Schwab’s is ‘a combination office, coffee klatch and waiting room.’
– William Holden, ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ 1950
The world-famous Schwab’s drugstore at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights in Hollywood was still open in 1970, when at age 19 I started working a non-pro (i.e., non-entertainment industry) or “civilian” job a few miles west in West Hollywood.
Just for grins I’d stop at Schwab’s for lunch, sit the counter, and soak up the scene, projecting what it must have been like in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ’50s, packed with showbiz industry-types and wanna-bes looking to get “discovered.” The legend of actress Lana Turner being discovered there had yet to be debunked in 1970.
Entering the drugstore then, on the left side you’d see upscale cosmetics and aisles of other drugstore items. At the back of the store was a bank of phone booths with classic folding doors.
On the right was the lunch counter, usually packed at midday, and waitresses with ‘50s-era outfits and headgear dished up the orders.
On the far right was a smaller dining room with booths, where the older Hollywood actors and agents and hacks and flacks would hang out, swap stories, read the racing form for tips on the horses, and check Variety’s and Hollywood Reporter’s obits.
“I wanna make sure my name’s not in here,” as the old gag went.
My first visit to Schwab’s, I had no idea about this daily ritual. A co-worker took me there, and we sat in one of the dining room booths. The conversations going on around us were alternately hilarious, fascinating and sad. The regulars all joshed and joked and needled each other like they’d been pals for years. Well, duh.
Many of them were Jewish so Yiddish slang peppered the dialog. As a kid growing up goyim in North Miami, I loved picking up Yiddish from my Jewish neighbors, classmates and friends.
A couple alter cockers at an adjacent table were talking about a mutual friend from back in their salad days. They’d just read his obit in Daily Variety.
“Hey, it says he worked with you on ‘Playhouse 90,’” one guy said to the other.
“Did they spell my name right?” the other guy deadpanned.
My co-worker and I somehow kept from cracking up as the old guys swapped a couple stories about their freshly departed friend, talked some sh*t about him, said he was meshugga, had a few laughs, got quiet for a few seconds, then went off talking about something else.
Within a couple of years, spring 1975, I’d landed my first job in the entertainment biz, as a writer-editor and production coordinator for Cash Box, a music industry trade magazine headquartered on Sunset a few blocks west of RCA and CNN and Martoni’s, a centrally located watering hole favored by music biz types, especially record company promo guys.
Driving a mile or two farther west on Sunset, I’d grab lunch at Schwab’s. The end of the counter closest to the side room was the best seat because I could discreetly eavesdrop on the characters in the dining room. By then, the crowd seemed to be thinning.
After almost a year at the magazine came all-consuming stints at Capitol and Elektra/Asylum Records, so my Schwab’s visits were less frequent. The years flew by and it caught me by surprise when Schwab’s closed in 1983.
My First Obit: For My Father
Life hurtled into the future. Around the same time, my journalist-scholar-mentor dad William A. Peeples II retired from the Los Angeles Times, bought an 18’ sailboat, docked it in Marina Del Rey, and went out as often as he could on day-cruises out in Santa Monica Bay.
I’d often accompany him as first mate, manning the sails, sandwiches and suds. Sometimes my sister Ruthie came along and we’d have a blast. My girlfriend-then-wife Nadine and then our kids Scot and Veronica sometimes joined us. Sailing with Pop and Grandpa was probably the most fun thing we did as an extended family. Going to the Highland Games together to celebrate our Scottish heritage was another.
But his health began to decline and after a heart attack in 1990 he sold the boat. He was tough, but pneumonia finally took him out just before Thanksgiving 2003 at age 82.
Pop had written my mom’s obit when she died in 1973 (cancer, age 43); I wrote his in late 2003. I wasn’t about to leave that to anyone but my sister (also a journalist) or me, and she edited/proofed it with me until we thought it properly told his story and recounted his many accomplishments.
We found an autobiography in his archives, a piece we’d never seen. Pop had written it while earning his journalism B.A. from the University of Illinois in the late ‘40s, after serving in the Navy from 1939-1946. The piece was well-written, as I’d expect, fact-packed and reflecting the maturity of someone who’d already seen a lot of living.
His autobio provided the basis, deep background and quotes for his obit. He gave me the voice in which to write it.
The length was not an issue. I went 4,450 words. Because he was a former Times employee, the paper printed a version of it, but much shorter, at no charge. (I just exhumed the long version. Think I’ll post it here on my site soon. It would have cost hundreds, if not thousands, to publish complete in the Times or even online.)
Obits for Others
A year after Dad died, I took a features writer position at the local newspaper, 10 minutes from my home in the Santa Clarita Valley. My editor’s first-day orientation included how to handle the daily obits. Since I was the new kid (at age 53) on the editorial staff, she said, “Tag, you’re the obits editor.”
