From MCI to MGM in 21 years

October 29, 2013

I have just returned from the Iowa Independent Film Festival in my hometown, Mason City, Iowa, where THE RIGHT REGRETS was entered. When I was asked if I would do a special session addressing the festival’s attendees, I decided, since the start of my directing career had very deep roots in that community, I would make that the topic of my talk. Here’s what I had to say:

One day on the set of THE WALTONS, Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) said to me, “You know, you’re one of the pioneers of television.” My immediate reply was a firm denial. I thought those people who had created live television in the small studios in New York, those young Turks responsible for shows like STUDIO ONE, PHILCO PLAYHOUSE, GOODYEAR PLAYHOUSE, KRAFT THEATRE, playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling, producers like Fred Coe, and directors like George Roy Hill and Franklin Schaffner – they were the ones responsible for that wonderful period in the 50’s that is now known as the Golden Age of Television – I thought they were television’s pioneers.

But as I look back now I realize that golden period was only the beginning. Just as our great nation started with 13 colonies on the east coast, and then expanded westward, when the major film studios of Hollywood realized that television, that infernal nuisance of a competitor, burgeoning on the east coast that was allowing people to stay at home and watch entertainment in the comfort of their living rooms without forking over money at a theatre box office, those film studios decided to get into the act and get a piece of the action. Film cameras allowed productions to move out of the cramped live studios onto the streets of NAKED CITY, they allowed productions to roll down ROUTE 66 westward to the soundstages of Hollywood, where shows that could not have been done in the live studios were now possible. Successful shows like TWILIGHT ZONE, THE WILD WILD WEST, WAGON TRAIN, THE FUGITIVE, THE OUTER LIMITS, THE FBI, MAVERICK, I SPY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and of course STAR TREK – the list is endless. The result was truly an extension of that Golden Age, and that was when I started directing film – in that period that is now referred to as CLASSIC TELEVISION.  So although I don’t go around proclaiming I am one of the pioneers of television, if anyone suggests, as Will Geer did, that I am – I don’t deny it.

I am often asked, in interviews and by people fascinated and curious about show biz, “How did you become a film director?” Since so much of that journey has roots, deep roots, right here in Mason City, Iowa, I thought it would be interesting today to share some of that story with you. I’m not going all the way back to that brick building that used to stand across the park from here – the old Park Hospital where I was born. I’m going to pick up the story in the spring of 1940 when I was a 16-year old junior in Mason City High School. I say unapologetically that I was an A student. Although the high school didn’t grade by the alphabet — it graded in percent – and I only liked the number 99. I’m glad the word “nerd” had not yet been invented, because I think I probably was one. I was the editor of the Cub Gazette, a one-page chronicle of the high school that appeared every Saturday in the Mason City Globe Gazette. The advisor for the page was my English teacher, Elizabeth Graves.

I’ve neglected to mention that I was an avid movie fan.  GONE WITH THE WIND had been produced the year before in 1939 and had won eight Academy Awards. The film was four hours long and was released on a road-show basis; there were two performances a day – a matinee and evening performance. When it finally reached Mason City in the spring of 1940, I stayed out of school one day and went with my mother to a matinee showing at the Cecil Theatre. I don’t know how Miss Graves found out why I missed her class that day, but when the report cards came out for the final quarter, my expected 99 was replaced by a 95. Well that was bye-bye Miss Graves and so long to the editorship of the Cub Gazette. I told you I was a nerd.

The following year – my senior year – without the editorship of the Cub Gazette, I found excessive time on my hands. So when the tryouts for the senior class play were announced – with absolutely no theatrical aspirations and no noticeable theatrical talent, I decided to try out. I went to the auditions. I didn’t get cast. But I wanted to be involved; so I ended up as the assistant to the director, who was Myrtle Oulman, a petite blond and a magnificent director. As I got to know her, she told me she was a graduate of Yale, whose theatre department was possibly the most prestigious in the country. After her graduation Dixie Willson, older sister of Mason City’s Music Man, wanted to take Myrtle to New York and help her launch a stage career, but her father said, “If you go to New York to become an actress, do not darken this doorstep again.” She said he actually said that. New York’s loss was my gain. For the next few weeks I sat beside her in the darkened auditorium, a thick tablet in my lap, pen poised to take down her constant flow of critiques. Her eyes never left the stage. She was meticulous. Later she would gather the cast around her in a circle on the stage, and I would read back the notes I had taken. She would address the performer involved, giving her corrections – many times illustrating what she wanted by acting it out. Oh, and by the way, in the final days of rehearsal, Miss Oulman fired one of the boys in the cast, the one playing the retarded servant. Guess who ended up playing that part.

