Emails To Spencer Riviera
Your request for details on my early
career has given me the excuse to record what stands out most in my mind. Little tidbits that are not included in my
IMDb mini-biography: To wit:
I arrived in San Francisco in late
March of 1958 & eventually shared a 1,200 sq. ft. loft with comedian
Jonathan Moore and a San Francisco State college student who was also working
as a standup comedian at a North Beach nightclub called the Purple Onion. His name was Ronald Ralph Schell (Ronnie
Schell) who’s about 7 years my senior and who turned out to be a wonderful
comedic actor (playing Duke Slater on the Gomer Pyle TV series.
The flat we shared overlooked the
Marina. The view was priceless,
completely unafford-able today. The
reason it was affordable to us was that it was located on the north side of
Green Street (Russian Hill) in the rear of one of those multistory mansions. This man-sion had been subdivided into
apartments. Although in emergencies,
there was access through the mansion’s front door, normal access was gained by
walking down a narrow concrete pathway between the our building and the mansion
to the east. Once in the rear, you climbed
a three flight, outdoor staircase, to reach the flat. This inconvenience was the reason the price
Although I had a day job
thinking up plot points for the many Four Star Television pro-ductions (I had
sold a 1-hr. script entitled “The Saddle” to Four Star my senior year in high
school. Ronnie Schell convinced the
manager of the Purple Onion, Barry Drew (a Barrymore) to hire me as the warm-up
comedian on Friday, Saturday & Sunday.
My agent at the time was the flamboyant Frank Werber, manager of the
Kingston Trio and co-owner (with the Trio) of the Trident Restaurant –
Sausalito, where Vince Guaraldi played the piano.
A skilled photographer
and projectionist, I was hired part-time by Lockheed as a missile tracking
cinematographer. This led to my later teaming
with former Navy photographer George “Foghorn” Winslow and Jonathan Moore to
open a North Beach photo studio (near Ye Ole Spaghetti Factory) specializing in
photographing young Bay Area navy wives and girlfriends in semi nude and nude
photographs to be sent to their boyfriends and husbands’ most of which were
serving overseas. This led to my working
part-time for Playboy, photographing would be models in the California, Nevada,
and Arizona area. My photos were then
judged by Playboy to see who would make the cut and appear in the
magazine. Very few made the cut. To supplement our costly life style, we often
took our camera equipment to Bay Area homes for family portraits, including
so-called baby pictures.
As an aside, I was
enjoying my usual Anchor Steam Beer, spaghetti and peanuts, the shells of which
were discarded on the sawdust covered floor, when Spanish dancer Jose Greco
made a surprise appearance at Ye Ole Spaghetti Factory. He did his dance routine in the street front
showroom set aside for such performances.
As with so many other times in my life, I was on hand to witness an
Other such incredible
performances I witnessed included: Diana
Ross and the Supremes at the Fairmont in San Francisco; Ike & Tina Turner
at Harrah’s in South Shore; Wayne Newton at the MGM Grand (Vegas) and of
course, my being hired by director Denis Sanders to replace an ill camera
operator for filming of footage for “That’s The Way it is” (MGM 1970) featuring
the great Elvis Presley performing at the Hilton International. For the movie, the concert was filmed
several times using eight Panavision cameras – two cameras side by side with
one camera filming while the other was reloading. Terrific experience.
In early in 1960, Frank
Werber obtained a Manhattan audition for me with director Word Baker for a part
in “The Fantasticks.” The audition
proved that while I was a terrific mimic, I didn’t have what it took to develop
a character from scratch. My audition with
Shirley Knight for the Actors Studio (then located at 442 W. 44th Street)
caused Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg to come to the same conclusion.
But Word Baker (who
became a lifelong friend) saw the benefits of my being able to mimic another’s
performance as a positive and hired me as the understudy for Jerry Orbach,
Richard Stauffer, and Kenneth Nelson.
The play opened on May 3rd, 1960, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse to an
enthusiastic response from audience and critics.
