ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE

 

A Reblog 

I saw on FB that today is a very big birthday of Peter Michael Goetz, one of the shining actors in the Golden Years of the Guthrie Theater. Although Peter has acted on TV and movies, I think of him as a stage actor. From an acting intern at the Guthrie to Broadway, from small parts to playing leads, from comedy to intense drama. A wide range of roles and captivating in each of them.

This is one of my favorite memories of Peter on the Guthrie stage where he not only played the male lead, he also almost acted as the head usher…albeit it doesn’t portray his acting skills as much as it is an example of why working with him was always fun.

It was a Wednesday matinee of Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Guthrie. There was a large contingent of senior citizens.

(I don’t like that term. I guess I am a senior citizen, but I don’t remember every being called a junior or sophomore citizen. Why can’t we just be called old people? Some people don’t like the idea of growing old; but it certainly is better than not getting any older.)

Anyway, the play had reached the critical exposition scene. The two old aunties, played by Barbara Bryne and Virginia Payne*, are telling their nephew Mortimer, played by Peter Goetz, who the dead body in the window box is and why they put arsenic in his elderberry wine, and about the other dead bodies buried in the cellar.

Three senior citizens, a man and two women, came down the center aisle. The man was holding some tickets and looking down the rows. When they reached the moat, the section that separates the audience from the stage, they continued walking along the audience right of the moat. In the booth the stage manager was trying to get a hold of an usher, and the sound man and myself were laughing. On stage the three actors were trying to keep the play going while glancing slyly at the three patrons.

The three stopped walking the moat, and the old man carefully stepped up the steps to the stage. He held out the tickets and spoke directly to Peter. ‘Sorry we are late. Can you help us find our seats.’ An usher ran down the center aisle and offered assistance to the three.

Surprisingly, the audience didn’t react, perhaps they thought it was a part of the play. Up in the booth though, all three of us reacted. We were laughing so loudly the patrons in the balcony turned around to see where the noise was coming from. And the actors!!!

Peter and Barbara lost it. They both headed upstage and faced the scenery. They tried to keep their laughter from being heard but their bodies shaking gave them away. Thank goodness for Virginia Payne.

Virginia had played the other aunt a year before in the Alley Playhouse in Alley Theatre in Houston, so she was familiar with Barbara’s lines as well as hers. She turned what should have been a dialogue between three people into a monologue. It was a work of art. It moved the play along and gave the other two actors a chance to regain their composure.

Later, in the second act, poor Barbara lost it again. She swatted at a fly that was buzzing around her face. The sleeve of her dress got caught on her earring. Naturally, Peter lost it also. Luckily, it was the end of the scene and the blackout gave them a chance to get offstage.

Just as they did in the first act, both got on the horn backstage and apologized to the stage manager for losing it on stage. And in both incidents, the stage manager told them they weren’t alone. The three in the booth were holding their ribs to try and stop laughing.

There were other times during the run where the cast added additional comedy to the already hilarious production.

In the original script, Peter, whose character is a drama critic. When he first enters he says that he has just come from the Bellasco Theatre. The director, after the first preview decided the audiences weren’t literate enough to know about Bellasco, changed it to the Helen Hayes Theater. Sometimes Peter remembered and said the Helen Hayes Theater, and sometime forgot and called it the Bellasco Theater. Once he forgot both names, paused for a second, and finally blurted out the Cloris Leachman theater. That cracked the booth crew up.

The stage manager told Peter how the electrician and the sound man had a beer bet on if Peter would say Bellasco or Helen Hayes. The following matinee Peter came onstage and looked up at the booth and hollered out that he had just come from the Edmond BOOTH theater. Naturally that cracked the booth crew up.

Another time, thank goodness it was also a matinee, the actor, playing the next old man that the aunties picked out for their arsenic elderberry wine, was sick. His understudy had gotten the job, not because he could act, or even remember his lines; but because he was old.

The understudy stuttered. He stammered. He went up on his lines and he had to get whispered cues from the aunties, on what to say next. Suddenly, with still many lines to say, he bolted for the door. He tripped and fell on the two steps leading to the door. His cane cracked a vase glued on a stand next to the door. He tried to open the door in, forgetting it opened out. He pulled on the door so much the set shook and a stuffed bird, that was on a sill above the door, fell and nearly hit him in the head. When he finally got the door opened, he was holding his cane horizontal, which hit the door and the side of the jam, preventing him to exit. Finally he dropped the cane and went out the door. We cracked up again in the booth.

Ken Ruta, who played the evil brother Jonathon, like to see if he could get Barbara to crack up. He got her one time. The aunties admit while his voice is Jonathon’s, his face isn’t. He pulls out a photo to show them how he looked before his plastic surgery. He always had different picture, like Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. The time she cracked was a picture of a naked body builder with the face of Barbara’s husband, Denny Spence, superimposed on it.

