April 7, 2014
“Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
Mickey Rooney fiddled with his makeup kit and muttered those words again and again as though we weren’t in the room.
That was in 1973. My colleague, Andy Kudrick, and I had entered Rooney’s dressing room a few moments before and had introduced ourselves. The ritual seemed to send Rooney into a meditative trance in which we had provided the mantra: “Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
When the actor again became conscious of our presence, he said, “Sit down, but don’t ask me about Judy Garland. I don’t talk about those days. I don’t live in the past. I look forward to the future!”
Judy Garland hadn’t been on our minds, so we were comfortable with this ground rule.
Apparently, Mickey Rooney himself was not comfortable with it. We were there to talk to him about a stage production of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was cast as Bottom. Rooney, who died yesterday, had played Puck in the 1935 film version of that play.
But before we could begin the conversation, he launched into a rambling invective against unspecified demons who, in his view, had used Judy Garland for their own profit and advancement and ultimately had destroyed her. I had read about her life, so I had some idea what he was referring to. “I loved her,” he said when he had exhausted the topic, at least for then: “I really loved her.”
Andy and I were unsettled by this outburst, because we felt as if it were an intimate moment that we had no business witnessing and because, in the seconds that followed, we didn’t know if we should remain silent, speak, or quietly leave the room.
But Rooney recovered from his reverie without so much as a “Chuck and Andy,” broke into a grin, and engaged us in a lively conversation about Bottom, Puck, and things besides.
I was relieved. Although entertainment personalities were part of the raw material of my profession, I had approached this particular encounter fully conscious of what an iconic figure Rooney was. He was also a personal favorite, and that was because of his enormous range as an actor, something that helps to account for a career that lasted 88 years. He became a star through what now appear to be overblown characters in both musical comedies and dramas, but over time he showed that he had a capacity for subtlety, too, as witness his performances in the feature film Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and the television movie Bill (1982).
March 27, 2014
One aspect of my father’s life that I don’t know nearly enough about is the time he spent managing a semi-pro baseball team. He mentioned it now and then, but the only detail I have retained is that his team played a couple of games against a team managed by Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer is the only pitcher in the history of major league baseball to pitch no-hitters in two consecutive games. That was in 1938. He also pitched a no-hitter in the Texas League 14 years later.
At the time that my father told me about opposing Vander Meer, I didn’t understand the importance of semi-pro baseball. In fact, I probably didn’t know what the expression meant. In broad terms, there have historically been three categories of baseball leagues: professional, semi-professional, and amateur.The professional leagues are what we know as the major and minor leagues, including the minor leagues whose teams are not affiliated with major league teams. Among the rest, a team is considered semi-pro if even one of its players is paid.
How many were paid and how they were paid varied a lot from time to time and place to place. There were teams sponsored by companies, by local businesses, by civic and social organizations, by towns, and by private individuals. On some teams, every player was paid. On some only a handful. And in circumstances in which the competition was intense, one or more of the players on a team who were paid were ringers recruited from the minor leagues or the Negro Leagues with offers of bigger salaries than the pros were paying.
There were semi-pro teams all over the United States and Canada, and many of them could draw crowds in those days when the big leagues were concentrated in the eastern part of the country where they were out of reach for most Americans. Semi-pro ball could provide an especially welcome diversion during the epoch in which the plains were beset by both economic depression and drought. One team in particular is the subject of Tom Dunkel’s book, “Color Blind.” The team Dunkel writes about was based in Bismark, North Dakota in the 1930s; it was not a member of a league, but played against teams in nearby and far-off towns and against barnstorming teams that wandered the landscape trying to make a buck. The Bismark team, so far as we know, didn’t have an official nickname although they are often referred to as the Churchills. That’s a nod to Neil Churchill, a partner in a Bismark auto dealership, an habitual if not addicted gambler, and the owner and frequently the manager of the local nine.
Churchill was devoted to the game and he was competitive. He was constantly striking deals with pro players to give the Bismarks an edge over their opponents. Winning was such a priority with him that he didn’t care what color the players were. In fact, because the pro leagues were more than a decade away from coming to their senses, Churchill was able to attract some talented black players, including Satchel Paige. Paige should have spent his career in the majors, but because of the color line and because of his wanderlust, he’d take the field wherever he got the best offer. In 1933 and in 1935, that offer — a $400 a month and a late-model car—came from Churchill , and Paige bolted from the Negro League team in Pittsburgh and made for Bismark. That was no small achievement for Churchill. Although there is no way to establish the widely held belief that Paige was the greatest pitcher of his time, and perhaps of any time, we know enough about him to know that he was extraordinary. In ’35 he started and won four games and relieved in another when Bismark took seven straight to win the inaugural National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita.
