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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 7

THANKS TO the accident to Burns & Bowie's pies, I was moved into the Sunday Department of The Leader, to write a weekly column for the Metropolitan Section under a by-line thought up by my new boss, Chester Hope. The by-line, which was also the name of the column, was: By Louie, The Office Boy. It was generally printed "Luee, The Offis Boy," since the column featured as many misspellings as I could manage to invent. That sort of thing seemed funnier in 1911 than it does today.

"Luee" was to take me to many interesting places during the next few months. I covered dance halls, circuses and carnivals, symphony orchestras, police stations, hospitals, and many other places, some unsavory, but not many.


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My problem now was to get people to take me seriously. I was going on fourteen. I felt grown up; I no longer thought about school. But I looked as young as I was, and nothing I tried seemed to make me look any older. Sometimes it was hard to get into the places I was supposed to go.

Most boys my age wore knickers and stockings. I wore long pants. In a picture I had seen of Kipling he had on a big, black bow tie. I bought one for eight cents at May's on the Public Square, thinking it would make me look older. It didn't. I even tried growing a mustache. Nothing happened. The fuzz was the same color as my hair, which was so blond that some people called me Whitey.

My problem wasn't helped by the sketches they printed to illustrate my column, which showed me with a big batch of hair flying in all directions, the big, black bow tie (which I began to wear all the time), and a Buster Brown collar which made me look like Little Lord Fauntleroy -- the one character in the world I most abhorred. I was always sketched in some kind of action. If I was writing about a dance hall, I was shown skidding desperately across the floor; if at a circus, hanging on for dear life with one hand, a frightened look on my face.

I hated the sketches sometimes, because they made me look so young and, I thought, so much like a sissy. I knew I wasn't very big. I was only five feet, five inches tall, and rather skinny -- and that made it all the worse. However, I dared not say anything about it to my boss, Chester Hope. He might, I was afraid -- a chill going


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down my spine even at the thought -- take the column out altogether.

"I want the column and the sketches to make you look like a wide-eyed boy to whom all the experiences you write about are new and wonderful and exciting," he said.

That was not hard because they were. I enjoyed my work, and I was proud of the reporter's badge in my pants pocket. It was in the form of a five-pointed star, made of very light metal, with an inscription in big black letters: "Reporter for The Leader," with my number -- No. 26. The badges were changed each year, because they sometimes got lost and fell into the wrong hands. Once a robber talked his way into a downtown store and got away with $500 from a cash register by flashing a reporter's badge. I felt a personal sense of relief when he was caught.

When I had trouble getting into a place, I showed my badge, but it didn't always help.

"Nobody's sending a kid like you over here," a big hard-jawed doorman told me one day. I was trying to get backstage at the Hippodrome Theater to see Sarah Bernhardt, who was in Cleveland on one of her "final" American tours.

"But I am a reporter," I insisted stubbornly.

"Out!" he said, sharply.

I tried to argue with him, but he wouldn't listen.

"Please have someone call my office," I said finally. "They'll tell you. I'm doing a story for The Sunday Leader. My name is Louie Seltzer. I write the Luee, The Offis Boy column."


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He looked down at me from well above six feet. "You Louie?" he demanded, a sarcastic tinge in his tone.

"Yes," I said, sounding tougher than I was because I was both angry and worried.

"Well, why didn't you tell me? How was I to know? You a reporter!" he added, unbelieving. "Well, they sure pick 'em young, don't they? Yep, there's that tie. All right, go on in."

I went backstage, where Sarah Bernhardt was rehearsing with Lou Tellegen. He was a tall, nice-looking man, then very young and, at this moment, impatient. He even spoke sharply to Miss Bernhardt, but she silenced him by simply looking at him.

Miss Bernhardt turned the tables on me. She interviewed me instead of the other way around, asking me many questions, about myself, about Cleveland, about our paper.

When I got back to the office, I reported to Howard Denby, the assistant Sunday Editor, under whom I worked directly. He was a small man who disappeared behind big glasses, and was handicapped by a limp and a little stutter. But he was lively, very lively. He always had ideas, and everybody seemed to come to him looking for them.

"Wonderful," Howard Denby said, when I told him that Miss Bernhardt had asked most of the questions. "Write it that way, Louie -- Sarah Bernhardt Interviews Luee, The Offis Boy."

