April 30, 2009
The defection of Arlen Specter, the impending confirmation of Al Franken, and the general disarray of the Republican Party all make for absorbing political drama. But for humor, the bunch in Washington have nothing on the Italians. The latest Over There is that Veronica Lario, the wife of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has publicly repudiated what she construes as her husband’s plan to trot out a team of female TV stars and a former beauty queen as candidates in the June elections in the European Union.
Lario, a former actress who knows about such things, said her sposo was exhibiting a “lack of discretion in his exercise of power which offends the credibility of all women.”
And she’s not being selfish about this. “I want it to be quite clear that my children and I are victims and not accomplices in this situation,” she said. “We have to endure it, and it makes us suffer.” (Note to the stimatissima signora, keep a close eye on those kiddies when they’re surfing the web. Some of those photos of you senza vestiti could be counterproductive while you’re protecting their moral character.)
Berlusconi’s version of this is that his party wants “to renew our political class with people who are cultivated and well prepared” — unlike the “malodorous and badly dressed people who represent certain parties in Parliament.” Not that it’s all about appearances – capisce?
According to The Times of London, this isn’t the first time the two have had – come si chiama? - ”political” disagreements in public. Two years ago, it seems, la Prima Donna wrote an open letter to Berlusconi demanding an apology “after he was overheard telling Mara Carfagna, a former topless model and variety show presenter, that if he were single he would marry her straight away,” the Times reported today. Berlusconi did apologize, but he then included Carfagna as a candidate in last year’s national elections, and, when the party had won, appointed her – no doubt to demonstrate his committment to gender equality – minister for equal opportunities.
April 29, 2009
The death of character actor Peter Dennis calls to mind the seemingly inexhaustible appeal of A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” books. Although, I often wonder how many people know Milne’s characters – which have been thoroughly exploited – without knowing them in their original context. Peter Dennis used to tour with a one-man show that consisted of him reading from the Pooh books and other works by Milne. He maintained – and the large crowds he drew seemed to confirm – that Milne’s stories weren’t just for children. That’s certainly true. Superimposed on the tales themselves is a kind of harmonic of humor and philosophy that only adults are likely to perceive. The same is true of Kenneth Graham’s “The Wind in the Willows.” It is so much true of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books that there probably is more for adults in their pages than there is for children.
Or, at least, there would be more for adults if adults are still reading these books. It’s prophetic that in the last scene of the second Pooh book, Christopher Robin tells Pooh that they can’t continue their previous relationship because “they won’t let you” – the “they” being humorless grownups. There is a similar passage in another of Graham’s books, “Dream Days,” in which a family of children go out in the dead of night and bury in the yard some toys that the adults – the narrator calls them Olympians – have packed away because the children, in the view of grownups, have outgrown them. “As we turned to go,” the narrator says, “the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and so it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a goodfellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence.”
April 28, 2009
My father had two De Sotos – a ’48 and a ’52. The ’48 is the first family car of ours that I can remember. Chrysler stopped making the DeSoto in 1961. The car was named after Hernando De Soto and many models had a nifty likeness of De Soto as a hood ornament. Perhaps school kids are still taught that De Soto discovered the Mississippi River in 1542. Actually, he led the first European party to find the Mississippi River. A few folks had already seen it, but hadn’t sent word far enough East to reach De Soto, whose achievement was put into even sharper context by Jerry Seinfeld: “Yeah, like they wouldn’t have found that anyway.”
But I digress.
Joe Engel drove a Henry J. That was a more or less compact car manufactured by Kaiser Frazer, beginning in 1950. The car was named after the head of the company, Henry J. Kaiser. The Henry J disappeared from the market in 1954. Under the terms of a federal loan Kaiser had received in 1949, specifications for the Henry J were dictated by that harbinger of efficiency, the federal government. Under those terms, the basic Henry J had to sell for no more than $1,300, including federal tax and dealer prep charges. It had to accommodate at least five adults and be able to sustain a speed of 50 miles per hour. In order to meet those standards, the Henry J was bare bones. For instance, there was no trunk. Well, there was a trunk, but to get to it, a person had to pull out the back of the rear seat. There was no access from the outside; that was to save parts. The basic model also had no glove compartment, no arm rests, no sun visor on the passenger side, and no ventilation of outside air. It wasn’t a success, especially since a driver could buy a better car from another manufacturer without spending much more. Frank Zappa once rode across country in the back seat of a Henry J, and lived to tell about it.
I heard that Joe Engel had once played for a Yankee farm club in Binghamton. That was when the Yankees had a farm system that developed so many good players that …. But I digress again.
