July 23, 2016
Using only one name has been an effective marketing device for a lot of entertainers, and for none more effectively than for Johnny. When I was a young boy, my mother told me that my father had been at some public event the previous night, and that had met Johnny. She didn’t have to say his last name—none of us knew his last name; I knew immediately that she meant the diminutive bellboy who pitched Phillip Morris cigarettes.
On radio, on television, in print ads, and in public appearances, Johnny was one of the most familiar figures of his time, with his snappy uniform, his tray with the written message on it, and his high pitched announcement: “Call … for … Phillip Mahr-rayss.” That’s how he pronounced it, as you can hear at the beginning of this Lucy and Desi ad.
Johnny, who was born in Brooklyn in 1910, was forty-seven inches tall as an adult and weighed about 59 pounds. He was employed in the 1930s as a bellboy at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan in an era when hotel lobbies were elaborate gathering places. Uniformed bellboys were fixtures in these spaces, often calling out the names of persons for whom there were inquiries or telephone or written messages. The New Yorker used Johnny’s size as a promotional gimmick.
Johnny came to the attention of Milton Blow, whose advertising agency had the Phillip Morris account. Blow brought a Phillip Morris executive to the lobby to watch Johnny in action and, according to Roventini, asked Johnny to page “Phillip Morris.” If that story is true, no one answered the page, but the impromptu audition launched the young man into what turned out to be a lucrative, forty-year career as the public image of the Phillip Morris brand. He also became one of the most recognizable celebrities of his time and was welcome in the company of everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Dwight Eisenhower.
Johnny Roventini’s fame was advanced significantly when Phillip Morris agreed in 1951 to sponsor the television series I Love Lucy, a show that was shunned by advertisers who in those times were afraid of the public reaction to a marriage between a Cuban man and an American woman. Roventini became personally attached to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and he and the sponsor stood by Ball after news reports that the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating charges that Ball had Communist connections.
I have never smoked a cigarette, but I grew up in an era in which smoking and cigarette advertising were pervasive. People of my age will remember the campaigns—”LSMFT” (“Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”), “Pall Mall (pronounced ‘pell mell’). Outstanding—and they are mild!” And the campaign that drove English teachers to distraction, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” But no tobacco campaign had Johnny’s personality.
After public awareness of the lethal effects of smoking led to a federal ban on broadcast cigarette advertising in 1970, Johnny continued to make public appearances on behalf of the brand until 1974. He died in 1988.
April 3, 2015
When a young new colleague arrived at my workplace, his name caught my attention. His first name is Sterling. He is the second person of that name that I’ve worked with, but the first instance goes back at least 35 years. Sterling is not a name I associate with men in their twenties. However, I checked on a web site that tracks the frequency of male names, and I found that Sterling has been making a comeback. Its popularity peaked in the 1890s when it ranked 388th out of 1,000 boys’ names. It went into a steady decline after that until the 1960s, when it ranked 497th. Then it had a resurgence and was 512th in the 1980s. Then there was a precipitous drop to 872nd place by 2008, and then a very sharp revival that carried it to 684th place in 2012 — the last year for which figures are available. To put these rankings in real terms, when the name Sterling was at its peak of popularity just before the turn of the 20th century, it was pinned on about 122 of every million babies born.
There were two well-known actors named Sterling. One was Sterling Hayden whose career stretched from 1941 to 1982. My new co-worker’s full name is very similar to that of the second actor, Sterling Holloway. He was named after his father, Sterling Price Holloway, who ran a grocery store in Cedartown, in northwestern Georgia, and served as mayor there in 1912. He in turn was named after Sterling Price, a lawyer and slave-holding tobacco planter in Missouri. He served as governor of the state from 1853 to 1857 and as a member of Congress. Price was a brigadier general in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War and a Confederate Army major general during the Civil War. I gather he was much more successful in the first war than in the latter. After the Civil War, he led his troops into Mexico and was rebuffed when he tried to enlist in the service of the colonial Emperor Maximillian. That episode inspired the 1969 movie “The Undefeated” which starred John Wayne and Rock Hudson. But I digress.
