O, Pioneers!

February 25, 2011

Amanda Randolph

PBS has been running  a series of documentaries under the title “Pioneers of Television.” We have watched three of them — on westerns, detective shows, and sitcoms — and found them informative and entertaining. Being the quarrelsome type, however, I question the use of the term “pioneers” — at least with respect to sitcoms, which were the topic of Monday night’s broadcast.

The program included segments on Jackie Gleason – specifically on the one full season of “The Honeymooners,” Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. I can’t argue with the stature of those performers nor with the contributions all of them made to the development of TV comedy. But while there were some general references to the fact that situation comedies originated on radio, I don’t understand how a documentary about sitcoms can ignore Gertrude Berg.

Gertrude Berg

I had a similar complaint — and wrote about it here — when the US Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring “pioneers” of television and didn’t include Gertrude Berg. I won’t repeat that post here, but Berg started her show — most widely known as “The Goldbergs” — on radio in 1929 and moved it to television in 1949. She owned, produced, and wrote the show, and she played the main character. Although it was a comedy, the show had very serious overtones, and it was the first show of its kind to introduce general audiences to the family lives of American Jews. That’s not a pioneer?

While I was watching that program Monday night, I spotted an actress named Amanda Randolph in a still from the Danny Thomas show. She played Louise, the wisecracking maid to the “Williams” family. By that time, Amanda Randolph had been an entertainer for more than 30 years — as a piano player and then as an actress in radio and movies. She was the first black actor to star in a regularly scheduled television show — “The Laytons” — which ran for a couple of months on the old Dumont network in 1948. She later had a recurring role as Ramona Smith – the mother of Sapphire Stevens – on the television version of “Amos  ‘n’ Andy” — the first TV show with an all-black cast, and the last one for many years. That’s not a pioneer?

Lillian Randolph

Amanda Randolph was the older sister of Lillian Randolph, another groundbreaking black actor and singer. She started working in radio in the mid 1930s and became a mainstay in that medium and in television and films. She had a recurring role in the radio, television, and movie versions of the popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve,” and she played Madame Queen — girlfriend of Andy Brown — in the radio and TV versions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

Lillian Randolph may be best remembered now for the role of Annie in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Somebody at PBS doesn’t remember, but I do.

I see by the papers, as it were, that a scientist in British Columbia is going to try to identify bone fragments believed to be those of Amelia Earhart by using DNA technology. Earhart went missing in July of 1937 and was presumably killed along with navigator Fred Noonan during their attempt to fly around the world along the equator. Their bodies were never found, but bone fragments that were found on a Pacific island late last year are being examined at the University of Oklahoma to determine if they are the remains of Earhart. A story published today by The Canadian Press reported that a forensic archeologist at Fraser University in Vancouver is going to try to recover Earhart’s DNA from envelopes that contained letters written by Earhart. The letters were opened at the ends, so the flaps are intact. The premise of the study is that Earhart probably licked those flaps in order to seal the envelopes and that DNA from her saliva may still be present.

This news breaks while I’m in the midst of reading a recent biography of Earhart by Kathleen C. Winters. I’ll probably post a review here in a few days.

From a practical point of view, it may not matter very much whether those bones are Earhart’s or not. As there always are in such cases, there are folks who want to believe that the explanation for her disappearance is more complicated than that her plane went down, but there is no evidence to support them. On the other hand, anyone with a sense of history hates stories with missing conclusions. So a definitive finding that those bones belonged to Amelia Earhart would serve two purposes – putting unfounded theories to rest and putting the period to an historical epoch.

 

 

Jim Hutton, Cary Grant, and Samantha Eggar in a scene from "Walk Don't Run"

We watched the 1969 film “Walk Don’t Run,” which was notable for being Cary Grant’s last movie. He retired, so the story goes, because he realized that he could no longer pull off the leading man image and didn’t think his fans would accept him in supporting roles. So he was “retired” for 20 years, as far as the movies were concerned.