*Virginia Payne was the one and only Ma Perkins. Ma Perkins was the most successful daytime soap opera on the radio. It was sponsored by Oxydol Soap, and hence the name of soap opera was born. It was so popular that it ran on NBC and CBS at the same time.

 It was the story of an old lady who was loved by all and gave out down home advice. Virginia got the part from the first even though at age 27, she certainly was not an old lady. In the 27 year run, five days a week, Virginia never missed one episode. When the show finally ended, Virginia was the highest paid actor in daytime radio. 

She was Ma Perkins. In the season she was at the Guthrie she was loved and respected by everyone at the theater. She only spent that one season because the next year she was too sick to work. She died shortly afterwards. What a sweet person!

(The old Guthrie Theater building is long gone, replaced by a beautiful complex overlooking the Mississippi. The old system of having plays in repertoire by a season long acting company is also long gone. Some of the actors, Peter being one of them return periodically to act in a play; but like the years at the old Guthrie, most of them are just memories of us Senior Citizens.)

The Guthrie has just reopened with a new production of

A Christmas Carol

A tradition started back in the day of the Old Guthrie

Please Stay Safe these upcoming holidays

Vaccinations-masks-avoid big gatherings

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ARSENIC AND OLD PEOPLE

Reblog 2013

 

It was a Wednesday matinee of Arsenic and Old Lace, at the Guthrie. There was a large contingent of senior citizens.

(I don’t like that term. I guess I am a senior citizen, but I don’t remember every being called a junior or sophomore citizen. Why can’t we just be called old people? Some people don’t like the idea of growing old; but it certainly is better than not getting any older.)

Anyway, the play had reached the critical exposition scene. The two old aunties, played by Barbara Bryne and Virginia Payne*, are telling their nephew Mortimer, played by Peter Goetz, who the dead body in the window box is and why they put arsenic in his elderberry wine, and about the other dead bodies buried in the cellar.

Three senior citizens, a man and two women, came down the center aisle. The man was holding some tickets and looking down the rows. When they reached the moat, the section that separates the audience from the stage, they continued walking along the audience right of the moat. In the booth the stage manager was trying to get a hold of an usher, and the sound man and myself were laughing. On stage the three actors were trying to keep the play going while glancing slyly at the three patrons.

The three stopped walking the moat, and the old man carefully stepped up the steps to the stage. He held out the tickets and spoke directly to Peter. ‘Sorry we are late. Can you help us find our seats.’ An usher ran down the center aisle and offered assistance to the three.

Surprisingly, the audience didn’t react, perhaps they thought it was a part of the play. Up in the booth though, all three of us reacted. We were laughing so loudly the patrons in the balcony turned around to see where the noise was coming from. And the actors!!!

Peter and Barbara lost it. They both headed upstage and faced the scenery. They tried to keep their laughter from being heard but their bodies shaking gave them away. Thank goodness for Virginia Payne.

Virginia had played the other aunt a year before in the Alley Playhouse in Alley Theatre in Houston, so she was familiar with Barbara’s lines as well as hers. She turned what should have been a dialogue between three people into a monologue. It was a work of art. It moved the play along and gave the other two actors a chance to regain their composure.

Later, in the second act, poor Barbara lost it again. She swatted at a fly that was buzzing around her face. The sleeve of her dress got caught on her earring. Naturally, Peter lost it also. Luckily, it was the end of the scene and the blackout gave them a chance to get offstage.

Just as they did in the first act, both got on the horn backstage and apologized to the stage manager for losing it on stage. And in both incidents, the stage manager told them they weren’t alone. The three in the booth were holding their ribs to try and stop laughing.

There were other times during the run where the cast added additional comedy to the already hilarious production.

In the original script, Peter, whose character is a drama critic. When he first enters he says that he has just come from the Bellasco Theatre. The director, after the first preview decided the audiences weren’t literate enough to know about Bellasco, changed it to the Helen Hayes Theater. Sometimes Peter remembered and said the Helen Hayes Theater, and sometime forgot and called it the Bellasco Theater. Once he forgot both names, paused for a second, and finally blurted out the Cloris Leachman theater. That cracked the booth crew up.

The stage manager told Peter how the electrician and the sound man had a beer bet on if Peter would say Bellasco or Helen Hayes. The following matinee Peter came onstage and looked up at the booth and hollered out that he had just come from the Edmond BOOTH theater. Naturally that cracked the booth crew up.

Another time, thank goodness it was also a matinee, the actor, playing the next old man that the aunties picked out for their arsenic elderberry wine, was sick. His understudy had gotten the job, not because he could act, or even remember his lines; but because he was old.

