Van Dyke Parks Interview

Van Dyke Parks

Albert Einstein's Christmas Carol

Share |

Time is a thief.

It's a clever thief, stealing from us a small piece at a time. We lose things to Time because, frequently, we don't realize some things are not replaceable.

In 1953, television shows were broadcast live, or in filmed segments. Videotape wouldn't arrive until 1956, so the only way to preserve these early shows was by recording the video image on film - - a process known as kinescope. Kinescoped shows were muddy-looking, and expensive to store.

A few shows (notably I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners) skipped the kinescope process by recording episodes directly onto film and then broadcasting the filmed episodes. These shows were rare, though, and many entire series are lost to the electronic ether.

One of these lost series was Bonino, an NBC series about a TV Single Dad and his six children. Bonino starred Ezio Pinza, arguably one of the greatest opera stars of the 20th Century.

Pinza was in his declining years. After winning a Tony award for his role in South Pacific, Pinza starred in a few small-budget films for sparse critical praise. In a move to expand his potential audience, Ezio Pinza moved to the new medium of television, starring in a short-lived variety series on NBC called The RCA Victor Show in 1951. The show premiered with Ezio, but later alternated with guest host Dennis Day.

Ezio had managed to make quite a few friends at NBC during The RCA Victor Show. Fred Coe and David Swift, the producers of NBC's smash comedy Mister Peepers, were close with Ezio, and designed a sitcom built around Pinza's vocal talents.

In August of 1953, Coe and Swift produced a pilot episode for NBC. The half-hour pilot was geared for sale to affiliates, as the show's announcer mentions in the "commercial break" --

The setup for Bonino was described by one of the show's characters as "eight motherless children whose father comes home so infrequently, they don't even know what he looks like." The "eight motherless children" had to be musically talented, as there were going to be musical numbers in every episode.

Coe and Swift cast children from the American Boychoir School, a prestigious boarding school in Princeton, New Jersey. One of the boys cast was a twelve-year-old named Van Dyke Parks.

Writing about Van Dyke Parks as a child actor is akin to writing about John Lennon's experiences as a paperboy. Through his lyrics, melodies, and productions, Van Dyke shaped American popular music in the 60's, 70's, and today. Van Dyke was, and is, everywhere in popular music, from playing piano on Harper's Bizarre Anything Goes, to playing strings on Fiona Apple's latest album. Talking about his childhood stint on a short-lived production seems trivial.

And yet, maybe it wasn't trivial to Van Dyke Parks.

I wrote to Van Dyke this summer, as the fiftieth anniversary of Bonino approached. I hoped he wanted to discuss a few aspects of the show.

He wrote me back:



Exactly what I was hoping for in our talk! Van Dyke gave me his number, and we began our interview.

Unfortunately, my minidisc recorder was hiccupping, so I had to restart the recorder several times.

We talked about the audition for the series, and how Van Dyke met his first Italian: Ezio Pinza.

Van Dyke was in Manhattan, at NBC's Studio 8-H, for the audition. After the audition, Ezio took the entire cast to an Italian restaurant. Van Dyke, having no money in his pocket and no experience in eating Italian food, was reluctant to try any of the meals being brought to the sizeable table. Ezio asked Van Dyke what he would like. Van Dyke asked if he could use a telephone to call his father.

"Dad, I'm at a restaurant with Mr. Pinza, and I don't have any money for dinner," said Van Dyke.

"Put Mr. Pinza on the phone," said his father.

Ezio Pinza came to the phone. "Mr. Pinza, I would be grateful if you could get my son some dinner. He has no money with him, and he's a bit embarassed about his situation," said Van Dyke's dad.

Pinza burst into tears and hugged Van Dyke. "This boy! He don't eat! Get him some dinner!" Van Dyke recalled being plied with lasagna, stromboli, linguini, and dozens of antipastos. At that point, he became part of the Pinza family.

Van Dyke recalled many visits to Pinza's Connecticut home, where food was always being served, and where the doorbell played "Some Enchanted Evening."

My minidisc recorder finally got over its indigestion, and so I managed to record the rest of

The Interview

Van Dyke - I did a lot of Kraft Theatre, Philco Playhouse, Mister Peepers, The Honeymooners -- I did three of those, as I recall. I could tell that Jackie Gleason, like W.C. Fields, didn't like kids, or dogs. He occasionally missed his own lines, and I remember adjusting to that easily and going right along with him. I found favor later on in those shows, but the only shows I've seen are those Honeymooners episodes. I don't think most of the others were saved. They were considered disposable art, I guess.

