We rented a tiny, one-room furnished apartment on upper Riverside Drive, beyond the fashionable zones, bordering on grimy, noisy side streets. But we had an income; Vene quickly landed a job as editorial assistant at Mademoiselle Magazine. Her boss from the Hamid group, Bill Rolley, knew someone on the staff, high enough up to have influence. It wasn’t a major job, but she was thrilled, always hoping to be a writer on the staff of a major magazine.
WNEW Program Director Mark Olds invited me to come over to make an audition. Walking into the magnificence of WNEW was like walking into some kind of fantasy. The station felt like the BIG time, a far cry from WOND, down a dirt road in the marshes, or WHAT’s narrow dark hallways, or WFLN’s simplicity in Roxborough far away from Center City bustle.
This station, perched high up in a mid-town skyscraper, had gleaming offices, subdued lighting, glass everywhere, and pictures of the d.j. stars lining the hallways: William B. Williams, Lonnie Starr, “Jazzbo” Collins. Olds came to greet me in the lobby, dressed in a crisp white shirt within an expensive-looking suit, and gleaming black shoes which made no sound as we walked down a corridor to his office. I felt out of that league, a 25-year-old kid among adults in the big time real world. It seemed impossible that I’d ever be part of that monument.
We entered the giant record library where Mark told the librarian that I could take as many as 10 LPs for an hour or so. Then we walked along another corridor to a small studio. It had two turntables, a mike, and a console. Mark handed me a sheaf of written commercials and told me to put together a show anyway I wanted. And when I was ready, he’d have an engineer, across a glass window, tape the whole thing. Mark said he might listen while it was happening, if he had the time.
I enjoyed the sound of the records I’d chosen. The music made me feel good. Doing a couple of read-throughs with the copy, hearing my own microphone voice through the headphones, nervousness left me and confidence returned. My audition went well, I thought, polished, friendly, articulate, a whiz at ad-libbing.
When I finished, Mark came into the small studio. “That was great!” he said. “You sound really good. I think I may be able to find something for you. We have an affiliate in Cleveland. I can put you in touch with the program director and send him this tape. I think they’re looking for someone.”
Cleveland? I wanted to be in New York. Trying to hide my disappointment (what did I think? I’d get a slot, even part time at WNEW? Naïve.), I thanked him for his compliment and his offer but explained that, having just moved to New York, that’s where I wanted to try my luck. He wished me all the best, saying to keep in touch. But I never got back to him; I don’t know why.
There was also WMGM, where I called Dean Hunter who hosted programs there. He, formerly known as Gabe Millerand on KYW, Philadelphia, had met my father backstage after a concert and invited him and me to drop in any time at the studios. We did go to see him once when he introduced us to singer Felicia Sanders, stopping by to plug her big hit, “Where is Your Heart?” the theme from Moulin Rouge. That was the only connection I had had with him.
Reminding him of that, he seemed to remember and told me whom to contact for an audition, even though I’d already sent a tape. I could hear him thinking, “Who is this kid, anyway?” I tried to get an interview with the program director using Dean’s name but never could get through.
Well, I’d only been in New York a couple of months, and Vene had a job.
I began making phone calls to stations outside NYC. One of them, WNRC, a pop music station in New Rochelle, made me an offer: a d.j. slot on weekends. Mort Fega had a jazz show there; that was impressive; he was major name in jazz circles. However, the program director cautioned me that he was not sure how long the job would last, that people were trying to buy the station, and the deal might go through any day. No one knew for sure what would happen to WNRC then.
I took the job. Two weeks later the sale came through. WNRC became WVOX, part of a chain of other stations carrying the same programs. Everyone on the staff at WNRC was fired.
My name, however, did appear in a New York newspaper due to the WNRC/WVOX changes. That paper was the weekly Show Business, where November 24th, 1958, Ed Rudy wrote, “This seems like a heck of a way to do business.”
I guess he didn’t know that that was business as usual. Changes in ownership are as common as changes in format in radio, although both occurred together that time.
So, in four years, five stations. The longest job, which I had quit to seek my fortune in New York, was two years. Some kind of record? Probably not. Eventually I’d work at four other stations with ownership changes and, like other colleagues, find myself once again, on the street.
But Show Business reminded me that pounding Manhattan pavements was the route to my other goal: becoming an actor.
Show Business was the major source of casting information, where producers posted notices about the shows they were casting, the kinds of roles available, the requirements for singing or dancing, which usually were separate, when the shows were scheduled to open, where the auditions would be, and where to send pictures and résumés. Most actors relied on Show Business. Especially those of us who didn’t have agents.
How to get an agent? The standard way was to get a role in which agents might come see you perform. Naturally, if an agent thinks you might get regular work, there’s profit in it for the agent. So to get a job, get an agent; to get an agent, get a job. Simple!
