Memories of a Hollywood Dog Walker

Filmmaker Tipper Newton recalls her time looking after pooches for legendary actor Kirk Douglas.

I was in Hollywood, baby! Livin’ it up under the sun and palm trees, with the big dream of bein’ on the big screen. It was 2013 and my life as a struggling actor with random day jobs was in full force.

One day, a friend of mine announced he was moving from Hollywood to Burbank. He had a side gig walking a dog of a cinematic legend who lived in Beverly Hills, but the commute from Burbank was too long, so he asked me if I had any interest in taking over the job.

I needed the dough, but I also wanted the story. As a fan of classic films, I was drawn to the idea of being put on the payroll of one of the last living movies stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood: Kirk Douglas needed a dog walker and I was gonna be the one holdin’ the leash.

The house was shrouded in foliage, so it was impossible to tell how large it was. I could only see the front door peeking out behind a sea of vines. I walked up to a large black gate on the side of the house. Once in front of the gate, I was instructed to yell at the top of my lungs, “HELLO!” or, “I’M HERE!” I always felt so stupid standing there screaming, but they made it very clear the last resort was to ring the doorbell.

The gate would squeal open, a member of the house staff would let out the dog, and off we’d go. I usually interacted with two women, who I’ll call here Martha and Linda (not their real names), but the boss was Kirk’s wife, Anne Douglas. Anne was petite, wore her hair high and sported a full face of colorful makeup. I remember she wore a chunky pearl bracelet that seemed like it would slide off her wrist at any minute. I only ever saw her twice, the first day I was there and the last.

The only time I ever saw Kirk was once when I was dropping off the dog as he was being helped into a car. Kirk said in a shaky voice, “How’s the dog doing?” to which I replied, “He’s good! Just dropping him off, how are you?” But Kirk was whisked away before he could answer me.

At the beginning, there were two dogs, Danny, a Golden Retriever, and Banshee, a black Lab. Danny was old and had a tough time walking. My job was to take Danny down the sidewalk and around the corner, then walk him back to the house and drop him off. The remainder of the hour was spent with Banshee only. One day, though, Danny wasn’t there. They never told me he died, but suddenly I was only making $22 per session instead of $30.

Banshee was sweet, but very dumb and very powerful. Linda would get mad at me for not knowing how to handle him. The truth was, I hadn’t really walked a dog before and didn’t know it was a thing to have the dog “sit” before putting on the leash. I would try to get Banshee to sit, but he was too wild. What made it worse was that Linda used to watch me from the kitchen window as I struggled, which made me self-conscious. She loved to comment on how I wasn’t strong enough with the dog. I would eventually give up trying to get him to sit and just throw the leash on and go.

I enjoyed walking around Beverly Hills, but for some reason it never occurred to me to listen to music or a podcast, so I’d walk in silence. One day during that haze of boredom, I got the brilliant idea to download a star maps app. Suddenly, each walk became an adventure. Just along from Kirk’s residence was Van Johnson’s house! And down the street from that was Debbie Reynolds’ house! And Boris Karloff’s!

Debbie’s and Boris’ houses were pretty modest-looking from the outside. Both had large front lawns that led to a cozy white house at the back of the property, but my favorite house in the neighborhood was Van’s. It sat on a corner lot and had a large circle driveway with palm trees and exotic flowers. It had columns in the front that held up a small balcony and behind the columns a grand front entrance. It screamed “movie star.” After a while, I ran out of houses to visit and the excitement of Beverly Hills started to fade. It was never quiet there. The streets might have been sparkling clean, but the air was littered with the constant noise of electric saws or lawnmowers. The beginning of the end was when they began construction on Van’s house. They removed all the landscaping and changed the front facade. It felt different.

Also, my relationship with Linda was beginning to deteriorate even more. While Martha was always friendly to me, Linda would go out of her way to make me feel bad. One hot summer day, Banshee jumped up and left a huge, deep scratch on my leg. Linda looked at me and said, “That’s why you can’t wear shorts. That’s going to leave a scar, I’m sure of it. A scratch like that leaves a scar.” I wasn’t sure why she would want to so viscously hammer home the idea that my new disfigurement was permanent. (Martha suggested a topical cream to help prevent scarring, and it did fortunately disappear after several months.) The two times I asked to wash my hands inside the house were met with hesitation. Maybe it’s because they didn’t want me to see the tighty-whities that were soaking in the sink that one day. I assumed they were Kirk’s, but I guess they could have been Michael’s; maybe he was visiting for the week and needed to do some laundry.

Almost two years after that first walk, I became burnt out on the job, so my boyfriend took over. Linda liked him a lot more than me. She told him he was “so much stronger and better than Tipper.” When he started walking Banshee, we didn’t have a car anymore, so almost every day he would make the 14-mile round trip from our place to Beverly Hills on his bike. Then one day, they called and told him not to come because Banshee was sick. When a week passed and he hadn’t heard anything, he called to check in. They said Banshee had cancer and was being put to sleep that very day.

We went to the animal hospital to say goodbye. Banshee seemed normal, oblivious that he was about to graduate to the great dog park in the sky. Anne was there and it was tough to see her so upset. Martha was there, too. I missed seeing Martha around, as she had always been nice to me. I was even supposed to sew her daughter a pair of shorts, but she never gave me the measurements, so it didn’t happen.

As the years passed, my old dog-walking job became a distant memory, another entry in my own Hollywood history book. Without the job, I have no reason to drive to that part of town anymore, or to explore those neighborhood streets. I often wonder what Van’s house looks like now, and if any of that old Hollywood glamour still exists somewhere in Beverly Hills.

Featured image of Tipper Newton walking Banshee is by Thomas Damm, courtesy Tipper Newton.

Tipper Newton is an actor, filmmaker, and musician living in Los Angeles. She’s had recurring roles on Hulu’s The Mindy Project and the TBS show The Guest Book. Her latest short film, The Dangerous Type, which she wrote and directed, played film festivals worldwide. When she’s not working on that stuff she’s the frontwoman for her power-pop band Color TV.