The Early Days in TV—
While attending UCLA, I worked part-time as a page at NBC. It was the early days of television when radio was in its decline as a major source of entertainment. Fibber McGee and Molly gave way to Queen for a Day. In my double-breasted uniform, I pushed show tickets to passers-by at the corner of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood and ate a free lunch in the basement kitchen of the Moulin Rouge theater while Queen for a Day took place upstairs, often the only meal I had that day. Those were the days!
This is the way I ended Part 1 of So, Ya Wanna be a Star? Now on to the main attraction.
As a clean-cut young man studying at UCLA and living parsimoniously in a small rented room in a private home in Westwood, I needed an income to augment the meager amount I received monthly from the G.I. Bill. Delivering mail in Westwood Village during the holidays just wasn’t enough. Through the sister of a friend I got a part-time job as a page at NBC in Hollywood. $1.15 an hour. It was a start. As I said, those were the good old days.
Besides peddling free tickets to NBC’s shows and running audiences in and out of the remaining radio shows (Groucho Marx), I helped run audiences into the early television shows in the newly-built NBC studios in Burbank. The Dinah Shore Chevy Show wanted a page to work backstage and I was the guy selected. Duties included taking messages for the stars, ushering V.I.P.s to and from the Green Room and acting as a general errand boy. It was a plum job that allowed me to interact with the stars and guests. As part of my education on the workings of television, it gave me an inside picture of what the stars were like, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Dinah was always gracious albeit not a great singer. More about that later. Her husband, George Montgomery was a superb cabinet-maker and one of the few genuinely decent human beings among the stars that passed through that studio. Others who appeared on the show included Dean Martin, George Burns, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, Rowan and Martin, Jonathan Winters and many more.
Dean Martin, often the subject of jokes about being a hard-drinker, was, in fact, a stone alcoholic. Some say it was liquid courage. I recall one occasion when he was barely in shape to appear on stage, but amazingly he pulled it off.
Jonathan Winters was as wired off stage as he was on. A very funny and unpredictable man. Like a rotund Robin Williams.
Ella Fitzgerald was an absolutely fantastic jazz singer. I owned and played the grooves off just about every record she made. On one occasion, I was privileged to watch her, accompanied as usual by the famous jazz pianist Paul Smith, sing with Dinah during a quiet lunch break. Just a few stage hands, some wardrobe people and me. It was like a private concert. Ella showed Dinah, who was often slightly off-key, what a truly great singer is about. Some of the most memorable moments in my checkered career.
The Standards and Practices Years—
Several years later, I was the Standards and Practices editor (aka “network censor”) assigned to Rowan and Martin’s early Laugh-In. As such, I interacted not only with the producers and director but the stars of that show: Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson and others. Never a dull moment.
A little earlier, I used the phrase “…the good, the bad and the ugly.” I don’t recall now exactly when it happened, but it was definitely “the bad and the ugly.” Jerry Lewis was appearing in a show at NBC. In one of the soundproof rehearsal studios, Lewis, not unlike some of today’s bad boys, thought it would be great fun to play a little hardball using the rehearsal hall walls as a backstop. Enjoying himself as he did it, Lewis punched dozens of holes in the walls and did thousands of dollars-worth of damage to the studio. He definitely lived up to his reputation as being one of the nastiest characters in Hollywood. So don’t be taken in by his pose as a generous altruist. Jerry Lewis is a five-star a**hole.
Over my years in the standards business, I dealt with hundreds of producers, directors, advertising execs and stars. Most—even those who thought I was picking on them—were decent people doing a hard job. Some like Keenen Wayans initially thought I was picking on him but wound up respecting me (I heard), and some like Aaron Spelling at first hated me for some of the decisions I made regarding his shows but softened toward friendship in his final years. It was a job that was unbelievably stressful, but one that was, in life’s rearview mirror, considerably more fun than shuffling papers in a law office. Though much abbreviated, I’m glad those years are part of my life.
Before closing, a short story about where we lived. Pacific Palisades is on the coast between Santa Monica and Malibu. Some of its residents are or were film and television stars: Robin Williams, Ted Knight (who played Ted Baxter in the Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Walter Matthau among others. It was not uncommon to see them shopping in the market or gassing up at the Standard station.
One day, as I stood in line at the local post office, I was behind Ted Knight and a woman who suddenly recognized Knight. She began jumping up and down screaming, “ It’s you! It’s you!” Knight turned, looked at her and said dryly, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Th-th-that’s all, folks.