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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

To The Western Film Fair We Rode ...

The Stars Shine in Winston-Salem

Last week was another Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem. They used to have them in Charlotte. Cowboy cons are endemic to the South. At least they were for a lot of years. There are still shows in Memphis and Williamsburg, though I'd not call the latter strictly western, even if guests do tend to be vets of the saddle. Winston is a cinch for being fifty minutes' drive at a hotel right off the exit. I went the first day and brought Ann down a next. She wanted to see Dawn Wells and Clu Gulager. My plan was to meet them first to determine how that might work out. Ann doesn't like to be disillusioned by celebrities. None of us do, of course, but I was loathe to hand her a bad experience and hear about it for the drive home. Luckily, things went well. Dawn Wells invited Ann to sit beside her for a Gilligan's Island screening and they talked through it. I got trapped and so saw my first-ever Gilligan episode, not so bad as to justify decades' avoidance (for the record: Mary Ann gets conked on the head, thinks she's Ginger, then Gilligan is mistakenly hypnotized and becomes Mary Ann).

What would you ask Dawn Wells given access and her willingness to answer? I wanted to stay off Gilligan and told her so. Maybe she found that refreshing. I would have in her position. Having watched three Hawaiian Eyes and one 77 Sunset Strip on which she guested made me curious about time spent at Warners. Here's a tip for autograph show-goers: Every guest of qualifying age did WB western and/or detective shows. There were several in Winston that earlier shuttled between Surfside 6, Bourbon Street, and other Warner addresses. They did Bronchos and Sugarfeet as well. I asked Dawn what it was like to arrive to work on Gilligan to find Ida Lupino as the day's director. Impressive, she said, although Ida had trouble keeping pace as had directors more accustomed to Island schedule. Did Jim Backus ever talk about Rebel Without A Cause? Constantly, said Dawn.

Winston-Salem's dealer room compared to Charlotte like the little house a shrunk Grant Williams moved into. DVD's were there by seeming thousands, and a lone table offered 16mm. There used to be dozens of projectors running at western shows. You'd smell the vinegar and know this was home. Film is banished now because nobody wants it. A few old guys walked around in cowboy suits with holster and guns (so where do I get off calling them "old"?). We used to laugh at overgrown front row kids. Now I'm sorry to see them going, what with my own front row a next to thin out. How for-granted we took guests back in the 70/80's, with likes of Victor Jory, Rand Brooks (two GWTW cast members!), Ben Johnson, so many others, eager to talk. Now all the great feature cowboys are gone and what's left is survivors off TV's range. Many in their eighties have flown cross country to attend Western Film Fairs. That's energy I admire and hope to have, provided luck takes me to said venerable age.

While looking for the Gilligan show, Dawn Wells opened a door to three cowpokes and 16mm unspooling of what looked like a western made before there was even a West. Must be a Tom Mix, she said, and moved on. Turns out it was TM, in Chapter Three of The Miracle Rider (were they going to watch all fifteen reels? --- I didn't stay to ask). Dawn was conversant on oldies. She flipped through Showmen, Sell It Hot! and stopped on Clara Bow. Turns out her father knew Rex Bell (the Wells' being Nevada natives), and she had skinny on the Bow/Bell union I'd not heard. Seems Clara would go into sanitariums and Rex would begin counting down seven years before he could get a divorce based on her mental infirmity, but just before the requisite time would run, she'd leave the joint and return home so as to frustrate his split intent. That happened repeatedly, according to Dawn, till Rex gave up. The Bells were still married when Clara died.

Ann had a ten-year-old's crush on Clu Gulager and told him so. Having heard similar for fifty years, he knew just how to handle it. They sat together and he let Ann wear his cowboy hat. Good man. I would have asked him about The Killers, but Ann kept chattering about all his can't-miss guest shots on The Mod Squad and such back in the day. He signed a still to his "beautiful princess," which gave our trip home a warm glow. A happy surprise was Michael McGreevey, who I knew from The Way West and The Impossible Years, two admittedly not-so-good ones that nevertheless evoke smells of the Liberty. McGreevey later became a writer/producer, and told his past with eloquence. Ann gravitated to him because he'd been on The Waltons. I asked about The Man In The Net, which starred Alan Ladd and was directed by Michael Curtiz. One-time child actor Charles Herbert had told me at a previous Columbus show that Ladd was chilly to kids on the show (much of Net's cast) and barely spoke with them off camera. McGreevey said Ladd was OK, but suffering from shingles all through the pic. Curtiz, on the other hand, did not like pint-size players and said so loudly. Of course, McGreevey, and Charles Herbert, wouldn't realize until years later that this was the master director of Casablanca, Adventures Of Robin Hood, and innumerable classics.

