Saturday, July 16, 2016

‘A Piece of the Action’: a tribute to Herb Gardner (part 2 of two)

I mentioned in the first part of this piece that playwright Herb Gardner had a rather small body of work. What there is, however — to borrow a line from a Tracy & Hepburn comedy — is “cherce.” Those of us who love his plays and the movies made from them are always happy, though, to find “new” Gardner material.

One of the true oddities in Gardner’s early work is the 1951 one-act “The Elevator” (originally called “The Condemned,” credited to “Herbert Gardner”), which has remained in print since ’52 through Samuel French (the SF company sells an “acting edition” of the play). It’s a major anomaly for Gardner, as it’s a thriller — and, by extension, the sort of paranoia piece that flourished in the late Forties and Fifties.

The plot is a noir scenario that would’ve worked perfectly as an episode of the thriller anthologies of old-time radio (Suspense, Inner Sanctum, etc). Its emphasis on creepy laughter also links it to a radio classic (The Shadow). The Samuel French edition (and website) contains this rather clunky plot synopsis: 

A sinister figure cuts a wire in an elevator which is about to descend. On the way down the elevator stops and there is no escape. Then a taunting voice calls out; we learn that the man above nearly went to the chair for a crime he didn't commit because one of the elevator occupants would not speak on his behalf (bad publicity). The selfishness of the occupants is exposed as the laughing man cuts the cables, stroke by stroke. The final stroke — and the doors open! The teaser had lowered them while taunting them! 

All told, the play doesn’t belong in the company of Gardner’s later works, but it is a laudable achievement for a precocious 17-year-old whose studies concentrated on sculpting and the fine arts.

Gardner only wrote a small handful of short stories, but the first one surely sets the stage for A Thousand Clowns. It was written while he was a third-year writing major at Antioch College and was included in the 1955 Bantam anthology New Campus Writing.

The story, “The Man Who Thought He Was Winston Churchill,” concerns an animator who loses his mind — or does he? The first paragraph is a well-constructed intro to the entire situation, plus it supplies a great description of a profession that is now sadly long gone, one that Gardner had as a day job in the mid-Fifties. 

You’ve probably figured from the title that this story is about a man who thought he was Winston Churchill. Well, on the surface you’d be right, but there’s a lot more to it. Charles Catlett worked on the animating board next to mine at Graphic Films for about a year and a half. We were both inbetweeners in the main animating room packed into the row upon row of drawing boards with about seven million other inbetweeners, animators, assistant animators, fillers and apprentices. In an animation set-up like Graphic an inbetweener’s job is to do the about eighty or ninety in-between drawings of a character’s movement for every ten basic drawings of the main animator. Whatever the character was we called him Happy Joe. We had little private jokes to ourselves like that to while away the two hundred years before we became head animators…. 

An inbetweener has got to have speed, a good eye for reproducing the head animator’s Happy Joe in the necessary intermediate positions, enough talent to draw but not too much so that it gets in his way, a tolerance for short money, and a passion for Happy Joe. [p. 14]

Gardner in 1958.
Charles wants to break out of the “inbetweening” racket, and feels he can assemble something coherent out of the Happy Joe drawings he has been making for himself and not for his employer. He doesn’t quite know when to do it and has a ready excuse for not accomplishing anything when he’s not at the animation studio: 

”Weekend is for therapy,” Charley said. “Resting up from Happy Joe and Ferris and all the lovely people down at Graphic. Weekends is for two parts water and two parts bourbon and throwing poison darts at somebody’s grandmother. Weekends is for investigating the possibilities of a dandy hiding place where Monday can’t find me.” [p. 16]

Our narrator visits him at his rundown Avenue B apartment — beautifully sketched by Gardner — where he finds that Charley now indeed believes he is Sir Winston. The conclusion of the tale finds Charley/Winston admitting that he knows who he really is, but he needed a proper motivation to do his own animation. (He figures a world-famous statesman would have time to squander on such a project.)

The piece is well worth seeking out (the Bantam anthology sells for very little online), not only because it’s amusing and well-written, but it also offers a perfect prelude to the events in the cluttered apartment of one Murray Burns (the hero of A Thousand Clowns).

To my knowledge, Gardner only published two more pieces of fiction in his lifetime, both short stories that were reworked into his scripts. Both stories show a greater mastery of fiction, leaving us to wish that he’d undertaken a second novel in the gaps between his playwriting.