I’m thinking about the De Soto and the Henry J because of the news about discontinuing the Pontiac line. The layoffs and the impact on ancillary businesses and industries will be murder, but a decision like this is a reminder that one thing healing the economy should not be about is preserving business models and government practices that contributed to the false prosperity that recently collapsed around our heads. Over-production and over-expansion were among the wrongheaded practices, and the goal should not be to get back to making those mistakes. I don’t have such fond memories of the Pontiac anyway. The only one I ever drove was a ’56 that my brother let me borrow for a date. The driver’s side door wouldn’t open from the inside. Every time I wanted to get out, I had to roll down the window and reach the outside door handle. Naturally, it rained that night, so I spent the date with a drenched left arm. Fortunately, I’m right handed.
April 27, 2009
April 26, 2009
Last night, after watching a two-year-old Barbra Streisand concert on CBS, we switched to American Movie Classics to catch most of “Funny Girl,” the 1968 film starring Streisand and Omar Sharif. This is still an entertaining film in its way, but it seems interminable. Like it or not, it’s a shame that this film is responsible for the impressions most people today have of Fanny Brice and “Nicky” Arnstein, because the story line might as well be about two other people entirely. The characterization of Fanny Brice – her upbringing, her personality, her love life, her relationship with Florenz Ziegfeld – none of it is true.
What’s even farther afield is the portrayal of “Nicky” Arnstein, who is presented in the film as a handsome, cultured, lovable rascal whose pride wouldn’t allow him to accept his wife’s financial help when his gambling luck ran out. In actual fact, Arnstein was a louse who shamelessly sponged off Brice for years. Brice – who had two other marriages – lived with Arnstein for six or seven years before they married, and he took full advantage of her resources and her status. He did time in Sing Sing before they married – this is not mentioned in the film – and he did 13 months in Leavenworth during their marriage after he was caught trying to transport stolen securities into Washington, D.C. Brice spent a lot of her money trying to defend him from the federal charge, and then he dropped her cold when he got out of stir. Why someone with Fanny Brice’s talent wanted to associate in any way with Arnstein I am not aware.
Apparently there were at least two reasons why the movie – and the Broadway show that inspired it – departed so far from the facts of Brice’s life. One was that the writers were trying to create good entertainment, not a documentary. The other was that Arnstein was still alive when this material was written and was known to be prepared to litigate anything derogatory said about him.
April 25, 2009
We were happy last night to find that the web site http://www.archive.org has several episodes of the television series “The Goldbergs,” a program far superior to most half-hour shows today, with allowances for the technical advances that have taken place since the ’50s. This is a warm show, humorous without being silly, with a solid dramatic basis. The show starred Gertrude Berg, who also owned it and wrote it and insisted on such things as everday situations and no laugh track. The Goldberg family consisted of Molly Goldberg; her husband, Jake, who was in the wholesale garment business; her uncle, David Romaine; and her children, Rosalie and Sammy – to whom Molly always referred as “my Rosalie” and “Samalie.” The family first appeared in a long-lived radio series and also was portrayed in a Broadway play written by Berg and in a film. The episode we watched last night was the final season in what was not a continuous run. In this 1955 show, the family had just moved to the suburbs from The Bronx – mirroring what was actually going on with a lot of urban Jewish families at the time – and Molly was having a hard time adjusting to an unfamiliar neighborhood. The dialogue in this show is priceless; Berg had a good ear for how people talk. Molly and David, in particular, use a peculiar verbal shorthand one doesn’t hear often. For instance, when Molly wants to say, “Give me a minute to write that down,” she says, “Pardon me while I jot.” We’re grateful for whoever preserved these shows.
There was a shadow over “The Goldbergs.” Philip Loeb, who was cast as Jake when the television series was on CBS, was fingered as a Communist by Lee J. Cobb and Elia Kazan in their testimony in 1950 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Berg was pressured to fire Loeb, and she refused, so CBS dropped the show. Loeb resigned and accepted a monetary settlement, but he committed suicide in 1955. Eight months after CBS dropped it, NBC picked the show up with another actor in the role.
April 24, 2009
The Associated Press is reporting on an unanticipated effect of the “housing crisis.” Mosquitoes. According to the AP, the pests are breeding like crazy in swimming pools that have been left unattended in the back yards of houses that are in foreclosure. In Phoenix, for instance, the number of unattended pools increased from around 6,000 in 2007 to 9,100 last year. If the trend continues, the number could exceed 14,000 this year. One approach to this problem is to seed the pools with “mosquito fish,” a guppy-like minnow that can thrive and reproduce in a pool while devouring the eggs and larvae of the mosquitoes.
