The case of the white persian rug

He would rather have seen blood spilt


INTO THE LIFE OF EVERY REPORTER at least a few embarrassing moments must fall. Usually, for me, it’s falling prey to that time-honored boxing admonition of leading with my chin.

I once complimented a producer for having a beautiful grandchild only to find that he had married an actress 50 years his junior and the toddler was his son.

I should stay away from family references, especially when it involves grandchildren. Sitting in the office of an ad agency partner, I admired a photo in a frame on his desk of a boy on a tricycle.

“What a lovely boy,” I exclaimed, only to have the agency guy burst into tears. The boy was his grandchild. He had been run over by a car while riding his bike the week before.

Another time, in the home of a powerful executive, I assumed the woman who ushered me in and played hostess was the great man’s wife. I referred to her that way. She wasn’t his wife, I was told in icy tone. She was the exec’s secretary who was living with him at the time.

I was reluctant to do an interview with an aging actress who hadn’t had a significant role in many years. But she was married to a prominent industry figure and circumstances mandated the assignment.

She had a reputation for being fussy, demanding and likely to challenge every quote and observation. Describing her as the “dragon lady” would not be unkind. It would be perfectly appropriate.

Playing it safe I insisted on audio taping the interview. She refused permission unless I made a copy of the tape for her review. Though I knew better, I gave in.

I started taking notes. “Why take notes when you’re taping?” she questioned. I told her it was sensible to have a backup if the tape recording system failed.

“I don’t want you scribbling while we talk,” she ordered. “It makes me nervous.” Again, wimp that I was, I stopped writing.

We spoke for about 45 minutes sufficient to fill one side of the 90-minute tape cassette

At the conclusion of the interview, I quickly checked the recorder. Freudian slip. I didn’t want to do the interview in the first place. Intimidation had done the rest. There was no tape in the machine.

As a youngster working in the mailroom of the Mutual Broadcasting System I regaled my co-workers imitating the screeching voice of the lady boss of sales complete with exaggerated body language. Totally self-absorbed, I disregarded the strange wagging signals from my assembled audience. The lady was standing behind me.

Such experiences and others are trifles compared to the case of the white Persian rug. Remember the scene in Meet The Parents when Ben Stiller knocks over the urn containing the ashes of Robert DeNiro’s sainted mother and the family cat relieves itself on the pile of her remains on the floor? The white Persian rug incident is a reasonable facsimile.

One of the definitions of friend is a person who is on good terms with another. By that definition Nick Vanoff was a friend. More accurately, though, he was a business acquaintance.

I interviewed him a number of times over the years. A dancer turned director-producer, Vanoff was well respected for his variety shows. He had a long string of credits including producing seven seasons of The Hollywood Palace as well as such as variety efforts asThe Julie Andrews Hour and “he Sonny and Cher Show. He produced The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts in 1978 and again the next year. As a director, he was responsible for the breezy The Perry Como Music Hall Show.

On Broadway, Vanoff produced the award-winning City of Angels and two successful Jackie Mason shows. His 1985 film Eleni received solid reviews.

Vanoff was also a terrific businessman. He partnered with Holocaust survivor Saul Pick and in 1976 they bought the fabled Columbia Studios lot at the intersection of Sunset and Gower in Hollywood.

The studio where Harry Cohn once reigned and Frank Capra directed had fallen in disrepair. In five years, Vanoff and Pick completely renovated the studio, renaming it Sunset-Gower Studios. By 1981, the place was bustling. That’s when I was invited to come over and interview them about the changes.

Vanoff’s office was big, bright, and immaculate. Pick stayed around only long enough for an introduction and some small talk. Afterwards, Vanoff and I settled in for our interview. I was on a sofa. Vanoff was opposite me. There was a glass-topped coffee table between us and a soft, fluffy, white rug on the floor underneath the table.

Vanoff’s secretary asked if I’d like coffee. “Yes, please,” was my response. Within seconds she was back before me with a steaming ceramic cup filled to the brim. I had my Citadel Narrow Ruled Reporter’s Notebook in my left hand, an Eberhard Faber Ebony Jet Black Extra Smooth pencil in my right hand. Never taking my eyes off of Vanoff who was speaking, I shifted the pencil to my left hand and reached out with the other hand for the coffee mug. My aim was to place the mug immediately on the coffee table. But the tabletop was glass and transparent. I was seeing it only with my peripheral vision.

There’s a current Southwest Airlines commercial involving embarrassing moments. Its tagline is “Want to get out of town?”

Yes, I wanted to get out of town. I missed the glass-topped coffee table and set the steaming, brimming cup of coffee down in space. The hot liquid went splashing all over the lovely, soft, fluffy, white Oriental rug.

“Oh, look what you’ve done to Mr. Vanoff’s beautiful rug,” the secretary screamed at me.

If I, like the Ben Stiller character in Meet the Parents, had desecrated cremation ashes I couldn’t have been more mortified. I didn’t know what to say. Vanoff rushed in to still the raging waters.

“Settle down,” he ordered. “Get some towels to soak up the coffee. We’ll send the rug out to be cleaned.”

Somehow, with my legs tight against the sofa to keep from stepping in the wet, the secretary on her knees soaking up the coffee with a roll of paper towels, Vanoff and I trying to ignore the mess, completed the interview.

I don’t know if the rug, terribly stained as it was, could ever be cleaned. I only know Vanoff was a very decent person to react the way he did. He never mentioned the incident to me then or subsequently.

What did I learn from my embarrassing moments?

~ Don’t assume anything about anyone.

~ Don’t act out behind somebody’s back.

~ Stay away from dragon ladies.

~ Reach out for coffee mugs with both hands and both eyes on the landing place.

~ Never lead with your chin.