I KNOW NOTHING

HOGAN’S HEROES was a weekly prime sitcom consisting of 168 episodes running from 1965 until 1971. Set in a German POW camp, it’s humor revolved around an inventive group of Allied POW’s outwitting the inept group of German overseers. It scripts and cast continue to amuse us even today on cable.

This reblog is from 2014. While it doesn’t deal with the TV show directly, it hits on my experience of the show’s acceptance on 2 former POWs and also a time Leonard Nimoy asked a question..,and was sorry he did..

One reason for the reblog is the excellent work being done by John Holton in his blog The Sound of One Hand Clapping. After a post on the Allied characters/actors, and another on the German characters/actors, John is writing a complete synopsis of each of the 168 episodes. Fine, entertaining writing, whether or not you are familiar with the show or not.

https://thesoundofonehandtyping.com/hogans-heroes-episode-index/

-Schultz-hogans-heroes-I Know Nooothing

On Memorial day weekend (2014) I read an angry letter posted on the web. The writer, a young (?) Politically Correct activist was railing out against the fact the old TV comedy, HOGAN’S HEROES, was still being shown on cable TV. She felt it was a great disservice to all those who were POW’s of the Germans in WWII. She wanted the series to be hidden away like the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW. In a way I could see her point; but… (It was the first TV show where Black actors had main roles along with the White actors.)

Two of my favorite coworkers at the Guthrie Theatre spent a large part of WWII as prisoners of war in German camps. Chuck Wallen, an American, was a stagehand and set carpenter at the Guthrie. Michael Langham, an Englishman, was the Artistic Director of the theatre. They were in different camps but they both had similar experiences during their years as prisoners.

Chuck, an Air Corps navigator, was on his first bombing run when the plane was shot down. He parachuted out, landed in a cow pasture and broke his back. A village doctor set Chuck’s back as best he could, but the setting would have left Chuck unable to ever stand straight again. A German doctor, seeing the problem, fought red tape and got Chuck to a hospital where the doctor rebroke the back and set it correctly. Chuck spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany, but at least he could stand straight.

Growing up, Michael Langham’s hero was the Duke of Wellington. Because of this, Michael  went to Officers’ Training School where he received an officer’s commission just in time to take part in the final days of the Battle of Dunkirk, namely the retreat to the beach. When the Miracle of Dunkirk was accomplished, Michael was not one of the lucky ones that were transported back to England. He was in the group that missed the boats and were captured by the Germans and placed in a POW camp, where he spent the duration of the war that he really never got to know first hand.

It was the camp where the Great Escape took place, although the tunnel was in a different barracks and Michael was not involved or even aware of what was going on. To kill time in the camp, Michael joined the theatrical group. Sometimes Michael acted, sometimes Michael directed. By the time the camp was liberated, Michael no longer thought of himself as the next Duke of Wellington. Instead, he pursued a career in the theatre, substituting Tyrone Guthrie for the Duke of Wellington as a role model.

It was the years of HOGAN’S HEROES in prime time. The day after each new episode aired, Michael would make his way down to the shop where he and Chuck would spend about a half hour or so going over the episode, laughing and comparing characters on both sides of camp to people in their camps. Since I was working the show the nights the series aired I never got to see it until years later in reruns. Sometimes though when I was working during a day when Chuck and Michael got together, I was privileged to listen to those two reminisce.

So, now when I find myself laughing at the antics of Hogan and the gang, I don’t feel any guilt. After all, two members of the Greatest Generation, who had first hand experience in POW camps laughed at the same antics many years ago.

On the other hand, another favorite acquaintance, Jim Daly, who survived the Bataan Death March and the ensuing years in a POW camp in the Philippines, would not have found anything funny during his hell on earth.

  

We doing a week of VINCENT in Scottsdale, Arizona about nine months after Bob Crane, Hogan of HOGAN’S HEROES, was murdered in this posh city of many rich retirees. Mr. ‘Just Call Me Bob’ Herberger, founder of the Herberger’s department store chain put on a big fete for us at his house. He had enjoyed the play and especially liked the fact that it came from the Guthrie in his home state of Minnesota. I think he spent more time talking with another Minnesota native, namely me, as he did hobnobbing with Leonard Nimoy, the star of VINCENT. It was a fun time with only one slight bump in the road.

