Writing the End to a True-to-Life Cinderella Story : Remembrance: The facts of Lana Turner’s discovery at a soda fountain have changed through the years, but the legend remains.
Once upon a time, actually it was January, 1937, Judy Turner cut her Hollywood High School typing class and slipped across Sunset Boulevard to share a Coke with some friends.
My father R. (Billy) Wilkerson, was already sipping Coke at the same soda fountain. He often strolled there from his nearby office at the Hollywood Reporter.
During the years a dispute has arisen over the name of this soda fountain. Some remember it as Curries Ice Cream Parlor. The star herself always called it the Top Hat Cafe. The important fact is that it was next to Hollywood High School and popular as a high school hangout.
As the shapely 16-year-old entered the soda fountain, she caught my father’s attention. Even decades later he would recall how “breathtakingly beautiful” she looked that day.
Wilkerson asked the manager about the young girl.
“That’s Judy, Mr. Wilkerson.”
My father wanted to meet her.
“I’ll ask,” said the manager.
The manager, who knew both of them well, went over to Judy. “That gentleman over there would like to meet you.”
“You can imagine what ran through my mind,” Lana told me in a 1974 interview.
She asked the manager, “Why?”
“It’s OK. He’s a gentleman, Judy. He owns the Hollywood Reporter just down Sunset.”
“Well, if you say so. But stay close.”
An introduction was made.
My father produced his business card and asked the schoolgirl if she would like to be in pictures.
Judy seemed confused and unsure. “I’ll have to ask my mother,” she said.
A few days later, young Judy visited the publisher’s office with her mother in tow. They had decided to take Wilkerson up on his offer.
Seated in my father’s office, Judy exuded the same natural beauty and charm he had noticed in the soda fountain. There was also an innocence and, not the least, a burgeoning sensuality that, he knew, lights and camera would eagerly enhance. Judy was magic, he would say in later years. “There was something about her that was special. She had a quality all her own that was unforgettable.”
My father penned a note to agent Zeppo Marx. Marx signed Judy Turner to his agency and the rest is, as they say, history.
My father’s hunch was confirmed by the rest of Hollywood. Judy Turner, renamed Lana, was a born star.
On that January day, a Hollywood myth sprang to life. In one brief, glittering moment, a schoolgirl was plucked from a soda fountain counter and catapulted into the eternal firmament of stardom.
But, curiously, while Hollywood’s history is littered with dozens of noteworthy discovery stories, this one stuck. Lana’s much quoted “discovery” became one of the town’s most enduring legends. It became famous as “the Hollywood Cinderella Story” because it combined a young girl, Cinderella; a powerful publisher, the handsome prince; and a letter to agent Zeppo Marx, the glass slipper that transformed her life.
The Top Hat’s owner placed a metal plaque on the seat Lana had occupied on the magical morning of her discovery. Soon, his soda fountain was swarming with girls eager to meet the mysterious man who had discovered Lana Turner. My father had to stop visiting the Top Hat.
During the next three years, the Top Hat became a highly profitable business. In 1940, having tripled his business, its owner sold and retired to Florida.
His good fortune had not gone unnoticed by Leon Schwab, who owned Schwab’s Pharmacy, two miles west of Hollywood High. No matter that Lana would had to have been a track star to sprint to Schwab’s, inhale a Coke and make it back for her next class. Leon sold sodas and Schwab’s was, like the Top Hat, on Sunset Boulevard. He started claiming that Lana had been sitting at his counter when she was discovered, not by Wilkerson, but by her first director, Mervyn LeRoy. Since the Top Hat no longer existed, few bothered to dispute Leon’s claim.
The myth that Lana was discovered at Schwab’s was augmented by Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky. As Lana writes, Skolsky was having lunch at the counter when “a busty blond came up and asked which stool was Lana Turner’s. Skolsky simply picked one and pointed it out.”
The blond sat down and Schwab’s became a Hollywood landmark, mecca to thousands of tourists and would-be stars.
“We should own stock in Schwab’s,” Lana told me jokingly in 1974.
Amid a lifetime of accomplishments, discovering Judy was always one of my father’s fondest memories. She was, however, by no means the only person he guided to good fortune. The magic dust from his wings settled on many, including Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, famed director Joe Pasternak and mega-film producer Cubby Broccoli.
But no other Hollywood discovery has captured the collective imagination as much as Lana’s. It has fed and perpetuated the rich fantasy that Hollywood is, after all, Dreamland.
No screenwriter could have written it better. Lana was just minding her own business having a Coke when destiny called. Her discovery became proof that Hollywood was a place of mystery and magic where a schoolgirl can become a screen legend.
In 1974, Lana told me about her enduring gratitude toward my father. Of course, it didn’t hurt that all through her early years, the Reporter regularly covered Lana’s career. In 1948, she personally demonstrated that gratitude by asking Wilkerson to be best man at her third wedding (to Bob Topping). Flattered, my father offered his house for the ceremony and the couple delightfully accepted.
She recalled her discovery with gushy tenderness. “Other people over the years have been attributed with saying those lines. But it was your father who said them, which I think is even more enchanting because it was your father who did find me, even though Mervyn LeRoy gave me my chance. God knows where I’d have been if I hadn’t been at that time and place where your father saw me.”
Lana’s passing on Thursday brings down the final curtain on Hollywood’s Golden Era. The Sweater Girl’s fairy-tale story began with a discovery that made Hollywood history almost overnight.
She will always remain that innocent and sensual celluloid spirit, a perfect Cinderella frozen in time, preserved forever for us, her grateful audience.