FOREWORD BY HERMAN RUSH
In 1968, I was the President of the television division of General Artists Corporation (GAC), a major talent agency, and the legendary Petula Clark was one of our clients. As a result, I was the “packaging agent” of a Petula Clark television special. I was fortunate to bear witness to a particular “moment in time” and its impact on today’s diversity and equal opportunity standards within our industry.
Steve Binder played an integral role in this moment in time. As producer and director, he was not only the creative force behind the Petula Clark special, but also the heroic individual whose actions initiated the long overdue breaking down of a barrier fueled by discrimination. I believe this event is a crucial moment in television history. It is with the greatest respect and admiration that I’ve been asked to write this preface to Steve Binder’s story.
In the year 1968, I had the good fortune to be asked by NBC to produce and direct the first American Television Special for English songstress and actress, Petula Clark. I had just completed a Special starring Broadway star, Leslie Uggams (Hallelujah Baby) and I had already assembled a great team of creative, behind-the-scenes artists as we commenced pre-production. I always wanted to work with Harry Belafonte, and even knowing how difficult it would be to book him for the Special, he was my number one choice to co-star with Petula and I was lucky enough to talk him into it. I immediately phoned Young & Rubicam (the sponsor’s advertising agency) who represented the sponsor, Plymouth automobiles, to relay the good news. The ad guy was so elated when he heard that I had booked Belafonte that he even joked with me about what color I preferred on my new Plymouth he would be delivering to my home. About fifteen minutes later, I received another call from the ad agency, but this time it was from another Y&R advertising executive by the name of Colgan Schlank. He told me that he was replacing the gentleman that I had spoken to and we had a serious problem that had to be handled immediately. When he relayed the news about Belafonte directly to Doyle Lott at Plymouth, he was told to “get rid of him.” When I asked why, he told me that he was told that Belafonte was ‘old news’ and hadn’t had a hit record or been on television in years. He continued, “That’s on the record, Steve. Off the record, he doesn’t want a black man on the show.” I told him that if I had to drop Belafonte from the show, I would quote his off the record and tell everyone, including Harry and Petula. After a pause, he told me he’d have to phone me back. When he did, a few minutes later, he told me that the problem was solved. The Petula NBC contract read “Guest Stars” plural, not singular. Therefore, all I had to do was book another white guest star, equal to Harry’s stature, and Doyle Lott would agree to move forward with the Special. He said he would submit a list to me of stars to pick from. “Equal to Harry!” When the list came in to my office, it contained names like Milton Berle and Ray Bolger. I wanted ONLY Belafonte. I phoned Colgan back and told him that I was just going with Belafonte and his ‘list’ was unacceptable to Petula and myself. After an exchange of several more phone calls, I was ordered to the Chrysler/Plymouth headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, where I was to meet Doyle Lott in person and more importantly, Glenn E. White, who was running the Plymouth car division at the time and would make the final decision whether or not I was to proceed.
When I arrived in Detroit, everyone involved had gone into separate camps. Doyle Lott and his NY ad agency reps were on one side of the room supporting cancellation of the Special and myself and Plymouth’s ad agency from the West Coast on the other side, advocating proceeding as originally planned. Mr. White sat behind his large desk and asked Lott why he wanted to cancel the show. He explained, never mentioning the race card. Then he turned to me and asked if Petula and myself were happy with the concept of the show and I responded affirmatively. He then looked at Lott and told him that he didn’t see any reason to cancel the show if Petula and I were happy with our concept and told us to proceed. Doyle Lott immediately jumped up out of his chair, shook my hand and said, “See you at the Emmy’s” and we parted ways.
