STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

My last post, The Shadow Circuit, convinced me that interest in Don McLean was very high right now. His walk out of the NRA Convention. It is the 50th anniversary of his American Pie. His mental breakdown. His Starry, Starry Night/Vincent has surpassed American Pie in popularity today.

The Vincent Van Gogh Immersive Experience has taken major cities in the US and Europe by storm. Every time one of his paintings is auctioned off, it breaks fiscal records. To think the man died a pauper and only sold one of his works while he and his brother were living. His sister-in-law took control of his work and got him placed in the hierarchy of the Impressionists.

I thought this would be good time to re-post my blog Starry, Starry Night, from 2013. And last, but not least, it brings back fond memories of back-in-the-day, when I was a lot younger.

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House lights go down for the second act of VINCENT, but the stage lights remain dark. Then Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night fades on the two picture sheets that are upstage of the set. Music fades in, Don McLean’s recording of his song, Vincent, aka Starry, Starry Night. The song continues as a montage of Vincent’s paintings appear on the screens.

In the ambient light from slides you can make out the silhouette of Leonard Nimoy. He stands off to one side, his back to the audience, looking at and enjoying the art along with the audience.

The music fades out. Starry Night reappears for a moment and then fades out also. Backlights fill the stage and Nimoy turns as the front lights fade in and he resumes as Theo Van Gogh telling us about his brother, Vincent.

Selecting the Van Gogh paintings was hard because of the volume of great works and the little time allotted to show them. Selecting the music for the interlude was harder.

Leonard wanted Don McLean singing Vincent from the very start; however he had a friend he relied on for advice who thought the song was Pop, unfit to be part of ‘serious’ art. The friend, an artistic director of a regional theater, was pretentious to say the least. He never said Shakespeare, but always said ‘The Bard’. Theater was always spelled theatre and ‘Arts’ should never be coupled with ‘Crafts’. He backed off somewhat when it was pointed out that the very same recording was played hourly at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a copy of the sheet music was buried in the museum’s time capsule.

young mclean

Don McLean, singer/songwriter, troubadour/poet, is an American treasure, but not exactly a household name. He is mostly identified with his American Pie aka The Day The Music Died, known for it’s mysterious lyrics and it’s extraordinary length. ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee was dry.’ His second most famous work is Vincent, his ode to Van Gogh. ‘And now I understand what you tried to say to me”.

American Pie represented a sad time in McLean’s life, the death of an idol, Buddy Holly. Vincent reflected the sadness of his early life especially after the death of his father when Don was only 15. It was written on a brown paper bag during a period of marital problems. McLean had always identified with Van Gogh, who was never appreciated during his lifetime, and is reflected the lyrics ‘They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will’.

            Outside of an excellent rendition by Madonna, American Pie is left by other recording artists for McLean. His recording of it was voted #5 of the 365 Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Vincent, on the other hand, is covered by many other artists, like Julie Andrews, Julio Ingesias, Chet Atkins, and my favorite cover, Jane Olivor.

His song, And I Love You So has been covered by the likes of Elvis Presley, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campbell, Howard Keel, a cover by Perry Como reached #1in the Easy Listening genre. His song, Wonderful Baby, was dedicated to and recorded by Fred Astaire.

In his recordings and his concerts, his repertoire includes his own compositions as well as songs identified with singers like Sinatra, Buddy Holly, his mentor, Pete Seeger, Gordon Lightfoot, and Marty Robbins.

When Ray Orbison released his song Crying, it was received just so-so. McLean cut a cover of it that hit #1 in the international market. Orbison made a rerecording of it, using some of the innovations of McLean, and it is now a classic. Orbison said McLean had the best cover of any of Orbison’s songs and said McLean had ‘the voice of the century’.

Don McLean was also responsible, indirectly, for another classic,  Killing Me Softly With His Song. Lori Lieberman, singer/songwriter, said that she was so touched by Don McLean in concert, singing his song, Empty Chairs, inspired by McLean looking at Van Gogh’s painting of The Chair,  that she wrote a poem as soon as she got home. The poem was set to music and Roberta Flack’s version was 1973’s Record Of The Year.

Dennis Babcock, Guthrie’s Special Events Producer, and the man who put the production and tour of VINCENT together, booked in Don McLean in concert during our VINCENT rehearsal period. Great concert! First time I ever worked McLean. First time Nimoy ever saw him in person and met him. McLean saved Vincent/Starry, Starry Night for the encore and dedicated it to Leonard and the upcoming tour of VINCENT.

As usual, I was house electrician for the concert. When I asked McLean about his lighting preferences, he just smiled and told me to do as I wanted. I did. Used various gels for mood, slow color transitions, sometimes just back light to silhouette him.

When we were knocking down the concert equipment, Eric, Nimoy’s dresser and the self appointed major domo for the tour, came on stage.

‘Don,’ he said, in his dramatic basso voice, ‘I know that your lighting of VINCENT is in the tradition of the stage; but frankly, it is vanilla pudding. Now your lighting of the concert tonight reflected Van Gogh and his paintings. You should incorporate that into VINCENT. Be bold! Spice it up!’

‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I have often thought about doing just that, but I don’t know if Leonard go for it.’

‘Who do you think brought up the idea? And I agree with him. Leonard had to go out to dinner with Mr. McLean and he asked me to mention it to you. So you could perhaps have some of it in tomorrow’s rehearsal.’

I didn’t need much time at all. I had it pretty much finalized by the time rehearsals started the next day. The key was my use of colored backlights. In his last years, his most ambitious period, in and around Arles in southern France, he used a preponderance of cobalt blue and amber yellow In one of his letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent defended his use of new colors and bolder brush strokes talking of

“vast fields of wheat under troubled skies”.

500px-Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_Wheat_Field_with_Crows_(1890)

The play’s set had two picture sheets a backdrop. The backlights hung downstage of them, in such a way as to avoid spilling any light on the sheets. There were three distinct parts of the set.

Stage Right was Theo’s office, a desk and chair. The backlight for this section was the cold heavy blue of Vincent’s midnight sky on cloudless nights.

“Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue”

Eyes of China Blue

Stage Left was Vincent’s studio. A rough built table with a paint smeared smock on it. A palette and brushes. A stool. An easel. This backlight was the yellow amber of Vincent’s home and sparse furnishing at Arles. His sunflowers.

“Morning fields of amber grain”

Van_Gogh_-_Weizenfeld_bei_Sonnenuntergang

Center stage was the neutral zone where the two colors combined. I controlled the intensity of the two backlight colors, in all three sections depending upon where  Leonard was and the mood at the time,

“Colors changing hue”

Starry Night

Leonard liked the new lighting. Erik liked the new lighting. Sandy, Leonard’s wife at the time, liked it.

I knew I had aced it when, on opening night, Alvin Epstein, the Guthrie’s Artistic Director, told me that my lighting was like bringing a Van Gogh painting to life.

But naturally there was a voice of dissent. The Pretentious Pal felt my lighting was vulgar, unfit to be part of serious art. He suggested that Leonard get a ‘real’ Lighting Designer. And naturally he knew the names of several of who he had used in his theater. Leonard said thanks but no thanks. When Leonard was approached by Babcock about a Guthrie production of the skeleton version Leonard first brought to town, Leonard agree and wanted me to be involved and to light it.

At the risk of bragging, theatrical reviewers seldom mention the lighting, and yet in almost all the reviews we got around the country my lights were not only mentioned but also praised. When we played a benefit for The Pretentious Pal’s theater, he really cut loose on me. After all I was a stagehand and lighting was art and the two should be kept separate. And I was not only a stagehand, I was a union stagehand!

I didn’t bother to tell him that this was not the first time this union stagehand designed lights at the Guthrie. And this union stagehand had crossed into his sacred world of ‘Art’ in another way. A few years before I won a prize in a national One-Act playwriting contest, and my play had been published and produced.

In respect of Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy, I listened his criticism and then silently walked away. After I left though. the Nimoys had quite a few words to say to him about his rudeness.

(Hey, Mr. Pretentious Pal, VARIETY  ‘The Bible of Show Business’ said in their review of VINCENT, “Donald Ostertag’s lighting was Excellent”. And they also liked the use Don McLean’s recording of Vincent, in the play.)

The entire of tour of VINCENT consisted of three separate legs. The first was produced by the Guthrie. The second was a month in Boston, Leonard’s home town, and was under Leonard’s production. Once again, The Pretentious Pal came and offered suggestions during the rehearsal. And once again, tried to get Leonard to drop Don McLean’s song and Don Ostertag’s lighting. Again, the answer was thanks but no thanks. The next year the third leg went back on the road to other cities. The third leg was produced by Leonard and another producer.

Neither Dennis Babcock nor myself took the show out on the third leg. Since it was no longer affiliated with the Guthrie, Dennis felt he should concentrate on his ‘day job’ at the theater. He found a Tour Manager to replace him.

My life had changed drastically. I had left the Guthrie and had been elected as Business Agent/Call Steward for the local as well as working off the Union Call List. My three oldest sons were working as stagehands and also going to college. In a few years, they would be joined by the two younger sons. I had missed so much of their growing up; but once I went on the Extra Board, I got something that few fathers get, a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with my sons. And over the years, I also worked with four nephews, a young cousin, and a future daughter-in-law. My days on the road were over as well as my days as a lighting designer foe the Guthrie.

When Leonard found out that I was not going out with him, he said he wanted two stagehands to replace me. I sent two out with him. Dennis and I were involved with the rehearsals, which took place in Minneapolis followed by a week of shows at the Guthrie. Then it was off to Atlanta with Dennis and I going along to help with the first real stop.

Oh, of course, The Pretentious Pal had come to Minneapolis town for the rehearsals, and again with the his suggestions to change both the lighting and the music. Again, Leonard stood firm on my lighting, but he did cave on the music. Don McLean was replaced by a classical piece of largely unknown music by an unknown composer.

The music had two things going for it. The composer had lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh, although they probably never met nor even knew of one other. The second thing in the music’s favor was the album cover was a Van Gogh painting of ‘A Bridge Near Arles’.

a bridge near arles

That leg of the tour ended with a filming of the production for VCR distribution and also to be shown some 50 times on the A&E network. That was also the end of Leonard Nimoy in the stage production of VINCENT.

I stayed away from the filming and left it to the two hands. I did however sit in with Leonard and a few others for the showing of the finished product.

I had been forewarned by the hands that although the credit read that the lighting was based on a concept of Donald Ostertag. Don’t believe it. It was basically, all the white lights available are turned on, then off.

As soon as the film started, Leonard wanted to know why my lighting wasn’t used. Julie, Leonard’s daughter, who was around during the filming and had worked with the camera crew on locations of  IN SEARCH OF, explained that the director said the colors and cues wouldn’t work in the film. Leonard didn’t like it that my lights were left out and said so. I just sat there, not wanting to present my view that my lights would have transferred to the film.

The excuse was bogus. Basically, this was a case of the LA boys going to fly-over-country, filming a VCR as quick as possible, and then back to L.A.. Surf’s up!

Leonard’s second comment was at the top of the second act. ‘Never should have replaced Don McLean with this music,’ he muttered. I guess you could say that The Pretentious Pal finally got his way, even if Leonard did not like it.

Thirty plus years later:

The VCR was upgraded to DVD with some added commentary and stories by Leonard for which he received a small fee. Now, he could have used it to buy photography equipment for his new profession or other things; but true to his nature, he divided up the money and sent checks to those of us who had worked on the VINCENT tour.

What a compliment to know your work was still appreciated some thirty years later.

And just recently, Don McLean’s past work was appreciated in a very big way. The notebook that he used to work out the lyrics of American Pie recently was bought at auction for $1,200,000, the third highest money ever paid for an American literary manuscript. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more talented artist. Just too bad he didn’t save that paper bag he used to write out the lyrics of his Vincent.

don mclean

And that’s a wrap – for today.

ON ICE – I

Another Olympics. Another scandal. Some of the usual suspects…Russia/young figure skater.

This one had the best excuse I have heard in a long time, ‘I took my grandpa’s medicine by mistake’. But even with the tears and excuse, she finished fourth.

No skating scandal in the 1968 Winter Games though when Peggy Fleming won the only Gold Medal for the US, just gasps of awes. And those awes, some of them mine, were heard again every time she took to the ice in the Ice Follies.

Here is a reblog from the past.

Ice Follies 63This started out to be another KGB story; but then as I got writing I realized that large Ice Show revues are a thing of the past… just like vaudeville. So as I began to give a brief backstory to the intended story, KGB AND THE ZAMBONI, then I decided to delay it and write a longer version of ice shows as I remember them and as I worked them.

Back in the day when ice shows were full blown revues, ala Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, only on ice, and not today’s costumed skaters presenting a cut-down Disney movie, there were three major ice shows touring the country. Big shows. Big sets. Large casts that included solo stars, chorus lines, comedy sketches. And they used a large number of local stagehands. Spectaculars!

The original was Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies. It was launched by the two Shipstad brothers, Eddie and Roy, and Oscar Johnson. The three friends grew up in St. Paul, MN and were regular ‘Shop Pond ice rats’. The Shop Pond was behind the Great Northern railroad shop where the neighborhood kids had adopted as a rink for hockey and figure skating. It was on this pond that the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson worked out routines and entertained audiences who were standing in the cold at the edge of the pond, and it was here that a new kind of entertainment was created. The world of lavish ice skating productions.

The three friends started the company in 1936. They were featured in the Joan Crawford movies, THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939, starring Joan Crawford and Jimmy Steward, hoping to compete with the Swedish ice skater Sonja Henie’s popular movies. It flopped and didn’t put a dent in Henie’s popularity, but it put Ice Follies on the map. Sonja Henie eventually worked with the two major ice shows that followed the Follies; but she never worked for Shipstads and Johnson, because they had their own stars.

Over the years they presented many stars of the ice, for instance the comedic skating duo from Switzerland, Frick and Frack. Prior to bring in this act, Eddie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson were the comic skaters, with their skid row routine. They were good but Frick and Frack were great.

Vastly popular, their stage names were adopted into the English language as a term for two closely identified people. Some of their routines are seldom performed because they are just too hard to do.

When Frack retired, Frick continued as a ‘solo’, using various young skaters as second bananas, who were never given a name as part of the act. One reason being the young skaters changed quite often. Some quit the act after just few performances. Frick was not an easy person to work with. He was very good but not as good as he thought he was. He was popular on the ice but not backstage. He was not friendly to his fellow skaters or the stagehands.

Roy Shipstad was a talented figure skater. He skated under the name Mr. Debonair. Recognizing that his age and front office work would force him to discontinue his Mr. Debonair routine, he scouted for someone to eventually take over the role. He found a youngster who was so good they didn’t wait for him to replace Roy Shipstad. They gave him a spot in the show under the name Young Mr. Debonair. He became a fan favorite from the start.

Young Mr. Debonair, Richard Dwyer, grew up in the show. Starting out as a preteen he continued skating well into adulthood. He went to high school in every city they stopped that had a Christian Brothers school. A few weeks here. A few weeks there. Had assignments to do from school to school. Got his high school degree working and touring.

Like Roy Shipstad, Richard was the epitome of a gentleman, before and after he dropped the ‘Young’ from his introduction, skating a classic form, dressed in a tux with a flower in his button hole. He always skated with six beautiful women in flowing gowns and gave out roses to women in the audience. And off the ice he was also a gentleman. A favorite of any one who worked with him, including the local stagehands like me.

Then there was a second generation Shipstad, Jill. Daughter of Roy, her routines were athletic and used some humor. Skating to music with a jazz beat, she seemed to be jitterbugging rather than the traditional graceful gliding.

One of Eddie’s son, Bob Shipstad worked in the front office and helped develop routines for the skaters. For one season the show presented Sesame Street costume skaters. When the Follies went full time Disney, Bob worked several years helping Vince Egan develop Sesame Street Live, (no ice skating), into the block-buster it is today.

Another star developed by the Follies was Karen Kresge. That gal was quite an athletic skater. And her routine was sexy with a capital S. Every male in the audience, that might have been nodding off, woke up when she was burning up the ice. In later years she, like many of the ice skating stars, worked for Holiday On Ice and also did choreography for both skaters and dancers. She worked with Woodstock Productions, a Charles Schultz company, for over 30 years. She was a great favorite of Snoopy, Schultz’s famous creation.

Charles Schultz grew up only a few miles from the Shop Pond albeit several years after the Shipstads and Johnson were on the Pond ice. Like many kids in that neighborhood Schultz loved ice skating all his life. In his later years he owned an ice rink in California and has an ice rink named for him in St. Paul.

(A little aside. Although Shipstads, Johnson, and Schultz grew up in St. Paul they had problems with their hometown. Feeling they were slighted at their start, the Ice Follies refused to perform in St. Paul. All their Twin City performances were in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Schultz had his first strip ‘Lil’ Folks run the St. Paul Dispatch and then in 1950 the paper dropped him. A few years later they begged to have him back, but he vowed never to allow his strip, now re-titled as Peanuts, run in the St. Paul paper and it never has.)

And my all time favorite figure skater is Peggy Fleming, Gold Medal winner in the Olympics. Three times World Champion. Went on to be one of the biggest stars of Ice Follies. And like Richard Dwyer, one of the nicest people to work with.Peggy Fleming

Such a sweetheart! I made certain I had the same task each time the show was in town. After she finished her routine I would hold a flashlight so she could ‘walk’ up the rubber mats on the ramp to her dressing room. She asked me my name the first time I helped her, and she always remembered it over the years, and thanked me by name each time up the ramp. And always with her warm smile.

She changed her act each season but the one I remember the most her all blue routine. The ice bathed in blue light. Peggy wearing a blue gown. The eight follow- spots spread around the arena capturing her every movement, every facial expression, in their soft pale blue lights.

And, even though the show trouped an orchestra, she skated this routine to a specially made tape of Frank Sinatra singing, IF YOU GO AWAY. Slow, sad, graceful skating as the lyrics lamented the thought of ‘you’ going away. Fast, gleeful skating as the lyrics changed to ‘but if you stay’. Back to the sadness of ‘if you go away, as you know you must.’ And ending in a slow face to black with the words, ’please don’t go away.’ Frank Sinatra singing a great song and Peggy Fleming skating in a blue world! The poetry of a real ice show.

Peggy married her high school sweetheart and they have two sons, and three grandchildren. She overcame breast cancer and is a spokesperson for early detection of the disease.

She keeps her hand in ice skating as a TV commentator.

Beloved by millions, her biggest outspoken fan was Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog. Charles Schultz devoted many a panel on Snoopy’s love for Peggy.

