On May 24 a Hollywood legend comes to Omaha for a one-night only screening of the 1956 film Carousel, in which she stars with Gordon MacRae. It’s the latest classic Hollywood tribute event from Omaha film historian and impresario Bruce Crawford, who’s previously brought Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, and Debbie Reynolds, among other movie legends, to town. The Carousel event is at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The program, done up in the style of a premiere, starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the customer service counter at Omaha Hv-Vee supermarkets.
In my Q&A with her Jones discusses many aspects of her remarkable career, including the Cinderella story of how she came to be discovered by the great composing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, who put her under personal contract and launched her career. Jones is an easy interview. Down-to-earth, smart, funny, and unafraid to tell it like it is. She would be fun to hang out with.
Shirley Jones Interview: Classic Hollywood Star to Appear at May 24 Omaha Screening of ‘Carousel’
Interviewed by Leo Adam Biga
©Exclusive for the blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com
LAB: Let me start by saying that Carousel is one of my favorite musicals.
SJ: “Mine too. It’s my favorite score. I think it’s the best score they (Rodgers and Hammerstein) ever wrote. I think it’s the most beautiful.”
LAB: That’s obviously saying a lot given who were talking about here.
SJ: “I know, exactly, but that’s my feeling and by the way my opinion was shared by Richard Rodgers. He always stated that he felt his finest work was Carousel.”
LAB: What do you feel makes it stand apart?
SJ: “Well, just all of it, the lyrics. I open my concert with ‘If I Loved You ‘and I close with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Every song says something, every song means something in Carousel. And I just think it’s magnificent. ‘The Carousel Waltz,’ the opening, is so beautiful. I mean, I’m not saying everybody would feel that way, but I do, and as I said Rodgers always stated that he felt that way too.”
LAB: Rodgers and Hammerstein became very close mentors of yours.
SJ: “I was under contract to them.”
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
LAB: And were you the only one they had under contract?
SJ: “The only one, the one and only person put under contract to Rodgers and Hammerstein. And it was supposed to be a five-year deal. It lasted about four years, I guess, under which I did the movie Oklahoma, then I did the stage production all over Europe of Oklahoma with jack cassidy as my leading man. That’s how we met. And then I came back to do Carousel. Before all that though I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific. It was the first thing I ever did – the last four months of the Broadway production – and then a show called Me and Juliet, which I went on the road with. So I did all of those under the contract of R & H, and then it was over.”
LAB: Why were they responding to you so strongly? You were after all very young and green and a total unknown.
SJ: ”Very, very young, I was 18, I was barely out of high school and on my way to college to become a veternerian. Oh yeah, that was the story, and I stopped off in New York with my parents. This was July. I was going to college in the fall. I’m from the Pittsburgh area and I’d done a lot of work at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summers when I was in high school. I was the youngest member of the church choir at age 6, so it was a gift that was given to me. Anyway, I went to an audition while I was in New York with my parents, an open audition. I knew this pianist in New York and he said, ‘Shirley, c’mon over, R & H are having open auditions for anybody that wants to sing for them because they had three shows running on Broadway at that time and their shows ran so long they had to keep replacing chorus people every few weeks. But I barely knew who these men (Rodgers and Hammerstein) were, you understand. I was a little girl from a town of 800 population. It was all very new to me.”
LAB: Was the audition run by John Fearnley?
SJ: “That’s exactly right, it was through him. People were waiting around the block holding their music. My friend and accompanist talked me into doing it. I said no at first because I was terrified. But I got to the stage, sang for the casting director and he did the usual, you know, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’ and I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he said, ‘Mr, Rodgers just happens to be across the street rehearsing his orchestra for Oklahoma (which was about to reopen at City Center and then go out on another tour) and I would like to have him hear you personally.’ And he cancelled the rest of the auditions for the day.
“So I waited. Again I wasnt sure who I was singing for and down the aisle walks this gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones?,’ and I said, ‘What did you say your name was again?’ Richard Rodgers. I sang for him and he said, ‘Miss Jones, can you wait about 20 mins? I’m going to call my partner Oscar Hammerstein at home and have him come and hear you.’ Now my pianist said, ‘Shirley, I hate to do this to you…’ But he had a plane to catch. He said, ‘I can’t wait,’ and Richard Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we’ll think of something.’Here I am alone, my first audition anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I waited and 25 minutes later down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he said, ‘Miss Jones, do you know the score of Oklahoma?’ and I said, ‘Well, um, I think I know some of the music but I don’t know the words,’ and of course I’m talking to the lyricist you understand. He said, ‘Nevermind, I have a score here.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Hammerstein, my pianist had to leave, I don’t have anybody to play,’and Rodgers said, ‘Nevermind, we have the full City Center Symphony across the street.’
“Now can you imagine, I’d never heard a symphony, seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street, I held the score in front of my face so I couldn’t look at them and I sang ‘Oklahoma’, ‘People We’ll Say We’re in Love’ and ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ with the City Center Symphony. Three weeks later I was in my first Broadway show (South Pacific). So that’s how it happened.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma
LAB: You can’t make up something like that.
SJ: “No, you can’t, and you know xomething. I’m not sure it could even happen today. It was one of those fluke things that fortunately happened to me but I don’t i think it could ever happen in today’s times.”
LAB: Were there specific things in you they were responding to?
SJ: “Oh sure, well you know I was Laurie, I was from a little town, a little farm community. I was that girl. And the fact that I could sing. I could. As I said it was a gift. I’d studied. I mean, I could always sing but I started formal study when I was about 13 and I had a coloratura soprano voice. My teacher wanted me to go into opera because it was that kind of a voice but you know this music just came so natural to me. And the fact that the character was so close to who I was. And the fact that I had an incredible director for my first motion picture, Fred Zinneman. It was wonderful. That helped a lot.”
LAB: You felt fortunate to be in his hands?
SJ: “Oh, I cannot tell you how fortunate that was for me because I’d never done a film of any kind. And when I did the screen test…I had to screen test for it. They sent me to Calif. and fortunately Fred directed the screen test, which was unusual, because usually they have an assistant director do it, and Gordon (her costar Gordon MacRae) was in the test with me. He was already cast. And so from that standpoint it was all just wonderful because when I finished the screen test Fred said, ‘Have you ever acted before a camera before?,’ and I said, ‘Oh no,’ and he said, ‘Well, don’t change anything, you’re a natural,’ and from then on he was my mentor. I workedd with a lot of directors but there’s just a few that I just absolutely adored and because they thought of the actor, they were with the actor. It wasn’t just – put your hand here and speak, it was giving actors a reason for things and he was certainly a big one at that.”
LAB: R & H really handled you with care.
SJ: “They put me in South Pacific first to keep me with them and decided to sign me so I wouldn’t go to work for somebody else and then sent me to Calif. to screen test when I was in Chicago with Me and Juliet. Two wks later I get this phone call and its Rodgers and he said, ‘Hello, Laurie?’ So that’s how it happened.”
LAB: That had to be one of the most amazing screen debuts ever, an iconic part, iconic music. That music is going to endure forever.
SJ: “That’s for sure.”
Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
LAB: The movie was a huge hit and with your very first film you were a star.
SJ: “Yeah it just happened so quickly for me, it really did. But the truth of the matter and this is what I say in all my interviews…I went on to do Carousel but at that point pretty much they stopped making musical motion pictures and Rodgers hated Hollywood. He didn’t want to be here. They produced Oklahoma themselves, that was their production, they were on the set every single day in Nogales, Aarizona, where we shot it. But Carousel was 20th Century Fox and that was the end of the musical until way later when Music Man came to be.
“My career was over because at that particular time when you were a singer they didn’t consider you an actress and you know I hadn’t done anything but that and they didnt make musicals anymore. So I went into television and fortunately they were doing Playhouse 90 and Lux Theater and Philco Playhouse and I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skeleton called The Big Slide and Burt Lancaster happened to see that and he was taken with my performance. And at this point in time I was doing a nightclub act with my husband Jack Cassidy. We were touring, we were at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and I get this phone call and this man says, ‘Miss Jones, this is Burt lLncaster,’ and I said, ‘Sure it is,’ and I hung up. Fortunately he called back. Anyway, he told me about Elmer Gantry and he said, ‘Get the book, read the book, and I want you to fly in on your day off and meet with our writer-director Richard rooks and read for the role of Lulu Baines.’
“I did that and I was amazed he was thinking of me for this role, which was just incredible. I met with Brooks. Brooks didn’t want me. He wanted Piper Laurie. He didn’t want me at all but Burt fought fought for me and that’s how I got the part (that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). But my point is had that not happened my career would have been over because I wasn’t an actress to Hollywood then. After Gantry then I went on to do 30 films.”
LAB: You went on to work with Brooks again.
SJ: “Yes, yes on The Happy Ending.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: How did R & H feel about the film adaptation of Carousel – were they pleased?
