The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Boxing / The Twilight Rounds: Rod Serling explores the dark side of boxing – Round three

The Twilight Rounds: Rod Serling explores the dark side of boxing – Round three

WKRC in Cincinnati

“The empty arena. The long rows and naked seats and the quiet that somehow seems so loud. These are the twilight rounds. This is the afterwards a fighter never thinks about when he’s young and when he’s fighting. Until one night after his last fight, the afterwards is now and the twilight rounds are there outside the ring by his corner, waiting for him.”

-Rod Serling, “The Twilight Rounds”

Rod and Carol Serling graduated from Antioch College on June 24, 1950, packed up the belongings they had accumulated within the little trailer they shared, and made the 70-some-odd-mile trip south from Yellow Springs to Cincinnati.

Serling took on a position as radio staff writer for WLW, known as “the nation’s station,” assigned mostly menial and unfulfilling tasks like advertising copy, local interest stories, and comedy skits for variety shows. He referred to this as “a particularly dreamless occupation characterized by assembly-line writing almost around the clock.”

Not pleased with the meager pay and frustrated by creative stagnation, Serling was put off most of all by the lack of name recognition he received on the pieces he wrote. This discontent led him through the doors of WLW’s crosstown competitor, WKRC, where Serling would avail himself of the station’s live television anthology program The Storm to dive headlong into the medium for which he would soon create a tidal wave of innovation.

The Storm was the brainchild of WKRC producer and director Bob Huber, who enviosioned the anthology show as a series of stand-alone mysteries, but abandoned this somewhat limiting concept to encompass varying genres. Serling would follow suit with The Twilight Zone, which was advertised and sold as a science fiction/fantasy series but told its unique brand of cautionary parables through the use of war stories, westerns, post-apocalyptic horrors, time travel tales with a twist, nostalgic drama, and kooky comedies where androids, space aliens, and death or the devil personified existed in a shared universe alongside burned-out businessmen, a bookworm with broken glasses, and boxers—whether human or robot—trying to push past their stamped expiration date. Due to this similarity, but even more so the fact that Serling would revisit thematically, if not rework directly, a handful of his WKRC scripts to figure prominently in the lore of his own landmark creation, it is quite clear why Serling biographer and newly-elected President of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation Nicholas Parisi, who undertook the first serious study of the crucial Cincinnati period of Serling’s professional life, draws a natural line of trajectory from The Storm to The Twilight Zone.

Huber accepted thirty-one of Serling’s scripts to produce on The Storm in a mere nine-month span between July 1951 and April 1952, replaying a pair of the shows during this time. This gives you a very good indication of Serling’s unrelenting work ethic. Because he was still employed by WLW at the time, the byline of Serling’s first several scripts produced by WKRC bore the pen name R. Edward Sterling to avoid a potential conflict of interest. For example, WLW aired the first episode of a fifteen-minute-long sitcom Serling had developed called Leave it to Kathy, which would run twice weekly, the night before his first script for The Storm, “Keeper of the Chair”, was broadcast on WKRC. Pseudonym notwithstanding, Rod Serling soon began to make a name for himself.

Bob Huber was intent upon selling The Storm to network TV and elected to make a Kinescope recording of Serling’s boxing story “Aftermath”, which aired on the evening of November 27, 1951, in the hope of attracting potential buyers at CBS, future home to The Twilight Zone. As it happens, the Kinescope machine proved to be an unreliable ally. The picture came out clean enough, but the sound was distorted beyond comprehension, rendering the overall recording virtually useless. The Kinescope does still exist but is not publicly accessible and, more disappointing still, the script for “Aftermath” is nowhere to be found among Rod Serling’s papers. There isn’t so much as a story summary to go on, sad to say. Incidentally, “Aftermath” was broadcast on August 31, 1954 as a radio drama on It Happens to You, a program NBC had acquired from WLW.

WKRC aired a second boxing story of Serling’s for The Storm entitled “The Twilight Rounds” on January 22, 1952. The episode itself is lost, though some B-roll footage apparently remains, and “The Twilight Rounds” would live to fight another day as an hour-long episode of NBC’s Kraft Theatre the following year, costarring boxing legend Tony Canzoneri. We will return to that shortly. But first, speaking of Canzoneri, the three-division world champion would appear prior to “The Twilight Rounds” in another Serling-scripted boxing program called “The Face of Autumn” for CBS.