While in Manhattan I
rented a flat at 37 West 10th. James
Roosevelt had an apartment across the street.
Like the San Francisco – Green Street – flat, the 10th street apartment
was located on the second floor – in the rear – but this time without the
view. Nevertheless, it was quite
It was during this
period, that as a photographer/cinematographer, I first met Mary Wells; at the
time transitioning from Doyle, Dane Burnbach to Jack Tinker’s “Tinker’s Thinkers.” She would later
head her own ad agency, Wells, Rich, Greene.
Our friendship would last many years.
Ironically, in later years DDB Worldwide would handle the ad champagne
for “The Harrad Experiment.” Later, I
would act as cinematographer on the filming of Mary’s TV commercials forher Braniff
International Airways campaign; Mary would even-tually marry the head of
Braniff, Harding Lawrence.
I left “The Fantasticks”
in early 1962 to return to San Francisco and my part-time work with Lockheed
(Skunk Works), Playboy and Four-Star. A
new girlfriend from Sacramento had me briefly moving to that city and commuting
to all parts of the world when needed by The Skunk Works. In Sacramento, I wrote a weekly night life Walter Winchell type column
for the Sacramento Bee. It was all about
which restaurants happened to serve the best cuisine specialties and who
appeared where – and with whom. The
column was quite popular. I learned
bartending at a great West Sacramento night club – The Road-house. This was a fun time in my life.
Then, Four-Star and Ben
Roberts gave me a special assignment.
Think up plots and plot points for a new caper-type series to be called
“The Rogues.” With this temporary in-come,
I elected to do my work while attending college. In the fall of ’63, I enrolled at Yakima
Valley College, in Yakima.
While attending YVC, I
worked part-time as a projectionist for Mercy Theaters and as a bartender – all
the time working on plots and plot points for Four Star’s new TV series. This was indeed a memorable and fun time in
my life. In 1965 I joined the Washington
State Patrol; working nine months as a radio operator before entering the
academy at Shelton and eventually becoming a full-fledged trooper. I served as a trooper while attending Central
Washington State College in Ellensburg (now a University) where I would have
earned my degree were I not shy a lab science; which I’ve yet to make up.
I resigned from the WSP
in 1968 to attend USC’s famed film school as a graduate student with the
assumption I would make up my lab science deficiency. George Lucas was a classmate. I spent 1968 and ’69 attending USC while
primarily working as a photographer for Playboy.
It was during this
period that I read a small booklet by Myron Roberts, Lincoln Hayes & Sasha
Gillen entitled “The Begatting of the President.” I optioned the pamphlet and took it to a
friend, Ben Brady (sometime producer of the Perry Mason TV series. Brady took it to Alan W. Livingston (who had
just left Capitol Records to form Media Arts.
I met with Livingston and his wife (actress Nancy Olson) at their
Beverly Hill home and convinced him that a record album of the pamphlet could
be a hit, if he could get Orson Welles to narrate.
took the proposal to Welles agent. The
agent had no idea where Orson was but sent five copies of the pamphlet to five
known hangouts – Spain, Italy, South America, etc. Finally, one day a tape arrived at
Livingston’s office. On it was the unedited
voice of Welles reading the words from the pamphlet. I did the editing, using the USC
facilities. Livingston added the music
and released the album in 1969. In 1970,
it was nominated for a Grammy.
As an aside, later when
making a series of promotional films for Westinghouse featuring their
development of the Florida city of Coral Springs and the Galt Ocean Mile, I
suggest-ed hiring Welles to narrate.
When I told him the story behind “Begatting,” he was fasci-nated. There after he often invited me and my
girlfriend at the time, Emmaline Henry, to join him at Patrick Terrail’s Ma
Masion (8368 Melrose) for lunch.
Wolfgang Puck was the chef.
