'The Premiere'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Stephanie 'Stevie' Garroch, 32, and Kelly Humber, 30, are lovers and actors contracted to Redoubtable Films Inc, which they also have shares in, a 'B' film Poverty Row movie studio located in Hollywood and New York in the 1930's. They help in distributing the reels of their latest production to regional theatres.

Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author. All characters, certain film companies, and film titles, in this story are fictional; and any resemblance to real companies, or real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some swearing in this story.

—O—

"How many reels?"

"Five,—fifteen minutes each, approximately; it bein' an hour an' twenty minute movie." Stephanie on top of the mathematics of the job.

"And how many cinemas are we supplying t'day?" Kelly determined to milk the situation for all the wormwood going.

"Five."

"You're repeating yourself, doll."

"No, there's five cinemas, right enough." Stephanie shaking her head in confirmation, an action which could only confuse her partner, and it did. "Why're ya lookin' at me like that fer?"

"Because I think you're goin' off your rocker, babe; but 'cause I loves you t'bits I'll just go on suffering in silence."

"Idiot. Jeez, where's the forward gear on this heap?"

'Sagebrush Struggle', the latest Western movie completed by Redoubtable Studios, having been edited and sent out for copying, the full 5 reels of the movie in 35millimetre theatre prints were now ready to be sent to the theatres contracted to show the film across the state. It would also be shown at various other theatres in other states, of course; all the way across to the East Coast—but here in California it was always an effort to find the hands available to distribute the multiple copies to innumerable theatres spread across the landscape. When they had the free time Stephanie and Kelly had somehow gotten into the habit of lending a helping hand in this, always frantic, activity. So now they sat in the Studio's battered Ford Model AA, from 1929, ready for their next odyssey to feed the state-wide cinemas with Redoubtable provender, 5 reels at a time.

"How fast can this thing go?" Kelly always on the lookout for useless information.

"On the level, with a following hurricane, maybe thirty-five." Stephanie sniffed censoriously. "On anything approaching the slightest slope or incline say, oh, twenty-five if you're lucky."

"Chr-st, it'll take us all year t'cross the state and unload at all these dam' cinemas."

"Well, we'd jest better get movin' then, outen we?"

"Huh, go to it, gal." Kelly sitting back on the uncomfortable cab bench-seat, rubbing shoulders with her driver. "Bet ya five dollars it don't start, an' we have t'beg the boys from the Front Office t'push us?"

"Not on my watch we won't, darlin'." Stephanie frowned horribly, leant forward, and pressed the starter-button. "Come on, baby, go, gal, go!"

Rrr-Rrr-Raaoowwr!

"Yippee."

"Fool." Kelly shook her head, but smiled encouragingly, anyway. "OK, you got her goin', now take her out in'ta the sticks. See how far we get."

"Har."

—O—

The most depressing point of being a 'B' movie studio was that your efforts hardly ever achieved the accolade of being shown at the major cinema chains; these being reserved for the Big Boys, MGM, United Artists, Universal; hell, even Warner Bros. But for the Poverty Row outfits, like Redoubtable Studios, it was the sticks, the country nickelodeons and back-street flea-pits. Though, as Buddie Brannigan Redoubtable's Producer was often wont to affirm, at least you had a loyal and constant audience even if they tended to pay their entrance fees with empty pop bottles and Mexican pesetas.

"Where's our first drop-off?"

"Calton Neck."

"Where's that?"

"God, woman, you've got the dam' map; make yerself useful on this here pilgrimage."

Stephanie, through some outré maneouvre of circumstances had found herself in the truck's driving-seat at the commencement of hostilities on driving away from Redoubtable's Main Office on the outskirts of southern Hollywood. Relegated to driver's assistant, passenger, or, to be truthful, supernumerary cargo, Kelly had settled down to the navigator's position with something less than enthusiasm.

"This map's fifteen year out of date." She providing this information with all the aloof but intense resolve of Lady MacBeth at her best. "Sure it'll be on here?"

"Mmmwwr-rrh."

"What? No matter, I've found it. God, it's miles away, nearly in the desert."

"Probably why the Front Office gave us this wonderful truck, t'get us there, an' back." Stephanie meeting her lover's criticism with all the sarcasm it deserved. "How far, an' which direction?"

"Forty-two bloody mile, an' to a gen'rly north-east leanin'."

"What?"

"Take the next turn on your right, go through Harledene like a dose o'salts, then take the second on your left." Kelly bucking-up no end as she became enthralled by the map's layout. "Then go like the clappers, or as near such as this broken-down wreck'll allow, till you bounce off the wayside sign that says Calton Neck-Two Miles."

"Huurr."

—O—

The Phoenix, Calton Neck, California, was not a modern cinema; in fact it was one of the surviving original cinematographs or nickelodeons; though now, by exterior looks, apparently well advanced in rapidly returning to the desert it had sprung from thirty years previously.

On stopping the Ford truck in a cloud of dry dust outside the premises Stephanie and Kelly took a moment to inspect their first customer.

"Jee-sus, looks like a cow-shed turned in'ta a dry-goods store,—one that collapsed in the Depression." Kelly not impressed with her immediate surroundings at all. "Is that single wooden door the main entrance? Looks like a house-door."

"Well, that sandwich-board on the sidewalk there is publicising 'Carter Cawlins and the Big Round-Up', that Detective Thriller we made, oh, two month since."

