William 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.
In 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 Archive.org 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,