Saturday, March 29, 2014

Swing and Sweat with Dol Brissette

By Chet Williamson

A trumpeting brass section enters with great fanfare. After four bars they stop on count and an announcer's voice bellows: “SYNCOPATION FOR THE NATION.” The orchestra then skates into its theme song. A couple of bars into it, the disembodied voice returns confidently to proclaim: “From deep in the heart of New England, that's Worcester, Massachusetts, the National Broadcasting Company is happy to present from coast to coast music by Dol Brissette and his Orchestra with songs by Winnie Stone and Georgie Roy.”

With that, the tune approaches its cadenza. At song's end, the broadcasters returns to introduce the first piece of the show saying, “Dol digs deep into the files for this first tune, a classic of the jazz era you'll all remember as, 'That's My Weakness Now.”

The four bar intro is counted off by piano, bass and accordion before the full complement of the 12-piece ensemble joins in. The sound is archaic and ghostly. It instantly evokes the aural grist of radio's glory days.

The tune is a happy-go-lucky little fox trot reeking of sentiment. It features a Bix-wannabe who takes a hot trumpet solo before handing it off to the trombonist who takes it for a spin a la Tommy Dorsey. The piano player also gets to shine and squeezes out a few nifty blues licks before stepping back into the fold.

The live session was recorded sometime around 1940 at WTAG AM 580, when the studios were still on the fourth floor of the Telegram & Gazette building on Franklin Street. Other syndicated shows heard on NBC at the time featured such bandleaders as Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo and Benny Goodman.

In the October 19, 1940 edition of Worcester Telegram & Gazette there is a photo of the band. The caption reads: “Dol Brissette and his WTAG-NBC orchestra which will be an entertainment feature evenings at the seventh annual Telegram and Gazette Progress Exposition in the Auditorium next week. Left to right: George Krikorian [piano]; soloist Helen Dennison; violins, Elmer Johnson and Daniel Sylvester; saxophones, Frank Bicknell, Louis Alpert, Paul Rhode and Bernard Cormier; drums Joseph Parks, trombone George Robinson, trumpets. Lloyd Dinsdale and Frank O'Connor; director, Dol Brissette; bass violin, George Cove.”

Although it would certainly be a stretch to call him a a jazz musician, Brissette was a territory bandleader of the 1930s and '40s, who hired such players for his orchestra. Therefore he is an important figure in the development of the music locally. In his brilliant T&G article titled, Worcester Jazz: This being a requiem for the way it was when Al Hirt fell-in at the Saxtrum Club, Ev Skehan talked about the lost early days saying, “The territory bands were working the Worcester area then, playing ballroom and club dates, the Watson Brothers, Dol Brissette, Gene Broadman, Bob Pooley, and Phil Scott all had bands that featured a few good jazz men like [Ockie] Menard, [Emil] Haddad and [Paul] Kukonen.”

Adolphus J. “Dol” Brissette is originally from Haverill. He came to Worcester to study at Holy Cross. His intent was to become a lawyer, but after picking up the banjo – as a kind of a lark -- and discovering a natural inclination for the instrument, the birds of music took over.
An early bio written by a WTAG writer with no byline said: “He became so good that he was able to take a part time job playing banjo with Hughie Connors and the Bancroft Hotel Orchestra. After graduation he found that the magic of music was greater than the lure of the law. He stayed with Hughie Connors.”

Brissette built a name for himself at the Bancroft, playing five years at the hotel in the late 1920s and early '30s. By all accounts, he was a hum and strum banjo player – like that of Arthur Godfrey on ukulele. In the early '30s, Brissette also played the Palace Theater where he met such stars of the day as Ted Lewis, Gilda Grey, Trixie Friganza, and Joe Penner. However, Brissette reported that the single most important event was the opportunity to play duets with the king of banjo, the great Eddie Peabody at the Theater.

Brissette viewed himself as an “entertainer.” “Give them not only what they want, but more than they expect. That's showmanship,” he was quoted as saying. It was also reported that his favorite slogan was: “Don't kick the doorman, he may be the manager tomorrow.”

The banjo player formed his own band in 1933 and before the year was out, The Dol Brissette Orchestra headlined the Holy Cross Fieldhouse. It was a prestigious gig on the national circuit. Two years later Benny Goodman performed there.

