EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

My lack of interest in current television is at the point where I have a very limited diet. I’m not going to make an argument for the “golden age,” because I don’t think it’s valid. There have been many excellent shows since the 1950s. Still — and I’m willing to call this a matter of taste — I am attracted to early programming, and especially to situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Burns and Allen, and the proto-sitcom, The Goldbergs. 

Thank heaven, then, for services like Netflix, which makes many of these shows available, including The Jack Benny Show. Benny is a favorite of mine, not only because he was such a unique character and was so skillful in portraying his fictional persona — the miser who wouldn’t admit to being older than 39 — but because of his place in American show business history.

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny's radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny’s radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”

The production values of television shows in the 1950s do not compare favorably with what we have become used to sixty years later, but the era got its “golden age” reputation because of the cadre of writers and performers who had migrated to television on a path that led from vaudeville, burlesque, and the legitimate theater by way of radio. Jack Benny and many of his contemporaries had worked very hard to develop their sense of what audiences at the time thought was funny or dramatic, and to develop the timing and delivery that would work in the new medium. They learned their lessons well; Jack Benny’s slow burn is still funny, even when you can see it coming from a mile away.

An interesting aspect of Benny’s show was his relationship with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, a gravel-voiced black actor who was part of the Benny stock company which included, among others, announcer Don Wilson and Irish crooner Dennis Day.

EDDIE ANDERSON

EDDIE ANDERSON

Anderson who, like Benny, got his start in vaudeville, started working with Benny in radio in 1937, first in a few bit parts and then playing Benny’s valet. He played that role on radio and television until 1965. He was the first black performer to have a regular role on radio, but that meant that he was faced with what became a classic conundrum for black artists — the question of whether to play a subservient character or not work in movies, radio, or TV. It was a difficult question for the actors as well as for the black Americans who were being treated as second-class citizens if as citizens at all.

Given the racial climate at the time, The Jack Benny Show took an unusual approach by presenting Rochester as a quick-witted and sarcastic character who was always a little smarter than his boss. The approach was unusual also because this plot element juxtaposed two deadpan figures and the combination was hilarious and was sustained for nearly thirty years. At first, in radio, there was often a racial aspect to the humor surrounding Rochester, but after World War II, Benny — who took an unambiguous public stand in favor of racial harmony — insisted that all racial content be eliminated from his scripts.

Eddie Anderson was one of the most popular and highest-paid actors of his time. He appeared in many movies, including Green Pastures and Gone With the Wind. He handled his money wisely and was both wealthy and generous. Among other enterprises, he owned a company that manufactured parachutes for the American military during World War II.

You can see Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson in a typically funny scene by clicking here.

Eddie Anderson's home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

Eddie Anderson’s home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

Bonnie Franklin In the summer of 2011, I drove myself and four companions from Rome to the Le Marche region of Italy. That trip involves some serious mountain hills with the obligatory switchbacks and the occasional tunnel. As I rolled into the first tunnel, I was startled to hear from the back seat: “Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect /  and whistle a happy tune /so no one will suspect / I’m afraid.” It was Bonnie Franklin, singing in a quick-step tempo with her eyes shut tight. “I’m afraid of tunnels,” she told us afterward, “so I sing that to take my mind off of  it.” And she did. Every time.

I met Bonnie in 1970 when I stopped by a New Jersey theater where she was appearing in A Thousand Clowns. She had already made a splash on Broadway singing and dancing the title song to Applause. I was there during the break between a matinee and an evening performance to talk to Hugh O’Brian, but he had taken ill and gone to a doctor. Bonnie, who was sitting outside with her Yorkie , Jobie, thought I looked confused. “Are you looking for Hugh O’Brian?” she said. And she told me what had happened.

Bonnie 2I thanked her and was about to leave, but she patted the concrete wall she was sitting on and said, “Sit down here and talk to me!” It was irresistible. Bonnie was irresistible. I sat, we talked. I came back a few days later and we sat and talked some more. We were close friends for 42 years after that.

