Jul 272016

cloud nineI was the Chief Musical Producer at WBBM from 1948 – 1950. The musicians union required that WBBM keep forty full-time musicians on staff. Because I could read an abbreviated score, I became a pet of the musical conductor, Caesar Petrillo, brother of James Petrillo, the head of the American Federation of Musicians. Caesar had been a former trombone player in a circus orchestra and he favored large brass sections. The house orchestrations were written for seven brass and only eight string instruments. The bows were overwhelmed in tutti passages.

I hung a microphone in the middle of the string section and had the outnumbered players sit close together. By reading an abbreviated score I saw when the brass section was about to enter. I directed the engineer to close down all other microphones and boost the one above the strings.

The music played were the standard pop tunes of the time. Petrillo enjoyed slow, romantic music. At one rehearsal he spoke about the phone calls he received from married friends who had sex the night before while the house orchestra played, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

Caesar, like his namesake, loved splendor. Grandiosity meant milking the tempo, slowing down the downbeat.

The first violin, Fritz Siegel, later concertmaster under Eugene Ormandy, was annoyed. Fritz told me to watch my cues because he had decided to take the tempos not from the conductor’s baton, but from his elbow. Caesar’s elbow came down before the tip of his stick. You can do it. Put a pencil in your hand and do a downbeat. You’ll see the elbow falls before the pencil hits bottom. Fritz told me he got the idea from the Boston Symphony Orchestra when Serge Koussevitzky slowed the tempo. The BSO took its cue at the point when his baton passed the middle button on his coat, instead of the bottom button.

While I was appreciated as a producer, not much was said about my talent as a musician. Once, when I supposed no one was around, I went to the keyboard of a Steinway Grand, double the length we had at home, and played “Tea for Two” cross handed, and slid into my version of the blues. A saxophonist and a viola player listened. I overheard their conversation.

“Do you think this kind of music will ever come back?”

A pause.

“This kind of music was never here.”

“It will never get here, either.”

My more positive contribution was to add narration between songs. The standard continuity for Music for You was, “The orchestra now asks the musical question, ‘Who?’”

The house tenor then sang “Who Stole my Heart Away” and the house almost-soprano (and mistress of the sales manager) would take the next eight bars, “No one but you, that’s who.”

I received permission to rewrite the scripts. I re-titled Music for You as Cloud Nine and I gave it the following plot—the same plot, week after week.

A door opens. Sound effect of a man seating himself and asking for “one of the usual—no make it a double”.

The sound man pours something liquid. A flute glissando slides up and up and is dissolved into a chorale stolen from Debussy. In awe, the tenor says,  “We’re in Spain! And that senorita is beautiful!”

Then he sings:

     Lady of Spain, I adore you

     Why should my lips be concealing

     All that my eyes are revealing?

     Lady of Spain, I love you

For a half hour, ballads and show tunes with a slightly Spanish musical overtone. In the written copy, romance and seduction. Tenor and not-quite soprano get closer and closer to please Caesar and his friends, and yet stay within the bounds of mid-west norms of the period.  But just before they leap in bed to the last line of “Lady of Spain” — “Lady of Spain, I love you” — just before the line which might be considered coital contact, that same flute that slid up– now slides down. The sound effects man pours another shot, the tenor says no thanks, and there is no on-air consummation. She’s gone – until next week.

The following week, Cloud Nine went to France, then Argentina, then Russia. The tenor and the almost-soprano never got laid in any language. The series became a hit, particularly with college students. So much of a hit that Wrigley Chewing Gum sponsored the program.

To be honest, the romantic songs of the time touched me. Good popular music is like good popular fiction. It calls to the imagination. Radio at the time I worked in it, called to the imagination. But imagination – mine at least- calls up no specific pictures. I don’t see snow when I hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I don’t see a face when I read about a character. I don’t see Emma’s face when I read Madame Bovary. I don’t see her hair, her breasts, her dress. Yet I feel for her. I weep for her. In the brain, imagination lies closest to emotion.

Television rarely calls to that deeper brain. That small screen is literal, factual. At its best, it teaches.



Cloud Nine, American English Idioms, panama.usembassy.gov/aei09.html















Jul 182016
I Like Ike

An Eisenhower supporter at the 1952 Republican Convention

1952 was the first year political conventions could be seen from coast to coast. The coaxial cable had crossed the continent and all the viewers in the country could watch the same picture at the same time cable channels were decades away, as was tape recordings. Live was live.

I was drafted to assist in the production of the conventions. There was some discussion of who would anchor the television broadcasts. The administrators of CBS News continued to think radio was still the primary source for important news and they would not give us Ed Murrow or any of Ed Murrow’s boys who were all first string war correspondents. A third stringer in Washington, Walter Cronkite, was available. The head of CBS News asked four of us if we approved of Cronkite. All four of us did, including me. When Walter later treated me badly, I choked back the urge to tell him that in part I had gotten him his anchor job. Four producers and the head of the news division had little choice, so Walter was chosen. He did his homework.