The Dol Brissette Orchestra live at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium

The Brissette bio states: “When WTAG decided to become that first station in Worcester to have its own live studio orchestra on call for daily performances and accompaniment, Dol Brissette and the studio orchestra was first intoned into a microphone in 1937 and repeated for the last time in 1945.”

Before joining WTAG, Brissette estimated that he had played more than 2000 dates including such places as the Totem Pole in Auburndale, Kimball's Starlight in Lynn, and the Bai-a-l'Air in Shrewsbury.

Another T&G photo from Brissette's glory days has a caption that reads: “Maestro Dol Brissette faces his orchestra, baton poised, ready to serve up at the downbeat for the show's first chorde (sic). And look at the glint in his eye, wouldja! Dol is liable to do anything from sleep to handsprings while he's directing. That coat comes off and his hair 'goes native' while working.”
Returning to the recording, the singing “soloist” on is not the aforementioned Dennison. The NBC announcer introduces her on the next track. “Wini Stone uses a familiar satellite as a measure of affection as she sings the romantic ballad from Two for the Show, “How High the Moon.”

Written by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, “How High” was also recorded by Benny Goodman with Helen Forrest supplying vocals in 1940. Stone no doubt heard the Forrest version, but gives her own competent, though somewhat affected reading.

Another T&G clipping from the period states: “Each day, on 'Noonday Revue,' you hear Dol Brissette and his band serve out musical hits to New England. But each Saturday the nation is audience to Worcester's Musical Ambassador when the National Broadcasting Company network carries this period of modern melody through the nation. This aggregation of 12 musicians and their dainty vocalist Wini Stone, are lined up particularly for our reception – usually, for correct microphone balance on the broadcast, you will find the band in much more separated positions.”

Singling out the group in yet another photo from the era, there is a shot of Wini Stone standing in front of a huge microphone with the WTAG call letters mounted on top. The caption reads: “That position is no pose for Wini Stone, “singcopator” on our NBC program “Noonday Revue.” She always folds her arms while singing. So carried away is she by her songs that at times she will completely forget the mike.

Another little tidbit on Stone is an item that reads: “Wini is a native New Englander who hates being called 'Toots,' and collects ashtrays as a hobby. She plays piano, too and is unwed – to date.”

Track number four is introduced by the announcer as “From the mighty west, the stomping grounds of the Lone Ranger, Dol Brissette plays an upcoming melody titled, 'Stagebrush Serenade.”

Brissette was quoted as describing his music as having “simple good taste,” the kind that “wears well.” The WTAG promotional bio material also noted that the orchestra was accorded national recognition by NBC when, “it was selected for network programming originating in Worcester.” It goes on to report that during 1939-40, Brissette was also the musical director on Sunday shows in the Worcester Auditorium, playing with such stars as Kay Kiser, Tommy Tucker, the Andrew Sisters and Betty Hutton.

The recording, which was transcribed from the original acetate recordings features 12 tracks, that includes, “Romance from Another World,” “Ain't She Sweet” (with George Roy on vocals), “In the Silence of the Dawn,” “My, My,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “We Could Make Such Beautiful Music,” and “The Woodpecker Song.”

At the closing of the show the announcer says “From the radio theater of WTAG at Worcester, Massachusetts the National Broadcasting Company has presented from coast to coast music by one of America's great young bands Dol Brissette and his orchestra with songs by Wini Stone and Georgie Roy. This program was heard in Canada through the facilities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.”

Brissette is not heard on banjo on these recordings. Chances are that he shed the instrument for the baton. Documents of his playing may exist, but as of this writing none are known.

Being a NBC affiliate, WTAG was a major promotional outlet for touring groups at the time. Between 1941 and '42, the station interviewed such jazz stars of the day as “jitterbug orchestra leader,” Ina Ray Hutton; Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald (who was appearing at the Plymouth Theater); Duke Ellington; Jimmy Lunceford and Charlie Barnet. Others entertainers who stopped by the station for conversation were Sigmond Romberg, the Mills Brothers and Bill “Bojangles Robinson.

