Oil

FILMED April-November 1980

Sarane. A beautiful name. An unusual name. Sarane was my first cousin, and her mother created the name. As per Jewish custom she was named for a deceased relative and given the Hebrew name (phonetically) of Sora, which would translate into English as Sara. But her mother didn’t want another Sara in the family. There was already a Sara Katz, born to one of her sisters and a Sara Tokman, born to another sister. So by adding two more letters to Sara, little baby Sora became Sarane.

Sarane was only eight and a half months younger than I was. She was truly more than my first cousin. For the first nine years of my life we lived next door to each other, she in one side of a duplex, me in the other. She was more like a sister – no, even more than that. She was like a fraternal twin sister. Sarane’s birthday was January 16. In Mason City, Iowa, a child had to be five years old before December 31 to enter kindergarten. I never questioned how Sarane, having a birthday 16 days past that date, managed to be enrolled in the kindergarten class with me. Later I assumed it was because her mother (my adored Aunt Rose) knew that it would be too difficult for Sarane to be left behind as I started school.

School was Central School, a red brick building five block from where we lived. I look back now with amazement as I realize that once we were enrolled, neither of our parents walked us to school. Those two five-year olds wouldn’t get lost. It was a straight line down State Street with no turns from the duplex at the corner of West State Street and Jefferson to the school, and there wasn’t the fear that prevails today of youngsters like them being whisked away by strangers. Oh there were perils. One block away at the corner of West State Street and Adams was the Armory, a large grey concrete building (the same one I talk about in my post, THE MARATHON on THE WALTONS), and on warm sunny days, the walls of that building were covered with black and orange winged bugs. Sarane and I believed those small creatures were sewing bugs that were capable of sewing up our eyelids, so twice a day, as we went to and returned from school, we ran the half block to get past the building with our eyesight unimpaired.

I guess it was about this same time that our mothers put us into a dancing class. We were taught to tap dance. I don’t actually remember doing that. I have seen pictures of Sarane in a fancy short white dress with lots of lace and me in black satin shorts and a white satin shirt as we performed the wedding couple in a production number. I think it was The Wedding Of The Paper Dolls. I do remember the Friday night that Sarane, her parents, me, my parents and our Aunt and Uncle Larner piled into the Larner automobile to travel to a neighboring town to perform in a recital. There was a thunderstorm with heavy rain, and we ended up stuck in the mud out in the countryside surrounded by farmland. I guess we finally got out. My mother wondered if it had happened because we were riding in an automobile on a Friday night, the Sabbath. It was the first time she had ever done that.

Sarane as a little girl had hives. She could not eat strawberries or tomatoes. If she did she broke out in a red rash over her entire body. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how difficult that deprivation had been for her. As an adult when Sarane grocery shopped, when she passed through the vegetable section she would put a basket of cherry tomatoes in the upper section of her cart, and the basket would be empty by the time she reached the checkout counter – such was her craving for that once forbidden fruit. Sarane during her young girlhood was not fat, but she was not skinny. Again I did not realize until later how her plumpness affected her. As an adult she was obsessive about her weight. In her forties she was a stunning slim woman, whose diet absolutely excluded any salt, the substance that would cause her body to retain fluid..

The questions we don’t ask until it is too late. How did my mother, the oldest of five daughters of an immigrant family, forced to quit school after the eighth grade to help with her younger siblings, learn to read music and play the piano? But she did. And even though there was the depression, our home had a piano, and when I was seven years old, fifty cents a week was spent on piano lessons for me. I don’t remember the name of the piano teacher. She was elderly, had gray hair and came to our home for the lessons. It didn’t take too long for a piano to appear in the living room of the other side of the duplex, and Sarane too began piano lessons. I remember if I had an exercise that had to be played ten times, mom would put ten raisins at the left end of the keyboard, and every time I completed performing the exercise, a raisin would be moved to the right end of the keyboard. You can figure out the fate of those raisins at the end of the practice session. There were raisins on Sarane’s piano too.

Ruth Swingen (what a name for a musician) was a dynamic piano teacher in Mason City. She had a studio above the dress shop on the northeast corner of Federal Avenue and 1st Street North. And she charged $2.00 for a one-hour lesson. But despite the depression, weekly lessons became a part of the family budget – both family budgets. Sarane too switched music teachers. I’m not sure just when this switch happened. I think it was when I was nine-years old. The agenda was strictly classical. I played Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Bach, Grieg, Franz Liszt. Miss Swingen had monthly recitals at which her students performed. I don’t think Sarane and I were prodigies, but I do think we were pretty good. This continued for the balance of our school years in Mason City. At the end of our senior year of high school, as Sarane and I prepared to graduate, we gave a joint piano recital. It was performed in the lounge of the YWCA, a dark red building on the corner of West State Street and Adams – just a block from the duplex, where Sarane still lived. We had moved to the west end of town. Sarane and I each played several selections (I remember my BIG number was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) and we concluded with a couple of two-piano numbers.

