June 25, 2015
The title of this movie originates in a conversation between a junior high school teacher, Mr. Simon, and a student, Andy Nichols, who is long on caution and short on self-confidence. Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) thinks the observant and analytical Andy has potential as a writer, and Andy (Chase Ellison), who has no grasp of spelling or grammar, thinks otherwise. Mr. Simon makes him promise to tell himself every day, “I am a writer. That’s what I am.”
The story, which is narrated in retrospect by Andy ala The Wonder Years, takes place in California in 1965. Andy, despite his linguistic challenges, is a solid student who likes to keep a low profile so as not to attract scorn, or worse, from kids who think more of themselves than the facts warrant. Mr. Simon, who keeps a close eye on the dynamics among his students, is creating teams to work on a term project, and he matches Andy with a tall, awkward kid named Stanley (Alexander Walters)–“Big G” for short–who is an outcast, the butt of ridicule and abuse from those in the main stream.
Andy is keenly aware of the potential consequences for him if he spends time in Stanley’s company, but he develops a kind of frustrated fascination with Stanley’s passive demeanor in the face of the treatment he receives from his peers. But when Stanley faces up to a habitual bully–on behalf of someone else, not himself–and volunteers for a school talent show (“I am a singer. That’s what I am”) regardless of the hilarity this will inspire in some quarters, Andy learns a few things about self-awareness and dignity.
Meanwhile, a perennial rumor among students about the sexuality of Mr. Simon–a widower–migrates to a group of parents and spins out of control, compromising Simon’s position at the school and that of his principal and mentor, played by Amy Madigan.
This movie, a product of WWE Studios, was released to only about ten theaters in 2011 and made a little over $6,000 in three days. The film offers nothing new in the way of themes, so it depends on the writing and the acting, both of which make it worth watching, especially for the cost an Amazon rental rather than box office prices. The subject matter is also relevant to the current preoccupation with bullying among teenagers. Although it tends toward the sentimental, the story is realistic in the sense that it does not suggest that there was a satisfactory outcome either to Mr. Simon’s predicament or to Stanley’s isolation.
June 4, 2015
I don’t know how John Wilkes Booth thought his journey was going to end, but I’m sure Boston Corbett didn’t figure in his plans.
Booth made a sincere effort to get away with murdering Abraham Lincoln. With one of his accomplices, David Herold, he was heading south, hoping to get deep into the former Confederacy where folks might see what he did–sneaking up on a man and shooting him in the back of the head–as something more than an act of cowardice. Like many criminals, however, Booth left a trail, and federal detectives and troops tracked him down to a Virginia farm, cornered him and Herold in a barn, and set fire to the structure. Herold gave up and eventually hanged, but Booth, who was armed, stayed in the burning building. Corbett, an army sergeant, watched the assassin through an opening in the wall of the barn and–as he later said–thinking that Booth was about to fire on the soldiers outside, shot him in almost the same place that Booth’s bullet had struck Lincoln. Booth fell, paralyzed, and died after being removed to the farmhouse porch.
Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the man who killed Booth, is the subject of this engrossing book by Scott Martelle. It’s an important contribution to the history of the epoch surrounding the end of the Civil War and the murder of Lincoln; relatively little has been written about Corbett and some of what has been written has been incorrect. By Martelle’s account, Corbett was a complicated and eccentric character. He frequently worked as a hatter — specifically as a finisher — and that meant that he was exposed to a great deal of mercury. That has led to speculation that mercury poisoning led to Corbett’s peculiarities as it led to the odd behavior of many others. His lifelong vocation, however, was not as a hatter but as a Christian preacher. He was deeply religious in his own way, so much so that Martelle reports that Corbett castrated himself while still a young man in order to spare himself the inclination to sexual sin. His overriding goal was to live as a Christian — as he understood that term — every hour of every day. Whatever his foibles, he performed many acts of kindness in his pursuit of that ideal.
He served four separate hitches in the Union Army during the Civil War, and a colleague later wrote of him, “He was a very religious man, faithful at his post of duty, a good speaker, and a skillful and helpful nurse to those who were ill or in distress, and [he] knew no fear.” Still, he was once court-martialed for walking off his post, and he threatened to kill a fellow soldier in order to dissuade him from picking blackberries on the Sabbath. Corbett thought the war was justified and reportedly had no qualms about killing enemy soldiers, although he prayed for them before pulling the trigger.
At one point, Corbett was an inmate at the notorious prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. The conditions there were so heinous that they permanently damaged Corbett’s health. He did survive, however, and returned to service, and so was available when a cavalry detachment was sent to hunt down Booth and Herold.
