A Hall Full Of Strangers

FILMED December 1962

As I wrote at the conclusion of my posting of PRINTER’S DEVIL (TWILIGHT ZONE):

 

The assignments were still few and slow in arriving. Now as the end of 1962 approached, the journey that in 1961 had finally gotten on track still seemed to be meandering down backcountry lanes.

 

But to my surprise I was unexpectedly booked for another assignment. I was to report immediately to Revue Studios to direct an episode of one of their new series, THE BEST YEARS. I had earlier in 1962 directed an episode of CHECMATE for them, but I would not be returning to the old Republic Studios in Studio City where CHECKMATE had been filmed. Revue, the production division of the giant MCA talent agency, had moved and was now ensconced in Universal Studio down the road in Universal City on Lankershim Boulevard. Well they were actually more than ensconced. MCA had bought the studio, had closed down their talent agency and was now a full-time film production company. They did this obeying the monopoly laws of the country. Just as the major film studios a decade earlier had had to divest themselves of their motion picture theatres, the talent agency could no longer be a company that represented talent and then hired that talent to perform. (And whatever happened to those monopoly laws? Where did they go?) It would not be too long before the name Revue would disappear from the credits, the name MCA would fade away, and the company would adopt the name of the studio they had bought. It would henceforth be known as Universal.

The series was not scheduled to start airing until the following season, in September, 1963, and by that time the name of the series, THE BEST YEARS, had been changed to CHANNING, the name of the college where the action took place.

The episode involved a concert pianist coming to the campus to give a recital, and for our auditorium in which to present that concert we found one not far from the studio in the North Hollywood High School. We arrived at the location early in the morning of our second day of filming. Sitting on the stage to greet us was a concert grand piano, but to our horror it was white. Now I can assure you, if we had requested a white concert grand piano, we would have had protestations from the set-dressing department proclaiming that no such instrument existed. But that white elephant did exist, and it was sitting on the stage, waiting for its close-up. Stanley Rubin, the producer, apologizing profusely, refused to continue with the filming. He said there was no way a university would own such a monstrosity. The studio was notified, and arrangements were made for a black concert grand piano to be sent to our location immediately. Awaiting its arrival, Stanley asked that I film what I could in the sequence that did not involve the piano. I agreed and started filming scenes in the auditorium that faced away from the stage. Scenes on the stage involving the piano were delayed until our black instrument arrived. The plan was that, because of this delay, whatever could not be completed at the location would have to be filmed when we returned to the studio. Anticipating that our minimal set at the studio would be the piano and a hanging drape backing, I tabled any confined shots (close-ups, two-shots) that could be filmed there. My three DR. KILDAREs and the TWILIGHT ZONE had had six-day shooting schedules. Like the CHECKMATE, which I had earlier directed for Revue, the current film, even with this added setback, was to be completed in five days.

The director of photography for this episode was one of the giants of the film industry, but I am unhappy to admit that I was not as aware then as I am now of just who Ray Rennahan was. To me he was a very kind, older man (he was sixty-six years old) who rarely left his chair. What I later learned was he had been a director of photography in silent films, moved into talkies when sound arrived and had been the cameraman on the first full-length technicolor feature, BECKY SHARP. In those early days of color films, Ray Rennahan was considered one of the masters, possibly the best color cameraman working. His credits include the great film classics DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, BLOOD AND SAND, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, DUEL IN THE SUN and on and on. But starting in 1956 (when he would have been sixty years old) Ray, like so many of his contemporaries, had to move into television to keep working. And even there he only worked for another five years. Hollywood has never been kind to what it called its ‘gray list’.

Henry Jones and Jason Evers were the stars of the series, but their involvement in A HALL FULL OF STRANGERS was totally peripheral. This script, like so many in the early sixties, could have been produced on any of the live anthology series of the previous decade. But once this story was transferred to the Channing campus, Henry and Jason’s characters had to be involved. The fact that that involvement was minimal must have been frustrating for the two actors. I never worked with Jason again. I did get to work with Henry later on SUSPENSE THEATRE, when his role was far more challenging. He was the mastermind in the armored car robbery who drowned in gasoline at the conclusion of THE JACK IS HIGH.

