By: Joe Gilford
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Giovanna Sardelli
Featuring: Jim Stanek, Donna Vivino, Leo Ash Evens, Gabriel Marin, Robert Sicular, Michael Barrett Austin, Richard Frederick, and George Psarras
When: Previews June 6-8; opens June 9; closes July 1, 2018
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $40-$100 (savings available. Visit https://www.theatreworks.org/201718-season/201718-season/finks/ or call 650-463-1960
brilliant but blacklisted parents
to tell the story of Jack and Madeline Lee Gilford
Writer Joe Gilford was named for Joseph Edward Bromberg, who'd had a good career as a character actor on stage and in the movies until he was ruined by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951.
Like Sen. Joe McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, HUAC was looking under every bed for communists. Bromberg cited the Fifth Amendment when being questioned, and as a result was blacklisted in Hollywood, where he'd been in nearly 60 films.
The stress of being blacklisted ruined his health, said his friends, and when he went to England in search of work, he had a heart attack and died at the age of 47. Bromberg was friends with Joe Gilford's parents, Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford — who were also victims of the red scare blacklist.
Jack Gilford was called before HUAC in 1953, and Madeline in 1955, when — according the New York Times — Madeline Lee Gilford cited the First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth amendments to the Constitution in resisting questioning.
The Gilfords were blacklisted by Hollywood for almost ten years.
"I was only 3, 4, 5, years old" during that time, Joe Gilford said in a phone interview from New York, while his play, "Finks" was being rehearsed at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Redwood City, before being moved to the performance space at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. "You're a kid, you don't know what it was like.
"My parents happened to be actors. My father not around on weekends or nights, he was always on Broadway. You could work steadily and make a pretty OK living. That's the way it worked."
But, still it was tough, because both the Gilfords couldn't work on TV or movies for eight or nine years, and that's where the money was.
"I was just a little kid" at the beginning of the blacklist," said Joe Gilford, "a student at the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. Just a little while later, when I was 8 or 9, I became more aware. As I got older, the radical student movement began. I grew up in an atmosphere of leftist politics that echoed my parents' activities.
"I didn't get a chance to rebel until I was a hippie, and my parents totally supported it."
His parents were "nothing less than heroic," said Gilford. "They didn't mean to be heroes, they just did what was right, what was common sense. Being blacklisted was a gift in a strange way ... because once the blacklist passed, they went back to work, but the finks were still finks. All became victims."
One such fink and one such victim, perhaps, was choreographer Jerome Robbins, who resisted HUAC for three years, but finally named people he thought were communists after he was threatened with having his homosexuality publicized if he did not comply. Among the people he named was Madeline Lee Gilford.
Yet show business goes on: As the blacklist era was coming to a close, Robbins is the person who came in to save "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which helped revive the careers of blacklist victims Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford.
Jack Gilford, who was a very, very funny man, played Hysterium in the successful 1962 Broadway show, and also in the 1966 movie.
Baby Boomers especially remember him for that, and for a series of commercials for Cracker Jacks, which had no dialogue but were quite funny. They aired mostly during the "Tonight" show, when Johnny Carson was host.
And, Gilford had many dozens of other TV and movie appearances after the black list lifted. Here's a link to a YouTube video from who-knows-what, with a clown-dressed Dom Deluise encouraging Gilford to do his imitation of pea soup coming to a boil.
"But, still, it used to annoy me when he'd come in the living room when we watched cartoons and say, 'I have a new bit.' Still, I gotta say it was fun and it was special," said Joe Gilford. "My mother was wonderfully funny. And a great tap dancer and wonderful actor. She was just terrific. She gave up that career to be a homemaker and a mom.
"We weren't living on bread and butter, but there were hardships. If not for the blacklist, he probably could have gotten his own TV show. But he couldn't be on Sid Caesar, he couldn't be on Ed Sullivan. Had to wait eight, nine years for that to happen."
Jack Gilford had been involved in New York's show biz world for some years before the black list era. He shared a dressing room with Billie Holiday at Café Society, where she first performed her version of "Strange Fruit." He dated Lena Horne before he married Madeline Lee.
Many of those famous people were family friends for young Joe. "I got to meet Zero, who was a very close family friend … Ring Lardner Jr. … S.J. Perlman, several times. I was at a publicity party when I was 16, free food and booze. I'd go hang out. There were a lot of colorful people. I sat down with some old guy — it was Thornton Wilder."
Jack Gilford died in 1990, at the age of 81. Madeline Lee Gilford died in 2008 at age 84.
Joe Gilford's play "Finks," a fictionalized tale about the blacklist era, was first performed in New York Ensemble Studio Theatre, where it was well received and nominated for several awards.
Gilford has written lots of plays and movies, teaches screenwriting and playwriting, and wrote a book called "Why Does the Screenwriter Cross the Road?"
"Not a title I was responsible for," he said. And, to answer the title question: "To get to the next job. I just made an audio version.
"It's great to write a book. I love finishing the big mess, then going back, and I can fix this and fix that. I love doing movies and plays. Especially being a playwright — you get actors almost immediately. … Theater is a little more instantaneous, and much more homemade. The only reason I write plays is to have actors do it."
For 18 years, Gilford has been teaching screenwriting, at NYU’s Tisch undergraduate film program, "for fledgling young screenwriters and filmmakers. I love it, I really do. I've learned more about writing as a teacher than I had learned up to that point. I had to start to articulate the dynamics of writing, develop a teaching strategy ... the book is all the things I said to my students."
Gilford said a lot of people ask how today's political climate compares to the McCarthy era.
"It's on the same side of the tracks," Gilford said. "It has allowed white nationalists to speak out. But being left wing is not going to get you in trouble. What will get you in trouble is not being white."
He's no fan of Donald Trump. "The worst human being in history that happened to become president. Terrible. The most horrible man that ever lived who happened to be elected. …
"People are going, 'Oh my god! What are we going to do?' In the 1950s, the media was on the side of the political establishment. Actors were blacklisted in the press, in the Walter Winchell column, in Red Channels ... they started asking your neighbors. Your name would go into Red Channels ... they'd intimidate companies into not hiring these people. That was the cycle of all this — hearsay and innuendo, the press arrayed against them. Only a few spoke out, such as I.F. Stone.
"Nowadays, there is a different landscape. There is a Washington Post, a New York Times reporting on this villainy ... a free press ... and a fervent outcry... it gives me a lot of hope. Even though it's a battle, a cultural civil war, we are all standing our ground. It's magnificent."
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org