RAY J. MAUER CONELRAD INTERVIEW: MARCH 16, 2003
Like most talented writers Ray Mauer seems blissfully unaware of the impact his work has had on the public. Mauer, the former Archer Productions, Inc. in-house writer, agreed to our March 16, 2003 telephone interview without much trepidation. However, he sounded a little uneasy or embarrassed about the significance we had assigned to his best known work, DUCK AND COVER. This is not a man who would ever dare overestimate the importance of his own art. During the course of the interview Mauer's sardonic wit was in ample evidence. He is a self-effacing man of advanced years with more than a few accomplishments under his belt, but without many regrets. It was a fun conversation and we eventually even managed to get the humble scribe to admit some pride in writing his little civil defense film starring Bert the Turtle.
CONELRAD: You're a Detroit native. What brought you to New York City?
RAY: I came out to work for the ad agency Cambell-Ewald as a copywriter.
CONELRAD: How did you come to write the script for DUCK AND COVER?
RAY: Leo (Langlois) (DUCK AND COVER's Executive Producer) asked me. I was still at Cambell-Ewald and I got clearance from my agency to write the film because I didn't want to have any trouble and at the time I wasn't thinking of coming to work for Leo… In fact I had to take time off to go to Washington."
CONELRAD: Describe the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA)/National Education Administration (NEA)/Archer conference that served as the workshop that eventually led to the concept of DUCK AND COVER.
RAY: Seems to me there were about 50 reps from the NEA—teachers throughout the country who came and filled us in with the information that was very important because I didn't know anything about school kids anymore. I participated both days, but had nothing to do with organizing the meeting. It took place in a sizeable hall, with the Civil Defense people and us (Langlois and Mauer) seated facing the educational group.
CONELRAD: Did the teachers seem to appreciate what was being done?
RAY: They seemed quite pleased that we were interested in getting their ideas and getting things right.
CONELRAD: The working title for DUCK AND COVER was "Civil Defense for Schools" correct?
RAY: Those titles were given to us by the government. Those were the working titles. DUCK AND COVER was our concept, I mean we got it from the teacher (Helen Seth-Smith of The Potomac School). Because one group in particular said that's what they called doing the exercise. You know, the kids dove under their desk and what not. One of the women (Seth-Smith) called it "Duck and Cover" so it sounded good. And I thought that's as good as anything.
CONELRAD: Was there any other advice that they gave that you found useful?
RAY: They told us things like for heaven's sake, don't just make it for city kids. Put some farm kids in it, too. (Editors note: There is a scene in DUCK AND COVER of a young man diving off a tractor following an "atomic flash").
CONELRAD: How did the exercise evolve into the character of Bert the Turtle?
RAY: I just thought of some way to illustrate that to kids. Little kids, big kids. I guess it worked.
CONELRAD: What inspired the name "Bert"?
RAY: I wanted a short and hopefully memorable name, so I resorted to euphony. BERT rhymed with TURT(le) which might have made Shakespeare retch, but what the hell, it worked.
CONELRAD: How was the script written?
RAY: I waited for the conference to end. I got the information together and I probably spent a couple of weeks writing the script because I had other things, you know, my regular job to do. My notes from the conference were substantially what we used.
CONELRAD: Were there changes in the script from your first version?
RAY: I know that the beginning and end were changed because we decided to go to animation for Bert the Turtle and that opened the way for a song.
CONELRAD: Why was Bert's original nemesis, a skunk, changed to a monkey? Was it the result of government intervention?
RAY: Sorry, I just don't remember. Maybe in those days, Sen. McCarthy's inquisition gave skunks an inferiority complex, rendering the little animals too bland for stardom.
CONELRAD: No, seriously?!
RAY: The skunk appealed to boy students, but girls had daintier tastes. Apparently everyone prefers our simian relatives.
CONELRAD: Who provided the voice of Bert?
RAY: Now that Leo mentioned it, I believe it was Carl Ritchie, a veteran actor, a world champion Charleston dancer who with his wife, comprised a comedy dance team. His partner was Marge Rich, a serious—and accomplished—dancer in her own right was the sister of Buddy Rich, the drummer. The Rich and Ritchie team turned down a prized Hollywood role, preferring to continue their stage appearances from coast to coast.
CONELRAD: Was that the character actor Robert Middleton's voice as the narrator for DUCK AND COVER?
RAY: I don't remember, but that track sounds like Middleton, who narrated other films for Archer.
CONELRAD: What do you recall about the DUCK AND COVER song? Did (arranger) Dave Lambert sing with the group?
RAY: The song was written by Corday & Carr, both now deceased. Leo Corday's daughter is today a top executive in films (editor's note: This is Barbara Corday). The writers' biggest success was "There's No Tomorrow," a 1952 parody of "O Solo Mio." No sooner had it hit the market than Eddie Fisher drowned it out with his parody of the same tune which he named "It's Now or Never." Curiously, another Corday and Carr tune called "The Turtle Song," was released by a major label. It was sung by the Fontaines, who backed up Perry Como when I supervised Perry's original show for Chesterfield. I collaborated with Carr & Corday (music only) on several Chevrolet commercials. Dave Lambert always sang with his group, as did his arranger, Jerry Packer.
CONELRAD: Do you know anything else about Dave Lambert?
RAY: He was a bopster who was a very good choral arranger. With (the jazz group) Lambert, Ross and Hendricks, the trio made tours throughout the country. Leo used him for almost everything (that Archer produced).
CONELRAD: Was the song written after the script?
