It was a dreary southern afternoon last month when I visited the home of Turner ClassicMovies. Driving along I-85, you can easily spot Turner’s Techwood Campus. There’s a giant building featuring the logos of their anchor networks including the beloved TCM logo in its classic retro font. I had been itching to visit TCM ever since I moved to Atlanta about a year ago. I was thrilled when I received an email from TCM Backlot informing me that I had won a visit to the set last month. I figured it would be the usual visit of chatting with Ben Manckeiwicz and staff who I have come to know after last year’s TCM Classic Film Festival but NOTHING could have prepared me for the surprise that awaited inside the studio.
The day before the set visit, Ben tweeted a photo of him and Stefanie Powers. She was in the studio recording intros and outros for William Holden’s Star of the Month celebration in April. As you know from this blog, this year is Holden’s centennial. My heart sank with disappointment! THE Stefanie Powers was in my town virtually a mile away from where I was at the time I saw Ben’s tweet. I was working and my office is very close to TCM. I was bummed but I realized if I had met Stefanie Powers, I probably would have been a blubbering mess and I doubt I would have kept it together because of how much I adore Mr. Holden. I made peace with the situation and remembered that the Backlot website will probably have extended footage of their conversation when April rolls around anyway.
When I arrived at the visitor’s lobby, I met with my fellow Backlot members, many of which were from out of town. I didn’t realize this. That’s the power of TCM. It is so beloved that fans are willing to fly out for a short time just to visit the studio for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Everyone was so lovely and excited for what the day would bring. When Yacov from Backlot led us down to the studio, I asked him if he had met Stefanie Powers the day before and he told me that she was still there and we would be meeting her.
I could not believe it! All of a sudden I got extremely jittery and my heart started beating rapidly. As a journalist, I’ve met many famous people from politicians to actors including some of my favorites and icons of my childhood. I’m usually pretty relaxed about this because over the years it’s become a part of my job. It’s a cool perk but it’s my job. THIS WAS DIFFERENT. First of all, I was in a setting where I could be a fan and that was a nice adjustment. Second, Holden has never been alive in my lifetime. He’s all but a memory and meeting people who actually knew him is extremely rare because they’re aging or have already passed.
When we arrived at the studio, she and Ben were still wrapping up the taping so we stood by waiting. In my mind, I kept reminding myself to stay calm and relaxed but I was freaking out. William Holden means a lot to me in a way that is much different from being “just a fan” but not in a way that’s obsessive. His story has always touched me because he suffered from such a terrible disease most of his life but was able to be a productive member of society despite all of that. Even though as a man, he was an enigma, he changed the way we think of actors and masculinity and he also was an influential force in wildlife conservation. Because of his programs, communities have been enriched and animals have been saved.
I’ve met Ben before at the TCM Classic Film Festival. At my last job, I did the digital campaign for a show that was to include him but due to scheduling conflicts it didn’t work out. Ben is a very nice and professional gentleman. When we went inside the studio, he remembered me and we chatted for a bit…until I saw Stefanie Powers. I don’t know what came over me but when she showed up behind him I just blurted out “Hi Stefanie” as if I knew her. Ben introduced her to all of us and I told her that William Holden is my favorite actor and tried very hard to not let nerves get the best of me. This exact moment was captured on camera and as you can see in this photo, I did a terrible job:
Stefanie was as nice and gracious as I had hoped. She laughed and said “You have great taste,” in such a beautiful and classy way. You know how some people just radiate with charm and beauty? She has that kind of presence. She followed that up with, let’s talk at lunch. I thought “Oh, how nice that she’s being so nice but we’ll probably not see her later on during this trip.” Oh, how naive and wrong I was!
At lunch, the Backlot members and I sat with Yacov and Ben met us later. Because he had just wrapped up shooting the William Holden segments, I asked him about his research and what stood out to him during his binge watch. TCM will air 34 William Holden films during the month of April. Ben said he watched all the films that would be airing on primetime except for Network and The Moon is Blue. He chose not to watch Network because he has seen it countless times but he could not get a copy of The Moon is Blue in time. Of his rewatch, he walked away with a deeper appreciation for Sunset Boulevard commenting on how good the script is and he added that he was glad the film version of Our Town changed the ending so it wasn’t as sad as the play. What stood out to him as he watch these films was how much Holden’s face had changed due to his alcoholism point out that Holden was in his 50s when he made Network but looks like he’s 100. He said that while he was watching these films, sometimes his wife would walk into the room and not even realize it was a William Holden movie because she couldn’t recognize him. Ben added that even in those parts, Holden was as charming as ever.
As Ben went to throw away his lunch, I walked up to him and asked him if he could introduce me to Stefanie as I am such a big fan of William Holden and he said, “Of course” and asked if I wanted a picture and said he’s make it happen. He took my phone and told me to sit next to her and when I did he called out her name and introduced us. It was at this moment that something happen that I was not prepared for. For some reason my eyes welled up. I wasn’t flat out crying but my emotions did take hold of me as she said hello gave me a hug and posed for our picture. After it was taken, I used the moment to tell her just how much he means to me explaining just how moved I am by his story. She was so sweet and kind. I could tell she was visibly touched by this. I went on to comment about how much I loved her book and how I thought it painted a beautiful picture of their relationship despite its ending and also went told her about how her struggle in Hollywood and her relationship with her mother reminded me of my own also touched me. She asked me about my mom and other questions. I was so moved by this whole exchange. Not only did I get to tell her these deep thoughts and feelings, she took an interest in me. And that meant a great deal. When I asked her what favorite movie of Bill’s is her favorite, without a beat she said Picnic. Someone from TCM came up behind me and said they were getting ready to take the Backlot tour group back, Stefanie told him she’d take me down so she took me and her escort back to the studio and chatted with us on the way back. It was the most surreal thing. I honestly can’t believe it happened.
Back at the studio, the Backlot producer asked me to film a segment with Ben to be used on social media. I tried to get back on track and be composed but I was a mess. When I sat with Ben as the crew was getting the set and lighting ready, I was visibly frazzled still on the high of speaking with Stefanie that I kept apologizing. It was the most bizarre thing. Ben told me to relax and was so gracious. He is a really nice man and understands what it means to be a TCM fan. He understands that this network means so much to many people because of the connection we have to these movies. It was hard for audiences to accept Ben when he first started as the second host to Robert Osborne but I hope that audiences appreciate him. Watching him film his intros also gave me a deeper appreciation for how hard it is. As an on-camera reporter, I can tell you first hand how difficult it is to be in front of a camera doing a live report but it’s much different to narrate and host. It’s a skill that you can learn but the best ones are the ones who make it look easy and have the “it” factor. Ben has it, and his predecessor Robert excelled in it. What struck me when watching the intros being filmed is the crew. Everyone from the women who brings water to the dolly camera operator is the utmost professional yet they still have fun. Many of them have worked there since the network started which is a testament to the type of community TCM has cultivated. It’s nice to see that a network of such talented people not only feels like a family but is one.
I’d like to thank Ben, Yacov, Turner Classic Movies and the TCM Backlot for such a delightful afternoon that I will never forget. You truly made another dream come true in my life and I’m so grateful.