Well, let’s clarify something right away: Ruta Lee was portraying a drunken bar girl in an episode of Bonanza entitled “A Woman Lost”. I’m revealing this because Ruta Lee, who had a show life that was bigger than real life itself, couldn't include every memory, thus, omitted the following tidbit from her “and then I met” autobiography, Consider Your Ass Kissed.
But, of course, I understand, because she had such an extraordinary life enjoying the company of Hollywood and Broadway A-Listers; hell, it must have been one of the roughest creative decisions ever, to have not included the week when, an almost-bar-mitzvahed 12-year-old, waited in the shadows behind the cameras amidst the grips and gaffers, before making his moves, at Paramount Studios in 1964.
Whew. Now, take a breath or two, will ya, Bruce?
But that week, which was just one of the many weeks I spent at Paramount, as a nerdy kid, fascinated by how his favorite TV show was made. Was I just a silent watcher? Not a chance. Although I was virtually a mute in the real world, so shy, that people thought I was actually speechless. This was an advantage, actually. Although I had a less than frolicsome childhood home life, my mother and middle school teacher plotted my salvation... by way of my love of TV shows; this is where my “when I was there” life began. To me, it was as normal as the Cub Scouts would have been to the neighbor bully. But when I started sharing my stories some 60 years later, new friends and associates gaped at me with wide-eyed wonder, if I’d lived on Mars.
So, what's this got to do with Ruta Lee? She was actually the first actress I got to really observe do her thing. I’d watched the Cartwright men (Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon) for a year prior to meeting Ruta. I was just far enough away on the sets to simply watch my heroes in their costumes, being, well, the Cartwrights. But as I scooched in closer, week by week, to get right in there, I fell in love with actors, realizing they were working very hard to breathe life and love into words that some guy (like me) put down on a page.
Let's talk about how and why I re-found “A Woman Lost”. First, for no other reason than coincidence, I re-watched the 1964 episode on YouTube a few months ago, and was reminded how good the writing in those days was, and how the directors could put an actress into a close up to deliver a two-page monologue without cutting away. That’s what Ruta Lee did. And it brought back my experience at Paramount Studios the week that episode was filmed. But, I didn’t see Ruta and Lorne Greene shoot that scene that week, because the set was closed, because, as I was told by Michael Landon, who was preparing to shoot the next scene after lunch: “That scene is for the actors”, he said. “They have to focus. It’s one of those days when we actually feel things.” I was only 12, but I knew exactly what he was sharing with me, along with his Paramount butter brownie (which the commissary was famous for in those days).
But true to formula, show business is a very tiny community; or at least it was back in the 60’s. Everyone knew each other, and if you had a Jewish mother who was involved in more than a few charities and weekly Maj Jong games, I got dragged along to lunches, meetings, often held at movie studio commissaries. My mom liked Warner Bros. especially, because of their Caeser salad; so we were there twice a month. Paramount's commissary not only had that brownie, but a Cobb Salad that was so good, it was a state secret. Thus, while she and the girls gabbed and gobbled their cobbled salads, I strolled the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood.
My first trip, which was actually a private tour (but that's another whole entire blog post), I was aghast to find out that the town of Virginia City was actually behind the Hollywood gates with a giant mural of a mountain in the distance. And worse, (or thrilling to learn), the Ponderosa ranch house was INSIDE a huge brick building called a sound stage. And it was on one of those sound stages, where the San Francisco saloon set was burgeoning with drunken cowboys, miners, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and the drunken bar girl, Ruta Lee. She was “A Woman Lost”, who in the script, would be just another woman “saved” by Ben Cartwright. I related. Because when I was there, knowing my mom was waiting for me to finish soaking up as much as I could, I felt as saved as Ruta's character, Rita Marlowe.
During the camera change, where I first witnessed the crew moving walls of the bar so the camera could swing around to capture the previous scene from the opposite angle. It was thrilling for a little kid who thought everything he saw on TV was real. I made my move. Lorne Greene already knew me, because this had not been my first visit. He was sitting with Ruta Lee, so I moved around a crane, and got in his eye line. It was 1964, but it feels like yesterday. Mr. Greene motioned for me to come closer: “Oh, you mean me?” I faked it like I did a lot to maintain my innocence, the cherub with a crew cut, braces on his teeth, and huge horn-rimmed glasses.
“Bruce, this is Ruta Lee.”
She was sweet, but I remember being a little scared of her. Her face looked like someone socked her (reminding me of my home life), and although she looked like a human being, she wasn’t: she was a “character”, a sad woman. I learned much later that she was an actress who maintained her focus, even during the lighting changes. Mr. Greene told her I was a fan, etc., so she was nice. She made little of my being there, because she hadn't been told I was on the “Bonanza” set all the time. I was no more than a little kid, but she eventually noticed me, because when she went back to work, to dance in the scene, I got the chance to reveal to her that the scene was nothing like “Michael Kidd’s choreography in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” That's when I got her. She looked down at me and I could see in her eyes, “How do you know about Michael Kidd?” She was amazed that I could name names like that; the name of a choreographer nonetheless. So, on the next break, Ruta Lee gave me the dirt on the week they shot that legendary barn raising sequence in Seven Brides...
Mom arrived, saw I was, perhaps, being a pest, stepped in to relieve Ruta of my inquisitiveness. She didn’t seem to mind, telling my mother, “you've got quite a kid there”. “Not really,” my mom said, “he just likes movies more than the cub scouts”.
I rarely talked on the long drives home. My mind was still on my days at the studios. I was still thinking of the Ruta Lee’s, and how close I got to them. I was always in a bad mood before I went to visit a movie set, but on the way home, I was always happy; and as I look back, I walked in the door, so filled with confidence, that nobody laid a hand on me.