A black vaudevillian finds success and adventure on the silver screen.
The latest novel from Ravage (Grandpa Ben and His Pirates, 2012, etc.) opens backstage at the Memphis Star Theater in 1939 at a black vaudeville performance where Ted Masters paces the wings. Ted’s a talented, tasteful, teetotaling musician and dancer who, in his own words, gets “kicked on my butt so often it’s got Neolite stamped on it.” His bandleader fires him; his girlfriend walks out on him; and more than a few of his friends urge him to give up the circuit and start afresh. Arriving in Los Angeles, he meets Francine “Frank” Compton, a cross-dressing cabdriver who shows him the town and introduces him to the cluster of theater owners, promoters, and producers who hustle Ted his first Hollywood gig. Worried at first he might have what booker Benny Pickles calls “the same chances in pictures as any other black man with looks and talent—between zero and none,” Ted soon finds luck with Sid Grauman, owner of the eponymous Chinese Theater, and dreams he didn’t know he had start coming true. As celluloid cowboy Rod Lang, he rides, strums, and dances his way through his first screen Western, a crossover B-roll for Republic Pictures called Silver Sage. Along the way, he suffers the indignities of low-budget filmmaking, the mysteries of the growing industry (“what amounts to a small town wrapped inside a big city”), and the thrill of seeing his name in lights. He also encounters his old flame Carmen Lassouer, a reunion fraught with so much passion it leads to gunplay. In a ghostly touch, Ravage gives Ted a spectral revenant for an interlocutor, the spirit of the planter who owned Ted’s ancestors and from whom his family takes its name. That name is Masters, and the somewhat obvious pun the author exploits with it (the slave owner was one sort of master, but Ted is entirely another) is one of the few moments when the book’s gears come too much into view. But in the overwhelming body of the text, Ravage evokes questions of race with rare delicacy and descriptions of midcentury Hollywood with learned skill (“Movie stars are made, not born, bucko. Nobody came out of his mommie looking for the key light or the makeup man”). This is both a pleasurable and an illuminating book.
A captivating and inspiring story of struggle and acceptance in the prewar dream factory.