OK, no problem at first. But as the weeks wore on, the daily contact with people grieving the deaths of loved ones, and trying to be sensitive but still having to press them through the tears and upset so I could get enough facts to write a decent obit, thinking it’s the least I can do for the family, just started to wear on my usually semi-pleasant demeanor.
My dad left a big hole in my heart when he died (and to this day). He was a great dad and a wonderful teacher. I missed him beyond words. I thought of him every time I wrote someone else’s obit.
It also was depressing to be reminded of my own mortality every day.
The whole thing got very weird because at the same time obits and dealing with survivors became almost routine, the sense that I have more years behind me than in front became more intense. I was stuck inside the newsroom with the obit blues again.
The Mortality Heebie-Jeebies
Since age 6 or 7, I’ve understood my lifetime is finite, just like everyone else’s. Upon first realizing I was going to die someday, and worse, would not know when, I freaked out. My mom did her best to comfort me and help me wrap my head around it.
“I don’t wanna die!” I howled.
“It’s just one of those things about life we can’t change,” she said, calmly. “We may not like it, but we must accept it.”
At some point, I tagged these occasional episodes “the mortality heebie-jeebies.” I think I first heard the phrase heebie-jeebies from a Three Stooges short, and they probably copped it from Louis Armstrong, who got it from the Barney Google comic strip in the ’20s. I liked heebie-jeebies better than “the willies.” Whatever those were. (Oh, STFU.)
Pardon the digression. Point is: The random preciousness of life must always end in death.
Death is life’s ultimate rip-off.
All things must pass, as George Harrison noted in 1969 and 1970. Out of the blue and into the black, as Neil Young put it several years later.
It’s akin to that flash of cosmic consciousness, the moment you realize you’re a speck in the infinite universe times infinity, but you’re still connected to everything.
Growing up, when the heebie-jeebies hit me, I’d quickly remember what Mom said, shake it off, get into something else before the terror took over.
As an older man, I’m more inclined to acknowledge the dread, but also to redouble my effort make the most of whatever time I have, and get on with it.
The Leap of Faith
My folks raised me as a Christian, a believer in everlasting life. But they were also highly educated journalists who approached everything with a healthy skepticism and wanted corroboration, proof — not a leap of faith.
We had many discussions about this; they always ended with that leap of faith.
A young reverend joined the ossified senior ministers at Miami Shores Presbyterian church. Circa 1964. Big congregation, more than 3,000. My parents sang in the choir for a time. The rev held a weekly group session with 8th and 9th graders; I was in 8th. He was the “Hoodlum Priest” and we white middle-class adolescent smart-asses were the hoodlums.
One night, early in the session, the rev just picked up his Bible from a table and chucked it across the room. The good book hit the wall and fell to the floor.
That really got our attention.
He said the point is, faith is in your heart, not in a book – even if that book is the Bible. Explain and intellectualize and interpret all you want, it still all comes down to faith in a higher being or higher power.
We totally got the concept. Or some of us did. When I told my folks, they thought it was extreme but effective. But this was Miami in the mid-1960s. Racist, conservative redneck-ism was ingrained in local life, even in church. Other kids’ folks flipped out when they found out about the Bible-thumping, complained to the church’s elders, and had the young reverend canned.
I’ve never forgotten the rev’s lesson. It was also my first clue that organized religion is a sham, and I soon learned it has been for untold thousands of years.
So since then I’ve independently explored numerous spiritual paths. I’ve gone to church in my head. It’s way more convenient and direct. Who needs a middleman?
Every morning, I thank God (aka the Universal Energy Force: Love) for another day, and ask for guidance to help me make it the best day possible for me and those I encounter. Each night, I give thanks for the good things I accomplished and that happened along the way.
I ask forgiveness for some of the unforgivable stuff I’ve done and do my damnedest never to repeat those mistakes. Guilt is a heavy burden.
Hedging my bet? Guilty again. But if God exists, he already knows.
(Don’t) Fear the Reaper
Back in late 2004, after a couple months as obits editor at the local fish wrap, I threatened to bring in a Grim Reaper outfit to wear at my desk during the hour or two per shift devoted to preparing obits.
Being a kindred smart-ass, my editor thought that was funny. But I was thisclose to making the trip to Hollywood Costumes.
Then suddenly, miraculously, management decided to shift obits from editorial to the classified ad department. This was hardly done to accommodate me; ownership just wanted the paper to start charging for obits. So I had to let that daily task go. I was crushed.
A couple years later, I took over as the paper’s online editor and first social media manager, with stints as interim copy desk chief and opinion editor on top of that over the next five years. In my copious spare time, I could write about almost anything and my features and columns appeared in a number of different sections of the paper and online. Of course, no extra compensation was involved.