In the wake of Booth’s death, some people regarded Corbett as a hero, and some condemned him. Although there were claims to that effect at the time, Martelle determined that there was no order to take Booth alive. Corbett was in demand as a speaker and, one imagines, as a curiosity, but in the long run he had a difficult time sustaining himself. In desperation, he moved to Kansas and tried his hand at raising livestock and selling the wool from his sheep.
Eventually, he became unglued, was confined to a asylum, escaped, and vanished from history.
If Corbett hadn’t shot Booth, Booth would have hanged anyway. Whether he would have revealed anything to assuage the doubts, which still linger, about the culpability of Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd, we can only conjecture. As it is, Mrs. Surratt hanged and Dr. Mudd was sent to the federal prison in the Dry Tortugas Islands off Key West but pardoned after he helped stem a yellow-fever epidemic among the inmates.
But Corbett did shoot Booth, and, like Jack Ruby after him, became a key if shadowy player in a great drama. Martelle, a diligent reporter and a skillful writer, has done us a service by recreating the life of this strange man.
June 3, 2015
It may not have been the worst movie we ever saw, but Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys was no bargain at the three dollars and change we paid to watch it on Amazon.
In retrospect, I might have known better from the plot summary and from the presence in the cast of Tuesday Weld, Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman, Gale Gordon, and Jack Carson. But the top of the bill consisted of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, the director was Leo McCarey, and the film was based on a novel by the same title written by Max Shulman.
Newman plays Harry Bannerman, the owner of a Manhattan PR firm. He commutes by train from an upstate suburb. He and his wife, Grace (Woodward) have two little boys. Harry feels neglected, because Grace is over-committed to civic life in the town. The Bannermans’ glamorous neighbor, Angela Hoffa (Joan Collins) also feels neglected by her husband, who is a network television executive, and she thinks Harry might be the remedy for her loneliness. Harry is close to convincing Grace to leave her committees behind long enough for the two of them to spend a romantic night or two at the St. Regis.
This plan is disrupted by the revelation that the U.S. Army has bought property just outside the town and plans to put a top-secret installation there. Grace is chosen to lead the public opposition to this plan, and she volunteers Harry to handle the public-relations aspects. Meanwhile, Angela makes a play for Harry and, although Harry has no intention of having an affair with her, she manipulates him into a compromising situation that leads to a breakup of the Bannerman household. At the same time, Harry is co-opted by the Army general (Gale Gordon) in charge of the secret project, and forced into taking the government’s side of the argument.
McCarey, a writer-director whose projects included An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, was at the end of his career when he made this film in 1958. He made only one more movie—Satan Never Sleeps in 1962.
The movie begins on a crowded northbound commuter train, and there is a fleeting hint that this is going to be a satire on suburban life. In fact, however, it is one, long, heavy-handed slapstick gag. Virtually none of it is funny, and much of it is painful. A drunk scene in which Newman and Collins pretend to laugh uncontrollably goes on much too long to be effective. The nuance of Newman swinging from a chandelier adds nothing. Weld is simply annoying as a girl who has just discovered that she has hormones, and Hickman is ludicrous—not amusing, ludicrous—as a crude leather-jacketed greaser who has his sights on her. Gordon is remarkably restrained, for him, in the role of the general, but Carson, as a boorish and inept Army captain is repulsive.
Farce works only when the audience can accept the premises on which it is built, and that isn’t possible with this film. For example, we are expected to believe that the Army could construct a missile-launching site—complete with a missile and a chimpanzee passenger—without the knowledge of the people who live nearby.
I don’t know what else three dollars and change will buy, but spend it almost anything but this movie and you’re bound to come out ahead.
May 31, 2015
Justin S. Vaughn, a political science professor at Boise State University, writing recently in The Times, raised the question of which of Barack Obama’s predecessors have been the best and the worst former presidents. It’s an uncommon way to look at the presidency, and it adds a useful context. Those of us who are only casual observers of history tend to think of the presidents strictly in terms of their time in office and evaluate them accordingly. But, as Vaughn points out, “Our greatest ex-presidents have engaged in important work, sometimes at a level that rivaled their accomplishments in the White House. Our worst ex-presidents, on the other hand, have been noteworthy for taking strong positions against the national interest and consistently undermining their successors for personal and political reasons.”
