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“‘Girl-writer’ is honestly what they called me. This was because comedy shows for people like Bob Hope and Jack Benny were usually written by groups of men who were known as ‘The Boys.’”
Madelyn Pugh Davis

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Madelyn Pugh Davis was kind of the Diablo Cody in the early days of sitcom television, back when there weren’t many female writers. She majored in journalism at Indiana University and got her start in radio before eventually moving to Los Angeles and becoming a staff writer for the entire run of  I Love Lucy. 

”I had come to Hollywood from Indiana not too long before [meeting Lucille Ball], and she was the first real celebrity I had ever met besides Hoagy Carmichael, the Hoosier composer of “Star Dust,” and everyone in Indiana had met Hoagy or claimed they had. Bob [Carroll] and I had written lots of radio scripts as staff writers at CBS for Pacific Network, but this was the first full network script we had ever written. We rehearsed all day and did the show in front of a studio audience in the late afternoon. The two of us sat upstairs in the glassed-in clients’ booth during the show, and I hate to admit it, bit we counted the laughs—ninety two. This was it! We were writing a network show for Lucille Ball, and we got ninety-two laughs. We were on our way to The Big Time.”
Madelyn Pugh Davis
Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy
(On working on the radio program My Favorite Husband )

“For four of its six seasons, ‘I Love Lucy’ was the most popular show on television; it never ranked lower than third in any of those seasons. It received two Emmy Awards for best situation comedy and two nominations for best comedy writing.”
Dennis Hevesi
New York Times (April 21, 2011)
Madelyn Pugh Davis, Writer for ‘I Love Lucy,’ Dies at 90

It’s estimated that over their career that Davis and her writing partner Bob Carroll write a total of 400 radio shows and 500 TV shows. In 1992, they were given the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award from the WGA.

They weren’t known as joke writers but specialized more in visual comedy. Watch this video of classic I Love Lucy visual comedy moments.

Ken Levine points out on his History of Sitcoms podcast that through the entire run of I Love Lucy (181 episodes) that they only used five writers. And only two of those writers are credited on every episode— Bob Carroll Jr and Madelyn Pugh Davis.

Not bad for a boy writer from Florida and girl writer from Indiana.

Related link: Interview with Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“The farm was a stage set; the tractor drivers and nurserymen were stagehands.”
Steven Bach

“When I order a tree at nine a.m., I want to be sitting in its shade by five p.m.”
Moss Hart

In 1937 Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It with You) was a rich and successful Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He had a Pulitzer Prize and a little cash to spend. So he purchased a more than 200 year old farmhouse house on 87 acres—called Fairview Farm— in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (About an hour and a half from New York City.)

Back in August, I wrote a post about Bucks County because that’s where a young playwright named Neil Simon took one of his first plays that was struggling to find an audience. He called the the three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania a ”last ditch for his play.”

Playwright George S. Kaufman also had a farm in the area, which is probably originally drew Hart to the area. Plays that Kaufman & Hart wrote together would be performed at the Playhouse, sometimes with Kaufman or Hart also directing or acting.

When Moss Hart married Kitty Carlisle in 1947 the two spent their honeymoon performing the Kaufman and Hart play The Man Who Came to Dinner, at The Bucks County Playhouse.

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Moss & Kitty Hart on their Fairview Farm in Bucks County where they started a family and entertained famous guests.

The Playhouse helped attract many people to the area including John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith (perhaps now best known as Rocky Balboa’s original trainer), Lillian Hellman, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harpo Marx. Many who found a way to spend time with Hart on his farm.

Hart also did much of his writing on the farm including a story based on his own property—George Washington Slept Here. He also spent a good deal of money on the farm—including expanding the farmhouse, adding a pool and tennis courts, and thousands of trees and shrubs— which had an positive economic impact in the area during the 1930s.

“Landscaping, decorating, and remodeling would continue as his Broadway and Hollywood earnings helped end the Depression in Bucks County, bringing delight to friends and contractors, not to mention well-diggers.”
Steven Bach
Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Hart “bought the farm” in the other sense when he was only 57 years old after three heart attacks.

P.S. When I started this blog in 2008 I knew that I could probably gather enough notes to write a year of posts. I never thought I’d be doing to a decade later. Now I realize I could do a year of posts on just Moss Hart (1946-1961), but this will be a last post on him for a while. But in a few days I’ll begin a string of posts on early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion who had a connection with Hart. In the 1930s he rented her famed estate overlooking Beverly Hills.

