Friday, May 01, 2015

façade: zeme north

The legend goes that Jack Warner was so impressed by the reception to Metro's 1960 spring-break frolic, "Where the Boys Are," that he decided to duplicate it, moving the action from the East Coast to the West - from Ft. Lauderdale to Palm Springs. He would populate his version with Warner house players whom he had kept imprisoned largely on television.

Hence, "Palm Springs Weekend" of 1963.

Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, Robert Conrad and Ty Hardin were appealing contract players to whom Warner infrequently tossed a feature-film crumb.  Much like the cast of "Where the Boys Are," they were way too old to play college-age students, but at least their film was a genuine frolic.  Unlike "Boys," there was no disconcerting gang rape at its center. These "kids" merely partied in bikinis and Speedos (a time when men didn't wear Bermuda shorts for swimming), swigging a lot of beer.

"Palm Springs Weekend" is a lot more fun than "Where the Boys Are," a more companionable throwaway movie, and as a bonus, it had a neat cameo appearance by show-biz columnist Shirley Eder - as herself, of course. (That's Shirley, who would become a colleague and a good friend, on the right.)

Warner, meanwhile, complimented his players with a few outsiders - Stefanie Powers (on loan from Columbia), Jerry Van Dyke, child star Billy Mumy and, as the adults, Andrew Duggan, Carole Cook and the always invaluable Jack Weston, he of the inimitable lisp.

Plus one more - an adorable newcomer named Zeme North who handily walks away with the film as its so-called wallflower.  For all intents and purposes, North is the real star of "Palm Springs Weekend."  (Sorry, Connie and Stefanie.)  Warner and his director, Norman Taurog ("Room for One More"), showcased North here (even though she had co-star billing), teaming her not just with Van Dyke, but with Mumy as well.  I've no idea who came up with the idea but both Zeme North and Billy Mumy have the same hair color and haircut in "Palm Springs Weekend."

Kindred spirits, see.

For reasons that remain bizarrely evasive, "Palm Springs Weekend" was Zeme North's second and final film.

I'd like to think that she left the biz voluntarily - that perhaps she went home to Corpus Christi, Texas and opened an acting school for kids.  Based on her chemistry with Mumy, she was great with kids.

Full disclosure:  I first encountered North when I was a kid myself and she came to Philadelphia in the tryout engagements of two big Broadway musicals.  In "Take Me Along," Bob Merrill's 1959 musical version of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," North played the daughter of Walter Pidgeon and Una Merkel, the younger sister of Robert Morse and ...

The niece of Jackie Gleason.  What a cast.

A year later, she came back to Philadelphia (and to the same theater, the Shubert) as Anthony Perkins' leading lady in Frank Loesser's eagerly anticipated "Greenwillow."   It was 1960 and Perkins had just finished shooting Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."  He had not yet become an icon.

The show's director was George Roy Hill and its choreographer was the great Joe Layton. North came to it rather late in the game, having replaced the original female lead, Ellen McGowen, during the Boston tryout.  From what I've read, Hill, Layton and Loesser all liked McGowen but thought she might be the wrong age for the part.  North, who reportedly auditioned with 100 other actresses, was 10 years younger and got the role, a plum one.  But during the Philly tryout, where the reviews were less than enthusiastic, North herself was replaced.

By McGowen.

Two actresses demoralized by the process.  No one said show business was easy. Or kind.  However much this was a setback, North moved on to another musical, "Fiorello!," by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, during its Broadway run (the show was a personal triumph for its star, Tom Bosley) and, a year later, made her first movie - William Castle's 1962 comedy with Tom Poston, "Zotz!"  And then came "Palm Springs Weekend."

Too bad that Jack Warner, a smart cookie, didn't snap her up and nurture her.  I would have loved to have seen her progress on screen. Zeme North had the potential to be a terrific screwball comedienne and movie musical star. But by this time, the studio system was dying and promising talent was no longer being personally groomed for stardom by moguls.

Note in Passing: I hasten to note that "Greenwillow," a hugely underrated show and now a cult musical, featured one of Frank Loesser's grandest scores, including the huanting "Never Will I Marry" which, of course, was subsequently recorded by Barbra Streisand.


Sheila said...

Thanks! I always wondered about her whenever I see PSW on TV. She was a very likable actress, who reminded me a lot of Sheila James (Kuehl), who played Zelda on the old "Dobie Gillis" TV series - well, at least in her role in PSW. -Another Sheila

Brian Lucas said...

According to her bio on IMBd, Zeme North also did a lot of TV work in the early 1960s.

marvin said...

Joe, I had never heard of either Zeme North or Greenwillow. What talent was associated with Greenwillow! I have always liked Palm Springs Weekend a lot, although I don't remember it all that well. And I've never seen Zotz!, although I am familiar with the title. Marvin

Albert Joe Rittgers said...

I went to high school- W. B. Ray, Corpus Christi, Texas - with Zeme North and have always wondered what ever happened to her.

Greg Wheeler said...

This is driving me a bit nuts. We just watched Palm Springs Weekend for the first time yesterday. I didn't know who was playing AMANDA. We looked it up and was a bit shocked to find this was Zeme's second and final movie. I thought we'd discovered an unknown (to us) actress with a huge frenetic screen presence, much more intelligence and verve than everyone else in the movie, and we're looking forward to making our way through the rest of her oeuvre. but...that's it. Nothing else to see, and also, no other information at all. It's weird to encounter anyone with a one-time significant public presence who has left little trace on the internet. Where is she? Where has she gone?