Six years ago when I launched my blog, RALPH’S TREK, the forerunner of my current website, I planned that each posting would be tantamount to a visit onto the sets of a television film I had directed. I wanted to avoid doing what I had read in too many show business biographies and autobiographies where I plowed through pages and pages relating trips taken, lunches attended and other events that really seemed dull distractions and had me screaming, “Get back to talking about your show biz events.” Because face it, there is the public’s fascination with the entertainment world and the people who inhabit it.
Sometime early in my journey Stephen Bowie, the New York writer of THE CLASSIC TV HISTORY BLOG, suggested I include postings on some of the many stage plays I had directed. I had misgivings. I wasn’t sure they would fit into my format, but now, these several years later, those doubts are dimming. There were close to forty of those plays, and they were the training ground for my work behind the camera. But then I worry, would writing about them be as interesting as the tales I’ve been relating. And now I remember the words of Martha Corinne Walton, when she scolded John-Boy, urging him to write more about local people in his newspaper.
So here goes. For this first venture let’s go back to early June, 1960. The month before, my Equity Library Theatre production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN had completed its run after opening to high praise. At CBS, PLAYHOUSE 90 had drawn to a close, and I had moved from being one of its two production supervisors to a position as the assistant producer on FULL CIRCLE, a new half-hour television soap opera. Sounds impressive? Maybe, but only until payday! Television was still an infant industry, and I was still working for $150.00 a week, my previous secretary’s salary. You see when I was promoted on PLAYHOUSE 90, I had suggested to my boss, Russ Stoneham, that I thought I should be earning more money. He agreed and set up an appointment for me to meet Allen Parr, the head of television personnel. Mr. Parr offered me a $10.00 raise, and I would have to sign a five-year contract. Well I still had aspirations of making it as a director, so I said I could not sign a contract. Mr. Parr shrugged his shoulders and in a slightly disdainful voice said, “You’re the one who asked for the raise.” My response: “I asked for a raise, not a tip.” So three years later I had stepped up another rung, but my salary remained dormant.
Back to what I started talking about! It was an early Saturday afternoon, and I was in my apartment when I received an unexpected phone call. It was Stanley Smith, the casting director for the Pasadena Playhouse. He told me they had a play in rehearsal, and they were changing directors. The play was W. Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE; the star of the production was Estelle Winwood. Would I come in and take over? I was torn. In the preceding five years I had directed six productions in Gilmor Brown’s PLAYBOX, hoping to get an assignment to direct on the main stage at the Playhouse, but I had directed just one English high comedy (Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT) in my community theatre days, and I had not been happy with the final results. English high comedy was not a genre with which I was comfortable. And then there was the wide-eyed Estelle Winwood! I had seen her a decade earlier in the national company of THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT starring Martita Hunt as the madwoman in the title. My main memory of that production was the tea party sequence with four madwomen. Winwood’s madwoman was arguing with Martita Hunt’s madwoman (the hostess) over the presence of her invisible dog at the tea. The hostess wanted the animal removed. The argument got increasingly louder and funnier, until Winwood was given permission to have her dog remain. She then declared, it didn’t make any difference – the dog wasn’t there anyway. Miss Winwood stole the scene. She stole the whole damned play. I truly felt I was not yet ready for the challenge. I explained some of this to Stanley and suggested he contact Alan DeWitt, a friend who I thought would be perfect for the assignment. Stanley thanked me, and that concluded our conversation. A half hour later the phone rang again. It was Stanley. Alan was unavailable, and whereas before Stanley had simply asked me to direct, now he very strenuously pressured me to accept. I truly felt trapped. If I accepted and did an inadequate job, I could obliterate the gains I had made with my production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN. I asked Stanley if it would be possible for me to meet the cast and hear a reading of the play. He agreed, and the session was set for the following evening.
I arrived at the Playhouse at the appointed hour and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. I entered a large room with which I was very familiar. A dozen years earlier, when I was a student at the Playhouse, I had attended classes and rehearsals in that room. Two years earlier the room had housed some of the rehearsals for THE ICEMAN COMETH, which I directed for Mr. Brown’s PLAYBOX. Supervising director Barney Brown and Casting director Stanley Smith were there to greet me. The cast arrived. They were all strangers to me. Chairs were arranged in a circle, and the reading of the play commenced. It was a fine cast, and I liked what I heard – well almost. I met with Barney and Stanley privately after the reading, and told them if we could recast the role of Elizabeth with Rachel Ames, I would accept. They of course knew Rachel. She was the daughter of Dorothy Adams and Byron Foulger, two Playhouse veterans. Rachel had appeared on stages at the Playhouse starting when she was five-years old, and I had already directed Rachel in two stage productions. There was no problem there, providing she accepted, but there was a possible snag to our plans. The husband of the actress we were replacing was also a member of the cast. If we replaced her, would we lose him?
The next day Stanley and Barney attacked the situation. Rachel was agreeable to accepting the role, was hired, and the husband did not leave. I was now committed to a play in a genre where I did not feel confident with a star noted for flamboyant behavior. What lay ahead — an exciting, instructive and rewarding adventure — or disaster?
To be continued