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Lee Bernhardi and his first wife, Janet Lennon, shortly after the couple said their vows in 1966.

Lee Bernhardi, jock to Emmy-nominated TV Director

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer–  Emmy-nominated TV Director Lee Bernhardi began his life out here in the California Desert. Bernhardi was born in Los Angeles but raised in Trona and graduated from Trona High School in 1958. His family moved to Ridgecrest when he was a sophomore or junior, but he drove to Trona every day for school and sports.

Lee and his big brother Bruce were known for their prowess on the playing field. Bruce had a successful college football career and returned to be a players’ favorite coach for Burroughs High School. Lee went to the University of Washington on a football scholarship and played in two Rose Bowl games.

How does a kid from Trona go from jock to television? He tells us, “I went up and spent five years at the University of Washington playing football for them and getting an education. As with every other athlete, when you go to college, you’re going to be a coach because that’s the only thing you know. I started in education. The first year I was up there, I lived in the dorm, and the kid that lived next door was majoring in the School of Communication. One time, he asked me to go to a class with him.  I walked into the local television studio, fell in love with it, and changed my major into Radio and Television.”

After graduating from college, Bernhardi spent six months in the Army Reserves and then headed to Los Angeles. When asked what his favorite television stories he tells his grandchildren are, he says, “I haven’t talked to somebody about my career since I retired in 2000. Very few people asked me and I don’t sit around and talk about it, to be honest with you.”

The question opens a floodgate of memories. “I started as a page at ABC, seating audiences and guarding doors. I was just totally fascinated by the whole process and I seemed to adapt to it very well and very quickly. Then, I became a stage manager on the Lawrence Welk Show, and that’s where I met my first wife. I married Janet Lennon of the Lennon Sisters in 1966; we have three children and divorced after ten years.  I met my current wife, Judi, on the Webster series. Judi and I have been married for 36 years.”

He continues talking about his career. “I worked my way up. I was a Stage Manager on a lot of shows, including Shindig and The Lawrence Welk Show and a lot of other television shows.”  He was also a Stage Manager for the Academy Awards. He says that everybody in the crew had to wear tuxedos in those days. As a job description, he says a Stage Manager is “in charge of everything. Making sure stage sets move in the right direction, how the scenery changes, and where the talent is. Somebody’s running talent, and you’re in charge of all of that. Talent has to be there and people are going to come out and make presentations. And they have to be there in the wings, ready to go because you’re going live. It’s not a recorded show where you can screw up, but everything is live once it starts.  I was in charge of everything that moved on the stage and other people and I mean, don’t get me wrong, I had probably six or seven other stage managers working for me.  We all had our jobs and we all did our job.

“I did three Emmy Awards, two as a stage manager and one as an Assistant Director. And then I got a break. I was doing a John Denver special up in Aspen, shooting in a dome with Olivia Newton-John. The producers liked what I did because I shot a bunch of promotional stuff for them. And they hired me to do The Rich Little Show.

This became his move to Television Director. The first two shows he directed were The Rich Little Show and The Jim Stafford Show. He explains, “You get everybody together and read through the script, and then you’d start staging sketches and what the production numbers were going to be with who’s going to sing, what the set was going to be, what the lighting was going to be, what the mood was going to be. Then you start shooting.” Since the program was prerecorded, they could do several takes and edit the entire show. He clarifies, “It wasn’t like a film where you shoot everybody’s close-up. You would rehearse it and shoot live.”

The variety shows used four cameras. The director would stay in the control room for the song and dance production numbers and call the shots.  “It always made me laugh. There’s a control room, there’s a technical director and there’s the sound guy and they’re all sitting in a line in front of the wall of monitors and you’re making all these quick decisions. I always expected somebody to walk in the door and say, ‘Aren’t you Lee Bernhardi from Trona? Get out of here.’ My entire career, I thought that someone was going to catch me, a little kid from Trona.”

During that time, there were a lot of variety shows on television. He directed awards shows at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, country music shows at the Alamo in Texas and shows in Toronto, Canada. “I directed 30 shows out of the Sporting Club from Monte Carlo in 1980. Prince Renier and Princess Grace were exciting to meet.  I also directed one of the Inaugural Balls for President Reagan. A Presidential Inauguration is a wonderful thing to experience.”

He also directed sitcoms including Night Court, The Barney Miller Show, and Webster as previously mentioned where he met his current wife. He was nominated for an Emmy for directing The Mickey Mouse Club with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling who recently starred as Ken in Barbie.

He says of working on The Julie Andrews Hour, “ I think one of the thrills of my life was working on Julie Andrews’ show as an Assistant Director. I learned more about the business doing that show.  It was just a good learning process. I got into editing. We had to do a lot of editing on the show which taught me a lot about how to shoot things, how to do shortcuts, things like that, because she was just a dream and I just absolutely loved her.”

Bernhardi echoes the sentiments of generations of folks who grew up in Trona when he tells us, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” He elaborates, “I got together with Joe Tankersley, who now lives in San Diego, and Durwood Sigrest (who now lives in) Bakersfield. We got together and we all agreed that being raised in Trona was the greatest thing in our life. We didn’t grow up spoiled in any way. We had to make our own fun. We had to make our own swords. We had to make our own tanks out of mud. Everything we did, we had to do as we grew up and we think we became better people for it. We earned everything.”

He remembers walking to school from Magnolia Street as a little kid and working at Kelly’s Market in Pioneer Point starting when he was 13 years old until he graduated. He remembers his mom, Margaret, wishing they could return to Los Angeles, but making the most of her life in the desert. “I don’t think there’s a person in Trona or Ridgecrest that wasn’t in love with my  mother.” She always introduced herself as “Bernhardi with an H.”

Bernhardi gets nostalgic remembering some of the time-honored Homecoming traditions. “I used to love to go hiking up to the ‘T,’ and painting the ‘T.’ The bonfires were a great thing.

“Living in a small town like that, everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s friendly. And there are always kids who didn’t like you, that was their problem. We all played football, we all played basketball, we all ran track. The only thing I didn’t do was play baseball because I wasn’t very good at it.”

As previously mentioned, his family moved to Ridgecrest. “My dad was in charge of the water from Indian Wells Valley to Trona.” He tried to describe the location since he didn’t remember the address. “There used to be an alfalfa field once you got out of Ridgecrest,   past the drive-in theatre and the cement plant, and then past a big field, there’s a street that goes off to the left. We lived on that big piece of property. In our house was a well. Our house was on one side and there was a well to the left of the house, in a building. If you went up to the house, you’d never know there was a well there. There was a big reservoir-type thing out in front of the house. My dad was in charge of the water there.” He explains there was another well near their home. “All that water was pumped to Trona and he was in charge of that.”

His younger sister went to Burroughs and he drove to Trona every day. “Of course, I now know it is a short little trip but when I was in high school it was about 400 miles.”

As Bernhardi reflects on his life, he sees how one step led to another. He is grateful for his hometown and how it set him on his life journey. “I have no complaints. I have no complaints about Trona. I don’t. I loved growing up there and loved all my friends. I loved everything about it.”