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Page Last

Sat, Feb 28, 2004
01:46:53 PM EST

Contents and Source
Material Copyright © 2004,
L.O.F. Communications
All Rights Reserved

In Celebration:
Harry Bartell

Struts and Frets
By Harry Bartell

On George Reeves

In writing Struts and Frets, I have made an effort to stay strictly within the confines of Old Time Radio. Now I'm going to stretch things a bit because George Reeves connection with OTR was limited to say the least. Actually, I didn't know George Reeves. I knew his predecessor, George Bessolo. I can't remember how or exactly when we met. It was at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937 and George was one of a group of scholarship students that included Robert Preston Meservey. I was a player auditioning for roles each Sunday evening. I wound up there through the good services of a fellow whose name should be familiar to OTR collectors, Berry Kroeger.

This I will never forget nor fail to appreciate: at Thanksgiving Day of 1937 George asked me where I was going to have dinner. I replied that I would probably attend the local beanery-cum- soda fountain where the dinners were in the 50-cent range. He said, "That's ridiculous! You're coming home with me." Now, George and I were not close friends at this point. His invitation was the equivalent of inviting servicemen to dinner later during WWII. So we got in his car and went to his house in northern Pasadena. We retired to his room and he unloaded a bottle of sherry. The only thing I remember about the dinner was that there seemed to be quite a few people at the table. The sherry bottle was fairly defunct by the time we got to the dining room.

I visited that house again under somewhat different circumstances. Before we were married, Bev shared an over-the-garage apartment with several other girls. Because it was separated from the main house by quite some distance, the noise factor wasn't a problem so it became a gathering place for after-show actors, especially those involved with the tenants. There were some interesting incidents such as Victor Mature showing up about 1:30 in the morning, not very steady and soaking wet after wandering around in the rain when his marriage broke up. Drying him, literally and figuratively, took until about 2:30 at which point I announced that I was leaving. George said, "I'll drive you home." Home consisted of a room with two beds for which I paid $12 a month because it was a double. Vic spent six weeks in the other bed during one between- lodgings period.

When we got in George's car, he started north. I lived south. I said, "Hey, wait! I live the other way!" George said, "I know where you live. You're going home with me." I said, "I can't. I've got a rehearsal at 10 o'clock!" He replied, "I'll get you to the rehearsal on time. If you think I'm going home alone and face my mother at this time of the morning you're crazy." So, once again we wound up in George's bedroom which was on a lower floor in the house. We were sitting on the beds when there were loud thumps from someone charging down the stairs. The door banged open and Helen Bessolo yelled, "GEORGE!!!" and then suddenly almost whispered, "Oh, hello, Harry. Would you boys like something to eat?" She left, clutching her kimono. George just smiled.

George made up in enthusiasm what he might have lacked in skill as a guitarist. The Playhouse summer festival in 1937 centered on the Great Southwest. That was the scene of a lot of music, nearly all of which featured guitars . Natividad Vacio appeared about then and he and George became friends that lasted through many years.

Weird things happened in Gilmor Brown's Playbox theater. Depending upon the arrangement of the audience around the playing area, an actor might have to go outside and around the theater to make an entrance from a different door. If it happened to be raining he apparently got wet going from one room to another. And one didn't go to the bathroom except at intermission. Toilets weren't supposed to be heard in the living room. I watched fascinated one night as George blew a line, missed a cue from the offstage stage manager, and said, "Excuse me." He then walked offstage, there was a murmuring as he consulted, came back and continued. We did a play together in that venue called After October and it wasn't one of immortals. I played a starving poet, and George a wealthy young man who befriended him. The seating was arranged in such a manner that audience was practically leaning on the back of a chair in which I was seated. At one point George handed me a plate of food which I started stuffing into my mouth. I launched into an impassioned speech and in the middle it a woman directly behind me said, "Just look at the way he's eating!" End of passion.

We were in the Playbox together again in a non-classic called Strange Orchestra and there are a couple of memories from that one, too. The first had nothing to do with George, I had a scene in which I had an entrance with a girl, both of us bundled up in hat, gloves and overcoat. In character I wore glasses. After an argument, she was supposed to haul off and slap me in the face. In that intimate setting, so close to the audience, there was no way to fake the slap so we rehearsed over and over again so that when she swung I could ride with it and eliminate most of the shock. One night she jumped a cue and caught me flatfooted. I thought my head was coming off. The glasses were knocked askew, my eyes were tearing and although I remember the incident I am not sure I remembered the next line. She turned white and promptly forgot her lines. A nice disaster was had by all.

George's portion of the entertainment came after an afternoon rehearsal. We broke for dinner and he suggested we have quick one first so we stopped off at a local pub. I couldn't believe I heard him order a triple scotch. I nursed a single - all I could occasionally afford - and was still nursing it when he tapered off to a short double scotch. He walked out quite steadily and drove quietly to the restaurant. We had ordered and were talking quietly when the rolls and butter arrived. George had picked up a pat of butter and was holding his knife when I reached for a roll. He said, "Hey! I had my eye on that one!" . He made a chopping gesture with the knife and underestimated the distance. I sat with blood flowing out of my hand and said, "Why did you do that?" He was as pale as a ghost. We wrapped a napkin around my hand, he drove me to the emergency room where they did a repair job and returned to finish dinner. It caused quite a bit of comment when we rehearsed that evening and I added a new bit of characterization with a huge bandage on my right hand. I still have the scar between my right thumb and forefinger.

When George departed for Hollywood our paths never crossed again. As I said before, I never knew George Reeves. I have no idea what happened to the man between names. I do know that I have never met anyone who seemed to have more enjoyment out of life than he had. Driving with him was perilous. He once crossed the old wooden two-lane bridge on the Arroyo Seco at eighty miles an hour with Bev and me in the car although she was hiding on the floor. But George Bessolo was a warm, kind man and I'm awfully glad I knew him.

Harry Bartell maintains that his major accomplishment as a professional actor for forty years was to survive with his mind, morale and marriage intact.

Born in 1913 in New Orleans, he grew up in Houston and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University in 1933. After a stint at Harvard Business School and a couple of years forced labor in a department store he moved to Hollywood and stayed there for the next fifty-one years. Three seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse led to work in 185 radio series and 77 TV series plus a dozen or so properly forgettable motion pictures. He passed away on February 26, 2004.

These columns were originally written for the Internet Old-Time Radio Digest.