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Remembering Magic Mansion (Part II)
By David Cameron, First Sergeant, USAF Ret.
copyright © 2011 by David Cameron
Okinawa’s Stillwell Field House was a huge auditorium used for sports and for live performances. Bob Hope’s Christmas Show played there as had Mary Martin and Johnny Mathis. It could be set up to accommodate audiences of virtually any size. The U.S. Army was using it for a huge Christmas Show they were sponsoring for children on the island. We like it because it headlined our series director and stars CPT. Warren Chaney and LT. Harriett Zorich along with our clowns Jerry Jacobson and Sammy Brooks. It was too good not to pass by and we didn’t. Our first two shows had been well received by viewers so we had no difficulty receiving permission to collect footage to be used in our upcoming Christmas special. CPT. Chaney had staged the production to coincide with what we needed for our broadcast so we felt this would be easy.
I received a call some three hours before the show saying I had best get down there right away. The airman making the call said nothing more than the audience was pretty sizable and we might need to adjust our filming. Forty-five minutes later we walked into the Stillwell Field House. We were prepared to film having set up the night before. All of us prepared for the expected audience of what we thought would be five or six hundred people. Army Special Services thought there could be more so they prepared for a thousand. As we entered the big doors – there were thousands of screaming kids and countless adults. The final official toll was 8,000 to be specific.
Our team was stunned. We had not prepared to cover anything of this size. Kids were not only crammed in from front to back – they lined the stage as well. I looked over at Chaney who was turning every increasingly pale. Harriett, the show’s co-star, walked up and asked, “What did we do now?” Chaney gave her a blank look then suddenly jumped on the stage a full 45 minutes early and began performing. He was doing stuff off the top of his head using the opportunity to rearrange the audience for filming. I remember he had an onstage contest to determine who the “well behaved” children were that would become part of the Christmas episode.
Suddenly chaos ceased and order reigned. I have to admit I had found Chaney to be a little stiff and standoffish. He was always polite and courteous but seemed remote and hard to get to know. On that day we bonded. What could have been a disaster -- turned out to be a terrific show. However, toward the end, we encountered another problem. Chaney nearly caused a deadly stampeed.
Chaney had constructed an illusion that appeared as an empty fireplace placed on the stage throughout the live performance. At a key point, he and the children are waiting for Santa Claus. who for some reason hadn’t shown. Suddenly, Chaney points upward and the kids see a sleigh and reindeer running along the roof. A fur-clad figure disembarks from the sleigh and heads toward a large chimney on top of the field house. He enters and disappears. With this the kids go nuts and the noise level increased exponentially.
“Oh no!” cries Chaney (the magician), “Santa is trapped in invisibility between the chimney and our fireplace.”
The sound doubled with the noise level and excitement rising so much our microphones went dead. Chaney sweeps toward the fireplace, waves his hands yelling something indiscernible to man or beast and suddenly, Santa Claus materializes in the fireplace and steps onto the stage. There was a sudden and immediate hush that came over the audience. Santa was our own Mike Rogers whom Chaney had made-up to really look the part. The costume’s fur was real as were the boots. His whiskers had been glued on in layers. To everyone watching, this was Santa. The audience had been stunned into silence. Stunned that is until Chaney said, “Alright Children, Santa is here to see and talk to you.”
Abruptly the silence was broken and children by the thousands rushed the stage. Parent panicked, security panicked and I panicked. Chaney hurriedly walked up to and said something to Santa who stepped forward and raised his arms.
“Halt!” yelled Santa in a curiously strict military manner.
The children stopped in their tracks as if by magic. Santa continued.
“Line up as Sergeant Adams instructs you,” he said firmly, waving toward a security sergeant who had taken the stage. The children moved as they were instructed and we all breathed a sigh of relief. In all the shows that we did under the hottest of lights, none of us ever saw Warren Chaney sweat. It was almost inhuman. That day was the exception as I personally witnessed beads of perspiration pouring from his brow. When it was over, he left and I have it on good authority that “Rathmore” had to carry him home from the Ft. Buckner Officer’s Club that night.
Our Christmas show broadcast on December 18th of that year. Prior to it’s airing, the Stars and Stripes ran a worldwide feature on the show and shortly afterward, the papers throughout the eastern command ran their stories. This was the press “shot in the arm” we needed. We were set for a huge viewing audience and we got it. We didn’t have ratings but if we had they would have been high. Our mail was incredible and never stopped.
