March 11, 2017
The season-ending episode of the British television series “Victoria” gave us a glimpse of Edward Oxford, the first of eight people who attempted to assassinate the British queen who reigned from 1837 to 1901. We last see the young man in a straitjacket, which is giving Oxford short shrift.
The incident occurred in 1840, substantially as it was presented in the television show. Victoria and her husband, Albert, were taking their customary carriage outing, accompanied only by two outriders, when Oxford, who was 18 years old, fired a pistol at them. Neither royal was injured, and it turned out that there was only powder in the weapon.
Oxford, who later said he fired at the queen only to draw attention to himself, had been accumulating weapons and ammunition and noodling around with a fictional military society. He was adjudged insane and sent first to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Bethlem, Southwark, and then to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire. Victoria was portrayed in the television program as accepting the decision of the jury, but in actual fact she maintained that if Oxford had hanged, the later attempts on her life might not have happened. The series has been renewed for a second season, so maybe that aspect of the story will come out.
Oxford made the most of his time within the walls. He learned to draw, play the violin, and speak several languages, and he made himself useful as a painter and decorator. He was also known for his exceptional skill at chess and checkers. He was eventually declared sane and released on the condition that he live somewhere in the British Empire other than England.
Oxford went to Melbourne in southern Australia, where he adopted the name John Freeman, found employment as a house painter, and joined the West Melbourne Mutual Improvement Society.
In 1881, he got married to a widow who had two children. He became a lay official at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, and he wrote articles for a newspaper, The Argus, about the city’s slums, markets, and racetracks. These articles provided the material for a book published in 1888, Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life. John Freeman, or John Oxford–both, really–died in 1900.
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.
January 25, 2015
Joe Franklin, who died yesterday, once did a live show at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, here in New Jersey, and a colleague of mine went to cover it. He came back with several anecdotes that confirmed the impression we already had of this unique personality who had been a fixture on New York radio and television for decades. For example, my colleague related that after the show a young man introduced himself to Franklin and explained that he was trying to get started in a career as a comedian. Without taking a second to think, Franklin said, “Meet me on the northwest corner of Times Square and Forty-second street at ten o’clock Monday morning. I’ll make you very happy.” And he made the young man happy by taking him to the WOR-TV studio and putting him on that day’s talk show.
When my colleague’s story had been published, he decided to go to Manhattan in person to deliver copies to Franklin. I accepted the invitation to go along. When we arrived at the studio, Franklin was in the last quarter-hour of his show. Once the broadcast was over, we approached Franklin, and my colleague introduced me and turned over the tear sheets. Franklin grinned and, without missing a beat, said, “Why don’t you guys come on the show?” Mind you, he had never seen me or, for that matter, heard of me before. “What would we talk about?” I asked him. “You can co-host the show, interview the guests.” And so we did.
Sometime after that, my colleague and I were discussing Joe Franklin with others in the newsroom, and I said, “I’ll bet that if we called him up and asked if we could come on the show again, he’d say yes.” My colleague decided to test that theory. He said he wasn’t sure Joe remembered him, but the sentence was hardly spoken before Joe blurted out a date, and we went on again.
We had no illusions about any of this. Joe wasn’t Dave Letterman. It was probably a constant challenge for him to fill his dance card. Still, he had a lot of friends and he often scored a guest with somewhat more status than we had. In fact, on one of the shows we were on, one of the guests was Charles Hamilton, who was one of the best-known handwriting experts and autograph dealers of his time. He had debunked the so-called Hitler Diaries in 1983. But even when his guests were from the middle of the pack, Joe had a genius for appearing enthusiastic. He probably made a lot of folks feel good about their careers despite evidence to the contrary.
He was a combination of pitchman, raconteur, purveyor of nostalgia, and carnival barker, and he was quintessential New York. He ought to be out there on the square in bronze, hanging out with Father Duffy and Georgie Cohan.
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.”
April 7, 2014
“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.
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.
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).
March 2, 2014
I had a phone conversation with Sally Struthers a few years ago when she was touring with a production of Annie.The fact that she was touring with that show was a reflection of an experience that she and may other actors have had: she appeared in a hit television series and never quite matched that in her later career. It’s no disgrace; it has happened to many others through no fault of theirs. It’s just the nature of the television industry.
Sally Struthers certainly isn’t absent from television because she isn’t a good actress.We were reminded of that the other night when we watched a 1979 Hallmark movie, And Your Name is Jonah, in which she plays a woman whose deaf son has been misdiagnosed as mentally handicapped.When the mistake is discovered the boy is released from the institution he has been living in. But his dad, although he tries, cannot understand the boy’s needs, and the marriage is strained to the breaking point.
Sally Struthers gave a strong performance as a loving mother who will not be diverted from her mission to help her son live as a member of the community. Jonah was played with great effect by nine-year-old Jeffrey Bravin, who was the fourth generation of his family to be born deaf. He is now an administrator at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. He and his wife have two children who, I believe, are hearing. Titos Vandis is a sympathetic figure as Jonah’s grandfather, who sells produce in an open-air market.
This movie touches on sensitive issues related to deafness, including the question of whether deaf people should rely on sign language or learn to lip read and speak. I was ignorant of that issue until I read Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, which was published in 1989 by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. This movie also treats the overarching theme of the need and right of deaf people to be treated not as pitiable victims but as the whole human beings they are.