A few weeks after the recital we graduated from high school. Except for the two years after my family moved to the west end of town, when I attended Wilson School for my sixth and seventh grades, Sarane and I had attended grade school, junior high and high school together. I don’t remember that there was ever any overt rivalry between us, and our achievements were remarkably similar. At the end of our four years of high school, our academic grade averages were side by side, practically tied. I ranked third in the graduating class of 1941, Sarane was fourth, an infinitesimal percentage point behind me.

And then came a big gap – a huge gap in our relationship. Would you believe twenty-three years? In 1941 we were two teenagers facing our futures. By 1964 I had recently bought a home in the Hollywood hills and was, if not firmly established, at least embedded and on the way to fulfilling my goal of a career as a film director. That is not to imply there was no contact during those twenty-three years. Well there wasn’t during a long period right after our high school graduation when we were in different parts of the country; but when I moved to the west coast in 1954 to begin my assault on the film fortresses of Hollywood, we did get to see each other occasionally. But we were both very busy. Sarane was married, the mother of three children and lived in Pacific Palisades. I was involved with my job at CBS by day and directing plays at night. Sarane during the next decade divorced, remarried and in 1964 was living much closer in the Los Feliz area. What is so amazing to me now as I reflect on the past is that we were really two different people than those two kids of yore. Almost a quarter of a century had elapsed. But in our relationship that quarter of a century just seemed to have evaporated.

We were guests In each other’s homes. I rarely gave a dinner party that didn’t include Sarane and her new husband, Henry. When I bought my home, I began to cook. Actually my mother, who visited often, taught me to cook. One of her dishes that I relished was a recipe from my youth – chopped eggplant. The eggplant was baked and then chopped with tomatoes, cucumber, onion, radishes, a slice of bread soaked in vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Sarane too loved that dish, so whenever I made it, I always set aside a sizeable portion for her before I added salt.

Sarane loved the sun and spent hours basking in her patio. She loved to spend time in nearby Palm Springs. She always had the most remarkable bronzed skin. I remember one day when we were visiting her mother, a cancer patient, in the hospital, and my Aunt Rose’s nurse, an attractive black lady said to Sarane, “I love your skin.” Sarane, with a lovely smile, held her arm next to the nurse’s and said, “And I like yours.”

There were sad times, grim times. I remember getting a phone call. Sarane had received word that her sixteen-year old daughter, Jody, the second of her three children, had been tubing with her boyfriend on the Kern River and had been swept away. Her body had not been recovered. I immediately drove over to her home, and I went with Henry, Sarane’s husband, to a psychic. We took some articles of Jody’s clothing, and the psychic gave us a reading – a drawing of where to expect Jody’s body to be recovered. It was a crude sketch – as I remember just a group of lines with something that looked like a peninsula. The shoreline where Jody’s body was eventually recovered looked very much like the psychic’s drawing.

Neither Sarane nor I pursued our early piano training. I feel, although I cannot perform on the instrument, those years have had a profound effect on my eventual career. But I have often wondered about Sarane.. I remember during that intermediate period of occasional contact of going to a production of PEER GYNT staged by Richard Boone, and Sarane appeared in it. But as far as I know, there were no further attempts to pursue an acting career. Sometime in the period after we had resumed a more constant contact, she began to paint. She painted in watercolor on small blocks of wood and her figures were small girls with arms outstretched. The results were very naïf and primitive and charming. In the early 70’s, Sarane met Mike Falco at my home. Mike was a marvelous naïf painter. They became friends, and Sarane studied with Mike for a while. There was now a change in her work. She no longer worked in watercolor on wood. She was painting on canvas in oil.

Another crisis arose for Sarane. Bryan, Sarane’ youngest, was living with her and Henry. In the spring of his senior year in high school, Bryan was found to have marijuana on his person. As I remember it, Bryan was allowed to remain in school but was placed on probation. Then marijuana was found in Bryan’s bureau at home. If this information had surfaced, Bryan could have been expelled from school without graduating. I’m not sure I approve of Henry’s reaction. He demanded Bryan immediately leave. I don’t remember if there was a problem in Bryan moving in with his father. There must have been. Sarane was not about to put her seventeen-year old out on the street. She rented an apartment on Crescent Heights Boulevard just south of Sunset Boulevard, where she intended to live with Bryan until he graduated from high school. And she did, and he did! Their apartment was almost at the foot of the hill from where I lived.

