Jul 202017

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Visit, 1958

I went to Versailles where the curator suggested Princess Grace of Monaco might do a tour of the Chateau similar to the Tour of the White House. For that permission, he expected CBS to raise funds for the restoration of the castle, and there also might be petites remerciments for those who helped. A Grimaldi State Counselor was called but Her Serene Highness had made a deal with the Music Corporation of America to do A Tour of Monaco with Princess Grace. In short, I had Versailles, but no Marie Antoinette.

Audrey Hepburn, neither presidential nor royal, but certainly regal, was in Paris, on the set of a turkey-to-be-born, Paris When It Sizzles. Miss Hepburn met me in her dressing room. Her eyes were very large, her white, fair skin was crosshatched with the thinnest of lines, and she was scared. She needed help from her co-star, William Holden. He had once done a documentary called William Holden’s Hong Kong, as part of a tax write-off. The reviews had not been good.

“Don’t do it,” Holden said to Audrey. “People like us shouldn’t do television because it doesn’t make any difference that I looked like hell, but people expect you to look good. I mean Audrey, how could you work without an eye light?”

I tried to respond. I said earnestly that Mrs. John F. Kennedy looked well despite our lighting backwardness. I evoked schoolchildren learning about the arts if Miss Hepburn would tour the most famous chateau in the world. I played the theme of Franco-American relations, Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson at the Court of Louis XVI, and while I couldn’t say what the money would be, Mrs. Kennedy had done it for nothing, but an agreement could be worked out en principe, and our business affairs department could talk to Miss Hepburn’s agent.

“Cheap, Audrey,” said Mr. Holden. “They work too fast. They expect you to get ten minutes a day or more into the can. And the lighting, oh my God, the lighting! ”

Both Holden and I spoke too fast. We brought her distress. She was so gazelle-eyed, so sensitive, so refined that I felt I should not exhale carbon dioxide into the same air from which she took oxygen. I left.

The unoriginal sin and easy money of journalism is reporting on celebrities. Of the millions of people who watched A Tour the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, I think very few concentrated on the president’s home. Jackie was the celebrity and the focus.

Then I sinned. I assembled celebrities in Athens for two broadcasts on Ancient Greece. In the mid-1960s, Greece was a monarchy.

Her Majesty, Queen Frederika, was about Jackie’s age; her husband King Paul, a decade older than JFK. The queen was pretty, the king simple and dignified. They agreed to do a tour of the Parthenon, the most famous artifact of Ancient Greece.

The structure is atop a steep hill, the Acropolis, (fortress on a hill), some 500 feet above sea level. Below the Parthenon is the Theatre of Dionysus, where drama was invented. I brought the most famous stage actors of the 1930s and 40s to the world’s oldest theater. Alfred and Lynn Lunt broke their retirement in Wisconsin to come to Greece.

I visited them twice in Genesee Junction and explained my plan.

It’s a challenge for two elderly people.” Alfred said.

“It’s one we deserve,” Lynn said.

“It will be nice to get away from the pins on the bed,” Alfred said. “She sews in bed, and when I go to sleep, her pins stick me in the ass.”

They were friendly, eager and kind to a young man who had not seen them at the peak of their career.

Two fine actors of the contemporary theatre would support them; Alfred Drake and Rosemary Harris. They would do scenes from Greek drama, the first of all theatrical forms.

The Parthenon and the Theatre of Dionysus were not quite the White House but they were noble enough.

The overarching idea would justify the celebrities. A series called The Roots of Freedom, and Greece, where democracy began, was the earliest root in the West.

The Athenian roots had dirt on them. The Greek polis excluded women from the electorate. The Greeks had slaves who had no rights. The requirement for all voters was that they must be able to walk to the voting place and back to their homes in two days. Anyone who couldn’t hike it to Athens was disqualified.

The hillside theater they used was named for the god of the drunks: Dionysus. The plays that opened in Athens have never closed. They have had a twenty-seven century run.

My plan: first, Greece, where democracy was invented, followed by Rome. The Romans began the design of a Republic, ruled by law. There was much grime on the Roman root: gladiators, slaves, crucifixions and all the dirty roots movies have exploited, but the idea of a nation ruled by an elected legislature was a freedom never seen before. No one had ever made a movie about Rome’s greatest achievement.

Roman comedy, to be done in the Theatre of Ostia Antica, a suburb of modern Rome. The Romans had no great playwrights, but they had the comedies of Plautus and Terence who wrote funny things on the way to the Forum. Broadway has copied their clowns.

The Renaissance in Italy, and the Comedia del’Arte in Florence. Then court dances of Louis XIV in France and the French Revolution. Then Shakespeare …then Parliament. Then the American Revolution.

Greece would be first. I made five round trips.