These were the last conventions in which the only part television played was as a spectator. There were some 15 cameras covering the convention floor. I sat at the side of Franklin Schaffner, the director who later made Patton and Papillion and who became the head of the Directors Guild. At the ’52 Republican Convention, Senator Joe McCarthy was a strong presence. Frank had one camera focused on the senator at all times. McCarthy picked his nose often. Every time he did, or looked grotesque, Frank had the technical director switch to that camera. Finally the technician complained.

Frank had a copy of the contract, which stated that the director alone called the shots. He waved it at the control panel.


Joe McCarthy at the 1952 Republican Convention

“Union rules. You take the shot I call! Take 14!!”

McCarthy with a finger up his nose was shown to America.

After two picks I told Frank to stop.

For the first few days, the presence of TV was hardly noticed. The Republican Convention proceeded according to plan, and often their plans were late. I was directing the six or eight cameras inside and outside the stockyards hall while the supporter of General Douglas MacArthur prepared his entrance.

It was an interminable stage wait. I yelled to the cameramen. “Take pictures! Take pictures of anything.”

sternoThey did. Clouds, airplanes in the landing pattern at Midway. A delegate sleeping, his face hidden behind a newspaper, the curious intersections of telephone lines, and a streetcar rushing by. A homeless man, in tight close up. The sort of montage that in later years would be called video art. The montage included a delegate on the floor heating a hotdog on a portable Sterno can. The Speaker of the House saw my montage on a black and white monitor backstage.

Representative Joe Martin, at the dais, chided the delegates. “There are television cameras here. Neaten up!”

We had trouble spotting our correspondents on the floor of the International Auditorium, and I solved the problem. I bought a dozen or so flashlights so the cameramen in the balcony could find the reporter who was on the floor.

Early on, while having breakfast at a greasy spoon on South State Street I noticed the menu was made up of plastic letters punched into a fibrous wall hanging. My colleague Don Hewitt and I bought it and all the letters. We set it up in a studio and had a stagehand insert the names of the speakers and our correspondents. Then we superimposed the names. A portable graphic was invented.

I was directing when the critical scene happened—one that would never happen again in any political convention.  One party boss attacked another. Thomas Dewey had been the unsuccessful presidential candidate four years earlier. He led the charge to have the party leader Robert Taft declared the nominee.

Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois wanted revenge. He pointed his finger directly at Dewey and said, “You led us down the road to defeat!”

The hall exploded.

No one has ever been that impolite in public to members of his party.

Television picked the nominee. The leaders of the Democratic party, due in the same hall in a few days immediately published instructions to their delegates to mind their dignity.

From then on the conventions were staged for TV.

Robert Taft buttonSenator Robert Taft of Ohio was a political conservative whose positions came to him by respected economists. According to party rules, he should have won because he had the majority of delegates pledged to him, but Dwight Eisenhower’s appearance on-screen caused a revolt among Republican voters.

Eisenhower knew little about economics but a great deal about war, and we were at war in Korea. His major appeal consisted of one sentence: “I shall go to Korea.” On camera he had a commanding and experienced look. There seemed to be both compassion and strength in his face. His face counted more to the electorate than his policies. Taft was cold; his natural face had an unfortunate built-in glumness. Victory was all important, and the rules of the convention could be discarded, if breaking the rules could win the November election. Ike could be elected: Taft, probably not. America liked Ike. On the second ballot, television made the general the candidate. He then went on to defeat Adlai Stevenson.

On Election Day, I was at Stevenson’s headquarters in Springfield, Illinois directing a pool of cameras. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, the bar was opened and a large buffet was spread for press and celebrities.

I had some technical bad news; the signal was going out by a complicated route and my pictures were arriving in New York before the audio.  Although everything was live, the lips were not synchronous with the words

Adlai Stevenson lost early in the day. At 6:00pm central standard time, a cameraman asked if he could have a bite and a drink. “They’re taking the food away and putting the corks back on the bottles. Even before the concession speech.”

The room was half empty when Governor Stevenson gave a short but witty concession speech: “A politician is a statesman who approaches every question with an open mouth.”


Ike and Mamie at the Inaugural Ball, 1953

We closed down the mobile video truck before 9:00pm and headed back to New York.

Americans liked Ike far more than Adlai.

I directed one of the many balls on President Eisenhower’s Inaugural Day. I called the shots from a remote truck with three live cameras. Camera 2 was on a long lens covering a close up of Ike and Mamie dancing. Suddenly there was a “pouf!” at the back of the truck and I had lost Cameras 1 and 3. I was stuck with the close-up, and no way to cut away. I hung there for three minutes yelling for someone to go to another remote truck and another ball.