Almost all of Mr. Herberger’s invitees were, like him, enjoying their retirement in the land of the sun. There wasn’t a Ford or a Chevy mixed in with the Rolls and Caddies, and although the it was Arizona casual dress, it wasn’t the casual dress wear that came off the rack at a Herberger’s Department Store.

There was one group of men that seemed to hang together. They looked like they could have been extras in THE GODFATHER. Maybe one of them brought the cannoli to the party. A couple of them were more interested in talking to Leonard about Dr. (sic) Spock than about Van Gogh, something that always irritated Leonard; but he remained a gentleman and answered their questions about Spock and STAR TREK as the old timers wanted.

Then Leonard asked them a question. ‘You know, Bob Crane and I use to be friends back in the days we were auditioning for jobs, and then when we both were in hit shows. Hadn’t seen him years though. Now,’ Leonard said in a quiet voice, ‘What’s the real skinny on Crane’s murder?’

You don’t yell fire in a theater, and you don’t ask these old men about murder. Their silence was deafening. They didn’t have to talk. They just gave Nimoy  – the look. Finally one of them spoke up in a raspy whisper. ‘Don’t ask about that guy again around here. You don’t want to know! Understand?’ Leonard nodded and the subject was dropped. He smiled at the group of men and left to get a refill on his Beefeater’s martini.

In the words of Sergeant Schultz, ‘I know nothing.

DESSERT AT THE NIMOY’S

Nora Max and son

The is a continuation of DINNER AT THE NIMOY’S.

Max watched his wife go into the kitchen. ‘Ah,’ he sighed. ‘The love of my life. I was so lucky to have found her. Can you guess where I first met her?’

‘The village where you grew up?’

‘Boston?’

‘No. You’ll never guess. We first met in South America.’

‘South America!’ Dennis and I spoke in unison.

Max laughed. When Mrs. Nimoy came back into the room carrying the dessert Max asked his wife to tell us where they met.

‘South America’, she said without any hesitation. ‘But we did notice each other on the boat.’

‘Ship, Momma, ship,’ Max corrected her. ‘But we never talked. Just nodded shalom to each other. I didn’t even know she was a girl. Dressed in boy’s clothing. Had a very short haircut, like a boy. I thought she was a shy young man who was very attentive to his bubbe, his grandmother.’

‘And to me, Max was this young man who set up his barber chair at the same place on the main deck at the same time every afternoon.’

‘Not every afternoon,’ Max corrected her, ‘Not on the Sabbath.’

‘No. Not on the Sabbath,’ Mrs. Nimoy agreed. My bubbe thought that made you a very religion boy. And he was always talking and making his customer laugh. That made me like him, even from a distance.’

‘And tell them, your grandmother thought I was cute, didn’t she? Didn’t she?’

“In this case, boys,’ she said, ‘I have to humor him. Yes, Max, my bubbe thought you were cute. And she thought you would make a fine husband for me. Okay? And she wanted to be the shanchanit, matchmaker…’

‘Tradition! Tradition!’ Max sang out.

Chagall's Fiddler

CHAGALL’S FIDDLER

Mrs Nimoy frowned at him. ‘But she had to wait several years before she really began because we were both too young even by old country standards.’

‘So,’ Max interjected, ‘I guess you could say we were kind of childhood sweethearts. At least Momma was. I was a young man with a trade.’

‘And,’ Mrs. Nimoy smiled, ‘my bubbe convinced Max when we were in Valenzuela to come to Boston instead of New York. She was serious about marrying me off to Max.’

‘Very serious,’ Max said. ‘She kept a close eye on me when we got to Boston.’

‘And weren’t you lucky bubbe did?’ Leonard said.

‘Very lucky,’ Max agreed, holding up his hands. ‘Boys, not only is this woman beautiful, she is also a real baleboste.

‘A baleboste, boys,’ Mrs. Nimoy explained,’ is a woman who is a great homemaker and cook.’

‘And is in charge of the home,’ Max continued, ‘And nobody better forget that.’

‘You know, there is an article about Leonard and it says that Leonard’s parents were childhood sweethearts. Grew up in the same shetl. Not so. We were born in shetls about 20 miles apart. Now 20 miles in the Ukraine in those days was a distance that was more like a 100 miles here. I never traveled to her village and she never traveled to mine. We didn’t know the other one existed. Until the ship that brought us to South America.

