Gaining a Yankee Foothold Abroad

THE recent death of Sergio Leone, Italian director and film producer, takes me back to a cow town set in southern Spain where in the mid-'60s I had accompanied a friend, an aspiring cameraman's assistant who had been free-lancing on various movie sets in rural Europe: Yugoslavia, Greece, and in this instance the Spanish province of Almeria where film history had been made. The rugged, barren countryside of this remote corner of ancient Iberia, untouched by the modern world, coupled with the low cost of labor, proved ideal for shooting scenes of films of international scope such as ``Lawrence of Arabia,'' as well as turning out a series of spaghetti Westerns, the first of which in 1964 was a milestone: It brought Clint Eastwood to the world's attention with the film, ``A Fistful of Dollars.''

Though I was only there in an advisory capacity, a pair of sturdy high-top basketball shoes and a multilanguage ability helped me to find a place in this international filmmaking community.

Though this is a chapter in history that has long since been closed, it bears reopening since Spain, especially the southern region, was isolated from the rest of the world: Franco was still in power, the guardia civil maintaining order in some areas where roads were little more than donkey trails, and the inhabitants, unaware of many aspects of 20th-century progress, possessed a charm lost in the hurly burly of modern cities.

Still, anyone driving through this southern Spanish province might find it well worthwhile to stop by this set just outside the town of Taberna (Almeria) which has preserved, with cowboy paraphernalia for rent and a photographer on hand to record, what life was supposed to look like in Tombstone, Arizona, in the mid-1800s: swinging-door saloons, a sheriff's office, a jail, a wooden sidewalk to protect the pedestrians from the mud of an unpaved street, and of course a bank.

It is in just such terrain that my All Star Converses stood me in good stead, making me the center of attraction, since such footwear was almost unknown in Europe then. In addition to being typically American, the thick soles were ideal when walking through puddles, with sturdy canvas uppers that dried easily and, unlike the leather western boots, were not damaged when they became wet.

Soon the film people, from the director on down, began following my example by acquiring the high-top Converses. (I became the supply man by obtaining the different sizes of canvas All Stars from various United States sources.) It was suddenly ``in'' to be seen in American basketball shoes. Even the cowboys, except when they were being filmed, began to be shod in this fashion; such athletic footwear proved ideal when practicing a routine that included jumping on runaway horses, escaping after a holdup, or running after desperadoes. And playing handball and other games after hours.

It was all great fun - American clothing often is - for, stepping into these high-tops was like stepping back into youth; and in lacing them up, one could easily recapture a childhood thrill.

The practical use of these comfortable shoes was evident as they became part of the European scene with the French calling them bask'ets (a shortened form of ``basketball,'' second syllable accented). In German, they were given the name of tramps since such footwear proved ideal for hiking, climbing, and tramping over rough terrain.

This is but another example of America leading the way with the internationalization of clothing, sneakers second only to blue jeans and T-shirts, all imitated and manufactured throughout the world. Despite the manufacture of canvas hi-tops outside the US, the original American All Stars with the motto ``when you're out to beat the world'' continues to enjoy status in Europe. And high-tops are found on even younger feet: those who are propelling themselves on yet another American invention - the skateboard.

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