Green Brook, NJ

I haven’t read Dante Alghieri’s “Inferno” since college, so I don’t remember if he imagined a circle of hell reserved for folks who introduce their grandchildren to White Castle.  If so, I hope he was wrong, but it’s too late now. We’ve already done it.

 
I’m not sure if this factor mitigates our guilt or makes it worse, but the fact is that we took the boys to the White Castle in Green Brook at the suggestion of our daughter, their mother, who – of course – also learned about the mystique of the slider from us.
So did her three siblings, and an interesting point about that is that our three oldest children, all of whom are particular about what they eat, still love White Castle, while the youngest one — who is more casual about diet when she eats at all — describes White Castle hamburgers as “rat meat.”
I can’t put into words the attraction that White Castle has for us, and I guess the fact that its appeal is elusive makes it  all the more appealing. It certainly isn’t an attraction to fast food in general. I never eat in McDonald’s (except for an Egg McMuffin), Burger King, Arby’s, or Wendy’s. My only other inclination of that kind — if it can be called fast food — is for chili dogs.
Well, the grandsons and their parents were coming to our house for a sleepover recently, and our daughter suggested that we take the boys to White Castle — which was a thinly veiled way of saying that we should take her to White Castle — something I suspect her husband doesn’t approve of. I don’t think the boys were hooked, based on that one visit, but they’re only little guys, so there’s plenty of time. It isn’t that Pat and I spend a lot of time at White Castle, but we get the hankering now and again, and we go with no apologies. Two or three times, we have made reservations — yes, reservations are required — for the Valentine’s Day dinner at the White Castle in South Plainfield. There are red table clothes and flowers, a waiter at your table, and a menu to order from — the same food, of course, or why would we be there?
I mentioned that Pat and I don’t spend a lot of time at White Castle. No, we have salad and a green vegetable with every dinner, we eat a lot of garlic and olive oil, we don’t overdo the red meat , and we would eat fish if either one of us could swallow it. But life is full of hazards and temptations. I started a new job in January, and my drive home takes me right past the White Castle in Green Brook. “You know,” Pat said to me, ” you could stop on your way home.”
 

HUGH MARTIN

In the midst of the tragedies playing out in Japan and Libya and Bahrain, song writer Hugh Martin — an important figure in American musical history — slipped away last Thursday at the age of 96.

Martin wrote a lot of fine music for the Broadway stage and for films, but he etched his name in brass when he composed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” and “The Boy Next Door” — all classics and all written for Judy Garland in the film “Meet Me in St Louis.”

The first of those songs set Martin apart in special way, because it is relatively rare for a writer to produce a song that becomes a Christmas standard. That one became not only a standard but one of the most recorded and most popular Christmas songs of all time.

JUDY GARLAND

The song has an interesting history which is available in Martin’s own words at THIS LINK. This is the short version. Martin’s perennial songwriting partner, Ralph Blane, asked about a tune he had overheard Martin fooling around with, but Martin said he had given up on it. Blane had liked the melody and asked Martin to try it again. Martin wound up writing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy Garland’s character sang this song to her little sister (Margaret O’Brien) who was distraught because their father was moving the family from its homestead in Missouri to New York City.

In that context, the combination of Martin’s melancholy melody and his lyrics was heart-wrenching. So much so, that Judy Garland and others objected that it was too sad. Martin at first refused to change it, but actor Tom Drake talked him into it.

HUGH MARTIN

For instance, the song originally began: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past. Martin changed that to Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.

That was in 1944. In 1957, at the request of Frank Sinatra, Martin changed the song again. The original lyric read, But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow / From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Sinatra found that a little downbeat for a Christmas album he was recording, and Martin accommodated him with, Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” which is the way it is usually performed now.

No matter, in all of its versions it’s a wonderful song from a wonderful talent.

Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis"

Talking baseball

March 10, 2011

 

PETER SCOLARI

The coincidence is a conversation piece. For example, I read somewhere that actor Peter Scolari’s ambition to play pro baseball had been derailed by an elbow injury. Baseball is a favorite subject of mine, so when I met Scolari recently I began by saying, “Tell me about you and baseball.” He did. The reference I had read was true: he played high school ball well enough to think that he might turn pro, but he got hurt, had surgery, and after that — well, let him tell it: “I couldn’t get anything on the ball,” although he has played in several theatrical leagues.

But to put that story in context, Scolari told me that his father — attorney Art Scolari — had played baseball at East Side High School in Paterson (this would have been long before Joe Clark got there) and then was an All-American shortstop at Drew University. Paterson? I was born in Paterson. My dad, who was about 13 years older than Art Scolari, went to Central High School where he ran track — particularly relays — and later managed a semi-pro baseball team that played all around the Paterson area.

