Saturday, August 14, 2010

Happy Birthday, Phillipa

Today would have been Phillipa Fallon’s 87th birthday. To mark the occasion, here’s a tribute video…

…The biography will resume shortly…

Sunday, August 1, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 9

Around the time of her triumph in High School Confidential!, Phillipa Fallon appeared in the industry casting publication, the Academy Players Directory, for the very first time.[1] Her publicity photograph, along with the name and telephone numbers of her talent agency, Paul Small Artists, Ltd., appears on page 103 of the 79th edition of the directory issued in 1958. Phillipa, who would turn 35 in August of 1958, is in the Leading Women section surrounded by hundreds of other actresses, most of whom the contemporary reader would be hard-pressed to recognize. She and her agents could not have known it at the time, but Phillipa had already had the best role of her career.

In July of 1959 production began on Albert Zugsmith’s biblical sex comedy The Private Lives of Adam and Eve. Zugsmith co-directed the incoherent, poorly shot film with Mickey Rooney who also stars as the devil. The movie’s plot revolves around a modern couple played by Martin Milner and Mamie Van Doren who fantasize that they are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The film opens with a bizarre title sequence in which Paul Anka drives a car with his feet while singing the theme song.

Rooney spends most of his screen time dressed in dime store Satan drag surrounded by a harem of women known as “The Devil’s Familiars.” Phillipa, in the non-speaking role of Desire, can be seen approximately thirty-seven minutes into the movie giving the devil a pedicure. It was a thankless role and, quite understandably, her last.

Fallon-PrivateLives-Pedicure-2 Phillipa Fallon, unfortunately, at lower left working on Mickey Rooney’s cloven hoof

1960, the year that Private Lives was released (and condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency), was also the last year that Phillipa paid to have her listing in the Players Directory. Her final entry appears in issue number 85 on page 125. Her agents are identified as Len Kaplan and Mark Harris of the William Schuller Agency. Unfortunately, both of these men are deceased so they could not be asked for details about how Phillipa came to be cast in such a terrible movie. Mickey Rooney, seemingly immortal, did not respond to our inquiries for an interview, but he has probably forgotten about the film by now anyway.

Fallon-PrivateLives-Still L-R: Ziva Rodann, Mickey Rooney, Phillipa Fallon (w/hand on Rooney’s shoulder), Nancy Root, Theona Bryant

Phillipa had made three movies, all for Albert Zugsmith, and she was now ready to move on. Her new focus would be on her songwriting career, politics and a long campaign against fluoridation…

[1] CONELRAD reviewed the Academy Players Directory for the period 1941 (the year Fallon arrived in Hollywood) through 1960. We searched under all of her known aliases. We found that she appears in issues 79 through issue 81 and issues 83 through 85. Her agency affiliation changes from Paul Small Artists, Ltd. to William Schuller in issue number 83 (after not appearing at all in issue number 82). In issue number 80 (1958, page 105) Fallon’s listing immediately precedes another tragic actress, Frances Farmer:


Saturday, July 31, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 8

For a B-movie dismissed by most critics in 1958 as a quickie exploitation picture, High School Confidential! went through an extraordinary number of screenplay drafts before the cameras started rolling. Over the course of too many versions to count, there were subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the story's plot, tone and character. Eventually, four different writers worked on the script. The part that would give Phillipa Fallon—as writer Barry Alphonso later put it—her “one shot at screen immortality” was not even present in the earliest versions of the treatments and scripts.

In the December 10, 1957 iteration of the screenplay, for instance, there is only a reference to the band, Nat’s Combo, backing up Mr. A. (the piano-playing heroin kingpin played in the film by Jackie Coogan) at The Drag (the name of the teen hangout where Mr. A plies his trade). There is no beat poetry for the kids to dig in this draft, just jazz music.

