Mancini & Friends
Henry Mancini composed his famous melodies decades ago. They still lurk in the American mind like cultural DNA, often sounding familiar even to younger ears, as déjà vu as a jingle: the loopy perambulation of flutes in “Baby Elephant Walk,” the pile-driving tuba in “The Theme from Peter Gunn,” a tenor saxophone that creeps up behind you like a “Pink Panther.” Two eponymous movies gave us “Charade” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” And “Moon River” gushed through Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1987, Public Broadcasting (PBS) gave Mancini a star-studded salute with a TV special that featured recording artists who had each scored a hit with his music. I was booked to shoot a cover for TV Guide.
There was a caveat. My photo editor and I were told that the stars would be in the same place at the same time for only ten minutes during a break and — oh, yeah! — they would all be dressed in formalwear — black. This was supposed to be a color photograph.
Given my responsibility to make everybody look good, let alone make a good exposure on film, I was afraid their colorless wardrobe would suck up my lights like an intergalactic black hole. But each individual star in this constellation had to shine. I was also concerned about how to tie nine impatient personalities together conceptually. What kind of hook, what visual common denominator could I come up with to engage viewers? I had to presume that nine egos would be vying not only for attention on the set but elbowing each other for a prominent spot on the cover of a magazine. How could I arrange nine showbizzy-bodies, given so little time, into an eye-catching and colorful composition? How could I break up all that black formal attire so they wouldn’t look like so many butlers and buttresses. This had the makings of a very boring picture. But I took the assignment, and now I owned it.
The night before the shoot, that proverbial lightbulb of ideation, unreliable unless electrified by stress, blinked on above my sleepless brain. I remembered a toy store I’d have to drive by on my way to the Hollywood soundstage where production rehearsals had already ended and videotaping was about to get underway.
Acting on my sleepy hunch the next morning, I stopped my car at the toy store, parked, and went in. Down one aisle, next to the…