The next day the papers recorded “the sensitive camera work which allowed the world to see in soft focus the tenderness the President and his wife shared while dancing.”



I Like Ike, 1952 Republican Convention

Senator Joe McCarthy, 1952 Republican Convention, AlternateHistory.com

Sterno Can, ebay.com

Robert Taft for President button

Robert Taft for President, AlternateHistory.com

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, 1953 Inaugural Ball













Jul 122016
Violinist Jascha Heifetz (at right in photo) felt one of his greatest performances ever was for a single U.S. soldier during World War II.

Violinist Jascha Heifetz (at right in photo) felt one of his greatest performances ever was for a single U.S. soldier during World War II.

Part of the orientation training for every new soldier was a viewing of the film Why We Fight. It showed the evil side of the enemy, the rape of Nanking, Stuka bombers over Spain, the Wehrmacht triumphing down the Champs Elysées. Those were the bad guys we were fighting.

Why We Fight ended with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “This world cannot exist half free and half slave.” Onscreen the graphic world split apart; half white, the other half black.

When the house lights came up, there were white soldiers in their section of the theater, the black GI’s in theirs.

We were fighting for freedom, but freedom was fuzzy. It was Mom and apple pie, and the mountains and the prairies. Jefferson and Washington…. but not too much Lincoln. At that time the American Army’s officer core was disproportionately Southern.

I saw Ingrid Bergman read from the script of her film Joan of Arc. I was at least fifty yards from her. Generals and commissioned ranks surrounded her within fifteen yards. We enlisted men were out of voice range.

Another boost to American morale came when we were so far behind the lines some officers wore neckties. The announcer said, “Within cannon range of the front lines, André Kostelanetz and Lily Pons bring you The Bell Song from Lakmé.  The eight-inch field pieces were probably firing ten miles ahead of the orchestra. I could not hear them.

What bothered many of us were the motion pictures on combat themes. There were many, many khaki clad soldiers on the back lots of the film studios doing heroic things. The question was, why weren’t John Wayne or Henry Fonda in real uniforms? The same for the hundreds of actors who played bit part soldiers. Most of them looked much fitter than I. And they got the girls. We didn’t.

One celebrity did help my morale. We were on the Elbe River in late April 1945 and I was in a foxhole on a reverse slope. The word was passed that a violinist was giving a show about a half-mile away. We crawled on our bellies, found a copse, stood up, and went to a nearby beer hall. The wallpaper had a large white oblong patch where either a photo of Hitler or a Nazi flag had been recently removed.

A baby grand piano had been off-loaded and placed on an improvised stage. A violinist, Jascha Heifitz, asked us what we would like to hear.

“Old Zip Coon! Turkey in the Straw!”

“No, not for combat troops,” Heifitz said. “Musical spinach.”

He played for almost an hour. Some of the Bach Violin Sonatas, an adaptation of one or two movements from The Brandenburg Concertos, and for fun The Hora Staccato, which Heifitz had co-written.

Civilization surrounded me.

When it was over the piano was lifted back on the truck, and Mr. Heifitz, the pianist, and a lieutenant left in a covered jeep.

I crawled back to the riverbank and waited for the Russian Army to appear.



Jascha Heifetz, PBS American Masters







Jul 112016


The Army needed engineers and after basic training I was sent to Lehigh University to study engineering. Lehigh University was a short ride from New York City and weekends were spent in Manhattan.

I spent Saturday afternoons listening to the New York Philharmonic under a new young conductor, Leonard Bernstein. Evenings were at jazz joints: The Village Gate and uptown on 52d Street where Roy Eldridge was debuting.

My family had implanted music as a necessity.

Once back at Lehigh I cut classes and went to the record collection. I wasn’t sure I would survive the war. I wanted my dead brain stuffed with the best music I could find.

I learned seven Beethoven and four Brahms symphonies. I also memorized the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Jascha Heifitz as violinist. At the time the records turned at seventy-eight revolutions per minute. There were perhaps six minutes on each side.  What I learned, and didn’t know I had learned, was the exact time a record would stop, drop, and be replaced.

On one of my weekends in New York I saw that Albert Spalding, the renowned violinist, would play the Beethoven Concerto at Carnegie Hall.

I bought a ticket. There would be no pause in the music, no clank as the records dropped. I should have heard the violin concerto in concert glory, instead of the scratchy records that dropped in the Lehigh listening room. It should have been wonderful.

Except that Albert Spalding, tall, slim, grey and elegant in a full dress suit, was a dud.

The tempi were off, his arpeggios and cadenza were inelegant, and I went back to Lehigh and the 78 records, drop noise and all. Heifitz interrupted by clanks every three minutes was far more moving than Spalding, moving uninterrupted.



Jascha Heifitz, Beethoven Violin Concerto in  D  Major  op 61, Off the Record