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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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?

 

 

Sally Field - 1 - Simon & Schuster -

SALLY FIELD/In Pieces/Simon & Schuster

“Why is it easier for me to write about the times in my life that felt humiliating or shameful? Is it because those are the things that still haunt me?”

Sally Field asks those questions in her remarkable memoir, In Pieces, and they imply that the distinguished actress is, in her interior life, a work in progress at 72.

“Do I hold on to those dark times as a badge of honor,” she asks, “or are they my identity? The moments of triumph stay with me but speak so softly that they’re hard to hear—and even harder to talk about.”

Sally Field - 2 - Mary Lincoln

SALLY FIELD as Mary Todd Lincoln

We know all about the moments of triumph: Sally Field has won two Oscars, three Emmys, two Golden Globe Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, and she has been nominated for a Tony Award. Not many can make that claim. She has starred in some of the finest properties available, including the television miniseries Sybil; the motion pictures Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, Absence of Malice, Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump and Lincoln; the Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie, and others.

But until Field published this memoir, we did not know about the punishing life she led away from the stage and the cameras—a lonely childhood; sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her stepfather; sexual exploitation at the hands of others; a fraught but enduring relationship with her mother—who did nothing to prevent the abuse of her child; troubled alliances with men—including Burt Reynolds, and a long struggle to be taken seriously as an actor. Field has discussed many of the details in print and broadcast interviews concerning this book.

For Field, the result of these experiences was a fractured sense of identity—hence the title—and it took her decades to even begin to assemble the fragments into a recognizable whole.

Sally Field - 3 - Margaret Morlan

MARGARET MORLAN FIELD

Field wrote this book herself—I think it took her three years; having spent the past fifty-three years as a writer, editor, and teacher of writing, I appreciate her literary skills, including her use of wry humor in a dark story and her offbeat imagery:

The most important figure in this book beside Field herself is her mother—a once stunning actress born Margaret Morlan. In one passage concerning their later life together, Field writes, “The combination of vodka and swallowed emotions had thickened her body and bloated her delicate face, making her look like a biscuit rising in the oven.”

Fields describes a complicated relationship with Reynolds, who, she writes, often tried to run her life. On one occasion, she was dressed to attend an awards ceremony, and he decided that she was too pale and insisted on slathering her with a Max Factor makeup known as Dark Egyptian.

Sally Field - 4 - npr.org

SALLY FIELD/npr.org

“(W)hen I think of that moment,” she writes, “standing nervously before a wall of mirrors as Burt carefully painted my exposed body, I realize that I’d take his Earl Scheib job over the finest hair and makeup artist anytime. True, I ended up looking like Sacagawea with very curly hair, but it was what he had to give. And it made me smile.”

This book will attract some voyeurs, but it is a serious and important work, not a Hollywood tell-all. Recent events, including the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the wave of abuse accusations against high-profile men have brought to public attention the lifelong suffering of victims and the folly of assuming that the face a person shows the world is an accurate reflection of her inner being.

It took extraordinary courage for Field to undertake this enterprise, which required her to revisit painful, shaming, and confusing episodes—an exercise in introspection that many of us might hesitate to pursue. The result is not a broadside against everyone who has ever harmed her, but rather a nuanced examination of the often conflicting emotions that have colored her life so far. And by having the strength of character to tell her story to us, she reminds us that how we treat others has consequences that can reverberate for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Mastercard Masters Of Music Festival - Hyde Park

BOB DYLAN/billboard.com

In an episode of the television series Taxi, Latka Gravas, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, is repairing a cab while his radio plays what sounds like polka music from his homeland. Cab driver Jim Ignatowski, who hasn’t gotten over the ‘sixties, stops momentarily to listen, cupping his ear and gently rocking to the beat. As he walks away, Iggy says, “You never know what Dylan is going to do next.” Ignatowski, though usually in a daze, knew a thing or two, including, it seems, the wide range of musical genres Dylan has explored—invariably making his own mark. That Taxi episode was recorded in 1979; Dylan has covered a lot of ground since then.

I have only a casual knowledge of Bob Dylan, but it was knowledge enough to draw my attention to the title of this book written by Richard F. Thomas, a professor of classics at Harvard. It struck me that Dylan’s influence has been such that, on the one hand, no one needs to explain why he matters and, on the other hand, no one can. Or perhaps I mean no one should, because I know Dylan has bristled at times at efforts to explain him and his work—and especially at efforts to fit him and his work into categories.

