Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Loving Life of Phil and Alice

Who better to write about Phil Harris than his guitar player, Frank Remley?

Well, that’s presuming Remley did write the literate account of Harris’ comfy, happy life with wife Alice Faye in the February 1949 edition of Radio and Television Mirror. And while these magazine feature stories tend to be puff pieces, this one has the ring of truth. Phil and Alice eventually had 54 years of, by all accounts, wedded bliss. And Phil liked to enjoy life, too.

Remley’s own story is bizarre if you think about it. He was part of the Phil Harris orchestra that was hired to work on the Jack Benny show. But, after awhile, Phil left the orchestra directing chores to Mahlon Merrick. And when Phil left the Benny show in 1952, he left Remley and his orchestra behind. On top of that, when Phil and Alice got their own show in 1948, they had Frank Remley on it. Only Remley didn’t play himself. Elliot Lewis played him. And when Phil left the Benny show, the Remley character on his show changed his name to Elliot Lewis. Follow all that?

Anyway, because the article is magazine length, I don’t want to waste your reading time with a long introduction. The photos accompanied the story. As an aside, the Mirror re-visited the Harrises in its Christmas edition that year with another cheery, happy-family piece.

WHEN Alice Faye and Phil Harris were married, the event probably added ten years to my life. It also interrupted a pool game that gave promise of setting a world's record for marathon endurance and elapsed time.
These are minor results of the marriage. There are others more important.
For example, there was the night, not long ago, when Phil, brandishing a flashlight, led me out into his garden. After some groping, he turned the beam onto a small branch of leaves.
“Tuberous begonia,” he announced. “Grew it myself, and it bloomed today.”
Tuberous begonia! I knew Phil Harris when, before he married Alice, he didn't know a begonia from a buttonhook.
He's the guy who used to keep me up till dawn playing pool after we'd finished our night's work on the bandstand. I guess we played pool in every sizable town in the country. He was the chief exponent of the theory that you worked at night, had breakfast in the evening, ate a midnight snack at 8 A.M. and went to bed at an hour when other citizens were hustling to their jobs. When he discovered Alice Faye he also discovered daytime, and when Phil began going home after work my health improved. I got to go home, too.
I've known Alice and Phil for a long time. In fact, I met Phil when he and his band, elegantly titled "The Dixie Syncopators" came aboard the City of Los Angeles to sail for a Honolulu engagement, more years ago than either of us wants to remember. I was playing guitar with the ship's orchestra. Phil, at the time, had the thickest Southern accent ever heard north of Mobile. I was from the south of North Dakota and I'd never run into anything like it before. We've been friends ever since that, and believe me when I tell you, being a friend of Alice and Phil is about as lucky as you can get. The loyalty, generosity and understanding that has made their marriage happy in a town where the mortality rate of marriages is high, extends over to their friends.
But, if I were to tell you that the Harrises are just like the successful young couple next door to you, I’d be cheating. They are like no one else in the world. In the first place, they're in show business, where, added to the other natural hazards of wedded bliss, there is the danger of professional jealousy.
Either they've never been jealous of each other, or they are the best actors in the world. I love them both, but I say let Olivier do Hamlet.
Phil and Alice are each other's best audience. And they give each other top billing. Last summer when we were in Europe, Alice didn't work with the show. At the Palladium in London on our first appearance, the ovation was really great. But it was when the audience started yelling for Alice and she came on stage to get thunderous applause, that old Butter Beans and Candied Yams got a frog in his throat and was seized by a sudden attack of moisture in the eyes.
Phil owned his house in Encino for some time before he and Alice were married. But in those days it was just a place to go to sleep. Brother, things are different now. Not only has he taken gardening seriously, but he and Alice have lately turned amateur architects. Before we went to Europe they plotted out a new wing to be added, almost the size of the original house. They did this by a series of sketches, into which Phil drew a number of original ideas involving some pretty complicated problems of construction. He stood pat on them, too. If anyone had asked me at the time, I'd have given odds that the thing would turn out to be nothing but regrettable.
ONE of Harris's pet ideas was a second-story archway which was to lead from the children's wing, in the new portion of the house, directly to the master bedroom. Another was the installation of record cabinets behind the paneling of the new 25 by 25-foot room downstairs.
Well, not only did both ideas work—they're both great. The job wasn't finished, however, when we left town, so Alice's brother Charlie took over the rest. He added a touch of his own by putting metal racks on tracks in the wall, so whole blocks of records can be pulled out into the room. Phil considers this the greatest invention since the bazooka and tells the most casual listener the story of Charlie's master device. Contrary to what you hear on the radio, both Alice's brothers, Charlie and William, are close friends of Phil.
"The Harrises have close to 3000 records in their collection. This includes a recording of every show they've done. Because they are serious show people, they put in a good many hours listening to these on the play-back machine, figuring what can be done to improve the delivery, style, and the show generally. Phil goes over Alice's songs carefully, and she never sings a number he doesn't approve. Don't believe the cracks about his lack of musical knowledge. The guy is a fine musician, and a painstaking one. If you don't think so, try being careless when you're playing for him some time.