"Hope they haven't been showing it constantly since then." Kelly looking at the pragmatic angle of the situation. "The film'll be all wore out by now. Just as well we're here with a successor. You go bang on the door, I'll climb in the back an' sort out the reels. Gim'me a call when ye find the owner an're ready t'help drag 'em in the old barn."

While Kelly strolled to the rear of the 13 foot long truck and fiddled with the rear gate of the open stake-sided flat-bed her paramour started her own operations in public relations by stepping up to the narrow house-door with its peeling, yet sweet smelling, brown paint, and banging out a rhythm as loudly as she could manage. This being somewhere close to midday, the street was nearly empty of pedestrians, as it was of traffic of any kind, too. Not receiving an answer to her first attempt Stephanie beat out a further staccato series of knocks, then leaned back to see if she could see any sign of movement inside the building—a window being close by the door but so dusty and covered in dead insects it was impossible to see through. Then the door opened with a squealing grind to reveal the owner.

"Yeah, wha'ya' wan'?"

In appearance he was in his mid fifties, and was almost that round the waist as well. His head also had a circular bent, neckless and chin covered in a week's stubble. His expression was not one of soft tenderness to humanity, either.

"Who're you?" Stephanie determined to start things off the way she wanted.

Taken slightly aback by this forthright opposition, and by Stephanie's straight gaze, the man paused to consider his options; finally deciding on the best, one of polite interest.

"I'm Bert, I'm the projectionist here. Wha' can I do fer ya?"

"This the Phoenix movie theatre?" Stephanie keeping the initiative like the warrior she was.

"Yeah." Then Bert began to catch on, a trifle late but there you are. "You the movie guys—er, ladies?"

"We are that." Pleased that contact had been confirmed she smiled and nodded at the truck behind her. "My partner's gettin' the reels of our latest effort ready; if y'll come an' lend a hand we can have them in your office in no time."

"OK, but I'll need to phone the owner; tell him the new movie's arrived." Bert shrugged his heavy shoulders apologetically. "Policy, y'know."

"Well, fine; but get a move on, we're not shifting these dam' reels by ourselves."

'Sagebrush Struggle' being a sound film meant that the cinema would be using an electrically driven projector; the old hand-cranked variety not being capable of keeping pace with a sound film. Also there would be two projectors in their specially built flame-proof room—nitrate film having a reputation, and definite history, of going up in flames if merely looked at improperly. So being a movie projectionist was not all beer and skittles by a long way.

A 1,000 foot reel of 35mm film, in its flat circular metal container, was also heavier than you might expect; it being generally the case that two at a time was sufficient if accidents were to be avoided. So Kelly and Stephanie waited at the truck's rear for the appearance of the projectionist before attempting to move the reels Kelly had shifted to the edge of the truck's open tailgate.

"Where's he got—oh, here he comes—right."

Kelly, as was her usual wont, swiftly taking over command like a general on the battlefield, issuing orders which neither Stephanie nor the projectionist took much note of—each grabbing a couple of the reels, shifting them to get the best grip on the unwieldy cans, then making for the cinema door, leaving Kelly to trail in the rear with the last can, still complaining.

The ladies being on a working expedition, and their notoriet—er, fame not being to the fore, they were dressed appropriately—solid flat-heeled shoes, dungarees and men's dark shirts, all topped-off by men's flat caps. From a distance over twenty feet any passer-by would take them both for young working-men; their real personas as well-known movie actors being wholly subsumed in their temporary disguises.

"Redoubtable employing women, now?" Bert, as he preceded them up a flight of rickety stairs, making light conversation. "Strange changes this dam' Depression makes, y'know. My ma, f'instance; she worked in an ammunition factory durin' the Great War, an' now she operates a overhead crane in a steel plant—would ya credit it? Makes more'n I do, too."

"Yeah, wonderful; are we there yet?" Kelly having no interest whatever in the projectionist's family history. "We're on a schedule, y'know."

"This's it, hold on till I get the dam' key."

Putting his two reels on the floor Bert fished around in the capacious pockets of his tawdry suit, finally rising triumphant with the key in question.

"Can't be too careful." He threw a glance over his shoulder as he opened the projection-room door. "These new Government rules an' regulations about how t'store an' operate nitrate film are harsh."

"Well, they don't want you, or the cinema's patrons, goin' up in a blue light, do they?" Stephanie being pragmatic about the situation.

"Blinding white-orange light, t'be exact. A reel'll go up like a roarin' gas jet, at an incredible temperature." Bert offering his expert knowledge. "An' the smoke an' fumes are probably more dangerous yet—poisonous, y'see. Get caught in an enclosed space with any amount at all o'burnin' nitrate film stock an' you'll die o'smoke inhalation an' poison gas if'n the flame-jets don't get ya first."

Neither woman finding any appropriate rejoinder to this they simply followed Bert into the room, which was almost entirely taken up with the two bulky projectors and their ancillary equipment. On shelves lining two of the room's walls many other reels of film sat waiting future presentations.

"Where'd ya get all these films?" Kelly being inquisitive by nature and inclination.

"Oh, they're old movies, mostly silent stuff—years old; don't show 'em anymore." Bert shrugged as he deposited his new reels on a table to the side and indicated the ladies do the same with their reels. "That's fine; yeah, the old silents—I still think they're better than most o'the sound rubbish we show nowadays—your presences an' material excepted, o'course."

"Why, thanks." Stephanie sounding less than overjoyed at this criticism of the film industry in general.

