Kage Baker loved the silent movies. Talkies were well established, of course, by the time she was born; but the old films showed up late at night pretty regularly. Kage – who was often insomniac when she was little – sometimes watched telly when almost everyone else in the house was asleep – many’s the time I remember watching the station sign offs: the waving American flag and the National Anthem; fading into the ever-familiar test pattern. We both loved that; I rather miss it now.
For some reason – which I guess had a lot to do with cheapness and lapsed copyrights – old silents showed up on afternoon kiddie cartoon shows, too. Kage was a firm fan of those, and since she could read by age 4, she watched them avidly. She’d read out the caption cards for the smaller kids, but I think she rather improved them as she went along … I remember some really weird plots that I never saw again in adulthood.
Much, much later, Kage wrote her column on silent science fiction films, Ancient Rockets, for Tor.com. And it was eventually published in book form, by the inestimable Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications, of whom and which I have spoken here. Well, Cat Eldridge, editor of Green Man Review (http://greenmanreview.com/) and Sleeping Hedgehog (http://sleepinghedgehog.com/) is reviewing that book soon. Being an old friend of Kage’s and mine, he wrote to ask me how Kage came by her love of the old movies, the silent silver screen … and that got me to thinking, Dear Readers, of our long ago and weird as hell childhood.
Man, there was no way she could have avoided it! We were industry brats. When Auntie was a movie star – and Anne Jeffreys was, you bet your ass – Momma was her stand-in. Our playmates’ daddies were painters, grips, camera men, directors; half the houses in the hills were illegal compilations of bits of old sets, put up by prop men and carpenters between movies as hooches. The house next door was Momma’s rental property when we were kids; later it became the maison d’homme where all our brothers laired. But it had begun as a bootleg movie processing lab – the porch that ran all around the second story was for lookouts, watching out for Edison’s Pinkerton men coming up the Cahuenga Pass with axes and kerosene to burn them out … Kage grew up on those stories, fascinated and silent herself, filing all those mad tales away.
Movie stars were pointed out to us in the local markets, and Momma taught us not to see them: because they needed some privacy. She showed us where they lived, too; where they really lived, not out of date addresses hawked on a street corner. And there were parties at the house sometimes, and quite famous people would be up there amid Momma’s rose bushes and irises, lounging about eating barbecue, drinking crazy cocktails – and feeding the fruit spears from their drinks to the little redhead in the sun suit, wandering around at knee level like a big-eyed bubble.
Kage never forgot anything. The things she saw, the conversations she overheard, the stories she absorbed from 3 feet over her head – she remembered them all. Some made it into her stories. They all informed her view of the cinema, and gave her a unique opinion of it all. It did that to all of us – well, I’m sure about us girls; not so sure our semi-feral brothers absorbed much. But Kage most certainly was aware that she grew up on the edges of Faerieland, and so was I.
I remember how impressed we were to be allowed on to the set of the television show Topper, where Auntie played a ghost. What most thrilled me about it was meeting Neil, the alcoholic ghost Saint Bernard: biggest dog I ever met, and very sweet. I remember playing between the paws of the Sphinx on a summer evening; a spare Sphinx sat outside Paramount’s Lemon Grove Gate for years, and we used to clamber around under its Pharaonic beard. There were old props all over the house and garden: cavalry sabres (real), flintlocks (fake), Grecian temples (real but plywood, not marble).
So it’s impossible to tell exactly where and when Kage developed her devotion to early cinema. Just as an analysis of her teeth would have shown the mineral signature of the Lake Hollywood water she drank as a child; just as her DNA carried echoes of Welsh hill forts and Algonquin long houses – impossible to pin down when the marks were put there, except that she had carried them all her life. So you might as well say she was conceived that way. She was bred in the land of fantasy. She was born a story-teller.
It just couldn’t have been any other way.