UNITED STATES—On a Tuesday night in July 1990, I finally met with Larry Karaszewski, a screenwriter I knew from USC. We had a lot fun in Drew Caspar’s American cinema class, and thanks to Larry I wrote my first parodies for a publication called “Deep Focus” that was published by a group sitting around a table at the end of a party and working against a deadline. The formula worked.
Months earlier I mailed my first screenplay to Larry, in January, some seven months before. Now we finally connected. He was living in Laurel Canyon on Lookout Mountain.
Do I leave out that this was a big deal to drive down Sunset to twisty Laurel Canyon? That was part of the adventure. Larry’s household was abuzz. The movie “Problem Child,” which he co-wrote, was just coming out. It is kind of funny that the first screenplay he had sold had not been produced, but it had got things off to a good start (“The money came and it was going to keep coming,” Larry told me later. It was more than his factory-worker father had ever seen in a life of sweat.)
When we met, Larry chided me for not leaving my phone number on my first phone message. Heaven knows how self-conscious I was about leaving my first phone messages—a shyness which had largely passed since managing the rooming houses. We laughed.
He quickly dismissed my screenplay title “The Persecuted”— sounded like a Kirk Douglas movie. (I still like it for the touch of Dostoevsky it evokes: it remains one of my titles that float around in search of a story.)
A young writer may be particularly vulnerable to these kind of jibes which can be flip and without merit. But Larry came in right away to supply a truly inspired new name, “The Strawberry Butterfly.” It was one of those magical word combinations that unleashes poetry and meaning. It became the name of the play, though ironically it belonged to an incestuous strand in the storyline which later was completely ditched: Coach Boyle was shocked to discover that the love of his life who had died in his arms came back in the form of his daughter—his OWN daughter—when he saw the birthmark she had ‘like a strawberry butterfly.’
Phone calls poured in and interrupted our script conference. It was good stuff, all the same. Larry and his writing partner had been in Texas where “Problem Child” was filmed. A few days earlier he and Scott Alexander had the joy of standing outside a theater and hearing laughter come from behind closed theater doors as their film unspooled.
What are you doing with yourself, he asked when the phone stopped for a while. Managing rooming houses, I replied and made mention of some of the seamier things I had witnessed. “You could do some kind of Bukowski thing,” said Larry while planting a seed.
The phone rang. He talked to somebody about final changes involving Mrs. Healey. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only person who had trouble with endings. Besides all the calls, Larry was in the process of moving from Lookout Mountain. A funny thing: one of the untruths below the mountain about Larry’s good fortune was that he had already bought 1 house after the sale of the first screenplay; on my visit I learned he had just been renting. Funny how these untruths get fueled by imagination and envy.
“Problem Child 2″ was already being rushed into production because the shrimp actor Michael Oliver was in danger of growing up into something uncute. They needed to get it out fast.
Driving back down Laurel Canyon, the curves coming down the mountain were terrifying. How were the others going so fast? I was going to spin out and run off the road, specially that big last curve before Canyon Country Market. Going down the Mountain was much scarier than going up.
And then I went back to my Los Angeles and the house on the edge of Korea Town.
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of ‘Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet” and the acclaimed story collection ‘The Havana Brotherhood.’ (available on Amazon).