"Those reels, over there in the corner with the red tape round the cans." The projectionist pointed with a stubby thumb. "Those are 'Cleopatra' with Theda Bara. Nineteen-seventeen, y'know; Mr Davidson an' I take 'em out every once in a while, late at night after the regular show's over an' the customers have gone home, an' spend half an hour watchin' a reel of Theda. Fine lady, Theda Bara; you should see some o'the costumes she nearly wears, too; would make this new Hay's Office have a fit if'n they saw 'em. Well, here we are; oh, that sounds like Mr Davidson, now—the manager."

There came the sound of fast athletic steps on the stairs outside and the door was flung open with a free-willed abandon which made it crash against the wall and bounce back, nearly taking the entering man in his face but, being clearly aware of the danger, he already had a defensive arm out to waylay the door's intent.

"Ha, the new movie at dam' last." He stood almost six feet high, well-toned body enveloped in a loose-fitting light grey seersucker suit, and had about ten fewer years to his credit than either Stephanie or Kelly expected. "Took yer time about it didn't ya—oh, I say, excuse me—didn't realise you were—ahem."

"Don't mind us, just carry on biting the hand that bloody feeds ya, why not." Stephanie rather exercised herself about such a reception. "If'n you're so spatty about our deliveries why don't ya get out'ta the movie business an' do something more important t'the country's tax situation, then?"

"—er, my apologies, ladies; bit of a mess-up on the politeness front, I'm afraid." He glanced at both women, blushed visibly to a delicate pink tone, and raised a submissive hand. "Let's start again, I'm Pete Davidson, and I adore everything Redoubtable puts out bar nothing—well, er,—no, bar nothing."

"Oh yeah?" Kelly raising a questioning eye, though with a disarming smile at the poor clot's evident discomposure. "I kind'a hear the faint echo of a dying criticism of something of ours;—spit it out, we don't bite; at least our bite ain't lethal—gen'rally."

"Well, ah, since you ask," Davidson rolled from foot to foot, still overcome by his indelicate welcome. "everything you—er, Redoubtable—do is fine by me, of course. But the audience—you know, the ordinary folks about the town—they sort'a have fancies and, er, things."

"Like what?" Stephanie moving the attack forward like a good general.

"Ah, well, umm,—"

"Come on," Kelly showing her far-famed impatience with, well, just about everything. "cough it up, you'll feel better for it. Anyway, Redoubtable like t'hear from the stick—er, the further flung cinemas an' such outposts o'civilisation, what the populace like an' don't—gives 'em, in the Front Office, something t'get 'em through their arduous day, y'see."

"Well, put like that," Davidson shrugged and came clean. "The folks round here like the Detective movies, the modern day dramas, the murder mysteries, but—"

"Yeah?" Kelly standing firm, like the vanguard of an army. "Yeah?—"

"They're not so keen, these days, on the Cowboys—the Westerns, y'know." Davidson raised his arms, then dropped them again in the classic movement of someone with a hopeless message to transmit to a shocked audience. "Can't say any clearer than that. It's the fact that most of Redoubtable's recent movies in that line, Cowboys, don't actually show cowboys; rather, those two gals, what're their names, now? Oh yeah, Stephanie Garroch an' Kelly Humber. They appear in a lot'ta other movies Redoubtable push out, but the folks likes 'em well enough in those—it's just the Cowboys they don't like 'em in. Cowboys bein', ye'll agree, mostly cow—boys, if ya gets my drift."

This shocking revelation of poor reception of their combined efforts here, out in the country, caused a brief silence to fall in the small projection room, then Kelly regained her feet, metaphorically speaking.

"How about that last Cowboy—'Massacre at Hanley Creek'?" She being rather proud of the work she had put into that oater. "Lot's of cowboys there. In fact about seven hit the dust in the finale shoot-out; can't say fairer than that, can we?"

"But there weren't a stand-out Good Guy." Davidson putting his finger on the point at issue with cold efficiency. "No 'Tumbleweed' Baker, or Buck Jones, never mind 'Broncho' Billy Anderson. That sort'a thing. Folks, they bein' of a conservative sway of mind, likes t'see the male hero in the white hat rise triumphant over his enemies each week. Y'see the trouble?"

Both ladies could indeed see the source of the problem, stepping forward as a unified group of two to send such criticism packing.

"We—"

"In my opin—oh, go ahead, Ke—er, Sal."

"What? Oh, yeah—right." Kelly caught off-guard by her suddenly affixed non-de-plume. "No, no, you go right ahead—er, Deirdrie."

Pausing only to give the love of her life a frowning glance that would normally have killed a rattler dead in its tracks Stephanie came to the assistance of her sisters' in general.

"What I think Redoubtable's doin' there is to drag the feminine sex, excuse my language, in'ta the modern age." As she warmed to the topic Stephanie's eyes began to shine with the fervour of the initiate. "Let the world realize that women ain't jest t'be seen in the kitchen, or hangin' on the male hero's arm like a weak limpet-"

"Limpet's ain't gen'rally—"

"What I mean is, Redoubtable probably think women are just as brave as men, when ya come down to it, so why shouldn't they get the hero's part in a movie?" Stephanie riding roughshod over her partner's ill-timed interference. "See what I'm gettin' at?"

Davidson, by this time, obviously wished he had made some other, neutral, opening conversational remark; but too late now.

"—er, no doubt." He gazed at his audience of two, completely at a loss how to go forward. "Well, er, thanks for delivering the new movie. What is it, by the way?"

