Kiss and Tell

Author and screenwriter Harry Preston reflects upon a career spent traveling from here to obscurity

The middle-class blandness of Garland, Texas, with its great expanse of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip shopping centers, and wholesale stores such as Hypermart, is as far as one can get from the glamour and glitter of Hollywood.

Yet every Friday night for the past three years, aspiring local screenwriters, who work dreary jobs by day and write by night, gather at a weather-beaten Garland cottage for encouragement and inspiration. Pitchmen for air-conditioning companies, school teachers, students, broadcast announcers--they all share the dream of one day exchanging their drab day jobs in Dallas for the electricity of moviemaking in Los Angeles.

The person they turn to to nurture that dream, to stoke it and shape it, is the irrepressible Harry Preston--72-year-old author, screenwriter, literary agent, mentor, and raconteur extraordinaire.

"Just call me the Dorothy Parker of Garland, dear," Preston says of his role as host of the Friday-night screenwriting salons. He delivers the line with characteristic overstatement in his British-sounding South African accent, then follows it with a self-congratulatory cackle.

A dozen people have gathered at Preston's on this Friday night to read samples of their most recent works. Sean Stewart, a writing instructor at Brookhaven College, goes first. He's been working on his prose lately, he tells the group, so tonight, in place of a screenplay, Stewart reads a clever piece--resembling a New Yorker short story--about running into director Oliver Stone in a lavatory and agonizing over whether to talk to him.

"It's called Piss and Tell," Stewart tells the group.
"Sounds like the story of my bedroom," Preston cracks.
While pulling on a Player cigarette, the kind Preston smokes nonstop, he lambastes another writer for "gumming it to death"--taking too long to write it, taking too long to tell the story--and for dialogue that's too simplistic.

Preston then proudly announces to the group that one of its regular members, Eryc Pruitt, a 19-year-old Richland College student, has won a $500 local screenwriting prize for a taut, humorous short script he has written. It's a cross between Clerks and Fargo, about a convenience-store clerk who helps two bungling robbers escape a stickup gone awry.

"OK, sweetheart, let's hear it," Preston tenderly says to Pruitt, adding, "I'm terribly, terribly proud of you."

At 10 p.m. sharp, Preston serves everyone tea from a teapot dressed in a yellowed, crocheted tea cozy. Then the conversation turns, as it usually does, to selling scripts, breaking into Hollywood, and the unfairness of Hollywood making so many godawful movies while passing up some real talent right here in Dallas--and in Harry Preston's house.

"My resentment is that I have 32 scripts that are all good, and people like [Showgirls and Basic Instinct writer] Joe Eszterhas get their pictures made," says a visibly riled Preston. "God, I hate people who masturbate in public."

Harry Preston's house is not the Algonquin Round Table--unless the once-notorious Manhattan hotel was metamorphosed into a 1950s, yellow-walled, green-shag-carpeted shrine to a glamorous age long gone.

In Harry Preston's Garland home, tucked behind a wall of jungle-size shrubs, posters of Judy Garland plaster the hallway and big-band music wafts constantly throughout the rooms. Preston's study, tucked off the living room, is lined in movie biographies and mementos from his minor-league career. The walls are covered with posters from plays he wrote and produced for dinner theaters and nightclubs, and there are also a few black-and-white stills from his bad B-movies that bear such names as Honeymoon Horror and Blood of the Wolf Girl.

Harry Preston resembles Dorothy Parker only in his acerbic wit and lack of luck in everlasting love. With his relentless ambition but questionable success, and his utter love of show biz and ability to dish up the delicious anecdote, he is more a cross between horror-movie impresario Ed Wood and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

Something of a child prodigy--as a writer and performer in his native South Africa--Preston has written more than 90 books, most of which have been paperbacks ghostwritten for authors who self-published them. Few of the books made so much as a ripple, except for a sex guide he penned for teen-agers, which is remarkable in and of itself considering he is unabashedly gay and the book, done in question-and-answer fashion, is unbelievably frank. Take, for instance, this entry:

"I READ THAT SOMETIMES BOYS WHO GROW UP ON FARMS HAVE INTERCOURSE WITH ANIMALS. IS THIS REALLY TRUE? Yes. Some kids do it out of devilment, maybe to show off to their friends. We would classify this as the least desirable form of sex."

The book sold more than 100,000 copies and went into seven printings.
A former rewrite man and script analyst for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, Preston went on to write--or rewrite--hundreds of screenplays, only a handful of which were ever produced. His credits include what he refers to as "Dallas' first and the world's worst Western," Fatal Double Cross.

Preston's career has been one of near-misses and what-ifs. There's the MGM gig that ended prematurely because of a writers' strike; the Gothic horror novel that should have been a best-seller had it not been marketed poorly by his agent; and the movies that would have been oh-so-much better if only the budgets were bigger.

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