I remember a morning in the spring of 1978 so vividly. In 1976 my mother had a mastectomy operation. The cancer had returned, and my brother, one of my mother’s younger sisters and I were sitting vigil in her hospital room. I was seated in a chair on the side of the bed closest to the doorway. My brother and aunt were seated on the other side of the bed. Everything was so peaceful and quiet. I remember looking at my mother, and it was too quiet. I got up and went to her bedside. My brother and aunt did the same. We called for a doctor and nurse. As they arrived, a nurse appeared in the doorway and told me there was a call for me at the nurses’ station. I didn’t want to leave the room at that moment, but hurried out. There was no one on the line. I hurried back to the room. The doctor had pronounced my mother as deceased, and the phone in the room rang. I picked it up, and it was Sarane. I told her I was in mom’s room, and she had just passed away. Sarane said, “I know. I just felt the passing”

I don’t remember Sarane ever coming to a studio to visit a set where I was filming. I do remember her visiting me when I was filming an episode of WESTSIDE MEDICAL on location in Griffith Park. I remember sitting on the grass near the carousel where the crew was lighting the next shot. We were talking about the difficulty I sometimes had in falling asleep. She told me she would close her eyes and feel her fingertips falling asleep; and then the feeling would move up into the hands, and then further and further into the body until she dropped off. Do you know, I still do that! In February, 1980, I was again filming on location in the Los Feliz area. I was at one of the great mansions for THE SIXTH SENSE, an episode of HART TO HART. Sarane had a visitor and asked if she could bring him to the set. I was thrilled to have them come.

When I wrapped THE SIXTH SENSE, I figured my work for the season was over. Hiatus time was about to begin, and I accepted the possibility that I would not work again until late summer at the earliest. Then later in the month I received a phone call from my agent. I was to go out to the 20th Century Fox Studio on West Pico Boulevard on Friday, February 29, to meet Esther and Richard Shapiro about directing OIL, a movie for television/pilot. Obviously I was pleased. On the appointed day at the appointed hour (I remember it as being early afternoon) I met the pair and their producer, Phil Parslow. Esther was a dynamic lady who did most of the talking. She had been an executive at ABC. She told me OIL was a project created and written by her husband Richard and her. It was a saga of the oil industry focusing on two families: the rich Carringtons, owner of the company, and the working class Blaisdels. She emphasized that although there would be many great roles in the production, the project was definitely an ensemble piece. I learned it was to be a coproduction with Aaron Spelling Productions. The more she talked, the more I realized OIL was an ABC attempt to duplicate the success of CBS’s night-time soap opera, DALLAS. I guess I was also questioned. I left the meeting with a copy of the script and a copy of the Bible (the thick volume describing all of the characters). Soon after I arrived home, I received a call from my agent – the job was mine. I sat down eagerly anxious and began to read the script. The more I read, the more excited I became at what I realized was a very fine script. But there were also questions that arose. They weren’t disturbing questions. They weren’t confusing questions. They were interesting questions. I learned I was to start preparing the following Monday. How come such a fine script didn’t have a director at this late date? I wasn’t naïve enough to think I was the first director they had interviewed. Who might have turned it down? And why? And there were also very interesting pluses. At our meeting I had definitely gotten the impression that the project, because of Esther’s relationship to the top brass at ABC, could almost be classified as pre-sold. It was destined to air as a series.

Well I wasn’t going to have to spend this hiatus in the unemployment line. And I felt it was more than a fine script – it was a great script. Interesting complex characters! Beautifully crafted and dynamic scenes! I really felt on top of the world.

At 6:00 my telephone rang. Sarane had committed suicide.

To be continued

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16 Responses to Oil

  1. This is very compelling, and I am also from Mason City.

  2. Jim says:

    A wonderful story Ralph – you have us all on the edge of our seats…….looking forward to your next post………

  3. Judy Palansky says:

    As a Senensky who grew up in Winnipeg, I remember my parents referring to our family in the U.S.,most of whom I hadn’t met. Names are familiar, but not the people.
    Because my grandfather, Benjamin Senensky, was a brother to your father, I feel that part of your story is a bit of my story as well so I look forward to reading more of your entries.