Miss Oulman had introduced me to another world. The following year, my freshman year in college, I stayed on in Mason City at the Mason City Junior College. I made arrangements, in partial payment of tuition to serve as Miss Oulman’s assistant on ALL of the productions she would direct that year. I also participated in Wig and Masque, the college drama club. We met once a month, read and discussed plays and sometimes members of the group would mount a production of a one-act play. By spring of 1942 I was sufficiently emboldened that I decided I would direct a play. Now if I knew then what I know now, I would have picked a nice gentle play that involved some experiences with which I was acquainted. But I didn’t do that. I picked a somber, highly dramatic play – GLORIA MUNDI, the Glory Of The World. It was a story of a young girl who finds herself committed to an insane asylum. The action took place in a large room with a door in the upstage wall – a door with a curtain draped hiding it. As the play progressed, the staff of the asylum began to act more strangely until at the end of the play, the young girl realizes she must escape. She rushes up to the door, pulls the curtain aside to reveal that there is no door, there is no escape. She is doomed to stay in a place where she is sane, it’s the staff that is insane. Curtain. End of play. The day after the play was performed for the club members, I remember being in Miss Oulman’s classroom – just the two of us. I remember where each of us was standing. She said to me, “You could be a director,” and I responded, “Oh, I could never do that.”

At the end of the school year Miss Oulman left to get married. Pearl Harbor had happened on December 7. Our country was at war. I was 18 years old and registered for the draft. Hoping to keep me in school and out of the service, my folks sent me to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for my sophomore year. They thought it would be a benefit if I were enrolled in the school’s ROTC program. I’ve neglected to mention that another facet of my nerdishness was that I started piano lessons at the age of 7 and would be entering Coe College as a music-major. At the end of the second quarter, my ROTC unit was called up for active duty, and my education took a 34-month sabbatical while I served in the army – 18 of those months overseas in Europe.

So let’s jump ahead now to September 1945. The war in the Pacific had ended the previous month. I was in a replacement depot in France, awaiting assignment to the occupation force in Germany. I remember one day sitting in the barracks with someone whose name I think was John, and he was talking about his family, farmers in – as I remember — Missouri. He knew they were expecting him to return after he was discharged to take over the running of the farm. His problem? That was not what he really wanted to do for the rest of his life. I, in the infinite wisdom of my twenty-two years said, “Then you shouldn’t do it. You have only one life to live. You have to decide what that life is going to be.” After our conversation was over, I remember lying on my bunk and thinking, “You’re awfully willing to give free advice; when are you going to start taking some of that advice yourself?” Six months later when I returned home after my discharge from the army, I announced to my parents I was going to apply under the G.I. bill for enrollment in the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre. They were surprised, but as always – supportive. I remember my dad saying, “Just don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Because of the large number of men coming out of the service and returning to schools to continue their education, I wasn’t able to start at the Playhouse until the following year –January 1, 1947. And the Playhouse indeed provided a window into the world that Miss Oulman had given me a glimpse into not too many years before. For the next two years I was exposed to theatre 7 days a week from 8am until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I was a directing major, so my second year I was assigned to direct two productions, cast with fellow classmates, to be performed in one of the small student theatres. The first play I was given was J.B. Priestley’s DANGEROUS CORNER, a drama with a fascinating premise. A group of people gathered for a weekend at a country retreat. A chance remark by one of the guests ignites a series of devastating revelations, the disclosures of which have tragic consequences. The play ends with time slipping back to the beginning of the evening and the chance remark not being made, the secrets remaining hidden and the “dangerous corner” avoided. I bring this up because I believe my life has been filled with dangerous corners, interesting intersections where events or people greatly affected and changed the direction in which my life was moving. Fortunately, the change in direction proved always to be for the better. A case in point – I refer back to my junior year in high school. Where would my life had led — would I be standing here talking to you like this — if Miss Graves had given me a 99 on that last report card?

I graduated from the Playhouse in June 1948. I left the institution enthused and with an idealistic goal – to end up with a small theatre where I could direct to my heart’s content. I was 25 years old, had my Bachelor’s Degree, but I didn’t feel fully prepared. I decided I needed to continue my theatre education at the University of Iowa. I was aware of the fine reputation of their theatre department; when I had been at nearby Coe College I had attended several productions in their state of the art theatre. An added inducement – my younger brother, Ervin, was already a student at the University. So in September I left Mason City and headed south to Iowa City. And I soon discovered there was a vast difference in the Playhouse approach to theatre and the theatre of Academia.

I was not in Iowa City very long, when Ervin and I received word that our father had a heart attack. We didn’t have a car, the train connections from Iowa City to Mason City were not good, so I don’t remember how we managed to get home, but we did. Once there I decided I would not return to the University; I felt my mother would need assistance running their jewelry store.