***

In the wake of his graduation from Antioch College, Serling had retained the services of a Manhattan literary agent named Blanche Gaines who agreed to shop his scripts around to radio and television producers based on her hunch that “I think your stuff has merit and am willing to try and see what I can do with it.” Like a broken record, again and again she pleaded with her Cincinnati-based client to take his talents to New York or Hollywood “if you really want to go places.”

Serling was reluctant, admitting that his doubts were “a concession to my own peculiar hesitancy about all things big, massive, and imposing.” Instead, he made several brief and costly trips back and forth from Cincinnati to Manhattan to take part in story conferences and rehearsals of shows he had written which were going into production. “For some totally unexplainable reason,” Serling confessed, “every time I walked into a network or agency office I had the strange and persistent feeling that I was wearing overalls and Li’l Abner shoes.”

Purchased by CBS for their Lux Video Theatre series, “The Face of Autumn” would be the first of Serling’s boxing stories to be transmitted to a nationwide home viewing audience on the evening of November 3, 1952. Another unfortunately lost broadcast that belongs to the ages and for which no script has surfaced, “The Face of Autumn” is summarized by Nicholas Parisi in Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination as the half-hour-long tale of a boxing manager whose “obsessive search for a championship contender takes a toll on his long-suffering wife,” which is all we have to go on.

The cast included Frank Campanella who had made his television debut three years before on Captain Video and His Video Rangers, which fans of The Honeymooners will recall being a favorite of Ed Norton. Ralph Kramden’s idiosyncratic neighbor was played, of course, by Art Carney of whom Rod Serling was greatly enamored and would feature in a Playhouse 90 production called “The Velvet Alley” as well as in the role of a drunken department store Santa in the Twilight Zone Christmas story “Night of the Meek.” As for Campanella, the first of what would be scores of film appearances over the course of a 55-year career would come as a detective in the 1956 biopic of former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me. The popular and immediately recognizable character actor Bill Erwin (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Home Alone) played a reporter in “The Face of Autumn”, and among the staggering number of screen credits on his resume (reportedly 241), four of them would lead him through The Twilight Zone in “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”, “Walking Distance”, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, and “Mute.”

Tony Canzoneri’s character is a former champion named Packy Mendez, a role he just so happened to be intimately familiar with. Canzoneri was the embodiment of the prototypical Serling boxer, tough as a longshoreman but tenderhearted as a schoolmarm. A fan-friendly, never say die fighter in the ring, Tony was generous and gregarious in equal measure, especially well-loved by the neighborhood kids who would clamor around the champ for a handshake or an autograph.

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If you don’t count their shared grim determination to succeed in their individually chosen profession, Canzoneri and Serling had one other interesting common denominator, their fathers having both been grocers. Tony’s dad ran his own store in the Italian section of New Orleans where Canzoneri realized his true calling at a young age following his first encounter with Pete Herman, who was not only the current bantamweight world champion but practically a neighbor as he lived a mere three blocks from the Canzoneris. Becoming a fixture at the local gyms when he was only eleven, Tony buddied up with a journeyman lightweight fighter named Basil Galiano who offered guidance to the scraphappy youngster he dubbed ‘The Italian Terror.’

The Canzoneri patriarch migrated to Brooklyn and resumed his grocery business, alone at first, with the rest of the family following in his footsteps once he had firmly established himself. While in the process of racking up more than 80 amateur bouts within one year’s time, Tony reacquainted himself with Galiano, who was in town training for an upcoming fight at Stillman’s Gym. Canzoneri sparred three rounds with his former mentor, catching the eye of Pete Herman’s manager Sammy Goldman.

With Goldman in his corner, Canzoneri made his professional debut with a first-round knockout of Jack Grodner at the Rockaway Beach Arena on July 24, 1925, and quickly rattled off a 30-fight unbeaten streak before getting his first taste of defeat courtesy of a points loss to a tough Panamanian named Davey Abad, who would never wear a title belt but did win one of three bouts against the pound for pound great Henry Armstrong.

