Orson Welles' Brief, Passionate Love Affair with Betacam
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Frank Beacham : Orson Welles' Brief, Passionate Love Affair with Betacam
As a child of the 60s, I grew up with the simple, naive belief that the power of television could — and would — be eventually used to make the world a better place. I was wrong.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous cured me forever of that delusion.
What I learned during this period between 1984 and 1986 was that sometimes, just sometimes, one has to step into a sewer in order to reach nirvana in the entertainment business. It became clear to me that the journeys we take through this life begin and end in the most unexpected ways. While I labored in misery on Robin Leach’s television show, I simultaneously had one of my greatest adventures — all over one man’s fascination with Sony’s Betacam.
In January, 1985, my phone rang and the caller announced he was Orson Welles. It was like getting a phone call from God. He wanted to have lunch with me. Thus began one of the most extraordinary adventures of my life.
Orson Welles, 1982, by Jacques Langevin, via wellesnet.com
At the time, Lifestyles was already an unexpected hit and I was running the day-to-day production operations at the Sunset-Gower studios in Hollywood. Sony had successfully built the first interformat ENG edit bay in the country (Betacam-to-one inch) and Leach had the first major magazine show produced on the Betacam format.
Warren Jones (cam) and Bob Corbett (Sound) with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host Robin Leach in 1983 the day he saw the first Betacam. (Photo by Frank Beacham)
A freelance editor I hired for the show, Paul Hunt, also did some sound work for Welles, the legendary actor/director/producer/genius. He told Welles about our new Betacam facility and from that moment on the great man’s insatiable curiosity about every new sound and imaging technology took over. Welles wanted to meet me, and thus came a phone call from the great man himself with a lunch invitation many film buffs would have died for.
The lunch was at Welles’s favorite haunt, Ma Maison, a restaurant so private that it had an unlisted phone number. When I arrived, Welles was waiting. He rose, extended his hand and I said something like, “It is an honor to meet you, Mr. Welles.”
At this moment, he snapped that I was never to call him “Mr. Welles.” It was Orson. Always Orson. Like every utterance from his mouth, he said it like he meant it. I remember gulping as I sheepishly said the word “Orson.” As a Southerner, it seemed so disrespectful to drop the mister. But I did it...uncomfortably.
Orson quickly made me feel at ease. He was friendly and charming. We we were in the midst of some easy banter when I felt a sharp bite on my ankle. I jumped and yelped, realizing that something had bitten me. Orson quickly realized what happened. His nasty little dog, Kiki — at Orson’s side — had bitten me on the leg. Rather than admonish Kiki, Orson petted her and informed me that an empty chair across the way was for her. I was unnerved.
Normally, one might kick a dog that had just bitten you. In this case, I could not only not kick Orson Welles’s dog, but I couldn’t even appear to be upset by it. It was my first experience with Orson’s bizarre sense of humor.
The lunch that day was long and rambling. Orson didn’t drink wine at the time but kept ordering it for me. He preferred French wine over the California variety and made sure I had it. I don’t remember what I ate. We talked about cigars (he gave me one), our common love of radio and, of course, video.
Orson made it clear that he loved technology and that he always had. He liked to adopt new technology into his storytelling, whether it was radio, theatre or the movies. Now, he wanted to work with video. He referred to the Betacam as “an Arriflex without film.”
For reasons I don’t completely understand to this day, we hit if off. I knew about Welles’ legendary reputation in general, but not in detail. That served me well, I would learn later, because Welles despised people who tried to take him “down memory lane” with specific questions about his past.
He liked to look ahead, not back, which was — in his eyes — littered with disappointments and failure. Instinctively, I tried to focus only areas I had worked in and where we shared a common interest.
Frank Beacham, 1980s
One of those areas was radio. I had begun working in radio and knew of Welles through his historic innovations in the medium. I gently broached the subject with him and he warmed to it. Welles told me he should have stayed with radio, since it had not been polluted by all the vultures trying to make the big money in movies and television. From the wonderful stories he told, Welles clearly enjoyed looking back at his radio days.
One story he told made us both laugh heartedly. He did so many radio dramas during each day in the 1930s that he had trouble getting from studio to studio on time. Doing some research on the subject, he discovered that it was not illegal to move around the city in an ambulance. So Welles hired an ambulance, with sirens screeching as it raced through city traffic, to ferry him from studio to studio in record time.
