Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lela Swift: "Don't let anybody tell you it can't be done"

Lela Swift directing the first episode of DARK SHADOWS in June, 1966.
(Note: Television director Lela Swift died yesterday. As part of my brief commentary about her legacy, I included some quotes by Swift taken from a 1953 newspaper column about her career. It's a solid piece, but one that is a little troubling considering how few women have followed in her footsteps during the last half-century. While a few of the details are no longer valid, Swift's advice for developing a career in entertainment is as relevant as ever. Below is the full transcript of the article.)

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
July 10, 1953

MEET: Brooklynite Lela Swift, one of Abraham Lincoln High School's most famous graduates, who is now, in case you didn't know, one of TVs greatest directors.

Please note that I didn't qualify my statement by saying "female directors." Lela's outstanding work on CBS-TV's "The Web" programs (Sundays, 10 p.m.) makes this one a dramatic must.

LELA SWIFT WRITES: To succeed as a TV director these days you either have to be very sound of mind, or else a little bit crazy, because then everything that happens just seems normal to you.

But I can remember the early days of TV, the take-it-easy-television days way back in 1944, when CBS had just one studio. The TV pioneer with his 10-inch screen never knew what he'd see next.

And I guess that was part of the charm of it all.

I remember one night we had a man with a trained pigeon act. The pigeon became so confused by the tremendous lights that they went AWOL all over the studio — into the News Show, the Dance Act, the Missus Goes A-Shoppin' and whatever else was on the air that night. And the next day we had them swooping around through our offices. (I think one of them even spent the Winter with us.)

And I remember a night when one of the old Mercury Vapor lights shattered directly over dancer Paul Draper while he was on the air. He just called for a broom and improvised a dance in which he swept-the pieces of glass right off the set .... And I remember how Jimmy Durante wandered into the studio to visit his friend Gilbert Seldes and the next thing the home viewers knew, a piano was dragged onto the set of whatever was on the air at the time, and there was Sir James playing away for them as a surprise.

Lela Swift and Alexandra Moltke, during production of the first episode of DARK SHADOWS, 1966.

Those were the days in which TV learned to take its first faltering steps. Nowadays the medium is making giant strides in technique. There is no room for mistakes. It's a business for pros. Many girls ask me — is it also a business for women? I say yes — speaking from personal experience.

I started out at CBS as a stage manager and writer, and was eventually handed the opportunity to direct top CBS-Television dramatic shows such as "Studio One"for a year, and "Suspense", and now "The Web". Right now most of the production assistants in the business are girls. At CBS there are two women assistant directors, and there are women in every department. BUT — you must have training.

Swift was born Lela Siwoff on Feb. 1, 1919.
Here is the best advice I can think of to give recent graduates who want to get into television. Get a year or two of theater under your belt. Go into Summer stock, get your hands dirty painting scenery, act, learn about lighting. Work with amateur theater groups, especially if there is a professional who can give advice. And also, learn to type. Yes, good old-fashioned unglamorous typing. Here at CBS many of the production assistants are girls who were promoted from secretarial jobs.

Above all, don't let anybody tell you it can't be done. I did it. You can, too.

What's it like for a woman to do a man's job such as directing? Well, I don't rightly know, because I don't think about being a woman when I do my job. I work with actors, stagehands and technicians as artists and artisans, not as men and women.

When you go into the business of television, expect the exhilaration of a difficult job well done, the agony of a carefully planned effect ruined by an on-the-air accident, the happiness and the heartache that goes with show business everywhere. Expect to care about everything a great deal. Expect to love it. I do. 

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