SJ: “No, not completely, they weren’t. You know, Frank Sinatra was signed to do it. I did all the prerecordings, all the rehearsals, all the costumes, everything with Frank. We were shooting in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. Frank was thrilled about playing the role, thrilled. He said it was the best male role ever written. We get up there and we were shooting with two separate cameras (for different wide screen processes), which everybody knew from the beginning. And Henry King was the director and Frank came onto the set for our first dramatic scene and he saw the cameras and said, ‘Why the two cameras?’ Henry said, ‘Well, you know, we may need to shoot a scene twice, we’re doing regular cinemascope and cinemascope 55,’ and Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two,’ and back in the car and back to the airport.”
LAB: So that’s true then that that’s the reason he walked off the picture?
SJ: “Well , that was not the reason I’ve come to know. I called Gordon (MacRae) in Lake Tahoe and told him, ‘You’ve got the part in Carousel,’ and he said, ‘Give me three days, I have to lose 10 pounds.’ In later years, every time I’d see Frank I’d say, ‘Frank, what happened?’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Shirley.’And just about three or four years ago or so I was in a big conference with the press and some of the old guys from way back were sitting in the back row and talking about everything and I brought this story up and one of these old guys spoke up and said, ‘Shirley, don’t you know why fFank left?’ I said, ‘No, do you?’ ‘Oh yeah, everybody knew.’I said, ‘What was it?’ H said, ‘Ava Gardner (Sinatra’s then-wife) was in africa doing Magambo with Clark Gable and she called him and said, Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable.’ So that was it.”
LAB: Well, that does sound more likely.
SJ: “Doesn’t that sound more likely?”
LAB: You were reteamed with Gordon MacRae – what was your working relationship like with him?
SJ: “Oh, it was wonderful, I adored Gordon. He and Sheila were the godparents of my first born son (Sean). We stayed close close friends. He was my favorite male singer of all time. When I was 16 he had a radio show called ‘The Teen Timers Club’ and every Saturday morning I would turn it on and hear his voice, so at 16 I fell in love with that voice.”
LAB: You know the last several years of his life he lived in Lincoln, Neb.?
SJ: “I know, I know.”
Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel
LAB: What kind of an experience was the Carousel shoot?
SJ: “Well, it was beautiful. We, we were in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine,. It was gorgeous. Ihad a little house overlooking the water. We were shooting on the dock. And Barbara Uric became my very, very best friend. I adored Barbara, We roomed together in New York and we had a place together here. It was great, I loved eryv body in the film.”
LAB: It’s a beautiful film but its very melancholy.
SJ: “Oh my goodness, yes.”
LAB: It touches on things most musicals don’t get to.
SJ: “Well, yeah, it’s a dark story. I mean, that’s the point. Billy Bigelow’s a bad guy and that’s why a lot of people said Sinatra’s personality would have been better for the role than Gordon’s. But for me ne never could have sung it like Gordon. Gordon’s soliloquy was just to die over.”
LAB: Do you feel the film has been somewhat overlooked or underappreciated?
SJ: “Yeah I do, I don’t know why exactly but I do. You know they did a revival of it in New York at Lincoln Center and I was sitting at the matinee and there were a lot of women sitting in the audience and you know it’s about wife abuse basically and it was really interesting right during the show all these ladies got up and screamed, ’Everybody leave, this is wrong,’ and they left the theater. Isn’t that something?”
LAB: How about the director of that film, Henry King?
SJ: “He was just an old-time director. That may have been the other reason why I feel the film wasn’t as good as maybe it could have been in many ways. He was very aging then and everything was just just what it should be, he didn’t go further than that. you know what I’m saying?.”
LAB: Even though movie musicals were already dying out by the time Carousel was released you still made two fine musicals after it, one of them, The Music Man, being another classic.
SJ: “Oh yeah, big time still. As a matter of fact my son (Patrick) and I have been doing it several places. I’m playing Mrs. Peru now on the stage. In 2014 they’re scheduling a four month tour of Patrick and myself, showing film clips and me talking about The Music Man.”
LAB: And let’s not forget April Love.
SJ: “Yes, Pat Boone, uh huh.”
LAB: I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple years ago when he was the guest star for Bruce Crawford’s screening of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and he spoke very fondly of working with you.
SJ: “Oh, we had a wonderful time, really. Kentucky was great. We went to the Kentucky Derby. We’re still close friends.”
LAB: Didn’t you end up playing the role of Nettle?
SJ: “Mmm hmm, on the stage, I did it up in Connecticut. I’m graduating to the old lady roles now, I know.”
LAB: Do you enjoy coming to places like Omaha to share your passion for the films you made?
SJ: “Oh, sure, absolutely, of course I do. That’s been my career really. Winning the Academy Award. I’m still working up a storm all over the place. I just did a movie, this is hysterical – I play a zombie. They’re big now. Isn’t that funny? I’ve really come a long way, the Academy Award to a zombie.”
LAB: That proves you’re right on the cutting edge of things right now.
SJ: “That’s right, exactly.”
LAB: I have to ask you something about the Partridge Family because it was a pop culture phenomenon.
SJ: “Yes it was.”
LAB: Are you glad in the final analysis you did that?
SJ: “Oh, yes, I’m glad for personal reasons more than anything else and the fact it was a big hit. But you know at that time the agents and managers said, ‘Shirley, don’t do a television series,’ because I was a movie star. They said if it is successful you’ll be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will be in the toilet. Well, they were right. But what I wanted was to stay home and raise my kids and that gave me that opportunity. I had three sons and they were all over Europe, on the road with me on movies everywhere and they were school-age and I said if this is successful it’s the perfect time for me to do this and it was. And it was great for me that way and it didn’t ruin my career but they felt at that time television was a step down.”
LAB: There are a few more of your movie experiences I want to ask you about. So what was it like working with Marlon Brando on Bedtime Story?
SJ: “Let me say that I think I got Brando at a very good time in his life because he wanted to play comedy and nobody would give him the opportunity. He’d just come from Mutiny on the Bounty in which he was hated. He was a brilliant actor but he wanted to expand. He adored David Niven. The only problem I saw at this time in his life is that it was nothing for him to do 40-50 takes on one scene.”
LAB: And you got the chance to work with the great John Ford in Two Rode Together, in which you co-starred with James Stewart and Richard Widmark.
SJ: “Couldn’t stand him. He was not good with women. He was a man’s man and he looked down on women. It was like, Who cares? I never got one direction from him, nothing. And he had a handkerchief hanging out of his mouth all the time. I said to Richard (Widmark), ‘What is that handkerchief?’ He said, ‘Shirley. don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him.’ But it was hysterical. He’d take it out and say, ‘Let’s get ready to shoot,’ and put it back in. And the script – there’d be a rewrite every single morning. So it was not an easy movie for me. Thank God I was working with people like Widmark and (Jimmy) Stewart because they were sensational and very helpful to me.”
LAB: They were protective of you?
SJ: “Oh, very much so, yes. So that helped a lot. I was offered another movie with him (Ford) after that and I said no.”
LAB: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
SJ: “Yes, that was it.”
LAB: You had the misfortune of catching Ford near the end of his career when he was even more cantankerous than before.
SJ: “I think early on he wasn’t quite like that but it was terrible then.”
LAB: You’re in one of my favorite movies – The Cheyenne Social Club.
SJ: “Ah, I love that movie.”
LAB: I think it’s underappreciated.
SJ: “So do I. It’s a great movie. it was a great movie to do. Gene Kelly directed it. I had a wonderful relationship with him, and I adored Jimmy. Jimmy lived down the street from me. I loved the story. And I think it’s the funniest thing Henry Fonda ever did.”
LAB: Fonda and Stewart are so masterful together in their simplicity and naturalness.
SJ: “Well, they were college roommates (roommates back East and in Hollywood), and I’ve often said watching them work was truly an acting lesson. They would ad lib, they knew each other so well, they knew each other’s timing. It was incredible.”
LAB: And this next one is not a great movie but you costarred in it with one of my favorite actors, James Garner…
SJ: “Tank. Oh, yes, I loved Jimmy, we had a good time.”
LAB: You’ve worked with a lot of legends…
SJ: “Oh, very much. I have a book coming out by the way – in June. It’s Shirley Jones, A Memoir. Yeah, it’s the story of my life.”
LAB: Is that something publishers have been trying to get you to do for some time?
SJ: “Yes, they have, and Simon and Schuster bought this so I’ll be on the road doing a lot of talking.”
LAB: So will we see different shades of Shirley Jones?
SJ: “Different shades absolutely. I’m not saying I slept with every male star that I worked with but I have a lot to say about everybody I worked with and two crazy husbands and 12 grandchildren, so my life has been rather extraordinary from the beginning.”
LAB: As you may have heard, Bruce Crawford really puts on the dog for his events. They’re like Hollywood premieres, only Omaha style.
SJ: “Yes, that’s what I hear. That’s great, I think that’s wonderful, it gives them an opportunity to view this film.”
