LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

LOU GEHRIG, EARL COMBS, TONY LAZZERI, and BABE RUTH

 

My brother often shares with me his irritation with the broadcasters who describe Yankee baseball games on television and radio.  We were, after all, raised in baseball by Mel Allen and Red Barber, in whose care baseball play-by-play was an art. In a way, no announcers can satisfy us with Mel and Red as a standard. This week, my brother complained that John Sterling, who does the radio broadcasts with Suzyn Waldman, has repeatedly called attention to the fact that the 1927 Yankees used only 25 players over the whole season. I guess that was an implied criticism of, or at least a contrast to, the multiple roster changes — making trades, buying contracts, and bringing kids up from the minors — the Yankees have made during this season in which, incidentally, eighty percent of the starting rotation is on the disabled list.

WAITE HOYT

WAITE HOYT

In fact, however, making comparisons between baseball in the 1920s and baseball in the 2000s is a tricky business. Sterling was right about the number of players on the Yankees’ roster in ’27, and my cursory tour through the statistics for that season suggest that 25 was a low number even then. But Sterling didn’t pick the ’27 Yankees at random. He picked that team because that team won 110 games and rolled over the Pirates in four games in the World Series. He picked that team because that team is often identified as the greatest team ever. That’s an indefensible ranking because — very much to my point here — baseball was so much different before that era and has become so much different since.

WILCY MOORE

WILCY MOORE

But certainly the 1927 Yankees were one of the greatest teams ever, and that was due in large part to the presence of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Combs, and Tony Lazzeri. The major league season in 1927 was 154 games. Because of a game that ended in a tie, the Yankees that year played 155 games, and those four players each appeared in more than 150. Gehrig played in 155. So there was a significant element of stability built into the roster. I don’t know if this has been analyzed scientifically, but I often hear it said that players then were less injury prone and less likely to sit down because of an injury. Gehrig carried this last propensity to extremes, which helped to account for his appearing in every Yankee lineup for fourteen years.

The Yankees that year also had five starting pitchers who among them won 82 games. The ace, Waite Hoyt, who won 27 games, threw a total of 256 innings. And in those days before specialization, Wilcy Moore, a reliever, pitched a total of 213 innings and won 19 games. So the rest of the pitching staff had to account for only nine wins. Moore threw 213 innings in 1927. What with the modern system of middle relievers, set-up men, and closers, the most innings a Yankee reliever threw last season was 77.

 

 

JOHANNA von KOCZIAN and MARIO LANZA

JOHANNA von KOCZIAN and MARIO LANZA

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the MGM movie The Great Caruso, in which Mario Lanza played the title role, the tenor Enrico Caruso. Despite my age, I became absorbed in both singers. At first I nagged my mother to buy vinyl for me, but eventually I was old enough to do it on my own. All that vinyl is down in the living room right now, along with hundreds of other 33 rpm disks that include doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, swing, easy listening, opera, and classics.

At any rate, we recently tried to find The Great Caruso on Amazon and Netflix and came up empty, so we settled for Lanza’s last film, the 1959 romantic comedy For the First Time. This film was popular in its time, it got some good reviews, and it was a financial success. This was strictly entertainment, not to be taken seriously, largely an excuse for Lanza to sing — which was a good thing, because opportunities to hear him were much more limited in those pre-iPod, pre-internet days than they would be today. He sings operatic arias and in operatic ensembles, and he sings Italian folk music and popular songs. It’s all good except, from my point of view, “Pineapple Picker,” a song that had no business being in the same room with Mario Lanza.

MARIO LANZA and ZSA ZSA GABOR

MARIO LANZA and ZSA ZSA GABOR

Lanza plays Tony Conti, a world-renowned if unreliable tenor. In the flamboyance he exhibits at the beginning of the story, Conti resembles Lanza. After an embarrassing episode in which Conti’s drinking and tardiness cause a Vienna concert to be cancelled with the audience already in the seats, Conti’s agent spirits him off to Capri to lay low until the bad publicity runs its course. There, Conti meets a young German woman, Christa, played by an irresistible actress named Johanna von Koczian, and they are mutually smitten. Johanna, of course, is deaf. (Get it? He’s a famous tenor; she can’t hear him sing.) At the point in the movie at which Tony and Christa meet, I said to my wife, Pat, “In the last scene, she’ll be sitting in an opera house listening to him hit those high notes.” Meeting Christa jolts Conti to the point that he stops drinking and womanizing and becomes responsible about his career. He is practically broke as a result of his shenanigans up to this point, but he takes on a series of performances in various cities of Europe and plans to visit — you guessed it! — the best ear specialist at each stop. No doubt, you can figure out how such a plot turned out in 1959.

