Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve radio: SUSPENSE "The Old Man" (Dec. 31, 1961)

As we prepare to ring out the old year, it's worth noting that not all old years are ready to go. 2016 feels like one that most people are anxious to have done with, but the sentiment isn't new. Here it illustrated in a late-run installment of Suspense from New York, broadcast over CBS on New Year's Eve, 1961: "The Old Man."

Here we have an atypical late-run installment of Suspense. It's not very suspenseful, *but* it's also one of the better shows from the waning years, when the series returned to New York. The cast (more on them as we go along) is headlined by Leon Janney in the title role, and Reynold Osborne (who did SUSPENSE and YOURS TRULY JOHNNY DOLLAR periodically between 1961-1962, but I can't find anything else about him). The "heard in tonight's story" crowd are a seasoned bunch, in order of billing, Lawson Zerbe, Ivor Francis, Larry Haines, Ralph Camargo, Rita Lloyd, and Guy Repp (in a one-liner as Johnson).


By 1961, radio was an old man itself. To save money in the waning years of network radio, CBS relocated both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to New York (where the radio soaps were still going), in the fall of 1959. By the end of 1962, the soaps were long gone (or moved to TV) and the theater of thrills and the man with the action packed expense account were both axed. Even by 1959, the heyday of Hollywood stars like Cary Grant or Ida Lupino emoting on Suspense had passed; the last few Hollywood years were dominated by the radio stalwarts (and a few names like Vincent Price who might drop in because they still loved the medium). The NY talent pool (old radio pros, stage veterans, a few early TV folks) was more than capable (some like Ian Martin even worked Suspense from the beginning, *before* the Hollywood move).

The real problem lay with the scripts. The show had run through the classics by this point, and it was so hard to get good writers that often the actors (or even technical staff) would contribute (with results ranging from decent to abysmal). "The Old Man" is better than I expected, a fun fantasy reminiscent of Norman Corwin (especially "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones" or "The Undecided Molecule.") This was writer Bob Corcoran's first of three scripts for Suspense, when he was a staff writer for CBS's Stagestruck (blend of variety and interviews, focused on the theater) and TV variety shows (Patti Page), but also dramatic scripts for radio's Rocky King and Modern Romance.

We open with a radio announcer (Camargo) along Broadway interviewing people on New Year's Eve (and trying to keep them from stepping on his wire). One of the folks he encounters is an inebriated gent identified in the credits as "The Tippler" (played by the great Larry Haines). After interviewing senior cab driver Joe Walston (Zerbe), the announcer shrewdly bundles the drunk into the cab.

Meanwhile, in some sort of celestial bureaucracy (Times Past, Present, and Future), the Director (Osborne) and secretary Miss Fowler (Rita Lloyd) discuss the retirement party for "the old man." He knew it was a short-term job, after all. The pompous director harries his assistant (Ivor Francis) but is aware that he has to answer to... "the Chairman of the Board" (heavily implied to be God).

The old man himself resists the notion and the standard gold watch, since he already has his own timepiece (the big hour glass, no doubt). He makes his way to earth... and explicitly, to the New York street where Walston and his pickled passenger spot him. Assuming he's headed to a New Year's Eve costume party, Walston picks him up, talks about retirement age... and then they find themselves transferred back to those otherworldly offices of time and space (snatched by the assistant, though his director chides him for getting those "other two clowns.") Walston's reaction is priceless, thinking the cab must have cracked up and now, "we're deadsville or something?" The pompous director resents that assumption (and word). "Nutsville?!?"

From here, the Old Man tries to argue that he can still fix the problems of 1961 (and thinks the baby new year 1962 looks rather stupid). Walston, now fully aware of what's going on, points out that a lot of people (including himself) will not be sorry to see Old 1961 go (sound familiar?) and encourages him to let the new year take its place, for good or ill. Will the new year of 1962 commence or not? Will the year chime? What will become of the calendars?? Listen and find out.

The sound on the above link is fuzzy in spots and pitch sounds a trifle off, but it's still a good show (and familiar voices like Ivor Francis and Larry Haines are still recognizable).

