Going Fishing with Bill Conrad

Bill Conrad wrangled another 1.2 million budget from Warners for his next project – Chubasco – on which Howard Kazanjian would continue his DGA apprenticeship. Besides being the name of the lead character, the title refers to the heavy thunder storms at sea along the Pacific Coast during the rainy season, a fitting metaphor for the troubled, mercurial young rebel (portrayed by Christopher Jones) who becomes involved in a star-crossed relationship with Bunny (played by Susan Strasberg), the daughter of a Portuguese tuna fisherman (played by Richard Egan).

The director Allen H. Miner also wrote the script. It was a passion project for him. He had covered the lives of tuna fishermen before in a documentary for which he wore all the hats – producer, cameraman, director and editor – The Naked Sea, released in 1954 by RKO. Bill Conrad’s connection to Miner dates back to this film. He provided the narration for it, and a few years later he appeared in a western directed by Miner, entitled The Ride Back.

According to Howard “we had a very strong cast for the day, basically all names.” And many deemed Christopher Jones a rising star. He was being boosted as a successor to James Dean. Miner brought Jones with him as his choice for the lead, having directed him in a couple of episodes in the TV series, the Legend of Jesse James. At this time Jones was married to his co-star Susan Strasberg, and a lot was made of that fact in the ongoing promotion for the picture.  Articles appeared in the press asking the question could they be as successful together as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Sadly, they split the year that Chubasco was released. Strasberg remained in the acting profession, but Jones, after appearing in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, dropped out of sight for a myriad of personal reasons.

Originally Robert Burks was tapped to be DP. He was Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, teaming up with him beginning with Strangers on a Train through Marnie (only missing Psycho). Howard does not recall Burks on Chubasco at all. So for whatever reason, Burks must have left the production prior to Howard’s involvement with it. Two DPs are listed instead. Between Paul Ivano and Lew Jennings, I am not sure which was his replacement. Howard tells me that when you see two DPs, one of them is usually responsible for a specialized type of photography.  In the case  of Chubasco this was most likely for the underwater sequences.

The AD on the project, Fred Gammon, handed Howard the usual assignments. [Howard –  “Checking in actors into make-up in the morning, seeing that they get breakfast if needed.  Getting them to the set.   All paperwork, time cards, call sheets, production reports, etc. etc. etc.”] He also set the extras for the scenes on shore, notably the confrontation between Jones and the motorcycle gang that was crashing a party under a pier and Jones’ subsequent arrest. Howard placed extras for the bits when the fishermen brought their catches in.  [Howard – “I remember watching the tuna being unloaded and moving up a ramp bumping their heads on the wooden sides.  And then seeing huge piles of tuna in the warehouse.  I loved tuna sandwiches until I saw how they were handled”].

The first phase of the production was tough. The home port for the story was San Diego. So that is where principal photography commenced for the exteriors. [Howard – “I think we were down in SD only two weeks. I stayed at the El Rey Hotel, that was the place to stay at the time. While on location I got the crew and cast to the harbor and sent them out to sea.  I stayed back on shore doing whatever needed to be done. Shooting on water is always difficult.  Always the fewer at sea the better”]. There were more vessels than one involved. Besides fishing vessels upon which the cast performed, another was set apart as the crew vessel. It also acted as a camera platform for master shots focused on the fishing boats. The studio hired a huge yacht to act as courier between the ships at sea and the company base on the mainland.

Just because Howard was land bound by his responsibilities, didn’t mean that he didn’t get to go out on the water. [Howard – “I recall being taken to dinner by Joe Cramer at the Coronado Hotel on the weekend. Joe was one of the best and nicest guys I met in the business and he took me under his wing. He was the assistant to the head production manager at WB, Dutch Meyer, to whom we all reported]. (Aside – The following year Cramer was the unit manager on “Bullitt” and AD on “The Green Berets”).  Cramer arranged for Howard and a few others to have a short cruise and a meal that Sunday. On location the production was shuttered on Sunday, and this yacht sat idle (you can see it in the above video, beginning about the 10 sec mark). It was paid for, so why not use it. Prior to this Howard’s experiences on the water had all been less than pleasurable (even outings to Catalina with his dad when younger, or on fishing expeditions with his uncle). And so it proved again. He became sick immediately upon the yacht casting away from the dock and had to lie down. Someone suggested a meal. In the dining salon a gigantic table (20 foot long) had been set up. It was on gimbals, so it could move but stay level. The chef brought out the meal. The blood from the meat moved around on the plate ever so slightly, but it was enough to send Howard up on deck to the rail.

