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Remembering Magic Mansion (Part III)
CLOSING THE MANSION
By David Cameron, First Sergeant, USAF Ret.
Above is an extremely rare photograph of Rathmore, the butler of Magic Mansion. He was pre-Munster and contrary to his scary countenance here, very likable on the show. Many a live audience member waited in line to have their photograph made. Captain Earle Klay was very tall and in his built up shoes Rathmore stood close to 7 feet. He made a very imposing figure.
A man strapped in a white coat was being hoisted high some 800 feet into the air. It was early into Magic Mansion’s first season. Our show’s lead, Army Captain Warren Chaney, was attempting to break the world’s record for an escape from a medical straitjacket. The press throughout the Pacific had gone wild with the story. Representatives from the International Brotherhood of Magicians had been flown in. Government officials were clocking the time and medical personnel were on hand to verify that the jacket was authentic and that he was properly laced into it. Underneath Chaney was a bed of spikes tipped with poison. Several thousand people were in attendance and as cameras flashed, a huge crane lifted this magician ever higher. What those watching didn’t know was Chaney and the rest of us weren’t worried about him breaking the record. Chaney had already said that wasn’t happening. We just did not want him to break his neck and kill what was becoming a very popular network show for AFRTS.
All of a sudden, there was a loud squeal in the crane mechanism as the crane hit the 400-foot mark. Abruptly, the cable loosened and Chaney came plummeting toward the earth. Women screamed and covered their children’s eyes. Men yelled and those of us with the production stood there with our eyes wide like breakfast plates.
The mechanic running the crane furiously yanked at the breaking mechanism and with smoke pouring from the pulley motor, Chaney snapped short about 200 feet above the ground. Everyone breathed with relief. I grabbed a PFC’s field glasses and looked at Chaney. I could see he was in some pain but there he was nodding for the mechanic to continue the hoist. The mechanic yelled down that the light rain had caused the cable to slip. He pulled the lever and the pulley motor restarted hauling Chaney to the machine’s pinnacle. I looked through the glasses and saw a look of concentration that I had never seen on the Captain’s face. I can’t describe it but he was starring forward as if lost in deep thought, not a muscle moving.
The timekeeper yelled, “Start” over the speakers. They supervising committee began loudly counting out the seconds, “1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6!” And then – we all saw the jacket, which had been tightly buckled around the Captain by physicians in attendance, drop from the sky. Chaney had escaped under ten seconds. He had broken the record. It didn’t matter that night that an earlier mentalist prediction was 100% correct, word for word. What the press carried throughout Europe and in the U.S. was that our guy had broken the world’s record. The stunt gave us the boost we needed and our television program was off and running. We would continue for 120 episodes, which in today vernacular would have extended well over a 5 year run. We did it in less than 2 years.
The Magic Mansion budget never changed. We had $25,000 a show and that’s what we spent. Truth is, we often came in under that amount. Any worry we had about Chaney’s directing soon passed. He was a quick learner and soon mastered the skills for television. He was good with the actors but always remote. His only close relationship seemed to be with the show’s costar, Harriett Zorich and his Army friend Earle Klay who played Rathmore. I’m not saying he was unfriendly, he wasn’t. He just didn’t talk much off set.
Chaney and some of the cast and crew traveled a lot for the show. Along the way he would break off and perform solo at military bases and outposts throughout the wartime commands. Our own records showed that he gave over 300 shows in Vietnam alone and I know he did more than that. Whereas the big shows could only make their way to large bases, Chaney could load up his ventriloquist figures or his banjo and become a one-man performance. I never saw him complain or refuse to travel for a gig even in times when I knew he was exhausted.
Captain Klay who played Rathmore was a prince of a fellow, easy to work with and our office staff liked him. Early in the 2nd season, he, like Harriet transitioned out of the military. We had replaced our clown Jerry Jacobson (the best clown I ever ran across), in Season One with a young Army corporal, David Castle. What Castle lacked in talent he made up for in hard work. We also found another Rathmore but I don’t think the credits were ever changed.
