Thursday, September 3, 2009

IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK - January 1963 (Route 66)

It was halfway through the month of January, 1963. I had been a member of the Directors Guild for15 months. During that time I directed 6 television shows. That might seem like a booming career, but 6 shows in 15 months amounted to about 16 weeks of work for a gross income of $11,370, which is not really princely. And since it was January and the television season was winding down, my prospects for additional work before the new season began looked pretty dim.

And then on a Tuesday I got a telephone call from my agent. He said that I had an interview the next day with producer Herbert Leonard about the possibility of directing an episode of Route 66. The following day at the appointed time I went to the studio and was ushered into the producer’s office. Mr. Leonard, a very short man sat behind a very large desk. I sat down and waited for him to finish his telephone call. In the room there was much activity, different meetings going on all over the place. I felt like I was in a scene from YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Mr. Leonard did NOT finish his telephone call. He would ask me a question, and while I was answering he returned to his telephone. This went on for four or five minutes, after which I was dismissed. I went home and soon was surprised when I got a phone call from my agent telling me that I’d gotten the job. I was to call the studio the next day to see about the script. So at the appointed time on Thursday I called and was told by the associate producer that the script hadn’t come in but the writer had. He had returned from the location; he said he had solved his plot problems and was going home to start writing the script. I was to report to the studio the next day at three o’clock, bringing my luggage because I would be leaving that night for Corpus Christi, Texas.

My agent called me again on Thursday. He told me he had worked for the Bert Leonard organization before he became an agent, and he wanted to give me some advice. He said go out there, do the best you can, keep your nose clean, and always remember that those guys on the crew, with their union scale, their overtime, their gold time -- you are going to be the lowest paid member of that group.

So on Friday at the appointed time I reported to the studio. I was handed 19 pages of a script by Stirling Silliphant. It was IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK, and I thought it was wonderful. Before I left that night I was given an additional 4 pages. I was also told the starring roles in the show had been cast. Ed Begley. Ruth Roman. Don Dubbins. I was especially happy to hear about Don being cast because he was the one actor I knew. I had directed him in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse and in an episode of CHECKMATE.

As I left that night I realized what a challenge was before me. The 6 television shows I had directed had all been in the studios. One short sequence in a DR. KILDARE had been on a local location at a swimming pool for a home-movie sequence. I had shot some sequences on the MGM back lot. Distant location shooting was a whole new ballgame. And compared to the soft ball games I had been playing, it was definitely hard ball.

That night at eleven o’clock I boarded the plane and arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, Saturday morning. I was picked up at the airport and taken to the production offices. I learned we were to begin shooting the episode Monday morning, so over the weekend our immediate chore was to find our locations. (The usual time frame for a director’s preparation was 6 days.) Based on the scant pages of script we had, that meant a ferry boat and a large old house on stilts on a lonely stretch of beach, no houses to be visible in either direction. The ferry boat was easy. Stirling had been here and had literally written the show to fit the area. They took me to the ferry boat, I made my notes (oh, to have had the small digital cameras of today) so that I would be able to go home and lay out the staging and filming for the long opening sequence. Then began the search for the large dilapidated old house on stilts. We drove up and down the beach and there was no such house. Sam Manners, the production manager said, “It has to be here. If Stirling wrote it in the script, he saw it. It has to be here.” So we drove up and down the beach again, but there was no house like that. Finally we found a single room shack on stilts that was totally isolated, and since there was nothing else available we knew this would have to do. We were also going to have to shoot our interiors in that house. In the script that we had, Alma at one point had to exit the room into another room. But there was no other room for her to go into. However there was a small closet with a curtain over the opening. We decided that if we hung a door, she could just go into the closet. But that meant that there was going to be some time needed to prepare this room. Since exteriors are always shot first, we scheduled the ferry boat sequence for Monday morning.

An interesting side bar: Sunday we were in the small village of Corpus Christi. It was a very New England style rundown fishing village, full of character. And there, right in the middle of the village was a huge house with a porch, on stilts. Sam Manners saw it and said, “That’s the house Stirling saw. That’s the house he described in his script.” And Sam chuckled and said, “Stirling saw the house he wanted, so he just moved it to the isolated spot on the beach that he needed for his story.” Unfortunately we couldn’t do that.

Early the next morning, Monday, we gathered at the ferry boat to commence filming. It was a dull, overcast, drizzly day, and Jack Marta, our great director of photography said he couldn’t film. This was the first day in the history of Route 66 filming that they were weathered out. We spent the day at the end of a pier in a large enclosure, hoping there would be a break in the weather that never came. Under normal conditions like this, when a company is weathered out, they move inside to a cover set. We had no cover set. The only interior in our first 23 pages was Alma’s house, and that was being prepared. The bad news was the weather forecast for the next day was more of the same.