When it comes to the business of raising their daughters, Phil will go on record that Alice is the tops in mothers. Both Alice Jr. and Phyllis are well behaved, well-mannered and unspoiled. Phil, however, is not one to shirk his responsibility and I've seen him take disciplinary problems into his own hands from time to time with, from the viewpoint of another parent, gratifying results. Alice Jr., who is six, is occasionally invited by her parents to sing for guests. There's no denying she enjoys performing, and she's good. Phyllis, at four, is already trying to stand on her toes. Neither of their parents will mind if the girls want to follow them in show business—but they'll be very sure the kids have real talent before they encourage them.
Both Phil and Alice are great gift-givers. They give to each other and they give to their friends. I would personally hate to get Alice's flower and candy bill each month.
When Phil and Alice were first married they gave each other gifts on what seemed like an average of once on hour. He'd give her a piece of jewelry just because it was sunny, or because it was raining, and she'd give him a present because it was half past two Thursday. Any excuse would do so long as they were buying each other something. He wears a star ruby she gave him on their first anniversary, and she particularly likes a heavy gold pin made in the shape of a heart with an arrow of rubies through it that is one of his gifts to her. They are also the sort of people who give souvenir-type presents. This has caused me some worry when the band plays in a town with a particularly distinguishing but unmovable landmark.
It naturally follows that they are inveterate shoppers. They buy on different plans, but they both buy. Phil buys because he thinks at the time the item is a good idea. This may or may not prove true. Alice shops with the idea of making life more happy, more comfortable for her family or her friends. Turn those two loose abroad and you have something—especially when they have rationalized themselves that they are leaving necessary dollars for the stabilization of Europe. Alice bought hats in France, dishes and silver in England.
Phil bought a car, and among sundry other purchases, one which will go down in family history. It came to light when, after they'd come home, they were unpacking their accumulation, and Alice came upon a crystal piece shaped like a cornucopia, and mounted with a brass cover. Phil, under direct cross examination, admitted buying it but confessed he didn't know exactly what it was. When last I saw it, it was sitting in the middle of the pool table in the game room, carefully dusted every day while its eventual disposal is still under consideration.
PHIL takes more than the casual husbandly interest in Alice's clothes. He thinks, along with most of the other males in this country, that she's one of the most glamorous girls in the world. He likes her to have new clothes and lots of clothes. He never offers a word of criticism about what she wears; he thinks her taste is perfect. She does sometimes buy some sport clothes for him, and it may be her subtle influence or it may be just that the old Haberdasher's Dream is getting a little bit conservative; but it seems to me there's a slight tempering to the checks he wears lately.
Neither of them holds the purse strings on the other, but Alice does handle most of the household things like the laundry bills, the cleaners, the grocery bills, thus leaving Curly free to dream up ideas like sliding panels and suspended corridors.
Since both the Harrises practically grew up in night clubs, they almost never go near the Hollywood late spots for entertainment. I think, by actual count, they've been out "doing" the famous Sunset Strip clubs twice in the seven years they've been Mr. and Mrs. They entertain at home, and the group of friends they see most often takes turns in entertaining.
They rarely go out to big parties, but when they do Phil complains that Alice, who has had to be urged to go in the first place, doesn't want to leave once she gets there.
"I don't know why I go through this," he says. "I spend two hours getting her started, and three hours getting her to go home. I am nothing but a martyr to sociability."
He doesn't mention, naturally, the Harris problem about the "47." The "47" is a club in San Fernando valley frequented, mostly, by musicians. Every now and again a bunch of us who followed each other in hotels and theaters, who've known each other for years, get together out there for our own private jam session. Phil plays the drums. Although old Curly says his foot gets tired fast now, I've seen him sit in until 2 or 3 A.M. All our wives protest, of course, but wives are like that. Alice sometimes comes down to listen for a while, but eventually she gets tired. Curly won't budge. Alice is welcome to stay, but he just ain't goin' home. Not yet awhile. After all, we think there has never been music like we turn out at the "47."
PHIL is essentially a man's man. He loves these get-togethers with the boys, and he likes getting a bunch of guys together for hunting and fishing trips. Alice keeps his guns racked behind glass doors, and sees that they aren't touched by interested guests. Curly has taught her to fish a little, but I think he'd have a nervous collapse if he ever saw a gun in her hands. Both these hobbies are strictly for males. Besides, he plays golf—another enthusiasm Alice doesn't share. The fact that she doesn't begrudge this time away from the family is proof to me of her complete understanding of Phil.