The understudy stuttered. He stammered. He went up on his lines and he had to get whispered cues from the aunties, on what to say next. Suddenly, with still many lines to say, he bolted for the door. He tripped and fell on the two steps leading to the door. His cane cracked a vase glued on a stand next to the door. He tried to open the door in, forgetting it opened out. He pulled on the door so much the set shook and a stuffed bird, that was on a sill above the door, fell and nearly hit him in the head. When he finally got the door opened, he was holding his cane horizontal, which hit the door and the side of the jam, preventing him to exit. Finally he dropped the cane and went out the door. We cracked up again in the booth.

Ken Ruta, who played the evil brother Jonathon, like to see if he could get Barbara to crack up. He got her one time. The aunties admit while his voice is Jonathon’s, his face isn’t. He pulls out a photo to show them how he looked before his plastic surgery. He always had different picture, like Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. The time she cracked was a picture of a naked body builder with the face of Barbara’s husband, Denny Spence, superimposed on it.

*Virginia Payne was the one and only Ma Perkins. Ma Perkins was the most successful daytime soap opera on the radio. It was sponsored by Oxydol Soap, and hence the name of soap opera was born. It was so popular that it ran on NBC and CBS at the same time.

 It was the story of an old lady who was loved by all and gave out down home advice. Virginia got the part from the first even though at age 27, she certainly was not an old lady. In the 27 year run, five days a week, Virginia never missed one episode. When the show finally ended, Virginia was the highest paid actor in daytime radio. 

She was Ma Perkins. In the season she was at the Guthrie she was loved and respected by everyone at the theater. She only spent that one season because the next year she was too sick to work. She died shortly afterwards. What a sweet person!

If you want to know more about her and the soap opera, Ma Perkins, go to the Old Time Radio at http://www.otrcat.com.

The old Guthrie Theater has been replaced by a new Theater

that overlooks the river

And like theaters everywhere it is dark

But it will open again

And until then, STAY SAFE.

MISS FEE;THE DIAL SWITCHER

Another back-in-the-day post:  before we had streaming TV, heck before we ever heard of TV, we had radio, and before we had schools with basketball courts and buses to transport us to these wonderful buildings, we had one-room schoolhouses. One room, one teacher, grades One thru Eight. The enrollment went from 8 pupils one year to a high of 14 another year.

memory07_donaldostertag

The Original Story

Growing up on a small farm, our one radio was the only source of outside entertainment available to me. I hurried with my chores so I could listen to “my programs” – Tom MixLone Ranger, etc.. After supper, Mom controlled the dial (Dad worked nights in the packinghouse), and we listened to comedies like Fibber McGee, dramas like The First Nighter, and music like Your Hit Parade. Sometimes, when she was busy, I would lower the volume and find a crime show like Sam Spade, or a thriller like Suspense. A second radio would have been wonderful but was out of the question.

I went to the one-room schoolhouse across the field. Miss Fee, who lived on a farm with her four bachelor brothers, taught all eight grades as she had for years. She ruled with a stern scowl and a wood ruler.

One very cold early evening, she walked into our kitchen and announced she could not get her DeSoto started and was going to spend the night with us. And she added, that she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Mom, who also had Miss Fee as a teacher, would never had dared to offer any alternatives, and did everything that Miss Fee ordered, even letting her control the radio dial.

After that first night, the DeSoto seemed to fail every time the mercury dropped below zero, and we would have our very demanding guest. Mom told Dad that she didn’t believe the “car won’t start” story. “Those Fees are so tight with a buck,” Mom explained, “It’s her way of getting a good meal and a warm bed, having somebody else do the work.” Dad just smiled. “And,” Mom added, “She even has to listen to her radio programs! I go to listen to Kraft Music Hall. She turns on Sunset Valley Barn Dance!”

I saw an opening, “Well, if we had another radio…” Mom cut me off with her “Think-we’re-made-of-money” look. Dad shook his head.

Then one night, a Monday night, Miss Fee walked in. Everything went as usual except when eight o’clock came, time for Mom’s one must-listen-to program, Lux Radio Theater. She had hurried with her work and was sitting in her favorite chair, her crochet materials in her lap, listening to the words, “Lux Presents Hollywood,” her favorite hour of the week, when…Miss Fee turned the dial to Doctor I.Q.!…”I have a woman in the balcony, Doctor. And for three silver dollars…”

Mom stood up, and without a word, went to bed.

The very next payday we got our second radio. From then on, Mom could listen to Jack Benny and Bing Crosby, and I could solve crimes with Johnny Dollar and get goose bumps from the squeaking door of Inner Sanctum except when Miss Fee’s DeSoto wouldn’t start.

    Technically this is not an OLD HAND published newspaper story. It was published in the OLD TIME RADIO CATALOG. They asked for stories concerning old time radio. This was the first they ever published and I received ten CD’s of old time radio for it. Their web site is excellent. If you want to know what old timers like me listened to instead of TV, go to their web site. Not only is it informative, there is free old time radio programs you can listen to. http://www.otrcat.com/

ADDENDUM to the published story.