Local guitarist Peter Clemente, Sr., had a daily show where he was featured on his “electric guitar” and future movie and television actor, Tony Randall was a broadcaster at WTAG during those years.
Brissette kept various versions of the band together until 1945. A photograph of one of the last editions has the caption that reads: “A quintet made up of members of WTAG's first own live studio orchestra conducted by Dol Brissette with drummer Jack Morrissey, clarinetist Paul Rhode, saxophonist Joe Ferrezano, trumpeter George Ray, pianist George Gregory and vocalist Mary Conlon.”

After breaking up the group altogether, Brissette became the program production manager at WTAG. It's been said that if his music was in “simple good taste” the same has been said of his skill in his new role at that station.

Richard “Dick” Wright worked at WTAG for 37 years and was quite familiar with Dol Brissette, the program director. “He hired me,” Wright says. “I came from New York state. I applied for the job in 1952 and he hired me three years later. I’ll never forget the day he called. I was out of radio at that point. I had lost my job in Manchester. I had to earn a living so I had been doing private investigation work in Brooklyn. I had applied at virtually every radio station on the East Coast.”

Wright was hired in 1955, 10 years after Brissette quit the band business. “His band was long gone by that time,” Wright recalls. “That all took place in the 1940s. He gave up the band business, like so many of them did, at the period in history when big bands were going out.”

Wright doesn't know exactly when Brissette became the program director, but says he definitely knew how to manager a radio station. “Dol was the one who hired and fired, scheduled and taught people,” he says. “He knew what he was doing. Extremely intelligent. Very well read. He kept his finger on what was going on. We started in the morning doing news at five o’clock. He had already read the three additions of the Telegram to make sure you got it all. If you missed something he’d just call up and say, 'Did you happen to notice there was another story?'”

In his tenure, Wright worked for Brissette as an announcer and newscaster. “Jim Little was the news director at the time. He left and they game me the job,” Wright recalls. “Then after Dol left us, I became news and program director and eventually station manager and eventually vice president and general manager.”

Brissette died in 1970. In his radio tribute Wright said, “As far as he was concerned, the radio station, its programs, its success depended on people who worked here and [Brissette's] first concern always was for his people.”

Commenting further about his former boss, friend and mentor, Wright today adds,
I tell you he was one of the greatest men I have ever known. He taught me a lot of things about people and the way to live your life. He was always gracious. He always could see the other guy’s position. He was firm and played it by the book. If you performed you were great. If you didn’t you heard from him.”

Tony Guida was a freshman at Holy Cross in 1959 when he first met Brissette. Today he works for WCBS in New York City. His online bio opens with this statement: “It began after the Great War but before Woodstock at WTAG in Worcester, Mass. Mr Guida prospered under the wise tutelage of Adolph J. "Dol" Brissette who whispered the secret to radio success: 'Always write down your ad-libs.' It is advice that Mr Guida has tattooed to his left forearm.”

When contacted to comment further, Guida, speaking by phone from the NYC studio says, “I looked at him and I didn’t know what it meant. I thought this guy is losing it. I’m 20 years old, what the hell do I know. When I think back on it, I didn’t know a microphone from a fishing rod. It took me years to realize the wisdom, the Zen.
He had such a remarkable way of saying things. He was a very quiet man. He was a minimalist. Very present in his role as program director. He was always soft and gentle. He was like a cat. He was just a remarkable man.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at:  Also see:  Thank you.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Wunnerful, Wunnerful, Worcester

By Chet Williamson 

Norman Bailey
Russ Klein
They weren’t exactly hipsters in squaresville, but they did bring their understanding of jazz to a national audience. They were trumpeter Norman Bailey and saxophonist Russ Klein, who played weekly on the "Lawrence Welk Show." Both musicians were born in Worcester and both men had a long history of playing together.

The Lawrence Welk Orchestra

Bailey joined the Welk orchestra in 1952 and remained with the institution until 1973. He was born on February 6, 1913 and began playing his first jobs at a 13 years-old with a five dollar trumpet. He was a graduate of Becker Jr. College in Worcester. His first band of note was the Jerry Goodwin Orchestra, a general business ensemble that played all the local hotels and nightclubs, as well as at weddings and functions.