Cast notes:
Leon Janney, who does a great cranky old man voice here, was 44 at the time, but he knew all about aging out of a job. He had been a former child actor in the late twenties and early thirties, starring in Penrod and Sam (as Penrod) and he was featured in exactly one "Our Gang" entry, Bear Shooters. In adulthood, he worked heavily on radio (including Number One Son on Charlie Chain, John Cole and other suitors on The Romance of Helen Trent), and by this point was appearing near weekly on Suspense. TV included episodes of Car 54, Where Are You and The Defenders. He was later heard on the revival series CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and on National Lampoon Radio Hour (narrating the "Flash Bazbo" segments)

Lawson Zerbe was one of the busiest voices of NY radio, from at least 1937 onward, from soaps and serials to anthologies. He starred as the title characters on The Adventures of Frank Merriwell and Pepper Young's Family (for a time anyway, preceding Mason Adams). He played photographer Dusty Miller on Big Town and was heard at various times on the soap The Road of Life as Dr. Jim Brent's brother Fred and later as his adopted son Butch. Lots of X-Minus One (along with nearly everyone in this episode), Inner Sanctum, Mutual's mystery anthologies, and more.

Unlike most of the others in "The Old Man," Zerbe didn't do on-camera work or even Broadway. He stayed behind the mic, heard in children's records for MGM from the sixties through the seventies (playing the Gingerbread Man, for example). He continued to be heard on NBC's The Eternal Light (which, under their public affairs division, continued to broadcast, finally ending in the eighties.)

Ivor Francis (as the assistant to the director) is a personal favorite of mine. He was heard all over the New York airwaves, including Studio One, X-Minus One, and others. He was most familiar on-camera, however, with his weary face popping up in character roles, often as gentle but absent-minded professor types, doctors, or clergy. He had a regular role on the not-so-hot "Gilligan in the Old West" series Dusty's Trail (as the wealthy Easterner, the millionaire counterpart), recurred on Room 222 as old-fashioned English teacher Kenneth Dragen, was a frequent arrestee on Barney Miller (as shown above), and had guest turns on The Defenders, Kojak, Quincy, Happy Days, Get Smart (as a Stanislavsky-style acting coach), and countless others.

Larry Haines often played crooks, bartenders, tough guy detectives, or general blue collar types. An obvious New Yorker, he could lend menace or humor to his roles, depending, heard on several prior (and subsequent) Suspense installments, Gangbusters (of course), Treasury Agent (starring as the lead, Joe Lincoln), That Hammer Guy (as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who fared better on TV), X-Minus One, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and hundreds more (including soap stints, such as The Second Mrs. Burton as Lew Archer and on Rosemary as Lefty Higgins, another gangster type, but this one tried to reform). He transitioned well into movies and TV, highlighted by playing poker buddy Speed in The Odd Couple and a long stint on Search for Tomorrowt as Stu Bergen. He also worked Broadway (billed as "A. Larry Haines," for some reason), originating the part of Jason Robards' brother in A Thousand Clowns, as well as the lead in Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Dr. Dreyfus in Promises, Promises.

Ralph Camargo, as the above industry ad indicates, acted, announced (on the Marine Corps recruitment series Marine Story), and narrated (including on the 1959 Suspense version of "The Country of the Blind.") He was a perennial "featured in the cast were" player on X-Minus One and other NY series. ON TV, he sometimes played judges on soaps.

Rita Lloyd worked New York radio (notably the children's series Let's Pretend) but later became a staple of TV soaps, usually as matriarch figures trying to control the lives of their children (usually daughters). Lucille on The Guiding Light was typical of the breed.