Minimally, directors and producers wanted those “pics and résumés” mailed to them, unless there were open calls, or phone numbers where we could contact the people casting and try to set up interviews, or, if really in luck, auditions.
Show Business made its profit from such listings. But it also had plenty of ads for acting coaches, singing coaches, résumé coaches, and photographers who specialized in the standard format 8 x 10 glossy pictures.
I had pictures made. It meant setting up a session with a professional photographer, with all kinds of poses and wardrobes from which to choose the best face that looked like me but also looked special and distinctive. Not cheap.
As for a résumé, having created a few when I had been hopping from station to station, I thought I knew how to do that. There was a problem, though: no New York acting credits. So I listed roles I had played at Temple, without specifying where. And listed only three radio stations.
I had to pay for at least a hundred copies of the picture and of the résumé, straining Vene’s and my budget.
We decided to sell our Fiat. That made sense. What’s the point of young people with small incomes trying to maintain a car in Manhattan? It hadn’t been all that useful in those first few months, except to get to New Rochelle. And then, during our first winter in New York, I’d spent a lot of energy and time moving the car every other weekday to stay within alternate-side-of-the street legalities. “Mon. Wed. Fri. No parking 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.” or the same, instead, for Tue. and Thu.
I had been able to collect a small amount of unemployment insurance from New Jersey those first few months. I qualified because I could claim that I had to leave my job at WOND to be with my wife when we moved to New York so she could take a job there. And my tiny stint at WNRC proved that I had been looking for work.
During that winter and even into early April, I landed five acting roles. All minor. Two were off-off-Broadway, on West 71st Street in a church basement where actor/producer Sumner Kernan regularly produced plays for Players West and where he starred in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. He played the Captain. I played a Scot, Leslie Rankin, replacing John Lovelady who’d moved on to something bigger. My skill at accents and my résumé credits (albeit college) made me look like a good choice. Perhaps my beard did, too.
This was also my introduction to theatre in the round. I wasn’t used to being that close to audiences; proscenium stages had always kept us comfortably separated. It also meant that sometimes I had to step over audience feet.
Likewise this was my introduction to real New York theatre people. An older chap, Anton Spaeth, was among them. He seemed so elegant and sophisticated. Backstage, he and the rest of the cast joked about other actors and about directors. They seemed to know so much about things I didn’t understand, as if they were some kind of exclusive club. But once, alone with Adrienne Leigh, she told me “confidentially” that she thought I was much better in the role than John Lovelady had been. She said that he had played Rankin as silly, whereas I gave him believable seriousness which made the character much funnier. I was flattered.
Then, given my radio-skilled speaking voice, I landed another part there at Players West, Narrator in Edmond Rostand’s The Woman of Samaria, translated, of course.
Although I invited agents, none came. And I hadn’t learned how to network with other actors.
Still the character actor, I also personified an elderly man in a group of other old guys in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata starring Meg Mundy. We had a few lines, but we were basically an ensemble without specific roles. But that was real off-Broadway. Producer Day Tuttle directed it in his new playing space, the East 74th Street Theater, converted from a Czech social club clubhouse.
During rehearsals, Mundy spoke up in front of all of us asking Day for guidance in how to play the role; she was having trouble figuring it out. “I don’t believe in telling actors what to do,” he replied sweetly.
Later, another actor would tell me that that statement most likely meant that Day didn’t know what to do.
The show closed in one week. All the big newspapers covered it and their reviews said it had no style, no point of view. That seemed valid. The playing space, however, got praise, perhaps Tuttle’s principal goal.
Next, tiny Blanche Marvin, who ran Merrimimes, a children’s theatre group at the lower East Side’s Cricket Theatre, saw possibilities in me to play the father in a seasonal attraction, Meet Mr. Easter Bunny. My mature sounding voice and my face gave me the kind of somber sound and look to play Father, one of those initially mean dads so common in children’s plays and stories, who would, of course, come around to be a nice guy after all.
I was the cause of a near-disaster during the run. I got tied up in a major traffic jam on the way to the theater and arrived much later than I should have. By the time I got there, the play was already underway. That wasn’t so bad in itself, since Father didn’t come on until the very end of the first act. But, while I was in the dressing room backstage still putting on my costume and make-up, I could hear the cast going through some of the act’s final dialogue.
That act was supposed to come to a dramatic conclusion, as Father walked in on his kids hanging out with a six-foot-tall, goofy rabbit who, unlike Mary Chase’s Harvey, was entirely visible.
The final words had been reached. I harshly yelled out from backstage, putting on my shoes, “Children! What’s going on in there?”
The cast ad-libbed some simple stuff in response.
I tied my shoes and buckled my belt. “Children! What are you doing?”
More ad-libs out front.
Finally I strode in. Curtain.
