Sixty-Two Years Strong, Their Union Often Finds Its Way Into Jerry Mayer’s Comedic Plays
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Pali Life Editor
Palisadian Jerry Mayer may never forget “Mugsy,” the wrecking ball of a bombshell who nearly razed his family life.
“She looked like Brigitte Bardot,” Mayer recalled of the knockout, whom he met in his native St. Louis while freshly married to the former Emily Bettman and working for his dad at Mayer Raisher Mayer Construction. “I was taken with her, she’s also very sharp, really great. I started taking her out for lunch.”
Soon, they were taking art classes together: “I was kind of falling in love with her. And at one point, I said to Emily, ‘Maybe we got married too early.’”
That treacherous turning point early in Mayer’s 62-year marriage informs the semi-autobiographical “Almost Perfect,” playing now through September at Santa Monica Playhouse.
A revival of the debut play he first staged there in 1986, “Almost Perfect” stars Michael Marinaccio as Buddy Apple, a young Mayer surrogate torn between plain-Jane wifey Jenny (Ryan Driscoll) and caliente client “Boots” Clark (Lucy Rayner). Meanwhile, tension builds at the family construction business with brother Mike (Wayne Roberts), a zinger-slinging ladies’ man threatening to prey on neglected Jenny. “Almost Perfect” is directed by Chris DeCarlo, who also helmed a 1999 revival and who, with wife/actress Evelyn Rudie, founded Santa Monica Playhouse in 1960.
“His plays are populated with everyday people leading everyday lives dealing with everyday problems,” DeCarlo said. “He writes about issues everyone can identify with, laugh at, and care about. At the same time, he peels away the veneer of social convention, gently exposing the pressboard beneath.”
On a June gloom day, Mayer, 83, steps outside his kitchen to inhale the canyon view.
“This hill has a wonderful history,” Mayer said, surveying the Pacific from atop Paseo Miramar as his dog Tush padded around the balcony floor. “Hilary Swank once lived here.”
Nearby: an opera singer’s 1930 Spanish house, which Mayer could have purchased for $150,000, snapped up a decade ago by Dan Aykroyd and Donna Dixon for $12.5 million. Halfway up the hill: Villa Aurora—famous safe-haven for German exiles established by Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger —where Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Mann lunched on Sundays.
As a veteran author of plays and teleplays, Mayer can relate to their fondness for Paseo Miramar.
“I’ve been writing plays for 30 years and most of the writers my age are retired or writing movie scripts that will never even get considered,” he said.
Hollywood (and Palisades!) Bound
In the mid-1960s, while a young husband and father working construction, Mayer sent an unsolicited spec script to the creators of the TV series “Get Smart.”
“Buck Henry sent me a nice rejection letter,” Mayer said.
Cut to a decade later and Mayer found himself living in Pacific Palisades, developing a pilot for former “Get Smart” producer Leonard Stern.
So how’d he get there?
Using the same recipe he applies today when mounting his plays: perseverance and wife Emily’s support.
“I love a guy who has a sense of humor and that’s Jerry,” Emily Mayer said. “My own father was like that, too, though not a writer.”
Comedy had always proven alluring to Mayer, even before turning to teleplays. Back in Missouri, he sold 24 cartoons to Playboy. However, when “Droodles” creator Roger Price advised, ‘Jerry, you’ve got a good mind for humor but I don’t think you’re a great cartoonist,’ Mayer started selling jokes to entertainers Bill Dana and Robert Goulet instead. (Mayer still self-publishes cartoons and illustrates his plays’ logos.)
A chance encounter with actor Jerry Lester led to Mayer crafting zingers for a roast honoring former St. Louis Cardinals catcher-turned-broadcaster Joe Garagiola. Lester helped Mayer submit a spec script to the producers of “McHale’s Navy,” and, after they paid Mayer $500 for the story idea, Mayer proposed relocating to Los Angeles. Emily didn’t flinch.
“That I always admired her for,” Mayer said. “She said ‘Sure.’ We had three kids then. My dad said ‘Hey, if you need a few bucks, I’ll help you.’ [Through a connection], I ended up doing six ‘Bewitched’ episodes and that was the beginning.”
In California, Mayer partnered with Paul Friedman (today 87 and a Marina del Rey resident), whom he met at a comedy workshop. While the pair had cracked the Hollywood nut, “places like ‘M*A*S*H*’ and ‘All in the Family’ looked down their nose at ‘Bewitched.’”
They eventually wrote two “All in the Family” episodes in 1971, followed by two “M*A*S*H*” episodes. By 1973, Mayer became a story editor on “The Bob Newhart Show,” for which he wrote 10 scripts before quitting to write a pilot for Stern, “Philip and Barbara,” which never got made.