The Follies went downhill in a hurry as a lavish ice revue when the Felds, father and son, bought it. The father, Irving, was a show business promoter specializing in rock concerts . He brought his son Kenneth into the business and the two became big time promoters, with their flagship show, Ringling Brother Circus. In 1979 they bought Ice Follies and in 1981 they worked out a deal with Disney and Ice Follies was no more. The only big ice show now is the Disney costumed show centering around a Disney movie.

The Felds were not innovators but grew rich from the hard work and genius of others. The name Feld is not popular the show business community. The skaters of the Follies complained that the Felds were trying to make their show a circus on ice. They took acts like trained dogs and traditional clowns from the circus and introduced them into the ice show as additional acts that worked on rubber mats. They also introduced common circus practices such as low pay and disregard for their workers and performers. They helped grease the skids toward the extinction of the big ice reviews.

(In 1984 the Follies were doing their yearly stint in the Twin Cities. We had just finished up the between-acts preset and as we walked up the ramp we heard a lot of clapping and gleeful shouting in the dressing rooms hall. I asked a skater if what the clapping was about. ‘Somebody win the lottery?’ He said that the stage manager had just announced over the horn that Irving Feld, (the father), had just died. Ooh, applauding this. Cold, cold!)

I don’t know about the popularity of the Ice Follies around the country prior to the plug being pulled, but I do know they were selling out in the Twin Cities. I often thought that the show changed to Disney On Ice was because the big-name skaters did not want to work for the Feld Organization. It was much easier to control youngsters wearing Disney costumes, who are thrilled just to be in show business, then skaters who upheld the tradition started by the Shipstads and Johnson way back on a little ice pond behind the railroad garage in St. Paul.

After the Ice Follies began, two other organizations put large scale ice shows on the road. Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice. In On Ice Part 2, I will write about them.

Ice Follies

COFFEE WITH ALI

This is a reblog of a post I did June/8/2014, right after Muhammad Ali died.

It recalls an isle of calm for me in the sea of fire. Civil Rights Protests. Anti-Vietnam Protests. Looting, destruction, and shouts of blame from both side of the political aisle.

When this incident took place, we had Hope. We knew that once things calmed down the Civil Rights would take hold in fact not just word. And we knew that we would never go to a War again unless it was really needed, and we would never allow the War to last very long.

But like the song says: ‘We were young and foolish.’

I need an isle of calm today so I brought it out and read it. So topical! Topical in that it follows my Dalton Trumbo posts regarding a man standing up for his beliefs, only to be persecuted by politicians whose only belief is pandering to the lowest common denominator. So topical! I wish today’s violent ‘protesters’ could hear the words of Muhammad Ali, a man known for his violent art, speak with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, a man known for his non-violent speech.

There was this old bulll standing in the middle of the railroad track and far away the train was comng fast. But that old bull just stood there and the people all admired the old brave bull. And the train blew a warning…anotherand another as it came full steam head on. And the people oohed and aahed because that old bull never flinched. Just stood his ground…And…

And all those people that oohed and aahed when the brave bull was standing tall in the center of the tracks, just looked around at what was left of him scattered in little pieces for a good miles, yup, all those people who called that bull brave a short time before changed their tune.

Boy, was that bull ever stupid,” they said, and walked away.’

Thus spoke Muhammad Ali talking about Violent Protesting.

Today I have Hope. I believe that when the stupidity of the politicians is removed from the equation, the genius of our medical scientists will find a cure and a vaccine for the Virus. As far as the Civil Rights issue is concerned…Hatred and genocide are embedded deep in the history of this country.

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

TRUMBO & DENNEHY

In a previous post, BRIAN DENNEHY, I mentioned working with Dennehy when he brought his touring show, TRUMBO, to the Pantages in Minneapolis. The production was based on an off-Broadway play conceived by Christopher Trumbo, son of Dalton Trumbo, screenwriter and one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.

The play had two characters, Dalton Trumbo and a narrator. The script is actual letters written by Trumbo and read by the lead actor. The narrator sets it up and offers insights on a few occasions. The lead is on stage throughout. The narrator very seldom. The set is an eight sided wooden table and a chair. The props are copies of actual letters written by Trumbo.

Originally Trumbo was played by Nathan Lane. When Lane left Trumbo was played by a rotating cast including, F. Murray Abraham,(Oscar winner in Amadeus and a favorite of mine from his season at the Guthrie), Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd and others.

There is a documentary, Trumbo, that is similar to the play. There is also a conventional movie, Trumbo, with an all star cast staring Bryan Cranston 4 time Emmy Winner for Breaking Bad, and Tony winner for LBJ. Cranston received an Oscar nomation for Trumbo.

Dalton Trumbo was a high paid Hollywood screenwriter and a respected novel writer. His quick wit and his warmth showed in his work…And his letters.

Like many in the Depression Years, he was a member of the US Communist Party. An anti-war pacifist he sided, in theory only, with the Communists against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War and in the party’s ideas concerning getting out of the Depression which basically were F.D.R.’s actions that helped to end the Depression.

Eventually he dropped out of the party because of their lack of really doing anything. He stated that the U.S. Communist Party was less of a danger than the Elks, and they had less guns also.

Leading up to WWII, he thought the Russian-Germany Peace Concord would stave off Germany’s aggression. He was an isolationist because he was pro peace, unlike other isolationists like Charles Lindberg who admired the German industrial advances and German efficiency under Hitler.

And then he ran into HUAC….

Dalton Trumbo was not brought before HUAC because of his past Communist affiliations. He was brought after he did a patriotic act.

In 1939,he wrote a novel, Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war story of a soldier who lost his four limbs in war. It was well received and won several awards. However, I in 1941,when Hitler broke the pact with Russia and invaded it, Trumbo and his publisher felt it was not a time for an anti-war novel and stopped publishing any more.

This caused hate mail to be sent to Trumbo. The writers denounced Jews and demanded that a peace pact be negotiated between the U.S. and Nazi Germany. Trumbo contacted the FBI. Two agents came to his house, but Trumbo soon regretted his actions; because as he wrote, ‘their interest lay not in the letters but in me.’

Then in 1946, he wrote a magazine article from the standpoint of a Russian citizen. He pointed out that the ordinary Russians should be worried about the West’s animosity towards the USSR, and the ‘mass of Western military power surrounding Russia. Something should be done to lessen the hostilities between the East and the West.

This set off a column by William Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. The title was ‘A Vote for Joe Stalin’ and it named Trumbo and several others as Red sympathizers. He continued to dig up more names and his list became known as Billy’s Blacklist. In 1947, HUAC used the list to summon Trumbo and nine others to appear before it.

The Hollywood Ten, as they were called by the media, refused to recant and name names like the others had done. They also refused to take the 5th Amendment, refusing to testify on the grounds it may incriminate them. This defense became a household phrased in 1950 because of the televised Senate Hearings on organized crime. Instead they depended on the right of free speech guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.

Their reasoning was they had done nothing criminal, which they hadn’t, and therefore to recant would suggest that they had committed a crime by belonging to a ‘Red organization’. As far as naming names like so many others had done, the Ten refused on the grounds that they knew of no one that had committed a crime that tied in with the belonging to a ‘Red Organization’ and questioned if HUAC had any right to suppena them.

Writer-producer, James McGuinness, a right-winger who was regarded as a friendly witness pointed out to the committee that among his many fine screenplays, Dalton Trumbo had written two magnificent patriotic scripts, A Guy Names Joe, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. HUAC wasn’t interested. And they weren’t interested in what Trumbo was doing during WWII.

When the US went to war, Trumbo was one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood. He had nothing to fear about being drafted. A married man with children and of an age that was above the draft regulations. Actually, he was two years older than John Wayne. He could have stayed put and continued to write movie scripts. He could have enlisted and probably would have been assigned to writing propaganda or training films. But instead he used his talent and his name to become a war correspondent in the Pacific Theater. Quite a cut in pay and much different working conditions.

When the Allies invaded Okinawa, the longest and bloodiest battle of WWII, Dalton Trumbo, armed with a pencil and writing pad, stormed ashore with the troops. He was under fire constantly for the next 82 days. He sent back dispatches. He wrote letters to the parents of his fallen comrades.

Among the 12,000+ Americans killed in Okinawa, was fellow war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, the most of famous of the WWII correspondents.

But HUAC wasn’t interested in what he had done during the war anymore than they cared about what Sterling Hayden had done.

When Trumbo was sentenced to a year in prison for Contempt of Congress. He appealed but before it reached the Supreme Court, two liberal members of the Court died and two conservatives were appointed. The conservative majority of the new Court voted not to hear the appeal and thus the ruling of guilty by the lower court stood.

After his release, he moved his family to Mexico City where for a year he and other members of the Ten drank and wrestled and used up their savings.

The Trumbo family went back to California where Dalton did what he was best at, namely writing screen plays. He wrote at least thirty using the names of friends as a front. He was adept writing screen plays for all genres, drama, action, crime, noir, western. He wrote for major studies and studios that never got past B movies.

Despite the cloud of the Black List over Hollywood, 1953 was a good year for movies. The highest grossing movie was the Biblical epic, The Robe, the first venture in CinemaScope. Second highest was From Here To Eternity, which got the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director among it’s eight Oscar wins in 1954.

The sleeper of the year was Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy that saw Audrey Hepburn, a bit actress up until then, win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role and her great career took off. She also won the Tony that year.

Among the Academy nominations for the picture, Ian McClennan Hunter received two… One for Best Screenplay which he lost to Daniel Taradash for Eternity… The second was for Best Story and that was a winner.

The picture almost never got made because of the rumors that some of the Black Listers might be involved. The name most mentioned was Dalton Trumbo. Frank Capra pulled out of directing it for this reason.

Offered to William Wyler, he accepted with one stipulation, the film had to be shot completely in Rome. He wanted to stay away from HUAC, Joseph McCarthy, and the the witch hunting mentality that prevailed in the US. Thus, Roman Holiday, was the first ‘Hollywood’ film shot in toto outside the US.

The rumor was true. Hunter was a front for his good friend, Dalton Trumbo, a fact Hunter publicly declared when the the List was pretty much a thing of the past. In 1993, long after Trumbo had died, the Academy officially awarded the Oscar to Dalton Trumbo.

Then something happened at the 1957 Academy Awards that pointed to Trumbo once again. The Oscar went to Robert Rich for Best Story. The movie was a little known family picture, The Brave One. And for the only time in Oscar history, no one, either the recipient or a proxy, were present to accept the award. It turned out that Robert Rich was not in the movie business but rather a nephew of one of the producers. Trumbo had pulled off another Oscar while he was on the Black List. This time the Academy managed to give him the Oscar while he was still living. And this was the last year for the Category Best Story.

In 1960 Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger stood up and shouted, ‘Enough’. They both announced that Dalton Trumbo would write screenplays for each of them, Douglas’s Spartacus, Preminger’s Exodus, using his own name. The Hollywood Black List was over.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Brian Dennehey commented how many times he read the Trumbo letters he was still in awe over their wit and their warmth and Trumbo’s skill. And what the man went through to stand up for what he believed in.

And working with Dennehey I realized that he, like Trumbo, also went through a lot for his art and what he believed in. Dennehey was in pain. His back. His knees. While the blocking called for him to remain seated at the desk while he read the letters, he often stood to read one or two. He couldn’t stay seated for fear when he had to stand at the play’s end, he would have a hard time. ‘I might need you to pull me out of the chair, Don,’ he warned me.

He also had terrible night vision after spending so long under the stage lights. His bow consisted of him standing up at the blackout that followed the bow and exit of the narrator and nodding his head to the audience when the bow lights snapped back on. He could not see anything in the darkness that followed. For him to attempt to leave the stage in the black out was out of the question. He needed help.

I stood in the second wing during the bows. When the lights came up for his bow, I closed my eyes and waited until I heard Brian say, ‘Don’. My night vision was better because my eyes hadn’t experience the brightness for a while. Then I would turn on my penlight hoping it would help Brian get orientated, and walk out onto the dark stage, place his hand on my shoulder and we would exit.

I am amazed that Brian Dennehy could perform on stages in such pain. It was one thing to do Trumbo; but he was doing major theater works of O’Neill and Shakespeare also.

Brian Dennehy was not only an excellent actor and good human being, he was also a man, like Dalton Trumbo, who believed deeply in his ideals and his art, and stood up for his beliefs in them.

R.I.P.

DALTON TRUMBO

BRIAN DENNEHY

And that’s a wrap.

There was more I wanted to say but in light of the Virus and now the looting and destruction going on the last four nights just a few miles from my house, looting and rioting caused not by protesters but by out of state white anarchists, I am not feeling up to writing at this time. Stay Safe. Stay angry and vow to stop these killings of blacks by white cops. Peaceful protesting, not arson and looting.

HUAC/HOLLYWOOD

On June 8, 1950, the US Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority voted

to reject considering the1st Amendment Appeal of the Hollywood Ten.

On June 9,1950, Dalton Trumbo began to serve a year’s jail sentence for

Contempt of Congress.

At once, the cries of injustice sounded through out the land.

But one voice agreed with the verdict…Dalton Trumbo

As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress

and have had contempt for several since.’

This is an example of the writing of Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’ greatest screenwriter. His wit and wisdom prevails in the stage presentation of TRUMBO that Brian Dennehy brought to the Pantages that I was fortunate enough to work it. Originally this post was to be the 2nd in my experience working with Dennehy, but I got caught up in my researching the backstory of Trumbo and the Black Listing era. Brian warned me. He mentioned how when he first did research for his acting in TRUMBO, he got carried away and just kept reading more and more. I could not stop either.

Here is some skimming over the top of an American era straight out of Orwell’s 1984…with HUAC taking the part of the Thought Police. The novel was published June 8, 1949, the same day Dalton Trumbo started his jail sentence for thinking.

And today history is repeating itself.

The Constitution no longer applies to the politicians who are above all laws.

. . . . . . . . .. . . .

In 1938, the Congress formed the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, to look into Fascist and Communist activity in America. Basically it was Republicans, the majority party, looking into Left Wing activity and overlooking Right Wing activity.

For instance when asked why it never looked into the Klu Klux Klan, the answer was because the KKK was an old American institution.

In the early days there was a brief excursion into possible Communist activities in the movie industry based on a list of questionable facts; but little came of it except unproven innuendos.

Shortly after F.D.R. began to institute his ‘socialist reforms’ the emphasis was on trying to stop the reforms. It tried it to stop the Federal Government from financing work projects for the unemployed and projects that involved the Arts. The grounds for these actions were masqueraded as a search for Communist infiltration.

Again their attempts were futile, but in many cases very funny. For instance one of the members in his ‘interrogation’ into the Federal Theater Project asked an official if he thought Christopher Marlowe, (2/26/1564 – 3/30/1593), was a member of the Communist Party. Another member said he heard that a Mr. Euripides was preaching class warfare.

The shift towards Hollywood began in 1941 when, at the insistence of Walt Disney, the US Senate looked into Reds in the Motion Picture Industry. Disney, who had a reputation of being an obnoxious hands-on-employer, blamed a strike by his animators on Communist influence. He felt there was no way his ‘boys’ would ever have any grievances against him if it wasn’t for of outside influence. The Senate committee’s investigation was ridiculed in the trade papers and realizing they were being used by Disney to go after the union and certain people who had stood up to him in the past, went no further and dropped the investigation.

In 1945, the neoFacist party, America First, began a campaign to remove the ‘alien minded Russian Jews in Hollywood’. Gerald Rankin, ranking member of HUAC declared, ‘One of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood…the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.’

The election of 1946 put the GOP in the majority of both the House and Senate. Walt Disney, spearheaded yet another attack at the unions in what he called the Communist influence in the motion picture industry.

In 1947, heads of many of the major studios, joined Disney in asking Congress to investigate Communist activities in the industry. This action was actually at the suggestion of a Hollywood union.

Two of the Hollywood union locals had been having jurisdictional disputes. One went on a strike that lasted over six months, during which time the head of the other persuaded the studio the strike was result of Communist infiltration.

The call of the studio heads to investigate had a dual purpose. It could ease the antiSemitism against them and it could break the backs of the unions, technical and artistic.

AntiSemitism is a hatred that can never be eased by Law. And as far as breaking the backs of the unions, the antiUnion publicity did help pass the Taft-Hartley Law, which greatly crippled the union movement. But in the end the Black List initiated by the Studios robbed them and the public of many true artists.

HUAC was more than pleased to conduct an investigation. The Motion Picture Industry would provide a much needed public awareness leading up to elections than looking into Public Theater had done. And interviewing movie stars

It opened the hearings with a ‘friendly witness’, Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild and eventually President of the United States, said he suspected Communist tactics in the way some of the members tried to steer things, but he said the union had things well in hand to counter such actions.

The next day was the turn of another ‘friendly witness’ Walt Disney who regergitated his views for the last several years; Hollywood was under the influence of the Communist threat; and he named names, those men who had the gall to stand up to him in the past.

Then the attention turned to the Hollywood liberal block. Many household names refused to say if they ever belonged to any Red organization or if they knew anybody that did. For a while they had strength in numbers.

Actor Sterling Hayden had told the liberal bloc headed by Humphrey Bogart that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. As soon as he was appointed a member of the bloc’s leadership, it was revealed that he had been a member of the party.

The names of people who had been members of the Communist Party was already known to HUAC. For years the LA Police Department had infiltrated the Party, and two of the Party’s Board were undercover LA policemen.

The forcing of people to name names was nothing more than a show and a sly means of harassment by HUAC. As far as uncovering illegal actives, if the undercover police and FBI agents that ‘belonged’ to the Party, why would HUAC think they could find some.

The organized resistance took a hard blow when the truth about Hayden and others was revealed. Bogart and the bloc felt they had been betrayed by Hayden and others and the bloc dissolved. Every man for himself.

Some, like Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and others went to Europe to avoid further harassment and to continue to work.

The Hollywood Ten, who used the 1st Amendment in their defense, instead of recanting or naming names, went to jail for Contempt of Congress.

Families were uprooted. Marriages destroyed. Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan’s wife at the time of the hearings, said Reagan’s actions both in his testimony and after, destroyed their marriage.

Guilt caused many to resort to the bottle or drugs. No better example was that of Sterling Hayden, actor, author, sailor, and War Hero.

Hayden had been discovered by Hollywood when he was a captain of a yacht. He had just finished his second motion picture when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Not waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the Army. He was sent to Scotland for advanced training; where he broke his ankle causing him to be discharged.

He recovered and enlisted in the Marines under the alias, John Hamilton. The Marines sent him to Officer Training School. When he got his commission he was assigned to the fledgling OSS, forerunner of the CIA.

