Monday, May 26, 2014

My interview with Anthony Doherty, son of Bernardine Flynn

Sometime last week, out of the clear blue, I get an email from Anthony Doherty, one of Bernardine Flynn's sons.  He's the little one in the famous photo on the right.

He was quite gracious and I asked him to answer a few questions, and he kindly did:

JIMBO - Thank you Mr. Doherty, for joining me and doing this interview, it's a pleasure to have you here.

ANTHONY DOHERTY - My pleasure.

JIMBO - It seems impossible that here you are doing this interview and you are the tiny baby in the famous photo with the family in the hospital bed! Do you know if they did a show in the hospital there?

ANTHONY DOHERTY - In the Chuck Schaden interview she said that they thought about it, but because Paul Rhymer was able to produce scripts with one or more characters absent, that’s what they did. Probably Sade went to visit her sister Bess in Carberry. There’s a script in the first of the two books that Mary Fran brought out (“Sade’s House Is Not the Way She Left It”), set after her return from a week away. It’s dated 1940, which doesn’t coincide with either my or my brother’s birth (9/8/37 and 10/9/41 respectively). I suspect the hospital was just as glad they did it that way.

JIMBO - We're obviously all big fans of your mother's work. We've heard from her in interviews. What was your mother like?

ANTHONY DOHERTY - She was basically a very normal person, the second of seven children. Her father had a clothing store in Madison WI, and I imagine the family life was typical midwestern middle class. An aunt and uncle of hers had a farm fairly close to Madison, I guess, and as a kid she spent some time there. I remember her telling me that her aunt baked a loaf of bread and an apple pie every morning for the farmhands’ breakfast. She remained close to all her siblings, and we enjoyed visits from them from time to time.

I think what she said in the interview about being unrecognizable in public is a good description of her. I’m sure you noticed that the only personal credit in the broadcasts was “Written by Paul Rhymer.” That was fine with her and, I understand, the rest of the cast. She wasn’t a celebrity and certainly never acted like one. My parents did have a certain amount of social life, but it wasn’t focused on her career. When they had friends over, I don’t remember conversations about Vic and Sade or Hawkins Falls.

I’d say that Sade (and later Lona Corey) was a good fit for her. There were big differences, of course. Sade’s world was a very small one: family, friends, neighbors, the Thimble Club, their town. Not much curiosity about things outside her world, and not much of a sense of humor. My mother had wide interests. She had done well in French in college, and loved French poetry – poetry in general, in fact. She appreciated art and beautiful things generally, and had a small collection of Belleek china pieces. And she definitely had a well-developed sense of humor – how could she not, being around Rhymer?

When my father turned 70, he retired (which is not quite the right word) from being a big-city gynecologist and moved back to Clay City, IL, the very small, very rural town where he was born, and became a country doctor. My mother settled into life there and made friends. After my father died 6 years later, my mother remained in Clay City and lived quietly there. She could have moved back to Chicago and perhaps done some work – I always thought she could do a one-woman show doing readings from her favorite literature – but she chose not to.

JIMBO - As Sade, your mother played a woman with a very keen sixth sense. Was she like this around the house or was this just a part she played?

ANTHONY DOHERTY - She was very perceptive about people and situations. She understood my father very well, and would quietly take care of little details of home life for which he may not have had time or patience. As an obstetrician, he could get calls at any hour of the day or night, so she did whatever she could to make sure he could relax and enjoy his down time at home. The only vacation time he took (when he could) was to go down to Clay City, his home town, for a few days of quail hunting in the fall. One year, as he was about to leave, she was checking to make sure he had everything he needed, finishing by asking if he had his gun. That was a silly question, he responded: of course he had his gun. Somewhile later, after the hunting trip, he got a wee-hours call that he was needed at the hospital. Soon he called my mother from the hospital: he had gone off without his eyeglasses, which he had to have in the OR or delivery room. She found them, called a cab, and brought them to him. From then on, when he was about to leave for work, whe would mischievously ask, “Got your gun?”

JIMBO - You mentioned to me that you knew Paul Rhymer. Could you tell us about some things you remember about him?

ANTHONY DOHERTY - A lot of him is embodied by Vic, especially recognizing the potential for humor in ordinary people and things, and finding unique ways of expressing it. He loved sending off-the-wall letters and postcards. He would occasionally glue two picture post cards together, so that the description on the back didn’t match the photo. Or the card would have a very personal sort of message (in large letters, to the postal workers could easily see it: “I am broke, despondent, and in despair. Send money at once.” The back of an envelope might have an odd shopping list. He also could be slightly risqué, obviously impossible in Vic and Sade. My mother told me that on occasion, if he had jokes in that category, he might phone her, but to observe the propriety of not telling such stories to ladies, he’d preface it by saying, “This is a story for Chet [my father, nickname for Chester].”

