U1078577The man mixing it up with Carl Malden in this  photo is George Mathews, whose face was as familiar as the next door neighbor for almost three decades. Mathews appeared in nearly 60 properties – mostly television, including many of the major series. He made himself immortal, in a way, when he played Harvey, the tough guy Ralph Kramden – with a lot of help from Ed Norton – challenges to a fight after a poolroom argument in “The Honeymooners.” I don’t know how much stage experience he had, but in this photo he is appearing with Paul Newman, Malden, Patricia Peardon, and George Grizzard in a 1951 Broadway production of “The Desperate Hours.” We saw George Mathews last night when we watched “Pat and Mike,” one of the seven movies costarring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Mathews, as always, played a heavy – one of a trio of thugs trying to pressure Hepburn, through Tracy, to throw a golf tournament. George Cukor had the three thugs play it for laughs, and Mathews contributed at least his share. He appeared on “Death Valley Days,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Untouchables,” among many other programs, and his movies included “The Man with the Golden Arm.” Mathews, who died in 1984, was the quintessential actor that everyone recognizes but no one can name. On the Internet, at least, it seems impossible to find out anything about the man beyond the dates and places of his birth and death and the list of his television and movie appearances. In death as in life, he is The Unknown.


bessie-smithAs we were leaving the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Pat and I were discussing whether we would find any video of Bessie Smith on the Internet. A man who had come out before us overheard us and volunteered that there is a clip on YouTube of Bessie Smith singing “St. Louis Blues” in the 1925 film by the same name. Although it seems to have been a critical success, this film is all but lost. The YouTube clip runs a little more than nine minutes, and it gives a sense of the power of Bessie Smith’s performance. Of course, there is a lot of audio available from her recording career.

We were at the George Street Playhouse to see “The Devil’s Music,” a one-act musical show that recounts the life of a woman who was a major star in the 1920s and ’30s but is largely forgotten  today. Miche Braden plays the singer and does justice the part. An interesting thing about Bessie Smith is that she led a life of drink and sex and violence that most of us would not condone in the abstract, but it was that very mode of life that fed the blues that she sang. She paid heavily for her recklessness, paid in ways that broke her heart, but somehow she tore out of her sad life a body of  work that speaks for many souls who had the blues, too, but neither the voice nor the spirit to make their misery heard and make the rest of us think twice about dismissing them.