My father recovered, and shortly after that I received a phone call from Velma Grippen. At one time years before Velma had lived across the street from us on Crescent Drive. I don’t know how she knew I was back in town, but she was directing a play for Mason City Little Theatre, had just lost an actor and wondered if I would be available to step in as replacement. The play was STATE OF THE UNION; the role was Spike, the reporter (with a lot of funny lines), and I said, “Yes.” Remember what I said before about “corners”? Being back in Mason City and acting in that play led to my going into rehearsal the following January directing Mason City Little Theatre’s next production.

Three years before at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco I had seen the national touring company production of Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE starring Pauline Lord. That was the play I wanted to do. I cast Olga Sternad, Durwood Stahl and Ellen Moore to play the Wingfield family. We rehearsed on the top floor of the K.C. building – that building that used to stand at the corner of Federal and 2nd Street. My dad, despite his heart attack a few months before, climbed those many, many steps to come to some of the rehearsals. When we moved onto the stage at the Mason City High School, he was at every rehearsal, every performance. The play was a big success, which led to plans for me to direct another local production, this time a benefit for the Sisterhood of the local Synagogue. I chose to direct a production of a play written by one of my classmates at the Playhouse, Max Hodge. The play was A STRIPED SACK FOR PENNY CANDY, and it too was performed on the high school stage; it too was a success.

And then I was faced with a stark realization: I had directed two productions, and I felt I had used up everything I had learned in my two years at the Playhouse. I really had to get back to school to learn more. I had met Martha Barclay because of those productions. I remember her great enthusiasm the night we met backstage after a performance of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, when she raved about the production. I learned she was a graduate of Northwestern University as a theatre major, but she had not pursued a professional career. She suggested and then encouraged me to pursue my further education at Northwestern.

And so in June of 1949, I found myself in Evanston, Illinois, enrolled in the summer session at Northwestern. I liked Northwestern better than Iowa City, so I stayed on into the fall for the next quarter. But by the end of that second quarter, I arrived at another of those “corners”. My dad had another heart attack, and when I returned home for the Christmas break, I decided I would not be returning to Northwestern. And that was when Maggie Egloff entered my life. I had met her the previous year when I directed THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Maggie was on the board of Mason City Little Theatre, and she decided that the organization should hire me as their full-time director. Let me say here — when Maggie Egloff decided something, it somehow came to pass. I was contracted to direct the 1950-51 season for Mason City Little Theatre; I would direct 4 productions plus 2 Children Theatre productions; the contract would be for 10 months and I would be paid $200.00 a month. The first season was a great success, and I was booked to stay on for another year. That second season the children’s theatre was eliminated and the main season was extended to five productions.

Those two years were my laboratory. I had been presented the fundamentals of theatre at the Playhouse and at Northwestern, but this was where I developed as a director. I planned my sets, did the lighting, but most important I had extensive opportunity to work with actors. I learned that no two actors are alike; I learned that I had to deal with each actor in the manner that would help him or her achieve the best performance they were capable of giving. I have a reputation of being an actors’ director, which I find interesting, because I learned that the best thing a director can do when working with actors is stay out of the way.

As my second season with Mason City Little Theatre ended, I realized that when I left the Pasadena Playhouse, my original goal of finding a small theatre where I could direct might not have been ambitious enough. I don’t quite remember how it happened, but I met Phil Tyrell. He was going to be producing a season of summer stock in Wheeling, Illinois (a city north of Chicago), and he invited me to come aboard as assistant director.

And so I departed Mason City again in June 1952 for Wheeling and my first professional theatre job (I had to join Actors’ Equity, the union for stage performers) and then I set out on what I can only call a two-year wandering. A short non-productive spell in New York, back to Chicago, then Florida. My father died while I was in Florida. A year at the playhouse in Des Moines. The fall of 1954 I decided I was going to head back out west – this time to assault the ramparts of Hollywood.

In September I drove out to California in my 1950 Dodge. The task I faced was indeed daunting. I had lived in southern California during my two years at the Playhouse, but I had lived in Pasadena, a charming, compact city north of Los Angeles. I had spent no time exploring nearby HOLLYWOOD. A friend in Mason City had told me her father was in film distribution. I contacted him soon after my arrival. I discovered that film distribution had no connection to film production, but his wife gave me some advice. She said, you’re a theatre director, there are several very good small theatres. Direct a play in one of those theatres, and that should help you get launched.

