GROUCHO MARX

GROUCHO MARX

Groucho Marx once attended an international film festival in Mexico City. One evening during the gathering, Groucho and a group of colleagues were informed by a government representative that they had been invited to meet the president of Mexico at 10 the following morning. Groucho raised his hand. “Yes, Mr. Marx?” “What assurance do we have that he will still be president at 10 o’clock tomorrow?”

This rude reflection on Mexico’s political history, coming from a professional wise-ass, did nothing to ingratiate the Marx Brothers to Mexico. It did not, however, prompt an orgy of self-hatred in which Americans wondered aloud if they had become a bit too boorish — “ugly” in the social sense of the word.

The Christian Science Monitor looked into a similar question regarding the recent peccadilloes on the part of Venus Williams, Kanye West, and Sen. Joe Williams. Can it be, the Monitor wonders, that in the age of social networking we have become social anarchists? Not to worry. The conclusion seems to be that there is nothing new about American bulls in the china shop of manners.

PRESTON BROOKS

PRESTON BROOKS

The Monitor took the occasion to call attention to U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks who, as fate would have it, was from South Carolina. Brooks took umbrage at denigrating remarks about the institution of slavery, remarks that came from U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner was a leading advocate for abolition, and a progressive guy in general, as such things were measured before the Civil War. He was kind of a stiff. He once said that he would never assume a posture, even in the privacy of his own rooms, that he would not assume in the Senate of the United States. It makes one wonder how Sumner took care of certain, umm, personal necessities and intimate pleasures. Anyway, Brooks approached Sumner in the Senate and explained his objections by beating Sumner senseless with a cane. Joe Williams’ bad taste has earned him a million in political donations. Brooks’ fans sent him canes to replace the one he had shattered on Sumner’s head.

CHARLES SUMNER

CHARLES SUMNER

With almost 300 million people in the country, it’s amusing to see how the news media try to find trends in incidents that involved one screwball, one red neck, and one short-tempered athlete. The Monitor found a couple of etiquette experts who agreed that the whole Shooting Match is going to the bow-wows, but there were also voices with a longer perspective. Public discourse in the 21st century is tame compared to the rough-and-tumble of the 17th and 18th. For one thing, we no longer answer insults with duels, as I was telling Mr. Hamilton just the other day.

The Monitor story is at the following link:

http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0928/p23s01-ussc.html


ED GAEDEL

ED GAEDEL

I once overheard an acquaintance of mine, who was 15 years old at the time, making a self-denigrating comment about her height. I told her, “If anyone had asked me to describe you, I might have said you were about five feet tall, but it would not have occurred to me to say that you were ‘short.’  You’re probably more self-conscious about your height than other people are conscious of it.” I said that from my vantage point a full foot above hers, but I’m sure the reality is that each person has his own standard – probably related to his own stature – for what height requires the adjective “short.”

Anyway, that conversation took place about three years ago, and it came to mind today when I saw a presentation on the Los Angeles Times web site regarding short people. It didn’t amount to much. It was the sort of thing newspaper companies put on their web sites in order to demonstrate something that itself has not yet been defined.

'LITTLE' JIMMY DICKENS

'LITTLE' JIMMY DICKENS

The Times said the feature had been inspired by an article in Pediatrics, a medical journal, about a study of the effect of short stature on emotional, behavioral, and social functioning. The Times explained, somewhat imprecisely: “This recent study from the journal Pediatrics, suggesting shorter 6th graders are not victimized any more than the average student, got us thinking: Aren’t lots of famous people really short?” This brief introduction was followed by photos of eight people whom the Times delicately described as “vertically challenged”: Voltaire, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Piaf, Andrew Carnegie, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pat Benatar, Wallace Shawn, and Gloria Swanson. The least tall of these was Edith Piaf at four-foot-eight; the tallest was Voltaire at five-foot-three. This information came a web site called Short Persons Support (www.shortsupport.org) which includes a list of 371 people ranging in height from Gul Mohammed at one-foot-ten and a half inches to nine persons (including Dustin Hoffman, T.E. Lawrence, and Horatio Nelson) at five-foot-five and a half inches.

ALBIE PEARSON

ALBIE PEARSON

I was surprised that I didn’t find on that list five-foot-five Albie Pearson, an outfielder who batted .270 in a nine-year major league career and went on to have a very active life in Christian ministry.

Nor did I see another major leaguer — three-foot-seven Eddie Gaedel, who walked on four pitches in his only time at bat — a promotional stunt engineered by Bill Veeck, then the owner of the St. Louis Browns.