Years later I still have a few residual nightmares about arriving on stage late.
Film extra work finally came: once again as part of a group of guys. This time in a sleazy situation, as members of a “photo club” who were really there to stare at nearly nude women in the low budget horror feature, The Head That Wouldn’t Die (later known as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die). One girl got totally nude for the “European version.” A bonus for all of us who could concentrate. When the film emerged several years later, my head was no longer to be seen, nor any of the rest of me. Editing.
By then I had joined AFTRA, the television and radio performer’s union, and had certainly been getting paid; I was a professional actor, at last. And, like so many, barely employed.
Oh, and CBS Radio still had a few dramas. I auditioned using my own choice of material to show off my range of voices and accents. Director Himan Brown then asked me why I hadn’t better displayed my own voice. Every one in the business could do voices and accents, he explained.
Radio. There it was again. Maybe that’s where I still belonged, even if not as an actor. But in New York? It didn’t seem possible. But it happened.
Sometimes I listened to WQXR, which reminded me how much I’d been missing hearing classical music. But becoming part of that staff didn’t seem like reality, especially since my last connection to classical music radio seemed so far away in time and place. Plus, having been fired by WFLN hardly seemed like admirable experience or a source of a good reference.
Yes, that was only three years before, but time must have had different dimensions. Perhaps it was the intensity of so much happening in such a short period. And perhaps time was also measured by not having lived that many years.
Late one night, though, I tuned into another classical station I’d never heard or heard of. WNCN. Some guy with a nasal, squeaky voice was making minimal announcements about the music. No commentary. Surely I could do better than that.
The next day I called WNCN and asked to speak to the program director. There was none, I was told. Anyway, I let the receptionist know why I called. So she passed me along to the Chief Engineer Dave Passell. Right away I knew that voice. It was the same I’d heard on the air the night before. What? The chief engineer announcing? Quite a low-budget operation, it seemed.
After I told him that I’d hosted programs in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New Rochelle and that I knew something about classical music, he asked if I had an FCC Third Class Radio Operator’s license. Of course I did; it was required at every station where I’d worked. Like most announcers, the FCC required us to take tests to prove that we knew how to run broadcast equipment.
Satisfied that I met that first fundamental requirement, Dave invited me to come to the WNCN offices off Fifth Avenue on West 44th Street and take an audition, saying he might be able to use me.
Wow! What a break. I knew he’d be impressed with my sound and my talent. Once I arrived and told Dave again about my experience, somehow avoiding being too specific about WFLN, Dave handed me a WBCN program guide asking me to read some listings. No microphone. That was my audition. I did better than just read the listings; I ad-libbed introductions to the music. There was no indication that he was impressed. But he did say, in his dry way, that he thought I’d be OK.
And that there was an opening. But he also explained that there wouldn’t be much announcing, since WNCN was an affiliate of Boston-based Concert Network’s WBCN and that 12 hours every day of New York’s programs originated there, re-broadcast, delayed, on tapes. The other 12 were on different tapes. That is, I’d be more like an operator than announcer.
While most people think of radio networks as being based in New York, this one wasn’t. WNCN, WXCN Providence, and WHCN Hartford, were part of WBCN’s “bicycle network,” a term, I later learned, meaning the tapes came in the mail. It was applied to a few other similar operations. Dave didn’t call it that, of course; the term suggests something cheap. Which it was.
Basically Dave needed someone to run the tapes but who’d know enough about classical music to be able to handle emergencies, such as broken tapes, when it might be necessary to actually speak on the station. The Boston tapes aired from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The other 12 hours consisted of tapes that WNCN or WBCN had prepared. So Dave had produced a few tapes on his own. My job was to run those non-BCN tapes and take transmitter readings, standing by, midnight to 6 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday mornings, i.e., Monday through Friday night, since the hours of the day start in darkness.
The acting career was hardly flourishing. Getting paid for five six-hour nights meant an actual income, meaning that, if daytime acting work turned up I could do it, so long as the show didn’t run past 11:30 p.m.
Dave and I made an appointment to meet where he could show me the operation. It was not on West 44th Street. The tapes and WNCN-created announcements came from the same space as the one housing the transmitter. That was at a high-class location: Fifth Avenue near 61st Street on The Pierre hotel’s 40th floor. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?
A perfectly groomed, superbly uniformed elevator operator whooshed us as high up in the hotel as we could go where a grimy concrete stairway led to a massive, anonymous, thoroughly locked metal door.
Dave opened it.
This was not a Sesame cave filled with luxurious goods. A large concrete-floored, high-ceilinged room with one small open window perched above it, had all kinds of partially open, sometimes torn cardboard boxes, in which mysterious pieces of equipment and giant tubes stuck out in every direction. Massive metal shelves held more such arcane pieces. In the middle of the space, a worn-out, big, stuffed leather armchair sat next to an old desk covered with scattered papers.
