A city boy’s month on the farm

Published 10:17 pm Wednesday, June 18, 2014

By Frank Roberts

John Frankenheimer, who directed such movie gems as “Birdman Of Alcatraz,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days In May,” “The Train,” “Grand Prix” and “French Connection 2,” called Fredric March “the finest human being I’ve ever known as well as the best actor I’ve ever worked with.”

I’ve seen just about all of March’s movies, and I worked for March and his actress wife for a month one summer, and I agree with that assessment.

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It began with this city boy digging the soil. The time: The World War 2 years of the early ’40s. Farmers were having a rough time, because many of their sons were in the service. That meant the loss of farmhands, young lads who traded their coveralls for Uncle Sam’s uniforms.

Somewhere down the line, someone in D.C. had the bright idea of asking for city boy volunteers to spend a couple of their summer months to help till the soil.

I had been helping with a WW2 Victory Garden in our community backyard, so I felt qualified to offer my services. It worked this way: Each young man would work on one farm for a month, then switch to another farm for the second month.

My first assignment was a farm owned by a man who was some kind of an executive for Johnson & Johnson. He worked us poor NYC boys to the bone. By the time my month was over on his farm, I had sworn off baby powder.

At the end of my rough time there, I was switched to a farm in New Milford, Conn., a short walk from Betsy von Furstenburg’s property. (Largely forgotten today, she was a German baroness who acted on radio and television, in the movies and on Broadway). The farm belonged to March and his wife, Florence Eldredge.

That month, the pair were on hiatus and stayed at their farm home near Long Island Sound, away from the big city’s roar. The couple’s major crop was cigar tobacco.

Mr. and Mrs. March marched out to the field several times a day with lemonade and cookies. At about 5 p.m., we were called it quits and went to wherever we were staying.

More often than not, we joined them on the back porch, spending time with them there, chatting about anything and everything, listening to the radio with them and having a great summer with the man from Oshkosh, Wis.

When summer came to an end, a group of us were bused back to NYC. We were dropped off at a subway stop. I hit the IRT and headed back home. It was a great time, thanks to that wonderful showbiz couple.

March served as an artillery lieutenant in World War 1, managed the football team and was a member of the track team at the University of Wisconsin where he graduated with honors with a degree in economics. Professionally, he began his career as a banker. As an actor, his career was strewn with recognition. He won two Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, and won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in his favorite film, “The Best Years Of Our Lives.”

March died in 1975. He was cremated and buried under a favorite tree on his beloved Connecticut farm. It was certainly one of my favorite trees.

A little side note: He and co-star Humphrey Bogart played chess during breaks in the filming of, “The Desperate Hours.” I had a small part in the little theater production of the play in Corpus Christi, but left before showtime for a more lucrative radio job.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.