Garry Simpson worked on some of American television’s earliest productions in the pre-World War II era, and then continued following the war. He directed the 1946 Joe Louis-Billy Conn World Championship boxing match, episodes of American television’s first sitcom: Mary Kay and Johnny, and the famed 1949 production of Macbeth by “The Players.”
Click here to view the entire 8-part interview. Some sound bites from the interview:
On demonstrating television to the public (from Part 1):
RCA was hiring a crew to go out in the field and demonstrate television to the general public. So they hired about eight or nine people, and all of us had had some theatrical backgrounds. And we comprised some demonstration units, and we would go to various department stores in different cities and demonstrate television. Some of the sets at that time were only eight or nine inches wide, the television screen. The following year they brought out a screen that was eight-by-twelve inches in size. And they would take these sets to a department store and put them in one end of the department store and then at another end of the department store they’d set up a studio, and we’d hire local talent, and we’d put on comedians and musicians and little sketches. And people would see us with the bright lights in the studio and then they would walk around to the other end of the store and go in a darkened room and watch the television on the screen. And that was our job, to travel to the larger cities in the east, and we went as far west as Chicago, and we did these demonstrations. On NBC’s television studios in the early years (from Part 2):
3-H was the only studio that NBC had for television. It was an old radio studio. And they took over 3-H. And 3-G, the studio next to it, was a vacant studio, so we made that our prop room, and we put furniture and draperies and effects that we needed in there and props. The third floor and the eighth floor of NBC were occupied at that time with radio studios, but the floors in between were not. They hadn’t been finished yet. Radio City was built in the late 30s. And they hadn’t expanded radio to use up all that space, so television came in and took over that empty space and [NBC] installed television studios in those empty areas. So, the sixth floor became a very active studio floor for television, and eventually we took over the eighth floor as all television. Then we outgrew the building and we had to go outside and start renting space, and we started renting empty theaters around New York City. And the first theater we rented was the International Theater, Columbus Circle, and that’s where Show of Shows came from, and the [Ford Festival] with James Melton, and many other variety shows came from there. Later we took over the Ziegfeld Theater. And each theater became sort of one show’s possession— The Tonight Show came from one theater that we rented. On NBC’s post-World War II schedule and the stars he worked with (from Part 2):
Well, in the beginning remote programs filled up most of our schedule, because we didn’t have to build those shows. So we took advantage of all of the sporting events and special events. [When] we started building shows, the Chevrolet Tele-Theater [1948-50] was one of our first dramatic series, half-hour dramas. And those were weekly programs with stars. We started using well-known actors who hadn’t appeared on television before — most of them. And we spent the money to get those stars. I enjoyed working on those programs, and they were well received. [I worked with] Paul Lukas, Luise Rainer, Tallulah Bankhead, Brian Donlevy. Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles, Jackie Cooper. There’s a whole list of several hundred names. We started using actors then that were not known, who were beginning their careers, who [later became] big stars. I used Jack Lemmon when he first got out of college. I used Grace Kelly, giving her some of the first shows that she did. And I became very friendly with Grace, and she invited me up to her apartment in New York, and I intended to use her some more but Hollywood picked her up in 1950. She went out and made High Noon. We discovered James Dean and gave him a chance to appear on television. And he was a fascinating personality. Sort of an offbeat character. But I enjoyed working with him and had planned to use him more but Hollywood picked him up too, and you know the rest. On covering the Joe Louis-Billy Conn World Championship boxing match [in 1946] at Yankee Stadium (from Part 3):
That was a big event for television. First of all, it was difficult for us to get the rights to televise, because the promoters were afraid we’d cut into the gate. But they finally came through and said we could do it. Yankee Stadium was just abuzz – it was so crowded, jammed, and the excitement was very high. And people had never seen television cameras at ringside like we had it. And those type of things really brought in an audience to television in those early days. On the early documentary series Eye Witness [1947-48] (from Part 3):
This was to inform the public about television and how television had been developed scientifically. And we had on our team, RCA, Vladimir Zworykin, who was the inventor of the iconoscope, which was the first tube to turn a picture into electronics. And RCA had a laboratory in Princeton, and at that time Zworykin was working out of the Princeton labs. So I got the idea for this program, and I went down to see Zworykin, and we talked. He gave me the history of television as he knew it. I asked to see some of the early equipment that he’d developed. And he couldn’t put his hands on them, those early things that he had made. But after a few hours search he went out to a shed in back of the main building and there were some of these early tubes that he had worked, he had many prototypes before he finally developed a tube that would please him. He pulled out some of these old pieces of equipment and we brought them back into the main building, and we arranged the stuff all together, and it was quite an impressive set of pieces. And he brought in some of his assistants who’d worked with him. And we put on this program and afterwards all these pieces of equipment were displayed in cases…. And Zworykin was the main narrator of this whole thing. And at the end of the program we brought on General Sarnoff, Chairman of the Board of RCA. [In other shows] we would take people to the transmitter and explain the transmitter and show what it does. And we were in the studio and showing how you put on the makeup and rehearsing a show and the camera movements. On directing the 1949 NBC production of Macbeth (from Part 4):
