Thursday, July 29, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 5

It was around the time that the Manhoffs moved to the Tower Road house, or shortly before, that Ferne changed her name. The Manhoffs’ daughter told CONELRAD that her mother had been singing under the stage name of Ferne Mason at Hollywood nightclubs such as John Walsh’s 881 Club and that she once appeared in a four-day run of the musical Show Boat in San Bernardino (she played the role of “Julie” made famous by Ava Gardner in the film version).[1] The next moniker that the Manhoffs came up with for Ferne was Phillipa Shawn, but because there was a Hollywood actor named Phillip Shawn (real name Patrick Waltz), they settled on the truly memorable Phillipa Fallon.

Ferne was pursuing other changes besides just her name. As Phillipa Fallon she was reborn as someone focused on improving every conceivable aspect of her life—inside and out. Thayer Culver, Bill Manhoff’s secretary in the early-to-mid 1950s often worked from the Tower home typing up Bill’s scripts and taking dictation. In addition to her work for Bill, Ms. Culver’s job responsibilities included driving Phillipa around on her various self-betterment errands. “I called her ‘Phil,’” she recalled in an interview with CONELRAD. “I thought she was beautiful and sweet, kind of coy, kind of flirtatious…She was bone thin and had long, lank, black hair.” Culver noticed other things about her boss’s wife that she did not like: “She was consumed by ego…I don’t know if she was starved for recognition as a child because she needed it desperately as an adult.” After making these comments Culver concludes “There must have been something about her that I was truly fascinated by or I wouldn’t have continued working for her.” In a subsequent interview Culver added that she felt that Phillipa “had a quality that made you want to take care of her.”[2]

Culver confirmed that Phillipa was obsessed with health (“She was very much on this pure kick”) and very serious about it. “She studied holistic things and vegetarian issues. She had an enormous cache of books up in her bedroom and I once said to her very casually, ‘Gee, I should become a vegetarian and maybe I’d lose some weight.’ And she said ‘You can’t just become a vegetarian, there’s a lot more to it than that. You have to study.’”

When asked if Phillipa treated her like a servant, Culver replied, “No, except for the damned driving – drove me crazy, she was so bossy.” One of the appointments that Culver would regularly chauffeur Phillipa to was in San Jacinto, near Palm Springs. It was in this distant, arid community that Phillipa would see her “bio-engineer,” Dr. Helen E. Sanders. Sanders, a chiropractor, practiced a spinal touch / total mind-body treatment known as “Aquarian Age Healing.” Sanders had pioneered the technique in the 1920s with her then-husband, Dr. John Hurley, also a chiropractor. The couple co-authored two books on their method before divorcing in 1937. The 180-mile roundtrip journeys to visit Dr. Sanders could be taxing, particularly on the driver: “She’d sit in the back seat,” Culver recalled with a tinge of exasperation in her voice, “and I couldn’t drive behind trucks – the exhaust fumes would make her ill.”

Sanders Phillipa Fallon’s “bio-engineer,” Helen E. Sanders

Culver would also shuttle Phillipa to less challenging locations: “She was always being fitted for clothes and there was this couture shop in Beverly Hills – I would take her there.” According to Manhoffs’ daughter, Phillipa had a dressmaker named Edith Washington and a French hat maker named Lucille Morgan. The daughter added that during her mother’s fashion heyday, she owned “86 hats” and had once appeared on a local L.A. morning newscast modeling one of Ms. Morgan’s creations.

1950 Hat Ad 1950 hat ad that might as well have featured Phillipa…

Phillipa also worked on developing her singing talent with such top-notch vocal coaches as Bain Dayman and Gerald Wiggins. Dayman had taught Dennis Day how to sing and Wiggins, a jazz artist, had helped Marilyn Monroe prepare for her movie roles that required her to sing. In addition, Phillipa had a musical accompanist named Jeanette Goldenberg who made wax recordings of their rehearsals. Goldenberg died in 1987 at the age of 83 in Los Angeles. 

Phillipa’s primary creative project during this period was a play called The Kissing Man that she wrote with input from Bill. Thayer Culver told us that “Her focus then was on this musical, the whole time that I was around…She wanted to be a chanteuse, that was her big thing then and she wrote a show, a whole score for a show.” Culver, who had earlier worked for Ray Stark at MCA, happened to know a powerful agent named Barron Polan who specialized in promoting the type of talent that Phillipa believed that she had. Indeed, over the course of his long career, Polan helped launch Carol Channing, Florence Henderson, Kay Thompson, Jaques D’Amboise, Georgia Hayes and many other female singers and actresses. He was the perfect prospective agent for Phillipa and Thayer Culver was happy to make the introduction. 

One night in 1955 Culver and her friend Leonard Grainger (who was also friends with Barron Polan and Bill Manhoff) brought Polan over to the Tower house. The purpose of the visit was for the agent—who was in Los Angeles on a business trip from New York—to meet the Manhoffs and to hear a sample of Phillipa’s play. Since there was no furniture in the living room, the guests, by Culver’s recollection, either stood or sat on the floor while Phillipa performed “what felt like the whole damned musical” from her upright piano. The de facto audition did not go well. Culver remembers the performance as being “embarrassing” and “so bad it was funny.” Leonard Grainger, who was interviewed by CONELRAD for this article, could not recall the impression that Phillipa made in front of Polan, but he said that he thought her singing, in general, was always “pretty good.”

Whatever the merits or faults of Phillipa’s performance (or her material), Barron Polan walked out of the Tower home that evening and never looked back. Phillipa Fallon would have to find another route to fame.

[1] Leonard Grainger, Bill Manhoff’s best friend, was interviewed by CONELRAD and he confirmed that Phillipa Fallon performed in nightclubs on the Sunset Strip in the early 1950s. CONELRAD was unable to find any newspaper advertisements for these shows, but not all acts are advertised and she likely was not a headliner. CONELRAD tried to find reviews or advertisements of the San Bernardino production of Show Boat, but we were unsuccessful.

[2] Some of Thayer Culver’s other observations of Phillipa Fallon and the Manhoff marriage are presented in subsequent posts.

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