Me and The Dick Van Dyke Show
by Mark Evanier
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 3/17/95
Comics Buyer's Guide
Woody Allen used to say the greatest sin in his family was paying Retail for anything. In mine, it was a toss-up between phoning Long Distance and taking a taxi anywhere. My father, though a lovely man, thought that doing either was tantamount to burning cash. Driving to the airport, to pick someone up or drop someone off, became an important family ritual.
One evening just before Christmas of 1964, we journeyed out to Los Angeles International Airport to drop off my Aunt Dot, who was heading for Phoenix for a week. It would have been easier for her to take a cab to LAX (come to think of it, it would have been easier for her to take a cab to Phoenix) but then my father would have had to disown her or something.
So there we were, going 'round and 'round in the parking lot, searching for a spot. This was the old L.A. Airport — the one they built when they didn't figure on anyone other than Charles Lindbergh landing here — so parking was not easy to find. My father was telling Aunt Dot she could phone home when she got there, just so long as she didn't talk so long, when we were suddenly stopped: A woman, toting a suitcase towards the terminal, suddenly had it open up on her and dump her belongings across the asphalt.
I hopped out of the back seat and helped her gather up her undies. Still, it stopped all traffic in that lane for about three minutes, maybe five.
Trapped right behind my father's car — unable to go ahead or back up — was a late model sedan with a little dark-haired man at the wheel. He saw what was going on and just sat there, patiently waiting, not honking his horn or cursing or anything, even though he was desperately late for an important flight.
When the crisis finally abated, we found a spot and the little man found a spot…and he sprinted from his car, obviously in a hurry, toting a small overnight bag in one hand and holding a carry-on suit bag over his shoulder. Aunt Dot noted his hurry and said, "Gee, he was so patient, waiting behind us all that time, for someone who was that late."
I caught a glimpse of the man as he disappeared into the terminal. He sure looked to me like comedian Morey Amsterdam.
A few minutes later, we were in the terminal and there — sure enough — was comedian Morey Amsterdam, standing by the gate with his overnight bag and his tux, I guess, in the suit bag. He was complaining about his flight being late, throwing out jokes about airports. Only he wasn't really complaining. Actually, he was thrilled that the flight was running late because, if it wasn't, it would have long since departed without him. He was just complaining because he was a comedian — then, the weekly co-star of The Dick Van Dyke Show — and people expect a comedian to complain and toss off jokes. He was actually pretty funny.
Aunt Dot couldn't resist. She went up to him, told him how much she loved him on the Van Dyke program and complimented him on his patience out in the parking lot. He was, in turn, very polite, telling her how he usually never arrived so late for a plane but he was hurrying to Las Vegas as a last-minute fill-in for some performer who'd taken ill and couldn't do that evening's performances. He glanced at his watch, then nodded towards the plane he was waiting to board. "If they'd just hurry and wind up the rubber band on this thing, I could get there in time."
I stood there, about three feet away, thinking, "Hey, if Aunt Dot can talk to Morey Amsterdam, why can't I?" I ambled up, introduced myself and told him (truthfully) that he was on what was then my favorite series in all of TV. It probably still is.
Just then, his flight started to board. He pulled a business card out of his pocket, scribbled a phone number on the back and handed it to me saying, "You wanna see us film an episode some time? Here — call Suzie at this number. Tell her you're my personal guests and they'll give you V.I.P. seats. None of this waiting-in-line jazz for my friends." And, with that, he disappeared into Gate Whatever and was gone.
Since that day, I have met everyone in show business from Groucho Marx to Bob Hope, from Johnny Carson to Michael Jackson. I've been nominated for Emmy Awards, visited movie sets and the highest offices of all the networks. I've breakfasted with Natalie Wood, lunched with Frank Capra and dined with Jimmy Stewart — but I'll tell you: I've never felt as Important in Show Business as that day in the terminal when I was twelve years old and standing there with Morey Amsterdam's business card in my mitts.
It was not the first time I saw a TV show being produced. A few years earlier on a trip to New York, my mother took me to NBC in Rockefeller Center where we watched a live (I think) broadcast of the game show, Concentration. I only remember four things from that expedition. One is that, as we were waiting in line to get in, Jan Murray came by in a garish checked blazer and "worked" the crowd, throwing out jokes, signing autographs and telling us to watch his game show, Treasure Hunt, which he was doing across the hall. Secondly, when we got inside, we were informed that regular host Hugh Downs was on vacation and the show's announcer, Bob Clayton, was filling in. Thirdly, that didn't matter much since from where we were seated in the studio, I could see nothing of the players or host and only a smidgen of the famous Concentration game board. Lastly, we were promised prizes for being there and, on the way out, NBC pages handed each of us a small free sample of Vaseline. It was, all in all, not a particularly thrilling adventure.
