Routine for Success

Routine for Success

Routine for Success

As Father’s Day approaches, I think of my father and how much he inspired me. An artist captured this picture of him many years ago, living the Hollywood dream. What people didn’t know was his key to success wasn’t just talent or luck, it was adhering to a strict routine. Here’s a link to my blog this month if you feel like some motivation:

As long as I could remember, an old illustration of my father from the ‘70’s hung on his office wall. The artist depicted him with martini in hand, floating in a cloud over his desk chair, broad smile on his face, fingers typing with ease. The quintessential picture of the successful screenwriter “living the Hollywood dream.”

The irony was a martini was the last thing my father would ever use to write a script, and every time I poked my head into his office, fierce concentration, not a smile, lit his face. Success came, not from on high, but from sitting his butt in that solid black chair. Over the years, many people asked my father the key to his success.

“Luck,” was what he always said.

But I knew different, even when I was a child. Yes, luck played into his career, but it was also determination, perseverance, and a solid routine. In this excerpt from my upcoming memoir, I remember what it felt like watching him work when I was a child:

“I tiptoed barefoot down the hall to my father’s office and peeked through the door. I knew the rule: Don’t bother Dad when he’s working!  His fingers flew across the typewriter keys.  Then, he jumped up and began to pace back and forth, speaking each character’s lines out loud. I held my breath, unsure if he knew I was there, if he could see the edge of my pink flannel robe on the carpet.” 

During Dad’s workhours, I left him alone. Mom made it clear. Our livelihood depended on his routine. Every day, come rain or shine, he knocked out pages for anywhere from one to three scripts at a time. Over the course of his life, he would write an astounding 14 feature films, 39 films and mini-series for television, and three plays. He woke early, was at his computer by 9:00 a.m. At 11:30 a.m. sharp, he went on a jog. Lunch at 12:15 p.m., followed by a shower, then a nap. Back on the typewriter by 1:30 p.m., no exceptions, except a business or doctor’s appointment. At 5:00 p.m., he was done and, unless we caught him at lunch, that’s when he was available to us. Routine powered his fingers, sharpened his talent, and paved his way to the Hollywood dream.   

Many years later, I would move through his doorway, walk down the steps into his office and sit on his director’s black, leather chair, looking at the wall that showcased his framed TV Guide covers. Together, we would write his memoir, over the course of ten years. I never doubted we would finish. Even if all we had were Saturdays, we kept to his routine. He had taught me that our success as writers depended on showing up, again and again.

When Dad passed away, “living the Hollywood dream” found a place on my office wall. For the most part, I’m exactly like my father and stick to my writing routine. But on those days I need some inspiration, I look up at Dad’s picture. Yes, he was talented, had golden opportunities that would open some doors, but he knew the key to his fortune wasn’t floating in the clouds. For 50 years, it was keeping his feet on the ground.

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Apartment 3C–The Newlyweds’ Dream 

Apartment 3C–The Newlyweds’ Dream 

Apartment 3C–The Newlyweds’ Dream 

In this month’s blog I go back to 1949, when my parents, a couple of young, struggling actors, made their dreams come true, much like Desi and Lucy, in Being the Ricardos. The beginning of television was a time of golden opportunity, when anything could happen.

 

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching Being the Ricardos, the movie about Lucy and Desi Arnaz’s almost two-decade marriage, set against their show, I Love Lucy. And I marveled that just two years before this show debuted in 1951, my own father and mother had created a similar sitcom.

As Dad put it in his memoir, Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business, “Television was in its infancy.  Mostly seven to twelve-inch black and white images, with no one knowing quite what to do with this new medium.  Maybe I could create a light comedic show for us.  Just the two of us.  Newlyweds, as we soon would be.  I wrote a ten-minute audition sketch and we performed it for advertising agencies, showing how we could include a commercial plug for one of their sponsors.  One producer, Harvey Marlowe, showed some interest.  He said that a new network, WOR-TV, would be going on the air in the fall and he’d try to get them to think about using us.” 

In the meantime, Mom and Dad were married and went on their honeymoon. As soon as they returned, they were contacted.

