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Magic Mansion Revisited (Part I)

By David Cameron, First Sergeant, USAF Ret.

copyright  © 2011 by David Cameron

Magic Mansion was a popular AFRTS sitcom back in the early days of television when shows were performed live and if you were a comedy, with a live audience. I remember the show well because I was one of its producers for the 120 episodes that were broadcast in a little over two years. As I near my 80s, I am rather surprised to see the show receiving so much media and academic attention for its historical importance. My grandson alerted me to an article that Swapsale recently ran and it started the memories flowing. As I went online and looked further, I saw other articles about this once I had thought, forgotten show. I am hopeful that I can perhaps fill in some historical blanks in the series that are left out of the articles I read. It is television history and my grandson has convinced me that I ought to tell about the missing parts.

To begin with, Magic Mansion was the last of the shows performed live as the cameras rolled. It was not a variety show but a weekly one-hour sitcom with actors, plots and situations. It had a continuing cast of characters and frequently guest starred many major celebrities of the era. The show became one of the first to pre-record using the newly invented videotape systems. You couldn’t edit back then, only record so you were still forced to do a complete show though you could break up the filming and that made it easier. We were also the last scripted comedy to use live audiences. To me, this was the great boon of videotape. Live audiences were difficult to manage, time consuming and very costly. Back then the average network show had at least $250,000 to $500,000 per episode. Today it is $2,000,000+. We had $25,000. But more about this, later. First to understand Magic Mansion, you must understand the times.

The setting is the mid 60s, Viet Nam is building and Lyndon Johnson is President. The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) was in full swing (it’s now called the politically corrected “America Forces Network” or AFN).  Its purpose was to provide broadcast quality radio and television services to all of the Department of Defense members and their families stationed overseas or onboard ships around the world. Back then we had over 600 outlets and broadcast to more than 160 countries. The AFRTS operation was big and in wartime It became bigger. Okinawa made a nice location for filming because it was so central to the nation’s pacific theatre of military operations. Talk Radio hadn’t been invented nor satellite and cable. It was pure broadcast and if you were one of the multitudes stationed overseas, the AFRTS Network was your link to home and in a combat zone – to sanity.

Major Ed Willis was the Air Force commanding officer at the Far Eastern Network’s (FEN) studio located at the Kadena Airbase. He wanted to do a children’s show for the Pacific Command. We were already broadcasting Saturday morning reruns of various children’s shows and cartoons from the 3 networks: ABC, CBS & NBC). It will surprise many younger people to learn that three networks were all we had back then. Most shows overseas were a year or more older before reaching the large AFRTS audience. At any rate, the Major wanted a children’s show for the network and so we were looking. One afternoon my boss, Sgt. James Mortensen, had me fly to Manila to catch a lead act that was part of an “All Army Performance Show” \touring Europe and Asia. I wasn’t very enthusiastic when I learned the act was a ventriloquist and the performer was a 1st Lieutenant. But, I was a “Senior Airman” and did what I was told. I won’t bore you with the details but contrary to my expectations the act was funny and brought down the house. Later, I went backstage and spoke to the crew about the “Lieutenant” part. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with Lieutenants but some of them are real prima donnas. The crew that had been traveling with him seemed to like him so with their word and what I’d seen I returned to Okinawa.

I was told the ventriloquist was being assigned to Okinawa. I could never tell what his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was but since he was an officer and wore a caduceus (medical emblem) on his uniform, I thought he was a doctor of some kind. By the time the show started he had also received an early promotion to Captain. At least, I would not have to deal with a Lieutentant.

Sgt. Mortensen, Major Willis, the ventriloquist and myself first met in late November of 1965. We were having coffee in the Major’s office when the ventriloquist arrived. Most performers are “out there” and so we were surprised to discover that Captain Warren Chaney was rather quiet during the meeting. It was obvious, he knew little about broadcast television but it was equally obvious he knew about audiences and entertainment. We figured we could do one and he the other.

Major Willis believed that we shouldn’t wait until the New Year to launch the program but do it during the month of December.  The U.S. Army had scheduled a huge live performance built around the Captain for early December. Having a modest budget, we figured that we would take advantage of the show’s larger one and build a script around it. One of our writing staff, Airman Jimmy Harris said that he would write the opener. All of a sudden, “Mr. Silent” speaks up and rather firmly said that he would do it. I remember thinking, “Ah, here comes the lieutenant syndrome.” We all looked at the Major for help since we were out ranked. Not that it helped because he suggested we let the Captain write the first draft and if we needed to make whatever changes we needed to.