I first became aware of Sterling Holloway when he had a recurring role as Waldo Binney, the next-door neighbor to Chester A. Riley and his family in the television series “The Life of Riley.” Holloway had an odd voice and an unconventional appearance, and Waldo Binney was a quirky character, so he quickly became a favorite of mine. I didn’t know when he appeared in “The Life of Riley” in 1953-1956 that he had been a professional actor since 1926, when he appeared in a silent film called “The Battling Kangaroo.” He eventually performed either on screen or as a voice actor in at least 177 film and television properties as well as commercials, stage productions, radio shows, and recordings. In 1975 he shared a Grammy Award for the best recording for children, “Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too.” Working for Walt Disney Studios, he lent his high-pitched voice to Mr. Stork in “Dumbo,” Adult Flower in “Bambi,” the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland,” Kaa in “The Jungle Book,” Roquefort in “The Aristocats,” and Winnie-the-Pooh in several films, TV shows, and recordings.
Holloway’s off-beat voice lent itself very well to certain kinds of songs, and he introduced two standards — “I’ll Take Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery” — while he was appearing on Broadway in “Garrick Gaieties,” a revue by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, in 1925 and 1926. You can see Holloway’s touching performance of the song “The End of a Perfect Day” in the 1940 film “Remember the Night” by clicking HERE. The song was written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs-Bond. I understand NBC owns the rights to this film.
You can hear Holloway’s voice-over in a Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercial from the 1950s by clicking HERE.
December 14, 2014
I recently joined a Facebook group devoted to The Honeymooners, and one of the discussion strings included a reference to the fact that Art Carney had appeared in a television production of Harvey,a play published in 1944 by Mary Chase. The play ran on Broadway for more than 1700 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945, which might have been more understandable at the time than it is now, particularly in view of the fact that one of the plays the Pulitzer jury passed over was Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
There have been many adaptations of Harvey, and the first one done for television was the production that Carney appeared in in 1958.The production was performed live as part of a series known as The DuPont Show of the Month. The story focuses on Elwood Dowd, played by Carney, a man who lives on a large inheritance and shares his home with his sister, Veta Louise Simmons, and her unmarried daughter, Myrtle Mae. Although Dowd for a large part of his adult life was a conventional man who was widely admired in his small home town, he has now become notorious for claiming as his best friend, and introducing to anyone who will listen, an invisible six-foot-one rabbit named Harvey. His behavior disrupts Veta’s efforts to maintain some standing in society and Myrtle Mae’s hopes of attracting a beau. They attribute Harvey’s “existence” to Dowd’s habitual drinking. Veta’s agitation is worsened by the fact that she imagines she has seen Harvey once or twice herself. Goaded by Myrtle Mae, Veta decides to take decisive action and have Elwood committed for treatment of mental illness, and the action of the play is generated by that decision.
Although this play was performed live, there is a kinescope of it which is available on the Internet. I saw the show when it was broadcast, and I have been eager to see it again, so I recently bought the DVD. James Stewart’s performance as Elwood in the 1950 film version is difficult to surpass, but this TV version has a life of its own. The casting and the performances were admirable. Carney, who sheds his Ed Norton persona, plays the role in a manner more understated than Stewart’s, and that’s intriguing in its own way because if Elwood Dowd is nothing else he is content with his life. Veta is played by Marion Lorne, who was a stage actress for fifty years before she became one of the most popular character actors on television in the 1950s and 1960s. She was particularly well known for her work on Mr. Peepers, The Gary Moore Show, and Bewitched. She specialized in playing a bumbling figure who couldn’t form a coherent sentence and who could be upset by almost anything that departed from the normal. Miss Kelly, a nurse at the sanitarium where Veta wants Elwood confined, is played by 25-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery, who would later work with Lorne on Bewitched. Myrtle Mae is played by 32-year-old Charlotte Rae. The wonderful Fred Gwynne has a brief but effective and pivotal turn as E.J. Loffgrin, a cab driver who gives Veta a dose of reality concerning the likely consequences of forcing Elwood back to “normal.”
