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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

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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.

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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.

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I came across an audio file on YouTube that identified the contents as “a very funky version of ‘Water Boy’ by an unknown artist named Valentine Pringle.” Well, unknown to the writer, maybe, but not unknown to me. I spotted Valentine Pringle in 1962 when Harry Belafonte introduced him on “Talent Scouts,” a short-lived television show with a premise that still has traction. Pringle’s voice, which ranged from tenor to basso profundo, was startling in its beauty and its power.

I remembered his name and did everything I could in those pre-internet days to find another opportunity to hear him sing. I was a big consumer of vinyl in those days, and on most Friday nights I would visit Dumont Records in Paterson, New Jersey. Eventually, Val Pringle did show up at Dumont in two RCA LPs–“I Hear America Singing” (1963) and “Powerhouse” (1964). I still have the vinyl, and “Powerhouse” is now available on CD and iTunes.

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Pringle made a couple of other recordings; wrote some songs, including “Louise” which he wrote for Belafonte; and had some kind of a career in television and film, but nothing worthy of that voice. The entertainment industry frequently makes no sense to me.

In the 1980s Val Pringle and his wife, Thea van Maastrich, moved to Lesotho, a tiny kingdom that is surrounded by South Africa. Pringle had appeared in Lesotho on a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the United States Information Service, and I guess it appealed to him. He ran a nightclub and the Lancer’s Inn, a hotel and restaurant in Maseru.

On the night of December 13, 1999, two burglars broke into Pringle’s house. Pringle confronted the men with a pistol, but he was stabbed to death. Two men were caught and convicted of the crime.

Pringle had served in the United States Army as a specialist third-class. His ashes are buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

You can hear Pringle sing in various audio files on line, including “Water Boy” HERE, “Old Man River” HERE, “Take This Hammer” HERE, “The Mouse Song” HERE, and “Oh, Freedom” HERE.

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Smoke if ya got ’em

July 23, 2016

 

 

Johnny 1Madonna, Beyonce, Cher, Adele, Prince, Sting, Bono, Liberace.

Johnny Roventini?

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.

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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.

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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.

 

As the World Turned

July 3, 2014

DON HASTINGS photo: zimbio.com

DON HASTINGS
photo: zimbio.com

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

DON HASTINGS "The Video Ranger"

DON HASTINGS
“The Video Ranger”

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

AL HODGE and DON HASTINGS in action

AL HODGE and DON HASTINGS in action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
Mickey Rooney fiddled with his makeup kit and muttered those words again and again as though we weren’t in the room.
That was in 1973. My colleague, Andy Kudrick, and I had entered Rooney’s dressing room a few moments before and had introduced ourselves. The ritual seemed to send Rooney into a meditative trance in which we had provided the mantra: “Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
When the actor again became conscious of our presence, he said, “Sit down, but don’t ask me about Judy Garland. I don’t talk about those days. I don’t live in the past. I look forward to the future!”
Judy Garland hadn’t been on our minds, so we were comfortable with this ground rule.
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Apparently, Mickey Rooney himself was not comfortable with it. We were there to talk to him about a stage production of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was cast as Bottom. Rooney, who died yesterday, had played Puck in the 1935 film version of that play.
But before we could begin the conversation, he launched into a rambling invective against unspecified demons who, in his view, had used Judy Garland for their own profit and advancement and ultimately had destroyed her. I had read about her life, so I had some idea what he was referring to. “I loved her,” he said when he had exhausted the topic, at least for then: “I really loved her.”
Andy and I were unsettled by this outburst, because we felt as if it were an intimate moment that we had no business witnessing and because, in the seconds that followed, we didn’t know if we should remain silent, speak, or quietly leave the room.
But Rooney recovered from his reverie without so much as a “Chuck and Andy,” broke into a grin, and engaged us in a lively conversation about Bottom, Puck, and things besides.

"Miss Golightly, I protest!"

“Miss Golightly, I protest!”


I was relieved. Although entertainment personalities were part of the raw material of my profession, I had approached this particular encounter fully conscious of what an iconic figure Rooney was. He was also a personal favorite, and that was because of his enormous range as an actor, something that helps to account for a career that lasted 88 years. He became a star through what now appear to be overblown characters in both musical comedies and dramas, but over time he showed that he had a capacity for subtlety, too, as witness his performances in the feature film Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and the television movie Bill (1982).
Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, and Mickey Rooney in "Requiem for a Heavyweight"

Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, and Mickey Rooney in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”

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In a crossword puzzle I did recently, one of the answers was: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” This was a reference to what must have been one of the most successful series of television commercials ever produced. The centerpiece of these spots was the fictional supermarket manager Mr. Whipple, played by Dick Wilson, who was portrayed as catching customers squeezing the Charmin bathroom tissue because, of course, it was so soft. When he had a chance, Mr. Whipple, too, squeezed the rolls of paper. Who can resist that softness?