Meanwhile I could hear Brahms’s Hungarian Dances coming from speakers behind a less imposing door. There Dave ushered me into a smaller space where a guy who looked about my age sat on a wheeled office chair next to a desk on which there was a small console, a turntable, a radio board with dials for pots, plus a small reel-to-reel player. No microphone.
Dave introduced me to Jeff Kuklin, the noon to six “announcer” who oversaw the broadcasting of half a day’s worth of Boston programs.
Behind Jeff, against one wall, sat four giant reel-to-reel tape machines, whose tapes were larger than any I’d seen before. A tape was running on #1. Against another wall stood racks and racks of blinking lights, dials, knobs, and buttons, similar to WFLN’s transmitter equipment.
“Uh,” Dave said, characteristically clearing his throat, “you have to take transmitter readings every hour. The logs are in there.” He pointed to the desk next to Jeff and reached over to open a drawer, Jeff pulling away. Another drawer held program logs plus a sheaf of papers, listing Tapes 101 to 150 with various amounts of check marks next to them.
Suddenly a sound like an enormous raspberry reverberated throughout the room. “What’s that?” I asked, astonished.
“That’s the air compressor. It keeps the transmitter from overheating,” Dave explained.
“How often does it go off?”
“Whenever it needs to.”
“But wouldn’t that interfere with the announcing?”
“Yes. But you’ll announce only when you have to.”
“And where’s the microphone?”
Dave pulled open another drawer and withdrew what looked like something out of airport scenes in 1940s movies, a flat microphone on a handle, a lollypop. “You just plug it in here,” he said, putting the jack into an opening above one of the pots. “You use it during an emergency and say, ‘One moment please.’”
Was he telling me even what to say? “But what if the compressor goes off while I’m talking?” I asked.
“Oh, this mike is not very sensitive. That’s why we use this model.”
“I see a turntable,” I said, “but where do you keep your LPs?”
He pointed to the wall next to the table. There were four LPs. André Kostelanetz: Strauss Waltzes was one. “But you’d only play them in a major emergency,” he said. “They’re pretty scratched.”
“Your commercials are there,” he went on, gesturing to the small tape-reel player on the desk. “They’re all recorded.” There must not have been many.
“Who records them?” I asked, hoping for a chance to actually speak on that station.
“Usually Roger does. He’s our sales manager, but sometimes Bob Ricci, one of our announcers, does a few.”
So, high up in a classy hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, my job was to run tapes and take transmitter readings surrounded by all kinds of equipment in two concrete-floored rooms, one window high above each room to let in the night air. Or rain. Or snow.
Why were any of us operators called “announcers”? I didn’t ask. Anyway, I’d try it for a while.
My first night on the job, I learned that not all of those 150 non-WBCN tapes were playable. I’d open a box, curious to know what music was on the tape, hoping to select something I’d enjoy hearing, since I could play any one I chose, and discover a hand-written note saying “Defective.” Or I’d see a typed page or just a handwritten one naming the music, sometimes even the performers, but without any timings. Each tape could run three hours, and, somewhere between the music and the announcements, my job was to stop the tape, play a recorded station break on the small reel-to-reel player. “This is the Concert Network…This is WNCN, New York.” Maybe a commercial, but probably not.
I also soon learned that my predecessor had fallen asleep too often in the big leather armchair in the front room. Maybe he should have brought an alarm clock. I brought one and often selected the longest in-tact tapes, so I could sometimes nap for at least an hour. More than once a night. I never overslept.
As I mentioned above, I had joined AFTRA, the union for broadcast performers. This had no bearing on working for WNCN, where I was actually the first union member there. AFTRA members have never been required to work only for broadcast stations with AFTRA contracts. True, it’s always hoped that, when enough AFTRA members start working for a station, they can collectively unionize that station. But it’s up to them to vote in the union and thereby get the best salaries, working conditions, health care, and pensions.
Meanwhile, day-times, I kept going to auditions. After a while I also discovered that I was seeing the same would-be actors over and over again. We’d make fun of other actors and casting directors, just as Anton Spaeth and the actors at Players West had done. Except now I was on the inside of the acting scene, even without work.
Soon, some of us decided we ought to try to get acting lessons, just to keep in practice, even though we all believed we had talent and experience. We didn’t think we could afford to pay for courses at any of the acting schools, so, one of the guys, Arnie Weiner, was friendly with a director who’d had a few minor shows, Zeke Berlin. We asked Zeke whether, if we each paid him $10 per class, he would conduct a two-hour session once a week? He agreed, so long as he didn’t get a real job.
Arnie was the first of us to get a role on Broadway. Seven years later, he (as Arn Weiner) had a small part in a play starring Alfred Drake, Michael Stewart’s Those That Play the Clowns.