His expertise in captaining a ship earned him the dangerous task of getting through the German blockade in the Adriatic with cargos of arms and ammo to the Yugoslav Resistance. Wanting more direct action he volunteered and parachuted behind enemy lines into Croatia and fought with the resistance. A true War Hero!

His admiration for the Yugoslav partisans he fought with in the war moved him to join the American Communist Party for a brief period in 1946. Called to testify before HUAC in 1951, he admitted belonging to the Party but refused to name any names or answer questions about other members of the party. The FBI threatened him. He was in the midst of a divorce and the FBI told him if he was a hostile witness and if he continued to be a hostile witness and refuse to name names he would lose all custody of his children.

He said he was sorry for ever joining the Communist Party saying it was the stupidest thing had ever done. He gave them names of fellow Hollywood Communists; but those names had already been given by the undercover cops and others, who had already testified. The FBI threats produced nothing new or nothing illegal. The recanting and the naming of names plus his war record saved him from being on the Black List.

But his betrayal haunted him the rest of his life.

When he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer, he neglected any form of treatment. He retreated into the bottle to ease the pain of the cancer but more so the pain of his guilt.

His children said he seemed to welcome his fate.

Hayden died at the age of 70. Suicide, not from commission but from omission.

I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood,’ so wrote Hayden in his autobiography, WANDERER.

As for those who testified and named name some used their testimony to gain personal gain. Rumor columnists, Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, used it as items in their columns and to declare they were real Americans. Others, like the petty ultra right wing Adolph Menjou, named people he did not like to help resurrect his movie career.

As for those Black Listed some managed to find work through underground sources. Some managed to come back as the Black List began to crumble. Some said the hell with it and found work in other fields.

The Red Scare carried over into TV and radio in 1951. A pamphlet, Red Channels, was published that contained 151 names of entertainers and writers that may have had some ties to Red organizations and expanded to include speaking out against Fascist Spain, the H bomb, anti-Semitism, Jim Crow, civil rights, world peace. In short, the men behind this list said it was a list of well-intended liberals, who allowed their names to be used to support ‘anti-American causes’.

Included were such names as Edward G. Robinson, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, and Pete Seeger.

Seeger, folk singer, songwriter, and Activist was brought before HUAC in 1955. Like the Hollywood Ten, his principles would not allow him to lose his rights under the 1st Amendment. And like the Hollywood Ten, the defense failed and he was cited for Contempt of Congress. He got one year on each of his ten different refusals, to be served consecutively. He appealed on 1st Amendment grounds; but the Appeals Court ruled the trial was conducted in such a way that it had to be overturned. He was never retried.

CBS Radio and TV, fearing the loss of advertising revenue, made performers sign a ‘Loyalty Oath’ stating that they were not a member of any ‘Red tainted’ organization. If anyone refused to sign, their name went on the Black List.

All this went on and yet membership in the Communist Party has never been against the law, anymore than membership in the KKK or the American Nazi Party is against the law. Membership is legal. It is acts that are committed under the blanket of an organization such as lynching, bombing, driving a car into a group of protesters, and the like are illegal. There is also the strong legal argument that states HUAC had no right to this investigation in the first place.

The Committee gained it’s biggest triumph in 1948 when, led by the freshman congressman from California, Richard Nixon, later Vice President/ President/non-President, it convicted Alger Hiss, a prime architect of the United Nations, on perjury charges, saying he lied ten years before when he said he had testified he was never a member of the Communist Party. To this day the original charges of being a Communist and guilty espionage rests only on the say so of a very questionable source.

In 1948, J. Parnell, HUAC chairman during much of these Hollywood hearings, was convicted of conspiracy to defraud in a trial unrelated to HUAC. Parnell was in prison before any of the Hollywood Ten.

HUAC was the precursor of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt. HUAC strengthened the strangle hold that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had on America, on American politics, and to augment his personal hunt into people he disliked, like the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.

HUAC, although a Congressional organization, opened the door for a president to fire and or disgrace people who disagreed with him… For a Justice Department to make rules unto itself even to go so far as taking children from their parents and locking the children in cages or giving them to perfect strangers for whatever these strangers wanted the children for…And for the attitude so  prevalent in America today  that certain individuals are above the law.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Dalton Trumbo:

When you look back at that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints because there was none, there were only victims.’

There has numerous articles written on this subject along with a good many film documentaries. There are four major motion pictures that deal with those times.

Guilty By Suspicion – DiNiro

The Way We Were – Redford & Streisand

The Front – Woody Allen

Trumbo – Bryan Cranston

That is a wrap for this post, I hope to get back to Dennehy and Trumbo in the next.

Stay Safe

BRIAN DENNEHY

BRIAN DENNEHY

(July 9, 1938 – April 15, 2020)

Brian Dennehy left behind a large and impressive body of TV, movie, and stage work. And to those of us who were lucky enough to have worked with him, he left behind fond memories of a warm and caring man of great talent.

Dennehy had turned 81 in July. Kenny Rogers, singer/actor, who died recently, turned 81 in August. And a little aside…And I turned 81 a couple days after Rogers. Three of the natal class of the late summer of ‘38 who became old vets of show business.

Brian was an actor who always made the TV or movie better for him being in it. He seldom had the lead in film, usually playing as a major costar on one side of the law or the other. He was one of those actors that people recognize right away but always seem to forget his name. ‘I think it is Brain Keith…No. No. Can’t think of it right now but I really liked him in…’

His obituary says he is best remembered playing a sadistic sheriff in the Rambo movies. I would not know because I tried to watch a Rambo movie on TV years ago. I don’t remember if I even finished it. I was not impressed. But there was so many shows he was in that I enjoyed. I guess the two FX’s are my favorites. Or maybe in Presumed Innocent, or maybe Gorky Park, or…Like I said he was a fine actor who brought so much to the work.

His most ambitious body of work was in the 6 TV movies where he played the lead, Jack Reed, a Chicago homicide officer. The first he just played the lead in a two parter based on a popular true crime novel. The next came about because he of his persistence to get out another Jack Reed TV movie. In the last 5 he wore many hats, lead actor, writer, producer. They were all low budget fictional films, but they showed the true picture of Brian Dennehy as he was in real life, a man-left-of-center who stood up for his beliefs.

They also showed the pain Dennehy worked with, the result of his old football injuries. This pain is shown in the details of his blocking especially in A Search For Justice. Every chance he gets he is leaning on something. He seldom is seen walking more than a few feet. Sometimes when he is standing you can see how tightly he is holding on a piece of furniture.

He must have really suffered when he was on stage for a lengthy time.

His film work was overlooked for awards, but he received 6 Emmy nominations for his TV work. His biggest award in TV was a Golden Globe win for his Willy Loman in a taped presentation of his Broadway hit, Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman.’

This performance on Broadway earned him his first Tony Award as Best Actor In A Play. He took it to London where he was awarded the Olivier Award. His second Tony for Best Actor in a Play came a few years later for his James Tyrone Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, A Long Day’s Journey To Night. Both plays were initiated at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, which was home base for Dennehy’s regional theater work. Other regional theaters benefited from his love for the stage. And many of them bestowed awards on him for his work.

Dennehy performed at the Abbey Theater in Dublin playing Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He played a full season at The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada’s leading theater. He played in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, and a double bill of one acts, Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, and O’Neill’s almost monologue Huey.

A few years later he returned to Stratford to play Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and the lead in Pinter’s The Homecoming, the first Pinter play ever done at Stratford.

He was dubbed by the theater world as the foremost living O’Neill actor. And in 2010 he was inducted in the American Theater Hall of Fame.

His first love was theater, and his income from TV and movies provided the monetary means to work in theater in plays written by the great playwrights. When asked what was his secret in doing such fine work in theater, he replied that walking with giants brought out the best in him.

Dennehy was prolific in his charity work. He contributed both money and time to what he considered to be worthwhile causes.

I worked with him at the Minneapolis Pantages when he played a shortened week’s engagement in the play Trumbo. From the time he walked into the building until he left, he was open, friendly, and went out of his way to show his appreciation of the crew. It was as if we were old friends.

(I have much more to tell about both working the play with him and the play itself; but I will hold off and relate it in the next post: DENNEHY/TRUMBO.)

Working in show business, it is amazing how many people I met. There was always new crews, casts, designers, etc., I came in contact with. For the most part, outside of the area of the business, I had little in common with most of them. Not so with Brian Dennehy.

I knew a little about him before I worked with him. I learned more about him when I worked his short engagement in Minneapolis. But it wasn’t until I did research for this post that I found out how much the two of us have in common outside of show business.

There is the close proximity in age, six weeks difference, and in physical stature; and our lives are filled with so many similarities…

Brian was raised in an East Coast Irish strict Catholic family. Mine family was Midwest German/French strict Catholics.

Nuns were involved in our elementary schooling, Catholic teaching Brothers in our high schools. Reading books of all kinds was a major part of our lives from early on. In college we pursued Liberal Art degrees, Brian…History. Mine… American Studies.

We both enrolled in Catholic colleges that recruited us for their football programs, with the same result, knee injuries in our freshmen year that came back to make our older years a real pain trying to walk. Disgusted, we both dropped out of college our first year.

It was in the Cold War times, and the draft was in place. Not waiting to be called we volunteered Draft. He went in the Marines. I was a paratrooper. Both of us in esprit de corps outfits. When we got out we continued our college pursuits.

Marrying young was something Catholics did in those days. Dennehy married is first wife, he had two, in April of 60. I married my one-and-only in April of 61. We both have five children and have remained very close to all of them. Both of us are proud grandfathers.

Wild in our early years, we had a drinking problem and when we matured we quit drinking…Cold turkey. Not an easy thing to do in show business. We also both avoided drugs which were prevalent in the business.  

Brian was a stock broker in the New York office of Merrill Lynch. I started out as a teletype operator in the St. Paul office of Merrill Lynch. I switched to another firm and got my stock broker’s license. We both hated that work and got out of the business – for good.

We went back to blue collar work, truck driver, laborer, etc., to support our families. Eventually we both got into show business. I became a stagehand, quite by accident, when I was almost 30. Dennehy became a professional actor, after years of amateur acting, when he was almost 40.

Once in the business, neither of us was content to be pigeon-holed. Brian Dennehy expanded into producing, directing, writing, in TV. I was a stagehand in live events and a gaffer in film, as well as a lighting designer, a union officer, and even had a one-act play published in a national magazine and performed in several places. We both preferred working on stage over TV or movies. Especially the works of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Miller, Beckett and other giants.

Like I said, Brian Dennehy and I had a great many things in common over our lifetimes.

Movie goers and TV viewers have lost a fine actor. Theater lovers have lost a great actor. His world has lost someone who made it better for having been born in it. And all of us who had the pleasure of his company, albeit for a short time, are left with fond memories.

Thank You, Mr. Brian Dennehy

And that’s a wrap.

Coming soon: Dennehy/Trumbo

Stay Safe

HOLY WEEK? 1972

Cubil

Of all the weeks of the year, all of this had to happen on the week leading up to Easter and Easter itself.

Even with the name Ostertag, German for Easterday, Eastertime was always a quiet time for me. More holy day than holiday. Each one pretty much the same as all the others. But not in 1972. Never before. Never again.

It was the Guthrie dark time and I had been working the Minneapolis location filming of THE HEARTBREAK KID, the original, the one starring Cybill Shepard and Charles Grodin, for the better part of a month. Typical movie work. Bust tail for a while followed by doing nothing for a while. Long, boring hours. Sometimes have to get by with four, five hours sleep. Good food. Good money.

We had moved to a new location, heading into the wrap for filming in Minneapolis. After this one, there was only one more left and that one in St. Paul. This scene was the sex scene the cabin. If things went well, we were promised an Easter/Passover break until the Tuesday after Easter.

The log cabin was on an estate by Lake Minnetonka. We were setting up the lighting when Cybill Shepard came in and saw the interior for first time. She screamed for Elaine May, the director, and stormed out, vowing never to set foot in there again.

‘The Diva has returned,’ said the young, easy- to- dislike, gaffer, who, along with his dad and uncle, had been with the film since the start in New York. ‘Her bitching grows old in a hurry, but it makes us good bucks.’

‘Cool it, Abe,’ his dad warned. ‘ If she complains one more time about you, I won’t be able to save your job this time.’

It was Elaine May’s second time directing a movie. It was Cybill Shepard’s second time acting in a movie. May started in show business when she was three. Shepard hadn’t even been in show business a total three years yet.

Elaine May was a successful writer, actress, and a pioneer in women taken as serious comedians. She rose to fame in the improv stand-up comedy of Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. She had just finished the movie, THE NEW LEAF, which she directed and costarred in.

Cybill Shepard was a star teenage model whose cover picture on GLAMOUR magazine prompted Peter Bogdanovich to cast her in a starring role in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the movie that made Bogdanovich into a major director and Cybill Shepard as a someone to watch, not just look at. The chemistry between the two resulted in the teacher and the student living together.

At the start of the filming Miss Shepard considered her movie fame as a sign she knew the business and tried to contradict some of Miss May’s directions. The first few weeks of filming were done in Miami and very difficult for May. Not only did she have she Neil Simon, the screenwriter, showing up on the set offering his two cents, she had arguments from her ‘star’; but they picked the wrong person to try to order around. Elaine May totally ignored Simon and warned Miss Shepard that getting a rep of being difficult to work with would damage a young career in spite of good looks and influential sleeping partners. She advised her to watch and learn from the pros in the cast, pros like Eddie Albert and Chuck Grodin.

Cybill took that advice from Elaine and caused no more problems on the set. Until the cabin episode and when May walked into the cabin she agreed with Shepard.

It was something out of a Hemingway story, not a romantic comedy. The walls were covered with animal heads, the shelves with stuffed birds, trophies from all over the world. May ordered them to be taken down and stored safely, to be replaced after the filming. Cybill’s refusal to the interior of the cabin was less artistic temperament than just common sense.

But common sense took a back seat concerning the scene to be shot in the cabin. Cybill’s contract, on the advise of Bogdanovich, stated that she would not appear in the nude. He said if she kept appearing nude in movies, it would hurt her career. Funny, he didn’t have the same concern when she was appearing nude in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, the movie he had directed her in.

Elaine said nudity was a must for this scene

They reached a compromise for this film. She would strip down to panties and bra and then a body- double would replace her. It would appear to the audience that they were seeing a naked Cybill Shepard.

Big whoop! If the body-double fools the audience into thinking that it is Cybill naked what’s the difference to Cybill’s career in the public’s mind?

Auditions for the body- double had taken place in New York and Miami as well as the Twin Cities. They were conducted by Erik Lee Preminger, an assistant of May. Preminger only recently took the name of Preminger as his own. He never knew who his father was while his mother was living and she forbade his father, movie director Otto Preminger, to let it out that he was the father of her son. Once she died though Otto claimed the boy as his.

Erik grew up in the wings of theaters watching his mother do her strip routine. It was second nature for him to scout for the body- doubles in strip joints. It was also his nature to brag about his casting couch routine. He had weeded the girls down to four and saw to it they were ready for their turn in front of the cameras.

The action took place in the darkness of cabin, with the two of them lit, supposedly, by the flickering of the flames from fireplace they were standing in front of. In the background the flames flashing against the log wall added to the romance of the scene.

Now the only way the fireplace flames can be controlled to suit the mood and the camera is not to have a real fire. You use a fireplace effect machine. A rotary spit with ribbons of gel filters flipping in front of the glow of a lamp, The spit is a few feet off the ground. The lamp lower. Properly placed it creates the effect of a small fire flickering. The actors stand in front of the machine and are softly illuminated by the false fire from the fireplace.

The spit is hand- turned by a gaffer laying on the ground by the actors’ feet.

‘That’s my job,’ young Adam declared.

‘In your dreams,’ his dad declared. ‘Don, you’re the effects turner!,’ he said pointing at me.

HB Kid.jpg

So late afternoon of Monday of Holy Week I found myself on the cabin floor turning the fire spit while a few feet away Chuck Grodin and Cybill Shepard rehearsed their lines and movements. There was a lot of laughing and joking between the two. At first they only pretended to take their clothes off; but once they got the lines delivered to the satisfaction of the director, they hastily undressed, or partially undressed, stopping at boxer shorts and panties and bra. Over and over. A few short breaks and then a long break for dinner while Elaine watched the video rushes of the scene. She would watch the film dailies later in the evening.

Back on the floor for me. More of the same. Finally a wrap was called and we were told the time of the call the next day.

The day started with a few lighting touch-ups for electrics while the actors got their notes from the director and then back on the floor for me. Only now when Cybill got down to panties and bra a time-out was called and a naked body-double took her place – a few feet in front of me. Over and over. Down to panties and bra. Exit Cybill. Enter the body-double.

Eventually a lunch break was called; but before we left the cabin, Cybill had something to say.

‘Elaine,’ she said loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Do you know why all these people are in here? Some aren’t working. Just staring. If they are not needed I don’t think they should be in here. We’re not putting on a strip show for their benefit. I don’t want any gawkers in here!’

Elaine agree and gave the order only the essential workers would be allowed in the cabin. The others would be close to a radio in case they were needed.

At lunch I sat next to Hollywood, the other gaffer from our Local. We compared how are our day was going. He told me, doing nothing, except playing poker in the costume designer’s RV. He said he was tired of losing. I told him what I had been doing and I told him I was bored working the scene, over and over. He asked if I wanted to change places. I jumped at the chance. He smiled.

At supper break he said he wasn’t bored in the least and gave me some baloney about how much he was learning about movie making. I said told him I was more than happy to go back to the poker game. I would not want to disrupt his education. And I was expanding my education also. I was learning when one of the players was serious, bluffing, or just hoping. And I was ahead of the game.

 

I now more than got out of the mess tent when I heard someone calling my name. I turned and Cybill was behind me, chewing her bubble gum. There was a lot of smoking by the cast and crew but Cybill chewed bubble gum instead. She played with her gum. She snapped her gum. She blew bubbles with her gum. Her gum was ever present when she wasn’t in front of the cameras.

‘When I said I didn’t want all those people in the cabin, I want you to know, I didn’t mean you,’ she said. ‘I mean… you were working.’ She laughed. ‘And your face was so red. I don’t think it was from the FX. Trying so hard to be a gentleman and not peek. See,’ she pointed out, ‘Red just like now.

‘But I hollered because that turkey from New York was in there. Just watching. What a pervert! We caught him peeking in the window when we were doing the motel scene. I wanted him canned at that time, but his dad promised that the creep would behave.

‘Anyway, you coming back to work in there?’

‘No,’ I told her. ‘Not unless they tell me to. I got a hot seat in a poker game. But thanks for the clarification.’ I turned to go but she stopped me.

‘You’d rather play poker than watch me in the sex scene!’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Only when I am winning.’

