Variety (January 1959)

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~ f HCTUBES MY FAIR LOLITA By SAM KURTZMAN — # ' Hollywood. When Lolita Doolittle, the 14-year-old girl who in two years had skyrocketed into becoming one of the topi comedy writers in television, shot her benefactor Paddy Higgins all of Hollywood was shocked. Especially stunned wasHal Pickering , who felt somewhat responsible for this amazing tragedy. Hal Pickering recalled clearly that afternoon only two years ago, when he was leaving the big television studio after a wearisome rehearsal of the Milton Buttons show. In a moment his face brightened when he spied his friend Paddy Higgins leaving another part of the building. Paddv, who had been working on a dramatic script for “Play¬ house 98.6,” was glad to see Hal too. After the usual pleasantries, they got into one car land drove off for a belated lunch at a Beverly Hills delica¬ tessen. As usual, the talk soon turned to the business of writing; and as usual, both complained about the rat race, the upkeep of swimming pools, the lack of appreciation for writers, corporate setups, and the stupidity of alt the people in control of their respective shows. “Still,” Paddy said, “you comedy writers have it soft. Six writers for one lousy half hour. With only nine min¬ utes of comedy at that.” “Twelve minutes. We get a three-minute spread,” Hal corrected. “All right,” Paddy gave in. “What gets me, though, is the money. There is just no comparison between the writing budgets on comedy shows and all the other pro¬ grams on television.” “Well,” Hal explained as he had explained hundreds of times before. “Comedy writing is a very specialized talent. Not everybody can write comedy.” “What!” Paddy was incredulous. “ Not everybody can write comedy. You heard me the first time,” Hal spoke authoritatively. “Look,” Paddy said. “I once read a book, saw a play and watched a musical where what I’m going to say was . said. But I’ll; say it anyway.' How about a little wager? . Suppose I can prove that with a certain amount of train¬ ing anybody can write comedy?” “Don’t be silly, Paddy,” Hal cajoled. “Don’t you realize that it takes a special kind of talent? A special kind of brain? A rare gift.” “And that’s why they’re so highly paid?” “Exactly!” Hal agreed. “Then it’s a bet! Make it $100,000!” Paddy shouted convinced that he was right, and having just intercepted Michael Anthony carrying $1,000,000 to a starving song¬ writer in desperate need of music paper. “It’s a bet,” said Hal Pickering, who had just collect¬ ed his week’s salary. >s “I shall prove,” said Paddy, “that with gag writing, 'no more so than with painting or sculpturing or glass blowing, talent is nothing compared to hard work.” “Pick your candidate,” prompted Hal. “Fine,” said Paddy. Then he stood up and pointed, “The next person to walk in this door is my candidate.” The two sat watching the door to the delicatessen for imputes that seemed hours. Suddenly the door opened and in walked a little girL “That’s your "comedy writer!” laughed HaL “We didn’t say children,” Paddy complained. “You said ‘person,’ and you’re stuck with her!” Exactly how stuck Paddy was is now a matter of record. Not only did the little girl have no wish to be a comedy writer, she didn’t even know about taped laughtracks, and believed that comedians made up the funny stuff as they went along. [ _ _ Enter Lolita, Age 12 _ 1 Her name was Lolita Doolittle, age 12, and her only, ambition .was a charge account at the hoop petticoat de. partment of I. Magnin’s. Paddy Higgins convinced Lo¬ lita that if she did as he directed, she could have that, plus another account at Saks’, Having received her parents’ consent, Paddy hired a gag writer presently between premises for a half-hour situation comedy showi Paddy had to swear never to. di¬ vulge the gag writer’s name, and to pay the minimum Guild salary. The writer insisted on no guarantees as to results, for he too repeated the dictum that only a gag writer can* be a gag writer. Another thing the writer demanded was protection. Being discovered in this occupation could mean ostra¬ cism. The gag writer and Paddy Higgins devised a plan. To protect the gag man from being caught with an .under-age girl learning to be a comedy writer, it was agreed that they would pursue their studies in the dark of night at out-of-the-way motels, moving to