Thirty Years in the Making

Thirty Years in the Making

William Wilberforce

In 1987 I returned from a mission trip to Argentina. It was a important time in my life. And an impactful one. In fact, I believed that the next step for my life and that of my family was a move to Buenos Aires as a missionary.

It made sense – given my training in language (for my minor in Spanish I had studied under an Argentine professor),  and the fact that the witness of a Wycliffe Bible translator had been an element in my conversion seven years earlier.

So while I was waiting for things to come together – certain things would have to happen if it were to come to pass, I was avidly reading biographies of missionaries and other historical Christian figures. One such individual was the British statesman and Christian, William Wilberforce – an important political figure in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He believed that God’s call upon his life was to bring an end to the slave trade. Something about this man as portrayed in the biography by John Pollock resonated deeply in my consciousness.

More people needed to know about him, his love for God, and how that motivated him.

I was sitting in church service, and thoughts were percolating through my brain about Wilberforce, like – someone should make a movie about him. A Voice said to me – No, it’s a musical.

What a great idea I said to myself (for Wilberforce had a reputation as a marvelous singer). But I was called elsewhere. What did it have to do with me? I was waiting for leading as a missionary.

That all ended when the Lord spoke through the Scripture in another Sunday service. The words of Ezekiel shattered the image of what I thought I was called to. I am not sending you to a people of another tongue [Ezekiel 3:5]. I know the word was directed at my heart, to tell me that my call was not as a missionary to a foreign land.

So what to do.

Another word came. Another sermon had a phrase that hit my heart too. What’s that in your hand? [Exodus 4:2] I had recently bought a fountain pen, with which I took down notes from the sermons.

I put it all together. And began to write a musical based on the life of William Wilberforce.

I have just completed the first draft this last week.

“Wilber – A Musical.”

It has been a long journey. And all in God’s timing. There were certain things I needed to learn and to experience along the way.

Now I am waiting to see what’s next.

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.

The Greening of Finian and Magical FX

When the production of Finian’s Rainbow moved inside, it tied up two of the sound stages at Warner Brothers. One had the running brook set that was bounded by steep rock walls (they were sealed underneath to keep the water isolated), the other held the bridge, a pivotal setting that set up the ending. One of the stages had a wooden floor which was removable, giving access to more area, allowing them to build up from the “basement.” (Howard Kazanjian- WB had several of this type of soundstage. You chose it normally when you needed to give your set a dual level. If your set was on the stage floor and the stairway went down, you needed to remove that portion of the floor to accommodate the stairs down).

Both sound stages were “greened in.” Even though one had just recently held the forest for Camelot (also a credit for Howard, see previous posts), it was completely revamped – with new trees, bushes, sod etc. Some of the trees and bushes were fake, but the sod was all real. The sod gave a rich green color to the scenes, but like the grass out at Griffith Park it would turn brown too, but for the opposite reason. (Howard – inside the sound stages there was no sunlight – hence no photosynthesis could take place). They kept having to replace the sod. This green turf also meant problems for the actors. It was slippery, and had a tendency to slide out from under the actors, notably during the duet “That Old Devil Moon” between Don Francks and Petula Clark.

Like for these two, the stages were busy crossroads for the other main actors. Fred Astaire’s character, shadowed by leprechaun Steele, buries the pot of gold beneath the sod. The SFX department was called in to give this crock some “magical” properties. It is quite striking to see Fred’s face illuminated by the golden light when he removes it from his carpetbag, prior to burying it. It was a simple effect. (Howard – it was a 100W bulb on a dimmer. The interior of the crock was sanded thin so the light could shine through).

A more complicated effect was put in place for the exchange between Tommy Steele and the antagonist Keenan Wynn. Earlier, Wynn had magically been changed from a white man to a black man, when Petula wished for this, in exasperation at his bigoted attitude. (This transformation was an effect all done with the camera, the soundtrack, the editing, and another use of the wind machine). After Steele encounters the grumpy antagonist in the forest he sets about to cast a spell to make him good on the inside. The pool beside them begins to swirl and “magically” change colors (from green-yellow, to red, to yellow, and back to red again). It was all mechanical and chemical. Howard told me that FX guys built into this pool a mechanical device that set the water in motion – and the colors were from different dyes whose release was governed by a timer. (Interestingly, Keenan’s transformation back to white was executed by a jump cut, a nicely done edit, in one clip he was in blackface, in the second he was without).

Barbara Hancock’s ballet was probably the last thing done on the running brook set. There was a large area nearby above the brook simulating a meadow. Water was sprinkled from above, and an arc light flashed for lightning, as she glissades, jetes, etc in the “rain.” (Howard – the master shot was done in one take, with many pick-up shots and closer shots captured later). It culminated in her character unearthing the buried crock, and another chance for the SFX department to display their wares.