The most glaring thing about the stories is the publications they appeared in. “Guess Who Died?” is about a young Jewish man confronting his parent with two crises — he wants to quit school and he’s made a girl pregnant. The story appeared in Playboy (in an issue containing stories by his friend Jules Feiffer and ex-friend Jean Shepherd). No surprise in that, as Hefner’s editors made a point of acquiring work by the best American novelists of the time.

The odd placement — as in “how the fuck did this happen?” — was the publication of “Who Is Harry Kellerman…?” (later fleshed out into the movie script, of course) in… The Saturday Evening Post? The illustration by Wilson McLean accompanying the piece is wonderfully “Sixties,” although it is more singles-bar, straights-acting-mod Sixties, rather than the far more appropriately grungy hard-rock tone that predominated in the film (thanks to Shel Silverstein and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show).

But it’s not the pop-rock aspect of the story that makes it a “wtf?” acquisition for the Post — it is the fact that the story unfolds like a dream, with the lead character’s therapist (beautifully played in the film by Jack Warden) turning into different fantasy characters as our antihero begins to lose his mind.
Gardner co-directing Who Is
Harry Kellerman...?

So the “straight” story wound up in Playboy and the trippy, surreal tale somehow landed in The Saturday Evening Post. Thankfully, the stories were both utilized as parts of the Harry Kellerman 1971 feature film that is wildly uneven but also — in the manner of so many post-Easy Rider, “maverick”-era, major studio productions — richly rewarding in both its weirdness and raw emotion.

The holy grail of pre-Broadway Gardner-iana is his novel A Piece of the Action (1958), which rarely sells online for less than 50 dollars (the going rate at bibliophile sites is $200). The book wasn’t a bestseller and apparently only had one printing in both hardback and paperback. The long and short of it is that it is not a masterpiece, and that Gardner became a much better, much more “universal” writer when he turned to playwriting a few short years later. It does contain some beautifully written passages, though, and its themes overlap with the plays.

The book is a thinly veiled, and evidently far grimmer, version of Gardner’s experiences creating and selling the Nebbishes concept (see part one for a complete explanation of what the Nebbishes were). The dilemma that protagonist Lou Gracie faces is a classic one — will he or won’t he sell out to a big corporation?

The British printing of Piece
Lou is clearly an antihero of the post-Salinger, pre-Philip Roth sort. The interesting thing is that Gardner never states his ethnicity. Reading it after the plays, one assumes he is Jewish, but his last name and the depiction of his parental figure, his Uncle Vic (who runs a bar in downtown Manhattan, as Gardner’s father did), could make him Jewish, Irish, Italian, anything.

The plot is straightforward: sculptor Lou hates working for toy companies, crafting novelty items for the Christmas market. He loves Nina (a singer clearly modeled after Herb’s first wife Rita, to whom the book is dedicated) but feels he is not worthy of her while he’s bringing home such a small paycheck. His uncle has been his guardian since he was a kid, but Vic is distracted by trying to make his bar into a popular nightspot (a big part of Gardner’s personal mythology, later used as a major plot point in the musical One Night Stand and Conversations with my Father).

To amuse himself, Lou creates mini-sculptures he calls “Slobs” — little loser figures that are like pint-sized versions of his own insecure vision of himself. Through a coincidence, one of his Slobs is spotted by a boss at his company and is deemed the next big thing.

Lou’s Slobs are revised to look less goofy-looking, and he has to decide if he will sell out to the company that wants to merchandise his Slobs (and saturate the retail world with the concept — as happened with Gardner’s Nebbishes) or regain artistic control of his creation.

The book is very much of its time, in that it explores the business of marketing and advertising. (Mad Men was indeed preceded by countless novels and movies about the soul-stripping aspect of the ad industry — released at the time when the ad agencies really mattered.)

It also reflects the sexism of the time, in that Lou is pretty eager to stray away from his true love and indulge in one night stands with women he never could’ve gotten a few months before his sudden fame. Although the book is a first-person narrative from Lou’s POV, Gardner does allow Nina to blast back at Lou when he slams her for sleeping her way up in show business (an untrue accusation that she counters by noting that he is the sellout for allowing the giftware company to vastly alter his Slobs into tamer, cuter figures).

Lou’s dilemma is indeed incredibly specific, unlike the protagonists in Gardner’s plays, who have more generic problems that most of us have been faced with (or, at the very least, pondered). Lou is nowhere as loveable as the lead characters in Gardner’s plays — in fact at times, befitting his “antihero” status, he is somewhat unlikeable, whereas even the would-be “villains” in Gardner’s plays always seem sympathetic (the best example is William Daniels’ “cold” social worker in Clowns).

