The Amazing Radio London Adventure
by Ben Toney
Part 15 – All Roads Lead to Rome.
Ben encounters royalty, but finds himself too young and too tall for the movies; NATO keeps the
Galaxy out of the Mediterranean

After my stint with Polydor, I had determined that record production would not be in my future, so I looked at the possibility of doing film dubbing. Rome seemed to be the place where most of the dubbing was taking place, so I made a number of inquiries and decided if things didn't work out with the Andorra project, I would head for Italy.

Our daughter, Raquel, was born at the end of October, and a few weeks later, I departed for Rome, leaving Ronagh and Raquel with Ronagh's mother. I hated having to leave my family, but Ronagh was very excited about the possibility of living in the Eternal City and encouraged me to test the waters.

I called Bob Henry in Rome and asked about a place to stay. Bob was an American who had come to London as a singer, but after the release and failure of a couple of records, he decided to move to Italy and try his luck in motion pictures. Bob suggested that I come on down and he would arrange for me to stay in the Piccolo Regina, the pensione where he was living.*

The Piccolo Regina was located on the Via Veneto about two blocks up from the American Embassy. If there was a heart of the film industry in Rome, this was it. The Café de Paris, Doney's and Harry's Bar were all nearby, and were frequent haunts of the most famous film personalities. Bob Henry had picked his pensione well. Just around the corner from the Piccolo was ELDA (the English Language Dubbers' Association).

For those who are not familiar with dubbing techniques, it is very simple. You are changing a motion picture from one language to another. The dubbing director cuts a particular scene of the film and forms a loop by tying the two ends together. This loop can be played over and over again as many times as it is necessary to get the dubbing actor's voice in sync with the lips of the actor on the screen. Depending on the importance of the film, some of the dubbing turns out really well, and some of it is quite horrible. We have all seen some of these badly-dubbed movies on television.

Before leaving London, Robert Mellin of Robert Mellin Music told me that his company had a branch office in Rome, and that if I gave his branch manager, Peter Powell, a call he would introduce me to a few people who might be of some help. The day after I arrived in the city I called Peter and that evening, he and his wife took me to a very nice restaurant. While we were there, Peter introduced me to Prince Marco Torlonia. Marco was an Italian prince who was acting as an agent for films. His background was fabulous. Marco's mother, Princess Beatriz was the sister of Don Juan, pretender to the throne of Spain. The present king of Spain, Juan Carlos, was of course her nephew.

Marco suggested we meet within a couple of days for lunch at Mrs. Babington's Tea Rooms, which was located at the foot of the Spanish Steps. We were joined by Marco's fiancée, Phillipa, Countess of Nanteuil in France, who also had a remarkable background. She was a young Australian model from Perth called Phillipa McDonald, who had gone to Paris to promote her modelling career. While she was there, she met and married the Count of Nanteuil, and had either divorced the count or was widowed. She later came to Rome where she met Marco, who was practising divorce, Italian style. Since Marco was a prince in the Catholic Church, the Pope would not allow him to divorce. So Marco had bought a villa for Phillipa and they were living the life the Pope had chosen for them. (Some years after I left Rome, I found out that Marco's wife had died and he and Phillipa had married and had a daughter. However, this marriage did not last and they divorced in 1985, when Marco married for a third time.)

We finished our tea at the tea room and drove to Parioli and the Squire Restaurant. The Squire was located in Via Oxilia Street and was a favourite hangout for the European nobility. We were greeted at the entrance by the Squire's owner, the Contessa Maria Grazia Grabau. Contessa Maria was a very pleasant, middle-aged lady who had acted in a number of films, but had found the operation of a fancy restaurant much more rewarding financially.

As we dined, I gave Marco some of my background and in the end, he thought it would be a good idea for him to be my movie agent. He was not interested in getting dubbing venues for me, though. I would have to do that through ELDA, or the dubbing directors. I agreed to his proposal and I had myself a film agent.

I met with Marco a number of times. On one occasion, he invited me to Torlonia Palace to meet his family. The palace was located about two blocks down from the Spanish Steps on Via Bocca Leone. The highlight of my visit to the palace was in meeting Marco's mother Princess Beatriz, the Enfanta of Spain. She was such an amiable, vivacious person, and totally interested in my life in Texas.

It may seem at this juncture that I was spending a lot of time socialising with Marco and his family. However, that was not the case. It didn't take long for me to find out that you had to do a lot of legwork in Rome to get the jobs. You had to register with ELDA to get the work, but you could not depend on them to throw it your way. When assignments came in from the directors, ELDA had their favourites. If you were new and you wanted to work, you had to go directly to the directors and have them request you for a particular role. This meant that I spent a lot of time knocking on directors' doors, and when I was not knocking, I was in the studio dubbing.

