John Strausbaugh, Stories

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Flip the Frog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1



 "Aw, would you look at that," Flip the Frog says, in a taxi at a red light in Times Square. He's standing up on the seat to look out the passenger's window at the Bijou.

"Talkin to me, bub?" the cabbie calls back over his shoulder.

Flip glares at the theater's marquee. MAE WEST IN "KLONDIKE ANNIE" it says. And above that, in letters almost as big, MICKEY MOUSE IN "THE MOVING DAY."

"The mouse gets top billing," Flip says. "Big as Mae West's knockers."

"Hey, watch the blue talk back there, Mac."

"Let me ask you something. You like Mickey Mouse?"

"The cartoon? I don't mind. Kids like it."

"I mean you think he's talented? Make you laugh?"

"I don't know, pal. I don't laugh my fool head off at the Ritz Brothers either, but I don't begrudge if you do. Now Fatty Arbuckle, that was a funny guy."

"Sure. Depends on how you mean funny. Funny like ha ha, or funny like cuckoo in the cabeza."

"Don't think I like your train of conversation, Mac."

"Bet he sings in this one. You think he can sing, pal? I can sing. You know the boop boop bi doo gag?"

"Sure."

"Taught her that. Party at Warren Williams' place. I'm on the piano. Not playing it. Standing on it. I do play. Ever see the mouse play? Fakes it. I play. Anyways, I'm chatting up this little cupcake. New kid in town. Green as a dollar bill. Miriam Something. Audition next morning for the Fleischer boys and she's got no schtick, no gag. Just the gams. They're good gams but they'll only carry her so far unless they're over her ears if you get my meaning."

"Hey."

"Not that she wouldn't. Kid's got ambition, if you know what I mean. She'll do what it takes. Another Crawford. Boy could I tell ya stories about that one."

"This a family cab, pal."

"Bats them big peepers at me. Pouts her fat little lip. So I sing her my theme song. Heard it? Sure you have." Flip sings. "Ub ub di ub. Three months later her first picture's in three hundred theaters, going boop boop bi doo. Same melody. Fleischers even give her her stage name for it. Stole the tune right out from under me. Just changed the words."

"Ub ain't a word."

"Heck it ain't. Ever hear of Ub Iwerks? My boss. Used to be the mouse's too. Swell guy. One of the greatest. Disney woulda never gotten off the ground without him. Him and me been workin together since he left Disney. Struck out on his own. Took grits. Walt still raw about it. Done everything he can to sink us. Ub sticking to his guns. My tribute to him. Ub ub di ub."

The light changes and the cab pulls down Broadway. Flip watches the Bijou slide away behind them with a long line waiting to get in.

"Look chum, everyone's taste is in his own mouth," the cabbie opines. "You don't like the mouse, don't watch the mouse. Don't make a federal case out of it."

"Fuck the mouse," Flip grumbles. "Fuck him and Minnie with Fatty Arbuckle's dick."

The cabbie stands on the brakes. Flip flips off the seat to the floor. Cars honk behind them.

"Out," the cabbie demands.

"This is 42nd," Flip complains, hopping back up onto the seat. "I said Union Square."

"I don't allow no blue talk in my cab. You can hop the rest of the way. Scram."

The sidewalks of 42nd Street are murder for Flip. If he don't hop lively he'll end up flat on the bottom of some guy's size 12 EEEs. He hops down the steps into the BMT station and under the turnstile. He don't pay to ride. He's a star. They owe him.

The guy standing next to him on the platform stares.

"Life, huh?" Flip says to him.

"Beats the alternative," the guy says.

On the train Flip hops up onto a seat next to a Jew reading a tabloid called Dye & Trim Report. He looks down at Flip through wire-rim spectacles. Flip snarls up at him.

Fucking yids. Don't get him started. The studios, the theaters, the distribution, the bookings, the talent agencies. Where were the anti-trust boys? Walt the only gentile stood up to them, and look how they roughed him up for it. Stole Oswald Rabbit's contract out from under him. Not that Flip thinks much of the rabbit. Dope's gags were old when vaudeville was young. Not the point, though. No love lost between Flip and Walt either, but give the bastard his due. Takes brass to buck the yids. That bird Hilter's got the right idea. Keep them in their place. Sure maybe he plays too rough, but maybe that's what it takes with the yids over there. Folks say Roosevelt bound to scrap with Hilter eventually. Flip don't like Roosevelt either. Come down off his high horse and see things from Flip's perspective, maybe he wouldn't love the yids so well.