Among the other outstanding black players Churchill recruited were outfielder Vernon “Moose” Johnson, pitcher-catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, and catcher Quincy Thomas Trouppe (nee Troupe) who, by the way, was the father of prominent poet-journalist-academic Quincy Thomas Troupe Jr.
Churchill led the only integrated organized team in that rough-and-tumble era in baseball, and he got some pushback for his trouble. And Bismark’s black players, of course, had to endure the insults and isolation that the land of “all men are created equal” imposed on many of its citizens then and for more than 30 years after. In his book, Dunkel brings to light a fragment of American history in which the relationship between the people and their national game was much more intimate than it was to become, and by evoking the names of men like Paige and Radcliffe and Trouppe, he reminds us of the crime that was committed for more than six decades against many of its finest practitioners.
March 5, 2014
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been eavesdropping on Jim Beckerman’s telephone conversation. We were colleagues in newspaper journalism; we worked in a newsroom and we were accustomed to shutting out the phone chatter going on all around us. But every once in a while, a phrase or a clause would penetrate the shield. If a person within earshot were to say, “Was it a homicide?”, for example, we would notice that.
Something like that happened one day when I was standing near Jim’s desk, but he didn’t get my attention by mentioning a homicide or a fire or an FBI raid on yet another mayor’s office in New Jersey. I don’t recall now exactly what he said. It could have been, “Never mind Norman’s skates!” or “I didn’t know oranges were bad for the heart,” or “Mr. Abernathy here has to get his commission.” I don’t know exactly what it was, but I do know that it was a line from the 1939 movie It’s A Gift.
In this film, W.C. Fields plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced, his nagging wife, Amelia, insists, “Biss-uh-NAY). Harold is a grocer in the fictional town of Wappingers Falls, New Jersey, but when he unexpectedly inherits some money he sells his corner store and buys an orange ranch in California. His wife, brilliantly played by Kathleen Howard, and his daughter, Mildred, are outraged. Only his hyperactive son, Norman, is enthusiastic about the move. Moreover, Mildred’s boyfriend, John Durston, who sold the orange grove to Harold, knows that the property is worthless but can’t convince Harold of that. After an eventful trip across country, Harold finds that John Durston was correct — at least to the extent that the land won’t support an orange grove — but Harold also learns from a nearby farmer, Mr. Abernathy, that developers need the place to complete a racetrack project. “You’re an old fool,” Amelia tells Harold after learning that the family is going to be rich, “but I can’t help loving you.”
It’s a Gift is regarded by many film critics as one of the funniest movies ever made. We didn’t know that when we became addicted to it at our house. We just knew that we thought it was funny enough to watch again and again, and eventually we began to recite the dialogue. I don’t mean that we repeated certain lines, such as “Yes, Mrs. Casterini, I would love some oatmeal” from Moonstruck or “I’m givin’ you pearls here, son,” from Scent of a Woman. No, I mean that we recited whole speeches, such as Amelia’s rant to her beleaguered husband:
“I don’t know how you expect anybody to get any sleep, hopping in and out of bed all night, tinkering around the house, waiting up for telephone calls. You have absolutely no consideration for anybody but yourself. I have to get UP in the morning, get breakfast for YOU and the children. I have no MAID, you know. Probably never shall have.”
And we recited scenes, sometimes to the consternation or confusion of others who were waiting for a table at a restaurant or riding on the same ferry in the North Atlantic. One such was a conversation between the Bissonettes’ upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Dunk (Josephine Whittell), and her daughter, Abby (Diana Lewis), who has been dispatched to buy something to settle the stomach of Baby Dunk. Harold, escaping from Amelia’s nagging, is trying to sleep on the back porch of his second-floor apartment. Mrs. Dunk is on the porch above him, and Abby is already in the back yard:
Mrs. Dunk: Don’t forget the ipecac!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: I can’t hear you, talk louder!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: All right, syrup of squill. I don’t care.
Abby: I don’t care either. I’ll get ipecac if you want me to.
Mrs. Dunk: Well, ipecac or syrup of squill. I don’t care which.
Abby: I don’t care either. You tell me what to get and I’ll get it.
Mrs. Dunk: Get whichever one you want. I don’t care. Whatever they have handy. It’s just the same to me.
Abby: It’s just the same to me, too. I hate ‘em both. Oh, where will I go? To Jones’s?
Mrs. Dunk: Use your own judgment.
Abby: No, you tell me where to go.
Harold (muttering): I’d like tell both of you where to go.
Enter Amelia, who overhears this dialogue and comes out onto the porch:
Amelia: Who were those women you were talking to?
