Friday, July 30, 2010

Remembering The TV Critics' Press Tour

A bunch of snapshots fell out of an old book of press clippings.
I couldn't resist looking and remembering the days when I was on the annual TV Critrics' Press Tour.
I started as a child of 24 in 1970 and ended in 2008 but what a lot of memories there are over those 38 years!
For many years I was the only Canadian allowed on the tour --in those days the Big Three networks ran the whole shebang and even paid the way of most critics.
The reason: the first paper I worked at, the Hamilton Spectator, was considered to be part of the territory of the Buffalo affiliates. Hence I was in and bigger papers like the Toronto Star were out.
At first I was ordered to do all my interviews on a 1-to-1 basis! What a treat that was! On my first tour of duty here I was hanging out on the set of The Brady Bunch in the morning and walking to the next sound stage to interview Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible in the afternoon.
One afternoon an NBC limo took me out to have lunch at Julie London's and she was so warm and wonderful that we kept in touch until her passing.
NBC shut down Disneyland early one night for a candlelight dinner with its stars and I was wedged in between Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello.
In 1974 I remember dinner at Lucy Ball's --in her gazebo, catered by Chasen's. Only two of us had wanted to go out and meet the late, great Miss Ball. This was the last year her faltering sitcom was on and she was considered yesterday's news!
I surprised her by saying I wanted her not to be Lucy but Lucille, the first female head of a major studio (Desilu) and she obliged by giving us as precise a critique of the TV industry as ever I've heard.
On one of those early tours (1972) I went out to Norma Shearer's house and gave her the door nob to the house she'd been born at in Montreal.
She said it was the wrong door nob but let me stay for tea anyway.
Set visits were a real thrill. Every year a bunch of us would sneak out of lunch at the Century Plaza hotel to get through the back studio gates of Twentieth Century Fox and onto the soundstage housing M*A*S*H.
I must have done that ten times in a row. I had an intimate lunch with Loretta Swit in July 1972 --months before the actual series went on the air.
One day we tiptoed out to watch the filming of a key scene on the disaster epic The Towering Inferno. Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones were dancing away and after the director bawled "Cut" Fred towed Jennifer over to say hello.
Told we were critics she turned and fled to her dressing room. Fred stayed to chat a bit before departing with a wave.
Another big thrill was being on the huge set of Battlestar Galactica and lunching with Toronto's Lorne Greene. "I thought the Ponderosa was huge but now I own the universe!" he joked.
Another big set visit was to The Thorn Birds where I got to sit next to Jean Simmons. It was suggested the only way I could interview Barbara Stanwyck was to sit with her in her limousine as it took her home that afternoon. Hers was a truly intimidating personality but at one point she snapped "Stop shaking like a leaf! You're doing quite nicely with your questions!"
Another great set visit was to the Simi Valley and Roots 2. At lunch I asked Henry Fonda about his recent American Film Institute tribute and he teared right up.
To get Jimmy Stewart I had to go to the set with shooting that day at Harold Lloyd's fabulous Beverly Hills estate. Jimmy had just spotted an autographed picture he'd given Lloyd way back in 1936 and cracked "I don't remember being so young."
I remember the huge part at ABC's Century City headquarters to introduce the cast of Charlie's Angels. I arrived quite late and luckily ate none of the shrimp which seemed flaccid to me. The critics who did had to rush to the Century Plaza hotel to get their stomachs pumped out.
Anther night we all went out to Larry Hagman's Malibu pad for a cook out. His mom, Broadway legend, Mary Martin was welcoming us at the door. She whispered to me "Larry as J.R. is a phenomenon. But ,me, I'm the legend."
Today's press tour, severely truncated because there are so few genuine print critics left, can't compete with the old days, believe you me.

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