An Army doctor, Vince Rizutto moonlighted on our show as absentminded magic genii named Wappy. Once Chaney, standing by me during one scene, leaned over and commented, “You know, Vince can act.” I nodded in agreement and a week or so later, a new role for him had been written. In makeup and disguise, he became a recurring villain called Simon Slinkbad. For the rest of the series, he would play one or the other role and occasionally others that Chaney would script for him.
As we hit the midpoint of Season Two, all of us producing the show wanted to try the new videotape technology that had just been invented. Chaney was particularly keen on it and helped us in the requisition drafting. We were given trial permission and soon the equipment arrived at the soundstages. It wasn’t at all like the 1” tape that would follow in the mid 70s where you could edit. You could not edit the early tape. The new videotape merely allowed you to copy the show for later broadcast. By today’s standards the quality wasn’t very good but back in the mid 60s it was far better than the kinescopes. There was talk of color and Sgt. Mortensen, our Executive Producer wanted to do it but we didn’t have the budget. One thing we did, however, was to record earlier and to drop the live audience. We didn’t know at the time that we would be one of the last shows to do that, much less the first one to transition over to this thing called videotape – but transition we did. Like many who make history, you are totally unaware that you are doing so.
Below: Everyone loved Bedford Bulkley, one of Magic Mansion’s ventriloquist figures.
As with his counterpart, Danny O’Kaye, Bedford was a much-admired character on the show. He was goofy, slow and lovable. Like Danny, he got more than his share of fan mail.
Harriett Zorich was near the end of her tour of duty and she was leaving the service and returning home to Wisconsin or Washington, I’m not sure which. At any rate, she would be leaving. Chaney thought her role would be difficult to replace and he decided not to. The day came when she did the “Farewell to Harriett” episode and I know for a fact that this broke many a young boys’ heart (and maybe older) that watched the show. We received a ton of sad mail from that show. After the show was was over, we all said goodbye. I have never seen or talked to her since and as with others so important to the show, I have no idea of what happened to them.
Mike Rogers, our Mr. Gilhooley-leprechaun left a few weeks earlier as had our first Rathmore and Lounsberry the Clown. We had the feeling that we might not make a second season. That feeling turned out to be correct.
1 of over 300 solo performances.
The following photo was taken when Chaney performed alone. He often left the main unit to perform for a remote outpost or hospital. Here he’s drawn another soldier into the act to accompany him in song. He was good on the banjo but to my recollection, only played the instrument one time...and then in disguise as another character.
A month after Harriett Zorich left, Captain Chaney received transfer orders back to the states and another assignment. We knew this was it. None of us could write as fast or as much as he could plus we would have to bring on a new director. On top of it all, he was the lead and the voice for two and sometimes three of his ventriloquist figures. So we were essentially losing four people not counting several reoccurring characters he would play in disguise. It was then we came up with a novel idea. We would begin filming as many shows as we could in order to finish out 50 shows for season two and some to at least to start season three. We shot and recorded two shows a week on the new tape. By the time Chaney left, we had 36 shows or thereabouts on tape -- enough to carry us some 20+ shows into the new season. We were all young back then and could carry this kind of workload. Besides, few of us knew any better and those that did, weren’t telling.
Chaney came to the soundstage shortly before he was to leave Okinawa. Our company CO had decided we needed to clean house and he wanted us to throw out all of the AFRTS old-time radio-show transcription discs that we had accumulated over the years. Television had replaced radio drama and comedy and no one was listening any longer so all the library stacks and stacks of shows were out. We were in the process loading up several 2.5—ton trucks to haul away the recordings when Captain Chaney arrived and inquired as to what we were doing. We told him and when he rummaged through a stack of old shows he became quite excited. He asked the CO if he could have them. The commander said yes under the condition he take them off our hands now. I knew the Captain didn’t know how many we had and we collectively thought this might make a great practical joke. Chaney lived off post in a small Japanese apartment complex in nearby Machinato rather than at the officer billets. Dumping the load on Chaney would cut hours off our work. When we got there his apartment had been emptied and he told us to stack the cases inside, laughingly instructing us to just leave him a place to sleep. Little did he know!