PETER SCOLARI / New York Daily News

I haven’t told Peter Scolari this yet, but after our conversation, my web browser stumbled on a story in a 1939 issue of the old Daily Record of Red Bank, N.J., reporting that a teenager named Lawrence Mahoney, who was from Lincroft, had successfully defended his state horseshoe pitching championship for the fifth time in a row. It was no snap, according to the story: breathing down Mahoney’s neck was 15-year-old Art Scolari of Paterson. Mahoney was 9-0 in the tournament; Scolari was 8-1.

Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in their "Bosom Buddies" regalia

I could have talked about baseball all night — it’s one of my many excuses to talk too much — but I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick to talk to Peter Scolari about his current project, a production of Ken Ludwig’s new play, “Fox on the Fairway.” This play, with a golf theme, had its world premiere last year in Washington, D.C. It’s a farce, and that’s a word that sends up the skyrockets, because farce done badly — or even done “all right” — is a painful experience for an audience. I’ve been there. Scolari, who knows a lot more about it than I do, made that point: “I don’t like to see a farce in which folks do an okay job. I’ll watch ‘The Sunshine Boys’ or ‘The Odd Couple’ and have a great time if everybody does a ‘good’ job. If I go to a farce and everybody does a ‘good’ job, I think, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”

I’ve read Ludwig’s play, but reading farce is like reading a recipe. It lays out the parts and the moves, but it can’t even hint at the reality. I have also read at least one negative review of the Washington production, but the fact that a farce doesn’t work with one company doesn’t mean it won’t work with another. Ludwig, after all, is the author of “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” both of which won him Tony awards. And Scolari knows a thing or three about playing comedy in general and farce in particular.

Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks in 2004 at the premiere of "Polar Express" in which they both appeared

Scolari first drew national attention in 1980 when he co-starred with Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies,” a TV sit-com about two young men who dress in drag so they can live in a women-only hotel where the rent is dirt cheap and about what they can afford. The show, which lasted a couple of seasons, was indirectly inspired by the Billy Wilder movie “Some Like it Hot.” Since then, Scolari has put together a long resume of television and stage appearances, mostly in comedies, including 142 episodes of Bob Newhart’s second hit series, “Newhart.”

Talking to Scolari, who is witty, thoughtful, and articulate, was an entertainment in itself. If I weren’t aware that I was keeping him from his train after he had spent a full day of rehearsal, I would have prompted him to talk for another hour, just so I could listen. If I had had unlimited time and he had had unlimited patience, I would have steered him back around to baseball, because no sport lends itself to talk as well as baseball does, and my guess is that Scolari appreciates that as much as I do. I asked him which New York team he roots for now that he is living on the East Coast again after his sojourn in California. He could have simply said that he roots for the Yankees, but this wasn’t a guy answering questions. This was a guy talking baseball:

Thurman Munson, Yankees catcher, captain, All-Star, and MVP, was killed in a plane crash in 1979. He was 32.

“I follow the Yankees. I make no apologies about it, but they’re not the Yankees. For me the Yankees who owned my heart ended with the captain, with Thurman Munson. I never got over that, to be honest with you, as a fan. So you come back, and they’re your team, and they’re in the Bronx, and that’s really important — but it’s not quite the same.”

ANDY GARCIA

We watched the 2009 movie, “City Island,” starring Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies with an Alan Akin-esque supporting role for Alan Arkin.

This is an edgy and often humorous story, written and directed by Raymond DeFelitta, about a dysfunctional family living on an island in The Bronx. Vince Rizzo (Garcia) is a corrections officer who doesn’t like to be called a “prison guard” and who really wants to be an actor. He steals off to Manhattan to attend an acting class led by the grizzled but insightful Michael Malakov (Arkin). Vince assumes that his wife, Joyce (Margulies) would ridicule his ambition, so he explains his weekly absences by saying he is playing poker. She thinks he’s having an affair.

The Rizzos have a son and a daughter together. Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) secretly has a feeding fetish, and Vivian – played by Garcia’s daughter, Dominik (sic) – is a college student who secretly has lost her scholarship and is stripping to earn tuition money.

Vivian reluctantly comes home on a break at about the same time that Vince realizes that a new prison inmate is his son, Tony (Steven Strait), the product of a liaison Vince had while he was still in his late teens. In keeping with the family practice, Vince has not told Joyce about this.

JULIANNA MARGULIES

Not one to complicate matters by thinking them through, Vince tells Tony only that Tony’s dissolute mother was a “friend,” and he arranges to have Tony released in his custody. He takes Tony home, giving Joyce only the explanation he had given Tony, and the result is even more dissent in the Rizzo household.

Meanwhile, Vince has developed a close, but not romantic, relationship with Molly (Emily Mortimer), a fellow student in Malakov’s class. Molly – who has secrets of her own – pushes Vince to have more confidence in his prospects as an actor. He inadvertently jars her into reconsidering some of the lies she has been living.

