Saturday, April 21, 2012

An Interview with William O. Harbach - Part One

William Harbach: I had gone out to MGM to try and be a stock player for a second and then I was fired. They fired all the stock players. I was twenty-eight and I didn't know what the hell to do. I had done five years in the Coast Guard during World War Two. I'm ninety-three now. Television was just beginning to make a little noise. I had a friend who was in it and there was a chance for a job at NBC. He said, "Do you want a job as a director or maybe a floor manager?" I said, "Yeah." He called me and he said, "There's no room." So it was don't call us. We'll call you. 

Nine months after that he called me. He said, "Look, it's not what you want, but unless you rape somebody they won't fire you. Get in there and network." My first job - I was splicing 35mm film station breaks. One minute commercials for the shows that were on. We started at five in the afternoon with Howdy Doody and ended at nine o'clock at night with the national anthem on film. The rest of the time it was a test pattern. 

That was all the television that was going in those days. I think it was fifty-two bucks a week for about sixteen hours a day just splicing film - and then unsplicing them for the next day. I'd sit there and watch these damn shows that were on. Naturally, they were very naive. There was a show called Blind Date hosted by a young Arlene Francis. 

The premise was that these Korean War veterans were coming home... it was stupid with a standard living room set with tables and a couch. In the middle of the room was a wall, which cut the shot in half, and there was a hole in the wall. So somebody would talk through the wall to the other side. We had Powers models on one side and five or six guys on the other side trying to get a date. If the date okayed it then they got a dinner at The Stork Club. 

That was the prize. It was awesome and boring. But there was one marine who was about six foot three and he didn't like anything. The girl would ask through the hole in the wall, "Do you like music?" "No." "Do you like to dance?" "No." "Do you like going for walks?" "No." Finally the model said to Arlene Francis, "I think I'm going to pass on this one. He doesn't like anything!" 

Arlene, being the hostess, started praising him. She says, "But look - he's six foot three and he's handsome. And look. He has medals all over his chest. He has even got a purple heart on to take you to dinner! Er... I mean..." A purple hard on to take you to dinner! The house came down.

The phones start ringing. "You've got a dirty network!" "I'm not going to have my kids watching your shows!" and so on. You know, I was in master control that night - I'll never forget it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I always hear stories about the switch board lighting up and people complaining about things, but if I saw something on TV - I wouldn't know who to phone. Where would you find a phone number that would connect you to the source?

William Harbach: I don't know either. But I had to answer all the phones during my stay that night. Had Arlene not said, "Er... I mean" then it would have passed without notice.

Kliph Nesteroff: Arlene was so charming she could get away with it.

William Harbach: She was. I loved her and she was a dear friend.

Kliph Nesteroff: I spoke with Betsy Palmer a little while ago and we were talking about those panel shows. Betsy was very charming and always came across as very innocent. But she told me she could get away with murder because of her charm. She could say things that sounded naive but she knew exactly...

William Harbach: (laughs) She knew exactly what they meant. Oh, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: October 1950, there was a football quiz show called Touchdown, written and produced by Albert Black and you were the director on Saturday afternoons. Emcee was Hal Tunis with Marion Carter, Conrad Nagel, Alan Dale...

William Harbach: I don't remember it, but I knew Conrad Nagel. He was an old actor from the silent days and a very nice guy. But I don't (laughs)... I don't remember that. I did a lot of nonsense!

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) A lot of those early shows were nonsense, but they did have some interesting people on them. Another I have written down - March 1951 - Star Night at the Versailles with Bill Stern, Joey Adams, Slapsie Maxie, Tony Martin, Al Capp...

William Harbach: I remember that one. I directed it. Joey Adams I didn't know very well. Al Capp was funny and could do great drawings. Bill Stern was a nice guy. Tony Martin I knew from my Hollywood days. After the War I wondered what I could do. I had one year at Brown University. I was a boat man and ran my father's yacht. I loved the water and I loved sailing. 

The board couldn't touch you if you were in college, but if you were just vacationing they could put you in the Army. And the Coast Guard had a thing where if you had a boat you could be wrangled for patrol work. I took my father's yacht and did patrol work up and down Long Island and New Haven. It was so naive. We had no radio on the boat and it was the very beginning of the War. We were told by the Coast Guard to have a jar of nickels aboard. "If you see a periscope, go ashore with your nickels and call us. Tell us which way it was going and about what time of day it was." Now we never saw a periscope, but I had the nickels. That was the protection (laughs). 