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At 14th Street Flip hops out and transfers to the Canarsie line. He takes it two stops to Union Square and hops up the stairs to the 14th Street sidewalk. What they call Hunger Row. The block is lousy with talent and booking agents, and the sidewalk is crowded with broke-down acts. Hoofers, singers, magicians, clowns, jugglers, acrobats, ecdysiasts, one man bands. It's like vaudeville dragged itself here and croaked, and burlesque fell down on top of it.

Flip is threading his way down the block to the Gold Agency when Offisa Pup spots him. Flip groans. Last thing he needs right now is a has-been putting the bite on him.

"Flip! Flip Frog! As I live and breathe. How's the boy?"

"Pup. How they hangin?"

"Janglin and danglin. You still with Iwerks?"

"Sure I am. Ub and me like this. Givin Walt a real pasting."

"Sure you is," Offisa Pup says politely. They both know Flip's lying. "So what brings you to this footlight parade?"

"Goin up to see Sam. Contract to sign."

Offisa Pup licks his lips. Was a star in the Twenties. Second banana to Krazy Kat. Rolling in dough and dames. Then Kat got hooked on the fairy dust and went krazy for real. On the moon. Big scene at the Cubby Bear premiere on Wilshire. Boys with the butterfly nets hauled him off. Pup on the skids ever since.

"Is it big?" Pup asks.

"Nah," Flip says, suddenly regretting his big talk. "Peanuts. You know how it is. Salad days over."

He tries to hop around Pup, but the pooch throws out his famous long paw of the law and holds him back.

"Any crumbs for a old pal? Don't have to be a speakin part. Stand in the background somewhere and bounce up and down to the music."

"Sure sure. I'll drop a word."

Pup grins broadly, desperately, abjectly. He pounds Flip on the back.

"Gee that's swell. You're a true pal."

"Ub," Flip groans.


2

 


Flip squats in the center of Sam Gold's desk blotter and glares up at him. Sam swivels his chair to avoid Flip's stare and show him his yid profile. What can a frog do? He ain't Walt Disney. He can't buck em all.

"Flip baby, why the long face?" Sam schmoozes. "Mrs. Frog kick you off the lily pad again?"

That one was a laff riot the first thousand times.

"Give it to me without the curlicues, Sam."

"I'm givin it to you straight as a plumb bob, Flip. Mike is killing us. You know how many theaters he opened in this week?"

"Ub," Flip moans. Mike is what insiders call the mouse. Was his name, Mike Mouse. Walt changed it to Mickey. Thought it had more kid appeal.

"You can't fight the system and win, Flip. How many times I tell you and Ub? They got what you call a cartel. A monopoly of yids. Even Walt caved. He's playing ball now, and look. Him and Mike in like flints. Paramount, Pantages, RKO. Heck, the mouse is tops even in the shines' joints. One thing you gotta say for us kikes, Flip, we take care of our own, even if they're adopted. Shucks, we got to, right?"

Flip grumbles and toys with the idea of asking Ub to start drawing him with a Chaplin mustache, like that guy Hilter's. That'd get a rise out of them. He'd thumb his nose only he ain't got one.

"So what are you telling me, Sam?"

Gold gets up out of his chair and walks to the window. It's so grimy and pigeon-dropped you can't see a thing out it, but he pretends.

"You been down there, Flip. You know what it's like. Still a Depression on, boy. Audiences starved for a few simple gags, a easy laugh. Acres of diamonds for bottom-feeders like the mouse and Porky. Not so good for a class act like you and Ub."

"So what are you telling me, Sam?" Flip repeats.

Sam won't turn to face him.

"It's over, Flip. Ub threw in the towel. He's going back in with Walt. Draw the mouse for him again. With Walt's nose for business and Ub's ink they'll be rollin in it the rest of their lives. Ripped up your contract."

Flip is gripped by a panic only show people know. A showman without a contract faces an inky void.

"You mean that's it? We got six more titles in the series."

Sam still won't face him. "Not anymore. 'A Chinaman's Chance' was your last."

"What about 'Soda Squirt'? Already in the can."

"Where it will stay."

"But Ub's takin me with him, right? I can work for Walt. I can play along. You know me, Sam. I talk a big game but I'm a pussycat inside. I can kiss up with the best. Hell, I'll kiss the mouse's tail till it shines like linoleum."

