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My Favorite Week – Epilogue

April 28th, 2010 4 comments

To Recap:

In 1984, I was lucky enough to spend a few days as the ‘handler’ of Vincent Price at a retrospective of his films in New Haven, Connecticut, as Mr. Price was honored by Yale University. Like the fictional character Benjy Stone in “My Favorite Year,” I found my appreciation only increased – along with my respect – the longer I spent in the company of this tall, exceptionally suave and cultured movie star.

 

 

My Favorite Week – Epilogue

The Vincent Price Retrospective reached its conclusion with Mr. Price’s favorite film, the 1944 classic, “Laura.” After honoring his requests for more obscure or genre fare, it was great to see the actor at his youthful best. Before the movie started, Mr. Price stood on the stage in the Yale Art Gallery Auditorium and, predictably, thanked the crowd for honoring him in such a fashion. Then he launched into a Hollywood reminiscence about the film we were about to see.

“You may not know it,” Mr. Price began, “but the movie “Laura” was made twice. The first time was when Rouben Mamoulian directed it and Otto Preminger produced. It was a wonderful time,” he said. “I loved Gene Tierney, and Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson and Dana Andrews. And we all loved Rouben.” He paused for effect. “But Otto Preminger didn’t like it, fired Rouben, and decided to direct it himself. Well, once again, I got to work with all those wonderful actors. I loved Dana, and Dana loved Gene, and Gene loved Judith and…” his voice deepened, “we all ‘liked’ Otto.”

The retrospective eventually ended, and a fairly large group of faculty, staff and others had a ‘last night’ dinner with Mr. Price at a nearby Italian restaurant; there must’ve been 14 people squeezed into a circular table meant for 6 or 8, and everybody wanted Mr. Price’s attention. He held forth, telling stories and answering questions, all the while signing autographs and thanking his fans for their support over the years. Feeling warm in the throng and desiring a cigarette, I went outside as the meal wound down. A clearly tipsy fellow passed by walking a tiny dog, and I made a silly joke under my breath, but apparently the man overheard me and was instantly ‘in my face.’ We exchanged a few words, then he lurched on down the street. Exiting the restaurant, Mr. Price had seen the whole thing. Using a by-now familiar gesture for a cigarette, he asked me what had happened. I said “Gee, Mr. Price, I just made a dumb joke and he got all offended.” Mr. Price looked at me and said, “Barrett, don’t ever argue with a drunk!” Then he smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and added “Please. Call me Vincent.”

The next day I rode the train into New York City with Vincent and his daughter Victoria, who had come for the last days of the event. At the train station we said goodbye and wished each other well. I didn’t realize it, but it would be the last time I ever spoke to Vincent Price. We stayed in touch via letters and cards over the years, and after I moved back to Los Angeles in the late 80s, I looked for an opportunity to get together. Unfortunately, that opportunity came with the event of the death of Vincent’s beloved wife Coral Browne (“the actress,” I can still hear him say in his recognizable voice) a few years later, in 1991. I attended the memorial ceremony for Coral Browne, which was led by their close friend, Hollywood stalwart Roddy McDowall. Vincent was practically overcome, surrounded by friends and family; I left without speaking with him. One year later, some mutual showbiz friends tried to arrange a surprise ‘reunion’ by inviting Vincent to dinner the same night as my wife and me. Unfortunately, by that point Vincent was too ill with emphysema and the effects of Parkinson’s disease to join us.

Although we continued to correspond, and Vincent wrote he hoped for a ‘reunion,’ one never came. He passed away in October, 1993, one week shy of Halloween.

I’ve had lots of great weeks in my life. But my favorite week? I’m hoping it’s yet to come – but in the meantime, the time I spent with my friend Vincent in the spring of 1984… that’ll serve well as ‘my favorite week.’

My Favorite Week – Conclusion

April 19th, 2010 No comments

 

When we last left our intrepid heroes… they were ‘trapped’ in the projection booth of the newly-renovated 1984 Yale Art Gallery Auditorium. A throng of 400 ardent fans circulated outside, and Mr. Vincent Price was overwhelmed and remained inside…

Like Mark Linn Baker‘s Benjy Stone in “My Favorite Year,” I probably lived ‘My Favorite Week’ as I was the ‘handler’ (personal assistant is a much nicer term) for Mr. Vincent Price, Yale Class or 1933, when he returned to our alma mater to attend a retrospective of his films.