In 1934, he joined the Freddy Martin band and played lead trumpet. Martin’s group came to prominence in 1940. According to Internet Movie Database (IMDb), he was best known “for his hit songs adapted from classical themes, his many hits on RCA Victor and Capitol records included "Cumana," "The Hut-Sut Song," "Bumble Boogie," adapted from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," and his theme song, "Tonight We Love," adapted from the first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.”

The Freddy Martin Band 

The Martin band played many of the best hotels in New York City’s, including the Bossert Hotel, Roosevelt, and the Ritz-Carlton. The band also played the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and Martin is credited with the distinction of being the musical director for Elvis Presley's first Las Vegas performance.

Bailey remained with Martin until 1951. He then stepped away from music taking a position at Northrup Aircraft where he worked on missle development. A year later he received a call to join the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. At the time the group was broadcast from the Aragon Park from Ocean Park, CA over station KTLA. Later it would be picked up for syndication by ABC and aired nationally.

According to the site,, Bailey’s trumpet playing was the stuff of legend. There are tales stating that he was so good, “never had to practice.” He was known as ‘Iron Lips,’ “mainly because he never got tired …. If there was ever the standard-bearer of excellent trumpet players from the Welk orchestra, Norman Bailey would fit the bill.”

Bailey’s playing has been featured on countless Welk’s shows. His most memorable and best documented solos include his performances of “Sugar Blues” and “Hot Lips.”

Bailey left the show in 1973 and gave one of his trumpets to Johnny Zell, one of his protégés, who first auditioned for Welk at the age of 15. He would later become a member of the orchestra.

Johnny Zell and Bailey

The Welk family website also noted that Bailey had two daughters. “One of them, Janice, made several guest appearances on the show where she displayed her talents as a singer. He was also good friends with the Lennon Sisters and their family, and until he left in 1973, was truly a professional and reliable music maker for all.”

Bailey died in Los Angeles on July 11, 1984. He was 71.


Klein was born in Worcester on July 23, 1917. According to the Welk family site, he first started playing the woodwinds at age 11, and turned professional at the age of 14. Like Bailey, Klein came to national attention with the Freddie Martin band.

Billboard magazine in the column, “On The Stand,” which covered “orchestras playing hotels, nightclubs, ballroom locations and one nighters” reviewed a Freddy Martin show at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles (June of 1946 – both Bailey and Klein were in the band at the time). “It takes only a quick listen to know why the Martin work is in the six consecutive year at this way hotel spot,” the Billboard writer said. “Crew is tops and dishing out smooth tempi for dancing and listening ….

Klein, third from left, front row, clarinet

Band’s wide library range includes everything from oldies, such as ‘Ten for Two’ to ‘Warsaw Concerto,’ generous smatterings of novelty ditties, current ballads and occasional south-of-the-border tunes complete well rounded fair. Arrangements generally showcase sections rather than instrumentals. Ork work is smooth, effortless and reflects confidence built up after five years working together in one spot.”

The Martin band was heard on such radio shows as “The Elizabeth Arden Show,” “The Maybellene Show” and “The Campbell Soup Show.” Klein can be heard with Martin on such albums as The Uncollected Freddy Martin, Mr. Silvertone and Classic and Boogie Woogie: The Original Recordings. In the 1950s, Klein played on both the Red Skelton Show and with David Rose.

Among his studio credits include solo work on Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” His working group played in the Brazilian Room the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel. 

Here’s a clip of the tune –

In 1957, Klein joined the ranks of the Welk band, as part of his “Music Makers.” He is credited with modernizing the orchestra’s sound with his “jazzy sound and superb musicianship” and before his stint was up, Welk often referred to Klein as "the greatest saxophone player in the world." He was also considered one of the best improvisers ever to play in the band.

Klein and Peanuts Hucko

The Lawrence Welk Show was one of the longest and successful shows in television history. The first episode aired in July of 1955. The final show was broadcast on April 17, 1982.

Explaining its success, writer Todd Vanderworff said: “Welk didn’t want to challenge his audience, really, but he benefited from networks that wanted arts programming and thought he came close enough. What Welk wanted, most of all, was to present a good time, a fizzy party that would never end, filled with his light and bubbly Champagne Music.