My family and I became great fans of hers, because she was an outstanding actress, singer, and dancer. I used to kid her that latching on to her was my way to see the country, and we did travel to Manhattan, Nyack, West Hampton, New Hope, Mount Pocono, Pittsburgh, Ventura, Washington, D.C., Overland, Kansas, and some town in New Hampshire to see her perform. I’d pay plenty right now to hear her sing “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or see her in Shirley Valentine. My wife, Pat, says, and I agree, that once you’ve seen Bonnie as Shirley Valentine, you don’t need to see anyone else.

The relationship that evolved between Bonnie and my family was characterized by two qualities of hers: unconditional love and enormous generosity. She was passionate about what she believed. I learned this the second time we met: she was very agitated about the U.S. military campaign in Cambodia. She and I were largely simpatico, but inasmuch as I am a Roman Catholic deacon and she was a progressive Jew, we could disagree about some significant issues. This had no impact on our relationship, and that was because she had such an expansive heart.

Bonnie was very generous to me and to my family, not in a showy way but in a genuine expression of love. It became a running gag between us to see which of us could be first to tell the host at a restaurant not to bring the bill to the table. I told that to a host as soon as I arrived at a restaurant in Maine, and he said, “You’re too late. She beat you to it.” But I think I won the last round — at Joe Allen’s in New York.

Bonnie 5 More important was Bonnie’s generosity for those in need. I happily supported the organizations that were important to her, and she returned the favor to a fare-thee-well. I once told her in a casual conversation that a local nonprofit group I was associated with — to provide an annual festival for people with mental handicaps — was in financial trouble. A few days later, I received a personal check from her with a very large donation. On another occasion she traveled from her California home to New York for the sole purpose of giving a gratis benefit performance for another organization I was connected to, an association that builds and operates group homes for people who are both blind and mentally challenged.

A friend of mine who was a professional fundraiser for non-profits once showed me an article in a journal reporting that a survey of people in that field had found that Bonnie Franklin was perceived by the public as among the most trustworthy spokespersons for charitable causes. I wasn’t surprised. I doubt that a false word ever crossed her lips.

And she was funny. Just naturally funny. Every year on my birthday, I anticipated the phone call — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one — in which Bonnie would sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I wasn’t to speak until she was done, and there was always a second verse (“Get plastered, you bastard.”) Once when she was doing her incomparable cabaret act at the Algonquin Hotel, she wandered among the tables during one of her songs and gave me a hug. When I asked her afterward how she had found me in the darkened room, she said, “Easy. I just followed the smell of Old Spice.” She always took a pass on dessert when we ate out with her and her wonderful husband, Marvin Minoff. That is, she didn’t order dessert. She instructed me to order something chocolate, and then she ate half of it.

She was talented, she was witty, she was sweet, she was warm, she was profane, she was passionate, she was genuine. Now she’s gone. I’m a better person for having known and loved her, and I know I’m not alone. I hope heaven is ready.

Spencer Williams Jr., Alvin Childress, and Tim Moore

Spencer Williams Jr., Alvin Childress, and Tim Moore

I gather from schnibles I’ve seen on the Internet that 30 Rock caught some flack for a parody of the 1950s television series Amos ‘n’ Andy. In the 30 Rock sketch, which was called Alfie and Abner, the characters were played by Tracy Morgan and John Hamm, who was in black face and an Afro wig, an image some folks found offensive. Somewhat incongruously — not to put too fine a point on it — the set was a replica of the Kramdens’ Bensonhurst kitchen rather than the most frequent Harlem scenes on Amos ‘n’ Andy — the  Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge hall and the apartment of George and Sapphire Stevens.

The premise of the 30 Rock sketch was that one actor was in black face because NBC thought it would be too big a step to have two black actors on the stage at the same time. The irony is that Amos ‘n’ Andy, which had its original run from 1951 to 1953, was the first television series to have virtually an all black cast. White actors appeared in incidental roles in only a handful of episodes. I think it’s fairly well known that the show was driven out of production because of objections — most prominently from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — on the grounds that it presented negative stereotypes of black Americans. It continued in reruns on some stations into the 1960s.

Alvin Childress

Alvin Childress

 The television series evolved from a radio series that ran from 1928 until 1960. At the height of its success, Amos ‘n’ Andy was not only the most popular radio show on the air but the most popular diversion of any kind. And yet that series featured white actors mimicking black characters — namely Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who created the show. For a while, Gosden and Correll performed all the male roles and some of the females. Later, other actors and actresses were cast in the supporting parts while Gosden and Correll continued to play the principal figures: Amos Jones, Andrew H. Brown, and George “Kingfish” Stevens. Gosden and Correll went a step further in the 1930 RKO movie “Check and Double Check,” donning black face to play Amos (Gosden) and Andy (Correll). Duke Ellington and his orchestra appeared in that movie.

