by Irene Zarat
If you should pass a house near Encino, from which sounds of uninhibited hilarity ensue, it’s probably Don Ameche’s house. If you should sneak across the lawn and peer through the window, you might be greeted by some such spectacle as this.
The furniture has been pushed against the wall to clear a space for football practice. Brother Louis starts a ten-foot dash from the dining room. Don leaps at him for a flying tackle. Ameches of assorted sizes, shapes and ages form an interested audience. Prominent among them, because they squeal the loudest, are two towheaded youngsters. Grandpa has to hold their squirming bodies tight to keep them from hurling themselves under their father’s heels.
“Nuts!” says Don, “Louis’s not heavy enough. Betty, you climb on his back.”
Brother Jim’s young wife is hoisted to Louis’s back. Don leaps againand Betty takes a header into the fireplace. Honore—Honey to her husband, and well named both by reason of her hair and her disposition—is first to reach Betty’s side. But not before that young lady has risen, dusted herself off and observed calmly: “Not so hot. Let’s do it again.” Honore departs for the kitchen, to help Irene and Annie rustle dinner for the mob.
The Ameche house is run for Ameches, and not for show. It’s a kind of rallying center for the whole clan, which is large enough to keep things lively. There are Don and Honore and their four young ones— Dominic junior, seven, Ronald, five, and Thomas and Laurence, two and one respectively on July 20—they were born just a year apart. Don’s father and mother live close by. So do Jim and Betty, so do Louis and Polly.
Jim is the brother you’ve heard on the radio, whose voice sounds so like Don’s. Louis is thebrother who used to walk the floor with the first baby, so Don and Honore could catch a couple of winks. He was married a couple of years ago to nineteen-year-old Pollyanna, with Honore’s brother officiating and Don as best man. Polly was an orphan and can’t get over the wonder of having a family.
Catherine and Mary Jane and Anne, Don’s little sisters, go to boarding school, but come home for week ends. Only brother Bert, studying architecture in Paris, and a married sister in Kenosha are missing from the family circle. Intimates like Chet and Harriet Lauck—he’s the hum of “Lum and Abner”—trail in and out.
Irene and Annie and Gabe work there, “but they’re not servants,” says Honore. “They live with us and they eat with us and they’re free to bring their friends in, like any member of the family.” Honore took Annie on in Chicago as a mother’s helper. Irene, Annie’s friend, came to them two years ago to do the cooking. Gabe was a Belgian war baby, adopted by the nuns at the school Don attended in boyhood. They became close friends and when the Ameches were newly married in Chicago, Gabe would come in to wash windows for Honore. Once they were settled in Hollywood, they lost no time in sending for him.
To celebrate Don’s first birthday after their marriage, Honore cooked a festive dinner, invited Louis and hired a little country girl to serve it. This essay into elegance was meant as a surprise to her husband. The effect was marred by the handmaid, who entered giggling, spilled the soup, flopped a deprecatory hand and said, “Sha!” Instead of pretending with dignity that nothing had happened, Don and Louis exploded into yells of joy. “All right, my lad,” thought Honore. “If you like it that way, that’s the way we’ll have it.”
Actually, she takes no more kindly than does Don to formality. When formal entertainment is indicated, the Ameches go to the Vendome. The tempo of the house isn’t suited to stateliness. They don’t believe in shushing the kids. They want Grandpa to feel free to drop in for a game of Call Rummy when the notion takes him. If they’re not in to play with him, Gabe and the girls will be. Soup is no longer spilled, but at Christmas dinners, with thirty round the board, “we more or less throw things at each other.”
Don is ready for anything at any hour. “He’ll fall flat on his face,” says Honore, “before he’ll go to bed.” A day at the studio doesn’t begin to exhaust his energy. Turning in at the gate, he yells, “Hey, Pete! Hey, Mike!” and the kids come running for football. They’re the footballs. “Y ou threw him higher!” shrieks Ronnie. “Throw me again.”
ON fight nights the radio is dragged into the dining room. After dinner they play games or dance. Since Don learned to tap for “Hollywood Cavalcade,” they stage tapping contests. Later they’ll sit down to a bout of Call Rummy. The big loser gets taken for as much as fifty cents. Or they’ll run homemade movies. An outfit, supplied by Honore as a birthday gift, turned Don into a camera fiend, with the children as preferred victims. He’ll lie in wait to catch Donnie’s toothless grin or Ronnie, mud-smeared.