So, farewell to the old year, in with the year, even if it does seem like discrimination against the elderly. A better year for anyone reading this, and as the CBS announcer reminds us, "unscheduled stops for many this night of nights will be emergency wards, hospital beds, and the morgue... Be extra careful, extra courteous, and moderate in tonight's celebration." (And don't start a forest fire while you're at it.)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Barney Miller Christmas: "Homeless" (season 8, 1981)

Well, 2016 was not content with finally taking Abe Vigoda. Within the last thirty days, we've lost fellow BARNEY MILLER alums Ron Glass (Det. Sgt. Ron Harris) and character actor Don Calfa (a frequent arrestee). I hope to write more about both gents soon. But right now, the timely episode "Homeless," from the final season, seemed a nice way to look at both of them in action. This was only the last of three Christmas episodes for the show. Season 3's "Christmas Story" is the best known, highlighted by a love interest for Jack Soo's Nick Yemana, and it featured to a lesser extent in season 5's "Toys."

"Homeless" is a sweet, underlooked gem. Glass has little to do (most of the regulars are on the periphery, watching events converge). But Calfa, who often played despicable crooks or else those with definite health (or mental) issues, has his most likable role here, his seventh and last appearance.

So, the episode opens with Officer Levitt (Ron Carey) on detective assignment again. Harris brings in a large wrapped gift for a needy child... a Bavarian German-crafted march of the wooden soldiers set. Levitt, whose gift is the size of a matchbox, resents it.
Before the main theme rolls, he'll refer to them as a "box of Nazis." (I'm not a fan of Levitt, who started out sullenly insufferable and stayed there; he had his moments, often with Dietrich, but the writers left him flatter as a character than Inspector Luger, which is saying a lot). I like Harris' sweater, though.

Now, plot starts: Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) and Wojo (Max Gail) enter. Wojo helps a clearly shaken, ailing Edward Pratken (Don Calfa), Eddie to his many friends. Dietrich's escorting a repeat offender, obnoxious sporting goods store owner Bruno Binder (Stanley Brock). As a loudmouth merchant with vigilante tendencies, Binder was often in as complainant or arrestee (or both at the same time). He found Pratken in his tent display and attacked him with a cattle prod (!) Binder never appeared without a hat, and usually had a cigar present, adding to the impression of boorish shopkeeper (who really hates the public; he "jokes" about wishing he could zap some carolers.)

Wojo learns that Eddie has been living in that display ("only at night"). One of Wojo's best traits (even in the early seasons where he could be an outright goon) is his sympathy for the underdog, although he gently suggests Eddie should have tried a mission, shelter, or even sleep in the subway. "That's where the bums live!" Eddie explains he doesn't drink, he has a steady job as a dishwasher.... but the 25 dollar a week hotel where he lived was sold to a developer. So all fifty or so residents were dispossessed. Calfa's expressive eyes ahdn hang-dog look really add to the character, trying to maintain his dignity while aware of his situation.

Wojo tries to argue Eddie's case with Barney (wrapping a Christmas present), who becomes apprehensive: "Who did you call?" Wojo's tendency to go overboard in these matters has been well established by now; notable examples include telling the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the case of a single elderly native man "involved a treaty," and most famously, in "Agent Orange," calling down a VA representative, chemical company head, *and* then wondering "Where's the air force?")

This time, Wojo called a man from the Department of Human Resources. Barney assures him that's who he should have called. Wojo: "Don't play games with me, Barney!"

Harris enters with a new Christmas guest, and the only subplot this time (everything else relates somehow to the starting incident at Binder's): Joseph Kellogg (Broadway actor Paul Stolarsky in his only appearance; stolarsky also had a bit part in Muppets Take Manhattan, more heard than seen as the announcer for Gonzo's chicken-themed aquacade).
Greeting card writ Kellogg was causing a disturbance at the office Christmas party... after Santa handed him a sympathy card with a pink slip, instead of his expected bonus.

In the meantime, however, the station has been stormed by two of Eddie's friends and former neighbors: Sam Belinkoff (frequent visitor Walter Janowitz) and Linda (Zane Busby), wanting to get "our Eddie" out of jail.

Walter Janowitz was your go to twinkly Eastern European on sitcoms (and some dramas) in the sixties and seventies. This was his fourth visit to the 12th Precinct (the most famous being as the swordfighting Polish actor in "Hash") and he'd even be in the crowd of neighborhood regulars in the finale.