I don’t have any sympathy for the mosquitoes. I have an allergic reaction to their stings and really can’t tolerate them. Some wags like to imply that these insects are peculiar to New Jersey, but the worst mosquito conditions I ever encountered were on Key Largo and in northern Alberta. In Alberta, we didn’t have to wait ’til sundown to be assaulted; the little buggers were active all day. We were up there in mid-summer, and we had to walk around all day with our shirts buttoned up to the neck and the sleeves pulled down over our hands. Still, mosquitoes were among the factors that drove us out of our house in Fairfield in northern New Jersey where we lived between two swamps known as the Big Piece and the Little Piece – names I’d rather not explore any further in a public forum.
April 23, 2009
I learned the other night that Arthur Laurents, who wrote the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” is a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. That’s one more notch in the belt of a school that has been serving students in Brooklyn since 1786. I learned of it while reading the playbill at the George Street Playhouse, where Arthur’s latest work, “New Year’s Eve,” is having its world premiere. Arthur is 91, which may say something about the good old Brooklyn stock.
Erasmus Hall first came to my attention in the 1960s when my childhood friend Joe Cantalupo was enrolled there. He was in the same class as Barbra Streisand, and when she first became a public figure, Joe showed me her picture in the Erasmus Hall yearbook. Streisand’s latest project is a musical program scheduled for Saturday night on CBS.
Erasmus Hall has an impressive roster of graduates. To name a few: performers Beverly Sills, Susan Hayward, Jeff Chandler, Lainie Kazan, Bernie Kopell, Stephanie Mills, Donny Most, Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Talmadge, Eli Wallach, Shirley Booth and Mae West; playwright Betty Comden; former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio; Yankees pitcher Waite Hoyt; comedian Marty Ingels; sportswriter Roger Kahn; and authors Bernard Malamud and Mickey Spillane.
Among those who just passed through were singer Neil Diamond, actor Gabe Kaplan, quirky chess champion Bobby Fischer, and Moe Howard, one of the Three Stooges.
Besides the remarkable legacy of this high school, its roster of alumni speaks to the contributions Brooklyn has made to American culture. There’s something palpably inspiring about the place, something you can feel if you get a chance to hang out there or are fortunate enough to live there.
April 22, 2009
Lenin has been wearing the army type jacket for 17 years as his mummified body was resting in the Mausoleum on Red Square . His clothes need to be changed once in three years. Most recent change of Lenin’s suit took place in 2003.
The funding is hardly enough for embalming activities, specialists of Lenin’s Tomb complain. “The state has not been assigning anything since 1992. We live at the expense of the Lenin’s Tomb Fund. Then there is this crisis going on,” an embalmer said.
Lenin’s body is dressed in expensive custom-made suits made of Swiss lustrine – the fabric, which Vladimir Lenin preferred when he was alive. The suit has a modern cut, which is still popular nowadays in men’s fashion. If specialists do not change the suit during the prophylactic works, they steam-clean and press it thoroughly: a slight speck of dirt can ruin the embalming effect.
Lenin’s mummy has been exposed to biochemical treatment this year. It was placed in the bathtub filled with the solution of herbs that produce the embalming effect. “This is a unique technology. It will help the body keep up its shape for some 100 years,” an embalmer said.
Lenin’s Tomb opened its doors for the general public again on April 18. Russia will mark the 139th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday on April 22. A visitor is first shown to the check point in the Tomb, where they will have to leave photo and video cameras, cell phones, large metal items and any types of drinks. Visitors are not allowed to either eat or drink during the viewing. Men are supposed to remove hats. It is not allowed to keep one’s hands in their pockets during the viewing either.
April 21, 2009
Former Vice President Dick Cheney thinks President Obama has sent the wrong message by traveling to Europe and Latin America and suggesting that the United States is rethinking its recent foreign policies. Cheney said last night that Obama needs to distinguish more clearly between “the good guys and the bad guys,” which I learned to do when I was 10 years old playing cops and robbers with Mike and Joe Pellegrino. That’s how we think when we’re 10.
Cheney is dismissing what we learned from Richard Nixon, that pretending that your adversaries and critics don’t exist (Cheney said the Bush administration’s policy was to “ignore” Hugo Chavez) is seldom productive. Cheney didn’t like that Obama shook hands with Chavez. Nixon shook hands with Zhou Enlai because China’s fall-out with the Soviets created an opportunity for the U.S. with respect to both countries, and, I suppose, because Henry Kissinger’s earlier snub of the Chinese premier had gained the United States nothing. The old “good guy-bad guy” model seldom works. And the idea that Cheney casts himself and his kind as the “good guys” in this world is exactly the kind of hubris that causes more trouble than it solves.