So I didn't go see a lot of TV programs after that. A few years after the Dick Van Dyke outing I'm describing here,someone gave us tickets to The Red Skelton Show and we went over to CBS Television City, an austere black-and-white building not far from where I now live. We waited in line for what seemed like several weeks before being admitted to the stage and seated in the third row of the studio where they now do The Price is Right and where, decades later, I got to meet and work with Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan when I wrote for and he hosted CBS Storybreak.
That week's Skelton show was "A Concert in Pantomime" starring Red and his guest, the great French mime, Marcel Marceau. The taping began with a twenty-second sequence that merely called for Skelton and Marceau to walk to center stage and shake hands. They walked to center stage, shook hands, the Stage Manager yelled "Cut" and Skelton turned to the audience and said, "Wasn't that good?"
That may not sound like much here but, at the moment, it was hysterical. In fact, the audience was still chuckling as Mssr.Marceau took stage to begin taping several pantomime spots. He was in the middle of the fifth when my mind suddenly decided to be mean to me and replay Skelton's line.
Now, you have to imagine the scene: There is absolute silence in the room. On stage, one of the great artists of the world — the legendary Marcel Marceau — is miming some topic of dread seriousness and unbounded pathos. It was the moment of a baby duckling finding his mother dead from a hunter's rifle or something equally cheery. Not one person in the room is making a sound, but for the few fighting back tears at this moving, dramatic moment…
And I suddenly laughed. Out loud.
I tried not to. I held it in until it was leaking out my nostrils and ears but it escaped. I kept remembering Red Skelton going, "Wasn't that good?" and, finally, I couldn't hold it in any longer. I laughed right in the middle of Marcel Marceau's most dramatic, tragic stage moment.
As laughs go, it wasn't a loud one, actually…but it was loud enough for the illustrious Frenchman to hear. Ever the professional, he did not react to it with his body — but I could see the his eyes nail the third row with the slightest, tiniest gleam of "Who the hell is the idiot laughing at this?"
I looked around, as if I too was wondering who'd laughed. But I know I didn't fool him.
The look was so microscopic, I was the only one who saw it…but see it, I did. I saw it again, weeks later, when the show aired. My laugh wasn't heard and no one else in America saw Marceau throw that look, now past the third row and all the way to my home Zenith, just for me. But I saw it again. And every time since then — when I've seen Marceau on a movie screen or on TV — I've seen him subtly but carefully scanning the third row. Just in case I'm back.
A week or so after Morey Amsterdam gave me his card, I phoned the number, told Suzie that I was a personal guest of Mr. Morey Amsterdam and would like to attend a filming of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the coming weeks. We picked a date and at the appointed time, my parents and I arrived at the studio. Our status as Mr. Amsterdam's personal guests enabled us to by-pass a long line of tourists who had sent away for tickets. We were escorted inside and seated for a time in the stage where The Danny Thomas Show was filmed. Eventually, a page led us to the Van Dyke studio and we were guided into bleachers that overlooked three sets…one, the familiar office of the writing staff of the mythical Alan Brady Show; the other two, unfamiliar. Somehow, we managed to escape careful scrutiny of my age, which was actually a few months shy of the minimum of thirteen years old.
Soon, the rest of the audience was seated and one of the staffers came out with a hand mike and chatted with us all for a moment, doing something of a "warm-up." Then he turned things over to the show's Creator-Producer, Carl Reiner, who would act as "audience host" for the evening. Reiner cheered the audience up with a few funny remarks, then brought them down as quickly with the announcement that the show we were about to see filmed did not require the services of most of the cast regulars. We would not be seeing Rose Marie, Larry Matthews, Richard Deacon or even my close, personal friend, Morey Amsterdam. The disappointment was tempered slightly as Reiner introduced a special guest amongst us in the audience…his occasional partner (and Two Thousand Year Old Man), comedy writer Mel Brooks. Throughout the filming process, whenever there was a delay, Reiner would chat with the audience to keep their interest — and eagerness to laugh — alive. Most of the time, he and Brooks hollered back and forth at each other, the resultant banter so funny that, whenever someone announced, "Time to film the next scene," there was a tiny but audible sigh of disappointment from the bleachers.