 

My Favorite Week: Conclusion

Being stuck inside a narrow projection booth with a nervous Vincent Price wasn’t my idea of a good time, even if it meant increased time with the man I had grown to know and respect. For one thing, there were probably 5 or 6 of us in the small booth, and we had a GREAT view of all the people (his loving audience, really), who had remained in hopes of getting Vincent Price’s autograph after seeing “House of Wax” with him. To keep Mr. Price distracted, I showed him a copy of the current Yale Alumni Magazine; it contained a feature I’d written about the new Yale Film Study Center; he skimmed the article, then peered eagerly at the byline and turned to me and said: “Your name is Barrett?” I nodded, and he responded “But your friends call you ‘Barry.'”

“Your college pals call you ‘Vinnie,” I replied. “It’s just a nickname.” Mr. Price leaned into me and smiled. “I named my son ‘Barrett.’ ‘Vincent Barrett Price.'” Not knowing this at all, I simply smiled. And Mr. Price smiled back. It was undoubtedly a ‘moment’ between us. Especially when you look into those blue eyes. Even my wife agrees – the guy was suave.

I exited the projection booth and, with the help of students and others, got Mr. Price’s most faithful fans to depart through the main doors. Some lingered for a few minutes, but eventually we got everyone out of the auditorium and closed the main doors. Moments later we emerged, out the fire exit, onto High Street. Although it was cold (after all, we’d sat through an entire feature film, and it was now evening), Mr. Price and I headed up Chapel Street, towards his hotel. As we neared the hotel, Mr. Price expressed a preference for a drink (a preference I shared), and we descended into the “Old Heidelberg” restaurant. As we walked down its steps, Mr. Price suggested the place had been declared by his older brothers as a a ‘speakeasy’ during Prohibition; I told him that my dad, Yale Class of ’48, had declared the place a ‘passion pit.’ In spite of (or perhaps because of) its various reputations, we spent a very warm and hospitable evening there mainly due to the generosity of the restaurant staff and its patrons.

At the time, Mr. Price was the host of “Mystery” on PBS; his current assignment was to introduce episodes of the great BBC spy series “Reilly, Ace of Spies.” More than one ‘Reilly’ fan arrived at our table and asked Mr. Price “How will it end?,” only to be met with an autograph, a thank-you and his sweetly suggested “Watch it next week…” As we drank our beers and enjoyed tremendous fried calamari courtesy of the establishment, Mr. Price and I had the times of our lives. As one of the last autograph-seekers left before I escorted Mr. Price back-up to his hotel, I asked him the question that had been lingering for me: Why was it that HE thanked autograph seekers, rather than the other way around? He smiled, laughed his ‘Vincent Price laugh,’ and responded, very sincerely “Without THEM, you see… I wouldn’t BE Vincent Price!” I guess he always knew where his fan base was… and where his next meal was coming from.

What impresed me about Mr. Price was his memory: he recalled not only all kinds of minutae about his favorite films, but some of the stuff he did ‘for the money,’ as he readily admitted. Where the two intersected was interesting: to do the voice-over on Michael Jackson’s multi-platinum, Grammy Award winning album “Thriller,” Mr. Price was paid A FLAT FEE of $5 thousand dollars – AND Jackson never thanked him at the multi-Grammy winning ceremony. But, while explaining that, Mr. Price very proudly admitted being cast in his ‘first’ animated voice-over role as ‘Ratigan’ in Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective.” The movie wouldn’t come out for a few years… and I think that suited Mr. Price quite well. Because, unfortunately, both he and his wife were sick…

To Be Followed by: My Favorite Week – Epilogue

My Favorite Week – Part 3

April 11th, 2010 No comments

In 1984, I was at Vincent Price’s side as he attended a retrospective of his films at Yale University; as his ‘handler,’ I was living out a dream like the Benjy Stone character in 1982’s “My Favorite Year.”

My Favorite Week: Part 3

Afternoons were a time for Mr. Price to rest – or pursue personal time, like when he arranged a tour of the-then new Yale Center for British Art, then snuck-in a quick trip through the Yale Art Gallery as well. As an art collector, he spoke fondly of his first purchase of art – a Rembrandt miniature at age 13; but he also spoke longingly of the faux-modern “Ham and Eggs” that graced the “Batman” TV series while he was playing the nefarious ‘Egghead’ on the show. But most days I’d walk him back to his hotel on Chapel Street, and he’d disappear into the elevator and head up to his room for a nap. Once I was turning to leave as the elevator doors closed, only to hear them re-open. And Mr. Price looked directly at me – with those blue eyes. Honestly, I thought he was about to yell at me. He strode up to me, then suddenly smiled and said “Give me a cigarette!” With more than a sigh of relief, I shared my bad habit with him once again, and it basically meant I became his cigarette-bearer for the rest of our time together, except one evening when he snuck off and bought himself a pack of (preferred) non-menthol cigarettes – and then offered them to me as an earnest ‘re-payment.’ I cringe to write about such detrimental habits… But it was something he and I shared during our time together in New Haven, and it gave us time alone together.