Often, John Houseman, his producer, would sit in the ambulance as Welles lay on the cot — the two rehearsing lines for the next broadcast.
Orson Welles, 1936, working on "The Mercury Theatre On The Air"
The lunch lasted a couple of hours. It ended with Orson comfortable enough with me to suggest that we might work together on a video project. I responded with an enthusiastic yes. He insisted that we have lunch again in a couple of days. I agreed. When the check came, I tried to pay it.
In fact, Paul Hunt had insisted that I pay before he even set up the lunch. Orson wouldn’t allow it. I persisted. At this point, that “voice of God” prevailed. It was NO to me paying the check and that was it. I abided by the edict, though Hunt was furious with me when I told of it later.
That lunch led to many others throughout 1985. It always amazed me during this time that Welles was being pursued by some of the finest filmmakers in the world for lunch and he decided to spend his time with me. There was no doubt what he wanted and I had it. So while trying to avoid the stench of Robin Leach, Orson Welles was like breath of fresh air.
ON THE HIGHWIRE
My colleagues back at Television Matrix expressed disbelief and a bit of trepidation over my increasing involvement with Welles. There was a bit of fear, I sensed, that I would go crazy and abandon them. After all, I was just a glorified babysitter at the company anyway. When you preside over a group of freelancers you quickly learn they care about only one thing: Will they get paid tomorrow?
So I played a game of assurances when, in fact, my heart was in another place. It’s a terrible thing to say, but I was so fed up with the monster that I had created at that time that I would have gladly shut down the entire operation if I’d had the money to do so. The fact was that I didn’t have the money, so things would have to continue. Working with Welles and Leach simultaneously would become the biggest financial high wire act of my life.
Television Matrix editing suite, Hollywood, photo by Frank Beacham. Click for larger.
All along the way there was the loud sucking sound of Welles pulling me further under his marvelous spell. It was mostly cordial and friendly, but always businesslike. By businesslike, I mean that Welles was not one for chitchat. If you made a statement to him, it was best that you had previously thought it through.
He demanded details and expected that you could defend any comment you made in front of him. I learned early on there was no cheap bar talk with Welles. He could and would hang people in their own contradictions.
During the time I knew him he was working on a project for a Japanese company that involved him recording his favorite literary stories on audio tape. The Japanese loved Welles’s voice for learning English and Welles loved the freedom to create new versions of works he most liked. Some days after lunch he would go to a voice-over studio called Tele-Talent in Hollywood. He would also record in his bedroom above Stanley Avenue late it night after the nearby traffic quieted down. Working alone, he would use his personal Nagra tape recorder.
This led to one of the early “tests” he had for me. It was very late at night when my phone rang. I was asleep, but grabbed the phone anyway. It was Orson. He had a question. He said he was hearing little bumps in the audio after editing the sound on his Nagra. He said he didn’t know why.
I asked if he was using a razor blade to cut the tape for editing. He said yes. Then I quickly responded that the razor blade was magnetized. That was causing the audible bump on playback. He responded: “Exactly.”
Then he apologized for calling so late and reminded me we were having lunch the following day.
Another “test” involved Paul Rothchild, the record producer. I had met Paul through his girlfriend, a production assistant on the Lifestyles show. Paul had produced the Doors, Janis Joplin and the Paul Butterfield Blues band and had become wealthy doing it. He lived in a magnificent estate high above Laurel Canyon. We had become friends and he was fascinated that I was going to do a project with the great Orson Welles. He wanted to be involved and even offered to help finance it.
Like most everyone else I knew in the Los Angles creative community, Rothchild figured Welles was a renegade who would ultimately eat me up and destroy me on this project. He had managed to tame Jim Morrison in the recording studio and figured if he could accomplish that feat, he could most certainly handle Welles. So I brought Paul to a lunch with Orson one day and introduced him as my “producing partner.”
From the second they met, it was like two cats fighting for the same bowl of food. The meeting was a complete disaster. Here were two egos so massive that I thought I had been a party to creating an explosive bomb. Hours after the lunch finally ended, I got a call from Count Alessandro Tasca, Orson’s friend, a former producer and “enforcer,” who let me know in no uncertain terms that either Paul Rothschild was gone or Orson would no longer have anything to do with me.