Anyway, I did that in the summer getting ready to go back to Brown that fall. By now the government said, "We can draft you right out of college." I said, "Well, I'll just stay in the Coast Guard" and I did for five years. When I got out I had never really worked. I was twenty-five and my father [famous composer Otto Harbach] worked a lot with Jerome Kern. There was a model I was having a thing with and I went to California to see her. 

She was out there for Vogue Magazine. Mrs. Kern, who I knew quite well said, "Please come up and swim in our pool. It's just waiting for you." She was very sweet. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I would swim once or twice or three times a week. Betty Kern, Jerry Kern's daughter, had a husband. Jack Cummings. A big wheel in MGM and we hit it off around the pool. One day he said, "Hey, Harbach. Come up and have lunch with me at the commissary." 

I said, "God, I'd love to." I went out there and - there's Clark Gable. Mickey Rooney. All the stars having lunch. We had a nice lunch and he said, "I'd like you to meet somebody." Now he had not mentioned this one iota. He said, "I want you to meet the head of MGM." We went over to the administration building and there was a big room with a desk way in the distance and there was a guy sitting behind it named Sam Katz. I walked in and Jack Cummings said, "Hey, Sam! Let's give this kid a test!" My mouth was open. 

He hadn't mentioned it! He said, "He's Otto Harbach's son." He said, "Do it." All of a sudden I went from having lunch to doing a screen test. All because of my hanging out at Jerome Kern's. They gave me a scene from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and it turned out okay. It was about a minute long scene and they put me under contract for about $250 a week. I did a walk-on with Peter Lawford and this and that. Ringing a bell on a boat leaving for Europe. "All ashore! Going ashore!" You know, little tiny walk-ons. Now I started to get bored. Walk-ons get boring as you're not getting your teeth in anything, y'know. 

The only thing that got me excited was that I got a telegram at my house after doing all of these Mickey Mouse moments. "Screen test with Spencer Tracy. Seven am. Studio Eight." I was on cloud nine. I took three showers, shaved four times and went to sleep... and... I forgot to set the clock. I woke up and I said, "Jesus, God, I've ruined it!" I got in the car with pretty much just my pajamas on. I raced through every red light to get to MGM. I got to the gate and they said, "Are you the kid they're waiting for? Go to wardrobe!" 

I ran all the way to wardrobe and I said, "I am Otto's son." And they said, "Oh! You're the kid they're waiting for!" Oh, Jesus, my heart was in my mouth. "Okay, forty-two long. You're playing a cop." I put my cop outfit on and ran to the studio. The signal in front of the door, the red light, is going back and forth, and there is dead silence. It's a giant studio and it's all black except for way in the corner where there was a tiny lit set. I stumbled on my way over there and, of course, when I got there the director says, "Where the fuck have you been? Who do you think you are?" And started bawling me out. 

All of a sudden Spencer Tracy says, "All right, all right, all right. Let's go to work." Now I'm scared shitless and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know the script or anything. It was a screen test for a girl Tracy needed to do a scene with. They needed a cop. I was out of focus between the two of them, on a stool, in a beanery. I am supposed to pay my bill, put a toothpick in my mouth, and walk by them. I am supposed to notice them and say, "Oh, good evening, Judge." Like I had caught him with a girl. 

Well, I tell you, Kliph, I think I did seven takes. I was either too early or too late to walk by. Finally Tracy said, "Kid, come here. When I say such and such - go for the cheque." And by God, I did it and when I got to him it was exact. He was amazing. It was just a dumb screen test. Then they had a giant strike at the studio and all the grips walked out for more money. To save money - all the studios fired their stock players and people that worked for $250 a week doing walk-ons. So I was fired. I went back to New York and I didn't know what to do. The television thing I told you about was happening at NBC and I got that job splicing film.

Kliph Nesteroff: What position did your friend at NBC hold?

William Harbach: He was a director of local stuff. Cooking shows and real Mickey Mouse stuff.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wasn't there a brief period there where you were managing local acts?

William Harbach: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: I thought you had managed Kay Thompson.