Among the people I met around the Via Veneto was Jim Mishler. Jim was an American actor who was engaged in management when he was between jobs. Jim wanted to manage me, so I said it would be fine as long as he could get me some work. Jim set me up with an appointment with Ms. Irene Howard, casting director for 'Shoes of the Fisherman', which was currently on location at Kinetic (Film City). Ms. Howard was a sister of the late Leslie Howard who was one of the major stars of 'Gone with the Wind'. She was a very pleasant lady who very sweetly told me that they were looking for older actors, and that I was just too young.


On another occasion, Jim sent me out on a 'cattle call' for the movie 'Candy'. Ava Aulin, a young Swedish actress, took the title role, while John Astin well-known as 'Gomez' in the Addams Family TV sitcom, starred as her father. There were numerous cameos by an all-star cast, including Charles Aznavour, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn, John Huston, Anita Pallenberg and Ringo Starr. This was Ringo's first solo outing on celluloid, and he played a Mexican gardener.

Well, this was one of the most exasperating things I ever went through. I waited around for about four hours for them to get around to seeing me. Then they told me that I was too tall for the roles they were casting.

(Left) Ringo - neither too tall, nor too Scouse to play a Mexican gardener. (Right) John Astin as Gomez Addams

Sometime later I met John Satin along the Via Veneto. He suggested that we meet the following morning for coffee at the Excelsior Hotel where he was staying. When we met, John said that he and the director of 'Candy' were good friends and that he might get me the role of an airline pilot. I saw John several days later and he informed me that the director had already cast the part.

Everybody claimed they wanted me in this damn movie, John Satin, Marco, Jim. However, a few years after I left Rome, I saw the film. I was not surprised to see John Satin in it, but in a couple of walk-ons I spotted Marco and Jim. I didn't see myself anywhere...

(Left) 'Candy' publicity poster

I had been in Rome for a little over a month and things were in the 'domani' mode. In other words, everything was being put off until tomorrow. I went to Marco and told him that I needed to find something with a regular income that I could depend on. He suggested that I see a friend of his, a Mr Campbell who owned the Rome Daily American newspaper. He said that he thought Campbell might give me some writing chores that would hold me over until I could get myself established in the film business.

I went to see Campbell and found him to be a very amiable gentleman, but he informed me that he had no openings for writers. He said, however, that a broadcaster by the name of Richard Eaton was coming to Rome from America in a day or two to work out a deal with RAI (Italy's radio and television corporation) to set up an English-language broadcast on one of RAI's stations. He thought Eaton might be interested in talking with me about managing the station. Campbell said he would give Eaton my name and telephone number when he arrived.

Within a day or two I received a phone call from Richard Eaton. He asked me if I would like to have dinner with him that evening and discuss the possibility of me managing his operation, provided he could mark out a deal with RAI. I, of course, said yes.

That evening Eaton arrived at my pensione in a chauffeur-driven limousine. We proceeded to the Grotto Azure Restaurant where we had a delicious meal while we talked things over. Eaton seemed to think my broadcasting qualifications were quite good. However, he kept asking many questions about my political background, which was very conservative at the time, and it seemed to me that he was satisfied that I would be his major prospect for manager. It ended with him telling me that he would write to me from America and tell me how things turned out with RAI.

Several days later, on Sunday, January 7, 1968, I got a phone call from Marco. He and Phillipa were at the Squire Restaurant preparing to have lunch. Marco asked if I would like to join them. When I arrived, Phillipa, Marco and the restaurant's owner Contessa Maria, were the only ones there. Marco offered me a drink and we all sat around reading the Sunday paper. Suddenly Marco jumped to his feet and said, "I think I'll have my cousin join us for lunch." I had no idea who he was referring to, but about forty minutes later it was all apparent to me when King Constantine of Greece, his wife Queen Anne-Marie and his sister Princess Irene entered the room.

Marco moved forward to the king and made a bow and in a very sombre manner said, "Your Majesty". Once the formality was accomplished, the two gave each other a big abrazo and Marco said, "Tino, Tino, how are you?"

(Right) Their Royal Majesties

Marco introduced everyone to Constantine and his family. Then Constantine turned to me and asked a question that nearly knocked me off my feet. "Do you know Don Pierson from Abilene, Texas?" I replied that I did. The king went on to say that Don had called him the night before and wanted to lease him the Radio London ship to bring into the Mediterranean and broadcast to the Greeks. Don did not know who he was speaking with, so Constantine pretended to be one of his own generals. He did this because he was the only one in his entourage who spoke English.

