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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 – 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 – Part 2

April 10th, 2010 No comments

 

Much like Benjy Stone, the lead character of “My Favorite Year”, I had the privilege of ‘handling’ Vincent Price, Yale Class of 1933, while he visited New Haven for a retrospective of his films in the spring of 1984…

My Favorite Week: Part 2

When he showed up in New Haven after the start of a week-long retrospective of his films, Vincent Price was 73 years old, and showing his age. It was cold outside, and his cough sounded bad as we moved from the train station to the university. Once we were ensconced in the warmer History of Art Department office, “Mr. Price,” as I always referred to him, warmed up considerably and spirits rose as his cough seemed to fade. It was planned to show him the newly-installed 35 millimeter film projection equipment on which many of the prints of his films would be shown, so we walked over to the Art Gallery Lecture Hall and took a look around the recently-renovated 400 seat auditorium. A few days earlier, as his film retrospective began, one of Mr. Price’s favorite films was screened: “Dragonwyck”. “It was Joe Mankiewicz’s first film,” Mr. Price told me (although Mankiewicz – brother of “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz – had directed one movie prior to “Dragonwyck,”). Mr. Price delightedly described it as “a gothic drama set in New York state.” Another film he specifically requested was 1950’s “The Baron of Arizona,” 

Baron of Arizona

in which Mr. Price plays a scheming forger who creates false deeds  granting himself and his wife

ownership of the state of Arizona. Again, his rationale for making the movie was that “It was one of Sam Fuller’s first films.” Actually, it was Fuller’s second film, too. Both films did well at the box office. Sophmore slump, indeed…

Time with Mr. Price was highly-structured. It became clear the Yale University Development Office had caught on and they were hard at work attempting to transform Mr. Price’s fame and reputation (previously ignored by the university) to bring in donor bucks. As a result, Mr. Price and I attended a series of events together designed to elevate his film retrospective’s status as an ad-hoc fundraiser. On his second day at Yale, we attended a luncheon held by the Development Office at Mory’s, the venerable (and currently bankrupt) eating ‘club’ that was such a part of Yale during the 1930s, when Vincent and his two older brothers attended the university. Lunch at Mory’s with Mr. Price was a fun and eye-opening experience. We gathered in a private upstairs room, and the lunch was attended by Mr. Price, several of his Yale ’33 classmates and their spouses (all in their 70s, of course), plus an executive from the Yale Development Office, a large film-industry related donor, my former film prof., Donald Crafton, and me. I did my best to soak it all in as “Vinnie,” as his buddies called him, held forth in a glorious amalgam of true Hollywood stories, Yale reminiscences and sonorous flattery.

What stays with me to this day is the unaffected friendship and honest merriment of Mr. Price and his peers. At one point, Mr. Price recalled and described a cartoon drawing he’d received during his college years from his Harvard pal James Thurber. In Thurber’s drawing, Vincent is greeted at the gates of heaven by St. Peter as several of his friends/classmates stand by sheepishly behind him… Later, during the luncheon, one of Mr. Price’s classmate’s spouses asked me about the food, some sort of chicken with a sauce. “I think it’s… Chicken Piccata,” I answered, trying to sound authoratative – or at least not completely ignorant. Mr. Price, sitting beside me, leaned in and said, very casually – and ingratiatingly- “Where I come from, this would be called pan-fried chicken… with gravy.”

We left the Mory’s luncheon and headed out into the cold spring weather. I lit a cigarette (a terrible habit I quit some years later), and Mr. Price put out his arm to stop me as we walked on the sidewalk in front of Mory’s. “I’m sorry, Mr. Price,” I said. “Is this smoke bothering you?”

“No.” Mr. Price replied, his blue eyes twinkling. “Give me a cigarette,” he responded cheerily. I handed over one of my menthol cigarettes, and he lit up. And he looked delighted, although I later learned he HATED menthol. And I also didn’t realize he’d already been diagnosed with emphysema. I was just having too good a time hanging out with such a neat guy…

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…