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Paul Whiteman’s TV show, and spending New Year’s Eve with Ella Fitzgerald

Mort Weiss By

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I was quite active in the early days of live television, most of which was shot in Hollywood, California. Sometime in the latter part of 1951, I got a call from the director and producer of many teen-oriented TV shows.

His name is Al Burton, and he went on to become a mega-dude in the industry. I'll just give one credit from many: He was the executive producer of the show "Charles in Charge." (A friend of mine from school and social functions was a drama major named Burt Metcalf, who became the executive producer of TV series "M*A*S*H." But that's another story.) Burton told me that RKO Pictures was releasing a new movie called "Two Tickets to Broadway" in late November of that year, and they wanted him to put together a music combo made up of young guys. (Sorry, ladies, it was 1951.)

They wanted it to sound something like George Shearing's group, who was very hot at the time, and have it ready to go to New York City by sometime in December to do the Paul Whiteman TV show. We were then to go to Philadelphia, make some appearances with the stars of the movie and do his radio show. This was to be done in conjunction with RKO's publicity campaign to promote the movie, which would star Janet Leigh, Gloria De Haven and Tony Martin. Al already had the piano, bass and vibe players set and, since I had done some shows with him, he wanted to see if I could make it work. I was eager to do the gig, so we all met at a rehearsal to see if there was any chemistry: There was. The cats took care of business, and Al called some RKO suit from the hall and told him that he had a group. (There wasn't any name for the group, come to think of it.)

We proceeded to get down two tunes: "S'Wonderful" and "September in the Rain." On the latter, the clarinet, vibes and piano would all play in unison with Gordon on the piano—using big Shearing-esque block chords. Damn, I bet it sounded sweet! Cut to late December. We all met at the Los Angeles County Airport. (It wasn't LAX yet. That was air-traffic controllers talk; it hadn't worked its way down to the mainstream public yet.) I had never flown before—that is, on an airplane. As I recreate this, I can see the aircraft. A big TWA super constellation with the tri-tail. I asked the ground attendant if by any chance the pilot and co-pilots names were Orville and Wilbur, to which he answered "yes" and assured me that they just installed a huge rubber band that ran the length of the cabin and would get us many miles before we had to land and rewind it again. We all said: "Cool!" Yes, it was a special night. Just before take off, going to the Big Apple to be on TV and radio—playing jazz in the waning days of 1951. To be young and brave and cocky, knowing and believing that nothing could hurt you and that you were never going to die!

The trip was good. We all got to know Al Burton better, and his brother—who at the time worked with him. I can't remember his first name, but I'm sure of his last name. I remember Al, all five-foot-three-inches of him, being a very nice and personable fella. An OK guy! We arrived in New York, and taxied to the Tudor Hotel. We jokingly referred to it as the Two-Door Hotel, inferring that RKO (owned by Howard Hughes at the time) was too cheap to get us musicians lodgings in at least a four-door hotel. The Tudor was located just off Broadway, right in the heart of the action. I don't remember the time lines too clearly, but there wasn't any time for sightseeing. We were either rehearsing or setting floor marks for the camera shots in the ABC TV studios when I first Mr. Whiteman, my mind flashed to Oliver Hardy. There was a similarity. During our spot on the show, I only have the vaguest memory of things. I remember the red lights indicating what camera was on at the moment, and the intense heat from all of the lighting that was required back then. I had to assume that all went well, as Al seemed happy and so did his brother.

OK, stop! Seventh-inning stretch or, for those of you in Poughkeepsie ... intermission. If you, the reader, have come across any names and or places that you're not familiar with, it would bode well for you to Google them. That would provide for a better understanding, so that you could better absorb what the hell I'm talking about, not only in this contribution but in all of the pieces I've done for Something Else! Reviews.


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