by John Mantley
Now how about those good old days . . . !!
Were they really . . . I mean really, really that good?
Well, I know not what others will say, but as far as I am concerned, they were more than just good, they were glorious!
They began, for me, at 7:30 p.m. on the night of October 16th in 1951, when I sat down at a console in the WOR studios of the Mutual Network in New York City, to premiere my first television show. It was called "Mr. and Mrs. Mystery."
It was written by a very young writer named John Gay, who, decades later, was to write a hatful of great movies and win an Academy Award for a screenplay called Separate Tables.
The evening was memorable for an additional reason. It was also the premiere, at 9 p.m., of Vivian Vance, Bill Frawley, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, starring in a show the entire world came to adore -- "l Love Lucy."
The critical success of "Mr. and Mrs. Mystery" brought me, in rather swift succession, two other shows. So for more than a year (except for a week off to get married), I was producing three live prime-time shows each week.
For this extraordinary stroke of fortune, I owe a substantial debt of gratitude to the Pasadena Playhouse which, two years earlier, had graciously awarded me a Magna Cum Laude degree, in Theatrical arts, after teaching me how to build sets, apply make-up, write dialogue, take stage, read lines and most important of all, how to use a television camera -- skills which were in considerable demand as television began to grow.
"Producing" in that era (at least at station WOR), meant not merely directing the shows on air, but designing the sets, reading and writing the scripts, casting, rehearsing (one four-hour-session in an otherwise empty room with chairs and tables to mark exits and entrances) and two tiny hours ON CAMERA in an empty studio.
After that, it was ON THE AIR, LIVE! with all the warts and imperfections for the world to see. Sometimes it wasn't all that professional, but it had more pure energy (created by raw terror) than anything you are likely to see today.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to be present at the birth of television, lived in a constant state of delirious excitement and near-total exhaustion, barely controlled by pocketfuls of Benzedrine.
I forgot to mention that, for me, this period also entailed learning the rudiments of the Italian Language (la piu bella lingua in tutto el mondo!), since the third, and by far the most interesting show I had acquired, was sponsored by the La Rosa Macaroni Company and was entitled "Teatro Televisione."
It was the first foreign-language program on American television.
It was written by Italians.
It was cast entirely with Italian actors.
It was the brainchild of a brilliant Italian impresario named Andre Luotto.
It was hosted by a real-life Italian count, Eduardo Vergara Caffarelli. He was the most overwhelmingly charming man any of us had ever met, and could, ON CAMERA and without a script, hold a box of La Rosa Macaroni in his left hand, and a priceless Amati violin in his right, and segue from one to the other, as smoothly as butter melting in a warm pan!
Finally, by a remarkable coincidence, our two camera operators (that's all we ever had for our biggest productions!) were also Italian.
Strange as it may seem, since the only English words in the program were in the main and end titles, Teatro Televisione got splendid reviews and, in the weeks that followed its debut, La Rosa's sales skyrocketed. Everyone was walking on air.
Everyone except Andre Luotto. He took me to the back room of New York's finest Italian restaurant, where, after a sumptuous meal, he praised me extravagantly for bringing Teatro Televisione to life. Unfortunately, there was a problem, one he was reluctant to mention, but which he felt had to be addressed.
Everywhere he went, he said, people in the Italian community were talking about the show, but they were irritated that an all-Italian show should have a producer with the highly un-Italian name of John Mantley.
I realized I was about to be fired. I loved what I was doing and was so disheartened at the thought of being cut adrift, I only half heard Andre going on about how difficult it was to have to do these things, but, for the good of the show, they sometimes had to be done. John Mantley, unfortunately, had to go. Heartsick, I said I understood.
Andre's face exploded with delight. He kissed me on both cheeks. He pumped my hand. He ordered more champagne and we raised our glasses to the newly-born producer/director of Teatro Televisione: Giovanni Mantelli! It was one of the most delightful moments of my life.
For eleven months I wore the name proudly. Then Andre took me into the back room again and told me we were going to Rome. We would produce, on film, for the La Rosa company, the first 39-episode anthology in the history of television. Since the episodes were to be in English, I could even be billed under my very own name!
