STEPHANIE ZIMBALIST

Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by instances in which multiple members of a family have worked in the same or similar fields. For example, the other day I heard an interview on WNYC radio with Louis Rozzo, a fish dealer who was making an argument for taking the trouble to buy fresh anchovies and sardines and other fish that are typically packed in oil and canned. The conversation was interesting enough, but a detail that resonated with me was that Rozzo is the fourth generation owner of F. Rozzo and Sons. I would have liked to hear more about that.

In a similar way, I like reading about people like the Delahanty brothers – five of them played major league baseball – or the Harrisons, who included a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Virginia legislator and attorney general, two presidents of the United States, and two members of Congress.  The five Marx Brothers have always interested me less for their comedy than for their family history, which started with their maternal uncle, Al (Schoenberg) Shean, who was a famous vaudevillian.

STEPHANIE ZIMBALIST

This topic has been on my mind because I had an opportunity recently to talk with actress Stephanie Zimbalist, who is soon to appear in a production of Frank Gilroy’s play “The Subject Was Roses” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. On her own, Stephanie Zimbalist has built a substantial resume of performances on television and on the stage. However, her family’s background in the performing arts goes back at least as far as her great-grandfather Aron Zimbalist, who was an orchestral conductor in Russia in the 19th century. Her grandparents were both outstanding classical performers whom I have admired since I was very young. Her grandfather was Efrem Zimbalist, a concert violinist whose name can be mentioned in the same sentence with Jascha Heifitz and Fritz Kreisler. Efrem Zimbalist was married to Alma Gluck (nee Reba Feinsohn), who was one of the most popular female vocalists of the early 20th century.  My family had 78 rpm recordings by both of these artists — along with others — and, long before I understood their significance, I listened to them over and over again on our wind-up Victrola.

ALMA GLUCK

Alma Gluck, who was born in Romania, was a soprano who was on the roster at the Metropolitan Opera Company. She also had a substantial concert career and was one of the first serious artists to make phonograph records, and that greatly contributed to her fame. She made more than 170 recordings for Victor between 1911 and 1924, choosing songs from a wide variety of genres. She and her husband made at least 32 recordings together, and he had a long list of recordings of his own. Zimbalist was also a composer and the director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Efrem Zimbalist and Alma Gluck were the parents of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. – Stephanie’s father – who is a popular film and television actor whose starring roles included the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI.

 

Stephanie Zimbalist justifably has a great deal of pride in this heritage. I found that she enjoys talking about Alma Gluck – who died before Stephanie was born – and is well schooled in her grandmother’s career. Stephanie told me — only half joking, I suppose — that she didn’t pursue a singing career because she didn’t want to weather comparisons with her grandmother. Still, Stephanie Zimbalist has a trained voice and has given some performances. Speaking about her grandmother, she told me, “Daddy said she would have loved me, but I don’t know. She was tough task master on him. She wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer, and he wanted to be a dancer or a gymnast.” But the musical gene apparently didn’t skip a generation with the actor, Stephanie said. “He says he knows very little about music, but he knows an awful lot. He studied orchestration at Curtis, and he’s written a lot of things; he’s written many many pieces of music.”

ALMA GLUCK and EFREM ZIMBALIST

Stephanie Zimbalist’s mother, the former Stephanie Spaulding, died in 2007. Stephanie cares for her mom’s pet, an elegant long-hair dachshund named Scampi, who participated in our interview. I asked Stephanie what would be next in her career after her run at George Street, and she said, “Nothing. I don’t have a career. I just have bumps in the road. That’s probably why I’m doing good work these days, if I am doing good work. Nothing’s an agenda. I don’t do anything to see where it will take me. I just do it for the work. On my plate in my life right now is this sweet little thing” — a reference to Scampi, who was on Stephanie’s lap. “And then, my Dad is 92, God bless him, and doing very well, but I spend quite a bit of time with him, just to be there.”

A publicity shot for “77 Sunset Strip”: Roger Smith, left, as private detective Jeff Spencer; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., right, as Spencer’s colleague, “Stu” Miller; and Edd Burns as their protege, Gerald “Kookie” Kookson — the inspiration for the 1959 pop song “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.”


NADINE LABAKI

When we visited Lebanon toward the end of the Clinton administration, the country was still occupied by the Syrian army. The occupation was a nuisance, because we frequently came across checkpoints where the cousin who was driving us around had to explain himself — or ourselves — to these interlopers. To bog things down a little more, the Lebanese army had its own checkpoints. Besides being an obstruction, the presence of the Syrians served as a constant reminder of the tense atmosphere that has too often prevailed in the country.