‘Wait! Wait!’ she said holding up a finger. She started to blow a bubble. And continued. And continued. It was an impressive bubble. The kind that would win a ribbon at a county fair. It hid almost all her entire face.

Then she stepped forward, right into me. And she made sure the bubble hit my glasses…and burst. She laughed, stuck out her tongue, and ran away, leaving me to clean up the mess she made on my glasses.

As much as I wanted to be mad at her, I couldn’t. I had to admit it was a good prank on me. Bet it wasn’t the first time she played it. I was just thankful none of it got in my hair.

When we broke for the day, it was very late. We knew the four body-doubles were finished and thought the next day would be just putting everything in the vans and trucks until the next week. But Elaine had other plans though. She had one more body-double. It was Cybill Shepard’s stand-in.

The stand-in had been hired locally for the Twin City filming. Nice girl. Quiet. Somewhat shy. A student the U of Minnesota. When she waiting to be used, she always had a text book in her hands. She had politely hinted to Cybill that she would like a chance at the extra work. It would pay a full semester of school for her.

The stand-in had been present for all the cabin work and knew exactly what to do. It took only three takes. One for practice. One for the shot. One just in case. She was selected as the body-double. Preminger was left with four angry women on his hands.

We wrapped everything as fast as we could. That four day break sounded like a short trip to heaven.

I had called home before I left the location and my sweet wife had a steak dinner ready for me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t so much hungry as I was tired.

When she poured me a second cup of coffee she set the pot down and took my glasses off my face. ‘There’s something stuck on the frame’ she said.’ Looks like gum. How did you get gum on your glasses?’ she asked removing a small spec with her fingernail.

‘Long story,’ I answered.

She felt my forehead after she replaced my glasses. ‘You don’t feel hot, but your face is sure flush. Better get some rest. You’ve been putting in a lot of hours.’

‘Good idea!’ I said.’ Finished eating and headed for the bed; but on the way, I stopped off long enough to get wet in the shower, promising myself to do better later.

No problem getting to sleep. Bam! I slept twelve hours straight. Woke up and ate some pancakes. No meat on Good Friday, the holiest day of the Church year. Those twelve hours of sleep were such a pleasure, that I went back to bed and got ten hours more. But not before I took a long, long shower.

The first four days of Holy Week!

Panties and bra. Cut. Bring in the nude.

See you and raise you a buck.

The fifth day was indeed a day of rest for me. And a long, long shower.

Two more days to go in Holy Week 1972. No way would the last two compare with the first four.

But- if there is one fixed rule in Show Business, it’s this: The show must go on, but everything else is Subject To Change.

Wrap for now. More to come.

D-DAY BRONZE STAR – 75th Anniversary

It has been 75 years since the D-Day Invasion. These men waded in the ocean, or jumped from the sky to confront the guns of a common enemy. They did it because they believed it was their duty to stop the evils of Fascism, Dictatorship, Hatred.

 

 

Some of my favorite memories of my time serving in the 82nd Signal Battalion revolved around the combat vets in the outfit. Some saw action in WWII. Some in Korea. Some in both. Each of them had a chest full of medals and great ‘jump’ stories. One of my favorite vets was Sergeant Estes.  He jumped into Normandy on D-Day, and was awarded a Bronze Star for single handedly capturing a platoon of German soldiers. But unlike most of the paratroopers who jumped in the darkness very early on that day, it was not the first combat jump for Estes. He jumped almost year before, in the first US combat airborne assault ever, again in the dark, the invasion of Sicily, where he got his first Purple Heart.

Just a bullet scratch in the shoulder, but I’ll take the medal.’

When I served with him, he was a Battalion cook, transferred to the mess hall a few years before.

Just biding my time. Cooking’s good. No getting up before the sun and running 5 miles. On 24 hours – off 48. Good life.

Tall, thin, face like cracked leather, with a drawl that needed a translator until you got use to it. His fatigues showed a faded outline of a higher rank of sergeant.

‘Never get too fancy sewing on your rank. Saves time when lose a stripe or two. Airborne’s got the youngest sergeants in the Army, and the oldest privates. I got me my Good Conduct ribbon during a time when I was too busy overseas to do any bad conducting.’

Quiet man usually. Hard to get to know. But once he decided to take a liking to you, he was a hoot to be around. He would really open up with some great stories, especially after a beer or two. Estes and I were next to each other in the parade to honor General ‘Jumping Jim’, ‘Slim Jim’, James Gavin, the 82nd’s favorite General, upon his retirement.

‘I’d follow that man into hell. Come to think of it, that’s exactly where I followed him,’ Estes said, swigging a beer to wash the hot dust out of his throat. ‘Following him got me my second Purple Heart. Hurt like hell!’

It was the first time I saw Estes in his Class A’s. Two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star on his chest along with a slew of campaign ribbons. ‘You got yourself quite a bunch of salad on your chest, Sarg. You got a reason to be proud.’

Well,’ he answered in a slow drawl, ‘I walk tall with the war ribbons, and my two purple Washingtons- and my Silver Star; but I don’t take much credit for the Bronze Star. Cuz it was an accident.’

‘What? I heard you captured an entire platoon of Germans, all by yourself and got the Bronze Star for it!’

Yup. But I didn’t Sergeant York it. It was an accident.’

Estes like to tell stories in bits and pieces. Almost like a Saturday Matinee serial. Leave you hang, come back next week and get another piece of the story. Took several sessions and quite a few beers before he told me about the ‘accidental Bronze Star’ and what led up to it. Estes also told stories in the grand style of Appalachian oral history. Slow, deliberate, filled with great mountain expressions, vocal inflections, physical gestures, and perfectly timed dramatic pauses. All in the sweet drawl of the hills.

I can give you the gist of his story leading up to getting the Bronze Star by ‘accident’; but not in his exact words, and certainly not in his exact style. I wish it would have been like today, put him in front of a camera and put the result on You Tube for everyone to enjoy.

Born and reared in the Tennessee Cumberlands. Just a couple big hills from where Sergeant Alvin York had his home place. Hard rock farm. Could hardly keep my folks in vitals, let alone enough for us six kids. All the paying jobs around weren’t around cuz somebody had them already. The only way to make any money was to become a faith-healing, tent-preacher with a couple rattlesnakes.

            ‘One day me and Levi, from the next farm, decided to go on the bum. We hiked a ride to where the freight trains have to real slow up a steep grade. Ran out, opened a car door, but there were a lot of hobos in it, so we found us an empty one. It was heading south, and we surmised that would be a good way to go. At least we would talk their language.

            ‘Now hoboing ain’t the fun you think it would be. Just listen to the songs of Jimmie Rodgers. He tells it like it was. And listen to the words real close in BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN. Dangerous life. If you do find an odd job, it’s hard work, low pay, usually cold food from last night’s dinner. Most of the time, you beg to eat, and you sleep in the cold. By the time we made it to Augusta, we were talking about heading back home.

            ‘There was this fancy movie house, and it was showing SERGEANT YORK. We had to see it! Had a little bit of money we were saving for some food, but it was enough to get only one of us in legal. Levi got a ticket and got me snuck the side door. Watched it twice. When we walked out of that movie house, I was gung-ho, knew what I wanted. I was going to join up in the Army. And I knew where to go.

            ‘We had passed an Army recruiting place on the way from the tracks. I spent most of the night trying to convince Levi to join up with me; but he said as much as he liked the idea of three squares a day and a cot to sleep in, what with the talk of the US maybe getting in the war, there was no way he was do anything forward enough to get shot at. Said it was only a matter of time and we’d be in war against Hitler. Come morning I went one way to join up and Levi went the other to catch a freight.

            ‘I told the Army sergeant I wanted to join up with the 82nd, cuz that was Sgt. York’s outfit, and he came from my hills. And it shouldn’t be so hard cuz Camp Gordon where old Alvin got his start was right outside Augustus. He said it didn’t work like that.

            ‘If I wanted to join the 82nd I might have to jump out of airplanes cuz there was a rumor the 82nd was going to be the first airborne division in the US army. I surmised it couldn’t be any more dangerous than being on the bum. Then he told me I’d have to go to Fort Benning for boot camp, still in Georgia, but a ways away, and I could volunteer airborne in boot camp. I asked best way to hitch there, and he told me I could ride a bus for nothing after I signed up with him. I didn’t lie. I told him my actual birth date. He pondered a bit and wrote down I was born a year earlier than I said, and warned me to never let anyone in the Army know how young I really was. Then he even bought me a good meal before putting me on the bus with my papers in hand. I was going to do my duty just like Alvin York did in the last war.

            ‘As for Levi, I got a letter from my brother a few years after. He said Levi and a couple old boys tried to rob a bank. Got outside and walked into a squad of police. Levi, who said he wouldn’t do anything to get himself shot at, was the first of the boys to throw down his gun and throw up his arms. He got his 3 squares and a cot alright, but he had to bust rocks on a Carolina chain gang to earn them.

            ‘It worked out sweet for me. Got through basic, got through jump school ,and got into the new 82nd Airborne Division, 505. Had my wings before Pearl Harbor.  Wasn’t one of the original 48, but came close to it. Was one of jumpers in the first US airborne combat assault. Sicily – 9 June 43. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we were all glad to leave the training in hot, hot, hot, North Africa in the rear view mirror. It was a night jump just like Normandy was. Combat jump, no reserve chutes, low altitude, not enough time for a reserve to help. You catch a streamer you just got to pray and try to shake it loose.

            ‘We figured on going onto the mainland and fight old fat Mussolini’s boys; but instead we went to England to train for the Big Dance.

            ‘It was cloudy at 1AM, June 6, of 44, but at least the storm had subsided. We jumped behind the lines but not exactly where they wanted us to land. My platoon landed in a hay field with hedgerows on three sides, and a stand of trees at the far end. Great jump, great DZ, no harm to any of us. But we did hear occasional shooting afar, but none in our direction.

            ‘You could make out a supply chute tangled in the far trees. The captain ordered me to run down there and drag it back to our regrouping. I set my rifle down and took off. I was cutting the shroud lines to free the chute when I heard a lot of mumbling. And then a German soldier came out of the trees, followed by a lot more, a whole platoon of German soldiers. My rifle was a far ways off, but one man, even with a 03 Springfield, couldn’t do much against those odds.

            ‘That was the bad news. The good news was all the Germans had their rifles raised over their heads. They were surrendering to me. One soldier who talked good English asked that they be taken prisoner. What with all the airborne soldiers all around the area, they saw no point in trying to fight. Besides, he said, most of them were tired and wouldn’t mind sitting out the rest of the war in a POW camp.

            ‘I had to ask one of them to give me his rifle and the rest to lay their’s  on the ground. Ordered some to pick up the supply boxes and marched them down to where my platoon were watching and laughing and shouting how I was a big hero just like old Sgt. York that I was always going on about.

            ‘And that’s how I got the Bronze Star for capturing a whole platoon of Germans, all by myself. Nothing to be so proud of. Like I told you, it was an accident. Don’t think they’re ever going to make a movie called SERGEANT ESTES.’

            He was right. They never made a movie called SERGEANT ESTES; but accident or no, I told him he should stand tall wearing that Bronze Star. It was earned honestly. And one hell of a story.

                  bronze star             

 

One man’s D-Day story. He said he was just doing his duty like Alvin York, a neighbor a few hills away, had done his duty. Most everybody involved in that turning point in WWII felt the same way, doing their duty. We honor these brave men, on this anniversary  for doing what they considered their duty. And pray that their sacrifices were not done in vain.

             

 

ON ICE – I

Ice Follies 63This started out to be another KGB story; but then as I got writing I realized that large

Ice Show revues are a thing of the past… just like vaudeville. So as I began to give a brief backstory to the intended story, KGB AND THE ZAMBONI, then I decided to delay it and write a longer version of ice shows as I remember them and as I worked them.

Back in the day when ice shows were full blown revues, ala Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, only on ice, and not today’s costumed skaters presenting a cut-down Disney movie, there were three major ice shows touring the country. Big shows. Big sets. Large casts that included solo stars, chorus lines, comedy sketches. And they used a large number of local stagehands. Spectaculars!

The original was Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies. It was launched by the two Shipstad brothers, Eddie and Roy, and Oscar Johnson. The three friends grew up in St. Paul, MN and were regular ‘Shop Pond ice rats’. The Shop Pond was behind the Great Northern railroad shop where the neighborhood kids had adopted as a rink for hockey and figure skating. It was on this pond that the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson worked out routines and entertained audiences who were standing in the cold at the edge of the pond, and it was here that a new kind of entertainment was created. The world of lavish ice skating productions.

The three friends started the company in 1936. They were featured in the Joan Crawford movies, THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939, starring Joan Crawford and Jimmy Steward, hoping to compete with the Swedish ice skater Sonja Henie’s popular movies. It flopped and didn’t put a dent in Henie’s popularity, but it put Ice Follies on the map. Sonja Henie eventually worked with the two major ice shows that followed the Follies; but she never worked for Shipstads and Johnson, because they had their own stars.

Over the years they presented many stars of the ice, for instance the comedic skating duo from Switzerland, Frick and Frack. Prior to bring in this act, Eddie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson were the comic skaters, with their skid row routine. They were good but Frick and Frack were great.

Vastly popular, their stage names were adopted into the English language as a term for two closely identified people. Some of their routines are seldom performed because they are just too hard to do.

When Frack retired, Frick continued as a ‘solo’, using various young skaters as second bananas, who were never given a name as part of the act. One reason being the young skaters changed quite often. Some quit the act after just few performances. Frick was not an easy person to work with. He was very good but not as good as he thought he was. He was popular on the ice but not backstage. He was not friendly to his fellow skaters or the stagehands.

Roy Shipstad was a talented figure skater. He skated under the name Mr. Debonair. Recognizing that his age and front office work would force him to discontinue his Mr. Debonair routine, he scouted for someone to eventually take over the role. He found a youngster who was so good they didn’t wait for him to replace Roy Shipstad. They gave him a spot in the show under the name Young Mr. Debonair. He became a fan favorite from the start.

Young Mr. Debonair, Richard Dwyer, grew up in the show. Starting out as a preteen he continued skating well into adulthood. He went to high school in every city they stopped that had a Christian Brothers school. A few weeks here. A few weeks there. Had assignments to do from school to schoo. Got his high school degree working and touring.

Like Roy Shipstad, Richard was the epitome of a gentleman, before and after he dropped the ‘Young’ from his introduction, skating a classic form, dressed in a tux with a flower in his button hole. He always skated with six beautiful women in flowing gowns and gave out roses to women in the audience. And off the ice he was also a gentleman. A favorite of any one who worked with him, including the local stagehands like me.

Then there was a second generation Shipstad, Jill. Daughter of Roy, her routines were athletic and used some humor. Skating to music with a jazz beat, she seemed to be jitterbugging rather than the traditional graceful gliding.

One of Eddie’s son, Bob Shipstad worked in the front office and helped develop routines for the skaters. For one season the show presented Sesame Street costume skaters. When the Follies went full time Disney, Bob worked several years helping Vince Egan develop Sesame Street Live, (no ice skating), into the block-buster it is today.

Another star developed by the Follies was Karen Kresge. That gal was quite an athletic skater. And her routine was sexy with a capital S. Every male in the audience, that might have been nodding off, woke up when she was burning up the ice. In later years she, like many of the ice skating stars, worked for Holiday On Ice and also did choreography for both skaters and dancers. She worked with Woodstock Productions, a Charles Schultz company, for over 30 years. She was a great favorite of Snoopy, Schultz’s famous creation.

Charles Schultz grew up only a few miles from the Shop Pond albeit several years after the Shipstads and Johnson were on the Pond ice. Like many kids in that neighborhood Schultz loved ice skating all his life. In his later years he owned an ice rink in California and has an ice rink named for him in St. Paul.

(A little aside. Although Shipstads, Johnson, and Schultz grew up in St. Paul they had problems with their hometown. Feeling they were slighted at their start, the Ice Follies refused to perform in St. Paul. All their Twin City performances were in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Schultz had his first strip ‘Lil’ Folks run the St. Paul Dispatch and then in 1950 the paper dropped him. A few years later they begged to have him back, but he vowed never to allow his strip, now re-titled as Peanuts, run in the St. Paul paper and it never has.)

And my all time favorite figure skater is Peggy Fleming, Gold Medal winner in the Olympics. Three times World Champion. Went on to be one of the biggest stars of Ice Follies. And like Richard Dwyer, one of the nicest people to work with.Peggy Fleming

Such a sweetheart! I made certain I had the same task each time the show was in town. After she finished her routine I would hold a flashlight so she could ‘walk’ up the rubber mats on the ramp to her dressing room. She asked me my name the first time I helped her, and she always remembered it over the years, and thanked me by name each time up the ramp. And always with her warm smile.

She changed her act each season but the one I remember the most her all blue routine. The ice bathed in blue light. Peggy wearing a blue gown. The eight follow- spots spread around the arena capturing her every movement, every facial expression, in their soft pale blue lights.

And, even though the show trouped an orchestra, she skated to a specially made tape of Frank Sinatra singing, IF YOU GO AWAY. Slow, sad, graceful skating as the lyrics lamented the thought of ‘you’ going away. Fast, gleeful skating as the lyrics changed to ‘but if you stay’. Back to the sadness of ‘if you go away, as you know you must.’ And ending in a slow face to black with the words,’please don’t go away.’ Frank Sinatra singing a great song and Peggy Fleming skating in a blue world! The poetry of an ice show.

Peggy married her high school sweetheart and they have two sons, and three grandchildren. She overcame breast cancer and is a spokesperson for early detection of the disease.

She keeps her hand in ice skating as a TV commentator.

Beloved by millions, her biggest outspoken fan was Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog. Charles Schultz devoted many a panel on Snoopy’s love for Peggy.

The Follies went downhill in a hurry as a lavish ice revue when the Felds, father and son, bought it. The father, Irving, was a show business promoter specializing in rock concerts . He brought his son Kenneth into the business and the two became big time promoters, with their flagship show, Ringling Brother Circus. In 1979 they bought Ice Follies and in 1981 they worked out a deal with Disney and Ice Follies was no more. The only big ice show now is the Disney costumed show centering around a Disney movie.

The Felds were not innovators but grew rich from the hard work and genius of others. The name Feld is not popular the show business community. The skaters of the Follies complained that the Felds were trying to make their show a circus on ice. They took acts like trained dogs and traditional clowns from the circus and introduced them into the ice show as additional acts that worked on rubber mats. They also introduced common circus practices such as low pay and disregard for their workers and performers.They helped grease the skids toward the extinction of the big ice reviews.