Scott W. Smith

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“Borscht — beet soup usually served cold with sour cream and the waiter’s thumb — is a metaphor for Jewishness. . . . Thus the Catskills, which catered almost exclusively to Jewish vacationers for two generations, might have been called Pastrami Paradise, Derma Road or the Bagel Circuit. But Abel Green, the editor of Variety, reputedly coined the term Borscht Belt — and so it remains.”
Stanley Karnow
The Washington Post, “Goodbye to the Borscht Belt”

Some day I’ll do a run of posts on Yiddish theatre and why screenwriter/playwright David Mamet says parts of Hollywood were built by Ashkenazi Jews with Eastern European roots. Consider this a primer on how some Jewish entertainers in the early and mid-20th century got stage time experience at summer camps and resorts in upstate New York.

Before Moss Hart became an established Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter he decided that he could not rely on working a regular job and have energy to write at night. (He did that once with limited success.) He wanted instead to write in the daytime while his mind was fresh. So what he did was take low paying theatre directing jobs and earn a chunk of money working as a social director at various summer camps and resorts.

In his autobiography, Act One, Hart both relished and abhorred his six seasons working the camps. The social director was in charge of the nightly activities. Here’s a snapshot of Hart’s week in his first summer season—one that was repeated each week from June to September.

Monday night: Campfire night that would include a Shakespearean recitation, usually out of Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.” Hart was a skilled singer and guitar player.
Tuesday night: Costume or dress-up night. This would be something like “A Night in Old Japan” where the staff presented a Yiddish version of The Mikado.
Wednesday night: Game night. One-legged races, peanut relay races, and dancing.
Thursday night: Free time to play basketball or rehearse play for the weekend. (Some rehearsals were all night affairs that didn’t end until 7 AM the next morning.)
Friday night: Drama night. (Dress rehearsals began at 4 PM.)
Saturday night: Musical comedy night.
Sunday: Farewell to guests. Movies were shown at night for the new guests allowing the staff to get some sleep before beginning another week of activities.

This meant Hart and his staff of 10-12 people would be performing new plays every week. Lines had to me memorized, props gathered, sets built and painted.  Hart says these were amateurish productions but “elaborate and difficult in terms of light cues, props and quick changes of costume and scenery.”

Hart may have never spent a day in college, but one could argue that he got more than an equivalent of an MFA by directing and acting (and sometimes writing) two plays a week. Not only that but a ton of experience in managing people, problem solving on limited resources, and learning what works and doesn’t work in entertaining a crowd.  And along the way, Hart made a name for himself.

”In time, Hart’s status as social director changed markedly for the better. By 1929 he was, as he said, ‘the most highly paid [$200 per week], the most sought-after social director of the Borscht Circuit,’ as the string of hotels catering primarily to Jewish customers in the Catskills was known. At the Flagler Hotel he had a personal staff of twenty-six people, a substantial budget to work with, and he was able to provide much more polished entertainments than he had presented in earlier years.”
Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre
Jared Brown

Here is a program for the 1929 summer season when Hart presented recent Broadway successes that regularly filled a 1,500 seat theatre. That was Hart’s last year working the Borscht Circuit as his own play Once in a Lifetime  (written with George S. Kaufman) became a hit on Broadway.

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Many other well known entertainers honed their craft on the Borscht Circuit on their way to Broadway and Hollywood. Perhaps none better than Danny Kaye. (Who would eventually work with Hart on Broadway.)

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In the Catskills; A Century of the Jewish Experience in ‘The Mountains’
Edited by Phil Brown
Page 228

The heyday for summer camps appears to be between the 1920s to some point in the 1960s. From when automotive travel became more common until the days when air travel became common place. Hart’s autobiography was published in 1959 and even then he said the summer camps that still existed were greatly different from the ones were he worked.

The film Dirty Dancing (while shot in North Carolina) depicts that era in the Catskills.

And to prove what’s old is new again, the second season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (2018) takes a trip to the Catskills. (Episode 4: We’re Going to the Catskills!)

Related Books:
A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt by Stefan Kanfer

Article:
The Ghosts Hotels of the Catskills (Sad photos of the remnants of abandoned theaters.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Poverty was always a living and evil thing to me.”
Moss Hart (on his childhood in the Bronx and Brooklyn)

Before Moss Hart become the wonder boy of Broadway at age 26, before be would buy a farmhouse on 87 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and before he won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, he was a young man working with the established playwright George S. Kaufman on the play Once in a Lifetime.

This is what he daily routine was like leading up to his Broadway premiere in 1930.