Both women paused in finally placing their reels of the movie in question on the table indicated by the till now silent Bert. Then Kelly bravely came to the fore.

"—'Sagebrush Struggle'—a Cowboy, only as usual, without the boys."

Another silence wafted into the room, disturbing the dust which flickered in the warm air like infinitely small supernatural presences; though no-one there took the slightest notice of such.

"Well, er, I'm sure the audiences'll love it." Davidson prevaricating like a second-hand furniture salesman. "Mighty fine of Redoubtable t'employ wom—er, ladies like yourselves, I'm sure. Sure it's the coming thing, right enough. Well, thanks—where's your next drop, if I may ask?"

As a get-out clause it wasn't brilliant but, as both Stephanie and Kelly rightly allowed, it would do in the circumstances.

"Yeah, where's the next cinema gasping for the nutritious pabulum of our productions?"

Stephanie stood, wholly flummoxed by this arcane remark.

"What, Kel—er, Sal?"

"Where's our next destination, gal; do wake up, we can't stay here all morning." Kelly brightening up no end as the close of their uncomfortable meeting hove in sight. "Where to?"

"Oh, ah, yeah." Stephanie consulting the sheets of paper stapled into a bundle she carried in her hand. "It'll be Hancocksville, some thirty mile t'the east, again. Will ya sign here, Mr. Davidson, got'ta keep the Front Office happy."

"Jeez, if we go any further east we'll be in dam' Nevada." Kelly expressing her disapproval of the whole thing.

"Thanks, see ya around." Stephanie taking her errant partner by the left elbow, propelling her to the door with settled determination. "Come on, we got places t'be. Bye, Mr. Davidson; bye, Bert."

About two minutes later they were back in their truck, Stephanie jerking it into gear and driving off along the dusty street at a fair gallop.

"That was fun."

"Ya think so?" Stephanie glanced at her co-pilot with raised eyebrows. "Doesn't say much fer the reception these folks seem t'attribute t'our efforts t'entertain 'em."

"Can't please everyone, lover."

"Be great if'n we could please anyone at all, I'm thinkin'." Stephanie determined not to lose this perfect opportunity to whinge wholesale.

"Eearrph."

This being the only neutral comment Kelly could find at short notice as a reply to the woman whom she loved with all her heart and soul.

—O—

Hancocksville had grown up round a small goods railway yard; the population catering to the engines and ancillary equipment necessary to such activities. Now a fair-sized town large enough, indeed, to harbour two cinemas within its boundaries, Stephanie and Kelly had some difficulty immediately on their entering the main Street, they having no town map to guide their steps.

"Where's Pangolin Street, an' why's it called such?"

"Kel, I don't know the answer to either." Stephanie admitting her short-comings in the local geography line without embarrassment. "How should I? Never been t'this back-wood's town before. Look, there's someone meandering along the sidewalk on the other side o'the road. Slide yer window down an' call fer help."

"Idiot." Nonetheless, finding no more likely source of information, Kelly lowered the window with a thump and leaned her head out. "Hey you; yeah, buster, you! Where's Pangolin Street?"

The man, in dirty overalls dark with grease or oil, or probably both, covering them paused in his sauntering gait to bring his interlocutor into focus, studying Kelly in person and then her truck with somewhat more interest.

"Three streets down on yer left, lady; then take the first on your right an' Pangolin's the next on yer left. Goin' ter the Billiard Hall?"

"Nah, the cinema, whatever it's called."

"The Hall is the cinema," The man nodding as one who knew well of what he spoke. "unless yer after the Grapefruit, the other cinema—down by Jackson Road?"

Kelly, frowning awfully, pulled her head back in to study her notes, then leaned out once more.

"Yeah, that's right. Well, thanks, see ya."

Then, before either Stephanie could engage her gear or the man meander off into infinity, Kelly leaned perilously far out the window again.

"Jackson Road, jest put me square as t'where it lies from here, agin?"

Nothing loth to give strangers intimate details of the town he loved the man paused once more to take stock of the situation; then he burst into informative life for the second time.

"Turn left after ya leave Pangolin, take Berriere till ya hit the corner of Garram, then take the first on your right, that's Jackson Road. OK?"

"Yeah, thanks agin', bye."

This time Stephanie slid into gear before her partner had a chance to think of some other question needing an urgent answer. Seven minutes later, after only three wrong turns and a light, No.3, argument, they hove up by the sidewalk outside the Billiard Hall.

Unlike the broken-down and ancient Phoenix in Calton Neck, this edifice was covered in startlingly white stucco, showing away with curved corners and a high tower with wide windows all the way up, a flagpole standing erect and tall on its roof—an Art Deco Moderne masterpiece in every line.

"Whee, there's style." Kelly impressed from head to toe.

"God, white, ain't it." Stephanie, as they jumped down from the cab, not captivated at all. "Need dark sunglasses; bet it's all pink an' red an' green inside, too."

"Quit beefing," Kelly sticking her chin in the air as they walked to the rear of the truck. "OK, you get the next load of reels ready, I'll go in search of the mandarin who manages this palace; see ya in an hour or so."

"Huh, ten minutes then I goes home, partner or no—so be warned, lady."

"Haarph."

Inside the high-ceilinged round main hall Kelly paused to let her eyes focus in the dim light. To her right a wide curved stair led upwards to regions unknown, but probably the balcony. On it stood a tall rotund man in a brown suit and an expression of more than ordinary distaste.