Watching the early episodes of “The Lawrence Welk Show” — before the series was overwhelmed by the cheesy musical skits that dominate the program in the public imagination — is watching a culture struggling to hold onto itself in the face of a coming youth movement.”
As conservative and old fashioned as he was, Lawrence Welk was the first variety show host to regularly employ a black performer, the tap dancer, Arthur Duncan.

Klein started with the band playing alto saxophone and first clarinet. He would later move to tenor. And with the Hotsy Totsy Boys on the show, Klein played curved soprano. According to the Welk family website, Klein is credited with helping to "modernize" the “Champagne Music” style with his “jazzy sound and superb musicianship.” In his tenure, Klein got to trade licks with among others, Peanuts Hucko, Pete Fountain and Al Hirt.

The Welk bands had a reputation for being well-rehearsed machines of precision. In his autobiography, Ah-One, Ah-Two! Life With My Musical Family, he wrote extensively about his disciplinary tactics and strategies. Once a musician joined the “family,” they were expected to play for him, exclusively. With the demands of a weekly television show, constant rehearsing, and touring, it left little room for much else.

Welk sax section 

For a great deal of the time, Klein played in a saxophone section of (from left to right, Klein), Bob Davis, Dave Edwards, Henry Cuesta and Dick Dale. Of the many tunes Klein was featured on they include: “Sweet Gypsy Rose,” “That’s a Plenty,” “At the Woodchopper’s Ball,” “Farewell Blues,” and “I Love My Baby (My Baby Loves Me).”

Here’s a clip of him playing “Sweet Gysy Rose” –

Klein was married three times and had one child. His third wife was Lois Lamont, Welk’s long-time personal secretary. The couple were together nearly 20 years. Klein’s worked with Welk ended in 1982 -- when the show ended. He died in Simi Valley, California on February 10, 1996. He was 78.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also Thank you.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sam Fuller, Nat Cole, and China Gate

By Chet Williamson

To say that Worcester-born filmmaker Sam Fuller was a maverick director in the world of cinema is just stating the obvious. He was a pistol, or more like, a revolver. To give you a taste of his style, in his autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking, check out Fuller’s advice to others: “Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them. Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story. Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent."

Indifferent, he was not. Fuller was an in-your-face filmmaker whose work you either chew-up and savored, or spit out and kept walking. One of the more controversial films in his oeuvre – and there were many – is China Gate, a difficult piece, concerning a difficult subject, in a difficult time and world.

The subject: A dark tale set in the Far East. Fuller, a grunt-dog during WWII, is a little heavy-handed with anti-Communist sentiment politically, but he pulls no punches.

Here’s his take: “There were enough hot topics used in this adventure love story to push everybody's buttons. Communism and colonialism. Racism and tolerance. Black market in capitalism. Abandonment and infidelity.

The yarn was set in Indochina in 1954, before it became Vietnam. Ruled by the French as one of the other colonies, the country is under siege by the Communist supported revolutionaries, led by Ho Chi Minh. Russia and China are pumping in supplies and ammunition. Angie Dickinson plays Lea, nicknamed “Lucky Legs, a half-caste resorts to smuggling to feed her five-year-old son. Since she's part Chinese and knows her way through the jungle, she accepts the assignment of leading a bomb squad a French legionnaires behind enemy lines to destroy the Communists’ main munitions dump. The French, however, must first promise Lea that they’ll arrange for her boy's evacuation to America.”

The film has both delighted and confounded critics since its release in 1957. Here’s celebrated critic Dave Kehr’s thoughts on China Gate: As a director Samuel Fuller placed his political convictions front and center in his films, and yet his work is also fraught — or rather, animated — by contradictions and moral paradoxes …. Surely one of the earliest Hollywood films to concern itself with the war in Indochina, this preview of coming attractions for America’s involvement in Vietnam is centered on a typically conflicted Fuller hero: Gene Barry as a Korean War veteran named Brock, who has turned mercenary to join the French forces fighting the Viet Minh. He volunteers for a mission, led by a French Foreign Legion officer, to destroy Soviet-stocked ammunition dumps on the border of Mao’s China. The dangerous, upstream expedition is further complicated by the fact that the unit’s guide will be a Eurasian bar girl known far and wide as Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson, in an early leading role). Lucky Legs happens to be Brock’s estranged wife and the mother of his young son — a child Brock rejected at birth because of his Asian features.”

