The Lincoln Highway as Movie Set

First published August 2013

maxresdefaultDirector-actor-writer John Putch has once again returned from Hollywood to south central Pennsylvania and is putting the finishing touch on his trilogy of “Route 30” films that tell have entertained movie goers with his affecting series of interwoven stories portraying the people of the area in the very real locale of sites and settings found on either side of the Lincoln Highway (mostly coterminous with Route 30) from Gettysburg to Chambersburg. I did not know that Putch, his cast and crew were filming “Route 30, Three.” Had I known, I would have scheduled what was about to happen by chance.
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Background: A year ago, I did not know anything about John Putch. Then, last fall, I read a local newspaper article that more or less promoted the upcoming (mid-September 2012) premier of “Route 30, Too” at the Capitol Theater in Chambersburg, Pa. I had only gone to a movie premier once before—at Universal Studios Hollywood about a decade ago when someone must have accidentally placed my name on an invitation list. But it wasn’t such a big deal—about a thousand people for a forgettable film that was preceded by a parade of well-dressed young men and women who did a lot of smiling and posing.
John Putch, in his early fifties, had already had a successful acting career on television and films before he turned primarily to directing in the mid-1990s. Acting and directing are in his DNA. His late father, Bill Putch, established and led the Totem Pole Playhouse in Caledonia State Park for 30 years before he died in 1983. His mother, Jean Stapleton, who passed away last May, was best known for her role as Edith Bunker in the enormously successful “All in the Family” television series in the 1970s. His younger sister, Pamela, is also in the entertainment business.
I and my significant other decided to take in the premier last September on a whim, and are we sure happy that we did. We saw that Putch, who is well known and well connected in Los Angeles—a number of “below-the-marquee” actors who one would recognize from here and there were in the film—and in the Chambersburg-to-Gettysburg area.

Ed Gottwaith

Ed Gottwalt

Businesses and homeowners who remember Putch fondly opened their homes, farmland and business locales to him to serve as sets. The professional actors who came to the area to work in the film for virtually nothing were joined by locals who did a commendable job as actors—especially Ed Gotwalt, owner of Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum & Candy Emporium, located on Route 30 in Orrtanna, Pa., roughly midway between Gettysburg and Chambersburg. Mr. Ed portrays himself in the film, which also features his candy emporium and all of its candy, fudge and quirky museum collection of elephant figurines.
After seeing the premiere of “Route 30, Too” last September, we had the opportunity to meet some of the cast—but not Putch—then left the theater and drove around the area to familiarize ourselves with some of the film’s setting and scenery. In the next several days and weeks, however, we read more about John Putch and the Route 30 films. We rented, then bought, the two films. We also rented and watched another, earlier Putch-directed film “Mojave Phone Booth,” set mostly in … well, the Mojave Desert. We took a closer look at some of the actors and recognized them from their roles in other films and television series.
It is difficult to give one a thumbnail sketch of the first two films in the Route 30 trilogy. All of the story lines are funny and, sometimes, a bit touching. I would suggest visiting www.route30trilogy.com. There, you will also find news and just-posted photos about the progress of the film, which is scheduled to shoot through next month.
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IMGP3071Oh. Where was I? So, on the morning of Aug. 16, not knowing that filming was actually taking place, we were on our way back home following a drive vacation that had taken us to Kansas and back, when we stopped by Mr. Ed’s place (I had wanted to buy some fudge), where Putch was filming a scene from the new film. Serendipity had struck. For about 10 minutes, I watched cast and crew do their work. Then, there was a break while the crew set up for a different shot within Mr. Ed’s. So, I introduced myself to John Putch and we talked and talked. Believe it or not, I did not do all DSC00972the talking. He seemed pleased that we had watched all three of his films so far, and that we had attended last September’s premiere. After not quite 10 minutes, we shook hands for the second time and I parted feeling like I had just met a new friend.
That would have been it, except that we also talked with Mr. Ed for a while. He was off to work at the Totem Pole Playhouse in an ensemble role for the musical, Barnum. I complimented Mr. Ed on his ability to portray himself on screen.
Eager to get to my fudge and back home to Lemoyne, still about 45 miles away, we left the scene, already waiting for an announcement of next year’s “Route 30, Three” premiere in Chambersburg. See you there.

