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Former 'Stage Brat' Has Vivid Memories of Vaudeville Era in Long Beach

May 30, 1985|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — By fate so fortunate he still blesses his Irish luck, 69-year-old Harold Fahey grew up a stage brat in the main theater of a young city brimming with oil and ambition.

His haunt was the State Theater, a major-league vaudeville and movie house his father opened within the new Jergins Trust Building on Ocean Boulevard in 1920.

During a 15-year period, ending in 1935, Hal Fahey spent every possible hour behind the State's large stage, hanging out in the "green room," where performers gathered before a show.

As a 12-year-old, he danced the Charleston with Babe Ruth and dreamed of being a ventriloquist at the knee of Edgar Bergen.

At age 17, he watched as fallen heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, devoid of theatrical talent, brought overflow crowds to their feet with his simple presence. And, also as a teen-ager, he secretly fell in love with a fresh-faced starlet named Ginger Rogers.

"I had seen a lot of actors and actresses by that time," said Fahey, "but I liked her because she was such a sweet person, like a schoolgirl. We took her to the Pacific Coast Club one Friday night and really knocked the natives dead."

In recent weeks, Fahey, a retired designer of bank buildings, has returned to the old theater several times, touring it and the 10-story Jergins Building with an architect's eye toward restoration. The Jergins, with one of the city's best locations at Ocean Boulevard and Pine Avenue, is scheduled to be razed in July and replaced by a luxury hotel.

"I am very sentimental about this theater," said Fahey last week from inside the old State.

He was dapper in a cream-colored suit and florid tie, but the theater was a mess. The stage had been hacked in half and curtains were torn. Gone were the theater's 1,800 seats, its bronze chandeliers and brocaded draperies. The angels with harps that had graced its ceiling dome were covered with gray paint. So few lights worked that it was difficult to see even the destruction that remained.

"I was against it being torn down," said Fahey. "but now I realize that architecturally and in an engineering sense, it is not feasible to make it a safe and modern structure."

That comment will not make him popular with local cultural preservation groups, of which he is a member, Fahey said. Preservationists have worked for more than a year to find a buyer to restore the Jergins but have been unsuccessful. Current owners have estimated that restoration would cost between $15 million and $20 million and that, in the end, the building would lose money.

Standing or not, the State Theater will continue to evoke the best of Fahey's memories, he said. They are captured in old photos of home run kings, singing cowboys and movie stars. More than once, a small circus with lions, tigers and clowns was featured on its stage.

From the Orpheum in New York and the Pantages in Hollywood, the stars came to perform at the State by the hundreds.

Babe Ruth even slept in the Faheys' large First Street home while doing a week of appearances at the theater in the winter of 1927, the year he hit 60 home runs. "Every morning when I got up, he'd be there," recalled Fahey, still slightly in awe. "I was going to an academy, and before they'd come to pick me up, we'd have breakfast together. He ate a ton. He was rotund and we had to bring in a heavier chair for him."

Fahey's father, William, who "made a million dollars" off the State and a few million more from investments in other theaters and movie productions, talked baseball with Ruth. And one evening young Hal danced for the slugger on stage.

"They'd have a simulated baseball stadium as a backdrop and Babe Ruth would be on stage in his uniform and with a bat. He'd just point laughingly and select 10 to 15 youngsters from the audience, and he'd ask them, 'What do you do best?' "

Some would sing. A little boy, with Ruth as his pitcher, walloped a ball, hitting the drummer in the theater's 15-person orchestra. And Fahey, chosen by prearrangement with the stage manager, did a 10-minute Charleston. His father was furious, Fahey recalled with a smile, explaining that the old man had tried unsuccessfully to keep him out of the performers' way.

Ruth, who was paid $5,000 for his week of 45-minute shows, was "a womanizer and a liver-upper, but we never knew it," said Fahey. "His driver would have him home by 10 o'clock."

'Extremely Wholesome'

Of all who appeared, Ginger Rogers, promoting her earliest films, probably drew the largest crowd, Fahey said. "I can tell you exactly what she looked like without makeup. It's as if she's standing right here. She was freckle-faced and had pretty, bright eyes. She had red hair, though not naturally. She was sweet and clean and jolly, extremely wholesome. I was impressed."

But Hal's favorite was Bergen. "He came maybe eight times over 10 years. One time in the green room, he let me hold Charlie McCarthy on my lap and tried to teach me to be a ventriloquist. He loved children."

But by 1935, motion pictures had raised stars' wages beyond the means of the senior Fahey, and the State's six-act, 75-cent afternoons of vaudeville and movies were becoming a thing of the past.

The State eventually became a theater for movies only. Fahey, hooked by the entertainment business, worked with his father until the old man sold his theaters in 1950. Films were shown at the State by its various owners until it was closed in 1977.

Now, Fahey lives on Ocean Boulevard, near the house of his birth and a short bike ride from the family's First Street home.

"I still ride by and think about it all," he said. "There are so many memories."

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