And I missed four-foot-eleven “Little” Jimmy Dickens, an iconic figure in country music when it really was country music. I’ll let Jimmy sing us out with one of his own compositions, particularly appropriate to the topic:

A lot of folks have told me
I was pulled ‘fore I was ripe
A winter apple picked off in the fall
But even as a youngin’
I was not the bashful type
‘Cause I could yell the loudest of them all.

CHORUS
I’m little, but I’m loud
I’m poor, but I’m proud
I’m countrified and I don’t care who knows it
I’m like a banty rooster
In a big, red rooster crowd
I’m puny, short and little, but I’m loud.

MAURA TIERNEY

MAURA TIERNEY

In catching up on the news today, I learned — a few days after everyone else, it seems — that Maura Tierney has withdrawn from NBC’s projected new series “Parenthood.” The speculation is that Helen Hunt, another wonderful actress, will replace her.

NBC had postponed the debut of the series when Tierney was diagnosed with cancer. She has already had surgery, but has put aside the series in order to accommodate her further treatment.

Like everyone else, I hope she fully recovers. I almost feel selfish in my disappointment that she won’t be on a series this season. I had reserved “Parenthood” for the only series I’d watch, and that was only because Maura Tierney was in it.

While I’m thinking of myself, I’m also looking forward to her resuming her career, because I hope she does a lot more on the stage. We got a chance to see her in her two off-Broadway projects, and found her to be a natural in the theater. That magnetism that works so well for her on television is even more potent in the intimacy of an off-Broadway house.

May God bless her and make her well.

PAUL NEWMAN

PAUL NEWMAN

Prompted by Shirley Knight’s impending appearance at the George Street Playhouse, we watched “Sweet Bird of Youth,” the 1962 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 Broadway play. I have never seen the play on stage, and I have read that the tale lost some of its edge with the modifications that had to be made to satisfy the sensibilities of the early ’60s. By today’s standards it’s tame, but it dealt with some tough subject matter for the Eisenhower era.

This film has one of those casts that dazzles the mind: Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, and the wonderful Canadian actress and even more wonderful human being, Madeleine Sherwood, recreated their Broadway roles, and they were joined by the redoubtable Ed Begley Sr. Geraldine Page and Rip Torn both were nominated for Tony awards for their work in the play. Begley won an Oscar and Page and Knight were nominated for the film.

GERALDINE PAGE

GERALDINE PAGE

Newman plays Chance Wayne, who returns from Hollywood to his hometown in Florida, almost literally dragging along with him a legendary movie star, Alexandra Del Lago (Page), who has sunk into a drug-and-alcohol-induced stupor after what she perceives as the failure of her latest film. On the surface, Chance Wayne is her driver and spear carrier. In reality, he is exploiting her — in every possible way — in the hope that she will give him what has been an elusive “big break” in the movies.

Alexandra travels to Florida with Chance because she has gone underground to avoid the fallout from what she has adjudged a box-office flop. Chance has another goal — to reunite with Heavenly Finley, the love of his life whose father, Tom “Boss” Finley (Begley), is a moralizing, corrupt, and ruthless political kingpin who doesn’t want Chance near his daughter.

ED BEGLEY Sr.

ED BEGLEY Sr.

Finley’s son, Tom Jr., who doesn’t have his father’s cunning but outdoes him in brutality, is played by Rip Torn.

This film, which in 1961 was off limits to audiences under 18, may have been sanded down from Williams’ original version, but it far outstrips the embarrassing 1989 television remake with Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon as Alexandra and Chance and Rip Torn as “Boss” Finley. Even though its techniques are dated, the movie can play with your emotions as you try to sort out your feelings about the actress and her gigolo — both of whom are infuriating yet sympathetic — and frazzle your nerves as Chance keeps antagonizing the volatile and dangerous “Boss.” The players in this film aren’t stars first and foremost; they’re actors, doing their work as well as it can be done.

PAUL NEWMAN in a scene from "Sweet Bird of Youth."

PAUL NEWMAN in a scene from "Sweet Bird of Youth."

MACKENZIE PHILLIPS

MACKENZIE PHILLIPS

About 28 or 29 years ago, I went up to what was then Fair Oaks Hospital to visit Mackenzie Phillips when she and her father, John Phillips, and his wife, Genevieve Waite, had completed a chemical therapy program to wean them off of illegal drugs. She looked healthy; she was upbeat. She was frank about the fact that she had grown up in an environment riddled with narcotics, and she talked in some detail about the condition her dad was in before the two of them checked in at Fair Oaks. I asked her if she knew why someone like her, who knew intellectually and had seen in the the flesh the consequences of drug abuse would take a chance on addiction herself. She said she didn’t know, and I believe her; plenty of people who didn’t spend their time with John Phillips, and who knew where drugs could lead them, are unable to answer the same question.

