What is it with me? I seem to be an incorrigible black-listee.
Back in the fifties I was the hot, young comic on CBS and a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was also starring in shows on Broadway and acting in dramatic programs on television. Those were the glory days of television. It was like theater. It was live. If an actor forgot a line, he improvised. There was an immediacy to it. Even mediocre programs had the excitement of being live
I was all over the place. A show called Broadway TV Theater put on plays five times a week, live — the same play, Monday through Friday at eight o’clock . Wonderful old chestnuts like Three Men on a Horse and The Cat and the Canary (I played the part that Bob Hope had originated).
I had come to New York seeking my fortune after a few years of honing my craft as a stand-up on the road.
I had played the Moose Hall in Altoona and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Fall River. There were no comedy clubs in those days where people walk in laughing at the doorman. This was rough training ground: “You stink! Bring out the stripper!” Try coming up with an ad lib in response to that. I wrote all my own material and tried it out in front of hostile audiences who had been trained to heckle the emcee. I had a crew cut and wore a three button suit. My opening line was, “My name is Orson Bean, Harvard ’48 (pause), Yale nothing.”
Only the band laughed: “You’re too hip for the room, man.” I didn’t give up.
When I arrived in The City, I walked into a famous supper club called The Blue Angel on East 55th Street. It was the middle of the afternoon and the boss was sitting there counting the previous night’s take. I didn’t know it wasn’t done that way, that you had to have a manager. The boss looked up. “What do you want?”
“I’m a comic,” I said.
“Say something funny.”
The boss sat there looking at me, a half smile on his face. “Come back tonight and I’ll put you on. I’m short an act.”
I got howls. All the stuff I’d been trying out in Boston, Philly, Pittsburgh and Baltimore started working. I was hip enough for the room. Walter Winchell, the powerful gossip columnist for the Daily Mirror was in the club that night. God was looking after me long before I ever believed in Him. Winchell printed a full paragraph about me in his column: “His name is Orson Bean. We never heard of him either…. The people applauded for four bows.”
That was 1950. By 1956 I had starred in a number of Broadway shows, after which I’d hop on a bicycle and make my way through the traffic in time to go on at 11:30 in the Blue Angel. I had also become very politically aware. I was a heartfelt liberal (all of us young idealists in their twenties were) and very upset over the black-listing of actors and writers whose views differed from the mainstream attitudes that prevailed. The Cold War was raging and the Rosenbergs had been executed as spies (I had a Communist girlfriend who took me to Union Square on the night they were put to death, where a vigil was held by left wing sympathizers).
Well known actors began disappearing from the television screen. An outfit called Red Channels set up what was basically a protection racket which forced the producers of TV shows to pay a fee to “clear” their casts as politically acceptable. I became active in the performers’ union, AFTRA. Some actors supported the blacklist, believing that Moscow had input into what American audiences saw and heard on television and movie screens. Others saw it as an incursion into freedom of expression. The union meetings were so “charged” that performers sat on the left or right side of the union hall to show their political leanings.
A group of us got together to form a slate of candidates to run for union office and see if we could combat the blacklist , without appearing to give in to the extreme pro-Communist block. We called ourselves “The Middle of the Road Slate” and we won a smashing victory. The New York Times wrote that we had dealt the blacklist a stunning blow. I was elated. A few days later, I got a call from Ed Sullivan. “Have you seen the Red Channels news letter,” he asked me? The black-listers, furious at our success, had dug up some meetings which I had let my girlfriend drag me to. That’s all it took, apparently. I could feel the blood draining out of my face. “I’m afraid the booking next Sunday is out. I’ll help you when I can.”
Overnight, my television career evaporated. I saw actors cross the street when they saw me coming so as not to be seen talking to me. That’s how toxic the times were.
Once again, God came to my rescue and I was cast in a Broadway play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, in which I played opposite Jayne Mansfield and Walter Matthau. The blacklist never hit Broadway because there were no sponsors involved. (Campbells Soup black-listed actors, CBS just agreed to look the other way.) The play ran a year and on the day it closed, Ed Sullivan, true to his word, called me up. “I think things have cleared up enough that I can book you again,” he said. And that’s what he did. My personal blacklist had ended. My career as a stand-up was basically over, though. I had become a Person of the Theater.
