“Are you sure you're okay with this?” Don asked from where he was squished up against Kathy’s left side. “We don't have to do this.”
Cosmo snorted. He was pressed against Kathy’s right side. She still wasn't sure why they'd taken a cab that didn't quite fit them rather than having the studio hire a car. “You do have to do this,” he contradicted. “You have a contract with R.F., R.F. made a deal with CBS, CBS has a contract with Lina. The only way out now is through a ravening hoard of lawyers. We’d be back on the vaudeville circuit before you could sneeze. And I'm too old to have farmers throw tomatoes at me again.”
Don rolled his eyes. “They only threw tomatoes one time, Cos. That time in Iowa when we were trying it that new bullfighter bit.”
“Once was enough,” Cosmo said with a dramatic shudder. “Do you know how hard it is to get tomatoes out of your hair on a train in the summer?”
“Anyway,” Kathy interrupted, “we'll be fine. We're promoting a picture that we're proud of, studio PR gave us permission to talk about our engagement finally, and we're together. What could go wrong?”
Don gave her a betrayed look. “Why'd you have to jinx us like that, kid? Besides, it’s Lina. She's a disaster all on her own.”
Kathy had a mid-Western, instilled-by-her-mother urge to defend Lina, but she fought it down with the knowledge that Lina really didn't deserve her defense. She could maybe understand the ambition and desperation that had driven Lina to try to ruin Kathy’s film career, but she'd never completely forgiven the woman for getting her fired from Coconut Grove after their first, disastrous meeting.
“We'll be fine,” she said again, firmly. “We're a team.”
Both of them, fiancé and best friend, squeezed her a little tighter for just a second. “Yes, we are,” they said.
Lina’s film career hadn't survived ‘The Dancing Cavalier,’ but she'd still landed on her feet. She had plenty of contacts throughout the industry, and a sort of business cunning that still caught Kathy off guard. After what were rumored to be some very sharp negotiations, she'd landed on CBS in New York with a weekly radio program. Thursday nights at 7:30 was a prime spot, and Lina had drawn on her connections from years in Hollywood to wrangle popular and talented guests for her variety show. It was no wonder it was a hit!
And now they were the popular and talented guests. Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden, Hollywood golden couple promoting their latest picture, ‘With Bells On.’ Kathy was glad that Cosmo had been able to join them on this trip. He usually didn't, since he was more productive back at the studio, doing his actual job. But when they'd received their itinerary and seen Lina's program on the lineup, Cosmo had insisted he come along “as harpy protection. There's safety in numbers, they say.”
As Kathy looked up at the ediface of the CBS building, she drew a deep breath. She wasn't just a small town girl with a dream anymore. She wasn't a dancer struggling to survive on tips and the leftovers scrounged from the restaurant kitchen. She was a movie star. A Name. People were going to tune in tonight to hear Kathy Selden being charming on the radio, and by golly, she was going to give that to them.
“Come on,” Don said, giving her hand a little tug. “Let's go beard the gorgon in her den.”
“She has a beard now?” Cosmo joked. “I guess you can really let yourself go in radio, since the audience can't see your mug.”
“As if Lina would ever let herself go,” Kathy scoffed. It was part of the innate show business sense that Kathy admired about the woman, the way she seemed to have such complete and intuitive control over her image.
The elevator operator clearly recognized her and Don, but he did so with that worldly superiority that people in the industry often affected. He gave them a mild smile and a tip of his hat, but Kathy would bet dollars to donuts that he'd be telling his chums later about how he'd had them in his elevator. She used to do the same thing, gathering with her fellow dancers for late night coffee and a gossip session about whom they'd spotted watching the floor show.
They got out on the sixth floor, and a helpful sign directed them to Lina's office. The door bore her name in shiny gold letters. Of course it did. Cosmo knocked with a sharp little rap, and then opened the door.
A young brunette woman with a tidy, professional air sat at a desk just inside. She stood at their entrance, her eyes wide as she looked at Don with a star struck admiration that Kathy empathized with. He'd been her sweetheart for over two years now, and she was still occasionally taken aback by the fact that he was Don Lockwood. But then the girl looked at Kathy with that same awe, and Kathy remembered that she was a movie star in her own right. Wasn't life a gas?!
“Goodness,” the young woman breathed. “May I take your coats? Miss Lamont will be out presently.”
Before she could do more than gesture toward the close door to the inner office, Lina was striding through it. She looked like ice, from her perfectly arranged platinum hair to her sleek, gray dress to the cold, measuring look in her eyes. Kathy very consciously straightened her back and donned her most collegial smile.
It was a wasted effort. Lina looked straight past her and Cosmo, and rushed to Don's side. “Donnie, it’s been far too long.”
She held out a hand as though waiting for him to kiss it, but Don shook it briefly and awkwardly instead. “I don’t know, Lina,” he said. “The time has kind of flown for me.” He lifted his chin and added kindly, “And you! I've heard good things about your program. Not too shabby.”