Zane Busby appeared in comedy films, usually small roles, in the likes of Oh, God!, Americathon, This Is Spinal Tap, and notably in Cracking Up (as foil to Jerry Lewis, in multiple roles). She moved behind the camera around 1984, directing frequent episodes of the sitcoms Dads, My Two Dads, and before she got in a rut of dad shows, Charles in Charge, as well as Blossom and single installments of Newhart and The Golden Girls

So, after Binder hurls some verbal abuse at the "scuzz" outside the cell, Mr. Belinkoff reveals their protest method. At least twenty five of Eddie's fellow dispossessed are in the precinct, essentially staging a sort of sit-in (or at least crowd-in). Wojo grins at the notion, prompting him to disclaim, "Wasn't my idea!"

The homeless horde swells, with Belinkoff having started a rumor that the station was providing free board for the holidays (a pregnant woman is among their number, unseen.) Wojo finds food for the increasing throng through the vending machines: "Lucky you had enough quarters." "Umm, we'll talk about that later."

Further arrivals: Naomi Binder, who for only a month or so has been Mrs. Binder. She's played by Mari Gorman, who played neurotic housewife-types before (once as a woman who decides to try hooking in the hopes of being noticed, and thrice as Det. Rosalyn Licori, who was scatterbrained and had a controlling husband). Mrs. Binder is much the same, and when she flinches as an angry Binder thrusts a hand near the bars, one really rather worries about their homelife.

Next, Howard Weckler of the NY department of Human Resources has finally arrived. He's played by frequent visitor David Clennon, who appeared in assorted roles but more than once ended up as basically the guy in the suit (more on him in a future profile). Nearly all Barney Miller bureaucrats are beleagured (most mean well but their hands are tied), but Weckler looks bewildered before he even enters the room, as if he'd already given up. He talks to Barney a little bit about the problem (city crackdowns, unemployment, tax incentives leading developers to buy up hotels and flophouses to turn into condos.) But nothing useful comes from the conclave.

Finally, smug, pointlessly vindictive Arthur Mench of the greeting card company. It's Ben Piazza, who specialized in smarmy smiling men in sits who you'd like to see get kicked in the teeth. This was his third and final appearance, and they were all louses. This one presses charges, rattles on about wanting to sell greeting cards to hostages (!) and is mostly unfazed when Binder and Eddie threaten to boycott his cards (Harris writes his own).
Weckler has proved useless by this point, only obtaining an abandoned correctional facility in the Catskills (but they'd have to supply their own transportation). But Dietrich reveals it's all academic, as the city is snowed in. Nobody (including city bureaucrats who live in Connecticut) is getting out. Well, except for Bruno Binder, released on bail and willing to brave the snow to his nearby store/home. And a Christmas miracle occurs. Bruno had been observing Eddie (and his lady friend Eddie) with growing warmth and understanding (Linda beat both heroin and hooking, getting two things off her bat). While still apt to call Eddie "Mr. Potato Head" and Linda "Princess Grace," he drops the charges... and invites them both home for Christmas. He even hugs Barney!

Meanwhile, the remainder bunker down for the night: officers, dispossessed, and man from the city. We get a shot of the precinct window and some Waltons style exchanges: Harris wonders who took his pillow, Dietrich reveals he normally sleeps in the nude, Mr. Belinkoff says "Goodnight, Mr. Weckler" (very funny) and we close with a "Merry Christmas" from Levitt to the captain (and vice versa). Definitely a Grand Hotel-esque episode, for a series that tended to specialize in them (we seldom ever saw beyond the squad room, and by episode's end, they really *are* cut off).
*cue bassline in credits, and a cup of eggnog instead of the bad coffee*

Thursday, December 1, 2016

12th Precinct Rap Sheets: Ralph Manza

Your humble curator had considered this project for some time, and spurred by a recent passing, I've decided to dip into the police files from my favorite fictional precinct, the ol' 12 of Barney Miller fame.