According to his mother, Donnie has a trace of manners. Ronnie’s the tough guy. The tougher, the better, says Don, who can’t abide a sissy. Not that his sons show any lilylike symptoms. But he feels you can’t start them too young on the right track. He has exercise periods with Tommy and Lonny, who grab their father’s fingers in manful attempts at jiujutsu. Thomas Anthony, by the way, was to have been Anthony straight, till his parents reflected on what his future
schoolmates could do with “Tony Ameech.” Laurence Michael was to have been Michael Joseph, but they decided his nose would be out of joint unless he had a nickname to rhyme with those of his brothers.
At two and a half, Ronnie’s head was a mass of fair curls. Unluckily for Honore, Don overheard a visitor’s comment. “The little boy’s cute, but the girl’s a darling.”
“Imagine calling that hulk a girl!” fumed his father. “Have those curls cut off right away.”
Honore, who keeps her sentimental side under control, took Ronnie to the barber but quailed at sight of the shears and brought him home intact. Don sent him back in charge of Gabe.
“Have him just bobbed,” Honore pleaded.
“Have him shaved,” yelled Don.
Trying to strike a happy medium, Gabe brought the lamb back well trimmed but with the shadow of a curl over his forehead. Don surveyed him that evening. “Come here, Booboo, I want to show you something.” They disappeared into the bathroom and presently emerged with Booboo shouting, “Boy, do I look like Daddy! Am I cute!” Daddy had hacked at his hair with a nail scissors till it resembled a nest of unrelated straw. His mother, who knows when she’s licked, took him down to the barber herself next day.
If you want to curry favor with the boys, don’t call them by their given names. Ronnie was Booboo till last year, but that’s out. “I’m Butch, and he’s Spike. Lonny, that’s our brother, he’s got a name, too. It’s the Killer.”
Spike is the gentler of the two. He mothered his mother before the baby was born. “Keep away from her. Butch. You’re too rough.” So long as he’s fed and warm, nothing bothers Butch. His single weakness is Annie, whose special charge he’s been from infancy. Temperamentally averse to sappy stuff, he will nevertheless lie abed like a lug in the morning and coo, “Annie dear, come fetch your baby.”
The difference between the boys is well marked by an engagement which took place shortly before Honore went to the hospital. Knowing that their mother was less active than usual, they were more boisterous. They’d been quarreling all morning in the back yard. Fed up, Honore called from her bedroom window. “If you two don’t quit that, I’m coming down and knock your heads together.”
Spike lifted reproachful eyes. “Is that a nice way to talk to a little boy?”
“Don’t you care,” chortled his brother. “She wouldn’t come down those stairs for anything.”
Once Butch said, “I don’t like you,” and it sounded ugly. Honore spanked his hand. “I still don’t like you.” This went on for several minutes, while Butch’s hand grew redder and he racked his brains for a method of saving said member without hauling down his colors. “All right, all right, you just wait and see if you come to my birthday party—if I have a birthday party,” he faltered.
While their mother doesn’t pull her punches, they realize that she can sometimes be charmed into laughter.
“I know you’re acting,” says Spike. “I see a little smile.” And Butch will cock his head, the cherub complete with sun suit, to inquire winningly, “Aren’t I the rascal, though?”
They also realize that these tricks make not the slightest impression on Daddy. “Of course they’re smart,” says their mother. “They don’t do anything they shouldn’t when he’s around.” But a promise made in the household is a promise kept. If Mamma says she’s going to tell Daddy, she tells him. And if Butch takes doom by the forelock and murmurs, “I was naughty. Spank my hand,” Daddy doesn’t say, “How cute.” He spanks it.
THE Ameches have reason to hope, however, that Butch has through sad experience attained the age of reason. He’s huskier than Spike, also more impetuous. One day he socked his brother with a roller skate. This was serious. Don talked to him that night, explained the heinousness of his sin, told him that Spike was to be removed from his dangerous neighborhood and sent to stay with Grandma for a while. Butch bawled. When Spike returned, he treated him like a bijou wrapped in lamb’s wool. Till there rose an argument over a toy steam
shovel, which Butch settled by clunking Spike over the head with it. Now all either of his parents need say is: “Do you want Daddy to spank you the way he did that night?” “No,” says young Butch, “did that hurt!” He’s just started his formal education at nursery school. Honore is prepared to see him led home by the ear any day, with a not too polite, “Here, you can have him.”
