Monday, June 15, 2020

An Interview with Saul Illson - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for every star from Bing Crosby to Jack Benny, Dean Martin to the Smothers Brothers, but your earliest credits were at CBC Television in Canada.

Saul Illson: Yes, I started at the CBC. There was a singer by the name of Denny Vaughn. He was an entertainer. Denny was basically responsible for getting my foot in the door as a writer in Toronto. 

I was twenty years old. I wrote a song called "Haunting Love," which was recorded by Margaret Whiting at Capitol. It wasn't a big success, but it was making a little noise - especially in Canada. 

I was on a late night interview show called Jimmy Tapp. Denny happened to be on the show promoting his new season on CBC. I think that was 1954. I was there and I don't remember what I said, but they performed my song. 

Afterward Denny said, "Gee, I really like that number a lot. You have anything else? What have you done? Who are you?" We started to talk and he said, "Come and meet me tomorrow at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal." I went down and I spoke to him. I sang for him and told him about an idea I had for a musical. After an hour he said, "I think you should come down to Toronto. I'll introduce you to some people." 

And he did. He introduced me to a producer-director by the name of Norman Campbell. I went through the same thing with him. I sang for him. Two hours later he introduced me to the guy who was going to star in the show. "I'd like you to meet Robert Goulet." That's how my career began.

Kliph Nesteroff: You said the televsion host was named Jimmy Tapp?

Saul Illson: Jimmy Tapp in Montreal.

Kliph Nesteroff: Any relation to Gordie Tapp?

Saul Illson: No. I knew Gordie, of course.  He was the host of Country Hoedown on CBC in Toronto. No, he wasn't related to Jimmy Tapp at all. 

Of course, when you worked at CBC Toronto it was a company town. Everybody knew everybody and went to the same commissary. Whether it was Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster or whoever.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was an active television community at that time, but when it came to TV comedy Toronto didn't have much other than Wayne and Shuster.

Saul Illson: Yes. Wayne and Shuster. I knew them like everybody else. When I talked about my musicals in the very beginning, Johnny Wayne started making suggestions, "Why don't you do this? I think if you make that character do this and so and so..." Frank Shuster looked at me and said, "Don't listen to him."

Kliph Nesteroff: It was like there was a law that they were the only comedians allowed in Canada. They were known for having knockdown arguments. The new generation felt they had worn out their welcome on Canadian television.

Saul Illson: I don't know anything about that, but the deal they made with Ed Sullivan in the States was that Sullivan could not edit their material. If you had six minutes Ed Sullivan would make you cut two minutes right before the show. But he wasn't allowed to do that to Wayne and Shuster. That was their deal.

Some of their sketches ran for ten minutes! They were good. I never sat in a writing room with them. When I was doing a show called Parade they came on and did the show. But their's was a class act, writing wise. 

I started doing a series in Canada called Showtime. There was an agent from the William Morris agency who would come up to Toronto and sign a lot of talent. He signed a comedy writing team by the name of Frank Peppiat and John Aylesworth. He asked me if I would be interested in having him represent me. So I signed with him. 

My first show was with producer Nick Vanoff and it was a show with all the little monsters: Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Darin. It was hosted by Pat Boone. Paul Anka was maybe sixteen. Nick Vanoff was talking to his manager Irving Feld. He had produced circuses at Madison Square Garden. He told Paul to come in tomorrow at ten o'clock so we can go over the music with the band. Irving Feld says, "I'll have him here." In the background you hear, "Like fuck you will." That was Paul Anka.

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a Pat Boone show that was directed by another former CBC Television guy - Norman Jewison.

Saul Illson: Yes, that was later. I did about four Pat Boone shows. My first comedy show was with Danny Kaye.

Kliph Nesteroff: The writers room was quite impressive on The Danny Kaye Show.

Saul Illson: Unbelievable. Larry Gelbart. Mel Tolkin. Herbie Baker, who had written a lot of special material for Danny. Sheldon Keller. That's where I met my writing partner Ernie Chambers. I wrote a piece for Danny and went into his dressing room which was an actual home built on top of CBS Television City at his insistence. 

They literally built a bungalow for Danny Kaye on the roof of CBS. He was a cook, so they built him a kitchen. Of course it caused tremendous problems with Judy Garland and Red Skelton, which is another story. But I gave my material to Danny and he went over it. He said, "This is a good piece, I like it, and I want to do it."

Kliph Nesteroff: Pat McCormick was in that writers room.

Saul Illson: He arrived after my time. Pat was one of a kind. It's hard to describe Pat McCormick. He was a really good comedy writer, but insane. I spent one season with Danny Kaye and after that I had an offer to work for Nick Vanoff. He promised me if I would come work with him I could produce. I wanted to produce as well as write, because every time I handed in a piece it was always chopped up. So I took the job working for Nick who did a show called Hollywood Palace. 

There was a writer by the name of Jay Burton. Jay was probably one of the best joke writers I ever worked with. We went over to Debbie Reynolds house. She was going to be on the show. Carrie was a little girl then. This was 1964-1965. Carrie had rescued a pigeon and nursed it and they were going to release it soon from this cage. Debbie said, "Would you like to see this bird?" Jay said, "No, no, I'll take your word." She opened the cage and the bird ran around and took a dump on Jay's shoulder. 