A little over a month later, a “composite” script dated January 13, 1958 included a scene in which Mr. A introduces a male poet character reading a work quite different from the one ultimately delivered with such vibrancy by Ms. Fallon.
And now that eminent poet of Pokeyville reading his latest masterpiece – The Big Switch…
The world was a world of kings and men –
And we like hooded falcons.
Don’t dig it anymore – don’t dig
Such fancy tales
Don’t dig that crucifix…
Ever been cold on a summer’s night –
And coughed up the blood of dawn?
Then you’re hep to the Big Swich, friend
The world’s a world of dollar smokes
And when you find the loot?
The kings they all pushin’ weed –
I take me off my hood
The grass is green no more –
Crazy, man, it’s red.
The nights grow narrow, doll
You tune me in?
The streets are wet –
I got no shoes
You think there’s a way to run…
Sure there is –
The curve of the Big Switch, friend
A couple of days later, in a yellow “changes” section of the January 15, 1958 version of the screenplay, the poet is identified as a “serious looking young colored boy.” After the same line of introduction is delivered by Mr. A (as quoted above), the following stage direction text is found:
Poet steps forward into tiny space in front of the combo to read – the combo beginning to play rhythmically behind him, making the reading poetry with a jazz beat. During the following the kids listen intently, seriously, lost in the words and rhythm.
By the January 20, 1958 draft of the script, the sex (and presumably the race) of the poet had changed, but the verses of the poem were essentially the same. It was not until the February 11, 1958 edition of the screenplay—produced just days before principal photography began on MGM’s Culver City lot—that the poem (with one slight change), as seen in the completed film, finally appeared in print. There is no description in the script of what the poetess character is supposed to look like or how she is supposed to act. The novelization of High School Confidential! by Morton Cooper published in 1958, however, does offer a portrait, albeit, an unflattering one:
…He stayed in the entrance-way, shaking his head at a waiter who motioned that there was a seat ready for him, and regarded the horsy, oddly unhealthy looking woman materialize from a curtain next to the stage. The applause was ear-shattering as she waddled to the mike and nodded conspiratorially to Mr. A. The combo began to play rhythmically behind her, and she read melodramatically from a paper she plumbed from her overripe bodice…
High School Confidential-PB-Frnt

The very existence of the beatnik poet character is almost certainly attributable to producer Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith, a master of the exploitation genre, told the Los Angeles Free Press in a 1975 interview that in performing "research" for his film, he frequented Venice, California coffee houses, hung out with the beat figure (and father of Inside the Actors Studio host, James Lipton) Larry Lipton and visited “private pot parties.” It was during this pre-production phase of the project that the savvy producer may have been inspired to add a poet character to his latest cinematic opus. If Zugsmith had been going to Venice coffee houses, he no doubt saw more than his fair share of bongo-driven verse and it probably made an impression.

At some point, the producer decided to hire Roger Corman regular Mel Welles to punch up the High School Confidential! script with hipster jargon. Welles, who had just written a slang dictionary tie-in for Corman’s Rock All Night (1957) was the perfect choice for the assignment. The multi-talented actor-writer-director, who had played the aging hepcat, Sir Bop, in Rock All Night, was in tune with the Beat Generation, but not above satirizing it. Indeed, Welles wrote for cult comedian Lord Buckley’s (the model for the character of Sir Bop) and is responsible for one of his most famous routines - The Gettysburg Address. Of course, not only did Welles hipify the dialogue of the Confidential! script, he also wrote the two set pieces that make the movie a classic: High School Drag delivered by Phillipa and the Buckley-esque Columbus Digs the Jive performed by John Drew Barrymore.

Mel Welles-No Border-loMel Welles as Sir Bop in Rock All Night (1957) 

Just how did Phillipa come to be chosen to play her iconic role? No one that CONELRAD interviewed for this biography, including the actress’s own daughter, knew exactly. The key, though, again, is probably Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith was well known for re-using actors on many of his films – especially if they worked cheap. William Schallert, Aram Katcher, Mamie Van Doren, Ziva Rodann, Norman Grabowski and William Wellman, Jr. are just a few of the performers the producer used in more than one film. And Zugsmith, at heart a businessman, was always on the lookout for ways (sex, violence, etc.) to improve the chances of his films at the box office. It makes perfect sense then that the gender of the poet in the script would change overnight from a man to a woman. By casting Mamie Van Doren as the nymphomaniacal “aunt” to star Russ Tamblyn’s character, Zugsmith had already demonstrated his ability to tap into the pulse of the American movie-going public. Having a beautiful brunette who looked 24 even though she was really 34 play the role of the poetess must have been a no-brainer for the producer.