Vaughn’s choices as the best former presidents included John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover. When the Washington Post, in 2014, asked 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section to rank the presidents, Taft was 20th and Quincy Adams 22nd. Carter and Hoover did not place in the top 24. That implies, if one were to take these things literally, that the four best former presidents by Vaughn’s estimation were only middling or worse as presidents.
But Adams, one of only two presidents to be elected to public office after leaving the White House, was a leading member of the House of Representatives for almost 20 years; Carter has devoted himself to promoting human and political rights all over the world. Hoover headed the program to stave off starvation in Germany after World War II and he was appointed by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to lead commissions that successfully recommended reforms in the operations of the federal government.
Vaughn’s nominees for the worst former presidents include John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt. The first three did not distinguish themselves as president, but Roosevelt is regularly ranked among the best. He finished fourth in the 2014 survey, following Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.
I recently got a belated education regarding Taft and Theodore Roosevelt by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which is sort of a double biography. The careers of these two men — their whole careers, not only their presidencies — occurred during a critical era in American history in which the nation grappled with the tension between free enterprise and the government’s attempts to prevent large business interests from unfairly controlling whole sectors of the economy. Goodwin paints impressive portraits that convey the personal and political integrity and the spirit of public service that characterized both Taft and Roosevelt. Both men were highly distinguished before they were elected to the presidency. Taft, as Goodwin relates, was mostly interested in the law and hoped to some day serve on the United States Supreme Court. He did not aspire to be president, but accepted the role under the heavy influence of his wife and of Roosevelt, who had promised after he was elected to his second term that he would not seek a third — a promise he lived to regret.
One of the reasons Roosevelt lands in Vaughn’s list of worst former presidents is that he disapproved of Taft’s administration and, forsaking his “two and through” pledge, challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination and, failing at that, ran for president on a third-party ticket, guaranteeing the election of the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, on the other hand, realized his ambition when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the United States, a position in which he served with distinction for a decade.
Although Roosevelt was an egocentric and therefore sometimes childish character, his life and that of Taft, on the whole, were among the most exemplary among American public figures. Goodwin’s account of their careers, by bringing them to life, also brings to life an often neglected epoch in American history.
April 28, 2015
Today is the 89th birthday of Harper Lee and for a person who has shied away from public attention for the past 55 years, she has gotten plenty. The mail last week included a flyer from Barnes & Noble promoting the novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which is due to be published in July and is already on track to be a best seller. This is an unexpected development inasmuch as part of Harper Lee’s mystique has been the unanswered question as to why she never published anything after her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. Amid the instant and far-reaching success of that book and the film based on it, Nelle Harper Lee–her full name–played the role of the public person as demanded by the circumstances. But when she had had enough of that, she decided to become a private person again, avoiding attention and especially attention from the press.
Being only a casual observer of this phenomenon, I got the idea that she was a recluse. However, I recently was disabused of that idea by reading Marja Mills’ book, The Mockingbird Next Door, published last year. Marja Mills was assigned by the Chicago Tribune to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, which is Harper Lee’s hometown and the basis for the fictional Maycomb in which the novel is set. Mills was to write about the town in connection with the choice of To Kill a Mockingbird for the “One Book, One Chicago” program in which everyone in the city is encouraged to read and discuss the same book at the same time. Mills interviewed Monroeville residents, including some who knew Harper Lee and her sister, Alice; the writer also took in the character and rhythms of the town. Although she had written to the Lees to explain the purpose of her reporting, she despaired of speaking to Harper Lee and waited to the end of her stay in Monroeville to knock on the sisters’ door. She was greeted by Alice, a practicing attorney although then nearly 90, and was invited into the house. Mills inferred that the reason she wasn’t summarily turned away was that the Lee sisters approved of the book-reading program and the Tribune’s desire to give it context. Mills befriended the two sisters and some of their acquaintances and, partly because of health problems of her own, eventually rented a house next door to the Lees for a protracted period.
I learned from Mills’ book that Harper Lee was not a recluse and that, although she dodged most forms of public attention, she was out and about both in New York City, where she maintained an apartment for many years, and in Monroeville and its environs. Mills dealt gingerly with Harper and Alice Lee, realizing that if she over reached with her questions she could be cut off. The result, as one might expect, is a rather superficial work that doesn’t support its idealization of Harper Lee and doesn’t answer the perennial question as to why she never published anything else — until now. In fact, if Harper Lee is the uninteresting woman Mills described–a woman whose idea of a good time was to drive down to the lake and count the ducks–the most salient question might be how she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place. By the time Marja Mills’ book was published, Harper Lee had suffered a stroke and had moved to an assisted-living facility. There was a flurry of news stories to the effect that she claimed that Mills’ book was published without her permission, but it seems unlikely that Mills contrived the relationship she describes. More recently, there has been a lot written about a dispute over whether Harper Lee approved publication of Go Set a Watchman, something that was authorized by Tonja Carter, an attorney who now handles Harper Lee’s affairs. Alice Lee, who had looked after Harper Lee’s interests, died last year at the age of 103.