CARY GRANT

In “Walk Don’t Run,” Grant plays a prominent British businessman, Sir William Rutland, who visits Tokyo during the 1964 Olympic Games, arrives two days ahead of schedule and can’t find a hotel room. He spots a notice posted by someone wanting to share an apartment and goes to the address. The “someone” is Christine Easton (Samantha Eggar), a nervous young lady who is engaged to a supercilious employee of the British Embassy. She isn’t interested in sharing her apartment with a strange man, but Rutland ignores her protests, confuses her with the kind of fast talk that Grant was so good at, and moves in. Christine tries to make the arrangement as hard as possible on Rutland by imposing an impossibly tight schedule for use of the bathroom, but Rutland – though totally unable to keep up with the timetable – isn’t that easily dissuaded.

JIM HUTTON

During a business call in Tokyo, Rutland meets brash American Steve Davis, who is a member of an American Olympic team — though he won’t say which one — and who also is without a place to stay until the Olympic quarters open. Davis is played by the ill-starred Jim Hutton. Rutland and Davis are at odds at first, but Rutland ends up subletting half of his room to Davis — without asking Christine, of course. She objects when she finds out, but she is no match for the two of them. Rutland, who is happily married and old enough to be Christine’s father,  doesn’t like Christine’s fiancée and thinks Davis would be a better match for her. Therein lies the story, although there’s a subplot in which Davis is accused of being a spy.

This is a good-natured film, and the three principal actors do it justice. Grant was about 62 when he made this movie, and he hadn’t lost any of his appeal or energy.

SAMANTHA EGGAR

The movie was shot on location in Japan, and that adds to its interest. Tokyo is a busy place, and the outdoor shots were done in the middle of the daily bustle.

This movie is based on a highly-regarded 1943 film, “The More the Merrier,” which I haven’t yet seen. That stars Charles Colburn, Joel Macrae, and Jean Arthur. It tells the same general story, but it takes place in Washington, D.C., and makes fun of the housing shortage there during World War II. Colburn plays the businessman, and he was widely praised for his performance. He and Grant were very different personalities, but I can picture Colburn playing the role.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN

We watched the 2008 film “Last Chance Harvey” which stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Apparently this film attracted some attention when it was released, but I must have been out of town, because I don’t remember hearing about it. Hoffman and Thompson both got Golden Globe “best” nominations, so somebody was paying attention.

This movie got mixed reviews, but I’ll cast my lot with the yea-sayers.

Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a song writer and musician who wanted to be a jazz pianist but settled for writing commercial jingles. Now that that industry depends far more on digital sound than on the black-and-whites, he’s having a hard time keeping up, so much so that his job is in jeopardy — hence the title of the film.

LIANE BALABAN

Meanwhile, Harvey is due to fly to London to attend the wedding of his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban), who is tighter with her mom and stepfather than with Harvey, her dad. In fact, Harvey feels very much in the way at the dinner on the eve of the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the film follows the life of Londoner Kate Walker (Thompson), a lonely woman who works as a survey taker at Heathrow Airport. Despite a friend’s clumsy attempts to find her a match, Kate seems almost willingly trapped in a drab existence punctuated by constant phone calls from her aged and equally lonely mother.

EMMA THOMPSON

OK, it’s obvious early on that Kate and Harvey are going to cross paths, but these characters are so well drawn by the actors, and their situations are so familiar, that it’s hard not to get interested in them. I read that Hoffman and Thompson had had a positive experience working together in a previous film and that Hoffman agreed to this role on the condition that he and Thompson ad lib some of their dialog. The relationship between them seems natural, so that strategy paid off.

Some viewers might be distracted by the age difference between Hoffman and Thompson — which is emphasized in a certain way by the difference in their heights — but there is no suggestion that their interest in each other is primarily sexual, or sexual at all, and the things that do attract them to each other make perfect sense. I, for one, am not cynical enough to dismiss the way  Harvey’s personality is rejuvenated under the influence of a timid, self-conscious, but witty and intelligent woman. If one starts with the premise that Joel Hopkins’ script starts with — that both of their lives were at a dead end — the idea that they could form a relationship is both plausible and redemptive.

Hoffman and Thompson

LOU GEHRIG

There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.

In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.

Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

LOU GEHRIG

A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.

Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants

PHYLLIS KAHN

As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled  opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.

Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.

OLIVER SACKS

At a party we attended in Manhattan about a dozen years ago, I spied a man who had backed himself into a large potted plant — something like a rubber tree — as though he didn’t want to be seen. After staring at him for a minute or so because he seemed familiar, I said to Pat, “My God, that’s Oliver Sacks.” Ignoring what seemed to be a clear signal that he was going for invisibility, we approached him, and had a pleasant little conversation.

