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Remembering the Marsacs:
1915 to 2007
by Bob Alman
with Jim Bast, Mark Jaqua, Erv Peterson,
and Mike Orgill
photos courtesy of Mark Jaqua, Erv Peterson,
and Mike Orgill
layout by Reuben Edwards
Posted June 16, 2007

Related Links
Los Angeles Times Obituary
A Capsule biography from Mark Jaqua
International Movie Data Base, citing 150 Maurice Marsac roles


Maurice and Melanie Marsac died within three weeks of each other in April and May of 2007. After a full and glamorous life that included being a member of the French resistance and later a character actor in movies and television, Maurice virtually retired in the mid nineties when the couple moved to Oakmont, an affluent retirement community on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, California, within easy distance of the croquet court at Tom and Jane McDonnell's ranch, Sonoma-Cutrer, and Meadowood Resort, where they played often until their last years. They were almost everyone's favorite croquet couple, for the zest they always brought to the party, to the croquet lawn, and to a relationship with each other that was often an amazing spectacle to behold. Here's what I and other friends like to remember about this remarkable pair.


In their last years, they lived near Meadowood, where they played and dined often.
When you recall every detail of a first meeting 24 years ago, it had to be a special event in your life. That was when I first met Maurice and Melanie, on a close-cropped corner of the Seattle Seahawks training field, near Seattle, where the football franchise owner Ned Skinner hosted the first USCA Western Regional tournament, in the fall of 1983. It was my first out-of-town competition as a novice player from the then-primitive San Francisco Croquet Club, where we played on a half-sized court on a hilly golf putting green in Stern Grove. For the first time, I got to play on full-sized courts, and there were many other firsts.

The most vivid part of this memory is from the last day of the tournament, when almost everyone else had gone to their hotels to prepare for the evening party. But not me - and not, for some reason I forget, Melanie Marsac. In my memory, we were the only two spectators for the final match, between Stan Patmor and Gerry Bassford from the Arizona Croquet Club, the toughest club in the country at the time. The two players shared a bottle of scotch that moved around the center peg, turn by turn. To me, their play looked awesome, full of break-making shots I had never seen or even conceived of before that tournament. But Melanie knew all the moves. She and Maurice had learned to play a couple of years earlier at the Beverly Hills Croquet Club in Roxbury Park, so as we sat there with our backs to the sunset, she patiently explained what these Arizonans were doing, and why.

I was flattered to be so favored by this glamorous Hollywood figure (who looked, incidentally, as if she could have played the part of Norma Desmond to a tee, although she had no career, herself, as an actress) and I found out later this was only what was to be expected of both the Marsacs. They enjoyed tutoring new players; it was only one of the ways they found to boost their favorite game.

At an early tournament in Manhattan's Central Park, Maurice's story delights himself and the onlookers - including John Young of Bermuda.

Flash forward six months or so, after I and my favorite partner at the time, Mike Orgill, had learned to play breaks, and we found ourselves in Beverly Hills playing an unforgettable game against Maurice Marsac and the late Cesare daNova, another well-known character actor of the time, often typecast as a Mafia boss. This was when I realized what charmed lives popular character actors can lead. All they had to do, on screen or in a croquet game, was just to be themselves - but bigger, grander, louder. It was second nature to them. And it was high drama to anyone and everyone around them.

Despite his ebullient manner, Maurice took his game seriously and could be counted on to play his role in the game in perfect form, whatever the result.
So Mike and I, as I remember, were witnesses and participants in a 90-minute game played against an ebulliently grand Charles deGaulle leading his troops victoriously into Paris in 1945, and a ruthless Mafia boss who kept saying things to Maurice like, "Attack them now, on the south border! If you don't, they'll attack us!" complete with extravagant gesturing and a fierce expression.