I guess they were considered more of a stage production than a film, I guess. And as we move away in time, it's difficult to find even *memories* of these shows. I'm glad you have such clear memories of the show.

Van Dyke - Well, I wish they were more clear. I wish there were more general nuance in my memories of those shows. But it's true that I was totally impressed with the discipline that was being brought to television. I had great aims for television - - not as a participant, but expectations of what television might do. The laugh track, which I'm still intolerant of - - destroyed all that, I believe. It destroyed the real analysis that could make television a truly extemporary *wellspring* of great ensemble work. If a line "died"- - it died. And it was wonderful and hazardous, and very exciting. I think that's what drew theatre people into it. It felt like it would become a legitimate form of drama and situational comedy. There were a lot of people - who were out-of-work actors -- from the stage who found a way to support themselves in this naughty, new business called television.

When you were first on the show, in 1953, television was gaining in popularity. You didn't have to go to a corner saloons and places to see more than boxing matches and Uncle Miltie. Did your family have a television?

Van Dyke - My family, like a *lot* of families, I think - - I'm not sure, but I think the McCarthy hearings promoted television sales. It's the McCarthy hearings that brought a black-and-white television into our house.

Courtesy NBCNBC's Studio 8-H, where auditions for Bonino were held.

Well, no laugh track there, for sure!

Van Dyke - No! [laughs] No laugh track there! But that -- I really think that real news events -- I think the McCarthy hearings are a strong demonstration of that -- brought people and hooked people into television and showed its potential.

Having human drama in your house, rather than a dry magazine like The Saturday Evening Post show up -- it was *there*, it was present - - even more than the theatre of the mind that is radio - - you could read expression in close-ups of the people's faces. I guess it was shocking and compelling.

When you had your first experience being on television - - did it seem that there were already "old pros" in Studio 8-H that had been pioneers in the business, or did people feel that it was somewhat experimental?

Van Dyke - Well, there were people who came in quickly to that medium, which I thought was incredible. For example, I met Cyril Ritchard - I was in a Philco Playhouse with him. A great actor - he went on to be Captain Hook in Peter Pan. He was born in Australia, but he was just a Brit, as far as I was concerned. A very talented man. Of course, there was another show, that was a staple for some people: it was the only show they'd watch - - The Omnibus Theatre, with Alastair Cooke.

Courtesy NBCVan Dyke's co-star on Philco Playhouse: Cyril Ritchard

Right.

Van Dyke - There were others - I worked with an actor named Royal Dano, it was called Elisha and the Long Knives - - it was about a boy who was captured on an Indian raid of a wagon train, and he teaches them Shakespeare. That was a wonderful show.

Recently, as an adult - - we're talking *forty years* later, I played the prosecuting attorney on the final episode of Twin Peaks. It was a cameo: I sometimes do cameos because the hospitalization is *fantastic* -- and the judge was Royal Dano! He was a great actor.

Other people who brought legitimacy and cachet to television were people who had served in movies to great distinction. One time, I was in a show with Teresa Wright, I forget the name of the show, but I do remember that there was a bit actress, a small role -- and my mother cautioned me (my mother went into New York with me -- my parents were reluctant to see me in this business, but it helped me pay my tuition at the Boychoir school) -- there was one actress and her name was Lillian Gish. And my mother said, she cautioned me, "Van Dyke, that woman over there was once *the* biggest star in the world. She was D.W. Griffith's Sweetheart Actress. She's been to the top, so you treat her with great respect."

So, I'm sitting there, and neither Lillian Gish nor I were the center of attention - - we were just sitting there waiting for the important people to do what they did. So I turned to her and said, "Miss Gish?" and she said, "Yes?" And I said, "My mother said you were a great actress in the silents." And she said, "Oh, that's true. Yes, indeed it was true." So I asked, "Weren't you scared when you heard that the talkies were coming?" And Lillian Gish, without missing a beat, said, "No, in fact - - we didn't call them 'the talkies' when we heard that film was going to have sound. We just knew it would have sound, and we all somehow imagined that the sound would be entirely music."

Now, that's a phenomenon - how people would imagine that sound would come to film.

So, I got to meet great people in New York at that time. It was exciting, and the Bonino show, I felt, was a good show. It was very - - 'outside the box,' in a way, when you speak about your fascination with single parents.

As far as I can tell, I don't think there's been a show on the air like Bonino. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ezio Pinza's character was a suddenly-retired opera singer because his wife had passed away, and he was responsible for taking care of his kids.

Van Dyke - Yes.