“Harvey Marlowe, the man who saw our audition in New York, called to say WOR, Channel 9, had signed us to do a domestic comedy in the fall.   They wanted a fifteen-minute show, five nights a week.  ‘Who will write them?’ I asked.

‘You will.’

“Fifteen minutes?  Five nights a week?  All we had was the ten-minute audition sketch.  Impossible.  And I’m not really a writer.  I called Harvey Marlowe immediately.

‘We’re thrilled with the offer.’

“WOR-TV was using the facilities of the shuttered New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, the old home of the Ziegfeld Follies, as a television studio.  Apartment 3C would be the second show for the fledgling studio, airing October 11, 1949, with Harvey Marlowe as producer and director.  With fingers crossed, we went on the air Monday night and, although we felt pretty good about it, the next morning brought only one review, The New York Times.  Negative. 

“Time to bow out?  WOR still wanted us and why not?  It hadn’t cost them anything but three dollars to make our contract legal. 

“With our savings disappearing, however, it became obvious that we couldn’t go on for lack of life support.  Informed of this, WOR magnanimously came through with an amount that allowed for three meals a day at the venerable nickel and dime emporium, Horn & Hardart.

  “The nightly broadcast meant writing the script the night before, memorizing it the next morning, taking the subway to the theater and, with time and space limited, two run-throughs, a dress rehearsal and…  Showtime!  Five times a week with weekends off to rack the brain for new ideas and scripts. 

“We were given a feature article, “Tea TV for Two” in a new magazine called Telecast.  ‘Light, breezy and sometimes naively ribald, Barbara and John really don’t have to reach too far into the recesses of their minds to come up with authentic, straight from the feedbag material…it sure is a nice happy feeling to know that two youngsters can start on nothing and zoom to the top just by being themselves.’ 

“The fact is, however, that our fifteen-minute script, five times a week, became a formidable task.  The domestic problems of a newly married couple with only two in the cast every night were getting repetitious.  What to do about the heavy daily schedule?  The old saying that dying is easy, comedy is tough proved all too true.  What if we changed the format to mystery?  What if we added three or four to the cast and made it a half-hour format?  To our surprise, WOR was agreeable but only with three or four more.  The schedule would be Friday nights fifty-two weeks a year.  Life would take on a slightly more normal existence.”

And life did take on a more normal existence for my parents the next couple of years. Apartment 3C was no I Love Lucy, but it opened the door to Mr. and Mrs. Mystery, with my father still writing the scripts. And this show would lead him into a long career in television and movies. The early days of television were a time of golden opportunity, not just for Lucy and Desi, but for two unknown newlyweds whose dreams suddenly came true.

 

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The Show Must Go On!

The Show Must Go On!

The Show Must Go On!

Of all the stories my father loved to share from his long career as a screenwriter, it was the early days of live television that were my favorite.  In 1949, he and my mother, Bobbie, pitched a humorous show about a newly-married couple, as they were, to a fledging studio, WOR.  To their surprise and delight, they were given a golden opportunity.  In addition to my father writing the fifteen minute sketches, he and my mother would star in them.  After a few months, their show changed from one of the earliest sit-coms to a detective format, called Mr. and Mrs. Mystery, and expanded to a half-hour.

Live television, in its infancy, was often chaotic where anything and everything could happen, from humorous to deadly.  In his memoir, Any Way I Can, 50 Years in Show Business, Dad shares the ones that were the most memorable:“The usual live TV mishaps occurred, of course, but in our case, budget limitations made us prone to them.  Many a dead body would rise before the camera was off.  It was usually our floor manager who had to get back to his cues.  With three run-throughs now and a dress on the day of the broadcast, the actors were inclined to go up with more frequency than they might in a well-rehearsed play.  It was necessary for Bobbie and me to learn everyone’s lines. I’m proud to say no detected pause lasted longer than five seconds during the show. One night, we were able to persuade Bobbie’s father, Ozzie, to play a telephone linesman.  Just one line which he forgot, I covered, and he refused to appear again. 

“In one rehearsal, an actor struck me on the back of the head, as scripted, but it landed with such force that I almost passed out.  He repeated it on the second rehearsal and I told him to lighten up.  That night during the show, however, I staggered from another heavy blow.  Bobbie ad-libbed and we carried on.  We never used him again.