So because I was curious about that title—curiosity is one of my downfalls—I read the book. It was immediately apparent to me that I did not belong in Richard Thomas’s company, at least where Dylan is concerned. Thomas has vast and deep knowledge of Dylan’s career with its many phases—tableaux might be a better word; with his songs and how they have slipped in and out of the repertoire; with the shifting devotion of his fans; with his odyssey through musical genres and his spawning of new ones; with his live performances; with his other artistic expressions; with the fuzzy distinction between truth and fantasy in his recollections, and with his personal life. Dylan fans—real fans—might revel in Thomas’s exposition of Dylan and his songs, done in accessible language and in a relatively compact space.

What absorbed me most in this book was what Thomas presented as Dylan’s early and continuing interest in the culture of ancient Rome and his incorporation of classical Greek and Roman poetry into his lyrics. In his Nobel lecture, Dylan spoke of the influence that Homer’s Odyssey has had on him and on many other writers.

Thomas sees the connection between Dylan and the ancients as a great deal more than plagiarism or “creative use of existing texts.” With respect to Ovid, Virgil, Homer, and that whole crowd, Thomas writes, “For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today and incapable of being contained by time and space.”

And Dylan’s take? He recalls reading Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelius: “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a school teacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

Rogers 3

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.

 

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whiffenpoofs.com

A friend told me during a party the other day that when he moved to Garden City, New York, many years ago, he inquired about joining the choir in the local Catholic Church and discovered that it was an all-male ensemble.

Beside the fact that this expression of machismo denied women a role in this particular ministry of the Church, the policy was diminishing the force as older members who moved, retired, or partook in eternal Glory, were not being replaced by new voices.

For a while, anyone who raised the prospect of inviting a wife or sister or daughter was shouted down, and my friend, as a newcomer, remained aloof from this controversy. Eventually however, after he got his sea legs, he spoke up for equity, to say nothing of survival, and the choir finally welcomed the women.

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The Whiffenpoofs of 1912, in ballet costume, with Louis Linder.

The process may have been different—although I have read that there was an ugly and abortive attempt in the 1980s—but a well-known singing aggregation has more recently taken a similar leap into the modern world. Well, yes, they will serenade their Louie, at least in spirit, but their song will have a new dimension—a female voice.

I refer to the Whiffenpoofs, the a cappella group composed of Yale University seniors that, for the first time in its 109-year-history, has admitted a female singer to its ranks. She is Sofia Campóamor, who sings soprano in another Yale ensemble but has a vocal range that equips her to sing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs, beginning in the next academic year. You can hear her singing “Say So,” one of her own compositions—and buy it if you like it—by clicking HERE.

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Louis Linder

In a parallel development, Whim ‘n Rhythm, an all-female a cappella group at the university, has decided to admit singers regardless of gender, based on their vocal range. So Whim ‘n Rhythmn will run out the sopranos and altos, and the Whiffenpoofs will present tenors, baritones, and basses.

The Whiffenpoofs, the oldest and best-known of Yale’s several a cappella groups, close their concerts with their namesake song, the one that begins, “To the tables down at Mory’s, / to the place where Louie dwells, / to the dear old Temple Bar we love so well,” and later promises, “We will serenade our Louie / while voice and song shall last, / then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest.” It’s a pessimistic sentiment, so it’s just as well that the Whiffenpoofs don’t take it seriously. You can get an idea of their treatment of the song by clicking HERE.

Whiffenpoofs 3 Rudy Vallee

Rudy Vallèe

The song was published as sheet music in 1909. The chorus was taken almost verbatim from Runyard Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen Rankers.” The poem was set to music by Guy H. Scull and adapted for Whiffenpoof purposes by with lyrics by Meade Minnigerode and George Pomeroy. Rudy Vallèe—with whom the song was widely associated—made a hit recording in 1937 and Bing Crosby did the same in 1947. It has been recorded by a host of others, a widely diverse group that includes Elvis Presley, Count Basie, Perry Como, and the Statler Brothers.