It struck me at the time that he seemed as shy as Robin Williams had made him appear in the movie “Awakenings.” We noticed that the first time we saw the movie, because the character was, in that respect, so different from the outlandish figures Williams most often plays. I didn’t know at the time that the movie had been preceded by a documentary — also  “Awakenings” — that Dr. Sacks himself narrated.

ROBIN WILLIAMS

Some time after we saw the Robin Williams movie, I stumbled on the documentary on television, and I was struck by how much Williams had approximated Sacks’ personality, including the apparent shyness.

Now, in Dr. Sacks’ most recent book, “The Mind’s Eye,” I read at least one explanation for his reticence. Sacks writes in that book that he suffers — if that’s the right word — from prosopagnosia, which means he cannot distinguish one human face from another. In fact, he can’t recognize his own face in a mirror. One of his brothers has the same condition, which can be genetic, but can also be acquired through a trauma such as  stroke. In an expansive discussion of the condition, Dr. Sacks writes, for example, that he visited his psychiatrist, left the office, and bumped into the psychiatrist again in the lobby, minutes later, and didn’t recognize him. Sacks wrote that this condition can contribute to shyness. Voila.

SUSAN BARRY

Like many of Dr. Sacks’ previous books, this one contains a series of case studies with a lot of historical context. And although the subject matter is human disabilities, the book is in many instances uplifting, because Dr. Sacks also writes about how men and women, because of their own persistence and because of the brain’s ability to compensate for traumatic events, have managed to live fruitful lives despite the loss of some basic function — such as the ability to read or to identify common objects or to navigate even familiar spaces.

One of the cases concerns Susan Barry, who was born with crossed eyes that were surgically corrected when she was a young girl. The surgery straightened the eyes from a cosmetic point of view, but Barry was still left with monocular vision, because the brain uses crossed eyes individually, switching back and forth between them.

OLIVER SACKS

Barry, who teaches neurobiology, was in college before she realized she didn’t see things in stereo, as it were. And she was in her forties before other vision problems put her in contact with an optometrist who helped her, through therapy and continuing eye exercises, to do what had previously been thought impossible, achieving stereoscopic vision without further surgical intervention, after living nearly fifty years without it. She has described her experience in her own book, “Fixing My Gaze.” Dr. Sacks himself, who has been fascinated with stereoscopy since he was a child, reports  in “The Mind’s Eye” that he himself is coping with monocular vision after recently losing the sight of his right eye due to cancer.

There are several equally remarkable stories in Dr. Sacks’ book, including a pianist who lost her ability to read music or text, a novelist (Howard Engel) who lost his ability to read, and an artists’ agent who lost her ability to speak. In each case, the “patient” – with the help of a flexible brain – learned to live with or in spite of these conditions.

The study of the brain is, in a way, only beginning, thanks to imaging technology that for the first time allows researchers to unobtrusively observe brain activity in living human beings. Sacks’ book hints at where that study may take us, and the prospects are exciting.

An NPR report on Susan Barry’s experience is at THIS LINK.

Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1979.

When I list the countries I have visited, I don’t include Egypt. In a certain sense, though, I have been to what is now Egypt, and under unique circumstances. My visit, which was unplanned, occurred while I was on a tour of Israel with a group of American journalists. The trip was planned well in advance, so it was a coincidence that I was in Tel Aviv on March 26, 1979, the day the Camp David peace treaty was concluded between Israel and Egypt.

ANWAR el-SADAT

The itinerary for our trip included a stop at Yamit, a town the Israelis had built in the Sinai Peninsula, which had been seized from Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967. One of the provisions of the treaty was that Israel would return the Sinai to Egypt, and Egypt would leave it demilitarized. Another result of that treaty – seemly lost in the clamor surrounding the popular uprising in Egypt – was U.S. political and military support for Egypt. On the day we were supposed to go to Yamit, our guides told us the trip was cancelled because the residents of the town – who objected to the treaty, and especially to the withdrawal of settlers from the Sinai – had blockaded the highway. We were surprised that we had to explain this, but we told the guides that if the settlers were blockading the highway, that was where we wanted to be.