It was a backstage look at the acting company hired by Hamlet to stage the murder of his father. At that point Americans hadn’t seen and had barely heard of another backstage Hamlet story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Americans had barely heard of Stoppard, actually.
Naturally, like other friends of Arnie’s, I went to the opening. While waiting outside after the curtain came down, as Arnie emerged from backstage, an older woman we didn’t know went up to him holding a book. It was The Talent Guide, in which all professional actors could pay for an insertion with names, photos, a list of our credits, and phone numbers.
The woman cornered Arnie.
“Hello, Mr. Weiner,” she said, “Congratulations! It’s your first Broadway, show, isn’t it?”
Arnie looked shocked. And delighted that she knew.
“Would you sign my copy of the book for me?” she asked.
Arnie signed it. And we learned that she always did this to actors making their Broadway debuts.
While that was unusual, the history of the production was not rare; it closed quickly. Bad reviews. Four performances only.
As far as I can tell from online research Arnie was in only one other Broadway show, The World of Sholom Aleichem, 16 years later. Wow! He hung in there. Evidently he also had off-Broadway roles in 1967 and 1976. One ran for five performances, the other for 12.
Once or twice Dave Passell asked me to cover daytime shifts when Jeff or someone else couldn’t make it. Then Dave would go up to the Hotel at night to work on the transmitter or do some other kind of tech thing.
That’s how I started hearing the Boston tapes. One of the program hosts was a guy with a deep, rich voice, Joe Marzano, who sounded like he knew what he was talking about. There was also nasal-voiced John Adams, the program director. And there was a woman! Women didn’t host radio programs in the 1950s, although the NBC network feature Monitor did have “Miss Monitor” give breathy (i.e., sexy) weather forecasts. This WBCN program host wasn’t doing sexy shtick. She had some sort of English accent and when she said her name it sounded as if she was mumbling: “Nrml Dnyr.” Later, when I met Marzano, he said that she was East Indian and named Nirmal Daniere.
When a long piece of music was airing on those days, the timing being clear on a cue-sheet, I sometimes strolled down one flight of stairs to a radio station that looked like a radio station, not a storage room and hobby shop for engineers. That was WBAI. With an attractive receptionist who spoke with an English accent…such accents for women receptionists were thought cool then…and well-lit offices, double-glass-windowed studios, air conditioning. A pot of fresh coffee on a hot plate. Sometimes I’d hear them featuring jazz. Or modern concert music. Or comedy records. Or plays. Well-dressed Les Davis and Sid Shepherd hosted such shows. I wished I could be there instead of upstairs running tapes.
Eventually, if fact, I would be on the air on WBAI, a few years after owner Louis Schweitzer donated it to Pacifica Radio. Les and Sid? Gone, of course. The old ownership/format change thing.
WBAI’s 1959 format got me to thinking. Maybe I could do something similar on WNCN. After all, I still had some jazz LPs from those days at WFLN and WOND, and I’d find a way to get classical music LPs, perhaps starting with some from the New York Public Library, since it appeared that WNCN had none of its own.
Since I was at WNCN for six hours overnight, I wondered if Dave Passell or someone else in the management could be convinced to let me host my own show for the same amount of money I was already being paid. And if the program included classical music, that would fit right in with what the station already featured. As for the other elements, maybe they’d go for that, too, even if it seemed unusual. Perhaps it would even attract attention to the station. Plus, I’d make clear that I’d hosted jazz programs before on WHAT and WOND, remaining silent about WFLN.
Mulling it over more, tying selections into some kind of actual program idea seemed an even more special idea. Limiting everything to the 20th century, for example, sounded good, maybe adding to the classics some poetry recordings, film scores, musicals—things about which I already knew something.
As it turned out, surprisingly, Dave sounded interested. He said he’d talk it over with Fred Cain, the general manager.
Excited, I began to plan how to present the different elements, for example, pairing symphonic music by Leonard Bernstein with selections from West Side Story and Manny Albam’s jazz arrangements of the same scores, plus Moss Hart reading part of his autobiographical theatre reminiscences Act One. Or Laurence Olivier reading scenes from his movie version of Shakespeare’s Henry V on a 10-inch LP which I treasured. Plus, it had some of William Walton’s great music for the film that I could also program. Then maybe something by Vaughan Williams and other English composers and LPs by English jazz musicians. Of course, I didn’t have most of the LPs yet to do all of that, but I’d find a way to acquire them.
When Dave and I met with Fred Cain, Cain seemed interested. “But what will you use for records?” Fred asked. “We don’t have any.” I suggested that I could borrow some, on my own time, from the Public Library and that, also on my own time, I’d contact record companies to see what they could send me and the station. Most major labels had headquarters in New York.
