I always enjoy hearing old showbiz stories from old showbiz types themselves, so not long ago I went to see Red Buttons, Carl Reiner, Rose Marie, I Love Lucy director William Asher, Sid Caesar, and Mickey Rooney speak at a press conference for Pioneers of Primetime, a new documentary that premieres on PBS November 9. The legendarily look-at-me-me-ME!! Mickey Rooney, tried to take over the discussion with numerous off-point stories. But fortunately 86-year-old Red Buttons, the oldest yet sharpest person in the room, kept reeling him in.
”By the way, Mickey,” Buttons deadpanned after one endless, those-were-the-days story from The Mick, “was Lincoln a nice guy?”
“I was a young girl when this panel started,” sighed Rose Marie, who then turned the discussion towards what a wonderful childhood she had as a child star.
“I had a wonderful childhood myself,” said Buttons, “until I was molested by Milton Berle.”
At one point the panelists started talking about Jews in vaudeville and Hollywood, which Mickey Rooney took as a cue to begin reciting a list of gentile names: “Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor…”
“And Mickey Rooney,” interrupted Buttons.
“Oh, forget about him,” said Rooney, pretending to be modest.
“But you can’t!” pointed out Buttons. “Who can forget those Andy Hardy films? I saw every one of them: Andy Hardy and the Hasidic Housewife. Andy Hardy Schtups Lassie…”
At that point I looked at the panel and began taking a little demographic poll: Asher, Caesar, Reiner–Jewish. Rose Marie, Rooney–Irish. But what is Red Buttons? Red hair is a Jewish as well as an Irish trait, but he doesn’t look obviously either. And you can’t tell anything from his using a word like schtups. Any old vaudevillian of his generation knows Yiddish words like that.
My question was answered when Buttons told a story about finally getting to meet his hero, James Cagney, on the set of the film 1946 spy film 13 Rue Madeleine. After seeing Cagney stride into work one day, with his brisk trademark announcement of, “Good morning, good morning, everybody; hit your marks, don’t bump into the furniture, and let’s make the bosses richer than they are,” Buttons asked another actor, Sam Jaffe, to introduce him.
Although he was Irish, Cagney was famously fluent in Yiddish, which he immediately began speaking upon meeting the young actor.
“Mr. Cagney, why are you speaking to me in Yiddish?” Buttons asked.
“Let me tell you something,” Cagney responded. “No self-respecting Irishman would call himself Red Buttons.”
Pioneers of Primetime, unfortunately, doesn’t feature interviews with Red Buttons or Mickey Rooney; it does have interviews with Rose Marie and a couple of the other panelists, along with Red Skelton and Bob Hope, among others. Apparently the theme for appearing on this particular panel was not Old Vaudevillians Who Are Actually In the Documentary, but Old Vaudevillians Who Are Actually Still Alive. No matter–-it’s still a lot of fun, although not quite in the same way as that panel.
“You were around at the time, you know, you were a pioneer,” shrugged Buttons.
By the way, it’s worth remembering that not all beloved primetime pioneers were originally so beloved. “The critics didn’t like our show at first,” I Love Lucy writer Bob Carroll once remarked at a TV Land press conference, surveying a room full of television critics. “Nothing personal.”
Carroll’s old writing partner, Madeleine Pugh-Davis, recalled that she was at first heartened to read a Time review that described the show as “a triumph of bounce over bubbling material.”
“I thought, that’s not so bad,” Pugh-Davis said. “And I read it again and it said, ‘A triumph of bounce over bungling material.’ They didn’t like the writing. But I think the show got better.”
Lucille Ball was such a brilliant physical comedienne that Lucy fans always ask how much of the show was written and how much was improvised. The answer is that almost all of it was written. I remember Lucille Ball herself telling an audience that, a few years before she died.
“We wrote everything out, all the moves,” said Pugh-Davis. Ball always called this “the black stuff” because in the scripts, her physical antics were described in big black capital letters. “But she added so much on the set,” Pugh-Davis noted. One example: In the famous pizza-making episode, the script has Lucy letting the pizza dough fall on her head so she could hide when Ricky happens by.
“And then the thing she added,” recalled Pugh-Davis, “was she made two little holes for the eyes.”
Did Lucy ever balk at any of the physical indignities the writers imagined for her?
“Well, she’d say, ‘Is it funny?’” said Pugh-Davis. “And we said, yeah, it’s going to be real funny. So she’d say O.K. She never minded looking awful, blacking out her teeth, getting hit with mud. And that gave us a wonderful license. We could just think of anything because she would do it. She was fearless.”
I Love Lucy director William Asher added that once Ball turned to him and said, “Bill, would you ask your wife to do this?”
“I was married to an actress,” Asher noted. “And I said, ‘I’m not married to Lucille Ball.’ And she said, ‘Oh,’ and went on and did it–did it very well.”
It’s worth noting that I Love Lucy got all its laughs with just three writers (Carroll and Pugh-Davis also worked with Jess Oppenheimer) and a couple of sets. Contrast that, Carroll pointed out, with today’s rooms full of sitcom writers, not to mention reality shows.
“Sixteen contestants, 100 crew, tons of equipment, go to Borneo,” he said. “And all we had to do was say, ‘Ethel, if Ricky finds out I bought this hat, he’ll kill me.’ It was that simple.”
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.