Since I was still expected to arrive at the studio at midnight, a new task was assigned, selecting in advance recordings to be broadcast Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. so that they could be submitted two weeks ahead for listing in entertainment weekly Cue Magazine. That meant going into what had become a substantial LP library and deciding what to feature, identifying composer, work, and record label, not choosing too much music so as to leave time for commercials. I also pre-programmed some of my own selections.
For the other program hosts I selected what I thought were obscure, boring baroque works so as to contrast with what I deemed my own special, colorful overnight offerings, not realizing that baroque music, Mike Nichols-like, was so entertaining and non-threatening that it would remain a mainstay for classical music stations forever. Anyway, no one at the station seemed to care what I had chosen.
But one week when Cue arrived, nothing I’d chosen that week for myself was listed. I was so pissed off that I hurled the copy against a wall, not noticing that Station Manager Cal Miller saw me do it. Repercussions were to come.
In October 1961, Vene and I decided to visit her family in Philadelphia and leave on a Friday morning, which meant that I wanted to tape that Friday night/Saturday morning show, already listed in Cue Magazine. I took such listings seriously and had arranged with Cal to have someone air the tapes, a part-timer, Bill Watson, who hosted two shifts Saturday night/Sunday morning and Sunday night/Monday morning.
I had told Cal that I’d need access to the recording studio after the jazz people left, and that I would record my program before I left Friday morning.
But I found the studio locked and had no key. I tried forcing the lock. It didn’t budge. Finally, I leaned against a hallway wall and furiously tried kicking open the door with my feet. I was pissed off.
The lock did not yield. The door stayed shut. The particle-board wall shattered.
I left Cal a note that morning explaining what had happened, saying I’d pay for the repairs.
The following Monday, after I returned from Philadelphia, Cal called, saying he had to fire me, that management felt my behavior was too unpredictable. Who knew what I might do next, possibly in anger, possibly on the air?
Thus, after two-and-a-half years, my overnight glory, my joy, my pride vanished into thin air. The time had seemed longer; it was so intense.
That’s New York for you. The New York space-time continuum. On the jammed island of Manhattan, where space is at a premium, crowds throng tightly on the streets and people learn how to make the most efficient use of the confines and the time it takes to move efficiently through it all, with no wasted motion, no wasted minutes.
Watson took my place. He seemed a lot older. He was. Eleven years older. Who knew what he might do next? In his 15 years with WNCN, until the station’s first demise, Bill became far more unpredictable than I had ever been, telling off listeners on the air, making fun of commercials which he had to read, offering opinions on politics, verbally excoriating modern music.
He adored the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn. And would never program anything he didn’t like. In that regard, we were actually alike.
Certainly his selections would have had wider appeal than mine; that music has long been the backbone and the body of what most classical music listeners want, not what I felt were my esoteric challenges, my threats to peaceful sleep. Watson was also a more interesting on-air personality than I had been.
We did get around, though, to liking each other six years later, both working for a different WNCN management.
So, in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, 1961, age 28, I was unemployed again.
This felt less painful and less shocking than my departure from WFLN. Since then I’d been let go by WNRC, albeit not unexpectedly, and had quit WHAT and WOND to move on. A sense was creeping in that radio careers ebbed and flowed. Besides, having a program from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. felt like being in some dark, obscure corner where hardly anyone could notice me.
Yes, Watson, I’m sure, was in the Jean Shepherd, Steve Allison league, the rare ones who stood out and captured audiences’ imaginations, the league to which Jonathan Schwartz had aspired.
My style had probably been more reserved, obviously, from what I’ve already told you, taking myself and my conceptions seriously. Back then I rarely used “I” or referred directly to myself or offered opinions. The content was the message, the content which I thought was great and didn’t need to say so. Sure, I was comfortable at an open mike, able to talk freely without notes or scripts, as I had always been. My public persona was not in some made-up style; it was one part of who I was, whoever that may have been. But I still felt like a kid even if sounding mature.
It was time to try an acting career again. I knew there were no permanent jobs there. I knew that I had talent. I also knew that I needed a lot of luck.
I decided that, in order to be a professional actor, I had to behave like one and market myself, which true professionals already knew and practiced. Given Vene’s income and a residue of mine, plus qualifying…again…for unemployment insurance, I could afford a few career necessities.
Joining the Screen Actors Guild was one, meaning I could, presumably, get more, better-paid film work. It also meant shelling out for an initiation fee plus regular dues. (FYI: In 2011 the initiation fee was $2,277; a 1960 equivalent was about $300.) SAG has always had eligibility requirements; it’s never been possible to join on a whim. But my membership in AFTRA made me eligible. Joining Actor’s Equity was far more complicated than that.
I also paid for a listing in The Talent Guide, a book available to all union performers in which we were allowed one photo and a short résumé. Casting agents were known to go through the pages, or look us up if our names came to their attention.
Plus, I hired an answering service, Hayes Registry, recommended by other actors I’d met. Given that neither Vene nor I were at home during the day to answer the phone, there was no other way to know which leading director or major casting person was urgently trying to reach me for a big role or a significant audition.
Hayes operators were always sweet and friendly when I called in. “Hello, dear,” was a regular greeting. The offices occupied a floor on West 46th Street, just off Times Square, and we were always invited to stop by to use the bathroom or have some coffee. On the street level, Hayes had a small framed picture above eye level with a glossy of “The Performer of The Week,” naming the venue of appearance. When I landed a role in a DuPont Show of the Month (more below), I asked them to post mine, which they did. Another time, passing by, I noticed a photo of a goofy-looking guy named Rip Taylor, flourishing a handkerchief, billed as “The Famed Cry Comic.” He became better known later.
Buying sheet music of some songs I knew and liked, I took them with me to a couple of professional vocal coaches to help me learn how to sing them in case I got a chance to be in a musical. I had a good ear. No surprise, coming from a family of musicians and immersed in all kinds of music on my own radio programs. I couldn’t actually read the notes but could tell, looking at scores, where they went up and down, and how to hold the notes long or short.
Meanwhile, out there all over the microcosmic fragments of Manhattan where theatre thrived, Broadway, off-Broadway, I was making the rounds, going to as many open casting calls as possible. An open call, FYI, is something publicly announced by producers, usually giving cast requirements, telling what roles are open, inviting anyone interested to show up for auditions at a published time and place, the listings posted in Show Business Weekly or Variety.
In late November 1960, at such an open call, I got my first role. Brooklyn Theatre Arts was producing Lerner and Loewe’s musical Paint Your Wagon. My beard, a rarity, must have suggested the kind of character you’d see in the Old West mining camps that the show portrayed. The singing audition, my first, followed the standard pattern. A pianist was provided to accompany my choice of song, i.e., what my coaches had prepped me for. So I sounded as if I knew what I was doing.
My seemingly authentic English accent could have helped; I landed the supporting role of Englishman Edgar Crocker who figures in a few subplot developments, with a little dialogue but no songs of his own, vocalizing in the choruses.
A plus: I could walk to rehearsals, a few blocks away from my home. Brooklyn Theatre Arts was undertaking this new project in the magnificent, historic landmark, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, evidently trying to develop an audience there for theatre.
Members of Actors Equity were in the cast, although I hadn’t yet qualified to become a member. The union contracts allowed for some non-Equity people. The production ran for two weekends.
Where was I going? I don’t know. What would I do there? I’m not certain. All I knew was I was on my way. (A paraphrase from Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics from the show.)
Around the same time, Suzari Marionettes posted a notice in Backstage, a new and second weekly newspaper like Show Business, that the company was casting Jack and the Beanstalk, a children’s show, over the Christmas holidays and was looking for someone to play The Giant.
Ah-hah! My beard again would make me look right.
My résumé got me in the human-sized door and I was invited to the Suzari workshop and studios on Irving Place.
Inside a small office, within what looked like a large, converted garage, I was introduced to two short older women who ran the company, Dorothy Zaconick and Ruth Waxman. They looked more like somebody’s aunts than show business producers.
They asked about my experience in children’s shows so I referred to Meet Mr. Easter Bunny, which was on my résumé. Then they wanted to know if I could perform in voices other then my own, indifferent to my radio-style resonance. I grabbed a newspaper from a nearby desk and read a New York Times story about airlines going to Bermuda and Frankfurt, sounding like an older cockney woman and a gruff, dynamic German.
They gave me the script.
Not wanting to be a standard story-book Giant nor frighten kids too much, spontaneously I played him as a goof. “Fee, Fi, Fo…duh,” I said, even though that was not the way his line was written. “Duh…Fee, Fi, Fo…Phooey.” Dorothy and Ruth howled with laughter, so much so that cigarette-smoking Ruth couldn’t stop hacking and coughing.
The Giant, they explained, would appear on stage live, towering over the 18- inch high marionettes. But, since he wouldn’t always be on stage, I’d also have to voice a few other roles while maneuvering a few marionettes. Could I do that, they asked?
The role was mine.
I’d never touched a marionette in my life but they didn’t seem worried, convinced that I could learn and would get enough training during rehearsals.
The pay was even better than for Paint Your Wagon.
The show was to run 10 days in Lazarus Department Store in Harlem, two performances a day on weekdays and three on one weekend. We’d get a lunch break every day…Ooo! Ribs!
But I had to supply my own tights. That figures. Who’d want to wear used underwear, even if it had been thoroughly laundered? I was also expected to provide my own makeup, but that was standard. Thus, I had another expense, buying and supplying my own makeup kit, something I hadn’t done yet. However, Suzari would give me the rest of the costume.
I quickly learned the simple script. There was nothing fresh in it. Except my new take on The Giant. During rehearsals Nick Coppola, the director, would voice and manipulate Jack. And a seemingly frail older woman, Mary Morris, would do the same for Jack’s mother and The Giant’s wife. They also loved my interpretation. I was even allowed to ad-lib some of his dialogue, so long as it didn’t take up too much of the hour that the show was supposed to run.
Less easy was learning how to manipulate a marionette. I had to operate the little guy with the beans, while also voicing his dialogue into a microphone suspended over the puppet stage, facing the mike directly, trying to look down at the puppet’s movements.
This while bending over the stage from a platform six feet above it. That height was necessary to make sure that no puppeteer’s hands would show manipulating the controls and high enough that puppets’ feet would sit naturally on the stage. Fortunately, my back was in good shape and, since I went up and down the ladder to go on stage as The Giant, I didn’t have to stay bent for the whole hour.
The control was shaped like a cross, with an upper bar clipped to the rest of the body. All of the control connected to the puppet with fish line attached to various parts of the body. The clip bar controlled the legs by lines attached just above the knees. Tilting it up and down moved the legs. The bottom end of the cross had a line attached to the puppet’s back. Pulling that up made the puppet bend at the waist. At the front were two lines connected to the sides of the puppet’s head; moving back and forth suggested talking. And underneath the front of the cross was a single line connected to both hands; it ran through two eye-hole screws. Pulling the line right raised the puppet’s left hand and vice versa.
The show was a hit, with kids yelling from the audience at The Giant, making fun of his mistakes, happy that they were smarter than he was. I loved it.
At the end of the run, Ruth and Dorothy asked me if I’d like to perform with them again, after the New Year started. They were planning a TV series of Suzari shows with Jack and the Beanstalk as the pilot, with me, of course, as The Giant. Naturally I was delighted.
Late in January, they called to say that they were going to shoot it in March, asking if I was free. I was.
Talent Associates! That was a major TV producing company, headed by David Susskind.
That sounded as if I was on my way to stardom.
Audrey asked me to come into the office; she thought she had a role for me. And that, without even an audition.
She had seen my picture in The Talent Guide and thought I looked like Major Henry Rathbone, one of the two other people with the Lincolns in the box at Ford’s Theater the night of the assassination. Taking a look at me, she said, “Yep, you’re just right.”
They were producing a DuPont Show of the Month: The Lincoln Murder Case. A one-week rehearsal would start in two weeks, for broadcast on February 18th, 1961. And right away I had to go for an early costume fitting because I/Rathbone would be in advance publicity photos. Oddly, she didn’t give me a script.
The pay: $400, equal to about $2,940 in 2011. A windfall.
At the costume shop I could tell immediately who Drummond Erskine was going to play. He was thin as a rail, tall and angular with a bony face. “Wow!” I exclaimed to him. “You’re gonna play Lincoln! Congratulations!”
“Oh,” he replied, “it’s not a starring role. It’s one of those ‘five lines or under parts.’” That was a term of art meaning any SAG or AFTRA performer in that category worked for a minimum scale different from that for any larger role.
“So you read the script?” I asked.
“Sure. I have a few lines. Actually, the script is mostly about Booth and the conspirators.”
“I’m playing Rathbone,” I said.
“Uh-huh. He doesn’t say anything at all. He’s just in a couple of shots.”
So much for my big break.
The photo session was for five of us: Drummond, Dulcie Cooper as Mrs. Lincoln, Kathy Shaw as Clara Harris, and Roger Boxhill as Booth, the only big role. The publicity picture showed Booth pointing a pistol at Lincoln’s head with the rest of us laughing as if enjoying the play.
It appeared in a lot of newspapers. When my father saw it, he telephoned, delighted, but asked me why I hadn’t told him yet about this big role. I explained the facts to him.
When I walked in on the first day of rehearsals, Director Alex Segal looked at me and said “Who are you?”
“I’m Gordon Spencer.”
Impatiently he responded. “No. I meant which character are you supposed to play?”
“Rathbone,” I answered, surprised that he didn’t recognize my resemblance.
“Rathbone didn’t have a beard.”
“Oh. But Audrey Gellen at Talent Associates said I look just like him.”
“I don’t care what she said. You want the part? Take off the beard.”
That shook me up. My very specific face felt like part of my identity. And how would I play The Giant in a few weeks looking so average and younger than 28?
Who would turn down $400 for a week of work? And, after all, the hair would grow back again.
The show was narrated by Alexander Scourby, a man whose voice and style set a standard many of us narrators and announcers aspired to. Luther Adler had the pivotal role of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who, according to Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the book, The Web of Conspiracy by Cliff Englewood, implied that Stanton was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Andrew Prine and House Jameson were also in the cast.
Most of the rehearsal time I just hung around talking to some of the actors and reading books, since all I would have to do was to pose for a few front face camera shots when the narration referred to Rathbone. The actions: Smile as if enjoying the play. And, at one point, Rathbone would take Clara’s hand and press it. Neither she nor Rathbone nor Mrs. Lincoln would be seen reacting to the murder, nor would there be any depiction of Rathbone grabbing Booth and getting stabbed, as actually happened.
Everyone in the production knew that this would be broadcast live. That was not unusual. But we were all hoping to see the tape later. Then we were told that that DuPont Show of the Month would not be taped.
The previous month’s production, the elaborate costume drama, The Prisoner of Zenda, starring Christopher Plummer and Farley Granger, had run way over budget and costs for February’s had to be severely curtailed.
The broadcast was at 9 p.m. that Saturday night and we had to arrive at the studio at 5 to get into our costumes and makeup. This was the big time. No one in the cast did his/her own makeup. Famed Dick Smith and his staff did that, putting wigs, beards, mustaches on most of the men.
Earlier in the day I had shaved my entire face in preparation, shocked at what I saw in the mirror and hadn’t seen for more than three years. And the bare skin of my chin, jaw, and upper lip seemed so naked. And chilly.
So while so many other men were getting facial hair, I had lost mine. Plus, for the next five hours, I had mutton chop sideburns and a fake mustache.
I had been able to look at all of the scenes and hear all of the dialogue during rehearsals. But for the actual performance, I just had to sit in the set and wait for a little red lights to go on in cameras in front of me, when Alexander Scourby said a few words about Rathbone and Clara. I wasn’t nervous. It was so quiet on the set, and there was no live audience sitting out in front. It was like being on the radio. Except that I didn’t speak.
So, how was the show, Mrs. Lincoln? I have no idea. Vene told me that I looked fine. That Sunday my in-laws and my father also telephoned, congratulating me for such a good performance, convinced that I was on my way to a major acting career.
The next week rehearsals started for the new version of Suzari’s Jack and the Beanstalk.
Walking into the shop, worried about how I looked and that perhaps the beard had been crucial to being Giant-like, I wondered if the role was still mine, what with my short, rounded chin and that bland face.
Nick greeted me. “Hey, Gordon, you look different somehow. Did you just get a haircut or something?”
I was astonished to see that what was so significant to me was not more noticeable. “I had a lot of hair cut,” I replied. “I had to take off the beard for a TV role.”
“We’ll work something out,” Ruth said. “Do you know how to make one?”
I did. And, since we still had two weeks of rehearsals, I thought maybe a real one would grow back by then. Or, perhaps, the Giant could look even more menacing if he had the kind of stubble that made him look like a slob.
Dorothy took the role of Jack; Nick, Mary, and Hal Oakley would voice and manipulate the other puppets. All I had to do was concentrate on The Giant. Great!
Dorothy was the principal designer of all the marionettes and decided to devise a new, more detailed version of Jack, adding extra strings to get more subtle movements.
And Frank Devlin was hired to direct; he had TV children’s show experience.
Camera rehearsals were scheduled for the same night as the shoot at the studios of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, former haunt of Shock Theatre’s “Roland” and where Ruth had managed to get bargain rates for the rental. We would have the studio from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. to rehearse in the new space and turn out a one-hour show.
Those seven hours were full of problems. Dorothy kept getting extra strings tangled and tied up and was getting anxious and irritated. Soon, Ruth was getting irritated with Dorothy. The rest of us plugged gamely along, rehearsing and taking snack breaks using WCAU’s vending machines down the hall.
At various times, when our characters were not on camera, we looked at the monitors to see how everything looked and what Frank was doing with the two camera men. Most often it seemed that he didn’t know how to make the magic of puppets work on camera. He constantly shot close-ups. Which, of course, made it clear that the marionettes were not moving their mouths or their eyes. We did a hell of a lot of re-takes as he tried to come up with something better. But he didn’t come up with something better.
The final take looked boring. And, exhausted, all of us checked into a nearby hotel in the early morning knowing we did not have a hit on our hands.
Not long thereafter, Ruth and Dorothy split up their partnership. Dorothy had first choice of puppets, validly; she had designed many of them. She also kept the Suzari name. Ruth got a few good puppets and retained the studio and workshop, as well as the right to use any of the performers she wanted. She named her company Nicolo Marionettes, evidently to honor Nick, who’d been with her from his teens. An interesting post from another actor/puppeteer.
Over the next five years I would perform intermittently for Nicolo Marionettes. Usually when other acting work didn’t seem to be coming along. Which was often.
I became quite a skilled puppeteer. And experience as an ad-libber on the radio stood me in good stead for all the times when we had to improvise due to minor problems backstage. Strings got tangled, delaying the appearance of some characters; other puppets would have to hold the stage and fill in with dialogue. Or a puppet would fall off the rail; someone would have to leave the bridge and pick it up off the floor and make sure the strings were not tangled while the remaining cast members had their characters say something to fit the story’s development that far. Or someone would forget some lines or say something in the wrong voice. Or we’d be asked to shorten the show because of a change in the clients’ schedules.