- You’ll never walk alone- (lesplaisirssimplesdelavie.wordpress.com)
- Carousel (bettysbrownies.wordpress.com)
- Live From Lincoln Center: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel (alaskapublic.org)
- Carousel (3159shroyer.wordpress.com)
The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses. The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio. A repertory series of her work is part of the deal. Laura Dern got the treatment the first time. Debra Winger came next. Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people. For some, she’s an enduring star. For others, a faded one. Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions. Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move. Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars. She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress. Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70. Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes. Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work. Her boarding school and debutant upbringing. Her early modeling career. Studying under Lee Strasberg. Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner. Her activist years. Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer. Making herself a fitness guru. Her forever strained relationship with her famous father. And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author. You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog. Many happy cinema returns.
Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine
The Fonda Legacy
This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.
She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.
The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.
Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.
When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.
Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.
For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.
Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”
When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.
She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.
She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).
Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80′s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.
“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”
Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”
She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.
She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.
They Shoot Horses Don’t They?
Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.
As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.
Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.
She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.
The China Syndrome
Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.
Nine to Five
Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.
On Golden Pond
Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.
Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.
- Photos: Jane Fonda Wows at Cannes (abcnews.go.com)
- Regina Weinreich: Jane Fonda: More Than the Sum of her Parts (huffingtonpost.com)
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
I have always loved the great MGM musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the best known and loved of those films, and while I admire the picture, I actually prefer some others to it, especially The Band Wagon and On the Town. But there’s no getting around the fact that Singin’ is a high achievement and an always entertaining watch. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor carry the film but there is no denying that Debbie Reynolds holds her own in what was her breakout role in Hollywood. I have seen very few of her films but what I have seen I have been impressed by. She has one of those indomitable spirits that I suppose made her a natural choice for portraying The Unsinkable Molly Brown when Hollywood got around to adapting that Broadway smash to the screen. I’ve only seen a couple minutes of the film, and one of these times when it’s showing on TCM I’ll have to make the effort to sit down and watch the whole thing. The following story for the New Horizons was written in advance of Reynolds making an appearance in Omaha, Neb., where I live, for a screening of Singin. I interviewed her by phone for the piece and I found her gracious and forthcoming in answering questions she’s likely been asked hundreds or thousands of times. I found revealing a particular anecdote she shared about Fred Astaire — it’s in the story. Singin‘ was a grueling experience for Debbie and when she was at her lowest Astaire befriended her by helping her learn what it means to be a professional. That same perseverance has helped see her through many difficult times since them. I look forward to seeing this consummate trouper in person.
Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
As Old Hollywood royalty goes, Debbie Reynolds is still a princess more than 60 years since inking her first studio contract and 58 years since her star-making turn in the classic MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Reynolds, 78, is one of the last remaining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the only survivor from this iconic musical’s principal cast. Even though she’s made scores of movies and still appears on the big screen and makes guest spots on television, she’s perhaps most closely identified with Singin’ in the Rain.
Consistently rated one of the all-time greatest movies in American Film Institute polls, the musical spoofs Hollywood’s messy transition from silent to sound pictures. Gene Kelly stars as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as writer Cosmo Brown, with Reynolds as the plucky ingenue Kathy Selden, the girl who breaks into pictures and steals Don’s heart.
Singin’ rarely gets a theater screening now, so when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford asked Reynolds to be the special guest at a November 5 charity showing, the actress and nightclub entertainer said yes. Join Reynolds for the 7 p.m. revival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee store. Proceeds benefit the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.
The artist will be the latest in a long line of Old Hollywood figures Crawford’s brought to Omaha. Two past guests were Patricia Neal and Kevin McCarthy, While those recently departed stars came to Hollywood as theater and Actors Studio veterans, Reynolds was a neophyte with zero acting experience when discovered.
At age 16 the then-Mary Frances Reynolds won the Lockheed Aircraft-sponsored Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948. Her lip-synching to a record of a Betty Hutton song caught the attention of two pageant judges who just happened to be talent scouts, one for Warner Brothers and the other for Metro-Goldywn-Mayer.
Soon, Mary Frances, who was born in El Paso, Texas and lived a hardscrabble life with her family during the Great Depression, found herself making a screen test for Warners. The charmed execs signed her to a $65 a week contract. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, but she refused attempts to alter her surname. The precocious young woman had just moved to Burbank eight years earlier. Her family had fled the Dust Bowl as part of the great migration West in search for a better life.
Attending public school, “Frannie” excelled in sports, baton twirling and music. She was a Girl Scout. She came from a evangelical Christian household yet her mother indulged her daughter’s expressive talents and love for the movies and radio. A favorite pastime was mimicking cinema stars and radio personalities.
The newly dubbed Debbie Reynolds made her motion picture debut as an extra in 1948′s June Bride. Her first speaking part came in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady. When those appearances failed to ignite with audiences or critics, Warners elected not to renew their option. That’s when MGM, whose talent scout had noted her charisma, cast her in a small part in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skeltonl. She made enough of an impression that that most prestigious of studios put her on a standard seven-year contract at $300 a week.
In a phone interview from Biloxi, Miss., where she was performing her cabaret act, Reynolds recalled the serendipity of it all.
“Well, first of all I was very lucky to be there during that stage,” she said. “MGM was the largest studio that made the greatest musicals of all and that had the largest of roster of stars. I came in in 1949, near the very end of this wonderful era of musicals, and I was fortunate enough to be taught under all those great stars. I was a very fortunate young lady and it paid off all these years because I’m still around.”
She said she couldn’t help but blossom in the training ground that MGM presented.
“When you have great teachers and you learn under the really marvelous tutelage of all those wonderful talents and all the stories they have to say and all the teachings they have to pass onto you, why those are things that never really leave you. It’s like going to the finest of universities let’s say.”
A few more forgettable pictures followed. One, Susan Slept Here, she did on a loan out to RKO. In another, Two Weeks with Love, she created a buzz with her rendition of the “Abba Dabba Dabba” song. Then the biggest break of her fledgling career happened when cast in her first starring role, opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in Singin’. MGM mogul Louie B. Mayer ignored the wishes of producer Arthur Freed and co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, who preferred someone with polished acting-singing-dancing skills, by giving the part to the inexperienced Reynolds.
Freed, a former song plugger and lyricist, oversaw the fabled Freed Unit that churned out the classic MGM musicals with their sumptuous production details. He packaged the creative talents behind Singin’ and such other gems as An American in Paris and Gigi. For Singin’, he brought together Kelly, Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Roger Edens and character actors Millard Mitchell and Jean Hagen.
Getting third billing in a Freed musical starring Kelly was a coup for Reynolds but it brought tremendous pressure. Her role required her to act, sing and dance. The vocals posed no major problem, but the dance numbers did for the unschooled Reynolds. She had to match, step for step, the moves of two world class hoofers after only a few weeks rehearsal. It was a trying time for the starlet. She felt overwhelmed by it all.
“I was just a young little girl who’d done just a few pictures. I had done nothing of any noteworthy dimension,” she said.
After one rehearsal she waited till everyone left the sound stage before crumpling to the floor in tears, hiding under a piano to conceal her distress. That’s when she said Omaha’s own Fred Astaire came to her rescue, not so much by consoling her as by giving her a tough love message about what it means to be a professional.
“Yes it’s a true story,” she said. “I was crying under a big grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was alone, so I could just sob away. I was only 17 and I was untrained and I felt very lost and, you know quite, miserable as a young girl out of my element totally.
“Mr Astaire was walking by because he was rehearsing right next door ,and I guess he heard me, and so he reached down and he said, ‘Who is that?’ I said my name and he said, ‘Give me your hand,’ and he pulled me out and he said, ‘Now, Debby, I’m going to let you watch me rehearse,’ which he never allowed. He always had a guard at the door and the only ones allowed were his drummer and the guard and Hermes Pan, who was his dance assistant.
“So I watched for awhile, until his face turned red and sweat was profusely coming down his face, and he turned to me to say, ‘Now you’ve seen how tough it is, how hard it is. This is the way you have to learn to be really the best. You have to work this hard. No pain, no gain. You have to go back, stop crying, and get to work.’ So I did, and I have continued to do that all these years. Don’t complain, just get better, just work harder.”
She needed to develop a thick skin and a more demanding discipline because Gene Kelly, “the creative mastermind of it all,” drove her and everybody else so hard.
“He was a taskmaster on himself more than anybody,” she said. “It was equal. This was, after all, his pride and joy, and he treated every project that way. I don’t think Gene ever did anything half way. Gene was a perfectionist. He was a creative artist, he was a great dancer, as was Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. They all worked the same. I don’t know any dancer that ever worked easy. There is no easy way to dance.”
Kelly had earlier put a non-dancer through his paces when he worked with crooner Frank Sinatra on Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The dancer didn’t cut Old Blue Eyes any slack and he sure didn’t for Reynolds.
Someone who did offer solace from the daily grind was co-star Donald O’Connor.
Said Reynolds, “Well, we were closer because we were nearer the same age. Donald was 27. Being younger, he was a bit more friendly and he had more time to visit with me. He worked with me on the dancing. He taught me how to do back flips and front flips and tumbling. He was very sweet. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous things together and being young together and laughing together, so he was kind of my release. With him, I was allowed to be young and laugh and not be so dedicated every minute.
“And we remained dear friends. We did an act together many years later on the road called Together Again. It was very successful and we had a wonderful time.”
