This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Mel Vickland: The Second Half - From Candy Matson through Ralph Edwards Era
by Kathy Hammel © 2014
(From Radio Recall, October 2014)
(Part 2: Continued from Aug issue)
Paul Melvin Vickland, perhaps needing a change of scenery after the breakup of his marriage to Natalie Park, left San Francisco before the final decree was issued, going briefly to Seattle, then to New York. He continued working in radio, employed, for a time, by the Don Lee Network, announcing for a quiz show called "Worth your Weight in Gold". He also tried his hand at writing, a direction that would prove more profitable for him later.
By the time his divorce was final, Mel was in New York, and by the end of 1943 he was remarried and had the first of his eventual 6 children, a daughter. Mel's second wife Geraldine "Gerey" Denman may have met Mel in San Francisco at the Opera House where Gerey was taking acting lessons, and where Mel announced for the shows. Gerey, who was quite a beauty, enjoyed some success as a model. She was featured in cosmetic print ads and was also Miss Building Trades or Miss Homes and Gardens, though, as one news clipping snidely reported; she had never "done much gardening, housekeeping or building."
In 1945 Mel and his family which now consisted of two more daughters, was back in California. His old friend Ralph Edwards was producing and offered Mel a job in Los Angeles. By 1946 Mel was also producing; his own show for Mutual, Singing Sweethearts. As a musician himself, and coming from a family that was also musical, shows with musical themes appeared to be a natural fit for him. He was also at this time, crafting a new production called Steeplechase at Ciro's. Unfortunately in the midst of putting the new show together, he was stricken with polio and hospitalized. Edwards, who'd taken over for him when he left KFRC, again stepped in behind him to take on the production of Steeplechase at Ciro's when Mel became ill.
In an effort to help out, Mel's industry friends rallied around the distressed Vickland family, transcribing and pushing to find sponsors for Mel's production of Steeplechase at Ciro's, which was described as quiz show in which contestants advanced on the dance floor with each right answer. Despite the efforts of Mel's friends to shop the audition around, it appears the show did not draw any sponsors.
It was during Mel's illness that events came into play that would alter Mel's life even more than the after effects of the polio. According to Vickland's daughter, Valerie, Ralph Edwards, reportedly offered to trade his financial support to Mrs. Vickland and the children in exchange for Gerey signing over rights to a new show idea that Mel had come up with while hospitalized. Panicked that she and the children would fall on hard times should Mel not recover, she agreed.
By November of 1946, Mel was out of danger, but left with a weakness in his legs. He never regained full use of his legs, and remained in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The polio had also affected his throat muscles, so, with a slightly weakened voice, his announcing days also looked to be over. Fortunately Mel had developed his writing skills and easily moved on from. He was able to continue working as one of Ralph Edwards' team of writers, a team Edwards referred to as "The Brain Trust." As one of the writers of the show, along with others such as Paul Edwards, Bill Burch and Ed Bailey, Vickland was paid about $100 a week for his work on This is Your Life.
Unfortunately neither Mel's job as a writer for Edwards nor their friendship were fated to last. Both came to an abrupt end. In the later part of 1953, Mel lost his job with Edwards. In May of 1954, Mel instituted a lawsuit against his past employer and old friend. Mel alleged that the idea for the popular, This is Your Life show was his and that Edwards had agreed to equally share the profits from the show with him. This was the idea Mel reportedly came up with while recovering from polio in 1946, and the one, according to his daughter, that Mel's wife had signed away.
Newspapers of the day jumped on the story, reporting that Mel was asking for the half share of the profits from This is Your Life that he said Edwards promised him - an amount that would have garnered Mel some $1 .7 million. Edwards staunchly denied that the original concept for the show was anyone's but his own.
Whether or not Mel's claims were true is not known for certain, and his children lost track of his papers when the daughter who had them passed away in 2003. All we can say with certainty is that Mel's claims have some plausibility. He certainly had credentials as a writer and producer. He had come up with several other show ideas and likely knew the business well, after being in radio, by this time, for more than ten years. He is even known to have worked on 25 of the episodes for This is Your Life early in its run. Says his daughter, "It was easy to believe my dad invented 'This is Your Life' since it reflects his sentimental personality to a tee."
In Edwards' version of events, Edwards said he got the idea for This is Your Life from a 1946 Truth or Consequences episode he'd done featuring a disabled veteran earlier that year. It's interesting that this soldier and Vickland had similar injuries, though one from war and the other through illness. Whatever the truth of the claims, in the end Edwards came out owning This is Your Life, and Mel Vickland was professionally and financially ruined.
Mel lost everything, but his talents. Daughter Valerie says of that time: When Mel returned to L.A. to work for Ralph the family got a nice little house on Glendon Ave. in West LA (California) in 1945. [The family] ... lived there for 8 years ... In 19531 was 2 and 112 and it was Christmas when we lost the house and our little family moved into Mel's 1951 Oldsmobile convertible. That Christmas night we had nowhere to go but there was a life size creche in the Encino park and after midnight when all was quiet, dad bedded the family down in the straw for shelter, taking the Christ child doll out of the manger and putting me to sleep there.