Watching his father with his children, Don can only wonder. The senior Ameche was in his day a stern disciplinarian. “I didn’t dare look cross-eyed,” complains his eldest. Now Grandpa’s gone soft. He can’t stand hearing his grandsons cry. “Ah, g’wan, he’s only a baby, leave him alone.” A wail from Lonny’s bassinet and Grandpa lays down his rummy cards to sneak upstairs. He’s not supposed to pick the baby up and meets all suspicious glances with the same grin and the same story: “I just look at him. He says, ‘Okay, Grandpop’ and goes to sleep.”
Don thinks his father’s the grandest guy he’s ever known. “He was strict all right, but I’ve never heard him say or do a mean thing.” He’s not much of a talker, but his eyes are Italian, dark and expressive. “When he laughs,” says his son, “they dance all over. When he gets mad, you get paralyzed.” In this Don resembles him. Honore says she’s seen him lose his temper only two or three times, but “when he does, watch out for him.” Grandma’s fair and blue-eyed, and there’s nothing Italian about her but her spaghetti. Honore is also authority for the statement that when Don lifts his head, sniffs and streaks out of the house it’s because the breeze has blown him a whiff from down the road of Grandma’s spaghetti.
The elder Ameches live a quarter of a mile away in a white ranch house, built for them by Don long before he bought a house of his own.
Grandpa planted fruit trees and built chicken coops. At the moment he’s flushed with creative pride, for after two years of sweat and strain he’s produced a crop of prize tomatoes. He keeps the family supplied with plums and apricots, with fowl and eggs.
THE family is naturally grateful to Don, who considers that he’s pleasing himself and there’s nothing to be grateful for. “He’s a good boy,” says Pop—his highest praise. Mom is more articulate. Because he’s so much older and has lived apart from them so long, the younger children tend to put Don in a class with their father and he can’t laugh them out of it. It’s to Honore they turn. It was Honore’s car Louis borrowed when he hadn’t one of his own.It’s Honore who helps the girls with their dress and school and boy problems.
She has what some wise man called the grace of living—the humor to enliven routine existence, the courage to meet emergencies without losing her humor. Golden-haired and unruffled, s h e moves through life, creating a sense of strength and serenity on which others draw. And if this makes h e r sound like some remote goddess, then we’ve done her wrong. No one is warmer or more approachable than the gay Honore.
She knew that Tommy would have to come by Caesarean birth. He was due about the middle of August. She tried to make a deal with the doctor to bamboozle Don and get him out of the way while she went to the hospital. The doctor refused the responsibility.
It happened, however, that Don was away on a fishing trip when Honore, in her own words, started feeling goofy a month ahead of time. The doctor ordered her to the hospital. “What! And get stuck for two weeks?”
“You do as I tell you, young woman,” he roared. “And—hey, wait a minute. Take some phenobarbital.”
She took some phenobarbital. She took a shower. The girls were out. She called to Gabe to bring her bag up. Harriet Lauck helped her pack and drove her to the hospital. It was seven o’clock. Harriet w as so jittery that Honore sent her home, the doctor decided on immediate operation. “Better phone Don,” he said.
“What for?” said Honore calmly.
“Well, there ought to be someone—”
“Look, you’re here. I’m here—that’s all we need. What good will it do me to have Don chewing his fingers off inthe corridor? I’ll sign for the operation.”
She was taken to the delivery room at eight. the baby was born at eight-forty. Don got the wire at camp next morning. “Honore and baby son doing well.”
With Lonny it went less easily. She was under anesthetics for twodays before his birth and in the hospital for six weeks after. Despite which, she keeps talking about the girl they want amd haven’t got yet. Don says if they get her at all,it will be by adoption.
Butch and Spike got a little bored with the baby business. They were overheard discussing it. “Mom gave all of Bridget’s puppies away. Why doesn’t she get rid of a couple of the kids?”
Now that the kids have grown into recognizable individuals, they’ve changed their tune. What they’re proudest of is the fact that their handprints in plaster cast adorn the wall of their father’s dressing-room at Twentieth CenturyFox, where he is currently making “Week-end in Havana” after h is successful voyage over to Paramount for “Kiss The Boys Goodbye.” One day they came to their mother with a petition. “Can we give Daddy the kids’ handprints for h is birthday present?”
Honore hasn’t yet recovered from this display of sentiment in her two eldest. Four plaques now hang on the wall of Don’s dressing room. Proving that as far as their brothers are concerned. Tommy and Lonny have made good.