I did, and that's the way it ran. It had a sketch of


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Sarah Bernhardt with a pencil and pad taking down notes, while I sat on a big throne-like chair as if I were somebody important. Even I had to laugh at the sketch when Van Orsdale, the artist, showed it to Howard Denby and me.

"But what will Miss Bernhardt say?" I asked.

Howard Denby said, "She'll be more pleased with that than a dozen other pieces or pictures."

If I had a copy of that Bernhardt column, I would reprint it here, but somehow in the clutter of forty years of clippings, it has failed to survive. She was pleased. From Detroit she wrote asking for the original of Van Orsdale's sketch, and in her note she complimented me for the unusual way the story was handled. Howard Denby was really responsible and, while I had always admired him, after that my respect for him was unlimited. I tried to follow his every suggestion.

Sometimes his assignments had a touch of inspired fantasy. One day I remember I was told to go over to see the mayor and find out --not something about city politics -- but how to skin the cat. The interview ended up that day with me flat on the floor and the mayor doing acrobatics between two office chairs. This is the way my column ran.

 

"Tweet, tweet, tweet.

"I looked outen under th' bed clothes an' there wuz a robin hangin' on th' eaves-trough twitterin' to beat Sousa's band. Well, I knew it wuz time for me to get my duds on an' beat it downstairs, an' eat breakfast an' go to work. Somethin' inside o' me kept sayin' that I wuz to do somethin' great today -- this is Tuesday.


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"I jist got to work about two seconds afore th' Boss comes in with a new spring suit an' a harmonizin' colorful tie. The boss sez, 'Mornin', Ach Luee.'

" 'Say, Luee, this mornin' you make an appointment with Mayer Baker an' ask him how to skin-th'-cat,' " he goes on.

"Holy hemlocks -- go over to the city hall an' ask th' mayer how to skin a cat. I didn't want to ask him, so I sea, 'Why, boss, I know how to skin 'em. Jist take mother's great big bread knife and slit their squeakers an' then rip an' rip.'

" 'No, no, no -- I mean exercise. Skin-th'-cat off th' limb of a tree or with gym paraphernalia. You know he got out in his back yard last Sunday an' showed th' Mayer, Jr., Jack, how to skin it at his home on Crawford avenue.'

"Well, I went upstairs an' got some soap an' a scrubbin' brush an' a comb and a whisk broom an' started to get redy for th' catastrophe. Then I went downstairs an' had my shoes shined an' I looked like a real sport.

" 'Is Mr. Baker in, I want to ask him how to skin-th'-cat.'

" 'Billy' Murphy, th' mayer's secretary, looked at me kind uv dazed like, an' then let out a whoop like an Iroquoee Injun gettin' redy to scalp a pale face. Then I began wonderin' whether th' Boss wuz tryin' to string me an' I was jist goin' to beat it out when th' Mayer comes outen his offis an' looks at me an' sez, 'Come in.'

" 'Why -er, I-I c-come over to-o a-ask ya how ya' skin-th'-cat th' rite way?'

"Then that famous smile of his spread all over th' place an' he sez, 'So youre Luee, The Offis Boy.' I sez yes, an' he smiled laconically.

"Well, he took off his hat 'n' his coat an' got down in th' middle of his offis an' sez, 'Now watch me.' He got down on his hen's an' knees an' pulled two chairs over to th' center an' sent a fellow out fer a piece of railin' an' then he laid th' railin' across th' tops of th' two chairs an' I held one side an' th' fellow held th' other


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an' th' mayer skinned-th'-cat. First he skinned it front wards, then he skinned it backwards and then he skinned it sidewise an' then he said 'Well, I'm all tuckered out, Luee. Ya' see I haven't done this fer over twenty-five years or so an' I've lost all of my suppleness.'

"Then I got down an' started skinnin' it an' I went kerplunk on th' floor an' 'Billy' Murphy rushed in an' thought that I had assassinated th' mayer an' it looked that way some how -- the way he wuz standin' there gaspin' fer breath with his coat off an' his glasses layin' on th' floor an' his hair all rufffled up, but he gasped, 'T-t-t's nothin', Billy. I'm jist showin' Luee how to skin-th'-cat.' Billy winked at th' mayer an' he winked back an' Billy looked back an' 'twas all over.