“By the end of the first month of our working together, however, I was in a state of constant weariness. . . . I was suffering from insufficient sleep. Out working hours were from eleven o’clock in the morning until five thirty or six in the eventing, at which time I would eat a walloping dinner and rush off to Newark or Brooklyn for my little-theatre rehearsals, which began at seven thirty and usually continued until midnight and sometimes past. By the time I reached home again, after obligatory socializing with the cast over coffee and cake, was usually three or four in the morning. Since I had to be up shortly after eight o’clock in order to allow enough time for the long subway ride, which would get me to 158 East 63rd Street at five minutes of eleven. . . .I did not dare give up my little-theatre work. Apart from the necessary weekly income that it provided, the basket I carried most of my eggs in was too precariously balanced to shake, even with a Broadway production in the offing. I knew well enough that failure is the norm of the theatre, not success.”
Playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart
Act One, pages 288-289

So Hart’s schedule looked something like this:

8AM—Wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, take the subway to George S. Kaufman’s place
11AM-5:30/6:00—Work on play with Kaufman
6:00-7:30—Grab dinner and travel to Newark or Brooklyn for rehearsals
7:30-Midnight—Play rehearsals (his “day job”)
Midnight-3:00AM—Socializing
Travel home for a few hours of sleep

And keep in mind, that before his play caught the attention of Kaufman that Hart had devoured reading plays at the library, gone to Broadway plays nightly (a perk to being an office boy), and spent six seasons as a social director to several summer camps where among his other duties he directed plays to entertain the guest.

Milton Glaser’s phrase “Art is Work” comes to mind.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I danced on a coffee table with my brother when the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985.”
Screenwriter Diablo Cody
Vogue

“There’s so many kids who only know me from the video game.”
John Madden
Super Bowl XI winning coach, broadcaster, and namesake of Madden NFL video games

 

JohnMadden

In keeping with my football-theme run of posts this week—I took the above photo of John Madden and  Jim McMahon at a celebrity golf tournament in San Luis Obispo, California. It was 1986 after the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX. (The ’85 Bears are considered one of the greatest teams in the history of the NFL.)

McMahon was the Bears’ QB that season and the team finished 15-1. Because of the Challenger Shuttle accident days after the Super Bowl, the Bears had their White House trip postponed. It wasn’t until 2011 when a former Chicago resident named Barack Obama welcomed the team to the White House. President Obama said of greeting the team, “This is as much fun as I will have as president of the United States. This is one of the perks of the job, right here.”

When screenwriter (and Chicago-native) Diablo Cody was kicking around ideas for her first screenplay writing about the ’85 Bears was one of her ideas. The team had a cast of characters including Walter Payton, William “Refrigerator” Perry, Mike Singletary, and Coach Mike Ditka. And and they had a team music video, “Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Here’s what I looked like around that era, probably a year or two after film school when I worked for Year Photography. We did the team photos of the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Raiders, as well as the UCLA and USC football teams.

Lots of good memories driving throughout Southern California as far south as Laguna Beach, out west in the Palm Springs and Big Bear areas, and up in the Antelope Valley to the north.

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Setting up for a photo shoot with the UCLA football team in the mid-’80s

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USC

Scott W. Smith

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”I think sometimes in life the biggest challenges end up being the best things that happen in your life.”
Tom Brady

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Six-time Super Bowl winning QB Tom Brady and Super Bowl LIII MVP Julian Edelman spent yesterday at Disney World here in Orlando. Congrats to the entire New England Patriots team.

Scott W. Smith

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While it wasn’t a super Super Bowl (unless you’re Tom Brady and team), but it’s always a pleasure to listen to former NFL player Tony Romo call the game. But my favorite part of the game was the Andy Warhol commercial.

It grabbed my attention because I wondered what I was looking at. Was it really Andy Warhol? It sure looked like the like artist and filmmaker. The Burger King hamburger seemed like an odd twist, yet oddly fitting.  It was engaging. When everyone was screaming, Burger King decided to whisper.

The Hentz ketchup bottle is what sold me that it was authentic. I’ve made several trips to Pittsburgh over the years and knew that the headquarters for Hentz was in Pittsburgh, so it seems like it could have been an old marketing campaign. (Something like that because he died in 1987.)

It turns out that it was Andy Warhol, and the footage came from the 42-minute film,  66 Scenes from America (1982) by director Jorgen Leith, writer Ole John.  cinematographer Dan Holmberg, and editor Kristian Levring. Here’s a longer version of the film.

I spoke to a graphic designer today who had not seen the commercials (or any of the Super Bowl), but was a huge admirer of  Warhol’s work. She had been to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and had a glowing report of it.

P.S. Andy Warhol actually gets a mention in my upcoming book when I talk about non-plot and anti-plot films. Here a paragraph from that section:

The epitome of a non-plot film in the United States is Andy Warhol’s 1964 experimental film Empire which originally had a run time of eight hours and five minutes. The black and white silent film included a five-minute stationary shot of the Empire State Building.

Scott W. Smith

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