Forty Year Itch

FILMED May 1971

Five months after I got the Partridge down from the Pear Tree, when I was firmly ensconced as a sit-com director but also reestablished to my pre-THE THOLIAN WEB situation as a reliable director of dramas, I returned to the Columbia Ranch to direct a package of four more episodes of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. During their first season THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY had a charming episode, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE OLD SONGS. That episode brought Shirley’s battling parents to her home for a visit. As happened regularly in series television, when guest star appearances proved successful, the stars were brought back for repeat performances. Ray Bolger and Rosemary De Camp had played her parents and it was my good fortune to guide them through their return engagement.

The little blond boy coming down the stairs was Brian Forster, who was now playing Chris. The father of Jeremy Gelbwaks, the original Chris, had been transferred out of California and Jeremy, faced with having to choose between the Partridge family and the Gelbwaks family, departed with the family of his birth — end of a drumming career but possibly the start of a problem for me. To get to the root of that problem we need to flash back to a Saturday afternoon in 1960 when I received a telephone call from Stanley Smith, the casting director at the Pasadena Playhouse. Stanley told me a production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood had recently gone into rehearsal and they wanted to replace the director. Was I available? At this point in my career, English high comedy was not one of my strong suits. I had directed a production of Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT years before and I considered it one of my poorest achievements. I told Stanley I didn’t think I was the person for this assignment and I gave him the name of someone I knew who was. A half hour later Stanley called back to say the person I had recommended was not available, would I reconsider. My counter suggestion was that I would like to come in, meet the cast and have a read-through before making a decision. That meeting took place the next evening. After the reading I had only one reservation about the cast. I told the Playhouse if I could replace the actress playing the younger woman with Rachel Ames, I would do it. I had already directed Rachel in two stage productions, and she was well known to the Playhouse; her parents were Dorothy Adams and Byron Foulger, two fine actor closely associated with the Pasadena Playhouse. The Playhouse agreed to my request. The problem as it relates to THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY? Brian Forster’s mother, who would be accompanying him to the set each day, was the actress I dumped.

Ray Bolger was a major Broadway musical comedy star with a Tony for his performance in WHERE’S CHARLEY? He made many film appearances starting with his portraying himself in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. But he is mostly remembered for acting in a movie he almost didn’t make. In 1939 he was cast as the Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ as part of the trio accompanying Judy Garland’s Dorothy to Oz, a trio that included Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion and Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow. I have read Ray, who had a reputation of always looking out for himself, convinced Buddy Ebsen that they should swap roles, which they did. Shortly after filming began, Ebsen began experiencing cramps and shortness of breath, eventually leading to hospitalization. The cause was determined to be an allergy to the aluminum dust used for his makeup and he left the film as a result. A frantic call by the studio to 20th Century Fox was made and Jack Haley was borrowed to play the Tin Man. The makeup was quietly changed to a paste. Ray Bolger of course played the Scarecrow, the role for which he is most remembered. But without the switch in the original casting, he might not have appeared in the movie at all.

What was it like directing Ray Bolger and Rosemary De Camp? These veterans of Broadway and the movies of the thirties came to the set with incredible preparation. They had bits of business, strong reactions that had been meticulously preplanned. Just a small example: on his arrival Ray had a line, “Just thought I’d drop by and say hello.” but as he entered the house, he added, “Hello, hello.” to David and Shirley to fill his cross as he passed them. Rosemary didn’t miss a beat in reactions, especially when she didn’t have a line to retort. And the reactions of both of them were kicked up just a notch. They weren’t playing to the back row in the theatre, but they weren’t playing to the center of the lens of the camera; they were sending it just a trifle higher, just big enough to land right behind the camera, sort of like a lob into center field between second base and the center fielder.

The production facilities for THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY were excellent. The exteriors of the Partridge home and its surrounding neighborhood plus the village exteriors we filmed on TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY were on the Columbia Ranch, right next to the two sound stages where we filmed our interiors. This episode provided my first departure for a location off the lot.

The musical number for this episode put me right back in the nightclub set I so disliked with the kids again appearing in a nightclub which I thought was unreal, but the script necessitated the return. At least the red drapes had been removed. Was I unhappy? Not on your life. Who could be unhappy having OKLAHOMA’s Laurey, CAROUSEL’s Julie Jordan and Marian, the librarian from THE MUSIC MAN singing, while the Scarecrow from THE WIZARD OF OZ danced with the mother of that YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, George M. Cohan. That was a day on a soundstage made in heaven.

What a shame that Shirley Jones with that glorious voice was born about a dozen years too late. Her film career began in 1955 with her appearance in OKLAHOMA!, just when the Golden Age of Musicals at MGM was dying. She was (and IS) such a fine actress, what a wonderful Magnolia in SHOW BOAT she would have made, what an exciting Kate in KISS ME KATE.

FORTY YEAR ITCH had two happy endings. Brian’s mother and I had no problem because of the previous Pasadena Playhouse incident. The subject was never mentioned.

The journey continues

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2 Responses to Forty Year Itch

  1. Steve Z. says:

    Ralph,

    Was the Forty Year Itch episode the first Partridge Family filmed of the 1971-1972 season?

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