Journey through The Time of Your Life


cgphoto002William Saroyan's passing was mourned around the world, but no where was the sorrow as pronounced as in his hometown of Fresno, California.

While there were several memorials held for Saroyan, including a star-studded tribute in Los Angeles, the Fresno memorial, titled A Celebration of the Life and Works of William Saroyan was impressive. A combination of speeches by Saroyan's friends and admirers, performances, and audio and visual presentations, the entire event lasted nearly four hours and shows the depth of impact Saroyan had, as well as the incredible array of friends and admirers Saroyan had attracted throughout his life. Professors, authors, poets, singers, and actors were among those who spoke or performed on the stage that day, but one section of the event is particularly important - a perfoprmance of an excerpt of The Time of Your Life.

The Time of Your Life is widely seen as Saroyan's theatrical masterpiece. The original Broadway production featured many Broadway legends, includign Gene Kelly, Ross Bagdasarian, Will Lee, Celeste Holm, Julie Haydon, and Eddie Dowliing.  Sometimes overlooked is the music. While not one of the plays with compositions by Paul Bowles, it did feature music performed by Reginald Beane, and a young man and fellow Fresno native Manuel Tolegian. 

Born and raised in Fresno, Tolegian and Saroyan had played together as kids, but Manuel had moved away fairly young. The two would reunite by chance in the 1930s. In his oral history with the Archives of American Art in 1965, he discussed his re-meeting fellow Fresnan William Saroyan. 

"Oh yes. Saroyan I met at a cocktail party in New York even though he was born right across the street from me in Fresno."

Having reconnected, the pair struck up a friendship that included working together off-and-on. Tolegian was back and forth between his home in Los Angeles and New York, where he shared studio space with legendary Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, while Saroyan was alternating between New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. 

TheTimeOfYourLife003In 1939, Saroyan made his Broadway debut with My Heart's in the Highlands, and received mostly positive reviews. The Theatre Guild, and Eddie Dowling in specific, acquired thye rights to Saroyan's next play, The Time of Your Life. After a series of try-outs, none of which went particularly well, the play came to Broadway and became a smash, going on to win the New York Drama Critics award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Saroyan, who co-directed the play with Dowling, gave a couple of roles out to people he knew. Ross Bagdasarian, Saroyan's cousin, played the newsboy, and Manual Tolegian, in New York at the time, was convinced to play The Arab's Lament on harmonica for the show.

MANUEL TOLEGIAN: I don’t think I told you, but in 1939 I played the music for his “Time of Your Life,” a play.

BETTY HOAG: I read in a magazine you played the harmonica.

MANUEL TOLEGIAN: Played the harmonica backstage, yes.

BETTY HOAG: Was this fun to help him, or…?

MANUEL TOLEGIAN: Well no, it was quite a job for over a year in the evening. During the day I still painted but in the evening I worked at the job. And it was a Pulitzer Prize winning play, you know, and Drama Critics Circle award, I think it was the first play to win these two awards at that time. Saroyan was a lover of my pictures, being of Armenian descent himself I think he felt this warmth and sincerity coming out of my work. Also he used subject matter quite often—he did, or still does, I guess… I think we were both mutually helpful to each other. I must say I owe a great debt to him for many things he did—he has a great gift for articulating, you know, he’d keep explaining things I didn’t know these things that I did in my work, which he brought out in words, you see. It was very interesting.

While no footage of the original production is known to exist, the Fresno celebration put on an excerpt from the play, complete with Tolegian opening the piece by playing The Arab's Lament.


To view the specific video of Tolegian and The Time of Your Life, select the fourth video on the playlist (cfcpl 000506 t04), or enjoy the entire celebration through this playlist of footage provided by the Fresno Public Library from a set of four U-Matic video tapes. While there are minor tracking issues, the footage is a remarkable artifact of one of the great tributes to Saroyan and his legacy, 

Saroyan on Broadway: My Heart's in the Highlands - 1939



My Heart’s in the Highlands was published on June 8th, 1939. It had completed its Broadway run the prior month after 44 performances. While not a tremendous success, it had established Saroyan as a force, and his next show, The Time of Your Life, would forever enshrine him in the Broadway hierarchy.

The show featured music by Paul Bowles, starred future blockbuster director Sidney Lumet as Johnny, and Art Smith as Jasper MacGregor. The show received mixed reviews. Burns Mantel in The New York Daily News, said “It is a fantastic drama about a poor poet and his loyal son. About the starving they do, and the neighbors they have, and a crazed ancient who believes he is a great actor.”