“Louie” refers to Louis Linder, a German immigrant who, in the late 19th century, bought what was then already a hallowed old restaurant that catered to Yale undergraduates. Eventually, the place was acquired by a non-profit organization founded by Yale alumni, and its furniture and other appointments were moved to a new location. The institution, Mory’s Temple Bar, which has experienced and recovered from hard times, is now a membership club where the Whiffenpoofs regularly hold forth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Lindquist, writing in the Indianapolis Star, recently took note of the end of the television series The Middle by recalling 20 fictional characters that, as Lindquist wrote, “put Indiana on the map.”

I’m pretty sure that Indiana, which I understand has been populated since around 8,000 years before the birth of Jesus, has been “on the map” at least since 1800 when Congress defined the Indiana Territory, which included what is now the sovereign state, so to speak.

Raggedy 3 Johnny Gruelle

Johnny Gruelle

Anyway, the characters that Lindquist cites for reminding us of Indiana in more recent times included James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” who was from Greenfield; M*A*S*H surgeon Frank Burns, who was from Fort Wayne; and Woody Boyd of Cheers, who was from Hanover.

And Linquist’s Hall of Indiana Fame included Raggedy Ann and Andy, who were created by former Indianapolis Star cartoonist Johnny Gruelle who featured them in a series of children’s books that he wrote and illustrated. Gruelle made the first Raggedy Ann doll in 1915 and published the first book, Raggedy Ann Stories, in 1918, and the second, Raggedy Andy Stories, in 1920. Ann and Andy were siblings. I suppose they still are. For a time, the dolls and the books were sold together.

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My personal Ann and Andy, circa 1968

Although there are alternative versions of the origin of Raggedy Ann, it appears that was planted in Gruelle’s mind when he found a homemade rag doll in the attack of his parents’ home in Indianapolis and mused that the doll could be the subject of a story. After his daughter, Marcella, was born, and Gruelle observed her playing with dolls, he was inspired to write what became the Raggedy Ann stories.

It is not true, as is often reported, that his daughter found the doll in the attic; nor is it true that Gruelle created Raggedy Ann as a tribute to Marcella after she died, at the age of 13, as a result of a contaminated injection. Anti-vaccination interests have adopted Raggedy Ann as a symbol, based on the latter myth, but Marcella’s death was attributable to the contamination, not to the vaccination itself.

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Mug purchased by my parents circa 1941

As for the name of the doll, it is notable that Gruelle’s father, Richard, an artist, was a friend of James Whitcomb Riley, whose poems included “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie”—though why “orphant” rather than “orphan” I am not aware.

Gruelle’s inspiration after finding the forgotten doll has lived on in many forms besides the books, including animated films, a television series, a comic book, a stage play, and a Broadway musical.

Johnny Gruelle was an exceptional talent whose work appeared in theRaggedy 5 Twee Deedle Star as well as the Toledo News-Bee, the Pittsburgh Press, the Tacoma times, and the Spokane Press. In 1911, he and about 1500 other aspirants entered a cartooning contest sponsored by the New York Herald, and Gruelle won with a creation he called Mr. Twee Deedle. The strip ran in the Herald  for several years. Not too raggedy at that.

You can read a lot about the history of Raggedy Ann and Andy by clicking HERE.

“Who wants people?”

July 21, 2017

Stockton 1

As misanthropic as that title sounds—”Who wants people?”—misanthropy wasn’t what Lorenz Hart had in mind when he wrote that lyric in 1935 to go along with Richard Rodgers’  melody for “There’s a Small Hotel.”

No, Hart was thinking about solitude when he wrote, “Looking through the window / You can see a distant steeple /Not a sign of people, who wants people?” It was all about a couple, Junior and Frankie, who were planning get cozy in a remote way station where, according to Hart’s imagination, the amenities included “cheerful prints of Grant and Grover Cleveland” and an organ that was tuned every other fall.

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

By most accounts, Hart’s lyric was inspired by Rodgers’ visit to a place most recently known as the Stockton Inn, a restaurant and hotel whose history can be traced to a quarry-stone residence that was built in Stockton, New Jersey, hard by the Delaware River, in 1710, and still stands as the focal point of the establishment.

That area along the Delaware, including New Hope, Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw to the south, was once the haunt of New York’s creative community, including the Algonquin crowd.

