Saturday, November 2, 2019
A TRIBUTE TO BERNARD SLADE
The last time I posted to this blog, I was writing a memorial to my father, Rod Coneybeare, who passed away on Sept 5, 2019. The infrequency of my posts shows what a lousy blogger I am. There’s a poignant irony, however, in that having come around to posting again, the subject is another death. Of another entertainment icon. Who happens to be Canadian.
But some back story:
In the late 1970’s, a few years before I could get a driver’s license but just after I’d begun to understand the need for summer cash, I struck a deal with my dad to clean up the basement of a townhouse he was renting in suburban Toronto. Rod Coneybeare was a lousy housekeeper at best and a worse archivist, particularly of his own work, and that’s what we were talking about: curating his creative past for cash.
Down in that musty basement were boxes and boxes of old scripts from TV, radio, and theatre, along with endless spools of audio tape, most of it reel-to-reel, but some of it cassette. There were also bills and receipts (Texaco slips from 1966? A hardware store bill for nails in 1953? Who keeps this kind of stuff?) and all manner of playbills and programs. I was mostly fascinated by the scripts. I have always been fascinated by scripts. Not necessarily their content, but the way they look; the typography, the format, the abrupt stage directions, the use of ellipses... Radio scripts were fascinating (tremendous number of dots and dashes), but early live TV scripts really got to me. I would sit on crushed cardboard boxes and pour over these like I’d found the key to the Ark of the Covenant.
I listened to the old radio shows while I performed this excavation. I started with 78’s and plowed through old CBC gems like Nazi Eyes on Canada (warning good Canadians about the dangers of consorting with practicing Nazis in Lethbridge, Alberta) and the Stage series. I got through my Dad’s own Out of This World and The Kids Show. When I ran out of the good stuff, I moved on to cassettes -- in particular, a cache of eight or nine TDK cassettes wrapped together with an elastic band. These were labelled “Bern.”
It took me awhile to figure out what they were. They certainly weren’t any kind of radio production. After awhile, I realized that they were, instead, an attempt at a radio production: my dad and a friend of his, in conversation, gossiping and reminiscing for literally hour after hour; this was intended to be the meat for a radio documentary about the friend’s life, presumably produced by my dad. Never let it be said that Canadian freelancers aren’t always looking to cook up a new gig for themselves.
On the face of it, it might seem absurd, except the friend was Bernard Slade, and when the recordings were made – the summer of 1975, I eventually figured out – Bernie Slade was at the summit. The notion that folks might want to hear his story actually made sense. It was, after all, a pretty terrific story.
The first act of Bernie’s career had been spent in Canadian theatre and television, struggling as an actor but then succeeding as a writer. Canadian success, however, must always be rewarded with penury, and by 1964 frustration and unemployment sent him south to the United States – a trip he took with, of all people, my dad! (I would eventually uncover 8mm film of the two of them sharing digs in LA, which could only have been for a few weeks at best, but it’s remarkable footage that exhibits a strange nervous energy about them, two guys in their mid-30s in terra unknown convincing themselves this is all going to work out).
Bernie, who as a writer always had a deft hand for sophisticated light comedy, almost immediately prospered: he sold a script to Bewitched, one of the most popular shows going, and in time created and sold his own series, Love on a Rooftop. More TV success followed: The Flying Nun, Bridget Loves Bernie, and, most notably, the Partridge Family. There were others, but those were the biggies. The remarkable thing is not that by 1974 Bern was fed up with TV and wanted out -- everyone wants out of television – but that his exit became so titanically successful that it was, as Jill Foster, Bern’s wife, said, “like something written by... Bern!”
In 1974, Bern was having a dispute with whatever network he was signed with. He said he would do anything to get out of the deal. His agent assured him he’d handle it; Bern should just go on vacation and forget about it, maybe work on something else. The agent almost certainly was just mollifying his client as agents do, and what agent hasn’t heard this temper tantrum from a pissed-off writer before?
Yet Bern, unlike every other pissed-off client in the history of Hollywood, turned out to be true to his word. He never worked in television again. That’s because he came back from vacation with half a play written, wrote the other half in the following weeks, and Same Time, Next Year went on to become one of the longest running plays in Broadway history. Kaboom. March of 1975. This was the beginning of the second act in the career of Bernard Slade.
Within a few short months, it was apparent that this light comedy wasn’t just a hit, it was a smash smash hit, back when plays could be smash smash hits. The playwright and cast were featured in all the theatre periodicals, but also Vogue. This was the hot ticket. And when the film rights went up for sale, the price was Guinness Book stuff.
So it was not outlandish to consider, in the summer of 1975 when my dad revisited California (with my sister and me in tow), that an in-depth radio portrait of his buddy for CBC radio might be a kind of fascinating piece. It was in this spirit of ‘what the hell’ that the friends turned on the tape recorder.
