“Theatre is where the writer is king.”
By Linda Harris/Special to The Malibu Times
Sol Saks, creator of the classic comedy, “Bewitched,” has a flair for the dramatic.
Theatre West is producing his play, “A Dream of Butterflies,” a multilayered look at life and love.
You hear the “why do theater” question a great deal in the entertainment business, notably in Los Angeles with its penchant for small playhouses. The hours are long and the pay minimal, so why is this legendary comedy writer hanging out in the wings of a local theatre on Cahuenga Boulevard?
It’s more than just the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.
“‘I’ve always wanted to write drama,” Saks explains. “I fell into comedy by accident and became instantly type-cast. And in movies and television, they never wanted the writers around. Today, things have changed due mainly to the Writer’s Guild. Theatre is different -that is where the writer is king.
“Plus, I loved theater when I was a teenager in Chicago,” the longtime Malibu resident reflects. “And whether it’s a small theater or at the Ahmanson downtown, when the lights go down, my heart skips a beat.”
Chicago is Saks’ hometown, but it became not his kind of town when radio programs started moving away from the windy city.
“I got my start writing on a radio show called “Uncle Walter’s Dog House” in Chicago. I got the job by sending dozens of letters to all the advertising agencies – in those days radio shows were produced by ad agencies. Consequently, I only went out with girls that could type,” laughs Saks.
“About a year later, Chicago started to fall off in radio shows -they became the home of the soap opera. I couldn’t get on those,” Saks says. “I had a choice to move to New York or Los Angeles. I decided on LA because it was a better ride.”
Saks and his wife borrowed a car and motored west on Route 66.
Always the maverick, Saks immediately found work on the Red Skelton radio show, but only stayed a few weeks. Saks’ next writing gig was on the popular radio variety program, “Duffy’s Tavern” with Ed Gardner.
“It was my favorite show in Chicago,” Saks recalls. “Abe Burrows was one of the writers. We worked once a week, all day, all night. The script was turned in a couple of hours before broadcast. The actors read it over once, did it and then dropped the script in the trash.
“If we, the writers, wanted to see the show, we had to call Ed Gardner’s secretary, get tickets and stand in line outside the theatre with the rest of the audience!”
Deciding he’d like a tad more control of his career, Saks one day pitched a story idea to CBS-TV.
“I told CBS you own ‘My Favorite Husband,’ right?” Saks explains. “Well, [I told them] I’d like to do that show on TV and they said yes. It was one of the first domestic comedies without a comedic actress or actor.”
“My Favorite Husband” starred actors Joan Caufield and Barry Nelson.
And what about a laugh track?
“That’s when we had no laugh tracks in front of an audience,” Saks says. “That was murder because at the end of every scene you had to get a spontaneous laugh.
“Then CBS decided they needed laugh track, but it didn’t go right into the show. We did the show live and they had a guy backstage putting in the laughs. But the actors could not hear the laughs. So, the actors were told to take a count… we would decide how big the laugh should be then they would take a count of one, two, three or four. So the studio audience would hear the actors say the line and just stand there – that was our first laugh track.”
Saks followed “My Favorite Husband” with another sophisticated comedy hit, “Mr. Adams and Eve,” starring real life husband and wife Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, and then a writing stint on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
Then came the switch to a witch.
“Bewitched was born at a Hollywood restaurant called Musso and Franks,” Saks recalls. “Harry Ackerman, an executive at Columbia Pictures, and I were at lunch discussing concepts and ideas for a possible new television series. We discussed several ideas, but the one we really liked was about a witch who comes to earth and lives as a mortal.
“And remember, this is not an original idea – the idea of a witch living on earth was born long before that lunch at Musso’s. That is the reason why I do not take credit for this “original idea” since this story has been used in Greek mythology, fairy tales, novels, on stage and in the movies, but I am willing to take credit that ‘Bewitched’ was the first to adapt the concept successfully to television.”
Saks turned down an offer from the executive producer, Harry Ackerman, to write four out of 13 episodes.
“I wasn’t rich, but I didn’t need the money,” Saks says. “I had the reputation for being rich because of my attitude. I didn’t want to do the same episodes over and over again.”
Always the rebel, Saks opted to write just pilots, but he does have one regret.
“When ‘Bewitched’ became a huge hit, Screen Gems asked me to do another show,” Saks says. “‘You mean another hit,’ I asked? ‘No, another show with a witch,’ [they said.] And I said I didn’t want to do another one! That was probably mentally more healthy for me, but not financially.”
That “other show” became “I Dream of Jeanie.”
After “Bewitched,” Saks cooled his writing heels with a job on the executive floor at CBS television as head of comedy programming.
“It’s a very attractive job to a writer. You’re sitting in your office and you are passing on the scripts,” Saks says. “I’d go home at 5 p.m. For three months I loved it and then I started to get bored. I knew I belonged back in the trenches.”
Jumping right back into a foxhole, Saks wrote a screenplay, “Walk Don’t Run,” starring Cary Grant and Samantha Eggar.
Today, Saks isn’t much interested in writing for television or, for that matter, watching it.
“George Burns once said there’s no place to be bad in television and I agree. I don’t watch many shows, but I do like ‘Seinfeld.’ Very funny. I like to spend my time writing shorts stories, essays and plays.”
Saks says it’s difficult to explain what his new play, “A Dream Of Butterflies,” is about, but he received his inspiration from a higher source.
“The title comes from a Confucius saying, ‘Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly and today I don’t know if I’m a man who last night dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly who today is dreaming he’s a man.’ “
“A Dream Of Butterflies” plays at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Universal City. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. No performance on Thanksgiving Day. Closes Nov. 30. $20 general admission; seniors $15; Students $5. Reservations and information: 323.851.7977. Web site: www.theatrewest.org