After the two weeks in San Diego, the production moved up to the studio in Burbank for interiors. [Howard – I was on the film exactly 30 days.   I don’t recall if I saw the wrap or not.   I know I went onto Cool Hand Luke the next day].

Making a Musical for Bill Conrad

 

The next time Howard Kazanjian worked for producer Bill Conrad, the budget had been bumped up to 1.2 million. Warner Brothers was looking to cash in on the new craze sweeping the young teen audiences in America, represented by the success of such musical variety shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

The studio saw potential in a script penned by the first winner of the Samuel L Warner Memorial Opportunity Award, Joyce Geller when she was there for her internship. (I mentioned this in passing on my post entitled “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”). Geller’s script told the story of a talented but unsuccessful singer Cliff Donner (played by Gil Peterson) and an ambitious go-go dancer Hallie Rodgers (played by Debbie Watson), who are paired up by a millionaire rock’n’roll entrepreneur Tony Krum (played by Roddy McDowell). The story pivots around Krum’s plan to generate PR for the duo by engendering a perception in the teen audience that they are falling in love – complications, of course, ensue. Geller preferred her title “The Wiggy Plan of Tony Krum,” but the studio wanted something they considered more meaningful, hence “The Cool Ones.” She salted her dialogue with words such as “Ratfink” and “Dingaling,” jargon calculated to resonate with the target audience.

Conrad also put together his team with an eye to this end. For director he selected Gene Nelson, who most recently had helmed two Elvis Presley films – “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Harum Scarum.” Nelson came from a dance background, notably having played the part of Will Parker in the film version of “Oklahoma.” Howard found him to be a very nice guy.

For DP Conrad tapped Floyd Crosby. He had extensive experience working on teen projects, including four of the beach party movies and several Roger Corman horror productions. He had a couple more musical connections of interest, he had been involved with the production of Oklahoma in the 2d unit, so he may or may not have been acquainted with Nelson already. And most interesting of all, Floyd was the father of David Crosby, at this time a member of the rock band, the Byrds – (Crosby Stills and Nash and (sometimes Young) was in the near future).

For choreographer, they brought in Toni Basil. She had assisted her mentor David Winters, the choreographer on both Hullabaloo and Shindig, (she would appear later in Easy Rider; and did choreography for American Graffiti). She brought along her friend and fellow Shindig dancer Teri Garr, whom you can catch in the background in some shots. Both Toni and Teri had appeared in front of the lenses of Floyd Crosby before, in the film “Pajama Party.” Another Shindig member, a guitarist for the Shindig house band was given a small speaking/singing part – Glenn Campbell.

Three garage bands were tapped to appear in the film – The Leaves, The Bantams, and T.J. and the Fourmations. In the main, the music was supplied by Lee Hazelwood, the composer propelling Nancy Sinatra to the top of the charts (“These Boots Were Made for Walking”). He scored ten of the twelve tunes for “The Cool Ones.” One of these – “This Town” has had a long life afterwards. Hazelwood brought in Billy Strange for the arrangements. Strange was a guitarist and a member of the Wrecking Crew, the famous group of studio musicians (utilized by many of the rock groups of the day, including the Byrds). He also supplied one song. The twelfth song slotted in was the 1957 tune “It’s Magic” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne which was warbled by the novelty pop personality Mrs. Miller.

Howard reported to Assistant Director Gil Kessel. Gil was an old timer at WB, having got his start as a set decorator in 1941 on The Maltese Falcon. He made the switch in 1958 to AD. Howard says he was a little slow, and envious of the younger people coming up. He looked askance at them, not viewing them so much as assistants but rather as his replacements.

The Cool Ones was shot mostly at the studio. For exteriors they travelled to the nearby San Fernando Valley and over to Palm Springs. Most of the scenes shot in Palm Springs were around the town, both day and night exteriors. There was one challenging bit – a musical number staged inside the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and up on the observation platform. The tramway begins at an elevation of 2,643 feet and climbs the Chino Canyon wall up to a level of 8,516 feet. Howard says that the shoot was further complicated by limited time up on top.

The Cool Ones had one more “musical tie-in” of note. When at work on one of the sets, Howard tells me that Lee Wilson the WB lighting gaffer pointed out to him that the carpet on the floor was the same one that had been used in the Ascot race scene for “My Fair Lady.” At that time there were sets for that film still around the lot, notably the one for Covent Garden – the flower market standing set. (The Cool Ones had a market scene too, but it was on location over in Olvera Street).

The Cool Ones should be so famous.