In so many ways, these tapes are astonishing. Not just because of the woefully unstructured nature of the discussions, but because of what is revealed in background. It is a portrait of a time and place that will never be again. You hear kids splashing in the Brentwood pool, and at one point Bernie’s manager interrupts to talk about Jill wanting to have her kitchen redone and checking out Dinah Shore’s kitchen to see if that’s the way to go. The manager talks about his experience in World War II. The movie deal for Same Time, Next Year is discussed. Rod and Bern both spend a tremendous amount of time filling, tamping down, and lighting pipes. Bern wants coffee but reveals he doesn’t know how to make it. He has just watched Arthur Ashe play tennis and is very excited. Someone says they should raise the ticket price for Same Time by one dollar per, and Bernie objects...
Once the distractions are out of the way, however, Bernie and Dad really go at it. At first, Bernie tells his life story in a fairly linear fashion, and it’s a pretty fascinating life story: born in St. Catherines, Ontario, moved to England, the blitz, living essentially a Hope and Glory version of World War II complete with evacuations before a return to Canada... Soon, however, the friends go off on tangents.
A time and place is revealed that few of us now, and fewer soon, have ever known. Canada in the 1940’s was as straight and as white a world as it’s possible to imagine; rigid and hidebound, straight-laced and largely uncultured. This made those of my dad and Bern’s bent outliers and vagabonds. Their entire ambition was to be in the entertainment business – theatre, in particular, and later radio and television. They were able to imitate respectable people when they had to, but in truth they saw themselves on the outside of polite society looking in.
They seemed to all come from theatre, and gamely threw themselves into television when it came along. In order to make a living in the creative arts in Canada in those days, there was no room for shame when it came to doing what needed to be done to make a go of it – anything rather than get a real job. Bernie, for a short time, was Clarabelle the Clown on the Canadian Howdy Doody, and my dad became a giraffe on a show called The Friendly Giant (weirdly, my Dad played Howdy on the Canadian radio version of the series; how many incarnations did Howdy have?) The schizophrenia was perpetual; later, they saw themselves as serious dramatists when they wrote for live television – and they were – but they also wrote game shows.
The Bernie TDK tapes encompass all of this. They are absolutely wonderful to hear. The two men gossip outrageously. They remember everyone’s name. They resent everyone who had a job when they didn’t. Bern in particular has a remarkable memory for CBC bureaucrats who turned down scripts of his. Even their assistants names. “I went back and told them I wanted my script back,” he says at one point, “and the woman at the desk – Doris, there always seemed to be a lot of Dorises at the CBC – “
“Doris Godfrey?” my Dad asks, pulling a name out of the air.
“Miiight have been Doris Godfrey,” says Bern, now clearly remembering a gripe against Doris Godfrey. "However, she said I was behaving very unprofessionally. Isn’t that incredible?”
And on they go.
These are definitely men of another era: lighting pipes, drinking coffee, sharing war stories, grumbling about slights. Nowhere in these conversations do you have the sense that one of them is still slogging it out making a go of it in Canada and the other has hit the big time both in Hollywood and Broadway; the table might be slanted, but they are workhorses, and even the idiotic enterprise in which they’re engaged is an attempt to keep the game going.
I listened to these tapes more than once, not just because it turned out my dad’s basement was more of a mess than either of us had anticipated and I needed the time, but because I loved the sense of adventure the tapes revealed. I was not as enamored of Bernie’s Hollywood success stories as I thought I would be; it was the days of summer stock in the Welland Canal in the early 1950’s that got me, young people putting on shows for the simple sake of putting them on, and the romance of amateur theater; talk of Jack Blacklock and Elwy Yost and days of yore, doing A Streetcar Named Desire with four days rehearsal and counting the cars in the parking lot five minutes before the curtain goes up.
Bernard Slade died this week in Beverly Hills, eight weeks less a day after my dad. They were born a month and two days apart in the same year. I worked out the math: Bern got twenty-three more days on this earth than my dad. A few days before my dad died he said, “How is Bernie?” “Likely no better than you,” I said. Dad chuckled. “How awful.”
I didn’t want to look at Bernie’s obituaries any more than I wanted to look at my own dad’s. I suspected what I would see in this idiotic TV-centric time, when everyone is obsessed with the nostalgia of their own childhood and can see nothing else. Eventually I looked, though, and sure enough, there it was. “Creator of The Partridge Family dies,” is pretty much the standard trumpet. Partridge Family. Bernard Slade was a playwright, an entertainer of audiences, a lover of the curtain. It infected him, took hold of him, and never let go. He was many other things, obviously, but I know what when he and I got together in my adult years, all we ever talked about were plays.
The outcome of the great TDK endeavor as hatched and half-assedly carried out that summer of 1975 would appear to be obvious, and Dad and Bern should have anticipated it from the beginning. When my dad got back to Canada and talked to the mandarins at CBC radio about doing an in-depth radio documentary about one of the most successful writers to ever have come out of Canada, the very idea was met with tepid disinterest. They didn’t get the point.
“Typical,” Bern might say.
“Hateful,” my dad would say.
Bernie Slade leaves behind a solid body of work in the American theatre, a legacy in television that will continue, and a passion for entertainment. He was wickedly funny, and terribly sarcastic. In real life, you never knew all that love was there. In his work, there it was. We will never see the likes of him again.
Jill and Bernie Slade performing in Same Time, Next Year in 1977.
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