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.

Under the Spreading Cement Tree

Link to pertinent scene from Finian’s Rainbow

It really wasn’t made of cement. It just looked like it.

While Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Kazanjian were busy filming location footage up in the Bay area, the construction crews back at the studio were prepping sets both on the sound stages and in the backlot. One of the structures of note was a tree at the center of the setting for the fictional town of Rainbow Valley. It was scheduled to be used over a period of several days. Though not actually cement it was built of some other sturdy materials and plastered over. It had to be sturdy to support the weight of up to three actors (in one instance, Fred, Petula, and Barbara were all up in its branches). Also, one of the show’s song and dance numbers was scheduled for the platform built around the base of this “tree.”

Filming this number (“Look to the Rainbow”) featuring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark took place over a two day period. A bit of film history occurred under this tree, other than which was recorded on celluloid. On the day that they were working on the dance, Howard got a call from a former USC classmate and DKA Honor fraternity brother – George Lucas. Just two years prior to this, WB had set up an annual 6 month scholarship for a lucky student at USC. George was the second recipient.  (Howard – The first was Joyce Gellar. While there she wrote a script called the Cool Ones, which WB bought. I worked as 2d AD on that film. One of the actors on a day rate was unknown Glen Campbell). George reported to the studio on the day his “internship” was to begin, was assigned an office on the lot, but was given nothing to do. George called down to Howard to tell him of his plight – he was sitting there bored out of his skull.  Howard invited him down to the set.

Gratefully George joined Howard on the set, and between takes Howard introduced George to Francis.

As part of their production routine Howard would accompany Coppola back to his office at the end of a day of shooting, and there they would debrief, talking over the day and planning for the next. Sometimes these sessions led to extra work for Howard. One time Francis casually mentioned that they would be using a crane for a shot the next day – the only thing was, none had been requested on the equipment call sheet. This was the first Howard had heard of it – so he had to put in an order for it immediately. Sometimes the crisis involved people that he would have to line up last minute. If it were for instance the corps dancers, he had to track them all down by phone. It was a terrible chore, and could take hours, not to mention the costume department that needed to be alerted also. But it was also a fun time. George accompanied Howard to the meeting that day. They listened to Coppola with keen interest. Coppola had some strong opinions – he hated Hollywood, its system, and wanted to be out on his own. George was definitely a kindred spirit. Later, George showed Francis his student film THX 1138.  Coppola encouraged him to turn the script into a feature, and then got WB to buy it and he himself stepped up to produce it.

George stayed on, but just as an observer and later was given the privilege of attending the dailies. (Howard – there was one thing that George got to do for the production.  Francis needed to review a particular film clip. Howard couldn’t leave the set, so he asked George to go fetch it from the editor).

Coppola took George on the road with him for his next project, The Rain People. Howard almost went along too – but that’s a story for another day.