We carried over 90,000 transcriptions discs in large cases to his place and stacked them floor to ceiling. When we left, I placed a small bedroll on the floor near the door. He would have a narrow path to the bathroom and a small place on the floor to sleep but that was it. As we left the apartment, we roared with laughter.
Chaney never said anything to us about it but many years later when I returned to the states, I discovered that we had handed off to him one of the largest old time radio collections in the world – all first editions. Looking back I’m not sure but that the joke was on us. I heard years later he copied them all off tape and then replicated thousands for the Smithsonian. They in turn gave them to radio stations and stores and so on for replication purposes. To this day, I have no idea what he did with the rest.
Magic Mansion completed its run and the day arrived when we taped the last show. We brought in a live audience as we had for much of the run. I must admit we all got misty eyed as the “Magician” closed the doors of the mansion. One by one the remaining cast members magically disappeared, as did the show’s furnishing. At the end, we were left with what appeared to be the empty walls of the mansion much as it was when the show began on day one. Warren turned to the camera, pulled his long black cape around him and vanished. The cape dropped to floor leaving nothing. It was the only time I can recall when the audience did not applaud one of the major feats of magic. Instead they remained silent, as Magic Mansion closed its doors forever.
The shows that were taped would be sent across the globe and played and replayed. Other commercial networks were following our lead and the move to video rapidly increased. Live audiences vanished altogether to be replaced by sound tracks. If a show had a live audience they had to endure countless retakes and laugh on cue. The spontaneity of broadcasting drama live was gone. Gone too were the funny mistakes, flubbed lines and falling scenery. It was replaced by a forthcoming slickness of everything. Smoother, but not nearly as entertaining.
Eventually even the videotape medium improved, as did the broadcast quality. Old shows like Magic Mansion filmed on the old videotape were discarded. I don’t think any of the shows survive except in the memories of those of us who worked on the program or the many families who watched it. One day, they too will pass and there will be no memories. That is why I am extremely grateful to companies like Swapsale and it’s manager, Mr. Bruch David – who take time and make an effort to record some television history for preservation.
As I look back over the years, I think of the many guests we had on the show. We never thought much about it back then but having stars like John Wayne and Bob Hope was special. Being able to bring footage from (what were then) out of the way places like India or China was exceptional television. The hard work required was nothing compared to what we learned and were able to do. The famous female vocalist Patti Page was on tour through the Pacific and appearing at nearby Ft. Buckner’s Officer’s Club. Her schedule wouldn’t permit her to travel to the studio so Chaney drafted some script and we traveled to her, 16mm camera and all. When the footage was cut into our live show you would have sworn she was at the mansion. She was very gracious and one of the classiest of the guests that we had.
I remember the closing day as though it were yesterday. I recall Captain Chaney loading up Danny O’Kay and Bedford Bulkley, the two dolls that charmed everyone—into suitcases and stowing them in the back of his little sports car. I was so used to seeing him in a black tux and long cape that watching him exit the doors in uniform was quite an emotional moment. We all knew that a magical moment was passing, one that we were not likely ever to repeat…and we didn’t.
In the years that followed, I retired from the Air Force and spent the rest of my life in television production for many of the major networks. I always wanted to replicate the feeling that I had when we did that show but never did. When the doors on Magic Mansion closed they were shut. An era in pioneering television had passed.
Below: Is one of the photographs from the event that started it all. A young – then 1st Lieutenant Chaney accepts the big prize for his multiple the All Army Talent Contest that would lead to the launch of 120 episodes of the Magic Mansion television series. On this night, as you can tell from the smile, he won it all.