The episode filmed that night, in case anyone cares, was about how Rob and Laura Petrie purchased their home in New Rochelle…a house with a large rock in its basement.
As I have since learned, there is a strange tension in shooting a situation comedy before a live audience…a tension that is usually broken with hysterical laughter the first time an actor goofs up a line. Once it happens, everyone relaxes and the filming/taping becomes more comfortable for All Present. This "tension" (perhaps too harsh a word) occurs so readily that some shows plan for the actor with the second line, whoever that may be, to intentionally flub it, just to get that mass exhale behind them. I don't think it was deliberate that night but, the second line of the show, Dick Van Dyke addressed an actor by his real name, Reiner hollered out, "Wrong" from the sidelines and everyone broke up.
Thereafter, the show proceeded with few delays. At one point, a trick closet door failed to open on cue and the stagehands spent a few minutes re-rigging the wires that one of them was pulling. During the lull, Van Dyke picked up the business card given to Rob Petrie (in the story) by the realtor and did some expert sleight of hand with it, making it appear and disappear, while co-star Mary Tyler Moore answered some audience member's long, rambling question about her wardrobe on the show. Ms. Moore, by the way, struck me that evening as the single best-looking person, place or thing on the planet.
During a rare moment of not staring at her, I looked down, alongside the bleachers in which we were all seated, and saw some men standing there, quietly conversing and laughing about something. They were wearing sweaters and holding three-ring script binders and I decided they were the show's writers, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. What's more, I decided I wanted to be them.
A thought hit me at that moment…a thought not-unimportant in my life. I hope, at some point in your life, you've had a similar thought…or that, if you haven't, you will. The thought was this: "That's what I want to do."
Every time I've read a biography of some great actor, there's a moment when they have that thought. Usually, they're sitting in a darkened movie theater, looking up at a Vivien Leigh or a Clark Gable or someone Larger Than Life. Or it happens in a legit theater or while watching TV. They point at the screen and say, "That's what I want to do."
(Later — sometimes, decades later — there is a corresponding moment. They set foot on a stage and say, "This is where I belong." I had my corresponding moment, decades later when I was cast in a bit part on a TV show I'd written. I set foot on the stage — in make-up and as performer, not writer — and immediately thought, "This is not where I belong." I'll tell you about it, one of these columns…)
Sitting there in the Desilu bleachers though is where I had my moment. I had already known I wanted to be a professional writer…largely because I was lousy at everything in school but for spelling and reading and writing. And I already knew the fictionalized version of what a professional writer was. Like I said, The Dick Van Dyke Show was my favorite show. But suddenly, I was looking at two professional writers in their natural habitat. Suddenly, I had a real scene into which I could imagine myself.
And it didn't seem so unattainable. I wasn't imagining myself as President of the United States or pitching for the Dodgers or singing on The Ed Sullivan Show with women squealing or anything of the sort. I was just seeing myself standing in the wings, wearing a sweater, holding a three-ring script binder and watching people laugh at what I'd written. "Yeah," I thought. "I could do that." It looked like it was fun and, besides, you got to hang around with women who looked like Mary Tyler Moore.
Flash forward twenty-some-odd years. I teamed up for a time with a witty, talented writer named Dennis Palumbo and we began selling a few TV scripts here and there. Eventually, we were hired as Story Editors of Welcome Back, Kotter. In another of these articles, years ago, I told of my first day on the set, meeting Groucho Marx, who had come to do a cameo on the show.
Other incredible things happened to me that night. One which I omitted — because it wouldn't have made sense without telling you all that I've told you here — came out of nowhere as I stood there by the set, script-binder in hand, waiting for them to move a set so that a short pick-up scene could be shot. It suddenly dawned on me, standing there and then, that I was one of those guys I'd always wanted to be. I wasn't wearing a sweater and there was no one around who resembled the youthful Mary Tyler Moore —
— but otherwise, I was there. I could draw a straight mental line from that kid in the bleachers at the Van Dyke Show and me, standing there with, most likely, some demented grin on my face. It was just a quick thought but it was strangely comforting.
And I looked up into the bleachers…packed with fans of the show, come to watch it taped. A lot of young kids were up there, many of them looking down in my direction, and I found myself wondering which one was looking at me standing there and thinking, "That's what I want to do."
I'll bet there was one…except that he was probably thinking, "That's what I want to do…but I want to be better dressed than that." I hope he makes it.