It was also during this
time that I first read the newly published and extremely popular book “The
Harrad Experiment,” by Robert Rimmer. I
decided to make this my first entry into the world of feature film
Returning to Yakima,
(working as the program director for Channel 47, the PBS affiliate, I contacted
Rimmer and with financing from a former college professor (who had tremendous
faith in me), Charles Guntley, I purchased the motion picture and ancillary
rights to Rimmer’s book. And, as they
say, the rest is history. The film was
shot in February of 1972 and released by Cinerama (CRC) in May of 1973.
As an aside, while in
Yakima working for PBS Channel 47, I filmed the 10 May 1970 jump over 13 Pepsi
trucks by Evel Knievel at the Yakima Speedway wherein landing on the ramp and
falling, Robert Craig was hospitalized
with a broken collarbone. This distinc-tive
close-up B & W footage is used in the several documentaries on
Knievel: “Via Knievel” and “The Last of
the Gladiators,” to name only two.
Robert Craig Knievel and
I remained friends for years. Many times
when I dined at his restaurant – Filthy McNasty’s (8852 Sunset Blvd.), and Knievel
happened to be there, he always picked up the tab.
In any event, these are
some tidbits of my career not covered in my IMDb biography.
Spencer, I see where you
are directing a Budweiser commercial in Madrid to air on the Super bowl. I’ve only been in Madrid long enough to
change planes for flights to Barcelona and NAS Rota. I once made a corporate film for Westinghouse
featuring the Westinghouse built tram system at the Barcelona airport. The system was similar to the one
Westinghouse built at Orlando. To film
the project as it was being built, we traveled back and forth multiple times –
often with side trips to such places as Majorca – where I once photo-graphed
the residence of Sean Connery for Playboy.
Other trips to Spain took me to NAS Rota, where I wrote and filmed a
documentary for the DoD/Navy on Rota’s part should a shuttle launch not reach
altitude and have to land at Rota.
My two favorite cities
in the world are: Jerusalem, Cape Town,
Manhattan, Geneva, Venice, and Paris.
It’s sad what’s happening in Paris and across France – the result of a
socialist / globalist government attempting to pay the completely unnecessary
costs associated with so-called climate change.
The same thing could happen here in America were a socialist to ascend
to the presidency.
Dennis F. Stevens
You rightfully wondered
what could possibly cause me to move from beautiful San Fran-cisco to small
town Yakima to attend college.
My move in the fall of
1963 was threefold. In high school I had
worked as a projectionist for Mercy Theaters and knew that while attending YVC
and CWSC, I would get enough work to support myself in the custom I was used to.
I married my first wife
Margaret in the summer of 1957 and moved from Sunnyside (near Yakima, WA) to
the Bay Area in the spring of 1958. The
move was the beginning of a great adventure for me; not so much for
Margaret. While I loved her dearly I
treated her shabbily. My dalliances with
a number of women soon led to divorce.
Although living in San
Francisco in the late 50s and early 60s was nowhere near as expensive as it is
today, it was still quite pricy compared to Yakima. Spencer, you’re too young to remember what
North Beach was like in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
There was the Hungry “i” where Mort Saul, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman,
the Kingston Trio, Lenny Bruce and many others appeared regularly.
Practically across the
street, in the cellar club (the Purple Onion), where I appeared as the warm up
comedian, Ronnie Schell, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, Jackie Gayle,
and even Woody Allen headlined.
The clubs’ main
customers were tourists on bus tours.
Many were Japanese, Chinese, or South Korans with only a smitten of the
understanding of the English language.
As the warm up comedian, this meant that I had to visually overcome the
language barrier by miming most of my performances while at the same time
uttering the works necessary to cater to the whims of the local attendees. It was not an easy task but one I relished in
The Hungry (i) and the
property housing the Purple Onion was owned by the dapper Enrico Banducci. Enrico also owned Enrico’s Sidewalk Café –
featured prominently in the feature film “Bullitt” (1968), starring Steve
McQueen. Enrico owned a 60-foot sailboat
which on Sundays he loaded up with guests and set sail from the S.F. Marina to
Stinson Beach where everyone had lunch at a top notch restaurant before sailing
back to the S.F. Marina.