Stan Sobel and Zita Schwab sometimes worked with me. Together we once even traveled away from New York for an afternoon performance in a school in Arlington, VA, to be followed by a morning show in Morgantown, WV. That’s a distance of more than 200 miles to be traveled in our van over turnpike-less, not-yet-Interstate highways, along night-time mountain roads.
We notably passed through Webster, WV, cited, sign-wise, as the home of Anna Marie Jarvis, the woman behind Mother’s Day. We arrived nervous and exhausted with no time for much sleep. And we set up in a small movie house with a backstage ceiling so low that we couldn’t stand upright on the bridge.
Sometimes improvisation went too far; we started having more fun adding verbal or visual gags for our own amusement. Sticking to the script many times in a row could have seemed boring to those of us who lacked discipline. We’d forget that the audience had never seen the show before and might have trouble following it as it derailed into something barely resembling the original.
For any professional stage show, during the run, with the director usually gone elsewhere, there’s always a stage manager backstage making sure that the original concept stays intact. But the stage manager has no say in what actors do when they think that they’re improving roles as the run keeps on going. The actors may think they’re making everything fresher. But the internal sense of the show can fall apart. Nicolo had no stage managers.
Our directors never traveled with the three-person casts, so we were on our own. But, by the time I had become an on-the-road manager, I had gone with Nick to see a performance by the returning national company at a booking in Brooklyn of The Tinderbox. Hardly any of the script was left. The cast was doing its own thing. No one was fired. But everyone was warned. That’s how we learned how we could ruin our own shows.
Most scripts did not call for human-sized actors, although I was one in The Emperor’s Nightingale and in Hiawatha. And women in our casts of Alice in Wonderland took the stage as the big, transformed version of Alice.
Sometimes, on the road, we had three shows with us, a repertory cast of marionettes, several doubling in more than one show. There was often a witch. Nick loved playing her. He tended to be edgy, so, constrained from being too nasty with those of us sharing the bridge with him, skinny Nick would channel his feelings into those skinny creatures in black. After all, in many ways it was his company. He took that seriously and had a hard time with anyone’s mistakes, including his own.
Our total repertory: the above, plus Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, The Wizard of Oz (each with a witch), and, of course, Jack and the Beanstalk.
Each engagement required three hours—one to set up everything, one to perform the show, one to tear down. The entire show traveled in a van, with the three of us sitting up front. We had to unload the van, set up the stage, the lights, the sound system including speakers, and the bridge behind and above the stage. That’s a lot for three people to do quickly. So Ruth’s contracts with clients required 10 volunteers, usually boys, to assist before and after the show. But only we would unpack the marionettes suspending them on the bridge’s wooden rails with S-hooks, bent wire hangers. It was strenuous. But we were young. And we had a great time.
Despite my enjoyment, I didn’t think doing puppet shows was enough of an acting career. So I only played in them intermittently, able to turn down roles, or step in when needed, less as a career, more as a source of income for more than five years.
I still went to open calls. One was when Screen Gems was looking for supporting actors to appear in a 1961 episode of Route 66 to be shot in Philadelphia.
I joined a roomful of young guys sitting anxiously, quietly, in a waiting room, hoping our faces, our résumés would impress the people casting. A new guy, looking younger than I, walked in bubbling with charm and vitality, accompanied by his agent. That part of the room lit up as if he were a star and the rest of us were somewhere in the empty darkness.
I didn’t get a role. No one I knew got a role either. That guy did, though. A good role. That made sense, based on how much personality he brought into that waiting room. He was Martin Sheen. He appeared in an episode airing in December that year. A big fan of the show, I just happened to be watching it.
Clearly I wasn’t developing as an actor. I needed to be in something challenging. Since nothing like that was coming. I decided to take acting lessons to keep in practice.
I applied at Hagen-Berghof Studio, a well-known incubator of talent, with a teaching staff including Broadway stars Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof, William Hickey, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Earle Hyman. I had to audition for Hagen in order to get in. She didn’t intimidate me. She didn’t try to. My audition was part of the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet that I’d retained and loved since my days at Temple playing Romeo on WFIL-TV.
Hagen warmly accepted me into her orbit, suggesting I study with Earle Hyman. Hyman had major Broadway and British credits.
On the floor below our class Reilly was conducting one in musical comedy performing. Laughter from down there regularly bounced up to us. But then, Reilly was a stitch himself on stage.
For one of my class scenes with Earle I chose Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart. After playing the madman with what I considered the right kind of dark, intense craziness, Earle kindly told me that it might work better if the narrator acted less crazy, as if believing himself sane, which would underscore his craziness. Good advice. Advice also valid when playing a drunk, suggesting the drunk doesn’t know he’s drunk.
In March 1962, I got another off-Broadway role, certainly not major, at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village in a one-act by often-absurdist Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, The Women at the Tomb, translated by George Hauger. It was paired with another one-act, Philoctetes, by Mark Schoenberg, a re-working of a play by Sophocles about a legendary ancient Greek hero. Clearly, this was an esoteric double bill. I was delighted, of course, to be cast, even though in a small role.
Our play was originally conceived for marionettes (not that my work for Nicolo had any bearing on my being cast), a kind of comment suggesting that the characters are manipulated by fate and by history, no longer ordinary human beings.
In it, 11 women share their thoughts about Christ when brought together after the Crucifixion. Mary, Christ’s mother, is there with another son, John (my role). De Ghelderode mocks many of these people. Most are not nice. This modern-dress, modern-language English version by George Hauger was adult and blunt and included profanity, not all that common on stages in 1962. Frank Aston of the New York World Telegram and Sun (one of several attempts to meld New York’s daily newspapers) wrote that the script commented on such people with “harsh novelty.” He didn’t say anything about me. No other critic did either. We had a short run.
After we closed we were invited to stage one performance in Judson Memorial Church, a few blocks away. During that, a well-dressed, affluent-looking, middle-aged man rose from his pew and headed for the exit angrily yelling, “Not in God’s house!”
Our costumes were designed by Polly Platt who, a few years later, became a costume designer and collaborator on films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, her husband. After that, she went on to an even more significant film career as co-producer of other movies.
Having a beard again was still rare enough that it seemed that it could make me so visibly noticeable that more than one stranger on the street derided me as a beatnik, even when I was well-dressed. In fact, once a man emerged from a Times Square throng and grabbed my arm, pulling on my hand, and aggressively stuck a quarter in it, saying angrily, “Go get yourself a shave.”
Another actor making the rounds with me was Harry Parkins, provoking strangers into asking him if he were a girl because he had shoulder-length black hair. He was proud of it, combing it regularly while waiting for interviews, as if, in pushing it away from his face, he was pushing the fact into everyone else’s faces. But he also was a rare sight those days.
We both knew, as did most actors, that casting people usually responded to how we looked. They weren’t required to use imagination. Consequently, many of us went to auditions trying to be dressed for the parts when we had some idea of what the roles were.
So, no doubt, seeming a beatnik landed me a spot as Greenwich Village color, an extra in a 1962 General Electric Theater half-hour show called Acres and Pains, starring Walter Matthau and Anne Jackson. The evening it aired, just before it started, a CBS booth announcer said, “Stay Tuned for General Electric Theater with Ronald Reagan, Anne Jackson, and Walter Matt-TOO.” Clearly, Matthau hadn’t yet made a big enough name for himself. Reagan was still mostly known as an actor, being also a major public spokesman for GE and not yet very active politically. Acres and Pains turned out to be a pilot for a series that was never produced.
The day of the shooting in the Village, much of the cast, including Matthau, Jackson, and me, hung out in a studio set designed to look like the interior of an apartment. After everyone was told what would be shot that day, I was sent to West Charles Street along with a guy who actually had a small role, playing someone delivering take-out food to the apartment. Cameras rolling, he was the subject, I was in the background.
Vene and I eagerly awaited the telecast at home. But a couple of minutes before, I decided to go to the bathroom. After all, I expected that the show would start with Reagan talking, plus a commercial from GE, and that my face would turn up later.
Vene called to me, “Hurry up! It’s starting.”
“I’ll be right there!”
A minute later I walked into the living room.
“You missed it,” Vene said. The show had opened not with Reagan or a commercial but with the first scene. A tracking shot of the delivery guy on his errand. Passing me. I’ve never seen how it looked.
But I was quite visible in my next movie job, getting hit by a riding crop and having famously-breasted British actress Sabrina chuck me suggestively under my hairy chinny-chin-chin.
Bernie Styles was a casting agent who worked with lots of TV and movie producers supplying extras. He had my picture and résumé on file and that spring called me saying he needed a small crowd for a nightclub scene in a movie called Satan in High Heels, which was shooting in a club on West 57th Street. He also wanted to make certain that all of us looked sophisticated and well-dressed, so I should wear a good shirt, suit, and tie. The call was 8 a.m.
I joined the crush hour on the IRT 7th Avenue subway line heading into Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, hoping that my tie wouldn’t wrinkle too much and that my freshly polished shoes would not get too scuffed.
The set was an actual room in the club. It was suffused with cigarette smoke and bright lights from every nook and cranny. I was assigned a seat at a table in the club, sitting next to a woman I’d never met and would never encounter again. We were part of the hordes of extras all hoping for big breaks, a few meager lines, some special business, maybe even actual roles.
During camera set-ups or when various scenes were rehearsed, the woman and I and other dressed-up human scenery were able to learn something of the plot. It was a sexploitation movie, i.e., sensuously suggestive but not explicit. After all, this was at the tail-end of the Eisenhower years, and JFK was just making his presence felt, publicly as well as privately.
Meg Myles, a statuesque, fine-looking woman around my age, but looking more mature, starred as a woman named Stacey in a story involving drugs, murder plots, lesbianism, betrayal, deception, and, just to keep it interesting, a few songs.
The nightclub was where Stacey was making her New York singing debut, dressed in a tight-fitting leather vest, leather riding pants, leather boots, and leather gloves, wielding a small riding crop. In this subtle outfit she strode the dance floor challenging us sophisticated, horny men with her open mouth and alluring tongue.
During this stroll, she occasionally slammed the crop on the pure white tablecloths. But once she missed and hit someone. Me. On one of my hands. “Cut!” the director yelled. “Sir?” he called from somewhere out in the club’s darkness behind the lights, “Are you alright?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” she crooned to me. “I’m so sorry” and caressed my wounded flesh on her impressive breasts.
I called back to the director, “I’m fine, thanks.” Right. I was more than fine. I had touched one of Meg Myles’s breasts. It was compensation enough.
Somewhere in those two days of shooting various parts of the nightclub scene, a British blonde movie star around Myles’s age and mine named solely Sabrina (born Norma Ann Sykes) became part of the act. Incidentally, despite similarities of age, I felt a lot younger and innocent.
Sabrina was known widely for her superstructure. When she paused at my table, I didn’t get to touch her assets. But she touched me, caressing my face with one of her long white-gloved hands. What had she to do with the story? No idea. And, according to Wikipedia, she appeared in the movie without a character name, but rather as Sabrina.
For an extra I was certainly getting a lot of attention. But no extra money.
Oh, and I haven’t yet seen that production either. Now, though, with a copy at Netflix, who knows?
In the fall the movie emerged. I only accidentally learned about that. Vene and I and her visiting uncle Tony, a.k.a. “Junior,” up from sunny Florida, were walking along that stretch of 42nd Street which gave Times Square its reputation for sleaziness. The long block between Eighth and Seventh Avenue had perhaps as many as 10 movie theaters, almost all showing exploitation-type stuff or low-budget sensational crime films or generic Westerns, often as double-features. As we hurried by, Uncle Junior, wide-eyed and shocked, said “Gordie! Look that’s you!” as he pointed to a still photo posted outside one of the theaters. It was Sabrina and me. The feature was Satan in High Heels.
“Wow!” he exclaimed, “I didn’t know you were starring in a movie! That’s great!”
I tried to explain to him what it meant to be an extra. I decided not to disillusion him as to why my face was there, knowing full well that the reason was Sabrina’s potential wardrobe malfunction. Anyway, I was able to fend off his inquiries about the story in the film. I didn’t think he could deal with it, being a devout Catholic, a mamma’s boy, and not used to immersion, post-baptism, into the murky waters of sins of the flesh, fictional or real.
Bernie Styles called me with another job. I was to show up at 8 a.m. on West 56th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues for a movie starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason, and Piper Laurie: The Hustler
Arriving at a police barricade, I was stopped by an officer but Bernie passed me in. He told me to join a bunch of people further down the street, sitting in folding chairs on a sidewalk next to what looked like the entrance to a night club with a narrow front awning.
The whole street was blocked off. There were trucks and spotlights everywhere. And in the street was a small railroad-like track with a large camera sitting on a movable platform at one end.
There was also a truck with an open side window where a man was handing out coffee and doughnuts to the crew and to any of us wanting them. And there were at least 20 of us extras.
Paul Newman was wearing a sports jacket and conversing with someone by the large camera. It was Piper Laurie.
I wasn’t near enough to hear what they were saying, but they were gesticulating as if running lines.
A man with a clipboard came over. “OK,” he said, pointing to three of us “I need you and you and you.” Not me. “Come on over to the club.”
At 9 a.m., it started to rain. Fake rain, coming from a small truck with a large tank on top, spraying the entire front of the club. Piper Laurie, holding an umbrella, stood under the awning, talking to Paul Newman while the three extras rushed by as if trying not to get wet.
This was shot from a lot of different angles.
Mr. Clipboard gathered five more of us. Not me. They peopled a scene in the rain with Paul Newman and Piper Laurie walking down the street, while the camera on tracks followed alongside them.
Lunch break. The coffee and doughnut truck served us sandwiches, chips, coffee, cookies.
While we were having lunch, George C. Scott showed up. He and Paul Newman shook hands and started talking to each other, having some good laughs.
The water truck had left the scene. And from what we extras could understand, the truck had broken down and another one would soon be on the way.
To pass the time George C. and Newman started passing a football up and down the empty spaces along the sidewalk nearest Ninth Avenue. At one point he caught the ball right in front of me. “Hey!” he said. “How are you doing?”
“Fine. Thanks,” I replied. A little too overawed for someone who was supposed to be a professional actor.
There were takes of George C. and Newman talking, standing in front of the same club, in different clothes, and without rain. But, although other extras represented passers-by, I was not among them.
By the end of the day, eight of us hadn’t done anything but sit on the chairs and talk, except when nearby dialogue was running.
Mr. Clipboard finally came over to us. “O.K. That’s it for now. Thank you all. We’re taking a dinner break. We may shoot some more stuff this evening, but I guess that’s it for you, huh?”
Bernie wasn’t there. After having walked away disappointed, I called him on a pay phone and told him that I didn’t get into any shots, asking him if I could stay for the evening if I could be used.
“Yeah, sure. Why not?” he answered.
The night scenes were like the day ones. Fake rain again. I was not in them.
Nonetheless in my résumé I put The Hustler as a credit. Well, after all, I had been hired to be in it. I got paid to be in it. Twice. I could legitimately say that I had worked on it.
You can hardly call being in those three productions significant acting. Maybe there could have been more work, Bernie Styles had casually told me, if I didn’t have the beard.
Vene and I talked it over and decided that I should offer a smooth face as well as a hairy one by getting a professional wigmaker to duplicate my beard and then shave off the real one. One of my classmates at Hagen-Berghof suggested very highly regarded Bob Kelly to create a false but convincing-looking beard.
The cost: $150. That’s equal to more than $1,000 as I write this nearly 50 years later. But the result looked great. It wasn’t a complete match, actually, coming in two sections, the beard and the mustache. Joining them with spirit gum, however, completed the illusion.
It looked good in a new array of professional photos taken by Carol Lynley’s brother Daniel Lee, some with my again-naked face, some with the new beard, some with just the mustache. Quite a collection of faces, trying to suggest versatility. A wiser, more mature choice would have been to stick to whatever face best represented who I was. But to do so, I would have had to have a clearer picture of that, something I never pondered, until therapy a few years later.
All those pictures and beards were costly. Yet, Vene had that good job at Cosmopolitan Magazine and still believed my talent would land me plenty of jobs, despite limited success so far. Moreover, the work I had had, including for Nicolo Marionettes and in a few films, meant I qualified for a small amount of unemployment insurance compensation. Plus, the professional expenses would be tax-deductible.
That same year, beardless, I landed a few roles in summer stock at Connecticut’s Sharon Playhouse. Genuine stage acting again at last.
Auditions included singing. The opening show was Rick Besoyan’s off-Broadway hit Little Mary Sunshine, a send-up of Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald-type musicals.
I delivered a deliberately hammy version of “Were Thine That Special Face” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate trying to milk Alfred Drake’s larger-than-life style. The producers and director howled with laughter.
They asked me if I was a member of Actor’s Equity, sounding as if they thought I must have been. Knowing that if I said “yes” and got an Equity contract, not only would the pay be better, but that contract would be a way of joining the union.
I said “Yes.” I got the contract. I was on my way to earnest professionalism.
Room and board were part of the deal. So was meeting and working with actors who went on to good roles on and off-Broadway, such as Margaret Hall and Jim Oyster, as well as director Edward Payson Call. Call has since had careers with American Conservatory Theatre, the Minneapolis Theatre Company, and the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Not only did I perform as an older man in Little Mary Sunshine, General Oscar Fairfax, but had multiple roles in a stage adaptation of James Thurber’s whimsical fairy tale The Thirteen Clocks. Thurber had lived in nearby Lakeville.
And I got to show off my English accent as one of the husbands in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels. By then I was feeling as if I were already a regular member of the company. So, during one performance, I thought I’d try to break up the other actors by ad-libbing a couple of goofy lines. Only one person broke up: me. After the performance no one said anything about it.
Each new show ran for one week of evenings; rehearsals for the next show took place during the day, i.e., we were gainfully employed, full time.
During the run of The Thirteen Clocks I was offered a fourth role in Agatha Christie’s Toward Zero. I declined the offer, missing Vene. She was back at home in New York and at work. We had no car, so no way to connect in person.
Turning down another week of work clearly wasn’t the wisest choice. I still had a lot to learn.
Back in New York I continued making the rounds, with my variable face. Once, looking clean-shaven and far younger than 29, I auditioned for the role of a teenager; no doubt I’d been contacted based on the photos I had mailed the producers.
On stage, I read the script full of passion and understanding. The director remarked how impressively mature I sounded; i.e., I was playing my age. A throwback to my Temple U. performance as Romeo when I hadn’t the skill to seem young and foolish enough.
During that time, my clean-shaven face was somewhere in the backgrounds of the TV shows Naked City and The Defenders. But I still wore the beard when it looked like the best choice for specific casting. At one open call, though, the director looked at me and said bluntly, “No beards!” Why waste words? That’s New York. I took it off right there. He looked shocked. I didn’t get to read for him.
With the same fake face, in November 1962, I went to audition for a hit musical from London, scheduled to open on Broadway in January, Oliver! There was an open call for the chorus. I figured my beard would make me look appropriate for a Dickens story.
Standing in a long line with dozens and dozens of other hopefuls outside the Imperial Theater, I wondered which of my prepared songs to sing. Given my seemingly impeccable English accent, I decided to stand and deliver my Sharon, Connecticut, zinger, “Were Thine That Special Face.”