If Dorothy Parker and Scott Fitzgerald were heading for the inn now, they’d be disappointed. We rushed down there for dinner recently after reading that it was closing in a week. It appears, and one hopes, that the original building will be preserved in the comprehensive redevelopment envisioned for the site. The structure does appear in a rendering, posted on the inn’s web site, of the mixed-use development proposed for the property.

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Jimmy Durante

Meanwhile, “There’s a Small Hotel” has a quirky history in that Rodgers and Hart wrote it for “Jumbo,” a famous Broadway show—and later a movie—produced by Billy Rose. It was in that show that Jimmy Durante got to utter one of the shortest and most enduring lines in Broadway lore. Durante is leading a live elephant across the stage in order to keep it from being seized as the circus goes bankrupt. He is stopped by a sheriff who asks, “Where are you going with that elephant?” to which Durante replies, “What elephant?”

Anyway, “There’s a Small Hotel” was cut from “Jumbo” because the show was running too long, but it was introduced by Ray Bolger and Doris Carson in 1936 in the Rodgers and Hart hit “On Your Toes.”

Hart reputedly didn’t like the melody of the song, and frequently made fun of it in Rodgers’ presence by making up off-color lyrics. Others took to the tune, though, and it has been recorded by Josephine Baker (in French), Erroll Garner, Petula Clark, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstein, Della Reese, Barbara Cook, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Orbach, and Frank Sinatra (in the soundtrack of “Pal Joey”).

You can hear Carmen MacRae and Sammy Davis Jr. sing their version of “There’s a Small Hotel” by clicking HERE.

Ink Spots 3When we saw Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in November, he recalled—again—how he was having a beer after a gig in Chicago when he was approached by a young man who wanted Arlo to listen to a song. Arlo grudgingly agreed. The young man was Steve Goodman, the song was “City of New Orleans,” and rest is—well, never mind the cliche.

It’s one of those “near miss” stories. If Arlo had told Goodman to buzz off, who knows how history would have been altered?

The same goes for Jack Lawrence—or so it seems. There are differing accounts of this event, but according to Marv Goldberg in his book More Than Words Can Say: The Music of the Ink Spots, Lawrence made a cold-call visit on January 12, 1939 to the Decca Records recording studio in Manhattan where The Ink Spots were about to cut “Knock Kneed Sal,” and offered his own composition, “If I Didn’t Care.”

Jack Lawrence

JACK LAWRENCE

The Ink Spots, whose membership evolved over the years, had been around since the early 1930s and by the middle of the decade were popular in the United States and abroad. They continued performing into the mid 1950s, although other groups peddled themselves as the originals for many years after that.

“If I Didn’t Care” was the first studio recording in which The Ink Spots used a style that would become the group’s trade mark. The lead vocal was sung by tenor Bill Kenny, and a spoken bridge was provided by bass Hoppy Jones.

Kenny, who is often cited as a forerunner of Johnny Mathis, sang with a precise, elegant diction and a remarkable high register. Jones would recite the bridge in a colloquial drawl, improvising on the original lyrics and peppering them with terms such as “darlin,” “honey chile,” “doggone,” and “askaird.”

Ink Spots 1I recently bought a double-CD collection of 50 of The Ink Spots’ recordings, the preponderance of them delivered in this fashion. I was familiar with The Ink Spots because my parents were fans of theirs, and there were some of the group’s Decca records around our house. But until I listened to the collection I just bought, I didn’t appreciate the effect created by the contrast between Kenny’s refined phrasing and Jones’s down-home style.

Besides Kenny’s purported influence on Mathis, The Ink Spots are regarded as ancestors of  the R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and doo-wop groups of later generations.

“If I Didn’t Care” never got higher than No. 2 on the pop charts, but it sold 19 million copies, making it the tenth best-selling single of all time. Their numerous other hits included “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “My Prayer,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and “Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.”

Ink Spots 2My favorite among their recordings is “Whispering Grass,” written in 1940 by Fred Fisher and his daughter, Doris Fisher. Perhaps it appeals to me because the lyric seems to have been inspired by Kahlil Gibran: “If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” You can hear “Whispering Grass” by clicking HERE.

You can hear “If I Didn’t Care” by clicking HERE.

Ink Spots 5

Billy Bowen, Bill Kenny, Hoppy Jones, and Bernie Mackey at the Club Zanzibar in New York City, October 18, 1944. Hoppy Jones died that same day.