"The mayer an' me got to talkin' of when I first started in as a Offis Boy an' I kin remember now the 'fatherly advice' he gave me concernin' how to work an' when to work an' not let th' other fell-ow do th' work. Fer two years I worked an' th' Mayer has always kept in touch with me an' told me what to do an' everything I shouldn't do. I used to read Dead Eye Pete stories with yellow covers, but I don't no more cause he found out when I went over to see him skin-th'-cat.

"After workin' as a Offis Boy fer two years an' writin' about dances an' seein' that the scouts were made known, I got a chance to see Mayer Baker skin-th'-cat, but I'm tellin' you truthfully that th' way he skinned it wasn't th' way that I would have skinned wun if he hadn't showed me how.

"He, he! Fer the last two months I've been sittin' aroun' th' offis readin' yellow-back literature an' my forehead is gettin' all wrinkled up when I get excited an' th' hero comes in an' dispels my fear of havin' th' heroine thrown over a 1,000-foot precipice by a halfbreed. Mayer Baker made me promise that I wouldn't ever take an' read one of those stories with 'Blood an' Thunder' in 'em again.

"He'z goin' censor all th' stuff I read. Some honor to


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hev a mayer o.k. your readin' matter, but he better o.k. th' stuff my dad rites. It ain't blood an' thunder but it's just as interestin' an' excitin'.

"Ghee! I wunder what th' mayer'll do, I s'pose he'll get a bunch of books fer me to read so they'll last me until he gits back from Your-Up, Huh? Well, jist watch Dead-Eye Pete, Red Nose Mike, Tommy th' Cracksman, Tamale Pete, th' Mexican Greaser, Snaky Loop Ike, Ace, th' Cowboy Pote, Two Gun Harlan, Norton, th' Range Boss, an' Split-'em-Open Jim get busy wen th' mayer's boat leaves fer Your-Up.

"Guess I'll skin-th'-cat before I kin go to sleep -- or throw a shoe at 'm."

Miss Bernhardt was the most wonderful theater personage I met that year -- or ever -- but there were others. I wrote up Donald Brian one night under the headline:

 

"Luee Shows up 'Cowboy' Donald Brian Ropes Chorus Girls on Stage"

The accompanying sketch showed me in complete cowboy regalia, and I had plenty to say about the inaccuracies of the costume Donald wore. Various bits of imaginary horseplay with members of the cast rounded out the story.

 

"As I wuz sayin', afore I described Percy, he cums up behind me an' gives me a shove an' sent me a whirlin' outen th' stage an' Donald grabbed me by th' collar an' pulls me back again. All durin' th' intermisshun after Don an' Percy left me ta' dress fer th' third act, May DeSousa an' me had a nice chat, an' every once in a while Cissie Sewell would talk awhile an' then go back again to th' glimmerin' footlites.

"When May found out it wuz time fer her act I spied a little chorus girl jist about my size an' - 'whoop-ee-


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e-ee,' she winked at me an' a little smile lit up her face an' - 'Aw, ghee, quit yure kiddie' kid,' an' she turned aroun' an' sea, 'Sit down, yure rockin' th' boat,' an' jist as she sez that I went kerplunk into a nice soft Morris chair an' she set down in ut with me, an' then another wun came in an' set down on th' other side. Cissie sea, 'Come on out with me, Luee, and dance.' I did, but not outen th' stage.

"Well, th' big seen, with Donald an' Cissie, wuz on, an' then I had nearly evry chorus girl in th' comp'ny sittin' or tryin' to sit in thet chair with me, an' I was tryin' ta solve 'why boys leave home,' but ta' save my buckskin hide I couldn't. Well, th' show bein' over, Don comes runnin' off th' stage, an' so does Cissie, and they both grabs my arms and marches me off the stage, an' then Cissie left too an' I went into Don's dressin' room with him, and he doffs his stage costume an' takes th' red paint off his face an' gets a pair of boxin' gloves an' puts them on me, an' sez, 'Awright, Luee, let 'er rip,' ..."

One morning, not long after the Bernhardt "interview," I arrived at the office and pitched my cap neatly over the hall tree from a dozen paces away. I liked that trick, which I had acquired by long practice. But my cap didn't stay there long that morning.

Howard Denby saw me and called out, "Got a job for you, Louie. Put the cap back on, and come on over."

That assignment led to the most important personal event in my whole life.


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