Cole in character
For the purpose of this venue, let’s set aside the topic of politics and focus on jazz and Worcester. In a stroke of luck or maybe genius, Fuller cast Nat Cole in the role of Goldie, one of the film’s soldiers of fortune.

Kehr comments: Passionately, urgently anti-racist — the supporting cast includes the singer Nat “King” Cole as a black soldier at a time when African-Americans were still more likely to be portrayed in combat films as cooks or truck drivers — the film features Caucasian actors in its two most prominent Asian roles. Appearing with Ms. Dickinson is Lee Van Cleef as a cruel and cynical Viet Minh officer, who offers to take Lucky Legs with him if his appointment to a Moscow military school comes through.

Before getting deeper into the casting of Cole, here’s a quick bio-snapshot in Fuller’s own words: “I was born Samuel Michael Fuller on August 12, 1912, in Worcester Mass, the son of Rebecca Baum from Poland and Benjamin Rabinovitch from Russia. My parents had already changed the surname from Rabinovitch to a more American-sounding Fuller, probably inspired by Dr. Benjamin Fuller who came over on the Mayflower in 1620 ….

Young Sam

In Worcester, we lived in a small house on [5] Mott Street, near Holy Cross Church. One of my earliest memories was of those church bells at Holy Cross. I was laid up in bed with a bad cold in a high fever. The bells started ringing like crazy. I heard loud voices in the street. Through my bedroom window, I could see it was snowing outside. I got up and opened the window to listen to the exuberant tolling. It was November 11th. People down in the street was shouting that the Great War was over … .”

Fuller also lived at 83 Penn Avenue and 21 Waverly Street in Worcester and went to Ledge Street School, which was located off Water Street before being leveled to make way for the 290 expressway. He was one of seven children and he and his brother Ving, were amateur cartoonists and voracious readers of the local papers, especially the Worcester Telegram and Worcester Evening Post. Both papers ran comic strips daily.

Paperboys hawking their wares in downtown Worcester

Like my brother Ving,” Fuller recalled, “I had a knack for drawing when I was a kid. Then he was always more skilled but I love creating my own silly cartoons. That's how I fell in love with newspapers.”

As a child, Fuller earned extra money hawking those same local tabs on downtown-Worcester street corners. Very often people would grab a paper and throw a quarter at me, telling me to keep the change. How I looked forward to Sunday mornings on the street corner in Worcester. I’d take all of my earnings home and give it to my mother. She was so proud of me.”

Fuller also recalled having fond memories of the Hotel Bancroft on Franklin Street. Telegram staff reporter, Jack Tubert reported that in his day, “the hotel would invite all the newsboys into the lobby at Christmastime for a party. High point of the fun, Fuller recalled, was ‘when they’d release a live rabbit for the newsboys to catch. One year I caught it …. That was the thrill of a lifetime.”

Fuller was only 11 when he his father died. His mother packed up the family and moved to New York City and the rest is well-documented history. It should be noted that before heading to Hollywood, Fuller began working in the world of newspapers. While still a teenager he was hired at the Graphic, becoming one of the youngest crime reporters in the City, introducing the cub to the nightmarish-noir-underworld and, as the cliché states, its “naked-streets.” Fuller said, the gig also taught him how to “write without adjectives.”


Now, back to China Gate. The casting of Cole was not a conscious decision. It was more like an improbable twist of fate. Fuller says, “When I think of China Gate, I always think of the Goldie character. I'd given Goldie a soldiering background very much like my own. Zanuck liked the role, too, and asked me about who I had in mind to play the part. I said I wanted a man's man, but a guy with a warm, tender-looking face. I picked up an album on top of a pile next to Darrell's record player. If my soldier was black, he’d look just like the guy on the album cover, Nat King Cole.”

The incredulous [Darrell] Zanuck just laughed and said, “Sammy, Cole's a big star. We paid him seventy-five grand just to sing a title song. He's the most popular singer in the country. Do you have any idea how much he'd ask for appearing in your picture?”

Fuller said, “I shook my head. Immersed in my scripts, I was often naive about financial considerations and popular trends. The cigar in my mouth almost dropped when Darrell said, ‘Cole probably makes in a couple of weeks the entire budget for your film.’”

