Ed Wynn - 4 - group shot

Ed Wynn, Jack Palance, and Keenan Wynn in Requiem for a Heavyweight

I recently came across a pencil drawing of Ed Wynn that I did about 50 years ago. Seeing that drawing was a prompt through which I discovered a pair of events in television broadcasting that combine for a unique and moving experience.

I’m old enough to be familiar with Ed Wynn, because he was frequently on television in the early days of the medium, days that coincided with my childhood. He usually appeared in the persona of “the perfect fool,” wearing a goofy outfit and doing a comedy schtick that made him a big star on the stage, in radio and television, and in film. I was also aware that he had appeared in a dramatic role in Requiem for a Heavyweight, which Rod Serling wrote for television.

Ed Wynn 1

ED WYNN

This is the story of a heavyweight boxer, “Mountain” McClintock, played here by Jack Palance, trying to cope with the end of his career in the ring. Ed Wynn’s son Keenan, a successful actor, also appeared in the production in a role closely associated with Ed Wynn’s character—Keenan playing Mache, the boxer’s manager, and Ed playing Army, the boxer’s trainer and cut man. The tension between these two men grows from Army’s conviction that Mache has no sense of Mountain’s humanity and basic decency. That was the first full-length drama broadcast live on television; it appeared on October 11, 1956, when I was 14 years old.

Ed Wynn 2 - Keenan

KEENAN WYNN

I don’t remember if I saw that broadcast, but because it was live, I hadn’t seen the performance since—that is, until now. After I came across that drawing of Ed Wynn, I read about his career. I learned that the rehearsals for Requiem for a Heavyweight were a painful experience for Keenan Wynn, because Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines or stage directions, and because he would frequently break into his silly laugh while rehearsing serious lines. The program had been promoted in part as the first joint appearance of the famous father and son, so replacing Ed Wynn in the role was problematic.

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My drawing of Ed Wynn as “The Perfect Fool”

Ed Wynn seemed lost in the production, even in the dress rehearsal, but when the drama was broadcast on live television, his performance was not only flawless, it was so powerful that it led to several other important dramatic roles for him. In fact, he was nominated for an Oscar for his 1959 performance in The Diary of Anne Frank.

The broadcast of Requiem for a Heavyweight has been preserved; you can watch it by clicking HERE. You’ll notice problems with lighting, sound, and camera angles, but if you pay close attention to Ed Wynn, you’ll see the result of six decades of performing—comedy or not.

But wait. I also learned for the first time of a 1960 Desilu production called The Man in the Funny Suit, which was directed by Ralph Nelson, who also directed the television version of Requiem for a Heavyweight and the motion picture adaptation in 1962, in which Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney played the roles originated by Keenan and Ed Wynn.

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Keenan Wynn, Ralph Nelson, and Ed Wynn in The Man in the Funny Suit

The Man in the Funny Suit is a dramatization of the actual events involved in Ed Wynn’s performance in Requiem for a Heavyweight. The story portrays Keenan Wynn’s attempt to convince his father that the era of “the perfect fool” had passed, and the son’s embarrassment and frustration over the elder man’s seeming inability to master his first dramatic role. What’s remarkable about this production is that Ed and Keenan Wynn play themselves, a brave and honest decision that would have been out of the reach of lesser men. Also playing themselves are Rod Serling, former world boxing champion Max Rosenbloom, Ralph Nelson, and—in a straight role—Red Skelton. You can watch this program by clicking HERE.

Viewing these two productions—in their chronological order—is a rare opportunity to see inside the relationship between a famous father and son. I, for one, an grateful for the self-confidence and generosity of heart, on the part of both men, that made this possible.

 

 

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Doris Day - 6 - soap

DORIS DAY

If you ‘re looking for a way to do homage to Doris Day, who died today, I recommend The Thrill of It All, which she made in 1963. I’m not a fan of this genre, but this movie has been a favorite of ours since it appeared in theaters the year before we were married. The story is about Beverly Boyer, a perky wife and mother-of-two, who stumbles into a career as the spokesperson for a soap manufacturer.