MARIO LANZA sings "Vesti la Giubba" in a scene from "For the First Time"

MARIO LANZA sings “Vesti la Giubba” in a scene from “For the First Time”

Mario Lanza, who was 38, died a few months after this film was released. He looked well and vigorous in the film, his voice — dubbed, of course — was full of the power and earthy passion that had made it famous and he projected the boyish charm that endeared him to the public. This was the sort of movie theme — a romance on the Continent – in which audiences of that era would expect to encounter Zsa Zsa Gabor, and they weren’t disappointed. Zsa Zsa played a countess who had a sporadic affair with Tony, as she did with lots of other prominent men. She was 42 and at the height of her beauty when this film was made and her performance had none of the grating personality she adopted for late-night television shows when her looks would no longer carry her. Kurt Kasznar is comical as Tony’s beleaguered manager and protector, and I particularly liked Hans Söhnker’s sympathetic and believable performance as Christa’s uncle.

Due in large part to his personal habits, Lanza’s career was much shorter than it should have been, but he left behind a wonderful legacy of recorded music. Although he appeared in complete operas only a few times, he played an important cultural role by being one of the first singers to make operatic music popular among a mass audience. Prominent tenors even now often acknowledge their debt to him.

The film closes with Conti, as Rhadames, singing in the ensemble that closes Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.

 

 

STEPHEN DILLANE

STEPHEN DILLANE

 

I suppose one way to demonstrate film artistry is to tell a predictable and somewhat saccharine story in such a way that it pleases both the audience and the critics. That’s what Marcus Markou did with the 2013 movie Papadopolos & Son which he produced, wrote, directed, and distributed. The title character in this piece is Harry Papadopoulos, who emigrated with his family from Greece to Britain and made a fortune mass producing Greek food products. Harry lives in a mansion with his three children and an outspoken but indispensable housekeeper, Mrs. Parrington, referred to almost exclusively as “Mrs. P.” The older son, James, likes horticulture and resists his father’s nudges toward a business degree. The younger son, Theo, is a prodigy — a kind of European Brick Heck — with an almost frightening understanding of the stock market. The third child is 18-year-old Katie, a benign but spoiled fashionista. This family’s life is marred by the fact that the wife and mother of the clan has died by the time we meet them.

JAMES DILLANE

JAMES DILLANE

Although his food business is highly profitable, Harry has a dream — an enormous commercial complex bearing his name. Inasmuch as he is not Rameses II, he has to leverage his holdings to raise the money for this monument. Timing is everything, and Harry’s was bad. He is in debt up to his spanakopita when the world economy collapses and the bank calls in its markers. Harry can’t pay, and he loses virtually everything. His only recourse, as he sees it, is to consult his brother Spiros, from whom he has been estranged for many years because of Spiros’ profligate lifestyle. Spiros has no resources, but he wants to help. He suggests that He and Harry re-open what was once the family business — a fish-and-chips restaurant that was doing well until Harry moved on and Spiros spun out of control. Harry is not interested in this plan, but Harry also has no other options. The family still owns the London building in which the shuttered restaurant has been mouldering away, and so Spiros and Harry and the kids move in there and start fixing up the place even while Harry tries to find investors who will help him go back to being a baklava magnate.

GEORGES CORRAFACE

GEORGES CORRAFACE

A complicating factor is a kebab shop, run by Turks, directly across the street from the fish-and-chips emporium. The owner resents the Greeks for returning to the neighborhood and, to add insult to injury, putting kebabs on the menu. Meanwhile, the kebab merchant’s son has eyes for Katie, and she reciprocates with eyes of her own.

THOMAS UNDERHILL

THOMAS UNDERHILL

Although the veteran moviegoer might be able to write the rest of this plot, the movie is more than the surface story line as Markou focuses on what motivates Harry and exposes darker aspects of the family’s history. Although the issue of Greek-Turkish tension is introduced in the ‘hood, as it were, Markou’s interest here is in what family ties mean when the chips (no pun intended) are down. The film is well photographed — I especially liked the way Markou studies Harry’s facial expressions — and the performances are, without exception, spot on. The cast includes Stephen Dillane as Harry; Georges Corraface as Spiros; James Dillane as Harry’s elder son, Frank; Georgia Groome as Katie; Selina Cadell as Mrs. P; and Thomas Underhill as Harry’s younger son, the stock wizard Theo.
This film was initially due for very limited theatrical exposure in England but word got out and public demand resulted in wider release. The movie has also been a success in terms of critical comment. My only complaint is that there are some moments, particularly at the beginning of the film, when the dialogue is hard to understand.