(In 1984 the Follies were doing their yearly stint in the Twin Cities. We had just finished up the between-acts preset and as we walked up the ramp we heard a lot of clapping and gleeful shouting in the dressing rooms hall. I asked a skater if what the clapping was about. ‘Somebody win the lottery?’ He said that the stage manager had just announced over the horn that Irving Feld, (the father), had just died. Ooh, applauding this. Cold, cold!)

I don’t know about the popularity of the Ice Follies around the country prior to the plug being pulled, but I do know they were selling out in the Twin Cities. I often thought that the show changed to Disney On Ice was because the big-name skaters did not want to work for the Feld Organization. It was much easier to control youngsters wearing Disney costumes, who are thrilled just to be in show business, then skaters who upheld the tradition started by the Shipstads and Johnson way back on a little ice pond behind the railroad garage in St. Paul.

After the Ice Follies began, two other organizations put large scale ice shows on the road. Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice. In On Ice Part 2, I will write about them.

Ice Follies

THE FALL – ACT III

the fall

QUE SERA, SERA

BRAIN SURGERY!!! I compared the Pace Maker insertion and aftermath with a walk in the park. Well, brain surgery and aftermath was more of a walk in ankle-high mud.

The ride from the doctor’s office to the hospital where the brain operation, if needed, was to take place was the same as the ambulance ride to where the Pacemaker was inserted was the same, except it took longer, and for the most part there was silence.

A few attempts at conversation was made by Gina, my wife, to our oldest son David who was driving. David answered in just a few words as possible. As for me, I was left to my own thoughts. Deep breathing and playing the radio in my mind.

An old time paratrooper taught me about playing the radio in my mind. Before the jump we would fly around an hour, maybe two. Packed like the proverbial sardines, couldn’t move. The noise of the plane so loud you couldn’t talk to the man next to you. If I managed to fall asleep, I would dream. See the trombone movie shot of the fall in the movie VERTIGO. Wake up in a sweat.

I noticed during the flight how Sgt. Estes would be sitting with eyes closed, breathing deep, bobbing his head, and tapping a boot. I asked him about that one night when we were having a beer in Fayetteville.

I listen to my radio in my head. You know how a song plays in your mind sometimes and it drives you goofy after a while. Well you can change the station. Think real hard on a song you want to hear and pretty soon it’ll come on. Do that and you won’t be thinking about what is going to happen outside that plane door.

‘Thinking about what’s going to happen gets you worrying. Pretty soon get you antsy. Doesn’t change the results any. Could cause you to make a mistake when you do jump.

‘Better to just breath deep and listen to the radio in your head and relax.’

So riding to the hospital to see about the fluid in my head, I listened to the radio in my head.

The year I graduated, 1956, the movie THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH premiered and the song that figured so prominently in it was a big hit for Doris Day. It also spoke to me at a time I was now in charge of making the big decisions of my life. It was old fashion music, far removed from the Elvis revolution; but I liked it.Still do. The cheerful styling of Doris Day. Her cheerful smile.

That was the song I tuned to in my mind as we went to the hospital.

QUE SERA, SERA

What ever will be, will be

The future’s not ours to see

Que Sera, Sera

Eyes closed. Deep breaths. Listened to the music and in my imagination I saw the noble brain surgeon, James Steward, working to heal me.

And wiping the sweat from his brow was Alfred Hitchcock dressed as a nurse, performing his required cameo in his movie.

My daydream helped relax me.

I had no more gotten into the hospital gown in my new room, which looked like my old room except it was a floor higher, than they transported me to the Cscan room. Nothing in the room had changed since I was here last, five weeks before, except the results of the scan. But the fluid had still remained the size of a ‘clemetine’ and had not grown to the that of a full blown orange.

Back in the room it was check the vitals time, but before I got in bed I went to the rest room. I didn’t see a ‘hat’ and went back out and told the nurse. She laughed and told me they didn’t measure output on this floor. Nice to get the ground rules out of the way. Then I asked if nurses went from floor to floor. When she told me no I was relieved. It meant Nurse Mini-Ratched would not be one of my problems.

My vitals checked out. And I didn’t catch diabetes since I was here last. I mentioned that I had not had breakfast or lunch. An aide called down to have some food sent up for me. I asked not to have a turkey sandwich butI wouldn’t mind a tuna sandwich, a couple cups of that green Jello,and a cup of coffee. No coffee was on my food approval form, I was told.

It was a cloudy day for me. I wasn’t in LaLa Land, but I wasn’t fully awake. I knew that the next morning Gina had to take a stress test in conjunction with her nose operation coming up in the fall. I asked David to take her home. Kissed her and wished her the best with the test. She didn’t look happy when she left, promising to come back as soon as the test was over.

I don’t remember much about that rest of the day and night. I know there was a ballgame on TV but I didn’t bother to turn it on. I imagine the night was filled with checking the vitals etc.. I woke up when Gina kissed my forehead. She said her test went well. My mind was cloudy. Que Sera, Sera. Then the darkness came.

And the bad dreams!

They came after the operation. They came when I was slowly coming out of the anesthesia. General, not local. No LaLa Land.

Thanks goodness I don’t remember most of them. The two I remember are bad enough. Nightmares!

One was that all the dreams I was having were on a film loop that would play over and over. Every time I fell asleep from here on.

And the one that really got to me was the cougar attack!

When I mentioned a dream about a cougar, naturally one of my sons laughed. I told him not the kind of cougar he was thinking about.

This was an attack by a cougar, puma, mountain lion, catamount, panther, painter- a very big ferocious pussy cat. I heard the painter scream! It came flying through the air at me! I smelled blood on it’s breath. It stopped, suspended in air, inches from my face.Then it disappeared into the darkness.

I must have had some very bad reactions to that dream because I could feel hands on me and hear Gina’s voice telling me ‘Relax, relax, it’s just a dream, nothing to worry about.’

‘Honey,’ I warned her, ‘Please get away from me. If the cougar comes at me again, and I have to fight, I don’t want to accidentally hit you. Please get away from me!’

Naturally, she didn’t heed my warning but continued to try and sooth me. The cat didn’t come back and I did not have to fight it off.

The nightmare was perhaps triggered by a cougar out west attacking two bicyclist, killing one and injuring another a few weeks before. But the cat in my dream was not the recent killer, but one from my past, my early years, the Autumn Cat.

This particular cougar had been sighted around Mendota in the early fall for several years, always leaving behind a partially eaten carcass of a calf, once a spring colt. It was always about the same time of the year that it’s migratory circle brought it back to Mendota.

I had heard it called many things, cougar, puma, painter, panther, catamount, so one day I went up to the room in the Grandpa’s workshop where Fred LaBatte lived. Fred was a French/Dakotah old-timer who worked sometimes as a hired man for Grandpa. I told him all the names people were calling the Autumn Cat, and wanted to know the right one. Fred told me the animal went by all those names and more.

To the East, the Old People have a name for it that means, ‘Fire Cat that screams from the bottoms of Hell’. The animal does not growl, only screams. And, young Donnie, if you hear the painter’s scream, it may be too late already.’

It was an early fall eve. I was bringing a sauce pan of warm milk to the ferrets we had in four cages in the old barn down in the far corner of the barnyard. Hobo, my dog and my shadow was walking beside me; but he started acting strange as we neared the old barn, low growls followed by whimpering, hitting his body against my leg. Walking along the said of the shed, he actually stood in front of me and growled when we got close to the Dutch door. I peered around and saw the top half was open and the bottom half was hooked shut, as usual. If there was something inside it had to be an owl or maybe a hawk, something that could fly in the top of the door.

I kneed Hobo aside and was about two feet from the door when I heard the most godawful scream’! Both Hobo and myself turned to stone.

A large tawny blur erupted though the open part of the door. I felt the wind as it flew past my face. The Autumn Cat! I had heard the painter scream and prayed it wasn’t too late already.

It hit the ground running. It cleared the fence by a good two feet and kept going across the hay field, disappearing in the woods on the other side. Thank goodness!

Hobo had given out a little bark and took a step to chase it but I yelled ‘Stay’! He looked up at me and wagged his tail. I think he was thankful I had given him a reason not to chase the cat.

Had the cat waited a beat or two before it screamed, I would have been standing in front of the door when it leaped out.

I opened the bottom door and waited a bit for my eyes to adjust to the dusk. When I did see what the cougar had done, I went outside and vomited and Hobo whined.

All four cages were ripped apart, destroyed, and on the ground were the remains of the ferrets.

The cat continued to make it rounds for several more years; but I never saw the cougar nor heard it’s scream again…Until my nightmare!

It was nine hours from the time I left my room until they brought me back. It wasn’t until the early afternoon the next day that I was able to sit up and carry on a conversation. Oh, what a relief to know I could carry on a conversation. It was one of the things I worried about ever doing again prior to the surgery.

‘You sure talked a lot when you were coming to,’ Gina told me. ‘Loud! And sometimes you were even funny.

‘Everybody laughed when you hollered, “If you can’t do your f…ing job, get a f…er that can do the f…ing thing.” Only you used the complete word. I was so embarrassed.’

The two women in white uniforms standing by the bed laughed.

‘Sorry, honey. But at least I didn’t hit you.’

‘Oh, no,’ Gina said, ‘But you sure scared me. You and your cougar nightmare!. You made me cry.’

‘You had me scared too,’ said the taller, younger of the two nurses. ‘I was trying to calm you down and then you warned us you might punch somebody.’ She had a soft soothing voice and a nice smile.

‘Oh, Don,’ Gina said,’ you never met Dr. Angelique, your brain surgeon.’

Could have floored me when the tall young ‘nurse’ smiled and took my hand. I would have pegged her for student nurse, maybe an intern; but never a full fledged doctor and a brain surgeon to boot. She looked much too young.

She must have been a child prodigy, the kind that 60 Minutes likes to do a piece on. The youngster that has enough credits for a BA, but not enough years to take Drivers’ Ed.

And if she was in civilian clothes a body would think she belonged on a fashion runway, or maybe walking down the Red Carpet…Never in an operating room.

Gina had thought the same thing when she first met Dr. Angelique. I had been prepped and ready to be operated on when this tall, willowy, woman walked into the PreOp room. She had on a reddish dress that certainly wasn’t something she could have bought off the rack at Macy’s. And she was wearing matching shoes with high stiletto heels. Gina first thought was what was a fashion model doing in this room. And then when this ‘model’ began to ask questions and give orders…

One of the nurses, seeing the look on my wife’s face, mouthed the words, ‘She’s the surgeon.’ Gina said all she could think of was the high stiletto heels and hoping the doctor would operate with different shoes on

And when Dr. Angelique went to change, the same nurse told Gina how lucky I was to have her as my surgeon. ‘She’s the best,’and another nurse agreed.

Standing there in my room, the surgeon explained she had three choices concerning the fluid in my brain: do nothing, drill holes and drain it, cut open my skull and take the fluid out. The first was out of the question. The second was iffy at best and prone to infection. So she took the third, drastic but the best option.

‘In a day or two, you can touch the staples I put in your head. I take those out in a week or so. The stitches I used will dissolve by themselves. Oh, l your Cscan shows all the fluid is out. The procedure was a success.’

Even though she looked too young to cut open my head, her voice was such I had complete trust in her judgment and her work. Her parents must have had a premonition when they named her Angelique…Little Angel.

I asked her how long it would be before I could have some coffee. She said right away and called down to the kitchen to bring me up some coffee. And she told them that from now I had no more restrictions on coffee.

Once when a young man was collecting my food plates he asked how the coffee tasted. I told him it was okay. He laughed and said that was good to hear. They were laughing in the kitchen about me ordering coffee when I was under sedation.

He said he heard I ordered it about three times and finally I hollered they could stick their coffee. It tastes like horse piss anyway.

‘Gosh, another embarrassing thing I said when I was under the gas. Tell them in the kitchen I really apologize for what I said. I shouldn’t have compared it to horse piss because I honestly never tasted horse piss in my life.’

I spent five days in the hospital all toll. Things were pretty quiet after the operation. The nurses and nurses aides were nice and caring. Dr. Angelique checked in often to see how I was doing, along with the hospital doctor du jour.

There were two physical therapists that worked with me a lot, a young gal and an older woman. The young’un smiled a lot and was content to tie a belt around my chest and we walked around while she held onto the belt in case I fell. The older one at first asked me questions and made me memorize things and tell her later what they were. She liked the fact my brain was functioning; but not as much as I did. If things had gone south on me, could tolerate physical problems, but not mental problems.

Both of the women wanted me to use the walker instead of my cane. I tried to explain that a walker was not the thing for getting around in our house. It has four levels with six or seven steps to navigate to a different level and none of the levels were big enough to warrant a walker.

The younger one understood when I proved to her the stairs were no problem. There were handrails on each one. And she saw for herself when she took me in a ‘gym’ that had a seven stair mockup, which I had no problem going up and down. I explained I could get around walking upright with my cane better than walking hunched over using a walker.

Not so with the older therapist though. She demanded I use the walker instead of the cane. My explanations fell on deaf, stubborn ears. She thought I should go spend a few weeks in a half- way house to rehab before I went home. And I should sell my house and move into a one-level apartment.

Sell our house! Sure someday we will have to do what she says but now is not the time. I began to say something I would probably regret saying. She might insist I had to spend time to a half-way house before she would sign off on me. I bit my tongue and went along with her.

Sure, we would buy a walker. I knew they had them at the Good Will for a nice price. We could sell the house and move into a one-level dwelling. Then I could buy an exercise device. Something small, like maybe a Stair Master. I said I heard they were very good and asked what she thought about them. She agreed.

I wanted to say if that machine is so good to use, why aren’t the stairs in my house any different, but I caught myself in time. Silly ditz!

She stood there smiling while I told her what she wanted to hear. If I told her what I really was going to do she wouldn’t have been smiling.

She gave her okay for me to leave the hospital and didn’t mention anything about wanting me to go to a half-way house for rehab.

Both the hospital doctor and Dr. Angelique gave me the okay to go home on the 5th day. What a relief to go into my son’s car. The walk from the car to the house took a lot out of me, I’ll admit; but I was home. I sat at the kitchen table and drank a cup of coffee while I looked out the French doors.

I watched the rabbits hopping around and the squirrels climbing the trees. The small song birds flitting around. Looked out to the pond and saw wild ducks and geese swimming about. I knew if I stayed there long enough I would see the herd of deer that always came out of the woods and maybe see the flock of wild turkeys. An owl or a hawk would fly in and land on limb and the little birds and critters would hide until the raptor left. If the trees weren’t in the way I would be able to see the Nature Park and Mud Lake across the road. And to think the boss therapist wanted me to sell our little bit of paradise.

I watched JEOPARDY and while I wasn’t as good at it as I was say five years before, I was as good as I was before the fall. I made a request to Gina, would she make some of that green jello to go along with supper.

We both had a lot of doctors’ visits and tests, and Gina had her nose operation coming up, (She came out of it with flying colors. She’s tough. Sweet and loving, but tough.); but what the heck it looked like, thanks to my good doctors, that I was coming out of the fall only a little worse for wear than I was when it happened. Oh yes, I lost a lot of the summer, due to doctor appointments, and living in Minnesota, summers are precious times. Winter is coming and in Minnesota, winters are for the young. And come tomorrow, well… all I can say is:

‘What ever will be, will be.

End Act III. Curtain Closes to the sound of

Doris Day singing

QUE SERA SERA

ALMOST TO DUNKIRK

 

The old cliche, ‘he missed the boat’ certainly applied to Michael Langham, and the next five years changed the direction of his life.

dunkirk

The movie DUNKIRK is an unexpected blockbuster this summer. It depicts the heroic evacuation of British and some of their Allied troops that were trapped between the German Army and the Channel. In the eight day period, while the RAF kept the German Luftwaffe busy elsewhere, and other divisions like the a flotilla of both British naval ships and private vessels manage to get almost 350,000 fighting men to safety in Dover, England.

This evacuation was made possible in part because the German Luftwaffe was kept busy elsewhere by the RAF, and because of the rear action Battle of St. Valery further down the coast in Normandy. The 51st Highland Division, of which the Gordon Highlanders were a part of, were trapped and had to surrender to General Rommel before they could reach the beach at Dunkirk.

Michael Langham

MICHAEL LANGHAM

Michael Langham was a newly commissioned officer in the Gordon Highlanders. He was sent with the Highlanders to be a part of the British Expeditionary Force fighting in France. The BEF’s objective was to link with the French Forces and drive the German invaders out of France. This effort was as futile as the Maginot Line was in stopping Rommel and his tanks. The BEF’s first attempt to defeat Hitler ended at Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Dunkirk. And Michael Langham, two months short of his 21st birthday, and with only a few months of WWII under his belt spent the next five year as a Prisoner of War.

Like the majority of combat vets, Langham avoided talking about the actual fighting. He did say that he had been trained to fight like they did in the WWI, trench warfare etc., instead of combating the likes of German tanks, bombers, and the weapons of WWII. He also avoided telling what occurred after the actual capture. Some of the prisoners underwent forced marches and horrible conditions in various stalags. He was transferred to several stalags in those five years.

Michael said he was in the stalag where the Great Escape took place. That would be Stalag Luft III in Poland. He said the stalag was so big he not only didn’t know the Escape was being planned, he never knew it happened until the escapees were recaptured. He said, with that twinkle in his eye, he had to wait for the movie to finally find out what happened. Likewise also the earlier escape in that stalag that was detailed in the book and movie, The Wooden Horse.

He spent the first two years working on escaping, making civilian clothes, forging civilian papers, and of course, digging tunnels. None of his work ever resulted in anyone escaping. The last three he spent pursuing a hobby he had enjoyed during his school days, theater.

Stalag Luft III stressed that the prisoners take up and work at hobbies. The idea was if they kept busy at their hobbies, they would be less likely to try to escape and it would cut down on the suicide attempts. This stalag was under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe and was less severe than stalags under the control of the German Infantry or the S.S.. But it still was a stalag and had a sense of cruelty under the surface, as exemplified by the executions of most of the recaptured escapees in the Great Escape.

The theater department of this stalag was the best of all the stalags. The prisoners built an actual theater, a large scenic shop, a large costume shop. The productions could compete with many in the free world. They were very popular among the prisoners and the German cadre. They provided a common link between the two groups, perhaps even softening the attitude of the guards towards the inmates.

Of course, Michael explained, you had to get around the fact that the ‘women’ in the cast often had five-o’clock shadows, giggly falsetto deliveries, and exaggerated ways of trying to walk like women. And be broadminded enough not to make a face or groan when Romeo and Juliet kissed.

The actors took themselves very serious, Michael said. They would lie on their bunks the day of the shows and file their nails. They wanted to be stars.