Doris Day 10 - Garner - NBC

JAMES GARNER/NBC Universal

The fact that the principal product in this tale was called Happy Soap, will give you an idea of the tone of the movie. Beverly—played by Day, of course—makes a big salary from television commercials and becomes a celebrity, but the demands on her time play havoc with her marriage to Dr. Gerald Boyer, an obstetrician played by James Garner. And although I’m not crazy about slapstick, the scene in which Garner drives a Chevy convertible into a swimming pool tickles me every time I see it.

Doris Day - 11- Carl Reiner

CARL REINER

I have read that Carl Reiner, the comedy genius who wrote this screenplay with another genius, Larry Gelbart, had wanted Judy Holliday in the female lead, but Holliday became ill with what proved to be terminal cancer. I have also read that Ross Hunter, one of the producers, wanted to invite Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald to return to the screen in supporting roles, but they do not appear in the film.

Doris Day - 5 - Edward Andrews

EDWARD ANDREWS

As it turns out, the cast that did appear in this film was golden. The players included Arlene Francis, who was 56 at the time, as a patient of Garner’s character—a woman who is delighted to find herself pregnant well past the standard age for such an enterprise. Her equally delighted but frantic husband is played by Edward Andrews. I presume these were the roles Hunter had envisioned for Eddy and McDonald, but, with all due respect to those classic actors, no one could have played the parts for more laughs than did Francis and Andrews. In a scene in which the expectant couple gets stuck in city traffic when the birth is imminent, gives Andrews a chance to give the comic performance of his life.

The company also includes Reginald Owen, ZaSu Pitts, and Elliot Reid, and Reiner himself in some cameos.

Doris Day - 1I don’t know if most of the news reports of Doris Day’s death will adequately express the magnitude of her fame as a singer and movie actress. She was publicly recognized for that in many ways, including the Presidential Medial of Freedom. She was also a philanthropist with a particular interest in animal welfare.

A more jaded generation might dismiss The Thrill of It All for what it was, fluff, but it was designed as nothing more than entertainment, and it has entertained us again and again, and we have already planned to watch it again so that we can renew our appreciation for Doris Day. I know the feeling will quickly be dispelled, but we’ll give in to the fantasy once again and, when the Boyers have resolved their crisis, we’ll actually believe just briefly, that, no matter what we heard on that last newscast, everything will be all right.

 

James Holzhauer - abc

JAMES HOLZHAUER/ABC photo

I have never watched Jeopardy, and consequently I have no vested interest in how James Holzhauer has run up his record-setting winning streak. I can’t help knowing, however, that there is a kerfuffle over it in which some critics say Holzhauer is ruining the game for others. If I understand the complaint correctly, the issue is that Holzhauer’s success has as much to do with his mastery of the buzzer as it has to do with the breadth of his knowledge. Considering other moral and ethical issues confronting the Republic at the moment, I’m not sure now much urgency to assign to this one.

Joyce Brothers - Denver Post

Dr. JOYCE BROTHERS/Denver Post

The dust-up did remind me, though, of Dr. Joyce Brothers, the psychologist, who was known for the bulk of her career as a television personality and author but who first burst into the public’s consciousness as a contestant on The $64,000 Question. Several of the contestants on that show become instant celebrities. In Joyce Brothers’ case, the immediate interest was in the fact that this young woman was presenting herself as an expert on boxing. I have read that the producers recommended that topic to her, but I don’t know if that is true.

Dr. Brothers decided to seek a spot on the show in 1955 in order to shore up her family’s finances while she was caring for her daughter and her husband, Milton, was in a low-paying medical residency. She had quit teaching positions at Columbia University and Hunter College in order to stay home with her child.

Hal March

HAL MARCH/Host of “The 64,000 Question”/TV Guide

Whether she or the producers chose the topic, Dr. Brothers was not historically a boxing aficionado. Apparently a person with a strong will and outstanding capacities for concentration and retention, she memorized dozens of reference books on boxing. As a result, she won the top prize. Two years later, she won the top prize on The $64,000 Challenge in which she was pitted against seven experts on the prize ring.

The $64,000 Question was later mired in scandal as it was revealed that some of the contestants had been fed answers in advance, but Dr. Brothers was not implicated in any such scheme. In fact, it has been reported that the producers tried to derail her progress by throwing obscure questions at her, but she answered them correctly.

Whether Dr. Brothers’ approach was any less in the spirit of the show than Holzhauer’s, I’ll leave to minds more acute than my own.

