Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Julie Andrews Hour - Director Bill Davis

The premiere of The Julie Andrews Hour was covered by all the papers and given great reviews. In the long run, the show would win director Bill Davis an Emmy Award.

Recently, Bill Davis, who was born in Canada and has since retired there, agreed to answer some questions about his career as a director and his work on The Julie Andrews Hour. Our "conversations" have taken place via e-mail.

About his beginnings, Bill Davis writes: “I started in TV as a stagehand in Toronto at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) before they went on the air in September of 1952 and became a producer-director in 1957."

By 1972, Davis was living in Los Angeles, directing CBS television series, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters. Writers Frank Peppiat and John Aylesworth, also from Canada, were the producers of the show.

Late that spring, the Jonathan Winters’ show went on summer hiatus, and Bill went to work on Hee Haw, which was the summer replacement for Winters’ show. Nick Vanoff was the producer on Hee Haw, and Peppiat and Aylesworth were the writers.

When Bill Davis heard about the new show starring Julie Andrews that Nick Vanoff was going to produce, he wanted to direct it. This would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. “I remember begging for The Julie Andrews Hour,” he recalls. I was lucky enough to be chosen as director… partly because I was already working with Nick Vanoff and the writers…”

Vanoff chose a good portion of the talent for Julie’s show from the list of people he knew and had already worked with. Frank Peppiat and John Aylesworth had a long list of writing credits. Not only that, like many others who came to work on the Julie Andrews’ show, the men had worked as a team on The Judy Garland Show seven years earlier in1965.

By early summer, Vanoff, Davis, Aylesworth and Peppiat, along with a growing crew, were hard at work, creating what they knew was going to be a great show. Some of the early work took place at Blake and Julie’s home in Beverly Hills. Once the actual staging and rehearsals began, they went to a studio on Sunset Boulevard, a mile or so from ABC Studio on Prospect Avenue, where the show would be taped.

Bill Davis describes the work on the premiere show in this way:
 “The first show was a very ambitious script calling for 3 Julies on camera simultaneously: Julie as herself, Eliza Doolittle and Mary Poppins. That required many setups and chromo-key, which in those years was a technically difficult thing to handle. So, we developed a shooting technique which was almost like a film shoot.”

“Put up a set, light it, rehearse it, dress everyone and shoot it. Then take a break, during which time Julie would wash her hair and do another complete makeup and prep for the next segment. This took many hours over a 2 day period…”

Despite the rave reviews of the first show, during the next few weeks, Davis could see the long hours of shooting were taking a lot of time and “costing a fortune.” He began to worry about the situation. “After a few weeks I could see the handwriting on the wall:  LETS FIRE THE DIRECTOR AND GET SOMEONE IN HERE WHO CAN SPEED UP THE PROCESS.”

In the interest of keeping his job, Bill had a meeting with Nick Vanoff and discussed the possibility of shooting the show as a live performance. Nick agreed. They would try it.

The next few shows (possibly episodes 5, 6, and 7) were shot in this manner, but Julie, a perfectionist, was not comfortable with the “quick changes” required. Eventually, they went back to the old schedule, taking their time and, as Bill put it, allowing Julie “the perfection that she needed to satisfy her.”

Audiences were brought in for portions of the later shows, but even then, the shooting involved many takes. As I would later witness, audiences were excited to see Julie and her guests working in person, but after an hour or two, many grew tired of the work and did not stay. As Bill Davis points out, they often used audiences “for the comedy,” which added to the feeling of a live show, gave them live laughter, rather than canned, and helped the performers, though the crew did a fairly good job of laughing and responding to the numbers.

Tomorrow I will write about the second show. It was one that concentrated a great deal on comedy. Julie’s co-stars were Carl Reiner and Mama Cass Elliot.

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