This was only part of the story. That first night Miss Fee declared she was spending the night, there were three choices, Mom and Dad’s bedroom, the kids’ bedroom, the living room couch. Naturally, Mom put her in her and Dad’s bedroom. Mom would sleep with my sister and Dad would sleep on the couch.

There would be no problem. Every night when Dad came home from work, Mom always woke up. She knew she could intercept Dad when he was sitting at the kitchen table eating a sandwich. She would explain the problem.

But there was a problem! Mom never woke up that night when Dad came home; but boy did she wake up when Dad started screaming and swearing. We all woke up.

Poor Dad. He was clad only in his jockey shorts and was standing facing the corner of the hall by his bedroom, trying to protect his head with his hands.

God damn it, woman,’ he kept yelling over and over, ‘You lost your mind or something? I’m your husband, not a god damn burglar.’

And Miss Fee, wearing long johns and her gray wool sweater was working him over with a broom, this pervert who had tried to climb in bed with her.

Mom jumped to the rescue and grabbed the broom away from Miss Fee at the same time trying to explain to both participants what had happened.

And the three of us older kids just couldn’t stop from laughing at the sight caused by the misunderstanding. The baby of the family slept through it all.

Miss Fee quickly retreated to the bedroom and we could hear her praying the rosary behind the closed door. Dad stomped into the living room and Mom followed, apologizing all the way after yelling for us kids to go back to bed. We did but it took a long time for us three kids to stop laughing and finally go to sleep; and by that time, we woke the baby and it took a long time for Mom to get him back to sleep.

The next day at school, Miss Fee brought me into the back room and begged me not to tell any of the other pupils what happened the night before. I said I wouldn’t, mainly because I had told some of them before school had even started and by then they all knew.

And Mom and Dad arranged for a signal that Miss Fee was spending the night, just in case Mom ever overslept, which she never did again.

OH, NO, MR. BILL!!!

bill-cosby-quotes-hd-wallpaper-4

Bill Cosby was just breaking out big when I began working as a stage hand. When I retired 45 years later, Cosby was still big, still working a multitude of comedy performances in the US and Canada. Over those 45 years, I easily worked over 100 of Cosby’s comedy performances, and enjoyed every one of them. But now…

The first time I worked Cosby was at Northrop Auditorium at the U of Minnesota. Cosby was hot. His comedy albums were best sellers, and his TV show, I SPY, that he co-starred in with Robert Culp was high in the ratings, as well ground breaking. First time a black actor starred in a dramatic series. First black to win an Emmy.

Working that show taught me two things about Bill Cosby: He was fun to work with. (Years later he changed.) And he was no saint. (Rumors have it, he never changed that aspect of his character.)

One of my student crew members had purchased a large poster of a very serious Culp and a smiling Cosby, standing back to back and holding guns. First chance he got, he asked Cosby to autograph it. Cosby did. But he signed it ‘Bobby Culp’. Like I said, he was fun to work with in those days.

He also asked if there was a doctor that could see him during intermission. Lew, the promoter, found a doctor who gave Cosby a quick once-over. Lew then asked me to send one of the student crew down to the drug store to get a prescription.

According to Lew, the doctor said that Cosby wasn’t wrong when he asked for a doctor. He had a bad case of the drips and needed penicillin. The doctor said Cosby wanted it to be cleared up by the time the tour ended in two weeks, and he had to go home and face his wife. The doctor told him no way would he be healed by then. He suggested that Cosby better think of a believable way to blame on a contaminated toilet seat. Like I said, he was no saint, but a lot of fun to work.

Several years later I was working one of the follow spots for a Cosby performances that was booked by Jerry the Jerk. The Jerk had an uncanny talent of making people hate him at first glance – that way it saved time. And he was always conniving to get the most out of the stagehands for the least amount of money. Two facts not lost on Cosby.

Cosby usually comes in an hour before showtime. Goes on stage. Sits in the easy chair and sees to it that the end table has an ashtray for his cigar. Tests the mike and five minutes later he’s back in his dressing room. Jerry, however, demanded Cosby do his checking at 11 a.m. so if anything wasn’t right with the lights, sound,or camera that projected his face on a picture sheet above his head, it could be done in the 4 hour minimum for the Set Up and not run into a 5th hour.

Instead of telling Jerry no, Cosby came in on time; and then he made sure he didn’t check things out until we had broken the 5th hour. The Jerk was angry and told Cosby so. Cosby told us to take an hour for lunch and come back for a rehearsal. The Jerk was real angry; but there was nothing he could do because the contract said if Cosby wanted to rehearse he would rehearse.