“Next 20 people,” an assistant director called out. Twenty of us walked in, lining up across the stage, facing the unknown deciders of our fate out there in the theater darkness. The A.D. walked the line, like a sergeant in a military drill. “You stay,” he said to someone further to my right. “No, sorry,” he said to the next three. Taking a quick look at me, he said the same thing. He wasted no words or time with anyone. Two people were chosen to audition. We 18 others filed out into the real-life lights of West 45th Street.
“Shit,” one young guy walking beside me said. “They didn’t even give us a chance to audition.”
“They did us a favor,” I replied. “They didn’t think we looked right, saving us a lot of useless time auditioning for something we’d never get.” Remember, I was 29. Mature.
“Come on. Every audition is useful,” he answered. “It’s practice under tension.”
He may have had a point. But the producers of Oliver! weren’t in business to train us. We were expected to do that on our own.
Earlier that fall I got one of the best stage roles I ever had: Shylock (beardless, by the way). Paul Davison had put together an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice to tour New York public schools. Paul’s staging was simple and utilitarian, not heavy on costumes or sets. He and I decided that my interpretation would make Shylock as dignified and earnest as possible.
I loved playing such magnificent words. And always will. Once, leaving a school after a performance, I overheard one teenage girl say to another, “Wow! Look how young he is!”
In retrospect, it looks as if 1962 was not a bad year as an actor.
I never ceased to hope that there’d be other Shakespeare roles. It had only been eight years since my Temple/WFIL-TV performances as Romeo and Leartes, although those seemed ages ago. Consequently, when notices appeared in January’s Show Business that Stratford, ON’s, Shakespeare Festival was auditioning for its 1963 season, I burned with ambition, supposing myself within the girdle of those walls.
I applied. An audition was set up in March. Naturally, with as little money as Vene and I had, there was only one option. To drive.
We had a car by then. It was a very used but good 1956 Chevy Bel Air. We’d bought it for $375 in Philadelphia on the advice of Vene’s stepfather, Joe, who really knew cars. It ran exceptionally well and, unlike when I’d been driving back and forth from Philadelphia to Atlantic City in the year that this second car was new, I had also become a better driver. So what if the fender, hood, and roof had three different colors among them?
Researching the route I-87 north to I-90 west to Ontario, I learned that it would take me at least 10 hours. So I packed a big lunch, including my favorite, home-made pork and cornbread meat loaf, and set off north ahead of most morning rush hour traffic, arriving in Stratford by late evening.
I awoke the next morning in my motel to discover that my alarm clock had stopped, not having been sufficiently wound after my long, tiring drive. I panicked. Had I driven all that way and missed my audition? I turned on the TV. It was only 9:20. I still had an hour and 10 minutes before my appointment. After a nervous shower and a quick breakfast, I got there on time.
Needless to say, I was not relaxed when an assistant director asked a few questions about me, despite my résumé in his hands. He was very friendly and polite, making me feel much more at ease.
Finally, I took the stage in that mighty wooden O, thrilled to be there. In ringing tones, resonating throughout the hall, I unleashed my conquering sword, the stirring prologue to Henry V. Then, as a gentle, sweet contrast, I reprised Romeo’s first lines from the Balcony Scene, still alive in my memory, no doubt more full of passion than eight years before. It all felt confident and good.
The A.D. thanked me for coming all that way and told me that many decisions remained about casting but that the Festival would certainly be in touch soon. Actually, he never said anything about call-backs, i.e., when candidates subsequently read for specific roles with other actors.
Not that I noticed. Had I done so, that would have made clear what I later concluded. The audition was a courtesy. They couldn’t very well turn me down in advance by saying, for example, that all roles were cast; that could have been questioned.
Of course, I did get a form letter a few weeks later, telling me something kindly generic about not getting any roles. By then, despite my fractured dream, I was not surprised. Not getting a part was such a regular experience—something all of us actors had to learn if we were to persist.
It wasn’t long thereafter that I discovered that Stratford rarely gave Americans major roles, preferring to foster and support Canadian actors whenever possible. Logical, of course. But I found that American Jake Dengel had had a few good roles. Evidently a rarity.
That summer, 1963, by the way, Vene and I took the long drive together to Stratford to attend performances and were thrilled by John Colicos in Timon of Athens. Our seats were so close to him that, due to backlighting, in one scene, we could see his spittle flying while angrily denouncing his fate from knee-depth in a dirt-arrayed ditch in the stage floor. And we loved William Hutt as Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. The cast included Douglas Rain as Ulysses; his name stuck with me up to and beyond his voice as HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey five years after seeing him live. FYI: Len Cariou had a small role in Troilus and Cressida.
That year Lee Kalcheim had posted a notice in Backstage, saying that he was forming an improvisational comedy group with plans to start a company in New York and put on productions. He was auditioning candidates, with no immediate promise of money but that he had the experience and ability to train them. I was invited to join five other people for the first workshops, perhaps due to my ability to come up swiftly with character voices and movements to match, as well as my ad-lib skills. Kalcheim had studied with Viola Spolin, founder of Chicago’s Compass Players, from which emerged The Second City company.
He taught us basics and, meeting for two hours once a week for a year, we had a ball.
Lee had planned an off-Broadway opening for December of 1963 when the group fell apart. President Kennedy was killed; the sorrow and confusion made our continuing hard; coming up with funny stuff felt wrong.
One of us went on to a major movie career, Pete Boyle. When hanging out with him over coffee I learned that he was from Philadelphia. “Hey!” I exclaimed to him, “are you connected to Uncle Pete Boyle on KYW-TV?” I had seen some kids’ shows with Uncle Pete as the host around the same time that Ernie Kovacs was starring in his shows on the same station. “He’s my dad,” he smiled happily.
In 1963 there were two more stage roles. The small one was at Equity Library Theatre, producing a farce by Arthur Wing Pinero, The Magistrate; I played a French waiter, Isadore.
That also called for me to sing a song by John Duffy who emerged later as a celebrated, much-awarded composer. The production ran just nine performances, the standard for shows at ELT.
Completely bearded again, I so much resembled stage manager George Wojtasik that several people said they couldn’t tell us apart. George, FYI, went on to become E.L.T’s managing director for 21 years.
Lots of agents were always invited for productions at E. L.T., considered one of New York’s best showcases for emerging talent. It was a way that agents could spot someone whose career they thought might go places, with the agents fostering and promoting such clients, from whose earnings the agents would earn their keep.
After we opened I called those whom I invited. Standard response: “Keep me posted”; i.e., no rush to add me to their rosters.
The bigger role was for the Group of Ancient Drama, Inc., putting together a production of a play by Aristophanes—one I’d never heard of, Plutus. Given my significant off-Broadway experience playing a stumbling old guy for the one-week disaster Lysistrata four years before, I figured I had it made.
And I did. And played somebody near my age. Greek actress Aliki Nord, who had major stage and film credits in her homeland, and her playwright-husband Paul liked my goofy sense of fun (developed playing in Nicolo shows), and they cast me in the comic role of a wise-guy servant named Cario. Paul had written the adaptation.
The pay was Spartan; it was another non-Equity show. Several of us in the cast were in Equity, but Equity waived the rules. I did get to eat free avro lemon soup, stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita, and baklava because we rehearsed above an Eighth Avenue Greek restaurant owned by a friend of the Nords.
Taking the opening night at the Fashion Institute of Technology on West 27th Street, the house was jammed with Greeks and near-Greeks, dressed, of course, in their finest robes. Boisterous enthusiasm. They loved me. I got a standing ovation. So did everyone else. We were a hit.
For one night only, Sunday, April 28th. That was the only scheduled performance. But Aliki and Paul vowed by all the gods that we would come together triumphantly again.
Four months later they hired us for a return engagement, four public (i.e., free) performances presented by the New York City Department of Parks. The place: the East River Park Amphitheatre at South Grand Street and FDR Drive. In August. Good old hot New York August.
The sound of traffic on the Drive and on nearby streets provided a very different sonic environment than April’s had. Our first rehearsals made it clear that we’d never be clear, even those with mighty lungs capable of the kind of projection that actual Greek actors back in Aristophanes’ day didn’t need.
Sound director Michael Landis came up with a solution. Sort of. He rented a sound system, with standing microphones and small speakers, making us audible, I’d say, as far back as the eighth row. It also meant that we had to curtail any physical business that took us out of the microphones’ range. Thus we had to hover near the mikes for our scenes, like radio actors. A lot of the hot cement rows ringing us were unoccupied while kids and locals wandered up and down the aisles, as if actors were just a backdrop to their more interesting self-generated entertainments. We were not a hit.
The producers of Beyond the Fringe, though, had a big hit on their hands. That evening of sketches by a quartet of very clever Englishmen sent up British life and British theatre, starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, who both had major movie careers subsequently; Alan Bennett, who became a significant playwright; and Jonathan Miller, soon a very much sought-after stage director.
Towards the end of the show’s first year, the producers wanted to send out a road company. Having called them, using a seemingly convincing English accent, I was invited to audition. I prepared some of my own comedy material, spinning off of Irwin Corey’s act as The World’s Foremost Authority in a lecture I created, making fun of Othello. I could tell that the people in the house were having a good time. They laughed heartily.
“That’s great!” one of them said out beyond the stage lights. “Tell us about yourself.” Talking about my credits, I dropped the accent, trying to show them how skilled I had been to sound English when I wasn’t.
“Thank you very much,” the same voice said. “We appreciate your coming to see us. But we’re only looking for people with authentic accents.” Once again I had made a stupid choice. Would I never learn how to market myself effectively?
For most of that year, actually, I played in puppet shows.
In early 1964, a medical doctor’s secretary named Kathleen Ambrose was able to get a leave of absence to assemble actors to tour nursing homes and mental hospitals performing a one-act play. Her major reason was not to do something meaningful for the sorrowful occupants. She wanted to take a shot at acting, singing, producing, and directing, probably figuring that such audiences wouldn’t be too critical.
She chose Noël Coward’s Red Peppers, a nasty little piece about a couple of married performers, George and Lily Pepper, who not only have a tacky act playing in minor gigs but bicker and insult each other backstage. Kathleen cast herself as Lily and me as George. I had the right accent and my few stage credits certainly looked right. Her NYU undergrad son Bobby had a supporting role.
At times during rehearsals Bobby seemed distracted and kept forgetting his lines; Kathleen charitably forgave him. She privately reassured me that he’d be alright for the performance; he was just having a few medical problems. But, she said, she had been able to help him by providing some of the prescription drugs her doctor-boss had in his office.
We had a major booking: Bellevue Hospital. They don’t come any bigger than that for treating off-the-wall cases.
During our one-and-only performance, which included Lily and George getting partially undressed in the backstage part of the story, the captive audience howled and giggled wildly. They also seemed to enjoy how the married couple kept fighting with each other, shouting encouragement to each of us. An orderly had to come in and quiet them down.
Why Kathleen chose that show, I’ll never know. But it certainly didn’t lead to future such engagements.
That year my beard and I were “beat” background in a Greenwich Village bookshop (back to the scene of my triumphant walk-by in Acres and Pains) in Diary of a Bachelor.
Most of the time during the shooting I sat there actually reading a book, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
Somewhere in there I was also an extra in the short-lived TV series Mr. Broadway, starring Craig Stevens, the former Mr. Lucky.
Later that year I joined an all-star cast in a TV screenplay by Rod Serling, Carol for Another Christmas, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. This anti-war re-working of the Dickens story had an underpinning trying to promote the United Nations. Among the stars were two actors who’d already worked together in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Eve Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Robert Shaw, and Pat Hingle were there, too.
Who did I play? No one special. Just the ghost of a soldier killed in World War I, standing in a long line of similar ghosts on a ship deck. No dialogue. This was all filmed on sets in a Roosevelt Field former airplane hanger at Michael Myerberg Studios.
Oddly, I find my name listed in the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb) as a character.
And now, having searched for a photo on line, I see that my name was in TV Guide. That is so odd. On the other hand, it just occurred to me that my name couldn’t be entirely unknown; I’d been a New York radio program host for a short while.
The effects people filled the set with fog, spraying water on massive hunks of dry ice. The soggy air was permeated by the soft smell of the dissolving carbon dioxide. In my long, heavy wool coat I felt damp and chilled, as if truly on board a looming troop ship outward bound, as in the play of that name. To this day, encountering that smell again, it’s as if I never left the deck.
For two days, all of us ghosts did was hover in the gloom while Hayden and Steve Lawrence as the Ghost of Christmas Past, talking about war, walked the line of us ghosts. I never saw the other stars. And they never saw me. How could they with all that fog?
There’s no denying that my facial hair was some kind of asset. In early 1965 I was actually cast in a speaking role in a movie Tracks In the Sand. My role: a saxophone-playing leader of a jazz quartet.
Not that I could play the sax, but that wasn’t considered important. I had the look. A struggling musician played by Marco St. John was auditioning to join the quartet. In two pages of dialogue my part called for me to tell the kid that he didn’t have what it takes.
I tried playing the saxophonist as cool and understated. You know, laid back. The director wanted me to play the scene angrily. But I didn’t think a jazz musician would talk that way. Like cool, a common stereotype, forgetting such fiery guys as Charles Mingus. I never gave the director what he wanted. As if he didn’t have the right. Jesus Christ! What a smart way to foster a film career.
I’ve never found anything online about the movie; I don’t know how it turned out, nor remember who was the director, or the names of the characters.
I’ve just discovered, during an on-line search, that there’s a CD of jazz from a movie of that name from 1962 with Yusef Lateef, Jimmy Knepper, Richard Williams, Tommy Flanagan, and Max Roach. Maybe that’s the same film but the date doesn’t match. I was not bearded in 1962; I was in 1965.
A movie from that year which is still around and in which I appeared is Across the River, starring famed Broadway character actor Lou Gilbert. He played a goat-owning rag picker, Obadiah, who sells goat milk to prosperous people. He turns up at a lavish party given by one of his clients who, at one point, tells him “that guy over there is a famous beat poet.” He motions towards me. Aha! The beard again.
Also as an extra, I was visible as a juror in Peter Falk’s pre-Colombo, short-lived TV series The Trials of O’Brien.
At last, though, I had a chance to play a speaking role in a radio drama, my long-deferred dream. Not that there were many opportunities left. Radio drama had pretty much faded into silence, resonating mostly in people’s memories. But the ABC radio network came up with a fresh series of concise radio plays, broadcasting five days a week at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, hence called Theater 5.
Current info online reports that these were scripts designed to take up about 21 minutes within half-hour blocks, also containing ABC news and commercials. Evidently there were 260 of them running from August 3rd, 1964, to July 30th, 1965. http://www.archive.org/details/OTRR_Theater_Five_Singles/
Having sent an audition tape, I was called in to perform in what I was told by director Ted Bell would be one of the last shows. It was the only role I had in the series. I played an emotionally upset man trying to get help from a doctor. In the first read-through Bell said, “Break him up, Gordon.” Even though the phrase was new, I realized that he meant not to read the lines straight, i.e., not “Doctor, I’m really feeling terrible.” But rather, “uh…Doctor…I…I’m really feeling terrible.”
We had just one read-through before taping. After all, we were professionals. And besides, it was on tape. Re-takes were possible. So was editing.
I haven’t been able to find that show among the final downloads going back to early 1965. Four of the still missing ones were in June of ’65; I imagine mine is one of those.
Who was in it with me? No idea. But the series regularly featured some of the most famous radio actors whose names I knew as a thrilled, listening kid: Jackson Beck, whose wife, Bea, would eventually become my agent. Leon Janney (Allison’s Janney’s dad), Brett Morrison (The Shadow), Santos Ortega, and George Petrie.
Now there’s a legend for you. Starting back when I was in my teens he was the announcer at WXYZ in Detroit saying, “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty, ‘Hi! Yo! Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!”
That silvery voice emanated from a guy who looked like a star. He towered over me, hovering around six feet, three inches. At age 44 his wavy long hair and his classy clothes gave him the glamour of the golden radio days of yesteryear. Those days before the speeding lights of television eclipsed the sounds of drama emanating from little square boxes, and all the scenery and all the action unfolded in our minds’ eyes.
By 1965 Fred was still most often unseen, a seemingly anonymous staff announcer for ABC, on the radio and TV networks, and local New York stations. Where I would join him about a year later.
I’m a movie co-star.
Ever since those last days at WNCN in 1960, Joe Marzano and I had been friends. We’d hang out together at his home on Long Island. His parents’ home really. His father owned and operated an Italian restaurant in East Rockaway, Cappy’s. Joe had his own room upstairs. Free room and board.
His walls were covered with stills from movies, especially those of Orson Welles, whom he idolized. Many photos were from his own movies, going as far back as when he was in his mid-teens, some 8 mm and some 16 mm…when he could afford them. They were not “home movies” but attempts to create and develop genuine narratives. By the time we’d met, some of his short features had played in New York venues featuring experimental films, although his were not wild and far out. Some were imaginative and skillfully filmed. One had received a lot of praise, a simple little piece called From Inner Space, about wire hangers gone berserk. Joe’s buddy Bob James (not the jazz fusioneer) had the principal human role.
Bob and another buddy, Joe Regina, were married to the Passarelli twin sisters. Bob made decent money as a wedding photographer and gave his clients a special deal. He would also sing at the weddings for a reasonable rate. And he had a good voice. He even got a significant singing role in an off-Broadway production of Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me in which Merle Louise had a leading role. Louise became much celebrated for her powerfully moving performance as The Beggar Woman in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Bob often turned up in supporting roles in Joe’s movies.
1965 was the year Joe decided to make his first feature-length movie, starring himself, as usual, but also giving me a major role. It was Man Outside.
You can read about it at the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb). Joe publicly described it as being about three young men “caught in the vortex of this…country of the blind…men outside the world at large, (who) seem to belong nowhere…they reject the life of both square and beat as anti-life…each senses the profound loss of something he has never had…” It sounds like it could have substance, doesn’t it? I haven’t seen it in many years but tend to believe it’s not all that brilliant, despite Joe’s being a close friend.
My role: Troy Dedseed. Marzano always had a flair for coming up with obvious names in his scripts, perhaps designed to be ironic or amusing.
I remember very little, except that Troy gets beaten up and killed by a street gang. During the filming Joe got a bunch of local high school students to play the gang. They weren’t good at faking punches. They actually hit me. Joe had to yell “cut” a few times to tell them not to really punch. At least when he yelled “cut” they knew that they weren’t supposed to pull out and use knives. I wasn’t seriously hurt.
And there was also a scene with Troy making love with Lucy, played by one of Joe’s regulars, Beverly Baum, a generously proportioned woman around our age. Although I actually had lusted for her, I was too inhibited to show that, especially with Vene sometimes on the set.
“Gordon,” Joe said. “Come on. Look like you’re enjoying this! …uh… try thinking of her as one of those great Chinese meals you’re crazy about.” That helped. Of course, it also meant that in the re-takes I could do it all over again, given the legend that Chinese meals never fill you up.
When the film was finished, attending the first screening, I didn’t admire it that much. Nor my own performance.
In that instance, Joe convinced the producers of the original film, which was going nowhere, that he could improve it. With clever editing and some new dialogue, Joe turned the original into an off-the-wall send-up of chintzy “exploitation” movies of the ’60s. Those were soft-core porn at a time when hard-core was never shown in public movie theaters. The most such films could be was suggestive while staying devoid of nudity. Legend had it that such features would attract lonely men to the audience while they sat in large raincoats covering their furtive masturbation while being turned on by the screen images.