I learned that the hottest small theatre in Hollywood was the Players Ring on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was owned and operated by two of my former classmates at the Pasadena Playhouse: Paul Levitt and Ted Cohen, now known under his stage name, Ted Thorpe. I went to see them. They were starting production on their next presentation, Tennessee Williams’ THE ROSE TATTOO. They needed a lighting director. There of course would be no salary involved. The theatre was very small; it seated less than a hundred people. Even the actors appearing at the theatre didn’t get paid. It was strictly a showcase — but a very good one. And it was a foot in the door for this aspiring director. I lit the show and stayed on to light their following production of Maxwell Anderson’s SATURDAY’S CHILDREN.

The theatre also had evenings when it presented actors in showcase scenes. I volunteered to direct some of them. I was doing the soda fountain scene from Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN with two young performers, Judy and Jimmy. One day when we arrived at the theatre to rehearse, there was no space available for us. Judy said, “We can rehearse at my house.” I asked, “Where’s your house?” and she said, “Just up the street.”

So Jimmy and I followed Judy as she led us up the street to the corner of Fountain Avenue, where we entered a very impressive structure. Once inside, I gaped. I felt like I was standing in one of those grand MGM sets I had seen on the screen at the Cecil Theatre. And then I noticed an Academy Award statuette on a shelf. “Whose is that?” I asked. Judy responded, “My mother’s.” “Whose your mother?” from me. Her response: “Loretta Young.” And I blurted out, “But you don’t look like her.” which was a dumb thing to say, because she did. Judy replied to that, “Well, I’m adopted.”

I couldn’t wait to get back to the theatre to tell them of my discovery, to let them know the identity of the young girl helping out in their box office. And of course they just laughed at my naivete and told me the rest of the story. Judy was not adopted. She was the biological daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable, the result of their brief affair while working on the film, THE CALL OF THE WILD. Many years later Judy wrote a fine book, UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE. Unlike the hatchet jobs that the daughters of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis wrote about their mother, Judy’s book was understanding and compassionate. And I was amazed to discover that small town me from Iowa knew about Judy’s parentage before she did. She wrote in her book that when she was engaged in her early twenties, she said to her fiancé one day that she felt bad because she knew all about him, but that he didn’t know anything about her (referring to her being adopted and not knowing her true parentage). He responded that he knew all about her; he was the one who told her who her biological parents were.

Early in 1955, once SATURDAY’S CHILDREN was up and running, Paul Levitt called me into his office one day and offered me the chance to direct their next production – MY THREE ANGELS. I had only been in Los Angeles four months, and I was being handed the opportunity to direct in the most successful small theatre in town. I held auditions, assembled a cast of sterling professional actors, the show opened to fine reviews in the LA Times, LA Examiner, the trade papers: Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, a Beverly Hills paper and a Santa Monica paper – I received good personal notices, but I didn’t get launched.

I started looking for other theatres where I could direct. There was Stage Society, just outside the east border of Beverly Hills, the Morgan Theatre in Santa Monica, Horseshoe Stage on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood and Gilmor Brown’s Playbox, his personal intimate theatre in Pasadena. One of my assignments in my second year at the Playhouse was to appear as an actor in a Playbox production of Garcia Lorca’s BLOOD WEDDING. I called Mr. Brown and was granted an interview with him. He promised to keep me in mind. It was just a few days later that I received a phone call from him. There was a play in rehearsal for the Playbox, he had just lost the director (I never did find out what he lost him to) and he asked if I would step in and take over. The Playbox was even smaller than the Players Ring – it only seated 50 people – and it didn’t have the advantages of that earlier theatre. The run was short: 10 performances in a two-week period, and the audience consisted only of season subscribers. There would be no industry coverage; there would be no reviews. But it was a chance to direct, with the hope that it might lead to my directing a production on the main stage, so I did it; and that brought me to the final months of 1955.

Someone from the Morgan Theatre had come out to Pasadena at my invitation to see my production. There was discussion about my directing a production for them; but with the holiday season approaching, I knew nothing could come of that until after the first of the year. And I had been at it for close to 14 months, and the necessity to earn some money was rearing its ugly head. I went to an employment agency. They took one look at my resume and sent me to CBS. It was a menial job – typing scripts in the radio division of the network. And I considered it as very temporary – just until the first of the year. But I would be working right in the heart of Hollywood, at Sunset and Gower, just kitty-corner from Columbia Studios where IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, where MR. DEEDS went to town and MR SMITH went to Washington.

Once inside the walls of CBS, I recognized an unexpected possibility. There were three divisions of the Los Angeles CBS operation. The network radio building where I would be working; KNX, the local CBS television station with its own building a short distance away in Hollywood and Television City at Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax, the new elaborate modern four studio complex that housed the network’s television operation. I learned that whenever there was a job opening in any of those divisions, notices were posted throughout all three divisions by the Personnel department. And I learned that there was an assistant producer on the Jack Benny show, who had started as a secretary, moved on to become a script clerk and worked his way up to his present position from there.

