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The Glee Club meets the “wand’rin’ star”

“This the Yale Glee Club?”

By chance I am answering phones that morning, although that isn’t in my job description as President of the Glee Club. It is 1969.

“Sullivan Show calling.”

Are you kidding me?

“Ed would like your group to be on the show next month.”

He’s not kidding.

He wants you to back up Lee Marvin singing “I Was Born Under a Wand’rin’ Star,” from the movie Paint Your Wagon.

They send us the score. I look at it with our director, Fenno Heath. Simple stuff. The Ed Sullivan Show. Why not?

I call back to say okay, and the producer says, “Ed was wondering whether

you have any football songs.
Now we’re talking! I offer our Football Medley. Ray Block orchestrates it.

Saturday, October 11, at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, we quickly get a satisfactory take with the Football Medley. We will lip-synch the piece in our tuxedos before a live audience Sunday. (All music on TV in those days was prerecorded.)

The stagehands then assemble an ersatz Western ranch scene, with fences and a setting sun as a backdrop. An assistant producer tells us to put on our formal wear.

We didn’t bring any along. I had been told that we would not need to be in full regalia on Saturday. Communication snafu. They have each of us write down his precise measurements. Within the space of an hour, we are fully outfitted. My rented tuxedo actually fits better than my own bespoke one!

The Yale Glee Club, now in formal attire, is positioned behind the fences. Dude ranching, I suppose, is the desired effect. Talk about the “willing suspension of disbelief!”

Lee Marvin is nowhere to be seen, although he certainly can be heard by anybody within three blocks, because he is bellowing a veritable index of imprecations, a cascade of curses, an oratory of oaths.

He lurches onto the set. Eyes red, drink in hand. Glaring around like a wounded bull in a plaza de toros.

We are in three rows. Marvin staggers upstage and notices that a number of us were wearing an “ENOUGH” button. He goes cheek to jowl with a freshman, saying, “What’s this?”

Pinned against the scrim covering the back wall of the stage, the kid mumbles, “Well, it’s about the bombing of Cambodia. We think that’s enough.” Whereupon Marvin, an ex-Marine, demoted from corporal to private, despite his Purple Heart, for troublemaking, yells, “YOU BEEN THERE?”

The young man, no longer enjoying his first experience on television, says “No.”

“WELL, F*** YOU! “Then, for added emphasis: “AND F*** ME!” Perhaps there are one or two not listening, so, for their benefit: “AND F*** THE WHOLE F***ING LOT OF YOU.”
A small posse of burly stagehands and security guards manages to sit Marvin down and cleans him up a bit. And away we go, filming the gig. The Paint Your Wagon soundtrack rolls. We are being dubbed in, and Marvin is to mouth the words and wander through the phony ranch set, wending his way past fake fences from upstage to downstage center. A boom camera moves in, as he turns and heads off into the sunset.

At least that is what is supposed to happen.

It turns out that muddled Marvin mouths the words for the second verse while the soundtrack is playing his voice singing the first verse. We can’t really see his lip synching, as we are supposed to be gazing at God-knows-what straight ahead. But he knows he screwed it up. As the boom camera focuses on him, he flips the bird, both hands.


Take Two is going a bit better. Marvin gets past the chorus “I was born under a wand’rin’ star...” and the first verse. He forgets to move his lips during the second verse. As the boom camera moves in, he ducks under the camera. I am impressed that he can do this without falling flat on his face, considering his manifest state of inebriation.

Ed Sullivan is called in. On a Saturday. This is a big deal. First time in years.

He pulls Marvin aside, reads him the Riot Act, and boots him from the theater. An assistant producer asks me, rather apologetically, whether we can return early Sunday morning—this time with our own tuxedos—to give the ”wand’rin’ star” another shot.

Sunday morning, we put on our duds and find our places. And there he is, off stage, dressed to the nines, looking a bit worse for wear. Again, with drink in hand, this time with steam coming out of the cup!

He walks more steadily upstage, seeing no “ENOUGH” buttons in sight keeps his mouth to himself, and indicates to the director that he is ready to roll. And, by God’s Good Grace, and Ed Sullivan’s no uncertain terms, he pulls it off!

The first take is as good as it is going to get.

The comments from friends and family who watched the show run mostly like this: “You guys sounded great in that Football Medley. But that thing with Lee Marvin . . . was he drunk?”

My response: “You should have seen him the day before!”

About two weeks later, a thick envelope arrives at the Glee Club office. Eleven hand-written pages, in which Marvin goes on and on about how he really is a sensitive, kind man, unfairly typecast as a hard-boiled infantryman or a roaring drunk. I read this with a mixture of incredulity and disgust, recalling his anthology of anathemas.

I think “Shame on him. How dare he pen such a pathetic apologia?” But really, shame on me. Because I tear up that letter.

I should have kept the thing. Imagine what I might have gotten for it today on eBay!

And here’s the other thing. That simple song actually reached the top of the charts in the UK and held that spot for three weeks, besting the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

Which I could not do. I had to write this story.


Jim Weber ’70 attended medical school at Columbia and moved to Seattle, where he practiced surgery for 30 years. Now a yoga teacher and an author, he has coauthored an etiquette book with wife Mary Mitchell, a book about weight-loss surgery, and his soon-to-be-published memoir, Cutting Out: The Making and Unmaking of a Surgeon. He is currently working on a book of essays and short stories.

Filed under Glee Club, Ed Sullivan, Lee Marvin, 1960s, 1970s
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