Marzano got word that a small movie theater in Queens had booked the movie, so he, Regina, James, their wives, Vene, and I went to see it. It looked as if we nearly outnumbered the rest of the audience, scattered widely from each other in that dreary location, leading Joe to posit that some of them were raincoat-men trying to be as invisible as possible.
We howled at the funny bits, probably more aware of them than anyone else there. But about mid-way during the screening, the screen suddenly went blank; then the house lights came on. While the other patrons quickly scrambled towards the exits, we sat there laughing. Then we found the usher who was assembling his cleaning equipment, a broom and dust pan. “What happened?” producer/director Joe asked the usher.
“Oh, the projectionist had to go home. He got a call from his wife that he said was urgent,” the usher unapologetically explained. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow night? I think we’re showing it then…No. No. Wait a minute. That’s wrong. This was the last night.”
More laughs from us. Joe: “This is so typical of my fate. I’m doomed to be unknown for the rest of my life. Curses.”
But he gamely went on. He made another feature, Venus in Furs, whose title and not much else was derived from a novel of that name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the source of the word “masochism.”
I had a supporting role during my acting career days. Not being convinced that this would turn out to be any good, I used a pseudonym: Gresham Law. I’ve since seen this movie. It’s dreadful.
Marzano loved to talk about his ideas for his own movies. But, being family-supported, never having to seriously earn a living, he wanted everything easy. He could never stir himself to actually write the scripts for his movie ideas. One he came up with, though, intrigued me. I proposed to do the actual writing using mutual ideas. We called it The Leather Girls, having seen, a few years before, The Leather Boys, a 1964 British movie about motorcycle-riding gay guys.
Our plot: tough young women form a motorcycle gang and go around robbing easily aroused men such as a movie theater manager and a diner owner (deliberately evoking Hemingway’s The Killers). There was an implication of lesbianism. But the main idea was to portray empowered women exploiting male lust.
Joe and I paid a lawyer to incorporate us as Markon Films (MARzano-KAHN). Then, to secure ownership of the concept and of the treatment synopsis I’d written, we used the “poor man’s copyright.” I mailed myself a copy in an envelope not to be opened unless proof of ownership became an issue.
Until I started writing this memoir, I assumed that the project went no further and threw away the faded, decades-old, soiled envelope. However, researching Joe online, I discovered that he’d made a version of the movie in 1978 without ever telling me during that year, nor while I was still in New York. Nor later. Actually I don’t much care. It certainly never became a hit nor an award-winner. Characteristically, a principal role was named Patty Melt, with Joe still coming up with silly names.
Gresham Law had a comeback, though. I used the name in a later incipient stage production called Byronic Readings. A German man, Peter Grafmann, was convinced that Byron’s work was so powerful that Peter’s selections from that work as staged readings would rock the theatre world. Self-financing, he hired actor Steve Rubin and me as the cast. Steve and I tried to improve it in rehearsals by ad-libbing scenes portraying actors who got angrier and angrier with the director, as if stirred by Byron’s famed furies. Peter, rather than cringing or feeling abused, believed we were making the show better. I think we intimidated him. After a few backers’ auditions and no takers the most Peter could do with his project was to get WBAI to allow him to broadcast it.
Within a few years I’d be heard on WBAI again, not as Gresham Law, but as myself. Hosting my own radio programs.
That was the year that I rang down the curtain on my attempts at a real acting career. In seven years (with a 20-month intermission at WNCN) I’d had 13 stage roles, 10 off-Broadway, three in summer stock; only two of the 13 could be considered big. What else? Actually roles in three movies, all of them obscure. I’d been an extra in five genuine movies and four TV shows, with a tiny role in another. There was one role in a professional radio play.
Why did I not get consistent regular work? The most obvious answer is that that is what happens to most would-bes. There could be further explanations.
For one thing, I had no obvious, distinctive physical presence, despite the beard. And, inside that almost bland surface, I did not brim with memorable personality. I had always gravitated to character roles, where I could take on a specific identity, doing that better than playing someone like myself—whoever that was—because that was not clear to me until a few years later when I started therapy with a psychologist.
Still another factor could be that, coupled with not much self-assurance, I had never learned or seriously tried to aggressively, consistently promote myself as an actor. As if I thought what I had to offer was enough. That resembles, too, how I hid behind a WNCN microphone enjoying my music, sitting there in the isolated privacy of a studio in a darkened building during the New York night. I hadn’t socialized with the staff. Just as I had rarely hung out with other actors making connections to a supportive, valuable network.
Income? Trivial amounts from the above. What had I done to keep me and Vene in pasta sauce, low-budget wine, professionally dry-cleaned clothes, and make it possible to live in a small one-bedroom walk-up apartment? Actually what made that possible was noticeable intermittent earnings working for Nicolo Marionettes for five of those years. I suppose I could have kept on doing those puppet shows. But, having passed age 30, it looked as if I should get more serious.
Lacking the confidence to take a shot at New York City radio, given a none-too-prestigious removal from WNCN, and the eyelid blink of two weeks at WNRC, I started reading trade papers looking for openings near enough to not have to commute upstate or across the Hudson…although soon enough I was under that river.
WHLI, Hempstead, NY, needed someone to fill in during summer vacation time. It was a pop music station close in content to WOND, and that experience plus my style and voice got me the job.
Daytimes meant announcing, in a friendly way, the music that music director Roger Ferguson selected. He followed a standard format, a male vocalist, followed by a woman singer, followed by an instrumental, with some room allowed for vocal groups. Boring. Our comments were supposed to be just slightly more inventive than “This is….,” “That was…,” “We just heard…,” but nothing too personal. Friendly but bland. It was not one of my favorite roles.
WHLI’s major value to the community was its full-time news staff. There were newscasts every hour where the news guys wrote and read their stuff, taking material from AP and United Press for national and international stories while also adding some local stories. Re-writes from local newspapers or their own actual reporting. Stan Bernard, who went on to a more significant job at WINS (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”), was on the news staff. Bearded like me, some people asked if we were brothers. Beards were still a subject of interest.
Much of the time the news guys and the d.j.s would hang out together telling jokes or making fun of the management. It seemed as if no one thought he was doing anything special but was just a cog in a machine.
I started looking for something better.
Within a few weeks I had started relief-announcing at WJRZ, Newark, and WQXR, New York, plus, astonishingly, WNCN again.
By the time I started on this aural merry-go-round my résumé mirrored the new activity, crammed with other credits: seven stations in 12 years: WNAR, WFLN, WHAT, WOND, WNRC, WNCN, WHLI. It certainly looks rootless, doesn’t it? You’d think it would look as if I couldn’t keep a job—an accurate perception for people outside broadcasting. Not without some truth, either. I’d been fired at three stations and quit four others. But people inside the business tend to believe that announcers who keep moving have something to offer. Otherwise, how would they keep getting work? And, when starting the 1965 search for something more interesting and better-paying than WHLI, not having left was a position of strength. I had a job already. You might think that managements would have inquired how and why I was no longer at those previous stations but they didn’t. Maybe because, except for WHLI, at least five years had passed and, as always, staff longevity being so rare, my moving on may have seemed normal.
The New WNCN
WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Frohlich Advertising Agency, which dealt mostly in pharmaceuticals.
According to Bernie Alan, whom I knew from our college days at Temple and who was on the announcing staff at NCN before I re-joined, the Network also bought and operated WDHF in Chicago, KPPC in Pasadena, and KMPX in San Francisco.
The “Science,” no doubt, was so named due to Frohlich’s agency accounts. There was also something else. In addition to WNCN, the transmitter signal was used on a sub-channel* to broadcast pop background music to subscribers, who were, evidently, all doctors who used the service in their offices. I never heard how the service sounded. In addition, according to Bernie, there were weekly five-minute broadcasts of news scripts about medicine and developments in the medical world; he wrote and broadcast some himself. Once, he said, WNCN even covered a medical convention in Chicago, the broadcast sponsored by drug companies whose commercials were included.
*A sub-channel uses the same signal as the regular station does, but the programs are transmitted separately by a complex process I don’t fully understand. TV and radio stations still use the concept today, sending out more than one signal available with special equipment and/or by subscription.
WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off Fifth Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th Street station, this company knew something about how a good radio station should look. There were beautiful modern studios and state-of-the-art equipment. No weak particle board walls there. You could see through the gleaming glass windows that the new owners were taking classical music seriously; concert harpsichordist Albert Fuller was the music director. Maurice Essam was his assistant.
Jolly WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy took a liking to my sound and my knowledge and immediately put me on call after we’d met. When he asked about why I’d left the old NCN, I’d explained that I’d wanted to try an acting career. And re: FLN, I could tell the truth: Mitchell Krauss took his job back.
No further questions were asked.
Bill Watson must have known the actual reason why I left the previous NCN. But I guess he and Ed didn’t discuss it. Or maybe Bill didn’t care about the why and how of my departure. He may have even admired my forcefulness in breaking down a studio wall; he was a rebel in his own way. Or maybe he was grateful that he’d gone on to fame, due to me.
Yes. Fame. He had become the star of the night, propelling the station forward into public consciousness. Compared to him, everyone else on WNCN was a daytime shadow. Oh sure, the daily NCN programming was a major contrast to the more conservative content of WQXR, but QXR was the big classical blast in town. NCN was still underrated and not taken seriously.
Watson had always been allowed free rein in his programming. And his personal choices were astonishing, appealing to a hell of a lot of people, at a time when there was no competition either; QXR was off the air overnight. As far as I ever learned, Bill cherished a rather narrow period of classical music; but it was a great period, starting around 1700 and going not much further than 1830. But look at which composers flourished then: J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name the most famous.
Once in a while, as an on-call announcer, I filled in for Bill. Odd, isn’t it? He’d filled in for me back in 1960. But sitting in in his stead, I did not have the chance to program music of my choice; not that I would have reverted to what I’d been featuring during my 20 months at NCN overnight. I didn’t see that as an opportunity to do my own thing (to use a then-current hippie phrase). Instead, Albert or his assistant Maurice Essam gave me stacks of LPs from which to chose music evidently similar to what Bill featured.
That was when I first came to admire the music of the composers I named above; I’d always gravitated to something more modern or romantic and paid scant attention to what others had long taken as masterworks. String quartets, especially. I hadn’t realized how beautiful they were. This time I was actually listening rather than having them for soothing background, such as when I was a babysat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’s elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne, PA.
I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, Listening with Watson; most of the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I sequentially inhabited during those years, mid-1965 to early 1971, during which my contact with him and the station ebbed and flowed. And, whenever I arrived at the station to host a morning show, I barely listened because I was preparing newscasts. I heard, but didn’t listen.
In a rich, sonorous voice, a voice Bill knew he had and in which he reveled, he always began his program by quoting a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.”
His on-air persona flourished, captivating many people. He loved the music and was never shy about expressing his opinions, referring to the beauty, the magnificence, and the glory of the works he presented—a rarity at the time when most announcers offered no opinions.
He further cemented his reputation by airing long works, really long works, in their entirety, never interrupting them with talk. Moreover, he’d sometimes repeat the same music immediately after it ended, saying something like, “Wasn’t that great? Let’s listen to it again.” And present it once more, complete.
He could do that because he was not required to read newscasts in his seven-hour broadcasts, and, despite his ever-growing celebrity, the sales department had not been able to cash in and load his schedule with commercials.
In fact, Bill was known for making fun of the commercials he did have, commenting on their poor grammar, or bad punctuation. However, so far as I know, he never insulted the clients nor denigrated their products. He also did something Jean Shepherd had been doing, bunching several commercials together back to back, just to have the onerous task finished. This was nothing like some of today’s broadcasting with deliberate clusters.
Bill wasn’t likely to have more than five commercials a night, consistent with how little advertising was on WNCN at any time in those years. The station was always in the red, as if it were a Frohlich vanity operation. 1981 was the first profitable year, under a different owner.
Once Bill actually created a major traffic jam during the day around the corner on West 44th Street. A new sponsor bought time on WNCN. (An odd phrase, come to think of it. How can you buy time?) Livingston’s Leaf and Bean was a small shop selling a vast variety of freshly roasted coffee beans, stored in barrels, along with smaller barrels of fresh pipe tobacco of many blends. Livingston’s also sold pipes, pipe paraphernalia, and various kinds of coffee pots. To introduce the store they got Bill to tell his listeners that anyone who heard him was invited to stop by the shop the next morning to get a free ½ pound of coffee just by mentioning his name. When the shop unlocked its doors at 9 a.m. a mob stretched in every direction all the way from Sixth Avenue to Fifth. This event confirmed Bill’s power.
Bill also had powerful opinions which were not limited to what he thought about the music. In his broadcasts he freely shared his ideas about politics and social issues. Listeners who agreed with him called and wrote to him praising his perception.
But there was the other kind of response—people who developed serious hatred for what he said and stood for. They hated him, as if whoever he was on the radio was him, rather than some part of him, the performing part. There’s that Steve Allison kind of thing I mentioned above when writing about my Philadelphia broadcasting days.
Bill had a ready temper, lashing out at those of the public who couldn’t deal with his seeming self-admiration and his comments. They seethed with anger, telephoning him, as if he were some kind of dictator ruling the night with an iron baton instead of just a guy who hosted a radio program.
You could ask why he would even pick up the phone, since, during long stretches of music, you’d think Watson would be Listening With Watson, but being all alone in the studio overnight must have generated a feeling of isolation and a need for contact with living humans instead of only admiring the creations of people long dead and gone. Not that I had that feeling myself in my 20 months preceding him. But by the time I started to work for the new NCN, he’d been hosting programs for five years at those hours. The long-term effects could be different.
While he spoke to listeners, Bill could never look into anyone’s eyes during those 35 hours a week. His own had to be focused on the constant bounce of VU meters. And there were the glaring lights overhead, so glaring, in fact, that he’d turn off as many as he could sitting there with only enough illumination to read by, glowing in semi-darkness, as if a halo sat above his head.
He must have reveled in the stimulation of getting back at those angry people out there in the vast darkness, reaching out even into all those little, less important suburbs and towns clinging to New York. He’d excoriate his unseen enemies, those who failed to admire his impressive musical knowledge and the magnificent music he chose for people with the right degree of discernment. On the air he’d speak to the gadflies by name, defeating their arguments by making statements that brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard.
During the time Bill and I both worked at NCN, he’d sometimes talk to me while his music was playing, or after I had started the next program, when he’d rave about lapsang souchong tea and how well it went with honey. He’d also tell me about some of the “beautiful” women who admired him and whom he had met, women no doubt overwhelmed by being close to such magnificence, not that married Bill ever claimed he was a great lover, nor did he discuss what went down (so to speak) with any of the women. Evidently such admirers sometimes visited him at the studios. I met one one morning. I didn’t find her beautiful. But then, there’s that eye of the beholder thing. And maybe the lady found in-person-Bill attractive. He certainly was decent looking, with a sturdy Roman nose and distinguished grey temples, despite being nearly bald. He also looked solidly muscular, as if his past life in the U.S. Navy had taught him how to stay fit.
In time he would call me “a friend” because we got along well together whenever we saw each other. But we never socialized outside the station.
I liked him.
In those early days of my return to NCN, looking for whatever work I could find, Bernie told me about a side job he had in our mutual home town of Philadelphia. As “Bob Weston” he was providing pre-recorded voice tracks for WDVR, whose format was “beautiful music.” That’s a concept a bit like WOND’s “Wonderful Music,” being a total avoidance of rock, Country & Western, jazz, etc. In the New York market WPAT, Paterson, NJ, was doing very well with that idea then. Fundamentally the content was attractive but unobtrusive instrumental versions of pop music standards with few vocals, ideal for background music. Often the selections were not announced. So Bernie’s tracks mostly consisted of station breaks and a few commercials.
He put me in touch with the management at WDVR, telling me that this would be no major source of income; in fact, he was getting $1 per spot (equal to $7.25 in 2012), which meant mostly for commercials; the other tracks had long-lasting lives of their own.
WDVR liked my demo tape, recorded, of course, at WNCN late at night when no one else was there but Bill. I got a slot. As “Gordon Todd” (i.e., sounding a bit like “Gordon Kahn”) my voice tracks hosted Saturday and Sunday morning shows, which didn’t require the usual stuff of weekday mornings, like weather forecasts and time checks. Vene’s Philadelphia family was thrilled (“We listen to you all the time!”).
I stayed on the air there for about 10 months until I no longer was able to record the tracks or use the WNCN studios. I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark, NJ.
Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson.
My WHLI and WOND experiences got me some work at WJRZ. By then Les Davis was one of their stars, the third time we’d cross paths, although we barely saw each other and rarely said more than “Hello.”
Eventually Les would show up on WRVR, too, hosting jazz. And he always had name recognition and fame while I was a fringe-faced guy on the fringe.
I had only few stints on WJRZ, a place where the receptionist always answered calls by saying “WJRZ, good radio!” I always replied “And good radio to you, too.”
I wasn’t there long. In July 1965, after what turned out to be my last overnight shift, I went out to the street to get my car to drive back home. The car was gone. I couldn’t believe someone had stolen it. An old Chevy with a multi-colored body. Who would bother?
Walking around the corner to the police headquarters right off Green Street, I reported the crime. Right. My car had been stolen a few doors away from police headquarters.
The police were used to having to deal with car theft. A couple of officers said that somebody had probably taken for it for “a joy ride” and that they’d look into it and get back to me. Then they gave me a lift to a PATH train from which I could get a subway connection home.
A couple of days later they called. They’d found the car. They told me I could pick it up at the Newark storage lot.
Subway to train to taxi to the storage lot. It was in a rundown neighborhood of cracked streets and scruffy buildings. A few intact cars in the front didn’t belie what lay beyond—a grimy, disordered jumble of dented, broken vehicles, strewn around as if dropped wherever there was space.
While I waited for the boss—call him Mike—I noticed the front office had a hand-written sign on which was scrawled, “Anyone showing up late doesn’t work here anymore.”
Grubby-looking, stomach-spilling, shave-needing, sloppily dressed Mike led me to my car. It looked intact. I was relieved. I half-expected to see a dented ruin. There was no key in it, but I had a spare. I put it into the ignition, saying to my beloved car, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
No motor turned over. Silence. Except for cawing crows flying around the lot. I opened the hood. The battery was gone. So was the radiator. So were other parts. I turned to Mike. “What happened to all the parts?”
“How the fuck would I know?” he snarled.
I felt miserable. His unsympathetic response made it worse. “Can you help me get this towed back to Brooklyn?” I asked. Then he gave me a price which took my breath away, especially when added to what he said I owed for two days of storage.
“But it was stolen,” I said in painful disbelief. “Why do I have to pay for storage? I didn’t authorize you to store it. The police brought it here. I didn’t.”
“That’s not my problem, pal. You want it back? Pay me what you owe for storage, and I’ll see what I can do about giving you a break on a tow. I mean it’s a hell of a long way to Brooklyn.”
