Jack Warner used to call him “the kid with the glasses.”
Of course, he used to call Warner Mr. Warner.
And lo these many years later, Dick Mason, Warner’s erstwhile office flunky, has evolved into Dick Mason, Warner Bros.’ institutional memory and grand tour meister . Mason’s memory is so relentless, in fact, that even hunger doesn’t dim it as he arrives at the Warner Bros. commissary.
“When I came here, literally it was green,” he chirps on the way to the table. “It was lime green, and they had a green sign out front that said the Green Room. But later it was nicely trimmed in blue, and it was the Blue Room.”
Today it’s a demure beige, three gastronomic colors away from Mason’s debut as a Warner Bros. messenger 37 years ago. Actually, the 54-year-old Mason is being modest when he says he’s been at Warners for only 37 years. He virtually sailed out of his mother’s womb clutching his Screen Actors Guild card, since both parents were members. Twenty-six days after his birth, he made his eponymous debut in a Columbia picture called “Adam Had Four Sons.”
“I loved movies. It just fit me like a glove, I guess, and I’ve been that way ever since.”
From such precocious beginnings is a Warner Bros. VIP Tours manager made. Mason was born in Inglewood into the 68-member Mason family of hoofers. He spent his single-digit years dancing around the country’s vaudeville circuit. His bit was to interrupt his dad’s tap dance number with a hoot from the audience.
“I’d say, ‘You call that dancing?’ And my dad would say, ‘You think you could do better?’ ”
He would then leap onto the stage for a few minutes of “better” dancing and skip off to applause.
In the early ‘50s, Mason’s family settled in the San Fernando Valley, where his father got a job as a district manager for Fox West Coast Theaters--genealogy, please--which later became Mann Theaters. The teen-age Mason spent hours at the theater ushering in his romance with movies, ultimately graduating to become a 75-cent-an-hour “indoor man"--"candy, aisle, that stuff.”
All along, he would cap each movie by scribbling in notebooks--the names of directors and producers, the running time, the players, the studio.
“I still use them,” he says. “They’re in kid’s handwriting, and I started tracking every movie I’d seen. I know them all by heart, all 26,000 I’ve seen.”
So when Mason bounded from Van Nuys High School graduation to an interview for a Warner Bros. messenger job, he wasn’t your usual applicant.
“My first day of training, when they took me up the stairs to the main building, I already knew all the credits of the directors up there,” he says. “Not even the guy who was training me knew as much as I did. Here this guy is trying to impress me. He says, ‘This is Mervin LeRoy.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. He just finished shooting “The FBI Story.” ’ “
Pretty soon, Warners executives were calling Mason and asking him to show their guests around the studio. And perhaps not coincidentally, he was recruited to work outside Jack Warner’s office, where other top executives were also collected. Mason worked directly for the vice president in charge of worldwide production.
“My boss would be seeing people like John Ford and Audrey Hepburn and Richard Widmark in one day, and I’m sitting there and meeting these people and making them a drink and telling a few bad jokes.”
He was also in prime Jack Warner-watching territory, which was not necessarily a pleasure.
“He was the CEO-owner, and he was a tough cookie,” Mason says. “He never could remember my name half the time, but that was OK. I knew a lot about Warner Bros. movies and he liked that, so I never had any trouble. I saw him dress down a few people, yell and scream and have a few fits with people, but not me. No fun to yell at me. I’d just pass out.”
For all Warner’s guff, Mason would watch stars cry on Warner’s shoulder.
“Half of them would come to Jack Warner and talk to him before they’d go to a doctor or psychiatrist. Bette Davis would call him--they would have fights but she said he was like her dad because she hated him in one sense and loved him in another.”
Earlier, when Mason was managing the messengers’ department, he was shocked to hear that a fledgling messenger had rebuffed Warner’s request to pick up some letters. The messenger, who didn’t recognize the top studio dog, was in a hurry to deliver the call sheets that listed the next day’s work assignments.
Mason got the call.
” '(The messenger) gave me a real dressing down,’ ” Warner told him. “ ‘He told me about the call sheets, which was damn true. These are my call sheets. These are my movies and we’ve got to get them done on time. Give him a raise.’
“But in another mood, it could have been, ‘Give him his walking papers.’ ”
In the early ‘70s, then-vice president Frank Wells, plucked Mason out of the publicity department, where he’d settled, and suggested he supplement those duties with official tour-mongering. And now, as head of a seven-guide tour department (none of them actors, natch), Mason presides over an empire that leads around 15,000 people a year, a dozen at a pop. Their destinations: back lots, sound stages, set and prop areas.
But Mason’s tour responsibilities have transcended merely pointing out Michael Crichton’s parking space and Walton’s Pond: Over the years, he has grappled with such tourists’ questions as, what does Elizabeth Taylor eat for breakfast and where’s John Wayne’s time card. He has even been called on to pry an enthusiastic fan off the Duke.
“Right here in the commissary, I was having lunch with a banker and his wife from New York. She was telling me throughout the tour that next to her husband, John Wayne was the man she loved the most. When John Wayne hit the door, she jumped up on the front of him, grabbed him around the neck and kissed him on the cheek. She was so short her legs were dangling off the ground.”
Over the years, Mason has escorted moguls and monarchs, Barbra Streisand and Glenn Close. He still hops to when the execs call, and he’s about to give a tour to a guest of Warner Bros. Chairman Bob Daly.
But before he goes, he pilots a tour cart past the site of Frank Sinatra’s helipad, past Richard Donner’s production office, among the back lots and sound stages where he grew up.
Says Mason: “I probably spent more time on this lot than any place I’ve lived since starting to work here.”