By BOB VICKREY
Circling the News Columnist
Back in the 1980s, if you drove past the rather lackluster storefront of All-Pro Health Foods at 845 Via de la Paz, you would have likely never guessed the creative work that was originating from the small maze of offices located just above the store.
I rented an office space there in 1984 and happened to stumble upon a group of creative minds that would ultimately change the way I thought about where I was living. One-by-one, I met my neighbors in the adjacent offices and learned of their many distinguished backgrounds as television producers, actors, screenwriters, novelists and publishers.
Even Charles Bangs, the town’s most famous piano instructor, had his studio directly behind All-Pro. (Bangs was mentioned once on The Tonight Show by host Johnny Carson, who quipped in his monologue, “Does this guy have the perfect name for a piano teacher, or what?”)
My second day in the building, a tall, thin, grey-haired gentleman appeared in my doorway wearing a baggy bathing suit, flip-flops and tee-shirt with a red ascot tied loosely around his neck. While attempting to stifle a mischievous grin, he asked, “Are you Mr. Houghton or Mr. Mifflin?” My new neighbor across the hall was writer Ben Masselink, who had spotted Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company on the office register next to my name.
Ben knew the publishing house I worked for very well, and he joked that his manuscripts had been rejected by Houghton Mifflin more than once. “And just so you know, yours is not the only house that has turned up its nose at my work.”
I soon discovered that Ben’s modesty and self-deprecating sense of humor were not only infectious and endearing, but also concealed the fact that he was a writer who had enjoyed considerable success as a novelist and television screenwriter.
Ben wrote scripts for some of the biggest television shows of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, including “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Dr. Kildare,” “Hawaii Five-0” and “Barnaby Jones.” He also worked on television projects with producers Roy Disney, Robert Greenwald and Aaron Spelling.
His military deployment in the South Pacific during WWII as a Marine correspondent had given Ben the background he needed to write a series of adventure novels in later years. These works included “The Crackerjack Marines,” “The Danger Islands” and “The Deadliest Weapon.”
Ben’s playful nature was constantly on display in our office hallway, where he would post notes on his door, such as: “This office will be open Christmas Day, but will be closed the rest of the year.”
Another read: “Quiet Please! Writer is sleeping inside.” My favorite was: “Just think: If Frederick March had married Tuesday Weld, they could have had a daughter and named her ‘Tuesday March the 2nd’.”
I always loved the dinner parties at the Masselinks’ Palisades home, hosted by Ben and his vivacious wife Dee. On certain occasions, I felt like I was attending a West Coast version of an “Algonquin Round Table” meeting.
You might find yourself conversing with acclaimed writer Christopher Isherwood, novelist and screenwriter Harold Livingston, renowned artist Don Bachardy, or Academy Award-winning writer Robert Pirosh. I often found myself in the company of up-and-coming writers like Suzy Spencer and Jane Romney, who were Ben’s students in his creative writing class at USC.
For many years around the office, Ben simply brightened our day. I once found this note on the windshield of my car: “Did you realize if Dee had married Don Ho, we would be greeting her with a ‘Hi Dee Ho’?”
Television producer Peter Dunne leased an office next door to mine in 1990, and we became immediate pals. He had been responsible for a string of popular shows, such as “Dallas,” “Knots Landing,” “Nowhere Man,” “Melrose Place” and “CSI.” During his career, he served as Vice President of Development for Viacom, Lorimar (now Warner Bros.) and Spelling Television.
I noticed an Emmy Award on the shelf above his desk that he had won for producing “Sybil,” the landmark television drama that launched actress Sally Field’s career. He also won a Peabody Award for his television contributions.
Peter has become a successful writer and teacher in recent years and is the author of a book that has become an essential tool for beginning screenwriters, “Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot.” He serves as host and judge for the annual Central Coast Writing Workshop in San Luis Obispo and has been a Writer-in-Residence at the Artists Retreat in West Cork, Ireland.
He recently moved to Golden, Colorado, near where his daughter Allie lives with her family. He said he had grown weary of L.A.’s congestion and the constant threat of evacuation from wildfires, and decided it was time for a fresh start.
On a personal note, I’ll miss the occasional lunches we shared in the village over the years. Peter has always been a good listener and wise sage—just ask any of his former students.
Just across the hall from Ben, I met John and Mary Kay Stearns, who produced a weekly agriculture show for public affairs television. I found them to be a cordial and engaging couple who always welcomed my occasional office visits and didn’t discover their fascinating earlier backgrounds until several years later.
John had been an actor, producer and director in the early days of television in the late 1940s. In fact, he and Mary Kay co-starred in the very first nationally syndicated television sitcom that initially aired in 1947 on the DuMont Network, before moving to CBS, and then to NBC. They wrote their own scripts for the “Mary Kay and Johnny” show—all 300 of them, which were loosely based on their own marriage. (I wondered if Lucy and Desi were taking notice of this show back then.)