About 4 days later we were all surprised to receive the first script.  It was something called, “Welcome to Magic Mansion.” When we got it, we knew it would be horrible and we’d have to rewrite it. I took it back to the office and read it. Damn it all! It was pretty good and so that’s what we went with. From that point on Warren Chaney wrote every single show for 120 shows, cranking out one a week and at the end, two a week.

We broadcast our first two shows with a live audience and a three-camera setup. The early shows all fit within our budget but were very complicated so it looked like we had a much bigger show than we did. The audience reaction to the early broadcasts was out of sight so we knew we were on to something.

The premise of the show was that a mysterious magician would arrive at a large gothic mansion possessing a deed to the place. Every show would be based around prestidigitation but would not be a magic show. As it turns out, Cpt. Chaney was an accomplished magician as well as a ventriloquist. He began designing rather complicated feats of magic. We weren’t sure how these would get built but Chaney made friends with a local Okinawan woodworker named Miyamoto Matsuyama. Matsuyama was a marvel, cranking out one to two brand new illusions and constructing new sets each week. It made us look like we had spent a million dollars. He was creating the first 3-D paintings that I had ever seen. We broadcast in black and white so every set, even with painted halls, windows and stairwells looked real. They looked so real that once when we had Martha Raye on the show, he tried to exit through a painted door.

We got the idea of having a Frankenstein’s monster as the butler. When we came up with it we laughed hysterically, none of us ever having heard of or seen the Munsters who’d just opened stateside on American television. Therefore the idea of a lovable monster seemed novel t us. We had a great makeup artist, Corporal Carolyn Johnson who had worked at NBC in Burbank before enlisting – trouble was she was not up to creating the monster we wanted. After several tries, Chaney asked to give it a go. He sculpted a headpiece and then used putty and makeup to create the illusion.  The Creature looked great…and funny. To make him taller Chaney made him a set of elevated box shoes and added a large padded coat. It was fabulous and Rathmore was born. We actually had two Rathmores. I was the first one but the production duties were too great and a young Army Officer, Earle Klay took over the role until near the end of the series. Klay and Chaney had billeted together and at earlier assignment. Both had made the Army’s early list to Captain and seemed to get along well. Klay was a tall quiet sort of fellow. The women in our office considered him very handsome and always came out whenever he was at the studio filming.

If there was a co-lead in the series it was a young nurse named Harriett Zorich that we had recruited from a nearby Army Hospital.  The military Stars & Stripes newspaper had just run a worldwide article on her. She looked good and sounded great in an interview so we offered her the role and she took it. Harriett was a natural and a boost to the show. On top of it all, the lady could sew and became the series’ costumer. Chaney liked her as well and early on instructed the cameramen that if a shot lagged, put the camera on her.  The camera loved her and she knew how to play to it.  In the course of the series, Chaney came to depend upon her ability even more than we did. I don’t think there was ever a romantic connection between the two, but there should have been. Our viewers would have loved it. She was so popular that the Post Exchanges began carrying her costume boots just out of sheer demand from little girls wanting them.

Aside from Chaney and Zorich, the two real leads in the production were Chaney’s ventriloquist dummies. They were so real it was spooky. Chaney knew the illusion he was creating with them and I cannot recall one time that he ever let the illusion drop, on camera or off. He was very funny himself but on set became the straight man while the dummies carried the comedy. His lead dummy Danny O’Kay got more fan mail from all over the world than anyone else. That’s how good the illusion was.

We had the best clown I’ve ever seen in or out of a circus. Jerry Jacobson was our Lounsberry the Clown and had worked for years in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. His character remained with the show until his recruitment time was up and he shipped back to the United States. A young Army soldier, David Castle took Jerry’s place when he left. He had no experience but got better and better as time when by. He had a natural sense of timing that worked really well for his character.

Chaney had a crazy idea for a musical leprechaun who would, among other things, direct an invisible leprechaun band. Mike Rogers was a young Army private that we’d drafted to portray Santa Claus in a Christmas special but he was so wonderful in the one role that we used him for the other. At the time, a leprechaun with an invisible band seemed so bizarre but it worked and for some reason the kids loved it.

Our first two shows went very well and we were coming up to our Christmas special. Part of this called for us to travel away from the studio to film part of the show on 16mm to later incorporate in the live broadcast. Television of the time was so poor, quality wise that we never worried about the difference in quality and we never got a letter on it. Anyway – we walked into the Stillwell Field House on Okinawa prepared to film and use an audience of what we thought would be five or six hundred people. When we entered the big doors – there were over four thousand kids and countless adults.

During the show, Chaney nearly caused a children’s stampede that could have been deadly but that’s another story for part two.