Thursday, April 19, 2012

An Interview with Monica Lewis - Part Two

When television happened I was on the very first episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. They had me doing I'm in the Mood for Love and they did not have a dolly camera that could slide in. So they made me sing on my knees. The camera guy had to be right in front of me and we hid the microphone in a bouquet of flowers, which I had to clutch. The lights were so bright that my eyes teared. It looked like I was going to cry - and that got 'em!

Kliph Nesteroff: The studio audience.

Monica Lewis: Yes. I got fifty dollars for that. This was brand new. Everything was brand new then and the audience didn't know from a dolly camera. It was kinescoped in those days, photographed and then put on again for the West Coast. It was really the beginning.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Mario Lanza. You did a television show with him?

Monica Lewis: That wasn't a TV show. It was radio and it was while I was at MGM. The way he worked his show was - he was in a separate booth and he wouldn't have anything to do with the other artists. He did all of his stuff in his own booth, an isolation booth. He did his script from there. "And now ladies and gentleman we present a young lady, blah blah blah, Monica Lewis." But you never had any contact with him - at all. Of course, we had a fabulous orchestra. I sang Black Magic and the Lamp is Low with a full orchestra, like a symphonic orchestra. I borrowed Judy Garland's arrangement of the Lamp is Low because, I mean, who has an arrangement for a ninety piece orchestra?

Kliph Nesteroff: It's amazing the expense that went into radio of that era. However, you can sure hear the difference between the high budget and the low budget. The big budget shows have a ninety piece orchestra and the low budget ones just have a lonely organist. I listened to one of your early shows and it was just you and an organist.

Monica Lewis: Yes! Where did you find that? That was the five dollar show. I don't have that. That was so weird. His name was Bill Wirges and he was a very old man and he was used to playing for church. I would sing an up tempo song because I was too nervous to do ballads. I was afraid I would do something wrong. We were very unmatched.

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand you felt very unmatched when you sang with Guy Lombardo.

Monica Lewis: He was a lovely man, but I was at my hip stage at that point. He was very big, but it was all very saccharine. I thought I was very groovy. Musically I wasn't really thrilled with it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I listened to you on an episode of The Bing Crosby Show...

Monica Lewis: How do you find all of these wonderful things?

Kliph Nesteroff: It's on your website!

Monica Lewis: Oh, right. That one was done in a regular studio, but they had an audience. Bing was the patriarch. It was quite an honor to be with him and he was very charming. He knew what he was doing and what he wanted. "Whatever you say, Bing!"

Kliph Nesteroff: There's a photo of you learning a dance routine with a guy named Willie Covan...

Monica Lewis: Yes! He taught Donald O'Connor how to dance. He was a terrific. What I did at MGM was like what I did with the comics, which was pick their brains. If you were signed to MGM - don't wait for them to find something for you to do - find what you can get out of it. Learn, learn, learn and don't be afraid to ask, "How do you do that?" He brushed me up so great with tap. We just had a ball together. I'd go in early because you had to report and I would utilize their ballet teacher or I would utilize their tap teacher - who was Willie. He coached all the top dancers and we hit it off. It was terrific for me. 

I never got to use it much, but I did do some tap when I played The Paramount. I went offstage [in the middle of the act] and I had a dress with a zipper on the side and tights underneath. The designer switched my shoes as I changed. A man in the band would play in the meanwhile, "Here's Monica. Snap, snap. Here's Monica. Snap, snap." And then, "Where's Monica? Snap, snap. Where's Monica? Snap, snap." Like that. And I would come out and do a tap routine. I made a deal with the drummer that if I took longer than usual he would cover me - and learn my tap steps (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: You made a film short called Make Mine Monica.

Monica Lewis: I think that was with Martin Block, who was part of the Chesterfield crew and a hep guy. I don't think it went down in the annals as anything stellar, but it was sweet. I don't think I've seen it since we made it. I signed up with MGM for two years.

Kliph Nesteroff: The film Affair with a Stranger...

Monica Lewis: That was RKO. That was Howard Hughes. Victor Mature was wonderful and very professional. He was right on cue and knew what his motivations were. We'd just rehearse a scene and do it. Very, very easy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You have a great part in that.

Monica Lewis: I love that. I didn't get to work with Jean Simmons. We didn't have any scenes together. I was hoping we would because she was such a very good actress.

Kliph Nesteroff: You once described the comedy writer Cy Howard as a maniac.

Monica Lewis: He was a genius in some ways and no one was funnier. No one. I've never known anyone to be as straight up funny as Cy Howard. But he was hyperkinetic. Exhausting. The humor was to the point where you couldn't laugh anymore, but he was a good friend. 

He was involved in some kind of a scandal. Something to do with a blackbook. Sorta like there was with Heidi Fleiss later on. People got a little leery of being seen with him. I went over to his house to let him know that friends are friends. We had coffee and I said, "Hang in there." He said, "Ah, it's all B.S." I said, "Whatever. There are people that are fond of you and respect you. Close the book on it and move on." I was counseling him (laughs) with my young, sage experience (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Staying on the topic of comedy - you dated Phil Silvers?

Monica Lewis: Well, we were friends. These were not romances. We were good friends and he was a really nice guy. Really sweet. I got to know him through my brother. My brother produced The Phil Silvers Show and my friend Elisabeth Fraser was on it. She played the girl with blonde hair.