The “new” book, if it can be called that, is based on the idea that the adult Jean Marie “Scout” Finch, said to be modeled on Harper Lee herself, returns to Maycomb to visit her father, Atticus, said to be modeled on Lee’s own father, who practiced civil law in Monroeville. This novel was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but the publisher Harper Lee submitted it to suggested that she tell the story of racial prejudice, injustice, and small-town mores, through the eyes of the young Scout. There have been conflicting reports as to whether Harper Lee, who could have published this book any time in the past five or six decades, would knowingly approve of its publication now. There are contradictory reports as to whether the author is capable of giving willful consent. The State of Alabama went so far as to investigate Harper Lee’s circumstances to assure that she was not being abused or used in any way and concluded that there was no reason to intervene in her affairs.
If the atmosphere weren’t murky enough, the Monroe County Historical Museum, in the Lees’ home town, announced last week that it had lost the license to present a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, as it has for the past 26 years on Fridays and Saturdays in April and May. Neither the company that handles the licensing nor the owner of the rights to the stage version would explain that decision, although there is a history of legal dispute between Harper Lee and the museum. The decision would have had a significant economic effect on the town of about 6300 people; the president of the museum estimates that by drawing visitors to the town the play contributes as much as a million dollars a year to the economy. But on Saturday, it was reported that Harper Lee herself–the one who may or may not be competent to make such decisions–had established a non-profit organization that will have permission to produce the play. As much as I would like to read what Harper Lee wrote before her iconic novel, I have an uncomfortable feeling about all this. And given the writer’s track record for privacy and the state of her health, I don’t expect her to say anything to ease my mind.
April 21, 2015
I am not oblivious to the expressions of disdain that come over my friends’ faces when I mention that I like to watch Dancing with the Stars. But I am undeterred, because I am still fascinated watching men and women with little or no dance experience take on the rigors of learning and performing demanding routines. Even those who last only a few weeks before being eliminated usually remark that they have achieved things they never would have thought possible. And as interesting as this is with respect to able-bodied people, it rises to the level of inspiring when the dancer has a physical disability. There is no better example of that than Noah Galloway, a contestant in the current season, who lost his left arm and leg while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Sgt. Galloway, who is still in the mix as the season heads into its final weeks, has turned in some thrilling performances with his partner, professional choreographer Sharna Burgess.
This potential we human beings have for resiliency despite even catastrophic illness and injury was the theme of The Best of Men, a 2012 BBC television movie about Dr. Ludwig Guttmann who fled the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and settled in England where he was given charge of servicemen who were hospitalized with spinal injuries. Dr. Guttmann found that care of these men consisted of making them as comfortable as possible until they died. This approach exacerbated the pessimism, depression, and anger that naturally accompanied such injuries. Dr. Guttmann proposed that physical activity, not maintenance care, was what these men needed, and that it would help them to take their places in the mainstream of society. Over the objections of some of his colleagues and staff, he got the men involved in vigorous activity such as basketball and javelin throwing and even took them on jaunts to a local pub. When World War II was over, Dr. Guttmann organized national wheelchair sports competitions which eventually evolved into the Paralympic Games. The closing credits note that Dr. Guttmann, who became a British citizen, was knighted for his achievements.
This film has an excellent cast, led by the veteran actor Eddie Marsan as Dr. Guttman; Rob Brydon as Corporal Wynne Bowen, whose dark humor masks his insecurity about his ability to relate sexually to his wife; and David Proud as Jeremy, whose circumstances are complicated by a disappointed father who would consign him to a nursing home.
April 3, 2015
When a young new colleague arrived at my workplace, his name caught my attention. His first name is Sterling. He is the second person of that name that I’ve worked with, but the first instance goes back at least 35 years. Sterling is not a name I associate with men in their twenties. However, I checked on a web site that tracks the frequency of male names, and I found that Sterling has been making a comeback. Its popularity peaked in the 1890s when it ranked 388th out of 1,000 boys’ names. It went into a steady decline after that until the 1960s, when it ranked 497th. Then it had a resurgence and was 512th in the 1980s. Then there was a precipitous drop to 872nd place by 2008, and then a very sharp revival that carried it to 684th place in 2012 — the last year for which figures are available. To put these rankings in real terms, when the name Sterling was at its peak of popularity just before the turn of the 20th century, it was pinned on about 122 of every million babies born.
