Martin Scorsese put his mom in Goodfellas and Casino. Rob Reiner put his mom in When Harry Met Sally. So why not me?
True, you say, but Catherine Scorsese and Estelle Reiner each had professional credits before their more memorable bits in their son’s films.
How about this: my mother Sally modeled department store clothes with high school friend Betty Joan Perske. Who, you ask, is Betty Joan Perske? You ever hear of Lauren Bacall? That’s her.
So I had no qualms about bringing in one more extra when we filmed three commercials for Michigan Opera Theatre in the fall of 1982.
It wasn’t planned that way. My folks were visiting me in the Detroit area from their home in South Florida. Naturally, I took them to my place of business: Simons Michelson Zieve Advertising. I’d been a writer/producer in charge of broadcasting at the agency for more than three years.
After looking into my office and asking why it wasn’t larger, I escorted my parents down to the end of the hallway to meet the bosses. President Jim Michelson was out (“So why does he have a couch and you don’t?”), but agency Chairman Mort Zieve was behind his desk clacking away on his trusty old Royal manual typewriter.
After some pleasantries about what a great asset I was to the firm, Mort said, “So why don’t you bring your folks to the MOT shoot here tonight?” Mort would soon regret the invite.
We had written three spots for the opera company that were funny treatments of a generally stodgy subject. Mort, an opera fanatic who was on the MOT board, would be directing the shoot.
We got legendary Detroit celebrities to make cameo appearances in the spots, delivering quick punchlines that were based on their well-known personas. We would be shooting all evening outside an elevator in our office building.
The plot was the same for all three spots:
A group of ordinary people enter the elevator, as the voiceover announcer says, “Some people really know how to unwind after the Michigan Opera Theatre.” The elevator door closes. We cut to inside as a man and woman, holding MOT programs, launch into “The Toreador Song” from Carmen. The other passengers, including the celebrity, react smugly. We then see a building janitor waiting for the elevator. When the door opens the passengers pour out, now fully costumed as Grand Opera characters. The celebrity comes out and does his bit to the camera as the announcer plugs the next MOT performance.
Fortunately, the spots turned out funnier than that.
We had media personalities Bill Kennedy and Dick Purtan as dueling swordsmen, appliance store pitchman Ollie Fretter as a Julius Caesar type, and former Detroit Lions star Lem Barney as an early American with powdered wig.
And now, a bit of background. My mother Sally was born and raised in Manhattan, a hundred yards from Broadway. Her father had been a song-and-dance man in Vaudeville. She was noted for her expertise on all things show business. She could name the cast of any show, quote lines from any movie, and give you the latest gossip on any star.
So we arrived at the office early that evening, for me to produce the spots and my parents to watch. That’s all—just watch.
The extras showed up and were led to some clothes racks to pick out the wildly colorful costumes they’d be wearing. Sally got a look and started to salivate.
“Alright, Mom,” I said, giving in to the inevitable. “Go see if something fits.” Then I went to tell Mort we just hired another extra. Well wouldn’t you?
As the extras took their places in the elevator with Kennedy and Purtan, Mom came out of Wardrobe and swept onto the set in a green gown with colorful, fringed shawl.
She was one of the last ones into the elevator, which meant that she’d be one of the first ones out.
Mort talked to the elevator group and gave them directions: “The door will open, you’ll walk out in your costumes with a big smile, and peel off left or right. Got it?”
After a couple of rehearsals, Mort positioned himself at the “video assist” monitor so he could see what the film camera sees. I was off to the side taking notes. Mort ordered: “Roll Camera…Action!”
And that’s when the trouble began.
Take 1 looked good to me. Take 2 looked good to me. Take 3 looked good to me. “CUT!”
Mort walked over to the elevator. He said something to the group, including Sally.
“Back to first position,” Mort yelled out, which meant to return to where you start. The camera rolled again. Take 4 looked good to me. Take 5 looked good to me. Take 6 looked good to me. “CUT!”
This time, Mort walked over my way. I had a bad feeling.
“Uh, Jon,” he said slowly, “you need to talk to your mother. She came out looking right into the camera all three times. I talked to her. Then she did it again. She looks great, the gestures are just right, but we can’t use anything.”
I took her aside. “Mort says you’re doing a terrific Bette Midler. You’re ready to go on tour. So look out at your audience—wayyyy over there!”
She got back to first position and Mort said, “OK, this is Take Lucky Seven.”
And this time—the cameraman screwed up. Thank God. One more like the first six and when Mort said “Cut!” he would’ve meant my job.
We rolled quickly on Take 8, and that one was perfect—the “keeper.”
My dad quickly told Sally he’d found tables down the hall with free food. They disappeared for the rest of the evening.
So here it is, the debut and the swan song of Sally Katz.
We proceeded to film the other two spots. Lem Barney was up next.
LEM: “I just loved Treemonisha. I haven’t had this much fun since I watched old game films of Lem Barney!”
The final segment starred Ollie Fretter.
OLLIE: “If you can’t see Lucia on Friday, see it on Saturday. If you can’t see Lucia on Saturday, see it on Friday!”
The shoot was covered by all the local papers. They printed generous articles and one even mentioned me and my mother.
We won a national Telly Award for the series.
I gave mine to Mom. Of course.