Thursday, May 15, 2003
Divorce Court: the Accent Was on Sex
By ROGER M. GRACE
Among the courtroom reality shows that surfaced in the late 1950s was “Divorce Court,” launched in 1958. Critics at the time assailed it as salacious. Was it?
“Sure it was,” one of the real-life lawyers who portrayed an attorney on the show confirmed, adding:
“What sells? Sex and violence. It’s the same today.”
Those comments came from David R. Glickman, a past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates and a seasoned trial attorney. But he was a young pup when he appeared on the nationally syndicated “Divorce Court” in the early 1960s, having been admitted to the bar in December, 1957.
He recounted that he was among a group of about eight lawyers who frequently handled cases, for a fee of $250 each, in the make-believe courtroom on a soundstage.
Another lawyer Glickman mentioned who often appeared on the weekly show was the late Paul Caruso, who became a legendary trial attorney.
Glickman noted that the lawyers were recruited in the early days by Rusty Burrell, who played the bailiff— as he later did on Joseph Wapner’s “People’s Court” and, more recently, on Wapner’s “Animal Court.”
Burrell, who died a year ago, was a retired deputy sheriff when he appeared on Wapner’s shows, but during his years on “Divorce Court,” taped in the evenings, his daytime job was actually that of a coutroom bailiff. The lawyers he brought to the show, Glickman explained, were those with whom he dealt on a regular basis in the courtroom.
Glickman told me that Jackson Hill, the producer of “Divorce Court,” attended actual divorce proceedings downtown while formulating plans for the show, and wanted to hire the judge who presided over them. While judicial ethics prevented the jurist from accepting the job offer, Hill did succeed in signing up Burrell.
The role of the judge went to Voltaire Perkins, who was a practicing lawyer (with a law degree from USC), as well as being an actor. Glickman said of him:
“He was a smart lawyer and a real gentleman. He was very courtly. He looked like a judge, he sounded like a judge.”
Unlike a session of “Day in Court”—on which a script, crafted from a story idea from a law student, was acted out, with extemporized rulings by the “judge”—a “Divorce Court” show was less structured; essentially, it was an improvisation.
The lawyer for each side, Glickman recalled, was simply given “a little booklet containing three facts they wanted us to bring out, whether on direct or cross.” But the lawyer for one spouse didn’t see the booklet provided to the lawyer for the other spouse, he noted.
Perkins, the lawyer said, would formulate a decision on the spot.
He brought to mind that 30 seconds before it was time to break for a commercial, a director would hold up a sign, upside down, reading: “Objection.” Whether there was cause for an objection or not, one had to be voiced. At that point, Glickman said, the voice of announcer Bill Welsh, who was offstage, would be heard, advising viewers: “I see there was a legal objection here, so we have to break for a commercial.”
Glickman said he appeared about 50 times on “Divorce Court.” He also performed on “Day in Court,” he noted, but said he prefered being on the former show because of the lack of scripting.
“I liked the free wheeling style,” he remarked.
But that style was part of what drew criticism.
Edgar Allan Jones Jr., the UCLA law professor who presided over ABC’s “Day in Court,” commented that on “Divorce Court,” the producers “let the lawyers run away with it.” He also said that the programs contained “an awful lot of salacious stuff.”
This was, of course, before “no-fault” divorce went into effect Jan. 1, 1970, and adultery was a ground.
Jones blames that show for the effort by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. to persuade the State Bar to prohibit lawyers from appearing on TV courtroom dramatizations (which I’ll detail in tomorrow’s “Perspectives” column).
One informal County Bar opinion faulted “Divorce Court” “because of the nature of this program, with its particular stress upon dramatic situations involving sex” and crime. It said that “any connection with the program in which an attorney plays a dramatic role, markedly lowers the dignity of the profession and positively debases the administration of justice.”
Glickman countered that the criticism quickly “blew over.” He scoffed that “There are always people who would complain about anything,” and added: “There were a few sour grape people at the County Bar.”
As to the sensationalism of the program, Glickman observed:
“That’s what the public wanted. Ordinary cases are borrrrring.”
Next week: a look at “People’s Court of Small Claims.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company