My maternal grandparents were born in Lebanon, and our principal reason for going there was to visit members of my grandmother’s family. Thanks to my cousin’s generosity with his time, we also saw a good deal of the antiquity and natural beauty Lebanon has to offer. Coming from a country that hadn’t had a war on its soil in well over a century, we couldn’t help being struck by the contrast between the competing armies with their automatic weapons and the Lebanese people going about their everyday lives.

NADINE LABAKI

That came to mind when we watched “Caramel,” a film made in Beirut, co-written and directed by Nadine Labaki, who also plays the central character, Layale. The story is about six women, three of whom work in a beauty salon, which is the axis around which the action revolves. The title, incidentally, refers to a sweet concoction used in the salon for hair removal; it actually figures in the plot in two instances.

The characters in the story are Layale, who is in a self-destructive relationship with a married man; Nisrine (Yasmine al Masri), who is about to be married to a man who doesn’t know of her previous sexual experiences; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), who is attracted to other women – including Siham (Fateh Safa), a stunning customer at the salon; Jamale (Giselle Aouad), a frequent client at the salon, an aspiring actress who is having trouble coping with age; and Rose (Sihame Haddad), an elderly seamstress who cares for an unbalanced older sister, Lili, (Aziza Semaan), and is conflicted when she gets what apparently is her only chance at romance.

SIHAME HADDAD

Labake — whose eyes, by the way, are hypnotic — tells the stories of these women with a loving, delicate, sometimes even dreamy touch. The blend of drama and comedy is just right. The performances, without exception, are credible and affecting. All of the characters, including the distracted Lili, are endearing and sympathetic.

The choice of settings adds to the quality of this film, because Labake keeps the camera’s eye on the story, and doesn’t go exploring the city for its attractive waterfront or its war-scarred ruins, or its slums. In fact, there are no allusions to the recent history of Beirut; this story is about the interior lives of these women.

YASRINE AL MASRI

An interesting cultural aspect of this story is that Nisrine is the only Muslim in the circle of friends; the other women are Christians. Nisrine’s family is very traditional — and, presumably, so is her fiancée, which is why — with the support and encouragement of her friends, she takes a drastic step to deceive her groom about her virginity.

The dialog in this film is in Arabic, and we watched it with English subtitles. It’s fun to listen to the actual dialog, because — as we noted when we visited there — the Lebanese mix French and English into their Arabic. This movie was well received when it appeared in 2007, and the attention was well deserved.

A policeman questions Lili, who collects paper -- including parking tickets -- in the streets of Beirut.

Sign at a tavern in Portland, Ore.

One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.

Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”

Opening title of the television series "The Life of Riley"

As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.

That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.

Rosemary DeCamp and Jackie Gleason

The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”

Of  course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.

Lugene Sanders

Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.

Bill Bendix on the cover of a Dell comic based on the series.

The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.

While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure  for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.

Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon"

“Love in the Afternoon,” a 1957 movie directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, is entertaining in several ways, but it is also seriously flawed. The principal flaw was in the casting, no matter how good the names Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier, may sound when listed in the same credits.

Audrey Hepburn

The film, which is said to have been Wilder’s paean to director Ernst Lubitsch, is a subtle, witty, lightly slapstick romantic comedy concerning a Parisian private detective, his cellist daughter, and an international playboy with whom they both become involved. Detective Claude Chavasse (Chevalier) is engaged by Monsieur X, a cuckolded husband played by John McGiver — later the accommodating jewelry salesman in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — who wants to know who his wife has been seeing. Chavasse determines that the guilty party is millionaire Frank Flannagan (Cooper) a globe-hopping businessman with at least a girl in every port. Chavasse’s daughter, Ariane (Hepburn), who studies cello at a Paris conservatory, is fascinated by her father’s profession and questions him incessantly about his clients and, in the face of his reticence, snoops in his files. After she overhears Chavasse’s client declare that he will go to the Hotel Ritz and shoot Flannagan, she feels compelled to warn the target — whose photos in the files have beguiled her.