There were two well-known actors named Sterling. One was Sterling Hayden whose career stretched from 1941 to 1982. My new co-worker’s full name is very similar to that of the second actor, Sterling Holloway. He was named after his father, Sterling Price Holloway, who ran a grocery store in Cedartown, in northwestern Georgia, and served as mayor there in 1912. He in turn was named after Sterling Price, a lawyer and slave-holding tobacco planter in Missouri. He served as governor of the state from 1853 to 1857 and as a member of Congress. Price was a brigadier general in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War and a Confederate Army major general during the Civil War. I gather he was much more successful in the first war than in the latter. After the Civil War, he led his troops into Mexico and was rebuffed when he tried to enlist in the service of the colonial Emperor Maximillian. That episode inspired the 1969 movie “The Undefeated” which starred John Wayne and Rock Hudson. But I digress.
I first became aware of Sterling Holloway when he had a recurring role as Waldo Binney, the next-door neighbor to Chester A. Riley and his family in the television series “The Life of Riley.” Holloway had an odd voice and an unconventional appearance, and Waldo Binney was a quirky character, so he quickly became a favorite of mine. I didn’t know when he appeared in “The Life of Riley” in 1953-1956 that he had been a professional actor since 1926, when he appeared in a silent film called “The Battling Kangaroo.” He eventually performed either on screen or as a voice actor in at least 177 film and television properties as well as commercials, stage productions, radio shows, and recordings. In 1975 he shared a Grammy Award for the best recording for children, “Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too.” Working for Walt Disney Studios, he lent his high-pitched voice to Mr. Stork in “Dumbo,” Adult Flower in “Bambi,” the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland,” Kaa in “The Jungle Book,” Roquefort in “The Aristocats,” and Winnie-the-Pooh in several films, TV shows, and recordings.
Holloway’s off-beat voice lent itself very well to certain kinds of songs, and he introduced two standards — “I’ll Take Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery” — while he was appearing on Broadway in “Garrick Gaieties,” a revue by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, in 1925 and 1926. You can see Holloway’s touching performance of the song “The End of a Perfect Day” in the 1940 film “Remember the Night” by clicking HERE. The song was written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs-Bond. I understand NBC owns the rights to this film.
You can hear Holloway’s voice-over in a Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercial from the 1950s by clicking HERE.
February 27, 2015
I was happy to see that the Metropolitan Opera’s lineup for the 2015-2016 season includes Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) which has not been seen at the Met since Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, and Frieda Hempl sang it in 1916. Most opera buffs I know have never seen this opera performed, and I have seen it only once—at the late and lamented New York City Opera. This was a relatively early composition of Georges Bizet who ten years later made his indelible mark with Carmen. I’m in the “I know what I like” category of opera fans and no expert. What I read is that the music in The Pearl Fishers betrays the uncertainty of Bizet’s youth (he was 25 years old at the time), but that the libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré was so poor as to be laughable. Apparently, even they thought so.
The work was introduced in Paris with 18 performances in 1863; the public loved it, but the critics didn’t. Some of Bizet’s contemporaries in music did find some merit in the score. The Pearl Fishers wasn’t mounted again until after Bizet’s untimely death in 1875, but it eventually became a popular piece, mostly because—whatever its shortcomings—the melodies and orchestrations are infectious. In fact, the tenor and baritone have a duet in the first act that is one of the most popular pieces of operatic music. This duet is called “Au fond du temple saint”—in Italian, “Del tempio al limitar.” The story involves two men, Nadir and Zurga who reunite in Ceylon after Nadir had been absent for some time. These men had once been in love with the same woman, but had promised each other that they both would renounce her so as to preserve their own friendship. In this duet, the men speak dreamily about the beauty of this woman, but then they reaffirm the promise they had made. This is in the first act, so the reader can imagine what comes next.
I never get tired of this duet, which I had heard many times before I ever saw the opera. The beauty of the melody and the blending of the voices reach some sublime level of artistry. I once gave a recording of the Italian version of this duet to the artistic director of a major theater here in New Jersey, and he later told me that he wept when he first listened to it. That had never happened to me, but I understood.
My favorite recording of this duet is by Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe De Luca. You can hear it by clicking HERE.
You can hear Count John McCormack and the baritone Mario Sammarco sing it by clicking HERE.