"Ub tried, Flip. You know Ub. He'd bring you along if he could. Soft-soaped Walt till the cows came home. No deal. Mike nixed it. It was all that guff you talked about him in the trades. Rubbed him raw. Minnie too."

Sam turns and shrugs with his hands and whole torso.

"You're out, Flip. That cookie done crumbled. That big mouth of yours sunk you."

Flip is stunned. He paces the blotter, muttering. "Ub ub ub." Fucking mouse. Fucking Walt. Fucking yids. But Ub in on it too? How long they work together? Fighting the system, onward Christian soldiers? Now he's tossed in the ashcan like a bad sketch?

"Take a little break," Sam says. "How long's it been? Three years? Four? Go home to the pond. Swim with the Mrs. Play with the tadpoles. How many is it now?"

"Don't remind me," Flip groans. All them little mouths to feed.

"Walt ain't the only fish in the sea. I'll drop a few lines out there and see who bites."

Flip brightens.

"Sure. Sure. Try the Fleischers. They owe me. I practically gave um Betty."

"The Fleischers not so much. Dave's still hot about that stuff you told Hedda about the Natsies."

"That was a goddamn lie! It's a gossip column for Christ's sake. Fleischer ought to know you can't believe that broad."

Sam shrugs.

"All right, so I got a big mouth," Flip cries. "Jesus Christ, I'm a frog. It's in my nature."

"I know, I know. It's a bum hand. We just gotta bluff it out."

"What about Walt Lance? Woodpecker's schtick is weak. Could use a seasoned pro in his stable. Sing, dance, take a tumble. I got it all."

"Sure you do, babe. Go have a rest. You earned it. I'll call you. Won't be long. I got your number at the pond?"

Gold watches Flip hop out of his office. He shakes his head. Helluva performer. But that mouth of his. Show business ain't no business for an anti-semite. Not with what's brewing over in Europe.

His intercom buzzes.

"Mr. Gold?" Judy says. "Mr. Frog left you his number at the pond."

"Toss it," Gold says.


3



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Flip squats at the edge of the fountain in Union Square park, staring down through his reflection at the goldfish. Goddamn goldfish. Goddamn stupid fucking goldfish. He has goldfish neighbors at the pond. Dumb as oysters. They'll be getting their own pictures next. Walt will produce. Ub will draw them.

"Oh, Ub," he sighs. "Ub ub ub."

They had a good run, him and Ub. Did everything right. Quality all the way down the line. Quality with a capital K. Ub was a helluva producer. Never skimped. Flip never worked in front of a flat backdrop like some guys did. Everything moved to the music in Ub's cartoons. The houses, the trolley cars, the trees and the birds in them. Everything in Ub's cartoons had its own unique character. The automobile with the tender tires, the cuckoo who came out of the clock to do his drunk schtick, the sun grimacing to pour out his squiggly rays. Ub made art. Ub's work was pure music, pure poetry. Not everybody got it. It flew right over the rubes' heads. They thought they was looking at just another cartoon. Flip and Ub was an acquired taste. And they paid for it. Flip and Ub never quite broke the big time like Walt and the mouse. The dough never rolled in. Not that Ub ever complained or short-changed you. Treated Flip like a prince. But the Iwerks brand never soared like the Disney one has. If he's honest with himself, Flip can't really blame Ub for giving it up and going back to Walt. Ub and Flip had their spins on the merry-go-round. The brass ring was always just out of reach.

Well, Walt and Ub ain't the only game in town. He'll go to the Fleischers. Studio's right neaby. He'll beg. He'll grovel. He'll lick Dave's Florsheims. He's got a long tongue. Or Van Beuren, or Warner, or Metro. Cartoons are riding high. They show one, sometimes two or three before every feature motion picture. Folks love um. The industry needs talent like his.

Panic grips him again. What if the studios have blacklisted him? They can kill a career quick as they make one. What if they lock him out of the industry?

"It ain't like you can just pick up a trade," he tells his reflection. "You're a goddamn frog."

"Look, Mommy!" A little kid points a rude finger at him. "The toad is talking!"

The broad leans her big ugly face over him and baby-talks. "Is that true, Mr. Toad? Can you talk, widdle Mr. Toady?"