John McGiver

Ariane, after getting no satisfaction from the police, goes to the hotel herself and makes her way into Flannagan’s room just in time to allow the paramour to escape so that the husband discovers Flannagan with Ariane instead. This encounter, of course, is the beginning of a series of meetings between Flannagan and Ariane, but she refuses to give him any information about her identity, and he takes to calling her “thin girl.” As is his habit, Flannagan eventually leaves Paris for other resorts, and it appears that the “affair” — to all appearances a chaste one — is over. But about a year later, he is back in Paris and the two accidentally meet at an opera house and the liaison, such as it is, continues, with Ariane filling Flannagan with fibs about the many men in her life — many of them based on things she has read in her father’s case files. Flannagan doesn’t know whether to believe these stories or not; that, plus the lack of any information about the girl, increasingly agitates him.

Maurice Chevalier and Audrey Hepburn

This being a movie, Flannagan and Monsieur X happen to meet in a Turkish bath and Monsieur X — still clueless about his wife’s dalliance — discerns the broad outlines of what is troubling Flannagan and recommends that  he engage Chavasse to find out the truth about the “thin girl.” Flannagan does so, and Chavasse quickly figures out that the girl Flannagan is talking about is Ariane. Since Chavasse, through his investigations,  is intimately acquainted with Flannagan’s track record with women — kiss them and run — he reveals the truth to Flannagan and urges the tycoon to leave Ariane in peace. Flannagan sets out to do that, but at the last moment, as his train is already beginning to roll out of the Paris station, he lifts the tearful Ariane on board and the two ride off in each other’s arms.

There are a couple of leaps in logic in this plot. One is that Chavasse had reported that Monsieur X’s wife was having an affair with Flannagan, but Ariane’s intervention made it appear that Chavasse had been wrong. That raises the question of why Monsieur X would recommend Chavasse as an outstanding detective. Another is that at the end of the film, after Chavasse has tried so hard to convince Flannagan to leave Ariane alone, the old man stands on the train platform with a satisfied smile on his face as his daughter rides off with the playboy.

Billy Wilder

Hepburn, Chevalier, and McGiver are delightful in this film. The big flaw — which was pointed out by critics at the time — was that Gary Cooper, who was 55, was much too old to be a credible partner for Hepburn, who was 28. Cary Grant, 53 at the time, had turned down the role because of the age difference. To complicate matters, Cooper — a friend of Wilder’s — was not in good health. He looked older than he was, and he looked drawn and tired, and that was exacerbated by the fact that the film was in black and white.

Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in the closing scene.

An interesting sidelight is that this film had two endings — one for American theaters and one for European. In the European version, which was released under the title “Ariane,” the audience was left to use its imagination about what took place between Flannagan and Ariane after the train left the station and closing titles started rolling.

In the American version, however, because extramarital sex was at least publicly frowned upon in the mid-1950s, the film closed with a voice-over in which Chevalier explains that Flannagan and Ariane got married and were “serving a life sentence in Manhattan.” The film was a failure in the U.S., but it was a hit in Europe.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941

“I hate it,” Charlie Brown once said, “when there are two sides to a story.” Actually, Charlie, there are at least two sides to every story, and none more certainly than the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most complicated First Couple in American history. The sorting out of their relationship still goes on 65 years after FDR’s death, most recently in Hazel Rowley’s book “Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.”

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT in1898

This is not the story of how the insatiable FDR cheated on his wife, leaving the pair in a marriage maintained only for the sake of appearances and finances. It’s a lot more complicated and — in Rowley’s view — a lot more important than that. It is well established by now that in 1918 Eleanor discovered love letters written by her secretary, Lucy Mercer, to FDR, and that the incident had a permanent impact on the marriage. It is also known that FDR promised never to see Lucy Mercer again and that he broke that promise — in fact, that Lucy was among those who were with him in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945, when he suffered the cerebral stroke that resulted in his death. It is also known that Franklin Roosevelt was an incurable flirt, and that he highly valued his relationships with women who were both charming in their own right and — this was essential — who were charmed by him. Rowley explains that this tendency often irritated Eleanor, but that she came to understand and accept the importance of certain women in her husband’s life.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT

But the author explains that there was much more to the story than that. Physical intimacy disappeared from the Roosevelts’ marriage, but Rowley writes that Eleanor, who had six children in relatively rapid succession, thought of her sexual relations as a necessary but unwelcome burden. But Eleanor, like most human beings, had needs of her own with respect to affection and intimacy. She fulfilled these needs in more than one way, with both women and men, though how intimate these relationships were is largely a matter of conjecture. Rowley recounts that Franklin encouraged his wife’s friendship with a lesbian couple to the point of helping the three of them build a house and a workshop on property he owned near his mother’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

LORENA HICKOK

Eleanor also had an intense tie to Lorena Hickok, a pioneering Associated Press reporter who became so close to the Roosevelts that she herself decided she could no longer report on them objectively. By the time FDR was elected president for the first time, in 1932, Rowley writes, “Everyone in the political press corps knew that Lorena Hickok was a lesbian. By now most of the reporters had figured out that she was passionately in love with Eleanor and that her feelings appeared to be reciprocated.”