Michael acted in some, but his true talent was in directing. His choice of plays ranged in time from Shakespeare to Clifford Odets. He said he wanted the plays to portray a world of hope to his fellow POW’s, and to himself.

Michael took great pride, and rightly so, that two POW’s told him that watching a performance of his plays gave them hope and prevented them from committing suicide.

Michael’s father had died when Michael was a baby. Growing up, his role model was the historical Duke of Wellington. He read every book he could find on the Duke. He wanted to be like the Wellington, a career soldier. That dream quickly vanished in France.

Liberation came, the war ended, and Michael was back in England. He had the law degree that his family had forced him to obtain before the war. It wasn’t the life that he wanted. He thought a great deal about his hobbies before the war. He knew he couldn’t play cricket good enough to play pro, and his other great hobby, theater, had been frowned upon by his family. And while he was thinking over his future a letter arrived.

A famous stage actress wanted to talk to him. She had heard of his stalag productions from POWs who saw them. She was about to start a theater troupe in the Midlands and wanted to know if he was interested in joining her. Michael reasoned that even if the meeting didn’t work out, at least he would get to meet her.

‘I was star struck,’ he laughingly confessed.

It worked out. His acting and directing in Coventry and Birmingham made him realize that the talent he showed in the stalag transferred to the free world of professional theater. Not only was his new career acceptable to his family, it was noticed in the major theaters of England. He acted and directed at Stratford-On-The Avon, and the Old Vic. He found himself in great demand. He was also noticed by Tyrone Guthrie.

Guthrie was one of the foremost stage directors of the time. He was also the key mover in replacing the proscenium stage with the thrust stage. He took Langham under his wing. Guthrie replaced the long ago Duke of Wellington as Michael’s model. And this association brought Langham into the top tier of England’s theatrical directors.

While Michael directed in England and far off places like Australia, main land Europe, and Broadway, Guthrie went to Canada. There, in 1953, he founded the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Even though it was housed in a concrete amphitheater covered by a tent, it was a success, not only a major attraction in Canada but brought visitors from Europe and the United States.

Two years after starting the Festival, Guthrie invited Langham to direct JULIUS CAESAR, and to groom him to take over as Artistic Director.

The first season under Langham, 1956, was the last for the tent. The Festival moved into a newly construction theater. The Festival was there to stay.

The thrust stage of the tent was fine-tuned in the new theater by Michael and the great designer, Tanya Moisewitch, who worked with Guthrie on the original. It was at Stratford where Langham became known as ‘the master of the thrust stage’.

Guthrie had been beseeched for several years with pleas to establish a like theater in the United States. He felt now that his Stratford Festival was established and in good hands he would answer that request. Feelers were sent out and seven cities replied, presenting their credentials in the competition.. Minneapolis was the winner.

85a251-20060503-guthrienewfacade

THE GUTHRIE THEATER

In 1963 the Guthrie Theater opened with George Gizzard playing the lead in the Tyrone Guthrie directed HAMLET. The audience was on its feet before the curtain-call lights came up. They were not content to stop until Sir Tyrone himself came on stage. The very tall, thin, genius finally came up the steps to center stage. He had on a tuxedo and his customary tennis shoes. The audience loved it.

The Guthrie Theater was established and continued in fine shape during the years when Dr. G., as he was fondly called at the Theater, was the Artistic Director. In 1966, he left the theater in the capable hands, so he thought, of another protege, actor/director Douglas Campbell.

Almost immediately the theater started to go in a downward spiral, due to the infighting of the artistic side versus the management side. In 1969, there was no one left of the original artistic and management at the theater. The original Managing Director had taken a sabbatical to Hawaii, a power-play, figuring he would be begged to return by offering more money and control.

The board appointed Don Schoenbaum, who only a few years before came to the Guthrie under a Ford Foundation Grant to learn the business of theater, as a stop-gap Management/Artistic Director.

Tyrone Guthrie asked Michael to rescue the theater and take over the Artistic Directorship. Michael said he was content at Stratford. But, argued Sir Tyrone, that theater has my name on it. Michael reconsidered.

The end of the Guthrie’s season in 1970 was A PLAY by the great Russian novelist, who that very year won the Noble Prize for Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A great coup for the Guthrie and an attraction for Micheal Langham. The gulags of Solzhenitsyn were political unlike the POW stalags familiar to Michael; but they were still prison camps and Langham was a logical man to direct the play. And it was an excellent chance for Michael and the Guthrie to size each other up. Until the Board met and talked with Langham, they were going to forgo the 1971 season in the hope that something could be worked out to save the theater.

A PLAY was my first encounter with Michael Langham. The next year he came back as Artistic Director, and wow, talk about a turn around. He took a theater torn apart and reassembled it as a ‘Family’ overnight, petty squabbling stopped, people were smiling, and enthusiatic. Michael recognized the talent, artistic, managerial, and technical, that he inherited and augmented them with people who knew Langham and wanted to work under him.

When the original Managing Director announced he was coming back, he was told the only way he could come back to the theater was if he bought a ticket. Michael rewarded Don Schoenbaum for his excellent work to help keep the theater going by keeping him on as Managing Director. Don kept this position until he retired in 1986.

It was hard picturing the soft- spoken Michael Langham as a combat officer; but witnessing his leadership ability, his ability to recognize the value of everyone involved in the Theater and making them feel that they were an integral part of the end product, removed all doubt that he would have been a fine officer. The Military’s loss was the Theater’s gain.

In his first season, 1971, he hit the ground running. He took on a Herculean task of directing two gigantic plays, CYRANO de BERGERAC, adapted by the British novelist Anthony Burgess, and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, to start the season and his term as Artistic Director.

Opening two plays at once, with future of the Theater riding on them, was hell on us that were involved in both productions. I have no idea how Michael could have endured the task, and more so, how he could have turned out these two production masterpieces. Reviewers came from all over. All praised both works. There wasn’t an empty seat for any of the performances of these two plays that season and the other plays in the season fared almost as well. The Guthrie Theater was saved.

No one had a better bird’s-eye view of Michael Langham the Director, than I did. Seated in the lighting booth behind the balcony, I was privileged to watch every rehearsal on main stage, as well as every performance of every play Michael directed at the Guthrie, before and during his tenure as Artistic Director.

Watching Michael direct a play was akin to looking over the shoulder of Renoir as he painted. Delicate brush strokes creating a work of art. Michael’s blocking on the thrust stage, his respect for the words of the playwright, the inspiration he gave the actors, his knowledge of the technical, his attention of details, his talent, all combined to make a Michael Langham directed play something special.

His praise has been sung by so many actors. from acting-award winners the likes of Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, Len Cariou, all credit Michael with giving them their big chance, to young interns who experienced their first professional theater acting jobs under his tutelage. And his praise has been sung by so many others in all aspects of the world of theater, from world class critics to the stage electrician who worked his shows at the Guthrie.

He always referred to himself as a classical director but he was much more. For instance consider his direction of the ‘least’ of Shakespeare plays, TIMON OF ATHENS, a play very few over the centurys have ever tried to direct. He set it in the Jazz Age and had the great Duke Ellington compose a score for it. Hardly something a hard-core classical director would dare to do.

Those of us who were present in his Guthrie years often refer to his production of another minor Shakespeare plays, LOVE’S LABOUR LOST, as the one that shows off the genius of Michael Langham the best all. So simple. So poetic. So memorable. The ‘classical director’, the ‘master of the thrust stage’ at his finest.

And to have been able to sit down, as a friend and coworker, and talk to this humble man of such great talent and knowledge is something I will always cherish in my memory.

He left the Guthrie at the end of the 1977 and continued his shaping classical theater in so many places, like the Julliard School of Drama and the National Actors’ Theater founded by Tony Randall, where he was nominated for a Tony for his direction of TIMON OF ATHENS on Broadway.

I stayed at the Guthrie another season after Michael left, but it wasn’t the same. I helped mount and designed the lights for the Guthrie production of Leonard Nimoy’s one-man play, VINCENT, and took it out on tour. I walked into the theater on what was my first work day of the second season after Michael left, I started to hang lights; but at coffee break, I went and talked to the Technical Director and then called the Union to replace me. The Guthrie just wasn’t the same to me as it was during the Langham years. I spent the rest of my stagehand years working off the Union Hiring Hall.

Over the years I worked with a great many fine directors, but it would not be fair to compare any of them to Michael; he was, in my eyes, special. Michael Langham worked almost up to 11th of January 2011 the day of his death, happy in the career he carved out because he never made it to a possible rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

 

 

 

BIG VAUDEVILLE (BOB)

hOPE IN VAUDEBILLE

Bob Hope walked down the steps of the Winnebago and asked us a question, and cracked us up.

In a previous post, BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED), I said that it had been my privilege to have worked two of the top stars of vaudeville. Red Skeleton was one. Bob Hope was the other. The steps they took to become household words in entertainment are quite similar. As far as my working them, I only worked them once, and I never threw a chair at Mr. Hope like I did at Mr. Skeleton.

Leslie, (Bob), Hope was born in a town just outside London, England. When he was four, his parents immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a stone mason. His mother, a cleaner, had been a light opera singer and dancer in England, and gave young Hope a foundation in song and dance, which he used at the age of twelve to raise money by entertaining people on the city buses.

He entered amateur dance contests while in his teens; and, after a short career as a boxer and other assorted jobs, he decided to try professional show business. His career lasted eighty years, and garnered over 1,500 awards from US President, the U.S. Military, Hollywood, numerous Social organizations, honorary college degrees, awards from Foreign governments, a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, and another from the Vatican.

He began with a partner in a song and dance act. Tragedy hit when the partner ate a bad piece of coconut pie and died. It was suggested to Leslie that he change his first name, go it alone, and stress comedy. He developed a routine of one-liners in which he usually was the brunt of the joke. He spent the early years on stage and in vaudeville where he became a top name after many of the established stars left to work in films. He tried to get into the movies but failed the screen test. This blow to his ego made him work harder in vaudeville and in Broadway productions.

The year 1934 was an important one in his road to fame. He landed his radio show which lasted into the 50’s. He realized that he needed more than just a quick wit and delivery to make it go. He hired a talented group of gag writers and paid them out of his own salary. Unlike Red Skeleton, who created and portrayed the characters that populated his show, Hope hired characters like Jerry Colonna and Barbara Jo Allen to work off of. He also surrounded himself with guests like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and his close friend, Bing Crosby. As the Golden Age of Radio waned, he switched to the new form of entertainment, television. His weekly shows were hits and he augmented them with his popular Christmas Specials.

The carefully thought out, business-like approach that he used to insure his radio show would be a hit, became a Hope trademark in all his career moves both in his entertainment moves and his financial investments, which were often done in partnership with Bing Crosby. When Bob Hope died he was considered one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.

His work in film started also in 1934. He made six comedy shorts that bombed. Walter Winchell, an important newspaper columnist wrote about one of them, ‘When they catch John Dillinger, they are going to make him sit through it – twice’.

Hope’s big break came about when Jack Benny turned down a role in the film THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 and it was offered to Bob. It came with a contract with Paramount so he moved to Hollywood. His work in the movie gave the studio faith in his being able to handle bigger roles.

This was his first time working with Dorothy Lamour who later would become an important part of six of the successful ROAD pictures. In another bit of irony, Bing Crosby, his co-star in the ROAD series, got his start in THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1932.

The movie also gave him his theme song, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, a duet he sang with Shirley Ross. The melody was used as his walk-on music and also to close out his his shows. The melody remained the same but the lyrics were often changed by his writers to suit the situation.

He stuck to a tried and true formula in the films that followed. The self-effacing humor that marked his stand-up routine was expanded in his film roles, and he usually played a likeable coward. Two of the songs he introduced in the movies, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES and BUTTONS AND BOWS went on to win Academy Awards for Best Song; and while he had a pleasant voice, he realized it’s limitations and never tried to compete with the ‘singers’ like Crosby and Sinatra. Both Crosby and Sinatra started out in movies doing light comedy, but both eventually attacked heavy dramatic roles and won Academy Awards in acting. Not so with Bob Hope. He stuck with his standard comedic roles.

The film work he did in the 40’s was his best. The first six ROAD pictures cemented his standing as a legit movie star. He made 54 feature films in his career, but not much of his later work matched his early works in the 40’s.

His fame in Hollywood came as much from his 19 times as host of the Academy Awards as from his films. His main shtick was the fact he had never been nominated for an acting Oscar. It worked and was funny – for a while, but it grew old and became the object of biting jokes by other comedians. The Academy did award him 4 Honorary Oscars, and the important Humanitarian Oscar.

When WWII broke out in 1939, Hope was on the liner, the Queen Mary. He volunteered to entertain the passengers to keep their minds off the bad news. His first USO show took place six months before Pearl Harbor. There were 57 USO tours he headlined to entertain the troops, a few in peacetime, but most in our wars from WWII through the Persian Gulf War of 90. In all, 50 years of entertaining our military personnel.

His hard work during WWII, both for the morale of the troops and the War Effort at home, did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by America. Our taking part in the U.N. ‘conflict’ in Korea was not as popular in America, and Bob Hope’s tours dropped in popularity at home; but certainly not among our military troops fighting and freezing in Korea. And then came Viet Nam!

There was a strong anti-war sentiment when we first entered this war, and it grew greater every week we were there. The criticism extended from the politicians that were responsible for bringing us, and worse, keeping us in this civil war in the jungle, to the troops that were doing what their country demanded of them.

The USO shows had lost their appeal back home. Hope’s USO tours were paid for by the government, but also by by his sponsors and his TV network, NBC, which aired them later as Specials. Facts that were not lost on Bob Hope’s growing critics. It became harder and harder to convince entertainers to go with him. By the time of the Persian Gulf War, he had to enlist his wife, Dolores, and granddaughter to accompany him.

His marriage to Dolores was one of the longest in the history of Hollywood. It began in 1934 and lasted until his death in 2003, albeit it had several shapely road bumps over the years. The Hopes had four children, all adopted, and several grandchildren. Bob died in his 100th year. Dolores lived to be 102. They lived in the same house for almost all their married years. I wonder if anyone has tested that house’s drinking water.

He could always keep his material up to date in everything he did; but because he used the same old schtick to bring it to his audiences, his popularity as an entertainer was not bringing in new fans. The young had no ‘memories’ to thank him for, and using a golf club as a trademark prop didn’t exactly excite them. The comedians that were taking over did it by using language and subjects that were offensive to the older generations of both audience and performers. Bob Hope was old hat.

When I worked Bob Hope, he worked mostly benefits, conventions, and in this particular case, a birthday party. And of course, played a lot of golf.

One of the local billionaires was turning 80 and was going to turn over the reins of his privately owned empire to a person to be announced at the party. His two daughters put together a real gala. They rented the St. Paul Civic Center for a week, put the matter in the hands of Paul Ridgeway, who was just coming off planning and supervising a Super Bowl festivity and the visit of the Pope John II to Denver.

Paul, one of my favorite people to work for, had about 20 local stagehands working about 16 hours a day, for 5 days preparing for this birthday party. And he hired Bob Hope to attend.

We were fine tuning everything for the event to start in a couple hours, when a Winnebago ‘dressing room’ pulled in backstage. The driver came down the steps and then held Bob Hope’ arm to help him down.

His appearance was a surprise to us stagehands, as it would be to the party goers, except for the family. Shadow Show Business. Celebrities come into town for a private function. Do their bit without the press or the general public aware that they are in town. In! Out! Pick up a nice paycheck. Over the years, I worked many in this Shadow Show Business, from oldies like Chubby Checkers to current big timers like Elton John. And of course, Bob Hope.

Hope, like Red Skeleton, had a reputation in the business for being a friend to stagehands and the other workers that made the business go. That day was no different.

Hey, guys,’ he hollered to us, ‘Got a question. Do any of you know the name of this old fart that I am suppose to be best of friends with?’ He cracked us up and then continued to entertain us.

They tell me you have been working day and night for almost a week to put this thing together. When I heard this, I figured I had better make sure the check cleared the bank. Wouldn’t be the first time I got stiffed on a gig. But you stagehands know all about that kind of stuff, don’t you?

This hoopla’s got a bigger budget than the ROAD pictures Crosby and I use to do. At least that’s what Crosby always told me, “just a small budget, Bob, didn’t have much left over to pay the actors a lot. I always got enough from each picture to splurge and get a new set of golf clubs. And Crosby would come and pick me up to go golfing after each picture, and he was always driving a brand new car. You don’t think…Naw, not Bing.

This morning the two daughters, a blond and a brunette, and the blond’s husband came up to my room for a Q & A session on what kind of thing I was going to do for their father, you know, my ‘old best friend’.

I said I would lay out some golf jokes. Everybody likes golf jokes. The son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. The other sister, the brunette, said her dad doesn’t golf. Well, then how about some political jokes. Again the son-in-law agreed. His wife smiled. And the brunette said her dad didn’t like politics or politicians. I can do some movie jokes, I told them. Always goes over big at the Oscars. The son-in-law agreed. The blond smiled. And the brunette said she can’t remember her dad ever going to a movie much less watch the Oscars.’

Hope threw up his hands. ‘What does this guy do for a hobby?, he asked us.

Makes money,’ one of the hands hollered. We all laughed, including Bob.

Well,’ so the son-in-law said, ‘Just do what you want and when everybody laughs, so will Dad. He won’t get the jokes but he’s too nice a guy not to go along with the others.”

So I agreed, and then I said maybe for a throw in I’ll sing a couple old songs. He must like old songs. And the brunette pipes up and says, “If we wanted singing, we would have met Sinatra’s price”. So much for thinking I was their first choice.’

I was sitting backstage with a headset on so I didn’t hear any of Bob’s routine, but the audience must have enjoyed it by all the laughter and applause during it.

After the big announcement that the son-in-law would be the new head of the empire, the band began to play and the audience danced and took advantage of the many open bars. Bob Hope came through the curtains. We were trying to get ahead of the long Out, that couldn’t really start until the party goers left, by quietly tearing down what we could back stage.

Before Bob got in the limo, which had replaced the Winnebago, he thanked us and shook our hands.’I admire you guys,’ he said, ‘ You do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Not like me, getting paid for doing some old, old jokes and lying about being a good friend to the birthday boy. But heck, that’s Show Business.’

When he got into the limo, he rolled down the window and said to those of us close by, ‘It was no big surprise to anyone that my newest old best friend made the son-in-law his successor. He’s too old- school to trust his company to a woman, even if she is his daughter. But I will lay you odds that in less than a year, that nice son-in-law quits and the brunette takes over.’