Magic Mansion was a complex show and tough to shoot. I frankly don’t know how any of us did anything other than the broadcast. We’d talk about next weeks program after each broadcast but only in very narrow terms. Chaney would leave for dinner with Harriett and Klay or others. We aired on Saturday mornings. Chaney would have the new script in our hands by Thursday. Matsuyama would have the magic built and the sets up by Friday. We’d rehearse early Saturday morning after which we’d go on the air before a live audience.
When you’re doing live shows anything can happen and usually does. Lights back then weren’t cool like the lights now. They were hot. We couldn’t run the air-conditioning because of the sound so let me tell you, the studio would really warm up in an hour’s time. As I said, Chaney never sweated but the rest of us did. Hardly a show would pass without one of the studio lights going out. The clown and Chaney were excellent at moving from the dark into the light but the others, including the guests had to be guided. I think Chaney worked out something with Harriet for those occasions that it happened. I began to notice that if a guest didn’t move into the light, Harriet would be emerge whether she was in the script or not, moving them accordingly. One of Chaney’s dummies would usually cover until the guest was in the proper light.
We always worked with a script with lines, stage directions and all but the nature of it being live, required quick thinking. Once we had John Wayne guesting and part of the set started falling. The Duke just wandered over and leaned his huge body against it, holding it in place till we could brace it from behind. At the same time another part of the set started collapsing and Chaney big black cape and all leaned against it. The audience could see the problem and was breaking up but the two leaners covered okay and Harriett made unscheduled entrances and exists to furnish movement in the scenes.
Although we had dialogue, the lines might go out the window at any time leaving the rest of us in the control booth and on camera or mike, to panic. The funniest moment and the funniest show we ever did was one where Danny Kaye guested. Two of the cast forgot their lines and Kaye, the consummate comedian just picked up their cues and made up dialogue on his own. This really threw our clown off as it did another cast member, Vince Rizutto. Chaney was great at this. Nothing bothered him and he responded in kind. To this day, I cannot remember what anyone said other than the audience broke up, the cameramen broke up and we were rolling on the floor in the control booth. The broadcast went that way for the remainder of the show. Unbelievable as it might seem, when the cut sign came and the show ended, the Kaye and Chaney finished their made-up lines as if it were all planned.
It was easy to get guests on our show since we were all military. Sometimes we’d have to film close to their venues of performance as we did with Patti Page. She was performing at an Officer’s Club and we shot her segment there and then later inserted footage into our live show as we broadcast.
A new character joined the cast during the first season called Wappy the Magic Genii. He was a goofy ever-forgetful genii of the lamp. Playing him was an Army doctor named Vincent Rizutto who was funny on and off stage. Once he got CAPT. Klay (Rathmore) going on set during a broadcast. Klay was very reserved but once you started him laughing, he couldn’t stop and this was one of those moments. We all watched as his “skull cap” began jiggling under the makeup.
During the first year, the Air Force Commander at Kadena Air Base got the bright idea of doing a major publicity stunt for an annual “Island Fair” that the Air Force put on for charity. They wanted publicity beyond Okinawa so they came to us. We agreed. Chaney came up with an idea of attempting to break the world’s record for an escape from a straitjacket. He convinced us that it didn’t matter whether he was successful or not because we would have already received tons of publicity for the effort. The decision was made. It would be good for the Air Force and wonderful for us.
The press ran with the story. What we weren’t told was that Chaney was going to do this thing suspended in the air some 600 feet from a super-crane with a bed of spikes below him. When the Major jumped his case he said, “What does it matter. The fall would kill me first!”
We flew in some representatives from the International Brotherhood of Magicians and someone from one of the statistical organizations to be the official timer. The press was intense and across the Pacific Command letters to the editor offered opinions as to how successful Chaney would be.
I know for a fact that Chaney didn’t think he could break the record, which was ten seconds to release at the time. Harriett told me they’d been practicing for weeks and he couldn’t get the release under 19 seconds. To cover, he set up another stunt. A month earlier, he delivered a written prediction of the event days’ headlines into the hands of the base’s Commanding General. Chaney figured that when he screwed up the straitjacket escape, having a correct prediction would make up for it. Hell – we didn’t know how he was going to get out of the jacket much less predict the headlines on the day of the event.
The evening for the event arrived and Chaney was hoisted into the air. About 400 feet up the cable slipped and he came pummeling down. There is more - but that will have wait till next week’s part three.
Below: One of the many clipping that we received for your 1965 Christmas Show. We’d broadcast two earlier shows but it was this one that launched the series for a 150-Episode run.