It Happened One Night at the Biergarten

Tony later challenged preconceptions that I did not know I had, but I first paid attention to him when he said that he was going to be fifty-nine in a couple of weeks. I found out that his birthday was the same as the spouse’s and a few days after mine. Susan, the woman with him, then talked about astrological signs as if she were a believer.

I learned that she was a designer of burlesque costumes. She showed me pictures that featured beautiful masks but also some remarkable clothing. I said that she should design for professional wrestling, and she said that she would love to: “You know how much they pay for their clothes!” She has had a shop for five years in DUMBO, a trendy and expensive part of Brooklyn, so she must be having some sort of success.

Her twenty-one-year-old son was in college at Oswego, which I knew was part of the State University of New York system, but I did not know where that college was. She was geographically challenged and said something about it being north and west of Syracuse and on a large lake the name of which she did not know. Another patron of the bar said that Oswego was on Lake Ontario, which, I concede, is a large lake. I said that it must be cold up there, and Susan went on for several minutes about the time she visited her son at college in winter. She told me that he had started out majoring in zoology, wanting to be a veterinarian, but was now majoring in business with a minor in zoology.

I asked the soon-to-have-a-birthday-guy what he did. “Relaxing” was the reply. He continued that after twenty-five years, he had just retired from being a subway conductor. He told me that he had roots in Alabama near Mississippi where his father met his mother who was originally from Belize. He said that his daughter had completed college at a downtown Brooklyn institution, but she was still finding herself. She was taking more classes, but he did not say in what.

Tony told the owner that the bartender of several months, Cem (pronounced Gem), was a keeper. I concurred and said that I was surprised when a few weeks ago the thirty-eight-year-old Cem said how much he liked the movie The Best Years of our Lives. I was surprised again when the retired conductor immediately said that Fredric March was a great actor. He continued by saying that he was a big fan of old movies and the stars of yesteryear. We were soon discussing Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Glenn Ford, Richard Widmark, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and many more. Eventually I asked Tony and Susan if it bothered them when they were young and watching old movies, that the films had few Black actors. Both immediately said “Yes.” Tony said there were Black films in the old days and mentioned Ethel Waters and Cabin in the Sky, but said that, of course, although he has a soft spot for Hattie McDaniel, there were almost no Black actors in films intended for the broadest audience. The discussion then naturally turned to the importance and talents of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. 

When Tony learned my name, he asked if it was short for Randolph, and I said it was. Then I told him my name was inspired by an old movie star. My mother had told me that she was convinced I was going to be a girl and had not picked a boy’s name. I lay in my bassinet cooing and gurgling (I am sure that I never cried) unnamed for days when my mother spotted a magazine article or ad featuring Randolph Scott. Liking his first name, she gave it to me. (There is no mention of my father in this story.) While Tony knew who Scott was, Susan did not, and in the modern way, pulled up a picture of him on her phone. Damn, he was good looking. I went on to tell them that there were rumors starting in the 1930s that Cary Grant and Randolph Scott who lived together were lovers. Susan seemed shocked by that possibility.

Just before leaving, I asked Tony for his absolute favorite movie from the distant past. He said he could not remember the title (we had both bemoaned the aging phenomenon of having facts on the tips of tongues that won’t emerge), but he said it starred Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress and Clark Gable as a reporter. I said It Happened One Night, and Tony replied, “That’s it.” And again, Tony surprised me. I would never have guessed when I met this retired conductor that he would have heard of this movie, one of my favorites, too, an all-time great in this critic’s opinion, and one I have watched many times never failing to find it marvelous.

I had no conception when I came into the biergarten that I would talk to a designer of burlesque costumes or that I would meet a retired subway conductor who shared a birthday with the spouse or that I would talk with him about the 1934 movie that was the first, and still one of the few, to win the Academy Awards for best picture, actress, actor, director, and writing. (I have to make it a point if I meet Tony again to discuss the famous hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night.) And various preconceptions about who might be an aficionado of old movies with Katherine Hepburn or Ann Sothern, Joel McCrea or Jimmy Stewart were definitely challenged. Perhaps this was just a reminder of what I should have already known: people are not always easy to typecast and movies have power in all sorts of ways over all sorts of people.