Wednesday, October 6, 2010

THE FORTY YEAR ITCH, DORA, DORA, DORA - May-June 1971 (The Partridge Family)

During their first season THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY had a charming episode, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE OLD SONGS, that brought Shirley’s parents to her home for a visit.  The parents were played by Ray Bolger and Rosemary De Camp.  As happened regularly in series televison, when guest star appearances proved successful, the stars were brought back for repeat performances.  It was my good fortune to guide them through their return visit.

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The little blond boy coming down the stairs was the newest addition to the family, Brian Forster, who was now playing Chris .  The father of Jeremy Gelbwaks, the original Chris, had been transferred out of California and Jeremy, faced with having to choose between the Partridge family and the Gelbwaks family, departed with the family of his birth.  End of a drumming career.

It had been five months since I had directed my last THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  I was returning to do four in a row and this recasting of Brian Forster created a minor problem for me.  To get to the root of that problem we need to flash back to a Saturday afternoon in 1960 when I received a telephone call from Stanley Smith, the casting director at the Pasadena Playhouse.  Stanley told me a production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood had recently gone into rehearsal and they wanted to replace the director.  Would I be available to come in and take over.  At this point in my career, English high comedy was not one of my strong suits.  I had directed a production of Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT years before, and I considered it one of my poorest achievements.  I told Stanley I didn’t think I was the person for this assignment, and I gave him the name of someone who I thought should do itl.  A half hour later Stanley called back to say the person I had recommended was not available, would I reconsider.  My counter suggestion was that I would like to come in, meet the cast and have a read-through before making a decision.  That meeting took place the next evening.  After the reading I had only one reservation about the cast.  I told the Playhouse if I could replace the actress playing the younger woman with Rachel Ames, I would do it.  I had already directed Rachel in two stage productions, and she was well known to the Playhouse; her parents were Dorothy Adams and Byron Foulger, two fine actor closely associated with the Pasadena Playhouse.  The Playhouse agreed to my request.  The problem as it relates to THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY?  Brian Forster’s mother, who would be accompanying him to the set each day, was the actress I dumped.

In their first season visit Shirley’s father decided he wanted to go into show business, wanted to join their singing group.  Her mother thought it was a dumb idea.  It was a charming, generation gap story and the bickering parents provided an ongoing comedy background to the conflict in the foreground.  For this return visit the bickering took center stage; but it was no longer just bickering, it was out-and-out warfare heading for divorce.   The problem we faced was to prevent the audience from becoming as disenchanted with the visitors as the Partridge family was.   

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The production facilities for THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY  were excellent.  Not only were the exteriors of the Partridge home and its surrounding neighborhood plus the village exteriors we filmed on TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY on the Columbia Ranch, there were also two sound stages on the lot for our interiors.  It was all very convenient.  This episode provided my first departure for a location off the lot.

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For the musical number for this episode I was back in the nightclub set I so disliked, but the script necessitated the return.  At least the red drapes had been removed.  Was I unhappy?  Not on your life.  Who could be unhappy having OKLAHOMA’s Laurey, CAROUSEL’s Julie Jordan and Marian, the librariam from THE MUSIC MAN singing, while the Scarecrow from THE WIZARD OF OZ danced with the mother of that YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, George M. Cohan.  That was a day on a soundstage made in heaven.

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The show had two happy endings.  Brian’s mother and I had no problem because of the previous Pasadena Playhouse incident.  The subject was never mentioned.

My second outing of the quartet, like PARTRIDGE UP A PEAR TREE from the previous season, had a plot that I thought was genuinely funny.

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I don’t know who recorded the song that Robyn Millan lip-synced to, but I certainly owed her a big debt of gratitude.

Alvina Krause was a magnificent acting professor at Northwestern University.  When I was a student there, she stated something in one of her acting seminars that I found useful throughout my career; people under emotional stress take refuge in props.  In the following scene (with that lovely four-poster bed just sitting there) I made that suggestion to Shirley.

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The following day after dailies the producer phoned me on the set to tell me how funny he thought that scene was.  My response:  “Phallic, wasn’t it?”

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Jack Burns was an actor, writer, producer -- a jack of all trades, but in his case master of all.  He started out as half of a comedy team with George Carlin.  I thought he was proof of that adage about directing -- 90% is in the casting.

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And once again a return to the set I abhorred, but this time it was a little less objectionable; it was converted into a military base auditorium.

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Next: my final two treks down Partridge Lane with Shirley acting a television version of Mrs. Robinson from THE GRADUATE.

2 comments:

  1. Ralph -

    Thanks for continuing these insightful posts about your PF episodes.

    The exterior bus scenes you did for "The Forty Year Itch" were a precious thing indeed because the show rarely did "road" scenes after the first season.

    When you returned for this second season, did new producer Larry Rosen (taking over for Paul Junger Witt) say anything about why scripts were now going to focus mostly on the Partridges at home, rather than on the road?

    The first season had so much great exterior shooting that it LOOKED like a more expensive production the first year. (Your "To Play or Not to Play" episode is an example of this). Later seasons (especially 3 and 4), with so many stories set inside the house, it lost something.

    But I guess the newer format worked, since season two had the highest ratings.

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  2. Larry: No, the new producer didn't offer any explanations for scripts focusing more in the home; but then no explanations were needed. Budget! When a new series started, the goal was to succeed. And if it took extra money and increased deficit spending -- so be it. But once a show had found its audience and was succeeding, they looked for ways to curtail the expenses. An added expense once a show succeeded was that the cast budget would increase as contracted salaries rose. So restricting the action to the lot was the easiest way to cut a corner. The only producer I worked for who didn't do that was Quinn Martin.

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