“If by ‘not too shabby’ you mean one of the leading programs in the nation, you are correct,” Lina said. “The Tribune called my show ‘a delightful blend of insightful conversation and rollicking entertainment,’” she told them. Kathy had read that review, and she noticed that Lina left out the bit about how her voice was a gimmick worthy of a vaudeville funny man.
“So we’re all doing all right for ourselves,” Don said. “Kathy & I are making pictures, you dazzle the airwaves, and Cosmo –“
“Plays piano and takes pratfalls,” Lina interjected.
Don gave her the sternly disappointed sort of look Kathy had seen him practicing in the mirror. “And Cosmo is head of music at the studio and produced two pictures this year. We’re all coming up roses.”
“I just can’t wait to get you on the air,” Lina said. “The radio audience wants to know all about you. And I simply can’t deny the people what they want.”
“Wonderful” Cosmo said, rubbing his hand together. “Do you have a script, or just an outline?”
Lina sniffed. “I don't have either that includes you. My contract with CBS says that I have ten minutes of live airtime with Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden. It doesn’t say anything about no-talent hangers-on.”
“I’m a little unexpected bonus for your listeners,” Cosmo said. “Like getting green stamps with your purchase.”
“Well, you’re a bonus I’d like to return.”
“That would make it awful hard for Don & Kathy to sing the number from their latest picture.”
“We don’t need you to play. This is a radio studio; we’re lousy with piano players. I can’t walk down the hall without tripping over three.”
“Ah, but your piano players don’t have my sheet music,” Cosmo told her smugly. He tucked his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, the very picture of innocence. “So I guess you’re stuck with me.”
“I’d rather be stuck with a warthog,” Lina retorted.
“Yes, I bet you would enjoy having family around.”
“Well,” Don said cheerily. “Doesn’t this feel like old home week?”
Kathy laughed. “Cosmo and Lina spitting nails at one another? You know, it does make me feel a bit nostalgic.”
“And you without a cake in sight,” Don said, grinning at her.
“Fine!” Lina said sharply. “Don, Kathy, and the performing monkey. Evelyn, give them their pages.” And then she turned and retreated to her office with a regal air of dismissal.
The assistant looked a bit flustered as she handed them the outline of their segment. “I apologize,” she said, “but I only have two copies prepared.”
“That's all right. I'll just crib off Don. It'll be like the old days,” Cosmo said.
“Oh, yes!” Evelyn smiled at him. “I remember reading in an interview that you and Don had been at school together.”
Cosmo drew his face into a serious mien. “Dignity,” he intoned to the confused assistant. “Always dignity.”
Kathy giggled and elbowed him in the side. “Thank you, Evelyn. We'll review this right away.
Evelyn glanced doubtfully at Lina's closed office door. “Let me show you down to studio three, and you can get settled in.”
Kathy had been on the radio before, and it always felt odd to head into a studio without going to makeup first. Evelyn led them down two floors to the studio, which was a large room with a tall microphone standing in the center near a piano. There were chairs lining two of the walls, and a door and window to the engineers’ booth in a third.
“You'll be the final segment of the episode,” Evelyn told them. “So you can have a seat while the other acts are on.” She gestured toward the chairs.
“Thank you,” Kathy said with a smile. “You've been very helpful.”
“Yeah,” Don said. “You're a swell kid. I hope working with Lina treats you well.”
Evelyn smoothed her skirt. “She's very good at what she does,” Evelyn said. “We're not bosom friends, but I'm learning a lot from her.”
“Aces!” Cosmo said. “I'm glad to hear that she's doing some good to someone. Now, can I have at that piano until it's time to start?”
“Of course! I’m excited to hear you in person.”
The three of them colonized the piano, and Cosmo struck up the opening chords. There was a kind of joyful magic that happened when they all sang and danced together. It was probably why they did so as often as possible. They lost track of time a bit, transitioning from song to song, hoofing around the studio in a way that wouldn't work on the radio at all. Lina's other guests entered the studio around then and tapped their toes.
Kathy hadn't even been aware of the stress she'd been feeling at being around Lina again until she felt it melt away in a jangle of piano keys and a laughing Lindy Hop.
They stopped abruptly when Lina came in, shortly before air time. She stood in the center of the room, standing poised and graceful and looking like a fashion plate. “Us at CBS are so grateful that you could all join us on ‘The Lina Lamont Show.’ Thank you for sharing your unique gifts and talents with our listeners.” Kathy was fascinated by her speech patterns, which proved that she'd kept up her elocution lessons. They hadn't done anything to change the high, nasal tone of her voice, though. “Now, you all should have got an outline of your own segment and where it fits into the program. If you'll just take a seat, Evelyn will warn you before it's your turn.” And with an elegant little pivot, she took her place behind the microphone. Evelyn beckoned to the first guest to join her, and they waited while the engineers in the sound booth counted them in.