Harold: Mrs. Dunk upstairs.
Amelia: Seems to me you’re getting pretty familiar with Mrs. Dunk — upstairs!
Harold: They were talking to me, I wasn’t talking to them.
It wasn’t until I overheard Jim’s end of a telephone conversation that I realized that my family and I weren’t the only ones who at will could perform large chunks of dialogue from It’s a Gift. Recently I have seen several strings on Facebook in which one user posted a line from the film and a stream of “friends” immediately started chiming in with others.
Why is this true? One reason may be that this script wasn’t turned out by a team of college-educated writers who were handed a premise and ordered to be funny within the limitations of the budget. This was the combined work of Fields himself, who had been seasoned by years on the stage, J.P. McEvoy, a veteran magazine writer, and Jack Cunningham, who had been writing screenplays since 1917. McEvoy, by the way, created the newspaper comic strip Dixie Dugan, which ran from 1929 to 1966.
It’s probably because of the combined experience of these men that there is scarcely a line or exchange in It’s a Gift that isn’t funny. The script is hard to match on that account, and the fact that it was assigned to a brilliantly wackadoodle cast of characters completes the package.
One of the most famous scenes from this movie involves a salesman who is pitching annuity policies. This character was played by T. Roy Barnes (pictured above in the gray fedora), who died at the age of 56 less than three years after It’s a Gift was released but achieved film immortality with his search for a potential client, Carl LaFong. The salesman’s conversation with Harold takes place during the “porch scene,” and you can see that whole sequence at THIS LINK.
March 2, 2014
I had a phone conversation with Sally Struthers a few years ago when she was touring with a production of Annie.The fact that she was touring with that show was a reflection of an experience that she and may other actors have had: she appeared in a hit television series and never quite matched that in her later career. It’s no disgrace; it has happened to many others through no fault of theirs. It’s just the nature of the television industry.
Sally Struthers certainly isn’t absent from television because she isn’t a good actress.We were reminded of that the other night when we watched a 1979 Hallmark movie, And Your Name is Jonah, in which she plays a woman whose deaf son has been misdiagnosed as mentally handicapped.When the mistake is discovered the boy is released from the institution he has been living in. But his dad, although he tries, cannot understand the boy’s needs, and the marriage is strained to the breaking point.
Sally Struthers gave a strong performance as a loving mother who will not be diverted from her mission to help her son live as a member of the community. Jonah was played with great effect by nine-year-old Jeffrey Bravin, who was the fourth generation of his family to be born deaf. He is now an administrator at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. He and his wife have two children who, I believe, are hearing. Titos Vandis is a sympathetic figure as Jonah’s grandfather, who sells produce in an open-air market.
This movie touches on sensitive issues related to deafness, including the question of whether deaf people should rely on sign language or learn to lip read and speak. I was ignorant of that issue until I read Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, which was published in 1989 by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. This movie also treats the overarching theme of the need and right of deaf people to be treated not as pitiable victims but as the whole human beings they are.
January 10, 2014
A former newspaper colleague of mine was recalling on Facebook the other day that on the occasion of Kurt Cobain’s suicide an editor approached and asked, in effect, “Is that a big story for your generation?” I know the feeling. In 1967, when I was 25 and Otis Redding was 26, Redding was killed in a plane crash and I had to convince my managing editor that that was front-page news.
The Facebook conversation reminded me of an incident that occurred about 20 years later when my wife and I and another couple were visiting Nevis, a tiny island in the Leeward group in the Caribbean. Shortly after we arrived, a Nevitian fellow we knew only as Ralph was driving us to the house we would be occupying that week. Ralph took us by surprise by asking this question: “Who were the two greatest American singers?” Considering the size of the field, and the fact that we didn’t know the consequences of answering wrong, we kept our counsel. So Ralph answered his own question: “Otis Redding and Jim Reeves.” Discretion being the better part of whaddyacallit, we feebly agreed with that assessment, but Ralph seemed to detect a lack of passion. His voice ticked up a bit in both pitch and volume: “Don’t tell anyone here that Otis Redding and Jim Reeves weren’t the greatest singers!” Having already made mental notes about the ubiquitous machetes on the island, we promised to do no such thing.
I have always enjoyed the fact that one of the songs most identified with Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness,” originated in such an unlikely milieu.That song, a favorite of mine, was written in 1932 by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry M. Woods and it was recorded many times, including by such as Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Frankie Laine, but also by Etta James, Tina Turner, and Three Dog Night. When Otis Redding wanted to record it in his own style in 1966, the publishers were reticent, but that turned out to be the best known and most enduring version. To see and hear Redding singing “Try a Little Tenderness” the day before he died click HERE. To hear a far more conventional rendition by Frank Sinatra, click HERE.
