kid I used to play with, Bill Cody, was actually the grandson of Buffalo Bill Cody, of Wild West Show fame; and another neighborhood kid was Johnnie Sheffield, who shortly thereafter played Boy in Tarzan Finds a Son and later Tarzan movies. I had my fourth birthday there, on July 8, 1937, and I remember getting a pedal car that had short little wings and looked like an airplane. I also got a toy dirigible that was silver colored and had a trapeze-like thing with little fighter planes hanging by hooks that could be released, so the fighter planes could play fly separate from the dirigible. During that trip to California, I had my first real flight experience. The Goodyear Blimp was stationed at a big vacant lot near Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, where the May Company and Park La Brea Towers were later built. The public could get rides on the blimp, and my mother took me up. I can still visualize a woman in a red coat that I saw entering a corner drug store, with the door actually on the diagonal facing the corner. From up in the air, she appeared as small as a doll, and the whole city looked like a toy city.
Before Summer was over, we returned by train to New York, and I remember seeing my father, who met us at Grand Central or Pennsylvania Station, I can’t recall which, and he gave me the best hug I can remember. We moved to a rented house at Seventeen Charlton Street, in Greenwich Village. Across the street was a building that looked like a regular apartment building, but was actually the multi-level stable for the horses that pulled the milk wagons that delivered milk in Manhattan. It was really surprising, on occasion, to see a horse’s head stick out an upper story window like a person looking out the window. I attended the Little Red Schoolhouse, only two doors down the same side of the street. It was still kindergarten, I'm sure, although I think the school went up through the elementary school grades. We moved permanently to Hollywood in 1939, where I started the first grade during the time the Battle of Britain was raging over the English Channel. I remember drawing crayon pictures in school of German and English planes fighting.
Shortly before leaving New York permanently in 1939, I remember spending the summer in a little rented beach cottage on Staten Island, near my cousin Haldor de Becker, who moved out to Los Angeles a couple of years later. It was a wonderful time of swimming and playing on the beach, and for my sixth birthday I got a puppy named Bosco, after the chocolate syrup of the same name that I loved to stir into my milk. Also, shortly before moving to California, I remember attending the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was truly memorable, sort of like Disneyland, but many years earlier than the building of Disneyland and other theme parks. There was a tall tower called the Trylon next to a huge sphere called the Perisphere. They were the ultra modernistic symbols of the World’s Fair, whose theme was The World of Tomorrow, America in the future, a little like Tomorrowland in early Disneyland. Most of the displays seemed magical, such as primitive television, a robot, and super highways with no traffic lights, but cloverleaf intersections, on and off-ramps, and so on like the freeways that appeared much later. There was also the Aquacade, a water show starring Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan of the movies, and Esther Williams swimming star of numerous movie musicals. The then futuristic things became reality ten to fifteen years later. Although the fair was a couple of years before our involvement in WWII, it very accurately predicted the post war development of America, which probably would have occurred sometime earlier, but for the War. My father, actor not ship’s captain, had a very distinctive voice. He was chosen to do the narration for a fabulous glimpse of the future at the fair, sponsored by General Motors, I think. The visitors rode in traveling seats that moved from one scene of the display to another along a track, very much like more recent theme park rides. Stereophonic speakers on the sides of the headrest/back of each seat would give the appropriate narration for each display as the moving seat passed by. Tape recorders and modern electronics had not yet been invented, and I have no idea how the technical challenges were handled back then.
The big thing I remember about taking the train to Los Angeles in December of ’39 was going to the baggage car regularly during the four day trip to visit Bosco, who was in a cage with the baggage. Upon arrival at the new art deco Union Station, we took a cab out Sunset, and then Hollywood Boulevards to a house at 1901 North Vista Street in the Hollywood Hills. It was a guest house belonging to Dr. Frost an astronomy professor at UCLA. He lived in the main house, which was nearby on his property. The place was a fabulous introduction to California life. The property consisted of many hillside acres above the two houses. There was a system of trails, climbing up to a beautiful view point that had wooden benches and palm fronds for a roof, and the view included the whole Los Angeles basin, Catalina Island, etc. Following the trail a little further was a wooden structure, like a little house, that rolled back on tracks to uncover Dr. Frost’s large telescope. From time to time, he let me look through his telescope at the moon, planets and stars. Continuing on the main trail, which looped around the whole property, then headed back down to the property’s driveway, I could walk on a stone path to our house.