Whatever relationships Franklin and Eleanor forged outside their marriage, Rowley maintains, the two of them continued to love and support each other, and they formed a partnership whose vigor helped carry the nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War. At times they seemed to constitute a single person, as Eleanor traveled to places at home and abroad that were beyond her paralyzed husband’s capacity. Although Eleanor’s activism occasionally embarrassed the politically sensitive Franklin, they shared many of the same ideals of social justice.

LOUIS HOWE and FDR

In the process of describing the marriage of these two gigantic historical figures, Rowley draws portraits of many of the interesting characters in the Roosevelt clan and entourage — a crowd that FDR liked to think of as a big, happy family. Not the least of the players was Louis Howe, a disheveled ex-journalist who was one of FDR’s closest advisers for most of his political career, the tireless battery behind the campaigns that made Roosevelt governor of New York and president of the United States. Some of the people around Roosevelt — including his patrician mother, Sara — disapproved of this little man with cigarette ashes on his rumpled clothing, but Eleanor wasn’t one of them, and Rowley describes how it was Howe who repeatedly encouraged Eleanor to make herself heard on the issues that were important to her — a visionary attitude in that male-dominated era.

 

PAUL WEILAND

 

Many months ago, I heard film director Paul Weiland interviewed on National Public Radio, describing what sounded like an interesting film that had been inspired by the catastrophes that befell Weiland’s bar mitzvah. The title of the film was “Sixty Six,” and I immediately put it on my Netflix queue, but it was flagged as unavailable until very recently. It was worth the wait.

The 2006 British film concerns Bernie Rubens (Gregg Sulkin), a nebish of a kid — Weiland’s alter ego — who is a misfit even within his own family. As Bernie sees it, the year 1966 will give him the opportunity to improve his image. He is preparing to become bar mitzvah, and besides believing the rhetoric about becoming a “man,” he envisions a reception that will be so grand as to eclipse the expansive party that was thrown for his abusive older brother Alvie (played by Ben Newton.)

GREGG SULKIN

Bernie’s inability to fit in either at home or out among his peers seems to escape the notice of his pretty mother, Esther (Helena Bonham Carter), and his eccentric father, Manny (Eddie Marsan). Manny co-owns a successful grocery store with his brother Jimmy(Peter Serafinowicz). When a new supermarket opens next to their store, Manny refuses to entertain an offer to buy the Ruben store, and this is indicative of a rigidity that affects everything he does and his personal relationships.

As Bernie continues with his grandiose plans for his bar mitzvah party, the family’s financial fortunes continue to decline until the boy has to swallow the reality that his reception is going to be modest event indeed. As though that weren’t disappointment enough, he is terrified that Britain’s soccer team will qualify for the World Cup Final, which is scheduled to be played in London on the same date.

EDDIE MARSAN

The conventional wisdom is that Britain’s footballers are unlikely to survive the competition long enough to play for the championship, but the conventional wisdom is wrong and Brits everywhere are transfixed as their team faces Germany on the day on which Bernie had imagined himself as the axis on which the whole universe would be turning.

In one British review I read, the critic wrote that this film was reminiscent of Neil Simon at his best. I think that’s an apt comparison. Although there is a great deal of comedy in “Sixty Six,” the truth in the story, which Weiland wrote, is sometimes almost painful to watch — and I find that in some of Simon’s work. And yet, also as in Simon’s best work, the truth includes self discovery and redemption, and not only for Bernie.

RICHARD KATZ

This movie has a talented ensemble. Marsan’s performance in what for the most part is a very quiet role is at times disturbing as he portrays the humorless Manny’s odd behavior  — driving dangerously below the speed limit, checking the car door a half dozen times to make sure it’s locked, hoarding his money in the attic and, most important, closing his mind to the painful period his younger son is living through. Gregg Sulkin is both funny and moving as the heartbroken and increasingly frantic Bernie, and Richard Katz is warm and humorous as the blind rabbi who prepares Bernie and other boys for bar mitzvah.

There were some comments when this film was released that it depended on stereotypes of Jewish people, although opinions seemed to vary as to whether those stereotypes were offensive. We didn’t detect any intent to ridicule or offend Jewish people, but it’s something to be aware of.