    • Ralph says:

      As I”m sure I’ve already told you, I went to Winnipeg when I was nine (I think) with the Larners, Sarane and her parents. It was just about the time when my folks moved from the duplex at Jefferson and West State, the end of the time that Sarane and I lived next door to each other. Later in LA I saw all of the boys except Sam.

  4. Ralph Senensky says:

    I received an e-mail from my cousin Sandy. Actually Sandy was the daughter of our first cousin Lillian, the older sister of the Sara Katz I wrote about when telling how the name Sarane was created. I want to share this. I think it adds dimension to who Sarane was and her effect on people. Here’s the e-mail:

    I LOVED this story of Sarane. I have so many memories of being at her Los Feliz home when I first moved to LA.  She was so special to me…and exotically beautiful inside and out. I have one of her naif paintings placed in our laundry room…a favorite and oft visited place. It reminds me of her every time I see it.

    Thanks so much for this family snapshot. It’s a keeper.  I forwarded it to all the cousins who,I’m sure, also remember Sarane (and Aunt Jennie) (and eggplant relish).

    Love, Sandy

  5. Jan Wahl says:

    Oh Ralph…This is wonderful. I miss Sarane all the time. She was an angel in my life, caring and devoted when my own father died, then letting me spend time with her, learn and have adventures together. Sometimes she was like my other mother (as you know, Joan loved her deeply), but more like a very hip, cool big sister. Such an unusual person..and so very beautiful. Thank you for your love, Sarane..and thank you for making it all come alive in a rich, visual way, Ralph. I’m so glad the two of you had each other. xoxo

    • Ralph says:

      Because of your relationship with Sarane, and it was through Sarane that I met you, your approval of my presentation of her means a lot to me, Jan.

      • Ralph Senensky says:

        I can’t resist. Jan responded again by e-mail to this post. Here’s the e-mail:

        I just can’t stop thinking about this, Ralph. Your writing is so vivid and brings back this incredible woman in my life.

  6. Renata says:

    Ralph,you amaze me for remembering so many details, facts. Wow,what a life.
    Why Sarane had committed suicide? So sad for her, her family and you.

  7. Jeffrey Marks says:

    Thank you for including me in this email. My Mom Rasha was a fan of yours (Ralph) and kept loved seeing you. You must have been her connection to getting on the sets for the filming of Barneby Jones. I even remember being at your house once. You had a magnificent plant that was growing through the ceiling in the living room. I really enjoy reading family stories and although I was too young to grow up with you, I can relate to the history when you talk about Mason City, as that’s where I was born.

  8. Judy Litman says:

    OMG, Ralph, this was a compelling story. What a memory you have. I gasped at the end, and I’m now waiting for the next chapter. Reminds me of the serials we watched every Saturday at the Cecil or Palace theater. Leaving us at the edge of our seats. How devastating for you this phone call had to be. Miss Swingin was my piano teacher also! I remember climbing those stairs to her studio she shared with Mrs. Brose. My sense was somehow the better piano students graduated to Mrs. Brose, but don’t know if that’s true or not. I liked the piano! but not so much the recitals. And my dad loved hearing me play. Still wish we lived closer.

    • Ralph says:

      Your Miss Swingen was Mrs. Brose’s younger sister. My Miss Swingen was Mrs. Brose, who was Miss Swingen when I started with her

  9. Margaret Bailey says:

    Hello,
    My distant cousin Judy Litman recommends getting on your email list. I am the daughter of Bruce Sigman, granddaughter of Anna and Max Sigman, my cousins were the family of Nate and Anna Lapiner, my uncle Sam Sigman was an attorney in Des Moine, and my great uncle Morris Sigman was the famous International Ladies Garment Workers Union labor leader who retired to Storm Lake, Iowa. I am related to the Richers distantly by blood and marriage. Ring any bells? I’m the family historian, self-elected, so I’d love to hear any memories you have. Also Izzy Tamres was my favorite uncle, and I <3 Bernie Feshbach.
    I admit I'm a bit obsessed by the Jews of Mason City, Iowa.
    Yours sincerely,
    Margaret Bailey, ARNP, Sequim, WA 360-681-7043

  10. Margaret Bailey says:

    Oops I forgot to say my mother was from Mason City too! She was Marguerite Serene McGovern, and her sisters were Patty and Therese, her brothers were Leo and Kevin. They were Irish Catholics. Marguerite McGovern and Bruce Sigman eloped in 1948, they had six kids, so that’s me.

  11. Joan says:

    A FRIENDSHIP OF 67 YEARS!!!!!!

    THANK YOU , SARANE, FOR SHARING RALPH

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