“I was kind of sorry that I didn’t stay with them,” said Mayer, who instead wrote for “Bridget Loves Bernie” and “Bewitched” spin-off “Tabitha.”
He also (now regretfully) turned down writing the pilot for “The Love Boat,” which, for eight years, provided longtime Highlands resident and Palisades Honorary Mayor Gavin MacLeod his signature role.
From 1979-85, Mayer served as executive producer of the “Diff’rent Strokes” spin-off, “The Facts of Life” (pre-George Clooney). He hired Neil Simon’s brother Danny, veteran TV writer Martin Ragaway and, after visiting a Beverly Hills girls school for research, his tour guide, Mindy Cohn, to play Natalie.
Then turmoil struck the “Facts” set.
“They let three girls go. They thought it was too many girls.
“It was done at the network level,” Mayer remembered.
One of them—Molly Ringwald—soon became the avatar of John Hughes’ movies. (“It doesn’t’ surprise me, she was terrific!”)
Making $450,000 as executive producer, Mayer too was replaced: “I was too expensive. They got someone else younger for less money. I left the show. That’s fine. By this time, I was into writing plays.”
Soon, another sitcom hired him.
“I would never produce television that I wouldn’t watch” had been Mayer’s mantra…up until the time he got offered $200,000 to board “Punky Brewster” starring Soleil Moon Frye as the titular moppet. “I’m a whore!” Mayer said, laughing.
But a trip to Sherman Oaks’ Back Alley Theater would spark his most personal work yet.
After “Almost Perfect” debuted, the hit ushered more Mayer comedies at Santa Monica Playhouse: cruise ship comedy of errors “Aspirin and Elephants;” race relations-themed “Black and Bluestein;” and Bart train-set crosswords puzzle romance “Two Across.”
Palisadian Bill Shallert (“The Patty Duke Show”) played in “Aspirin” because Santa Monica Playhouse was a close drive from his Huntington home, and Mayer led a virtual underground railroad of actors from his plays–Allie Mills, Susan Cash, Chuck Levin, Todd Sussman–onto “Punky Brewster.”
“Aspirin” proved especially autobiographical. He got his mother-in-law’s permission to incorporate her back-story and caricatured his former brother-in-law.
“You gotta throw in something that gets them in their seats, otherwise they watch television,” Mayer said.
An Amazing Third Act
Over the years, Emily has partnered as producer on her husband’s productions.
“It was pretty scary but a real challenge and a great way for us to work together,” she recalled.
It was Emily who suggested Rayner use her English accent playing “Boots.”
“She’s a good sounding board,” Mayer said. “Emily is a civilian but she is very sharp and very helpful.”
And unlike in “Almost Perfect,” “I never went to bed with Mugsy. By the time I went to New York on business, it had cooled down.”
Ultimately, Mayer realized he loved Emily and his in-laws too much to split. Plus, while vacationing in Key West, Emily informed Jerry she was carrying their third child. Mayer told her, “I’m not going to leave you. I’m in for everything.”
“If we would have made that move and had the divorce, I would’ve been suicidal,” continued Mayer, before outlining a successful marriage’s three essential ingredients: “You have to have the hots for the other person. You gotta have laughs. You gotta have respect.”
Respect goes for others, too. Mayer has spoken at the funerals of Sandy Gould (Mrs. Kravitz on “Bewitched”) and writer Barry Blitzer (“The Flintstones” and humor columnist for the Palisadian-Post).
In April, the Mayers traveled to Hamburg, Germany where “Aspirin” ran for six weeks. And their marital peaks and valleys now make for water under the bridge…and an even steadier flow of fodder for Mayer’s comedies.
“I guess ‘hanging in’ is my nature and it paid off,” Emily said. “Three kids was another good reason. Now we kind of laugh at the ‘bumps.’ Commitment and respect are the key words.”
After a half-century in Pacific Palisades, Mayer still divines much inspiration as a writer.
“One of the things I did right was I bought a lot for $22,000 in 1966 and had this place built,” said Mayer, who hired Westlake-based architect Ron Firestone to build his house and later additions, for the unheard of (by today’s standards) cost of $100,000.
“Pacific Palisades has a wonderful family feel about it and I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else,” Emily said. “A small town in a big city and the ocean view.”
The Mayers enjoy the proximity to downtown Santa Monica, where he continues his decades-long collaboration with DeCarlo and Rudie.
“I doubt many other theaters are as fortunate as we are to have a playwright who devotes his whole heart and soul to productions so many years after they have been created,” DeCarlo said.
Most of all, Mayer loves writing material where he doesn’t have to answer to anyone…besides his wife, of course!