a time on a Saturday morning deep in June — it was 4 A.M.,
June 28, 1924, actually — when my mother had been scrubbing
the floor of the bedroom where I was anticipated to be born, Dr.
Meeker, our family physician, appeared and said to her: “Rosie,
I know women in Russia do that when they expect a baby. You just
let me do the rest.” A short time later, he ushered my father
into the room, where my mother was holding the newborn, exclaiming: “Louie,
you have a nine-and-a-half-pound son!”
My hometown, Millburn, New Jersey, was thick
with lovely things from the past, like the abandoned Sam Campbell
paper mill built in the 1700s. It lay alongside the Rahway River
at the edge of the South Mountain Reservation, a 2,000-acre county
park with woods and trails and Washington Rock — where tradition
had put George Washington observing the crucial battle of Springfield
below on the plain, on June 30, 1780. When I was nine, I found
a way into the paper mill, awed by its immensity, its great brick
chimney with Sacandaiga Swifts rising up and down in the light.
As I looked about, an epiphany seemed to take hold of me. The paper
mill had become a theater, an audience was watching a play.
There was a lady who bought art supplies
in my father’s store. On a winter’s day, she came in,
sat in her usual chair, sipping tea and honey my mother brought
her, and called out to my father: “Louie, I’m thinking
of buying the old paper mill back by the brook…and making
it into a theater. Do you think I’m crazy, Louie?” My
father came to her and said: “If you do this, it will be
success, it will endure…and it will honor your name, Antoinette
Scudder!” It was the beginning of the 1930s, the depths of
the Depression. But this unassuming-looking woman had the paper
mill made into a magnificent theater.
I saw in the local paper: “Open casting
for the part of ‘Morenito,’ an orphan, abused by the
custodian of the Convent.” I read for the role and joined
the cast of The Kingdom of God, the first play given by the Paper
Mill Playhouse, in 1937. When I came on stage opening night, in
front of the hushed audience, I understood the awesome privilege
of the actor, that you are there to tell the truth about another
human being, whom you are portraying, with everything in your being.
I was accepted at CBS on their famed national
radio program of fairytales, Let’s Pretend, and continued
on Mutual Broadcasting’s Rainbow House, where we did hour
adaptations of Shakespeare, versions of the great classics, etc.
In the studio next door, as Orson Welles, our hero of theater and
radio, rehearsed The Shadow, each of us in our teenage radio ensemble
took turns gazing at him through a small hole in the paint of the
glass that adjoined our studio, shaking our heads in approbation.
The Second World War had come to Europe
and in 1940 only Britain still survived the Blitzkrieg. I was asked
to join the company of actors doing the radio series Sky Over Britain
and War Letters From Britain. I had the honor of working with some
of the most revered artists of the time, British and American.
I was 16 and, in a word, living in radio heaven.
In 1942, with our country now in the war,
I joined the Air Force, became a member of a bomber crew based
in England, doing our missions over Germany. Our B-17 was called
Blithe Spirit — for the play by Noel Coward — and
at the naming of the plane, Peggy Wood, with whom I had worked
Over Britain, paused when she shook my hand and said: “Don’t
I know you?” “Yes, Miss Wood,” I replied. “My
God,” she answered…“so you’re here!”
At the end of the war, on board the troopship
Elizabeth I, 15,000 of us stood at the railing as we came up North
River at seven in the morning at the end of September, 1945. We
let out a cheer I will never forget. The mist was burning off Manhattan,
revealing the magic city.
I got out of the army in October on a
Friday. On Monday, I was at theater school on West 48th Street—the
Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research. Among
my very gifted classmates were Elaine Stritch, Walter Matthau (with
whom I was very close), Bea Arthur, Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis,
and an assembly of very talented students. Our teachers included
some of the finest European actors and directors who had survived
the Nazi era. The “theater visions” we learned from
them influenced the course of American film, theater and television.