The TV series is now controlled by CBS, which has withdrawn it from circulation and has at times taken legal action in an attempt to squelch the widespread Internet sale of bootleg tapes and DVDs of the  episodes.

Tim Moore

Tim Moore

The Amos ‘n’ Andy television show is in a unique position, I think, in the sense that if it were judged in a vacuum — with no reference to who  created it and when it first appeared — the conclusion might be different than it is when the show is viewed in its historical context. It was introduced when black American citizens in large numbers were still being denied their civil rights, when black people in many parts of the country were regularly threatened with violence, and when black people were freely lampooned in movies, cartoons, and minstrels. The show was still being broadcast in syndication in 1955, when Sarah Louise Keys, Claudette Colvin, and Rosa Parks in turn refused to give up their seats on the Montgomery, Alabama bus system to make way for white passengers. With Jim Crow making his last stand against legal equality and common decency, it shouldn’t have been surprising that black society and others would object to some of the characterizations on Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Ernestine Wade

Ernestine Wade

I have owned copies of all 78 known episodes of the series for many years, and I have watched them all several times and assigned students to write about them. I have also done a lot of research about the show itself and about the actors who appeared in it, and I have interviewed several people who were connected to it, including Nick Stewart who played Lightnin’ — the janitor at the lodge hall. Based on all that exposure, I think one can at least make the argument that, taken out of its milieu, Amos ‘n’ Andy would be no more offensive than all-black sitcoms that have appeared since, including Sandford and Son and Family Matters.

In fact, Amos ‘n’ Andy is fashioned on the same model as The Honeymooners. The rap on Amos ‘n’ Andy has been that it perpetuates stereotypes of black men as lazy, shiftless, and dumb, and of black women as shrewish and unattractive. As for the men, those characterizations apply to only four characters in the series: Andy Brown (Spencer Williams Jr.), George “Kingfish Stevens (Tim Moore), Lightnin’ (Nick Stewart, billed as Nick O’Deamus), and the lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee).

Nick Stewart

Nick Stewart

These men live in a universe in which virtually everyone is black and, significantly, in which everybody but them is dignified, moral, and responsible. Just as The Honeymooners didn’t imply that all white men were naive schemers like Ralph Kramden or good-natured dumbbells like Ed Norton, Amos ‘n’ Andy didn’t imply that all black men were lummoxes, wasters, or charlatans. In both cases, the point was that the main characters were out of step with everyone around them; they were the exceptions, not the rules.

The  most prominent female character on Amos ‘n’ Andy was Sapphire Stevens, the Kingfish’s wife. Sapphire was played by Ernestine Wade, who actually was a pretty woman. Sapphire longed for a more genteel life in which she wasn’t hounded by bill collectors and in which she could associate with folks a little more erudite and stimulating than Andy Brown. Wade portrayed her as a decent woman who was faithful to a husband who didn’t deserve it; if Sapphire nagged the Kingfish and at times lost her temper with him, no one could blame her any more than they could blame Alice Kramden from blowing up at Ralph.

Johnny Lee

Johnny Lee

Less sympathetic a character, perhaps, was Ramona Smith, Sapphire’s mother, who was presented as the classic bellicose battleship of a mother-in-law — an accessory the Kingfish had in common with Ralph Kramden.

The broadest of the regular characters were the shambling, drawling Lightnin’, and Calhoun, a loudmouth and a fake.

Amanda Randolph

Amanda Randolph

There was a shift in emphasis in the television series in which Amos, although a title character and often the voice that introduced the episode (“Hello, folks. This is Amos. . . .”), became a secondary figure, and the Kingfish became the focal point of almost every episode. In the TV series, Amos was a level-headed, intelligent, soft-spoken, man who owned his own taxicab and led a quiet life with his lovely wife, Ruby, and their two daughters. Amos was often the Jiminy Cricket to the Kingfish and Andy, giving them sound advice and sometimes directly getting them out of trouble.

