Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Producers - Nick Vanoff and Bill Harbach

On the set of the Julie Andrews Hour
(from the author's 1972 scrapbook)
    Early in Blake Edwards’ documentary, "Julie," as he tries to help his wife decide whether she should do the Lew Grade television series, he states, ‘Now, if you could get a Nick Vanoff to do the show, then it would be worth doing.’


“I love that,” said Bill Harbach, when I spoke to him recently and recounted this statement. Bill was listed as co-producer on the show, but told me that since they were partners, Nick had just brought him along. When Nick needed help, Bill would step in. Nick, he told me, was the one who made the creative decisions and knew everything about the show. But Bill Harbach, with his big personality and big laugh, was the man I most remembered up there on stage those Friday nights when The Julie Andrews Hour was being taped. Watch the show now, and you’ll hear his laugh.

Bill Harbach has a fascinating story in the history of entertainment and it's a story leads to Nick Vanoff, so I begin with him. He was born William Otto Harbach in 1919 to Otto Abels Harbach and Ella Smith Dougal Harbach. His father was the famous lyricist, affectionately known as the “Dean of American Librettists." Otto Harbach wrote the lyrics for such songs as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Indian Love Call, Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine and Yesterdays. Otto Harbach worked with some of the greatest composers and songwriters of his day: Rudolf Friml, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Sigmond Romberg and Vincent Youmans, among others. In the future, many of his songs would be sung by Julie Andrews on her television series. Show business and show people were no strangers to young Bill Harbach. 

After his time in the Army during WWII, Bill took a vacation in Hollywood. One day, while visiting Jerome Kern, Bill was swimming in the pool when Mr. Kern’s son-in-law, Jack Cummings stopped by. Cummings was also Louis B. Mayer's nephew and a director at MGM. He suggested that Bill come down to the studio and take a screen test. They might have a job for him. Bill shot his screen test with Spencer Tracy and a few days later, he was signed on as an MGM stock player. 

Although the studio didn’t have as much work for him as he would have liked, he did appear in some wonderful films, including "Good News" with June Allyson and Peter Lawford, "Killer McCoy" with Mickey Rooney, "On an Island with You," starring Jimmy Durante, Esther Williams and Peter Lawford and "Song of the Thin Man"[ with Jayne Meadows. After two years at the studio, there was a strike and MGM eliminated its stock players in order to save money.

After managing Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers for a short time, Bill Harbach returned to New York where he took an entry level job at NBC television studios as a film editor. In those days, New York City was the center of most television activity.

After working both as film editor and director, a friend at the studio offered him a job working for a "new guy" NBC had taken on. They said, ‘he isn’t getting along with the producer and we think that you could handle him.” Bill was flattered and agreed to take the job. The “guy” was Steve Allen and his new show eventually became  “The Tonight Show.”

When Bill arrived on the job, Steve called him over and said, ‘This is how we’re going to work. You stand over there by the camera while I do the show. Then, on the breaks, you come over to me and I’ll tell you what I need, etc.’ This worked out well and Bill stayed on.

Steve Allen was on the “cutting edge of television, way ahead of his day,” Bill Harbach said. There was one historic night on the show that he would never forget. African-American singer and actress Lena Horne had been on the show a few nights earlier and before she went off stage, Steve had given her a kiss.

On the night that Bill recalled, several nights after Lena's appearance, in the middle of the show Steve took out a letter and said, “I received this letter and I’d like to read it to you.” It was a fairly long letter and he didn’t get far into it before it was clear what this letter was about. It was from a “bigot” who said he was offended that Steve kissed Lena Horne. “How dare you kiss that N---- in my living room,” the letter said.

As Steve read these words, Bill felt his face go white. In fact, everyone in the studio: the techs, the cameramen and the audience did not move, did not even breathe. Bill thought to himself, ‘My God, he’s committing suicide,’ but Steve Allen continued to read the letter, right down to the end.

Bill Harbach and his wife, Barbara,
When he had finished, he looked up and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, that man is sick! He needs help,” and continued with a statement that sent the audience into thunderous applause. “That was the kind of man Steve Allen was,” Bill Harbach noted.

