Saturday, September 25, 2010

Eddie Fisher: Sic transit gloria mundi

Normally FirstNerve wouldn’t draw attention to the death of a Fifties-era crooner and semi-celebrity, no matter how many times he made the Top Ten. But the passing of Eddie Fisher has special resonance for the nasally-minded student of pop culture: Fisher was present at the birth of Smell-O-Vision.

Fisher was tight pals with the older Mike Todd, the flamboyant producer of Broadway and Hollywood, whom he greatly admired. Todd and his son Mike, Jr. were backers of the Smell-O-Vision system developed by Swiss-American inventor Hans Laube, which used tubes running up seat backs throughout a movie theater to release scent timed to the on-screen action.

When Mike Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, less than a year and a half after marrying Elizabeth Taylor, his son took up the Smell-O-Vision banner and began production on the first movie to feature it: Scent of Mystery. Rival theater mogul Walter Reade, Jr. then launched a competing system called AromaRama, and thus began the great Battle of the Smellies which raged through the spring of 1960. It’s a story I tell in What the Nose Knows.

Mike, Jr. brought all sorts of celebrity firepower to bear on Scent of Mystery. Eddie Fisher recorded the movie’s theme song and Elizabeth Taylor made a cameo appearance as the lady at the center of the mystery. (“Cameo role”, incidentally, was a term coined by the late Todd, Sr.)

At the time of Todd’s death, Fisher was married to America’s Sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. They had two children, including the future Princess Leia

Thrown together in grief over Mike Sr.’s death, Fisher and Taylor began an affair. Debbie Reynolds took it hard when Eddie told her he wanted to leave her for Elizabeth. The moment was poignantly aromatic:

“I left her there, and walking downstairs and out of the house, I smelled the overpowering odor of lima beans, my favorite food. Debbie was trying to save our marriage with lima beans.”

[Eddie Fisher, Eddie: My Life, My Loves. Harper & Row, 1981.]

Taylor and Fisher married in 1959. In January, 1960, they attended the Chicago premiere of Scent of Mystery. I’ve held in my hand, courtesy of Carmen Laube, the daughter of Smell-O-Vision inventor Hans Laube, the printed invitation to that premiere: “Mrs. Eddie Fisher and Mr. Michael Todd, Jr. take pleasure in inviting you . . .”

Here they are pictured in the audience:

Elizabeth Taylor eventually began an affair with Richard Burton, whom she married after divorcing Fisher in 1964. Later, between her seventh and eighth marriages, Taylor created the best-selling perfumes Passion (1987) and White Diamonds (1991), thus earning herself a niche in America’s Olfactory Hall of Fame. Having outlived all the other major players, Taylor is now the last link to the glory that was Smell-O-Vision.


Anonymous said...

On a related note, I read in your book about Disney toying with the idea of using smell with Fantasia. You only mentioned ideas for the beginning pieces and the end. Do you happen to know any of the others? For example, what they were thinking of for Rite of Spring?

Catherine said...

Wow -- what newspaper was the "visual report on smell-o-vision" from? I've love to see the looks of people's faces from a closer distance...