Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lee Orgel, The Man Behind the Musical

First of a two part series
The name Lee Orgel will be instantly recognizable to readers of my book as the creator and producer of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  When I decided to do a profile of him for this blog, his wife and daughter graciously spent a number of afternoons with me going through his 60+ years of personal papers and photos as well as sharing their memories of the man they knew as husband and father.  Even Lee’s older brother contributed, recalling their childhood together.  What emerged was the inspiring story of an individual who started life’s journey a little farther behind than most, discovered the discipline of persistence at an early age and who overcame some significant obstacles including, most improbably, his own birth.

The early years
In late August of 1925 in North Bergen, New Jersey, the pregnant mother, who had a history of miscarriages, had suddenly gone into labor at home.  The baby was breech, her vital signs were falling fast and the doctor’s efforts were directed entirely at saving the mother.  When the baby was removed from the womb, it was black and lifeless.  While the doctor tended to the mother, the accompanying nurse took the newborn to the kitchen sink and began running alternating hot and cold water over it.  After a few agonizing moments, the inert figure began to gain color and finally started to cry.  That profound act would affect not only the child’s immediate and future family, but millions of Baby Boomers who would have fond memories of their own childhoods due to his career in the yet-to-be-invented medium of television.  

Young Lee Orgel would not have an easy childhood because, in the doctor's rush to remove the baby, the forceps permanently damaged his upper arm muscles.  For much of his childhood, Lee was forced to wear a brace strapping both his arms to his body.  A famous European doctor, Dr. Alfred Lorenz, known as The Bloodless Surgeon, consented to see young Lee and had the braces removed.  After months and months of prescribed hydrotherapy and physical rehabilitation, Lee eventually regained partial use of his left arm.  However, since the upper right arm muscles were destroyed during birth, he could only move his lower right arm, using his fingers to crawl forward to do anything with it.  Despite the condition (later known as Erb’s Palsy), Lee managed to have a fairly normal rest of his childhood, working around his disability.  As an adult, he never referred to it or allowed it to affect his work.  Most people were never even aware of the condition.

The Capitol Theater in 1959
Lee began his career working as an usher at Loew’s flagship theater in New York, the Capitol Theater, right out of high school.  Sometime later, when the second assistant stage manager suddenly quit, the executives from Loews (who also owned the MGM Studio) began looking for a replacement.  Orgel saw them while backstage one day and said the job was so easy any idiot could do it.  They turned to him and said, ‘You’re hired.’  He spent the next 8 years working at the theater, meeting the likes of Frank Sinatra, Robert Walker, Dick Powell and Martin & Lewis.

Seeing the end was nearing for this particular kind of theater, Orgel moved into the brand new world of television around 1950.  Television had begun to displace motion pictures and theater as a means of entertainment and employees in those mediums struggled to discern a place for themselves in the new order.  Being so new, no one yet had a clear idea on just where TV would settle and to mitigate risk, budgets were low.  With his wife Lea, they formed their own company, Citadel Television, out of offices across the street from his former job, supplying the networks with film footage.  There he produced one of the first animated commercials for TV for the Dodge Dealers of America.  Times were difficult during the transition and as the networks began to take their film needs in-house, Lee soon found himself looking for work.   

Rare photo taken on the set of The Morey Amsterdam Show
He joined good friend Morey Amsterdam, whom he had met while at the Capitol, on The Morey Amsterdam Show at the Dumont network after the show moved from radio to television.  From there, he ended up as a producer of network shows for ABC doing one of the first local shows for children, CartoonTeletales, later taking a job as manager of the Radio-TV dept at the advertising agency, Nardella, Collins and Company.  Orgel could see the future of entertainment was in television and with that in mind, approached New York radio station, WOR, and locked up the TV rights to such radio mysteries as Mysterious Traveler, Inner Sanctum and Michael Shayne, based on a series of popular detective books by Brent Halliday.

Lee and Lea Orgel, newly arrived in Los Angeles
RKO, in Los Angeles, expressed interest in the proposed group of series but soon after the Orgels moved out to Los Angeles,  the deal fell through.  Fortunately, Sterling Television, a distributor of pre-existing filmed product for TV, called and from 1952-1958, the husband and wife duo traveled to, and sold films to, virtually every television station in the eleven western states.  Sterling’s catalog included features, silent films, half hour shows and cartoons.  As related in my book, one of his most significant clients was Walt Disney.

In early 1958, Lee Orgel began his long association with animation, resigning as West Coast manager of Sterling Television to become division sales vice president for The New Adventures of Crusader Rabbit being produced by Shull Bonsall’s TV Spots.  While there, Lee co-scripted at least one adventure, “The Not So Very Big Top”.  Lee was also still  involved with the Michael Shayne property and approached actor Dick Powell, one of the four major stars in Four Star Productions, to produce the series.  Powell agreed and with that, Orgel developed the series, Michael Shayne, which aired on  NBC TV in the fall of 1960.  Unfortunately, the series was in competition with The Twilight Zone on Friday nights and based on the books' description of Shayne, appears to have been miscast leaving the show with a legacy of only one season.  After the show’s cancellation, Lee took his expertise at developing and selling programming to Henry G. Saperstein and his newly television-oriented studio, UPA.  Saperstein asked him to start the following Monday.

Next week, Lee Orgel joins UPA


Rick Farmiloe said...

Darrell, What a fascinating story of a true maverick! He really was a guy who seemed destined to succeed, regardless of obstacles thrown in his path. Thanks so much for posting this. You really did your homework.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

As always, well researched and well told. It's good to have you back.