Phil Baker

PHIL BAKER

Meanwhile, the name of The $64,000 Question obviously derives from the idiomatic expression “The $64 question,” meaning the most important or perplexing question in a given situation. The idiom itself originated on a radio show of the 1940s, Take It or Leave It, on which the top prize was $64—about $925 today—which a person won by answering “the $64 question.” The big prize was paid in 64 silver dollars.

Time magazine reported at the time as follows:

“Take It or Leave It gives each of five people from the studio audience a chance to answer seven questions correctly (or quit with a cash prize after any number of correct answers less than seven). Seven correct answers in a row nets the maximum $64.”

Members of the studio audience would encourage or heckle the contestants with each decision to take the money and run or move on to the next level.

The host of the show was a comic actor named Phil Baker. Time, reporting in 1944, gave this account of an incident that reflects the character of the show:

“The program pays out about $250 a week, mostly to servicemen on leave and other citizens who can use the money. Men are much more apt to shoot the $64 works than women. Men are also more apt to get Phil Baker in the kind of trouble he encountered recently when a sailor, asked to give the navy definition of ‘noise,’ gave not ‘celery,” which was right, but ‘Boston beans.” Baker gave the sailor $64 and told him to get back to his ship.”

Apparently, the producers of Take It or Leave It didn’t have to worry about ringers.

 

The emperor-to-be and me

April 30, 2019

Akihito 1

Crown Prince Akihito tries on a Yankee cap for Casey Stengel and the future Empress Michiko/Associated Press

Considering the amount of time we spent at Yankee Stadium during my youth and adolescence, it was inevitable that we would see some familiar faces. These included Jimmy Powers, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, and Faye Emerson. We also saw a face that was unfamiliar to us but not to a lot of other people who were in the ballpark that day—Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, who was sitting just to the left of the Yankee dugout with his wife, the former Michiko Shōda.

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Crown Prince Akihito throws out the first ball on October 2, 1960. My dad and I are clearly visible in the background./Getty Images

It was October 2, 1960, the last day of that season, and the prince got the proceedings under way by throwing out the first ball. He must have felt right at home; baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872, and it’s still one of the most popular sports for both spectators and participants. Akihito himself played some baseball, although I think he spent more time playing tennis.

Hirihito was still emperor of Japan in 1960, and his oldest son had been invited to the United States by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once had had a different kind of relationship with the royal family. We were sitting a couple of dozen rows behind Akihito and throughout the game we watched a steady stream of Japanese people slip down to pay their respects to him.

Dale Long

DALE LONG

To these spectators, the news of the day was of secondary importance: The Yankees won their 15th game in a row when Yankee first baseman Dale Long hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 8-7.

How much Akihito knew about Dale Long I am not aware, but there was a lot worth knowing. Long was in the eighth of his ten major-league seasons when he hit that home run, and the Yankees rewarded him by shipping him to the Washington Senators. He came back to the Yankees for 55 more games in his last two seasons, 1962 and 1963.

Jiggs Donahue

JIGGS DONAHUE

In 1956, Long set a major-league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games. That record has been matched twice, but never surpassed. In 1959, he tied another record by hitting back-to-back pinch-hit home runs. Although he was a career first baseman, in two games with the Chicago Cubs in 1958, he became the first catcher to throw left-handed since Jiggs Donahue who was a catcher and first baseman for several teams between 1900 and 1909.

I was 18 years old in 1960, and I’m sure I didn’t give much thought to Akihito, who became emperor and now has abdicated in favor of his son, beyond the fact that the folks who were trying to get up close to him kept standing in front of our box and blocking our view.

Margrethe II

QUEEN MARGRETHE II

Since then, I have wondered about modern states that still have monarchies. I raised the question once while I was having lunch with a chemist in Denmark. Why does one of the more advanced societies in the world still have a monarch? Apparently no one had asked him that before. He kind of sputtered around for a while until, referring to Margrethe II, he said, “Well, she is Denmark, isn’t she?” And then, since I had got him to thinking about the issue, he said that we Americans only delude ourselves that we don’t have royalty. We simply invest the same respect and adulation in the president and first lady and in other public figures. Fair enough.

