A Decorator Who's Part of the Set : 'St. Elsewhere's' Norman Rockett Still Going Strong at 75

Times Staff Writer

Director Henry Hathaway had thrown everyone off the set except for five people: his assistant, the cameraman and his helper and Marilyn Monroe and Norman Rockett.

Hathaway's selection baffled Rockett. Why would the director keep him--a mere property man--on the set?

As Rockett puzzled over the situation, Hathaway turned to him and declared, "The reason I want you to stay, Norman, is because you're going in the shower with her."

And that, Norman Rockett said, is how he ended up in the shower with Marilyn Monroe.

Steamy Scene

The following year, 1953, anyone with the price of a ticket could see Monroe showering behind a filmy plastic curtain while Joseph Cotten searched for his cigarettes in an adjacent room. The scene lasted about five seconds in the movie "Niagara."

Hathaway didn't want any problems with "the water pressure, the water heat, or anything else," Rockett said. "So I got some swimming trunks from the wardrobe guy and crouched down out of sight in the shower.

"Marilyn was supposed to be nude, of course. But she really wore a body stocking."

His shower-with-Monroe assignment was among the more memorable in Rockett's behind-the-scenes career in show business as a laborer, film editor, prop man and set decorator--a career that began about 60 years ago.

At 75, he's still going strong as the set decorator for "St. Elsewhere," the fast-paced drama recounting the trials and tribulations of the staff and patients in a Boston hospital.

"He is known throughout the industry as the epitome of a set decorator," said Jacqueline Webber, art director on "St. Elsewhere."

"He is exceptionally responsible, very talented, and able to bring all his enthusiasm to the people he works with."

Set decorating is both an art and a craft. The craft requires finding items from the right period and getting them to the set. The art requires reading people's wants and needs, selecting, for example, from among half a dozen 1920-style hatracks the one that precisely fits in with other props on the set, the the director's prejudices and the personal design whims of the character in whose office it may appear.

Referring to sets of two recent "St. Elsewhere" episodes outlining the history of the hospital and its staff that early this month earned Rockett his first Emmy (after previous nominations for sets on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" and "M*A*S*H"), Webber said with admiration, "They could have been done by other decorators, but they wouldn't have had Norman's touch."

Rockett was 72 years old and twice retired when his predecessor on the hospital series got fired.

Responsibility for finding a replacement fell to Warren Welch, director of production services for MTM Inc., which produces the show.

Rockett came to the studio for a noon interview, and at 1 p.m. was on the job.

"St. Elsewhere" sets sprawl through four warehouse-sized buildings. The $12,000 to $26,000 weekly set decorating budgets are spent to change sets with dizzying speed. What was the chapel last week may be a private room today, last week's eight-bed adult ward could be a pediatric ward full of cribs this week. Rockett makes it all happen.

Norman Rockett was born Norman Walter Harrison, the son of a laundry route salesman and a lingerie saleswoman who lived in Long Beach.

By the time Norman was a teen-ager his parents had divorced and his mother married Al Rockett, who became an executive of First National Studios in Burbank.

For his last three summers of high school, Norman dug, pushed, lifted and hammered on First National Studios' "labor gang."

After graduation he traveled in Europe for a year before landing work at the Fox Film Corp., where he excelled as "a glorified errand boy." That job quickly led to a position as assistant film editor, but work was cut short by a strike and Rockett quit Fox.

Rockett's next job in the movie industry was on the property "gang," at 20th Century Fox.

By 1940, Rockett was an assistant property manager, making sure that every umbrella, wristwatch and gun was on hand and apropos in movies like "How Green Was My Valley."

By the beginning of 1941, Rockett saw the United States being drawn inexorably into World War II.

He joined the Navy as a photographer's mate, and on Nov. 10, 1941, was assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, based in Pearl Harbor.

He never served on the Pennsylvania, which was damaged in the Japanese surprise attack that triggered U.S. entry into World War II while Rockett was in California.

Rockett spent the war developing reconnaissance film in Hawaii and editing Navy newsreel shows in Washington, D.C.

Discharged from the Navy in 1945, Rockett went back to his old job as an assistant property man.

In the early '50s he was promoted to property master. And in 1960, in the middle of working on the comedy "Marriage-Go-Round," Rockett got a chance to become a set decorator.

"Through the years I've seen him progressively do bigger and better things," said Warren Welch, who has known Rockett for more than a quarter of a century. There's not a set you can name that he hasn't done, from a back alley to an Italian modern apartment."

Rockett has faced some challenges.

In 1967 the producer of "Planet of the Apes" told him, "I don't want to see anything in this picture that's ever been seen on this Earth."

Enough plastic foam got used in that film to keep the set afloat. "Foam guns hadn't been used very extensively then, so we concocted things with wire and foam" to create foreign shapes, recalled Rockett, who said practically everything in the picture--even the walls--got sprayed with a foam gun.

As set decorator for "Tora, Tora, Tora," the 1970 film that replicated parts of Pearl Harbor, Rockett said he experienced "moments that were very emotional to me" because he had arrived at the Hawaiian naval base less than a month after the Japanese devastated it.

"We rebuilt almost the whole of the Arizona on a barge, and then 'bombed' it. I relived the whole thing," the set decorator said.

The sets won Rockett an Oscar nomination, as had his work five years earlier on "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

After more than 30 years at 20th Century Fox, Rockett retired.

Retirement lasted about two months. It ended with a call from John Mansbridge, then supervising art director at Walt Disney Studios.

When Mansbridge heard Rockett had retired, "I couldn't grab the phone fast enough," he said recently. "When he analyzes a script he interprets the personalities of the people who are supposed to be in the show. They are things that you see in a set that reflect the characters' personalities. And these are the things that I love about how Norman approaches a show."

After nine years with Disney, decorating sets ranging from "Max Devlin and the Devil" to "Splash," Disney ran out of projects for Rockett.

He enjoyed a forced "retirement," relaxing with his wife of 40 years, Audrene, a retired choreographer, spending time with his daughter Susan, an executive at Reg Grundy Productions Inc., and puttering around his comfortable home in Sherman Oaks.

Then, a couple of months after he had left Disney, he got a phone call from Welch, the MTM Inc. director of production services. "We need a set decorator for 'St. Elsewhere.' Are you interested?" Welch asked.

Rockett went to work again that day, and he's still at it.

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