“One memorable night, I suffered a deep cut on my hand in an opening scene as I picked up a prop diamond made of glass.  The cut was deep, and I thought for a few scary moments that I might have severed a major artery.  I kept my hand in my pocket the entire scene, trying not to look obvious about it while also trying to hide the crimson tide on my white summer suit.  Incidents like that make you grateful for the years you spent onstage prepared to cover any situation.    

“We were now beginning to see people staring at us in the subways.  Could that be?  With the recognition, additional money came to us now from advertisers who wanted us to promote their product live just before and after the show.  A recorded tune, “Miller – High Life! – Miller High Life! The champagne of bottled beer!” would play as I spoke and it still jangles in my ear to this day.  I also had to drink warm Miller beer on camera which would later produce inescapable belching during the action…Another WOR show, Twenty Questions, used us live on their program for commercials extolling the virtues of Ronson cigarette lighters which I always feared would mistakenly come tripping out as “Ronson fiogerette lilters.”

Chaotic, yes, but live television was also thrilling in its spontaneity and the challenge that the show goes on, no matter what happens.  Dad is no longer with us, but if he were, I’d bet my bottom dollar he’d say that those were his favorite years.

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The Boothbay Playhouse

The Boothbay Playhouse

The Boothbay Playhouse

As August’s dry heat envelops me and I long for some relief, I wander into my garden.  A sudden breeze kicks up, soft whispers of summers gone by.  I’m back on an old wooden bench in front of a grey, weathered cottage where foghorns call me out to sea, and lobstermen pull up their nets as seagulls gather for scraps.  My mind drifts, like it does every summer, to how my parents met. 

“When I was nineteen, I went to a place as familiar as my own skin, a place I had visited in memories so many times around the dinner table that I knew it by heart.  The director at the Boothbay Playhouse, the same theater where my mom and dad had met twenty-five years ago, called and offered me a summer internship and I grabbed it without hesitation.  I flew to Maine and took a taxi far from the city, deep into the Boothbay Harbor woods.  As we turned into the driveway of the Playhouse, my heart skipped a beat and, in that instant, I knew how my mother felt. 

In my mind’s eye, I could see my father, in the old yellow robe, on a ladder painting the weathered garage door.  My mother’s mind in mine, her excitement raised in goosebumps on my skin.  A featured actress… a summer rehearsing one show in the day, performing a second at night.  Anticipation pounded in our nineteen-year-old hearts in unison and just why was that handyman on the ladder staring so hard at her as she swung her Barbizon perfect legs out of her parents’ car and into the beginning of the rest of her life?

That day was my beginning, too, not as a featured actress, not even close to finding my husband, but my first day in Boothbay Harbor, the town I would call my summer home in years to come.  I suppose I needed to relive their romance, to find the true magic that spun around the three of us kids at the dinner table as Dad recounted the playhouse days he and Mom had courted, when he had acted as leading man to her leading lady, really kissing his lovely ingénue with all the passion an actor could give.  Years sweetly remembered as the best years of their lives before television and film gave them their fate.”

When my parents came to see me on stage that summer in my first leading role, they fell in love with Boothbay Harbor all over again.  Renting at first, then purchasing a cottage on Southport Island, they gave their children and grandchildren many happy summers.  Twenty-two years have gone by and both my parents have passed on, as has the Boothbay Playhouse, leaving its rich legacy. 

-Excerpt from the Foreword to Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business by John Gay and Jennifer Gay Summers, BearManor Media, 2009

 

 

 

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Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars

Today marks what would have been my mother and father’s 72nd anniversary.  Talk about a love story!  They met acting in summer stock at the Boothbay Playhouse in Maine.  As Dad put it in his memoir, Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business:

“My third summer at the Playhouse required the usual mundane chores before the season began.  One morning, while painting a garage door on a ladder in my ragged old yellow terry cloth robe, a car appeared in the driveway.  Out of it stepped a knockout blonde ingénue, Barbara Meyer.  Her parents had driven her up from New Jersey to be certain it was a safe environment for their daughter.  Having already seen her black and white publicity photo hung on a wagon wheel in the lobby, I eagerly awaited her arrival.  She glanced briefly at me and assumed I was a maintenance worker.”

