Thursday, June 28, 2012

An Interview with William O. Harbach - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: The strange thing about your show, the Hollywood Palace, you had these showbiz legends like Jimmy Durante introducing these long hair hippie bands...

William Harbach: Yeah (laughs). I guess it made it kinda fun.

Kliph Nesteroff: Today, one of the funniest and most enjoyable things about the show is watching those hippie bands onstage and then seeing the cut away to the audience reaction. The studio audience is just filled with these gray haired tourists and elderly ladies...

William Harbach: Yeah! Yes, yes, yes (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Dumbfounded looks on their faces...

William Harbach: Yes, I know (laughs). Oh, God.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the other reasons I love the Hollywood Palace so much is because you get to see full stand-up sets from some legendary comedians. Jack Carter was on several times.

William Harbach: Jack Carter was marvelous, but he hated the audience. He would always say, "Those bastards," when he walked off and didn't get the applause he thought he deserved. He had a chip on his shoulder, but he didn't show it to the audience. He'd come offstage, "Those bastards!"

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched an episode hosted by Phil Silvers.

William Harbach: Phil Silvers was marvelous and a very friendly, easy guy to work with. They basically all were. Even Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. They weren't from vaudeville or anything, but hosting a show like this was fun and different for them. Bette Davis you had to be very careful with. She was bright as hell and she could cut you down faster than a snake if you did something wrong. You had to be right or she would jump on you. We would do the dress rehearsal at five and the air show at eight. We had a meeting before the dress rehearsal. 

There was a sketch we were doing and we had two different options of how to do it. I said, "We can do it the one way during dress and the other way during air." We would do that and whatever was the best performance was what went into the actual show [when it aired]. So we had two shots at everything. I said, "So, let's try both and..." Bette said, "No! Right now decide which is the one to do!" I said, "Of course, Bette." And I did. You were on your toes with her.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter told me a story about an episode Judy Garland hosted. She did the rehearsal but was then too expended to do the taping. So the entire airing was of the rehearsal.

William Harbach: Yes, she was a little with the booze or something. She was wonderful, but it was sad. She wanted to open the show with, "What the World Needs Now... Is Love, Sweet Love..." At dress rehearsal she was so wrong. She kept making mistakes and I would walk down there and say, "Darling, I'm sorry. We've got to stop. There was a clinker in the band." I kept making an excuse and had to do it about four different times. Finally she got through it and we started the show. We went to commercial and she came to me and said, "Bill, that wasn't very good, was it?" I said, "Hey, we still have the air show to do. Don't worry." By the time we got to the air show she couldn't do anything. Forget it. No, it was sad. She was fighting her unhappiness.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sometimes you can notice moments that are inconsistent... obviously a combination of rehearsal footage and air footage...

William Harbach: She was heartbreaking.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about working with Joan Crawford when she hosted?

William Harbach: Joan Crawford was marvelous. She did a dramatic reading, as I remember. We had Edward G. Robinson also, who I loved, do some dramatic readings. We had him on twice and he was marvelous. 

Kliph Nesteroff: And Fred Astaire...

William Harbach: Fred was marvelous! Oh, God! He was so easy to work with. You couldn't do enough for him, you were on his team so much. He was the sweetest guy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Milton Berle?

William Harbach: Milton could kill you. He was all right when he was happy. We started doing the second Milton Berle Show while we were still working on the Hollywood Palace and it did not... it was over. It was not worth it. It just kept going down, down, down. My partner [Nick Vanoff] and I were the producers along with Bill Dana. We made him the actual producer of the show, but it kept going down, down, down. I handled the people and my partner was the business man. Milton had just finished a sketch. He was dressed as a rabbit. We walked into the dressing room and Nick said, "Milton. Right now..." He looked at his watch and he clicked it. "This show now belongs to you. Harbach and I are out. We've had it with you." 

Berle would yell about things. "I don't like that ending! Try a different ending for these shots!" We were spending so much money on it because of Milton. He was dragging it down and he was scared. He was basically doing everything wrong in rehearsal. Nick said, "It's your show. Harbach and I are out. We're not going to put up with this shit any longer." I said, "Everyone take an hour break for lunch!" We went upstairs to our office in the Hollywood Palace. I said, "You know, he's going to come back." "Of course, he's going to come back. He can't do the show without us." 