Secretly, I have always liked Giovanni Mantelli better. It had a romantic ring and gave me, I think, a little more stature in the eyes of my Sicilian wife, Angela Maria Gabriella de Dino Carabella! The "Mantley" just doesn't measure up, if you see what I mean.
I told Andre I couldn't possibly go to Rome. My wife was eight months pregnant and we wanted our child to be born in America.
Andre was not to be dissuaded. He was not an entrepreneur with spacious offices in Rockefeller Center for nothing.
He explained that a child of American parents is still an American citizen no matter where the child is born. And if our son (we were sure it would be a boy) had the enormous good fortune to be born in Italy, he would have the inestimable privilege of being a Citizen of Rome, the greatest city in the world, birthplace of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Andrea del Sarto, Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony -- ect., ect., ect.
In anticipation of the upcoming birth, Andre had taken the liberty of arranging for the delivery of our firstborn at the Salvator Mundi Hospital which overlooks the seven hills of Rome. He'd also arranged for a year's lease on a Roman villa adjacent to the Borghese Gardens, where we were all to live in splendor while the great anthology was being shot.
Guess what? We went to Rome.
Our son was born. He acquired the most impressive Certificate of Citizenship (Roman) any of us had ever seen.
The thirty-nine shows were made, then thirteen more, and all without any form of censorship, without anyone looking over our shoulders, giving "notes" or making suggestions for improvements! It was such a wonderful time and Rome was so beautiful, we stayed another two years.
I made a happy living supervising Italian-to-English dialogue replacement for old Italian movies which the locals were selling, right and left, to American TV networks (a result of Hollywood Studios trying to kill-off the competition by refusing to sell their product to this upstart called television!).
My wife, Angela Maria, was also delighted. She was having a grand time looping the voices of Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida before either one of them had learned to speak English.
Our offspring, almost four by now, spoke fluent Italian. We purchased a small Italian car for weekend picnics in the intoxicating Roman countryside. It was truly a time of wine and roses.
Then we came home.
No one knew who I was, and worse, no one cared. Andre Luotto was gravely ill and I couldn't get a job anywhere.
I was invited to the televising of a TV show called Matinee Theater, which, at the time, was the hottest thing on the tube.
I walked into a monstrous control room where sixteen people were doing the work we used to do at WOR with a secretary and an engineer.
In desperation, I wrote a couple of novels. They turned out to be Book-of-the-Month Club selections and were made into bad movies.
They paid the rent, but I was fretting. I wanted to get back to producing, but whoever they were looking for, it wasn't me. So I wrote a batch of Untouchables, Rawhides, Desilu Playhouses, Kraft Theatres, etc., and became a story editor for a very talented lady, whom you all know, named Ethel Winant, on a show called The Great Adventure.
When The Great Adventure ended, a fine producer named Philip Leacock (for whom I'd earlier written one or two series episodes) asked if I would consider becoming story editor for a show a lot of us were in awe of. It was called Gunsmoke.
I took the job. After a month or two, Philip was tapped by the network to executive-produce what was being heralded as the biggest and best Western ever to be made for TV. I believe it was called Cimarron Strip.
For a lot of reasons (none of them related to Philip), that show never worked. Philip went to Hawaii to produce Hawaii Five-O (which did work), and I was suddenly the producer of what would turn out to be the longest-running dramatic show in the annals of television.
Gunsmoke, which had been slipping in the ratings, (it had been the highest- rated show on television from October of 1959 thru October of 1960), began to take off and climbed into the top ten again. A few weeks into the new season it soared even higher, becoming the highest-rated dramatic show on television, second only to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
The year was 1969. I congratulated myself on the fact that, while fellow producers were beginning to complain about increased network intrusions into the creative process, I had beaten the odds. But the time was not far off when that beautiful bubble was going to burst.
You see, since that opening night in '51, I had never had to deal with interference of any sort and now, with Gunsmoke doing so well, there wasn't, I thought, much likelihood that I had anything to worry about. I should have remembered that pride goeth before a fall!