"You boy; yeah, you! Who're you? This place don't open till four in the afternoon, so get lost."

Easily able to withstand this level of personal abuse Kelly grinned widely.

"OK by me, buster; only means you'll have t'recycle whatever film you're showin' now fer the next month as well." She waved her docketed sheets of paper in the air, by way of passport. "Redoubtable Studios begs ter offer ya the option of taking aboard their latest effort. But if'n ya don't want it I'll turn right here an' leave ya in peace. What's it ter be, laddie? An' don't come the dictator with me, either; I work on an outside contract, so I'm safe as houses. Come on, I'm gettin' a pain in my butt waitin'."

Faced with such a determined defence, and by a woman too, the man shivered slightly then came down the stairs to the main floor, cowed in every iota of his being.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry. I got a headache, ain't I?" His voice was smarmy and oily, though with a cold unfeeling undertone. "God, so Redoubtable's finally showed their bloody cards at last, have they? Sorry, sorry, don't mind my language, I'm just the fuc—er, that is I'm just the blood—er, the, er, the manager, is all. What is it? The new movie, I mean. If we show 'The Ten-Spot Murder' one more time the film'll fall apart, the projector'll burst in'ta flame, an' the cinema'll probably go up in company—if the dam' audience don't mutiny at seein' the bloody movie fer the sixty-third time in three weeks, an' simply wreck the joint. Sorry, sorry,—"

"Will ya, fer God's sake, quit apologising." Kelly only being able to take so much of this shilly-shallying attitude. "If yer want's ter swear, go to it—don't let me hold yer back, I've heard swearin' everywhere from the Barbary Coast ter Five Points; ain't nuthin' you can teach me in that line, buster. What's with the long looks, anyway? Cinema business goin' down the drain, or what?"

"Hah! It certain sure ain't made me a millionaire yet." From his tone this rankled deeply. "The bloody upkeep o'this palace is terrifying—hundreds a month, I kid's yer not. Not ter mention the protection."

"Oh, that, as well, eh?"

"Dam' straight." Feeling a fellow spirit near the manager opened up like an oyster on a silver platter. "D'ya know I had ter fight off no less'n three separate gangs afore gettin' pinned by the one that won the option? Dam' twisted world—I shouldn't ever have gotten out'ta oranges. Oranges don't threaten t'cut yer fingers, an' more important things, off if yer doesn't pay-up at each month end. God, I loved oranges."

As they spoke Kelly guided the irate man over to the main door, nodding in agreement with the list of personal grievances he was still enumerating, like a book index.

"OK, so if yer gives my partner an' I a hand we can have the reels of the new movie in yer projection-room in two jiffies." She keeping the main substance of her presence to the fore. "Oh, here's Ste—, er, my partner, now. Just comin', gal."

"About bloody time," Stephanie entering in the hall with two reels in her arms. "I'll dump these on that table over there—bloody heavy."

"What is it?"

Now well- acquainted with this request the ladies merely raised their eyebrows, Stephanie making the necessary public announcement.

"—'Sagebrush Struggle', a Cowboy."

"Thank God fer it." The manager heaved a sigh and brought into view an orange and blue silk handkerchief to wipe his brow. "If it'd been another detective drama there'd have been a mutiny fer real."

"How's that, sunshi—er, laddie?" Kelly all ears to know the latest gossip.

"It's those dam' women actors Redoubtable splurges all over almost everything they puts out these days." The man, finding himself with a captive and interested audience, let himself go, like a too-long caulked-up barrel of beer. "Comedies' the public laps up from them; Dramas' they likes jest as well; Romances', the people in the seats gets along with easy-like; Cowboys' the patrons liven up no-end; but Detectives'—there they've reached their limit with those two actresses, what're they called?—oh yeah, Stephanie Garroch an' Kelly Humber. Seems the public jest can't take anymore o'the ladies shootin' up the bad guys in back-street gin-joints an' speak-easies—jest don't carry the aura o'reality about it, is all. So, Thank God this's a Cowboy—the patrons'll love it."

Another silence—they seemed to be following the women from town to town—settled in the circular main hall of the modern cinema, while Stephanie and Kelly digested this latest criticism of their wares.

"Well, uum, I'm sure the Front Office'll be glad ter hear yer input, mister —"

"Gallacher, Charlie Gallacher."

"Right," Stephanie nodded wisely as they stood by the main entrance. "So, got'ta go, plenty o'other places gasping fer renewed rations in the film line. After you Ke—er, after you, lady. Bye."

A minute later the truck rumbled its way on along the road, leaving the tall startlingly white building in its dusty wake.

"Well, there ya go, Steph."

"How so, lover?"

"More criticism of us, is all." Kelly sat back against the rear of the cab, hunching her shoulders and frowning miserably. "Does anyone like what we puts out these days? All we've had so far t'day is carping criticism."

"Only in certain areas, though." Stephanie, eyes on the road ahead, shrugged in a neutral fashion. "Some don't like the Cowboys'; some don't like the Detectives'—can't please everyone."

"Makes ya wonder what we'll be served up with at the next flea-pit." Kelly turning moroser still. "Where is it, by the way? Y'remember the directions that man gave us?—'cause I don't."

"Oh, sh-t."

—O—

The inaptly named Grapefruit, it having no resemblance either physical nor metaphorical to the said fruit, finally showed up at the side of Jackson Road some twenty-five minutes later after Stephanie had taken the truck through most of the major thoroughfares of the small town in search of their favoured destination—Kelly keeping up a background theme of pessimistic introspection all the way.

