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April 7, 2008

Moses Without a Chariot

Roy Meachum

Charlton Heston and I met a couple of times in Washington. He went to testify before a congressional hearing, something about the American Film Institute.


I can't remember, if indeed I ever knew, what the scrapping was about.


On the docket also was Frank Scarpa. That morning the fabled director looked like nothing so much as an aging Sicilian trying to do a favor for a friend: George Stevens. That's why he was there, in fact.


Not the distinguished writer-director but his son and namesake, who founded the AFI and still produces the annual Kennedy Center Presents. The last time I saw young George was at services for Roger Stevens, the founder of both the Kennedy Center and the Arts and Humanities Foundations, was not related to the films' namesakes.


Charlton Heston was splendid in a trim suit and quiet tie. Rep. John Brademas, the co-chairman, threw no brick-bat questions to the star of The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and a collection of movies that needed a strong jaw and finely shaped nose. A Democrat from South Bend, IN, Mr. Brademas went on to become the City College of New York's president. He participated in the process to shape the nation's oldest free university into something grander than CCNY.


The guy on the other end of co-chairman was Sen. Claiborne Pell; it was a joint hearing. You couldn't imagine a movie star of such magnitude, as Mr. Heston, appearing before anything less than the whole congressional megillah.


The only real fireworks the second day of the hearings came from Mr. Pell's violent reaction to my television report on what happened at the start. I thought he couldn't find his place on the page because he couldn't locate the page itself. Something like that.


The senior senator from Rhode Island did not kick me out of the hearing; he walked out himself, creating a stir among those he left behind: several congressmen and a fellow senator, as I recall.


Mr. Pell's remarks on the way out the door prompted the remaining chair, Mr. Brademas, to invite me to reply. I did, but in a tone considerably reduced from my story on TV news.


In any event, Mr. Heston and I seized on the occasion to chat about the White House Festival of the Arts, staged a few years previously when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president. The idea for the festival came from Social Secretary Bess Abell; I first heard the plan at the inaugural concert in Constitution Hall.


Over the next six months, Mrs. Abell, her staff and non-paid help – I fell into that category – labored mightily to give the country at least a taste of America's progress in the arts. The National Gallery's Carter Brown got down on his knees to place statuary around the South Lawn; he became the museum's director a few years later.


The biggest problem faced by Mrs. Abell and her people was the war in Vietnam; several of the distinguished guests declined invitations because they didn't want to be seen in public with Mr. Johnson. The president was undergoing widespread personal attacks over the war, which had not impeded his election to the next four years in the mansion on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue.


Maybe Bess Abell felt no need to keep me in the refusals picture. There was no real need. My primary assignment for that June day was the introductory material to be read by Helen Hayes and Marian Anderson. Gene Kelly rejected my script in favor of someone else's; I never knew who.


Before the evening festival, a run-through tested lights and microphones, scenery and such. This rehearsal was an absolute necessity for the festival hosts.


Late the morning of the appointed day I was assigned a White House limousine and asked to go around Lafayette Park to the Hay-Adams and fetch Ms. Hayes. We knew each other from a radio interview show I had done for Washington's WTOP radio.


The lady was a consummate professional; she was waiting in the hotel's lobby. Before we left Charlton Heston approached and asked about his transport; I didn't have a clue. In addition to all his celebrity he was attending as a former president of the Screen Actors' Guild. I offered a ride, giving him the back seat next of Ms. Hayes.


The day, at least in memory, was sunny and fair; the humidity lowered in late afternoon in a Washington June. Not only had I brought America's greatest actress, as Ms. Hayes was called, for lagniappe, sitting beside her was epic movie star, Mr. Heston.


Things came apart when we appeared at the White House gate. The Secret Service police officer had no problem with Ms. Hayes or me; he found our names easily on his clipboard. Charlton Heston was not there, he said.


With today's cell phones the problem would have been solved quickly, but the man was forced to turn over his list. He said to Mr. Heston at one point: What did you say your last name was, Charlie?


Before I could crawl under the floor mat, at the very last moment, a higher ranking Secret Service police official came up briskly and ordered the guy on the gate to let us all through.


Helen Hayes and I went over the material; I asked if she needed rewrites. She said it was fine. In any event, I never saw the movies' Moses the rest of the hectic day. We met again the morning of that congressional hearing, which I have described.


Charlton Heston was a consummate gentleman; I thought of him that way in spite of his later public ventures that went against my political grain.


By the way, he told me his friends called him Chuck. And that's how I remembered him when news came Sunday afternoon he had passed. He was 83. RIP

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