William Harbach: No, I worked for Kay Thompson! My God, she was marvelous! I was at MGM and I had got to know her because she was head of all the musical stuff at MGM. We were great friends. She found out that I was fired and had no job. She had to come to New York with The Williams Brothers. Andy Williams. She said, "Ah, you're going to work for me. You're going to manage me in New York." I said, "Kay, I don't know what to..." She said, "I'll tell you what to do! Just goddamn do it!" 

She was divine. Ah! She started me off. I showed up every night for the show and anything she wanted I just did. I would have to check to see if there were any stars in the crowd and report them to Kay for the second show and that kind of stuff, every night that the Williams Brothers and Kay were doing their thing. Le Directoire was the name of the nightclub. She found out that Noel Coward was going to be at the show. She said to me, "Bill, I want you to get four sets of candles on every table." 

It was nine o'clock at night! She said, "Go get fifty candles. I want this room full of candles." I went scrambling all over New York. I finally found a place that had nothing but candles and I paid a ton of money. I lit 'em all. At the end of the first show she said, "Go down and get Mr. Coward." So I went and brought him up and I'll never forget what he said. When Kay did her act - it was awesome. At the very end of it she did a bow that would have been for the King of England. Way down, straight forward with both hands, standing up and off the stage - and never go back for a second bow. She would not milk. She did this thing at the end of her show. 

Noel walked into the dressing room. "Hello, darling! You did that beautiful bow at the end and walked off! Had you come back I would have killed you." He was marvelous. I did things like that when I worked for Kay. One time the socialites of New York wanted to give a big party at the River House. They wanted Kay Thompson to do her act and she okayed it. She said to me, "Now, Bill, listen. I want you to get the cheque first. I want it before I go on." 

I said, "Okay." I came early and I knocked on the door. "I'd like to talk to the person giving the party." I spoke with this socialite. I said, "At the risk of being a boor, I have to ask for the cheque first." She said, "Oh, come on, Mr. Harbach. This is the society of America here." I said, "I'm sorry, I have to." Now I'm on the rails. If I can't do what Kay asked me to do... and it looked like it was going down in flames with this lady. Luckily, a woman walked by us that I used to date. She was one of the top... it was Babe Paley. 

She was William Paley's wife and we were very close. "Billy! What are you doing here? You'll have to give me a dance, okay?" The woman saw this and she said, "Okay, Mr. Harbach. We'll do the cheque now." Little tiny things like that were going on with Kay, but she was marvelous. She gave me a little oxygen before things started to happen for me.

Kliph Nesteroff: You got to encounter some giants.

William Harbach: She was marvelous. Goddamn.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were the Williams Brothers just doing that one venue? Did they also do some of the presentation houses?

William Harbach: No, no, they were just doing that. Andy split and went on his own. I think we did a year. It was the top nightclub act in New York when she was doing it. Andy split, the act was over and Kay went back to California and Andy did gigs at The Copa for a week. 

And then I started with Steve Allen. I was working with Steve and we were about to go national. We had been doing a little show called the Father Knickerbocker Beer Show with Steve Allen. It was a fifteen minute show. A little tiny thing with Steve Lawrence, who was sixteen. It was a cute little show and Pat Weaver had started The Today Show with Dave Garroway in the mornings. He said to himself, "I've done that and we've got the Home show with Arlene Francis in the afternoon. I ought to put the network to sleep with some zany show. Hmmm, that little local Knickerbocker show. Give them more money, put it on and we'll call it the Tonight Show." That's how that started. Today and Tonight.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was also Broadway Open House...

William Harbach: That was in front. We took their place. Broadway Open House with Dagmar. We were running along and we got very hot.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked with every giant comedian of that day. March 1952, you were one of several WNBT directors working on a Martin and Lewis telethon.

William Harbach: Did I do it?

Kliph Nesteroff: Bud Granoff was production coordinator.

William Harbach: I must have been one of the directors at the bottom of the list because I don't remember it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Also there was The Ed Herlihy Show.

William Harbach: Oh, there's another show. That was the first show where I really started to do things. It was a Mickey Mouse show where he'd talk to women in the morning at the breakfast table, ask about their favorite color or favorite star. Basically anything went on television in those days. I was the director of that. He was nothing but an announcer and he had this show. We a page named Bill Dana. We had a piano player that did all our incidental things and he became a giant. He was seventeen years old and his name was Cy Coleman. He turned out to be one hell of a composer! He was the cutest kid and he did this dumb show Date in Manhattan five days a week.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was another cockamamie program you did called Life in New York with Tex McCrary.