The thirteen minute segment with Belafonte began with Petula singing “Color My World” accompanied by the El Rodeo elementary grammar school orchestra in Beverly Hills, California. Following the song, Petula did a brief introduction to the segment talking about how, “We start out with the answers, and end up with the questions”. Then we cut to Belafonte who sings, “Isn’t Life Beautiful, Isn’t Life Gay, Isn’t Life the Perfect Thing to Pass the Time Away”. Segue to a small child singing, “Hambone” with Belafonte, and Harry sings a brand-new song written by Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”. Harry solos another new song, “While I Got Time” and then sings a duet with Petula titled, “Paths of Glory”, an anti-war song that Petula wrote herself. Let me back up a little and tell you about “While I Got Time”.
It seemed to take forever to come up with this song. Everyday Belafonte would come in and tell us that he really wanted to make a meaningful ‘statement’ about race relations in America and it was bothering him that he couldn’t think of what to sing. It was driving all of us crazy, so Allan Blye, my head writer said, “let’s write something really ‘heavy’ and when Harry hears it, he won’t want to do it anyway”. It made sense to me so I told him to work on it. A few days later, Allan showed up with the song. The opening lyrics went “I never seen no road other than the one that brung me here, where we do it to others before them others do it to us. while I got time”. We played it for Harry and he ‘wasn’t sure’ but he said he’d keep listening to it and get back to us. Bill Eaton, Harry’s music arranger thought the song would ‘kick ass’ and I wanted to put the Claude Thompson’s dancers into the number with Harry. It worked. Harry came in very enthusiastic about the song and went into rehearsal. When he finally performed the number, if you listen closely to the lyrics, he made one small change. It went like this: “I never seen no road other than the one that brung me here, where we do it to others before them Mothers do it to us”. It was subtle, but Harry certainly made his point! Then came “the touch” song, “Paths of Glory.”
I staged the “Paths of Glory” number with Petula coming in from upstage behind Harry and stopping about five feet behind him. It was a beautiful camera shot with Harry in the foreground of the picture and Petula behind him and over his left shoulder. I rolled tape and we did three or four takes, but something didn’t feel right. I left the control room and went down to the stage where I spoke to both of them and decided that instead of Petula stopping behind Harry, she would continue her walk and come right up along side Harry. I went back to the control room and rolled tape again. That little change in the staging made all the difference in the world. Something about the chemistry of standing side by side made both of them very emotional. Tears started to show on camera in their eyes and Petula (not Harry) reached her right hand and placed it on Harry’s forearm. CRASH!, BAM!, BOOM! All hell broke loose in the client’s room next door to the control room. It sounded like a herd of elephants were running down the hall and someone popped their head in the control room door and said “Doyle Lott, has just stormed out of the client’s room and he is HYSTERICALLY ANGRY!” Plymouth’s ad agency rep, Colgan Shlank stormed into the control room as if I’d just stabbed him in the back and was screaming directly into my face as if I had just committed the most heinous crime of the century. His face was bright red. “How could you do this to me Steve?” The telephone rang in the control booth and I picked up the phone. An NBC executive was on the other end, “Steve, whatever you’re doing on Stage 4, I want you to know that NBC is behind you!” Claude Wolff (Petula’s husband) and I went immediately down into the bowels of the basement to the room with all the tape machines.
We approached the tape engineer on our show and I told him that we wanted to erase all the takes where Petula and Harry DID NOT TOUCH with the exception of the final take when Petula touched Harry’s forearm. The editor’s hands were shaking as he had me sign a quickly scribbled authorization giving him permission to erase the tapes, obviously in order to protect his job. I signed the paper and waited until he erased the master and protection tapes. We returned upstairs after the dastardly deed was accomplished.