‘We lived in the Pale of Settlement, the western part of Imperial Russia. It was not a good place to live in in best of times. But that is where the Tzars forced Jews to live. Except Jews that had a trade important to the Russians.

‘The Russians had a habit of harvesting Jews. They would march into a village and conscript the young men. Some into the Army for cannon fodder. Some into work camps, especially for the mines in Siberia

‘ And the young women… Enough said about the poor young women.

‘People tried to escape the Pale all the time. Escape over the border to find a better life. Escape networks were set up to help the fugitives.

‘It is said two million Jews from the Pale immigrated to the United States in those years. And Momma and I were among the lucky ones.

‘Momma and her grandmother escaped in a hay wagon. Hid under the hay most of the time. Her family had cut her hair like a boy and dressed her in boy’s clothing. Not that that would make any difference if she was caught. Some of her family had escaped before and had settled in Boston. Others would follow after Dora got there.

‘The two women made it to the rescue liner without any problem, thank goodness. Ships were rented by the Jewish Federation for the purpose of bringing Jews to America. The ships would wait offshore in the Black Sea or Baltic until there was enough Jews on board to set sail. Momma had to wait over a week on board the ship before it left. I got there a day before it sailed. I kid Momma that they waited especially for me.

‘I escaped through the woods. There was an escape route much like the Underground Railroad. You went to a safe place and there you could rest and learn how to get to the next safe place. It was a long journey. And once you made it out of the Pale, crossed the border, you still had to watch out. There were gangs of thugs who captured escaping Jews and brought them back for the reward. Or sold them to slavers.

‘Dora and her grandmother had money sewn in their clothes and paid for their passage to their passage to South America. I didn’t. I made a bargain to work for passage. If I hadn’t worked enough to pay my bill I could have gotten the remaining amount once we reached the Jewish relocation colony in Venezuela and set up a way to pay it off once I got to the US. Since I wasn’t skilled in working as a hand, I talked my way into working as a cook’s helper. Each night I would clean the kitchen and peel vegetables for the next day.

‘Then I would sleep a few hours and set up my barber shop on the main deck, weather permitting. My hair cutting had nothing to do with my working for the ship’s passage. Oh, my barber’s apprenticeship was paying off. I not only paid off my passage between the two jobs, I put some money in my pocket for the next leg of the journey.

‘Like the barber says in the song,“If I were a rich man, Max sang out, “Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.” Max stopped singing and said “If I was rich as a Rockefeller, I would be richer than a Rockefeller because I could always barber on the side. Y ha deedle…’

‘Max,’ Dora stopped her husband’s singing, ‘That joke is not in the song, and it is not about a barber, it is about a tailor who can tailor on the side.’

‘Poetic License, Momma. Poetic License.’

‘To continue,’ Max went on, ‘up until the time I actually met Dora’s and her grandmother, I had planned to go to New York. But once her bubbe told me all about Boston I thought that might be a better place to go.

‘I went to the relocation administrative office and told them I changed my mind. I want to go to Boston instead. They found me a sponsor in Boston and I signed the necessary papers to say I would pay back any money the sponsor would use for my passage and for my getting settled in Boston. I managed to get it done in time to sail on the same liner as Dora and her grandmother.

And got to know them better. Both Dora and I were too young to think seriously about  marriage, but the seed was planted in my mind.

‘Once again I set up a barber shop on main deck. “Have scissors will travel, reads the card of the man,” he sang to the tune of Paladin.

‘By the time we got to Boston my passage was paid for and I had money in my pocket to live on. My sponsor set me up with a barber in Mattapan, the Jewish section of Boston at that time. When the time came for me to court Dora in earnest I was in a good position to marry her. I couldn’t wait to ask her to marry me.’

‘And I quickly said yes.’ She smiled at her husband and got up to clear away the dessert dishes. And as she reached for Max’s she touched his hand.

Since the meal started at six, it was still relatively early; but the three of us knew that Mrs. Nimoy would not go to bed until everything was spic and span. And we knew to volunteer to help would be an insult. We decided we better leave, using the excuse of having a big day tomorrow.

We shook hands and said our heart-felt thanks in the hallway. Naturally the two elder Nimoys had to kiss their son and told him to be sure and give their love to his family. And they would see him the next week.