The house itself was built of redwood, with a sunken living room and a nice porch. Down the hill, after a few blocks, Vista Street came to an end at Hawthorne Avenue and Gardner Street School, which I attended through the sixth grade. Most of my classrooms were situated so that I could look out a window and see Dr. Frost’s telescope structure up on the hill, and many a time when I was not concentrating on what I was supposed to be doing, I stared at the hill and daydreamed. I think I must have walked the trail almost every day, before school, after school and on weekends and vacations. In a small cellar under the porch I had a chemistry set on a little workbench, and I also spent a lot of my free time playing chemist, especially when the weather wasn’t too good outside.
A kid in the neighborhood named Tommy Burleigh lived about half a block down the street and around the corner on Hillside Street. His house was built during prohibition, and it had a feature that fascinated me. In a room that seemed like a normal little den or bedroom was a closet. When you opened the closet, running across the back of it was a row of coat hooks on a three inch or so wide board. You could lift the innocent looking board out of the way, and there was a hidden lock. Turning the key caused the whole back wall of the closet to slide away, revealing a secret room, carved into the side of the hill. There was a full bar, shelves for liquor, and racks of wine bottles. Whenever I was over at his place to play, I’d beg his mom or dad to show me the secret panel.
My parents bought a car, a 1929 Nash roadster that had a rumble seat and side curtains instead of roll-up windows. I loved sitting in the rumble seat, and I especially remember one foggy morning when my mom drove my father to work at MGM, in Culver City. It was my first view, I think, of a movie studio. In fact, I don’t think I realized that movies were created in such complexes before that time. It was a cold and wet early morning ride so I went home in the front seat with my mother. When we picked up my dad in front of the studio that evening we all sat in the front seat, me in the middle, my feet on either side of the floor gearshift lever.
Almost immediately after moving to California, I felt so much freedom compared to New York. The weather was great and it was so open. I spent almost all my waking hours in the great outdoors when I wasn’t in school, and even in school we spent a lot of time outside. In late 1940 or early 1941, we moved from the house in the hills to 1404 North Gardner Street, which was at one time the bunkhouse for the Gardner Ranch. Next door was the Gardner home, and Mrs. Gardner, a very old lady, still lived there. I heard that at one time the two houses were the only houses in Los Angeles west of La Brea Avenue. Right across the street was the West Hollywood Branch of the Los Angeles Library, where a wonderful lady named Miss (or Mrs.) Riggs was the librarian in charge of the children’s section. She used to make regular visits to the school to read stories to the classes and sign kids up for library cards, encourage them to visit the library, etc. I only had to cross the street to visit the library, and she was always helpful, hospitable and friendly. I have talked to many adult friends that grew up in the Gardner neighborhood who remember Miss Riggs with great affection. I think of her as a real heroine, with great patience and love of children, who inspired so many of us to do well academically.
The intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street was known as Gardner Junction. The electric street car line that ran along Hollywood Boulevard, when heading west through the commercial district of Hollywood, bent forty-five degrees to the left when it reached the end of the commercial area and the beginning of the residential area at La Brea Avenue. It then ran southwest to Santa Monica Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, where it returned to a westerly heading on Santa Monica to the Beverly Hills Station. Half way between La Brea and Fairfax is Gardner Street, and a couple of blocks of the diagonally running tracks ran along the back boundary of my grammar school where a chain link fence separated the railway from the playgrounds. Once in a while, one of the very old model electric street cars, with cow-catchers at both ends would pass by the playground, and at that that time the first child to notice the noisier old train would yell “DYNAMITE!!”, and all the kids would hang on a bar, get up on a bench or slide, or in some manner not be standing in direct contact with the rumbling ground. I have no idea when that playground tradition started or how long it lasted before the streetcar line was abandoned in the late forties or early fifties, when many municipal streetcar lines all over the country were discontinued. I loved riding the street cars as a kid and hated to see them go. For a nickel, a person could ride all the way to downtown Los Angeles, where the non-polluting electric railroad car entered a system of tunnels near Echo Park to an underground station near Angels’ Flight.