MENACHEM BEGIN

So the bus took us as far as we could go, and we got out and talked to the angry settlers, who had piled furniture and tires and other obstructions across the highway. We talked to the settlers about their determination to stay in Yamit; when we returned to the bus, the driver told us he knew how to get to the town without using that highway. That turned out to be true, although the bus got stuck in the desert sand at one point, and we all had to get out and push. Yamit was virtually deserted, and it was an odd experience to walk through that town with virtually no human life in sight. We did encounter one elderly, gregarious man who identified himself as the “unofficial mayor” and explained the layout of the town and his own disappointment about Israel’s decision. Yamit was still in Israeli hands on that day. It was evacuated in April 1982, and some of the settlers had to be routed from their homes and carried away by the Israeli Defense Forces. The town, which was a beautiful little settlement of about 2,500 people, was demolished before the peninsula was ceded to Egypt.

JIMMY CARTER

The Camp David Treaty was brokered by President Jimmy Carter and signed by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat and Begin both were excoriated in some quarters, and the treaty certainly was a factor in the murder of Sadat in 1981. Egypt was also suspended from the Arab League for a while.

 Whatever else one may think of the treaty, it has prevented hostilities between Israel and Egypt for more than 30 years, during most of which Hosni Mubarek has been president of Egypt. The future of that treaty – and the likelihood of renewed belligerence between the two countries – is one of the many things at stake in the uprising against Mubarek’s regime.

Anwar el-Sadat with Ronald Reagan in 1981

When the treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., the ritual was televised live on an oversized screen in a public square in Tel Aviv. There were lights and music and dancing, but the joy seemed largely orchestrated. When my colleagues and I wandered just a few blocks from that square, the city was quiet. A couple of us stopped in a bar operated by a Yemeni woman named Chanita Madmoni. We sat next to two old Israelis – one Greek, the other Rumanian. We told them they didn’t seem excited about the “shalom.” They’d rather have peace than war, they said, but they weren’t convinced it would last. Judging by their ages, I’d venture that it lasted longer than they did.

My niece visited our house the other day and, as she was leaving, she paused to jot down our land line phone number, which she had lost. I told her the number and added, “Anyway, we’re in the book.” But I immediately recalled that Verizon and AT&T, among others, have been moving toward discontinuing phone books. Although phone books are a nuisance to have around the house, and although I can’t remember the last time I used a phone book instead of the Internet to look up a number, I’ll be sorry to see them go. I’m an avid phone book reader when I’m away from home. I study such things as how many people are listed with my surname and how many with my wife’s surname. There are seldom more than one or two – often none. Whenever I find one it’s like spotting cobalt sea glass. I also thumb through to see which name generates the longest list in that locale – Smith? Patel? – and which names catch my attention because they’re familiar or odd.

 

Icelandic phone book

 

Reading the phone book in Iceland, incidentally, is an offbeat experience, because most people in Iceland don’t have family names as such. Folks are listed in the phone book by their first names, patronyms, addresses, occupations, and then telephone numbers. The patronym consists of a person’s father’s first name and a suffix that indicates whether it’s a son or daughter. So the Icelandic singer would be listed as Björk Guðmundsdóttir, because she is the daughter (dottir) of  Guðmundur Gunnarsson, who is the son of Gunnar. If you look closely at the page to the left, you can see listings for several people who share Björk’s name.

 

CHARLES LAUGHTON

It was often said of the actor Charles Laughton that he could make an audience weep simply by reading the phone book aloud. That was meant as a compliment to Laughton, but I think I’d be reduced to tears if I had to listen to any actor read the phone book. I, on the other hand, will miss those out-of-town opportunities to read the listings to myself and provide occasional commentary to anyone without the sense to leave the room.

Meanwhile, my first thought after I told my niece that we’re “in the book” was that the expression “in the book” might disappear from our language if the trend to eliminate “the book” continues.

Although I know it’s an inevitable process – idioms coming and going – I always regret the loss of such expressions. I’m old enough, though, that “in the book” could last as long as I do. After all, the rotary dial started disappearing from telephones in the 1960s and has been virtually non-existent for several decades. And yet, many people still speak of “dialing” a number when, in fact, they’re entering the number with a keypad.

Come to think of it, I’m so old that I’m older than rotary dials.