Perhaps an unlikely confidante was the head man himself, Louie B. Mayer, who was known to be alternately tyrannical and tender. His studio’s rather idealized portraits of Americana and the family reflected his own sentimental leanings.
“Any problem I had I just called him on the phone and said, ‘Mr. Mayer, do you know whats happening?’ He’d say, ‘You come up here and see me,’ and I was just like a little kid and he treated me like a little kid. He took care of any problem I had. He’d always sit me down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ He always had time for me. I’m not saying he wasn’t a tough man with a lot of other people, but with me he was really very sweet. I found him to be very fatherly.”
Not even L.B. Mayer could protect her from the fallout of her failed marriage to pop singing star Eddie Fisher, who infamously left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal made headlines. Reynolds’ later marriages also ended badly when her business magnate husbands’ financial problems forced her to declare bankruptcy. Financial woes also dogged her dream of establishing a motion picture museum displaying her vast collection of vintage Hollywood costumes.
“I wanted to do that in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get it done. It’s very sad for me to say that. That was my dream. Sometimes dreams don’t always come true, even though they have written many songs that they do.”
Her collection, worth many millions of dollars, is due to be auctioned off in 2011.
But like Molly Brown, the indefatigable Reynolds keeps plugging away, just like she learned to do from Astaire many years ago. Even though Singin’ “was a very difficult picture to do,” she said it turned out to be the boost that put her over the top.
“Oh, it made it,” she said of the film’s impact on her career. She went on to star alongside such greats as Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and James Garner. She earned a Best Actreee Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Years later she and Molly co-star Harve Presnell recreated their roles for a national stage tour. She starred on Broadway in Irene, Woman of the Year and her own one-woman revue, Debbie. She starred in her own network TV specials and in a short-lived series.
More recently, she won good reviews for her work in the Albert Brooks film Mother and her recurring role in TV’s Will & Grace. She mended fences with Liz Taylor on the TV movie These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher. After finding stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher struggled. Her best-selling book Postcards from the Edge became a movie starring Shirley MacLain and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter patterned after Reynolds-Fisher.
Reynolds is no stranger to Omaha, where she’s performed with the symphony and dined with Warren Buffett, whom she calls “the financial Jimmy Stewart.”
For more information, visit wwwomahafilmevent.com or call 320-1944.
- Reynolds’ Hollywood memorabilia set for auction (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Debbie Reynolds Returns To Movies To Play Katherine Heigl’s Grandmother (cinemablend.com)
- MGM film studio rescued from bankruptcy (guardian.co.uk)
- Remembering the Movies of Debbie Reynolds (omg.yahoo.com)
- Debbie Reynolds On Elizabeth Taylor: “She Was A Symbol Of Stardom” (socialitelife.com)
- Debbie Reynolds auctions off Hollywood treasures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days. Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say. Far from it. Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs. It isn’t. It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show. It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected. In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that. My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him. It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.
Bill Maher Gets Real
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.
“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..
“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”
His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.
“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”
Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.
“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.
“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.
“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”
The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.
“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”
“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.
Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”
At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?
“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”
For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.
- Bill Maher Reaveals Montage Of Former Guests Frustrated By Christine O’Donnell (mediaite.com)
- Bill Maher Gets Hollywood Star, Thanks Sarah Palin, Bush & The Pope (huffingtonpost.com)
- Bill Maher Gives Advice to Brett Favre and White Men of America (charlestoncitypaper.com)
- Bill Maher: America Needs “A Class War” (mediaite.com)
- Bill Maher’s next book gives us the New New (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today. I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume. Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death. I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.
Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s New Film Frames the Monroe Doctrine
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.
Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.
Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.
Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.
On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.
“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”
Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”
There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.
Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.
Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”
The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”
Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”
The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”
Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”
What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”
Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.
“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”
As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.
A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”
For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.
“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”
Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”
Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”
Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.
With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”
American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.
- The Best Marilyn Monroe Shots You’ve Never Seen (stylecrave.com)
- Marilyn Monroe’s Famous White Dress Sold for $5.6 Million! (news.instyle.com)
- Michelle Williams Begins Her Week With Marilyn Monroe and Dominic Cooper (popsugar.com)
- My Marilyn Monroe Moment (comingeast.com)
Most cities of any size that have at least some semblance of sensitivity for historic preservation still have an Orpheum Theater. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is one such city, although the Orpheum here came perilously close to being razed at one point. Omaha’s track record for historic preservation is rather spotty, although it’s gotten somewhat better over time. I wrote the following article shortly after the local Orpheum was renovated for the second or third time and had come under new management. I will soon post a second piece I did around this same time, for another publication, that takes a different angle at the Orpheum and its opulent place among the city’s entertainment venues. For the first half of my life I only knew the Orpheum by catching occasional glimpses of its exterior during downtown shopping excursions with my mom or dad. Mainly though I heard about it through reminiscences by my mother and aunts, who frequented the theater as girls and young women, when it was still a movie palace. They made it sound so grand and special that I was always enthralled by their descriptions. I was actually well into my 20s before I first stepped foot inside. Right out of college my first job, albeit it a part-time gig, was as a gofer for a now defunct arts presentation group, whose programs were held at the Orpheum. I was supposed to be doing PR work but all I ever seemed to do, much to my frustration, was to fetch coffee for the haute woman in charge, or pick up poster orders or transport visiting artists, et cetera. But there were perks, particularly getting to see a string of world class performances, including Marcel Marceau, Twyla Tharpe, and the Guthrie Theatre. I’ve gone on to catch dozens of programs there — touring Broadway shows, operas, ballets, movies, you name it. I try to convey some of that wide-eyed excitement in my story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater
More stars than there are in the heavens.
That’s how the great lion of Hollywood movie studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, described the galaxy of stars under contact to MGM during cinema’s Golden Age. Omaha may be far removed from the bright lights of Tinseltown but for 75 years now one enchanted place — the Orpheum Theater — has been a magnet for some of the brightest stars of the big screen, Broadway, the concert circuit and the recording industry.
This grand old lady, fresh from a $10 million facelift applied last summer, opened in 1927 to a varied program featuring comedian Phil Silvers, violinist Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads and the silent film, The Fighting Eagle, starring matinee idol Rod La Rocque. From the start, the opulent Orpheum has seduced us with its eclectic attractions and extravagant motifs. The French Renaissance Revival style theater is a monument to Old World craftsmanship in such decorative flourishes as gold leaf glazings, marble finishes, velvet coverings, framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate Venetian brocatelle and damask-adorned chairs. The grand foyer is dominated by a circular French Travertine marble stairway that winds its way to the mezzanine and balcony levels.
The City of Omaha-owned theater, saved from an uncertain future in the early 1970s before undergoing a major overhaul, is now under the purview of the Omaha Performing Arts Society, a non-profit headed by Omaha World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk. The society, which will also manage the Omaha Performing Arts Center to be built across from the Gene Leahy Mall, has signed a 50-year lease with the city for the Orpheum’s use and will share, with the city, in any operating losses the next 10 years. Money for this most recent renovation came from private donations culled together by Heritage Services, a fundraising organization headed by Walter Scott, Jr. and other corporate heavyweights. These new developments are the latest efforts to reinvent the Orpheum over the past 107 years.
The present theater is actually forged from the facade and foundation of an earlier building on the very same spot. What began as the Creighton Theater in 1895 became the Creighton Orpheum Theater when it joined the famed Orpheum Theater Circuit in 1898. The original Orpheum operated until 1925. Then, when Orpheum officials decided a grander edifice was needed to support a growing Omaha, $2 million was spent extensively enlarging, altering and gentrifying the site.
Matching the Orpheum’s lavish decor, is a rich lineage of legendary performers who have appeared there, including many identifiable by only one name. From Crosby to Sinatra, crooners have made fans swoon and sway there. From Ella to Leontyne, divas have held court there. From Channing to Goulet, luminaries from the Great White Way have made grand entrances there. From Lucy and Dezi to Hope and Benny to Cosby and Carlin, comedians have made audiences titter with laughter. Magicians, from Blackstone to Henning to Copperfield, have bedazzled patrons with their wizardry. Classical musicians, from Stern to Pehrlman, have moved crowds with their sublime playing. Big band leaders, from Kaye and Kayser to Dorsey and James, have got the place jumping.
The Orpheum has been the home to the symphony, opera and ballet, the place where Broadway touring productions play and the eclectic venue-of-choice for everything from school graduations to Berkshire Hathaway stockholder meetings to movie premieres to appearances by top orchestras, renowned repertory theater companies and elite dance troupes.
The plush theater has been adaptable to changing tastes, beginning as a vaudeville house, evolving into a movie palace and lately functioning as a performing arts hall. During the Depression and war years theaters like the Orpheum were great escapes for people just wanting a break from the real world or just to find relief from extreme weather. In the vaudeville era several shows played daily, from noon to midnight.