Zugsmith also had a well-earned reputation for auditioning actresses on his casting couch, but this seems highly unlikely with Phillipa.[1] Her daughter told CONELRAD that her mother was wary of the producer and routinely shot down the many men who hit on her. Phillipa also had a fear of germs that would seem to preclude much of a sex life. Thayer Culver, who worked for Phillipa’s husband in the 1950s told CONELRAD that “germophobe” was too mild a word to describe the actress. She was, Culver said, “an everythingphobe…She was almost a Howard Hughes.” While the Hughes comparison may be a bit of an exaggeration, CONELRAD spoke with others who knew Phillipa who confirmed she had a definite issue with germs (more on this topic in later posts).

With the casting of Phillipa, Zugsmith got not only a sterling performance from her as the poetess, but he also used her as an extra in two scenes.

The obsessive viewer will note that the actress appears in the scene where Russ Tamblyn’s efforts to comfort heroin addict Doris (Jody Fair) are interrupted by a gaggle of pool-partying “teens.” In the freeze-frame image below, we see a rare shot of a smiling Phillipa Fallon being hustled away by Tamblyn.

The other scene Phillipa appears in occurs near the end of the film, just before the fight breaks out between Mr. A’s henchmen and Michael Landon’s football team. Unfortunately, Charles Chaplin, Jr. (as undercover agent / waiter Quinn) obscures part of Phillipa’s head.

Fallon Extra-Cropped

Yet another bonus that Zugsmith reaped from hiring Phillipa for High School Confidential! was her songwriting talent. Phillipa and the producer collaborated on lyrics for a theme song intended for Mamie Van Doren, entitled Mamie. Zugsmith ultimately decided against using it in his film, but CONELRAD was able to track down the sheet music at the Library of Congress:

Fallon-Mamie Sheet Music
Prod. “High School Confidential”
May 9, 1958
Lyrics by Phillipa Fallon & Albert Zugsmith
Music by Albert Glasser, A.S.C.A.P.
But where Zugsmith and MGM really got their money’s worth is in Phillipa’s mesmerizing performance as the beat poetess. As the scene opens, she can be glimpsed seated just beyond the bandstand before John Drew Barrymore and Diane Jergens exchange a brief round of dialogue about Jergens’ need for marijuana. Their discussion is cut short by some brassy music that cues Phillipa to emerge from her chair and stride to the stage (unlike in the screenplay, Mr. A does not introduce her, probably because Jackie Coogan’s incarnation of the character is seated at the piano).


From the bandstand, Phillipa lets loose Mel Welles’s words with a determined intensity that still resonates more than half a century later. Behind her, Jackie Coogan and the band punctuate her delivery of the nihilistic verse with blasts of incongruous ragtime. Meanwhile the “kids” look up at the poetess with a mixed reaction of hopped-up amusement and existential angst. Charles Chaplin, Jr. just shakes his head in disgust. And then, after three minutes of stealing the movie, Phillipa descends from the stage to a boisterous round of applause.

My old man was a bread stasher all his life.
He never got fat. He wound up with a used car,
a 17 inch screen and arthritis.
Tomorrow is a drag, man.
Tomorrow is a king sized bust.
They cried ‘put down pot,’ ‘don’t think a lot,’ for what?
Time, how much? And what to do with it.
Sleep, man, and you might wake up digging the whole
human race giving itself three days to get out.
Tomorrow is a drag, pops, the future is a flake.
I had a canary who couldn’t sing.
I had a cat who let me share my pad with her.
I bought a dog that killed the cat who ate the canary.
What is truth?
I had an uncle with an ivy league card.
He had a life with a belt in the back.
He had a button-down brain.
Wind up a belt in the mouth with a button-down lip.
We cough blood on this earth.
Now there’s a race for space.
We can cough blood on the moon soon.
Tomorrow’s dragsville, cats.
Tomorrow is a king size drag.
Tool a fast shore, swing with a gassy chick.
Turn on to a thousand joys.
Smile on what happened, or check what’s going to happen,
You’ll miss what’s happening.
Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum.
Tomorrow, DRAG.