Fred went for it. Especially because it would mean that WNCN would start having its own LPs.
Naturally there first had to be some changes up there on The Pierre’s 40th floor. Dave moved the console and the board away from the transmitter room and its air compressor and put all of it onto the desk in the front room. There he set up two new turntables and a good microphone facing away from the other room. He also put some sound-proofing strips around the door between the rooms. Sitting there in my new studio, I could barely hear the air compressor.
Consequently, in late April 1959 WNCN had its first live broadcasts. From high atop The Pierre. Sounds of the 20th Century. I was 24 years old.
I used my own records for the first program. They included Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, as well as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, conducted by Pierre Monteux, both among my favorites for years. Plus Bill Russo’s somewhat Stravinsky-like ballet, The World of Alcina, followed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra playing Russo arrangements, then Kenton alumni as members of Shorty Rogers and His Giants, plus a jazz and poetry record featuring West Coast musicians.
That’s when I discovered a problem.
The turntables sitting there on the desk. This was not a WFLN or WBAI high class set-up. When I opened a drawer in that desk, it made the tone arms shake; they had no padding or cushions. Although I had always taken good care of my LPs and they were unscratched, there were slight interruptions in the music when the tone arms wobbled. At first, when that happened, I quickly faded down what I was playing and set the tone arm back to the right place. That took only a couple of seconds, but still the flow of the music was interrupted. After a couple of times, I figured out that I should just leave the drawers open. Duh.
Was I nervous? Probably. But I also realized that, most likely, few people were listening that night, since I had appeared from nowhere out of the darkness. Or maybe they’d be so drowsy that they might not notice anything that went wrong. Oh, yeah, that was a city of eight million people. Maybe somebody was listening to my New York debut. I never found out if anyone did.
Another problem emerged when borrowing LPs from the Library. Some had not been taken care of. They were scratched. Or dirty. I went to Sam Goody’s and bought some cleaning brushes and cloths. My expense, of course. That helped some.
Quickly the whole project became a passionate obsession. I slept hardly at all those first few months, calling and/or visiting the offices of every record company in town. A great place to do it, New York.
I collected for the station and for my program post-1900 music by Puccini and Mahler, plus works by Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and more. I kept for myself the more obscure and modern works, knowing that WNCN would never broadcast such things anymore than would have WFLN; that’d be too risky for most classical music stations, alienating conservative audiences. Sure, it would be all right for my program; it was overnight, quirky time in New York.
That’s also when I discovered Composers Recordings, Inc.,which featured nothing but the work of modern American composers. They gave me everything they’d published.
And I began collecting jazz from Blue Note, Columbia, RCA, EmArcy; comedy records by Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, former colleague Mike Nichols; film music by Rosza, Tiomkin, Korngold.
I borrowed Library LPs of poets reading their own works. One of them was Dylan Thomas on a Caedmon Record. Fred called me into the office about that. Caedmon had called him about, he said, a “Die LANN Thomas” recording and that it was copyrighted. We got a warning but no fine. That’s when I also discovered Spoken Arts Records, which specialized in exactly what the name indicates. Contacting them, I soon had what I requested, including LPs by Ruth Draper, following in Mike Nichols’s footsteps after all.
By the way, in the late 1970s, my second wife Helga and I became friendly with Spoken Arts founder Arthur Luce Klein and his wife, also named Luce. Helga worked for Luce in her antique shop in New Rochelle. Arthur eventually toured schools reading from famed books as The Storyteller.
I needed more record shelves at home, although much of what I collected started the WNCN library.
Meanwhile, domestic life went awry. Vene was working at Cosmopolitan Magazine as assistant to the fiction editor, and we were only seeing each other for dinner, after which I usually had to take a nap because I’d been up much of the day, planning and working on creating the show. But sometimes we’d find a way to go to the theatre, after which I’d hurry home to get ready for my show, packing a lunch.
Those six hours overnight became my life. My joy.
Listener reaction? I don’t remember getting letters so long as the broadcasts came from the Hotel. Letters and phone calls would have gone to the office; that was the station’s official address. And the phone at the transmitter had a different, unlisted number.
WNCN may not have been on most people’s radars yet; they’d have to stumble on it just as I had done. Sure, I was offering something original and different. But modern classical music, jazz, poetry, etc. were hardly mainstream radio and probably WBAI had already cornered such an audience.
Actually I hadn’t done or said anything to encourage people to contact me. I wanted to do the show my way, not play requests. And not talk on the phone so as to concentrate on what I was doing. I was following Jean Shepherd’s example on WOR whom I’d heard remind listeners not to call. “I’m at work,” he’d explained. Moreover I wanted to listen to all those wonderful recordings.
But I did get a letter from a magazine writer who wanted to interview me. Roy Hemming of monthly Music Life was working on a feature about New York all-night classical music broadcasts for the October issue. And he’d heard my program.