We were up there for about an hour. Just before the hour was up the secretary said, "Mr. Berle is outside." I said, "Bring him in, please." Berle came in with his hat in his hand. He said, "I'm sorry. I know I've been lousy. I'll follow along with you guys. You've been right and I've been wrong." I said, "Let's get back to rehearsal. We'll do a great show." And that was it. And then it was over. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Berle is a master at what he does and yet whenever you watch him - you can always see this look of fear and desperation in his eyes. 

William Harbach: Or trying to get you to laugh before he even finishes the joke. Yes. He had a problem with that. You're right. You're absolutely right.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's interesting when you see something like that and maybe it's because I used to do stand-up, I don't know. But when you can see through the veneer and pretty much see what they're thinking...

William Harbach: Absolutely, absolutely...

Kliph Nesteroff: Same with Jack Carter. These guys work so fast because there's a kind of fear they have that there isn't gonna be a laugh there...

William Harbach: That's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Henny Youngman?

William Harbach: Henny! I loved Henny! He was a darling. You could eat him. He was so easy going and there were no problems and he did the smallest, most ridiculous jokes.

Kliph Nesteroff: One of the all time great Hollywood Palace moments has Milton Berle onstage doing his act and Henny Youngman is in the balcony heckling...

William Harbach: That's it, yes. That's how that bit started.

Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky Greene did your show three or four times.

William Harbach: Shecky was a little uptight when things were not right. He had a bit of a temper. Jackie Mason had his first appearance on the Palace after his spat with Ed Sullivan and I loved working with him. He was great. He was easy and funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: James Brown did some remarkable turns on the Hollywood Palace.

William Harbach: I'm Black and I'm Proud! Yes, of course, ABC liked it because the kids liked that.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's another one... James Brown puts on this remarkable performance and they cut to the crowd and its a shot of these elderly, white tourists...

William Harbach: (laughs) Yes, "What the hell is this?" (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: And one of the greatest of all time who had several of his best television appearances on your show - Sammy Davis Jr.

William Harbach: Oh! There's a giant! An absolute giant! I had him on the old Steve Allen Show before he had done anything. Oh, Jesus Christ. We did a thing on a boat in the East River where he did a dance across this big steamer. He could do anything and God, I loved that man. I called him when he was dying. He smoked a lot. I called him two weeks before he took a cab.

Kliph Nesteroff: In all the episodes of Hollywood Palace... there are only two acts that received a standing ovation and they received one every single time they hosted. Jimmy Durante - and Sammy Davis Jr.

William Harbach: They were loved. And I loved them too. (In Jimmy Durante voice), "Hey, Bill! What time tomorrow?" Oh my God, I loved Jim. Easy, easy guy, no problems and gentle. Everybody loved him. What's not to love?

Kliph Nesteroff: Durante seemed like the least pretentious guy in show business.

William Harbach: Absolutely true. Very sincere. He could sing a song and bring tears to your eyes. That's right. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the comedian Gene Baylos...

William Harbach: (laughs) I loved him too and he was crazy. He really was nuts. Gene Baylos... God, just to be with him before anything happened I was on the floor. He'd come on stage doing his act real loud and then say, "What am I yelling for? I got the job!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: Buddy Hackett.

William Harbach: Buddy Hackett was... all right. We had a falling out. Uh, he didn't... he uh... I cut him short. He was doing a number and I said, "Look, we gotta cut this down, Buddy." He got mad and uh, from then on... it was... forget you.

Kliph Nesteroff: He could be quite vicious, I hear.

William Harbach: Oh, yes and we had a bit of a thing and I said, "Buddy, you're out of the sketch." He had a temper.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Joey Bishop?

William Harbach: Joey Bishop, well... I loved his act, but we were never too... he was involved with... he had a feeling that we were a little Mickey Mouse compared to the Rat Pack. He thought he was above us.

Kliph Nesteroff: Van Johnson hosted the Hollywood Palace twice. He seems like an unlikely host.

William Harbach: Van Johnson was a piece of cake. It was a breath of fresh air for him to be hosting something like this. He loved song and dance stuff and he was fun. We had a good time with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the writers that worked on the show. Harry Crane worked on it a bit...

William Harbach: Great, yes, he was one of the best. I had Herb Sargent and Stan Burns on the Tonight Show and we had a bunch on the Palace - but they weren't writer writers - they were doing introduction stuff. Leonard Stern did our sketches on Steve Allen.

