Zsa Zsa Gabor, 1917 – God Knows When

By your humble blogger, Robert Chandler Garrison

I’m sorry that Zsa Zsa is about to meet her maker, but I’m not in such good shape either. Meaning, I’d better write the story while I can. I‘d hate to be upstaged by a Gabor again.

I was in a movie with Zsa Zsa. We met in a movie studio in Mexico City in 1972, as I was preparing for a scene as ”Police Superintendent Schwerbaum” in a film called “Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie.” I kid you not. Look it up in IMDb.

At the time, I was two days away from opening in an off-off-off Broadway show produced by an acting school located in a converted mortuary on Sunset Boulevard (it was a mythic theatre in L.A., that had once been the funeral home where B horror film star Bela Lugosi was embalmed. On a back wall behind center stage are the remains of the huge sink and faucet they used to prepare Bela’s body for burial. And there it remained, to forever upstage the poor students trying to break into Hollywood).

Those attending the school produced a continuous stream of pretty good plays which were attended by theatre aficionados, agents, and usually the press. Students were allowed to drop out of the current play if you got a legitimate show-biz job, be it TV, radio, s, or film. My agent told me that I had a film job in Mexico City in two days. Fortunately, the director of the play I was in had a standby who could fake his way through my role and hold the play together for the run. (Months later, I heard that that actor said that I left intentionally, on short notice, just to annoy him. If that isn’t a typical actor’s gripe because he didn’t get the gig!)

The cast of the film “Aunt Tillie” was interesting. It starred Donald Pleasence, well known leading man in British film and on the West End stage. Mr. Pleasence was a joy to watch work. He only disturbed the team once during the filming when he threw up his lunch after eating at a chili joint next door to our hotel.

Co-starring were Yvonne Furneaux and June Wilkenson, both lovely ladies who never made stardom to my knowledge. Another co-star was Aldo Ray, who was enjoying a career when he wasn’t crippled by his alcoholism. He was being watched over by his son who was trying to keep Aldo straight. Aldo did finish the movie correctly. Just in time.

I was one of the character actors, along with Rod Colbin, Garnet Smith and Phil Leeds. I lost track of Rod, and I once ran into Garnet in Palm Springs. Phil Leeds, on the other hand, was a graduate of the Borscht Circuit in the Catskills, and a truly funny comic. He and his wife were neighbors and longtime friends of mine in West Hollywood.

And then there was Zsa Zsa. She was the guest star of the film. She arrived at the Mexico City Airport accompanied by her Count (or whatever) husband and her dog. They were met at the airport by the Mexico City press. Carrying her dog, she smiled for the cameras and said how happy she was to be in Mexico, “Where the people are so lazy and everyone so poor.” Well, you can imagine the fallout from that remark. In the morning the headlines screamed, ”ZSA ZSA SAYS WE’RE ARE ALL LAZY PEONS!!” We movie people asked her why she would say such a thing. She answered, “So I can get on the radio and apologize, darling!” Double exposure! And so it started.

Next was the story about her slapping the face of her makeup artist, a sweet girl. Zsa Zsa slapped her when she found out that the hairpins being used were Mexican-made. Zsa Zsa also demanded that the Assistant Director be fired. She said she would not take direction from a cripple! The assistant director was recovered from infantile paralysis and on crutches. She left in tears.

The cast of the film was housed in the hotel with Zsa Zsa and her entourage. None of us would share the elevator with her, out of outrage and fear. When Zsa Zsa completed her small role, she and her royal (?) husband and her dog were chauffeured to the airport. Of course, Zsa Zsa had neglected to write out any necessary papers for the dog. No shots, no isolation of any kind. She held up the entire flight. The authorities called the President of Mexico for instruction. He was quoted as saying, “Get that bitch out of the country and her two dogs.” (The second ’dog’ being the fake Count, I presume!)

To complete this horror story, Zsa Zsa left with her 3 little dresses used for the film, stolen from the poorest movie maker in the country. Oh, and there were so many stories!

The movie was also a waste of time. It showed for the industry in West Hollywood. During filming, the sound man ran after us with a microphone attached to a long pole. The outcome was a sound track of muffled grimaces, totally indescribable. So as not to be seen, I left the movie theatre on my hands and knees, crawling up the aisle and out into the darkness of night.

Zsa Zsa’s scenes were okay. My scenes were okay too. my big scene – with pin-up doll June Wilkinson – had the hilt of my sword unwittingly plunging between her legs while I attempted to kiss her. That took the cake! I was always curious why the Mexican crew had me filming that scene, take after take. Wilkenson paid no attention at all.

Later in my career, a director pointed out to his cronies that I had been in “Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie”. Those around the table snickered, and I crawled out, branded. Burn those credits! After some dubbing and a few TV bits, I went back to radio, which I found safer.

Sorry, Zsa Zsa. I will say that I enjoyed the company of your sister (not Eva…the other one) and your mother at le Vallauris one evening in Palm Springs. It was Mama Gabor’s birthday. She was wearing red sequined tennis shoes. Kooky but nice. I know they’ve gone to heaven.

So ends my tribute to the fabled Zsa Zsa. When the time finally comes for her to pass, may she rest in peace.

 

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