An aspect of this show that is always overlooked is the quality of the cast it brought together. Many of the actors had long careers as entertainers, persisting through an era in which they were unappreciated, type cast, and often rudely treated.

Tim Moore, who played the chronically unemployed and finagling Kingfish, had a remarkable life as a vaudevillian, entertaining all over the world. He also appeared in several Broadway shows and in films. He was even fairly successful as a boxer. He was lured out of retirement to play the role in Amos ‘n’ Andy. His character’s sobriquet was actually his title as head of the lodge — the kingfish. When he wanted his pals to bail him out of some scrape, he often reminded them, “After all, we are all brothers in that great organization, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.”

Jester Hairston

Jester Hairston

Spencer Williams Jr., who played the sweet but gullible oaf Andy Brown, was an important figure in the history of American film. A World War I army veteran who worked in many aspects of the movie business, including as a sound technician, eventually became a writer, director, and producer of so-called “race movies,” films that were made specifically to be shown in segregated theaters. His film “Go Down Jesus,” which was made on a $5,000 budget and with nonprofessional actors, was one of the most successful “race films” of all time. Time magazine called it one of the “25 most important films on race.”

Lillian Randolph

Lillian Randolph

Alvin Childress, who played the sensible and gentle Amos Jones, held a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He began working as an actor with a Harlem theater company, and he worked on both the stage and on film. He appeared on Broadway as Noah in Philip Yordan’s play Anna Lucasta, which ran for 957 performances. Although he appeared in a couple movies and in episodes of Perry Mason, Sandford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, Childress, who felt he had been typed by casting directors as Amos Jones, had a hard time sustaining his career. His  first marriage, which lasted for 23 years, was to a well known writer and actress, Alice (Herndon) Childress.

Nick Stewart, who played Lightnin’, was a dancer and comedian who appeared in night clubs, Broadway shows, films, and radio. Stewart was the voice of Br’er Bear in the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South. In 1950, He and his wife, Edna, founded the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles, where for many years they provided a venue in which black actors could appear in quality productions.

Roy Glenn

Roy Glenn

Johnny Lee, who played the blustering, incompetent lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun, was a dancer and actor who appeared in a couple of dozen films and television shows, perhaps most notably as the voice of Br’er Rabbit in Song of the South.  He had featured roles in Come On, Cowboy! (1948) and She’s Too Mean for Me (1948) and he played a stuttering bill collector in Boarding House Blues (1948). He also starred in an all-black musical comedy,  Sugar Hill, at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood in 1949. His last TV role was Mr. Gibbons the Locksmith on Dennis the Menace in 1963.

In addition to these regular players, Amos ‘n Andy provided occasional roles for some very talented actors, including the sisters Amanda and Lillian Randolph. Amanda Randolph, who played Ramona Smith, mother of Sapphire Stevens, was the first black actress to appear on a regularly-scheduled network television show. That was The Laytons, which appeared on the old Dumont network for two months in 1948. She was an exceptional jazz pianist and a composer. She appeared in New York musicals, entertained in Europe, performed in vaudeville, and cut records as both a musician and a vocalist. She appeared on Broadway, in films, and on radio. On radio, she played the title role in Beulah in the 1953-1954 season, inheriting the role from Lillian.

Tim Moore

Tim Moore

She was the first black American actress to have her own daytime network TV show — Amanda, which ran on Dumont in the 1948-49 season. Among her many TV roles was Louise, the wisecracking maid on Danny Thomas’s comedy series.

Lillian Randolph, who appeared in Amos ‘n’ Andy as Madame Queen, a former girlfriend of Andy Brown, was also a multi-talented performer on radio, television, and film. She had played Madame Queen on the radio, too, and made the character’s name a household word in the United States. She played the maid Birdie Lee Coggins in The Great Gildersleeve radio series, and she repeated the role in Gildersleeve films and the later TV series. Her performance of a gospel song on the TV series led to a gospel album on Dootone Records. She also made regular appearances on The Baby Snooks Show and The Billie Burke Show on radio. Her best known film roles probably were Annie in It’s a Wonderful Life and Bessie in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Her television roles included Bill Cosby’s mother on The Bill Cosby Show, and Red Foxx’s aunt Esther on Sandford and Son. Altogether, she appeared in about 93 movie and television properties. In 1954, Lillian Randolph became the first black member of the board of directors of the Hollywood Chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Spencer Williams Jr.