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As the World Turned

July 3, 2014

DON HASTINGS photo: zimbio.com

DON HASTINGS
photo: zimbio.com

The death this week of Bob Hastings, the popular and ubiquitous character actor, reminded me that it has been just over 33 years since I passed some time with his brother, Don.
Somewhere in the genetic makeup of these siblings was a trait for longevity, and not only because Bob Hastings was 89 when he died on Monday, and Don Hastings, who lives in upstate New York, is 80. No, it’s their professional longevity that is remarkable. Bob Hastings was an actor for 77 years, and Don has been at it for 74 years. Almost all of their cumulative experience has been in television. As has been reported widely in days since his death, Bob became familiar to millions through his regular appearances on such shows as Sergeant Bilko, McHale’s Navy, General Hospital, and All in the Family.
Both brothers began their performing careers on a radio show, Coast to Coast on a Bus.

DON HASTINGS "The Video Ranger"

DON HASTINGS
“The Video Ranger”

I first became aware of Don Hastings when I was seven years old and television’s first science-fiction series, Captain Video and his Video Ranger made its debut on the DuMont Network, which broadcast on Channel 5 in New York. Don, who was about 15 years old at the time, played the Video Ranger for the entire five-year run of the show, which ended in 1955. Captain Video was played first by Richard Coogan and then by Al Hodge. DuMont was the weak sister among the television networks at that time, and Captain Video ran on a very low budget. In fact, Don Hastings told me that the weekly budget for props and scenery was $15: “Anything we could get from the shop and paint to look like something else, we used.”

AL HODGE and DON HASTINGS in action

AL HODGE and DON HASTINGS in action

The production quality of this show was, perhaps, laughable even by the standards of other networks at that time. Still, it was an adventure, and an important one at that. Captain Video was broadcast live, at first six days a week and then five. There were no do-overs, there was no editing, what you saw was what you got. And that, as any actor who worked in early television will tell you, was exciting. Don Hastings, who had a long career in the far more sophisticated medium that television became, thinks well of his experience as a legitimate television pioneer: “It was more fun. The whole attitude was different. Big business wasn’t really with us then.”

“After Captain Video,” Don told me in 1981, “I didn’t do a television show for four months, and that’s the longest period I’ve had in my life when I didn’t work.. It was good for my golf but bad for everything else.” He made up for it, though. From 1956 to 1960, he played Jack Lane on the daytime drama The Edge of Night and from 1960 until 2010, he played Dr. Robert Hughes on As the World Turns. He had the last line spoken on that show when it went off the air: “Good night.”

DON HASTINGS with KATHRYN HAYS, who played his wife, Kim, on "As the World Turns."

DON HASTINGS with KATHRYN HAYS, who played his wife, Kim, on “As the World Turns.”

 
As well known as Don Hastings became with all that exposure on national television, he told me that he experienced a different kind of fame than what a Hollywood actor or a sit-com star might experience, something unique to soap opera figures. “People treat us like people they know,” he said. “I don’t mean we’re celebrities to them; we’re people they recognize and know. If you’re recognized, it’s not going to ruin your dinner.”

I felt at the time that Hastings might be comfortable with that sort of relationship with fans, because he is soft-spoken and well mannered and, as I learned first-hand, a consummate professional. While I was waiting for a lunch date with Don Hastings, I watched from the control room the taping of an episode of As the World Turns. Something went wrong with a scene, and it had to be re-shot. During the brief pause, Hastings, whom we could see on the monitors, made a wisecrack, but he did it in character, as Dr. Bob Hughes. One of the technicians said to a colleague, “Now there is a guy who can have fun while he’s working without acting like an amateur.”

FRANK SINATRA

FRANK SINATRA

While I was rummaging around in the dusty archives of this blog, I came across a post I wrote in May 2009 concerning a plan by Martin Scorsese to oversee a film about the life of Frank Sinatra. The particular thing that had caught my attention was a report by Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke to the effect that, while Scorsese had Leonardo DiCaprio in mind for the title role, Universal Studios preferred Johnny Depp. I’m not an authority on these matters, but it doesn’t seem to me that either of those actors quite matches the description of Sinatra offered by Debbie Reynolds in a film they made together: “kind of cute, in a beat-up broken-down sort of way.”