"Lady, I look like a goddamn toad to you?" Flip says. "Toads got warts and little squinty eyes and dry, scaly skin. Look close. See any goddamn warts?"

She puts on a huffy face and swings a big purse at him. He hops into the water.

The goldfish circle him with their big dopey eyes bulging and their round mouths popping open and shut, open and shut.

"What?" they say. "What? What?"

Goddamn stupid goldfish. All they ever say. What? What? What?


4


Flip's in his room at the New Yorker hotel, which he can't afford anymore. He squats in the middle of his room service dinner tray. He can't afford room service anymore either, but the hell with it. He plans to hop out on the bill anyways.

Flip spreads a few of the stage and screen trades on the bed and leafs through them, looking for job opportunities. Burlesque is out. Mrs. Frog would brain him. So is Broadway. Producers would all tell him he's too short. Even though goddamn Cagney and Rooney ain't much taller, and half the dames is shrimps, too. It's a double standard. Shrimps is fine, but no frogs.

On the film pages there are lots of cattle calls for extras. "I ain't that low yet," Flip mutters. Metro is looking for guys who can ride, for a picture about the Light Brigade. RKO needs stunt drivers, a clapper loader and a focus puller. He ain't that low yet, either. Miss Bankhead has just canned her umpteenth personal assistant. The slot is open if anybody's dumb enough to want it.

"Hoo boy." Flip grimaces, turning the pages.

Then he sees it. On a back page where they list which stars are making personal appearances where. Tonight, in less than an hour, at the Bijou in Times Square, to celebrate the New York premiere of his latest picture, Mickey Mouse will put in an appearance, with Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

Flip's mouth lifts in an evil grin. It's the luck o' the Irish. He's hit the trifecta. First right thing that's happened all day.

He hops off the bed and up onto the room's cheap vanity. He studies himself in the mirror. He roots around in his toiletries case and pulls out a black grease pencil. He uses it once in a while for touching up if his ink goes dry or patchy. He's a star. Always got to look your best in public.

He hops down off the vanity, opens his suitcase and searches around under all the extra pairs of white gloves and shorts. He wraps his thumb and three fingers around the object he was looking for. His evil grin comes back.

Fifteen minutes later he's in a cab heading for Times Square. He keeps his trap shut this time. Learned his lesson.

The cab enters Times Square. Flip stares at all the lights, all the theaters, all the movie stars' names on the marquees in letters taller than he is. Dietrich. Gable. Flynn. Loy. West. Mouse. It ain't fair. A career in show biz is like shooting craps in the dark anyway. A guy never knows how or when his luck will turn. But then to have them gang up on a guy and kick him around for something he might or might not have said, well, that's a dirty shame.

He's one of the best of them. They all know it. But it ain't about talent. It's all about who a guy schmoozes or doesn't, whose tail he kisses or doesn't.

Walt's had his nose up the mouse's tail since "Steamboat Willie." Fucking Mickey Mouse made of solid gold. What's he got that Flip don't? He can't sing. That stupid voice of his, like a fairy talking through a kazoo. He can't dance. He fakes playing the piano. His jokes are strictly from Hunger Row. Mickey Mouse. Mickey Louse more like.

Ub knows. He made them both. He never bad talked the mouse to Flip, but Flip could tell. Just like Walt knew which side of his bread was buttered, Ub knew which side the talent was on.

Traffic slows to a crawl. Spotlights scissor up into the night in front of the Bijou. Cops wrangle a huge crowd. Radio vans and newsreel cameras. The whole shmegagey.

"Ub," Flip groans.

It's pandemonium on the sidewalk. The crowd boils. Flip hops through a forest of shoes and emerges in a small clearing at the theater's doors. A tall doorman trussed up like a Russian general, all brass buttons and golden epaulets and gloves whiter than Flip's, separates the invited swells from the riff and raff.

Flip stands up on his hind legs and yanks the guy's pants.

"I'm on Ub's list," he says.

"Ub? Ub ain't even a word, bub."

"Ub Iwerks, ya dope. Look it up. Flip the Frog, guest of Mr. Iwerks."

The doorman pretends to consult an invisible list.

"Nope, don't see you here. Back up."

"I'm Flip the Frog. You seen me in a dozen pictures. Ub's my partner. You frost me out here, chum, you gonna be on the soup line but quick."

"Go peddle that malarkey somewheres else, pal. I already had three dames said they was Betty Boop, one lady with a poodle she claimed was Goofy, and a loony bird wearing a Gable mask with holes punched in it."

