Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We all have to start somewhere

I was hoping the CNN documentary series THE SIXTIES would cause a huge national craze for that decade, and my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) would start selling like Beatles records.  I was counting on it, actually.  But alas, so far sales have been more like Freddy and the Dreamer records.  Obviously, I must do something about that.  So as an excuse to get you to pick up a copy and support this free blog (guilt guilt guilt), I am featuring a summer excerpt.  Travel back to 1966 and my first theater experience.  

No family vacation that year, not that we could go very far anyway. 35,000 airline workers from five major carriers went on strike, crippling the industry. From July 8th to August 19th, the peak summer travel season, 60% of U.S. commercial flights were grounded. And it was still easier to fly than it is today.

I had my part-time job at Wallichs and got another part-time gig as well. This one ushering at the Valley Music Theater.

The Valley Music Theater on Ventura Blvd. was a huge concrete white shell, very modernistic, very JFK airport terminal.
The big musical theater fad in Los Angeles in 1966 was theater-in-the-round. Who needed Broadway when Angelinos could be treated to smash hit musicals of the past with knock-off casts, no sets, and no piece of scenery taller than their ankles? In the LA area there were three venues – the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim (across from the Dopey section of the Disneyland parking lot), the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills (later to become the home of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Carousel Theater in glamorous West Covina (gateway to the Inland Empire). The productions would bicycle this circuit, usually for two-week runs.

I showed people to their seats at the Valley Music Theater and could not wait for each new show to bring jaw-dropping performances by miscast actors. Dance numbers tended not to be very elaborate since the stage was the size of a conference table. (If they had lasted long enough to do The Lord Of The Dance, they would use three guys.)

Headliners tended to be of the B variety. Instead of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Julie Andrews we got Dennis Day, Frank Gorshin, and Betsy Palmer (best known as a perky game show panelist and knife-wielding crazy in Friday the 13th: Part One).

After several years of burning through the Broadway catalog the trend petered out. By 1968 they were down to It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman starring local TV news anchors.

Still, I was able to see beyond the game show-celebrity-guest-caliber casts and really appreciate the writing. That summer I also read Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One and was intrigued by the notion of being a New York playwright. It all sounded so romantic to me – writing all night in a hotel room in exotic New Haven, getting a brainstorm, and saving a play at the last minute, opening on Broadway, having a hit…and someday seeing my work performed at the Valley Music Theater by Barbara Walter.

Ironically, my new play A or B? will be performed in the Valley, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank this fall.  I would get Betsy Palmer is she could pass for 29. 

17 comments:

VincentS said...

Sorry, Ken. But let's be real her: When you have to depend on CNN to advance your career...

Scooter Schechtman said...

Vincent, it's not like Ken had a choice there. VH1'a "I Love the 2000s!"? The Whatever Channel's "The Eighties: The Decade That Made Us Stupidly Nostalgic"?

VincentS said...

Good point, Scooter. But, Once Upon a Time, wasn't there a cable channel that dealt with history. Don't tell me, I think I can remember the name of it...

Vince Carter said...

Betsy is a young 87 so it's likely that she can pass for 29, 30, maybe 86...

Artie in Sin City said...

Hey, there was Mickey Rooney in "Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum"...That was a GREAT show at VMT...

Roseann said...

My first musical was BRIGADOON in the round at Oakdale Musical Theatre. I lived in New Haven. We had the same entertainment experience and we both ended up in the Theatre/Movies/TV profession. Blood Brothers.

Anonymous said...

Hey, how about a little love for Frank Gorshin?
Besides being the best Riddler, by a wide margin, he did superb imitations (Riddler sounds like a cross between his Richard Widmark and his Kirk Douglas), he did a memorable episode of Star Trek, and was a generally funny guy (was on Ed Sullivan the week The Beatles performed and asked how come all those girls were screaming for him).

D. McEwan said...

Ah, the VMT. I participated in a Sweet Dick Whittington Boxing-related event there during a boxing match when they were held there.

Of course, for me it was Melodyland, its sister-theater in Anaheim, where I saw dozens of shows. Howard Keel in Camelot with no scenery items over ankle height. Peter Palmer and Stubby Kaye in Lil Abner with no scenery items over ankle height. The Women with Pamela Mason, Joan Caulfield, Dagmar, Miss Beverly Hills, and Margaret O'Brian (Whom I spoke to over this past weekend, bringing up that long ago production) with no scenery items over ankle height, Damn Yankees with Eddie Bracken (Was supposed to star Bert Lahr, but Bert had a heart attack and Eddie replace him) and Bo Belinsky (Well, Ken knows who he was), with no scenery items over ankle height, The Solid Gold Caddilac with Martha Raye with no scenery items over ankle height, Finian's Raibow with Alan Young, James Dunn and Molly Bee, with no scenery items over ankle height, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd with Joel Grey, with no scenery items over ankle height, and in concert Victor Borge, The Smothers Brothers and many other shows others, with no scenery items over ankle height.