Occasionally the city or managing editor would ask me to write a feature obit for News about the death of some prominent figure in town. Once in a while was OK. The editors let me stretch out a bit, and the stories were well received by surviving family and readers.
In spring 2011, the financially troubled paper downsized; incredibly, the online editor post was among those cut. A few days later, I started writing news and entertainment for the local radio and TV stations, which have a news-sharing arrangement, as well as their websites.
Another Family Obit
One morning in the radio station’s newsroom, an incoming email from the local cops informed us a young man had died in a solo motorcycle crash late the night before. Bummer, I thought.
I read the victim’s name. It was my daughter’s fiancé.
They’d met in high school and attended College of the Canyons together. They were planning to get hitched.
Can you effing imagine?
My daughter’s voicemail was full so I called my wife, who’d just also found out and was on the way to see her. Our daughter was in shock but fortunately quickly surrounded by friends who were helping her cope.
I had a choice: Should I leave work to be with my daughter, or do I write the young man’s obit, not leaving it to another writer who knew bupkis about the kid or his survivors and would probably screw it up?
Since she was in good hands, I opted to write the obit, make the nightly newscast deadline, and post it online before going to be with her. Long story short, it turned out to be the right move.
After reading the fiancé obit, a colleague my age at the radio station actually said to me, “When I die, I want you to write my obit.” That rocked me back a bit. We hugged and I said it would be my honor, but not an assignment I’d never want.
In the last couple of years, two of my older friends checked out, and their families asked me to write the obits because they knew I’d do a proper job.
How could one refuse that?
To me, these as opportunities to honor the legacy of these guys, a tangible way of paying my respects, and again, make sure it got done properly.
RIP Facebook RIPs
Now, it’s not just my older friends who’re heading over the rainbow bridge. It’s starting to be my heroes and contemporaries, and happening more frequently. What mortal could keep up with it? What sane mortal would want to?
Before Schwab’s shuttered, the Hollywood geezers in the dining room booths scoured obits in the Times, Herald-Examiner, Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety to see who just left this mortal coil. They’d go the phone bank at the back of the store and call other family and friends with the news.
Today, by the time any paper can get to print, news of someone’s death has already been tweeted and posted and gone viral. So why waste the newsprint and ink?
In the early days of Facebook, and even now, there seemed to be a race to see who could post an RIP about the latest famous or almost-famous (i.e., industry) person to pass on.
“It’s interesting when people die…” as Don Henley wailed in “Dirty Laundry.”
Yeah, I got sucked into that social media obit bit for a bit. But no more.
First, I’m retired now, done with breaking news and keeping up with related social media. Time to let the kids take over, whether they’re ready or not (and they’re not). They’re already taking over anyway, with less education, far less experience, and little time for basic journalism.
Second, as previously lamented, I’m quite aware of my own impending mortality, TYVM.
Yeah, the tock is clicking for me and everyone my age – family, friends, schoolmates and workmates. Several friends are battling various serious diseases (fortunately my health is good, notwithstanding a few creaks.
But it’s mind over mood – you know there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just deal. No whining allowed.
So on FB or Twitter I may reference the passing or birth date of someone I knew as a way of paying respects and/or sharing a relevant story. But otherwise no more news flashes from me about celeb deaths.
These days my focus is on a family business project. Beyond that, there’s a lifetime of deferred projects, travel, adventures, experiences, reading, listening and viewing to do in whatever cognitive, ambulatory time is left.
There a choice: keep rocking the bucket list and live a longer life by staying active, or sit on a couch, accept I’ll never have time, money or energy to do any of that stuff, do nothing, and die sooner.
It would be untrue if I said taking the latter route might be better. Maybe it’s easier to wallow in depression and better to die sooner. Like, who wants to prolong the pain and angst of being an old f**k?
And referencing Neil again, I agree it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
So maybe in another 20-30 years you’ll load my carcass onto a barge, torch it, then sail it off into a blazing setting sun on the horizon, like a Viking warrior.
That way I can burn out and fade away.
But first, let me get this other bucket list stuff done.
The list includes writing my own obit.
All anyone will have to do is fill in the blanks with the date, place, cause and my age, and insert the dirt.
Once a control freak….
Grammy-nominee and Santa Clarita journalist Stephen K. Peeples was an entertainment reporter for Santa Clarita television station SCVTV and its website at SCVNews.com, and for Santa Clarita radio station KHTS AM 1220 and its website at HometownStation.com, from 2011-2015. He hosted and co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” music and interview program for five seasons, 2010-2015, creating 69 shows spotlighting local artists performing their original material. Peeples was also an award-winning international radio producer and newspaper online editor, and most recently an in-demand website project manager and content editor. He blogs at his personal site, http://www.stephenkpeeples.com.