Jack Weston, one of the most versatile actors of his era, plays Wilson, the amorous orderly at the sanitarium. Loring Smith, a fine stage actor, plays Dr. Chumley, director of the sanitarium, and the great character actress Ruth White plays the sympathetic Mrs. Chumley.
For a kinescope, the quality of the DVD is not bad, and it has some historical interest because it includes some elaborate promotional ads for DuPont as well as commercials for Piels beer (with Burt and Harry) and Parliament cigarettes.
November 25, 2014
My wife and I were staying at a hotel in Warsaw a couple of decades ago when we happened to catch on TV a series called “Miodowe lata,” which, I’m told, means “The Honeymoon Years.” The scenes were in contemporary Warsaw and the series was shot in color, but something about it looked familiar. We’re not conversant in Polish, but when we had watched the episode long enough, we realized that the actors were performing the episode of “The Honeymooners” in which Ralph becomes the janitor in the apartment building. The lead character, whose name in the series is Karol Krawczyk, is a conductor on a trolley in Warsaw. His neighbor is Tadeusz Norek. I learned later that the series was produced from 1998 until at least 2004 by the Polish broadcast network Polsat. We wondered as we watched the episode whether the producers had sought permission to use that story line, but as the credits rolled we saw the Viacom logo, which seemed to answer the question. According to an article in “Variety,” the first episode of “Miodowe kata” in 1998 attracted an estimated 40 percent of the viewing audience. The average share for Polsat shows at the time was in the range of 17 to 25 percent.
There also have been versions of “The Honeymooners” in Indonesia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden.
There’s a whole episode of “Miodowe kata” at the link below, and there are more available on YouTube.
November 6, 2014
When Joyce Randolph marked her 90th birthday recently, I took a glance at the Wikipedia article about her to see how recently it had been updated. Among the things I read there was that she was recruited to play Trixie Norton in Jackie Gleason’s series The Honeymooners after Gleason saw her doing a commercial for Clorets, which was a chlorophyl gum on the order of Chicklets. That isn’t what she told me when I visited her at her Central Park West apartment in 1976. On that occasion, she said that she had first been hired by Gleason to appear in a serious sketch he insisted on performing on his comedy-variety show, The Cavalcade of Stars, which was then being broadcast on the Dumont Network, originating at WABD, Channel 5, in New York.
“Gleason liked to write for the show or suggest things to the writers,” Joyce told me. “This time he wanted to do a serious sketch about a down-in-the-heels vaudevillian who meets a woman he loved many years before. We did very little rehearsing, and when we went on with it people were a little flabbergasted. They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or what. A couple of weeks later, the part of Trixie came up, and Gleason said, ‘Get me that serious actress.’ ” Perhaps the Clorets commercial got her cast in the dramatic turn, but however Joyce got cast as Trixie Norton, she became an immortal among television actors. The Honeymooners first appeared in October 1951 as a six-minute sketch on The Cavalcade of Stars. The sketch became one of the regular features on the show; Trixie Norton was introduced as a former burlesque dancer and was played, in only one episode, by Elaine Stritch before Joyce Randolph got the part. In later and less successful iterations of The Honeymooners Trixie was played by Jane Kean, but the part is universally associated with Joyce Randolph.
That is true, in part, because Joyce played the part when The Honeymooners was broadcast as a free-standing half-hour sitcom in 1955 and 1956. Those thirty-nine episodes are among the most revered examples of American television comedy. While many shows from that era — Our Miss Brooks and The Life of Riley, for instance — seem stilted in retrospect, The Honeymooners still entertains viewers who have seen the episodes over and over again. Joyce didn’t claim to know definitely why that should be so, but she speculated that one factor was the spontaneity of the performances. “We filmed a show once, and we did it with an audience,” she told me. “We’d start at 8 o’clock and we’d be finished by 8:30, just as though we did it live.” She said the cast would rehearse on Monday and Tuesday and film a show on Wednesday, then rehearse on Wednesday and Thursday and film a show on Friday.” Gleason himself frequently skipped rehearsals and missed cues and confused the lines during the filming, but there were no breaks or re-takes, so those mistakes were preserved as part of the shows. Joyce Randolph told me that in those early days of television, some audience members became so absorbed in the show that they lost their sense of what was real and what was not. “In fact,” she said, “people used to send in draperies and tablecloths for the set; they thought the Kramdens really lived like that.”