To this day I do not understand why I had taken a shorthand course in high school. But it was about to come in handy. I found a shorthand teacher near where I was working in Hollywood and, since I didn’t report for work until noon, I went to her in the morning to brush up my shorthand skill. After ten days I felt prepared and took the shorthand test in the personnel department at CBS. I passed. I was now qualified to apply for a secretarial job, should one be posted. My goal? To get into programming at Television City.

I don’t remember how long I worked typing radio scripts before there was an interesting job opening posted – secretary for Tony Barr, an associate producer on the weekly live television drama, CLIMAX. I applied, met with Tony, and the job was mine. On my last Friday before leaving for my new job, there was a going-away party for me in the mimeo room. There was a cake and even a gift – a beautiful pair of onyx cuff links. At the peak of the merriment Rose Marie and Jean, my two friends in Personnel, appeared, but with grim expressions on their faces. The CLIMAX secretary I was going to replace had been set to take the job of a departing secretary to a high level executive. At the last minute, the executive’s secretary changed her mind and was not leaving. That meant the CLIMAX secretary was not moving over, which meant I would be reporting back to mimeo on Monday.

That was when Rose Marie and Jean made a decision. They decided they would make me a “floating” secretary. I would move up to being a secretary immediately, my salary would increase from the weekly $52.40 which I was currently earning, and I would work filling in for secretaries on vacation or out for illness. That way should an opening occur in programming, I would be readily available to apply, and hopefully accept.

I now had two parallel paths I was traveling, with the hope that somewhere down the line they might connect. I worked at CBS during the day, and evenings and weekends I kept busy directing theatre. I directed a production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Morgan Theatre in Santa Monica, productions of THE IMMORALIST and ALL SUMMER LONG at the Horseshoe Stage in Hollywood and two more productions for Mr. Brown’s Playbox. This went on for 15 months. And then an opening I had been waiting for – Russell Stoneham, an assistant producer on the prestigious PLAYHOUSE 90, needed a new secretary. I applied. I was hired. It was June of 1957. PLAYHOUSE 90 had completed its first season, and would be running kinescope repeats during the summer. I was aboard when their second season opened in the fall. I was in the control booth that opening night when THE DEATH OF MANOLETE was being performed. I had definitely taken a step upward.

That December, working at my PLAYHOUSE 90 desk I received an unusual phone call from Gilmor Brown. After greeting him the following conversation took place:

Mr. Brown said, “Will you direct a play for me?”

And I said, “What play, Mr. Brown?”

And he said, “No, you tell me if you’ll direct it.”

That seesawing went back and forth; he wanted me to say yes, that I would direct his play, and I wanted to know the name of the play. He finally told me. He wanted me to direct a production of Eugene O’Neill’s THE ICEMAN COMETH. I told him, “Of course I’ll direct it”. He told me he wanted me to cut the four-hour script, to shorten it. So my schedule for the next six months was clearly laid out: my job at PLAYHOUSE 90 and the enormous task of cutting the script. I had auditions for the play in April. Went into rehearsal and opened it in Mr. Brown’s new PLAYBOX theatre in June. Again there were no reviews, but I invited James Powers, a reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter, to come see the production, and he sent me a very encouraging letter praising what he had seen.

At the end of PLAYHOUSE 90’s second season, Russell was promoted to be an associate producer, and I was to take over his former duties, although I would be a Production Supervisor rather than an Assistant Producer.