Unsuccessful in his first two title bids, a draw with and loss to Bud Taylor for the vacant National Boxing Association bantamweight championship, Canzoneri won the unclaimed NYSAC featherweight belt in 1927 with a unanimous decision over Johnny Dundee in what was widely criticized as a lackluster affair. The same could not be said of Canzoneri’s unsuccessful attempt at becoming the undisputed featherweight champion when he was matched opposite fellow titleholder Andre Routis at the Garden. The New York Times called it “one of the most savage fights ever staged for the 126-pound crown.”

After reversing this loss to Routis in a non-title fight, Tony once again came out on the short end of a split decision against world lightweight champion Sammy Mandell at Chicago Stadium, and subsequently absorbed “one of the worst beatings he has ever experienced,” according to the Times, at the hands of Jack ‘Kid’ Berg. Canzoneri rebounded with a 10-fight win streak before dropping a decision to the seasoned veteran and future Hall of Famer Billy Petrolle. Nevertheless, he would score a shocking upset in his next bout when he knocked out the heavily favored World Lightweight Champion Al Singer in just a little more than one minute to win a title in his second weight class.

In Canzoneri’s first defense, he would not only gain a large measure of revenge over Jack ‘Kid’ Berg by way of a third-round knockout, but lay claim to the World Junior Welterweight Title in the bargain, joining the exclusive club of three-division champions. Tony would floor Berg twice, once from an apparent low blow in the eighth round which was not acknowledged by the referee, in their rubber match at the Polo Grounds four and a half months later en route to a unanimous decision victory. Eking out a split decision win over Kid Chocolate in an instant classic at Madison Square Garden in November 1931, Canzoneri left no room for debate in their rematch two years later by obliterating the Cuban sensation in the second round at a time when some were beginning to question how much Tony, who had now been in 120 professional fights, had left in the tank.

The span of time between his bouts with Kid Chocolate were marked by both triumph and vanquishment. First allowing his junior welterweight crown to get swiped by the unheralded Johnny Jadick, Tony was at his absolute best the night he successfully defended his lightweight title against his former conqueror Billy Petrolle after having knocked out Billy’s little brother Frankie at Ebbets Field three weeks prior. Canzoneri never got the opportunity to square off opposite Pete Petrolle, eldest of the three boxing siblings, and was thus denied a potential hat trick against the entire Petrolle clan.

Though there was certainly no shame in Canzoneri’s hotly contested majority decision loss to legend-in-the-making Barney Ross at Chicago Stadium on June 23, 1933, he had only himself to blame for falling short in his bid to reclaim the lightweight championship, as well as his old junior welterweight belt now worn by Ross, by having precious points deducted for low blows in the sixth, eighth, and ninth rounds. These penalties cost Tony dearly in a split decision that was awarded to Ross in their Polo Grounds rematch.

Canzoneri kept fighting at a breakneck pace, often every month with some bouts spaced apart by a mere matter of weeks. When Barney Ross forfeited the world lightweight title, Tony was pitted against a force of nature in Lou Ambers, the 13-to-5 betting favorite, for the vacant strap at Madison Square Garden in May 1935. Grounding the ‘Herkimer Hurricane’ on three occasions, Canzoneri earned a unanimous decision and the lightweight title. Ambers ended what would be Tony’s last championship reign sixteen months later, awarded the fifteen-round verdict on all three judges’ scorecards by relatively comfortable margins, and would give an even more impressive repeat performance in their third and final fight in May 1937 with Tony getting completely outclassed and winning just two of the fifteen rounds.

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Staggered in between the trilogy with Lou Ambers were a pair of showdowns with former two-time World Welterweight Champion Jimmy McLarnin, who had taken the title from Young Corbett III then traded it back and forth with Barney Ross over the course of their three fights in exactly twelve months’ time. This is the type of battle that boxing fans love to see. Two fierce warriors nearing the ends of their respective campaigns coming together with no specific airing of grievances to settle, no title belt on the line, simply clashing for pride’s sake or relevance or bragging rights, perhaps all three. Canzoneri turned back the clock in their first contest, brutalizing McLarnin in a display of primal supremacy but, conversely, got his clock cleaned when they resumed hostilities four and a half months later with the baby-faced Irishman beating Tony to a pulp.