The quirky characters, odd-ball story, and strong performances by all the actors make this movie unpredictable and compelling. The environment adds to the interest. The film was shot on location at City Island which looks as if it’s a piece of New England that wandered away and couldn’t find its way back. The characteristics of the place – at least as Vince describes them in the movie – provide a credible context for his self-image and his behavior.

ALAN ARKIN

It’s almost always a treat to find Alan Arkin in a movie. He is in his element in this one, playing a crusty drama teacher who is up to here with actors who want to emulate Marlon Brando. Malakov is especially impatient with students who inexplicably pause instead of speaking their dialogue – a Brando trade mark. Presumably, Malakov wouldn’t have had much time for William Shatner. Vince, as it happens, is a Brando devotee.

This movie makes a point about the consequences of deceit among people whose relationship implies intimacy. It may be an obvious point, but the empirical evidence is that it can’t be made too often.

Vince Rizzo studies up on Marlon Brando in "City Island"

AMELIA EARHART

Somewhere in this home office there is a 78 rpm recording of Jack Kaufman singing “Lucky Lindy” and “Lindbergh, the Eagle of the USA.” The record was part of the hype that followed Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. If a female aviator were going to be cast as Lindbergh’s counterpart, there was only one thing about Amelia Earhart that qualified her: She vaguely resembled the pilot. Where flying acumen was concerned, there were numerous women whose experience, skills, and breadth of knowledge far exceeded Earhart’s. As it turned out, that didn’t matter. Earhart had “the look” — or, at least, enough people thought so to make her marketable as “Lady Lindy,” and so, she became the legend and the other women are forgotten by all but students of aviation history. Some things never change.

I read about that in “Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon,” by Kathleen C. Winters.

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam

Winters, who died last August, was an aviation historian, biographer of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and a licensed pilot. In short, she knew a lot about flying and her knowledge gives this book important context. I think it was because of her respect for flying that she took an unfiltered look at Earhart and presented her in what for many readers, including me, is a new light. Not that Winters went after Earhart; on the contrary, she seems to have recognized Earhart’s basic decency and approved of Earhart’s sense of adventure and her independence, her part in the campaign to promote commercial air travel, and especially her insistence and practical demonstrations that women were capable of undertakings once thought the sole province of men.

But Winters shows in some detail that Earhart was undisciplined, sometimes even careless, and that she wouldn’t take responsibility for her mistakes. But although there could have been no Amelia Earhart legend without Amelia Earhart’s cooperation, the magician who created the phantom heroine was Earhart’s husband, George Putnam.

1928 advertisement

Putnam, an opportunistic book publisher at the time, played a critical role in booking Earhart as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean — a year after Lindbergh’s solo flight. Earhart flew, all right, but she never took the controls, because she was incapable of handling the sea plane that made the flight and because she hadn’t learned to fly by instruments alone — something that could, and did, become necessary over the ocean. A two-man male crew handled the flight and Earhart was “baggage,” as she herself said. But Putnam created so much publicity — much of it exaggerated or just plain false — that Earhart became permanently larger than life, certainly larger than reality. Putnam, who eventually left his wife and married Earhart, also managed the rest of her career, encouraging her in a series of risky and often pointless performances and booking her in never-ending schedule of public appearances that financed the couple’s flamboyant lifestyle.

Amelia Earhart after her own solo transatlantic flight in 1932 - 1700 miles shorter than Lindy's.

It’s symbolic of Putnam’s whole approach to Earhart’s career that he signed her, over her objections, to appear in a print ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, although Earhart did not smoke. The ad didn’t say she smoked, but the implication was clear. What Putnam didn’t anticipate was a strong negative push-back from a public — particularly a female public — that didn’t approve of women smoking.

Earhart was charming, and she did set some speed and distance records, but her indelible place in the public consciousness was based on Putnam’s manufactured image — and on her disappearance in 1937 while she and navigator Fred Noonan were over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world along the equator — a feat that would have had virtually no significance in aviation by that time. Winters points out that Earhart still had limited understanding of radio operation and that neither she nor Noonan knew Morse code. A naval vessel — in a typically improper use of public resources to support Earhart’s private escapades — was trying to monitor Earhart’s approach to tiny Howland Island where a landing strip had been constructed for her at public expense. The crew couldn’t keep contact with the flyer, and all indications are that she and Noonan couldn’t spot the minuscule island or wandered off course and wound up in the ocean. Bone fragments discovered late last year on a Pacific island are being examined for any connection to Earhart. Winters notes a melancholy detail: An experienced flyer encouraged Earhart to have the rudders and wing strips of her Lockheed painted red so that it would be easier to spot if it went down. Earhart liked the plane’s paint job fine just as it was.

Hilary Swank and Richard Gere as Amelia Earhart and George Putnam in the 2009 film "Amelia"