I had met Adrienne Marden and Wendell Holmes when Wendell appeared in my production of BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE in Mr. Brown’s PLAYBOX. After that they sort of adopted me. They came to see the stage productions I directed.  I was often a guest at their home in Santa Monica. In 1959 members of Actors Equity on the west coast wanted to bring to the west a project that the guild had sponsored in New York – Equity Library Theatre. Wendell was a part of that group.  Since I was a member of Actors Equity because of my employment in the Chicago stock company, although on withdrawal, I reinstated and was eligible to submit a project to the committee. I submitted Maureen Watkins’ CHICAGO, a play I had long wanted to direct. A few days later I was notified the committee had approved my submission. Then a couple days after that Wendell (who was on the committee) called again. CHICAGO was not available for production. The play had been written and produced professionally in 1923 and had been an enormous success. But playwright Maureen Watkins had been unhappy that the production had turned what she had considered a serious drama into a comedy. She withdrew the play from any future theatrical productions, although it did make it to the screen a couple of times. That banishment stayed in force until after her death in 1969 and the Bob Fosse musical version in 1975. Wendell suggested that I find another play to submit. At that point I rebelled. I had really wanted to do the production of CHICAGO, and the disappointment at this latest development sent me into a deep pit of discouragement. It had been five years since I had returned to the west coast. I had been involved in thirteen theatrical productions during that time, all receiving fine reviews in the local papers; all of this in addition to my full time labors at CBS. Suddenly it all seemed so futile. Which was when Adrienne stepped in. If I wouldn’t pick another play, she would. She suggested Paul Osborne’s MORNING’S AT SEVEN. I knew the play. I felt it was exactly the kind of gentle play I didn’t want to do. I wanted something big and flashy, something that would really attract attention. But Adrienne was persistent, so I finally reluctantly agreed to submit it to the committee. I don’t know what happened at the committee meeting when my submission was discussed, but I think Wendell’s knowledge of my reluctance to do the play may have affected their decision. They decided against MORNING’S AT SEVEN and selected THE LADIES OF THE CORRIDOR that had been submitted by John Erman. Once I had been rejected, I had second thoughts about my decision, but what was done was done. Then a few days later I received another phone call. The committee had been notified that THE LADIES OF THE CORRIDOR was not available, and MORNING’S AT SEVEN had been approved. Are you aware we have just turned another dangerous corner?

The play I didn’t want to direct was produced on a small stage in a Beverly Hills Park. James Powers in his Hollywood Reporter review wrote:

If one production were needed to justify Equity Library  Theatre’s existence here, its presentation of Paul Osborne’s “Morning’s At Seven” would do it. Ralph Senensky, who directed the charming comedy, has seen in the gentle fable all its shining gold and extracted it so carefully that it glistens with a healthy sheen and cannot be mistaken for the more customary comedy brass.

Norman Felton was an executive at CBS. I had been in and out of his office almost daily during my tenure as a Production Supervisor on Playhouse 90. Whenever a request from a show in production came to my desk for additional money, I would take it to him for approval. The day that the MORNING’S AT SEVEN reviews came out in the trade papers, I went in with such a request. Mr. Felton was reading the Hollywood Reporter. He was reading James Powers’ review of my production. Holding up the newspaper he asked, “Is this you?” I said it was. He questioned me about my theatre background, the Pasadena Playhouse, my four years in community theatre in Iowa. He told me he too had started in community theatre. He didn’t come to see MORNING’S AT SEVEN, and in the following five months he didn’t come to see my production of THE CIRCLE on the main stage of the Pasadena Playhouse, another play I turned down before agreeing to direct it and GOLDEN FLEECING, also on the main stage of the Playhouse; but he did acknowledge both of them and commented on their favorable reviews.

PLAYHOUSE 90 was cancelled in 1960, at about the same time MORNING’S AT SEVEN was playing. I was then assigned as assistant to the producer of a new half-hour daily soap opera, FULL CIRCLE, reputed to be the first soap opera to be produced on the west coast. This was concurrent with my production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood playing on the Pasadena Playhouse’s main stage. In September Livia Granito, one of the two directors on FULL CIRCLE, left the show to have a baby. I approached producer Norman Morgan about my replacing her. I had just had two major theatre successes, and there was my experience in live television on PL.AYHOUSE 90. After mulling it for a few days Norman took me to lunch, where he apologetically announced, “I can’t be Santa Claus.” To put it as civilly as possible, I was frustrated and discouraged.

A very close friend at CBS, Louise Paulk, secretary to one of the executives, had been a long time supporter of my aspirations. She told me of a woman in Santa Barbara, whom she frequently went to see. This lady, I’ve forgotten her name, so because of her location let’s call her Barbara. Louise told me Barbara gave horoscope readings — wonderful readings. She thought it would help if I went to see her. I figured why not! I contacted Barbara, gave her the necessary information regarding my birth date and birthplace and made an appointment to see her the following month. On a Saturday morning in January I motored up to Santa Barbara, met Barbara and sat down with her for my session. Before she told me what the future foretold, she did a personality analysis of me that, because of its accuracy frankly startled me. And then she said, “I know what you want, but it can’t happen now. You must be patient. It can’t happen until October.” I returned to Los Angeles and CBS only slightly encouraged.

Soon after that Allen Parr, the head of Personnel for television, summoned me to his office. This was sort of a replay of a similar scene two years earlier. At that time I had just been promoted to be Production Supervisor on PLAYHOUSE 90, but I was earning the same salary I had been paid as a secretary. I told Russell Stoneham, I thought I should have a raise. He agreed and set up a meeting with Allen Parr. The offer Allen presented me was an insulting ten-dollar raise, and I would have to sign a five-year contract. Now I had no intention of signing any contract; I still had dreams of making it as a director. So I said I’m sorry, but I won’t sign any contract. Allen shrugged, indicating no contract, no raise and said, “You’re the one who asked for the raise.” My answer to that was, “I asked for a raise, not a tip.”