And typically there was a musical number in every episode, where Mr. Pinza sang. But it seems like everyone else in the cast had some kind of musical talent. You had your choir experience, Conrad Janis is in the cast with his celebrity of being a very famous trombonist.

Van Dyke - Oh yeah.

So, were the kids in the show all part of the musical numbers?

Van Dyke - Well, somehow we all found a way to insinuate ourselves in musical gambits from time to time.

The Bonino Tango


Van Dyke - I know this doesn't do any good for an interview, but do you personally want to hear the theme song from Bonino?

Sure!

[click here to listen to Van Dyke Parks' rendition of the theme to Bonino]

Stunning! Thanks so much!

Van Dyke - [laughs] Isn't that fun? They couldn't have much more garlic on it than it already has.

That's true - I guess you'd have to play it on an accordion to make it moreso.

Van Dyke - Yes. Oh, but it was done with a small orchestra, and it was very, very sweet.

It's amazing to me when I meet up -- I saw director Mark Rydell the other night, and I met in a show I did with John Cassavetes called Crime in the Streets, and in that show I got slapped by John Cassavetes -- that was what the script called for, he was supposed to slap me gently -- but he slapped me hard and my nose bled.

Ouch!

Van Dyke - And I was supposed to say, "but Frankie, you're my *brother*" - - I remember saying that line. And the point is, the bleeding would have been fine. But, after the commercial, it was *the next day* and my nose was still bleeding! So, accidents happen -- and people did work with those accidents what they could. Props would be missing, actors would arrive late, or even early. So, I think that to say that it required superior talent, compared with the talent you see today - - I'm going to compare it, even though that's odious -- people got away with much less than today.

There were no second chances back then. This stuff was spilling out into people's living rooms right from the studio where you were standing.

Van Dyke - That's right. It was never "just one more time," no. That was it.

Did your folks ever get to see you in Bonino? I don't know if the network had stretched out to Pittsburgh by then.

Van Dyke - Oh yes - it was available at their home in Pittsburgh at that time. And they were dubious about the exposure to -- the recognition of people. I could go through Grand Central Station and be recognized back then, and that was a distracting element to me. The show itself was an amusement for me only because of my great respect for Ezio Pinza. I mean, really, my interest has only been in music, and as an adult, that's what I ended up doing! But I'm very pleased with the association with that show. I'm absolutely astounded that you remember it, and know that it made an individual contribution. I think that it's wonderful for a societal reason too, in that it talked about an event - - single parenting, as they use that gerund now - - that had never been discussed, and was perhaps even taboo.

Yes, there were so many firsts with this show. It was second just by a few months to My Little Margie - but there were so many firsts in having a dad who - - more than having one child - I mean, here's this whole schoolbus full of kids that he had to deal with individual problems. So, I would imagine there would be a bunch of intersecting stories every week. Trying to put all that into thirty minutes, and still have time for a musical number is astonishing.

Van Dyke - I wish I could remember who the writers were. Was Robert Alan Arthur among them?

I don't know. I don't have much information other than the cast. It's really a tragedy how little information there is in some kind of a form that could be examined. That's where my site comes in - - it tries to fill in the blanks of what's available, but as people age and memories fade, it's difficult to get all this down.

I have a question about your work on the show in relation to the Boyschoir school -- since this show ran from September to December, how did that intersect with your studies?

Van Dyke - It didn't hurt me one bit. I kept my academics going, and it was probably the most academically-intensive period of my life. I learned a helluva lot of music and was just -- ready for it. I mean, I was ready to find -- discipline in music - I loved it. It opened doors. It took me beyond my lifetime. Well, essentially, they did music from the church -- liturgical music -- but they also did fun things like Gershwin and so forth. The way we got this arranged to go to the show - we just got it out of nowhere. We used to go up and raid St. Thomas - - we were called the Columbus Boychoir, later on we were called the American Boychoir in Princeton -- and we would go up and get all the good jobs! We got them all in Amahl and the Night Visitors, me and my roommate Chet Allen, since deceased (he committed suicide).

I got to meet [NBC founder and radio pioneer] General Sarnoff in an elevator, going up. You know? Stuff - great stuff!

Wow!

Van Dyke - And at the same time, a parallel effluoresence of great theater was being staged on Broadway: the real Golden Age of Musicals. And I got to see them!

This, for a twelve-year-old boy -- I guess this was your first big New York experience, except for visits with your parents - - and suddenly, you're *living it* every day?