When movies lit up the marquee, a typical program included a line of girls, a pit band, a newsreel and a first-run feature film. The theater’s Wurlitzer organ was a staple for sing-a-longs and silent movie accompaniment. When the big band craze hit, live music moved from the pit to the stage. If a hot band packed the house, it became the main attraction. If a big movie drew long lines at the box office, it took center stage. Trying a little something of everything, the Orpheum even ran closed circuit TV broadcasts of championship fights.
In its heyday its flamboyant manager, Bill Miskell, was known as “a show doctor” and “master of ballyhoo” whose advice could help a sick act get well and turn a sow’s ear into silk. Under Miskell, the Orpheum ran grandiose promotions — like the time the lobby was dressed as a railroad station for the 1939 world premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s epic Union Pacific. In 1953, it became the first Midwest theater to project a Cinemascope picture — the religious extravaganza The Robe. From the 1950s through the ‘60s, the theater operated almost solely as a movie house.
Ruth Fox, a veteran usher and backstage volunteer, said the theater has a one-of-a-kind appeal. “It’s elegant. It commands dressing up. It makes you feel like putting on a long gown. What could be more regal?” Patron Mark Brown said, “I’m amazed by the splendor of the grand architecture and the acoustics. I don’t think it can be matched today.” Al Brown, a former on-site Orpheum manager, calls it “the crown jewel of the Midwest. It’s majestic.”
Former Omaha Public Events Manager Terry Forsberg, goes even further by describing it as “the cathedral of the performing arts as far as Omaha is concerned.” Indeed, the sheer grandeur of the place sets it apart.
Impresario Dick Walter, presenter of hundreds of shows there over the years, said, “Visually and mentally, you have to be moved when you see the size of the lobby and the theater. It takes your breath away a little. It’s like going into any of those grand palaces in London or Vienna or Berlin. And there’s an aura when you walk in the same space that so many scores of great performers of the past performed in. It’s the implicit tradition and the magic of the theater with its history. I don’t want to sound religious, but it’s semi-sacred.”
The Orpheum evokes many memories. Omaha musician Preston Love recalls getting his groove on there to the swinging sounds of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, all idols for the then-aspiring sideman. “All the big names who toured theaters played the Orpheum,” he said. “Suffice to say…the Orpheum was top stuff, man. It was unbelievable.” He saw Count Basie there in ‘43, and three weeks later he auditioned for and won a seat in the band and ended up playing the Orpheum with Basie in ‘45 and ‘46, as family and friends cheered this favorite son’s every lick on the saxophone. He noted that a rolling stage utilized then carried featured acts to the lip of the stage. If it was a band, like Basie’s, those jamming cats really cut loose when they made it out front. “Boy, you started rolling down in front and that band would just be on fire,” Love said.
Dick Walter has a long relationship with the theater, first as a child lapping-up the antics of vintage comedy teams like Olsen and Johnson, than as a young man spellbound by big name entertainers and later as a presenter of performing arts programs, including everything from Camelot to The National Chinese Opera Theater. “When I was going to Omaha University I enjoyed cutting the Friday afternoon class to go down and see the first show of that week’s vaudeville show,” Walter said. Among the performers he caught then was the magician The Great Blackstone.
Decades later, in a “remarkable” bit of fate, Walter found himself presenting the famed illusionist’s son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., a great illusionist in his own right, in performance at the Orpheum. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, this local showman brought a diverse array of acts to the Orpheum, including scores of Broadway road shows. “Although I made a lot of money and I had great pleasure in presenting big-time musicals with big-time stars, I also enjoyed bringing the off-beat. I had some successes I certainly didn’t deserve and I had some failures I certainly didn’t deserve. Fortunately, I guessed right most of the time.” Although officially retired, he still dabbles in show business by presenting his long-running travel film series at Joslyn Art Museum and bringing occasional shows, such as “A Celebration of World Dance” and the Russian State Chorus, to Joslyn this fall.
As Walter can attest, show business is a series of highs and lows. For all the standing ovations and packed houses, he can’t forget the times when things went a cropper. “The biggest glitch ever was when I was presenting Hello Dolly with Carol Channing,” he said. “We had played a week when about a half-hour before the Saturday matinee show the entire electrical system went out. The emergency system came on, but it was too dim to do a show. It was a sold-out house, all of which had to be refunded. Miss Channing was really upset because she had never missed a performance. I said, ‘What are you worried about? This performance is missing you — you’re not missing it.’”
With Channing mollified and the power restored, the second show went on without a hitch. In his many dealings with stars, Walter has found most to be generous. However, as “they’re pestered a lot,” he said, “all of the big people build a wall around them. They have no private life. Now, when you brought some of them in a few times, the wall broke down and the next thing you knew you were out eating dinner together after the show. A lot of them were wonderful with people coming up to them for autographs…and they should be — that’s part of their job. On the other hand, if people were a little pushy, they didn’t like that.” Among his favorites, he said, were comic musician Victor Borge, conductor Arthur Fielder, band leader Fred Waring and actor Hans Conried. “These people were special.”
Regarding Waring, Walter recalls, “The last time I had him was his ‘Eighth Annual Farewell Tour.’ I used to kid him about that. He just kept going on as long as he could. That last time we had him he gave a wonderful show and, when he came off, he was literally so exhausted he just fell into my wife’s arms backstage, catching his breath. But seconds later he was back on stage thanking everyone. That’s show business. That makes a performer.” When it came to Conried, who headlined a straight dramatic play for Walter, the actor so enjoyed a repast at the Bohemian Cafe that whenever he hit the road again “he’d drive up, give me a ring and say, ‘Let’s go to the Bohemian.’ He thought this was heaven.”
Ruth Fox recalls going as a little girl with her mother to the Orpheum and being awe-struck by the great hall. “I was so impressed with the mirrors and the chandeliers.” she said. “Oh, that was something to behold.” A lifelong theater-lover, Fox began ushering and working backstage at the Orpheum in the 1970s. “I started to usher for the symphony, the opera, Broadway touring productions and whatever else came.” It’s something she continues today. She enjoys being around theater people and the hubbub surrounding them.
“I find it thrilling.” As an opera guild member, she joins other ladies running a backstage concession for cast and crew. “We fix homemade food. Matzo balls, deviled eggs. You name it, we have it. We have a real thing going. We spend time with the performers. We take care of their needs…and they’re so nice to us. Once in a while you get a stinker, but most are wonderful.” She takes great pride in her role as an usher, too. “We, who usher, really are ambassadors to the city. There are so many people who come from out of town who have never been to the Orpheum before. It’s their introduction, you might say, to Omaha…and we have to make a good impression.”
Despite the theater’s prominence, its future was once uncertain. By the end of the ‘60’s it languished amidst a dying downtown. Ownership changed hands — from the Orpheum Circuit to several movie theater chains. As business declined, the theater fell into disrepair and, following an April 29, 1971 screening of Disney’s The Barefoot Executive that played to a nearly empty house, the place closed. At first, there was no guarantee the theater would not follow the fate of another prominent building in Omaha, the old post office, and be razed. Its prospects improved when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben bought the theater and donated it to the city, which agreed to steward it.
The city formed the Omaha Performing Arts Society Corp. (no relation to the current management group) for raising revenue bonds to underwrite a renovation. Local barons of commerce contributed more dollars. Everything was on the fast-track to preservation until the city learned it had inherited a $1,000 a month lease for use of the lobby from the City National Bank Building, which the Orpheum abuts. With the rental issue gumming-up the works, the theater — then lacking any protective historic status — became a white elephant and, some say, a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. It was saved when the Omaha Symphony bought out the lease and deeded the lobby to the city.
A multi-million dollar renovation ensued — removing years of grime, repairing damage caused by a leaky roof and restoring deteriorated plaster and paint — before the Orpheum reopened as Omaha’s performing arts center in 1975, with Red Skelton headlining a glitzy gala. Later, it was designated an Omaha landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site. Over the next 27 years, the theater thrived but not without complaints about acoustics, amenities and overbookings. The theater also operated at a loss for many years.
Two men who know every inch of the theater and have spent more time there than perhaps anyone else are Al and Jeff Brown, a father and son who have made managing the Orpheum a family enterprise. Al, a tattooed Korean war vet, was on-site manager there from 1974 to 1996, during which time he saw the theater enjoy a renaissance. When Al retired, his son Jeff, who worked at the Orpheum as a stagehand like his dad before him, followed in his footsteps to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of this heavily-used old building in need of faithful attention.
The hours on the job can be so long that Jeff, like Al did, sometimes sleeps overnight on a cot in the office. Jeff feels the work done to the theater this past summer, which tackled some longstanding problems, will be appreciated by performers and patrons alike. “The big thing is to keep both of them happy,” he said. “I feel with this renovation we’re going to better realize that goal because of the areas we’ve addressed…improved seating, enlarged and added dressing rooms, added women’s restrooms, a new heating-air conditioning system. Before, we did the best we could with what we had, but now it’s going to be much more user-friendly.” Keeping show people happy, whether local arts matrons or visiting world-class artists, means making sure everything behind-the-scenes “has to be the way they want it,” Al said. “Touring performers come into town and they’re tired. It’s a drag. Anything you can do to alleviate some of that, they appreciate it.”
