Out of the depths

May 14, 2010

GIACOMO PUCCINI

I finally remembered the password to my previous blog, and I rescued a few posts that I particularly liked — narcissist that I am. This is one of them, from June 11, 2006:

I WAS SITTING the car yesterday, waiting. I ran the windows down because sun was bright and the temperature was rising. It was windy – no doubt, you noticed that. The wind blowing through the car was simultaneously chilling and cleansing. The sky was brilliant, decorated only with racing puffs of moisture. I checked the cassette to see what CDs the usual driver had stored there. “La Boheme.” I put it on and concentrated to see how much of the opening dialogue I could decipher. What can you say about Puccini? Although he once sued Al Jolson, claiming that Jolson had filched the first few chords of “Avalon” from a passage in “E Lucevan le stelle” – specifically, “O dolci baci. O languide carezze.” The court thought that whatever reprehensible things Jolson might have done in his life, this wasn’t one of them.
DOWN AND ACROSS the street was a bar. On this bright, blue, breezy day, the dark room was crowded. One man, with a belly the size of a St Bernard, came out onto the sidewalk, sat on a high stool, put his foot up on another, and lit a cigar. He carefully arranged the stools before he sat down. He does this often. Whiles away a bright spring day in the darkness of that bar and comes outside to smoke, sitting on one stool with his foot up on another. One by one, others joined him from inside the bar, including two women and a boy who looked to be about 10. He hugged one of the women in a way that suggested she was his mother. A man pulled his car into an adjoining parking lot and walked toward the gaggle of folks outside the bar. The boy ran toward him – sort of the reverse of the father and son in the parable. The man exchanged a few words with the woman, took the boy with him to the car and drove away. The woman watched them until they were in the car, and then she turned back to her friends. One by one they went back inside. The man with the belly got up and carefully put the stools back in their places. He was the last one to disappear again into the darkness, leaving behind the wind and the sun and the clouds and the sky.

Sheet music to "So Long, Oolong"

When Patricia T. O’Conner, author of popular books on English usage, visited the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC this week, the segment was introduced by a vocal of the song “Three Little Words,” which made me think of Harry Ruby. Ruby and his longtime colleague, Bert Kalmar, wrote that song in 1930 for what would now be considered an offensive movie.

The film was “Check and Double Check” — the only movie made by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll in their blackface roles as Amos Jones and Andrew H. Brown — characters they made famous with their long-running radio series, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The song didn’t get small-time treatment in the film; it was performed by Bing Crosby and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The song also lent its name to the title of the 1950 film biography of  Ruby and Kalman.

HARRY RUBY

Harry Ruby first came to my attention when  I was a kid, and he made a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas television show, “Make Room for Daddy.” Ruby sang another song he had written with Kalman, one that — some might say mercifully — is not as well known as “Three Little Words.” The 1920 tune was “So Long, Oolong. How Long Ya’ Gonna be Gone,” which had racist overtones, as did so many Tin Pan Alley songs written in that era.

The song is about a Japanese girl named Ming Toy, whose boyfriend left for what was supposed to be a short spell but turned into a long spell. Hence the chorus: So long, Oolong, how long ya’ gonna be gone?”

BARBRA STREISAND

Ruby and Kalman were prolific, and some of their work was much more sophisticated than the Oolong affair. For example, they wrote “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” which got a signature performance many years later in “The Barbra Streisand Album.” The pair also wrote “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You),” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” and the Betty Boop theme, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” among others.

As talented and productive as Ruby was as a songwriter, though, what I like best about him is that he always  wanted to be a baseball player. He tried, unsuccessfully to make it into the pros, and he never missed a chance in later life to get close to the game. His devotion to the sport is the source of one of the great baseball anecdotes.

LOU GEHRIG

Ruby seized an opportunity to appear in “Elmer the Great,” a sports movie starring the comedian Joe E. Brown, who was also a devotee of baseball. The movie was shot at the old Wrigley Field, a minor league park in Los Angeles. One of the scenes called for an player, to be portrayed by Ruby, to drop a ball hit to him in the outfield. Ruby walked off the set, insisting that he wouldn’t drop a ball on purpose for any amount of money. Later, when Brown and Ruby happened to be in the company of Lou Gehrig, Brown told that story, figuring that Ruby would be embarrassed. Gehrig, with a straight face, said it was the greatest baseball story he had ever heard