Together they starred in many plays that summer and the next, and married on May 7, 1949.  But Ozzie, my mother’s father, and his friends had some reservations: 

“In the men’s room at the reception, one of Ozzie’s friends actually came up alongside me at the urinal and asked, ‘How do you intend to support Barbara?’  It really floored me.  Together, Bobbie and I had saved a few hundred dollars.  I don’t remember what I muttered in response, but I thought the question on this night, on this occasion, at this place, was insensitive.  The truth is all of her family’s friends were concerned that Bobbie was marrying an actor.  The poor girl.  God, what a terrible thing to have happened.”

After cutting their honeymoon short for my mother’s appearance on a television show, John and Bobbie continued to audition and cross their fingers.  It wasn’t long before their dreams came true: 

“Harvey Marlowe, the man who saw our audition in New York, called to say WOR, Channel 9, had signed us to do a domestic comedy in the fall.  They wanted a fifteen minute show, five nights a week.  ‘Who will write them?’ I asked.

‘You will.’

Fifteen minutes?  Five nights a week?  All we had was the ten minute audition sketch.  Impossible.  And I’m not really a writer.  I called Harvey Marlowe immediately.

‘We’re thrilled with the offer.’”

After a few years on television with many scripts under his belt, Dad started getting writing jobs, which replaced acting as a means of support.  Eventually, a lucrative Hollywood offer brought my parents out to California.  Dad wrote the film, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” and his career turned into solid gold.  Mom left acting to have me, then my brother, Larry, and then my sister, Liz.  But as soon as we were all off to college, she went back to the stage, performing at the Nine O’Clock Players children’s theater in Hollywood. 

Through it all, Mom and Dad held on to each other as soulmates.  They believed their stars were meant to collide.  On their anniversary, I step out into the clear, dark night and feel their love for each other illuminate the sky.

 

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Run Silent, Run Deep

Run Silent, Run Deep

Run Silent, Run Deep

The other night, I thought it would be fun to take Run Silent, Run Deep, the movie my father adapted back in 1958, and watch it on our vintage Philco T.V.  I loved the way the tiny screen amplified the tight space in the submarine, making it all the more real.  This was the movie that launched my father into a successful Hollywood career, a timeless story of men in battle, which would be shown on television more than any other film he wrote. 

During the shooting, Dad had a memorable visit to the sub, in San Diego, where the action took place.  After serving in the Coast Guard, he knew about the dangers submarine sailors faced.  What he wasn’t prepared for was the captain’s sense of humor.  In the following scene from Any Way I Can; 50 Years in Show Business, his memoir we wrote together, Dad tells the story of when Hollywood was “taken for a ride.”

 

“Safely submerged, we set out to sea in maneuvers that had to match mock encounters with other Navy craft in which dummy torpedoes would be used.  By lunchtime, Wise and I were still bushed from lack of sleep and asked the captain if we could just sack out for twenty minutes.  He was glad to oblige and let us use his own quarters with double tiered bunks. 

I had only just closed my eyes when the sub gave an alarming shudder, a groan, another shudder, and started to sway back and forth.  ‘Uh-oooga!  Uh-oooga!’ came on the loudspeaker.  And then utter silence.  No engine sound.

Wise and I sprang to our feet.  Two crew members entered the captain’s quarters and the air-tight hatches were sealed behind them immediately.  Silence.  They stood on guard, still silent, hands behind their backs, at attention. 

‘What’s going on?’

No answer.  No response.  The silence was both deafening and alarming.  They stood there like statues.  And they remained that way for what seemed like an hour.  Then a voice came over on a loud speaker.  ‘Secure from collision drill!  Secure from collision drill!’

A grinning captain greeted us when the hatches were opened.  It was obvious that he enjoyed his little stunt enormously, taking Hollywood for a ride.  The first shudder was all ahead full to all reverse.  Second shudder was firing off a dummy torpedo.  How did it feel?  We offered weak smiles.  ‘Oh, yes.  Terrific stunt.  Great.’”

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