Van Dyke - Yes, it was phenomenal. Fortunately, my mother's brother was there. He lived in Bayside, Queens - not far away. He was an Executive Vice-President of Pepsi, and he took me under his wing. But generally, "fame" in the television business wasn't so rife with an *ambition* for fame or fortune. It was just a place to workshop theatre, and that's just the way people felt about it. They felt it was a great opportunity. The people were all very *civil* and very no-nonsense. I enjoyed being a part of that, and being around those people. It turns out that all of a decent and inquiring mindset. These people were liberal folks in a dark era. And that didn't bother me at all. They were very fine authors being brought into the fold, and they were all trying to legitimize this business called Television. It was a very good eye-opener for me, and certainly a defining moment in my life because I realized that yes, indeed, I *was* interested in the arts, in many forms, and I felt that it had great aesthetic, as well as occupational, value. So, probably, that's how I would up in this racket called Show Business.

Courtesy Columbia PicturesVan Dyke wrote the score and appeared in The Two Jakes, the sequel to Chinatown.

You've obviously gone on to many different facets of the industry, as you've majored in music and minored in acting. It doesn't sound like you've have any regrets about pursuing more of an acting career, or finding more parts on television.

Van Dyke - Well, it's funny: one time, I got an offer for a film score - The Two Jakes, the ill-fated sequel to Chinatown. Jack Nicholson called up and offered me the score, and asked me to come on up and talk about the film. "Oh, and by the way," he says, "would you play a small part in it?" And I said, "Of course not!" I was tired of that folderol - no acting. Forget it!

So, I get off the phone, and my wife says, "So, what did he say?" and I said, "he offered me the score in his next picture." And my wife said, "So, what were you saying *no* to?" and I said, "well, he wanted me to do an acting job," and she said, "you call him *right* back and you tell him you're going to *do* this!"

So I said, "well, why?" and she said, "The *hospitalization*!"

So, I called back and I said to him, "Act? I thought you said *shmacked*!"

Your wife is an excellent business manager!

Van Dyke - Oh yes! So, I'm not against it, but I have no delusions about my acting abilities - even as a kid. I did what I wanted to do: my best. I wanted to make things go well. And I at least wanted to learn how to cooperate with people, under the gun, when it mattered. People I met had a *desperate need* to do it, to act. They were surviving by their wits. I took it at something *terribly* important.


Revisiting Bonino with Travis Bryant


Van Dyke felt that his memories of Bonino were a bit vague, and suggested talking to another cast member about the show.

Travis Bryant, a long-time friend of Van Dyke from the American Boychoir days, had appeared in the final episodes of the series at the end of 1953. Van Dyke got me in touch with Travis, and we talked about the world of fifty years ago...


In talking with Van Dyke, I realized there's an awful lot I don't know about Bonino.

Travis - Well, you know, the show was on the air only thirteen weeks. But it's interesting that there's still a lot of people who remember the show -- people our age who used to watch it when they were younger.

I get an occasional e-mail from people who say that they had forgotten about the show until they saw the listing on the website. I guess, at the time, it must have been incredibly popular, since Ezio Pinza was just coming out of South Pacific. He must have been one of the biggest names on television up to that point.

Travis - We were opposite Jackie Gleason, though, which was no big help.

You got into the show a little late in the action.

Travis - Yes I did. They decided they needed more kids, and they only chose one other - - and that was me. So, that's why I'm not in the anthology books -- because I wasn't in the original cast.

What was your character's name?

Travis - Michael.

Did the writers give your character any quirks or odd talents?

Travis - Not really. I was just an extra body - part of the chorus! [laughs] And I didn't have very many lines. But I still remember - some of the lines they'd give me would be in Italian - and I still remember some of that stuff.

Do you remember any of the plots of the episodes you were in?

Travis - Well, the one that I remember most was - they were talking about it for the following week -- we were going to have a pillow fight. And all the kids were going to be in a big pillow fight. I remember -- we were driving in a car -- somewhere. This has all been such a long time ago, Jim![laughs]

Sure - fifty years now.

Travis - Hmm - well, other than that, I don't really remember much of the plotlines.

Van Dyke said you were in Studio 8-H for the auditions? That's where Saturday Night Live is made now.

Travis - Well, we were in the Hudson Theatre for the shows.

Really? Over towards Times Square?

Travis - Yes, the Hudson Theatre. And Kate Smith -- her show was also produced there, as well as The Steve Allen Show, which was the original "late-night" show.

Was there an audience?

Travis - Yes there was - they were all up in the balcony. And they had a big screen so that they could see what was going on up there.

Oh, okay.

Travis - Yes, and we always came out and did a little warm-up before the show started.