My salary had not changed, when I was summoned to see Allen after my Santa Barbara trip. He told me they were restructuring the Table of Organization for the department. My position and my salary would have to conform. In other words I would be gaining a considerable increase in earnings, but I also would be required to sign a five-year contract. I still had no intention of signing any contract because of my continuing aspirations as a director; besides which at this point I thought, if I sign a five-year contract, that could make me ineligible for what Barbara told me about October. So I again refused to sign a contract. Allen said I had to sign it, at which point I gave him my two weeks notice. Two weeks later I left CBS after five years. No job. No prospects. I wasn’t even eligible for unemployment insurance for six weeks because I had quit.

In the spring of 1961 Norman Felton left CBS to go to MGM, where he formed his own production company, Arena Productions. Their first project was to adapt the old Lew Ayres-Lionel Barrymore medical show, DR. KILDARE, into a television series. And I ended up going with him. I was going to be the assistant to producer Herbert Hirschman, a lovely man I had known on PLAYHOUSE 90. I started there on my birthday, May 1.

MGM was my film school. I went to dailies each day at 1. I spent as much time on the set observing as I could. I spent a lot of time in the film editing rooms with our three film editors. I went to the music spotting sessions with Herb and Harry Sukman, my favorite music composer. Then I went to the music recording sessions, and finally the dubbing sessions when the original sound track, the background music track, and the special effect tracks were all blended together into one master sound track. Eventually I got to direct some insert shots on an insert stage. I must have been doing something right. One day walking with Norman between the production office and the sound stage he told me he thought I would make a very good producer. I responded that my goal was to be a very good director.

One day in August Herb invited me to go with him to a screening room. He was going to view an independent film, a first time directorial effort by a new director on the East Coast. We saw the film, Herb liked it and hired the director to direct a DR. KILDARE. The director, having come from the independent film world, proved to be far less disciplined and knowledgeable than our previous lineup of directors. In fact he drove the camera and sound crews crazy. One day after his film was completed, I confronted Norman as we walked from the production office to the sound stage. I said, “Norman, you know that I want to be a director, and I’ve been very patient. I haven’t bugged you about it because of the experienced directors that you’ve been hiring. I know you’re aware of what happened on the sound stages last week. Well I think if you’re going to start handing out charity, charity should start at home.” Norman listened to me, then said that he would see what he could do. A couple days later he called me into his office. He said the people at the network, where he would have to get approval to assign me to a film, were a little nervous at this time. We were still a few weeks away from our opening air date, and the network people were not totally happy with a show directed by our producer, Herb Hirschman. They were being extra cautious about whom they would approve. Norman said just be patient a little longer until we get on the air, when he would then be able to make an assignment without seeking network approval.

DR. KILDARE debuted September 28, 1961 to positive reviews and high ratings. One week later on Friday, OCTOBER 6, I was handed a script to direct. Fifty-two years ago last Wednesday I wrapped filming on that script. I guess because it was the first, I have a special affection for the film, and for the troubled young boy at its center — JOHNNY TEMPLE.

You can read about the filming of JOHNNY TEMPLE  at

The journey continues


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25 Responses to From MCI to MGM in 21 years

  1. elly marks becker says:

    Even though I didn’t know cousin Ralph (he’s first cousin to my mother), I grew up hearing about his career and successes. Now, as I read this autobiography, I feel I am getting to know him, his journey and the love and support he had from family and community. I await the next installments as the journey continues.

  2. Jeff Burr says:

    Ralph…just wanted to say congrats on the well-deserved lifetime achievement award and a big congrats for THE RIGHT REGRETS award as well. Your story is inspirational as is your work. Can’t wait to see THE RIGHT REGRETS. Quick question…as you were close with Norman Felton, were you ever asked to direct THE MAN FROM UNCLE? Hope all is good with you and that you are basking in a post-Iowa glow! Best, Jeff Burr

    • Ralph says:

      I never did direct THE MAN FROM UNCLE. I don’t know if there ever was a request from their production office to my agents. By the time it came on the air, I was pretty busy elsewhere.

  3. Mike and Lindy says:

    Dear Ralph,

    I just finished reading your story from MCI to MGM in 21 Years. You are an excellent writer as well and I am deeply touched by your journey and what you went through to become a successful director. Congratulations on the success with TRR and am so happy for you, words cannot say. Thank you for sharing your intimate travels and cannot wait to be a part of the screening this Sunday.

    many blessings,


  4. Thanks for filling in so many missing blanks that helped me understand what made you the brilliant director that you are!

