Frances Farmer The Peaceful Years

Frances Farmer:  She couldn't tell the white hats from the black

By Rita Rose – Part Two of a series

 

October 13, 1958, marked the end of one era and the beginning of another for Frances Farmer.

That day the ex-Hollywood film star plunged into a new career as the afternoon hostess for Indianapolis’ WFBM-TV, Channel 6, while her final feature film, "The Party Crashers," opened at the Westlake drive-in theater.

At age 45, Frances already had survived a series of crises that would have permanently shattered one with a lesser constitution.  But she managed to put behind her a broken film career, arrests for drunken driving, eight years in mental institutions and several years of caring for dying parents. Then she was faced with making a new life in the Midwest.

Another beginning for Frances came that year on March 27 when she married her third husband, Leland C. Mikesell, at Las Vegas.  Mikesell, originally from the Indianapolis area and now deceased, called himself a "radio and TV consultant."  He had plucked Frances from a life of obscurity at Eureka, Calif., where she had been working in a photography shop, and convinced her to make a comeback in the theater.

Divorced from second husband Alfred Lobley, a Seattle city engineer, Frances had been drinking heavily and hiding out from her family at Eureka.   The fast-talking Mikesell offered her a chance to return to the career she loved, and she wound up doing a summer stock production of "The Chalk Garden" at the old Avondale Playhouse here.

Back in his own territory, Mikesell was pleased when a WFBM-TV executive asked Frances if she would like to be the hostess of the NBC affiliate’s afternoon movie.  She accepted, and two weeks later was employed by Channel 6 (now WRTV).

Hired, Fired Twice

Mikesell, described as "a flake" by one of Frances’ former colleagues, couldn’t hold a job, and a couple of years later they were divorced.  Meanwhile, the star of "Frances Farmer Presents" had zoomed her program to the top of the local ratings, and the once-unsettled woman found a comfortable niche here as an independent home-owner with several friends and a lively German Shepherd named Sport.

According to Eldon Campbell, who then was the station’s general manager, the first four years of "Frances Farmer Presents" went relatively smoothly, with only a few upheavals brought on by Frances’ temperament.   The next couple of years she seemed to deteriorate, he recalled, often showing up for work inebriated or in such an emotional state she couldn’t go on the air.

Since the program was done live, it was a matter of much concern and Jim Gerard was often called in as a last minute substitute.  Finally in April, 1964, Campbell fired his station’s top personality, hired back in June, and re-fired her late that summer.

In an interview with the Star, Campbell former vice-president of public relations for INB, assured us it wasn’t an easy decision – or an easy task.

"Frances was fired because she was incompetent, and I had the task. It was very difficult."

Asked how she reacted to the firing, Campbell smiled and said, "Volubly."

He said he felt that "her drinking followed emotion – I don’t think her drinking stimulated emotion. Was she an alcoholic?   Absolutely not.  She had her emotional moments when she worked for us, but most of the time she was loyal, co-operative and did her best.

Blames Himself

Campbell blames himself somewhat for what happened to Frances.

"What really triggered it, in my judgment, was when I arranged for her to be on the ‘Today Show.’ She came off very badly and never really returned to the air here - she just froze.  I don’t think the line of questioning was her problem – she suddenly was back in the big time (at New York), and it just destroyed her.

"When she came back from that, she was never useful to us again.  She was dangerous on the air, so we just took the air away from her."

Campbell also recalled the antique auto tours in which the station literally took to the roads in 75 old cars, broadcasting from the Indiana countryside.

"On that first trip, it was obvious to us that little boys, little girls, mamas and papas all knew her and all liked her.  It was great for her ego.  We’d go into some of these towns, and she’d be literally mobbed by people who just wanted to talk to her."

‘Sad Subject’

Warren Wright, Frances’ program director at Channel 6, regards her as "a sad subject."

Wright, the former owner of radio station WNON at Lebanon and now retired, said he "prefers to refrain from any conjecture regarding Frances Farmer’s problems.

"Perhaps too much has been theorized already," he sated in a telephone interview. "Frances remained a beautiful woman and talented actress.  Her talents could not be fully realized as a feature film hostess of television (because) Frances was playing herself.  She needed to envelope herself in a character.  I saw her in Chekhov’s "The Seagull’ at the Purdue University Theater and she was magnificent.  This (television) was not really her medium, where she could shine.

"It was difficult to watch the waste of an excellent talent."

Carolyn Churchman, an interviewer for WFBM radio at Noblesville, used to share a dressing room with her when she did the commercials for Frances’ show.  "She was really into gardening," Mrs. Churchman recalled, "and one day I brought her a start off a wahoo tree from Brown County, and she had never heard of it."

She said she found Frances to be "very quiet and shy…I always had the feeling she didn’t want to share too much of herself.   She always seemed sad and lonely, and the only time she was interested in anything was with this gardening thing, which seemed to stimulate her."