"There she blows." Stephanie as glad to see the cinema, after Kelly's wearisome conversational suggestions, as those on the Pequod had been to see the white whale.

"And a dam' lot'ta blowin' it took, too." Kelly determined to mine the position for all it was worth.

The cinema, like at least one of its forbears already visited by the two women, held little resemblance to a cinema as such, it appearing to the sight as a solidly built four storey red-brick office building; it's only claim to offering service to the Public being its large wide main entrance, guarded by sliding glass doors above which the porch canopy presented a long flat low hoarding with the title of the current selection being offered to the Public, 'Massacre at Hanley Creek'.

"That oater surely gets about." Kelly making a curious snorting noise as they approached the door. "Pity no dam' body likes the g-dd-m thing."

"Will ya stop reveling in self pity?" Stephanie putting her foot firmly down on this standpoint. "I ain't gon'na deliver the remainder o'the dam' movies listenin' t'you grumbling for the rest of the way across the county. Gim'me a break."

"Oh, OK, but only 'cause I loves yer so."

"Ha!"

Passing through the wide entrance they found themselves in a small foyer; to the left the glass-fronted ticket-office, hardly larger than a small broom-cupboard; in front of them a shop counter over a long glass display case showing sweets cookies and chocolates; to right and left stairs led up out of sight round right-angled corners, presumably to the auditorium and balconies: there was no-one presently in sight, the ladies' welcoming committee being non-existent.

"Like an abandoned house." Kelly mining the atmosphere for all it could provide at short notice. "Reminds me, we must get round t'producing that ghost movie, 'Terror in the Attic'; Buddie's been carping about it fer the last month, y'recall?"

The daily struggle of their Producer, Buddie Brannigan, was furthest from Stephanie's mind at the moment, though.

"This latest item, 'Sagebrush Struggle', is top of my to-do list, as we speak." Stephanie allowing her upper lip to curl heaven-wards in a proto-sneer, if not an outright snarl. "Hallo, where is everyone? Anyone here?"

"Jeez, my ears."

"Tough, gal; oh, company at last."

"What in Hell d'you two bums want? How'n Hell'd ya get through the entrance? What in Hell—Oh!"

Both women being dressed in long blue cotton dungaree-overalls with front bibs, and both wearing their hair pinned up under their men's flat caps, it was easy to see where the manager of the establishment had gone wrong in his identification of the unexpected visitors.

"Yep, buster, we are indeed ladies; but not of the night." Stephanie grinning widely, enjoying the man's discomfiture to the limit. "If ya want a new movie t'thrill the parched eyes of the local populace we're the one's t'come to."

"In short," Kelly taking pity on the middle-aged man. "we're here with the latest offering from Redoubtable—if ya wants same, o'course?"

The Grapefruit's proprietor stood before them, middle-aged, thinning grey-hair, slightly portly while just missing outright fatness, with an expression on his roseate features as of a rattler eyeing its latest victim. Then he caught Stephane's eye and, after a tense freezing moment, his dropped shiftily to the floor before staring around at everything except his visitors.

"So, er, it's come at last; took yer long enough."

Faced with yet another lesser-spotted unamiable cinema manager Kelly stepped forward with a satisfied grin.

"We both work on private contract t'Redoubtable Studios, an' they're especially keen on worker's rights an' privileges." She actually stretched out her right arm and tapped the man on his shoulder; he not being by any means a giant of his species. "So if'n ya want t'take this further what I can prophesy is you'll never receive another movie from Redoubtable fer as long as your flea-pit's open—which probably won't be fer much longer. Get me, buster?"

The man's eyes took in the jaunty woman before him; slid away to catch Stephanie's for the second time, with the same result; then he sighed deeply, apparently a common workplace-issue among cinema managers, and gave up—as was, indeed, his only recourse.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Jeez." Fearing instant retaliation at this slip of the tongue he jerked as if shot and started that second habitual nervous tic of his species. "Sorry, sorry, I'm sure. Don't mean no criticism; just my way o'speakin', is all. So, a new movie, eh?"

Seeing what was coming, and attempting to waylay the nuisance at the Pass, Kelly came clean with the details without being asked.

"It's 'Sagebrush Struggle', an oater; with those great actors Stephanie Garroch an' Kelly Humber—God, ain't they great?"

Seeing a chance to regain the initiative, or at least some faint part of same, the manager bucked-up instantly, his face taking on the same degree of colour as a pot of bright fuchsias.

"No doubt; dam' glad it ain't a dam' Romance, is all." He perked up even more at the looks which spread across the faces of his audience. "Showed that dam' awful Romance 'Lucky Liberty Street' two weeks since. God, what a disaster; folks walkin' out every dam' evenin'; even had ter repay a lot'ta 'em afore they'd leave—a bloody disaster. Tell ya what, ladies—an' meanin' no disrespect t'yerselves I'm sure,—but if ya gets the chance ter tell them, Miss Garroch an' Miss Humber that is, jest tell 'em t'give up makin' Romances, there ain't no future in 'em—leastways as long as either or both women insists on pollutin' the screen in 'em, anyways."

The silence which now settled over the foyer was probably the Glory of its kind; none more enveloping in tomblike hush, nor quiet and deadly, having appeared since Julius Caesar stood up to inform the Roman Senate that he rather fancied proclaiming himself Emperor, if nobody minded very much.