PS. And go we did.

cast qanda

 

 

Bob Newhart—an Appreciation from the Heart

Reprinted from April 11, 2014
GTY_bob_newhart_jtm_150113_16x9_992Everything about him is tentative—from his gestures, his stammering (not stuttering) speech and the deadpan way he looks when he finishes a joke and hesitates—anticipating his audience’s response, not completely confident of the laugh that experience tells him he will receive.
The tentative nature, along with his modest bearing, has made him millions—in both numbers of fans and followers, and in monetary worth. Still, Bob Newhart regarded and remembered fondly by just about every American television viewer more than thirty-five years old in addition to millions younger than thirty-five, must still work, must still make people laugh and must still see and hear them laugh, or know they laughed. (Why? Wait and read the answer at the end of this.)
Bob Newhart Big Bang Theory ShotHe is nearing the age of eighty-five now and still working. For those of us who like him and enjoy his work, we will have another opportunity to watch him early next month (May 1st) in which he has a recurring role as Professor Proton in “Big Bang Theory,” the most popular comedy on network television. Now in its seventh season, the program features four brainy nerds with postgraduate degrees who, with the exception of one of them (Leonard) have stunted social skills. The key characters all love anything having to do with Star Wars, which is what the episode debuting on May 1st is all about. (May 4, incidentally, is also Star Wars Day). Professor Proton is a character who was the childhood idol of the show’s lead character, Sheldon, who has a PhD in theoretical physics.
It was more than fifty-five years ago that Bob Newhart began honing his skills as a comedian, in his home town of Chicago. By that time, he had already served in the U.S. Army two years stateside during the Korean War era and had graduated from college with a degree in business management. Working in the nine-to-five white collar world of numbers crunchers did not sit well with him and, on the side, he had been working on comedy routines with a friend (who later moved on to New York) and trying them out at any venue or through any medium that would listen.
Bob Newhart Button Down Mind AlbumNewhart began getting night club gigs locally, developed a following and then—thanks to a Chicago distributor of the then-fledgling Warner Bros. Records who listened to a tape Newhart delivered to the studio and who liked it so much, he persuaded the label’s president to come to Chicago and listen to the work—he recorded an album, a collection of his stand-up material: “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.” The album was so popular and sold so many copies that, in the words of Stan Cornyn, an executive at Warner Bros. Records, “it saved our company.”
Rather than tell stories or describe contrived situations and end them with a punch line that received a laugh, Newhart’s favorite technique was to conduct a conversation with an imaginary party, sometimes over a telephone. He always portrayed someone who listened—a sales person, a customer getting a call from a service garage, someone calling to make a complaint, a psychologist taking a call from a patient—and, in the way he responded, generating laugh line after laugh line Here’s a sample based on a routine of his I think I remember.
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Newhart: Oh, Hello Mrs. Rafferty, How are you?
(Pause)
Newhart: What’s that? Oh, you did? You won this year’s prize at the overeaters club for losing the most wait. Why, congratulations, Mrs. Rafferty. That’s wonderful!
(Pause)
Newhart: What’s that? Are you … are you crying Mrs. Rafferty?
(Pause)
Newhart: Excuse me, Mrs. Rafferty. You’ll have to pardon me, but it’s difficult to hear what you’re saying when you’re speaking with your mouth full …
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11TH ANNUAL PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS -- Aired 05/06/1959 -- Pictured: Actor Bob Newhart -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

11TH ANNUAL PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS — Aired 05/06/1959 — Pictured: Actor Bob Newhart — Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank

