There’s a plot point in Stanley Kramer’s movie IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD about gold being buried “under a big W.” Much of the movie revolves around an all-star cast trying to figure out what thing beginning with “W” could hide the gold. Then there is a moment with Spencer Tracy standing in a seaside park, as he realizes that behind him there are four palm trees that together form a “W”. Too obvious for intrigue; right in front of everyone’s eyes all along.
I thought of that moment when I was in Chicago last fall. As much under everyone’s radar as humanly possible, we and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment had gathered – and it took some gathering – the entire movie von Trapps from THE SOUND OF MUSIC for a special reunion. That meant Kym Karath, Debbie Turner, Angela Cartwright, Duane Chase, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Charmian Carr – and yes, Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews. They came from near and far – Paris, Sydney, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Toronto, New York – to appear on an edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was planning some very special shows to round out her last season on Network TV. Secrecy and confidentiality were the words of the day.
These nine people had not been together in one place since the premier of THE SOUND OF MUSIC – 45 years ago. That was the hook that got Oprah interested, and since the Blu-Ray of the movie was being released a month later, clearly it was to the movie’s advantage to make this extraordinary reunion possible.
People assembled at the Peninsula Hotel over a couple of days. The Peninsula has one of the great modern hotel lobbies – up on the fifth floor, with a grand hallway and an airy restaurant off to one side. There was an expectant feeling in the lobby, as the cast of characters arrived one at a time. The “kids” came first, wrangled by their manager Peter Hankwitz, who stationed himself in the restaurant with a clear view of who was coming and who was going. He had the largest number to be concerned about, and they arrived without incident at their designated time, although no one had seen Charmian Carr. She had checked in, but didn’t seem to be around. I was standing in the lobby when Heather Menzies arrived, wheeling her suitcase, and she was greeted by Duane Chase. Clearly there was a buzz, but it was tempered, since no one except those involved were supposed to put the pieces together to realize what was actually happening. As I was standing talking with the extraordinary team from Fox, Julie Andrews came through. While I greeted her I caught one of the “kids” walk by, not quite ready to make connection with her “Maria” yet. Word got to us that Christopher Plummer had arrived, and was up in his room, wondering where his manger Lou Pitt was. That made everyone breathe a certain sigh of release. He was the autocrat in the film, and he was the person most of the rest of the actors hadn’t seen since the movie finished shooting. Some of the “kids” were even nervous about seeing him again.
We and Fox decided to throw a private dinner the night before the Oprah taping. And here’s where “The Big W” comes in. When I went to the place arranged for our private dinner, rather than a private hotel dining room, sequestered on some dimly lit floor, it was a small restaurant run by the hotel, but on the street level. In fact, the only way to get to it was to go outside on to Superior Street, take a right, and walk half a block to the front door. Once inside, I saw that one wall of the restaurant was glass, looking right out onto North Rush street. “Lord,” I thought, “if the paparazzi knew what was happening inside here…”
The “kids” were prompt, some with grown children in tow, some with bona fide blood family members, some with Chicago friends. They have kept in pretty close touch through the years, and are, in fact, collaborating on a “SOUND OF MUSIC SCRAPBOOK” using all their personal memorabilia. It is pretty remarkable in Hollywood that a.) there’s not a drug bust or an arrest to be found in the group, b.) they are all walking, talking, existing citizens, doing interesting and different things (although acting wasn’t high among the current activities) and c.) people somehow love seeing these particular actors, and have loved seeing them over the past 45 years. Charmian Carr wrote a couple of books about being Leisl. Nicholas Hammond attended a “Rodgers & Hammerstein At The Movies” concert in Sydney, and was received like a rock star. Duane gathered a group last summer and went to the von Trapp Lodge in Vermont to plant a tree in honor of the real-life von Trapp that he feels his character was based on. Individually and separately, they have hosted performances of “Sing Along Sound of Music” around the world.
But they are the kids, and the parents still hold sway. Julie arrived first, and greeted them all just like – well, the mother would. Elegant small tables had been set up down the middle of the restaurant, each with four discreet chairs. An unmistakable voice said: “Let’s pull these tables all together so we can sit and talk.” Once in charge of these children, always in charge of these children. So what that the children are now in their 50’s and one in her 60’s. Those who hold sway over us…
And keeping entirely in character, the autocratic head of the family came in last. Hovering slightly by the doorway with his cheerful manager, Chris Plummer seemed reluctant to throw himself in. But several of the movie kids came over, hands outstretch to re-introduce themselves. A good sport, he walked over to the group and joined in. Seeing him with Julie you realize he really has always been a little bit in love with her, and he was as pleased as ever to see her. He went over and sat with the “family,” prompting several of us who has said firmly “no press and no cameras” to pull out our point-and-shoots and document what really was an historic occasion.And at one point I looked out on to North Rush Street, across to one of Chicago’s famous pizzerias. People were enjoying their pizza, and I thought there were probably people inside who would have their minds blown to peer in our window and see just who was sitting around the table. In fact, any of them could have – easily. That “Big W” was right there in plain sight. But luckily the stealth surprise was maintained. It was what we and Fox had wanted: a family gathering, perhaps pre-reunion (the real one would be documented the next day at the taping of Oprah) allowing these nine particular people, who shared an experience 46 years ago together, to meet again, share stories and chat. Even they were amazed that this one job, much like any other, would end up with a movie that has stayed with the world continuously for so long.
Credit has to be given to the team at Fox Home Entertainment, headed by Dave Shaw and Callie Jurnigan, and our own Bert Fink. This was a monumental event to pull off, and it was never easy for one minute. On the plane to Chicago I turned to Bert and said I felt 8 ½ months pregnant. If so, the birth was just fine.
Oh, and wait until you see the movie in Blu-Ray. All those outdoor shots? The grass and the flowers? The water in the river? Glistening like you were standing in Salzburg or on those hills yesterday. THE SOUND OF MUSIC is, after all, a remarkable film.
To celebrate the re-broadcast of the Oprah episode we are throwing a fan appreciation sale. Just click here and enter the code "MUSIC" at check out to get a great discount on THE SOUND OF MUSIC Limited Edition Collector's set and a number of other R&H titles.