This is the first of several profiles of the many character people who walked and in and out of those ancient doors, as perpetrators, victims, witnesses, or just generally confused locals. As early as the second season, Barney Miller began to move away from "wacky" crooks and focused more often on either colorful eccentrics (usually candidates for Bellevue) or just average citizens who snapped under pressure of modern life and especially living in New York (getting into brawls, vandalizing property, or taking to theft because "everyone else is doing it!") The show liked repeat offenders, using the same actors again and again, usually in different roles. A few recurred as the same character, and several alternated between both. They all added to the neighborhood feel of the show, and many would go on to appear on Barney Miller alumnus Reinhold Weege's Night Court in the eighties and nineties.

So our inaugural offender, Ralph Manza, born on December 1st (today, at time of writing), 1921. He had expressive eyes which gave him a vaguely woeful look. Combined with short stature and going white haired fairly early, he had a very long career in supporting or bit parts, often as nervous little men, flunkies, henchmen, old men (obviously), or working class types (drivers, waiters, hot dog vendors, etc.) He appeared four times as Mr. Leon Roth, neighborhood blind man, his most visible (ahem) role.

However, he appeared twice in other parts. We'll look at those as well as Mr. M.'s overall career. To begin, let's look back at a young Ralph Manza from the 1962 Academy Players Directory (Characters and Comedians).

Manza had been a premed student when he was drafted during WWII. He became an army medic and was assigned to a performing troupe; as often happened overseas, Manza was not sufficiently inoculated from the acting bug. Postwar, he showed up on TV fairly early in the 1950s, as cabbies and the like. He also had a regular role on the 1959 series The D.A.'s Man, as First A.D.A. Al Bonacarsi. By 1962, he had racked up appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Judge Roy Bean, Sugarfoot, 87th Precinct (getting familiar with New York police habitats), and The Twilight Zone (as a stage doorman in the classic "The Dummy," with George "Lt. Scanlon" Murdock in a rather wooden role).

Now, we'll skip ahead to 1975, and Manza's first visit to the 12th Precinct. In the second season Barney Miller episode "Protection" (December 18, 1975), an extortion racket is capitalizing on rumors that the 12th will be closing its doors (in the midst of New York's financial crisis, and after Gerald Ford's infamous speech which papers of the day summed up as "Ford to City: Drop Dead"). One of the joys of the show is how it reflects New York of the day. Well, Wojo, eager to get to the source, goes back to old New York, bringing in Ralph Manza as Anthony Borelli. Known to Inspector Luger as Tony "The Emperor" Borelli, he last worked the rackets in 1942. A tiny old man with a cane, blinking behind glasses, he mostly seems bemused by Wojo's interest. He'd rather talk about 1923 than 1942 ("the good stuff"), now mostly works in his garden (demonstrating his crops with his fingers), and finds he's confused one of his old-time don colleagues with The Godfather.
He scoffs at the ones they get nowadays with funny names like "Bigelow... Dugan... Feldman!" For me, it's the highlight of the episode (and an early example of Wojo going overboard when bringing in witnesses or experts, frequently calling in representatives of multiple government branches at a time).

The following season, we see Manza debuting in his main Miller role, as Leon Roth in "Community Relations" (Jan. 13, 1977). Mr. Roth is arrested for shoplifting, explaining he does so to compensate for all of the times he's been robbed, living alone. He also describes how from the feel of a person's hand, and their sounds, he can tell a lot about them. Nick Yemana asks for a character assessment, resulting in glowing positive traits... "either that, or you're Japanese." At the episode's end, another case, the shotgun wielding Mr. Lukather (Judson Morgan), who they've just dispossessed, moves in with Mr. Roth, solving their mutual problems.

Manza takes a momentary break from Mr. Roth, in "Kidnapping," the one hour fifth season opener (September 14, 1978). Mr. Siegel, owner of Siegel's Department Store (oft mentioned on the show and a stand in for Spiegel's) has been kidnapped. Manza plays his remorseful, arthritic chauffeur who was unable to prevent the snatch. Another episode that mostly calls on Manza to be little, old, and nervous, but it's still a pleasure to see him.