Orson even demanded a written legal document from me that Rothchild would have nothing to do with any production in which he was involved or with me. I called my lawyer and we prepared such a document to placate Orson. The chastised Rothchild went along and we remained friends.
THE MAGIC SHOW
So, alone, I began to discuss a project with Orson. As things evolved, I learned that Orson had accumulated a lot of film over the years of him performing magic tricks. Things like him sawing Rita Hayworth in half. He wanted to use those old clips as segments in a new show that he would perform before a live audience. The new show would be recorded on video. Orson wanted a chance to experiment with the new medium. I was only too pleased to oblige.
We called it “the magic show,” though the "official" working title was to be Orson Welles Solo. Either way, Orson needed money. Not a lot by production standards of the time. About $300,000, we estimated. HBO offered it to Orson but he didn’t want them to interfere with his work.
He wanted to work completely independently, without accountants and what he called “bean counters” looking over his shoulder. He detested what he called “the dog and pony show” of raising money. I could do that, he said.
Orson told me a story about Pablo Picasso, a friend he considered a contemporary with comparable talent to his own. He noted that late in his life Picasso commanded millions of dollars for a painting sight unseen. Orson asked why shouldn’t he be accorded the same respect? Why did he have to submit a production budget when Picasso did not?
Frank Beacham, shooting with the first Sony Betacam, in the Orange Bowl, Miami FL
It was an interesting point and I used the Picasso story as a way to try to raise $300,000 for Orson. I told potential investors they would have to lay out the money without seeing a budget, script or anything. They would hold me personally responsible for everything. I would protect their investment from irresponsible spending by Orson. Not only that, they could not meet Orson, visit the set or have any special treatment. All they got was a credit on the show and the knowledge they had contributed to a work of art by one of the great creative geniuses of the 20th century.
I started making fundraising calls as Orson learned more about video camcorders and nonlinear editing. During this period, we visited New England Digital in Hollywood for a demo of nonlinear sound editing on the Synclavier, a tapeless audio system mainly used at the time for music production. Doing anything like this with Orson was always a challenge.
Orson made a grand entrance with an entourage of several associates at New England Digital’s Hollywood office. (He would enter only through the back door, declaring at the last minute that he wouldn’t walk through the lobby to get to the demo. There was no one in the lobby and they told me to tell Orson that the back door was blocked with some big boxes to be shipped that day. It didn’t matter. Orson refused to enter through the front door and threatened to leave if he couldn’t use the back door. So they had to move the big boxes blocking the door to accommodate his request. I leave that one to you to figure out.)
Once inside, Orson sat through the demo. He smiled and appeared to be delighted. He even recorded his voice into the system, saying “this is the era of sonic magic.” When it was over, he had “a few questions.” At this point he put the poor demo guy through pure hell, asking incredibly astute and difficult questions. He challenged the authenticity of a sound effect of a breaking wine glass, observing that this was a sound he “knew well” and the quality of sound effect was not quite there yet. He suggested they work on it some more.
Through his questions, Orson revealed not only an incredibly astute understanding of this very new technology, but of the infrastructure of computers, storage systems and digital sampling rates. This was 1985. Everyone in the room was astounded. He knew more than many of them! The term “senior moment” didn’t apply to Orson. He showed none of the normal mental lapses of a 70-year-old man. He had more the mind of a very smart 20-year-old.
ENTERING THE MAGIC DOOR
As for video post-production, Orson wasn’t content with just experimenting with a Montage Picture Processor, an early tapeless nonlinear editing system that emulated a flatbed film edit system. He wanted his own, and he wanted it to sit next to his flatbed film editor at home. Though he never came right and asked, I’m certain Orson wanted me to raise the money to buy him one.
One thing I didn’t realize about Orson was how political he was. I would later learn while working on his radio collection how Orson helped Franklin Roosevelt write his “fireside chats” and the cutting-edge eloquence of his political commentary. But in 1985, not a single day went by when Orson wasn’t ridiculing Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time. Orson simply couldn’t stand Reagan. He referred to him as “the actor,” with total disdain, and said the country was going to hell under Reagan’s rule. Looking back, Orson was pretty much dead-on.