Time went by and the sixties arrived, bringing Vietnam with them. I had won a Theater World Award and been nominated for a Tony. I had starred in a hit play, Never Too Late, which ran for over two years. I was on panel shows in the afternoon and I worked in the theater at night. I had become the permanent guest host of the Tonight Show, a task I performed over a hundred times. I also made a handsome living on the side doing the voice-overs for TV commercials. My most prestigious gig was as the spokesperson for Manufacturers Hanover Bank.
But Vietnam loomed over everything. I became convinced that a liberal Democrat like Hubert Humphrey could not bring an end to the war without having the “soft on Communism” accusation thrown at him. To the horror of my liberal friends, I signed a petition supporting Richard Nixon. When it appeared in The New York Times, the (liberal) agency which handled the bank’s advertising was outraged at what I’d done. “The son of a bitch is a fascist,” said the exec in charge, and overnight I was taken off the account and my voice-over career dried up.
Ol’ Devil Blacklist had struck again.
Now we jump ahead to today. Prop. 8 is on the ballot: marriage should be between a man and a woman. (Jerry Brown had rearranged the wording to confuse the issue, but that’s what it meant.) I agree with that proposition. What’s ideal for kids is to have a loving mom and dad. I know a lot of people don’t think so. They put the rights of the grown-ups first. Or they say two women or two men are just as good. Or a single parent. In New Jersey, judges have ruled that a same-sex couple or a single person applying to adopt must be given the same place in line as a married man and woman. I think that’s bad for kids. This makes me homophobic? I’m in show business. Half the people in my life are gay. I’ve attended two same-sex wedding ceremonies this year, one of them for a cousin. I wish them all the happiness in the world. But the law has to uphold what’s ideal.
So I sent some dough in to support Prop. 8. It never occurred to me that I was asking for trouble. I was. The L.A, Times outed me on their web site. I received pictures of swastikas and photos of the Ku Klux Klan in the mail. The theater company I belong to was threatened with a boycott so long as I remained a member. One of the threateners, a lesbian, included a phone number in the email she sent to the theater. So I called her up.
“This is Orson Bean,” I said when she picked up the phone. There was a long pause and then she said, “Yes?” I told her why I had supported the proposition and then added that I hadn’t stopped to think how people like she must feel hurt by its passage. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about that and I apologize.” She then proceeded to vent her feelings for five minutes or so, telling me how she and her partner had been together for years and loved each other, etc. I just listened. And at the end of it, she told me how she’d always liked me on the old game shows and thanked me for calling and said she wouldn’t boycott the theater company.
Other emails did not include a phone number. They told me they’d do their best to see that I was through working in the business. So, here we go again. It isn’t called McCarthyism when it’s done by people on the left to people on the right. But it’s just as vicious as it was in the fifties and sixties. People are being deprived of the right to make a living because they contributed a few bucks to a political cause.
Where’s the liberal outrage?
Personally, I’m used to it; that happens after a while. If I don’t work for a time, that’s OK. But I feel sorry for the guy who lost his job running that theater company in Sacramento. And I feel sorry for the country.
Seventy percent of African-American voters (all of whom, I’m sure, went for Obama) cast a ballot in favor of Prop. 8. They know it’s not a civil rights issue. They believe in family values in that community. They’ve seen first hand what the assault on marriage results in. That’s what Prop. 8 is trying to stave off: an attack on the institution of marriage itself. It’s not about rights. Gay people already have all the rights of marriage; they’ve fought hard for them and they deserve them. What they want now is the WORD. And when a word means everything, it means nothing.
What’s going on in the streets these days is nothing less than a war on democracy itself. Both sides fought hard to win that vote. The anti Prop .8 side out-spent the other side and mustered every celebrity they could find to make their case. They fought long and hard… and they lost. And now they riot and attack and sling mud and black-list to protest the outcome of an honest election, the results of which they call “the tyranny of the majority”. What?!
I’m a comic but this ain’t funny. God forbid democracy loses out around here and people stop living with the results of elections. In totalitarian countries like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, (and today in Saudi Arabia and Iran, to name just two of many), they put gay guys in jail. And not fun jails like in Turkey, either.
We’d better be careful how we act out there in the streets these days.
Orson Bean’s new book M@il For Mikey is published by Barricade Books