SPECIAL: Remembering

Sitting in my comfortable home in Carmel-by-the-Sea I am remembering a bleaker period in my life. It was near the end of 1960, a year of several professional ‘UPS’ and ‘downs’.

In 1960 my extra-curricular activities (away from my jobs at CBS) directing theatre productions had been very successful. For Equity Library Theatre West in its first season on the west coast I had directed a production of Paul Osborne’s MORNING’S AT SEVEN of which James Powers wrote in his review in the Hollywood Reporter:

“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. Senensky…tries for, and achieves, a gentler technique that gives the lines their genuine value, and appreciates the real situations, proceeding naturally from natural sources, not built backward from a laugh to a setup. Senensky achieves a rhythm and flow that is the greatest trick in such comedy.”

A couple of months after that on the main stage of the Pasadena Playhouse I directed a production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood. (It was the same stage where 12 years earlier as one of my second year student project assignments I had stage managed a production of LOVE FROM A STRANGER.) Three months later on that same stage I directed a production of Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s GOLDEN FLEECING. Both Playhouse productions received rave reviews and the two Playhouse productions produced a paltry but welcome payment of $200.00, but there didn’t seem to be any advancement to my aspiring directing career. Three very successful stage productions in 6 months, and I still wasn’t launched.

There was frustration at work! I was still employed at CBS (I was approaching the end of my 5th year), but my duties had drastically changed.

Early in that year PLAYHOUSE 90 had ended its 4-season run, finally defeated by the opposing ABC series, THE UNTOUCHABLES. I had joined PLAYHOUSE 90 2½ earlier just as the series went into the summer of kinescope reruns of its first seasons’ live productions. I was a secretary and my salary was $150.00 a week. For the ensuing 2 years I was one of two Production Supervisors for the series.

After PLAYHOUSE 90’s cancellation I had been assigned to the production FULL CIRCLE, a half-hour daytime soap opera. My Production Supervisor title on PLAYHOUSE 90 had been upgraded to Assistant Producer, but my salary was still $150.00 a week. Six months later, with the soap opera’s cancellation, that Assistant Producer title disappeared, along with any meaningful production activities for me and there was no change in the financial remuneration.

Live network TV production on the four large soundstages at CBS Television City had diminished. CBS Television had almost no in-house productions, so I was assigned to service a pair of outside package game shows renting CBS facilities. I had nothing to do with the production of the show itself! My main, actually my ONLY duty was to be sure the required commercials were received at the studio from the advertising agencies and to oversee with the film editors their mounting on reels in the proper sequence for airing. BORING!

Assessing my situation overall — dealing with filmed commercials by day and wondering if the 6 years of off-Vine Street directing of plays was ever going to pay off – well let’s just say “I was discouraged.”

A very close friend at CBS, Louise Paulk, secretary to one of the executives and a long time supporter of my career aspirations, was very aware of my emotional quandary. She told me of a woman in Santa Barbara, whom she frequently visited for horoscope readings — wonderful readings, she said. She thought it would help me, and she suggested I drive up to Santa Barbara to see her. (I’ve forgotten this lady’s name, so because of her location I’ll call her Barbara.) I telephoned 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 the 90 miles up north to Santa Barbara and met Barbara. She immediately put me at ease. Any butterflies of unrest I may have had seemed to vanish. It was all very informal and friendly. We sat down and she started off by giving me the personality analysis she had formulated after studying my astrological chart. I was startled. We had just met. Yet she seemed to know me better than my immediate family and closest friends. And then she got to the point for my visit. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I know what you want, but it can’t happen now. You must be patient. It can’t happen until October.” But October was 10 months away!

I returned to Los Angeles to face a series of unexpected events. Allen Parr, the head of Personnel for television, summoned me to his office and what occurred was sort of a replay of a similar scene two years earlier. At that time I had just been promoted from Russell Stoneham’s secretary (he was an Assistant Producer on PLAYHOUSE 90) to the position of Production Supervisor on the same show. Russell had been elevated to Associate Producer so I was taking over his previous duties, but with a lesser title. At this point I was earning the $150 a week frequently referred to before. Bill Larson, with whom I shared an office, was the alternating Production Supervisor on PLAYHOUSE 90 and was earning at least three times that. I told Russell 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 what would signing a contract do to my plans of a directing career? I told Allen I would not 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.”