While Ralph’s question in itself took us by surprise, we were even more baffled by the reference to Jim Reeves, who I wouldn’t have expected to hold iconic status in the western Caribbean. Moreover, Reeves had died, also in a plane crash, even earlier than Redding — on July 31, 1964. I had painful memories of that, because I had been a big fan of Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, and that whole crowd. I still have lots of their vinyl and a turntable to play it on.
I don’t know how well known it is, but Reeves was very athletic and had his eye on professional baseball. He played for three years in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system before an injury to his sciatic nerve ended his career.
He could hardly have done better in baseball than he did in music; he was an international star. Once he adopted the easygoing Nashville sound, he became one of my favorites. His hits included “Bimbo,” “Welcome to My World,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Make the World Go Away.” I was always stuck on “I Love You Because,” and you can see and hear him singing it at a 1964 concert in Oslo by clicking HERE.
January 5, 2014
My best friend was up in Nantucket at one of those places where you leave things you have no further use for and other folks take them home. Lou spotted a set of CDs containing dozens of vintage recordings of operatic arias. Being my best friend, he brought them back for me. One of the singers who was well represented on the discs was the American baritone Leonard Warren, whose voice I hadn’t heard in many years.
Just seeing Warren’s name in the play list evoked for me a vivid memory of a Friday night — March 4, 1960 — when I was watching television and heard a bulletin announcing that Warren had died that night on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan while performing the role of Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. Warren, 48, collapsed after singing the aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” which is introduced with the words “Morir: tremenda cosa” — “to die: a momentous thing.”
I was 17 when Leonard Warren died, and I was already an opera fan, so learning of his passing in that abrupt fashion made a strong impression on me. I was disappointed, but the dramatic aspects of Warren’s death — with his boots on, as it were — weren’t lost on me. I have a recurring daydream of one day slumping over my keyboard, though I have had to amend it over time from a bulky steel Royal to an IBM Selectric to a variety of front-end terminals and PCs. When those who still remember my name hear how I cashed out, they’ll purse their lips, nod, and mutter, “Of course. How else would he go?”
If I ever do join Warren in that exclusive society, he won’t be the only entertainer I find among those with club-room privileges. Harry Parke, for example, could hardly have picked a more auspicious context for his final bow. Parke, who is largely forgotten, was a former newspaper man who more or less wandered into comedy by way of Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Parke developed a character he called Parkyakarkus and did a schtick in which he spoke in a garbled form of Greek. He eventually had his own radio show, and he appeared in nearly a dozen movies from 1936 to 1945. He also made a lot of money in real estate.
On November 24, 1958, Parke was appearing at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He had just finished what reportedly was a very successful riff on the honorees when he slumped over onto Milton Berle. Berle asked if there were a doctor in the house and the line — understandably in that context — got a big laugh until folks realized that Parke was really ill. Five physicians who were among the Friars worked hard to save Parke, but he died after about two hours at the age of 54. His sons include the comics Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and the versatile writer Charles Einstein.
Many years ago, I met a man who eventually would fall into this rarefied category: the comedian Dick Shawn. I met Shawn while he was appearing in a play in a regional theater, but his career for more than 35 years was principally as a stand-up comic. He did appear in some movies, including the iconic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and the Springtime for Hitler segment in The Producers, and he was a familiar figure on television as a comedian and as an actor.
On April 17, 1987, Shawn performed at the University of California at San Diego. During a routine in which he was talking about he and the audience surviving a nuclear war, he collapsed on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack. The audience thought his fall was part of the act and didn’t leave even when they were told to after someone had gone onto the stage to examine Shawn. He was 63.
If you click HERE, you can see and hear Leonard Warren, in a television performance, singing the prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.
January 3, 2014
It’s all about Bill, an unpublished poet, whose dream is to sell vegetarian lunches in a park in Austin, Texas. He buys a hot dog cart — on monthly payments — and starts whipping up the hummus and babba gannounj. He calls his business Happy Poet, but whether he is happy or not is a matter of conjecture since the central joke of this deft little 2010 comedy is the poker face on Paul Gordon, who wrote and directed the film and plays the title role.
Bill has no business sense and his enterprise gets off to a slow start, but he gets help and moral support of sorts from two underemployed hangers-on and a young woman who not only likes the vegetarian fare but takes a shine to Bill himself.
The most helpful, seemingly, is Donny (played by Jonny Mars), a charismatic hustler who has a motorcycle and an idea: he will print and distribute flyers promoting the Happy Poet all over downtown Austin and then deliver lunch orders called in to Bill’s cell phone. This might be a workable if limited business model — if it weren’t for Donny’s sideline.