Many years ago, I watched a game from the press box at Yankee Stadium, and the reporters were informally playing baseball trivia, trying to stump each other with questions about guys like Jiggs Donahue. There was a man standing behind the press box seats, and he was kibitzing in this contest. At one point, the reporter sitting next to me asked me, “Do you know who this is? It’s Dale Long!” It wasn’t Ted Williams or Stan Musial, but it didn’t matter. It was Dale Long, and he had played major-league baseball—major-league baseball!—something a relative handful of American men could say over the previous century and a half.

Royalty comes in many forms, and Dale Long was more than good enough for me.

 

Naming - 1When I was a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to cover the dedication of a school in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, that was named after a former mayor, James J. Flynn Jr. During the ritual, Jay Flynn, as everyone knew him, stood next to me, and at one point he leaned toward me and whispered in his gravelly voice, “They should never name a building after someone who is still alive. It’s too risky.”

Jay Flynn never made the Perth Amboy school district regret its decision and, nearly a half century later, the James J. Flynn Elementary School goes on serving the needs of the city’s youngsters. Still, I got his point. Around that same time, the name of a United States senator from New Jersey was removed from a major railroad station, because he had been convicted of accepting bribes and was sentenced to federal prison.

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MICHAEL JACKSON visits the Gardner Street Elementary School/elusiveshadow/com

And lo, I now read in the Los Angeles Times that some folks are having second, or third,  thoughts about honoring the late entertainer Michael Jackson by naming an auditorium after him in the Gardner Street Elementary School, where he was once a pupil. Jackson visited the school in 1989 to express his gratitude. In 2003, after Jackson was arrested and accused of abusing minors—he was acquitted two years later—his name over the auditorium doors was covered up. But after the singer died at least some of the public and school authorities had another change of heart, and “Michael Jackson Auditorium” was restored. And now, because of the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, which, I understand, renews accusations of abuse of minors, the propriety of honoring Jackson at an elementary school, of all places, has again been called into question.

Of course, the risk attached to heaping praise on someone doesn’t end with the person’s death. I am not equating the two episodes, but this Jackson business comes up in the same week as the absurd decisions by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers to stop playing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” at their games and, in the Flyers’ case, to remove a statue of the singer from outside the team’s arena—all because of two racially troublesome songs that she recorded nearly ninety years ago.

2009 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

HARMON KILLEBREW/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In the midst of all this, word came this month in the Idaho Statesman that, pursuant to a House Resolution passed in December, the post office in the town of Payette (2017 pop. 7,434) has been named after Harmon Killebrew, a native of the place and one of the great baseball sluggers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. A 13-time All Star, Killebrew played almost all of his career with the franchise known first as the Washington Senators and then as the Minnesota Twins. While he was playing major league ball, Killebrew joined the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, and he neither smoked nor drank. He was a gentleman on the field, even to the extreme of complimenting umpires on tough calls.

When Killebrew died in 2011, Twins President David St. Peter recalled Killebrew’s prodigious hitting, his role in establishing the Minnesota baseball franchise, but also the “class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day.” When a writer for Sports Illustrated asked Killebrew if he had a hobby, Killebrew said, “Just washing the dishes, I guess.”

What do you say, Jay? Shall we take a chance?

 

 

Kate Smith 1

KATE SMITH

Should we chip Abraham Lincoln’s image off of Mount Rushmore, because he said that black and white people could not live together in peace; because he believed the white race was superior; or because his favored disposition of freed slaves was not to establish them as American citizens with full rights but rather to ship them to a colony in Liberia?

Or should we evaluate Abraham Lincoln in the context of his whole life and conclude that, whatever disagreements we may have with him, the country is better off overall because he lived?

And what of Kate Smith, the “songbird of the South”?

Kate Smith 2.pngIn the 1930s, she recorded one song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,”  that is racially problematic and another, “Pickaninny Heaven,” that is just plain offensive. I say the first song was problematic, because it appears that the lyricist, Lew Brown, intended it as a parody of racist attitudes. That interpretation might be validated by the fact that Paul Robeson also recorded the song. There is no such room for interpretation of “Pickaninny Heaven,” a morbid and condescending lyric that Smith first addressed, on radio, to “a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City.” And Smith also was featured in a cartoon advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder that included a stereotypical image of the turbaned black cook and a “mammy doll” supposedly sent to Smith by a fan of Smith’s recipe book.