Not long after the Maurice/Cesara game, I recall the Marsacs watching my first "giant-killer" experience at the prestigious Arizona Open. I had achieved, just barely, topflight status, but was much overmatched, playing on a three-quarter sized court made treacherous by early morning frost. My opponent was former national champion Dick Pearman of Bermuda, whose expert boundary attacks upon me, however, went repeatedly awry on the slippery surface, ultimately delivering the game in the last turns to one Bob Alman, an unknown novice underdog from the wilds of San Francisco. When the one-minute warning was sounded, I heard Maurice say breathlessly to Melanie, "My God, Bob's going to beat Pearman!" It was a rare, unintentional and utterly harmless violation of courtside etiquette, but I loved it. They had been the ideal audience for my fleeting moment of glory.

A passport picture from the late 50's shows the generic Frenchman in his Hollywood prime.
You might find yourself on any given day an audience for one of Maurice's many walk-on roles, appearing unexpected on your television screen. When he began his professional acting career in the 50's, he was much in demand in Hollywood as the generic Frenchman who could be hired locally through the Screen Actors Guild. Later, when location shooting became routine, they would hire Maurice to play the concierge in a Paris hotel - or perhaps a snooty waiter - (Tremaine Arkley has said he always had an impulse to reach out and tip Maurice when he heard that perfect French accent!) and he and Melanie would be given an all-expenses-paid junket to Europe, allowing him to visit, perhaps, his native Normandy, or take sidetrips to England to play croquet.

They often included out-of-the-way croquet venues in their travels whenever they could, and often - in France and Spain - the visit of these glamorous and experienced players would be celebrated as a major event by the local croquet club.

Melanie helps to boost a new club in France in the early nineties.

From time to time I enjoyed playing partners with either Melanie or Maurice in major tournaments, including the San Francisco Open, and I have to admit I enjoyed these games even more when I had become a higher-ranked player and thus had no considerations about letting my partner down. They were high-level social players, and though I nurtured championship aspirations early on - during the brief period when I could beat anyone in San Francisco - the champions I taught to play soon convinced me on the court that I was fated to be a social player, albeit at an advanced level. Our shared status helped to meld my friendship with this extraordinary couple for two decades.

At Parnall Rose Gardens, Auckland, 1994. Erv Peterson photo.

I invited other California friends to remember the Marsacs, and here's what they said:

FROM ERV PETERSON


Maurice waiting his turn at Rotorua, New Zealand, 1994. Erv Peterson photo.
I first met Melanie at the San Francisco Croquet Club, in a B level event. She was really enthusiastic and explained what should be done in each situation as the games were played. She was my doubles partner the next March in Phoenix - at the 1989 Arizona Open. We came in second. Melanie was thrilled and never let me forget at how great a croquet moment that was for her.

In 1994, the couple came with me to New Zealand on a 15-day croquet tour. We toured the North Island staying in Rotorua, Napier, Dannevirke, Wellington, and Auckland. We played pickup games at a dozen different clubs, and in a top tournament in Dannevirke. Melanie became a much better player and hitter during that trip. Maurice loved the play and meeting all the club members, who hosted dinners and luncheons for us.

I remember especially a great day in Wellington, when we played croquet that morning, toured the botanical garden in the afternoon before watching the sunset, and then had dinner in Wellington harbor. It was a wonderful time with the grandest of couples. They bickered in their own way - lovingly. And they charmed people wherever we went.

FROM JIM BAST


Whether they're paying attention or not, it would be hard for any spectator to miss the meaning of this overlarge gesture from Maurice as he leaves the court after his turn: he is definitely not happy about what just happened.
Maurice and Melanie were two of the finest people it has been my privilege to call "friends." Actually, sometimes I called them Mom and Dad, since early on they adopted me as their "croquet son." They both could expound forever on virtually any topic. I used to love to sit in their kitchen in Studio City and listen to their tales while watching Mozart, their hummingbird, fly to all of the windows begging for more food. I also enjoyed hearing them argue with each other in at least three different languages.

Maurice felt comfortable in any situation, with anybody. Maybe that is one of the products of living through so much personal danger. The first time he and Melanie met my real parents, Maurice was animated from the moment he entered the door. After barely a "pleased to meet you" he noticed a Bernard Buffet painting on the wall. His eyes lit up and he declared how excited he was to see such a painting, a typical Buffet wharf and street scene somewhere in Paris. For the next twenty or so minutes, he proceeded to name and describe every building and street in the painting, as he had been in that particular location many times. He also went into great detail about what was down the next street, and behind the artist's perspective, and so on. Each little descriptive moment also came with an interesting anecdote about that particular street, building or alley. By the time he finished, my parents felt as if they had known him most of their lives.