After almost a full minute Stephanie was the first to regain the will to live, drawing in a deep breath meanwhile to sustain her coming actions.

"Iz'zat so." She contemplated the now happy and relaxed manager with the appearance of one ruminating on various methods of murder, and undecided which was best. "So, the folks round Jackson Street don't like Romances, don't they?"

"It ain't the Romances, it's the actors—Garroch an' Humber." The man actually opened his lips and grinned, showing-off startlingly white false teeth. "The folks round this District are mostly blue-collar workers,—manual workers an' mechanics, an' those workin' at the Goods Yard an' on the railroad engines. They loves those ladies, sure enough; but it's got'ta be in Cowboys', or Detectives', or Murder Mysteries', an' suchlike. But give 'em, the audiences here that is, Garroch an' Humber in a Romance an' they turns up their noses en masse an' takes a quick hike fer the sidewalk, plus repaid entrance fee. Jest sayin', is all. Kind'a that's Life, y'see. In fact I'm thinkin' hard about sendin' Redoubtable's Front Office a letter sayin' I'm gon'na get my Romance's from Border an' Langley Films in future. So, this 'Sagebrush Struggle'; out in yer truck? Suppose I''ll need'ta give yer a hand with the reels. Don't ferget t'pass my message on, at Redoubtable, when ya gets back there. I mean, how can I show a movie when no dam' body want's ter watch the dam' thing?"

—O—

The environs of Hancocksville, unloved and unsung, had been left some twenty-five miles to the north when the women in the truck regained the capability of free speech; Kelly being the first to touch on the elephant in the small truck's cab.

"Does no-one—I mean, no-bloody-one, like us?" She, meanwhile, twitching beside her driver like someone suffering from St. Vitus' Dance. "First it's the Detectives', then the Romances', an' didn't one o'the managers come out against Cowboys'? I'm sure one did. Is there anything we appear in that doesn't get right up the noses of most o'the populace o'California?"

"Not t'mention pastures further east." Stephanie, as miserable as her navigator, looking on the dark side too. "I mean, who's t'say what audiences' are thinkin' all across the whole bloody nation? Are we losin' our appeal, d'ya think?"

Another mile passed under the wheels of the truck before Kelly came up with an answer.

"It ain't as if, goin' by what we've been told, everyone dislikes us wholesale." She shook her head in disbelief at the mere concept of such opinions. "Just in some, what d'ya call 'em, genres. Some don't seem t'think much of us in Romances', while others kick at us in Detectives'; but we scrape past on the other genres. Strange."

Taking her attention off the road for a moment Stephanie glanced at her partner with a worried frown.

"What gets me is the chance of it all spreadin'."

"What d'you mean?"

"Like an oil stain on water; it spreads wide till it takes up the whole surface." Stephanie pursed her lips tightly, before continuing. "First it's one kind'a movie, then it's another kind; finally, they loathe us in everything we appear in, an' the audiences stay away in droves."

"What's the answer?"

"Production, I'm thinking."

"Production?"

"Yeah," Stephanie nodded, clear in her mind about this possible way out of trouble. "If our days as actors are comin' t'an end, then we moves sideways, into the production line. You know Buddie's been complainin' fer the last few months about how the workload's gettin' t'be too much for one person t'handle. If we need'ta engage more Producers, why not us? We got the experience, workin' at the coal-face, so ter speak. If anybody knows as much as us about how to make a Redoubtable picture I'd like t'meet 'em, that's all."

Kelly sat back, hands folded on her lap, staring through the windscreen sightlessly as she contemplated this new approach to their combined futures. Finally, a truck passing in the opposite direction honking loud and long because Stephanie had allowed their truck to hog the centre of the road, she woke from her reverie with a start.

"I see what you mean, lover." She nodded her head slowly, as the various aspects occurred to her. "The Public's clearly fallin' out of love with us as actors; so we hide behind the cameras instead. Holds a great deal of common-sense, I got'ta admit. What's your opinion? Should we do it right off? In one fell swoop, as Shakespeare has it? Or take our time, slowin' down on appearing in movies over the next, oh, coupl'a years?"

"For starters, I don't think the Bard ever did say that." Stephanie letting her studious nature roam free. "As to stayin' in movies—we're still contracted to three more movies in the pipeline. We appear in two series; the same characters in each movie, so we'll need to let them both come to an end; no sense in trying to replace the main characters with different actors, the Public wouldn't swallow that—especially after what we've heard today. No, a clean sweep's the best exit, I fancy. How do you feel about it, lady?"

"Much the same as you, when it comes down to it." Kelly twisted on the hard cab-bench to stare into her lover's face. "I've been harbouring a peculiar feeling, these last few months. Haven't really been as happy making movies as in the past. Nothing to do with us together, lover, don't get me wrong; just something not right, and I think this thing with the Public goin' off us is it. I must'a been feeling the general trend at the back of my mind all this time. Rumours and whispers, and what-not giving me the feeling, I suppose. So, I'm ready to be a Producer if you are, lady o'my life?"

For answer Stephanie took her left hand off the steering-wheel, grasping that of her lover tightly.

"It's a deal, then. We'll tell Buddie immediately we get back from this dam' odyssey. Talkin' of which, where's our next stop?"

Grinning widely, Kelly sat forward to consult the map on her knees.