Kate Smith 4

IRVING BERLIN/Masterworks Broadway

Because of those two songs, recorded nearly ninety years ago, the New York Yankees, the team that didn’t integrate until 1955, and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would stop playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at their games, and the Flyers said they would cover the statue of Smith outside their arena.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Kate Smith the singer since I was a kid listening to her radio show with my mother. But I have also long known that Kate Smith and I would have had serious philosophical differences. Though she had been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt, she became very conservative and nationalistic, and, I gather, kind of a knee-jerk patriot who was not inclined to question authority. Her recording of “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin wrote specifically for her, famously inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land is Your Land” in response.

Kate Smith 6

JOSEPHINE BAKER

On the other hand, Kate Smith sold $600-million worth of war bonds during World War II, more than any other individual, and the number of her appearances before troops during that war was exceeded only by Bob Hope. And it’s worth mentioning here that in 1951—four years before the Yankees integrated—the highly controversial Josephine Baker, made her first American television appearance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, a show that was produced by Smith’s manager, Ted Collins. Baker, who had returned to the United States that year after a long absence, had campaigned, during her U.S. tour, against segregation of audiences. After a spat with Walter Winchell in which he suggested that she had Communist leanings, Baker’s work visa was revoked, and she returned to France. Baker, by the way, had once appeared in blackface, a sin for which I believe she has long since been forgiven.

Perhaps it’s because racial bias has persisted for so long in this country that we tend to err on the side of righteousness, but in doing so, we should not lose our sense of balance.

 

 

 

A tale of two Ruths

April 5, 2019

Baby Ruth cropped

Writing in recent posts about the namesakes of peach melba and chicken tetrazinni got me to thinking about another food that was named after a celebrity, but which celebrity I cannot say for sure. I refer to Baby Ruth, the candy bar—and a particular favorite of mine.

For many years, I was under the impression that the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of Grover and Frances Cleveland, Grover being the 22nd and 24th president of these United States. I may have been wrong, and I’ll probably never know, but the manufacturer made that claim in a legal action.

Baby Ruth Cleveland

RUTH CLEVELAND

Cleveland, who was a bachelor when he first took office in 1893, became the only president to marry in the White House when he exchanged vows with Frances Folsom. Cleveland was 49 and his wife was 21, but the American people couldn’t have been happier about the match. Ruth, the first of the Clevelands’ five children, was born between her father’s two terms as president, but the public still was very enthusiastic about her arrival. Her name for a time was a household word, but she was not a healthy child, and she died of diphtheria at the age of 12.

That was in 1904. In 1921, the Curtiss Candy Company reinvented its Kandy Kake candy bar as the Baby Ruth, with its chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and nougat. The five-cent treat was heavily marketed by Curtiss and was a big success. The company actually had airplanes drop thousands of Baby Ruths, each with a little parachute, over American cities.

Baby Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth

Coincidentally, some would have us believe, George Herman Ruth, who had established himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball with the Boston Red Sox between 1914 and 1919, had been sold to the New York Yankees. And in 1920, having forsaken the pitcher’s mound for the outfield, he hit the unheard-of total of 54 home runs, and became a national sensation. In 1921, he hit 59. Babe Ruth was well on his way to becoming one of the most widely recognized  and most enduring celebrities in human history. People of a suspicious nature speculated that Curtiss had named the candy Baby rather than Babe to avoid having to pay the ballplayer for the use of his name.

Baby Babe Ruth CandyPerhaps as a counter thrust, Babe Ruth, in 1926, gave the George H. Ruth Candy Company the right to use his name, and the company applied to register “Ruth’s Home Run Candy” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Curtiss sued the company on the grounds of  copyright infringement and claimed that Baby Ruth candy was named after the president’s daughter, who by that time had been dead for 22 years. In 1931, a patent court ruled in favor of Curtiss.

Baby Ruth signAfter the 1932 World Series, during which Ruth reputedly pointed to centerfield at Wrigley Field in Chicago and then hit a home run to that spot, Curtiss had an enormous illuminated Baby Ruth sign erected across from the ballpark, which was down the street from the candy firm’s plant. No doubt, the sign was a monument to “baby” Ruth Cleveland.

 

 

Tetrazzini - Christmas Eve

An estimated 250,000 people assemble for Tetrazzini’s Christmas Eve concert in San Francisco.