Strangely enough, the non-letterboxed version of the poetess scene provides the viewer with an even better appreciation of Ms. Fallon's emotive body language--particularly her remarkably expressive wrists [thanks to the Looker blog for this observation]. 

CONELRAD asked Phillipa’s daughter if she knew any of the details about how her mother prepared for the role of her lifetime. The daughter told us that she remembered helping her mother rehearse her part at their Tower Road home in Beverly Hills: “I would keep the script and I would let her know if she missed a line of the poem.” The daughter then volunteered that her mother had asked her not to see the film. As of 2008, when we conducted our interview, the daughter had still not seen High School Confidential!, but had plans to watch it on DVD. When asked if her mother had any favorite actresses, the daughter replied that Phillipa loved Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. The poetess character, as played by Phillipa, certainly exudes a strength that those two stars projected in their prime, particularly Davis.

High School Confidential! had its world premiere in Albert Zugsmith’s hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey on May 29, 1958. The producer brought along Jackie Coogan, Charlie Chaplin, Jr., Jan Sterling and Diane Jergens to the gala. Phillipa stayed home, but soon enough she was undoubtedly relishing the reviews that singled out her performance:

“…but what I want to know is, who was that chick who sang in the nightclub sequence? She was so riotous, I thought her bit was worth the price of admission alone.”
-- Beverly Hills Citizen, July 7, 1958
“A recitation to jazz accompaniment by Phillipa Fallon is fascinating…”
-- Hollywood Reporter film review, May 28, 1958
“There’s one scene at the hangout where a gal in the crowd gets up and delivers a way-out word-jazz routine…may start a big new fad.”
-- Hollywood Citizen-News film review, June 26, 1958
“Mel Welles has contributed two pieces of special material, one of which, an existentialist poem recited by Phillipa Fallon, is a standout.”
-- Daily Variety film review, May 28, 1958
“Highlights of the story are a drag race with Tamblyn and Diane Jergens living it up, an existentialist poem by Phillipa Fallon to jazz accompaniment in a weird off-beat joint and John Drew Barrymore delivering a class soliloquy on Ferdinand and Isabella.”
-- Los Angeles Examiner film review, June 26, 1958
The one negative comment about the performance came from critic Howard Thompson of the New York Times on May 31, 1958:

“At one excruciating point, to jazz accompaniment, a young brunette drawls a poem that has about as much coherence as a cat fight.”

Unlike the hopelessly square Mr. Thompson, MGM was so pleased with the spoken word contributions of Phillipa and John Drew Barrymore that they released their performances back-to-back on a 45 single that, today, is a hard-to-find collector’s item.

Fallon-High School Drag Label

High School Confidential! opened at 9 a.m. on Friday, July 25, 1958 at the Essanes Woods Theatre in downtown Chicago, Phillipa’s hometown. Sadly, there is no evidence that her family even knew she was in the movie. When CONELRAD contacted the widow of Phillipa’s only sibling, Irwin, she told us that she knew Ferne (she only knew Phillipa by her given name) wanted to be an actress, but was unaware that she had ever achieved her dream. She added that Phillipa’s mother never mentioned anything about her daughter being in a film.

Albert Zugsmith would attempt to duplicate the quirky magic of Phillipa’s Confidential! performance in a film he produced the following year - The Beat Generation. But this time he didn't have Mel Welles or Phillipa. What he had was a script by Lewis Meltzer and a performance by horror movie host and Ed Wood player, Vampira. Her pseudo-beat recitation--with a rat on her shoulder, no less--is as bad as the middle-aged police detective characters (one of whom is Jackie Coogan!) think it is.

In an odd twist, Phillipa's ex-husband, Bill Manhoff, would write a 1964 episode of Petticoat Junction that features a young Dennis Hopper as a beatnik who recites his poetry for the denizens of the Shady Rest Hotel. When Hopper's character is asked what his poem means, he replies with the most brutal line of dialogue ever heard on the rural sitcom: "It means this is a cemetery and you're all corpses."