William Harbach: Tex and Jinx.

Kliph Nesteroff: Two people nobody remembers, but they were big for a brief spell.

William Harbach: Tex and Jinx. She was beautiful and a helluva tennis player and he was good looking Texan. We did a lot of big interviews with people like Richard Rodgers. We had fun with Tex and Jinx. That's when I learned an important lesson. If you have a still picture in television - never stay still on a still picture. Either move in, move out, move away, move back - but don't just show it. Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg were a chic couple. Both were good looking. Jinx was beautiful, God.

Kliph Nesteroff: Milton Delugg told me a bit about them.

William Harbach: Ah, Milt was a fun guy. He was a character with his squeeze box.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked together on The Morey Amsterdam Show.

William Harbach: That's right. I did The Morey Amsterdam Show for a year and it was a local show. He'd do stuff with his cello, but those days I've forgotten all about. The other fella wrote a good song. Something snap, bam...  I was walking along?

Kliph Nesteroff: Orange Colored Sky.

William Harbach: Orange Colored Sky! That's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you have any association with Broadway Open House?

William Harbach: No. I was in master control when that was going on.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you started working for Steve Allen, I understand that you were replacing someone who left.

William Harbach: That is correct. I was doing the local stuff and the guy I became close with was Dwight Hemion. We were both local directors and he was quite a lot better than I was because he'd been doing it for a while. I finally got a vacation from doing the cooking shows and Skitch Henderson piano numbers and stuff like that. After about a year and a half I went to California to the Beverly Hills Hotel to have some fun. 

The second day that I was there Steve Krantz called me and said I had to come back and take over a show. "They have hired a new guy from CBS and he is not getting along with the producers. We think you can handle him." Well, of course, that statement made my ego go up. I got on a plane the next morning and came back. The new guy was Steve Allen. I had lunch with him and his manager Jules Green. We talked and talked. 

He said, "Bill, look. With all due respect, I do not want my producers sending me notes from an office all the time during the show. I want my producer onstage right next to the camera. During commercial you can tell me what you want and I'll tell you what I want. Please watch for a week with this other guy - but he's leaving on Friday - and then please take over." The first night I thought it was a very cute show. It was a pleasant show with an audience. My first show - I'm watching - and at the end of the show he says, "I would like to read a letter. It's from a bigot." 

And he reads this letter on live television. Lena Horne had been on the show a couple weeks earlier and at the end of her number he kissed her on the cheek and said, "Please come back again, you're marvelous." He reads this unbelievable letter. "How dare you kiss this [racial slur]" and he reads the letter exactly as it was written with all the awful words. It went on and on. The audience was silent and my mouth was wide open. 

There was dead silence. He looked at the camera and took his glasses off. He said, "If anybody happens to know who wrote this letter... he didn't have the guts to sign his name... find him a doctor. He's the sickest man in America." The house came down with applause. I fell in love with Steve Allen that night. I said to myself, "I will work with this guy for the rest of my life."


mackdaddyg said...

I hate to admit that I've never heard of Mr. Harbach before, but this is a great interview. I dig the "Mickey Mouse show" term for a lot of old tv.

Mixed things have been said about Steve Allen, but that last anecdote makes him all right in my book.

Thanks for the post.

Unknown said...

wonderful interview of Bill Harbach. I worked with Harbach on the ABC TV music-variety series "The Hollywood Palace" from 1964 to 1970. Harbach and Nick Vanoff were the producing team. Harbach stood in the back of the audience during both the video-taped dress rehearsal and air-show. His laugh can be heard on every show performed! Harbach had a wonderful sense of humor and his handling of the featured hosts and guest performers was remarkable. Being both the greeter and master showman, he put his show guests at ease and welcomed! The week that the Queen Mary sailed into the Long Beach port, he had his sailboat on the water, as part of the fleet welcoming parade. When he returned to the studio, he brought with him all sorts of memorabilia from the Queen Mary. The ship's crew were at water's edge, on the ships open side-ship doors, exchanging anything and everything from the ship's inventory in exchange for a few dollars. Bill had ship bells, ship silver coffee service sets, ship wooden teak deck chaise and chairs. He was like a kid returning from a candy store.