I stood there in continuing shock. Did it even make sense to tow home what was left of that beloved car with half the motor gone, its value plummeting into near-junk? I stammered, “But that’s…that’s not fair. Somebody stole it and…”
“You said that already, buddy.”
“Yes. And said that I didn’t ask you to store it. And why is it missing so many parts?”
Mike was getting angry. “Look, pal. I didn’t steal it. It’s not my fault.”
“But why is it missing so many parts?”
“Hold on. Are you saying I took the parts?”
“No. No. I’m just having trouble understanding this whole thing.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m getting tired of this bullshit. What do you want to do with this piece of junk? I haven’t got all day.”
“I need to call my insurance company and have them come over here and take a look at it.”
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wait until that fucking agent arrives? Look, pay me for a week’s worth of storage now.”
“But it hasn’t been here a week.”
“God damn it! Now I’m getting pissed off. You don’t want to pay me? Then get the hell off my lot before I beat the shit out of you.”
I walked away, leaving behind the ruins of my beloved car, feeling almost as broken as it was.
The next time WJRZ called, I had to turn down the work. No car. But also I wasn’t sure I’d even want to be in that part of Newark again.
By 1967, though, I was able to afford a new Volkswagen Beetle, which is how eventually I got to WPAT. More about that later.
That same summer I worked up my courage to audition for WQXR. From the magnificent, world-renowned, steel-encrusted tower on West 43rd Street known as The New York Times, that beacon of classical music radio radiated throughout New York and hundreds of other nearby towns and cities. How could I presume?
I had been too timid before to audition, only dreaming of such glory while at WFLN and WNCN, never believing that anyone there would take me seriously, especially while sitting at a make-shift control board in a dim and dreary hallway atop the hotel Pierre.
But my easy acceptance back into the fold of the new WNCN and getting on the air at WJRZ convinced me I could walk into such storied halls and look and sound as if I knew what I was doing.
QXR was owned and operated by The New York Times, a sturdy, profitable underpinning. The station’s program sponsorships and spot announcements also earned good money. Being on QXR was about as prestigious as you could get in classical music radio. Many of the nine full-time announcers had become enduring New York legends, most having been there for years and years. There was perky George Edwards (born George Steinhardt), the host of the morning show Bright and Early, 25 years older than I when I was added to the standby announcers list.
Then there was elegant and distinguished Peter Allen (born Harold Levey), 13 years my senior.
I thought that maybe I could get occasional fill-in work, just as at WNCN and WJRZ, except with such a large staff of WQXR announcers, it looked as if there’d be plenty of chances. After all, across the country there weren’t that many of us specialists in knowledgeably announcing classical music, given the need for us to sound as if we knew what we were talking about and could breeze through foreign names and pronunciations with fluency and expertise.
The audition script looked like the same copy from 11 years before at WFLN. It probably was the same. A snap.
Chief Announcer Al Grobe (30 years older than I) told me that I sounded just right and he would put me on the standby list. That felt good! The list was posted on a wall in the announcers’ lounge, a small, comfortable, lamp-lit room with an easy chair and sofa, across the hall from two of the four on-air studios. Grobe also introduced me to one of the announcers on duty, soft-spoken, elderly-looking Chester Santon (age 50.) Another was on the air.
Two announcers on duty at the same time! Grobe was a third. This was one of many things that made it clear that WQXR was a major operation. In fact, its operation was bigger and more complex and thoroughly organized than any radio station I had ever seen or would ever see in the future.
It was also immediately clear that there would be plenty of chances to fill in with so many men* needed every day.
The standby list had eight names. I became number nine. It didn’t look all that hopeful, especially once I learned that Bob Lewis, whose name was at the top, unshakably was always called first.
But I did get called. And, after a few successful stints on the air, my name rapidly moved up the list and hovered near the top through March 1966. Later, my name went up and down the list for another five years. And, after returning from living in Europe, that same variable pattern repeated during 1976.
*There were no women announcers there or anywhere else until the next year, 1966, when WNEW-FM featured four of them as a novelty in a pop music format.
When I started at WQXR, genial Mel Elliott, another announcer, said that Grobe must have liked my work but that the list always kept changing. Substitute announcers who were readily available when Grobe called them got higher placement than those who turned down work or weren’t available. In one way that made sense; Grobe wanted to use those people on whom he could rely at the last minute; he had other important things to do, like reading many hourly WQXR newscasts on weekdays.
There was a special booth for the newscasts—a very small studio, along an H-shaped corridor within sight of the main control room where engineers ran every piece of equipment. They operated all the microphones, all the turntables and tape machines, and controlled the volume as it went out on the air. A strict division of labor. WQXR was seriously unionized.
The news booth had one window facing the hall. Its walls were covered by the same kind of particle board I’d destroyed at the 47th Street WNCN, except that the board was thicker and punctured with tiny holes. Soundproofing.
A large clock loomed over the only desk. On the desk: a sturdy ribbon microphone, a headset, and a simple, curved table lamp. A solitary, cushioned, armless metal chair sat under the only drawer in the desk with a small metal box attached to a leg. The box had a button, resembling one for an elevator. When the booth button was pushed, it activated a small gong. Whoever was reading the news started the newscast precisely on the hour sounding the gong over the open microphone.
A long tube came up from the floor. It was the end of the line in a pneumatic tube system. A small, sealed glass cylinder whooshed and popped into a small opening in the tube. In it were as many sheets of onion skin paper as it took for each story to be on a separate page to become a newscast. Times staff on another floor wrote the stories.
That was a cramped little room. Anyone looking over and rehearsing a newscast usually left the door open so as to get some air. Grobe and some other announcers even loosened their belts to breathe better. Especially during the noon and 6 p.m. 15-minute broadcasts.
Eventually I broadcast from there and would find Grobe’s scripts in the wastebasket. He’d underlined almost every word, with one line, or two, or three, clearly to indicate degrees of emphasis for himself.
As for the closeness in that booth, in the middle of a newscast one evening, I struggled to speak while on the air, my voice cracking, devoid of its usual resonance. I could barely breathe. Twenty-five minutes earlier an elderly engineer had had a heart attack while on duty and died in the control room. Police had wheeled out his grey-faced stiff body, laid out on a canvas stretcher. I hadn’t seen much death yet, and that might have affected me. That’s what Peter thought.
The loss of voice worried me, knowing the fluidity of the on-call list. There were also constant rumors that Executive VP/General Manager Elliott Sanger was somewhere listening, ready to air his criticisms about even the smallest deviations from on-air perfection.
But I survived to breathe again; my status as a relief announcer didn’t change after that evening. Perhaps death in the hallway got all the attention.
Another time, though, 23-years-older staff announcer Bill Strauss warned me that my name was probably going to drop on the list. Tall, thin, dark-haired Strauss seemed quite severe, especially due to a permanent frown. Not that he had any influence on the list. He was trying to be helpful. I had deviated from the norm one afternoon on the air. Reading a jolly, humorously-written commercial, the copy suggested a friendly laugh. So I laughed. Afterwards, back in the announcers’ lounge, when that part of my shift was over, Bill said, “Boy! Did you step over the line!”
“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.
“You laughed on the air. We don’t do that. Mr. Sanger doesn’t like it.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but the copy seemed to call for it.”
“Gee. I hope he didn’t hear it,” Bill added. “I’d hate to see you not among us as often. You usually do such a good job.”
I survived that, too.
If he or one of the regular announcers had laughed, they might have been reprimanded, but they wouldn’t have been fired for such a minor infraction. They had a strong AFTRA contract. A number of those announcers were rare examples of longevity in our business. They knew how to protect their jobs. Moreover, The Times had a very strong labor structure.
The contractual shift was eight hours, longer than those at most other stations. There was an hour for lunch. And some mighty good food was available on the 11th floor in The Times cafeteria. Moreover, since we knew we’d have, say, half an hour during a concerto on the air with no other duties except to announce, we could also zip upstairs and grab a sandwich and coffee and bring them down to eat in the lounge. But not in the studios.
Also contractually required were 15 minutes of “preparation time” when the shift started, so that the announcer could get his records or look over the first commercials he’d have to read. George Edwards had a special contract; he got an hour preparation time, because, among other things, he had to wait until the station went on the air with his sign-on. His on-air duties ran from 5 a.m. to 12 noon. Daily, after Bright and Early, he’d just be another staff announcer, reading spot announcements or hosting other programs. And at the end of his final announcement of his day, he reached over to a lamp on his desk and audibly clicked it off. His talisman.
Among our spelled-out duties, we had to go down a hall to the music department and pick up the records whose music we’d announce. Music was programmed by Martin Bookspan or someone on his staff. People in the department pulled the individual LPs from the shelves; announcers didn’t do that. The LPs were placed in slots for announcers to pick up and take to engineers in master control. Each program came with typed sheets on which were written the names of the selections and the performers, as well as the timing for each piece. Usually there was no written script; we were expected to announce the pieces simply, unembellished by commentary.
But, after I’d been around for a while, feeling comfortable and assured, I looked over the LPs and their liner notes and decided to say a few words about the backgrounds of the pieces, based on what I’d read. Nothing complicated, but something like I had been doing at WFLN and WNCN, ad-libbing a few concise, presumably interesting things about the music.
Another announcer, Bill Gordon, heard me talking on-air about the music. “Don’t do that,” he cautioned. “It’s not in our contract. If the management hears you, they’ll start expecting all of us to do that.”
The rules of how to communicate with the engineers in the control room were very precise. There were hand signals, the simplest way to communicate, given that the on-air studios were all separated by glass windows and hallways in a u-shape surrounding the control room.
The signals: pointing to the microphone for announcing, signaling to cut off the microphones with the famed simulation of cutting the throat, pointing directly at the engineer for him to play a record or a recorded commercial or to turn the broadcast over to another announcer in a different studio. The only equipment we were allowed to touch was the “cough button,” called that because, if announcers needed to cough or sneeze while on the air, we could push a button next to the microphone and it would cut off the signal as long as it was held down.
Grobe scheduled which announcers would host standard broadcasts and newscasts. There were some that were not considered standard, of course, such as Bright and Early with George or Cocktail Time, hosted by Duncan Pirnie, 10 years older than I.
In a rolling baritone he playfully said just a few sly words during the only QXR program resembling pop music. Duncan, by the way, was physically the largest on the staff at a time when obesity was less common than it is now. And, coincidentally, his father Donald had been a successful concert baritone, whom my Aunt Marion had sometimes accompanied on the piano. Later he became part of the faculty at Sanford Prep when I had been a student there. (See above material about my boyhood.)
We had one unusual assignment; technically it was voluntary. Of course, I participated. Each day one of us would record a few personally-chosen articles from The Times for The Lighthouse Association for The Blind. The tapes would be played back at double speed for Lighthouse-served blind people, given their heightened acuity.
The recordings we made on our own time, whenever we were not assigned regular announcing duties. We did that on a small tape recorder in the studio just outside the announcers’ lounge. Given union rules, this process could not involve staff engineers. The tapes went directly to The Lighthouse.
The pay was really good, especially if I got talent fees, standard in some of the best contracts at the biggest stations. The fees were extra money when assigned to sponsored programs. We had to fill out daily forms for the fees and submit them with our record of how many hours we had been on the air each week.
I got a substantial fee for one evening’s hosting of a live performance by the WQXR piano duo of Jascha Zayde and Leonid Hambro. Marty had written the script; I was not required to ad-lib anything. But there was a live audience in the WQXR auditorium, and I became incredibly nervous with the responsibility. This was THE NEW YORK TIMES. Live musicians depending on my cues and my words which had to be delivered in the exact time allotted. No reading the script too fast. No reading it too slow. Certainly I’d appeared as an actor many times before in front of live audiences, but in this case I wasn’t playing a character. I was appearing as Gordon Spencer. Alone with a microphone in a studio, no one looking at me, that was easy. This was different.
I survived that, too.
Of course, to be in front of a live audience, I wore a suit, a good shirt, tie, etc. But that was not much different from how most QXR announcers dressed when on duty in the studios. Peter Allen often had on a suit. Grobe wore dress shirts and ties. Mel wore sport shirts and good pants and shoes. Duncan seemed the least well-dressed in a casual shirt and comfortable rather than well-creased trousers.
Normally one announcer would host the music program and another would be on hand to read live spot commercials during the broadcast.
One late afternoon in early November 1965, I was in the middle of reading a commercial on the air just prior to Chester Santon’s 5:30 newscast when the light went out in the studio. I stopped reading. In Master Control the lights went out. And in all the studios. And in the halls.
We were curious what was happening and whether other parts of the floor and those of The Times were also dark. Chester and the engineer asked me if I could go outside the studio and look, while they waited in case we went back on the air soon.
I took an engineer’s flashlight and found the outside halls totally dark. The elevators were not running. And, looking out the windows, the QXR studio having none to outside, I could see that all the nearby buildings also were totally dark.
I went back to the studios and told everyone. Then we turned on a small portable radio to check to see if other stations were likewise affected, first tuning to WINS (“All News All the Time”). By that time it already had a report about a major blackout all along the eastern seaboard, although no one knew yet why it happened. Several of us couldn’t help thinking of some kind of science fiction scenario. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965
My shift ended at 6 p.m. So, with the station still off the air, I went home. Taking a jammed bus all the way down to City Hall, the subways not running. Then I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to likewise-unlit Brooklyn Heights.
Sometimes I also worked late evenings before the station signed off for the night. Since Grobe was not present to supervise and make sure everything ran properly, someone had that responsibility, being called a “night manager” or a “weekend manager.” Most often it was one of us standbys from the list. We were not considered management, of course, since, if necessary, we could fill in on the air during an emergency. We had to do such things as set up recording news features for later broadcast. We didn’t run the equipment. But we acted as producers making sure that the reporter was comfortable, had everything he needed (right, “he”). We signaled the engineer. We checked to make sure no re-take was needed. And we filed the script for future reference.
That’s how I got to talk to Clive Barnes who was then The Times’s major theatre critic.
We would chat briefly after he’d finished recording. I told him about my theatre background. He listened politely—as I’m sure he’d done many times with many other people—neither bored nor fascinated. He had a rather squeaky voice and stuttered a lot and, given that, and a gap in his front teeth, he reminded me of a Peter Sellers character. Not that I ever told him. The on-duty engineer edited out the stutters.
Certainly I was pleased to get so much work at QXR, and my experience there confirmed my thorough professionalism. I was proud of being on WQXR, the top of my profession, but being there was not a source of enjoyment. It didn’t compare with what I was doing at WNCN whenever I was called; there I got to choose some of the music and to talk about it; everything was more relaxed. Yes, the pay was less; it wasn’t even an AFTRA station yet. I’ve always gravitated to broadcasting that I could thoroughly enjoy, where I could contribute something personal, but that was never very practical in terms of income.
I would return to QXR from time to time thereafter but not be there as often as during those first nine months. I was dropped down, way down, on the list after I turned down work too often. I was busier elsewhere. At first, that meant joining the staff of ABC.
In The Heights
Vene and I were seeing less of each other with my hopping around at both stations, often in the evenings, but we were delighted by my increased earnings. Meanwhile she’d been getting more interested in performing again. When we’d first met, she’d been acting in plays at Temple, appearing in a couple with me, as well as at Atlantic City’s Center Little Theatre in Out of the Frying Pan.
In late 1965, she started getting a few roles in The Heights Players, a community theatre whose productions were staged a few blocks from where we lived. That also expanded our social life; we became friends with regular performers there, including an openly gay couple Randy Kim and Chuck Bright. Randy later went on to a major career in movies and on Broadway as Randall Duk Kim.
He, Chuck, and Anne Occhiogrosso founded one of the U.S.’s great summer theatres, American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI, where I often went while living in Milwaukee.
Tiny Randy had an amazingly deep voice and was a master of make-up. He, Chuck, and Vene all starred in Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland at The Heights Players.
And I performed in fund-raising variety shows there as The World’s Oldest Living Beat Poet, reading simple-minded comic verse I’d written. Plus some of my comedy sketches were acted by Heights Players regulars.
One was about a guy turned on by a woman in a bar because she had a copy of Masters and Johnson’s just-published Human Sexual Response. He figured she’d be an easy conquest given that book; he brings that up with a sly grin. She responds by quoting him some of the book’s gross, analytical descriptions of bodily functions. So much so that he has to leave for the men’s room to throw up.
Speaking of bodily functions, through The Heights Players, I connected with Lester Bergman who published medical books. And he hired me to narrate a couple of films about procedures during operations.
By early 1966, Vene wanted to quit her job as assistant to Cosmopolitan Magazine Fiction Editor Bill Guy. She really liked him and also admired new Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurley Brown, but wanted to try an actual acting career. Considering how much money I’d been making from announcing on two stations, it seem only fair that I should support her shot at fame; she had been the major source of income when I was an infrequently employed actor.
Why not? She might succeed where I hadn’t. She bubbled with personality, was cute, and, being quite short, still seemed girlish, although she was my age.
She joined a children’s theatre group whose regular cast included Bill Finn and Danny Goldman.
Tall, rangy Bill went on to write musicals as William Finn with his first success about 10 years later: In Trousers. Later he’d become lauded and awarded for his Falsetto trilogy, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Danny became a film actor, specializing in voices, including that of Brainy Smurf and also became a Hollywood casting director of television commercials. Vene also got roles in summer stock in Rochester, NH.
I join ABC
Early in 1966, WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy told me that he was moving on to become program director at WABC-FM; they were broadcasting some classical music. I asked if there might be a way I could join him.
He said that he had no authority to hire me but that, in March, ABC would audition people as relief announcers, and certainly I could apply. It would mean a chance to be heard on all of ABC’s New York operations—the TV and radio networks, plus the local stations. The minimal six-month gig was to cover regular staff vacations. And, if anything full-time opened, Ed believed the relief guys (right, men only) would most likely be considered.
Six months of big money sounded like a great idea. And how much higher could an announcer go than being on the ABC staff?
There was a massive line-up of superbly-dressed, deep-voiced candidates at the audition. Suits. Ties. Polished shoes. They’d come from Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis for this major opportunity. I felt overshadowed, as if I was still a kid and they were the big time, even though I was 33.
The audition material included a newscast, commercials, and a classical music script. Exactly what I’d been doing at WQXR.
While waiting to record my shot at fortune, a six-foot-two, supremely well-dressed, perfectly groomed guy next to me said to one of his peers, “Shit!” waving a page of the audition, “What the hell is this?”
The other resonated back, “Some kind of classical music stuff. How the fuck are we supposed to know that?”
They warmed the cockles of my soul.
I got in.
April 1966 I joined the staff.
Oddly, though, I rarely announced on WABC-FM. Within a couple of months its format changed and classical music was minimized. Instead, I did what all the staff announcers did, live booth station breaks and five-second on-air promos on the two TV networks and WABC-TV, and live newscasts and commercials on the radio network and on WABC-AM.
Relief announcers’ assignments seemed random; we filled in slots normally covered by regular staff who’d been re-assigned wherever there were talent fees. Their contract required minimum fees every week, and ABC had to guarantee the minimum. So, if the announcer didn’t get enough fees from regular assignments, ABC had to make up the difference, hence the re-alignments to minimize what ABC had to make up. Audiences wouldn’t know the difference anyway, most of us sounded like each other, anonymous, mellifluous, resonant, manly voices.