Working For Bill Conrad

When still in his apprentice days at the PGA/DGA in the late sixties, Howard Kazanjian worked on three productions for William Conrad. Most remember Conrad for his distinctive voice and for his turn as the corpulent investigator in the TV series Cannon which aired between 1971 and 1976 and the much later Jake and the Fat Man. That voice got him his start in the entertainment business for a multitude of roles in radio and as a heavy in films.

Howard remembers him for his rather unique directorial style. He caught him at WB directing a TV show some time before these other productions. The scene was on a set with the light from an arc streaming through a window. He set things in play by calling – “Okay, action.” After one or two takes watching the staging, then he turned his back to the actors and just listened to the dialogue. If he liked what he heard he said, “Cut! Print!” If not he would call for the crew and actors to reset for another take. Howard chalks this quirk up to Conrad’s formative years in radio.

[Aside – I queried Howard for more about this process – Howard – “Directors always rehearse with a walk-through so the DP knows where the characters are.  Then the actors leave the set while the DP lights with stand-ins.  When lit, the Director might rehearse the actors one or two times depending on the budget, the shooting schedule, etc.  Then he shoots.  Often with Conrad the first take was a print.   If there was coverage no rehearsal was needed along with minor adjustments with the camera and lighting.   No rehearsal unless the Director wants some change.  Shoot.  Maybe print, or a second take or even a third”].

His first working experience with Conrad, the producer, was on the film An American Dream. A hot property at the time, it was based on the recent novel by Norman Mailer, and setup with a very decent budget of a million dollars. In some markets it was released as “See You in Hell Darling,” a very apt title if you’ve seen it. The story centers around a controversial TV talk show host [Stephen Rojack, played by Stuart Whitman] and his toxic marriage to a spoiled, one might say insane, wealthy heir and socialite [Deborah Kelly Rojack, played by Eleanor Parker]. The way she sadistically goads him, the audience ends up with little sympathy for her nor any wonder that he lets her fall to her death from her thirtieth floor penthouse.

Howard worked closely with the AD and the DP. The director Bob Gist was difficult, personality wise rather gruff, and had a little bit of ego. (Gist debuted as an actor in the film Miracle on 34th St (1947), and may have gotten this project due to his part as one of the soldiers in the film based on Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). He made the change to the director’s chair under the tutelage of Blake Edwards, when he was running the TV series Peter Gunn)). The AD in question was Sherry Shourds, whom Howard thought a very likable guy. He later inherited a ranch, left the business and lived happily ever after.

The DP was Sam Levitt. Howard calls him a good cameraman, having been in film since the 30’s as an operator, and since 1952 as a DP (i.e. Major Dundee, Cape Fear and Exodus). He had just recently added work in TV (Batman and Journey to the Bottom of the Sea). He was one of those “coat, hat and tie guys” then prevalent in that generation working at the studios.

After viewing the film, two of the exteriors stood out in my mind, so I asked Howard for more information about them. The first was the skyscraper from which the wife fell, and the subsequent multi-car pileup. [Howard – “The high-rise building was in downtown Los Angeles once owned by Occidental Oil, now ATT.  We shot exteriors only. Interiors were sets at WB.  While we were shooting the “accident” a fire broke out on the (approximately) 20th floor.  We pulled our equipment back while the fire department handled the situation.  Fortunately sprinklers put out most of the fire. The broken window from the fire and heat didn’t hit us as it crashed to the street.” And about the staged pileup itself. “No storyboards.  Just staged by the director and stunt driver, and extras filled in by me.”].

Another building in LA was utilized for the rooftop safe place called “the Treehouse” by Rojack’s girl friend from the past (Cherry, played by Janet Leigh she sings the Oscar nominated song “A Time for Love” linked above). There was one 360 degree shot from the top of a building, that revealed it was nestled in the middle of the LA freeway system. [Howard – That building was in downtown LA close to the convention center surrounded by freeways.  Anytime a film crew shoots on a roof, expect the owner or landlord to complain about damage.  We had to replace the roof for him]. I was able to find this location on Google maps – I started with the LA Convention Center and looked for the nearby freeways, which turned out to be the conjunction of the Santa Monica and the Harbor Freeways. From the street level view, the building situated on Wright Street is still recognizable as that which was filmed to represent Cherry’s apartment.

There were two other Bill Conrad productions on which Howard Kazanjian apprenticed. I will cover them in future posts.

[Aside – when watching the film, I thought the maid “Ruta” played by Susan Denberg looked familiar. IMDB gave me the reason, she was in a famous Star Trek episode “Mudd’s Women,” (season 1, episode 6). And there is another Star Trek connection to the film, series regular George (Sulu) Takei plays an assistant DA].