I was thrilled. It meant somebody actually knew what I was doing, doing it my own way, and liked it. And maybe such publicity would attract a bigger audience. It wasn’t so much that I wanted people to pay attention to me; I wanted to get people to like what I liked, to share the enjoyment, as I had with my jazz shows in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Hemming came to our tiny Riverside Drive apartment where we offered him coffee and cookies. Still a couple of naïve kids. He knew a lot about the program and said he enjoyed listening.
“We think Gordon Spencer’s Sounds of the 20th Century is one of the most imaginatively conceived and presented FM shows being heard in New York these days,” he wrote.
It was the only time and place that I knew of serious public attention that year.
Meanwhile, WNCN had moved to One Park Avenue. By the end of 1959, Dave had created a real studio there with a professional-looking board, cushioned turntables, good microphones, and several tape decks. Next to it was a glass-windowed room with the large tape decks brought down from The Pierre, and all the big tapes were on orderly metal shelves. The rest of the jumble of equipment remained at the transmitter.
The rapidly filling record library, now that record company promotion people began to take us seriously, was several long corridors away on the same floor at the business office. The rooms were rented from Ziff Davis Publishing that owned one whole floor.
When I told Dad that we’d moved to One Park Avenue he thought that I’d really come up in the world, rather than down, as from up on Fifth Avenue at The Pierre. One Park Avenue is where Park Avenue narrows at 32nd Street, merging into utilitarian Park Avenue South, a business district.
At night I had the whole floor to myself and, when airing a long piece of classical music, I’d wander into the dark Ziff Davis offices, switch on a few lights and look through pictures, or borrow magazines to return the same night. Being alone in those hushed, vast rooms or walking along dim corridors could feel a little spooky. Once or twice I was actually startled, coming across lumpy, grey Eastern European cleaning ladies putting away their buckets and mops, their gold teeth glinting in the shadows.
By then I was broadcasting a few interviews with musicians, taping them in the room next to the control room or talking to them on my own portable 7-inch Revox reel-to reel recorder. That’s when I talked to Roy Harris, actually my uncle’s brother-in-law. (My uncle, Julian Kahn, indicative of so much of my family, was also a musician, playing cello in Hollywood movie studio orchestras.)
Other interviews: Morton Gould, Vincent Persichetti, and Cannonball Adderley. When Cannon and I met he came along with a young saxophonist/clarinetist of whom I’d never heard, Eric Dolphy, a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Since Dolphy was there, I decided to do him a favor and interview him; at least that’s how it now sounds on the tape. The soft-spoken, unassuming man, in the course of my questions, told me he liked the music of Stockhausen and Schoenberg, music I’d never program, not liking or understanding it.
There I was again, getting jazz musicians to talk about classical music. Adderley said he liked the work of Honegger, by the way.
Then there was Moondog. I had come across a few of the records of this tall, blind street musician while at WOND, finding his sound unique and fascinating, as fascinating as the photos on the record jackets, with his strange clothes and biblical prophet look. I had learned that he liked to spend much time on New York streets, especially on Sixth Avenue near the main offices of CBS and around the corner from NBC at Rockefeller Center.
I went to find him, saying I’d like record an interview for broadcast. He readily agreed, inviting me to his apartment on West 44th Street off Broadway. It was a tiny two-room space in a dingy walk-up hotel. But then, he couldn’t see the dinginess, could he? We spoke again several times on the street, and I featured his music and the interviews during my second stint at NCN in the late ’60s as well as in 1970 on WBAI.
Early this century, Robert Scotto was writing a book about Moondog and tracked me down to ask me for copies of the interview as well as about what I remembered of our mutual encounters. Moondog had told him to get in touch with me. Astonishing. More than 30 years had elapsed since my last contact with Moondog.
Then the Concert Network bought its own building on East 47th Street just off Fifth Avenue and started daytime live programming. Why? And why the earlier move to One Park Avenue? No idea. Probably I didn’t ask anyone. Perhaps Concert Network President T. Mitchell Hastings thought it was time for the Network to have a more noticeable New York presence.
I’d met him a couple of times, probably not intimidated, probably indifferent, as if my on-air talent was so irreplaceable that we were some kind of equals.
But you have to consider that my programming may have been making a difference. Maybe that’s why Hastings had decided to give NCN a bigger presence in New York, first at One Park and then with its own building. Certainly I’d put it on the map somehow. Moreover, its initial record library was due to me.
Had I made a public impression for the station? I don’t know. Perhaps nobody in management wanted me to realize that and then ask for a raise, thinking myself significant. I was so wrapped up in what I was doing, loving it, and still so young that I never thought about that and never asked. You have to wonder why I didn’t ask more questions.