Given that he is part of a new, neurotic generation, Lou recognizes his shabby behavior even as he is practicing it, and is critical of himself. (“I am Lou Gracie, a suggestion for a person, a plan for a person that hasn't been worked out yet.”) As someone who not-so-secretly wants to sell out (or does he?), he also makes a good observer figured for a well-sketched party scene and various other set pieces in the book, including a detailed lecture on the marketing viability of the Slobs from a business-like publicist: 

“The gift is an odd thing. The pure gift. A broom, a pencil sharpener, a piece of cheese – these are gifts of utility. But the gift the buyer can be taught to give, whispered, shouted at to give, coaxed and forced to give, is the gift of sentiment. The million and seven deadlocked, bear-trapped, demanding sentimental occasions a year. This is the shape of our dollar.” [pp. 216-17]

A detail from "the Nebbishes scrapbook" (an empty
book with Nebbishes on the cover)

Later in his mini-lecture to Lou, he talks about the Slobs (echoing the box copy I included in part one of this piece): 

“… We must make the Slob an outstanding example of good taste. The item is, essentially, useless. Our problem is not so much a publicity that will make the Slob something that everyone needs but something that everyone needs to give.” [p. 217]

Early on Lou gives us a description of the Slobs that conveys the affection that Gardner had for his Nebbish characters (who, by 1958, had done quite well by him financially).
Courtesy of
About six inches high they usually were — broken-down, happily incompetent, sloppy-looking creatures. A sort of sculptural slapstick, oval-shaped, a nose surrounded by a face that seemed to have a chin, but really the head just ran right down into a round belly climaxed by a navel. Not a navelly navel — just a small point of shadow that made the little man look naked without really being nude. The eyes of the Slob were always closed, as though he might drop off to sleep when your back was turned. He had a very special kind of smile — not wide or very happy, a kind of apologetic grin that pushed his floppy cheeks aside, an almost sad smile, regretful perhaps, a smile of unconditional surrender, the face of one in a situation that is too large.” [Piece, pp. 3-4]

One of the delights of Gardner’s plays was the way that he reworked notions from his earlier work, like a jazz musician assembling a new piece of music from a riff on an old theme. In this novel, descriptions of the characters and lines of dialogue prefigure some much-loved moments in the plays.

One character has a tendency to touch himself all the time “to makes sure he was still there” (Gene Saks’ “Chuckles the Chipmunk” says the same thing in Clowns). Another character has a “talent for surrender” (a trait mentioned in the long speech that won Martin Balsam his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the same film).

A wiseguy cabbie (who hollers at another driver “You are an asshole bastid and there is absolutely no doubt about it”) is a clear prototype for Professor Irwin Corey’s hackie character in Thieves (seen at right). Most interesting for those of us who miss 42nd Street movie theaters is a bit about the Deuce that was reworked into a classic passage in the play version of Clowns. 

I went to one of the many grind houses on Forty-second Street that show two new old movies every day, all day, all night, forever and ever. Nearly twenty theaters for people to hide and pretend that they are really marking time before and after the very important business of their lives every day. [p. 65]

The passage that most obviously foreshadows Gardner’s Broadway debut is this trippy, touching meditation on color by one of Lou’s coworkers (and sexual conquests): “… I like to work with colors… Green, take green. Green is sharp and sarcastic, and green is wise, and not young anymore and not really old…. And brown, brown is warm and understanding, not really smart, but strong, brown is a father. And red is, oh, really something. Red is….” and she went on, this dumb broad. I had thought that hers was a small and empty mind, but now, like the tiny cars in the circus, she emitted thousands of clowns. [p. 57]

One of Gardner’s major themes is aging, and the way it transforms (and often squashes) our dreams. Being a tale of a young man’s “coming of age,” Piece of the Action doesn’t have much to offer on this subject, until later in the book when Lou’s cranky, foul-mouthed woman boss encourages him to go with his instincts by telling him (in classic Gardner style) that life is indeed very short. 

That is bull, Gracie, and the purest kind and the most popular. That's how a coward keeps himself from bitching. Life isn't so long, Boychick, it's short, it's a nibble, it's a couple of crackers and cheese, and everything counts. You shut up and listen to somebody who has a lot more on the ball than you. I can remember when I was ten and eleven and a little bit of twelve. I got a pretty good recall on my fifties too. And that's all. All the other years — zip, like a finger snap. Everything you do you get made. But I'm talking into the air; you don't hear. You listen, but you don't hear.” [pp. 296-97]

Gardner was a lifelong New Yorker.