So where did I most turn up? The classical music expert? Usually overnights at one of the highest-rated pop music radio stations in town, even in the U.S. WABC-NEW YORK! as I often punched up the call letters. An acting assignment. Moreover, once an hour, I had to read live, 60-second commercials for a new sponsor, Dennison Clothes on Route 22, Union, NJ. The copy always began with “The president of Dennison Clothes says…” and included the phrase “Where money talks, nobody walks.”
The copy was fundamental selling, so I decided to punch it up, have fun, almost a parody, the way Jerry Carroll would do some years later on the ubiquitous Crazy Eddie spots. I started each commercial with a serious intonation, sounding as if I was going to announce something portentous and newsworthy, Cronkite-like: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The President of … (but then not ‘The United States’) and spin off into absurdity without altering the copy. The first time I did it, Charlie Greer and the other guys on duty howled with laughter. Eventually Charlie would introduce me as “The voice of Dennison Clothes.”
Primarily my major job was to read newscasts written by Webb Kelley. When we first met, he told me that, at one time, he’d been writing for the TV network but that they wanted someone who could also look good on camera and that he was too old. I often felt that he was frustrated and unhappy, diminished to five-minute scripts overnight. Sometimes he even sounded as if he’d been drinking. And sometimes he just took AP wire copy and stapled it to my scripts. He called me “Beatley,” a reference, no doubt, to my beard, still uncommon, and the resemblance to the by-then-outdated and bypassed beatniks, superseded by hippies. Old news.
Most often I was the news and commercials reader when Charlie Greer was the d.j. in a powerful signal radiating across more than 38 states. He was in his sixth year at the station and kept telling me, off the air, and everyone else within earshot—engineers, visitors, anyone who’d listen—that he’d been there longer than any of the other guys and it made him nervous as hell; he expected to be fired any day. He, like every other d.j. at WABC-NEW YORK, had six-month contracts and fabulous money but under conditions designed to make sure they delivered the goods. Longevity depended on the ratings.
As for the music, everyone had a playlist; they could only choose something from it. All of the week’s selections were on cartridges played by the engineers, sitting across from the d.j.s, separated by a console. The d.j.s announced the songs with non-stop enthusiasm, as if they loved hearing the same things over and over, and they came up with a little chatter and read a few commercials that required their personalities, talent-fee compensated.
Program Director Rick Sklar decided which music to broadcast and each week held a meeting with the d.j.s where they could give him input. Evidently the weekly playlist was very short. According to Sklar in his book Rocking America, the records on the list were determined by studying sales at about 550 record stores. Then, at each meeting, the list was revised. Songs which hadn’t moved up in sales were dropped. Songs at the top of the list were broadcast more regularly than the others, about once at 70- or 80-minute intervals. Some of this info and more can be found at Allan M. Sniffen’s Musicradio WABC website http://www.musicradio77.com.
Among the hits I heard repeatedly: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Wild Things” by The Troggs, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel in “I Am a Rock,” and “Monday, Monday” by The Mamas and the Papas.
Sometimes, too, I’d be assigned to read news while Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy, or Chuck Leonard were on the air. Chuck always looked nervous and had a habit of vigorously yanking off his headphones once the music was playing.
Dan sounded intelligent and clever. While reading a commercial for a furniture store selling ottomans he ad-libbed, “Hey! Remember their empire?” Or once, the copy being for a steak house whose meals “stick to your ribs…” he added “…bypassing your stomach.”
TV booth announcing was new to me. Sometimes I’d be on the networks, sometimes on WABC-TV. Those studios were on West 66th Street just east of Broadway, while WABC-AM was a block-and-a-half south of there in an office building at 1926 Broadway.
The booths were small rooms, each with a TV monitor, headphones, a microphone, a table with a lamp, a program log, whatever copy was to be read, and a plain chair. Utilitarian. Many booths were below street level, seeming dark and truly subterranean. Perhaps they were there so ABC could keep on broadcasting during an atomic attack.
Once, when going on duty, I encountered Milton Cross in one of the booths.
I had come to relieve him. When he spoke to me, I was shocked, recognizing that Metropolitan Opera broadcast voice, sadly, in that dreary, underground cell. It seemed like such a diminishment for him. I hadn’t known that he was on the staff. He told me that he had left a few magazines in case I wanted to read them. It was the only time we saw each other. In fact, we relief announcers also rarely crossed paths. We didn’t team up the way QXR announcers did.
TV production directors were somewhere else in the building; I never learned where and never saw them. They directed booth announcers, communicating through headsets. Arriving to announce, we had to call on a house phone and check in with our directors, not being visible, confirming that we were in the right place at the right time and that our names matched those on the logs.
Then the director made sure he could be heard through the headphones and have his engineer, wherever that man was, check our microphone, having us read the copy to be heard on the air, e.g., “Stay tuned for F Troop coming up next on ABC.”
That’s a characteristic five-second promo. It had to be delivered within five seconds because a computer somewhere would then switch to the network or to the station and the next event. Announcers could get into serious trouble if the computer cut them off. Consequently, even some of the regular staff read the copy as fast as possible, a kind of urgency. None of those announcements were pre-recorded, nor the station breaks either. Everything was live. I subsequently learned, a few years later, that ABC finally got smart and recorded a lot of the breaks, meaning, no doubt, less work for announcers whose ranks, I believe, were diminished by buy-outs.
“Standby for the station break, Gordon. Coming up in five seconds. Four. Three. Two. One. ANNOUNCE!” Yes, that order often sounded as if our lives depended on it. You can imagine how an announcer would intensely, anxiously, do his five-second thing.
WABC-TV signed off overnight then, following a late movie. Once, on the late-night shift, I looked at my few pages of copy and found that the last thing before reading the sign-off announcement was a prayer by Reverend David Burns of Calvary Protestant Church in Baldwin, Long Island. Having watched late-night TV in the past, I’d seen film clips of ministers reading short prayers. I assumed that all I had to do was introduce Father Burns, although I had a copy of the prayer.
My mike open, I read the introduction and waited for the film. “ANNOUNCE!” the director yelled. I paused. Was I supposed to read the prayer myself? I couldn’t ask. My mike was live. “ANNOUNCE!” he yelled again. It was a wonder that his voice didn’t leak through my microphone.
I hadn’t read over the prayer, of course, so I read it cold, nervous a hell. Heaven knows what it said. But, by God, I never stumbled, never lost my way.
I followed it immediately with the sign-off script, which I had rehearsed.
Once we were off the air, the director called me on the phone. Uh-oh. He was going to chew me out for one-and-a-half seconds of dead air. Nope. Instead he said “Wow! That was a great reading of the prayer. You sounded like you believed every word. Hey, have a good night, huh?” He hung up.
And I walked out into the night’s cool and shiny streets, gleaming from the lights on Broadway.
Soon I’d be pounding the pavements again, looking for work. When the vacation season was over I was not one of the two relief guys ABC hired full-time. I was disappointed, sure. But I couldn’t help wondering how long it would take me to be thoroughly bored in such a nearly anonymous job.
Yet, in those six months, I felt proud that I’d made it at ABC. Yeah, ABC: six months; WQXR, nine months. Intense, colorful blips.
My two-year stint at WOND still held the record for the longest job. And that, as well as my 20 months at the first version of NCN, were the only jobs I had really enjoyed. As far as ABC went, I was proud of my skill and felt significant, even though my name and presumed personality usually were only public at night.
Bernie Styles had been calling once in a while to ask if I was available as an extra. One week in 1967, having no radio assignments, I took him up on his offer and spent a couple of days portraying one of about 20 people in the audience catching a few acts on stage for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a period movie about the early days of burlesque on the Lower East Side. The Phoenix Theatre on lower Second Avenue became Minsky’s stand-in.
We were assigned to sit in the theater for what was a montage of acts on stage. We brought changes of clothes so as we moved around in the seats we looked like different people at different shows while watching Elliott Gould, or Norman Wisdom and Britt Ekland up there on the stage. Two days’ work.
I also got a call in spring 1967 from Kathleen Ambrose who had several bookings in real theaters instead of hospitals like Bellevue. She was putting together a tour of nearby summer theaters in a staged reading of Paul Shyre’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s I Knock at the Door. She asked me to be the narrator as well as double and triple with Irish accents, at which I was very adept. I learned that, since last I’d seen her, her son Bobby had gotten married and had a child, so Bobby was not part of the cast. I did the tour and had a great time. But it meant turning down a couple of assignments at WQXR. Thus, the next time I went in, after quite some time, my name on the list had dropped from number six to eight.
Through Lester Bergman I learned of a production company called Titra which serviced foreign movie makers. They also provided dubbed sound tracks. I auditioned. They ran a short loop so as to have me watch how the mouths of two men moved in dialogue, telling me to match both with different voices while reading from a script in English. I certainly could do the voices but it didn’t feel like acting. More like booth announcing. Moreover, I wasn’t good at matching the words to the mouth movements on the screen. I wasn’t hired.
And I took a test to be a music monitor for ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the performance rights organization that protects musical copyrights by monitoring public performances, making sure that royalties are paid. The job entailed listening to tapes of broadcasts by background music services and radio stations where songs were not announced, such as WPAT, Paterson, NJ. The test was based on the assumption that I could recognize many songs and identify them by title and, doing so for eight hours a day, log the songs on sheets of paper while sitting in a small, confined room and wearing a headset. Most of what I heard first during the test was the kind of pop music I knew best, the kind I’d just been hearing on WHLI and that I’d programmed myself at WOND. But later that day, there were other kinds of music, rock, Country & Western, about which I knew nothing. I wasn’t hired.
Five Stations in Five Years
So, post-ABC, I was looking for whatever announcing I could find, enjoyable or not, again trying to land something substantial. It wasn’t long before I was filling in all over the local broadcast map: WQXR and WNCN again, WRVR, WPAT, and (the new) WBAI, sometimes going from one to the other on the same days. But nothing full-time.
As for WPAT, that meant driving under the Hudson once more, but to studios near a park in Clifton, NJ, rather than in the heart of Newark.
Having recently taken the ASCAP test I was already familiar with PAT’s format, having listened to it as part of the job requirement. Gaslight Revue was the major feature and a big success—a montage of mellow, instrumental pop music. Since the songs were never announced, the announcers’ duties consisted of putting together, reading, and recording newscasts using Associated Press wire copy. Sometimes we incorporated short reports by the three-person news staff, covering New Jersey and New York.
The newscasts were never broadcast live. We recorded them on cartridges used in an automated system. Each newscast had to be precisely four-minutes-and-thirty seconds per cartridge, sometimes meaning three or four re-takes. But with only one newscast per hour and few other duties, such as recording 60-second or 30-second commercials, the newscast re-takes were no problem.
The cartridges were in a series of giant racks in the control room, where an engineer was always on duty, monitoring the system. Periodically he’d play the time-check cartridges to make sure they were OK. “The time now is 2:47.” “It’s 2:48.” “2:49 is the time,” etc. A staff announcer job. The cartridges sliding in and out sequentially looked like a scene from Kubrick’s 2001 where the computer Hal is being deprogrammed. The movie, by the way, had just come out.
A few times I also was an on-the-street news reporter for PAT, calling in 45-second stories on pay phones from New York, reading my scribbled notes or even ad-libbing stories with ease. I was good at it.
As for QXR, Grobe gave me a few assignments as a night manager. The first night the posted relief list showed that my name was up to number seven. Well, maybe something might open up at the start of the New Year. WQXR would split some programming into AM and FM broadcasts; before they’d all been simulcast.
The FCC had ruled that, by January 1967, any owner of an AM station in a city with a population of more than 100,000 people could duplicate only half of its content on the FM side. The rationale: greater program diversity.
To meet that requirement, QXR had decided to feature less “serious” classical music on the AM side from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays with similar hours on weekends. FM devoted that time to longer and potentially more “serious” works. Simulcasts were in the evenings. That made a lot of sense; sponsored program features had always been in the evenings.
As it turned out, one of the guys who’d joined the relief list in my time away at ABC, Matt Thomas, was hired full-time to take up the extra load, and the rest of the assignments were worked out with changes in the staff contract.
WNCN’s staff was minuscule compared to QXR’s. Weekdays, Bernie Alan was there hosting the morning show, Bob Adams the afternoons, Lucien Ricard the evenings, and Bill Watson overnights. Weekends? I was there intermittently. That’s where I met WRVR Chief Announcer Max Cole, also filling in; he added me to his WRVR on-call list.
WRVR was fostered by and housed in The Riverside Church, on the upper West Side in Morningside Heights. There were some programs of its own, as well as newscasts and information from newly formed, non-profit Educational Radio Network, the forerunner of National Public Radio.
But most popular was the daily jazz show hosted by Ed Beach. Like my WOND show back in 1957 and ’58, his was also “Just Jazz.” I was never asked to fill in for him. Max Cole had a weekend jazz show and covered when necessary.
But whenever I saw Ed, he’d always say something like “Hey Man! How’s it going?” He seemed pretty hip with a jolly sort of laid-back presence on the air. In his broadcasts, though, he didn’t seem to say much about the musicians’ backgrounds, more often talking about who soloed in a “medium fast blues” or an “up-tempo swinger,” as he’d describe the tracks.
Out of interest and curiosity, I occasionally looked at the jazz library. A great collection, one I yearned to broadcast and never did. There I’d see Ed’s annotations on the LP jackets for every cut, e.g., “MFB” (medium fast blues) with the initials of the soloists in the order of appearance.
WRVR’s studios always felt luxurious, as if no expense had been spared. There was a large kitchen, too, with a big stove, a modern refrigerator, dishes, glasses, real utensils.
One on-air studio was enormous, magnificently carpeted, with a couple of large wooden desks and comfortable chairs. That’s where Max sometimes had me cover Sunday broadcasts, the biggest aspect of which was to read scripts for live broadcasts of the noon Service of Worship, usually led by Senior Minister Reverend Dr. Robert James McCracken. Seated at a desk facing the engineer in the control room to run all the equipment, I had to watch the clock to make sure that my reading led cleanly to the 11 a.m. service, meanwhile reading the script, appropriately sedate but not somber, respectful but not dour.
Once, a big crowd had gathered outside the Church, because anti-Vietnam War activist Father Daniel Berrigan conducted a service. I announced that, proudly, but without comment. By then I was becoming a minor part of the peace movement, especially due to my connections with WBAI.
I had become friendly with Matt Edwards (born Mario Stutterheim in Argentina) sometime on the air at WNCN; he was also filling in at WBAI, which had been donated to Pacifica Radio in 1960 by Louis Schweitzer, the former owner of the old WBAI, with which I’d had encounters up in the heights of The Pierre. Matt suggested that I contact Program Director Frank Millspaugh to see if I could do some announcing there. Millspaugh added me to the stand-by list.
BAI had always been radically different from all the other stations in the city. And the word “radical” fits. By 1967 it was becoming quite an outlet for left-leaning opinions, including plenty of anti-Vietnam War broadcast comments. Would I fit in? Well, I was opposed to the war but not an active protester. I’d followed the movement and what it was doing and saying, as well as what was coming from similar anti-establishment political causes. I believed in what they believed. But whether I chose to be active or not didn’t matter to the people at the station, where non-conformity was the essence. So many people at the station wore clothes that looked like leftovers from Salvation Army sales, but Matt always wore a suit and tie. That was how he was most comfortable and, since that was his thing, so be it. And I was accepted for whatever I believed or didn’t believe.
Most other stations have always deliberately had easily identifiable formats. But WBAI programming varied from day to day, depending on who was hosting and what they wanted to do. Start times varied too. BAI was already being considered a pioneer in what was yet to be called “free-form” radio. How did I fit in? I hosted whatever pre-planned recorded music was scheduled or ran the equipment for someone else while they presented their shows.
Coming in to take over at 10 a.m. I’d encounter Larry Josephson finishing his morning show. We’d exchange a few pleasantries, even though he was not known for being all that pleasant on the air. His program dovetailed with BAI’s unconventionality and was unlike nearly all morning radio elsewhere, often called “morning drive.” Such formats are as much service as entertainment, due to taking place when listeners are presumably driving to work. Typically this means including vital information for that part of the day, frequent time-checks, weather forecasts and details, plus traffic reports. At music stations, classical included, this means short selections.
Josephson’s persona and programming were actually close to Bill Watson’s (more below) except that they had different kinds of music. Bill’s was always classical. Larry’s could be anything. Both aired personal opinions, but Larry talked more often about himself and often said things that people would describe as “cranky” humor, plus he took phone calls on the air and interacted directly with listeners. He, too, had quite a following. In fact, such a following must have had something to do with his turning up briefly on WNCN in the 1970s. More about that is below.
Mornings when he’d left the studio I’d find the trash basket under the console overflowing with take-out food detritus, greasy Styrofoam containers on the floor, and plastic take-out coffee cups half-filled with swirls of curdling milk sitting almost anywhere, including the edges of turntables. I always assumed that Larry left them and maybe he did, but he’d been preceded by Bob Fass overnight (Radio Unnameable), and, in time, no matter when I arrived at the station, Larry having been there or not, the same kind of mess could often be found.
I suppose that many people would conclude that such slovenliness was in keeping with the hippie-like nature of what the station most seemed, re: a public image. But I’d encounter equal disdain for order and cleanliness at other stations subsequently, regardless of the more conventional nature of the programming. Such conditions offended my sense of order, and, trying to be relaxed, polished, and presentable on the air, I wanted my surroundings to be as comfortable as I could make them. So I often cleaned up, unasked. As for, subsequently, wiping down microwave ovens at stations in Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh, I was disgusted to think that my food could be contaminated by someone else’s smears of tomato sauce, burned-on cheese, and other disgusting weeks-old garbage.
Somewhere during that time, BAI posted a public notice that it was interviewing people as candidates to be the next station manager. With my major credits I thought I would have been a good choice, even though, realistically, longevity at any job had not been my strong suit. Also, I had no leadership experience. How could that have been a problem?
Frank Millspaugh interviewed me on behalf of the station’s board of directors and asked me about what changes I might come up with. One of the first was to have Josephson do time-checks and weather forecasts so as to attract a larger audience.
Frank: “And what would you do if he refused?”
Me: “Oh, fire him of course.”
Frank: “As popular as he is, you’d fire him?”
Frank: “I don’t think that would work well.”
Naturally, I didn’t get the job. Interestingly, about 10 years later, Larry had a brief shot at doing such a morning show on that decade’s version of WNCN. It wasn’t his forte. He was replaced within a week. By me. More later.
In early 1968 I cut back on my availability for WBAI, Bernie Alan left WNCN to take a higher-paying job as a booth announcer at WPIX-TV, and I was offered his slot: 6 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. Thus I had a morning show following the glory of Watson. It was a somewhat unconventional starting time for morning drive. But then, we didn’t have traffic reports, but plenty of time-checks and forecasts amid Music Director Maurice Essam’s rather conventional programming choices.
That meant that late afternoons and evenings I was free, so sometimes I’d fill in not only on WBAI but also WQXR.