  5. Suzanne Marks says:

    So great that you got back to Mason City and received such recognition and the life-time achievement award. It was great reading about your professional journey as well as some family history. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Midge Myers says:

    Our very dear Ralph!! Gene’s mother was YOUR aunt! How strange when lives rather cross,
    but the relatives never know one another! And, our maternal families came from the same ‘shtetle’ in Ukraine.

    Ralph, We are so proud of YOU!! You deserve one BIG Mazel Tov!
    Gene ‘n me

  7. Betty Minor says:

    My daughter, Jeri, and her husband, Marvin Schechtman, have spoken of you over the years, and shared your story with me. I think the citizens of Mason City must have been overjoyed to have you there for the presentation of the honor. What an interesting and productive life! I looked forward to Playhouse 90 as long as it was on the air, and I wish they would run those plays again. It would have been great to see those plays you directed in the LA area.

    When we came to California, we attended the Old Globe in San Diego and The La Jolla Playhouse. My husband and I grew up in Rockwell City, IA about 50 miles from Mason City. We were married in 1947 and went directly to the University of Iowa so we were there in 1948 when you were. We attended all the University plays–it was our first opportunity to enjoy live theatre. Now I am blessed to have The Moonlight Theatre and Community College theatre here in Vista.

    My husband is gone now, but I have a group of women friends who attend local theatre with me, and it is very important in our lives. We all feel grateful for how it enriches our lives. Thank you for all you have done in that magical world.

    • Nanang says:

      Colin Mcconn I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I come acsors a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. I’

  8. Rae Eighmey says:

    Dear Ralph,

    We so enjoyed seeing Right Regrets at the Iowa Indie Film Festival and valued the chance to visit with you. Sorry to have missed your presentation of this material on Sunday, but so glad that you posted it here. Your thoughts on the importance of presented opportunities AND being ready to take advantage of them are important for anyone who strives for a creative career whether in the arts, education, or business. One never knows what gift the muse will give you, but if you are prepared, you will have the joys of unexpected career directions. Thank you for reinforcing those thoughts.

    • Ralph says:

      And I was so impressed and honored that you made the trip from Minneapolis to Mason City for the event. I have told many people about what you did.

    • Ralph says:

      And another lesson (or mantra) I learned at the Pasadena Playhouse: Fred Berest, one of the teachers and a lovely man at the Playhouse said, “It is a crime to have opportunity knock and not be prepared for it.”

      • Rae Eighmey says:


        I may be in such an opportunity-knocking circumstance and would deeply appreciate it if I could ask your advice directly in email. Would it be possible for you to send me an email to which I may respond explaining what maybe. . .might. . . possibly . . could .. . happen and for which circumstances it would be unfortunate–if not a crime– to be unprepared. Many thanks, either way.


  9. detectivetom says:

    Congrats on the honors and thank you for sharing the early years of your career. It was most interesting.

  10. David Wohl says:

    It was nice hearing about your trip to M.C. and your well deserved recognition. I was there in September for our class reunion. I recall your families jewelry store well. As a child I used to go there and visit your mother when I went to our cleaners a block away. She always had a welcome piece of hard candy for me. I wish I knew you were there as I surely would have drove down for your event. Best Regards…

  11. Phil says:

    The Mason City newspaper had this article on Ralph’s return home in 2001:


    The COZI-TV channel is starting to show ‘The Name of the Game’ series at a time when people are awake. They’ll show Ralph’s episode, “The Ordeal”, this Sunday Nov. 17 at 8 PM EST.

  12. Ted Anderst says:

    Mr. Senensky,
    Did you know Peggy R. Bashford? I believe she studied and acted at the Pasadena Playhouse in the ’40s and ’50s? I recently came across some poems she wrote and would like to talk to someone who knew her during her acting career. If you knew Ms. Bashford, I would like to share her poems with you, and maybe talk to you to learn more about her (not only her acting career, but also her personally). Thank you very much.
    Ted Anderst

  13. Tim says:

    Greetings –
    I really enjoy reading of your adventures, they need to be published as a book! From your writings, I know you don’t like it when people ask. ‘..What was it like working with so and so? ‘. But.. I’ve never heard anyone comment on Estelle Winwood before. I always thought she was GREAT. I first saw her in Neil Simons classic Murder by Death, where she was such a scene stealer. I would enjoy hearing what you’d like to share about working with her. I read that at one time she was the oldest working SAG Actress, at close to 100. Thank you for your time.
    – All The Best –


  14. Tim says:

    ..Someone who enjoys your Blog

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