RAY: Yes. Leo figured that I'd already blown the budget by specifying animation, and Lars Calonius, who had quit Disney to join Archer, liked the device.
CONELRAD: Was using Bert as the symbol of preparedness readily accepted by the rest of the Archer creative team?
RAY: Everybody seemed to like the idea, so we just went ahead with it and it was one of these things that fell into place fairly easily.
CONELRAD: Did the FCDA have final say on the script?
RAY: Yes, the people in charge of this series in Washington had to approve of the script and they OK'd almost everything we did.
CONELRAD: How many drafts?
RAY: I really don't remember. Couldn't have been more than three at the most. After that there were small changes here and there.
CONELRAD: At what point was the decision made to go to animation?
RAY: It was after I had done the first draft, that I know. And there was no music contemplated at this time. None of the other producers that did these films took the trouble or went to the expense of their own to do things like special music and so forth. It all paid off.
CONELRAD: Tell us about DUCK AND COVER director Anthony Rizzo
RAY: Tony Rizzo was an excellent director. Leo hired him (based on a recommendation by a suspense book writer named Bill Ballenger with whom Rizzo worked in Chicago producing a weekly dramatic show for the ABC affiliate) and I think he hired him specifically for that film (DUCK AND COVER) with the intention of having him do other work, too, if it came along in the future (editor's note: Rizzo directed Archer's other civil defense film OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT).
CONELRAD: Did you ever see Rizzo again after Archer folded?
RAY: Yes, as a matter of fact I was instrumental in hiring him at Geyer, Morey, Ballard, Inc. in the early sixties. I was creative director for this agency.
CONELRAD: Tell us about Archer publicity man Milt Mohr.
RAY: I remember working with Milt Mohr. And he did a good job for us. I can't remember what articles he succeeding in placing in what publications, though. I was impressed with him and beyond that I really don't know a heck of a lot about him. But he spent his full time on that film (DUCK AND COVER) I believe. I think he was with us until the place folded.
CONELRAD: Were you admonished not to frighten the children with explosions?
RAY: I dimly remember something of that nature. The mushroom cloud was so overdone anyway by then. It was really trite by then.
CONELRAD: Do you recall what the government's reaction was to DUCK AND COVER when it was submitted?
RAY: Only in a very general way. They were very pleased with it. They should have been. It didn't cost them anything and it was a damn sight better than any other films in that series. And it was better than the other one we had done by far (OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT)
CONELRAD: When you were bidding on the opportunity to produce the civil defense films did you take OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT by default?
RAY: I think we took the clunker in order to get "Civil Defense for Schools" (the working title for DUCK AND COVER). We worked harder than hell on the other one, but it never came to life.
CONELRAD: Any other thoughts on OUR CITIES MUST FIGHT?
RAY: Not a great success.
CONELRAD: Do you recall your cameo in DUCK AND COVER?
RAY: Yes, it seems to me I was an air raid warden with his hands jammed in his pockets. Never could have been an actor (laughs).
CONELRAD: Were your kids in the film?
RAY: No, I just used my kids names for screen names (editor's note: The character names were "Tony," "Paul" and "Patty")
CONELRAD: Were you on the set during filming?
RAY: Oh, no, no. I was there for that shot of me, but I don't think I was there for any of the other filming.
CONELRAD: Is there anything else you recall about the film?
RAY: Once the film was in production, I had little to do with it. I was working out my contract with the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency as creative director for radio and TV. Later, when I joined Archer, I was involved with public relations for the film, appearing on an occasional radio talk show or meeting with advertisers or their agencies. Most memorably, I was interviewed by Louie Quinn in Chicago, who was having a quiet night, so he stretched out our live broadcast to three quarters of an hour. My memory is fuzzy on other interviews, but they were no big deal.
CONELRAD: Does it surprise you that DUCK AND COVER became an icon of the Cold War?
RAY: Didn't surprise me at the time as much as it does now. I'm surprised anybody remembered it. It's been dug up from time to time as a laughing piece. The newscasters have always had fun with it. And the headline writers.
CONELRAD: What was your view of civil defense?
RAY: I thought it was a good thing. I didn't know how effective it would be. I thought it was wise to make whatever preparations could be devised by the best minds. I had no idea whether that was happening or not. But you know, I was just a writer for hire. Hell, I would have written almost anything. It was fun and if it did some good that would me feel good. And I guess it did. Thank heaven nobody ever had to put it into practice.
CONELRAD: Did you think DUCK AND COVER was an important film, one that would help our country?
RAY: I didn't know. There was no way of telling.
CONELRAD: Had you ever written a short movie before DUCK AND COVER?
RAY: I had never written anything but ads and commercials.
CONELRAD: Were you involved in the radio version of DUCK AND COVER?
RAY: No. I'm quite sure it was derived from the film by a staff writer of the Civil Defense Administration. Sorry to say I can't remember his name.
CONELRAD: Do you recall the final days at Archer when the company was experiencing fiscal problems?
RAY: I was there when the sheriff came in and chewed everybody out.
CONELRAD: How would you sum up Archer's philosophy?
RAY: What we did may not have always been earth shaking, but we always tried to make it colorful and interesting."
CONELRAD: In the years since, has the fact that you wrote DUCK AND COVER ever come up in conversation?
RAY: On rare occasion, yes. I've had people bring it up. And in some cases I was guilty of introducing it myself in the conversation (laughs).
CONELRAD would like to thank Mr. Mauer for his invaluable insights into the making of DUCK AND COVER.