John had also appeared on Broadway in several plays, and once, played opposite Mary Martin in “One Touch of Venus” in 1943. He went on to produce the first Tonight Show with Steve Allen, as well as “Arthur Murray’s Dance Party” in the 1950s. As if his resume needed any enhancement, he also produced the 1960 Academy Awards Show.
John continued producing and hosting his syndicated “Agriculture USA,” and made his final appearance on the show’s last episode just days before his passing in 2001.
The day I noticed Tony Verna’s name appear on an office door down the hallway, my mind began racing as I tried to remember why his name sounded so familiar. That evening, it hit me. I remembered seeing his name listed atop CBS sports credits as “Director” of NFL football games, but there was a more important reason why his name finally registered.
On December 7, 1963, Tony Verna was responsible for inventing “instant replay,” which forever changed the way we watched televised sports. He was then a 29-year-old director for CBS Sports who had been assigned to cover the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, and had subsequently talked his bosses into allowing him to replay a tape of a touchdown score for the audience to watch—for an unheard of second time. When told of Tony’s plan, veteran football announcer Lindsey Nelson replied, “He wants to do what?”
Instant replay has of course become a routine feature that we take for granted. Now we regularly see the same play shown again, and often, three or four times. But back then, technology was such that it took Verna’s crew a full week to move 1,200 pounds of equipment from New York’s CBS headquarters to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia by U-Haul truck.
Sports Illustrated listed Tony’s innovation as one of television’s “Twenty Greatest Tipping Points.” His long career resume included producing and/or directing five Super Bowls, 12 Kentucky Derbies, several NBA Championships and Stanley Cups, the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Oh yes, in his spare time, he produced and directed Bob Geldof’s original “Live Aid” benefit concert in 1985. The following year he created the biggest single satellite hookup in television history for an event called “A Prayer for World Peace,” featuring Pope John Paul II speaking from the Vatican. The massive undertaking reached more than 100 countries and connected five continents, representing a major triumph in the use of technology. The show was viewed live by an audience of more than one billion people.
Other than that, Tony Verna was your basic slacker. He often managed to work me into his busy schedule for morning coffee or an occasional lunch. But even then, I noticed he would begin showing me his latest invention while doodling on a napkin with an animated boyhood enthusiasm. I have always meant to ask his wife Carol if he ever found time to sleep.
Then, there were the Galias boys down the hallway. Don and Doug Galias are entrepreneurial Palisadian brothers who became my neighboring officemates at the “845 Club.” They shared an office that featured multiple services.
Don was a true entrepreneur who created small businesses that he juggled during his daily routine. Doug was the founder of the Institute of Advanced Thinking and author of the bestselling memory book “Instant Memory.” Don handled the day-to-day marketing, advertising and office management for his brother’s book.
For many years, Don operated a private post office box service out of the same office and built a substantial clientele. He also sold residential real estate and was known for his low-pressure style—an unusual trait for a Palisades agent. He often took a break from that business, but when friends called and asked for his help, he found time to assist them in buying and selling their homes—including dolling out several “assists” in my direction. In his spare time, he moonlighted as a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
But you may also know Don’s name from his long history of winning the weekly Palisadian-Post’s weekly college football contest. I am always surprised when someone else’s name appears as last week’s winner. I just assume Don was out of town that week.
He grew up in Troy, New York, as an avid Notre Dame fan and still hasn’t lost his passion for the Irish on autumn Saturday afternoons. (Please remember to hold your phone calls to him until the game is over. And if the Irish lose, you might also want to give him an extra 24 hours to recover.)
Don and his wife, Carla, have become great friends and confidantes over the years, and our relationship reminds me how lucky I was to stumble across my little office at 845 Via. Kindred spirits are not always easy to find in a city the size of Los Angeles, but I discovered a treasure trove in that modest office complex.
(Postscript: Ben Masselink died in January 2000 at the age of 80 at his home in the Palisades. His wife Dee now lives in Northern California near daughter Heather and her family. After his passing, Dee gave me one of Ben’s old typewriters that now sits prominently on my den bookshelf and accompanied by several copies of his adventure novels.
Tony Verna was 81 when he passed away after a short illness in 2015, at his home in Palm Desert, while surrounded by his family. I still think of Tony fondly each time I see New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady launch one of his perfectly thrown touchdown passes, and knowing that I’ll have the pleasure of watching the replay again, and again. Thanks, Tony.
Peter Dunne will be enjoying his first holiday season this year in his new home in Colorado and will be sharing Christmas with his daughter Allie and her family.
As for me, I’ll be joining my longtime friends Don and Carla Galias and their other guests as they host Christmas dinner once again in their Malibu home. I expect that some of our conversation might include reminiscing about several of our mutual friends who were mentioned in this story.)
Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian whose columns appear in the Houston Chronicle and is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He was a field representative for Houghton Mifflin from 1972 to 2008. You can read more of his columns at his website: http://bobvickrey.net/