It has not been a boffo year for Hollywood. The tides of economic recession and retrenchment—as they are wont from time to time—lap against the hillside and canyon enclaves the stars call home, and the sound of dropping options is heard in the land. The prospects for immediate improvement are, as Variety might say, iffy.
But if the business picture in the picture business is bearish, there has been no apparent letup in the town's hectic social pace. Previews still must be attended, the best restaurants and bistros patronized, the favored spas frequented to keep up the appropriate facade of optimism and chic. Above all, the sporting show must go on. And, in Hollywood's case, that means tennis, the game that's everybody's racket.
As played by Hollywood's net-setters, tennis is more than good exercise. Agents have been known to play their way into a deal or a producership on the court of a studio head. Many a promising actress (Raquel Welch for one) has found a fetching courtside manner as remunerative as two seasons in summer stock. If Britain's battles are won on the playing fields of Eton, Hollywood's are often settled on the middle courts of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club.
The tennis court as a connection has been used since Hollywood's heyday. People still remember the tennis afternoons at Jack. Warner's house in Bel Air. The procession of hungry actors and actresses who snapped up invitations to his Sunday games was as eager as any that showed up for command performances at Buckingham Palace. "The food was always great, the setting fabulous, the girls first-rate," says one veteran of those glorious weekends.
William Randolph Hearst's magnificent castle at San Simeon was the site of many a star-studded doubles match in the old days. Hearst used to invite trainloads of celebrities for weekends of relaxation and tennis. If you explained that you had no tennis clothing along, Hearst would have a selection of new togs brought out and then would show you to a collection of dozens of tennis rackets from which you could make your choice. Dick Powell once recalled how Hearst kept much younger and more agile players hopping from sideline to sideline with his accurate placements, while handling most returns without moving more than a few steps. The Chief seldom lost.
Besides the opportunity tennis offers for solid show-biz contacts, it has always been a big game in Hollywood for the image it projects. Loring Fiske, a tennis pro and veteran of the Hollywood tennis wars, remembers how Clark Gable pursued a youthful image by having his still photographs show him in tennis clothes. "He had long since given up the game," Fiske says, "but he was trying to create the image of virility and vitality."
Not that all tennis in Hollywood is strictly for show. Most games, once started, are usually for blood, and the players are as eager as actors at option time—which many of them turn out to be. They may go to extraordinary lengths to gain advantage over rivals. One builder was told by a film mogul to make his tennis-court surface very fast. "I'm not that good," the executive said, "but I occasionally make a great shot, and I like to make sure it's not returned." Another sport had his net cut off a few inches above the ground, just enough to distort his opponent's perspective. His excuse for it was that the gap at the bottom of the net made the recovery of balls easier.
Ringers are frequently recruited. One San Diego tennis pro recalls being flown up as a partner in a doubles macth involving a Bel Air businessman. "It cost him as much to hire me as he won on the match," the pro recalls. "As far as I know they've never imported anybody from Australia, but it's only because they haven't thought of it yet."
Mrs. Bernie Tabokin, organizer for the town's most important social tennis tournament, Tennis and Crumpets, says of player enthusiasm: "They'll try anything to win. One father tried to enter his son as his partner in a 40-plus group we organized." His son was 16.
Sometimes a player lies about his prowess for other reasons. One aging actor from a pioneer TV cop show plays tennis well enough to win any of his club's senior events, but he refuses to enter. "He'd rather take on the 20-year-olds and risk a heart attack than admit he's over 50," says his pro. Says another observer of Hollywood tennis: "It's like watching a school of barracuda at feeding time."