7 October 2006 | raf-22
These are some personal recollections of The Prudential Family Playhouse, which is among my happiest memories working in the "Golden Age of Television" at CBS New York in the fifties. The series was one of several attempts by the network to lessen Milton Berle's (The Thief of Bad Gags) dominance of Tuesday evenings. "Hollywood" was going through a very bad time, blaming it on television, antithetical to all our works, fiercely unwilling to cooperate. Over the years most worthwhile dramatic properties had been acquired by film studios so few were available to us; however television rights to a select handful of worthwhile plays remained accessible, hence our series' genesis.
These were still the days of live-on-air. Before there was complete connectivity between stations and before tape, delayed broadcasts were by kine-scopes, single system 16mm films recorded off a tube face. Counting legally as motion pictures most copyrighted works were off limits to that system but feeding a network of nineteen live stations in the east and Midwest Playhouse used only plays whose TV rights were still untaken.
I was an Associate Director at CBS. The job entailed being the director's right and left hands, taking care of much production detail and liaison during dry rehearsal, and on camera days briefing the cameras and lining up the shots. Donald Davis and his wife Dorothy Mathews (Matty) were the producers, Don directed all the episodes. Dry rehearsal was for eight days, way up in the cavernous mysteries of Grand Central Terminal.
I joined for the second week of rehearsal when the show was on its feet and for the two days on camera in a newly adapted studio at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, the old Henry Ford Peace House. We were breaking in a new line of GE cameras, replacing the usual RCA workhorses, but they were highly unreliable. On Three Men on a Horse two cameras went down on air. We stayed with it, finishing with one good one and a hastily fired fourth. The shot list was jettisoned as we winged the show, the crew humping heavy equipment over cables, the cast resolutely attempting to fathom which lens was on them. The joys of doing it live! I called Master Control as soon as we were off to ask them what it had looked like. It was OK I guess, was their verdict. They'd not noticed anything amiss. We all had a few drinks.
I was young and inexperienced but I suspect the shows were somewhat uninspired, lacking an edge. Don's father was Owen Davis so he'd been raised to an outdated Broadway theatrical style. He was a sweet man but formal in approach and the shows must have been the equivalent of classy summer stock. Actors were moved around OK but given little other help and the shots provided "stage" coverage in an unadventurous fashion.
Going down the titles and casts thankfully here preserved I'm reminded how fortunate I was at the age of twenty three to work with such talented people, many of whom became friends. Gertrude Lawrence is foremost but she had little time left and died the following year; a fascinating and delightful woman of ineffable quality. Another legendary was Bert Lahr whose classic routines in our production of Burlesque I recall to this day. Several were refugees from their glory days in Hollywood, where now work and contracts were few and far between among them Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, John Loder, Glenda Farrell, Richard Carlson. We paid $5000 a show to the top liners. One or two others were to become victims of the "Unamerican" blacklists of that shameful period.
My alternate weeks were spent performing similar functions on Sure As Fate, the parallel show in that time slot, directed by Yul Brynner. An innovative director and in those days a wonderful colleague and companion he was enormous fun to work with. Along with its predecessor, The Trap, it was less star-ridden but had some great casts, combining slightly passé Hollywood with up-and-coming Broadway. A particular memory is of Maria Riva, one of two young actresses under contract to CBS (the other was Mary Sinclair, George Abbott's wife). Whenever Maria was cast her mother, Marlene Dietrich, turned up in slacks and blouse for dress rehearsal, sat quietly on a stool by a floor monitor, and took notes to pass on to her daughter. No director ever took issue with her about that.
Summoned by Rogers and Hammerstein, Yul left CBS and Sure As S**t (as he affectionately called it) to go into their new musical. The week we rehearsed Berkeley Square on Prudential, having Yul's house seats I drove Grace Kelly and Dickie Greene (who'd quickly become a temporary item) and Mary Scott (Lady Hardwicke) up to New Haven for the first ever public performance of The King And I. The show was stunning and at end, during Yul's standing ovation, Gertrude swept imperiously on stage to squelch his riotous hand stone dead: you couldn't teach her much. It had run over four hours and an exhausted carload belted it to the state line for a drink.
Grace progressed to MGM and High Serenity, His Majesty "went Hollywood", living out his iconic rôle. I would see him from time to time around the world and we'd talk about "the old times". In the control rooms of our television days we'd all smoked like chimneys. Yul was to pay the terrible price.
Playhouse and Sure As Fate were my last shows as AD. I was promoted to Producer/Director and then into executive positions. Television abandoned early promise and potential and declined steadily to its present uncouth horrors.
Most participants of that vanished era have also gone but with this old hack some few souvenirs survive. Great days! It's a privilege to have had some small presence in those better, more gracious times. Ah, yes, I remember it well!