Spencer Williams Jr.

One of the most eminent persons to appear on the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV series was Jester Hairston, who made occasional appearances as both Sapphire’s brother Leroy and as wealthy and dapper lodge member Henry Van Porter. Although he appeared in about 20 films and several TV shows, acting was secondary to Hairston’s career as a composer, songwriter, arranger, and choral conductor. He wrote the song “Amen” for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and he dubbed the song for Sidney Poitier to lip-sync. He also wrote the Christmas carol Mary’s Little Boy Child. Harry Belafonte’s recording of the song reached No. 1 on the charts in the UK in 1957.  From 1986 to 1991, Hairston played Rolly Forbes in the TV series Amen. 

Hairston was a graduate of Tufts University, and he studied music at the Julliard School. He was highly regarded as a conductor of choirs, including on Broadway, and as a composer and arranger of choral music. In 1985, when few foreign performers were appearing in China, he took a multi-racial choir to tour the country. Hairston was a founder of the Screen Actors Guild.

Also among the actors who appeared on Amos ‘n’ Andy was Roy Glenn, who had a rich baritone-bass voice that he got to use in one episode, singing some lines from “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Glenn had a long acting career, appearing in 96 films and television shows. His most prominent role probably was Sidney Poitier’s father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Jay Brooks

Jay Brooks

The only Amos ‘n’ Andy alumnus I’m aware of who not only is still living but has worked as an actor recently is  Jay Brooks, who appeared in two episodes of Seinfeld, as Sid, the man who provides a service in Jerry Seinfeld’s neighborhood by moving cars from one side of the street to the other to comply with New York City’s alternate-side parking regulations.

 The actors who appeared on Amos ‘n’ Andy were often criticized for accepting roles on a show that some people felt was demeaning to black people.  More often than not, the roles offered to black performers in those days in any venue were stereotyped if they weren’t out-and-out offensive. Some of the actors — Alvin Childress, for example — argued that they had to work where they could and that by accepting parts on the first all-black show on television, they had paved the way for others to follow. It’s too late to resolve that question but, taken on its own merits, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a funny show, due in large part to the performances of a lot of experienced actors who, over their careers, made enormous contributions to American popular culture. They don’t deserve to be forgotten.

 

“Oh, bother!”

July 22, 2011

JIM CUMMINGS

I was shocked when a colleague told me the other day that she had never read the Winnie-the-Pooh books, and I suppose I should have hidden my surprise better than I did. That’s a conceit of mine – that everyone’s life experiences should be the same as my own. Then again, we’re talking about Winnie-the-Pooh, for heaven’s sake.

This conversation was occasioned by the fact that Pat and I went on Sunday to see the new Disney movie, Winnie-the-Pooh, with our daughter and our two grandsons. The film is well done with hand-drawn images and a story line that are true to the spirit of both A.A.Milne, who wrote the books, and Ernest Shepard, who illustrated them.

Milne and Shepard, of course, provided text and pictures, but they did not provide the voices of the characters. That was left to the Disney studio, where some genius cast Sterling Holloway in the title role of Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966. Holloway played the part in two more Disney short features, and his high-pitched, plaintive voice became the voice of Pooh for a couple of generations of kids and adults who, by the mercy of God, have not fully grown up.

STERLING HOLLOWAY

Holloway retired in the 1970s, and the Disney casting office had another epiphany, choosing voice actor Jim Cummings – who can be heard in about a hundred films – to speak for Pooh, as it were. It was a tough assignment for an actor who, I’m sure, wanted to do his work without a ghost looking over his shoulder but also wanted to keep the character authentic in the minds of the audience. No problem. Cummings’ performance is distinctive, but it has the ring of a bear, and a hungry one at that, of very little brain.

Cummings knows something about following a tough act. He also took over the role of Tigger in the Pooh films after the retirement of Paul Winchell, who entertained audiences in the 50s and 60s with a ventriloquist act that featured the mannequin Jerry Mahoney, and who was also the first person to design and build an artificial heart.

I can’t say I missed Holloway while we were watching Winnie-the-Pooh, but I miss him in general. I first became aware of him when he appeared in the recurring role of eccentric but gentle Waldo Binney, a neighbor of the title family on the series The Life of Riley, which starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley.