Perhaps the most fascinating review, mixed within itself, was from John Anderson in the New York Journey American:

“Though Mr. Saroyan has leaped through no store windows with a shy bathtub, he is, I suspect, the Salvador Dali of the drama, a surrealist playwright whose “My Heart’s in the Highlands” at the Guild Theatre last night could be compared favorably to a fur-lined teacup. If you squint your eyes, and try to understand it, it doesn’t make any sense at all, but if you let it alone and let it pry around in the gizzard, it will very likely tug your heart strings.”

One thing mentioned by several critics at later revivals was that the version that was published in 1939 was a superior version. Apparently slightly abbreviated for publication, it was published as a stand-alone piece, though not without adornment. The edition published by Harcourt Brace and Company features not only the play, but also the original story (which had first run in Three Times Three in 1936.) This multiple use is very typical of Saroyan, who was always looking for ways to re-use his previously published writing. It included a new preface from Group Theatre director Harold Clurman, and a new preface by Saroyan. Interestingly, the volume includes several reviews for the play, and not just the positive ones! Saroyan, never one to allow the critics to feel like they got it right, said in the introduction, “I believe My Heart’s in the Highlands is a classic.”

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book, and one I had somehow overlooked in my first readings of it, was a portion that provided a reduced version of the sheet music. Paul Bowles’ music had been praised by critics including Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times and Richard Watts, Jr. in the New York Herald Tribune. This music was based on an existing melody written by J.M. Courtney for the lyrics of Robert Burns' song My Heart's in the Highlands, itself based on a traditional Scottish tune Failte na Miosg.

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William Saroyan in Bitlis - Photos by Fikret Otyam

EPSON scanner imageWilliam Saroyan made his second visit to his ancestral homeland of Armenia in May, 1964. Saroyan was one of the best-known Armenian-Americans in the world, and his visit was covered by newspapers in Armenia and Turkey, as well as around the world. Saroyan was accompanied by journalists, shooting footage for newsreels, writing pieces on the visit, and taking an incredible number of photographs. Several photographers followed Saroyan on portions of his trip, including a legendary newspaper photographer and painter, Fikret Otyam. 

 Born in 1926, Otyam studied at Istanbul State Fine Arts Academy under the painter and poet  Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu. Though he had studied art, his first career after college was as a journalist. He wrote for many newspapers and magazines before largely turning to photography and painting. Notably, he wrote for Cumhuriyet, often considered Turkey's newspaper of record. He often served as the photographer for his own stories and would become known as an important Turkish photojournalist. It was as a part of that job that he covered Saroyan's 1964 visit to Turkey for Cumhuriyet

The portion of Turkey Saroyan visited included much of the area considered historic Armenia, including Van, Erzurum, Agri, and Muş, but a major focus of the trip was Saroyan going to Van, and then on to Bitlis, the birthplace of his parents. 

Van has been a major city since the eleventh century. Located on Lake Van, the largest lake in Asia Minor, it was a part of the Kingdom of Armenia dating back to pre-Christian times, though was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Today, there remains an Armenian minority, though Kurds and Turks are the major ethnic groups. 

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Saroyan then sailed to Bitlis, the traditional home of the Saroyans. Covering the trip for Cumhuriyet, Otyam took photos of Saroyan in many locations, most notably among the ruins of the traditional Saroyan compound. 

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"An old man guided him to the vestiges of a stone house he insisted belonged to Saroyan’s own family. He was photographed before the ruined hearth. “It’s a good place to live forever, the people are good, the flowers good. It’s an unforgettable day.” -  Dickran Kouymjian in the Introduction to An Armenian Trilogy

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“I know all of this. I know the old trees. I am a Bitlistsi! My father walked on these roads.”

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"Saroyan and his entourage walked around town for two hours, then went up to the massive fort that dominates the city. There a performing bear put his paw on Saroyan’s shoulder. He judged that a good omen." -  Dickran Kouymjian in the Introduction to An Armenian Trilogy

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On this visit, Saroyan announced that he would write a play called Bitlis. He would eventually write the play, now a part of his trio of plays known as An Armenian Trilogy, though it would be eleven years before Saroyan tackled the writing of the play. The play, which details Saroyan's journey to Bitlis on his visit in 1964, was first published in 1985, edited by Fresno State University professor Dickran Kouymjian. Ph67 otyam photo018

Though Saroyan spent several more weeks in Turkey, clearly the 1964 visit to Bitlis was an important and powerful stop for the legendary author. He would return twice more, in 1976 and 1978, before passing away in 1981. Fikret Otyam would publish many of the photos in Cumhuriyet, and would send a number that had not been used to Saroyan shortly thereafter. These photos were eventually acquired by Forever Saroyan, LLC, and constitute an important part of our photograph collection. 

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