The rehearsal started from the top, house to black low stage lights on, Cosby walked out, the follow spots picked him up, stayed on him when he sat down and went into his routine. He told one of his funny stories in about 5 minutes, then stood up and told us the rehearsal was over. Jerry the Jerk hit the roof. Paid all that money and the rehearsal  lasted less than ten minutes.

He should have kept  his mouth shut. Cos said he was going to think things over and have another rehearsal in an hour. Jerry was fuming and mentioned that could result in a meal penalty if we didn’t get out for supper. Cosby told Jerry to make a list of what each hand wanted for supper and have it delivered. Naturally the meal was on Jerry.

‘You know,’ Cosby told us when we were all in the Green Room eating supper, ‘I got a doctorate in education; but there’s one thing I knew long before I got it, some people never know when to keep their mouths shut.’

Cosby grew up listening to the great comedians on the radio, like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George and Gracie, and he patterned his routines, be they live, or on TV,  after them, relying on family comedy, without any profanity. And it bothered him to see the young comedians building their success on sex and profanity.

The most popular of these young comedians was Eddie Murphy. Cosby was outspoken in his condemnation of the profanity of Murphy’s routine. He said Murphy had too much natural comedic talent to have to resort to cheap laughs by using profanity. Murphy didn’t like Cosby’s advice or Cosby’s type of comedy.

I worked Eddie Murphy during the heat of this feud. A full house at the Met Ice Arena. Murphy worked an hour and a half, no intermission. If he had deleted just the word MFer out of his routine, he would have cut a good fifteen minutes out of the show. He also spent at least fifteen minutes throughout the show condemning Cosby, or as he called him, that senile old MFer.

The audience loved it. Murphy would use his favorite word, MFer, and then scream asking the audience if they were offended. Naturally the audience, thrilled to have a part in the show, would stomp their feet and clap their hands and yell back, ‘NO, you MFer’. This sophomoric display was repeated all the way through the performance.

To paraphrase Erasmus: In the Land of the Morons, the moron holding the mike is king. And as far as I am concerned, more and more morons are purchasing tickets to listen to more and more morons holding mikes.In this case, Cosby was right, even though his words only resulted in him losing the youth as fans.

In 1997, Cosby’s life took a terrible turn for the worse. His oldest son, Ennis, was murdered in, as the killer’s confession called it, ‘a robbery turned bad’. From then on, Cosby became withdrawn. He never kidded with the hands backstage. Spent his free time in his dressing room. But once he got onstage in front of the audience, he reverted back to the old Bill.

In his personal life, he became quite outspoken about the Black community; especially how he perceived the indifference to the pursuit of education. He condemned the trend of the Black families, so many single-parents, and sometimes the parenting had to be carried out by the grandparents with no parents in the picture..He saved his harshest criticism for the Black youths that took the easy way out and dealt drugs to get easy money. He has continued to expound on these themes throughout the years. And as a result he is viewed by a large contingent of the Black community, especially the youth, as a crabby old man – and now as a hypocrite.

Later on in 1997, the Elephant In The Room threatened to become public knowledge. A young girl had tried to extort money out of Cosby by claiming to  be his daughter. She was jailed. In an interview with Dan Rather, Cosby acknowledged it might be true. He confessed to having an affair with the girl’s mother.

For the most part it was overlooked by the American public as being something celebrities do. Maybe though if the public had been aware of the fact Cosby paid the mother $750 per week, hush money, totaling about $100,000 while the girl was growing up, they might have taken it more seriously. And maybe if they had heard that the mother accused Cosby of drugging and raping her their first sexual encounter, they might have been more outraged.

For years, apparently, rumors had circulated about Cosby use of drugs to rape women. When women did come out with the accusations, they were not believed by the police and were not reported in the news. After all, Cosby was ‘America’s Dad’.

I was unaware of these accusations all the years I worked Cosby. I never seen him make any advances on women who were backstage. Always polite. A gentleman. But then, that’s how the 27 or so women, who recently accused him of drug rape, say he was a perfect gentleman until he got them along and spiked their drink.

Do I believe all these accusations? Well, there’s just too much smoke not to have fire. And each passing day it seems like the Elephant is getting bigger, and the Room is getting smaller.

Will it ever be proven one way or the other? Almost any sexual assault is a ‘She Said – He Said’ thing, and the most common defense for the accused is to blame the ‘victim’. Some of the accusers waited so long to speak out; mainly because they saw the ones that did speak out were often accused of lying to extort money from a rich and famous man. When you throw in celebrity status, money, and race into the mix, the waters become really muddy.

Cosby is still doing shows; but these are shows already contracted for, and the promoter fears a lawsuit if he drops Cosby. I can’t imagine a promoter booking a show now.

Cosby is old, real old, heck he’s a year older than me. There comes a point in one’s life where you just get too old to fight. Each performance brings out protesters and audience hecklers. And it will only get worse.