"Let's see; ah, here we are—next stop, the Grandeur, at Elland's Crossing; just another ten miles south down this road, can't miss it; the town, that is, can't say about the dam' Grandeur—might be hiding anywhere in the metropolis, for all I know."

"Ha."

—O—

The Grandeur, not of course half as majestic as it's non-de-plume suggested, sat halfway along Harrison Street, Elland's Crossing; on the west side of the Parker River which split the town neatly in half. It, the cinema, showed a wide façade hiding a long curved-roof shed inside which was the auditorium. What it wasn't, by some way, was grand; but there you are, can't have everything in life. At least, being on Main Road, Stephanie had found it with relative ease.

"Careful with those cans, they ain't impervious t'shock an' shell, y'know."

"Kel, gim'me a break; all I want's is ter get back t'Hollywood an' my dinner." Stephanie casting aside her lover's latest critique with practised disregard. "Go an' give the door o'that shed a kick, let's get some life goin' round these parts."

Before Kelly had a chance to act on her superior's orders a side door, till now unobserved by the ladies, opened with a bang to reveal yet another less than enthusiastic cinema manager. This one bein' somewhere in his fifties, tallish, slender, grey-haired, stubborn looking, and advancing on the truck's occupants with definite purpose.

"You bums the Redoubtable lot?" He paused on reaching his victims, eyeing them sharply, though with no warming sign of Human kindness. "Ha! - Women. I should'a guessed; jest like dam' Redoubtable, save the cents at every dam' corner. Those the reels of the latest effort?"

"That they are—'Sagebrush—"

"I don't give a dam'." He stood four-square, thumbs in the side-pockets of his dark blue waistcoat, eyeing the women like rattlers in the long grass. "Don't bother takin' them off the truck, I ain't takin' 'em, seein' as I've got other fish ter fry in this game, now."

"What? Yer don't want it?" Kelly looking at him open-mouthed. "It's the latest Redoubtable Cowboy; it'll have a roarin' audience, you wait an' see."

"Maybe it will, but not at the Grandeur." The manager shook his head firmly, like a Roman Emperor making known his poor opinion of the latest gladiator contest result. "Over the last four month folk's've been walkin' out on Redoubtable across the board, here at the Grandeur. Fancy I've lost, oh, a good forty-five percent of my likely takings thataway. They've walked out on Cowboys'; they've walked out on Dramas'; they've walked out in droves only last week on a Detective, an' it was rainin' heavy all that week, too. No, Redoubtable flicks are a drug an' hindrance an' drag on the market these days. I jest came back from the Post Office three hours since, sendin' Redoubtable's Front Office my resignation from their customer list. From now on it's Border and Langley Films fer me—so, get lost; an' don't ferget t'take that heap o'crap in those reels with yer—G'bye."

—O—

It was a little over four hours later, somewhere in the middle of the bleak uninhabited desert. From where the Ford truck sat on the edge of the road all that could be seen in every direction was a flat receding landscape of brush and sand reaching to the circular horizon all round. In the truck's cab Stephanie and Kelly were having a conference.

"I don't know." Kelly making known her take on the matter.

"Well, I do." Stephanie being far more positive. "Looks like there's a material change goin' forward, at least regardin' Redoubtable. Folks' is fallin' out o'love with what we provide; time's, apparently, are a'changin'."

"Ter what, lover?"

"Ter somethin' rich an' strange, lady." Stephanie waxing more lyrical than the situation merited. "Or, at least, new."

"Anytime you want t'start talkin' in American again, jest let me know, lover." Kelly injecting what she felt was just the necessary level of sarcasm into the proceedings. "In short—what the hell?"

Stephanie shuffled uncomfortably round on the cab bench; they both now wearing their thick leather jackets against the cold of the evening; the sky already taking on a deep purple tone above them.

"What I'm thinkin' is, it's about time Redoubtable caught up with the Times, is all."

"An' what would they be, so's I recognises such when they slap me in my face?" Kelly continuing the sarcastic theme with enthusiasm.

"Idiot." Stephanie taking her partner's attitude lightly, as always. "Comedies an' Light Romances are the comin' thing. Like those things Spencer Tracy an' Katherine Hepburn are so good in. And real high class dramas, like James Cagney's Gangster movies. Them, an' solid Melodramas, are what the public's gaspin' for these days."

"So where does that leave us, an' Redoubtable?"

"In dry-dock, bein' rebuilt from the keel up." Stephanie, pleased with her nautical effort, paused to enjoy it, then continued. "We got'ta get out'ta serials an' series—they've just about had their day. We got'ta get in'ta the real big productions, the eight-reelers; mainly Gangster', Comedy', Light Romance', but specially Drama'; that sort'a thing. In short, the big-time, baby."

Another silence made its presence felt, for all of two minutes before Kelly sprang back to consciousness.

"The big-time costs money, lover-lady." She leaned over to touch shoulders with her paramour. "Think Redoubtable's up ter it?"

Stephanie eyed her lover for a few seconds, before the light from her dark blue eyes all but lit the cab in their own right.

"I'm dam' sure Redoubtable can haul itself in'ta the modern age, even if by the seat of its raggedy pants." She clasped hands with the woman she loved over everything. "An' with you to help; well, what could possibly go wrong?"

"Ha!" Kelly grinned widely, leaning ever closer. "Hey, baby, gim'me a kiss."

"Nuthin' easier, lover."

"Mmm—mmm!"

The End

—O—

The next 'Redoubtable Studios' story will be along shortly.

—OOO—