[1] In a July 5, 2010 interview with CONELRAD, frequent Zugsmith actor William Wellman, Jr. told us that “Every gal he cast wound up on the casting couch…he took a different one home every night.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 7

Shortly before Phillipa Fallon’s first movie, The Girl In The Kremlin, was released in late April of 1957, her marriage to Bill Manhoff broke up. The court paperwork documenting their legal separation dated April 15, 1957 coldly presents the duration of their union: 12 years, 6 months, 17 days. 

Ironically, it was in their dream house on Tower Road in Beverly Hills where things started to unravel for the couple. Bill was always working to sustain what their daughter called the “Tower lifestyle” and Phillipa became more consumed with her career, her health and her material possessions.

According to Leonard Grainger, Bill was “always broke” because “she liked to spend his money…She had a closet full of shoes. She loved shoes.” Grainger, Bill’s best friend, added that Phillipa was “reclusive and not too warm… [but] very stylish.”

Shoe Ad 
Thayer Culver, Bill’s secretary in the 1950s, told CONELRAD that her boss “coddled” Phillipa and that he was “spellbound by her.” She added that “he was blind to what she really was.” Culver echoed Grainger’s description of Phillipa as being “reclusive,” saying that “There was a chaise in the bedroom near the fireplace and that’s where she would lounge. The room was very draped and dim.”

Contrary to some of the preceding statements, the Manhoffs’ relationship was not all one-sided. Their daughter told CONERAD that Phillipa had a high regard for her husband’s talent and once told him that he was a better writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bill considered the compliment quite undeserved and Phillipa responded by giving him a Fitzgerald book as a gift with an inscription repeating her literary assessment.

According to Culver, Bill eventually adjusted to losing Phillipa by going into therapy. “He finally discovered he did not have to take care of her.”

The final judgment of divorce was issued in Los Angeles Superior Court on December 21, 1959. By this time Bill had moved on psychologically and romantically from Phillipa. Indeed, a week and one day after the final divorce decree, he married Joy Reynolds in Beverly Hills (this union last until 1967). Joy told CONELRAD that Bill never really spoke about Phillipa, but that she was aware of the unusual diet practices of his former family. She added that she knew, for example, that Bill had decided to treat his diabetes not with traditional medicines, but rather through an alternative diet. It was early in their marriage, according to Joy, when Bill decided to stop being a vegetarian. “The first thing he wanted to eat was bacon!”

When asked if his friend ever talked about Phillipa after the divorce, Leonard Grainger told CONELRAD “No, he never looked back.” But Bill did pay monthly alimony and child support which kept him tethered to his former wife for many years.

The largest outstanding expense to be found in the Manhoffs’ divorce paperwork (which was found on microfilm in the basement of the Los Angeles Department of Public Records) is for $2,000 owed by Phillipa to Dr. E. Paul Bindrim. Bindrim was an analyst Phillipa saw during the period that preceded her separation from Bill. And not unlike the other “guru” figures that populate Phillipa’s life, Bindrim was a strange character with questionable methods. His 12-hour private therapy sessions, according to the Manhoffs’ daughter, put a considerable strain on her parents’ marriage. The daughter, who once met the therapist, told CONELRAD that he made her feel uneasy. At the time of these costly and probably harmful sessions, Bindrim was not even a licensed psychologist. An October 12, 1956 Pasadena Star-News item refers to him as a “psychic expert” and “telepathist” who was scheduled to give a lecture on how “the average person can develop the good luck and good judgment that marks the lives of successful men and women.”

Bindrim-Star News
Edward Paul Bindrim was born in New York in 1920 and earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and his master’s degree from Duke University. At Duke he performed research in parapsychology. In 1958 he was ordained in the Church of Divine Metaphysics and became a minister of the Church of Religious Science in Glendale, California. He finally obtained his psychology license in 1967, the same year he held his first “nude workshop” in Deer Park, CA. He went on to become famous for being the father of nude psychotherapy. The January 8, 1998 obituary for Bindrim in the Los Angeles Times characterized his practice as consisting of “placing several people in [a] warm pool for long sessions of touching and massaging, talking and sometimes shouting or acting out rage.” The Times stated that Bindrim called these sessions “nude marathons” or “Aqua-energetics.”