The Player’s Club cooperated with NBC to put on a special show. The Player’s Club is a club for actors in New York. Actors of renown. You’re invited to join the Player’s if you’re a very important actor…. and every part in the play, even the ladies-in-waiting and the servants were great Broadway stars. And Walter Hampden played the part of Macbeth. He, of course, had played the part all over the world for many, many years. And I was chosen to be the television director on it. I didn’t tell Mr. Hampden how to read his lines because he knew more than any of us about that…. It’s a very compact drama. And with the miracle of television and theatrics you can do great things with the witch’s scene in the castle and the murder scenes and it came off very well. And it was fun. All of the Player’s lit into it with great glee. They loved doing it, and for many of them, it was their first appearance on television…. It received a great deal of publicity. And it was sort of the first of its kind. It was the first Shakespeare play on television, American television. And it brought a lot of the curious art lovers to television who had not been regular viewers. So, “[television] spectacular” is a [term] that was developed after that. On Jimmy Durante who Simpson worked with on All-Star Revue [1950-53] (from Part 5):
Jimmy was always hit up for money. He’d go out on the street and down-and-out actors and singers would go up to him, Jimmy, you know, can you help me out. And he’d pass out money to them. I observed his manager, after a show was over, the manager would go to Jimmy’s dressing room and say, “Jimmy, let me see your roll of money.” And Jimmy would hand his roll of money to the manager, and the manager would give him another roll of money. And instead of twenties and fifties that were in Jimmy’s roll, there’d be fives and tens in this other roll that the manager had given him, because he would give it all away, to whomever he met on the street. And these out-of-work people knew that he was a good touch. On Jackie Gleason (from Part 5):
Jackie Gleason was developed on the Dumont television station in New York. …. [When Dumont ended] Jackie Gleason was available, and he went to the networks, NBC and CBS, to get a spot to do a show. So NBC said they would let him do a trial show, and if his ratings were good they would sign a contract with him. So he was brought to NBC and I was assigned as the director of the show. He had his staff of writers. So we started on the show and I called rehearsals, and the first day of rehearsal all the cast – and there were about fifty people in the cast, his regulars – came, but Jackie was not there. And he had a stand-in and I gave all the moves to the stand-in, who wrote them down on the script. They said, maybe tomorrow Jackie will come. And second day Jackie didn’t come to rehearsal. So I said, what’s going on here, and they said, well, it’s hard to reach Jackie. He’s not at his apartment and we’ll get hold of him. We’ll see he comes. The third day he missed rehearsal, and so I went to NBC management and I said, we’re not going to have a show because Jackie is not coming to rehearsals. And so they got in touch with the manager and on the fourth day Jackie appeared at rehearsal, and he really looked like he’d been in a wreck. He smelled of booze, and a real floozy blonde came with him. And I understand he shacked up in a hotel with this girl for a period of days. And anyway, he was very polite, first time I met him. And his agent had given him the script and he had the script, but he hadn’t even read it. We rehearsed the whole thing through and he was very courteous and receptive and we left after the rehearsal. And the next day, when we came to rehearsal, he was there and he knew every line of his one-hour show. He didn’t have to study, he just had a photographic memory. And it was no problem with him. He was very amenable to any changes in anything that would improve the situation. And he had some very difficult things in his program. In one skit he was a wallpaperer, and he climbed up the ladders and he’d get wallpaper all over himself. And he fell off the ladder and he’d drop the bucket of paste and everything. It was all written in the script, he had to do. So he had some tough things to do, as well as other skits he appeared in. But anyway, we went on the air, and he was letter perfect. He hit all of his marks. He made all of his entrances, all his costume changes, and said all the lines, and it was a fabulous show. So the people at NBC said, wow, this is good. NBC’s going to get him a contract now. So the vice-president of NBC met with the manager of Jackie’s and said, NBC will give him a contract. Let’s make an appointment and sit down and work out the details. And the manager said, sorry, we just signed a contract yesterday, before the show, with CBS. So NBC lost him and CBS got him. And he did his musical variety show for the first year at CBS, and then they developed The Honeymooners.
Garry Simpson was interviewed for four hours in Vergennes, VT. Mr. Simpson started in television directing live demonstrations of television around the country. He later directed some of the first sporting events, mobile events, and went on to direct the informational series Eye Witness and direct and produce Wide Wide World (created by Pat Weaver). In the period before the war in the 1940s, Simpson was NBC’s only television stage manager. Simpson described his other directorial efforts on such programs including Chevrolet Tele-Theater, Mary Kay and Johnny (television’s first sitcom), All Star Revue, Ford Festival, and Campbell’s Soundstage. Among the actors he recalls working with are: James Dean, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Jackie Gleason, Jack Carter, and Olivia de Havilland. He later left NBC to head the formation of Vermont public television. The interview was conducted by Karen Herman on October 18, 1999.