Orson believed deeply in freedom and racial equality and simply couldn’t stand powerful, arrogant clowns like Reagan. But, at least in LA circa 1985, everyone I knew felt this way. So it didn’t stand out and I didn’t particularly notice Orson’s disdain for Reagan as being anything special.
As our lunches proceeded, I got to know and understand Orson better. First of all, he was not part of “the industry,” as far as motion pictures were concerned. He felt the industry abandoned him long ago. I don’t think he particularly liked LA, either. It was just where movies were made in America. Though I never heard him say it, I suspect he liked Europe better than the U.S. He was treated better there and liked their customs and tastes.
And, it was quite funny, but he liked the idea that Ma Maison had mice that occasionally ran through the restaurant. It was, he said, like other fine establishments he knew in Europe. One day, when some ladies screamed at the sight of a mouse scurrying across the floor at Ma Maison, he told everyone to calm down and enjoy the fact that that the restaurant they were in had such high European values.
Outside of work, the only places I knew him to frequent were Ma Maison, where he sometimes ate both lunch and dinner, and the Magic Castle, the private clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts. Orson sometimes went there to see magicians perform and to perform himself.
Orson Welles from his documentary, "F for Fake"
He also used to frequent Musso and Franks Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. But I don’t remember him going there often when I knew him. He also patronized a couple of cigar shops, where he made stops for his supply of cigars, which he often shared with me.
As I sweated over raising the money, Orson focused on how he’d use the two Betacams we’d secured to shoot the show. I had entered the magic door with Orson now and there was no turning back. He made the assumption that I would have the money when he was ready to shoot.
A MOMENT OF TRUTH...NOT EXACTLY
Just as he had accepted no conventional technical limitations when he made Citizen Kane in 1940, Orson approached video in the same unrelenting way. In 1985, Betacams had tubes, not chips, and their ability to sync to one another via time code was, to put it mildly, a bit crude. Orson didn’t care about any of these limitations. His vision was beyond that.
He demanded that the handheld Betacams float around the set wirelessly and to always be in perfect sync. He also wanted to shoot directly into bright lights and he didn’t want to hear about any problems with camera lag. He wanted me to protect him from all that.
Sony Betacam, photo by Frank Beacham.
“Call Sony and tell them to make it work,” Orson demanded, slamming his fist on a table. “Don’t ever tell me ‘no.’” I did call my old friends at Sony, and Sony responded by assigning two engineers to help Orson push the video envelope on the project.
The time window to the first day of shooting was closing in and I still didn’t have the money. Though I had done many pitches, I was meeting resistance. I was a nervous wreck.
One day, during lunch at Ma Maison, Orson and I had a moment of truth...well not really truth...more like a meeting of the minds. Orson had added a $35,000 illusion to the show. I panicked. Things were now out of control. I was in so deep now. I had no idea how I was to pull any of this off.
Orson must have sensed my fear. He casually asked how things were going on my end. I told him things were going well, but I needed a little more time with the investors. He gave me a sharp look and then, without warning, slammed his fist down on the table so hard that plates and silverware leaped into the air.
“Do you have the money or don’t you?” he demanded to know in that intimidating voice that one could associate only with God’s fury.
At this second my life flashed before my eyes. If I told him NO — the truth — it would have been over. I would be out on the street in seconds. I instinctively knew that.
So, adopting what I had learned in my brief time among the players in Hollywood, I opted to do what every worthy producer eventually learns to do. I lied. Big time.
“Of course, I have the money,” I told Orson with utter confidence. “There’s no problem. I’m ready to go when you are.”
At that moment, Orson’s demeanor completely changed. He smiled, laughed and ordered me some more wine. He proceeded as if his question had never been asked. I have no idea what he said the rest of the meal. I was numb and stayed that way for hours afterward.
What I do remember is that on this day, he allowed me to pay the check for lunch.
PULLING A RABBIT FROM A HAT
Back at the office, I kept making calls trying to raise the money. I was also dealing with an increasing list of technical demands. The middleman was Orson’s friend and a former producer, Alessandro Tasca, who I dealt with on a daily basis as our now designated October, 1985 shoot date approached. He was demanding, but reasonable and we got along fairly well.