For this incarnation of WNCN, Joe Marzano came down from Boston to host programs. Which was fine by him; his family home was on Long Island. Station Manager Cal Miller hosted programs. So did Johnny Lang.
WNCN was making some money with brokered programs just as had WHAT with Sunday morning gospel shows when hosts aired commercials for restaurants, hair dressers, clothing stores, etc. for which they got paid and could defray costs of buying air time and/or profit.
One WNCN feature was Lunch with Casper Citron; he interviewed celebrities and footed the bill. Another was Music and Opportunity with Bernard Haldane. That zingy-titled show featured Haldane’s classical music choices paired with talking about his firm’s professional job counseling. Another program presented ruminations by members of the Theosophical Society.
Plus, a d.j. who seemed younger than I bought himself two hours once a week to play mainstream pop music, on which WNEW was thriving. A little unusual, since rock and roll was more and more becoming the trend. (Eventually, he’d actually become a star on WNEW which stuck with that kind of pop music.) He’d talk about the songs in a friendly, casual way, often digressing into personal musings, Jean Shepherd-like, except not doing it with equal specialness. He had an unconventional name, considering that most program hosts were disguising ethnicity. He was Jonathan Schwartz, the son of famed Broadway and movie song-writer Arthur Schwartz.
His show came on at midnight, when mine had been starting. And I had to be present; he didn’t know how to run the equipment; he just knew how to talk. So I had to be his engineer. While he sat a glass window away from the control room, he’d watch me for reactions to his comments, thinking me fascinated, of course, when all the time I was actually pissed-off that he could pay to preempt me. Still the actor, though, I sometimes faked a grin and a smile. Once I walked out of his view while he was talking on the air. He yelled, “Gordon! Where are you?” as if fearing he’d lost control. Or maybe he was angry that I didn’t seem to be hanging on his every word.
Clearly, you can see that WNCN was not exactly a traditional classical music station. Look at what I had been doing.
Then Jonathan himself was preempted. And so were two of my regular overnight hours. A new four-hour, daily jazz package took over from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., likewise financed by the producers. They called themselves Communicating Arts Corporation. Tom Wilson and DeDe Daniels, executives at United Artists Records, were up front.
UA had been producing some great jazz records then. Coincidentally, one featured Bill Potts’s arrangements of music from Porgy and Bess, one of several spin-offs of the current movie, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. (Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded another.) In the movie Crown was played and sung by Brock Peters. He was DeDe’s husband.
On the air was quite a line-up of alternating commentators/hosts, some of the biggest names in jazz criticism: Nat Hentoff, Ira Gitler, and Martin Williams.
Jazz humorist Ed Sherman was there as “George Crater.” (His pseudonym was a goofy spin on the name of Judge Crater who’d become famous by mysteriously disappearing after a jolly night in town. Despite lots of newspaper coverage he was never found, and his story and that of murdered people connected to him make for fascinating reading.) Ed provided lots of funny bits on the air, often dealing with jazz musicians. And more biting commentary—social, satirical—came from Paul Krassner, who’d recently started a newsprint magazine, The Realist, which gained fame as a counter-culture gem for about 10 years. Krassner and I would encounter each other, in passing, during the late ’60s at WBAI.
Meanwhile, two d.j.s anchored, hosting most of the playing of records that made up the bulk of the programming: Les Davis and Sid Shepherd. Except that Shepherd had changed his name to Chris Borgen, which, he told me, was actually his wife’s name. Later, Chris would become a CBS news reporter. Les would keep on being a jazz d.j. The fact that I knew a lot about jazz was irrelevant as far as those producers were concerned.
I was always around, on duty, waiting my turn to follow the moneyed guys, in my dwindled niche, to hear Chris sounding slick and smooth, more like a pop d.j. than the intelligent informative person I believed myself to be. On the air, he spoke of songwriter Frank Loesser as “Frank Lohser” and referred to Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s take on Avery Parrish’s 1940 bluesy “After Hours” as “traditional jazz.” My superiority felt confirmed. I had sometimes broadcast real traditional jazz, New Orleans style, early in the morning, around 5 a.m.
Meanwhile, Joe Marzano and I became friends, both harboring sardonic views of society. Together we’d record ad-lib comedy bits while in the recording studio during my shift when a long record was on. Then I’d broadcast them overnight. We did a send-up of Casper Citron’s show, The Horace Hepple Lunch, in which I, as a nasal-voiced take on Citron, interviewed Joe as “Sal A. Pepe” (Italian: Salt and Pepper), a gravelly-voiced Noo Yawker who sold frozen pizzas to be eaten frozen on sticks, like popsicles. The major bit was talking with our mouths full and asking each other to pass things like napkins and glasses of water or commenting on the bread and butter, making sure to crunch our food loudly. No burps, though. We had taste.
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.