Curtis, played by Chris Doubek, shows up around four and helps Bill close up — even consuming some unsold victuals, giving what turns out to be a misleading impression of indolence. And Agnes, played by Liz Fisher, is a willing customer, because she eats healthy, who finds Bill more intriguing in a way that most people can’t perceive.
Bill’s foray into the culinary trade would have ended in failure but for an unexpected reversal of fortune. Sad to say, the resolution is giddily contrived and out of character in this film. It appears to be a clumsy attempt to create a contrasting background for Gordon’s poker face, which remains unmoved by events until everything goes black. But the movie was a game effort by Gordon, and it got some positive attention when it made the rounds of festivals. The casting and the performances and the effective use of the Austin locations add up to an engaging experience.
December 19, 2013
Every year at this time, and during the run-up to Valentine’s Day, the public-radio station I listen to runs sponsorship announcements from an outfit known as Pajamagram. Their deal is that you can contact them and have pajamas delivered to someone in the same manner in which you might send flowers if flowers didn’t require a second mortgage. I’ve being hearing these seasonal announcements for years, but today for the first time the information that Pajamagram can provide footie pjs reminded me of a name I haven’t thought of in decades: Dr. Denton. When I was a kid, “Dr. Denton” was a euphemism for pajamas with feet. My brother and I wore them, and that’s what we called them. These “blanket sleepers,” as they were more formally known, were manufactured by the Dr. Denton Sleeping Garment Mills of Centreville, Michigan. The company was founded in 1865 as the Michigan Central Woolen Company and operated through the first half of the twentieth century.
It wasn’t just in our household that footed pajamas were called Dr. Dentons. In fact, the usage was so common that the brand name became the generic term for the garment, what is technically known as a “genericized trade mark.” The design was patented by Whitley Denton, an employee of Michigan Central. His patent application emphasized that the garment, including the feet but sans the soles and arms, would be made in one piece with a minimum of cutting and stitching and seams, rendering the sleepers more economical to manufacture and more comfortable for wearers. Like the classic “union suit” the sleeper had a “trap door” in back so the user could go to the bathroom without having to disrobe.
You can see Denton’s patent application, including the drawings of the original design, by clicking HERE. Denton took on the honorary doctorate, at least for purposes of the brand name, to create the impression that there was some medical wisdom behind the pajamas. Although the original manufacturer is gone, other companies have used the trade mark, including Simplicity, which for a while was selling Dr. Denton patterns to what I imagine was a limited market.
December 7, 2013
We saw the movie Philomena last night, and I was intrigued by the reference to Jane Russell. I think it’s well known by now that the movie deals with the practice of some convents and other institutions in Europe to force single young women to surrender their children for adoption and to require a large donation from American couples to take those children to the United States. The movie has to do with a particular instance in which a woman named Philomena Lee, whose child was taken from her in that manner, attempts decades later to find out what became of the boy.
In the more or less true account, Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena, who — in the company of a freelance writer — visits the convent where she was left by her father after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. The reporter notices among the photographs hanging in the reception room at the convent an autographed, provocative photo of Jane Russell. He asks a nun about the photo, and the clear implication is that Jane Russell was among the wealthy Americans who “bought” a child at this convent. That caught my interest because I met Jane Russell in 1971 when she was appearing here in New Jersey in a production of Catch Me If You Can. In fact, I had coffee with her in Manhattan and one of the topics of our conversation was adoption.
Jane Russell told me that during her first marriage, which was to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, she visited orphanages and similar institutions in five countries in Europe and was frustrated to find that it was nearly impossible for an American couple to adopt the children who were languishing there. She eventually did adopt three children, but her experience in Europe also inspired her in 1952 to found the World Adoption International Fund which eventually facilitated tens of thousands of adoptions. She became an advocate for adoptive parents and children, testifying before Congress in 1953 in favor of the Federal Orphan Adoption Bill which allowed American parents to adopt children fathered by American troops overseas. And in 1980 she lobbied for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which provides financial assistance based on the particular circumstances of foster and adoptive parents and adoptive children.
From what I have read so far, I deduce that Jane Russell did not adopt a child from the convent that is the focus of Philomena. I did read an account of an interview in which she told a reporter that after having failed to adopt a child in England, she was going to try her luck in Ireland. Whether any of her eventual adoptions amounted to “buying” babies, I cannot tell. I do notice that news stories that refer to her as one of the wealthy Americans alluded to in Philomena do not go on to report her work on behalf of adoptive parents and children.