HOLLOWAY and ALTER EGO

Holloway was unique, sui generis, in the quirkiness of his appearance, his demeanor, and his voice, so it was always a pleasure to run across him in movies or TV shows – the latter including The Amazing Adventures of Superman. He appeared in about 150 screen and TV properties over all. In the 1970s, he also did voiceover commercials for Purina Puppy Chow dog food, and sang what was then a familiar jingle: “Puppy Chow / for a full year / till he’s fully grown.”

As often happens with performers who have long careers, two of Holloway’s landmark achievements are largely forgotten – namely the fact that he introduced two songs that became a permanent part of the American musical repertoire. This occurred when he was appearing on Broadway in the 1920s and the songs were “(I’ll take) Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery,” both composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Holloway, who never married because – he said – he liked his life the way it was, died in 1992 at the age of 87.

Click on THIS LINK to see and hear Sterling Holloway singing “A Perfect Day,” a song written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Holloway’s touching rendition occurred in the 1940 film “Remember the Night.”

George Reeves and Sterling Holloway in an episode of the TV series "The Amazing Adventures of Superman."

JEFF CONAWAY

Like everyone else, I suppose, I was very sorry to read that Jeff Conaway was comatose in a hospital in Encino. Conaway occupies a special pantheon in my family because of his role as Bobby Wheeler on the television series Taxi. Like some other entertainment media, television can do that for a person, throw at least one role his way that guarantees that his career will never be thought of as altogether ordinary.

Conaway was perfectly cast as the egotistical but insecure young actor, and he played the part in the midst of an ensemble of performers, many of whom were already experienced and all of whom were also perfectly cast. This fact, plus the excellent writing, made Taxi, one of the best situation comedies in television history.

JUDD HIRSCH

There were 114 episodes of Taxi from 1978 to 1983, and every one was an artistic success. The series won 18 Emmy awards, a fact that speaks for itself.

The cast was remarkable: Judd Hirsch, Danny De Vito, Rhea Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kaufman, Carol Kane, Marilu Henner, and Tony Danza. The selection of Danza was a particular stroke of genius. He was a prize fighter (9-3) when he was cast as boxer/cab driver Tony Banta and, although he had been type cast, he displayed impressive acting acumen, including pinpoint timing and a worthy double take, throughout the series.

Besides the regular cast, the producers imported outstanding guest players, including Julie Kavner, Barry Nelson, Louise Lasser, Jack Gilford, Ruth Gordon, Wallace Shawn, J. Pat O’Malley, Victor Buono, and Vincent Schiavelli.

A particular strength of the writers of Taxi was their ability to create unique characters – the nasty dispatcher Louie De Palma (De Vito), the dizzy immigrant Latka Gravas (Kaufman),  the pickle-brained Jim Ignatowski (Lloyd), and the glowering Reverend  Gorky (Schiavelli). The faux Eastern European language spoken by Latka, his wife Simka (Kane), Reverend Gorky, and Latka’s mother and cousin, was an ingenious and hilarious invention.

VINCENT SCHIAVELLI

Taxi dealt with ordinary people with recognizable, ordinary problems, and in the context of its comedy it tastefully touched on sensitive topics such as bisexuality, blindness, old age, single parenthood, obesity, premenstrual mood disorders, drug addiction, and sexual harassment. Taxi’s writers never went for cheap laughs.

Taxi was similar to The Honeymooners in its heyday in the sense that it had a kind of grim realism. Until Jackie Gleason made the fatal error of moving the Kramdens and Nortons out of their tenement milieu, a haunting aspect of that show was the realization that those folks were never moving out of that neighborhood, Ralph and Ed were never leaving the bus company and the sewer system, no matter how hard they dreamed. The same thing was true of the characters in Taxi –ironically, with the exception of Bobby Wheeler– and the writers were faithful to that truth.