new ones as soon as any Writers Guild member became suspicious. It was the only safe way. Holding up a hoop petticoat, and promising more, the writer was able to get Lolita to sit at. the typewriter for two hours each day. In two months, just as they were running out of Ventura Boulevard motels, Lolita had written four sonnets and sold two articles to the Atlantic Monthly. _ The writer felt that at least she was trying. He; wired Paddy that Lolita was about to get the first lesson. They registered at a glamorous .motel in Santa Monica where the rolling waves of the ocean made teach¬ ing and learning an unforgettable experience for. both. Lolita was an excellent pupil. She learned that the average person makes up maybe one joke in a year be¬ cause he does it on inspiration. Not understanding in¬ spiration, he thinks he can never do it again and places gag writers in the genius class. Little does the average person know that he, too, could make up jokes if he would just sit and sit and sit and think and think and think. This Lolita wrote a hun¬ dred times and when she ran out of wall they got into the car and drove south toward San Diego. At a motel near Del Mar, Lolita learned her second lesson: , Since there are no entirely original ideas but combinations of ideas, then her job was -to keep com¬ bining and combining and -combining. Some would be good. ■ : . .. . . The third lesson consisted .of inserting jokes into ideas; !*"hich .made it easier to make up the* jokes-. As -she was. Fifty-third Anniversary nearing her 80th birthday, Lolita sold three stories of childhood reminiscences to The New Yorker. . The gag writer wasn’t too discouraged. He felt she could be a television, comedy writer yet. A Tijuana niotel provided the setting for Lolita to complete a sample Jack Benny script, two Milton Berle monologs and a Phil Silvers half-hour. The writer taught Lolita how not . to make the .mistakes that most wouldbe writers commit. He advised her not to include cheap jokes or troupe references for Jack Benny, for the regular staff must have tried millions of varia¬ tions on those themes. Similar advice went for most other comics. Lolita was a good student. Her mind was on the hoop petticoats and charge accounts. At the end of 4,268 miles and 107 motels the writer told Paddy Higgins that Lolita Doolittle was a gag writer. At very private commencement excercises, the writer delivered the valedictory., “We comedy writers are willing to deprive ourselves of glory, of credits. We have learned not to despise the com¬ ics when our brilliant jokes get printed Ijy John Crosby andcredited to our boss. We learn to be sly enough to inform the comedian that it was our joke that, got that big boff. We learn to laugh up our joke and to keep a straight face when another staff member reads his ma¬ terial at a conference. We learn how to duck the knifings and how to administer them.” J Henny Yonngman Breaks Ice _ [ Within weeks she sold several jokes to Henny Youngman, and that was the start she needed. Then she studied the oblique style of phrasing, mimicked it successfully and sold an entire monolog to Bob Hope, including tick¬ ets' to Ghana. Lolita soon was hired to write an entire Jerry Lewis special, and at this point Hal Pickering ad¬ mitted that Paddy Higgins had fairly won the bet There was quite a Hollywood party at Romanoff’s when, the $100,000 check changed hands. life and Look sent their photographers and every newspaper in the country printed the pictures and the story. \ For the photographers Paddy Higgins gave Lolim a fatherly kiss on the cheek and congratulated her on «debfating her 14th birthday and admission |;o membership in the Writers Guild of America at the same time. No sooner were the newspapers on the -stands and the magazines at the printers’ than a second, larger headline streaked across the front page of every paper in the United States: Lolita Shoots Paddy. The nation was in an uproar. From tract. house to tract . house, from farm to farm, not a fence was left idle. Even parents were using the telephone. The buzzing of gossip drowned Out all hi-fi, stereo included. The morbidly curious began pilgrimages to the west coast Enterprising motel Owners displayed signs, “Lolita Studied Here.” What 160,000,000 people wanted to know .was: Why? Why? Why? Why did she do it? . V That was what the lieutenant at the police station asked, but received no explanation. At the inquest two days later, Lolita Doolittle readily admitted to the crime, but would not divulge any reason. All kinds of rumors began circulating about the strange relationship between the late Paddy Higgins and his 14year-old — what— protegee? The trial was the sensation of the year, tv and news reel cameras were, set up all qver downtown Los Angeles. The freeways were congested all the way to Santa Ana, and the radio stations had to abandon their helicopter airwatch programs. There was no . moving traffic in all of southern California. Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and John Daly were positioned at the steps, of City Hall Ralph Edwards was there too, just in case. A hush had come over the entire United States as everyone was awaiting the judge’s words. Finally the decision came. It was death in the gas chamber. When the kindly judge told Lolita there was still some chance for her if she would only speak, if she would only tell why she did it, the 14-year-old child said nothing. The weeks on death row did not cause any change of mind. The governor openly stated that if she would only speak, there might possibly be reason for him to use his power of clemency or pardon. Lolita did not speak. On the morning of the execution the governor' did the unprecedented. He visited Lolita. He walked into her cell and pleaded with her as if she were his own daughter. “My dear,” he implored. “Please tell me why you did it” Finally Lolita spoke. “Because of what he' said,” she explained, looking straight into the governor’s kindly eyes. “But what did Paddy say?,” the governor wanted to know. Lolita stood up proudly. She looked straight ahead. She spoke slowly. “He said that anybody can be a comedy writer.” Even A Francophile Rebels! By ABEL GREEN Reports to this paper from the most ardent Fran¬ cophiles—^ -about the 1958 brand of average French¬ man’s preoccupation with the franc is something which France should ponder most seriously. What price all the glamorous propaganda; advertisements, trailers and Tin Pan Alley buildups for La Belle France if a cross-section, as potent and important for spending and prestige, has become so Sharply dis¬ enchanted with being “took?” Two showmen, of international renown had a friend •* ly verbal tilt with a Variety man one night at La Tour d’Argent about the HCT— high cost of tourism —in France yis-a-vis any ‘ other European country. One said, “The moment an American lands in Orly or LeHavre, it’s a license to rolls.” The other argued . more resignedly, “Paris is like a beautiful dame— she deserves to be expensively supported.” . • None the less, from the sidelines, this year’s gripes are of such proportions, it’s: something for the French Tourist Bureau to worry about. Are the Yanks the prime patsies? Why and how • do they differ from the conservative British, the for,ever-touristing Germans and Scandinavians?.. Some-: . ♦. how, the* American -telegraphs -.his 'linguistic .;^nd emotional inferiority or* nervousness. Hedoes seem t ; , to get— whether h& ' invites— “the ‘business.” * -V* January 7, 1959 France Can Sit There — On Its Cannes « — ■ By CASKIE STINNETT===s=== * Cannes. A few days ago, while packing to leave Cannes, I .was wrapping a hot copy of “Lady Chatterley's Lover” in an old copy of the Paris edition of the N.Y. Herald Trib • une, when my eye fell upon a story which told how pleased “those . who love France” were at the newlyacquired stability of the French government. With curi * osity, I read the entire news story because I wanted to see who it was that loved France.' I, for one, didn’t, al¬ though I realize that not to admire it ecstatically is to announce yourself as being as devoid of culture as the forecastle of a whaler. Btit after spending four months in a villa in Cannes, where I had spent a large part of each day engaged in the flimsy, business of writing a book, my affection for the country had steadily declined from the zero it began with. What alienated France and me was not so much the rudeness and hostility of the French people (although I always was accompanied by the feeling that a McCoy must have had upon stumbling on a Hatfield family picnic) as it was the single-minded preoccupation of the French for the franc. Let me ex¬ plain. My war with the French people seems to have been capped (pardon the upcoming pun) by the purchase of a radiator cap on my last day in France. I was headed . for *the Italian border and had stopped in Nice for a tankful of 93c-per-gallon gasoline, when I noticed my radiator cap was missing. The garage man obligingly got one for my car from his stock, screwed it on, and handed me the followings invoice from which I now read: 1 Bouchon de Radiateur . 