 NBC had a huge hit on their hands with Steve Allen, and decided that they would like to put the show, which ran Monday through Friday, on Sunday as well. Ed Sullivan was on CBS, and being a newspaper man, he had all kinds of connections all over the country to promote his show. NBC felt that putting Steve Allen up against Sullivan would weaken Sullivan's show and pull some of the audience over to The Tonight Show and NBC. The executives told Bill Harbach their idea, but as he explained, he was already working so hard that he barely saw his wife and children. If he worked on the weekend too, he’d never be home, so he got permission to hire a partner, a co-producer.

There were three guys who came in for the interview. Nick Vanoff was the third. “I can see him now,” Bill told me, “He was sitting on the edge of his chair and he was hungry.” Bill didn’t mean he was literally hungry, but he wanted the job. He spoke and he was excited. Nick got the job and from that time on, Bill and Nick were friends and partners.


Nick Vanoff was born in VeviGreece in 1929. Before the Balkan War of 1913, the town had been called Banitsa. It was a Macedonian town, and the Vanoffs were Macedonian. Nick’s father came to the United States first, and, with the candy store he started in West Virginia, was able to raise enough money to bring his wife and son to the United States. Nick was two at the time. 

Although Mr. Vanoff intended to settle his family in Toronto, when he tried to cross the bridge into Canada with all his machinery, he was not allowed to pass, so the Vanoff family settled  in BuffaloNew York instead. Mr. Vanoff started a restaurant in Buffalo and the family lived upstairs. During the next years, Nick’s brother, Boris, was born, followed by three sisters.

The Vanoff family was always interested in music. Mr. Vanoff played clarinet, and Nick played accordion. Boris played both saxophone and piano.  Although his father hoped that he would take over the restaurant, Nick had made up his mind, he wanted to study dance.

 After graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Nick moved to New York and began his training at the Charles Wiedman Dance Theater. While attending classes at Charles Wiedman’s, he met his future wife, Felisa. He also became friends with another dancer, Tony Charmoli, who would one day be the choreographer for The Julie Andrews Hour. During these years, Nick Vanoff worked as a dancer both on stage and in night clubs.

After living in New York for a while, Vanoff joined the Marines and was sent to the Quantico, where became involved with a theatre group on the base and began producing shows to entertain the troops. He loved theater. In 1948, while working as a dancer he appeared on Broadway in the New York City Opera production of Kiss Me Kate starring Alfred Drake, Patricia Morrison and Lisa Kirk. (1948).

A dancer’s life is short in terms of work, and by the early 1950s, Nick Vanoff had his eyes on the future--television. He was able to procure a job as a cue card holder on The Perry Como Show. According to legend, four months later, he was the Associate Producer of the show. 

Nick Vanoff was smart and eager, and everyone who met Nick, or "Nicky" as his friends called him, liked him. He was a man people were eager to work with. As a producer, he was tough and exacting, but he knew his business. Bonnie Burns, who became Production Coordinator on The Julie Andrews Hour, later said that working for Nick Vanoff had been one of her career goals.

In Blake Edwards’ documentary we see him speaking to Julie Andrews about the show:

“What’s the concept?” she asks.
“Julie Andrews.”
“Who will be on the show?”
“Julie Andrews.” 
Finally, Julie laughs, and Nicky says, honestly,
“Without Julie Andrews, there is no show.”

Over the years, Vanoff became extremely well-known and admired among his colleagues. He moved out to Hollywood around 1966, to join Bill Harbach in co-producing The Hollywood Palace, a variety show with a different top star hosting the show each week. The acts in the show were equally amazing. During the six years it ran, the show boasted hundreds of great stars and introduced some legendary acts, including The Jackson Five and The Rolling Stones.

In the years following The Julie Andrews Hour, Nick Vanoff went on to produce Sonny & Cher, The Big Show, The King Family and The Dolly Parton Show among  others. In addition, he  produced two award-winning Broadway shows, Jackie Mason: The World According to Me and the musical, City of Angels, for which he won a Tony Award.

One of his proudest achievements was the creation--with George Stevens, Jr.-- of  The Kennedy Center Honors, which the two men co-produced each year until Nick's untimely passing.

Heartfelt thanks to Bill Harbach and Sandy Vanoff-Zajack for their contributions to this blog.

For more information, please see the following:

A Note from the Author:

I hope you are enjoying this series of blogs, all which lead to the premiere of the show and an inside look on their creation. I am rushing to meet the goal of telling you these events 40 years to the day after they occurred.  Your comments and corrections are most welcome.

Coming next: “Director, Bill Davis” and “The Premiere of The Julie Andrews Hour!”

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