I had forgotten about that post, and coming across it made me wonder what had happened to Scorsese’s project. From what little I’ve been able to find out with no more effort than a couple of Google searches, Scorsese typically has several projects in the works at any one time, and the Sinatra movie is among those still turtling along. The most recent report I could find was posted in December 2013 on a site called The Playlist, and all the post added was Scorsese’s confirmation that “that project’s still going strong.” I understand that construction on the Cathedral of St. Peter in Cologne was begun in 1248 and completed in 1880, so I suppose everything is relative, as I was telling Professor Einstein just the other day.

MARTIN SCORSESE

MARTIN SCORSESE

I also read an August 2013 report by Mike Fleming Jr. on deadline.com to the effect that Universal had assigned Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips) to write the screenplay and that the several prospective producers would include Sinatra’s daughter Tina, Peter Guber, and Cathy Schulman. “It was Guber and Schulman who brought in the project to the studio,” Fleming wrote, “after they secured life and music rights from Frank Sinatra Enterprises, which is a joint venture of the estate of Ol’ Blue Eyes and the Warner Music Group.”

In a certain sense, I’m not interested in any of this. I have an aversion to movie or television biographies of folks who were my contemporaries and whose personalities were as strong and pervasive as Sinatra’s. Whether it were DiCaprio, Depp, or Danny DeVito, I wouldn’t be able to accept the actor as Sinatra. I had that experience when Brad Garrett played the title role in Gleason, a 2002 CBS movie biography of Jackie Gleason. Garrett did a creditable job in the part, I suppose, but he simply wasn’t Gleason, and I couldn’t get past that. Ask me to buy Howard Silva as Benjamin Franklin and I’m good, but not with someone who was a constant presence in my own lifetime.

This is exacerbated, too, by the fact that I live in New Jersey, where by common consent we maintain the fiction that Sinatra was our guy, accept no substitutes. Oh, sure enough, he was from Hoboken and did his first singing in that neck of the woods — a figurative term even then — but he was much more of a Mr. Hollywood and Mr. Vegas and even Mr. Manhattan than he was a Mr. Hudson County. Perhaps he took Jimmy Durante’s remark too seriously: “I went to Hoboken to forget, and then I had to go to Hackensack to forget Hoboken.” That was before Hoboken was the high-rent district it is today.

LOUIS LA RUSSO II

LOUIS LA RUSSO II

The issue of Sinatra’s connection to New Jersey came up in 1975 when I interviewed a playwright named Louis La Russo II who had written a gutsy play entitled Lamppost Reunion that initially ran for 77 performances at the Little Theater in New York. The play was set in the sort of fictional Lamppost Bar where the owner and a few of his friends reminisce about the days when they sang in a group with a character named Fred Santora (get it?) who is about to make an appearance at Madison Square Garden. After nearly forty years, I don’t remember the details very well, but I know that at least a couple of guys were proud of their background with Santora, but one of them was nursing some undefined resentment. Of course, while they’re discussing all this, Santoro walks into the bar, and the past becomes the present and at least one ugly secret comes out of the dark. In that first production, Danny Aiello played “Biggie,” owner of the Lamppost Bar, and Gabriel Dell, who was a well-known comic actor back then, played Santoro. I believe that play is still produced now and then.

When I interviewed Louis La Russo, he told me that Sinatra’s “people” had let him know that they weren’t crazy about the resemblance between his character and Mr. Vegas, etc. I think La Russo was more amused than anything else.

0601Although I never met Sinatra — what with him being All It and me being just this guy in Jersey —I did, through a process somewhat related to the “degrees of separation” phenomenon, socialize with his father, Anthony Martin Sinatra, known variously as Tony and Marty. Because of a mutual friend, I had dinner with the elder Sinatra on several  occasions in the early 1960s at the Clam Broth House, a Hoboken landmark that was condemned in 2004. I was in his company for several hours before I realized who his son was, because Marty, who ostensibly had been a paid fireman in Hoboken  — in Hudson County, it’s best to use the qualifier when talking about folks who hold public-sector jobs — was an unassuming guy who was content with his own persona.

ANTHONY MARTIN SINATRA

ANTHONY MARTIN SINATRA

Eventually, he did tell me about his boxing career and about a mutual acquaintance, Jackie Farrell, who, Marty said, had put the arm on the owner of a local gin mill to give Frank and his companions their first paid job. Jackie, an amiable and helpful guy, weighed about ninety pounds and usually wore a brown suit. I knew him when he constituted the public relations department for the New York Yankees when the team was still being run like a mom-and-pop grocery.

Among Sinatra’s musical moments on film, my favorite is his duet with Bing Crosby in High Society (1956). It starts at about 4:18 at THIS SITE.