I was part of the first Off-Broadway theater ensemble in 1947 — The
Interplayers, at the Cherry Lane Theater, on Commerce Street — where
we did Lorca and Auden and Kaiser.
In 1950, at a performance of The Glass Menagerie
at the Taconic Playhouse, a theater I had begun in upstate New
York, a CBS vice-president who happened to be in the audience that
night invited me to join CBS Television. I would be manager of
a studio where the network was broadcasting its theatrical productions.
I hesitated for a long moment. Television was about to take off
into the national stratosphere. I would be dealing with broadcasts
like Studio One and The Ford Theater--one play after the other,
done on a high level. But…where would my vision of theater
go? What about acting? What about directing? Theater school was
over and many of my classmates were barely surviving.
I thus went to CBS and, in September of
1950, began managing Studio #57, with all the major productions
as part of the broadcast schedule. God Himself — as we called
Mr. William S. Paley, founder of CBS — often paid a visit
to my studio, unannounced. I was making a living. But what about
commitment to theater…acting and directing? I decided I could
only remain at CBS “if” I could move into directing.
Such a move was like switching, where I was, from the Army to the
Navy. Unheard of.
In the fall of 1952, in desperation, I
wrote and directed a revue satirizing CBS and the peregrinations
of television, cast it
with CBS personnel at all
levels, and presented it at the Lincoln Theater (just prior to its transformation
into Lincoln Center). Among the guests that evening were Mr. William S. Paley
and Dr. Frank Stanton, his second. The show was an immense hit. The next day
I got a memo from “God”: “Loved your show last night. Is
there something we can do for you?”
The following week I became a CBS Associate
Director, doing The Ed Sullivan Show, Studio One, Danger, etc.
In 1955, I became a director on a soap opera, and began moving
on to do plays, original dance programs, poetry works, documentaries,
etc. Over the next 30 years, I did more than 200 original television
dramas. With the use of archival photographs, stills, music, narration
and sound, I pioneered non-fiction and fiction narrative documentaries.
Roadsigns On A Merry-Go-Round (1967), an
imaginary colloquy between Martin Buber, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the fate of contemporary man, received
an Emmy nomination, praise in the New York Times…and a glowing
review from “God,” and Dr. Stanton. (Available: CBS
Poetry, however, always lay deepest in
my heart. It pre-dated theater in my grammar school years. Miss
Milliken and Mrs.
Lewis always addressed us through
poems…fairytales…folktales. They asked me to tell the story of
our Millburn, like The Odyssey. One morning, I quoted Homer, beginning: “Tell
me, Muse, the story of that resourceful one, who was driven to wander far and
wide”…“from Washington Rock to Hemlock Falls…where
once giant reptiles walked…where the locomotive calls…across the
valley, the Minnisink trail, the Lenape people, where the stream flows…between
First and Second Mountain.”
I read every volume of poetry I could lay
my hands on. I always had a notebook at my side to write down anything
that came into my head. “Water, Fire and Ice,” a narrative
poem about Millburn, was performed on the radio series Rainbow
Besides my dear Irish setter and my beloved
family, my earliest companion was the piano. One day, an amazing
teacher appeared: Gertrude H. Hale, a teaching descendant back
to Beethoven via Letchititsky. Between her and my parents, there
were phrases bandied about like: “The next Paderweski!” I
was practicing seriously. I performed Chopin’s Revolutionary
Etude on an NBC broadcast. (Heady stuff!) But as I would look out
at the window to where my pals were playing touch football in the
bright green grass in the park, I would notice that four hours
had gone by…and wonder to myself if I really wished a life
as a concert pianist with its solo existence.
The advent of the Paper Mill Playhouse
caused the change in my life. From that event onward, it was
working with other
people to which I was devoted.
Poetry, these days, is the chief concern
of my life. “Let a window be opened in the house.” Early
and late, I’m working on a poem. It is the place that may
gather all that has been scattered. The place to speak one’s
heart. Beyond hunger and thirst…it is the place that cannot