It should be pointed out that only weeks earlier, in mid-December 1967, there had been a military coup d'état in Greece in which a retired Greek army officer, Georgios Papadopoulos became Prime Minister in the military government. Papadopoulos came to Constantine at the palace in Athens and told him that he still considered him to be the king of Greece, but that he could not assure his and his family's safety if they remained in the country.

The king moved quickly in the middle of the night to take his family to Rome. When they arrived, Constantine was in his army fatigues and combat boots. Apparently, Marco was at the airport to welcome the royal family on their arrival, for one of the first questions Marco asked at the restaurant was, "Tino, where did you get those shoes?" Constantine answered, "My mother-in-law sent them to me." His mother-in-law was Queen Ingrid of Denmark.

After all the introductions had been made, Contessa Maria sent a waiter down to lock the door to ensure that we were not disturbed. She then directed us to our places at the table.

I thought the seating arrangement was a bit odd. Maria placed herself at the head of the table with Princess Irene, Marco, and Phillipa at the upper end, and Constantine and myself across from each other at the end of the table, with Anne-Marie seated to my right. It didn't take long for me to discover that this whole thing was a set-up. Constantine was there to see me.

(Left) Fit for royalty, the elegant interior of The Squire

The whole previous week had probably been a set-up as well. Marco had sent me to Campbell who had arranged for me to talk with Richard Eaton. It was my opinion that Eaton was a plant by the CIA who wanted me investigated prior to my meeting with Constantine. The thing that really tipped me off about all of this was a letter that Eaton sent me afterwards to tell me that the RAI proposal had not worked out. The letter was dated the following day after our meeting and posted from Washington DC. Years later, I was looking over the history of the Rome Daily American and found that the paper was 40% owned by the CIA.  I was probably walking into the 'lion's mouth' when I went in to see editor Campbell. He could have even been an agent himself..

The late Sixties was a very dark period in American history. Communism was not well thought of and the Roman film colony was a 'hotbed' of American communists. It is not hard for me to imagine that the CIA would have someone checked out before meeting with a world leader.

After we were seated, Marco gave everyone a bit of my background, and Constantine, aware that I was from Texas, asked me if I knew President Johnson. I told him that I knew John Connally, who was a close friend of Johnson's, but that I had never had the pleasure of meeting the President. Constantine told me that he had made a trip to Washington DC and had met Johnson. He said that he admired him a great deal. He reflected on what a down-to-earth person he was and how Johnson had met some camel driver in North Africa and had invited him to America and paid for his trip there. This, he said, showed a very human side of the President.

Once the Johnson adulation was over, it was on to the Kennedys. Jacqueline Kennedy had visited the royal family several times in Athens. Constantine, who was about 26 or 27 years of age at the time, was a very energetic and sometimes mischievous young man. Jackie K was about 10 years older, but she apparently had a bit of a mischievous side as well. Constantine told me that he had a small Mercedes roadster and that he and Jackie liked to jump in it and race up into the mountains at high speeds. He and Jackie would drive her secret service agents mad when they were lost from the agents' sight.

I had a very interesting conversation with Constantine as we sat across the table from each other. He told me about the family's escape from Athens and said they were in such a hurry that Anne-Marie had left a huge chest of jewels on the bathroom table. As he was telling me this story, I sort of had the feeling that he might have wanted me to organise a band of thieves to retrieve the jewels, but I never took the bait.

I had mentioned to Marco that I was part Cherokee Indian (probably no more than one-eighth). He became very fascinated with this piece of information and decided it would be helpful to my career to promote this fact. However, Marco wanted me to be a half-breed. Somehow this subject came up at the table and Constantine became very curious about my American background. He said that I didn't have the appearance of what he had imagined an Indian would look like and he wished I had been a full-blood Cherokee, so he could have a better idea as to the appearance of a member of that race.

I too was interested in the genealogy of the Greek kings. I made mention to Constantine that none of his family appeared to be what I thought to be typically Greek. He smiled and reminded me that different Greeks had different looks.

Some years after meeting Constantine, I decided to investigate the lineage of the Grecian royal family. In the end I found that there was not one drop of Greek blood flowing through the veins of that country's kings. It is not surprising that this family had been exiled several times from Greece.

After all the chit-chat about a number of trivialities, Constantine and I finally got down to discussing the purpose of our meeting. Constantine had claimed that Don Pierson had called him the night before to lease him the Radio London ship, but I suspect it had been several nights earlier, allowing Eaton some time to investigate me.

Don Pierson had wanted to lease the MV Galaxy to Constantine for $200,000 per month. I told the king that if he would put a few hundred thousand more with that amount, he could probably buy the ship fully equipped. Constantine than asked me if I would put everything together for him.