The exact nature of Phillipa’s therapy with Bindrim in the 1950s is not known, but Dr. Ian Nicholson, an academic who has written about Bindrim and who was consulted by CONELRAD, said it might have had something to do with the “power of positive thinking.” The Church of Religious Science, of which Bindrim was associated, promoted this philosophy. As seen in the Star-News item to the right, however, Bindrim was trading on his paranormal / ESP research around the same time that he was treating Phillipa. Dr. Nicholson summed things up by telling us that based on what he knew about this controversial therapist, he believed Bindrim was “prepared to consider almost anything that resonated with his clients.”

Phillipa’s subsequent therapists, Dr. Lawrence F. Barker and Dr. Maurice Walsh, were apparently of the more traditional school (although Walsh achieved some degree of notoriety for diagnosing Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess with latent schizophrenia in 1948).

Another fascinating detail revealed in the Manhoffs’ divorce paperwork is a reference to her ill-fated play, The Kissing Man. In the settlement agreement, Bill Manhoff is given a generous “one half of one percent” of “any and all income or economic gain derived from the sale or production of the musical comedy…” Not surprisingly, CONELRAD was unable to find a copy of The Kissing Man, though we did check the copyright office at the Library of Congress. We found other works copyrighted by Phillipa, but not this particular item. There will be more on the other copyrighted material in later posts.

The divorce documents suggest that Phillipa liked to write because there is a reference to “three scripts written by the wife under the name Phillipa Strange.” The mind reels at the possibilities. Alas, we checked the Writers Guild of America and the Library of Congress under all of Phillipa’s many aliases and we could find no trace of these screenplays.

Divorce-Community Property-Close-Up

From the time of the separation in 1957 through the final divorce and beyond, Phillipa and her daughter (custody was awarded to her with visitation rights granted to Bill) lived at Tower. They moved to a much smaller house on Stradella Court in Bel Air in 1962, but at the time Phillipa won her most famous role as a beatnik in High School Confidential!, she was still residing in a 16-room mansion.

Judgement of Divorce

Thursday, July 29, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 6

Fallon-Christmas Cut-Outs 
If Phillipa Fallon was crushed by her failure to win over agent Barron Polan with her musical, she did not let her hurt feelings get in the way of her next opportunity. “She really believed she had this massive future,” Thayer Culver told CONELRAD, explaining what kept her going. And like so many other would-be stars before (and after) her who were convinced of a bright future, Phillipa engaged the services of a publicist.

The identity of the person who took on Phillipa’s publicity burden is not known with absolute certainty, but most indications point to Russell Birdwell – one of the greatest practitioners of the dark art ever to walk the earth.* The flamboyant huckster was perhaps best known for promoting himself (Time magazine called him “the flashiest flack in the business”), but he also had high-wattage clients such as Carole Lombard, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Kate Smith and Stanley Kubrick among many others. Birdwell’s major claim to fame was his three-year publicity campaign for Gone With The Wind. The famous search to find the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara was staged by Birdwell and inspired by his earlier stunt to find the star of the 1938 film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Phillipa’s daughter remembers Birdwell spending time at the Tower house and, at some point in 1957 (or before), Bill Manhoff collaborated with the super-publicist on an un-produced screenplay. The script, entitled Daughter of Violence aka The Blonde Gun, was touted in a Los Angeles Times movie industry column on March 21, 1957 as a vehicle for one of Birdwell’s lower-tier clients, Zsa Zsa Gabor.

If Phillipa’s publicist was, in fact, Mr. Birdwell, he was not exactly living up to his reputation for working miracles. CONELRAD could find no more than a few mentions of Phillipa in columns from this period. The first appearance of her name in print, however, supports something that Phillipa’s daughter told us about the publicist’s (whoever it was) strategy. Specifically, on the society page of the October 7, 1955 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the following “news” was published:
Miss Fallon Feted
Bill Manhoff gave a party for Miss Phillipa Fallon at the Saratoga restaurant.
Miss Fallon Feted

The above item, according to the daughter, reflected the publicist’s edict that Phillipa was to present herself in public as a single woman. The purpose of this subterfuge was to make her more desirable to columnists and casting agents. The fruits of the tactic were negligible professionally, but had a definite impact at home – if the daughter remembers the rules of the publicist so clearly so many decades later, how could anyone conclude otherwise?