A somewhat more contemporary performance, sung in the original French by Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, is HERE.
February 10, 2015
Pete Seeger said during a concert at Carnegie Hall that when he was thrashing around for a melody for “Sailing Down My Golden River” he got started by using the first eight notes of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” He wasn’t taking too much of a chance. The melody belongs to a sixteenth-century Welsh carol, “Nos Galan,” and has long since passed into the public domain. The popular Christmas song that uses the same music first appeared in 1862.
I recalled Pete’s remark the other day when some folks were getting on Sam Smith’s case for not acknowledging Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne while accepting a Grammy for “Stay With Me,” the “song of the year.” When that song was released last April, many people noticed a similarity to “I Won’t Back Down,” which was huge for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1989. Petty’s people saw Smith’s people and the parties settled out of court last October. Petty and Lynne are both to get writing credit, along with Smith and Jimmy Napes.
It seems that no one thinks Smith deliberately plagiarized Petty’s song; with so many people listening to so much music, some subliminal appropriation is almost bound to happen. Even the court thought that was the case when George Harrison’s 1971 hit “My Sweet Lord” drew immediate comparisons to Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine,” which was a hit for The Chiffons in 1963.The similarity resulted in complicated litigation that lasted from 1971 to 1998. Harrison was eventually directed to pay damages of $587,000—half of an earlier award—and he received rights to the song. As for the notion of unconscious plagiarism, there were some skeptics, including John Lennon, who told a Playboy interviewer: “He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that … He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”
My favorite incident of this kind—because of the strange juxtaposition of genres—involved the operatic composer Giacomo Puccini and the American entertainer Al Jolson. The trouble started with the 1920 publication of the popular song “(I Found My Love in) Avalon,” which was written by Al Jolson, Buddy DeSylva, and Vincent Rose. The lyric referred to the city of Avalon, which is located on Catalina Island in California. The following year, Puccini’s publishers sued Jolson and his collaborators on the grounds that the first few chords of “Avalon” were virtually identical to the first few chords of “E lucevan le stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s opera Tosca. I’m very familiar with both compositions, and I never noticed the similarity until I read about the lawsuit. But a judge with a more sensitive ear awarded Puccini $25,000 in damages and all subsequent royalties from “Avalon,” which has been recorded dozens of times.
January 25, 2015
Joe Franklin, who died yesterday, once did a live show at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, here in New Jersey, and a colleague of mine went to cover it. He came back with several anecdotes that confirmed the impression we already had of this unique personality who had been a fixture on New York radio and television for decades. For example, my colleague related that after the show a young man introduced himself to Franklin and explained that he was trying to get started in a career as a comedian. Without taking a second to think, Franklin said, “Meet me on the northwest corner of Times Square and Forty-second street at ten o’clock Monday morning. I’ll make you very happy.” And he made the young man happy by taking him to the WOR-TV studio and putting him on that day’s talk show.
When my colleague’s story had been published, he decided to go to Manhattan in person to deliver copies to Franklin. I accepted the invitation to go along. When we arrived at the studio, Franklin was in the last quarter-hour of his show. Once the broadcast was over, we approached Franklin, and my colleague introduced me and turned over the tear sheets. Franklin grinned and, without missing a beat, said, “Why don’t you guys come on the show?” Mind you, he had never seen me or, for that matter, heard of me before. “What would we talk about?” I asked him. “You can co-host the show, interview the guests.” And so we did.
Sometime after that, my colleague and I were discussing Joe Franklin with others in the newsroom, and I said, “I’ll bet that if we called him up and asked if we could come on the show again, he’d say yes.” My colleague decided to test that theory. He said he wasn’t sure Joe remembered him, but the sentence was hardly spoken before Joe blurted out a date, and we went on again.
We had no illusions about any of this. Joe wasn’t Dave Letterman. It was probably a constant challenge for him to fill his dance card. Still, he had a lot of friends and he often scored a guest with somewhat more status than we had. In fact, on one of the shows we were on, one of the guests was Charles Hamilton, who was one of the best-known handwriting experts and autograph dealers of his time. He had debunked the so-called Hitler Diaries in 1983. But even when his guests were from the middle of the pack, Joe had a genius for appearing enthusiastic. He probably made a lot of folks feel good about their careers despite evidence to the contrary.
He was a combination of pitchman, raconteur, purveyor of nostalgia, and carnival barker, and he was quintessential New York. He ought to be out there on the square in bronze, hanging out with Father Duffy and Georgie Cohan.