Frequent quests on these
treks were Jake Ehrlich, my S.F. attorney, and Chronicle columnist Herb
Cain. I mention Jake because he was the
character upon which the popular TV series Sam Benedict, starring Edmond
O’Brian was based. Herb Cain, who lived
on a Coit Tower hillside, became a lifelong friend until his death. I was invited and did attend his
In 1978 and ’79 I
attended the famed USC film school.
While attending USC I
lived in the coed dorm known as Harris Plaza, which was a series of apartments
spanning three floors. My two bedroom
apartment, with common kitchen, was on the 3rd floor. These were very special times and I enjoyed
every minute of it.
In September of 1970,
when I finally left Yakima for good, it was to move to Hollywood, renting an
apartment in a complex owned by actor Michael Landon. Later, in 1974, I purchased the 3,600 sq. ft.
house built on the original Disney Estate located at 4041 Woking Way. The house was built in 1962 located next to
the Disney pool built in 1937 or ’39 (I don’t recall which) on a bluff that had
a view of both the Pacific Ocean and the Vincent Thomas Bridge AKA the San
Pedro Bridge. Later, after I had moved,
the house, pool and cabanas sold for nearly $2 million. My purchase price was a mere $105,000 and the
monthly mortgage payments $640 per month.
Interest rates, however, were much steeper in 1974 than they are
now. Thankfully, later I was able to refinance
at a much lower rate.
Dennis F. Stevens
And additional memorable
Beginning in 1974, I had
become a close friend of the iconic food and wine critic, Robert Lawrence
Balzer. Balzer was responsible for the
issuance of the Holiday Magazine awards for best restaurants; at the time sort
of an American version of the Michelin “star” awards. He wrote a weekly food and wine column for
the Los Angeles Times which was syndicated in many publications.
Thanks to Balzer’s
influence with Ernest & Julio Gallo, back in 1977 I had written and
directed a number of TV commercials for Gallo and its subsidiary labels. When, in 1982, Balzer was invited to taste
some new, premium Gallo-Sonoma wines over dinner at the Modesto home of Ernest
Gallo, Ernest asked Balzer – among his
other guests to bring me along.
For the dinner, Balzer
assembled a group that included: Werner
Erhard (of EST), Larry Hagman, Burgess
Meredith, Virginie (AKA Virginia) Taittinger (of the Champagne house), and me
(and my guest, Beverly).
On an early morning
flight we flew first class from LAX to SFO where we were put up in suites at
the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, all at Gallo’s expense. We had just checked in when a limo driver
picked us up and drove us to the Gallo winery at Livingston where we were given
a tour of the winery.
What is not widely known
about the winery is that except for the tall steel tanks rising into the sky
and seen by all from far away, the vast majority of the winery is underground. Only the lab and business offices are above
ground. The visible stainless steel
tanks hold vast amounts sparkling wine and are jacketed so as to accept flowing
coolants designed to control the temperature inside the tanks.
After a complete
underground tour, aboard battery operated (airport type) shuttles, we were
driven to Ernest’s Modesto home, in time for dinner. There the pairing matched Sonoma sparkling
wine, chardonnay, and pinot noir with expertly cooked dishes – including trout
and duck. The after dinner aperitif was
Livingston brand’s new entry into the fortified wine market. It reminded me of a Madera port. It was delicious and a per-fect pairing with
Thoroughly exhausted and
a bit buzzed by all the wine, we were
finally driven back in the Gallo limo to our Fairmont suites. At Gallo’s expense, our suites were good for
another nights stay.
The next day, while
Robert Lawrence Balzer was making the rounds on the San Franci-sco morning
shows promoting Gallo’s new wines, the rest of us took the traditional tour via
cable car and cab. Although all but
Virginie Taittinger knew San Francisco like the back of their hand, everyone
went out of their way to show off the City-by-the Bay to this French
The four of us visited
Ghirardelli Square, had lunch at Fisherman’s Warf, and shopped at the Cannery
Mall. It was amusing to watch the look
on everyone face when they recog-nized the “Penguin,” and Dallas’s J. R. Ewing.