Connolly Hollywood Reporter Header 
Among the other mentions scored by Phillipa’s publicist:
  • In his May 14, 1956 column for the Hollywood Reporter Mike Connolly included this leering (and no doubt planted) line: “Phillipa Fallon showed at a soiree wearing a deep-V gown and our tablemate cracked: ‘If she was poured into that dress she must’ve forgotten to say when!’”
  • Phillipa appeared as a shuffleboard model in a photograph that accompanied a September 16, 1956 column by Steve Ellingson in which she is described as a “television actress” (there is no evidence that Phillipa has any television acting credits).
  • Phillipa appeared as a model promoting Christmas woodcut figures in another Steve Ellingson column on October 27, 1956. Both the caption for the photo and the column identify her as an NBC-TV singer. CONELRAD could find no evidence of this being true and her daughter does not recall her mother ever singing on television.
At the beginning of 1957 Phillipa finally had the major career breakthrough she had been waiting for – Russell Birdwell cast her in a movie that he was directing for Universal entitled Stalin Is Alive (released as The Girl In The Kremlin the same year). A small green “Contract Memo” documenting Phillipa’s hiring for the role of Nina at $285 per week sits in a folder in the Universal Collection archives at the Cinematic Arts Library of the University of Southern California. The memo includes Phillipa’s home address as 1100 Tower Road, her telephone number as CR-42318 and her full Social Security Number (there is much more on this significant piece of information in later posts).

Girl in Kremlin-Fallon L-R: Lex Barker, Jeffrey Stone, Elena Da Vinci, Phillipa Fallon and Aram Katcher

Filming of the Birdwell-directed / Albert Zugsmith-produced B-movie began on February 11, 1957 and a few days later (February 15th) Phillipa rated a mention in Edwin Schallert’s movie column in the Los Angeles Times:
Phillipa Fallon, night-club singer observed by Director Russell Birdwell, will do a straight dramatic part in “The Secret Diary of Joseph Stalin” [Ed. Note: yet another version of the film’s evolving title] at U-I.
Phillipa appears in several scenes in the film, but has only one brief line of dialogue. As Nina, the assistant to one of Stalin’s torture maidens, Phillipa says in a slight Russian accent: “The girl next, Olga will make her talk.”

Not surprisingly, Phillipa’s modest screen debut went unmentioned in the few publications that bothered to review the film when it opened in late April of 1957. Today the movie is remembered, if at all, for the Natalia Daryll head-shaving sequence and the terrible acting of Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Regardless of the quality of her first film, the experience allowed Phillipa to meet producer Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith would, of course, have influence over her casting in her most famous role—that of the Beat Poetess—in his 1958 production, High School Confidential!

* CONELRAD contacted the administrator of the Russell Birdwell Papers at UCLA in May of 2010 and we were informed that the collection had not yet been processed. When the collection is processed and available for researchers, we will review it to see if our hunch about Birdwell being Phillipa Fallon’s publicist is accurate. We will update this post at that time.

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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 4

In 1946 Bill Manhoff, by then the proud father, with Ferne, of a baby girl, left Duffy’s Tavern for other writing opportunities including working for Danny Thomas. In 1951 (through 1954) he was writing and directing another radio comedy, Meet Millie. “Millie” was a fast-talking Brooklyn secretary voiced by Audrey Totter and later Elena Verdugo. Episodes revolved around the character of Millie Bronson’s workplace and her family.[1]

According to the Manhoffs’ daughter—who did not wish to be identified for this biography—Ferne played the Russian-accented character of “the Countess” at least twice on the Millie program. Unfortunately, very few episodes of the series are available today and CONELRAD has not been able to locate copies of these two particular shows.

By this point, the ahead-of-their-time Manhoff family had become holistically dedicated vegetarians and bioengineering devotees. Ferne, as previously mentioned, had had an extraordinarily difficult pregnancy and it was during this period that she turned to modern health remedies; her family followed suit. But Bill Manhoff wasn’t above making fun of his family’s diet philosophy. Indeed, he worked the unusual (for the early fifties) lifestyle choice into the March 23, 1952 radio episode of Meet Millie. The program, which CONELRAD was able to obtain, concerns a family visit by “Aunt Ethel, a kooky vegetarian.”