I bribed a drunken guard to let me climb the hill at night and enter the Acropolis alone. I walked up a path leading to the Parthenon. The structure had been a temple, then a Christian church. When the Persians conquered Greece they used it as an ammunition dump. In the 17th century, by error, the artillery shells blew off the roof and destroyed most of the interior.

As I climbed, sense memories erupted. I heard my feet crunch on the stones as they had in the rubble of the abandoned villages in German town. The moon suddenly dimmed, almost fully shaded by clouds. The weak shadows recalled the dim light of artillery searchlights reflected from the clouds above the WWII battlefields.

Above, the looming Doric carcass of the Parthenon. It hung over me, another victim of an old war. It was threatening, not ennobling. That shattered stone monster was fifty times larger than that ruined small church from which I fired my single shot as a sniper.

War had made the Parthenon, virgin Athena’s apartment into a diseased stone brothel.

Much like the last night I walked through the Museum of Natural History, I was terrified by the weight of the past, the uncountable numbers of generations between me and the men who made what was now ruined.

Youth generally fears the past. For the young, history is so large as to be unknowable and threatening. Age fears the future—the brave new world coming will confuse the older generation that spawned it. Inevitably, brave old worlds must fade.

The dead of the Age of Pericles were god-men: writers, artists and statesmen whose influence built a civilization. Yet Greece was shattered and defeated fifty years after Socrates. The Greek intellectuals became servants to their conquerors instead of rulers of Athens.

Mixed in the moonlight and stones were awe and fear. On that climb to the Parthenon, I feared both yesterday and tomorrow. The past was the ruin above. The future was the practical means to bring electric cables up a rocky path for a television broadcast. Greece had no television facilities. I would have to import everything electronic.

In the following trips, I saw administrators, curators and other experts.

I met the royals. Tatoi, the king’s residence, was more like an English manor house than a palace. The family gathered in a downstairs room, which needed a decorator. The walls were orange, and contrasted with the colors of a number of throw rugs. The knit carpets had been hand woven by poor women who belonged to the queen’s favorite charity. His Majesty sat on a soft chair that resembled one in everybody’s living room, with doilies on the arms and an anti-Macassar behind his head. Certainly another gift from the charity. Their children bustled in and out.

The center of the family room was a large Steinway Grand. Princess Sophia played the third movement of a Mozart sonata. She would become a sedate queen of Spain, but that night she was a young girl playing a lively scherzo.

Tuulikki, who had spent time at Berlitz, addressed the King and Queen in good enough Greek. They were startled and pleased. Prince Constantine, who would become king, and then be thrown out, noticed my wife was trembling. He brought her a scotch and water.

It might seem strange that a Monarch and his queen would be on the side of a representative democracy, but Their Majesties had almost no political power in the country.

For example, King Paul sold butter from his farm. He packaged it with the name Tatoi, the royal residence, on the carton. He had a royal seal imprinted in blue. A neighbor copied the box exactly, except the design was in red. His Majesty asked my best friend and attorney, Thomas Ryan, whether such an imitation would be a violation of American trademark restrictions.

“Probably,” said Thomas.

King Paul said, “I can’t do anything about the laws of this country.” He was pleasant, but exasperated.

I had no idea how much Paul and Frederika knew about Ancient Greece. But the Minister of Fine Arts scared me. He dwelt on the architecture of the Parthenon and used the word entasis several times. Since his English was excellent, I thought I ought to know the word, but finally I asked its meaning.

“Entasis is the art of shaping the columns to fit the perspective of the human eye. The columns are not straight. They are gently curved so the eye seems them as straight. Entasis is humanity in architecture.

“Your American architects are more interested in strength than in humanity. Almost all your buildings are built in right angles. The triumph of an engineer’s graph-paper mind. Squares on squares. The result is to make them top-heavy and threatening. I don’t like walking through Manhattan. I am nothing and the buildings crush me into the ground. There are no right angles in Greek columns or temples.”

I decided to read more about architecture. I was sure the king and queen of Greece would talk to the minister of fine arts about entasis before the taping.

I sat in the Theatre of Dionysus with my typewriter. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates had sat on the same hillside. I typed the big brown fox jumped over… while I had myself photographed. Here, in this theater the two faces of drama were seen for the first time. The mask of comedy, the mask of tragedy—they both came from this state. The first   arose in the first free society. It was not coincidence. Then I went to an island in the Caribbean and poured through a dozen books on the history of Ancient Greece.

The plan for the Royals was the same as for Mrs. Kennedy. I would write a guide script, a “for instance” text.  It would contain the questions the interviewer might ask, and the answers the king or the queen might give. Their undoubtedly superior knowledge could fill in the details and rewrite as Jackie had done.

Once back in New York I received a call from the minister of fine arts. He requested copies of the research books I had been reading. All books, including those I had underlined. The Greek Embassy in Washington sent a messenger that afternoon. The research would go to Their Majesties through diplomatic pouch, even my tattered pocket books.

