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Camera innovator Abby Singer, one of the ROMEOs, dies at 96

If you've worked on a movie or TV shoot, you know it. The last shot of the day is the Martini Shot.

Abby Singer created a shot that will live a long time.
Abby Singer created a shot that will live a long time.
TV Academy
Abby Singer was one of the great legends of TV.
TV Archives

The second-to-the-last shot is the Abby Singer shot. If you don't know that, when they shout out "Abby Singer!"it may seem like they're calling for someone.

That someone, I got a chance to know for years while he sat with other legends of TV at Art's Deli on Thursdays. They called themselves the ROMEOs—Retired Old Men Eating Out. There aren't that many of them left.

I knew Art Ginsburg, of Art's Deli, who brought his famous deli style diner to Los Angeles more than half a century ago. Art introduced me to the ROMEOs.

Abby died a few days ago at the age of 96 after living most of his life in the San Fernando Valley. He worked for Columbia Pictures, and he was unit production manager for Family Plan in 1997. In 1985, the Director's Guild gave him the Frank Capra Lifetime Achievement Award. He is survived by his wife Lotte, and three daugters, as well as three granddaughters.

The story below was authored by Nicole Kristal and is reprinted here with her permission. It is an appropriate to take a second take at this story, now that he has passed:

(Also check out the video and the photos in the gallery.)

Where for Art's thou, Romeos?

Retired film producers and directors make a tradition of their weekly lunch at Art's

By Nicole Kristal

If you go to Art's Delicatessen & Restaurant, in Studio City, Calif. on Thursdays, you'll find them — a handful of men your grandfather's age in the back booth, noshing on pancakes, BLTs, liver, omelets, eggs, lox, and matzah ball soup and maybe a little herring. But there's nothing ordinary about this self-proclaimed group of ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out).

Abby Singer, Bill Beaudine, Bob Rosenbaum, Art Marks, Jon Andersen, and Mitch Gamson make up the group, and they have produced and directed some of the most historic television shows and movies ever made. For the past 15 years, these buddies have shared memories and busted each other's chops over lunch at Art's every week.

Gamson, who was the unit production manager for The Wonder Years and clocked time on The Love Boat, said he calculated that over the years they have spent $35,000 each on all of their lunches. But the truly impressive part of the meal is the collective history surrounding the table.

Take Abby Singer. The 93-year-old has been a patron of Art's since it opened and chose it as the ROMEOs luncheon location in 1995 because he "knew Art would treat us right." Singer's list of producer credits, like all of the ROMEOs, is extensive — Mary Tyler Moore, Columbo, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Doris Day Show, Hill Street Blues, and his favorite, St. Elsewhere. "It was the best hospital show ever made. Everybody else copied it," he said.

He also worked on big feature films like Miss Sadie Thompson with Rita Hayworth, Hellcats of the Navy with Ronald Reagan, and The Wild One with Marlon Brando who autographed a photo to Singer: "To my chubby ass friend."

Singer started out as a secretary to the head of production at Columbia Pictures in 1946. His speedy shorthand impressed his superiors, and he soon climbed the ranks — from 2nd A.D. to 1st A.D. to unit production manager to eventually becoming an executive in charge of production.

But that's not Singer's claim to fame. He's known for an on-set shot that carries his name. Here's how it happened: Singer came up with the unique idea to call out the second to last shot of the day to give crew members on set time to start packing up so they could move onto the next shot more quickly. "I'd say, 'Fellas, this is one more.' Then they picked it up and started calling it the Abby Singer," recalls the Singer. One time, Richard Dreyfuss heard Singer was dining at Art's at the same time as he was and went over and introduced himself.

When I ask the guys to go around the table and tell me their credits, Beaudine is singled out by his buddies for his production supervisor work on Lassie. Gamson jokes, "He used to date Lassie."

Rosenbaum, the former head of film production at Paramount Pictures, chimes in, "Which one? There were two of them."

Gamson replies, "He could only get a date with the one."

Dates were something none of the guys had to worry about. All of them are experienced husbands who will quickly tell you the key to marriage is finding someone who can tolerate you. When they're not waxing philosophical about love, they're telling you stories about Hollywood.

Like the time Gamson served as a stand-in for Gloria Swanson for a 50th Anniversary Paramount special because the budget was too low to hire a real stand-in. Or how Rita Hayworth was wonderful but a little wacky. "She had too many boyfriends," Singer explained. Or the time when working on Paper Moon, Jodie Foster came to live with Gamson and his wife because Foster's mother was nutty. "We were closer to actors in those days. They counted on us. We counted on them," said Gamson.

They also didn't have the luxury of digital effects. Rosenbaum recalls shooting Good Neighbor Sam with Jack Lemmon. He had to shoot four goats dressed as human beings riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. "Four goats in a car going back and forth. Try shooting that," Rosenbaum said.

Back in those days, production rules were different. Crew members weren't required to get 12 hours off in between production days. Most of the ROMEOs were lucky to get six or seven hours off before heading back to the studio. They worked six days a week, 14-16 hour days with no overtime pay for Assistant Directors, and churned out around 39 episodes per show per season as opposed to the common 21 episodes or less per season today.

"You worked hard, but I liked it," said Andersen, who started out in the mailroom at Columbia Pictures and moved on to become a line producer and direct episodes of The Flying Nun, The Monkees, and Touched by an Angel. He also worked as an actor on the Donna Reed Show.

Beaudine said he saved his money and never asked for a bonus. "You didn't in those days," he said.

The rules for working with child actors were a bit different as well. Many of the school teachers could be bought, but only to the extent that they wouldn't lose their jobs or the studio wouldn't get sued. Marks, who directed and produced Perry Mason for 10 years, remembers one time offering a teacher a trip to Europe just to get more shooting time from one of the kids.

TV episodes also had a smaller, more reasonable budget back in the day. An episode of Donna Reed could be shot for $124,000 compared to the $2.7 million price tag on a modern day show like Chuck. "Today everything is different. Too much money is spent," said Rosenbaum.

Marks agreed: "Back in our day, we could tell the producer what to do. How much they could or couldn't spend."

And it wasn't uncommon to get fired or rehired either. Singer recalls working for Jack Fier, head of production at Columbia Pictures. "He was a killer," said Singer, who estimates Fier fired him about 10 times. After each instance, Fier would call Singer's wife later the same day and tell him he and Abby had an argument and to please tell him to come back to work the next day.

But in Singer's mind the most positive change to the industry wasn't the creation of wrongful termination. It was something that leveled the playing field. "Affirmative action was the greatest thing to ever happen to the industry," Singer said, noting that before its implementation, women could only work as script supervisors or in hair and makeup. At the time, he was working on The Doris Day Show. "Suddenly blacks, Latinos, women, and Asians were hired to crews." At the time, some members of the crew refused to work with them, Singer remembered.

But soon the seriousness dissolves, and the guys start busting each other's chops and teasing me again. This time joking about the tattoo Beaudine has in a place he cannot show me. Marks reminds me again that he was born in a log cabin. Singer laughs about the residual check he got a few weeks ago for two cents.

Smiles are shared all around. Worries about the future are forgotten, and the ROMEOs become just a bunch of friends giving each other a hard time, remembering their remarkable pasts.

Singer leans into me and says, "If I had to do it again, I'd do the same thing."

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