NDSU Magazine logoS - Fall 2004

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Fall 2004

Vol. 05, No. 1


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Franny and Mr. Sandburg

Franny and Mr.Sandburg

The story of a makeup artist, a poet and a pair of TV documentaries

Bill Snyder's introduction

I attended NDSU with Frances (Bettschen) Arvold in the 1940s. After graduating in 1941, Franny went on to a 40-year career as a makeup artist for CBS News. She became the favorite of many stars, making up famous faces from President Truman to First Lady Nancy Reagan. Her assignments included a 17-year stint with "60 Minutes." It was Franny's makeup and powder Richard Nixon so famously declined in 1960 before the nation's first televised presidential debate.

When Franny retired and moved back to Fargo, I tried to talk her into doing a book. She was reluctant, because she didn't want to reveal private lives. I told her we could make a few sample chapters and see how they would be accepted by the outside world.

Unfortunately, Franny died before we could do more than this one, short piece. I think Franny would have produced a warm and wonderful book, because she was a warm and wonderful person. CBS News dedicated a room to her memory after her demise; because, I'm sure, the CBS News people all loved her very much.

Following are excerpts from "Franny and the Poet" in which Franny shares her memories of working on location with Pulitzer-prize winning poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. It was 1961 and "CBS Reports" did two one-hour documentaries on Abraham Lincoln in honor of the centennial of his election to the presidency.

During days of filming at Gettysburg and later in Illinois, Franny, then 31, and Sandburg, 84, became friends. Here is her story.

Frances Arvold's Story

at Gettysburg, I set up shop in the back seat of a rented auto -- on location our documentary company rarely has the luxury of a makeup room with good lighting and a chair for the actor. I only had reporter Howard K. Smith and Sandburg to get ready for the camera. I finished Howard first, and then the program producer poked his head into the car and introduced me to the star of the show. Having studied Sandburg's poems in high school and college, I was excited to meet him.

As Sandburg climbed into the back seat of the makeup "studio" the producer said, "This is our chief makeup gal, Frances Arvold, but everyone calls her Franny."

Acknowledging the introduction, Sandburg smiled and settled down into the seat. He was an old hand at television, so I got right to work.

Actors respond differently to the application of makeup. Some are deep in thought, perhaps trying to remember dialogue lines or contemplating the actions in a scene they are about to do. Those types are usually pensive and quiet, so they don't want to engage in idle chitchat. On the other end of the scale, there are those who are loose, talkative and full of fun. It doesn't take long for an experienced makeup artist to read where the actor is on the "looseness" scale.

Sandburg began the conversation by asking where I was from, observing, "I'd say you're not a native New Yorker because of your speech." He teased my history from me: I grew up in Arthur, North Dakota; went to college in Fargo; and wound up in New York when I got married. "But that's over now," I said.

"And where, Frances, did you learn your trade?"

"At Max Factor's in Hollywood. We were out there during the big war. My husband was a technical writer in an aircraft factory," I told him.

Sandburg was relaxed and chatty. It was obvious our visits in the makeup car were going to be fun. I was applying the finishing touches to his face, when the great man said, "Frances, I'm suffering from a slight cold. Thought I'd better let you know." "I've a good supply of Kleenex, and I'll be right beside the camera," I assured him.

"Think you'll need a lot of them," Sandburg said in his slow measured voice. He had a slight twinkle in his eye.

The weather was brisk when Smith and Sandburg began to discuss the Civil War before the camera. The instant the camera stopped turning, I jumped in with a Kleenex. This continued throughout the day. Every time the camera stopped, I charged in with another tissue.

Sandburg and I became fast friends during that three-day location trip. We talked about many things, including poetry -- mine. I have enjoyed reading poetry, and now and then I tried my hand at writing it. After all, I was an English major. Still I was quite overwhelmed when, back in New York, I received an envelope postmarked Beverly Hills; it contained a letter from Sandburg. It was dated April 21, 1961, eight days after the airdate of the Gettysburg program.

Dear Frances, At any moment when our show was on the TV screen I expected to see you step up and apply Kleenex below my nose. And they probably said, "We'll put that one in the next one (documentary) for pleasant comedy." Send along more than one poem. And please don't fail me on photographs. Send along one that includes your own good face. We worked on what is generally agreed to be a TV classic, which will be around when we are all under the grass roots unless cremated. I designated the one or two quarts of cinders from my body to go to the house where I was born. Write me about your poems and your work. Everybody loved you. There was a warm and keen fellowship about our crew, all of it good for me. Norman Corwin and I have finished the manuscript of a book we will co-sign when published next fall and its titled "The World of Carl Sandburg."

Female technicians hadn't penetrated the movie and television unions to any great extent, so it was a rarity to have a woman on a news documentary shoot. Again, I was the only female in the troupe when we began filming Sandburg for the second documentary in New Salem, where Lincoln worked as a surveyor, law student and politician in the 1830s.

The autumn Illinois weather was quite cool, the wind sharp and cutting. While I was applying his makeup in my automobile studio, Sandburg asked, "Frances, in your toolkit, is there anything I could wrap around my neck? It's chilly out there." "Take my scarf," I said. I untied the colorful silk scarf from around my neck and wrapped it around his. He smiled as I finished tying the knot, thanked me and left the auto. During shooting days, I usually had a few cheese sandwiches tucked aside for a snack. They were just to tide us over in case the filming session went into extra hours. When I first shared one with Sandburg, he was delighted. It became a daily routine to nibble on bits of cheese and bread as the afternoon wore on.

Of course, the presence of a film crew and Carl Sandburg made the local newspapers. It wasn't long after that the Governor of Illinois invited Sandburg to a sit-down dinner at the Governor's Mansion. We had just finished the day's filming when Sandburg asked me to accompany him to the Governor's dinner.

"I can't. I've nothing to wear!" I replied. It was true. When I go on location I travel as light as possible. I take only a small suitcase full of work-type clothing, and I hand-carry my TV makeup kit onto airliners for fear I'll wind up somewhere with lost baggage and no tools.

But the field producer grabbed me by the arm and said, "She'll go with you, Carl." Then he started leading me toward the parking lot. "You've gotta go, Franny," he said.

"But I can't go in slacks," I pleaded.

"You've gotta go, Franny. It'll help us get permission to shoot on restricted locations. The governor can pull the strings."

"I ... I can't ..."

"Time is short, so jump in the car. We're going right down and buy the clothes you need. This, Franny, is a command performance. And Carl insists."

I flew through a downtown Springfield department store, raced to the motel to shower and dress, and then set off for dinner with the governor. It was a memorable evening. Sandburg and the host engaged in delightful conversation. All in all, it was another highpoint in my work with Sandburg and CBS. Whether it helped us get location permission, I can't remember, but it was fun.

Every evening on that Illinois shoot was a joy: eating with the whole crew, accompanying Sandburg on his evening walk, talking with him about poetry, music and what my generation was thinking about.

Our last location was Galesburg, the Illinois city of Sandburg's birth. As I dabbed on the pancake makeup, Sandburg asked, "Can I bother you for another scarf?" As I gave it to him, I wondered what had happened to the one he'd worn the day before. We parted company in Chicago. Sandburg headed for California and the crew for New York. As we waited to board our airliner, I told to our field producer, "When I arrived here I had a half dozen silk scarves. Now I have only one."

"Don't worry, Franny," he said, "go buy some new ones. Just put 'em on your expense account as props -- no list 'em as 'Costumes for Sandburg.' "

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