For 50 years, America sat in the dark, listening to romantic lines from Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid, John Garfield, James Cagney and Cary Grant. But the words that turned on the country frequently came from a skinny-legged former fighter by the name of Julius Epstein.
"Julie" got his due Monday night, as the Writers Guild Foundation honored him with dinner. "It took more than 50 years, but I finally got a good table at Chasen's," Epstein told the 200-plus crowd and speakers, including Henreid, Tony Perkins and writers Hal Kanter, Max Shulman, Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond and Mel Shavelson. Epstein--frequently working with his twin, Philip, and with other collaborators--wrote a litany of classic films, including "Casablanca," "Light in the Piazza," "Fanny," "Mr. Skeffington," "Four Daughters," "Strawberry Blonde" "Pete 'n' Tillie" and "Reuben, Reuben."
The evening was crackly warm with emotion, since, as Arnold Peyser explained, "Writers are different. If a director was having a problem with a film, would he call another director?" Peyser shook his head at the thought. Epstein put writers' feelings somewhat differently, explaining that he was a pretty good fighter--but he had never taken a swing at a director, a producer or a star, "and for that, I apologize."
Kanter set the tone for the evening, explaining that the Epstein brothers had started their working careers cleaning out stalls in their father's livery barn. "Nobody ever had a more fitting preparation for a career in Hollywood."
Walter Shenson, who produced "Reuben, Reuben," told about Epstein's worry that he "protect the dialogue." Outfitted with a headset, Epstein followed the shooting of the first scene, nodding approval and giving Shenson the high sign. When the director yelled "Cut," and told the actors to prepare to do the scene a second time, Epstein's obsession became clear: "What for?" he asked. "They didn't change a word."
Epstein might have written the words that end "Casablanca," but Henreidinsisted that it was "in my contract. I had a teacher who had told me--the important thing is that you end up with the girl." His agent at the time, Lew Wasserman, "insisted on this."
Shulman, a recent and frequent collaborator with Epstein, said that on meeting him, "I fell to my knees and cried, 'Master.' " First saying that he never knew Epstein to do "one shameful thing," Shulman then kiddingly amended his statement, saying, "We did write a pilot for Marie Osmond. But, in Julie's defense, he thought we were writing it for Marie Dressler."
When Epstein's son, Jim, took the podium, he asked the audience that the writer be honored "not only for his professional life, but his personal life," pointing out his devotion to his late brother--who died more than 30 years ago--and to his three children.
Epstein himself had almost the last word: "The ugliest word in the English language is improvisation ." The word was uttered at the dinner's end at midnight, which also proved that the writer was right who said, "This is why we need directors. We never know when to cut."
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING--Norman Lear did his annual pitch, and the eighth Rape Treatment Center brunch at Sandra Moss's house netted more than $150,000 for the 13-year-old landmark facility. As usual, Lear broke the tension by first taking a pledge from RTC board member Beverly Sassoon and then pointing out that the fellow at her side was Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine). After asking, "Beverly, are you seeing the senator," Lear punctuated the tittering by a "Hi, senator," then said that for another $2,500 pledge, "We can strike that." The brunch is always a good example of how to raise money--with underwriting for the event from Peter and Helen Bing, Ted and Susan Field and an anonymous donor, contributions from wineries, printers, A&M records--making sure that the money from the $175 tickets and the pledges go directly to the center. The cast from "L.A. Law" provided glamour and certainly put their pledges where their presence was--as did the waiters and waitresses from Rococo, who pledged $1,000. Lear sang "My Funny Valentine" for $1,000--then stopped when friends like a glamoured-up Valerie Harper paid $2,000 to have him stop.
As usual, the celebration was punctuated with the reality of the center's work. A police officer was cited for bringing a rape victim to the Santa Monica center after hospital workers in East Los Angeles advised her to just try and forget what had happened. When she came to the center, the young woman was carrying a bottle of poison. Officer Bob Howe of Los Angeles was duly honored, in before a crowd that included big givers like Abigail van Buren Phillips, Sheriff Sherman Block, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, Steve Allen and his wife Jayne Meadows, Mary Ann Mobley and Dorothy and Alan Jonas.
RIGHT RECIPE--When Meredith Brokaw and Annie Gilbar decided to do their book on successful kiddie parties, "The Penny Whistle Party Planner," they threw normal caution to the winds. Indeed, that slim duo--Gilbar has been involved in all three of Victoria Principal's diet and glamour books--tested the dozens of cake recipes for the book, using as their taster Brokaw's anchorman husband, Tom. He finally gave up the job when presented with a "half-birthday cake," for half-birthdays (designed for kids whose birthday comes in the summer when friends are away). Meredith Brokaw and Gilbar, along with her designer-architect husband Gary, were feted Saturday night by good friends Lisa Specht and Ron Rogers, and a crowd that included Jess and Phyllis Marlow, Judy Henning and Dick Rosenzweig, Kathleen Brown and Van Gordon Sauter and Ira and Adele Yellin.