While I was in the editing room, Newsweek magazine phoned and asked if they could come over immediately and get a picture of the ‘touch’ from the video monitor and I said “Sure, come on over”. The picture and article ran in the March issue of Newsweek right after the show aired on NBC from 8 to 9pm. According to Newsweek, both sponsor and ad agency washed their hands of any blame. “If there was any incident during the taping” said Plymouth’s general manager Glenn E. White, “it resulted solely from the reaction of a single individual and by no means reflects the Plymouth Division’s policy on such matters”. For its part, Young & Rubicam pleaded that its men were merely acting under the client’s orders. The New York Times followed suit on Thursday, March 7th and said, “Mr. Belafonte said that, “The program’s producer, Steve Binder, refused to make any changes once the final taping was finished and so informed the advertisers.” It quoted Doyle Lott as saying “I thought the program would be the outstanding show of the TV season. In spite of all the misunderstanding and flak today I am still of the opinion that this is a great show. I was tired. I over-reacted to the staging, not to any feeling of discrimination.” He added that he had called Mr. Belafonte and told him his performance was excellent.
The next day, Glenn White from Plymouth phoned me at home and said to the best of my memory, “Before we start even talking, Steve, we must never let logic enter our conversation”. I’ve used that exact quote many times in my career. He was very concerned about all the negative publicity they were starting to get, and he wanted to read me a list of the entire humanitarian causes that Chrysler/Plymouth supported and contributed to. I told him it really wasn’t necessary because I already knew that he was personally responsible for allowing the show to be produced in the first place and how supportive he was from the very beginning. When I heard a rumor that Belafonte was appearing on the Tonight Show, and might be telling blacks to boycott Plymouth, I phoned Harry to tell him about my conversation with Glenn White and his concerns. I told Harry what a good guy White was from the start, and not to blame his company!
A year later, someone showed me an article from the Georgia Thunderbolt, the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan, and its headline was still referring to the incident. Their headline screamed, “Jew Director Gets Great American Fired”. It made me so happy that Petula touched Harry!
I want to go on record right now and tell you that Allan Blye and Mason Williams, our writers, took lyrics to songs and made them read like a dramatic film. Petula wasn’t just about singing and dancing, pretty scenery, and costumes. This Special had a soul and told a story with a beginning, middle and end. I can vividly remember reading a review in a Catholic newspaper months after the show aired and the reviewer saw the show on the air and didn’t feel at the time that it was even worthy of a review. He said that he watched it and thought it was beautifully mounted, but in his words, “just another music special”. His review of the show went on to say that for weeks he couldn’t get the show out of his mind and so one morning when he woke up, it hit him “Like a ton of bricks”. He then went on to review the show and what each segment meant to him personally. When I read his review, it felt to me that he had crawled inside our minds when we were in our ‘think tank’ creating our ideas for the show. The first rule of a director is to direct the inner dialogue of a script, not the words on the page, and it was gratifying that ‘he got it’.
1968 was and will always be, the most significant year of my lifetime. Aside from Petula, the Vietnam War was raging on, student protests on college campuses all over the country, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and my next television project, later that same year, The 1968 NBC Elvis Presley Comeback Special.
Steve Binder is an EMMY, ACE winner and Golden Globe nominee. he is a distinguished director, producer, writer, author and educator. His first feature film, The T.A.M.I. Show (Teen-Age Music International) according to the Los Angeles Times, “is the greatest of all Rock ‘n’ Roll films.” Steve has directed, written, and produced literally hundreds of television specials and series, including, Petula with British songstress Petula Clark and her co-star, Harry Belafonte and multiple Diana Ross Specials including the award-winning Diana in Central Park. On four separate occasions he has been the guest speaker at the William S. Paley Center in both Los Angeles and New York, where special evenings were devoted to his work in the entertainment industry. In 1968 he conceived, directed and produced Elvis. TV Guide called the television special, “the second greatest musical moment in television history next to the Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.” He proudly served in the US Army in Europe as a broadcaster for the Blue Danube Network (BDN) and the American Forces Network (AFN). He is currently an active member of The Directors and Producers Guilds of America. He served as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, and Columbia College of Hollywood, where he was honored with and Honorary Doctorate degree and has spoken at various Universities throughout the world including UCLA and UCSB. His favorite saying in life is, “Whatever you do in life, do it with passion.”