Now, did your folks get to watch the show at home? I'm not sure how many TVs were out there in 1953.

Travis - Oh yes. They got a TV set -- I think it was in 1950. So, they got to watch the show.

You went to the same school that Van Dyke did, right?

Travis - Right. And so did Oliver Andes, and Chet Allen.

So, you were all in school there, and went in as a group?

Travis - That's right.

So you remember what your audition was like?

Travis - Well, it was sort of a typecasting thing. They brought a line of us in from the school, and the fellows - Van Dyke and Oliver - who were still on the show -- they were bosom buddies of mine, and they told the producers that I'd done a lot of theatre and stuff, so I kinda just got the part! [laughs] They'd go down the line and ask us questions, and that was it. There was no reading or anything.

Wow. So how many episode did you wind up in?

Travis - I'm not sure, but I think I was in six of them. But I'm not sure, exactly.

Do you remember the first time you met Ezio Pinza?

Travis - No - and being that young, it never made an impression of who he was. I was into bubble gum back then. I remember it made him mad if I blew bubbles at rehearsal! [laughs] He'd tell me to stop doing that.

How difficult was it to go school in Princeton, and then come up late in the week to do the show?

Travis - Well, we'd come up every day for rehearsal. The show was on Saturday night, and I think we had Sunday off. I don't know if we had one or two days off, but I think we were in most of the time, reheasing, and then doing the show on Saturday night.

So you'd take the train back and forth every day?

Travis - Yes. We had a chaperone.

I would imagine you'd be pretty exhausted doing that every day.

Travis - Oh, not at all! When you're that young, you don't think a thing about it.

Well, it's a great adventure.

Travis - That's true.

You were about eleven, or twelve?

Travis - I was nine. Yeah - - these are things I haven't thought about for a long time. You have absolutely no stage fright at that age. I remember one episode, we were changing costumes, and the costume lady got us into the wrong costumes for the next change. Now, this is all *live* - - and all of a sudden, we figured out "hey - we're not supposed to be in these costumes for the next scene!" And we just slowly... changed... our... clothes... and walked right on to the set for the next scene. Now, if you were an adult, that would have just driven you up the wall! But it didn't bother us one bit. [laughs]

Now, do you remember the final show?

Travis - Yes. It was Christmastime, Jim. Ezio Pinza gave us all watches. And I remember - - I think it was Oliver and myself -- we needed a place to hide them. Now, Kate Smith's show came out of that studio, and we were in her dressing room. We hid the watches in one of her *enormous* girdles, knowing that *nobody* would ever find them in there!

Hopefully, Kate didn't find them.

Travis - No, we took them out before she got back.

When you finished up with the Bonino show, did you see that as a springboard to other shows?

Travis - I asked my folks if I could do other things, and they really weren't too wild about the idea, because it did take a lot of time away from school. Van Dyke went on to do a lot of other things, but my folks just kinda put a damper on it for me. I did do some other things with the NBC Opera.

What's interesting is that they brought the whole Bonino cast over to a show called Season's Greetings, and it was one of the first color telecasts that NBC had done. Harpo Marx was on the show. He didn't even talk during rehearsals. Now that I look back, I bet that's interesting. He never said a word! Not at all.

NASANew Jersey Commuter Albert Einstein.

As a nine-year-old, did it ever strike you as to the number of celebrities you were meeting?

Travis - No, it didn't phase me at all. And I started an autograph book. I think I got Irene Dunn, and Rocky Graziano. oh, and of course Ezio Pinza. I've since lost the book - I don't know what happened to it, or where it went.

I don't know if Van Dyke told you about his autograph from Albert Einstein.

No - he didn't!

Travis - [laughs] Now, *that* is an interesting story:

Van Dyke was coming back from New York, from a rehearsal, and Einstein was on the train's sideboard there. So, Van Dyke went up and asked him for an autograph. Einstein wasn't going to give it to him. But people around him started saying, "Come on Professor, give the kid an autograph!" So, he gave him an autograph, and he still has it now.

Oh, that's right - - Einstein was living in Princeton. He was just another commuter, headed home.

Travis - Yes, we'd see him on the street all the time. One of my favorite images was in the local movie house: walking up the aisle, there was Einstein, with all the hair hanging out. We were watching a 3-D movie, and he had his 3-D glasses on! [laughs]

That's a Kodak moment!

Travis - Oh yes!


Coming up in Part Two - we travel to the actual set of Bonino with Travis Bryant.

Check back soon for more about Ezio Pinza, Kate Smith, and *another* Albert Einstein story!