Later in my hotel room I thought back on the night and meeting Leonard’s parents. And I thought of all the framed pictures around the dining room. All the pictures were of their two sons, their weddings, their children. There wasn’t any pictures showing off their celebrity son in his many roles like Spock or Tevye. Oh, I imagine somewhere there were scrapbooks filled with pictures and articles of Leonard; but that was a something not to be confused with their pride in their FAMILY, the most important part of their lives.

I never had the privilege of seeing Dora and Max again. Max died in July of 1987. Dora died the following December. But meeting them that one time under those homily circumstances showed me where their son Leonard got his down-to-earth humanity.

Leonard as Teve

Leonard as Tevye

And that’s a wrap.

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

 

 

 

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

 

STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

images (3)

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 indentified 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 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 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.

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 a largely 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 didn’t argue although I knew the excuse was bogus. Basically this was a case of go to town, film it as quick as possible, and  go back to L.A.. Surf’s up! Besides, what was important was the play and especially Leonard’s acting. Nobody would ever buy a copy because of my lighting.

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.

Q&A WITH NIMOY – IN IOWA

Leonard in Vincent

 

 

Enough with the lumps in my throat reading all the tributes to Leonard Nimoy. I feel a need to remember other things about Leonard, like his sense of humor. He liked to laugh and liked to have people laugh with him. Here’s a story we had a lot of laughs over the years.

 

We were in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to give a performance of ‘VINCENT’. Although I never had a problem with setting up and be ready for the evening performance, it was decided to do a partial setup in the evening before and finish up the next day. One reason was a request by the TV station. They wanted to send over a a journalist and camera crew to ask Leonard some questions while the set was being put up. Dennis, the tour manager, asked if we were up to the interview and the set up as background. Leonard and I both agreed that we were up to it.

The ‘journalist’ they sent over was a nice looking girl in her mid twenties or so. Naturally, she was fashionably late. I had a good start on getting the set up by the time she arrived.

She specifically said she wanted us to continue the work. Then she gave orders to the camera crew, who rolled their eyes at this would-be Barbara Walters. She then turned to Leonard and showed him where to stand downstage, explaining the camera would be on her when she asked a question and on him when he answered. She was marking her territory.

It might have been her first rodeo, but it sure wasn’t Leonard’s.

‘Now I have some ground rules,’ Leonard said. ‘You can ask anything you want as long as it concerns VINCENT , the play, the reason we have come to your town. I will also welcome any questions about Van Gogh and his paintings.’ She tried to jump in but Nimoy held up a finger and added, ‘As you know, I have finished work on STAR TREK THE MOVIE, and this is something I will not discuss with you. If you ask me any questions about STAR TREK, the movie or the TV series, the interview is over. Understand? VINCENT’ questions only!

She said she understood and  the first question was, ‘When will the STAR TREK movie be released.’

Leonard, being a gentleman, albeit, a gentleman on the verge of ending the interview, again reminded this ‘journalist’ of his ground rules.

She said she understood and asked a question about why he was in Cedar Rapids. Leonard answered. Then as she was asking the next question, she shouted out, ‘Silence! Silence! I’m trying to work here and I can’t have that noise in the background!’

Now, I was  trying to be as quiet as I could, but these hands needed me to give them instructions. I looked at Nimoy and shrugged my shoulders.

He asked her if she still wanted the work to be done in the background. She said she did. Leonard than pointed out that she couldn’t have it both ways. The work could not be done in silence. ‘Don has to tell these men what to do,’ he explained to her, ‘And to my knowledge, Don only knows one phrase in sign language; and if you don’t start acting like a professional, I am certain he will soon be flashing that phrase at you.’

She opted for silence and I told the crew to go have coffee.

She started in again, asking not about VINCENT, but STAR TREK THE MOVIE. ‘Is it true what we hear, that Spock dies in the movie?’ The straw that broke etc..

‘You want an exclusive? You want a real exclusive? I’ll give you one!’ He walked right up to the camera and asked the cameraman if he had a lot of film because he didn’t want him to have to reload in the middle of the ‘exclusive’. When he got the okay from the cameraman, he gave her her ‘exclusive’.

“The Enterprise has to land on Earth to get repairs. Spock has time on his hands and wanders around, sight seeing. He finally ends up in a museum. He walks around looking at the paintings. Then he sees a room with nothing but Van Goghs. He is mind- boggled. He had never been so taken by a painting before. He was mesmerized! Mesmerized! The Van Gogh’s had him mesmerized. Finally, he regained his composure and left the museum.

