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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