During his interview with CONELRAD, Larry Gelbart confirmed that the family had an avant-garde diet. He said that he remembered having dinner with the Manhoffs one evening in the early 1950s and being surprised to see raw vegetables and vitamin supplements being served. Gelbart shared some of his impressions of the meal with humor writer Art Buchwald who used the material—much later—for a 1959 column headlined “The Health Nuts Take Over.”

The Manhoffs’ daughter remembers an intellectually stimulating family life with trips to museums and books (Picasso art books, etc.) all over the house. Ferne enjoyed classical music as well as the records of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and other greats. The family also enjoyed walks in Griffith Park, trips to Farmers Market and drives in the car.

On one such excursion (although the daughter was not present for this particular trip), the Manhoffs encountered a stunning two-story Mediterranean-style mansion near the corner of Tower Road and San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills. Ferne was especially taken with the balconies – it was a dream house for a woman who grew up in an apartment in Chicago during the Depression.

If the sixteen rooms and amazing garden weren’t enough, the house at 1100 Tower Road also had an impressive celebrity history. Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh reportedly once lived there as did the lower brow Mickey Rooney. But it is the residency of the fate-cursed lovers Jean-Pierre Aumont, the French star of films such as The Cross of Lorraine, and Maria Montez, the exotic beauty dubbed “The Queen of Technicolor,” that the mansion is best known for. Aumont writes about finding the house shortly before his 1943 marriage to Montez in his autobiography, Sun and Shadow: “The three sisters-in-law and the baby we were hoping for made Maria’s house seem too small. We discovered a larger one with which we fell in love immediately. It had an Italian-style fa├žade and a large front lawn. The backyard was a jungle of orange and lemon trees, rose bushes, and avocados.”

Aumont-Montez-Tower-Living Room  Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont in the living room at 1100 Tower Road

In reflecting back on his time at the house with his family, Aumont wrote in Sun and Shadow: “Later I realized that the years spent in that house were among the most beautiful in my life. It’s there that Lucita, then Consuelo were married, there that Maria-Christine grew up, there that we lived the richest hours of our love.” But the dream shattered on September 7, 1951 when Maria Montez tragically died in a bathtub in the couple’s Paris home. Most reports attributed the death to drowning following a heart attack.[2]

Aumont eventually put the house up for sale, explaining in his autobiography, “Not only did I never want to see it again, I didn’t even want it to belong to me anymore.” On December 21, 1953 ownership of the mansion was officially transferred from Aumont to Bill and Ferne Manhoff. The Manhoffs’ daughter told CONELRAD that Bill bought the house because he wanted to make Ferne happy.


To finance the family’s steep housing upgrade (the Manhoffs had previously lived in a modest home on Troy Drive in the Hollywood Hills), Bill took the prestigious, but very demanding job of production supervisor of CBS television comedy programming. He was, in effect, the script doctor for all of the network’s situation comedies.

While Bill slaved away at CBS, Ferne set about decorating their mansion. But because money was tight, the high-end furnishings favored by Ferne were slow in coming. According to the Manhoffs’ daughter, only one room was ever completely decorated and that was the library, which she remembered as being “exquisite.”

mmhouse2The house sometime in the 2000s sans charm


[1] Meet Millie also had a television incarnation (1952-1955) that ran concurrent to the radio series.

[2] The Tower residence is immortalized in Gore Vidal’s 1974 novel, Myron, a sequel to Myra Breckenridge. The premise of the book is that the Myra/Myron character trades places with Maria Montez (don’t ask). Myra/Myron has these two reveries about living in the mansion:

From page 389:

“It is Sunday. I sit at my beautiful writing desk in my palatial home at the corner of Tower Road and San Ysidro. Through my windows I can see my Japanese gardener pruning my roses. A tourist bus has just gone by, and I could hear the guide saying, ‘That’s the house where Maria Montez lives with her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont, the French film star.”

From page 408:

“It is late at night in my beautiful mansion on Tower Road. Jean-Pierre is sleeping. Crickets can be heard in the garden. A lovely silvery moon casts shadows through my window. The air is scented with jasmine.