Harold Blankenship is a movie star
A 13-year old boy from Uptown hits the screen in Medium Cool
By Charles Thegze
Harold Blankenship, movie star, was asleep on a tattered purple couch when I came to talk to him. He had one arm angled across his head to keep the flies off his face, and next to him, his brother Robert also dozed in the hot summer afternoon.
A few days earlier, Harold had been a special guest at a small screening party, watching himself act out his life as one of the principal characters in Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s controversial new movie about Chicago and the Democratic convention disturbance of August, 1968. (The film opens here Sept. 17 at the Oriental Theater.)
He had viewed the movie quietly, cleaned up and his hair slicked down, while his screen image portrayed a 13-year-old Appalachian kid from Uptown who is befriended by a TV news cameraman during the troubled summer.
Now, here in real life, he looked as if he had just stepped out of the movie, a phenomenon which is not so strange when you consider that Harold really is a 13-year-old Appalachian kid from Uptown who lives with his parents and brother and sister in an apartment on N. Racine.
When I came to visit Harold, Medium Cool already had opened in New York City, with strong reviews and a good box office giving it the smell of a winner. And at the bottom of the ad announcing its premiere, in the cast list in large type, was the name of Harold Blankenship.
But all that has meant little, if anything, to Harold and his world. For him, life goes on, much as it has ever since he came to Chicago.
His mother Pauline asked me to sit down at the kitchen table when I arrived, and then she went to awaken Harold. Mrs. Blankenship is a tall, sturdy woman with a pleasant face. As she walked over to the old corduroy couch on which Harold was sleeping, she adjusted a gold plastic barrette in her thick, black hair.
I sat down at a wooden table, just across from Harold’s couch. A sweet smell came from a bottle of breakfast maple syrup in the middle of the table. Near the bottle hung a dim electric light bulb which illuminated the room. There was a knobless TV shell, a well-worn ironing board and two overstuffed living room chairs.
Harold got up sleepy-eyed and went to the bathroom; when he emerged, his long, light brown hair had been slicked back with water.
We went outside and sat down on a cement block in the corner of a playlot littered with sticky popsicle wrappers and rusty beer cans, and Harold explained how he had come to star in Medium Cool.
“I was walking down Clifton and I come to the store to get some pop. I saw this guy (Wexler, the director) standing by a station wagon giving out potato chips.” Harold spoke with a thick Appalachian accent. “He asked me what house my mother lived in but I took off and hid on the back porch because I thought he was a detective trying to get me, but he was making a movie, and he asked me if I wanted to be in it and I said ‘Sure.’”
(Later, associate producer Michael Butler confirmed how he and Wexler had found Harold: “One morning, we took our station wagon with a couple cases of pop in Styrofoam picnic coolers and drove up to Clifton and Sunnyside and started handing out the pop to the kids. There were dozens and dozens of kids all over the place. And all of a sudden Haskell said, ‘Hey, look over there!’ I saw this slender, shirtless, barefoot, grubby kid moving along the fence, not paying any attention to us because he was carrying a six-pack of Royal Crown Cola which he had just bought at the store. We went over and took a couple of quick Polarolds of him and Haskell went to talk to his mother.”)
So for six weeks late last summer, Harold became part of a movie company, an experience that was to take him throughout Uptown, to Grant Park, and as far away as Horse Branch, Ky.
Medium Cool was Harold’s first attempt at acting and he said he liked it very much. “Yeah. It was fun. They just told me what to say and what to do and I did it. And Haskell is my good buddy now; at Christmas, he even sent me a transistor radio and a box of oranges.
“Here, I’ll show you where Haskell and me shot the movie,” and Harold led me a block east from where we had been sitting, to a back alley off Clifton. The alley was crawling with kids and dogs and more kids. They all seemed to be having fun banging oil drums, sword-fighting with old TV rabbit ears, and crawling over a shiny, wheel-less Ford, as if it were an object from another planet.
“We played poker in the movie up there on the third floor,” said Harold. “See, where that little boy has his nose pressed against the screen.” I looked up and, sure enough, there was a whole outdoor location of Medium Cool. There were three stories of Z-stairs and porches and the little boy whom Harold had referred to was now swinging from a third-floor porch-railing.
“They let Haskell use the house because nobody lived there anyway,” said Harold. “He put light bulbs up there on the porch and told me to play poker with my brother Robert. Later on, I got up on top of the building and acted like I was training pigeons. I didn’t know anything about pigeons, but they were already trained, so I didn’t have to worry about ‘em.”
“When the movie comes to Chicago, you could round up all your buddies and take them to see you,” I suggested.
“Round up all my buddies?” said Harold, “Oh no. There’s 5,000 of them. I’d need the whole theater.”
Harold showed me his dad’s ’57 Chevy. It looked like a black and chrome tank sitting at the end of a narrow, dimly lit garage. Harold climbed into the driver’s seat and propped his 5-foot frame up so that he could reach the dashboard. He was delighted sitting there, and his smile floated in the darkness. As he hit the starter, the creaking, groaning, clanking ’57 tank came to life. There he was – Harold, the Desert Fox.
Harold’s father, Buddy, moved from Iaeger, West Va., in 1966, after the mines closed. He came to Chicago at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, but he said that he hasn’t had a job since he left. He, his wife, and their three children have been living on $250-a-month welfare payments.
“My Dad used to work for the railroad laying tracks before he began work in the mines,” said Harold. “He worked the mines till he was 43, but then they wouldn’t let him work anymore, and he just stayed home. Then we came to Chicago.
“I miss the mountains an awful lot,” Harold told me. “We used to go hunting for squirrels and my uncle took me fishing in the river. We caught blue cats and mud cats. I couldn’t cook, so my uncle fixed them for me. He gave me a filly, and I used to ride it all over the mountains.”
As Harold and his friend, Junior, walked from the garage to the front of the house, they told me about their problems with the 10:30 p.m. curfew. “I’ve been picked up so often by good ol’ Detective Russell,” said Harold, “that now he just passes me and says ‘Hello, Harold.’ I smile and wave back.
“I also got picked up for swiping hubcaps a couple of times around here. Do you remember that scene in the movie where I run through the parking lot? Haskell told me to pretend I was stealing the TV man’s hubcaps. I knew what Haskell meant, because I had a lot of practice.”
Movie-making hasn’t affected Harold Blankenship. Roy Rogers is still his favorite actor, he says, and director Haskell Wexler is just his friend Haskell.
For his work in Medium Cool Harold received $300 a week, but Mrs. Blankenship admits that they have spent the money on necessities long since then. “It’s all gone,” says Harold, “but Haskell said I’m supposed to get some more money from the movie later on.”
But Harold Blankenship’s life probably will never change. He’ll still get a special thrill of starting his dad’s clanking Chevy; he’ll still wave at “good ol’ Detective Russell” as the policeman passes by in his patrol car, and after a hard day’s night in Uptown, Harold will still sack out on the old purple couch in the Blankenships’ living room.
Such is the life of a star.
Chicago Daily News, 6 September 1969