He said temperamental stars become pussycats if a manager and crew are prepared and have gone the extra mile. Echoing his father, Jeff added. “If you do your homework before the show and you make sure that everything is clean and you have everything they ask for, they’re very pleasant to work with.” Something Jeff learned from his old man is “treating every show the same — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school graduation or a dance recital or a big Broadway show. We do whatever we can to make sure they have the best show they can have.”
Jeff said the theater’s new management structure bodes well for the facility. “I feel it’s better because our budget isn’t affected by what happens at Rosenblatt or at the Auditorium. We’re our own separate entity now. We’re on our own and we know we have to make it on our own. It will be a challenge, but I think it will be good.”
The Orpheum, saddled with recent annual operating losses in the half-million dollar range, will more aggressively seek and promote high stature events and market the theater as a destination place. An Orpheum web site is in the works. It also means Orpheum performance seasons — complete with public subscriptions — may be in the offing. It’s all been tried before. But the performing arts society may be in a better position to pull it off than financially-strapped city government.
Terry Forsberg said, “Now that you have a private group and the financial backing of the business community, it can be done. The question will be how much of a profit they will have to show in order to keep it operating.” According to John Gottschalk, “The Orpheum will have an endowment, but we’re certainly in no position to absorb half-million dollar losses every year. So, we’ll need to operate effectively and efficiently. The best way to end the…losses is to have a diversity of performances and to have bigger houses more frequently…and we will be heavily employed to make sure this place is full and active.”
Everyone, it seems, holds the Orpheum in high esteem. For Gottschalk, its rich legacy makes it a vital touchstone. “In the first place, it’s an incredibly old symbol,” he said. “There’s been an Orpheum Theater here since the turn of the century. Its longevity is what makes it such an integral part of the fabric of the community.”
Showman Walter said “it’s great to be part of this theater and it’s wonderful heritage.” Omaha Performing Arts Society president Joan Squires calls it a real treasure for the city.” Theatergoer Marjorie Schuck describes it as “a very big asset for Omaha culturally,” adding, “It’s a highlight coming to the Orpheum…it’s been here a long time, it’s still here, it’s still going, and we expect it to continue.”
Perhaps thinking of the effect the planned downtown performing arts center may have on the Orpheum, volunteer Ruth Fox said, “I just pray they will not tear it down or change it.”
Pray not, indeed, for that would be too much to bear. As a program for the Orpheum’s 1927 opening noted, the theater “is a continuation not only of a place of amusement, but also a veritable civic institution.”
- Ghost Hunting at the Orpheum (tdhurst.com)
- Musical Theatre Shows in Chicago (north-american-musical-theatre.suite101.com)
- Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Quiana Smith’s Dream Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Re:Take: The Orpheum Will Rise Again (seattlest.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Grows in New Directions (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Shakespeare on the Green, A Summertime Staple in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
For years I only knew Ron Hull through the prism of television. He was an affable, erudite executive and sometime host on the PBS affiliate in my state, Nebraska Educational Television. I knew that he was a friend of Dick Cavett‘s and over the years I prevailed upon Hull more than once for his help in contacting Cavett for various projects I was working on. But it wasn’t until a couple years ago I finally met Hull, who proved as amiable and generous in person as he was by phone. I long wanted to profile him but had never quite gotten around to it. Then a couple things happened: In the course of interviewing Cavett, the former talk-show host mentioned some things about his longtime friend Hull that peaked my interest even more; and then I read a local newspaper story about Hull that hinted at some colorful origins I wanted to flesh out in more detail. That’s exactly what I do in the following profile, which originally appeared in the New Horizons. By the way, this blog site also contains some of the articles I’ve written about Cavett and at least one of those pieces references Hull.
Ron Hull’s Magical Mystery Journey Through Life, History and Public Television
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Only recently has Nebraska Educational Television pioneer Ron Hull, 77, come to appreciate the remarkable arc of his life, one that’s literally gone from bastard child of a bordello to chairing the board room.
“I went from that situation to this situation. It’s incredible when you think about it,” Hull said from his NET office in Lincoln.
His journey’s taken him around the world, introduced him to legends, given him access to inner circles of power and allowed him to indulge his love for the arts, the humanities and history. Perhaps none of it would have happened if not for the kindly madam, Dora DuFran, whose house of ill repute he began life in.
He’s come a long way from that dubious start in a Rapid City, S.D. den of inequity. He never knew his real parents. His adoptive parents, who got him as an infant, gave him a good home in town. His father was a mechanic and his mother, a former country school teacher, a realtor. His dad opened his own garage and used car lot. His folks made extra money buying old properties and renovating them for resell.
“There was never any doubt about how much they thought about me. I couldn’t have had better parents,” Hull said. “Coming out of the Depression my parents had nothing except each other and lots of integrity. But they really worked hard. They were very industrious people and they gave me every opportunity. I’m very lucky.”
From such modest roots, he’s forged a substantial public television career here and in the nation’s capitol. The Nebraska Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame inductee helped build the statewide NET network, considered one of the best in the PBS chain, and once wielded major influence in Washington, D.C.
In the course of his work he’s developed friendships with notables from the worlds of stage, screen, literature, media and politics. Talk show host Dick Cavett is a pal.
His much-traveled life has taken him from the Black Hills to Hollywood to New York City and back to the Midwest. Except when he worked back east as an executive with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and with the Public Broadcasting System, Nebraska is where he’s made his home since 1955. There have also been extended stays as a guest lecturer in international broadcasting in Taiwan and as a television advisor to the government of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The Lincoln, Neb. resident is still very much a citizen of the world. He’s as likely to be visiting favorite haunts in Manhattan or Los Angeles or off on some adventure in Asia, Europe or Africa as he is to be at home. He has friends all over the world.
After 52 years in public TV he’s still in the game. He serves as a special advisor at NET, where keeps a hand in programming, archiving, fundraising and just about anything he cares to involve himself in. He also teaches international broadcasting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he’s a professor emeritus.
History, though, remains a top priority for the man who helped initiate The American Experience, the acclaimed documentary series that remains a PBS staple. He pushed for the series while director of the CPB Program Fund, a $42 million annual kitty he controlled and doled out to producers from 1982 to 1988.
His D.C. stint taught him the vagaries of power and politics. Producers seeking funding for their projects schmoozed him. He had to separate what was real from what wasn’t. “Every morning I’d get out of bed the first thing I’d say to myself was, ‘It’s the money they like.’ That really kept me on a pretty even keel.” The CPB board he reported to was comprised of Presidential appointees who displayed their partisan colors. As conservative Republicans exerted more influence, he left.
Back home he’s nurtured NET’s film production unit, whose Oregon Trail, Willa Cather, Standing Bear and Monkey Trial documentaries have aired nationally. He’s the founder and director of the Nebraska Video Heritage Library, an archive of thousands of programs that touch on life in the state over the past half-century. Among these gems are interviews with Nebraska writers John G. Neihardt, Mari Sandoz and Wright Morris, actress Sandy Dennis and entertainer Dick Cavett as well as coverage of legislative sessions, political campaign debates, et cetera. Hull’s enlisted Cavett’s interviewing-vocal talents for many NET and UNL projects.
The history bug first bit when Hull produced the NET series, Your Nebraska History, which led to an association with Sandoz, whom he convinced to do several shows. He’s headed the Sandoz Society. He’s served on the board of the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud. Then there’s his decades-long work with the Neihardt Center in Bancroft. He emcees the annual Neihardt Days. Neihardt was another key figure in the early life of NET, he said, as the poet’s appearances lent credence to public TV as a prime cultural source. Hull also led the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration committee for seven years.
Hull’s made it his mission as a broadcaster to satisfy what he says is a basic human desire for people “to know who they are” and “where they come from.” He often refers to something Cather noted. “She said, ‘The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.’” These questions and concepts have taken on personal import for Hull ever since learning at age 15 that he’s adopted.
“I discovered it by accident…I found a birth announcement in my grandmother’s house. Of course she disavowed that. I’m sure she was so embarrassed. I have to hand it to all the relatives. Nobody ever talked. Nobody ever told me. Not my grandparents. Not my aunt who lived nearby. Nobody. They had to of known.”
He didn’t broach the subject with his folks right away.
“I didn’t have the nerve to ask my parents,” he said. “It was about a year later I went down to the courthouse to check the birth records because I knew I was born in Pennington County. I took my best friend. We said were on a school assignment and had to see our birth records.
“They looked up my friend’s. ‘Yep, here you are,’ the clerk said. Then my turn came. ‘You’re not here.’ I said, ‘Well, I have to be. I know I was born in this county. If I was born in this county and I’m not listed here, why not?’ The clerk said, ‘Well, I’m sure this isn’t your case, but illegitimate children aren’t listed in the county of their birth, those records are at the state capitol in Pierre.’”
The disclosure, Hall said, was “a big clue.” As those records were under seal, his search was stymied for a long time. Unable to keep silent anymore, he confronted his mother. She admitted the truth. “She told me as much as she could. She didn’t know much,” he said. “She had a friend, Mrs. Benjamin, who ran the social agency and she told her they’d like to adopt. She liked my mother” and an arrangement was reached to contact the Halls should a child come available.