            “He goes back to the starship. He gets a knife from the galley. AND HE CUTS OFF ONE OF HIS STUPID F#*@#* EARS!!!”

‘And now you have your exclusive, young lady. The interview is over. I hope to see it on the news tonight.’ Then he hollered to me, ‘Don, I think we did enough work for now. Let’s say we wrap it and go get a drink – or two.’

‘Leonard, you’ve been reading my mind.’

We went back to the hotel. When the news came on, we gathered around the TV to see if there would be any of her interview aired. And there was. They aired her ‘exclusive’ right after she gave the introductory remarks in front of the theater. It was every word that Leonard said in his ‘exclusive’, except they bleeped out that one adjective. Of course, you didn’t have to be an expert lip reader to know what he said that got bleeped out. She even bothered to mention why Leonard was in town and when the play would be performed.

Leonard voiced a concern that he might have cost her her job. She looked as if she believed what he said. The joke seemed to go over her head. We all agreed that he shouldn’t worry about him getting her fired. She would do that herself, if not over her ‘exclusive’, it would be over something else in the future.

Just like Leonard though, worry about her losing her job because of what he did. A good man. And a lot of fun to be around.

Thank you, old friend.

 

 

R.I.P. LEONARD

Vulcan Goodby

R.I.P. LEONARD

 

Leonard Nimoy, famous as Mr. Spock on ‘Star Trek,’ dies

 

 

Yes, he was ‘famous’ as Mr. Spock; but more than that, he was a true renaissance man, a man of so many talents. And more important, he was an intelligent, warm, man. He was as far removed from a ‘celebrity’ as one could be. He loved and was loved by his two children, Adam and Julie. He loved and respected his mother and father. And they were proud of the ‘good son’ they raised.

And he was a good friend to so many people, myself included. Over the years in Show Business, I made friends with a great many; but none like I did with Leonard. I got to know his family. I spent several days in his home. In Boston, he took me to dinner in his parents’ home.

So many good memories. But for now, my farewell post will be short. Some stories have already been posted, many others will follow.

R.I.P. to the man so many knew as Mr. Spock and I knew as Leonard.

R.I.P. ROBIN

ROBIN

ROBIN WILLIAMS DIED!

He made us laugh. He made us think. He entertained us through TV, movies, recording work, live stage appearances and he amassed nominations and top awards for his body of work. He spent a lot of his time giving to others, especially the homeless. Only 63, he had so much left to offer, if only he could have conquered his demons. The same demons that he shared with a large segment of the homeless.

He was extremely talented. But he was all too human.

I will always treasure the times that I worked with Robin, his private shows just for the benefit of a few of us. But as funny as his goofing around, to make us laugh, was, I will remember most of all his conversing with us, person to person. He asked us questions about our work, about the Guthrie Theater, about our tour of VINCENT. He expressed his fondness for the people who work behind the scenes, and for theater, especially the Guthrie, and his admiration for Leonard Nimoy and the special feeling he had whenever he looked at a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. And we all talked about our families.

And we laughed about the problems he had caused us prior to his appearance at the Guthrie.

Like a true artist he used his gifts to help others escape, (if only for a short time), the day-to-day sameness of their lives, with the hope it would also give him some breathing room. As for me, I cannot think of Robin without thinking of Van Gogh. I first met him during a period of my life that was steeped in the life of Van Gogh. They both shared the demons in their minds, and they both finally got tired of the fight.

As Don McLean says in his song, VINCENT (STARRY,  STARRY NIGHT):

                        Now I understand

                       What you tried to say  to me

                      And how you suffered for your sanity

                     And how you tried to set them free

And although we will not have any future works of yours, we do have your past works. Thank you, Robin.

 

In a previous post,ROBIN – THE CRAZY ONE , I tell some stories of Robin in a much more happier light. I reread if and it took some of the sting out of today’s sad news.

I KNOW NOTHING

-Schultz-hogans-heroes-

On Memorial day weekend I read an angry letter posted on the web. The writer, a young (?) Politically Correct activist was railing out against the fact the old TV comedy, HOGAN’S HEROES, was still being shown on cable TV. She felt it was a great disservice to all those who were POW’s of the Germans in WWII. She wanted the series to be hidden away like the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW. In a way I could see her point; but… (It was the first TV show where Black actors had main roles along with the White actors.)