I saw Paul fairly often during high school years. His son Parke (who was born 12 days after me) and I were good friends, and were regularly at each other’s place. One time the Rhymers took Parke and me along to a gathering at the house of some friends. They had a piano, and at one point Paul suddenly sat down and began to play. It was some rather lively tune, which he was pounding out in a sort of jazz style full of wrong notes and unstable rhythms, with a grimly serious expression on his face. At one point he looked up and announced “Here comes a hot lick!” I had no idea that he did that.

JIMBO - What do you think about how the show has carried on even though so many shows are missing? What do you think he would think of this website?

ANTHONY DOHERTY - I think Paul would be very pleased by it, and by the fact that so many people have discovered Vic and Sade. I’m certainly gratified by it, as it means he’s being recognized as the genius he was.

JIMBO - Any other thing you'd like to say?

ANTHONY DOHERTY - Since I was not yet 8 years old when the main run of Vic and Sade ended, I didn’t really understand it very well. I don’t think I listened to it very much at all. At that time it probably just sounded to me like adults talking about things that meant little to me. I do seem to have a very early memory of the name Bluetooth Johnson, but little else, other than the cast names. My mother took me to the studio a few times. I remember when the show was done in the later afternoon on CBS, from the WBBM studios in the Wrigley Bldg. And I do remember the Crisco Radio Newspaper; I was taken there once too. But for me and my school friends, radio meant the after-school shows in the afternoon: Tom Mix, Captain Midnight, and the others. I was much more impressed with my mother when she got a role in one story sequence on Tom Mix, and was on it for a couple of weeks. I got to go with her there one day to my great joy. It was on the Mutual network, from the WGN studios in the Tribune Tower. They did the show twice live for different parts of the network, and I could watch the busy sound effects man at work (V&S had almost no sound effects). The big bonus was that Captain Midnight was done in the adjoining studio, so I got to see that too.

During the winter of 1946/47 a touring play, Apple of His Eye, starring Walter Huston, came to Chicago. My mother knew Huston (I don’t know from what), and my parents went to the show, and greeted him in the dressing room afterwards. At some point Huston told my mother that one of the cast, an actress named Doro Mirandy (sp.?), wanted to leave the show and there were a few cities left on the tour. He asked my mother to consider taking over the role. She protested that she hadn’t.done live theater in years, she had her kids to care for (my brother and I were 5 and 9 respectively), and so on and so forth. My father interrupted and said, “She’ll do it, Walter.” So she finished the Chicago run and toured to a few Midwestern cities – Milwaukee, St. Louis, and a couple others, I think. That resulted in my first show biz “job” as dialog coach. As she was memorizing the script, she would give it to me and have me read the other lines to cue her. She said I began to make suggestions on how to say the lines, though I don’t remember that. When she got into TV – the short tries with Vic and Sade and then Hawkins Falls – I would sometimes cue her for those shows as well.

It was from that point that I really began to learn about how professionals work. Hawkins Falls  was a 5-days=a-week 15 minute show, done live, of course. They weren’t using videotape yet. My mother was on every day. (The actors were contracted for a specific number of shows per week – 1 to 5.) She would be up at about 6:00 AM learning her lines for the day. She always came to the studio well-prepared, as did the other actors. There was, I think, one exception to that, who was eventually written out of the show. Rehearsals were methodical: line work, blocking, technical, dress, broadcast. Then come back the next day and do it all again. They got it right the first time because there wasn’t a second time. This impressed me greatly. As a result I was never amused by the spate of TV blooper programs some years ago, with outtake after outtake with actors – “stars” -- giggling over their inability to get a 15-second take right. Not funny. I was gratified, incidentally, to see in an online description of Hawkins Falls that the cast was “Led by Bernardine Flynn.” Led by, not starring. My mother wasn’t a “star.” She was an ordinary person who happened to be a working professional actress. The cast was an ensemble, and included some older retired actors. Art Van Harvey (Vic) was the town pharmacist, Phil Lord the mayor, and Butler Manville the town clerk. Manville must have been in his 80s at the time, and didn’t feel that he could memorize lines anymore. So he was seated at an old-fashioned roll-top desk with many papers, including the script, scattered around its surface. As time passed, however, he began to stand and move about, as his line-learning skills came back to him.

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