JOHN PHILLIPS

JOHN PHILLIPS

About 20 years ago, we bumped into Mackenzie at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. The intervening years had included relapse and recovery, and she was at the hotel appearing with “The Mamas and the Papas” which her dad had reconstituted with Mackenzie and Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane singing the parts originally assigned to Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass Elliot. Again, Mackenzie looked terrific and had a positive outlook that wasn’t dimmed any by the new baby she was doting over at the time. We went to see the act and thought it was sufficiently evocative of the original to have a future.

Since then, I have talked to Mackenzie on the telephone a couple of times. Always I seemed to find her with her star a-rising and always I have hoped, for her, that it would last.

I have made a point of hearing as little as possible about the news Mackenzie is making this week. I’m a sap. I choose to hope, and pray, that this episode is something she needs to kick the demons away for good.

ARTHUR LAURENTS

ARTHUR LAURENTS

I know what I want to be when I grow up — Arthur Laurents. I bumped into Arthur today at the George Street Playhouse where his latest play, “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” will have its premiere next month. I was at the playhouse to interview Shirley Knight, who is rehearsing for this  production.

I told Arthur I just finished reading his recent book “Mainly on Directing,” and he said, “I’m just starting to write a new book. It’s called ‘The Rest of the Story,’ and the first line is: ‘You have to know who is telling the story.’ ” The title is a reference to the book he published in 2001, “Original Story.” The first line, I’m sure, is a reference to the fact that Arthur Laurents regards himself as a work in progress, a person always evolving, always acquiring new insights, new ways to look at the theater, at life, and especially at love.

GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE

GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE

The thing is, Arthur is 92 years old. He just directed the Broadway Revival of “West Side Story” — for which he wrote the book — he has had a new play at George Street for at least the last three years in a row, he is writing a new book when the ink isn’t dry on the old one. And he’s 92 years old.

That’s what I want to be when I grow up.

When I’m 92. Still working, still learning, still thinking — as Pablo Casals said in his 90s — that “I’m making progress.”

ARTHUR LAURENTS and the CAST OF 'WEST SIDE STORY'

ARTHUR LAURENTS and the cast of 'WEST SIDE STORY'

Overreaching

September 21, 2009

Gov. DAVID PATERSON

Gov. DAVID PATERSON

The Obama administration’s meddling in New York state politics is another example of tinkering with the system for expediency’s sake. Michael Bloomberg ignored the preference twice expressed by city voters and managed to get the term limit set aside and Democrats — with some pushing from the White House — are trying to change the law in Massachusetts to allow the governor to appoint a place-keeper for Ted Kennedy’s vacant chair. Now, according to the New York Times, the president’s people are urging the unpopular David Paterson not to run for reelection as governor of New York, apparently on the theory that his presence in the race would be bad for Democratic congressional candidates. How it would be worse than Jon Corzine’s presence on the New Jersey ticket, I am not aware.

There is a process for choosing candidates for governor, and the process belongs to the state parties and the voters, not to the White House. This kind of hubris doesn’t help gain support for national policy initiatives,

P1000051One thing a traveler can’t help noticing in Iceland is the sheep. They are everywhere.

When Chris and I first visited there, we were fascinated, amused, and sometimes frustrated by this phenomenon. Except within the confines of cities and towns, we encountered sheep everywhere we went, usually in groups of two or three, as in the clotch at the left which I photographed last year, on our second visit.

When I say the sheep were everywhere, I mean everywhere. We often were driving in areas where there were no structures much less human beings within eyeshot, but there were sheep. We drove over an area covered with lava — black as far as the eye could see — but there were sheep.

niceland.is

niceland.is

Often the sheep would be standing in the middle of the road. They have an attitude, these sheep. As you approach them in your car, they pretend — by mutual consent — that they don’t notice you. If you sound the horn, they look your way as though to say, “Oh. I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” Even then — as though to demonstrate who belongs in this countryside and who does not — they hesitate before moving off the pavement. This provides you with small satisfaction because in two or three miles your path will be blocked again. By sheep.

We noticed that these sheep were marked, so it seemed to us strange that they were wandering, literally, all over the country. So we did what any wise traveler does: We asked a waitress, “What’s up with the sheep?”

johnnyjet.com

johnnyjet.com

She explained that the sheep are driven off Icelandic farms in the spring so that they don’t graze in pastures meant for growing and harvesting hay. In September — right now, as a matter of fact — much of the population gets on horseback and rounds up these sheep which, by now, are — well — everywhere. This is done in several waves, and the sheep are identified and either returned to their farms or sent to a slaughterhouse. It’s a case, for the sheep, of who shall live and who shall die.