From the time of these revelations Hull’s life’s been all about seeking answers. His search intensified over time. In 2002 he obtained a court order to unseal his birth records. The discovery of his true identity and the unusual circumstances that led to his adoption made his journey from townie to sophisticate all the more unlikely.
The brothel he entered the world in was owned and operated by one of the American West’s best-known madams, Dora DuFran. “She’s a colorful character. I’ve done a lot of research into her,” he said. DuFran got her start in the sex trade in Deadwood, S.D., that infamous frontier outpost of wild and woolly goings on.
A late 19th century immigrant from England, DuFran settled in Nebraska before making her way north to Deadwood, a gold rush town she cleaned up in. She expanded to run stables of sporting girls at brothels in Sturgis, Rapid City and Belle Fourche. Like many a successful madam she cultivated strong allies in the form of her gambling magnate husband, Joseph DuFran, and local authorities, whose ranks no doubt included regular customers.
It was in Deadwood DuFran befriended Calamity Jane, a former scout under William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Show she performed in. Renowned for her horsemanship, shooting and rowdy ways, Calamity knew iconic gunman-turned-lawman Wild Bill Hickok. A young Calamity once worked for DuFran and when down- and-out near the end of her life DuFran took her in. Hull’s link to the notorious DuFran and her historical cohorts is more than passing. Among other things she was a midwife and, yes, it turns out she delivered Hull. On his birth certificate the word physician is crossed out. Written over it is “midwife” and “Dora DuFran.”
“And I only know this because my mother told me,” Hull said, “but Dora DuFran carried me herself down to the Alex Johnson Hotel where the social office was and gave me to Mrs. Benjamin. Mrs. Benjamin called my mother up and said, ‘Come and get him,’ and that was me. So, anyway, I owe Dora DuFran a lot.”
As a teen Hull worked as a bell hop summers at the Alex Johnson. He didn’t know then his connection to it. “I always wondered what brought me to apply there, but I never figured it out,” he said.
DuFran’s Rapid City house also served as a popular speakeasy during Prohibition. Upon her death in 1934 the Black Hills Pioneer referred to her as “a noted social worker.” Her grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, which Hull’s visited, is near Calamity’s and Wild Bill’s plots. DuFran’s grave features four urns, each adorned with grinning imps in recognition of her four houses of pleasure. She authored a 1932 book entitled Low Down on Calamity Jane that contained her recollections of “the untamed woman of the wild, wild west.”
What Hull’s learned about DuFran, he likes.
“She was that proverbial madam,” he said, referring to her reputed heart of gold. “The sheriff, the police — everybody loved her. She’d be down at the railroad station on Thanksgiving bringing hoboes and bums back to her place to feed them Thanksgiving dinner. She was a midwife, she was a lot of things. And I was born in Dora DuFran’s house of prostitution in Rapid City. She had nine girls working for her at one time. It was a thriving business.”
This “back story” of unwanted pregnancy, abandonment and adoption has given Hull an inkling as to why he’s felt compelled to continually prove himself and why he’s rushed off to faraway places in search of some larger meaning.
“I can tell you one thing, I’m very sympathetic to anybody that’s adopted because if they’re like me you eternally wonder why somebody didn’t want you,” he said. “You could couch it another way. You can intellectualize it. She couldn’t take care of you, she couldn’t afford you, look how lucky you are…You can do all that, but the bottom line is — why didn’t they want me? And it hurts.
“It’s just something every adopted kid has to deal with…On the positive side, it’s a very powerful motivation to measure up. Am I going to be good enough? You always feel like you have to prove yourself. I decided I’d show ‘em.”
He feels strongly enough about giving lost children a home that he and his wife Naomi adopted their first child, Kevin. The couple added three children “the hard way.” Their son Brandon and his wife Linda continued the family tradition of adopting by flying off to China to bring home a baby girl, Eliza.
Hull continues trying to piece together his own pedigree. He knows the name of his birth mother, Jeanne May Ramsey, but doesn’t know if she worked as a prostitute at DuFran’s house or if she went there for help as “a girl in trouble.” He’s learned the name of his biological father, Paul Vaughn. Again, he’s unsure if he was a john or boyfriend or one night stand. He’s found his given name at birth was Theodore Vaughn Ramsey. Once adopted, his parents named him Kenneth, which he was called for a year or so, before they changed his name to Ronald.
However, he’s been unable to track down any more about his birth parents. “I have had no luck finding either parent,” he said. “I’ve really searched.” He just knows they weren’t married, which explains why his birth certificate has a box checked ‘No’ under the heading ‘Legitimate.’ He said the law changed at some point to remove “the stigma” of illegitimacy on birth records.
The intrigue of his own roots reminds Hull of life’s rich tapestry and how his work as a producer, director and programmer has tried to capture that richness.
He’s found a niche for himself in television, where he’s nurtured a lifelong love for the humanities, yet he fell into the field by happenstance. Still everything he did as a young man prepared him for his career.
Growing up in Rapid City his passion for the arts made him an odd duck. “I had certain proclivities for music,” he said. “I took piano. I loved theater.” He loved to read. His parents, meanwhile, “were not cultured people. They loved to dance, they loved to play cards. They had a lot of friends. They were very social. But I had the tickets to the concert series, to the Broadway theater league, they didn’t. All those things, from the time I was in the 7th grade, they saw to it I had them. You just have to say I was cut out of a different piece of cloth, and they knew that.”
He was delighted to move with his parents to North Hollywood, Calif. for his junior year of high school. “They always saw that as the end of the rainbow,” he said. “While I was perfectly happy out there my parents weren’t. It was just too hard for them to sever all the friendships, ties and everything. They realized they’d made a mistake.” He moved back with his folks for his senior year in Rapid City. It wasn’t long before he returned to Calif. — this time to study theater at the then-College of the Pacific. He gained valuable experience on stage in high school and college.
Hull once again went home, this time to please his strong Methodist parents by completing his theater studies at Dakota Wesleyan, a church-affiliated school in Mitchell, S.D. He and Naomi met there. Upon graduating Hull heeded the call many young people feel — to make it in the Big Apple. The military draft was hanging over his head and he, Naomi and friends opted to try their luck in New York.
“I just knew we had to get Manhattan under our belt. I knew an educated person had to have an appreciation for New York City — that’s the Acropolis of our culture. We all got jobs. Our intent was to see every play on Broadway and if we really saved our money — the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria.”
He also hoped to break into the New York theater world. “Yeah, that was always in the back of my head,” he said. Then, just as he feared, he got drafted. He wound up at Fort Sill, Okla., assigned to Special Services. He worked as a recreation equipment clerk — “…the most boring job in the world,” he recalled.
One day a sergeant came by and changed his life forever. A check of Hull’s file showed his theater background, which was enough for the young private to be offered a new job producing a TV show on Fort Sill for the post’s commander. Sensing a golden opportunity, Hull fibbed when he told the sergeant he knew something about TV when, in fact, “I didn’t know anything.”
Given only days to prepare a script, he went right to the base library to learn the basics. He spoke to a director at a local station to learn what cameras do. Before he knew it he was lining up members of the 89th Army Band to play music and signing up the wife of a major to sing in the studio. That just left interviews with soldiers coming back from or going off to Korea.
Producing-directing-writing-emceeing all came naturally to the then-22 year-old, which he chalks up to the fact that “I had a lot of experience in plays by then in summer theater.” He did 95 weekly TV shows before his hitch was over, enough experience to convince him he wanted a career in television.
“I thought, This is pretty good for me because, you know, television combines any aspect of life you want. I mean, there’s music, drama, culture, news, public affairs, documentary. It’s the whole thing.”
He used the GI Bill to study television at what’s now known as Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, where he earned a master’s degree. He’s since been invited back to speak as one of its distinguished alums. Naomi was with him at SU, working in the speech department. “That was a wonderful time in Syracuse. We loved it,” he said.
Hull assumed he would go into commercial broadcasting but while at SU he heard about this newfangled educational television “where you might do something, like Pollyanna, to improve people’s lives, and that really attracted me. Everybody said, ‘Well, you don’t want to go into that because you don’t make any money.’ They were certainly right about that,” he said, smiling.
He hit the road in search of a job, traversing the Midwest and South on a Greyhound Bus. “California was my goal — that golden green place out there,” he said. Except he didn’t go there. Instead, he stopped in Denver, Amarillo, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Atlanta and Chicago, leaving his resume everywhere he went, getting interviews here and there. Mostly he applied at commercial stations. Then he heard about an opening at the fledgling educational station in Lincoln, Neb.
“By this time I’d been on the road for about two weeks,” he said. “I was exhausted from the bus, from everything.”
He interviewed with Jack McBride, the father of NET and the man Hull considers his best friend. The final interview was with the university’s crusty old PR man, George Round. Hull, who had other offers, was noncommittal. Finally, Hull said, an impatient Round bluntly asked, Listen, do you want the job or not? Well, yeah, OK, Hull replied. “And I took the job,” he said. “I didn’t plan to stay here.” But Hull fell in love with Nebraska and its people. He’s remained loyal to his adopted state. He’s always returned to live here, even after extended stays abroad and back East.