Early in World War II, I remember seeing handbills on telephone poles near the school announcing that anyone with any Japanese ancestry needed to report to someplace, I don’t remember if it was the Post Office or where. I recall that my mother was quite upset by the policy of isolating Americans of certain ancestry, like the Nazis were doing in Europe. She had visited Japan a short time before meeting and marrying my dad, staying with an uncle who had moved there many years before, married a Japanese woman, and had children who were family. After the war, when General MacArthur was rebuilding occupied Japan, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, William Siebald was married to Edith de Becker, one of the half Japanese cousins who was about my mom’s age. I recall many years later, as a young adult in the 1960’s, receiving an official looking American Embassy Christmas card from Thailand, where Ambassador and Mrs. William Siebald were then stationed.
About the time the Pearl Harbor attack launched our involvement in WWII, we had just moved to a rented house at 7520 Hollywood Boulevard, just west of Gardner Street. That area along Hollywood Boulevard was then mostly individual, single family houses, with a few apartment buildings here and there. Now, of course, it is just about all apartments. The house we lived in was built with one story in front, facing north on the street, but with a lower level facing south downhill in the back. Upstairs, with a big bay window facing south was the dining room. I recall a few days after Pearl Harbor, there was a blackout in the early evening that had not been announced ahead of time, as was the usual civil defense routine for practice blackouts. Right after the siren sounded, we turned off all the lights and sat in the dark dining room looking out the window over the city to see how dark it was, what was happening out there and up there. Searchlights were sweeping the sky, and we saw tracer bullets that looked like red chains in the sky. As I remember, it looked more like air-to-air firing than ground-to-air, but there may have been ground-to-air, anti-aircraft firing as well. I don't remember for sure seeing any aircraft in the searchlight beams, but it was all very exciting, and I assumed of course that enemy planes were involved. As far as I recall, the news reports the next day were vague as to what really happened.
About a year or so into the war, my parents bought a house at 1819 North Curson Avenue, across the street from the main driveway to the Wattles Estate, which was a large property running a block along Hollywood Boulevard between Sierra Bonita Avenue and Curson, and extending way up into the hills. The Wattles Estate is now a Los Angeles park. The house next door to our house had been raided twice shortly before we moved in, once because it was the German Consul's home when we entered the war, and once in connection with a gambling operation. A few years later, when I was already attending high school, the house next door on the other side became the home of the prominent English actor Charles Laughton ( Captain Bligh to Clark Gable's Mister Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty) and his wife Elsa Lancaster,(monster Boris Karloff's monster wife created by Dr. Frankenstein in Bride of Frankenstein). I lived with my family in the Curson house through the rest of elementary school, junior high, Hollywood High School, and the first three years of college at UCLA.
World War II ended in 1945, during the summer after my graduation from Gardner Street Grammar School. That summer my childhood friend and neighbor since the Second Grade, Frank Fleischer and I were attending Camp Radford, a summer camp run by the LA Schools, before heading to Bancroft Junior High in September. Between playing tin can golf, swimming, sitting around a campfire, and such activities, in came the fabulous news of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki, and the next day Japan's unconditional surrender. We had been together on December 7, 1941, when Frank's father told us of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I look at that summer as the end of an era. Along came adolescence and tremendous postwar changes in Hollywood, in America and in the world as a whole. It was time to move on from my idyllic childhood in a wonderful time and place and become a regular guy.