My recent post about Nellie Melba called to mind Luisa Tetrazzini, who had several things in common with Melba. Tetrazzini was also a soprano—a coloratura whose range extended to the F above high C—and a contemporary of Melba at the beginning of the 20th century. Also like Melba, Tetrazzini had an enormously successful career in opera and concert and was treated like royalty around the world. She was, by reputation, a warm and friendly woman, but one of the few people she didn’t get along was Melba.

Tetrazzini - portrait facing forwardAnd Tetrazzini, like Melba, inspired a chef, although there is disagreement about whether the chef was Ernest Arbogast at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco or an unknown practitioner at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. The dish involved is “tetrazzini,” which consists of diced chicken or seafood and mushrooms in a sauce of butter, cream, and parmesan, laced with wine or sherry. This is usually served over pasta, although there is no fixed recipe or manner of presentation. Louis Paquet, a chef at the McAlpin Hotel in New York, seems to have had a hand in making this concoction popular. Paquet and Tetrazzini were friends, and he gave her cooking lessons.

Tetrazzini - portrait facing leftThe popularity in their era of artists like Melba and Tetrazzini is hard to imagine now, because media and the nature of celebrity have changed so much. In 1910, Tetrazzini had a contract dispute with the impresario Oscar Hammerstein that was preventing her from  singing in opera houses or concert halls in the United States. The soprano, who said San Francisco was her favorite city in the world, said, “When they told me I could not sing in America unless it was for Hammerstein, I said I would sing in the streets of San Francisco, for I knew the streets of San Francisco were free.” And she did that, on Christmas Eve, in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building. The mayor of San Francisco escorted her to a platform that had been built for an orchestra and chorus that were conducted by Paul Steindorf of the city’s Tivoli Opera. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to hear a concert which Tetrazzini began with “The Last Rose of Summer” and concluded with the massive crowd joining her in “Auld Lang Syne.”

Tetrazzini - record labelTetrazzini had several failed marriages, and the last one cost her most of her fortune. When she was through performing, she returned to her native Italy and taught singing in order to support herself. She never lost her joie d’vivre, by all accounts, and used to say, “I’m old. I’m fat. But I’m still Tetrazzini!”

Click HERE to see an unusual film clip in which the 61-year-old Tetrazzini listens to a recording of Enrico Caruso singing “M’appari” from Martha and breaks into a duet with her old friend. Even at this age and with this quality of reproduction, you can get a sense of the character of her voice.

 

 

 

Sic transit and so forth

March 31, 2019

Melba Toast

When I saw this display at the supermarket today, it sent my mind reeling back to an eposide of Downton Abbey in which the Australian soprano Nellie Melba was engaged to gave a recital at the Granthams’ mansion. More precisely, this display reminded me that among the historical inaccuracies presented in that series, the visit by Nellie Melba was one of the most glaring—to anachronisms such as I am, at least.

One feature of the episode was that Charles Carson, the Granthams’ head butler, was scandalized that a mere entertainer would be invited into the house. According to the Downton Abbey storyline, Carson had been a song-and-dance man before he took on the pompous persona of a butler, but apparently he didn’t see the irony in that.

Nellie Melba

NELLIE MELBA/Lilydale Historical Society

 

Carson treated Melba—portrayed by past-her-prime soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa—as though she were a hired hand, leaving her in her room with nothing but a cup of tea. Others in the house made caustic remarks about having to sit through her performance.

Actually, by 1922, when this was supposed to have occurred, Nellie Melba was a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire for her charity work during World War I. More to it, she was one of the most celebrated singers in the world, eagerly received by royalty.

As Robert Christiansen, the opera critic for The Telegraph pointed out when the episode was first broadcast, Nellie Melba “would only have sung at a private party as a personal favour to her host. Melba was nobody’s hireling: she called all the shots, and the Granthams and their staff would have quaked at her approach.”

A story by Tom Huizenga of National Public Radio included this passage:

“Even today, Melba’s recorded voice rings clearly as a favorite of Tim Page, Pulitzer winner for criticism and professor of music and journalism at USC.

“‘There’s something sort of unreal about it,’ Page says. ‘It’s a voice of ethereal purity with perhaps the only perfect trill I’ve ever heard.’ Another celebrated Melba attribute is accuracy: ‘She hit things absolutely on pitch,’ he continues. ‘You never hear Melba sliding into a note. Her tone was as reliable as a keyed instrument. She’s just dead on.'”