"But — "

"Gwan, beat it." The doorman uses the toe of his shiny shoe to shove Flip back into the crowd.

Back in the forest of shoes, Flip struggles to keep his anger in check. Got to keep a cool head. A limousine pulls up to the curb. Franchot Tone steps out. They met once at a poolside party for some picture Thelma Todd was in. The party was a bust. Flip spent most of the time in the pool. Tone offers little Shirley Temple his arm. Here to get the kiddy vote. Must have been Walt's idea. A thousand flashbulbs pop in their grinning pusses as they make their way through the barely parted crowd to the doors.

"Franchot! Franny Tone!" Flip shouts, ducking a high heel. "Down here!"

Franchot doesn't hear him. Over crinoline ruffles, the kid is wearing a coat with huge, fur-trimmed pockets. Flip eyes the distance, figures what the hell, and hops. His aim is perfect. He drops into the pocket. In all the hubbub and flashbulbs no one is any the wiser.

He hops out in the lobby and races behind some chintz curtains. He hides back there and peeks out as the VIPs and toffs mill around the lobby, slapping backs and kissing cheeks. Then a Negro boy dressed like a sultan's catamite bongs a small gong and tells them it's show time. Flip follows the last ones in. He hides behind another curtain in the back of the theater until the crowd is all seated and the house lights come down. Then he starts sneaking down a side aisle. Nobody notices him. They all got their eyes glued on the big spotlight that hits the crimson stage curtains. A gray-haired guy in a store-bought tux appears. His head looks like a ostrich egg perched on his celluloid collar. He says he's the theater manager and it is his great pleasure blah blah blah.

Flip finds three steps at the far end of the stage and hops up. He stands just off-stage. He reaches into his shorts.

The broad at the giant Wurlitzer organ on the other side of the stage strikes up a fanfare. Flip recognizes the song from "Steamboat Willie." The curtains part. The audience applauds and stands. Walt, Ub and the mouse step into the spotlight and wave. Walt and Ub look swell in their tuxes. The mouse looks taller than Flip expected. Gee, he must almost be Rooney's height. Funny, he looks shorter in his pictures.

The crowd shuts up and sits back down. Walt goes to the mic.

Flip yanks a pistol out of his shorts. As Walt opens his mouth to speak, Flip strolls out into the lights, the pistol out at arm's length in a white-gloved hand. It's a harmless prop gun Flip's carried around since shooting "The Cuckoo Murder Case," but the mouse won't know that. He's a mouse. When he turns and sees it he'll either run away or his ticker will explode from fright. Either way Flip wins.

He's a third of the way across the stage before anyone in the audience notices him. There are a few gasps, and a few chuckles. Walt and Ub slowly turn their heads. Ub's eyebrows go up. Walt smiles unsurely. He must think it's part of the event.

Flip had a speech prepared, but it flies out of his brain now. He's hardly ever done live performance and he's rattled. He just stops and points the gun at the mouse's head. He sees that he and Mickey are dressed almost identically. He never noticed before. Shorts, white shoes, white gloves. Well, they're both Ub's boys.

Flip hears big, lumbering footsteps crashing across the stage toward his back. Probably the doorman.

He squeezes the trigger. The gun makes a silly popping sound.

The mouse doesn't run. He doesn't drop dead from fright. He don't even flinch. Those heavy footsteps crashing nearer, Flip suddenly realizes his mistake. It's not Mickey Mouse standing there at all. It's a goddamn midget in a mouse costume. Flip remembers he heard once that Mike and Minnie don't make no personal appearances. Not even for Walt. Walt has to use stand-ins.

Ub knits his brow at Flip. He looks concerned. Maybe it's the little Chaplin mustache Flip drew on himself with the grease pencil back in the hotel.

"Flip?" he says.

"Ub?" Flip gulps.

The footsteps abruptly cease. Flip turns. The doorman is airborne and plummeting down at him. Flip's heart sinks into one of his white cartoon shoes. He wants to tell the guy, and Ub, and Walt that it was just a gag. He's Flip the Frog. Gags are what he does.

Too late for that now. Just before the lug crashes down on him, Flip sees his life flash before his eyes.

Well, not his whole life. Just today.

Jesus Christ, he thinks, reviewing it. What a stupid goddamn day.


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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh


All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh