Book Review: The Boys - A Memoir of Hollywood and Family

By Wes Clark

The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family
Ron and Clint Howard
William Morrow, publisher

It's common in books of this type to have various endorsements on the back ccover to help sell the work. The key review is this one: "I have read dozens of Hollywood memoirs. But The Boys stands alone. A delightful, warm and fascinating story of a good life in show business. - Malcolm Gladwell. Yes, quite. I will also add that while the subtitle claims that it's a memoir about Hollywood and family, it's really more a memoir about family and Hollywood - and is all the better for it.

The book is written by two authors who happen to be brothers, and the dual feature of the narrative is one of its strengths. Ron and Clint Howard also had the happy idea of focusing a lot of the narrative attention on their mother and father, Rance and Jean Howard, who were influential in their success and who helped them to remain level-headed. (Well, Ron, anyway. Clint became addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and that harrowing recovery tale is also told.) One comes away with the feeling that a lot of the worst aspects of the Hollywood system - feelings of entitlement and rampant ego problems - were avoided by the wise direction of the Howard parents in their sons' lives. One sees the Howard brothers as not so much Burbankers, Los Angelinos or Californians, but really Midwesterners like their parents.

This is an excellent read and well recommended!

I can't say, however, that I checked it out because I was interested in the life and times of Opie, Ritchie Cunningham, Star Trek's Balok or the director of Apollo 13 or other films. I read it looking for Burbank material! Both Howard brothers were at least partly raised in Burbank and in a home on Clybourn in Toluca Lake - which could still have been in Burbank (that street being the boundary line between the Los Angeles and Burbank portions of Toluca Lake). Clint Howard still lives in Burbank.

Here are some random Burbank-related passages from the book:

"The Howard Family Road Trip came to a close when, in August 1958, we pulled into our new hometown: Burbank, California. Dad had first glimpsed the town nearly a decade earlier when the touring production of Mister Roberts rolled into Los Angeles. ... As for Dad, he took a look at Burbank and decided he liked the place. It felt like his kind of town."

"Before we arrived, Dad secured a lease on a two-bedroom rental in a small apartment building on Cordova Street. When we arrived, I couldn't believe my eyes - this place was nothing like our gray, wintry block in Queens or the endlessly flat plains that surrounded Duncan. The sky was a cloudless blue, and there were palm trees everywhere. The Verdugo Mountains rose to the north and the Hollywood Hills to the south. Just a few blocks west of us was one of the first Bob's Big Boy hamburger restaurants, complete with carhops on roller skates, and the very first International House of Pancakes, which was only a few months old. When I looked south, I saw something even more exciting: a big water tower with the Warner Bros, logo on it - the same logo that appeared with a 'Boinggg!' at the beginning of the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched compulsively."

"The residential streets were chockablock with newly built ranch houses: middle-class realizations of the American dream, occupied by families whose dads might have worked in the entertainment business but just as likely were cops, teachers, salesmen, or engineers for one of the town's largest employers, the Lockheed Aircraft Company. As visually stimulating as my new hometown was, it did not feel glitzy. Burbank sits due north of Hollywood, but it wasn't, and still isn't, particularly Hollywood, or Beverly Hills or Bel Air for that matter. Picture the tidy suburban neighborhoods of such 1950s sitcoms as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Our block was like that, only the houses were much smaller and the yards weren't big enough to warrant picket fences. Everyone's kids ran together in a swarm, commandeering the sidewalks and front yards to play football, running bases, and army. It was the perfect place to start the school-going years of this boy's life."

"My new way of life as a series regular led to some big adjustments. For instance, when we were shooting, from September through early February, I didn't attend school with other kids. This was a bit of a letdown, since I had really enjoyed kindergarten at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School in Burbank. Instead, I had studio school."

"In 1963, we moved from Hollywood back to Burbank, where Mom and Dad became homeowners for the first time. Three forty-six North Cordova Street was a small tract house just half a block from our old apartment: three bedrooms, one bathroom, and, best of all in my view, a pool. Boy, I loved to splash around in that pool. Ron and I shared a bedroom, and Dad used the spare as his office."

"Cordova Street was nevertheless a big step up for us. Within a few blocks stood the entire world that Ron and I occupied when we weren't working and just being kids. Two blocks away was Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School, a campus of low postwar buildings and wide-open asphalt and grass playgrounds. A few blocks past Stevenson was a public parks and recreation center, Verdugo Park, which had a gym where Ron shot baskets at every opportunity. I still live a few minutes away from the site ot our ancestral pile. With the exception of our house, which has since been torn down and replaced with a McMansion, very little has changed."

"We also dined out a fair amount, too. The local Sizzler, part of a chain that had only been founded a few years earlier in Culver City, was a go-to spot. Once in a while, we went to the Kings Arms, a medieval-themed luxury restaurant where there was a sword set in stone by the front entrance. Ron and I drank Shirley Temples there. Between the sugar high from those, the cartoons that I had seen about King Arthur's court, and the Olde English interior decor, I was often motivated to make a dramatic scene of trying to pull that sword out for laughs."

"I told my parents how miserable I was feeling. They heard me out and came back with a plan. First, Mom and Dad said, they hoped and predicted that things would settle down if I just hung in there and allowed the novelty of being 'the kid from TV' to wear off. But if I was still unhappy at the end of the school year, they would enroll me in a smaller private school tailored to child performers. Sure enough, by the time the school year ended and my folks checked in with me about whether or not I wanted to leave Stevenson, I made it emphatically clear that I wanted to stay. Their parental wisdom had borne itself out. But it was a rough path to assimilating into the general student population. For a few weeks, I was a marked man at Stevenson. The encounters usually began with a snide, 'Hey, Opie!' Then there would be an escalation to shoving, with other kids gathering around to watch, point fingers, and laugh at me. Then my tormentor, whoever he was that day, would say, 'Do you want to fight?' I didn't think it was acceptable to back down, so I said, 'Yeah!' And here's where the wrestling and sparring lessons at home with Dad came in handy. After school, my challenger and I would meet on the corner where I lived, Cordova and Oak. We'd start in the standing position, shoving and pushing. Then one of us would latch onto the other, we'd fall to the ground, and it basically became a wrestling match."

Clint Howard: "At school, I didn't face the harassment that Ron did. I was on TV a lot, but always playing different characters. He was Opie. Jeez, I felt bad for him. Later on, in junior high, after I'd been on Gentle Ben, I did have a taste of his experiences. My version of 'Hey, Dopey Opie!' was 'Hey, where's your bear?' Kids tried to provoke me into fights. There was a corner three blocks away from Burbank's David Starr Jordan Middle School where the boys my age met up: 'Yeah? Why don't we meet at Beachwood and Oak? After school, Clint, Beachwood and Oak!' You know what I did? Not go to Beachwood and Oak! I shrugged that stuff off. Everyone's hormones were firing like crazy at that age, and I was smart enough to recognize that taking their bait was stupid. While I never witnessed one of Ron's fights, I frequently saw him come home red-faced and flustered. I didn't like how he looked and avoided dustups at all costs."

"Mom did herself no favors with her personal habits, an inheritance from the health-be-damned Speegles. She was a two-pack-a-day smoker for much of our childhoods, and she drank four or five cups of coffee in the morning. And then she'd drink more coffee still at her favorite hangout, Albins Drugs on the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Hollywood Way, owned by the same family as our beloved Albin's toy store.The drugstore had a classic, 1940s-style, Formica-topped lunch counter and a staff of chatty, salt-of-the-earth waitresses of the same vintage. For Mom, a half hour at the counter at Albins was like a micro-dose of the escapist joy that she got from looking at the model homes in Westlake Village. One of us boys or the other often accompanied her there, kept occupied eating a hot dog or a grilled cheese while she took drags on her cigarette and gabbed with the waitresses. She was happy and in her element with these ladies, and I could see how these moments with them sustained her. She had been a hell of a waitress herself in her younger years, she told us, bragging about the tips she earned. Albin's, she said, reminded her of the greasy-spoon coffee shop that her family had run in Duncan. Burbank was still a small town, and Mom, for all of the pain she endured and the responsibilities she shouldered, was one of its linchpins. She was always at the center of the waitresses' chitchat, prompting them to explode into laughter at punch lines I never quite understood."