Now back to Allen Parr’s summons 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 (again) I would be required to sign a five-year contract. For the same reasons as before I still had no intention of signing any contract and (truthfully in the back of my mind) what would signing a contract do to Barbara’s “It can’t happen until October.” So I again refused. 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.

Now for the other piece of the puzzle! Norman Felton was an executive at CBS. I had been in and out of his office almost daily during my 2-year tenure as a Production Supervisor on Playhouse 90. Whenever a request for additional money from a show in production came to my desk, I would take it to him for approval. One morning when I went in with such a request, Norman (or Mr. Felton as I knew him then) was reading the Hollywood Reporter. In fact he was reading James Powers’ review of my production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN. 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 productions of THE CIRCLE and GOLDEN FLEECING, but he did acknowledge both of them and commented on their favorable reviews.

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 Norman Felton took out-of-work me with him. And here is what was so strange yet complimentary. He told me the table of organization for his production (oh those tables!) didn’t have a position that he could assign me. There was only a Producer and an Associate Producer, so he created the job of Assistant to the Producer. He apologized that the salary would not be all that great; in fact it would be the same $150.00 I was making at CBS. And that’s how I got to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

I started there on my birthday, May 1, and it was a new fascinating and exciting life. 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. 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 even got to direct some insert shots on an insert stage. MGM was my film school.

I must have being 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.

In the late summer producer Herbert Hirschman hired a director from the east coast (with only one independent film credit) to direct an episode of DR. KILDARE. The director, who shall remain nameless, having come from the independent film world, proved to be far less disciplined than the 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. I know you’re aware of what happened with that new director on the sound stages last week. 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 the approval to assign me to a film, were a little nervous at this time. We were still a few weeks away from our opening airdate, and the network people were being extra cautious about whom they would approve. Norman said just be patient a little longer until we get on the air; 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, 56 years ago today, Norman handed me the script of JOHNNY TEMPLE to direct. It was

Friday, October 6, 1961

The journey (still) continues

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15 Responses to SPECIAL: Remembering

  1. Vinnie Vinson (Des Moines, IA) says:

    Ralph, that was a great story! Did the unnamed director ever amount to much? Finally, I’ve wondered about the solar system you installed to help with the air conditioning bills. Did it work well?

    • Ralph says:

      Re my solar system, I don’t have any air conditioning bills. I’m only 10 block from the ocean and it’s very very rare that my home gets too warm.

  2. Jim says:

    Great story Ralph, as all of yours are. Congratulations on your 56 year anniversary.

  3. Errol Senensky says:

    Thanks for posting this Ralph. I don’t know if I could have lived with such uncertainty. Dr. Kildair was a great series.
    I hope things are going well.

    Errol

  4. Ig says:

    Fascinating story with cliffhanger ending about Johnny Temple. Congrats on this anniversary. Fondly . . . .

  5. Marlyn Mason says:

    We were sitting in your kitchen the first time you told me this story.
    I love ‘hearing’ it again!
    Happy Anniversary dearest Ralph!

  6. Harvey Laidman says:

    Great story, Ralph. Thanks for this, admire your work

  7. John Dayton says:

    No wonder you have been on my mind Ralph! What a marvelous anniversary!!
    So many Waltons memories – you were always, still are, and always will be my inspiration.
    A shining light – no, THE shining light amongst directors.
    I miss you.

  8. Erik Petersen says:

    That is fantastic. Thanks for posting this one! I hope to see you soon.

  9. Tom Donahue says:

    Great story, Ralph! Thank you. I hope you are well!

  10. Diana Bedell says:

    And my favorite part of that story is your reply, “I asked for a raise, not a tip.”
    What guts… you have a glowing and memorable past.
    I’m proud to be among your friends who get to hear your stories first hand.
    Love them and you.
    Diana

  11. Shayne Torgrimson says:

    Always a pleasure to read one of your stories Ralph. Hope to see you around somtime! 🙂

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