As I said at the top, I learned the first time I worked him, Cosby was no saint; but I never thought he would be accused of sinking this low. ‘America’s Dad’ has become ‘America’s Bad’. Oh, Bill!

I REMEMBER MICKEY

Young Mickey      THE MICK 

Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!

          Mickey Rooney’s mantra. His first time in the spotlight was at the age of seven months, when crawled onstage during his parents’ vaudeville act and sneezed. For the next nine decades he continued to put on a show.

          Very few people, that I worked with over the years, took such complete joy in their work as Mickey did. And his joy was infectious, not only to the audience, but to everyone who had the good fortune of working with him. On three separate one-week engagements, two weeks of SUGAR BABIES, one week of THE WIZARD OF OZ, I had this good fortune. What a pro! What a warm, kind, friendly man!  And working with him was like shaking hands with history. Consider just a little of his career:

          VAUDEVILLE: Joined his parents’ act at age 15 months, singing, dressed in a tux, and sporting a rubber cigar. He was the last living, big time star that had made their start in vaudeville.

          SILENT MOVIES: He started acting in silent films at age 5. At age 7,he had his own series, MICKEY MCGUIRE. He played Mickey in 78 shorts, 23 of which were silent films. Although there are still a few people living who were in silent films, like Dickie Moore of Our Gang shorts, none were stars of their own series nor became a star of Rooney’s magnitude.

          GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD: He was one of the biggest stars in MGM’s studio, home of the greatest stars in the era. The year 1939 has been acknowledged as the greatest year for movies, with such features as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ, and that year the biggest box office draw was Mickey Rooney. He followed up the honor in 1940 and 41. His two series at the time, ANDY HARDY and the Garland/Rooney musicals were, not only MGM’ s most popular features, they were also the most profitable. Of the stars of the MGM studio those years, Mickey outlived all of them except for Olivia de Havilland.

          THE GREATEST GENERATION: Mickey tried to enlist right after Pearl Harbor, but was turned down. Later, he was drafted. Served 21 months entertaining the troops. He was awarded the Bronze Star for entertaining in combat zones.

          FILM CAREER:  Prior to the MGM years, he worked in many films for various studios, like Warner Brothers, where he played Puck in A MIDSUMMER’S DREAM. He was 15 at the time and had a broken leg. After his military service, his physical stature worked against him. He he continued to work in the movies, but never reached the superstar status he had as a teenager. While his nominations were many, the only Oscars he received was a ‘Juvenile Award’ and a Life Time Achievement Award. Both Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando called him the greatest film actor. He is the only person who made at least one film in ten consecutive decades.

          RADIO: One of the busiest voices during Radio’s Golden Age. In addition to appearing in the great radio shows of the day, he headlined in three series.

          TELEVISION: He has countless credits on TV, including many starring roles during the Golden Age of TV. He headlined in 4 different series. He won an Emmy for BILL in 1981.

          STAGE: His stage work ran the gamut from Shakespeare to the revival of burlesque. His Broadway appearances were in SUGAR BABIES and WILL ROGER’S FOLLIES. After 1,208 performances of SUGAR BABIES in New York, he and Ann Miller, his co-star, spent five years touring it. They brought it to Minneapolis twice. He toured in many other stage productions including THE WIZARD OF OZ with Eartha Kitt, which spent a week in Minneapolis.

          HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: He has 4 stars, Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, and Live Theater.

          He worked extensively doing voice-overs in animated films. He recorded music albums, cast albums, singles, and spoken word. It was said that he never found a musical instrument he couldn’t play. He wrote books, directed and produced films, and his last ‘big show’ was speaking out about elderly abuse before a Senate committee.

And in amongst all that work, he managed to marry 8 different women. “I had a  license made out ‘to whom it may concern’. I always got married in the morning, that way if it didn’t work out, it didn’t ruin the whole day. Took me eight times before I got it right,” he said. Joking aside, his last marriage lasted over 30 years.

 sugar babesANN MILLER – ANN JILLIAN – AND ?

          He had a rider that called for cable TV in his dressing room. Why I don’t know. He spent very little time in his dressing room. When he wasn’t on stage, he was usually offstage talking to people.

          He’d see a new face and he would stick out his hand. ‘I’m Mickey, and you are?’ The second time through with SUGAR BABIES, he said to me, ‘I forget the name but I remember the hat.’

          ‘Don,’ I told him, which opened the door for one of his improv skits.

           ‘That your name or the hat’s? You know all the stagehands use to wear a hat. Now there’s just you and maybe that prop man in Peoria. Course he’s probably long gone by now.

          ‘And women! They always wore hats. Feathers and fruits.” In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it”.’ Then he  broke into a little dance. ‘I taught Astaire these steps. Adele, not Fred.’