Your average person’s early thirties can often be looked upon as their peak years. Not necessarily so with boxers. Especially ones who, like Canzoneri, had subjected their bodies and brains to inconceivable punishment throughout who knew how many rounds in more than 170 fights. And that’s not counting the sparring and roadwork and hours that defy calculation spent skipping rope, doing pushups and sit-ups, and whaling away at the heavy bag in the gym, not to mention starving oneself to the brink of exhaustion and dehydration to make weight for the next fight. There is an emotional price to pay as well. The time commitment required by the profession forces a fighter to become, by necessity, a largely absentee husband and father (wife and mother for female boxers) while taking as many bouts as their manager is able to secure in as short a period of time as possible to put bread on the table and butter it too.

A ghost of his former fighting self, Canzoneri soldiered on until November 1, 1939 when he suffered his first and only stoppage loss. Al ‘Bummy’ Davis sent Tony twice to the canvas on his way to a barbaric third-round TKO. The fans assembled inside the Garden, Canzoneri loyalists nearly every single one, booed Davis and never forgave him for beating up on their beloved local hero.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be remembered after all these years,” said a happily retired Canzoneri, who tallied up an astonishing professional record of 137-24-10 and would be posthumously honored among the immortals enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class of 1990. The late, great, cigar-chomping, fedora-wearing boxing scribe Bert Randolph Sugar ranked Canzoneri at number nine—one spot above Muhammad Ali, mind you—in his 1984 book The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time, praising Tony as “a shooting star of unforgettable magnitude.”

He was only fifty-one when he was found dead on the bed in his room at the Hotel Bryant with no sign of struggle or foul play. The boxing gods, it seems, had simply come to claim another sacrificial lamb before his time should have rightfully been up. “Sure it was worth it,” Tony had insisted, sounding like a character straight out of a Rod Serling story. “Every drop of blood and every stitch of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

***

Tony Canzoneri began his foray into show business while still an active boxer. He appeared with fellow prizefighters Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, and ‘Slapsie’ Maxie Rosenbloom in the feature film variety showcase Mr. Broadway, hosted by Ed Sullivan, in 1933 and scored a bit part in a romantic comedy called Let’s Live Tonight two years later. After hanging up the gloves, Tony was given small roles in the 1949 boxing drama Ringside and John Ford’s Stagecoach starring John Wayne. This was followed by Rod Serling’s “The Face of Autumn” which, in turn, would lead to Canzoneri being cast in another boxing-themed program written by Serling. As discussed earlier, “The Twilight Rounds” had previously aired on WKRC’s The Storm as a half-hour televised drama but was reworked and doubled in length when it was picked up by NBC for its Kraft Theatre anthology series and broadcast on May 27, 1953. Canzoneri portrayed a minor character named, naturally enough, Tony. The rest of the cast is rich with future Twilight Zone alums.

In “The Twilight Rounds”, Serling tells the story of middleweight contender Scotty Beckitt, played in the episode by Frank Maxwell who would resurface in The Twilight Zone seven years later as movie director Marty Fisher in “A World of Difference.” Intent on overturning the hourglass and making one final and unlikely run at a title shot, 34 year-old Scotty is deliberately deaf to the pleas of his kindhearted manager Googy to walk away from boxing while he still can.