Kliph Nesteroff: And you appeared on The Danny Thomas Show.

Monica Lewis: That was a good show. I played a teacher. Again, he was very fatherly and very protective. We had a nice relationship. I had an awful lot of fathers in show business. Whenever I saw that coming I was thrilled because the alternative was the other kind of fella.

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand Milton Berle tried to make a play for you.

Monica Lewis: He did and it was after we knew each other for a hundred years! I guess we were both free for a moment and he figured, well, here's something we've never done. And we never did, by the way. He was really an amazing guy, loaded with talent. As he got older he changed somewhat. I thought he was going to become the kind of person that speaks about himself like, "Milton Berle says... You know, what Milton Berle does..." But he didn't. He was on the verge.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Red Buttons?

Monica Lewis: Red Buttons was always very sweet with me. Again, my brother produced his show.  Red was okay. I think he married some strange people, but he was a good guy with me.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was always talk about the turmoil between Buttons and his writers.

Monica Lewis: I frankly don't know. He adored my brother and was so grateful to him because he took him out of the Borscht Belt and made him a star. I never saw that side. I just don't know.

Kliph Nesteroff: You played the Venetian Room with Mort Sahl.

Monica Lewis: There was only one problem we had there. It was about billing. I'm prettier! So my picture was the one they used in the advertising. I think he was a little pissed at that. He had his coterie of people in San Francisco, but he never did anything to me. It was okay. I was married to Jennings Lang, just got married. He was respectful about that. He was funny and had a rapier wit. I had that issue with a few guys. There was a big radio or television show and Jackie Miles, who was a comic in those days, walked. He walked because I got top billing. Joey Bishop called in and said, "You're not going to leave Monica hanging. I'll fill in and she can have top billing." He came in and did the show and we had a beautiful spot. What can you say?

Kliph Nesteroff: I wonder if that kind of behavior lead to the demise of Jackie Miles...

Monica Lewis: Probably.

Kliph Nesteroff: Because nobody remembers him today.

Monica Lewis: Nobody.

Kliph Nesteroff: In the forties he was very big.

Monica Lewis: That's right. That's right. When he died it was as if nobody knew who he was. I fell in love mainly with writers, but I sure worked with a lot of comics. I don't think I could live without a sense of humor. My husband Jennings Lang had a great one.  

Danny Kaye said something to me when we went to Korea together. I had heard that he and Gene Kelly had had some friction. I asked him about it. He said, "Why do you ask?" I said, "Because I think he's terrific and I can't imagine you having a problem with him." He said, "Monica. I'll give you one tip. Take people as you find them. Don't listen to what other people say." I thought that was a good, simple rule. People have different ranges or ego problems. I fortunately got through this long life with good luck, good health, lots of love from my family and recognized at a certain point that it's never all about you. It was a metamorphosis, that awareness intellectually, when I realized that after Korea. 

I threw out a lot of my desires and a lot of the trivia and went straight forward for what I thought was a good thing. Had I not had that experience in Korea I think I would have been like so many other people that wind up in Malibu with a bottle. I always felt I had a purpose and that I was a caretaker, even though everyone else thought they were taking care of me.

Kliph Nesteroff: You dated Ronald Reagan.

Monica Lewis: Sonny Werblin introduced us. Sonny owned Madison Square Garden at one time. He had been an MCA agent and he became a multi-millionaire thanks to some very smart moves. He owned some sports teams and his wife had been a singer in the old days, way before me. They were good friends with Ronnie and they had known me since I was about sixteen. When I was around twenty-six they arranged for us all to have dinner. That's how it started. He had recently divorced Jane Wyman and we liked each other. Then he went to London to do a picture and he used to call me and write to me a lot. When he got back to New York we resumed. 

When I came out to Hollywood he was very attentive and it got to be something more than that. He got very serious and asked me to marry him. I said no. Three days before that, I had met the writer Liam O'Brien. He piqued my interest and I was very in love with him. We were engaged for nearly four years. Ronnie was very staunch and a very serious guy in his own way. I think the thing that prevented me... I never felt that he was... I guess the thing that was missing was... not so much a lack of a sense of humor... but he was not a funny man. He wasn't funny. 

He got the jokes and everything, but it was always a beat late. Always a beat late. He had all the right qualities, but something was missing. When I knew Ronnie he was a Democrat. He was president of SAG, where 90% of the membership is Democrat. Most actors and actresses are liberal. Ronnie was very liberal personally. He wasn't right-wing.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wasn't it the Red Scare when he kind of turned? Trying to purge communists from SAG...

Monica Lewis: I don't think that's true. My husband got him his job as host of General Electric Theater. MCA had two factions. It had a liberal faction and a Republican faction, but it was not like the Tea Party. But they started to court him like hell. But when he met Nancy - she influenced him. She was the strong influence on him switching. He had been very moderate. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I bet you're the only person in history to have slept with Ronald Reagan and also raised money for Daniel Ellsberg's legal defense.

Monica Lewis: (laughs) I would imagine so (laughs).


Anonymous said...

Fascinating woman. Excellent interview; her remarks about Reagan were right on the spot.

Have you tried interviewing Mamie Van Doren? She's still active, writes a blog, sharp as a tack. Have you read her blog? She might be a good subject for an interview.

Anonymous said...

Jackie Miles reminds me so much of a Martin Short impersonation.