Manza returns as Mr. Roth in "People's Court" (Jan. 3, 1980), still rooming with Mr. Lukather. It turns out they're living in the same building as frequent 12th Precinct pest Bruno Binder (Stanley Brock), the irate sporting good's store owner with vigilante tendencies. He turned his fellow tenants into a court, originally designed to solve their own disputes, but now having branched out into jailing burglars. Mr. Roth's participation is limited to being a rather ill-equipped public defender for the accused.

In "Movie, Part 2," Mr. Roth enjoys his finest hour. This time, he's been mugged, by a crook targeting the disabled (he's eventually caught in front of the House of Canes). Mr. Roth goes through mug books (just feeling his way through) and, while waiting for Mr. Lukather to pick him up, he gets to join the squad in screening Harris' new movie (a porno as part of a departmental decoy, later abandoned). He helpfully offers a tray of crab puffs but ensures that Luger only gets one. He yells "Down in front!" at another civilian, taken aback when he sees who it is. Wojo, who had to take a call and missed the first half, says he liked "what I saw of it." Mr. Roth heartily chimes in with "Same here!"
Even when they use his blindness as a punchline, and despite his clear vulnerability to thieves, Mr. Roth is a fun, feisty character, reflecting the general mix of the 12th Precinct's colorful neighborhood.

In that capacity, he and Mr. Lukather show up in "Finale, Part 3." As the 12th Precinct really *is* shut down this time, and the squad dispersed, the neighborhood folks have dropped by to say farewell, including Binder, gay couple Marty and Mr. Driscoll, and more of the stock company. Mr. Roth asks if Barney looks surprised. It's a sweet and fitting goodbye to the show, the cast, and yes, those guests to the 12th who added so much to the series.

Ralph Manza also worked on several of Barney's sister shows. On the spinoff Fish (1977-1978), he appeared twice as elderly postman Mr. Jackman.
Then there was AES Hudson Street (1978), aka "Barney Miller in a hospital." It came from Barney creator Danny Arnold, with Gregory Sierra (the 12th's Chano Amenguale) as the lead doctor. The other regulars were mostly the same "customers," including Manza as ambulance attendant Stanke. The show lasted less than a full month on ABC.
Finally, he appeared several times on Night Court (less a sister than a weird cousin), created by Reinhold Weege, who had been a staff writer, story editor, and for a time producer on Barney.

Now, having looked at Manza's priors at the 12th and related environs, let's get back to the rest of his career. In the sixties, he continued to pop frequently all over the place. He surprised me on Perry Mason as an expert medical witness (twice), well dressed and professional. He returned to more expected environs as a plaster yard foreman in "The Case of the Scandalous Sculptor' (1964). He was a henchman on Batman (to Catwoman, appropriately named Felix and wearing a cat-eared hat) and at various times on Get Smart (best represented by Finster, the tiny hospital orderly to KAOS doctor Dana Elcar in 1969's "And Baby Makes Four.")

In the seventies, he enjoyed a regular stint on Banacek as faithful driver Jay Drury. He made it as far as Cincinnati for the WKRP episode "Clean Up Radio Everywhere" as Harvey Green, WKRP's longest standing sponsor as owner of Red Wigglers (the Cadillac of worms). He continued to be everywhere, or so it seemed, including Soap (as a prisoner named Digger in three episodes), Fantasy Island, Newhart (semi-regular as Bud, crew member on "Vermont Today"), Doogie Howser, M.D>, The Golden Girls, and the 80s revival of The Twilight Zone (as a harried sound effects man in "Cold Reading" with Dick Shawn). Here he is in the 1989 edition of the Academy Players Directory.

In the nineties, even when he was usually just "Old Man," he stayed busy with spots on Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, and Charmed.

Film work always played second to the tube, but Manza can be spotted in Blazing Saddles (as an actor dressed as Hitler), 1984's The Philadelphia Experiment, and the 1998 remake of Godzilla *as "old fisherman.") He passed away at the age of 78 on January 31, 2000.

Mr. Roth's vision may have been lacking, but Mr. Manza's career sure wasn't.