If you recall, Googy was also the name of the manager in Serling’s 1948 short story “The Good Right Hand.” This isn’t meant to imply that he is the same individual, as Serling had a penchant for reusing character names throughout his various works. This version of Googy was played by J. Pat O’Malley, your typical “hardworking actor of the day” to borrow a phrase from Twilight Zone Podcast host Tom Elliot. Twilight Zone fans remember him best as Old Ben from “The Fugitive”, but he put in three additional appearances in the fifth dimension, as Homburg in “The Chaser”, the old man in the hospital bed in “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross”, and Gooberman the town drunk in “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”

Googy illustrates his point to the obstinate Scotty by using a good-natured but badly damaged ex-boxer named Max who works at the gym as a walking, talking cautionary tale. Maxie, played by Mike Kellin who would also subsequently find himself in The Twilight Zone by way of “The Thirty-Fathom Grave”, has a life-threatening brain embolism to show for his hard-fought efforts in the ring and exhibits the telltale signs of what would later be scientifically classified as dementia pugilistica. Another way to put it would be to say that Max is “punch drunk”, which was the nomenclature assigned to the condition at the time. He brags to anyone who will listen about the night he lasted the full distance with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, blissfully unaware that he’s told them the same story a hundred times before.

Besides blind ambition, one of the main reasons for Scotty overstaying his welcome in the fight game is his fiancée Margie, a gold-digging former lounge singer who negates Googy’s protests, not to mention the honest assessment of his promoter Nick (Carlos Montalbán, who was also in The Harder They Fall) that he “ain’t got it anymore,” by issuing self-serving demands for Scotty to not be “yellow” and chase after a shot at the middleweight championship.

To this end, Googy appeals to Scotty to not only retire from boxing, but to leave Margie behind as well, which he feels will force his fighter to finally deal with the situation in a more reasonable manner. Barbara Baxley was cast in the role of Marge, and she would not only costar in the fourth season Twilight Zone episode “Mute” as the foster mother of a young Ann Jillian but also appeared in the 1980s Twilight Zone revival as Dr. Kate Wange in a segment entitled “Profile in Silver” (1986).

In a petty and passive-aggressive display of her influence over Scotty, Marge instructs him to work over his sparring partner with needless hostility, earning Googy’s utter disdain. No longer able to bite his tongue, Googy confronts Scotty in the dressing room before his next fight and badmouths Marge, resulting in a lethal chain of events. Scotty punches Googy and Max instinctively enters the fray despite the fact that being struck in the head is very liable to kill him. Scotty initially cools off enough to realize this and stands down until Margie throws in her two cents, insisting that he defend himself. Like a dutiful lapdog obeying its master’s command, Scotty lays Maxie out with a single blow. Max is taken away in an ambulance and dies in the hospital later that night.

A fabricated story about Maxie suffering his fatal head injury in an accidental fall saves Scotty from prosecution and, with his ties to Googy now severed, he is left with only Marge, for whom he promises to carry forward and win the title. Two years after the fact, Scotty is matched opposite Andy Pinella, Googy’s latest protégé, and asks his former mentor to have his younger and stronger contender “go slow” during their bout. Scotty goes so far as to suggest that Pinella take a dive, with his rationale being that Andy’s budding career can easily withstand this small bump in the road whereas this is his final shot at potentially achieving boxing immortality.

Although he appears sympathetic to Scotty’s pleas, Googy uses his intimate knowledge of his former fighter’s vulnerabilities to instruct Pinella how to exploit them and “teach him a lesson” in the process. Indeed, Scotty is knocked out in the eleventh round of a hellacious slugfest and, badly battered, he knows that the time has come for him to hang up the gloves for good. He confesses to Googy in the dressing room that Margie never even showed up to the arena and assumes that she will have nothing more to do with him after tonight. “I once told you you could walk away and never feel ashamed of a single round you ever fought,” Googy reminds him. “That still goes.”

Scotty can’t help but take one final walk to the ring where he studies the vacant seats, quietly reflecting on the past and contemplating what the future might look like.

(Rest period prior to Round Four…to be continued)

 

Sources:

Associated Press. On Bummy Davis (New York Times, November 18, 1979)

Mike Casey. From New Orleans To New York: Unforgettable Tony Canzoneri (http://www.cyberboxingzone.com/boxing/casey/MC_Canzoneri.htm)

Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)

Anne Serling. As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel, 2013)

Rod Serling. Patterns (Simon and Schuster, 1957)

Bert Randolph Sugar. The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time (Bonanza, 1984)

Kraft Television Theatre: The Twilight Rounds (The Paley Center for Media, accessed at https://www.paleycenter.org/collection/item/?q=frank&p=222&item=B:01930)

boxrec.com

imdb.com

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