Hope was right. He could read people just like he could read the FINANCIAL TIMES. The son-in-law wanted out and the brunette took over; and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone, except maybe her father, that she did so good and even enlarged the empire. And over the years she hired us stagehands for all her big public functions; and each time I saw her, I thought back on the time, I got to work Bob Hope. And when I think back I hear a song in my head, a song which countless of our military hear whenever they think back on having seen Bob Hope:

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

BOB HOPE

BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED)

Red Skeleton

 

Red Skeleton joined a medicine show at the age of ten. In his late teens he began his vaudeville career. When Red was in his late 20’s he began a successful career in radio and movies. He pioneered in television starting in his late 30’s.

He was in his 70’s when I threw the chair at him.

Red Skeleton was one of the two BIG vaudeville stars that I was privileged to have worked.

 

American vaudeville reached it’ peak in the 1880s. It began it’s decline in the early 1900s, the dawn of movies. At first, when the films were very short, some vaudeville theaters incorporated a film in with the live show. But the films grew in length and in popularity.

The release of D.W. Griffith’s epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION sounded the death warning of vaudeville as America’ favorite form of entertainment. Running over three hours, this film could never be a part of the vaudeville format.

An old stagehand told me how his father, one of the first movie projectionist, toured the movie from city to city. Sometimes there would be a live vaudeville show during the day and a showing of BIRTH at night. Sometimes, depending on how big the city was, the vaudeville theater would simply turn the theater into a movie house and play it for an extended run.

The popularity of movies caused an exodus of the top vaudeville stars. They realized that they could make more money in films with a lot less work and travel. In a very short time, names like W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and many others left and made their names in the movies.

Another entertainment phenomenon was the birth of the Golden Age of Radio. Actually radio was more popular than movies, because it reached a greater audience, it was free. Some vaudeville stars like Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, etc., became big stars in radio but never really made a hit in the movies.

When the vaudeville circuits had lost that first wave of headliners, two things occurred. Another wave of talent filled the gap at the top and helped vaudeville survive for another few decades. Names like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Judy Garland, and Red Skeleton and others headlined the bills and became household names.

The second occurrence was these greats and many of their routines were filmed for posterity. I have never really enjoyed, or perhaps learned to enjoy, much of what passes for today’s comedic movies; but I never tire of my dvd collections the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and others of that era.

 

Richard, (Red), Skelton was born two months after his father, a grocer and prior to that a circus clown, died. His mother lost the store and the house shortly afterwards. Red went to work before he was 7, selling newspapers, to help his mother out. Barely 10 years old, he left home and joined a traveling medicine show, sending money back to his mother, a practice that continued until her s death.

If anyone personifies the entertainment in America in the 20th Century, it would be Red Skelton. Discovering that he had a gift to make people laugh and he could get paid for it, he followed his work in a medicine show with work in a minstrel show, followed by work on a riverboat. He joined a dramatic stock company but he was too comedic for drama. He was 16 when he worked as a clown and sometimes lion tamer with the circus his father had worked for. He worked as a comic in a burlesque theater. He became a popular emcee for dance marathons. And this was before he was even 18.

He fell for a contestant in one of the marathons, Edna, who worked as an usher in a Pantages vaudeville house, and the two were married. He was almost 18 and she was just 16. She ‘home-schooled’ Red and he got a high school diploma. They worked up an act for clubs and toured some theaters in Canada, where a vaudeville promoter offered Red work in New York if he got some different material.

Again Edna to the rescue. She watched how different coffee drinkers dunked their doughnuts and helped Red develop the skit, Doughnut Dunkers. This show of Red’s ability for physical comedy led to more of the same, and he began to create his cast of characters which would grow in numbers and in popularity over the years. He became a vaudeville celeb in 1937. Soon he was too big for vaudeville, and began doing his skits in Broadway musicals.

He got his first radio show gig in 1938, again with under the direction of Edna working out vocal skits and new characters for him. He got his own radio show in 1941. His radio skits numbered well over 300 and his show was so popular, hundreds of people were unable to get seats for each show.

Red had failed a screen test in 1932 but in 1938 he did make two shorts, but no more film offers. In 1940, Mickey Rooney saw Red perform at F. D. R.’s birthday celebration and convinced both Red and MGM to resurrect his short film career. At first he was used as comic relief, but soon began playing leads. He was usually cast as a good hearted, naive, bumbler who saved the day and got the girl.

During these years, his mentor and good friend was a king of physical comedy, Buster Keaton. In later years, Red developed a friendship and collaborated with the great classic mime, Marcel Marceau.

America’s world erupted in 1941. Red was married with children and was undraftable. Like many show business celebs in the same boat, he devoted a great deal of time selling War Bonds and working at places like the Hollywood Canteen entertaining our Service people.

Red’s world erupted in 1942. His wife, Edna, told him that she would stay on as his adviser and money-manager, but not as his wife. He didn’t believe her until the divorce papers were served. Now he was unmarried and he got drafted. Because his birth dates had been juggled many times over the years, both MGM and his radio sponsors tried to keep him out of the Army by claiming he was too old to be drafted. Red gladly accepted being drafted.

He wasn’t placed in the Entertainment Corps but the Regular Army. During Basic the officers pulled rank and he did his required work during the day and entertained the officers at night and on the weekends. A cruel schedule!

He finally got transferred and became a more than full-time entertainer. Alone, no cameras or dancing girls, just Red and his ‘cast’ of his familiar characters toured in both the U.S. and Europe. Sometimes he stayed in one place and one audience was replaced with another. Sometimes he was sent from one sector to another the same day. Shows night and day. There was times he did ten shows in one day. The longest he stayed in one country was in Italy when the fighting was the fiercest.

The constant work, the constant moving around, the constant stress, coupled with his problems with Edna, and the fact that a woman he became engaged to married someone else, all this took his toll on his health. He developed a stutter and throat problems that had to be operated back in the States. He was given a medical discharge and had to undergo months of strict rest.

That early discharged bothered Skeleton and several years later he used his dark time to tour Korea and Japan. Again, no hoopla, no cameras, but his time he took an emcee, Jamie Farr, along with him.

Farr had worked on Red’s radio show before being drafted in WWII. He was on Active Reserve when he toured with Red. Little did Farr know while touring Korea that that country would serve as a backdrop for M.A.S.H., a TV show that would make him a household name. He never would have gotten if it wasn’t for Red. Farr had decided to drop out of show business to support his recently widowed mother. When he told Skelton that, Red gave him money and hired him under a private contract. Farr was able to stay in show business and eventully got the big break playing Corporal Klinger in M.A.S.H.

Red was one of the first to realize the impact TV would have; but because MGM’s contract would not allow him to go on TV, he had to wait until 1951 when the contract expired to make his leap into the new medium. For 20 years his show was a must-view for most of America. From a half hour to a full hour, from black and white to pioneering in color, from basically a vehicle for Red and his ‘cast’ of characters, it became a full blown variety show with the biggest names in the business lining up to be his guest stars.

Then some executive-suit at CBS decided variety shows were old-hat. Red got the bad news while perfoming in Vegas. His, and other popular shows like Ed Sullvan’s and Jackie Gleason’s got the axe.

 

For years afterword Skeleton was in a funk. He devoted his time to writing fiction and to painting his popular clown portraits.

Finally, he remembered his love of entertaining live audiences. He began to tour, bringing his cast of characters to his older fans and to his new fans. It was during this period that I got to work performance of the great entertainer

 

It was at Northrop Auditorium at the U. of Mn. I was head props. My nephew, Mark, had been props for Red a few months before at the State Fair. He told me about a bit that Red did. He asks for a chair. The prop man brings out a folded chair and throws it at Skeleton.

The punch line is as the prop man leaves the stage is, ‘I guess maybe I never should taken his girlfriend out for supper last night.’

Prior to the show, Red explained the schtick to me. ‘Come on stage so the audience can see you. Look mad. Then throw the chair so it lands about ten feet from me. Throw it hard. Don’t worry about it hitting me. Once it hits the floor it slides and I just stop it with my foot. Look mad. The madder you look the bigger the laugh.’

I played the game, but something happened! When the chair hit the floor, instead of sliding, it bounced right up again. It continued to fly toward Red. For a brief second I thought perhaps this happened sometimes. But the look on Red’s face told me this was not something that happened ever before.

One of my favorite comedians. I loved his TV shows. More importantly, my mother loved his TV shows. She would sit in her big chair in the living room and actually watch the entire program without falling asleep, or she would argue, ‘I wasn’t sleeping. I was just resting my eyes.’

And now I am going to be responsible for harming him!

Red remained still, watching as the chair flew toward him. Then at the last second, he reached back to his youth and made like a bullfighter, turning slightly, leaning slightly, and allowing the chair to sail harmless pass past him. It hit the floor but stayed onstage.

I gasped along with the audience. Red ignored the chair. Ignored the punch line. He stepped center stage, crushed his hat and went into a Clem Kaddilehopper skit.

He did several other bits, still ignoring the chair, and finished his show. He came back to acknowledge the standing ovation. For an encore he did his popular Pledge of Alligence. He bowed and finished with his familiar sign off line, ‘Good night and God bless.’

When the house was clear, I went and picked up the chair. I thought I found the reason why it bounced back up. Instead of just small rubber tips on each leg, there were large rubber boots. I presumed it hit just right and the boots caused it to bounce.

When Red went to leave, he stopped on stage to tip the spot operator. Then he came to me. I started to apologize and explain why I thought the chair did as it did. He just miled and waved it off. ‘Thanks God,’ I said, ‘Your got out of the way in time.’

‘And thank Buster Keaton for being such a great teacher,’ he laughed. ‘I never liked that shtick. My agent’s nephew thinks he’s a gag writer. Now I have a reason to drop it without hurting anybody’s feelings.

‘You know,’ he continued, ‘first time I forgot a punch line. The very first time. I’m getting old, son.’

He shook my hand and palmed off a $20 bill into it. And then he said,

‘Good night and may God bless.’

 

 

 

R.I.P. PRINCESS LEIA

Actress Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher arrive at the 2011 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles

So much has been written about Carrie Fisher, her talent as an actress and as a writer, her openness about her addictions and mental disorders, her Princess Leia being a different role model for girls, and the way people who knew her regarded her as a friend, she was certainly much more than just a celebrity based solely on her ‘Royal Hollywood’ parentage. She convinced me, in my short time working her, that she was a warm and caring person who respected and loved her fans, traits she obviously got from her mother.

It was a Women’s Expo at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Carrie and her mother, Debbie Reynolds were the celebrity speakers, wrapping up a symposium of experts on various Women’s Topics. While the two of them had prepared a combined talk that fit in with the purpose of the Expo, it was evident that there was a lot of ad-libbing going on also. They were delightful, witty, very open, and educational. The rapport between mother and daughter showed they were much more than parent and child, they were also best of friends.

When they had finished their part of the program, they weren’t finished. Instead of disappearing upstage and going to their dressing room, they went downstage to greet the audience who were crowding the front of the stage. Both Carrie and Debbie sat on the edge and signed autographs, answered questions, told personal antidotes, laughed and talked with the women, many of whom had already been on their way out but stopped and came back to join in the fun. It was more of a group of old friends intermingling than it was two celebrities and their fans.

After quite a while, the Promoter had to break up this fun-fest. He went downstage and explained that the hall would have to be evacuated because it had to be changed over for another event. Reluctantly, the women left the hall and both Carrie and Debbie followed the crowd out. It took about an hour for us stagehands to break down the lights and sound and then we left. But when we walked out into the hallway, we got a surprise.

There, sitting in two chairs, was Carrie and Debbie, and they were surrounded with their fans. Both women were signing autographs, answering questions, telling personal antidotes, and laughing and talking with women that had been at the EXPO, and maybe a few who just happened to be walking outside and saw the commotion through the windows.

I have no idea how long these two stars held court. Their willingness to remain with the audience for that long a period of time was something I had never seen before or since. What a couple of gracious, warm, down-to-earth professionals. I have many memories of both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, but none have impressed me more than that impromptu love-fest at the Convention Center.

R.I.P. CARRIE FISHER

And now it was just announced that Debbie Reynolds has been rushed to the hospital because of a stroke. Best wishes and speedy recovery, Debbie Reynolds. While we understand the great shock and lose of the death of your daughter, please don’t follow her yet.

 

A LITTLE VAUDEVILLE

singers-midgets

 

Hippity was born in the business as was Mrs. Hippity. They spent their lives working as a stagehand and a wardrobe mistress.  Both had retired before I got into show business; but I met them on several occasions, when their son, Dick, brought me over to their house. What a great couple, and boy, could Mrs. Hippity ever make a great apple pie!

My favorite story about them was one their grandson, Dave, who is also a stagehand, tells about an incident when he was about five. Mrs. Hippity called to tell his dad, Dick, that an old time stagehand, Chet, was in town and wanted to see him again, so Dick took Dave along to Grandpa and Nana’s house.

When they got to his grandparents, they were sitting at the table with an older man and a little girl. Dave thought it would be nice to have someone to play with while the grownups talked. The girl was so small, she was sitting on two telephone books on the chair so she could reach the table. But Dave noticed that her face didn’t look like a little girl’s face. He stared at her.

Nana quickly took Dave’s hand and brought him to the kitchen for some apple pie and ice cream.

‘How about a beer,’ he asked Nana.

‘What!’

‘A beer,’ Dave repeated. ‘Like that little girl is drinking.”

‘Oh, honey,” Nana laughed, ‘She’s not a little girl. She almost as old as me. She is a little woman, a very short little woman. She’s Chet’s wife, Lucille. She use to come to town in a vaudeville act called Singer’s Midgets, a big group of little people. That’s where Chet met her when he worked with Grandpa and Nana at the Orpheum.

‘You know – she was even in the movies. In THE WIZARD OF OZ! The munchkins were actors from Singer’s Midgets. Lucille sang and danced in the movie.’ Nana ruffled Dave’s hair and kissed him on his forehead.

When Dave finished eating he went back to the living room and looked at the ‘little woman’. Now she was not only drinking a beer, she was smoking – a big cigar.

She noticed Dave starring and she held out the cigar, ‘Want a puff, little guy? and then she laughed in a scary voice.

Dave said he ran to his Nana and buried his face in her lap.

He said that afterwards whenever he watched THE WIZARD OF OZ on TV, he didn’t mind the flying monkeys or the Wicket Witch like his little brother, Bruce did; but when the Munchkins were on, he always closed his eyes and held his hands over his ears.

 

midgets-in-toyland

            Singer’s Midgets was a very popular act in vaudeville. Leo Singer, who was a normal sized ‘impresario’, put the original troupe together in Vienna Austria prior to WWI. He moved it to American at the onset of the war, where he recruited more ‘little people’. When Hitler came to power more came from Germany because of the Nazi attempt to create a master race, and that meant killing off the handicapped.

             Members of the troupe have mixed feelings about Singer. Some liked him and called him ‘Poppa’. Others said he was a thief, never paying the members of the act what he should have paid them. There is an accusation that when he ‘loaned’ out the troupe and recruited more to appear in MGM’s upcoming movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ, all their pay went through Singer and he kept half their pay.

            There is a oft told tale of the members of Singer’s Midget saying goodbye to the boss. Since Singer was responsible to getting them out to Hollywood, he went on the cheap and sent them west in a charter bus.

            Before they left New York they got the driver to take them to the mansion of Leo Singer so they could give him a last goodbye. The bus stopped in front of the house and the driver honked the horn until Singer came out on the porch.

            As members of the act waved out the open windows, Singer waved back and smiled. Then the ‘little people’ dropped their drawers and gave Singer a goodbye moon. That wiped the smile off Singer’s face.

            When the filming was done, many of the troupe stayed in Hollywood and got more film work., Others came back to Singer who tried to revive the act: but vaudeville was dying and Singer’s Midgets ceased to be in the mid 1940s.

And that’s a wrap for today. 

A DIALOGUE FOR BRONSON

charles-bronson

 

DIALOGUE FOR BRONSON

 

Recently I watched THE GREAT ESCAPE again and I was knocked over in the scene when Charles Bronson, aka Danny the Tunnel King, cracks and refuses to go back into the tunnel, confessing that he had claustrophobia from his days of working in the mines. I didn’t realize that Charles Bronson as a boy working in the coal mines had claustrophobia after a tunnel collapsed on him. And yet, not only did he face his fears and accept what the script called for, he actually acted as a consultant in building the tunnel.

Shortly after I watched a Twilight Zone that starred Bronson and then a Laramie episode with Bronson playing a ‘half-breed’. I was on a Bronson kick, and while I didn’t have time to watch the movie ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at the time, I did watch one of my favorite movie scenes, the opening of that picture. Woody Strode! Jack Elam and the fly! The ticketmaster! And the third gunman, Al Mulock, who finished the scene, went back to his hotel and jumped out the window to his death.

The three guns wait and wait and wait for the train. It comes and the man they were paid to kill doesn’t get off – on the platform side; but as the train leaves, the sound of a harmonica is heard. And there on the opposite side of the tracks stands Charles Bronson, Harmonica!

Leone got his wish. He had offered the role of the Man With No Name in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY to Bronson, who turned it down. Bronson, who later Leone called the best actor he had ever worked with, had finally consented to appear in a Leone film.

For someone that Hollywood that never saw fit to nominate him for any of his film work, he certainly has a large body of great films that he did excellent work in. I never met him nor worked with him, as much as I would have like to; but here is a great story that Sandy Nimoy, Leonard’s first wife, told me about Bronson.

Bronson’s wife, actress Jill Ireland, had played Leilia, the only character in the STAR TREK series that Spock ever fell in love with. Over the years Sandy and Jill often met while shopping or doing charity work. Sandy said that Jill Ireland was so warm and likeable in real life, she had been perfectly cast in the role of Leilia. Even the logical Spock would fall in love with her.

The two women always mentioned getting together and having dinner at one or the other’s home. But show business schedules for the most part does not allow for conventional planning.

Finally they decided the heck with it and Jill said dinner would be at the Bronsons on such and such a day. Charles would be starting a new picture soon, and although Leonard was playing Arthur in CAMELOT in an L.A. theater, they would squeeze in a  dinner early enough to give Leonard enough time to get to the theater and prepare for the performance.

Although when both Charles and Leonard were starting out getting small parts on TV and even appeared in the same series at different times, they never met. Sandy told Leonard not to think Bronson was bored or rude at the dinner, if he didn’t add much to the conversation. Jill Ireland said he just doesn’t talk much

And the warning proved true. Along with his wife, he greeted the Nimoys at the door and then went into a shell of silence. Occasionally Sandy or Leonard would address Bronson directly and his wife would automatically answer. It was quite evident that was a very normal thing to do for Jill to do.