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for actors and how exciting it was for me to work with performers I had watched onscreen during my growing-up movie-going days. At this early stage in my career that group was still very small: – Raymond Massey, Robert Sterling, Burgess Meredith, but an added excitement was in working with players who at some future time I might watch move from being a day-player into film stardom.

The gentleman with his eyes cast down, intent on finishing his breakfast, was Bob Crane, three years before he became Colonel Robert Hogan of HOGAN’S HEROES.

This was the first time I worked with actor Nigel McKeand (student reporter). The following summer Nigel acted for me again in an episode of THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, and the following season he was a member of the air force in 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. Then our paths didn’t cross for a decade, but when they did Nigel had changed hats; he was now writing, and I directed his great script, THE MARATHON, for THE WALTONS. Two years later he was producing FAMILY, and we worked together on that. Nigel produced the very last film I ever directed in 1987.

I think that scene was filmed on the small set later at the studio. The studio at that time was a very busy place, and sound stages were much in demand. Because the set for our pick-up shots was so small, we were assigned a large room attached to one of the work construction areas. I remember all of this vividly because at one point during filming I had to leave the set to visit a rest room. When working on one of the regular sound stages, there was always a rest room in the near vicinity. But our small pseudo-sound stage was in the construction section of the studio, and I had to go looking for one. Universal was a very large lot, and that was my first experience there. On my return, all of the work construction areas looked alike, and I couldn’t find my set. I almost panicked. On a five-day schedule, now complicated because of the white concert grand piano fiasco, I really didn’t have time for a situation like that. Somehow I finally found my set and completed the auditorium sequence.

A HALL FULL OF STRANGERS was the first time I directed Marlyn Mason on film.

She was one of those screen legends I had watched for so many years in so many different roles in so many films. But mostly she was Aunt Milly to Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy. On the set I called her Miss Sara. Miss Haden seemed too formal, and I couldn’t call her Sara.

I did not know Barbara Turner, but I did know of her. Her reputation was that of an exceptional performer. When casting submitted her name for the role of Renata, I jumped at it. Three years after we filmed A HALL FULL OF STRANGERS Barbara unleashed another talent: writer of screenplays. Fifty years later she is still going strong. She co-authored the screenplay for HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN, an HBO drama aired this year.

Before the war I, like Clark, the music major student in this drama, was majoring in music at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like Clark, my instrument was the piano. I had been taking piano lessons from the age of six. Was I a prodigy? I don’t think so. Was I serious about the pursuit of music as a career? As I’ve made clear in almost every interview I have ever given, I was always serious about what I was doing; I always seemed to excel in anything I attempted, but I had no projections for the future. For my sophomore year I went to Coe College, where I enrolled as a music major and signed on to study piano with Professor Max Dahler. I did not realize it at the time, but this was a major meaningful moment in my life. Until this time I had been taught to have a very aggressive attack on the instrument. Professor Dahler’s approach was the total opposite. He stressed getting the richest tone from a quiet note. I don’t think I ever achieved perfection in that approach to my piano performances. My stay at Coe College ended after only six months, when I was called up to active duty in the army. By the time thirty-four months later when I was discharged from the army, I had finally set the course for the rest of my life, and as should be perfectly clear by this time it wasn’t music. Why do I bring all of this up now? I found Professor Dahler’s approach to how to play the piano, to be my approach to drama. I found it exciting to work for the richness of the quiet as an equal, sometimes even the superior, to the excitement of the bombast.

I drew on several things in my past to direct this film. After World War II the Jewish community in Mason City, Iowa, brought a refugee family from Germany (Jacob, his wife Regina, both survivors of a Nazi concentration camp, and their infant son Benny) to our city to give them a fresh start in life. Jacob was my age, and a friendship was formed that survives to this day. Jacob has told me in graphic detail of how he survived and how he was able to save the life of his brother, also interned at the same camp.

A HALL FULL OF STRANGERS aired on Christmas night, 1963. It has never aired again. CHANNING was cancelled at the end of its first season, its twenty-six episodes assigned to the television graveyard for cancelled series, where it resides along side other of my early victims of the television ratings game: EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE; BREAKING POINT; ARREST AND TRIAL.

The Journey Continues

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12 Responses to A Hall Full Of Strangers

  1. John Dayton says:

    Where have all the great moral stories gone? This is magnificent, Ralph.

    Just a curious technical question. Was the piano “live” or playback? He certainly was marvelous on the keyboard if those shots were his hands.