Fuller was undeterred, determined to enlisted Cole for the part. “I was infatuated with that face on the album cover, so I persisted,” he said. “A dinner was arranged so that I could meet Nat and his exquisite wife, Maria. They were both moved by my story for China Gate. I told Nat point-blank that I didn't write the part for the black actor. I needed Goldie to be diametrically opposite to Brock, the bigot who rejects his own child because of the little boys slanted eyes. Nat agreed to do the picture right away and asked for a minimum fee for his appearance.”

As Fuller said, when he thinks of China Gate, he thinks of Goldie. He wrote and directed the film, so he was obviously close to it. Maybe, too much so.

At the tail end of the decade, my mother passed away,” Fuller says. “Martha [his wife] had told me she couldn't have children, so I put the idea out of my mind. But, did I? I thought of my scripts as my children, pondering over them like an anxious father. Not having a kid of my own must have weighed on me. Buried with my other frustrations, it probably doomed my marriage to Martha. In one of the crucial scenes in China Gate, I wrote a speech for Goldie, letting my anxiety rise to the surface.

Here is the speech: “I always wanted a kid, Brock. My wife was told we couldn't have one. We put in papers to adopt one when my wife got sick. Eaten up inside, not being able to have one. Just eaten up. I watched her go down 75 pounds. She died feeling sorry for me. That's how much she knew I wanted a kid. When I learned you walked on yours … Let me tell you something, Brock. I've belted through two wars and I'm coming out of this one. You know why? Cause I've got a reason. I'll get my release when they know why I want out. I'll tell you one thing. Lucky Legs is going through hell for your son. And if something happens to her on this job, he’ll still get to the States, even if I have to crawl always with him on my back. (Reflecting) I've always wanted a son, Brock. Especially a five-year-old one.”

Cole and Barry 

As you would imagine, having Cole in a film, he would sing. Fuller says that was never his intention. “Cole wasn't supposed to sing on screen or off,” he said. “But young Victor Young had written the title tuned for the picture before his untimely death. When I played Victor’s music for Nat, he said he'd love to sing it to Lea's little boy on camera. I wasn't crazy about the idea at first. But after Harold Adamson wrote some lyrics and I heard that velvet voice croon the song, I couldn't resist.”

Victor Young

Cole’s first scene in the film opens with him cleaning his gun, sitting next to the child. As the camera pans down into his face, he sings these lyrics:

China Gate
China Gate
Many dreams and many hearts,
You separate.

Like two arms,
Open wide,
Some you welcome in,
And some must stay outside.

Bowl of rice
Bitter tea,
Is this all the good earth
has to offer me?

Will I find
peace of mind?
Does my true love wait
Behind the China Gate?

In describing the shot Fuller says, “We followed Nat with a camera on a boom crane high above the set as he walked in singing through the bombed-out village. I wanted his voice to seem like a nightingale flying safely above all the destruction.”

Fuller says, believe it or not, he actually suggested to Cole that he sing the song poorly. “After all,” he notes, “his character is a soldier of fortune who probably sings off key in the shower.”

Sammy, I can’t sing badly!” Nat told Fuller. “What would my fans say? And what would people in the profession think if I sang off key?”

He was right, of course,” Fuller added. “After we'd finished the picture, Nat invited Martha and me over to his place for dinner … . Nat King Cole brought out the loving child in everybody. I certainly fell in love with the guy. Nat’s gone now, but I'm still in love with him. People are never gone as long as they are loved. With its highly stylized characters, China Gate may seem like a cartoon today. However, the picture didn't shy away from the conflict of ideologies that was struggling for future power. Nor did it waver in condemning racism.”

Ultimately, beyond the setting of the madness of war, at the heart of China Gate, is the issue racism and the American psyche.

My tale is full of human foible and confusion,” Fuller said. “I deliberately wanted that confusion …. I want a picture to make a plea for understanding intolerance, the keys to coexistence between couples, between peoples, between nations. I pray that democracy is not like the bubbles that Nat and I blew in the air in the 50's, dreams that fade and died. It's up to the people of this tiny planet Earth just to think in more humane, more global terms if our children are to have a future with no more goddamn wars.”

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