I told him if the money was right I would take the task, but I would not be on the ship if it entered Greek waters. I told him that the Greek military would blow the vessel out of the water if it in any way interfered with their control of the government. He said that would be no problem, as long as I could get the Galaxy into the Mediterranean and train his men to operate the station. He said that there were many of his subjects who wanted to help out and his staff would have no trouble finding the right people for the job.Constantine said that there was only one catch to this whole idea. He would need the approval of NATO to bring a broadcast ship into the Mediterranean.

Our session ended with the King giving me his telephone number at the hotel where he and his family were staying, and I gave him my number at my pensione. Several days later, I was crossing the Via Veneto when a large Mercedes came bearing down on me. Just before the car reached me, the driver swerved back into his lane. The driver was Constantine. As he passed he waved and gave me a big grin. He still had not lost his sense of mischievousness.

Time passed throughout the week and I had not heard anything from the king. Then on the following Sunday, January 14th, I went to Lulu's Restaurant for a little eye-opener before a late brunch. Lulu had his bar nearest the street with the restaurant behind it. I was sitting at the bar sipping my brandy and coffee when Constantine and about 20 other dignitaries appeared on the street. They were all dressed in evening clothes, and had apparently been upstairs at the Paramount Studios for some function.

Since it was Sunday, I hadn't bothered to shave and looked a bit scruffy, like a real actor. As I looked out the window, there was Constantine motioning for me to come out and join him. I walked outside and we chatted for about 20 minutes. I could imagine that his friends wondered who the bum was that he was conversing with, however, they patiently stood by until we had concluded our talk.

Constantine had bad news. He had talked with NATO and they had refused to give him permission to bring the MV Galaxy into the Mediterranean. Once again the fickle finger of fate had attacked me, and won.

I decided to take a chance on contacting Sergio Leone about getting into a 'spaghetti' western. I went up to his office around lunchtime and found the place completely vacant, so I stood there for a while hoping someone would show up. Suddenly, an inner office door opened as this gentleman stepped forward and announced, "I'm Sergio Leone, can I help you?" I told Mr. Leone that I was looking for work on one of his films. He asked me if I could ride a horse. I said I could, although it had been years since I had been in the saddle. He had a feature coming up in a few months starring Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinalli and said to get back in touch close to that time, when he might have a job for me.

A lot of spare time in the evenings was spent at Lulu's Restaurant. He had opened a little club in the basement, which was frequented mostly by actors and other entertainers. The 'cabaret' was provided by members of the audience and anyone who had an act was welcome to join in. One of the more memorable turns was George Seagal and Buck Henry.** George played the banjo and Buck played the ukelele. Two of the actors often seen at Lulu's were Guy Madison who had played Wild Bill Hickock on early television, and Gordon Scott, who had come to Rome some time before to appear in the gladiator movies with his friend Steve Reeves. Gordon had later played Tarzan in several movies.

Often seen about the Via Veneto at that time was Keenan Wynn. One of the actors staying in my pensione was making a film with Keenan, and we all met a few times at the Café de Paris. Keenan was a good friend of Steve McQueen's and he and Steve were both bikers. They liked to go out in open areas of California and ride their bikes through the sand dunes and hills. This was all great fun until Keenan fell and broke a few ribs. Keenan was getting up in age at the time and he was not healing well. His wife, who was sitting with us, told us that Keenan would not be riding any more bikes.

After I had been in Rome for about three months, I could see that I was getting well integrated into the movie community, but I could also see that it might take another six months to a year to get to the point of having a liveable income. I was also very anxious to see my wife and daughter, so I decided that the thing for me to do was say, "Arrivederci Roma" and go back to the States where I could get a regular income. Once again the 'domani syndrome' had claimed another victim.

While chatting with my manager, Jim Mishler, I told him of my need to go back to London. He said that he was looking for some backing for a film and that if I would introduce him to some of my well-off friends in the recording business, he would pay my expenses back to London. I was overjoyed at this proposal and it was not long before I was back in Sussex with my wife and daughter.

I had only got as far as introducing Jim to a few of my friends in London when he unfortunately came down with a terrible virus. He said that as soon as he was well enough, he would be heading back to Rome and that he would no longer hold me to our bargain. It was not long after this that Ronagh, Raquel and I were one our way to Texas.

*********

* Robert Henry appeared on the Big L Fab playlist for a few weeks from 13/03/66, with 'Walk Away Like a Winner', which has since become popular in Northern Soul circles.

** Buck Henry wrote the screenplay for the aforementioned film 'Candy'.

More about Jim Mishler's career on the silver screen.

Babington's Tea Rooms is still a tourist attraction in Rome.


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