    • Ralph says:

      John, I do not remember. As I worked on this, the same thought came to me. I’m almost sure it was performed to a playback and the close-up of the hands was a musician. Notice his face was not shown. I think if Donald Davis had been playing I would have widened the shot to include his face. Why didn’t I save my call sheets early on in addition to the schedules!

  2. Kathy Tasich says:

    This was a brilliant play of “those who go along just to get along!” Tillman’s career was more important than saving a life. I was totally shocked at the end. The message was clear for those who chose not get involved, and the consequences of their inaction. Ms. Turner was superb! Entire cast was flawless.
    Again, I think I spotted an actress I have long admired. I believe it was Celia Lovsky who brilliantly portrayed the professor’s wife.I know she was married to Peter Lorre, and I am sure she had some experiences with Hitler’s Germany. I remember her best as a Vulcan Queen on Star Trek. I hope I got this one right, Ralph!

  3. Channing..(which I have in a complete set of mediocre quality) was one of the most under-rated and little known television shows of all time. It is my understanding that you worked on another great,forgotten,show, Slattery’s People. Is that correct?

    • Ralph says:

      I agree with you regarding CHANNING. And its director of photography was one of the giants of the film industry — Ray Rennahan, another forgotten treasure. And yes, I indeed did direct one episode of SLATTERY’S PEOPLE with Richard Crenna. Is it possible you have a copy of WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A WOUNDED TIGER?

  4. Phil says:

    The story has a smart set up…Linzer makes a passionate case for receiving the benefit of the doubt, but we don’t know about Thielman’s trump card.

    Aside from 26 episodes, this series also had a pilot that served as an episode of the Revue anthology series ‘Alcoa Premiere’, which was called “Of This Time, Of That Place” (broadcast March 6, 1962). Henry Jones and Jason Evers starred and it was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr.

    Was there a second pilot on ‘Alcoa Premiere’? IMDB says yes…it was called “The Best Years” (broadcast March 7, 1963). However, every online newspaper I’ve checked says an episode of ‘Bell & Howell Close-Up!’ called “The Irreplaceables” (about animal control in Africa) was scheduled for that time slot.

  5. rick daniel suegreen says:

    Hi again Ralph, what, what can I say?! Another gem unearthed of pure television gold. Helmed again Beautifully by your good self, no fancy camera angles, special effects, or anything other than a moving and thought provoking story, rich with beautiful writing, impassioned performances that hit every note, just as the Master pianist did in the segment. I thought the players totally wonderful, stunning character actors, of the like, well will we ever see this type of standard of acting on television again? I think not. To think this was aired on a Christmas night! A most disturbing story, very sad to hear that the episode never aired again. Another masterpiece lost forever. Again the beautiful writing reminds me of BEN CASEY which I also enjoyed, one of our stations in London, England, the long defunct LWT screened some of the episodes around 1989. There was a terrific segment I saw with the sublime Cliff Robertson as a pilot, and it was directed by a guy called Sidney Pollack. Wonder what became of him!! I would love to know who did the beautiful score for A HALL FULL OF STRANGERS.

    • Ralph says:

      I’m not sure, but I think the music was tracked.

      • rick daniel suegreen says:

        Hi Ralph : Thank you. When you say the music was tracked, do you mean this was library music, or music previously used? There is so much I do not know about film-making, that is why I am reading your posts. It is always fascinating to hear what you have to say, and of your memories of what now is long, long ago, you seem to have a very finely tuned memory, which at times is simply AMAZING! Nevertheless in regard to music, I am a music nut, I love so much of the music used in the classic tv series of yesteryear, that was why I enquired about THE HALL FULL OF STRANGERS score, It was fine. There are so many composers I adore, One of my favourites is Fred Karlin, I will collect a movie/ tv series just because he was involved in it.

        • Ralph says:

          I cannot say for sure if the music for HALL was library. Don’t forget, HALL FULL OF STRANGERS was in 1962 which was really a pioneer period for filmed television. Early tv I’m positive used music from libraries. I was fortunate during my six months as assistant to the producer on DR. KILDARE to sit in with the remarkable Harry Sukman when he spotted where he would compose. That eventually became the norm. But again they didn’t compose new scores for EVERY production. Once a series built up a library of its own, it would reuse tracks for later productions to save money.

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