In the largest roundup, which occurs at Audkúlurétt in the northwest, between 12,000 and 15,000 sheep are corralled.

What’s Icelandic for “Yippie Yi Yo Kiyay”?

THIS YEAR'S ROUNDUP BEGAN IN LATE AUGUST WITH ABOUT 2,000 SHEEP NEAR LAKE MYVATN IN NORTHEAST ICELAND

THIS YEAR'S ROUNDUP BEGAN IN LATE AUGUST WITH ABOUT 2,000 SHEEP NEAR LAKE MYVATN IN NORTHEAST ICELAND

GARRISON KEILLOR

GARRISON KEILLOR

See, my problem is that I want to be Garrison Keillor. I don’t mean that I want to live in Minnesota, but that I want to have a live radio show and I want to be able to tell stories the way he does.

I had a taste of live radio when I was in college. Over the course of four years and another couple of years after I got out of grad school, I did shows on the Seton Hall University radio station, which had an audience extending at least six blocks in all directions. To me, it was a mystical experience, sitting alone at night in a little studio, talking to a mike as though it were a living thing and hoping that somewhere out there in the dark someone, anyone, was more absorbed in my prattle than the engineer dozing in the glow of the transmitter lights on the other side of the double window. Wondering when the call would come, the husky female voice with its streaks of seduction and madness: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.”

GARRISON KEILLOR

GARRISON KEILLOR

But I digress. The only person I can recall who could tell stories as well as Keillor was Jean Shepherd. I listen to Keillor’s monologues over and over, trying to divine the particular quality that makes his tales so compelling. But, of course, I can do no such thing; the stories are as good as they are because they come from him. So my only option is to be him. That doesn’t seem like so much to ask for if I can’t be Clint Eastwood, sitting in that lonely studio, waiting for the call I know will come and the sultry, slightly dangerous voice I know I will hear ….

Sorry. Lost my head. Well, Garrison Keillor and I do have a couple of things in common. He recently suffered what has been described as a minor stroke — that’s not what we have in common — but he quickly recovered and went back to work, apparently intending to concede nothing to his advancing years. He and I are both 67.

GARRISON KEILLOR

GARRISON KEILLOR

Keillor told an Associated Press reporter that some of his friends have been encouraging him to retire.

“People are always ready to give you advice about what you should do,” Keillor told the AP writer, “and you should take it easy and so on. But taking it easy makes me restless and unhappy. “I’m not a collector of things. I don’t have hobbies … so work is what I do.”

He and I are of one mind on that point. When I was involuntarily a man of leisure, I could feel the seams coming apart. Now that I’m overbooked again, I feel like a man of 60.

The AP writer, incidentally, no doubt wanting to assure readers that the stroke had no lasting effect on Keillor, delicately slipped in to the copy the observation that Keillor’s speech showed no sign of slurring. And who says there’s no real journalism anymore?

The AP story, from the web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, is at this link:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2009/09/16/entertainment/e111312D72.DTL&type=entertainment

PETER, MARY, and PAUL

PETER, MARY, and PAUL

Behind the stage at the Walpack Inn was a white mobile home, and sitting at the kitchen table, smoking, was a legend — to everyone but herself. I had taken Mary Travers at her word. She had said, “If you come to the concert, come around afterward and see us.” So when the music was over we and the kids trooped around to where she had said she’d be. I wondered as I raised my hand to knock whether she had meant that invitation literally. I hesitated long enough for Paul Stookey to open the door on his way out. He didn’t ask who we were or what we wanted. He held the door open for us and cheerfully said, “Go on in.” And we went in and sat with Mary in the blue haze at the kitchen table as if we belonged there.

MARY TRAVERS

MARY TRAVERS

I had the good luck to talk to Mary in person and on the telephone about a half dozen times. She was an important singer — an important public personality — and she and her partners had a right to be proud of their achievements as musicians and as citizens. Mary may have been proud but, in my experience, she had no ego. Her ability to speak so eloquently to the problems of the most humble of people no doubt could be traced to the fact that she did not see herself as anyone’s better.

I heard someone recently commenting that Mary “can’t sing anymore” — a reference to the dark and husky voice that evolved from years of use and abuse. I have to wonder if someone making that observation ever understood what Mary was singing for. Her voice always had a natural melancholy — listen to her recording of “The Green Fields of France” —  and that quality became more pronounced with age. Maybe it was an unconscious expression of a growing realization that time was running out on dreams of social and political justice.

There has been a lot of high-blown rhetoric in response to the recent deaths of major national figures. Nothing could be less appropriate this time.