I had known the gorgeous
and talented Virginie since filming TV commercials of her father’s winery in
1978. We hit it off and remained close
friends until I lost track of her around 2002.
Early the next morning
the Gallo limo arrived at the Fairmont and transported the five of us to the
San Francisco International Airport – where we were booked on a first class
flight to LAX; another fond memory in a
lifetime of such memories. Naturally,
Robert Lawrence Balzer devoted considerable column space to discussing the
wines introduced at the dinner.
Spencer, you asked
whether or not I received a credit on the album cover for “The Begatting of the
President.” I did not. My credit was usurped by Ben Brady, the
sometime Perry Mason producer who
took the pamphlet to Alan W. Livingston and Mediarts on my behalf. Unfortunately, that was the deal I made and,
as my former boss and partner Duke Goldstone always said, “If you make a bad
deal, you hug it all the harder.” Chalk
it up to being young and naive.
However, all Ben Brady
got out of the deal was the credit. He
did not receive a dime from the album’s profits. My option agreement with the authors, Myron
Roberts, Lincoln Haynes & Sasha Gillen (the “Writers”) provided that we
would share profits, if any, 50-50. This
after Mediarts deducted its production and marketing expenses and then took 75%
as its share.
In other words, our 25%
would be divided 50% to me and 50% to the writers. Thanks to radio stations constantly playing
excerpts, the album was a good, if not great, seller; but exceptional for a
comedy album. As I recall, my share
amounted to approximately $37,000, a nice chunk of change in 1969 – ‘70. I used the after tax proceeds to supple-ment
my income for the next four years – until in 1974 I paid myself $75,000 for my
producing chores on The Harrad Experiment
(CRC ’73). Although it did not win, the
album was nominated for a Grammy as best comedy album. Orson Welles was paid $5,000 for his
As an aside, when I met
him, teleplay writer Sasha Gillen had just survived a heart transplant
performed by Christian Barnard of Groote Schuur fame. The operation took place at Stanford, with
Norman Shumway assisting. He lived another
four years. Hardly the life expectancy
we expect of our heart transplants today.
One other Orson Welles
story I know you’ll find interesting.
Offhand, I don’t recall the year in which this happened, but it was
during a period in which Orson could still get around without the aid of a
wheel chair. I had written material for
Jonathan Winters to deliver on the big screen to a Westinghouse convention
crowd. Jonathan was to introduce each
speaker from the screen with a few humorous antidotes about them. To be funny, the antidotes had to have a
certain amount of known truth to them.
In order to get that truth, I had spent considerable time with each of
the speakers and their close friends. We
were filming Jonathan on a sound studio located on Orange St., a block south of
Santa Monica Blvd, in Hollywood. The
building also housed the office of Orson Welles.
What should have been a
3-hour shoot turned into 6. This was
because, between takes, Jonathan kept going into one of his routines – known by
standup comedians as “bits.” Since Jonathan
and the crew were being paid for 8-hours, I let Jonathan carry on with his bits.
The crew loved it and so did I.
He was at the top of his game – almost to the point of understanding his
bouts with mental illness. In 1959,
while performing at the Hungry “i” in North Beach, he walked to Hyde Street and
climbed up one of the three masts of the schooner Balclutha. As a result he spent 8-months in a Napa
mental institution; which he often referred to as the zoo.
But now for the Orson
Welles part of the story.
At the end of the shoot,
as the crew were wrapping out, Jonathan and I were walking down the corridor
leading to the street when we were joined by Orson. Jonathan immediately went into one of his bits.
One routine followed another until Orson was in tears with
laughter. Winters must have done
20-minutes on Welles before I was able to drag him to my car; wherein I drove
him to his Toluca Lake home. It was the
most laugh filled and memorable drive of my life.