(Now, here are excerpts from a real routine in which Newhart, solo, plays a driving instructor with a far-out older student, who is unseen, only spoken to …)
How do you do?…
Erm, you’re Mrs. Webb, is that right?…
Oh, I see you’ve had one lesson already, who was the instructor on that Mrs. Webb?…
Mr. Adams…
I’m sorry, here it is. Mr. Adams. Just let me read ahead and kind of familiarize myself with the case…
Erm, how fast were you going when Mr. Adams jumped from the car?…
Sev…, Seventy-five. And, and where was that?…
In your driveway…
How far had Mr. Adams gotten in the lesson?…
Backing out…
I see, you were backing out at seventy-five and that’s, that’s when he jumped….
Did he cover starting the car?…
And the other way of stopping?…
What’s the other way of stopping?…
Throwing it in reverse…
that’s, that would do it, you’re right, that would do it…
Erm, alright you want to start the car?…
(After a harrowing lesson, Mrs. Webb drives on to someone’s newly, seeded lawn, then …)
Yea, just back out, Mrs. Webb…
Thank you very much, sir for…
Oh, now we’ve hit someone Mrs. Webb…
Oh, remember you’re going to watch the rear view mirror, remember we covered that…
The red light blinded you?…
The flashing red light blinded you?…
The flashing red light on the car you hit blinded you?…
Yes, officer, she was just telling me about it…
Um, alright…
Alright, erm, Mrs. Webb…
I am going to have to go with the officer to the police station…
Erm, they don’t believe it and they’d like, they’d like me to describe it…
And now the other officer is going to get into the car and he is going to drive you back to the driving school and then you are to meet us at the police station.
Erm, my name is Frank Dexter, Mrs. Webb…
Why do you ask?…
You want to be sure and get me next time???
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Bob Newhart’s debut album for Warner Bros. Records, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, went to the top of the charts and was the first comedy album ever to hit No. 1. In 1961, it won the Grammy Award for Best Album of The Year (beating out Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte), as well as awards for Best New Artist and Best Comedy Album. Before this winning album was out of its number one spot, he followed up with a sequel that joined it at the top of the charts. There were still more. Soon, the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s became a decade during which Newhart made scores of television appearances in series episodes. He did several film parts. He also emceed the late-night Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on a number of occasions. And he was a staple on the old Ed Sullivan Show.
Bob Newhart Show I CastAfter his decade-plus of success, Newhart heard from some key Hollywood players who wanted to know if he would be interested in doing a television series and … sparing you the details (except to note that he had tired of working on the road so much, and working a television show in Los Angeles would keep him home most of the year), “The Bob Newhart Show” launched and ran for six years, with Newhart playing the role of a Chicago psychologist who spent much time listening to his patients, and to the foibles of regulars in the cast—his tentative, deadpan delivery setting up laugh after laugh after laugh. (It was my favorite television show at the time.)
The shutdown of the show was at Newhart’s bidding. While OK, the show’s ratings were not spectacular, they were OK, but network executives kept changing its time slot. In four years, however, he again got the itch and, in 1982, and a new show, simply called “Newhart” launched an eight-year run.
Newhart Show II CastSet in a small, old, historic Vermont inn, the show featured Newhart as the owner of the inn who could also continue his work as a writer. A cast of regular and recurring characters provided much fodder for writers and scene after scene in which Newhart’s slightly stammering, tentative, deadpan delivery brought laugh after laugh—real laughs, as both shows were taped before live audiences.
Newhart insisted that there never be any children for his character to be the father of in each of his television series. “I told the creators I didn’t want any children, because I didn’t want it to be a show about ‘How stupid Daddy is, but we love him so much, let’s get him out of the trouble he’s gotten himself into.'” With this insight, it impressed me even more that Newhart let his character in the first series male to learn that his wife had a higher IQ than did he.
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While not finished with television after his second successful series—he did have a couple of short-lived ventures that got good critical reviews—he continued working and never spending much time away from viewers or audiences. He did both dramatic, as well as comedic roles, on different series. He also continued working stand-up, which nourished his comedian’s. Still popular after a lifetime, the old material that established sales records in the early 1960s, enjoyed success when reissued in different collections and formats in the early ‘00s.
Newhart won raves for his smaller, but featured role in the 2003 hit, “Elf” and then, charmed and intrigued with the hit series, Big Bang Theory—he made a couple of guest appearances on the show—which provided him something that eluded him in all of his years on television: his first Emmy Award, which he received in September of last year.
For those of us who have never weaned ourselves from Bob Newhart’s comedy, his already much-hyped appearance on the “Big Bang Theory” on May 1st is eagerly awaited.
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Bob Newhart Sculpture CloseupA few quick notes of appreciation:
1. Bob Newhart has stayed as close to his family (wife Ginny, who he married in 1963, and four children) as anyone in the business. In fact, he often brought them along. When he was headlining at the Sands in Las Vegas for engagements up to five weeks long, the hotel had him in a three room suite with a private pool—suitable for a family, which went to mass on Saturday nights. (A serious Catholic, Newhart was taught by Jesuits and his sister was a nun.)
2. He has always kept things in perspective. The 2002 winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the once-a-year award that goes to individuals who have had the type of impact that the great Mark Twain had, he had this to say about awards in general: “I think the whole awards-giving process needs rethinking. For starters, they should bestow lifetime achievement awards at the beginning of a performer’s career. This way the person can still enjoy it while he is young, rather than give it to him when he has lost most of his marbles and is standing onstage wondering why all these overdressed people are applauding.”
2a. Following up on point two. The first winner (1998) of the Mark Twain prize was the late Richard Pryor, of whom Bob Newhart had this recollection: “After I presented Richard Pryor with the lifetime achievement award at the American Academy Awards, we were backstage posing for pictures. He looked up at me and said, ‘I stole your album.’
For a split second, I could not believe what I was hearing. The great Richard Pryor stealing my material? I was honored and stunned at the same time.
‘In Peoria, I went into the record store and I put it under my jacket and walked out,’ he continued.
‘Richard, I get a quarter royalty on every album.’
With that, Richard Pryor pulled out a quarter and handed it to me.”
3. He has stayed clean his entire career. No explanation necessary.
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So, he continues to do it—I really look forward to the evening of May 1st, to see him as Professor Proton on “Big Bang Theory”—and he will carry on as long as … well, here’s the answer to that, as promised at the outset:
Early in his career, Bob appeared with a panel of other comedians, including Buddy Hackett on the “David Susskind Show,” a nationally broadcast show out of New York. In his Bob Newhart Bookautobiography, Newhart recalled, “David asked me if I had a degree. I told him that I graduated from Loyola University with a degree in accounting. Technically, my degree was in ‘management,’ but I told him it was in accounting, because accounting is funnier than management—whatever that is.
With that, Buddy, in his own inimitable voice, countered with: ‘You mean you don’t have to do this?’
Truthfully, I did. And I still do.Ӡ
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† This passage and others in this piece are from “Bob Newhart: I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This—and Other Things that Strike Me as Funny” (2006), his light-hearted, all-too-short autobiography of sorts, which I highly reco