The bubble burst with a vengeance, as I got my first taste of Big-Time Creative Interference!
We had submitted two Gunsmoke outlines to CBS. I got a curt call from the network telling me that both scripts had been summarily rejected. Reason: They projected "the wrong broadcasting image" for our show! I was stunned. By now, I had produced a substantial number of shows and assumed I had a reasonably clear idea of what constituted a Gunsmoke vehicle.
One show was built around Amanda Blake:
Matt, for the umpteenth time, had been critically wounded and Doc had just barely pulled him through, at which point Miss Kitty was supposed to sell the Longbranch and leave town. She just couldn't go through the hell of not knowing, from day-to-day, whether Matt was going to live or die.. The hook was: would Matt swallow his pride and go after her?
In the other show, Doc, witnessing a murder, alerted Matt and, in the ensuing gunfight, the murderer was badly wounded. As Doc was operating on him, a terrified young man rushed into the office. His wife was having a breach birth. Doc would not break his Hippocratic oath by leaving a patient to die on the table, even though that patient was a killer.
I pleaded for the scripts to be reinstated. The network was adamant; under no circumstances were they to be shot and/or aired.
I couldn't get the fingers of my mind around what appeared to be a kind of insanity. Arness loved both scripts; Amanda was deliciously happy over hers (because for once Miss Kitty was calling the shots!) and Milburn, for the first time in memory, didn't want to change a line.
Surely, I thought, the network must realize that these people, who had played their characters for close to two decades, could be relied upon to judge what was, or was not, an acceptable episode, even if the executive producer could not.
The network held fast.
I guess I went a little nuts. I called Television City. I said that since they felt I no longer understood what a Gunsmoke episode should be, they would do well to replace me with someone who did.
Then I shut the show down and went home.
I had learned the hard way how deadly to the creative process interference can be.
I won't bore you with details of what followed. Suffice it to say, there was a big meeting with the brass. It went on for the best part of an afternoon. The scripts were reluctantly approved with the proviso that I change eight lines.
Epilogue: Milburn Stone got the AMA's most prestigious award (which he coveted more than his Emmy) as Doc Adams. Amanda Blake got the greatest amount of mail she had ever received for a performance, as did the show. The network was delighted. A senior executive was said to have given a speech in Kansas City in which he cited the two "verboten" shows as examples of Gunsmoke's enduring quality.
I illustrate this piece with a page of the TV GUIDE dated October 16, 1951. I have kept it all these years not just because that date marked the airing of my first TV show as well as the debut of "I Love Lucy." But because this one single page demonstrates a devastating reminder of how much we have lost!
The astonishing thing was that, in spite of the fact that screens were tiny and the picture was grainy black-and-white, audiences were glued to their sets as unfettered producers poured fresh and exciting programs into their homes night after night. What made it possible was one simple thing: the lack of creative interference.
Today, as we all know, the networks sit in judgment over every phase of television production. As a result, Newton Minnow's prophecy of a "vast wasteland" has come true.
We are informed that audiences are deserting television in steadily-increasing numbers, and the entertainment colossus that once gave us Requiem For a Heavyweight, Marty, The Twilight Zone, The Defenders, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, Your Show of Shows, Texaco Star Theatre, Somerset Maugham Theatre, Desilu Playhouse, Studio One and Playhouse 90, to name only a few, is no more.
In thinking back to those "good old days," it is important to remember that every one of the shows listed above, and dozens of others produced in that splendid era of creative freedom, was unique. Each was representative of the individual courage, taste, personal values and sure dramatic instincts of the talented men and women who produced them. So strong was their individuality that viewers could frequently tell, just from the way shows were written and constructed, whose names would be on the credits.
If any further proof of the values of creative freedom is needed, a true test of the enduring quality of the shows it produced so long ago, lies in the increasing number of rip-offs that are appearing on today's television.
It is unlikely we can ever return to that blissfully fecund
world of yesteryear, but brothers and sisters, it was hell on wheels while
it lasted and it remains forever warm and rich in memory!