Hollywood Neighbors: Memories of Nola Thorp

There is too much to say about the events of the last two weeks, but the important things are being said more cogently elsewhere. What I’d like to share is a tangential reflection, triggered by an unexpected vigil. Jenny and I live in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, which was the site of one of the earliest and most volatile protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. On the afternoon of May 30, columns of smoke rose up all around us. Early the next morning we went to survey the damage and saw dozens of people sweeping up shattered glass, painting over graffiti, and comforting each other. These weren’t just store-owners and employees — they were neighbors, doing their neighborly duty.

Over the days that followed, the protests continued and, gradually, grew less volatile. On Wednesday evening, we received a group text message from a neighbor in our building, asking us to participate in a simple gesture of mourning and solidarity: all we needed to do was to go outside and shine a light at the sky for eight minutes and forty-six seconds — that now infamous length of time. One by one, we gathered in front of our building, sources of light in hand. The talk was, at first, cool and tense, but it soon grew warm. Then it stopped, and the lights went on. A long — very long — eight minutes and forty-six seconds later, the street was dark once more. It was at this point that voices reached us from up the block. Small crowds had formed in front of other buildings. They pooled together and called out to our group. We approached, formed a socially distanced circle, and introduced ourselves.

Must it take something like this to bring a neighborhood together? I don’t think so. But this certainly did. And it brought back memories — memories of the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and of September 11, 2001. My next-door neighbor for both those traumas was Nola Thorp — a name that, to my immigrant ears, might as well have been “Miss America.” And, as it turned out, Nola had been something of a beauty queen. I learned this on the day of the Quake, which had thrown me out of bed in the middle of the night. I was 12, Nola was 61, and though we had probably uttered no more than 20 words to each other in the two years prior, we spent all of January 17 — all of it — chatting on foldable chairs between our respective doors and shuddering at each aftershock.

What I learned was that Nola (who, I should say, was still very beautiful, still very queenly) had come out to Hollywood from Wisconsin in the late ‘50s, having landed a co-starring role in a Roger Corman picture titled T-Bird Gang. I had no idea what kind of plumage a “T-Bird” sported, much less what kind of schlock Corman produced. All movies were movies to me: invariably glamorous. Still, some titles sounded more glamorous than others — and so my eyes bulged when I heard that Nola had appeared on the big screen as Cinderella herself! (I ignored the fact that she had played the fairytale princess in something called Cinderfella, opposite Jerry Lewis, whom I knew only as a pudgy, wizened, and wheezing telethon host.) Her promising start led to a string of bit parts in TV shows. Eventually she gave up on acting, but never on Hollywood; she attended just about every Tuesday matinee at the little movie theater on Sunset at Crescent Heights, on the site where, decades earlier, Lana Turner had gotten her big break at the Schwab’s Pharmacy soda counter.

As the sun set on that day in ‘94, Nola brought out her albums of clippings — stills from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Cheyenne. The mesmeric effect of those glossy photos drove all thought of plate tectonics from my mind. Freed of my fear and pleasantly weary, I went home, crawled into bed, and fell right asleep. The next time Nola and I spent the day together was 9/11. I moved soon after, and though I didn’t go very far, we fell out of touch. Many years later, an internet search conducted on a whim informed me that Nola had passed away in 2011.

The faded female star is a stock figure in the Hollywood myth — and, of course, that myth has some basis in truth. The forgotten Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, you’ll remember, is played by Gloria Swanson, who was herself all but forgotten for at least a decade. Yet as Swanson’s case shows, glory can return. And in my mind, Nola Thorp will never be less than glorious. I wish I had thought to bring her flowers.

Ruminating on all this, I remembered another of Vernon Duke’s Los Angeles poems. I dedicate my translation to Nola, who defied the Hollywood myth and shone bright for her neighbors when they needed it most.

Sunset Strip

Poor lady is in tatters,
disheveled and distressed —
a star of yesterday.

Abandoned by the cameras,
no wonder she’s depressed:
her heart is drained away.

Look all you like, no matter —
won’t guess how old she is…
Her dress is dull and gray:

despite her stately manners,
she can’t keep up appearances
without her former pay.

Her days drag on, relentless,
her eyes look tired and lifeless,
her furs are worn and frayed…

O Hollywood, how horrid…
Lord, work your little wonders:
restore her faded fame.

Sunset Strip

Растрёпанная женщина,
Развинчена, развенчана —
Вчерашняя звезда.

Экранами покинута —
Недаром сердце вынуто
Из тела навсегда.

Девчонка ли, старуха ли, —
Таких мы и не нюхали;
Одета кое-как,

Повадка горделивая —
Но трудно быть красивою
Без денег, натощак.

Ее глаза усталые,
Ее меха — линялые —
Ползут за днями дни.

О, гнусный Холливудишко!
О, Боже, — сделай чудишко
И славу ей верни.

6 thoughts on “Hollywood Neighbors: Memories of Nola Thorp

  1. What a beautiful post, Boris, and a lovely memory of your kind and compassionate neighbour. It’s sad that it takes some kind of trauma to bring people together – it seems we’re so busy normally with our daily lives, that it takes a shock to make us stop and think. I’m glad things are calmer now where you are, although it is going to take time and great change in our world to make lives anything like normal again.


  2. О, гнусный Холливудишко!

    That’s a great line, and I will try to make it part of my repertoire of exclamations.

    Liked by 2 people

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