Another thing. Phil's nervous system is contradictory—he can go from tension to complete, instant relaxation. Of course, this latter is a must when you do one-night stands, else you don't live to be even Jack Benny's age. Phil can lie down on a table top in broad daylight with a band playing ten feet away and go to sleep before you can say Phil Spitalny. I've always resented this. I have looked at him when we've been on the road, seen him sleeping peacefully in a jolting bus—and, well, it's the only time I've ever harbored any ill will for the guy. However, he is nervous. He stands off stage bouncing like a fighter going into the ring, before shows. He never speaks of it—but the nervousness is there. When this is apparent at home, Alice simply leaves him alone—another lesson to wives who feel nervous tension must be talked out and soothed over.
Phil and Alice are probably two of the most loyal friends anyone will ever have. The people closest to them now are the ones they've known for many years. When they were kids, Alice and Betty King danced together—almost their very first jobs, with the Chester Hale group in New York. Betty is still Alice's closest friend. She is now Mrs. Walter Scharf, and Walter is musical arranger on the air show.
When Phil and I were in the service, we were stationed for some time at Catalina Island. Phil was a Lt. j.g. I was a musician, and just a plain sailor. The officers at the island were quartered, two to a bungalow in a section apart from the regular barracks. Phil asked me to share his cottage although he knew officers weren't supposed to hob nob with the men. I'll never forget the faces of the other Gold Braids the first morning Curly, all gussied up in uniform, stepped out of his cottage, followed by me in my sailor suit. But Phil didn't care and I stayed. After we were out of service some wag asked him if I'd ever saluted him.
"Once," said Curly. "I was walking down the street with a full Commander and we met Frankie. He split one salute between the two of us." Maybe one of the reasons I'm a little prejudiced about the Harris family is because I fell in love with Alice, almost when Phil did. So did the rest of the band.
I remember the day. We were playing in Oregon, rounding out a tour we'd done every year for a long time. Phil and Alice had been seeing a good deal of each other and we all figured they were probably taking this business pretty seriously. Then, one day, Alice chartered a two seated plane and flew up to meet us, to spend a few hours with Phil and fly back in time for work at the studio the next morning. Alice loves flying. Phil and I had always shared the opinion that the nicest thing about flying was landing.
That afternoon we all went out to the airport. We watched the little plane come in, circle the field, and land. We figured as follows: It must be love. No one would do a thing like this to spend approximately three hours with Phil unless. When she left, the whole band got' up in the middle of the day to wave goodbye. It was then we knew we were all in love with her.
For my part, I was happy too, to see them marry because this courtship was pretty expensive. Alice took a trip down through the Canal, and every night Phil called her on board ship. We were playing in a hotel at the time, and as she got further away, the calls got longer on account of this unendurable separation. I was ready to hock my guitar when she got home again.
They met first when Alice was singing with Vallee. We followed him into a theater, I think. Anyway, the kids said "So pleased," and didn't see each other again for seven years.
It was while we were playing at the Bowl in Los Angeles that they met again. Some friends called Phil and invited him to a supper after work, at a valley night spot. Phil thought they said Alice was with them—what they did say was that she was also at the night club. Well, Phil had a date, a nice girl whom he took along. He went over to Alice who was sitting near his friends and, still under the impression she was in the party, asked if she wouldn't come over to his house some morning, meet his mother who was living with him, and have breakfast. He added as an inducement that they'd have ham and eggs. Alice allowed that she had ham and eggs at home, thank you.
Phil devoted days to finding someone who knew her unlisted phone number. Finally he charmed it out of a mutual friend, made several calls and got set down each time.
It was on a night when he was giving his all to "That's What I Like, etc., etc," that he got a phone call. Why, asked the voice at the other end, did he insist on singing about food? Didn't he know there were some people who dieted? Couldn't he find another song? Phil didn't care about being criticized for his choice of serenades. The point was—she listened to him!
About three months later they married.
Since they were married twice, once in Mexico and once in Texas for good measure, they celebrate two anniversaries, even after seven years. The band was right. They're in love.
Alice has gone with us on one-nighters. She's never complained, and she's never asked for special favors in the way of comfort. She's trouped because she wanted to be with Phil.
I think Phil admires most her essential kindness. She is one of the most genuinely sympathetic and kindly persons I've ever known. This has, from time to time, led to situations. Like when a housekeeper suddenly developed a great fondness for cats. There got to be twenty-seven of the animals. Alice wouldn't do it, so it was up to Phil to settle the problem about whether the cats or the family went. Once each week the Harrises bundle up their family and go out to spend the evening with Phil's mother at Malibu Beach. Another night they have dinner at Alice's mother's house. Phil is thoughtful toward Alice, his mother, his daughters—everyone, in fact. Perhaps the secret of their happiness is that they have a vast amount of respect for each other. Perhaps it is that they understand each other completely.
Anyway, there are the Harrises. A pretty grand couple. I wouldn't, you understand, talk about them if I weren't sure that what I say will never get back, because they are my friends, and I'm proud of 'em.

1 comment:

  1. Probably because Phil left Jack's radio show in 1952 (and "his boys" in the band), that caused Frank Remley to withdraw his permission to use his name on Phil & Alice's radio show. That's why, that fall, Elliott Lewis suddenly began appearing as a fictional version of "himself" (instead of "Frankie") for the last two seasons.