          Mickey was never above telling a joke, no matter how corny or how old. Once he came off stage after doing the skit LITTLE RED SCHOOLHOUSE to thunderous applause. He cupped his hand to his ear listening to the cheers from the audience. ‘And they said I was a has-been. But just think where I has been.’

          Once I was in a wing waiting to do a cue, when Mickey started telling me about how a bellboy led him to find religion. ‘Changed my life. Now Mickey Jr. really got born-again. Has his own church. Wants me to go there and preach a ser..

         Just then the chorus girls came off stage. One ran out through the wing where Mickey and I were. Mickey reached out and pinched her behind. She jumped and gave a little squeal. Mickey laughed. ‘She’s new. You don’t see the other girls get that close to me,’ he laughed.

          Somehow I couldn’t picture Mickey as a preacher man.

          Another time he came up to me just as I finished a cue. It was a Goodbye Sunday, two shows and an Out. Between shows I stocked up on protein with a big steak. He asked what I had for dinner. I told him steak and he said he would have bet that would be my answer. Then this little guy, about a foot shorter than me, looked up at me and began to tell me how it wasn’t good for me to eat red meat.

          It was funny at the time; but hey, he lived to be 93.

          One of the hands asked him about his Bronze Star. He smiled and shook his head. ‘What an honor! They gave me some other awards like the WWII Victory medal and they even gave me a Good Conduct Medal. Kept me awake at night wondering when they would come to their senses and take the Good Conduct Medal back.’

          As carefree as Mickey was, his co-star, Ann Miller. was the polar opposite. Very serious. Appeared backstage only when she had to. Spent the rest of the time in her dressing room. She was close to 60 but neither her face nor her figure betrayed her age. She looked younger than many of the girls in the chorus line. In addition to her years on stage and in films, she was famous for two other things. One, she popularized pantyhose, and two, she was billed as the world’s fastest tap dancer. And she hadn’t slowed down, even a tap.

          When the show was being loaded in, Joe, the road prop man, immediately began to lay the plywood dance floor. It was a work of perfection. He selected only the best panels for the center, using the less than perfect panels on the outside. He used his whiskey stick, (level), and shims to assure was as flat as could be. He used a portable sander to removed any bumps, which only he could see. And then Ann came in.

          ‘Are you ready for me, Joseph?’ she would ask. And then she would walk and dance on the floor, stopping every so often and pointing down. Joe would take a piece of chalk and later would sand down the bump that even he couldn’t see, Ann had felt it through her dance shoes. Joe used the sander and Ann would try again. She checked out the floor before each show, always finding a little something that had to be sanded down.

          Between Ann in her tap shoes and Mickey in his baggy pants, the show was a real winner. It disbanded and for a while a bus and truck version toured, stopping for a week in Minneapolis.  It had Jaye P. Morgan and Eddie Bracken. Jaye P. was funny and had a good voice. Eddie Bracken, whose latest claim to fame had been as Roy Wally, owner of Wally World, the Griswalds’ favorite amusement park, was capable but… Mickey had been an aggressive comic, in the manner of Phil Silvers, who had been a top banana both in burlesque and in the movie, TOP BANANA. Bracken was a passive comic, relying more on reaction than action. The tour was short lived.

          Luckily, a few years later, SUGAR BABIES came back to town as a national tour with both Mickey and Ann reprising their routines. And of course with Joe, or Joseph as Ann called him, as the dance floor layer extraordinaire.

          The third time Mickey came through was as the Wizard in the stage version of WIZARD OF OZ. His co-star, playing the Wicket Witch of the West, was another of my favorites, Miss Eartha Kitt.

          Mickey was Mickey –  warm, friendly and funny. He enjoyed playing the role made so famous by Frank Morgan. The audiences loved it and it was fun to work.

          Mickey and the stage manager had a little skit prior to the start of each show. The stage manager would caution Mickey about talking too loud backstage and Mickey would jump behind a masking leg, peek around the end, and shake the cloth. ‘Paaaay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ he would say. Funny bit!  I don’t think we could have done the show without it.

          And he brought back a lot of his backstage routines. One of my favorites was him telling about losing money on the horses. ‘First time I bet on a horse, I lost two bucks. Been spending the rest of my life trying to win it back.

          ‘But you know what nag cost me the most money?  Santa Claus! Norman Lear wanted me to play Archie Bunker. I turned him down to do the voice of Santa Claus – in a cartoon. Lear told me Archie Bunker was a rough, bigoted-blow hard. Never work, I told him. Doesn’t sound funny and people just won’t buy it. I took what I thought was a sure thing and did the Santa Claus. Didn’t want to take a chance playing an old racist. What’d I know? What’d I know?’