Maurice and Melanie both possessed that exceptional ability to make anyone feel valued and interesting, as if you were the most important person in their lives at that moment. I will miss them both, dearly, but what a splendid life they had!

FROM MIKE ORGILL


This detail of a Mike Orgill photo from the 2004 North American Open at Sonoma-Cutrer shows Maurice as the most passionate of fans for a notoriously laid-back sport. Taking off his glasses, leaning forward, he can hardly believe what he's just seen happen on the court. If this were baseball or hockey, who knows what he might have shouted?
Maurice and Melanie are irreplaceable links to the foundations of American croquet. Melanie was a beautiful woman who delighted everyone with her charm and friendliness. I remember fondly when my daughter, Pam, was eight or so and began making little "croquet pins" out of clay, imitating the croquet pins she saw all the players wearing. Melanie spent time with her helping with the designs and encouraging her. The pins were rough and lumpy, but Melanie loved them. Melanie was the most professional and diligent deadness board keeper. She always took the task seriously, as though the game were a professional event with vast sums of money on the line. On the court she was keen to win and more knowledgeable about the rules than most of her opponents.

I remember most Maurice's wit and playfulness and his intense competitiveness on the court. He was courtly and old school, a true gentleman, easily outclassing most of the men in any room he entered. Maurice never made a big thing about his Hollywood background. Being around him at courtside I would often see people come up to him and tell him about seeing him in films and television shows and he was always gracious and appreciative but would never preen. He was always within himself and sure of who he was.

One afternoon when I was watching Turner Classic Movies and "King of Kings," the 1960's film, came on. Right up front in the credits was Maurice's name! I sat through the entire film waiting for a glimpse of Maurice and saw nobody that looked like him. A few days later at Sonoma-Cutrer I asked him about it. "Oh, I played Nicodemus," Maurice laughed. "I was so heavily made-up nobody ever recognizes me. I was in Spain just by chance when they were filming it. I ran into Nick Ray and he asked me to take the role at the last minute." Typical Maurice: self-effacing and stunning all at once.

When Maurice made it to the winners' circle. his delight was huge and genuine.

Look Maurice up on www.imdb.com. You will be amazed how much film and TV work he did. I will never forget Maurice and Maurice for their grace, gentility and charm. They loved croquet, and everyone in croquet who knew them loved them in return.


A CAPSULE BIOGRAPHY FROM MARK JAQUA

A character actor, with more than 100 film and television credits, Maurice Marsac passed away on May 6, 2007. He was predeceased by Melanie Marsac, his wife of 55 years, on April 16, 2007.

Maurice was born in La Croix, France on March 23, 1915, served in the French Army reserves as a captain, and worked as a secretary for the French Embassy in London until the outbreak of World War II. He returned to France and worked for the French underground during the war. After the war, he traveled to the United States to sell French wines. He eventually arrived in Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

He appeared in "To Have and Have Not" with Humphrey Bogart, "What a Way to Go, " "Take Her She's Mine", " King of Kings", and "Can-Can", to name but a few. He often played the haughty French waiter, as in "The Jerk" with Steve Martin. He was cast as the French teacher in the TV series "Our Miss Brooks" with Eve Arden. He also appeared in guest spots on countless TV shows such as "I Love Lucy" and "Hogan's Heroes".

He and his wife, Melanie, competed in many tournaments from Beverly Hills to the Bay Area. They moved to Santa Rosa ten years ago, settling in the Oakmont neighborhood. They traveled extensively during their married life; they especially frequented France, and Mexico, their respective countries of birth. In addition to croquet, their passion was modern art. They were very much in love, and knew how to celebrate life, throughout their fifty-five year marriage. They are survived by family in France, Mexico, and California.

A special thanks to Mark Jaqua, second cousin of Melanie Marsac, for background facts on the couple and photos from many periods of their lives.


 
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