Jay went over to see Bob Hope who was doing a Command Performance for King George at the Palladium. At the last minute Hope said, "I need another joke." They said to Jay, "Hope needs a joke quick!" Jay wrote a joke and now he's looking for Hope. At the Palladium, all the dressing rooms were below the theater itself and Jay is running around. He was afraid he was going to lose his job. He opens a door, there's someone. He opens another door, there's somebody else. He opens a door - and there is King George. He looks at him and says, "Heya, King!" And closes the door (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the experience of writing the Hollywood Palace like? You were dealing with a different star every week.

Saul Illson: Basically we would write what we called wraparounds. They would come in with their act and then we would add some material that was current. As a matter of fact, I think that my first show - I was cursed on the air by Jack Carter. He's not America's sweetheart, by the way. 

What happened was - Khruschev was fired from the Kremlin suddenly. So I thought of a line that would be funny. I went to Jack and I said I have a joke you should do. I gave it to him right before he went on. "When Mrs. Khruschev heard what the Kremlin did to her husband, she became so irate she ran into the Kremlin and said, 'America is right! You are all a bunch of communists!' Well, he did it and the joke did not get a laugh. Nobody laughed. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Carter got mad about this.

Saul Illson: On the air! He said, "Saul Illson wrote that for me. It's not my joke."

Kliph Nesteroff: I interviewed Hollywood Palace producer Bill Harbach.

Saul Illson: Yeah, he's a legend. Did he talk about getting in the cab? Bill Harbach was brilliant, but he used to count on his fingers. He had strange ways of communicating. He'd get into a cab and say, "Take me to Circle 5-7000" instead of just saying NBC. He said to his secretary, "Get me Ethel Waters!" She knew that meant Esther Williams.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you watch the Hollywood Palace, you can always hear Bill Harbach's laugh in the background.

Saul Illson: Always. He sat in the audience right behind the camera and he was the cheerleader. I worked on that show for a year. Immediately Nick got a show called The King Family. He asked me to produce it. I did the show and continued to contribute pieces for the Hollywood Palace. Nick Vanoff was the nicest, smartest, and best producer I ever worked for. 

I have worked for crazy ones like George Schlatter - who I love. He's a maniac, in a nice way. Did he ever tell you the story about Al Hirt at Rockefeller Center? It was one of my first jobs in television. Clark Jones was our director at the time. Across from Radio City Music Hall they were building the Sperry-Rand Building. The girders were still up and everything. 

Clark said, "You know, on top of Radio City Music Hall there's a balcony. We could put Al Hirt up on the girders and shoot it from the balcony and it would be an interesting place to do the number." Schlatter said, "Sure, let's do it." We had Al Hirt for one day. I think it was a Sunday morning. He would do two numbers. We didn't need much rehearsal. 

So we told Al Hirt we were going to do it up on the girders on the sixth floor, which was level with Radio City Music Hall. Clark Jones checked and the sun would be just right. They told him there's no elevator. Al Hirt said, "Are you crazy?" But Schlatter convinced him to do it. Sunday morning we all went and we working up on the girders. We had a crew carrying all their equipment. We pre-recorded the music the night before with drums, guitar, and everything. We get up there and there's a nice platform for him to work on. 

Hirt said, "Damn, it's cold up here." I said to someone, "Bring that old can over here." And we lit a fire. We're rehearsing the number and some old man who was a watchman ran up the sixth flights. He came up and said, "What are you doing? You're going to burn the building down! You have to put out that fire!" He was yelling and screaming. The watchman was disgusted. He turns around, walks two feet, has a heart attack, and dies! 

So now he's lying there. And everybody is stunned. Now the police arrive. They explain nobody is to do anything until the coroner arrives. But we were going to lose the sun and Al Hirt in two hours. The police covered the body with a pink blanket. Clark Jones said, "The damn thing is in the shot. Move the body." The police had said, "No, you can't move anything." George said to me, "Go to the police and ask if we can put a dark blanket over the body." So I went to the police, "Would it be possible to cover it with a dark blanket?" They said, "That's unusual - but okay." A dark, gray blanket covers the body. 

Clark Jones said, "No, we need to make a mound on the other side so it looks the same on both sides." So we picked up debris or whatever and we covered that with a dark gray blanket. The police couldn't believe what was going on. Clark Jones says, "Okay, I think it's even. It looks balanced." The police said, "You're going to do this number now?" Schlatter said, "Sorry, sorry, but we have to do it." 

So we started the playback and Al Hirt is beside himself, he wanted to quit, he wanted to leave, he cursed George Schlatter. Schlatter said, "You have a contract. You have to do it or you don't get paid." We started to do it - and the guy's family shows up - and they start to cry! Al Hirt sees them and he yells, "Cut! I'm not doing this! I'm leaving." Schlatter said, "We only have you for two hours - let's just get it over with!" 

Al Hirt went to the family. He asked them to move over to the side so he wouldn't have to look at them! We did the number, pack up, leave. Coroner never showed while we were there. Three weeks later George calls and says, "We have a meeting with NBC. The agency, J. Walter Thompson, said it can't be in the show. They heard about what went on." George set up a screening at NBC for the executives at J. Walter Thompson. They're looking and they're watching it and they play it about five times. George says to them, "Now tell me - which side is the body?" One of them said, "It's very obvious - it's the one on the left." The other guy goes, "No, no, look at the height. It's the one on the right." This went on for two hours! They couldn't come to a conclusion and so the number stayed in the show!