It was like watching a lightbulb turn on, seeing Lina slip into her performance. She was gracious to her guests, if not always well informed. She was sometimes funny in a daffy, dim way and sometimes funny in a sharp, witty way. Kathy had once loved watching Lina on the screen. This little glimpse made her almost wish that Lina would come back to Hollywood. Almost.
Finally, it was their turn. Cosmo took the piano while Don and Kathy joined Lina at the microphone. “And now,” Lina said, “I have a real treat. So many of you have written letters and notes, telling me how much a Lockwood and Lamont reunion would mean to you. And my kind listeners, it means so much to us, too. Here with me in the studio is my dear, dear friend, Don Lockwood.”
Don leaned into the microphone. “Thank you so much for having us, Lina. My leading lady and fiancée Kathy Selden came with me to make this reunion a reality.”
“It's so good to see you again in person, Don. Of course, we've all been seeing you in the pictures. Tell me, what's one of the biggest changes you've noticed since I was called away from the studio to take up my new career on the radio?”
Kathy and Don exchanged a look. Their outline was general enough to leave room for improvisation, but this was a stretch. Kathy leaned forward. “Well, Lina, you always drew eyes and attention. You're missed at the studio,” she said hurriedly, “But sometimes it almost seems like it's easier to accomplish things without all that energy being pulled your way.”
Lina pursed her lips. “Not everyone can compete with my natural magnetism,” she allowed. “It must be a comfort that I ain't overshadowing you no more.”
“And of course you left just before talkies hit it big,” Don added, fudging the dates by a few months and one fiasco of a picture. “So the films themselves are very different from what you and I used to make together.”
“That's so true,” Lina cooed. “Why, you and I were once the most glamourous and romantic couple in Hollywood. And in your last picture with Kathy, you were playing a girl horse jockey and a scruffy horse trainer.”
“I loved learning to ride for ‘Lizzie and the Long Shot,’” Kathy said firmly. “And I know Don thought it was the bee's knees getting to do his own stunts again.”
“That's right,” Don agreed. “I couldn't ask for a better partner than Kathy.” Lina opened her mouth and he hurried to add, “So I guess I've been lucky to have had two such different and talented ladies as my regular co-stars.”
Lina batted her eyes at Don, and Kathy thought it was too bad that the people away home were missing the show. “I know it was heartbreaking when I tore our happy relationship apart to follow my dreams, but I'm so glad to see that you've found some modicum of comfort with Kathy.”
Don seemed to choke on his words, but Kathy was able to fight down her own laugh. “We're delighted to have your blessing, Lina. When we get married in the Spring, we'll be sure to toast to everything you contributed to our love story.” After all, a love story with no obstacles was just a one act show.
“And on that note, Kathy and I would love to sing a pieces for your listeners, Lina. This is a medley of songs from our new picture, ‘With Bells On,’ and they were written by my oldest friend, Cosmo Brown.”
They launched into the opening bars with the fervor of drowning rats diving into a lifeboat. They were good songs, and Kathy, Don, and Cosmo were a smooth, well rehearsed act. Kathy pictured the hundreds of families gathered around their radio sets, listening to then for the first time, and she put a little more gusto into her performance.
When they finished, Don and Cosmo were glowing the way they did with every performance, and Kathy felt a matching smile on her own face. Lina looked bored, but Kathy hasn't really expected to receive approbation from her at this late date. Lina managed to thank them without a single backhanded compliment, though, which was nearly shocking.
“And now before you go, can you share any inspiration and insight with the many listeners who look up to you as a inspiration?” Lina asked.
Kathy honestly thought he would trot out ‘dignity' just to make Cosmo laugh, but instead Don looked down at her and smiled, sweet and sincere as he could only be when he was both in front of an audience and truly meant what he was going to say. “Surround yourself with true friends. There are a lot of sharks in show business, but if you've got real friends supporting and protecting you, the sharks will never sink their teeth in.”
Kathy beamed up at him. For all that they were stupid in love with one another, knowing that Don trusted her and considered her a friend made her feel warm all the way down to her toes.
The two of them stepped aside as Lina closed out the show. The engineers counted them out, and when the mic was off, Lina turned to them. “Donnie,” she said, laying a hand on his arm, “I hope you know that I consider you a true friend, as well. And if you and R.F. decide that Kathy isn't working out, you just give my lawyers a ring. I'll be there in no time.”
Kathy balled her hands into fists and reminded herself that PR would have her head if she socked Lina Lamont in front of witnesses. Don seemed to struggle a bit himself before saying, “That’s big of you, Lina. And now if you'll excuse us, we've got to see a man about a dog.”
Kathy took comfort in the familiar presence of Don & Cosmo on either side of her as they took the elevator down and hailed a cab. It wasn't until they were a block away that she trusted herself to speak.
“Lina Lamont,” she said, “is definitely still a shark.” And then she let out a deep breath and leaned back in the seat with her two best friends in the world, content in the knowledge that they would never let the Linas of the world sink their teeth in.
After all, they were a team.