Dick Wilson played Mr. Whipple more than 500 times, beginning in 1964, and research showed that the commercials made the actor one of the most recognized people in the United States. And the expression itself, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” could be heard echoing throughout the land. As marketing home runs go, this was a grand slam.

Obit Wilson
Although he was vigilant about the manhandling of Charmin, Mr. Whipple was presented as a mild-mannered fellow, but that’s a credit to Dick Wilson’s acting. He was no shrinking violet. He performed in more than 80 properties, including television series in which he appeared multiple times, including Get Smart, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, M Squad, and The Lawless Years.

Wilson was born in Lancashire, England, to an Italian father and a British mother; his given name was Ricardo DiGuglielmo. Both of his parents were performers. The family moved to Canada where Wilson graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design and began working in radio and vaudeville. During World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. That seemingly bashful grocery man was among the fighter pilots who went head-to-head with the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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After the war, Wilson became an American citizen and, after working as a dancer in New York, moved to California and launched what turned out to be a long career. According to a story published in the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Wilson earned $300,000 annually for about twelve days of work on the Charmin commercials. Considering the impact he made, the bunch at Charmin no doubt considered it money well spent. But Wilson said the job was no snap. According to the same article, Wilson said doing commercials was “the hardest thing to do in the entire acting realm. You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something nice about it and get off gracefully.”

Dick Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91. Click HERE to see him in a Charmin commercial in which he catches Teri Garr in flagrante.

MANTAN MORELAND

MANTAN MORELAND

My recent post about Eddie “Rochester” Anderson got me to thinking about another black actor of that generation — Mantan Moreland, who sometimes used the name “Birmingham” Brown. Moreland was born in Louisiana in 1902 and as a child repeatedly left home to look for work in circuses and other road shows. He eventually got into vaudeville, working the tanktown circuit, but also appearing on Broadway and touring Europe.

Like many actors with similar resumes, Moreland developed a lot of skills while he was doing that work, and he eventually put them to use on the screen, appearing in at least 130 movies and television shows, but mostly movies. He worked in so-called race movies (movies made by black producers for black audiences), in shoestring productions, and in major features, and he created his most indelible impression in the role of “Birmingham” Brown, chauffeur to the film detective, Charlie Chan, who ostensibly was Chinese, though he was played by Caucasian actors. The character of “Birmingham” Brown, like most of the characters Moreland played, perpetuated stereotypes about black people. Specifically, the bug-eyed Birmingham was afraid of everything and often tried to dissuade Chan from wading into dangerous situations. His entreaty — “Mistuh Chan! Mistuh Chan!” — became familiar to millions of moviegoers in the 1940s and to a later generation of television viewers when the Charlie Chan films resurfaced on the small screen. Of course, the portrayal of Chan himself was problematic in its own way.

Monogram Studios, which made the 15 Charlie Chan films in which Moreland appeared, thought enough of his comic abilities to give him second billing in "The Scarlet Clue."

Monogram Studios, which made the 15 Charlie Chan films in which Moreland appeared, thought enough of his comic abilities to give him second billing.

The major properties Moreland appeared in included A Haunting We will Go, with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; Cabin in the Sky, and See Here, Private Hargrove. 

White filmmakers and white audiences were content for decades to take advantage of the willingness of black actors to play subservient or demeaning roles, but when the nation became uncomfortable with, or at least self-conscious about, that kind of comedy, many black performers had a hard time getting any work at all.

Mantan Moreland himself, along with many of his black peers, was conflicted about the image they presented while they were trying to establish themselves as entertainers and, not incidentally, make a living. Moreland, in hindsight, judged the epoch harshly, telling an interviewer in 1959 that he would “never play another stereotype, regardless of what Hollywood offers.”

“The Negro, as a race,” Morehead said,  “has come too far in the last few years for me to dash his hopes, dreams, and accomplishments against a celluloid wall, by making pictures that show him to be a slow-thinking, stupid dolt. … Millions of people may have thought that my acting was comical, but I know now that it wasn’t always so funny to my own people.” After that, he did appear in a few movies and in television series including Adam-12, The Bill Cosby Show, and Love American Style.

When Moreland was touring in vaudeville, he often worked with a comic named Ben Carter, and the two developed a routine known as “incomplete sentence” in which they carried on a rapid conversation in which neither could finish a sentence. It required a firm command of the material and impeccable timing. Moreland and Carter brought the routine to the movie screen by way of the Charlie Chan films. You can see clips of the routine if you click HERE.

Mantan Moreland in the 1944 film "Pinup Girl."

Mantan Moreland in the 1944 film “Pinup Girl.”