"It was also a time when Dad and Mom were pulling in about twelve grand a year as our managers, in addition to what Dad was earning from his acting and writing. These weren't earth-shattering sums of money, and my parents were extremely cautious investors, but they were disciplined about budgeting and saving. So, in 1968, after five years on Cordova Street, we moved to a larger house. We didn't move far - all of a mile and a half, to the town immediately west of Burbank, Toluca Lake. But physically and symbolically, it was a big step up. Toluca Lake carried an air of prestige. It was where Andy Griffith lived, as well as Bob Hope and Frankie Avalon. Our new house, on Clybourn Avenue, had four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a two-car garage. It was surrounded by leafy, mature trees. It even had a guesthouse in the back, which Dad commandeered as his office. The house had a brick facade and its handsome shingled roof had three dormers, each the front window of a bedroom. Mine was the one on the right, Clint's was the one on the left, and the middle bedroom became Mom's sewing room. She and Dad had the master bedroom downstairs."

"By today's standards of L.A. showbiz living, our house would be considered modest. But Clint and I couldn't believe our good fortune. We had room to roam! And on Sundays, in a huge victory for our autonomy, we were allowed to walk by ourselves to Paty's Restaurant, a diner that we loved and a Toluca Lake mainstay, still in operation today. Clint and I enjoyed sitting at the counter and watching the short-order cook in action while we ate breakfast, just the two of us. For Dad and Mom, the house on Clybourn represented the summit of their material aspirations. It was their kingdom and castle. Though they both lived into the twenty-first century, they never moved again. And they so loved the house that, for the first and only time, they took out a mortgage, for $62,000. It took them only a few years to pay it off in full. 'We own it free and clear,' Mom told us with pride. Toluca Lake was a little ritzier than Burbank, but our way of life remained fundamentally unchanged. Dad kept driving his Chevy Nova Super Sport - all the way through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, by which time it was a certifiable road hazard."

"I survived that day and actually had a fine time at Jordan over the next three years, with lots of friends and basketball teammates who liked me for who I was. But right to the end of my public-school education in Burbank, which concluded at John Burroughs High School I was dogged by what today might be called Opie-shaming: the desire among my peers to get under my skin by taunting me as 'Opie' rather than treating me as Ron. My fathers choice to train me to fight proved justified. Though I renounced violence in middle school, I benefited from toughening up. By my senior year, I had grown into a confident young man. with a girlfriend (more on her later) and a "C" on my letterman's jacket because I had been named a co-captain of the Burroughs varsity B team. (I was too short and just not skilled enough tor the varsity A team.) My name sometimes got published in the local paper. The Burbank Daily Review, not because of my acting work but because I had scored more than ten points in a game."

"That felt great, and the Opie-shaming had completely dissipated on my home court at Burroughs. But at an away game that final season, the opposing team's fans were out for blood. Every time I went to the line to shoot free throws, their band tried to psych me out by playing an abrasive, mocking version of The Andy Griffith Show's theme song: 'Da-da-dah. DAH-da-da-da, DAH-da-da-da...' This was punctuated by a chant of 'Miss - it - Opie! Miss - it - Opie!' I nevertheless hit five of my six tree throws in that game. But I can't pretend that those kids' taunts didn't affect me. They pissed me off."

" Dad's insistence, every boy had to play at least half the game. So I couldn't just ride my best players and keep the less skilled on the bench. Despite these limitations, the Hurricanes were a consistently decent team for our first two seasons, and we won the league championship in our third season. I flat-out loved being a coach. One time we played a team that outclassed us by far in talent, coached by Bill Burton, the rather of the future director Tim Burton, who was Clint's age. Mr. Burton was a former professional baseball player who served as one of the administrators of the Burbank Parks and Rec department. He had a buzz cut and looked like a Marine. We were all kind of scared of him. Despite his militaristic appearance, Mr. Burton had boys on his team with hair down to their shoulders, including his son Tim, who, improbable as it may sound, had some deft moves on the court."

"I had just one scene in Apple Seed, toward the end of the movie. Dad and I got together to rehearse it at his Toluca Lake house the night before he flew east to begin work on the production. I wanted to give him a hero's send-off, so I stopped by the Smoke House to pick up some of their garlic bread, which we Howards consider the world s best, and grilled salmon and asparagus for the two of us. After dinner, we cleared the table and took out our scripts."

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