My earnings were good. And that money was important because Vene and I had separated in early 1967, and I was living by myself elsewhere in Brooklyn while giving her a third of anything I made. I had agreed to do so, thinking that that was only fair, given how often in our years together she’d been the major source of income—especially during my intermittent acting career. This arrangement meant she was free to do something about her own performing ambitions if she chose to do so. Such payments were open-ended, but by early 1971 we came to a mutual understanding that I had done well enough by her that they need not continue. We had a truly amicable relationship. It remains so more than 40 years later, even if contact has become infrequent.
Despite being a lover of classical music, the wider freedoms of jazz seamlessly connected me to so many sounds and styles emerging in pop music and rock, finding fascination and delight, discovering the marvels of The Beatles, John Mayall, Richie Havens, The Doors, Tim Buckley, Harry Nilsson, Chuck Berry, and more. Plus Indian classical music, having become a major fan of Ravi Shankar.
WNCN had opened wide its aural doors to much new music and I had considerable programming freedom during Entr’acte from noon to 2 p.m. The staff included Carly Simon (not the singer/songwriter) who had an office job, but was also a performer, a professional belly dancer, and dance instructor. She knew Ravi Shankar personally and set up for me a broadcast interview with him.
Thus, that and some of his recordings were featured on Entr’acte.
I never was permitted to present rock on the program, but could share various kinds of ethnic music, such as that played on Japanese wood flutes or a Persian santoor. And my enthusiasm for contemporary concert music connected me via interviews to composers I admired. Once, when programming some of the work of Alan Hovhaness, I mentioned on the air how I’d wished I could interview him.
He heard about that comment and called me.
It was as if WNCN and WBAI were closer to each other than ever before. And I moved seamlessly between them. NCN Station Managers Stan Gurell, Maurice Essam, and, later, Music Director David Dubal were also personally open to all the fascinating things happening in so many kinds of music of the time, even if we didn’t broadcast them all.
From them I got permission to also host my own weekly program on WBAI which I could pre-record on NCN equipment and tapes.
That feature I called American Music; it much resembled Sounds of the 20th Century of about 10 years before on the old NCN: contemporary “classical” music, jazz, film scores, cast recordings of musicals. My only self-chosen parameters were to focus only on what was American. That was the implied point: there is so much richness, so much variety, so much creativity in our own nation, and I wanted listeners to become aware of that.
Was that deliberately patriotic and, if so, how would it sit with BAI’s focus, dwelling on the distressing, sometimes-evil problems within our own nation? That issue never arose. BAI, like America, was open and free to anyone who wanted such openness and freedom. Politically conservative groups, or even ones such as the libertarian YAF (Young American for Freedom), had slots.
Due to my continuing love of jazz and including it in my BAI program, I got press passes to the Newport Jazz Festival a couple of times. One of those concerts in 1969 stays memorable, a near-riot. The bill was George Wein’s attempt to broaden his audience base by including rock groups such as Blood Sweat & Tears and Jethro Tull. That worked; tickets ran out. So many people had come for the concert that many were sitting on the grass on hills above the site. And getting restless. Some claimed that the event should be free to “the people” and tried to gate-crash. The police had to be called. Then, when Sly and The Family Stone got into one of their numbers, “I Want to Take You Higher,” yelling to the crowd, the people surrounding me started jumping on the seats, raising their fists and chanting in unison. My date, a rather shy English lady, was terrified. But I loved hearing John Mayall as well as Dave Brubeck plus Miles Davis’s early ventures into fusion.
I was somewhat involved with what many people at BAI most stood for or against, agreeing that the Vietnam War was a tragic, horrid, criminal act by our nation. Although I went to a few station staff-organized protest gatherings, it would be a mistake to call me a true peace activist. I devoted more of my time and attention to dating.
Nonetheless, when asked by the station’s Chief Engineer Tom Whitmore if I’d help run some sound equipment at a Central Park peace rally, I enthusiastically agreed.
It was in April 1967 and called “Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam.” There was a big stage set up inside Central Park’s southeast corner, overlooking Fifth Avenue. Those of us from BAI were there to broadcast and record the speeches. I could see a number of very straight-looking men in conservative suits and ties taking photos of us. Clearly the FBI. We smiled at them and waved.
The speakers included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “White Americans are not going to deal in the problems of colored people,” he said, “when they’re exterminating a whole nation of colored people.” There were other speakers talking about racism, Native Americans calling attention to injustices against many tribes, Abbie Hoffman speaking against police hounding hippies. They and other speakers kept on saying that their causes were the most important ones of the day. I felt that they diminished the significance of what they had essentially come to protest: the war. The issue was obscured by every one, using the phrase du jour, “doing his own thing.” I was dismayed. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was there to operate audio equipment, nothing more. Well, at least I must have had my photo filed with the FBI.
I’ve since learned online (Wikipedia) that the number of demonstrators was estimated to be perhaps as many as 400,000, and people carried characteristic placards: “Don’t Make Vietnam an American Reservation,” “Make Love not War,” and “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” About 75 young men burned their draft cards. But there were few arrests, and those were of counter-demonstrators staging an Anti-Communist rally.
On a Thursday night, almost a year later, March 1968, Abbie Hoffman was a guest on Bob Fass’s show. There I heard him talk about the Yippies declaring that he and other members of this growing group, plus anyone else interested, should convene on Friday night shortly before midnight at Grand Central Station just “to be together.” (“It’s a spring mating service celebrating the equinox,” read a Yippie handbill, “a back-scratching party, a roller-skating rink, a theatre, with you, performer and audience.”) Hoffman reasoned that Grand Central wouldn’t be crowded with commuters, given the weekend waiting out there along the tracks and in quiet suburban homes. This was not to be a protest meeting.
That Friday evening turned out to be a taste of things yet to come in August: the Democratic National Convention, Chicago.
In fact, the Yippies as a group, if such an amorphous collection of random association can be called a group, had only been around since the start of the year, beginning with that name spurred by Hoffman, his wife Anita, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan, and Paul Krassner.
Hoffman later explained, “If the press had created ‘hippie,’ could not we five hatch the ‘yippie’?” But it was Krassner who claimed the origin of the name, according to a Wikipedia piece.
You may recall that I wrote about having had a little contact with Krassner at the old NCN during the jazz package evenings in the early ’60s. Since then he’d become even more famed, due the accumulation of so many sharp, funny, and provocative articles, editorials, and cartoons in seven or so years of The Realist’s reality. Among his most memorable moments for me was the cartoon “One Nation Under God,” showing the naked hairy deity raping a scrawny, pathetic man wearing an Uncle Sam hat (art by Frank Cieciorka).
Certainly Hoffman, and Krassner in particular, offended conservative people who believed in their own version of patriotism (“Our Country, Love It or Leave It” was one of the anti-hippie slogans). The idea of “counter-culture” had cachet as an alluring, adventurous alternative to straight life, especially for young people disillusioned with the way so many older ones were heading our nation in the wrong direction. I felt empathy, albeit by then not nearly as young as these converts, to this form of freedom. Hanging out at times with these good, sweet people made me feel, as they did themselves, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, belonging, embraced emotionally and physically. They welcomed me, no matter how little I actually joined them in protest events. One more body showing support for the right causes. So, hanging out with some of them in a famed public place, glamorous Grand Central, seemed a good way to warm a few chilly March night hours.
Arriving, I was astonished to see vast amounts of police vehicles and what looked like hundreds of helmeted, armed police standing near the 42nd Street entrance. I also noticed TV and radio station vans. Clearly, this was turning out to be a newsworthy event. Abbie Hoffman had provoked a mighty big reaction.
Inside, the Grand Concourse was densely packed with noisy, chattering, babbling, smiling, happy people, most younger than I, eagerly enjoying being together, hugging, kissing, some sitting in small circles, as if Native Americans vivifying the Circle of Life, one person each facing north, south, east, and west.
The hall was like a massive version of a rush hour subway car, everyone tightly squashed together. Except that these people loved being together and loved being there, with no hurry to go anywhere else. This wasn’t their stop. They’d already reached their destination.
The police were still outside.
Then two young man climbed up onto the information booth under the big clock and tried to move the hands. Instantly a mob of police stomped into the hall, boots and shoes making a counter-din. Without warning.
They swung their hard billy clubs into whatever faces, heads, arms, legs were in their paths, north, south, east, west. I was immersed in sudden panic, the marble halls echoing with screams. We were like stampeding cattle, too densely packed with nowhere to turn. I suddenly felt as if I was no longer in charge of my body, but part of some surging, swaying organism over which I had no control.
“It was the most extraordinary display of unprovoked police brutality I’ve seen outside of Mississippi,” Alan Levine, staff counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at a press conference that Saturday. “The police reacted enthusiastically to the prospect of being unleashed,” Levine added. According to the March 28th edition of The Village Voice, he had seen people running a gauntlet of club-wielding cops, “spitting invective through clenched teeth,” saying that “it was like a fire in a theatre.”
Among the wounded was Voice reporter Don McNeill, pushed into a glass door by police despite press credentials pinned to his jacket. Five stitches. He was not the only member of the press assaulted by the police.
My feet propelled me into a cluster of 30 or 40 people who’d somehow broken free of the main crowd. I was running breathlessly to keep pace with them. We rushed to an exit emptying out into Lexington Avenue, where no police waited. We escapees dispersed, stunned, into the night air.
The next day I wrote a letter to Mayor John Lindsay.
“I have never written to a public official before, but I am so upset by things I’ve witnessed that I feel I must say something…
I respect law and order. The absence of it on the part of police is a deeply distressing thing. I was in Grand Central last night and am distressed as never before about something that always has been just a cliché to me: ‘police brutality.’
It was in full swing last night, with clubs and fists. Against whom? Not members of the underworld, not a horde of psychotics who only understand violence, not against an organized rebellion armed to the teeth. No, the police were hitting innocent boys and girls, many in their teens, hitting anybody else who protested about what they were doing.
…I knew that there would be a large gathering of young people…call them ‘hippies’ if you like…but they didn’t seem to be there to protest anything. There were a few who would have liked to mold that crowd into a solid mass about something, but there was no organization, and little sparks of socio-political distrust never caught fire, smothered under the weight of endless milling…
I don’t know if their gathering was legitimate, legal, or in violation of some law. But I heard no policeman tell us to go home, to disperse. There was no use of the station’s public address system saying anything of that nature. There was no use of bull-horn cautions that the crowd was subject to arrest. There was just a sudden outbreak of police violence.
Yes, I went to Grand Central last night to learn. I felt that those kids there may have had something to tell me about myself, about our society. I did learn things: fear, distrust of police, pity, remorse.
I found my heart pounding with fear, a kind I’d never known before as some of the crowd broke and ran at the first police charge and I was caught up in the panic. I felt fear that I could have been caught in that whirlpool.
The pity comes for those whose heads were cracked and bleeding, about whom I read in this morning’s newspapers, pity for the bodies dragged along the concrete floor or flung up against the walls, shoved into a gauntlet of blue uniforms with pummeling fists and kicking feet.
And I’m filled with remorse that I did not protest this uncalled-for eagerness to cause harm.
…My faith in law and order, in justice, died a little last night. God help us all.”
Village Voice columnist Howard Smith, writing in Scenes, said that the police didn’t seem to have any plan about what to do, wondering why they hadn’t talked beforehand to the Yippie organizers. “Why was a warning never issued to the crowd…primarily high school age—an age particularly sensitive to arbitrariness in other people?”
He reported that the police made no attempt to clear the areas of the station they had already cleared before and, instead, let the crowd fill them in again. He saw no fixed barricades, no demarcation lines.
He saw them drag out people who weren’t resisting, and when those people asked to be allowed to walk, the police called that “resisting”and clubbed them.
Smith reported that plainclothesmen had been circulating throughout the crowd before the trouble started and then “actively assisted” in the clubbing, asking, “Is it correct for a plainclothes cop to act as a uniformed policeman without wearing his badge… (a) license to be particularly vicious since he can’t be identified?” He also pointed out that when press people asked for plainclothesmen’s names, they were threatened or arrested, or ignored. “When I asked two who were particularly rough over and over…and showed my police press card I was told to ‘fuck off’.”
On April 10th a letter from Mayor Lindsay was sent to me at WNCN. It seemed a form letter.
“…I share your concern over reports of the incident…
“I have asked the Civilian Complaint Review Board to conduct a full investigation…and report the findings to me…
“We will take all necessary precautions to ensure proper police action the future.”
I’ve since learned from Wikipedia that one month later the Yippies organized a “Yip-Out” in Central Park that drew 20,000 people and was entirely peaceful, according to Neil Hamilton in The ABC-CLIO Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America.
Interestingly, I don’t remember that. Only the negative stays seared in my brain. I think it’s mostly because I had genuine experience of “crowd psychology” and what it feels like. But certainly keeping a copy of Lindsay’s and my letter marks something where I was on the fringes of counter-culture, even if not a serious activist. My letter was meant to have an impact. I thought that the injured people deserved respect and should not have been harmed. Moreover, I had escaped, not stopping to fight or resist. No hero. And, actually, I did not retain fear of the police and had no hostility towards them thereafter.
Growing out of connections to WBAI, Matt Edwards invited me to join him at The Alternative Media conference at Goddard College in Vermont in June 1970. We hung out with people far more hip-looking than either of us. There were, of course, many FM radio d.j.s.
(I think that that’s me on the upper right in the white shirt.) Jerry Rubin was there. So was Baba Ram Dass and members of the Hog Farm Collective, along with noticeably toothless founder Wavy Gravy, a.k.a. Hugh Romney.
BTW, his son, now called Jordan, was born the year after the event as Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, according to Wikipedia.
Mostly we all sat around and talked about whatever interested us. I don’t remember being part of any serious discussions about society-enhancing concepts involving plans of action. That makes sense. I was never that much of an activist.
The highlight for me, actually, was meeting actor Barton Heyman. I had seen him on Broadway not long before and much admired him playing Wild Bill Hickok in Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a superb, ironic view of show business and exploitation of Native Americans, a play that now seems to have been buried in the dust. (FYI: Stacy Keach starred as Buffalo Bill, and Charles Durning was in the cast, as was Raul Julia). And I had seen and been impressed by Heyman playing Puck in John Hancock’s 1967 off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a deliberately decadent, suggestive-of-evil version. Heymann had been a friend of a puppet-theatre companion from a few years before, Amy Vane.
Heymann sang the praises of William Reich’s orgone energy theories, saying that an orgone box had improved his performances on stage and made his sex life a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Heymann and I also congenially shared our mutual enthusiasms for Indians, while he lamented things that went wrong on stage and the failure of New York critics to see the many virtues of the script. It ran only two and half months, about twice as long as the Broadway take of Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad in 1963, one year after its 1962 off-Broadway run. That starred Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Harris, and Austin Pendleton. Jerome Robbins had directed. I saw it and was astonished, puzzled, and delighted.
(Here I’m skipping details about changes in my personal life except to say that Vene and I divorced and that, in time, I fell in love with Austria-born Helga Wohlmeyer. We lived together for a few years before deciding to move to Europe.)
War and Peace and Stokowski
In September 1970, the tragedy of the war unceasing, Kathy Dobkin of WBAI came up with an astonishing project: a complete on-air reading of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In English, of course. She had recently read that the final volume had been sent to the publishers on December 4, 1869, and felt that December 4, 1970, could be its centennial year.
I participated in that ultimately major event, a non-stop marathon reading of the entire novel for four-and-a-half days. All kinds of celebrities were enlisted to read parts of the first American translation by Anne Dunnigan. Dobkin got Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra to participate.
Some readers were invited. Others, like me, volunteered. The phenomenal cast included Richard Avedon, Anne Bancroft, Theodore Bikel, Mel Brooks, William F. Buckley, Bennett Cerf, Dustin Hoffman, Mitch Miller, Joe Papp, Rip Torn, and Dalton Trumbo. Included were the aforementioned Stacey Keach and Barton Heyman from Arthur Kopit’s already-closed three-month-running Indians. BAI staff members read, as did WBAI subscribers, truck drivers, telephone operators, doctors, lawyers, salesmen.
Kathy assigned each of us our pages of the 1455 in Tolstoy’s 15 books within the novel. We readers didn’t necessarily encounter each other. Every part was pre-recorded. I recorded my own at WNCN, using music by Nino Rota as underscoring.
He wrote it for the 1956 Dino De Laurentis/King Vidor movie starring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer.
This was yet another way I stayed involved with WBAI. A further one: a 1971 broadcast about Leopold Stokowski, including an in-depth interview with him from December 1970.
Actually, that October, Stokowski’s management had contacted WNCN to ask if the station would be interested in broadcasting an interview with him to promote a concert by the American Symphony Orchestra that he had founded in 1962 and of which he was very proud, especially due to his hiring and encouragement of many young musicians, including women, Blacks, and Asians.
NCN Station Manager Stan Gurell and Music Director David Dubal decided to have Bob Adams conduct the interview. I was not chosen. There was no reason that it had to be me. Perhaps they felt safer with Bob talking to such an enduring icon as the venerated 88-year-old conductor. Bob was a sweet and gentle soul, unassuming and modest. My interviews tended to be more probing, perhaps less safe and respectful.* So Bob, Stan, Station Manager Tom Bird, David, and Chief Engineer Ralph Olsen all went off to Stokowski’s. They took with them one of the station’s high quality Teac reel-to-reel recorders. Quite an entourage.
It didn’t go the way they had hoped.
Bob said that right away Stokowski started talking about his orchestra and pulled out a list of the musicians, reading their names, saying something about each person. On and on. Then, after name and bio number 14, he just stopped. He thanked everyone from the station for coming over. And walked them to the door.
When Bob spoke of the visit, he looked a little hurt, as if it had been his fault. David was more critical, angrily saying something about the maestro being senile.
Privately I was amused. I knew I would have done better. And resolved to try. BAI Program Director Bob Kuttner told me he’d be interested when I proposed it to him.
In a letter to the maestro, requesting a meeting, I pointed out that my father had performed under him in the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I asked Stokowski if he’d be willing to discuss not only the American Symphony Orchestra, but also the current state of American music and modern music in general, along with his celebrated, newsworthy, first public performance ever (1965) of the complete Symphony No. 4 by Charles Ives and the subsequent recording.
Stokowski’s written reply agreed to meet and talk about those things, inviting me to his apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue, just south of the Guggenheim Museum. When I arrived, he greeted me kindly at the door, dressed in a loose-fitting, tieless dark shirt, with a grey sweater over his shoulders. What else he was wearing I did not notice, except that later, when he got up from the desk where we had been talking, I saw that he had on soft slippers.
He ushered me into his subtly-lit library where two walls were lined with LPs and 78 rpms of his recordings. On a desk, I put down my small Panasonic cassette recorder (BAI didn’t have enough reel-to-reels to lend me one) and its tiny microphone. A far cry from NCN’s classy equipment.
I wanted to look at the recordings to find those I already knew and admired so as to praise him. There was no chance. “Please sit down over here,” he said in a soft, gentle voice, motioning to where he had already set up two chairs opposite each other.
“Now,” he continued, “before we start, I must ask you to not cut out anything that I say or talk about. The conversation must be broadcast in its entirety.” It sounded more like a command than a request. He was used to being in charge, of course.
“That’s fine,” I answered. “May I turn on the recorder?”
He nodded “yes.”