Kliph Nesteroff: Later on you produced a John Wayne television special and the head writer was Paul Keyes.

William Harbach: Yes. I didn't know him well. He had a little group that he worked with and I knew he was good. He was head writer of The Dean Martin Show for a while and he was real big league. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Keyes was close with Richard Nixon.

William Harbach: What? Really?

Kliph Nesteroff: Some people had said that he was merely a speech writer, but I wrote a piece and discovered he was full on media adviser...

William Harbach: Wow.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you a little bit about the giant stars of early television that are completely forgotten. Dave Garroway.

William Harbach: Ah! I loved him. He went a little bananas at the end. I remember being at his apartment and he thought that [NBC President] General Sarnoff was trying to kill him. He was saying, "Bill! You see that guy standing by that lampost out there? Who is that guy!" I said, "I have no idea, Dave." He said, "Someone is trying to kill me! It's Sarnoff's people!" He had delusions. It was very sad at the end. Did he commit suicide?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, in the early eighties.

William Harbach: A gun or no?

Kliph Nesteroff: A gun, yeah.

William Harbach: He was charming as hell and I loved him. I was a big fan... but he had problems.

Kliph Nesteroff: So many giants of early television became so obscure. Garroway is one. It's astounding how few people know who Arthur Godfrey is.

William Harbach: (laughs) We had a conflict. Godfrey did one show for us. He said, "For the opening I want to be in the audience and I'll pick out a woman I want to talk to and I'll read a poem to her." I said, "Well, Arthur, that's not a good Hollywood Palace opening. We can maybe do that down in the middle of the show or something." He said, "No. I want to open the show that way." I said, "I don't think so. That's not going to work." Then his agent called to tell me Godfrey wasn't going to do the show. I said, "Okay, fine." The next day his agent phoned again. "He'll do it. Just tell him what you want."

Kliph Nesteroff: Even by then he was becoming irrelevant.

William Harbach: Oh, yes. And he did some mean things. He was mean as hell to Julius LaRosa and I heard other people didn't like working with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Peter Lind Hayes is another forgotten early television giant.

William Harbach: Yes, he was a very sweet guy and his wife I loved. They went into the wallpaper, but they were like Tex and Jinx for a while.

Kliph Nesteroff: And another name that has fallen by the wayside is Betty Furness.

William Harbach: Yes, I was going to a party at her apartment at the end of my NBC work week in the early nineteen fifties. I'd get through work at one in the morning. By the time I got there it was two. Betty Furness was giving this big party on 86th Street. It was jammed. Everybody was sitting in every seat. I walked in and there was no place to sit. 

There was a guy sitting on a pillow in the well of a piano in the corner of the room. He waved for me to sit down on this pillow. It turned out to be Walter Cronkite! We got to talking about boats. We both loved boats and we ended up sailing together all over New England and the Bahamas and all over! We became fast friends. And we met under a piano!


Anonymous said...

Fascinating interview.

Standing ovations: Yes, at one time they were extremely rare. Chaplin, Durante, etc., a standing ovation was something special and very emotional, a real tribute.

Nowadays, everybody gets standing ovations. They've become meaningless.

Forgotten tv pioneers: It's sad and amazing how some people who were so famous in their time can completely fall off the radar. It makes me wonder which of our current crop of celebrities will be forgotten.

Old vaudeville performers introducing "hippie" bands: Yes, I always found that jarring, to see a comedian who was onstage in the early 1920s, in vaudeville, in early talking films, standing there saying "let's give a big hand to the Electric Prunes!" Of course, those long-haired "groovy" bands are now older than the vaudevillians were back then.

One thing about the 1960s and 1970s is all the comics and singers who looked so cool in the 1950s, by 1970 they try to update their image with long hair, mutton chops, bangs. Shecky Greene looked ridiculous as a "mod" and so did Buddy Hackett, with his love bug beads and nehru jackets. Ugly middle-aged guys trying to keep up with the fashions. Then you see how they looked "pre-hippie" days, and they appear smarter.

Anonymous said...

Wayne Newton went from a slicked-back greasy haired, black tux-wearing entertainer in 1970 to a bell-bottom-wearing, hot comb styled, pseudohip specimen shortly thereafter. He looked like Errol Flynn doing Emmett Kelly with a backup band.