The Vincent Price Film Retrospective continued, and so did the meetings arranged by the Yale Development Office and History of Art Department. One evening we had dinner with students in a Yale College dining room, and the conversation was spirited and fun. Mr. Price talked about art, wine (to a bunch of college students!), his many films and television roles, but, more than anything else, he spoke of his wife. “My wife: Coral Browne – the actress,” he said each time he mentioned her. And whenever he spoke of her, he would smile and grow more charming. That was the night we headed over to the Art Gallery Auditorium and Mr. Price saw the large crowd that had assembled to watch the latest film to screen: a non 3-D copy of  “House of Wax.” Since we arrived just before the movie was to begin, Mr. Price thanked the crowd and related a quick story about the irony that the film director of this ‘sensational’  3-D film, Andre De Toth was incapable of seeing things in 3-D

Andre De Toth

because he had lost an eye earlier in life. As the film began, we sat down in the back of the theater. Our original plan was to leave once the picture had started, but once the credits rolled, Mr. Price said “Why don’t we stick around for a little while? I haven’t seen this in years.” (I know it sounds dumb, but if you can imagine Vincent Price saying this to you in his elegant baritone, you’ll totally understand why this was ‘My Favorite Week.’)

So the credits rolled – and the comments began… When Charles Bronson is credited, (as Charles Buchinsky), Mr. Price said “Oh, I’d forgotten he was in this…” And when the mad villian Professor Henry Jarrod (played by Price) readies to pour wax on squirming starlet Phyllis Kirk, Mr. Price leaned over and said with glee “Giving her cleavage was the best effect in the movie!” It was an incredible experience for me as a cinephile and a Vincent Price fan. And the audience felt it, too, because at film’s end the audience stood, turned and offered Vincent Price a standing ovation. For his part, he was touched – and a little freaked out by the throng of 400 adoring fans. The crowd pressed forward to shake his hand or seek autographs and Mr. Price was overwhelmed, seeking refuge in the projection booth. It kept him from having to deal with 400 rabid fans – but it presented another problem: there was only one way out of the projection booth: directly through all those fans…

To be continued…

My Favorite Week…

April 9th, 2010 No comments

Most film fans are familiar with Richard Benjamin’s wonderful direction of Dennis Palumbo’s script of “My Favorite Year,” which chronicles a young writer’s experience on a “Your Show of Shows”-type live 1950’s television comedy show. In the film, young writer Benjy Stone (played with manic glee by Mark Linn Baker) is charged with the task of ‘babysitting’ (‘handling’ is the preferred term in Hollywood these days) drunkard and former matinee idol Alan Swann (portrayed by Peter O’Toole, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the role). As the story unfolds, young Benjy (a thinly-veiled Woody Allen/Neil Simon-type character) grows in his understanding of the ‘real world,’ while Swann, in glorious denial, finally comes to grips with his estranged child, his movie reputation, and the pressures of live TV. The result is nothing short of delightful, and I urge you to see it if you haven’t already.

BUT – that’s not why I am writing about ‘my favorite week.’ Personally, I had my own Benjy Stone/Alan Swann experience when I was able to recommend to my alma mater that they invite one of their most illustrious (auspicious?) cinema star alumni back for a retrospective of his work.

 ‘Back in the day’ in Los Angeles, as a member of the Yale Club of Southern California board of directors, I went to an event that was also attended by Mr. Vincent Price, Yale Class of 1933; as a film devotee and big Vincent Price fan, I made a beeline to talk with Mr. Price. He was very warm and social, and we exchanged contact information.  Within hours, I must confess, I got in touch with a former college film professor who currently ran the Yale Film Study Center, and I related the eagerness Mr. Price expressed to be recognized by his university- something which hadn’t occurred in the 50 years since he had graduated, and which we all felt was well past due.

That was the genesis of ‘my favorite week.’ Within a few days, my old professor was lobbying his History of Art colleagues to host a week-long Vincent Price film retrospective, and, shortly after, they extended the invitation to Vincent Price. He was delighted – as was I, since it was agreed that, as a recent transplant to New York City, I’d head up to New Haven as well and be Vincent Price’s ‘handler’ while he was present at the retrospective for approximately four days. Things pulled together rather quickly, and Mr. Price arrived in New Haven in the spring of 1984.

Picking Vincent Price up at the New Haven train station  was an ordeal, because the place was undergoing renewal and Mr. Price was not at his best, healthwise. To be honest, I led the ‘welcoming party’ directly past Mr. Price; fortunately, he recognized me, and waved to gain my notice. Boy, was I embarrased! But we ultimately connected, and it was a truly fun experience from that point on…

To be continued…