Joyce Randolph was kind of the Zeppo Marx in the Honeymooners act, because her own personality was not that distinctive (perhaps making her a perfect choice to play the wife of a New York City sewer worker) and she was playing fourth fiddle to three strong character actors — Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. Still, her own genuine earnest and wholesome quality came through in Trixie’s persona, which is why no one really could replace her in that part.
July 3, 2014
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
November 22, 2013
From time to time, I hear myself calling Marcello the Cat by another name — Ishkabibble. Usually it’s an unconscious substitution, but I caught myself at it the other day and had a vague recollection that I first heard that name from my mother and that she told me that it was the name of a character on a radio show. Since I can’t ask Mom about it any more and time is running out for me, I looked it up and found out that, indeed, there was a radio personality, Merwyn Bogue, who went by that nickname.
Bogue was headed for a career in law but his comic bent and his skill with the cornet led him into the entertainment business. He was associated for many years with Kay Kyser’s orchestra — even while he served in the Army during World War II — and he appeared on Kyser’s radio and television show, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge.
Bogue’s stage routine was laced with horn playing and nonsensical babble, but he was sharp enough in real life that he managed Kyser’s band from 1931 to 1951. He also appeared in ten movies between 1939 and 1950.
When the market for his brand of entertainment dried up, Bogue made a living in real estate.
According to Bogue his stage name was taken from the title of a song — “Ische ka bibble” — ostensibly a Yiddish expression meaning “I should worry?” I have read in several sources, however, that the title is gibberish, not Yiddish. The song Bogue referred to was written in 1913 with music by George W. Meyer and words by Sam Lewis. This song apparently made the term almost immediately popular as a nonsense expression. Some folks who dabble in language think Ishkabibble could be derived from one of several actual Yiddish expressions, such as “Nish gefidlt,” meaning “It doesn’t matter to me.” There’s a three-minute video about Merwyn Bogue’s life at THIS LINK.
November 21, 2013
My mind has been wandering for a couple of weeks, but yesterday I caught myself humming “Just a Love Nest,” and that nudged me back to the topic of performers’ theme songs. “Just a Love Nest” was one of the best known of that category — the theme for George Burns and Gracie Allen on their radio and television shows. The song, with music by Otto Harbach and words by Louis Hirsch, was written in 1920 for the musical Mary, which was produced by George M. Cohan. The chorus, which provided the melody line adopted by Burns and Allen, was appropriate both for their domestic comedy and for their personal lives, which constituted one long love story:
Just a love nest
Cozy with charm,
Like a dove nest
Down on a farm.
A veranda with some sort of clinging vine,
Then a kitchen where some rambler roses twine.
Then a small room,
Tea set of blue;
Best of all, room—
Dream room for two.
Better than a palace with a gilded dome,
Is a love nest
You can call home.
“Love Nest” was Hirsch’s most successful song, but he was a prolific composer as well as an accomplished pianist. Between 1910 and 1924 he wrote scores for twenty-four musical shows, including four editions of the Ziegfeld Follies. He often contributed to the story line of the shows he worked on. He was one of the nine founders of the American Association of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and he was a director of the organization for seven years.
No doubt we would have heard a lot more from Hirsch, but he died of pneumonia in 1924 at the age of 36. Treatment pneumonia was in its infancy at that time, and the disease was still a leading cause of death in the United States.
Otto Harbach, on the other hand, lived to be 89, and he wrote the lyrics of an impressive list of hit songs, including “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Indian Love Call,” “Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine,” “I Won’t Dance (Don’t Ask Me),” “One Alone,” and “Yesterdays.” Among the shows he worked on were No, No, Nanette, Rose-Marie, The Desert Song, and Roberta.