When the dinner was over and it was time to go, the Bronsons escorted the Nimoys to the door where Sandy once again mentioned as much as they would like to stay longer, they really had to go so Leonard could get to the theater.

And then, just as he shook Leonard’s hand, Bronson, a strictly film actor, spoke, ‘You, ah, really like all that theater shit?

 

Bronson was one of fifteen children so I imagine his lack of conversational skills came about because growing up he could never get an word in edgewise. But in spite of his reluctance to talk he was fluent in Russian, Lithuanian, and Greek. He never really spoke much English until he went in the Army.

Lest this offends the ‘patriotic’ Speak English or Get the Hell Out of America’ clique, I would like to point out that this son of an immigrant enlisted at the outbreak of America’s entry into WWII. Not satisfied being an Army truck driver, he pushed for more training and would up as a tail gunner on a B29 bomber, a position that had a very short life expectancy; and he earned a chestful of medals including the Purple Heart.

Oh, the answer to the question Charles Bronson asked Leonard Nimoy, another son of immigrants, was, ‘Yeah, Charles, I really like that stage shit.’

TV IN BLACK AND WHITE

Alex Johnson Hotel

     Alex Johnson Hotel 

            When we left the Guthrie after rehearsals and a week’s run, the next stop on the Leonard Nimoy’s VINCENT tour was Rapid City, South Dakota. Dennis Babcock, the production manager of the tour, had us booked in the historic Hotel Alex Johnson, a beautiful structure in downtown Rapid City.

Alfred Hitchcock had fallen in love with the hotel while filming NORTH BY NORTHWEST and used various locations in it whenever possible. He and some of the cast stars, including Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, also stayed there during the location filming in South Dakota.

Leonard Nimoy’s  VINCENT was the opener for the theater section of the new city entertainment complex. A rodeo had officially opened the arena section the previous week, and had left a lingering odor throughout the complex. Cowboys were a dime a dozen in Rapid City but a real Hollywood star like Leonard was something special. Both the city officials and the hotel management rolled out the red carpet for us. It was perfect, except…

Erik, Leonard’s personal dresser, did not like the idea of having to watch black and white TV, the only kind they had in the hotel. He demanded to talk to the hotel manager. When Dennis and I got back from the setup at the theater, and Leonard and Mrs. Nimoy returned from a media conference, we all had supper in the hotel dining room. Erik informed us that we all had brand new colored TV’s in our rooms.

He told how he explained to the manager that our eyes were accustomed to color TV and watching black and white TV could cause us to have migraines. He went with the manager to two different stores to get just the perfect color TV’s and saw to it that a tech from one of the stores installed and fined tuned the TV’s. Erik was very proud of what he accomplished with his snow job, and when he brought it up again at the airport, none of the other four of us mentioned that we never turned on the TV’s in our rooms.

 

Perry Mason

The Old Hand:

I enjoy watching the black and white reruns of PERRY MASON starring Raymond Burr, now as much as I enjoyed them when they weren’t reruns. And they have closed captioning, something I didn’t need back in the day but sure do now. In some of the episodes though, the cc tech is somewhat of a censor, a very prudish censor, using the x key whenever the tech deemed it is necessary.

            A good example was an episode the other night where the murdered victim’s name was Dick and there was a lot of cocktail drinking. Every time the name ‘Dick’ had to appear on the screen, the censor changed it to xxxx. Every time the word ‘cocktail’ had to appear it was changed to xxxxtail. Pussycat was xxxxycat. Once you realize what is happening, you find yourself watching for other censorship changes instead of trying to figure out who the guilty party is. The tech would have a nervous breakdown if he or she was hired to work on today’s TV shows.

            On of the best things about the series is the relationship between Perry and his secretary, Della Street. It didn’t start out that way in the novels. In the first, The Case of the Velvet Claws, the only one I ever read, Mason is a real sexist pig. He treats Della like she was something he scrapes off his shoes before entering a house.

            SPOILER ALERT: Never hire Perry as a legal consultant because you will end up as the prime suspect in the murder that is sure to follow. The same rule applies to inviting J.B. Fletcher over for dinner, or allowing Dr. Sloan to give you medical attention. And, in watching any of these series, it is best if the viewer has been a member of AARP – for a number of years.

Published St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bulletin Board, 5/13/16

 

Sheen's angel' work

One show I never appreciated at the time, mainly because Mom insisted we watch it, was Life is Worth Living, starring Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his invisible ‘guardian angel’. Basically it was a half hour sermon in prime time.

Bishop Sheen loved to disguise the sermon with humor, and he was good at it. He had a shtick where he would outline a point he was talking about on a large chalk board. Point made, he would  walk downstage so the chalk board was out of camera. When he would come back to the board, it would be clean. He would always thank his angel for the erasure job, and would kid about how his guardian angel not only protects him, it also cleans up after him.

The show was stuck in a graveyard slot, Tuesday night, opposite the “king of television”, Milton Berle, Uncle Milty, who was so popular his network had signed for a 30 year contract. The Mutual Network thought it would be a cheap, (the Bishop worked for nothing), throwaway against the ratings giant. No way would it have the legs to compete against Berle. Wrong!

It rose steadily in the ratings and took a large audience away from Berle. Berle often laughed off the Bishop’s rise by saying they both had the same sponsor, Sky Chief, (Berle was sponsored by Texaco Sky Chief gasoline), and they both used old jokes. Sheen responded that people were calling him, Uncle Fulty. Berle didn’t laugh though when Texaco dropped him and Buick picked him, at a reduced price.

He never regained his title of king of TV and the network was stuck with a long contract. And, sad to say, Bishop Sheen introduced a genre to America, televangelism. The huge difference though is Sheen worked for free, and today’s televangelists work for as much as they can get their followers to send in.

As I started out by saying, I didn’t really appreciate the show until it was off the air and I was working in show business. Then I looked upon it fondly because  Bishop Sheen was the only person I ever heard refer to a stagehand as an angel.

black and white tv

 

 

 

COFFEE WITH ALI

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

KING RICHARD II Plus

 

I had no more than posted my KING RICHARD II than I ran across this story as told by Richard Harris himself. It fit in so well with the incident of mouthy extra who got the sword thrown at him by Harris, that I had to post it, in spite of the fact it quotes from ‘THE SCOTTISH PLAY’.

Richard Harris’s Story

young richard

In an interview on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962), Harris told a story about when he was a young actor playing Seyton in a theatrical production of “Macbeth.” The lead actor was a real jerk to him, making constant demeaning references to Harris’s Irish heritage. On opening night, Harris couldn’t take it anymore. In Act V, Macbeth turns to him and says, “Wherefore was that cry?” Harris was supposed to reply, “The queen, my lord, is dead,” after which Macbeth goes into his famous soliloquy about “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” However, Harris decided instead to say, “Oh, don’t worry. She’s fine. She’ll be up and about in ten minutes.” He ruined the performance and was promptly fired.

And to think Harris got mad just because an extra was mimicking Harris during a soliloquy.

 

Then in the COMMENTS to KING RICHARD II, I received one from my old friend, Ivar Brogger, who was in the Guthrie acting company back in the day. I just had to add it to this post.

Ivar Brogger’s Story

Actors Richard Harris (L) and Peter O'Toole (who starred in the movie), at a reception at The Washington Hotel in Mayfair, London, prior to the world premiere screening of a newly-restored print of the 1968 film 'The Lion in Winter'.

‘Don – I love that story! Here’s a little one of my own. Peter O’Toole was playing Henry Higgins in PYGMALION on Broadway and I was his understudy and playing a small part in the show. Peter was out a lot so I went in for him a lot. As a result, we kind of got to know each other. Closing day there was a party after the show and Richard Harris was there as Peter’s guest. Peter called me over to meet him. At this point in his life Peter was completely clean and sober. So, after meeting Richard, Harris turned from me, (as we really had nothing to say to each other) and said to O’Toole, “I hear you’re off the spirits”. Peter admitted he was. I remember the look of shock on Harris’s face. He roared incredulously, “COMPLETELY?”

 

During the time I worked Harris, he was COMPLETELY off the booze. He had had a scare a few months before he took over from Burton on the CAMELOT tour. He almost died of alcoholism and was even given the Last Rites. It was a hard fight to overcome booze the because he had grown up in a time and place where drinking was a way of life. He was a charter member of the hard drinking actors society that consisted of the likes of Harris, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed and others. British Isle post war actors who had a lot in common, namely great talent, great wit, and a great propensity for the sauce, and who excelled on both the stage and in film on two continents.

Like a great many alcoholics, Harris fell off the wagon by thinking a few beers won’t hurt, what the heck it’s only beer. He continued to drink beer for the last 12 years of his life; but with one stipulation, the beer had to be Guinness. Through thick and thin, he was Irish all his life.

And his wit excelled even on his dying day. As he was wheeled on a gurney out of Clarages, the posh London hotel, he quipped to the reporters, ‘It was the food’.    

 

 

 

ROBIN REVISTED

Robin Williams

 

In January of 2014 I wrote a post about Robin Williams, working with him, and almost not working with him. On August 11, 2014 Robin’s demons caught up with him, and he took his own life. On the first anniversary of Robin’s death, I decided to repost that first post. 

In that post, Leonard Nimoy plays a large part. Leonard died of natural causes in February 2015.

In that short period of time I lost two men that I really enjoyed working with. One, an acquaintance 

 

 

Working with Robin Williams in person is a real trip. He is just like his character in his TV show, THE CRAZY ONES, unpretentious, and very unpredictable. He was an easy person for me to like; even if his inactivity caused a lot of problems for a friend of mine, Dennis Babcock, and could have caused Dennis to be  fired. But thanks to an action by Leonard Nimoy, the problem was solved.

Dennis Babcock was the wunderkind of the Guthrie. He left a good day job to pursue a career in theater. Starting out in a menial position, he jumped to manager of the Dram Shop, the Guthrie’s private bar and reversed its downward trend. Then he took over selling ads for the Guthrie show programs and made the programs an excellent source of revenue for the theater. He became the Special Events Producer, overseeing the Guthrie rentals, booking outside acts, and in some cases, conceiving shows produced under the sponsorship of the Guthrie. He took a hiatus to be Managing Director of the Pittsburgh Public Playhouse, came back as Assistant Managing Director of the Guthrie. Ventured out on his own and became a successful independent theatrical producer.

The problem with Robin Williams concerned his upcoming appearance at the Guthrie.

Dennis and I were on tour with Leonard Nimoy’s one-man show, VINCENT. Dennis had been responsible for the Guthrie sponsoring VINCENT and for fine tuning the production.

Nimoy had completed a long and arduous filming of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and he wanted to get back to his basics, live theater; but not necessarily in a long, eight shows a week, commitment. His good friend, Vincent Price, suggested that Leonard come up with a one-man show. Price had several for himself, and he just unwrapped one whenever he wanted to felt the need to get back to live theater. These type of shows offered great flexibility and satisfied the need for appearing before a live audience.

Leonard found one based on the letters between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. He collaborated with  the original playwright and came up with VINCENT.

He booked it for one day in three cities. The first theater had a problem getting all the technical requirements together and Leonard went on stage with what they could piece together. At the next theater, the Guthrie, we had all the tech work done in about four hours, time enough for Leonard to do a tech rehearsal and work on his blocking on a thrust stage. He had come to the Guthrie a few weeks before and told us what he wanted to achieve. He also had worries about achieving those results on a thrust stage. The main problem was solved easily. Instead of one picture sheet to show slides of Van Gogh’s work, we used two sheets in a modified vee so the entire audience could see the paintings. Things worked out fine for the two shows we did the day. At the third theater, the technical progress was worse then the first.

Babcock purposed the Guthrie sponsor the show. Both Nimoy and the Guthrie agreed. Dennis hired a set designer and had the set built in the Guthrie shop. He hired me as the lighting designer and persuaded me to take the show out as carpenter/electrician and lighting board operator. Dennis booked us in cities in the Midwest and West Coast. After the Guthrie season we rehearsed at the theater, did a week of shows and went on the road, setting out during one of the biggest snow storms in several years.

Dennis had more hats than a haberdasher. Before we left, he filled the Guthrie offseason with a variety of shows and supervised them via phone. On the road, he was the tour manager, in charge of hotels, flights, dealing with local bookers, finances, problems that came up, etc.. In addition he supervised the setting up of the sound and slide projectors while I was working on the lighting. He also served as a backup to run the sound and slides in places where we didn’t have time for a local stagehand to rehearse. Actually, since we never had time during the first lap of the tour, Dennis ran the sound and slides with the local stagehand sitting beside him, watching.

One of the first events he had booked at the Guthrie, while we were on tour, was Cheech and Chong, hot off the release of their movie, UP IN SMOKE. From Dennis’ point of view it was successful, two sold out shows without a hitch. But not from the point of view of the Guthrie’s Board and the Managing Director of the theater, Don  Schoenbaum. Don S. called Dennis and he was livid. Under no circumstances should the Guthrie be involved in promoting the pot culture. There hadn’t been that many villagers with pitch forks and torches circling the theater since the WalkerArtCenter had presented Frank Zappa at the Guthrie, and Zappa presented every audience member with a condom. Don S. said that he managed to stem the bleeding by promising such a thing would never happen again. ‘And it just better not! Or???’

[I guess the Walker Art Center presentation of the Alan Ginsberg at the Guthrie, a year or two before, must have passed under the Board’s radar. After Ginsberg read HOWL, he invited the small audience to come on the stage so they could discuss the poem and pass joints around, with nary a complaint from the more than willing audience.]

For several weeks, it was nothing but good news on the home front for Dennis. But when things broke, it broke big time, thanks to Robin Williams. A Board member had called Schoenbaum and read him the review of Williams comedy tour which had opened  in Chicago, and reminded Don S. that Williams was booked to do his show at the Guthrie. Don S. phoned Dennis and read, no, shouted the review to him.

It seems Robin Williams opened the show by walking downstage and proclaiming that he wanted to show the audience something he took great pride in, Mr. Happy! He then unzipped his fly and exposed Mr. Happy to the shocked audience, asking if anyone wanted to come and shake hands with Mr. Happy.

Don S. reminded Dennis that Dennis had Williams booked at the Guthrie shortly after our tour ended, and reminded Dennis what had transpired after the Cheech and Chong shows, and reminded Dennis what would happen if another fiasco took place on the Guthrie Stage. In short, if something like that happened, the only way Dennis could get back in the theater was with a paid ticket. The ultimatum: straighten this guy out or cancel the show, even at the risk of a lawsuit, which would also result in bad news for Dennis.

As soon as Schoenbaum hung up, Dennis put in calls to Robin, to Robin’s agent, to the theater where Robin was performing, asking to have Robin call back ASAP. But Robin never called back. Day after day, call after call, no response from Robin.

We had brought the show to Scottsdale to open their new CivicCenter. Like all new theaters there was technical glitches, not helped by the young, unprofessional house crew. Still no call back from Williams. I often wondered how Dennis managed to keep his cool during this period.

It was at the breakfast buffet at the Radisson Scottsdale in midweek when Nimoy asked Dennis what was bothering him. He said that Dennis had looked troubled for several days and wondered if there was something ahead in the tour that Leonard should know about. ‘No’, Dennis assured him, and then told Leonard about the problem with the Robin Williams booking.

The name, Robin Williams, meant nothing at first to Nimoy until his wife, Sandy, mentioned that Williams was a young comedian who was a big hit in a TV show, MORT & MINDY, playing Mort, an alien. Then Leonard remembered him. Robin was a big STAR TREK fan and liked to visit the set where they were filming the movie. His sitcom was filmed just down the street at Paramount. ‘Let me see what I can do’, he told Dennis, and signaled the waiter to bring a phone to the table. He called someone at Paramount and said he wanted Robin Williams to call him at once.

We hadn’t even finished breakfast when the call came. Leonard skipped the small talk and told Robin that Robin was causing Leonard’s friend, Dennis Babcock, a lot of problems, the least being, Robin’s failure to return Dennis’s phone calls. He told Williams to straighten out the problem, now! And handed the phone to Dennis.

Dennis told Robin about the ultimatum. Robin assured Dennis he would do anything, within reason, to remedy the situation. With his background in the Arts, Robin said that the appearing at the Guthrie was the highlight of his current tour. He promised that Mr. Happy would not make an appearance or would not even be mentioned at the Guthrie. However, he reminded Dennis that his current routine was adult orientated, and should not be sold as a reflection of his role as Mort. Dennis agree that all future ads would state the performance would be for adults, not children. And placards would be placed in the Guthrie lobby before the show proclaiming the show for adults only.

Dennis took a deep breath after the phone call, thanked Leonard, and called Don Schoenbaum to tell him the compromise reached. Schoenbaum agreed to the settlement; but his last words where, ‘We’ll have to see. Won’t we?’

Robin was one of the first acts presented after we came back from tour.  The first show sold out and a second show was booked for that day. The setup was a snap and Robin came to the theater early enough to be given a tour. We took him down to the prop room so he could select props to use in his show. What a hoot! He had us in stitches picking up props and adlibbing a routine about the prop. Both shows went off without a hitch and were well received. What was amazing was, while both shows had a similar routine, both were totally different. Robin worked off the response of the audience and tailored the show for that audience as he went along. I worked him live several time over the years, each time a real treat, both onstage and offstage, and each show was different from the previous one .

Since MORT & MINDY aired during my Guthrie days, and nights, I never saw as much as one episode; although I heard Robin earned all the praise given him. I saw his first movie, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, as soon as it came out. I had read the book and found it slow and plodding. I found the movie to be the same. Robin was okay, but John Lithgow stole the show. I saw most of Robin’s movies but never really got excited over many of them. In short, for the most part, they were too confining for Robin’s talent. The one exception was him as  the voice and inspiration as Genie in ALADDIN. My favorite of Robin’s roles was in THE BIRDCAGE, where he played a loving partner and loving father all the while being the straight man, no pun intended, to Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, and even Gene Hackman.

I was pleased when came back to TV. THE CRAZY ONES affords him the freedom his talent requires. From what I understand, it also gives him a chance to come face to face with the mistakes he made in his life, a sort of therapy. I watched the pilot episode and really liked it. The second show, I found a little too gross for my taste. I have watched other episodes, but the show has never materialized into a must-watch for me. I guess it is better than the majority of the sitcoms on TV, but that is faint praise. Like I said, I have fond memories working Robin Williams live, and I wish him the best of luck in his return to TV. He is a unique talent that should not be wasted on rigid, uninteresting movies.

This was written in January of 2014. Eight months later, Robin Williams died. Thirteen months later, Leonard Nimoy died.

R.I.P. ROBIN

R.I.P. LEONARD

AND THAT’S A WRAP