Incidentally, while Melba—whose birth name was Helen Porter Mitchell—has been forgotten by all but opera buffs, her professional name lives on in the product you see above, which was named after her, as was peach melba and several other delicacies.

You can hear Nellie Melba with Enrico Caruso in the duet “O Soave Fanciulla” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme by clicking HERE.

 

Rogers 1

I must have been out of town, figuratively, when angry protesters were denouncing Fred Rogers for “tolerating” gay people. That’s what one of the protest signs—in a scene from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—accused Rogers of doing, “tolerating.”

I dislike that word and its derivatives when they are used to describe race relations or gender relations, if that’s the right term. To tolerate a class of people is to put up with them when we’d rather not. And this documentary reinforces the fact that tolerating people because they were black or gay or disabled or distinguished in some other way was precisely what Fred Rogers did not do. He accepted people as they were and, what’s more important, he taught children to do that by explicitly extending that courtesy to them.

Mr. Rogers, we learn in this presentation, was an overweight child who took some abuse from his peers. Having been belittled in that way, he made a career of promoting in the minds of children that, regardless of their individual circumstances, each one of them was of value—not in spite of but because of the fact that each one was unique.

Rogers 2

François Clemmons/PBS

I’m not sure it was made clear in the movie, but the demonstration scene seems to depict the followers of the crazed Kansas minister Fred Phelps making a nuisance of themselves during a memorial service in Mr. Rogers’ honor. Phelps hated everything about Rogers.

We learn in the documentary that Fred Rogers’ attitude toward gay people evolved in a way that was dramatized by his relationship with a prominent member of the cast of his television series. This was François Clemmons, who played a policeman in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for 25 years. This casting was groundbreaking in itself; Clemmons was one of the first black performers to have a recurring role on a children’s television show. And he was presented as an authority figure who was beloved in the neighborhood and a close friend of Mr. Rogers. The documentary includes a scene in which Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a plastic pool of water and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. When the camera zoomed in on the black feet and the white feet next to each other in that pool—at a time in our history when black swimmers were unwelcome in many pools—no words were necessary to convey the message.

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John Beale/Focus Features

Clemmons, who is a distinguished singer and university lecturer, is gay. He explains, without rancor, in the documentary that Fred Rogers—aware of the conservative mindset of corporate supporters and of the parents of many children who watched the show—advised him to stop visiting a gay nightclub and in general to keep his gender identity under wraps. Rogers went so far as to recommend that Clemmons marry—a step that Clemmons actually took with predictable results. But that was in the 1960s, and Clemmons, who says he regarded Rogers as his “surrogate father,” understood or, at least, rationalized the logic of the time—if Clemmons came out as gay, there would have been powerful pushback that Rogers was not prepared to resist.

Clemmons’ decision to continue on the show had to do with both his personal relationship with Rogers, which was deeply sympathetic and spiritual, and with Clemmons’ assessment of what was the best course for a gay performer at that moment in history. It’s easy to pass judgment on a person in that situation—as long as the person isn’t you. There is more to Clemmons’ story than this documentary could explore, but he talks about it in more detail in an article in Vanity Fair currently available at THIS LINK.

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Joanne Rogers/Getty Images – Frederick M. Brown

Fred Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says in the documentary that her husband eventually “came around” with respect to homosexuality; Clemmons, who is a prominent figure in the movie, certainly seems to be satisfied on that score.

I wasn’t aware that Phelps had aimed his vitriol at Mr. Rogers. Nor was I aware that other reactionary types had misconstrued Rogers’ message to children as suggesting that they need not struggle or even work in order to succeed—a bizarre interpretation of his assurance to children that “You are special” and “I love you as you are.”

This documentary has received nearly universal praise, but not only because it is a portrait of a beloved public figure and an important influence on two generations of children. The film is also praiseworthy because it presents Fred Rogers with no filter on the lens, as a man who had his doubts and disappointments—a radical whose radicalism knew its boundaries. Make no mistake: he was an extraordinary human being, but he wasn’t perfect, and we have no right to expect that of him. In fact, it was from Fred Rogers that we learned to love him just as he was.