          This coming from a man who created the only speed bump in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, namely the role of the bucktooth Asian landlord, Mr. Yonioshi . Both the critics and the general public hated the portrayal, calling it both racist and unfunny. Mickey took a lot of heat on that one. But what’d he know? What’d he know?

          And while Mickey was his usual outgoing self, Eartha Kitt was quiet and introspective. Quite unlike the Eartha that had come to town years before in TIMBUKTU. Then she was funny, talkative, and of course, very sexy. There  had been a cue I had to do standing in the wing that Eartha used to go on stage. Each time she passed by me, she rubbed my stomach and gave out a sexy purr as only Eartha could do.

          During WIZARD, I was reading a paperback written by Loren Estleman. In it, his protagonist, P.I. Amos Walker says he is going home, open up a bottle of whiskey and listen to his Eartha Kitt albums. His idea of heaven. I marked the passage and gave it to the stage manager to show Eartha. Eartha came out of her dressing room and smiled, handing me back the book asking where she could get a copy. ‘You keep this one. I finished it,’ I lied. Later, Mickey came up to me and thanked me for ‘being so nice to Eartha’. Mickey cared about people.

          That week was the last time I was privileged to work with either Eartha. or Mickey .

          I’ll always remember how serious and silent Mickey was, almost as if he was standing at attention, whenever the girl playing Dorothy was singing SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW. And his silence thundered backstage. One could almost hear him thinking back to a different time when a different actress was playing Dorothy and singing that song. The Golden Days.

          OZ came back a few years later with a very forgettable actor playing the Wizard and Grace Jones replacing Eartha. The only thing I really remember about that production was how small Grace Jones was in real life. In all her roles in action movies, she always appeared to be a tall no-holds-barred woman. Of course, when I met her co-star in Conan, Mr. Schwarzenegger I was shocked at how short he was also.

          It’s a wonder what camera angles, shoe lifts, and apple boxes can do to make a person look taller. Some things that Mickey Rooney never had to  use. He always stood tall, both as a talent, (Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!), and as a human being, (He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.).

          Good bye, Mickey. It’s been an honor to know you.rip Mickey

 

 

           

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

MISS FEE;THE DIAL SWITCHER

memory07_donaldostertagGrowing up on a small farm, our one radio was the only source of outside entertainment available to me. I hurried with my chores so I could listen to “my programs” – Tom MixLone Ranger, etc.. After supper, Mom controlled the dial (Dad worked nights in the packinghouse), and we listened to comedies like Fibber McGee, dramas like The First Nighter, and music like Your Hit Parade. Sometimes, when she was busy, I would lower the volume and find a crime show like Sam Spade, or a thriller like Suspense. A second radio would have been wonderful but was out of the question.

I went to the one-room schoolhouse across the field. Miss Fee, who lived on a farm with her four bachelor brothers, taught all eight grades as she had for years. She ruled with a stern scowl and a wood ruler.

One very cold early evening, she walked into our kitchen and announced she could not get her DeSoto started and was going to spend the night with us. And she added, that she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Mom, who also had Miss Fee as a teacher, would never had dared to offer any alternatives, and did everything that Miss Fee ordered, even letting her control the radio dial.

After that first night, the DeSoto seemed to fail every time the mercury dropped below zero, and we would have our very demanding guest. Mom told Dad that she didn’t believe the “car won’t start” story. “Those Fees are so tight with a buck,” Mom explained, “It’s her way of getting a good meal and a warm bed, having somebody else do the work.” Dad just smiled. “And,” Mom added, “She even has to listen to her radio programs! I go to listen to Kraft Music Hall. She turns on Sunset Valley Barn Dance!”

I saw an opening, “Well, if we had another radio…” Mom cut me off with her “Think-we’re-made-of-money” look. Dad shook his head.

Then one night, a Monday night, Miss Fee walked in. Everything went as usual except when eight o’clock came, time for Mom’s one must-listen-to program, Lux Radio Theater. She had hurried with her work and was sitting in her favorite chair, her crochet materials in her lap, listening to the words, “Lux Presents Hollywood,” her favorite hour of the week, when…Miss Fee turned the dial to Doctor I.Q.!…”I have a woman in the balcony, Doctor. And for three silver dollars…”

Mom stood up, and without a word, went to bed.

The very next payday we got our second radio. From then on, Mom could listen to Jack Benny and Bing Crosby, and I could solve crimes with Johnny Dollar and get goose bumps from the squeaking door of Inner Sanctum except when Miss Fee’s DeSoto wouldn’t start.

    Technically this is not an OLD HAND published story. It was published in the OLD TIME RADIO CATALOG. They asked for stories concerning old time radio. This was the first they ever published and I received ten CD’s of old time radio for it. Their web site is excellent. If you want to know what old timers like me listened to instead of TV, go to their web site. Not only is it informative, there is free old time radio programs you can listen to. http://www.otrcat.com/