Robert Colbert was the charm. We wanted to take him home with us. He even kissed Ann's hand. She told Bob of frustration each week over his and Jimmy Darren's inability to get back home from Time Tunneling. Colbert was under contract to Warners and "worked every day," he told us, for $750 a week. Pretty good, to the actor's estimation, and there wasn't a series there he didn't appear on. Being a fan of Hawaiian Eye, I asked him about Anthony Eisley. Why was he gone in the last season? Bob said nobody knew. Tony was simply not there one day and wasn't mentioned afterward. Colbert never pulled the Spartacus act like some on Warner gallies (Garner, Robt. Conrad, Kookie, others). Didn't meet Jack L. either. He was just happy to get work, as in regular.

Colbert, by the way, was terrific in those Hawaiian Eyes, three of which I watched on Warner Instant the night before we drove down. Here's the disconnect fans often have when meeting celebs: We assume they'll remember shows from fifty years ago as vividly as we do for having watched mere hours before. How fair is that? I mentioned to Bob that he was evil, if not outright psychopathic, in all three episodes I'd seen, and that circa the early 60's at Warners, he resembled a young Errol Flynn. The Flynn comparison pleased him greatly, as Colbert was a lifelong fan (did they meet? Unfortunately, no). I asked him if he'd grown up an admirer of the Three Stooges as well, considering work done with them in Have Rocket, Will Travel. Yes to that, and there'd be golf games with Larry Fine well into the 60's. Harder for me to picture Larry playing golf than having a club wrapped around his head by Moe. Must have been a kick for Colbert to go round the links with a legend comic he'd spent childhood watching.

I'm more self-conscious than before when talking with celebrities. They're at a table and you're standing up. Who likes being addressed by someone hovering over us? There's also ambient noise (lots) at these autograph shows. I'm never sure if they can hear me. There's also awareness (constant) of someone waiting to score their own signed still or program. I can count on a hand stars I've got to sit down and have relaxed conversation with. The one meet I blew last week was with an actress I'd associated with 70's and later stuff, so therefore ignored. Turns out Morgan Brittany was in The Birds, did Thriller and Outer Limits episodes, and played Agnes in a 1966 TV-movie of Meet Me In St. Louis. But what if I had inquired about these, with foolish expectation that she'd remember details of work done a half-century ago? I'd end up wearing a dunce cap either way. Word to wise: Don't ask me to recall any specific happenings from 1963, other than seeing The Haunted Palace, Kiss Of The Vampire, The Haunting ... just momentous events like those, please.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

You asked the right questions! It always bugged me when, reading the few interviews given by Jack Nicholson, nobody ever asked, "What was it like working with Boris Karloff?" Am I the only person who'd ask that?

Re Clara Bow: in every picture, no matter how big the smile, she looks sad.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I always made it a point to ask the celebrity about everything EXCEPT the one picture everyone asks about. So Henry Brandon talked about serials and John Ford; Spanky McFarland talked about working away from Hal Roach; Mrs. Buster Keaton talked about Buster at Columbia. My favorite reaction was from Ernie Morrison: everyone in line was asking him to sign as "Sunshine Sammy" of Our Gang. I remembered his tenure with the East Side Kids and asked him to sign as Scruno! He gave me a thousand-watt smile and cried, "You got it, man!"

2:07 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

As a performer, I always felt like Mary Ann realizing that she wasn't Ginger.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

Regarding Gilligan's Island: I went to Long Beach State with producer Sherwood Schwartz's daughter Hope, and during the summer of 1978 she worked as an assistant director on the reunion TV-movie Rescue from Gilligan's Island. That was the one where Judith Baldwin replaced Tina Louise as Ginger.

Apparently the original cast hadn't quite been one big happy family, and the odd one out, who alienated everybody else, was Tina Louise. When Hope Schwartz came back to school in the fall of '78, she told us that as the cast reported to the studio for the first read-through, she saw the same thing over and over. Each one would ask the same question, with a cautious look on his or her face: "Are we...all...coming back?" When the answer came, "Everybody but Tina," only then would they burst into smiles. "Oh, that's too bad. Well, this'll be fun!"

3:35 AM  
Blogger Dave G said...

Enjoyed reading your account of the film fair, John, and point well made about trying to temper expectations of celeb recall after decades passed. Nice to hear that Ann enjoyed her moment with Clu. As a big John Wayne fan, I'd love to hear his recollections of working on "McQ". Sadly we don't get too many US stars of his era coming to shows here in the UK. It's a long round trip, I suppose, and many of these actors are getting up there in age (although David Hedison did come over last November, looking remarkably fit and spry). I hope that you'll do a similar report on future shows.

5:12 AM  

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