“I don’t know if this place has claimed me but I certainly have claimed this place. It’s just who I am, you know. It’s where I established my family. It’s the values of the Midwest I revere. I think the people out here know how to work really hard and are basically honest. You can trust them.”
Among the first people he and Naomi met here were the parents of Dick Cavett. The Hulls, Cavetts and some other couples formed a social-cultural club called the CAs or Critics Anonymous, whose motto was, We criticize everything. A young Dick joined in on some of the activities. Hull and Cavett became close.
Upon accepting the state’s 2000 Sower Award for Humanities, Hull articulated the symbiosis he feels with Nebraskans. “We’re talking about relationships when we talk about the humanities,” he said “To me, relationships are the essence of our lives, the relationships that we have with each other…how fortunate I am, how thankful I am to have the privilege of being a part of you…in this state.”
In a real sense Hull feels he’s a steward for the state’s culture and history, not surprising when you realize he was there nearly from the start of what became NET. He arrived in October 1955. KUON had gone on the air only the previous November — the ninth public TV station to transmit. It was a humble launch.
“There’s nothing like starting at the beginning,” he said. “There were four of us. I was a producer-director, I wrote the continuity…You did everything. We were completely live. We had to be because we had no videotape, we had no network. We shared a studio with KOLN Channel 10. Our signal’s radius was maybe 35 miles.”
Live TV offered a visceral, ephemeral, enervating experience unlike any other.
“I really miss the live shows,” he said. “It makes such a demand on the people in front of the camera and behind the camera that you get a level of energy going all around. Every nerve ending is alive. It’s electrical. You can sense it, you can feel it. We used to say, ‘Poof in the night.’ You can’t replicate those experiences.”
On the down side, he said, “we made some terrible gaffes. You’ve got to be grateful there’s nobody to play those back.” A memorable one he recalled came when, “while introducing a travel film ‘live,’ our host, smiling into the camera, said, ‘Today we visit Hawaii — those lovely islands of beautiful beaches and flat sandy women.’”
Hull said video-digital technology not only eliminates the possibility of most mistakes, it “serves the viewer in the long run” by affording repeats. But he said live TV “was a little more honest” than today’s canned version.
He recalled an example of spontaneity that could never happen now.
“I was directing an interview with (Neb. Gov.) Frank Morrison, a big, lanky wonderful man. I’m sitting at the counsel (control booth) and the phone rang. ‘Hello.’ The voice at the other end said, ‘Ron, this is Maxine.’ ‘Oh, yes, Mrs. Morrison.’ ‘Tell Frank to sit up!’ ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ So I told the floor manager, ‘Make a big sign saying, Frank, sit up! — Maxine. I can still him going, Ohhhh…rolling his eyes and sitting up. Well, that’s live, interactive. It’s a different level of communication.”
“To me, one of the important things about public broadcasting is never to lose that local connection with local Nebraska people,” Hull said. “They own the station. So you’ve got to be in communication with them at every level you can be by listening to what they say and providing the things you think are useful to them and their lives. And we’ve always run this place based upon that.”
Legislative support for NET “has been wonderful,” he said. “They’ve provided us state-of-the-art equipment — millions of dollars worth. They believe in it.” Despite budget-staff cuts, NET boasts fine facilities, adequate resources and top talent.
Even as the Internet threatens TV’s hold on mass communication, the medium still reaches huge audiences and affords the possibility of informed public commerce.
“We’re trying and I think we’re getting closer and closer to make public broadcasting the central meeting place, the town hall where the issues are debated, where people have a say. I don’t detract from what commercial television does but we are the last vestige of local programming and documentaries.”
Where commercial TV once considered news-public affairs a higher calling, distinct from entertainment, he said it’s now part of the profit line along with situation comedies and reality shows. Networks and local stations don’t produce documentaries the way “they used to,” he said. “Those are expensive and nobody spends that money anymore. But you look at our schedule and we spend 600,000 bucks on Willa Cather: The Road is All documentary. That takes two years to produce but what you get is something that is worth people’s time to watch.”
Hull’s belief in the public service potential of TV remains undiminished.
“Television affects how people think. It goes right into their heads,” he said. “It is a terribly, terribly powerful instrument of persuasion that has the potential to be used for the good of the common man. I always identified with that from the beginning. The measure’s always been — Is this going to enhance somebody’s life?”
That doesn’t mean skirting hard realities or controversial subjects, he said, “because you have to show the other side of things and people have to be able to make up their own mind about things. But basically I have believed from the beginning we have an opportunity to make people’s lives better, to give people a perspective on the world and their place in it they can’t get any other way.”
He points to NOVA, Frontline, The News Hours, American Experience, American Masters and Great Performances as TV at its best. “To me, those series are the most thought-provoking, serious programs available to the American public.” Hull is proud, too, of public TV’s noyed work in children’s programming, led by Sesame Street, and how PBS has carried fare its commercial counterparts do not, such as American Playhouse, Meeting of the Minds, Steambath and Anyone for Tennyson?
New York producer Bill Perry had pitched his concept for Tennyson — mini-dramas bringing to life history’s great poets and their poems — to no avail until he approached Hull. “I liked the idea,” Hull said and the two put the series together at NET, enlisting such “brilliant actors” as Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Claire Bloom, Irene Worth, Ruby Dee and Vincent Price. Hull became close friends with the show’s “first-class director,” the late Marshall Jamison. Hull, who calls the show “my favorite,” said it may have had a small audience but it made a big impact.
“I’ve never ever believed in measuring our success by the number of people who watch,” he said. “Rather you measure your success by what effect you had on people. It’s really hard to measure, but I prefer to believe there are people out there who learned from these programs.”
Similarly, he believes the programming he did in Vietnam made a difference. His experience trying “to win the hearts and minds” of its people gave him a new outlook on public service. Desiring an overseas adventure he parlayed state department contacts to get assigned a foreign service post as a TV advisor to South Vietnam. He was there in ‘66-67 and periodically the next few years to oversee construction and operation of stations in Saigon and outlying cities. Programming centered on public health and education — from potable water to immunizations.
The war raged around Saigon and casualties did not exclude those in the TV ranks.
“During the (1968) Tet Offensive all of our American engineers working at the Hue station were marched off and shot. I wasn’t in-country at the time,” he said.
He arrived in Vietnam a supporter of U.S. policy there but left convinced America “had made one of the major blunders in our country’s history.” He found distasteful the role that he and other Westerners played as outsiders looking in.
At the fancy Caravel Hotel in Saigon he and other noncombatants from the Free World bent their elbows at the rooftop Romeo and Juliet Bar. A frequent drinking companion was correspondent Peter Arnett. “We would look down at those streets to the Saigon River, the area beyond all controlled by the VC (Viet Cong). We would watch planes fly in and see the tracers any night of the week. The flares lit up the countryside. And we’re sitting there — who the hell are we? — drinking our little wine…I’m not proud of that,” he said. “But that’s the position we were in.
“Everybody who was there has to deal with the fact they were part of that war — I don’t care who you were or what your job was.”
Hull returned to Vietnam in 1999, in part to see the fruits of his labors there. Before going he was advised by foreign service veterans not to expect too much in the way of visible, tangible progress from the project he’d led.
He went to the very station in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, he’d officed in decades earlier. He met with the station manager, a reserved man in a military uniform. The man answered Hull’s questions without any elaboration. Anxious to know more, Hull confided, “I was here teaching your people how to run this station in 1971-72. Where were you?” Hull said the manager “looked at me and said, ‘I was in Tay Ninh Province in the People’s Revolutionary Army. Mr. Hull, you and I were not on the same side.’ And then I knew where he was coming from. I said, ‘I knew what your people wanted. They wanted one Vietnam, one country. I am really happy you have your country.’ With that, his defenses went down. He showed me everything.”
What Hull saw impressed him. “My gosh, they had the news in French, Vietmanese, English. There was a ballet going on in one studio and the news being set up in another studio. The place was vibrant, alive and kicking, fabulous. I walked out of there with a happy heart. They’ve taken what we did and they’ve thrived.”
Asia is one of his favorite regions of the world. He occasionally visits China, where he stays with friends. On his last trip there he traveled via the Trans-Mongolian Railway from China to Russia, where he continued his trek on the Trans-Siberian Railway into Moscow. “It’s a fabulous trip. The cultures are fascinating,” he said. He continued on to Copenhagen to visit more friends. “I love travel,” he said.
An annual international broadcasting convention he attends takes him to exotic places. The next is set for Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s anxious to go — ever curious, ever eager to seek out new experiences.
“One of the secrets to having a good career is having a good time,” he said. “I always tell my kids, ‘If you’re not having a good time, you’re doing something wrong.’ It’s how I’ve lived. That’s the only way you stay healthy…”
Still, never far from his thoughts are nagging questions that may never find answers.
“I did find my niche in life, although I am forever this insecure, why-did-they-throw-me-away person who is still searching for Shangrila.”
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