The perfect way to end this discussion of the book is to focus on my favorite aspect of Gardner’s writing: his way with words, the “NYC poetry” that cropped up in his theatrical dialogue and the interviews he gave. Piece is his first (and only) full-length work of prose, so I read it hoping to pick up more “Gardnerisms.” One of the best passages in the book is one I won’t offer here, where Lou finds that he can no longer sculpt a Slob statue, he’s lost the formula for something he did out of pure love. Later on in the book a friend of his talks about how that happens when you’ve succumbed to the daily grind (the same character declares, “Lou, you grow up, each year you to surrender something”).

There are other tossed-off phrases that stayed with me after finishing Piece — Lou lamenting that he used to talk to his girlfriend “with words that held hands” and a testy boss declaring that he  hates “conversational novocaine — the lulling sound of two human voices scratching each other's backs into a smiling nothing.”

At other points, Gardner finds a verbal equivalent for his cartoons, as when he quickly sketches a character who is merely an onlooker in the party scene: “Leaning into the conversation from where the bar curved out of the wall was a neatly arranged, youngish man who was an exact replica of the drink he held in his hand: long, symmetrical and half empty.”

To my mind, the single best passage in the book comes early on when Lou describes what it’s like to look for a job in Manhattan in the middle of summer. I offer the full passage below, since it, more than anything else in the book, made me lament that Gardner didn’t write more fiction (or non-fiction essays about his city).

As noted, Gardner’s work got better with maturity — although the beauty of a lot of his plays is the “immature” behavior of the leads (that label comes from the wet blankets that surround them). A Piece of the Action was only the first step on the ladder, but it did lead the way to more elevated steps as time — that sweet, mysterious embezzler! — moved on. 

Note: For those like myself who like to find “checklists” of material to keep track of their favorite artists’ work, here is a bibliography I assembled from books and online information. If anyone has any additions to this list (American printings only -- I include the British edition of Piece only because it seemed especially notable), send them to ed at mediafunhouse dot com.

Herb Gardner bibliography:

Plays (the Samuel French editions are all still in print):
“The Elevator” (one-act, credited to “Herbert Gardner”), Samuel French, 1951 
A Thousand Clowns, Random House, 1962 (also in Plays on a Comic Theme…, McGraw-Hill, ’79; Penguin, ’83; and Samuel French; revived on Broadway in 1996 and 2001) 
The Goodbye People, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (also Samuel French), 1974 (first performed on Broadway in 1968 and revived in 1979) 
Thieves, Samuel French, 1977 (first performed on Broadway in 1974)
“I’m With Ya, Duke!” in The Best American Short Plays 1996-1997, Applause, 2000 (one-act performed in 1979 as part of Life and/or Death) 
I’m Not Rappaport, Nelson Doubleday, 1986 (also Grove Press. ’88; also Samuel French; first performed on Broadway in 1985; revived on B’way in 2002) 
Conversations With My Father, Pantheon Books, 1994 (also Samuel French; first performed on B’way in 1992)

Who Is Harry Kellerman…?, ppbk, New American Library/Signet, 1971

Collections of Plays (the Applause book is still in print in hard and soft cover): 
A Thousand Clowns; Thieves; Goodbye People, Doubleday, 1979 
The Collected Plays (all five published plays plus Kellerman screenplay), Applause Books, 2000 (paperback, Applause, 2001) 

Short stories:
“The Man Who Thought He Was Winston Churchill” in New Campus Writing, Bantam, 1955
“Who Is Harry Kellerman…?” in The Saturday Evening Post, March 11, 1967 (reprint in the The Best American Short Stories 1968, Houghton Mifflin)
"Guess Who Died?” Playboy, April 1967
“I’m With Ya, Duke!” (monologue cut from Goodbye People) in Joy in Mudville: The Big Book of Baseball Humor, Doubleday, 1992

A Piece of the Action Simon & Schuster, 1958 (also paperback, Ballantine; W.H. Allen, England, 1959)

Unpublished plays:
“The Forever Game” (performed as part of Life and/or Death, 1979)
“How I Crossed the Street for the First Time…” (performed as part of Life and/or Death, 1979) 
One Night Stand (1980)

Note: Extra-special thanks to Paul Gallagher for help with the scans and Bob Claster for sharing his Gardner rarities.

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