The only show I ever saw at the VMT was Woody Allen doing his stand-up act, with opening act the late Jim Croce, and no scenery items over ankle height.

gottacook said...

Having seen It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman during its spring 1966 Broadway run (my first trip to NYC with my parents at age 9), I wonder how it could have been done at a theater such as the one described. Perhaps a non-flying Superman? Or did they have a cable and a hook, etc., as in the original?

Irish Ron said...

Hi Ken. As a longtime reader of your blog I know that distinctive character voices are really important and ideally lines shouldn't be interchangable. In Frasier (my all time favorite sitcom) while the main characters all had distinctive voices they could all be very sarcastic at times (with the exception of Moose). Would this be a problem when pitching a pilot?

DBenson said...

Up in the Bay Area we had the Circle Star. The one show I saw there was "The Impossible Years," a dad-fretting-over-daughter's-virginity comedy starring Ozzie and Harriet. The kind of play where the hinted-at issue is happily resolved by the daughter having secretly married before losing it.

They had the full-height suburban living room set (favored by 70% of contemporary stage comedies and sitcoms) and simply roped off the seats behind the set.

It was okay as dad-fretting-over-daughter's-virginity comedies go (and it seems there were a number of them for a while). It was actually classier than the movie, starring a gloriously miscast David Niven. Ozzie was in the movie, doing a decent turn as the next-door doctor whose teenage son is a Suspect.

Craig said...

Ken, Ken, Ken. Betsy Palmer was the killer in FRIDAY THE 13th, PART 1, not PART 2.

Really, an obvious error like that undermines the credibility of the entire column.

paul levine said...

Betsy Palmer and Bo Belinsky mentioned in the same blog post. (Bo in a comment). Not sure either has been mentioned anywhere for 30 years.

Lorimartian said...

DBenson said...
Up in the Bay Area we had the Circle Star.

Happy to hear from a fellow Starian even if you saw just one show, one that I don't remember seeing. I've posted before about the Circle Star where I ushered for a while. D. McEwan, we also had "The Roar of the Greasepaint..." with Joel Grey AND Cyril Ritchard who originated the role in the Broadway production. I've also posted before about how aggravating it is that young people don't have a clue where the song "Feelin' Good" came from. I've never heard Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley credited. Also memorable, Marcel Marceau who autographed my program.

Will said...

@Paul Levine: You must not read much on the internet devoted to slasher movies. Betsy Palmer is venerated on many of them.

And Ken himself wrote a nice, short piece about her some time back.

D. McEwan said...

"DBenson said...
Up in the Bay Area we had the Circle Star. The one show I saw there was 'The Impossible Years,'"


You do know, I hope, that The Impossible Years was co-written by Groucho Marx's son.

"gottacook said...
Having seen It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman during its spring 1966 Broadway run (my first trip to NYC with my parents at age 9), I wonder how it could have been done at a theater such as the one described. Perhaps a non-flying Superman? Or did they have a cable and a hook, etc., as in the original?"


I have no idea how the flying was managed either, but a former friend of mine saw Peter Pan at the VMT, starring Janet Blair and Vincent Price, and he assures me Janet flew. I'd have sold my mother to gypsies to see Vincent Price onstage playing Captain Hook.

"Lorimartian said...
D. McEwan, we also had 'The Roar of the Greasepaint...' with Joel Grey AND Cyril Ritchard."


Cyril was supposed to be in it at Melodyland also, I bought my ticket to see him, but he was too ill to do the show, and was replaced by Murray Matheson, a far-less-well-known actor who looked very much like him but lacked that distinctive voice and charm. Some years later, I saw Sugar with Robert Morse. Once again, Ritchard was billed as in it when I got my ticket, but he had a heart attack, and was replaced by Gale Gordon. Well, it was fun to see Gordon onstage, and Robert Morse invited me backstage as his guest after the show, so it was a glorious evening in the theater. (This time The Ahmanson, not in the round. actual scenery.)

Lorimartian said...

D. McEwan, I didn't know how lucky I was. Ritchard was superb.