 

Frances Farmer modeled jewelry for a local company (left) when she appeared at Avondale Playhouse here in 1958.  A WFBM-TV publicity photo (right) shows the softer, more youthful look she acquired five years later.

 

Sense of Humor

John Foland, on the other hand, found Frances to have "a great sense of humor – she knew how to laugh at herself."

Foland, currently in public relations at Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement, was the writer for Frances’ show for four years.

Whether or not she relied heavily on a teleprompter – a video device which displays a word-for-word "script" – is a subject of much discussion among those who worked with her or watched her program.  Foland says she did, but at times would try to ad lib, which usually made her look like she wasn’t quite sober.

"Frances had the ‘old star’ syndrome," he explained. "She had an illusion of what she should be like. Sometimes she would substitute words, and in the process would stammer, and she refused to wear her glasses. It didn’t provide a very good image."

Foland also said that Frances had been a good writer in her younger days, and "was well-read, analytical and excellent in her comparison of authors. She was also attractive (she wore hats beautifully) and devout in her conversion (to Catholicism). During Lent she didn’t drink and would lose weight."

One of his favorite stories is when Frances stalked into his office after reading her script one day. "You spelled that word wrong," she accused pointing to the paper.

"Hell, Frances, are you going to spell it or pronounce it?" he countered.

Frances regarded him with a wry smile. "Well," she said backing off, "I guess I’m going to pronounce it."

"From that day on, we understood each other," Foland chuckled.

Her break with the station was difficult for her, he noted.   "One of the secretaries there asked Frances to be her child’s godmother, and she was absolutely thrilled.  She showered that little girl with toys on every occasion – she never forgot.

"After she was fired, she completely shut off her relationship with the woman and wouldn’t answer her calls.  It must have hurt Frances very much to do that…Frances had a soft side that she wouldn’t let anyone have."

‘She was our Star’

Jim Gerard, now host of an afternoon talk show on WTTV, Channel 4, was probably the only co-worker who became close to Frances.  Her main problem, he said, was that "she couldn’t tell the white hats from the black."

"I liked Frances, I respected her," Gerard acknowledged during an interview in his small, memorabilia-studded office.

"That’s the side I think is going to get lost (in the films).  She had a six-year period here when she was relatively at peace.   She loved the lifestyle here, loved the little house on Park – my wife Nancy and I were there many, many times.  She spent a lot of money on it.  In her bedroom she had a theatrical makeup area, with the lights around the mirror.  It was something she needed for herself…for her inner being."

Gerard said she got a tremendous amount of mail, and that the Hoosiers "absolutely loved her and supported her.  At Christmas time she used to receive hundreds of cards and I never before saw mail like that."

When Gerard met Frances, they hit it off instantly.   "I understood her and admired her accomplishments.  I always said she was our star, and she was!  I’m not sure the station saw her in the same light."

On one occasion, Gerard and his wife invited her to a closed dinner at a steak house.

"There was a couple there, and the gentlemen was dying.   He and his wife had befriended Frances somewhere along the way and nothing was too good for that man and his wife that night.  She was the hostess with the mostest – very caring, very loving, very sympathetic, because they had been nice to her.

"She’s invited the whole crew at the station for cookouts at her home.  She was very much at peace with the crew, always buying them gifts.  That’s the side of her that always gets lost when people talk about Frances."

At the station, he said, there were days when Frances was "in conflict."

"And when that would happened, I would get a call and (the station manager) would say ‘Jim, we need you!’  All of a sudden, on certain days, and for whatever reasons, Frances was talking like a truck driver – this lovely, charming, elegant, sensitive lady would chew out the program director or someone, then go storming out the back door, pop in her Edsel and go flying out of the parking lot.

"Jerry Vance (her director) would go flying out after her, and sometimes someone else would go after Jerry.  When this would happen, I’d pull myself together and go on the air for her."

Bad Judgment

Time-Life (the station’s parent company) at that time was as sensitive as it could have been to Frances’ outbursts, he said, noting that any other company probably wouldn’t have put up with that kind of behavior as long they did.

Frances "couldn’t judge the horseflesh around her," he mused.  "She couldn’t tell who were her friends, and who weren’t.  One example of this came shortly after Frances left the station.   Several gentlemen came to town for negotiations with her to promote a brand of orange juice.  It was a national campaign and a lucrative offer.

"During the conversation, one man very innocently asked Frances what Tyrone Power was like to work with.  Now, Frances hated Tyrone Power – they used to fight like dogs and cats.  She thought he had deliberately asked her the question to embarrass her.

"She stood up, walked to the door, and said ‘Gentlemen, I don’t care to sell your g-------- orange juice.’  She had the chance for a big image right there, and the doors would have opened to other acting opportunities.  This was the tragedy of her life.

"People lied to her, cheated her… I think she had a lot of that Marilyn Monroe syndrome, where you take a young, pretty girl and compromise her to where she can’t decide what is good or what is bad… no one ever proved she had a mental problem."

 

This article appeared in The Indianapolis Star – January 24, 1983

Provided by Jack Randall Earles


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