Two of my favorite coworkers at the Guthrie Theatre spent a large part of WWII as prisoners of war in German camps. Chuck Wallen, an American, was a stagehand and set carpenter at the Guthrie. Michael Langham, an Englishman, was the Artistic Director of the theatre. They were in different camps but they both had similar experiences during their years as prisoners.

Chuck, an Air Corps navigator, was on his first bombing run when the plane was shot down. He parachuted out, landed in a cow pasture and broke his back. A village doctor set Chuck’s back as best he could, but the setting would have left Chuck unable to ever stand straight again. A German doctor, seeing the problem, fought red tape and got Chuck to a hospital where the doctor rebroke the back and set it correctly. Chuck spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany, but at least he could stand straight.

Growing up, Michael Langham’s hero was the Duke of Wellington. Because of this, Michael  went to Officers’ Training where he received an officer’s commission just in time to take part in the final days of the Battle of Dunkirk, namely the retreat to the beach. When the Miracle of Dunkirk was accomplished, Michael was not one of the lucky ones that were transported back to England. He was in the group that missed the boats and were captured by the Germans and placed in a POW camp, where he spent the duration of the war that he really never got to know first hand.

It was the camp where the Great Escape took place, although the tunnel was in a different barracks and Michael was not involved or even aware of what was going on. To kill time in the camp, Michael joined the theatrical group. Sometimes Michael acted, sometimes Michael directed. By the time the camp was liberated, Michael no longer thought of himself as the next Duke of Wellington. Instead, he pursued a career in the theatre, substituting Tyrone Guthrie for the Duke of Wellington as a role model.

It was the years of HOGAN’S HEROES in prime time. The day after each new episode aired, Michael would make his way down to the shop where he and Chuck would spend about a half hour or so going over the episode, laughing and comparing characters on both sides of camp to people in their camps. Since I was working the show the nights the series aired I never got to see it until years later in reruns. Sometimes though when I was working during a day when Chuck and Michael got together, I was privileged to listen to those two reminisce. So, now when I find myself laughing at the antics of Hogan and the gang, I don’t feel any guilt. After all, two members of the Greatest Generation, who had first hand experience in POW camps laughed at the same things many years ago.

On the other hand, another favorite acquaintance, Jim Daly, who survived the Bataan Death March and the ensuing years in a POW camp in the Philippines, would not have found anything funny during his hell on earth.

  

We doing a week of VINCENT in Scottsdale, Arizona about nine months after Bob Crane, Hogan of HOGAN’S HEROES, was murdered in this posh city of many rich retirees. Mr. ‘Just Call Me Bob’ Herberger, founder of the Herberger department store chain put on a big fete for us at his house. He had enjoyed the play and especially liked the fact that it came from the Guthrie in his home state of Minnesota. I think he spent more time talking with another Minnesota native, namely me, as he did hobnobbing with Leonard Nimoy, the star of VINCENT. It was a fun time with only one slight bump in the road.

Almost all of Mr. Herberger’s invitees were, like him, enjoying their retirement in the land of the sun. There wasn’t a Ford or a Chevy mixed in with the Rolls and Caddies, and although the it was Arizona casual dress, it wasn’t the casual dress wear that came off the rack at a Herberger Department Store.

There was one group of men that seemed to hang together. They looked like they could have been extras in THE GODFATHER. Maybe one of them brought the cannoli to the party. A couple of them were more interested in talking to Leonard about Dr. (sic) Spock than about Van Gogh, something that always irritated Leonard; but he remained a gentleman and answered their questions about Spock and STAR TREK as the old timers wanted.

Then Leonard asked them a question. ‘You know, Bob Crane and I use to be friends back in the days we were auditioning for jobs, and then when we both were in hit shows. Hadn’t seen him years though. Now,’ Leonard said in a quiet voice, ‘What’s the real skinny on Crane’s murder?’

You don’t yell fire in a theater, and you don’t ask these old men about murder. Their silence was deafening. They didn’t have to talk. They just gave Nimoy  – the look. Finally one of them spoke up in a raspy whisper. ‘Don’t ask about that guy again around here. You don’t want to know! Understand?’ Leonard nodded and the subject was dropped. He smiled at the group of men and walked over to where Mr. Herberger was talking to me.

In the words of Sergeant Schultz, ‘I know nothing.

ROBIN – THE CRAZY ONE

Robin Williams

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.

Leonard in Vincent

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.

And that’s a wrap, old friends.