Saturday, June 24, 2006

Flashback: With Humphrey Maimed, the GOP Turns to Electing a Republican Governor. The Plaintive Cry: “Will Amandus Speak Tonight?”

[Another installment from fifty years ago for my kids and grandchildren].

The (as it turned out) fatal maiming of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential chances by his losing the 1956 state presidential primary for Adlai Stevenson, made him to travel the state kissing the dissidents’ posteriors. Thus he wasn’t strong enough to give direction to the party’s drive to reelect Governor Orville Freeman (who was also grievously hurt by the primary). Enthused, we Republicans massed a great deal of money (for that era) and resolved to bend to the oars to elect Republican Ancher Nelsen.

There were some hefty reasons why we ran into opposition. The Republican farm program was still unpopular. Nelsen never resolved in his own mind where he stood on a farm program whereas Estes Kefauver had made a powerful impression on the state. There was no unifying theme to our opposition to Humphrey and Freeman while they had the unifying theme of high farm price supports. But with lots of dough, we decided to put Nelsen on statewide television in the only meaningful way that the pre-video tape era allowed—a live, half-hour program from Minneapolis on prime time. Film just wouldn’t do it. I produced a half-hour filmed for Eisenhower for the state GOP but the product was blurry and I booted a good deal of money. However the Nelsen people had the party’s eerie-looking TV guru, a frenetic little man with no philosophy (he was the TV director of Freeman’s election two years earlier). He was a tiny, patent-leather-haired zealot, imbued with his craft, a pencil-line mustache like the comedian Misha Auer, eyes excitedly popping out of his head like he had a goiter. In a weak moment, I parlayed all our dough on the half-hour with our guru directing. I say weak moment not because the half-hour TV show was wrong but because we should have fired the guru and given the job of directing it to someone else. But, c’est le vie.

The guru’s idea was to duplicate the then popular 1950s Saturday night program “This is Your Life!” with Ralph Edwards and form it around the life of Ancher Nelsen. The life of Ancher Nelsen, our candidate for governor, wasn’t exactly unusual—a farm boy who inherited his Dad’s big farm, who didn’t go to college (born in 1903, not many farm kids did), who got elected to the state Senate, then lieutenant governor, then appointed REA administrator in the Ag Department by Eisenhower (avoiding any mention of the Ag secretary, the hugely unpopular Ezra Taft Benson). The guru was to direct the TV extravaganza, having done a successful one for the DFL’s Freeman two years earlier. I was to be the assistant director, with no experience whatsoever but to hold the script, assuage the guru who was playing the role of the artist-genius, rotating from frenzy to exultation to

frenzy again.

We assembled a cast of people from Nelsen’s hometown of Hutchinson, Minnesota who knew him when--. They included a 90-year-old, sweet-faced granny who was his grade school teacher; a Lutheran minister who would talk about Nelsen’s moral virtues; a 4H man who would praise Nelsen’s love of the land…on and on. Our guru had found Nelsen’s boyhood chum who did the usual Norman Rockwell things with him—playing hooky to go fishing, learning to tie knots with the Boy Scouts. His name was John Amandus, a prosperous farmer who was to give a final tribute before Nelsen and his family would come trooping in.

We rehearsed and rehearsed all one day. Our guru would hurl his arm at the little 90-year-old retired school teacher and she would deliver her lines beautifully—getting better every time. Amandus, however, was a different proposition. In the middle of the rehearsals he took me aside and said our guru was distracting by hurling his arm with finger extended to indicate “you’re on!” Amandus told me, “He disturbs me.” I asked why. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been one for public speaking anyhow and this little freak lunging at me behind the camera with his finger pointing jolts me. Isn’t there another way to signal that I’m on?”

Of course there was—it was the red eye of the camera with the camera-man gently indicating it…but our guru was not about to sacrifice his role as director in order to pacify Amandus. As we went through it three, four and five times—with the magic hour approaching with the hands of the clock moving inexorably to that time when all would be on live—I got the idea that too many rehearsals would turn the production stale. The guru was not satisfied so we did a final one. Then the station manager came out and said, “All right, kids! You’re going to be on live before the entire state of three million people!” The 90-year-old retired school teacher dabbed her cheeks with rouge and kicked off a brilliant story as even the cameramen smiled beatifically. Her sweet face a sea of wrinkles, she looked exactly like everyone’s great grandmother. I looked over at Amandus who was to be the last one in line with a statement and he looked destroyed.

I ran over to him while the cameras were on other people and asked anxiously, Mr. Amandus, what’s the matter? He looked at me with terror filled eyes and said, “The station manager did it!” Did what? “He said we are talking to three million people!” No, I said, he’s exaggerating—probably 1.5 million tops. His eyes didn’t change but he repeated “One point five million tops?” No, I said, probably only one million tops. It didn’t work. Then I got out of the way and knew something awful was about the happen.

Our guru was happily and frenetically hurling his arm toward performers like a baseball pitcher delivering a fast ball. I had a premonition of what happened before it happened but we all sat there and watched the train-wreck.

The oily-voiced announcer in the studio then said, “And here, from Hutchinson, Minnesota is Ancher Nelsen’s boyhood chum, John Amandus with a poignant remembrance of the next governor!” Our guru wound up and hurled his arm, his eyes bugging out excitedly, his mustache quivering with show business excitement. The camera moved in for a close-up on Amandus. His lips moved but not a sound emitted. Horrified the sound man believed the microphone had died so he hyped the sound, twirling the dials. Still nothing. Amandus’ eyes bulged in pain; his lips moved and not a sound.

In the studio, the announcer improvised. “John Amandus,” he repeated, “has come to Minneapolis tonight to recall a stirring moment when he and Ancher Nelsen stole away to go fishing…and he remembers a telling story from that era”. Our guru almost flew over the cameras, nearly throwing his arm out of its socket with his long forefinger virtually touching Amandus’ nose. The lips moved, Amandus’ hands reached up in a futile gesture but his voice wouldn’t obey. The camera fastened on that desolate portrait for an agonizingly long time while the engineer in the glass booth wondered what had happened to the sound. Anyone watching at home would have reasoned that his set had conked out.

As Amandus’ lips quivered and his face betrayed hemorrhoidal anxiety, our guru screamed, unaccountably, “KILL IT! KILL IT!” and the camera retreated uncertainly, backed up as the solitary figure in the chair worked manfully, his lips trying to form words.

At the end of the production, I reasoned, well maybe no one was watching which would have been a godsend. Then I thought: maybe this could be the start of a live TV series with the question before the viewers, WILL AMANDUS SPEAK TONIGHT? I suggested the idea to Mrs. Heffelfinger at the mansion later that night she called the station manager who was drowning himself in straight whiskey trying to forget. “George?” she said, doubling up with mirth but keeping her voice authoritative as the mega-multi-millionaire she was, “on behalf of the finance committee of the Republican Party I want to re-schedule the show tomorrow and every night thereafter with John Amandus in the studio and the announcer using the kicker line WILL AMANDUS SPEAK TONIGHT?” By the time she proposed this, he was quite drunk and begged her to change her mind until she convinced him she was not serious. Not long thereafter, he was fired and I am sure he never voted Republican again, if in fact, he ever had.

No comments:

Post a Comment