Harbach was also a founding member of ASCAP and served the organization in various capacities, including as president.
There is a recording of “Just a Love Nest” made in 1920 by a popular tenor named John Steel. You can hear it at THIS LINK.
October 10, 2013
As I continue my recent reminiscences about the theme songs of entertainers, I’m struck by the contrast between the outrageous comic persona of Milton Berle and the sentimental character of his signature tune, “Near You.” Berle, largely forgotten by later generations, was the first major television star and one of the most popular figures in the United States. He started performing in silent movies when he was a child and later was a success in musical theater, vaudeville, and radio. After he brought his slapstick routines and outlandish costumes to television in 1949, he dominated the medium for several years and is generally credited with doubling the sales of TV sets.
The song Berle chose as his closing theme had music by Francis Craig and lyrics by Kermit Goell. Craig, who had his own dance band, also wrote the hit song “Beg Your Pardon” and a tune called “Dynamite” which is the fight song of his alma mater, Vanderbilt University. The lyricist, Kermit Goell, had an interesting background including a degree in agriculture from Cornell and experience excavating historic sites in Turkey with his sister, Theresa, who was an archaeologist. Goell was also an Army Air Force veteran of World War II.
The lyric of “Near You,” which was published in 1947, begins like this: There’s just one place for me, near you / It’s like heaven to be near you . . . .” As I recall, Berle would appear on stage at the end of his show and sing, “There’s just one place for me, near you / Only one place for me, and that’s near you ….” and then say his good-night while the music continued.
Craig’s own recording of “Near You,” spent 21 weeks on the Billboard Best Sellers chart, hitting number one. The record was number one on the “Most Played By Jockeys” chart for 17 consecutive weeks, which was the record for both a song and for an artist on any chart. The Black-Eyed Peas broke the record for an artist in 2009, but with two songs — “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.”
“Near Me” has been recorded by Andy Williams, Roger Williams, Nat King Cole, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. You can hear the Andrews Sisters’ recording by clicking HERE.
September 27, 2013
Jack Benny occasionally played his theme song on the violin, but to my knowledge, he never sang it on the air, if at all. That makes Benny and “Love in Bloom,” the topics of my last post, unusual among performers and their signature songs. Perhaps the best example of the more typical approach is Bob Hope and “Thanks for the Memory.”
Hope’s theme, as it happens, was written by the same artists who wrote “Love in Bloom.” Ralph Rainger composed the music, and Leo Robin provided the lyrics.
Rainger and Robin wrote the song for The Big Broadcast of 1938, the last in a series of such musical films from Paramount. This plot for this one involved a trans-Atlantic race by two ocean liners. The ensemble included W.C. Fields, Hope and Ross, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, Ben Blue, and Kirsten Flagstad.
Ross and Hope play a couple who are near the point of divorce. In “Thanks for the Memory,” they reminisce about the high and low points of their relationship — a relationship, incidentally, which survives after all. The song won an Academy Award.
Ross and Hope got to team up the following year and sing another song that became an American classic: “Two Sleepy People” by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael. That duet was in a film titled “Thanks for the Memory.”
Hope adopted “Thanks for the Memory” as his theme, and sang it at the end of his live and televised performances for the rest of his career, changing the lyrics to fit the situation. It was an interesting choice for a comedian, because its original meaning was melancholy, and even when Hope’s writers put humorous lines in it, the sad undercurrent was always there. That was particularly true when Hope sang “Thanks for the Memory” at the end of the many shows he performed for American troops.
Ralph Rainger wrote scores for at least 40 movies. He would have written for many more, but he was killed in an air collision in 1942 when he was only 41 years old. The DC-3 he was traveling on collided with a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber over Palm Springs.
You can see and hear Bob Hope and Shirley Ross singing “Thanks for the Memory” in The Big Broadcast of 1938″ by clicking HERE.