Finally, after looking at facilities all over town, we found a place to tape the show...at the right price. Free. An auditorium on the UCLA campus. They would let Orson use the facility in exchange for a promise that he would teach a class there. A promise, by the way, he never intended to keep.
Once all the facilities and technical planning was in place, we were thankfully held up by Orson. He hadn’t written the script. But now he was working on it and we set a shooting date in a few days.
Miraculously, at the very last minute, everything fell into place. I received the phone call I had been wishing for. A group of investors, led by a banker, had set up a $300,000 line of credit for the production. I had the money. I couldn’t believe it.
The day before the shoot was to begin in November, 1985, the Betacams were tweaked to the max. The jury-rigs — and there were a lot of them — were tested and re-tested. Every engineer that was to be in Orson’s field of view was told that the words “you can’t do that” were to be stricken from consciousness. With this project, I demanded, we will find a way to do any and everything Orson wants to do. All the old excuses will be left at the front door.
It must be remembered that in 1985 video was still a very new thing and we were pioneers. I still had a one of kind, handmade video facility. You couldn’t just run to Radio Shack when you needed something. Stuff had to be invented and then pieced together. “Features” that were supposed to work often didn’t really work. You couldn’t believe the equipment brochures. There were a lot of con men in early video.
1985 ad for Sony Betacam featuring Milton Berle, and which quotes Frank Beacham. Click for larger.
"Sony Betacam -- it gets into those confined, all but impossible-to-reach places like Milton Berle's bedroom.
Orson wanted to use three handheld Betacams that wandered around the studio during the show. No wires connecting them. Every camera independent of the others. In order to synchronize those cameras for editing, it required that their time code generators be locked to each other. The first Betacams had that capability. You could lock them, but they shifted and went out of sync. They worked only for a matter of minutes before slipping apart. When the cameras got out of sync with one another, it became a mess in editing.
Orson counted on synchronous cameras because he was going to use them for illusions. If the cameras didn’t sync, the illusion didn’t work. Sony was there to make it work. I trusted them to rise to the occasion and drop the promises. That kind of trust was necessary for an Orson Welles project.
Yet, I knew we were all flying by the seat of our pants. The odds were against us in every direction. But, with Orson, that’s the way it had always been. And, somehow, he always pulled a rabbit out of the hat. I just figured he would do it again.
As the technical preparations for the shoot continued around the clock, Orson taped an appearance in the late afternoon on Merv Griffin’s syndicated talk show. Normally, Orson disdained conversations about his past. But, uncharacteristically, he did go down memory lane that afternoon with his old friend, Merv. Orson charmed the audience, both with stories and magic tricks.
Orson Welles on "The Merv Griffin Show," 1985
After the show, Orson had dinner at Ma Maison and then headed home to finish writing the script for our first taping, now only hours away. I was content that the money was there, but nervous about whether the technology would actually work. After a sleepless night, I went into the office early. Everything was ready. Orson was to call when he was ready to go to the shooting location.
As I sipped a cup of coffee in my office, the phone rang. It was Paul Rothchild.
“Did you hear the news,” he asked gently. “What news?” “Orson Welles is dead.” Orson had died of a heart attack during the night. He was found slumped over his typewriter, working on our script.
Minutes later, Alessandro Tasca called and said bluntly: “Frank, the project has been canceled.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In addition to his pioneering work in video production, Frank Beacham’s journalism career covered some pivotal events in the past 50 years of American history. He was assigned to cover the civil rights movement in Mississippi in early 1970s, was a documentary cameraman at 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and provided multi-station radio coverage of flights of Apollo 11 and 13 from the Kennedy Space Center.
Frank’s books include American Cinematographer Video Manual, Charlie’s Place: How the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Stop the Rise of Rhythm and Blues, and Whitewash: A Southern Journey Through Music, Mayhem and Murder. He received a BA in Journalism from the University of South Carolina, and did post-graduate studies at UCLA, the University of Southern California, and the American Film Institute.
Frank graciously allowed us to reprint this story from an upcoming book. The article and his photos are all copyright. To read more of Frank’s amazing stories, please visit www.frankbeacham.com.