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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Two degrees of Jane Russell

Growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, I always felt I was a million miles from the center of the world’s cultural life. Los Angeles, the heart of the world’s moviemaking, may have been a bit more than a hundred miles away, but it might as well have been a thousand.

But as I grew up, I realized that the rich and famous and celebrated didn’t really live in a parallel universe but in the same one that I did. For example, the son of our neighbors and good friends grew up to become a doctor that lived in Beverly Hills. His sister, who was closer to my age, would come home from visits, reporting on attending parties where the other guests were people like Betty White and Richard Deacon. Later on, someone from my hometown (he would be played by the late Don Davis in the TV biopic) wound up marrying Annette Funicello. Turns out that my dusty quiet little hometown wasn’t so far out of the mainstream of life as I had once thought.

Well, what goes around comes around, and the past few years I’ve gone back to the feeling of living a million miles away from anywhere. That’s probably because it’s true. Or maybe moving from Seattle to the rural west of Ireland just gives a Yank that feeling.

Sure, without traveling very far I can walk in the footsteps of Hollywood actors like John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, who came to the west of Ireland to film The Quiet Man. But that all happened more than a half-century ago. Ashford Castle has an impressive list of celebrities who have stayed there, but those visits are also in the past. All the action is in Dublin or, more likely, London or, even more likely, New York and Los Angeles.

I’m not actually complaining. I chose to live in an out-of-the-way place. (Okay, the Missus did, but I went along with it.) But my recent visit to California reminded me that the world is smaller than I often think it is. Even in a country as huge as the United States.

I have written before about becoming Facebook friends with a woman I went to high school with and who told me about being an extra years ago in the movie Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, during filming in Montana. When I attended my high school reunion last month, I got a chance to ask her about the experience in person. Did she get to see Ron Howard, who was the director? Yes, she replied, but it wasn’t any big deal. She used to see him around campus all the time when they were both students at the University of Southern California.

I guess that makes me (and lots of other people) just two degrees separated from Howard, Cruise and Kidman. But that wasn’t the best two-degrees-of-separation story I heard that night. That would be the one told to me by another friend, with whom I went to school from kindergarten to high school graduation. My friend’s mother passed away three years ago, leaving his father a widower after 63 years of marriage. But despite being bereaved and in his 80s, he did not slow down any. Always one to rack up a lot of miles on the road, he did not do any less driving all over the country, including the occasional visit to a holiday home in the San Juan Islands in Washington state. One day he happened to get a call from his late wife’s cousin, who happens to live in Washington. A sister-in-law of hers was coming to visit her from California but she did not like to fly. Would he be able to give her lift for the thousand-mile journey? He willingly agreed, and guess who the sister-in-law turned out to be? It was Jane Russell, notorious for her sexy debut in Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw and the star of movies like The Paleface and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes! By my friend’s account, they had a pleasant, fun drive from California to Washington, which ultimately led to marriage.

Now what would make this a really good story would have been if my friend’s father had gotten married to Jane Russell. Actually, what happened is he wound up getting married to Russell’s sister-in-law, i.e. his late wife’s cousin. My friend reports that they are extremely happy and on the road all the time, traveling from one place to another.

Sadly, not long after these events, Russell, who was vivacious and active into her late 80s, fell and broke her hip. That began a decline that ended with her death in February. When I wrote about her at the time, I had no idea how few degrees separated her from me. But what really has my mind working overtime is wondering what other stories I might have heard if I had had more time to chat with more former classmates. For a group of people that came from a town that, when we were young, most of us thought was kind of boring, everyone seems to have gone on to do a lot of interesting things and/or live in a lot of interesting places.

What is always particularly interesting at high school reunions is the memories that old friends share with you. It’s nice to hear that someone remembers me helping them with their homework. Or some fun experience that we shared. But one friend had a memory that turned out to be extraordinarily prescient.

“Man,” he said, “I can’t believe that you made your mom record Dark Shadows!”

It is true. I ran home every day after school to watch my favorite gothic daytime soap opera, like lots of people in those days (including apparently Johnny Depp). But during the summer when I was working, I had to miss it. My solution (this was not only pre-DVR but even pre-VCR) was to set up a reel-to-reel tape recorder and microphone next to the television and ask my mom to turn it on when the show came on and turn it off when it was over. (Years later, when I watched the show on the Sci-Fi—as it was spelled then—channel, I had the confusing experience of recognizing the audio from particular episodes but not the visuals.) The recording chore took its psychic toll on my mother. The show so creeped her out that she had to go to another part of the house and cover her ears until it was over.

Now that was a great mom!

-S.L., 18 August 2011

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