Naturally I began by asking him about his orchestra; that was the reason he wanted to do this. Immediately he pulled out a program from a desk drawer and, opening it, began to do the same thing that he had done with Bob. But, after he had spoken about two musicians, I quickly cut in with “You must be very proud, especially because you’ve done so much to include women and Black people.”
He smiled, evidently pleased about the subject, put away the book, and began to explain his thinking behind such choices. Soon he was extrapolating, making clear his distress at the way American society was going, including the “dreadful” war.
Perfect. He had moved into BAI territory. I knew everybody there would love that.
The conversation flowed, covering American and other contemporary music. And, of course, the movie Fantasia, where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had been re-arranged for the film. I asked him how he felt about what Disney had done. “It would be better, if you asked Stravinsky,” closing the subject.
He spoke slowly, deliberately, never seeming critical of me. More patient and polite than challenged. At one point, he asked me to excuse him. He wanted to go to the kitchen to get some tea that he had prepared earlier. Returning with his cup, he set it down gently, as if aware that the still-running tape recorder might hear the sound. Of course, I hadn’t turned it off, given his instructions, knowing full-well that I would nonetheless edit out the silence before broadcast.
After about an hour talking, he held up his hand, as if asking for silence, then moved it in a waving motion, left to right, clearly conducting me to stop talking.
Walking me to the door, thanking me for my interest, he asked when the talk would be broadcast. I didn’t know yet but said that I would call him and let him know. I had been thinking already about which of his performances I would feature on WBAI, including Roger Goeb’s Symphony No. 3 and Lou Harrison’s 1951 gamelan-influenced Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra. Both relative obscurities were among my all-time favorites. I told him so on my way out, hoping he’d be pleased and perhaps impressed with my knowledge. “I’m certain that will be fine,” was his only response.
The broadcast didn’t air until four months later. I taped it in January at NCN, turning it in to BAI just a couple of weeks before fulfilling a plan to leave New York to try to settle in Europe. The delay was deliberate. I had turned the program into something personal, as if some kind of a swansong, influenced by my belief that I might never return. I talked about my father and his connection to Stokowski, about how my brother had almost been named Leopold. I discussed family background in music and my recent years with NCN. That included a discussion about how the interview came about, including telling about Stan, David, and Bob’s failed attempt to get one. Not a kind thing to do, certainly, in retrospect. I’d always been treated well at NCN. They’d even allowed me to tape that feature there. It now seems childish. Moreover, what if I had returned to New York broadcasting at some future date? That could have tarnished my reputation.
And I did return to New York. Four-and-a-half years later. And no one ever said anything to me about that BAI broadcast. As if it had never happened. But so much had transpired at NCN in that time, that, if anyone from there had heard the Stokowski feature, they’d had more important things on their minds. Perhaps that broadcast was so insignificant that no one cared.
From WBAI folio April 1971 “A very strange and personal kind of documentary by the former WNCN producer and commentator.” Interestingly, there’s no reference to my connection to BAI.
Helga and I started making plans to leave the U.S. in 1969. In part, the cause was my own feelings about the same kind of thing Stokowski saw, the falling apart of America. That had been underscored by such experiences as in Washington, D.C. and at Grand Central Station. It felt as if the Vietnam War and the killing of young American men in a lost cause would never cease. And the many people from all walks of life spent time and energy vigorously protesting in the streets, in public meetings, in the press, in letter-writing to people we’d elected without seeming to have any effect. The phrase often used was that Washington was not “listening.” Of course it was listening. It just wasn’t responding the way so many of us wanted. I could remove myself from where it hurt the most. It took another four years after our departure before that tragedy ended.
(Here I skip parts of the memoir about some of the first months in Europe early in 1971.)
And I got myself a legitimate press card, so that I could report on any news event I encountered—a document that could perhaps smooth my way into public events, perhaps also getting free tickets. Tom Washington, WPAT’s news director, gave me that card after I asked him for it, telling him that I was going to Europe but was not certain where I’d be in the months to come. He thought it might be interesting to have a couple of stories from me, having used me a few times as an on-street reporter in recent years. But he told me that I should only call in if there was a major breaking news story.
I never did send him anything. Nothing that significant occurred when I was present. The card did, however, temporarily legitimatize my residing in Italy until I was told to leave the country. And it also garnered a few gratis movie tickets in Munich, Vienna, Venice, Lisbon, and Paris. Plus those to shows, concerts, and operas in Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome, and Genoa.
We (me age 37, Helga age 30) did not know where we’d settle, or even if we would. Pure spontaneity. An adventure.
Neither of us had any idea how or if we’d find jobs. We just assumed we would. It seemed unlikely that I would be a radio announcer on nationalized stations where everyone spoke languages not my own. As for being an actor, that seemed another improbability.
In time, I would get an interview with Armed Forces Radio, perform Shakespeare on the stage of the Roman Arena in Verona, have a shot at appearing in a Fellini film, be in a play in Genoa, Italy, and audition as a jazz d.j. for Radio Monte Carlo.
Mostly though when it came to performances I was in audiences, although with my eventual job as a teacher of English to Italian adults, my outgoing personality clearly made my classes popular.
Personal fragments from four-and-a-half years in Europe
Ever the performer, though, I still thought about reporting and so brought along my cassette recorder to gather sounds of the various places we’d go and to talk about and over those sounds.
I knew that, without some kind of radio station commitment to broadcast anything I recorded, the only people who might ever hear my descriptions and experiences would be Joe Marzano, Bob James, my family, and friends. I’d send them tapes. Nonetheless, it would be a kind of reporting.
Further documentation was to be with a simple, single-lens Canon Super 8 movie camera. I was also eager to photograph everything for myself in any case. Collecting memories.
The Alleged Journalist
My first use of the press card was for admission to a movie in Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station). I explained to the woman at the ticket window that I was researching how movies sounded in German. Absurd, of course. But she didn’t care and let us in.
The reason was not to see the movie. We had nearly a day-long wait ahead of us to take a night train to Berlin, invited to stay at the apartment of Helga’s friends Cristina and Peter Witt. The night train was the cheapest option. Spending time at the movie theater was to keep out of the cold and the rain without having to take a hotel room for the day and to be in a place dark enough where we could rest and close our eyes without hearing too much noise, rather than in the Wartesaal (Waiting Room).
One theater looked promising, seeming to attract only few people during that day. Mostly men. Maybe it was the feature: Partnertausch und Gruppensex (Partner Swapping and Group Sex). The dialogue, which I heard while awake, tended to be soft, almost whispered. Given my language barrier, I couldn’t follow it, making for relaxation. Occasional loud orgasmic screams did create an alteration in the dynamics. Nonetheless, we both were able to doze off in our cramped isolated seats, far away from customers with their raincoats.
The train left at midnight, scheduled to arrive in Berlin at 7:17 a.m. We slept fitfully on hard third class wooden seats. No one there with us.
As we neared Berlin, a conductor told us we would stop in Falkensee for East German guards to inspect our documents and our luggage. That was the last stop before crossing The Wall to enter Berlin.
I peered outside the window and, in the fog, I could see a uniformed officer pacing back and forth. I grabbed my camera to take a quick picture.
Helga yelled, “Are you crazy? Put that away. What if he should see you?” By then I’d already taken a quick frame or two. Quickly I turned off the camera and stowed it with the rest of my luggage. Next to the tape recorder. I did not turn that on.
Helga had already prepped me what to say and not to say, what to do and not to do when an East German guard would arrive and question me. Don’t say I was a reporter. Don’t show my press card. Don’t speak German, which really wasn’t much of a problem anyway. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Allow her to do all the talking. Be sure to say that the reason for our trip was only as tourists. Say that we’d been invited by friends and try not to mention Peter and Cristina’s names. A performance. One which made both of us nervous.
A severe-looking officer, circa age 32, stomped into our compartment. His dark grey pants were so sharply creased that they looked as if you could easily slice dark German bread on them. The skin on his face gave the impression that he had just shaved about 10 minutes before. Helga greeted him with a smile. He did not smile back. He asked to see our passports, looking at us closely to make sure we were the same people as in the photos. He asked all the questions Helga anticipated, and she translated for him and for me where required.
He wanted to know if I had a camera. When I offered to show it to him, he told me not to touch it but to point to it. He then took it down from the luggage rack, opened the case and looked through the lens. Then he noticed the tape recorder. He wanted to know why I had one. I explained why and he accepted the answer.
He left. Soon we arrived in Berlin.
Once, standing on a platform overlooking The Wall into East Berlin, Peter saw me start to take out my camera. “Please, don’t do that,” he warned. “They might shoot you if they see you trying to take a picture.” I put it away.
So much for being a press card-carrying journalist.
A Job Interview
We went back to Munich by way of Frankfurt, following up on an application to be an announcer on the Armed Forces Radio network whose base was in that city. So, soon in Europe, I wasn’t sure about where I might call home or if such a job would be interesting. But why not look into it?
Before leaving the U.S., the program director at Voice of America had mailed me the name and phone number of whom to contact.
I’d auditioned for the Voice Of America when still in New York, figuring, incorrectly, that announcers for VOA would be in European studios. VOA sent an 18-page form to fill out and a script to record on my own. It contained, among other things, a page from James Agee’s Knoxville Summer1915, some of which was already familiar from Samuel Barber’s composition of that name. One part has stuck with me.
“A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.”
I thought that I gave a good, eloquent reading. A polite thanks but no thanks.
In Frankfurt, David Mynatt was the AFR connection. He’d already received my résumé, and replying to my New York letter had said to come see him when in Germany.
In retrospect, it could seem strange that, given my opposition to the Vietnam War, I’d want to connect to the military. But, actually, I was against the government maintaining the war and had nothing but sorrow and sympathy for our young men sent there to die. In some kind of oblique way, maybe my broadcasting could take a turn towards solace, had I some choice on how I could perform.
Mynatt was very friendly, asked the usual questions about my experience and background but, clearly, was curious about why I’d come to Europe. Naturally, I didn’t talk about my negative feelings about where our nation was going but rather explained that my girl friend was Austrian and we’d come to spend time with her family and to look into settling down.
He gave me audition material to look over. A 15-minute newscast. A piece MC-ing a concert by the Armed Forces Radio Network Orchestra. A short script giving Americans directions on how to drive from Munich to Frankfurt, explaining road signs.
After I recorded everything, Mynatt listened to the tape, saying he was impressed with my German pronunciations of the signs and that I sounded really good reading the news and the concert script, but that there were few openings for civilians in general and none at that moment. He wrote down my only European address so far, in care of Helga’s mother in Vienna. And said to keep in touch, especially if I decided to live in Germany. I never followed up.
Helga and I knew that we’d not have enough money to splurge on travel until deciding where to live, assuming that we would. We’d buy a used Volkswagen van, go wherever we felt like going and mostly stay at camp grounds in as many parts of Europe as we could afford.
During our two-day stay at dreary Romeo e Giulietta campsite just outside Verona that month, I stood on the stage of L’ Arena di Verona.
The 1st-Century CE structure is a still-active and famed venue for summer opera performances. When we walked onto the grounds, carpenters and electricians were constructing sets. Hammers banging. Drills squealing. Then everyone took a lunch break at noon. Quickly I ascended the platform, telling Helga to take the tape recorder and sit on one of the seats within a curve distant from the stage. Eschewing the Balcony Scene from fair Verona where we laid our scene, thinking that it didn’t call for enough volume, I declaimed the Prologue to Henry V. After having spoken to an audience of six—Helga and five puzzled workers eating their sandwiches—we listened to the tape. My voice was faint but the words could be understood. Natural acoustics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verona_Arena
In Venice a few days later I tried using the press pass to get into a movie, not just any movie, but a link to my past as an actor 11 years before. In a way-off-the-tourist-beaten path, Dorsoduro, we’d found a reasonably inexpensive pensione. Exploring the little bridges along tiny canals, wandering among the winding, mysterious, dark and damp alleys, we’d come upon a small neighborhood movie theater, showing La ballata della città senza nome (The Ballad of the City Without a Name). Not a title you’d recognize. But, looking at the poster, we could recognize that it was Paint Your Wagon. In late November 1960, I’d been in a production of that musical at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. How could we not go in to see it?
The somewhat unshaven, middle-aged man in the ticket booth was friendly enough, but English was not among his responsibilities. This wasn’t a tourist zone. Why would he have to know English? This wasn’t Germany or Austria, either, where so many people knew some of my language. I showed the man the press card. It made no sense to him. I said “giornalista.” Useless. With a shrug and a smile, he made it clear that he didn’t understand what I wanted. We paid.
The movie was already in progress. The chorus was singing “They Call the Wind Maria.” It was in English. Then the dialogue started. Dubbed Italian. I figured I’d be able to follow what was happening, storywise, but it turned out that the 1969 movie had scant resemblance to the very familiar original which I knew so well, having presented the cast recording on WNCN and WBAI. Most of the time, I had only the slightest idea about what was happening. Not that it was all that easy to catch every word. The house was full of its own Italian dialogue, neighbors gabbing with neighbors, getting up to sit somewhere else to talk with someone else. There was almost as much action in the theater as there was on the screen.
Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg’s characters seemed to have some remote connections to characters I knew from the 1951 version. There was no one resembling my role, Edgar Crocker. Ray Walston was recognizable amid the cast. Later research revealed that he played Mad Jack Duncan, another invention in the new script by Paddy Chayefsky. And new songs had been added by André Previn and the original’s lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.
Later, back in the U.S. in the mid-’70s, there was no immediate chance to see the movie. Nor much interest. I still haven’t seen it. Certainly it was no classic. “It just lies there in my mind—a big, heavy lump,” said Roger Ebert that year. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/paint-your-wagon-1969.
Fellini and me
I had a chance to be in an Italian movie. Fellini’s.
We were in Rome for eight days. I’d tried getting interviews at schools that taught Italians English, exploring possibilities for the fall if we decided to live in Rome. The Shenker School, at a great location right above the Piazza di Spagna, gave me a test. Amid the multiple choices, grammar-wise, were questions about the present indicative, the present subjunctive, the conditional imperative, and the future conditional. In English. Huh? Those words and their meanings were totally alien. Following my complete disqualification, the young Englishman who interviewed me was very helpful in suggesting where to earn a few lire in Rome, saying that there was usually something going on at Cinecittà where actors, such as I, might find work dubbing into English or, at least, getting parts as extras. Even though the sword-and-sandals epics were no longer being made.
Heading to Cinecittà, steering the van through crazy Roman traffic was a great game. No terror for this fearless weaver of New York streets. Given that the VW tended to dwarf so many little cars, such as the little Fiat 500, nicknamed Il Topolino (Mickey Mouse), I could be as charmingly aggressive as the Romans. Never looking right. Never looking left. Few side-view mirrors. Tooling along in traffic lanes whose lines were taken as suggestions, not imperatives, I followed the examples around me. Rule of the road: sempre diritto (always straight ahead).
Besides, what was the hurry? I was on vacation.
Green fields, many pine trees, and far-off stone fragments looking like ancient ruins surrounded the Cinecittà gates. The parking lot was not crowded. Probably nothing happening that Friday circa 7 p.m. I drove through the entrance without hindrance and found an office with a sign over it: Ultra Film Federico Fellini Produzione: Roma. Inside the office about six men sat around talking. They didn’t seem curious why I, such a stranger, had entered their space. I asked for someone who spoke English and a man, seeming in his mid-20s said, “I speak. I am Tonino. Fellini’s assistant. Can I help you?”
Apologizing for not speaking Italian, I asked if anyone at Cinecittà was making a film currently.
“Oh, yes. Fellini is making film about Rome.”
“Does he need actors?”
“It could be. Are you actor?”
“Have you picture of yourself?”
“Get one and bring; Fellini likes looking at pictures.”
“OK. Where? When?”
“Tomorrow is OK. Come here. We shoot something tomorrow afternoon. Probably finish 6 p.m.”
I drove back to the campsite and told Helga. She suggested that we find a photo kiosk at Termini station and take pictures. It looked less glamorous and exciting than it did in that De Sica film Indiscretion of an American Wife. Johnny Mathis’s version of a song from it, ”Autumn in Rome,” resonated in my head.
In my six small pictures, sometimes I was looking straight ahead, sometimes doing goofy faces.
With my name inscribed on each, I took them to Cinecittà that Saturday afternoon at 6 p.m. Entering the same office I didn’t see Tonino. “C’è Tonino?” I asked what looked like some of the same men as on the day before.
“Non c’è,” said one.
“But I thought he’d be here,” I responded, disappointed, of course, not that I expected anyone to understand.
“Può essere là,” the same man said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the studios. I understood “là” (there), which was enough. So he meant, I guess, that Tonino was not in the room, rather that he was somewhere else in the vicinity.
I went walking through the nearby lots. Open-doored, empty studios. A costume shop full of all kinds of elaborate, ecclesiastical robes. Within the vast hall, it felt as if the costumes were waiting for actors to parade in them in a religious festival. Two women sewing in the vastness.
“C’è Tonino?” I asked. They looked up and smiled and shrugged.
Another studio seeming to be an unfinished living room. No one there.
I passed a group of five work-clothed men carrying tools and a ladder. “Tonino?” I asked.
“Non c’è,” replied one.
Maybe that meant he’d gone, or maybe just not near us.
After wandering enough, without ever encountering spectacular outdoor sets, as I’d hoped, I returned to the office.
“Ciao, Gordon!” Tonino greeted me. “How are you? Have you pictures?”
He told me to write a phone number on them. Explaining that we had no phone, he said. “Well maybe Fellini can talk to you today. Maybe a part for you.”
I nearly fell over.
Then he laughed. “No. I’m joking. Fellini is not here. But leave photos and call me, next week, maybe four or five days.”
In retrospect, the whole idea of me being there at all seemed pointless. What did I expect? That instantly Fellini would be thrilled to see my face and ask me to hang around for a few days until filming started? I was a tourist after all, with no plans to stay in Rome much longer. We’d been there five days already and had many cities, towns, and villages ahead waiting to be explored, along the Italian and French rivieras, in the vastness of Spain, in Portugal, southern France.
We stayed three more days. Before leaving I called Tonino. He wasn’t there.
Then, late in 1972, the movie came out. It was called Roma. A long, colorful, ecclesiastical fashion show was in it, with priests modeling all kinds of bizarre clothes, on roller-skates. That must have been the wardrobe I’d seen stumbling around the back lots. One of the priests looked like me. My role! Except I would’ve fallen on my face. I never learned to roller-skate.
Before we left, I’d been leafing through the Rome Daily American, an English language newspaper. There was a small ad saying that Tony Scott, one of my long-time favorite jazz clarinetists, was appearing at a night club. The ad also mentioned pianist Romano Mussolini. The family name was certainly familiar. Naturally I hoped to hear Scott, even meet him, minimally, to express my admiration.
Entering the darkened club during the day, I found a bartender setting up glasses and bottles on the shelves. He spoke English. I asked if Scott would be performing there that evening. “He’s American playing with Mussolini, yes?” Different reputations, no?
“Yes. When will they play this evening?” I asked.
“Oh. Sunday was last night. They have left.”
“Do you know where they’ll perform next?”
He didn’t know.
The following year, living in Genoa, Scott and Mussolini had a gig there. I introduced myself to Tony and we became quite friendly, hanging out together quite a few times. More later.