1,940 francs. Tax . 61 francs Labor .... . . . . . 130 francs The labor consisted ’of turning the cap clockwise onehalf a turn. The man with the golden arm. j _ Mdh Against the Franc _ The costs of the villa were staggering, not so much in rent as in what the rental agent came to refer to as ■‘incidental closing expenses.” These included gas, elec¬ tric and telephone costs which wTould have easily pro¬ vided all utilities for a city the size of Richmond, Va., as well as the tax de sejour, which, in effect, was a tax imposed upon me for the privilege of exposing myself to Cannes as a new source of revenue. The final coup of the “incidental closing expenses,” however, was an item of 2,600 francs described as “rental for electric meter.” This was inviting me not only to be the victim of a hold¬ up but also asking me to bring the gun. . Early in my visit, of course, I was understandably naive. I even managed a wry grin when a 100-franc cov¬ er charge #was added to my check at a roadside hot-dog stancl, and I was only mildly outraged when I was charged 15 francs for resting a few moments on a Cannes park bench. But gradually my resistance increased as new in¬ cidents provided fresh antibodies. I protested bitterly 'When charged 50 francs for seeing a friend off in the Cannes, railway station, and the people in the Nice air¬ port knew they had been in a fight after they pocketed my 300 francs for using the airport to board a plane for Paris. It will be difficult, too, to erase from my mind the freight clerk in Marseille who added 4,100 francs to a bill for handling a trunk, although he admitted he didn’t honestly know what the charge Vas for. “Incidental ex¬ penses,” he explained. | _ . Rubbing It In _ _ [ There was no Way to -beat it. I would hold the line here, only to discover a flank crumbling there. But what began to occupy my attention was the dissatisfaction of the French with the official (sic!) sources of revenue and their ingenuity in creating new ones. Serious errors in addition became commonplace in the markets, and more often 'than not a high percentage of items bought failed to show up upon delivery. My experiences with my newsdealer best describes this phase of Franco-American relations. A dignified, grave, white-haired man in his sixties, my newsdealer provided me each day with a copy of the Paris edition of the Her¬ ald-Tribune, the cost of which was 45 francs. Now this is an awkward sum to produce as it requires, say, two 20franc pieces and either a. five or five ones. More often than not I gave him a 50-franc piece and got a 5-franc piece in change. But one day after tossing the 5-franc piece in my pocket, I was suddenly struck by the fact that it was small, just as small as the 2-franc piece .that it turned out to be. When the same thing happened the next day, I called him on it. Without a word of apology, he took back, the 2-franc piece and gave me the proper change. No shame, only a trace of frustration. Each aft¬ ernoon throughout the summer the same curious transac¬ tion occurred. I called the error; he made restitution. My vigilance not only failed to halt his efforts, it seemed to strengthen his determination. j _ Can’t Break the Habit _ ■ 1 My last night In Cannes I stopped by the newsdealer to tell him goodbye. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said, “I don’t guess Ill see you again.” He* was distressed. (He hoped I had enjoyed. the sum¬ mer and that I would return to. Cannes. It had been a real pleasure to know me, and if my book had a French edition he would certainly .sellit vigorously. Did I want my Herald-Tribune? Although I knew I was going to be busypacking, I took it anyway, passing him the customary 50-franc piece. . He. Teached into. his coin drawer, and. hesitated^. It was a . sentimentaL moment. :He drew out* his* band and pressed .. a coin -into my "palmy -I, pocketed it* and. we shook hands ■Warmly.. When t got home & took out the £oin and looked it. Jt*\vas>a -2-franefpiece* •••.•> • »•*• •. *• *. * ’