We lived in the car, dad, mom and I in the front seat and ... [my 3 sisters] in the back seat, parking at the beach or in the woods until Oct 1954 when Mel rented a house on Louise Ave. in Northridge and there ... [two more children] were born.
During that time Mel claimed that he had been 'black-listed' by Edwards and couldn't sell his scripts in Hollywood. As an interesting aside, Valerie said that Mel later wrote a screen play based on the family's experiences while homeless. According to Valerie, Mel, who'd registered that script and some others with the Writer's Guild, was startled to see a very similar script appear on a popular television show years later. Another daughter also said she'd read one of his scripts which seems to have ended up as a movie, and with no credit, or recompense, given to Mel as the author.
Black-listed and unable to get a job as a writer or producer, Mel finally obtained some State assistance and SSI for his family, since the polio had left him paraplegic and permanently confined to his wheelchair. This financial aid was not quite enough to fully support the family, but they did manage to move out of their car and into a house.
The troubles continued for the family. Two years later, Mel Vickland and his wife filed a lawsuit on behalf of one of their young daughters. A news article from the Valley News for 23 August 1956 tells that a small aircraft crashed into the home next door to the Vickland's, burning it. While the Vickland's home did not burn, thanks to the quick intervention of the fire department, the family sought $8,000 for property damages and psychological counseling for one of their daughters who was traumatized by the events of that night.
Valerie says she remembers the incident well, though she was all of 5 years old at the time. She relates: 'There was a deafening crash in the dark of the night and I ran out of my bedroom to an eerie flickering yellow light. Mom was rushing around trying to corral everyone out of the house in her bathrobe, (the) baby ... in her arms."
Gerey managed to round up all five of her little girls and get them safely down the street to a neighbor's house. The power was out all over the neighborhood, but the fire lit up the sky. It was hours before the fire was out and Gerey could get her sleeping children back home and into bed. Valerie remembers her father remarking to her mom as they returned home, that there was blood on their door. The two men on board the plane had perished. Valerie says her father later told her that "the coroner said the 2 men in the airplane crash were drunk, ... very drunk."
No further information of this suit has been located, but it appears the lawsuit also came to naught and with troubles mounting, Mel did his best to keep his family together, and Gerey did her best to make a comfortable home, no matter where they lived. Contrary to what that one snarky reporter had said years before about her housekeeping skills, she kept a beautiful home and turned out to be an excellent cook and gardener.
Eventually, the strain of living hand to mouth and never getting anywhere contributed to the fracturing of the family. The two eldest girls, now teenagers, elected to stay with friends, Gerey ran off with the younger children to live with a relative in Northern California, and, after some missteps and further trials, they moved up to Oregon.
Later, Mel managed to regain custody of his three youngest children, Valerie was one of them, and she treasures those later years with her Dad. They became good friends and he even taught her screen writing. Valerie says Mel was a wonderful father who constantly encouraged his children and fostered their individual talents.
Through all the trials Mel continued writing, but never again sold anything, nor tried to. Valerie speculates that her father was afraid his work would be stolen again. Instead of earning his living writing, in the 1960s, Mel found work teaching acting at California State College in Northridge (now Cal State University, Northridge), not far from his home. Valerie says some of his students went on to successful acting careers, a few became well known.
By the early 1990s, Mel's health was in decline. Towards the end of 1991 he confided to Valerie that he was seriously ill, cancer, he thought, but he did not want to go to the doctor. Then, in early 1992 he had a stroke. It was during his hospitalization with the stroke that the cancer was confirmed.
With two of his daughters at his side, Paul Melvin Vickland died in Northridge, California on 9 March 1992 at age 78, outliving his first wife, Natalie Park Masters, who died in 1986, by six years and one month. Gerey also predeceased him in 1975. Mel's obituary listed him as a retired screenwriter, but he clearly was much, much more.
Of her father, Valerie says: "He was a wonderful kind, generous and sentimental soul who infused ... [his children] with a profound love of the classics in music and art and introduced us to the philosophies of the world. His voice was rich and melodic; he did voice exercises daily and sang and played the piano, so the polio didn't have a long term effect on his voice. ... [One of my sisters] thought his life a bittersweet sorrow, so much love and talent and so much pain and sadness. Even so he had a wonderful sense of humor and would often make us chuckle."
Mel's ouster from Hollywood not only squelched his career, but may well have robbed the rest of us of the chance to enjoy what might have been the fruits of Mel Vickland's fertile imagination.
A THANK YOU
The author wishes to acknowledge and extend a very BIG Thank you to Valerie Vickland, Mel's daughter, for her generosity in sharing family stories and photographs