That evening our production office spoke to the producer’s office in Hollywood. They were told the script was finished, and that an associate producer would be flying to Texas to hand deliver it the next day -- arriving AROUND NOON. That meant we still didn’t have anything to shoot the next morning. So someone in Hollywood dictated three scenes to a secretary in Texas. (Oh for the convenience of today’s e-mail!) These scenes were typed up and distributed to cast members, crew and me. Then Mr. Leonard phoned me and told me the rest of the plot and the positions in the story where these new scenes occurred.

Tuesday morning we reported to a fish house for a scene with five people: Ed Begley, Don Dubbins and three other actors. By the time we broke for lunch, we had completed this 5 or 6 page sequence. I felt FINALLY we were on a roll. But then Jack Marta came to me and said, “I hate to tell you this, but there was a camera malfunction. We’re going to have to shoot everything over after lunch.” So now a day and a half into the shooting schedule I’m still on square one. But that afternoon we very quickly reshot everything we had shot in the morning. And we completed the other two sequences.

That evening Bert Leonard called me again. There was a scene in the newly received pages where Ed Begley and Martin Milner are surf fishing. Burt requested that when you do that scene, don’t put them in shallow water. Put them out in water up to their waist. So that’s what I did. It was a cold January in the Gulf of Mexico. I was out in the water with the actors and the crew, all of us in wet suits. Unfortuntely my wet suit had a slit in it and I was soaking wet very soon. And as the tide came in, the water kept getting higher and higher so that the waves would come up to our shoulders. As I watch the scene today (I have a copy of the show) I marvel (considering the conditions under which the scene was shot) at the performances of Martin Milner and Ed Begley. Two wonderful pros. I also am in awe of the work turned in by the sound crew. I was used to the very high standards set by the sound crews at MGM. Even on a quiet set, many was the time the mixer would demand another take because the quality was not acceptable. Here I had two actors out in roaring surf. I just knew all of what we were about to film would have to be looped later at the studio. How wrong I was. The mixer with his tape recording equipment was set up on the beach. Cable was stretched out to the mike boom far from shore. The cable of course had to be kept out of the water. The boom man straddled a tall ladder, arms outstretched above his head holding the long boom with the microphone at the end suspended over the heads of the two actors. And under those impossible conditions the sound crew delivered a track absolutely perfect, exciting because you see and hear the waves, and the performances are absolutely crystal clear. It is a magnificent scene, because of the actors’ performances and the technical achievement of both camera and sound.

Sam Manners told me that this episode would have been a perfect vehicle for Joan Crawford. She wanted very much to do a ROUTE 66, but she needed advance notice, which of course we couldn’t have given her. She starred the following season, the show’s fourth and last, in an episode. But I have no regrets that Ruth Roman was my star. If you ever have a chance to see the episode you will see I was not short-changed.

We completed photography after the eighth day. That was two days over the unreal aspiration of completing such an episode in 6 days. I was told that both ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY almost always went over at least a day; that in fact the only episodes shot in 6 days were directed by one of Hollywood’s legendary veterans, George Sherman.

On the plane ride back to Los Angeles I sat with director of photography, Jack Marta. I said to him that since this was my first big location show, I felt I was going to have to be more careful in the future with what I planned so that I could complete the work in the time scheduled. His reply was no, don’t you do that. You plan your show according to your vision. It is up to us, the crew to deliver it. Those were marvelous words of encouragement that I have tried to live up to.

When I returned to the studio I found the show had already been assembled. (I was later to learn the incredible, unusual way that Bert Leonard oversaw the editing process.) Jackie Gleason, not the comedian but one of the film editors, told me that the first assemblage had been 67 minutes. That was really a feature-length film. They had to cut it down to 52 minutes, which meant taking out a major sequence between Ed Begley and Ruth Roman. I also learned I had been booked to do an additional 4 shows to finish up the season -- two ROUTE 66 and two NAKED CITY. Until this time I had directed 6 shows in 15 months. Now I was directing 5 shows in less than 3 months. Maybe I did have a future.


  1. Thanks for sharing your history Ralph!
    Dave R

  2. I guess you might wonder who is reading your stories and what are they thinking. Well, Marge Brenner is one who is enjoying your writing. I love you and I love your stories and I look forward to the next episode. XOXOXOXO

  3. Thanks for this great post, Mr. Senensky! (And of course all the others, great work.) The location shooting experiences (Route 66, Naked City) are especially interesting stuff.

    Have you seen this?

    This appears to be some amateur 8mm footage taken during the filming of this episode. Maybe you can spot yourself in it.

    Thanks again, Mr. Senensky!

  4. Interesting that "small...very New England style rundown fishing village" known as Corpus Christi now has over 300,000 people!

  5. Actually, the "fishing village" is Port Aransas, TX which is about 30 miles from Corpus Christi. It is now one of the most popular beach locations in the county.