Meanwhile, logistical troubles: Greece had no television. None at all. This required renting recording gear from RAI, the Italian Broadcasting System. The trucks, wires and all other equipment had to be sent by sea from Bari, on the east coast to Pireaus, the Port of Athens. Then everything had to be taken up the steep hill of the Acropolis. Dick Sedia erected a control room next to the Parthenon.

Royalties have their retinue, and so do celebrities. Our control room was visited by the Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou and his cortege, and by the head of Italian television, who wanted to sell Greece Italian technical gear so that Athens would enter the television age with Italian equipment.

The queen sealed off the site for several days, disappointing and infuriating hundreds of touring Germans.

I received a phone call from the chief guard at the bottom of the hill. He told me that a Mr. James Michener and a Mr. Harpo Marx wanted to see the Parthenon. Michener’s wife had been my secretary for a brief period in Chicago. I didn’t know Harpo Marx, but as we shook hands he whipped his wig out of his pocket, put it on his head, and made that immortal face.

William Paley, the chief of the network, was flying in from New York. Paley didn’t care much for TV celebrities, (after all he bought and fired them) but royalty and the Lunts met his social standards. However, his father died and he flew back home.

The Lunts had starred in forty plays and only one movie, The Guardsman, in 1933, which had been a critical and commercial success. The same year, they had been offered a two-picture deal for one million dollars, which they refused. Of movie making Lynn said, “We can be bought, but we cannot be bored. No more films.”

They had retired four years earlier, but, as their press agent said they said, “The opportunity to bring their classical skills to the most modern of theatrical forms was irresistible.”

A stringer was there from the New York Times, a film crew from an entertainment show on CBS, as well as one of top agents from the theatrical world.

I could delegate almost everything to my staff, but it was up to me to protect my script. I had been unable to contact the Lunts directly, except by telephone.

“I’m doing the script,” Lynn said. “Dear boy, don’t worry. We’ll be prepared. I once missed Spain entirely when I was opening in Madrid. Get the part down, that’s always first with me. By the way, Mr. Wolff, I understand my acting lines, but who is this person, Lynn Fontanne?”

(I had written some narration lines for her.)

“That’s you, Ma’am.”

“But I’m never me. I’m always a character in my parts.”

“I’m certain that you can find something in yourself that will be straightforward and direct.”

“I like that. ‘Straightforward and direct’. Clever, Perry.”

I was elated by the compliment. She was charming, and at 77, still seductive.

Tom Donovan, the director, was worried about lighting. The Athens sunlight had once been so bright that in World War II the occupying German troops installed traffic lights with high intensity bulbs. Twenty years later the city’s famous smog had begun. Donovan had been shooting the long scenes with Rosemary Harris and Alfred Drake and the in-and-out sun had proven difficult. He told me their performance had been excellent once they had become used to the masks.

With deference and admiration, he placed the Lunts in their positions. He went back to the control room and started taping.

Lynn Fontanne said sweetly, “Stop.” She removed her microphone cable and started towards the remote unit. “I want to see what I look like.”

What she looked like was a 77-year old woman in smoggy sunlight on a hillside in Athens. To me, she was a wise, elderly Lysistrata and the embodiment of the Greek Chorus.

Donovan knew better. As Miss Fontanne came to the steps, Tom shouted to the video-man. “Spill whites! Spill whites!”

In black and white television there’s a knob that whitens the picture. It is similar to a flash bulb. It blanks out the lines of age but makes the skin look thick.

Lynn Fontanne was noted for the quickness of her wit and her concern about her image. When my wife and I had taken the Lunts to dinner in Paris she did not like the color of her handbag. She gave it to Alfred. “You carry it for the evening, dear. I’ve made a mistake.”

He did, and passed it off as a sweet eccentricity.

Her most famous quotation was concerning her age. She had concealed it for years, even to her husband. “I lie to everybody. Naturally I lie very well, being an actress.”

There was no way she could lie about the old, lined lady she saw in the Athenian sunlight.  She yelled across the Theatre of Dionysus, Sophocles’ stage.

“Alfred! Alfred! They have made me look like Sophie Tucker! They have made me look Jewish!”

That was how Act One of a new tragedy opened in the Theatre of Dionysus. I had created amateur night in daylight. Nothing worked. The Greeks may have watched theater in sunlight, but for centuries the West had seen drama in darkened theaters, darkened movie houses, darkened rooms.

Putting masks on the actors made them look grotesque and stupid. The close-ups of the masks were ugly cartoons. Our age is used to seeing faces, close ups, in television and movies. Once a lens is used, drama means eye contact, facial gestures. There were no eyes, lips, cheeks, nor head movements in our masked Greek photography.

Later, the New York Herald Tribune’s critic wrote a review I have never forgotten. “It is a month before Thanksgiving, but CBS has served the turkey.”



Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in http://www.soulamericanactor.com/article10.shtml

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