The allusion to Carmen Miranda on this week’s episode of “Modern Family” got us to thinking about her for the first time in recent memory. Our first reaction was to wonder how many people in, say, their 40s or less who were watching that show would have known who Carmen Miranda was. When she was in her heyday, there was no need to ask; she was very popular — with good reason — and she was very successful.
Carmen Miranda was part of the good-natured entertainment milieu that appealed to mass audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. It was appropriate that her  last appearance was on a Jimmy Durante television show, because she and Durante epitomized the gentle, wholesome fare that fit the mood of many people in that era.
Carmen Miranda died in 1955, shortly after suffering a heart attack during a live broadcast of Durante’s show, but it’s an indication of her appeal that the writers on “Modern Family” felt secure in paying homage to her more than 55 years later with no need for an explanation.
Carmen Miranda was born in Portugal in 1909, but she grew up in Brazil. She began performing at an early age, although financial stresses on her family led her to a short-lived but profitable career as a milliner. She continued to pursue her musical career, though, and before she came to the United States in 1939, she was already established as a star on radio, recordings, and film. She ultimately made 14 Hollywood movies and at one point was the highest-paid woman in the industry.  She also made occasional appearances in the variety-show format that was a staple in early American television.
Carmen Miranda sang and danced either barefoot or in sandals, wearing wildly colorful costumes that included enormous head-dresses that often were composed of fruit – an image that is still emulated by drag peformers. She was the inspiration for Chiquita Banana, the cartoon character created by Dik Browne as the logo for a banana company. (Browne was the unseen “angel” who drew cartoons to illustrate the televised sermons of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and later created the popular comic strip Hagar the Horrible.)
Carmen Miranda was subject to some criticism in Brazil during her lifetime on the grounds that she had become too Americanized and was presenting an inaccurate image of Brazilian culture. She was so upset by this evaluation of her work that she stayed away from Brazil for many years. Now, however, she is memorialized by museums in both Brazil and Portugal. She is also the namesake of Carmen Miranda Square at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Orange Drive, across from Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Her personal life was not happy; she had one unsuccessful marriage and, because she was a Catholic, would not divorce her husband after they separated. She kept up a hectic schedule and probably damaged her health with drugs, cigarettes, and tobacco.
If you’re old enough — as we are — to remember Carmen Miranda, there is no doubt in your mind about her legacy. When you think of her, you smile.
You can see and hear Carmen Miranda sing her iconic “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti” hat in THIS SCENE from the 1943 Busby Berkeley musical “The Gang’s All Here.”

Talking baseball

March 10, 2011

 

PETER SCOLARI

The coincidence is a conversation piece. For example, I read somewhere that actor Peter Scolari’s ambition to play pro baseball had been derailed by an elbow injury. Baseball is a favorite subject of mine, so when I met Scolari recently I began by saying, “Tell me about you and baseball.” He did. The reference I had read was true: he played high school ball well enough to think that he might turn pro, but he got hurt, had surgery, and after that — well, let him tell it: “I couldn’t get anything on the ball,” although he has played in several theatrical leagues.

But to put that story in context, Scolari told me that his father — attorney Art Scolari — had played baseball at East Side High School in Paterson (this would have been long before Joe Clark got there) and then was an All-American shortstop at Drew University. Paterson? I was born in Paterson. My dad, who was about 13 years older than Art Scolari, went to Central High School where he ran track — particularly relays — and later managed a semi-pro baseball team that played all around the Paterson area.

PETER SCOLARI / New York Daily News

I haven’t told Peter Scolari this yet, but after our conversation, my web browser stumbled on a story in a 1939 issue of the old Daily Record of Red Bank, N.J., reporting that a teenager named Lawrence Mahoney, who was from Lincroft, had successfully defended his state horseshoe pitching championship for the fifth time in a row. It was no snap, according to the story: breathing down Mahoney’s neck was 15-year-old Art Scolari of Paterson. Mahoney was 9-0 in the tournament; Scolari was 8-1.

Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in their "Bosom Buddies" regalia

I could have talked about baseball all night — it’s one of my many excuses to talk too much — but I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick to talk to Peter Scolari about his current project, a production of Ken Ludwig’s new play, “Fox on the Fairway.” This play, with a golf theme, had its world premiere last year in Washington, D.C. It’s a farce, and that’s a word that sends up the skyrockets, because farce done badly — or even done “all right” — is a painful experience for an audience. I’ve been there. Scolari, who knows a lot more about it than I do, made that point: “I don’t like to see a farce in which folks do an okay job. I’ll watch ‘The Sunshine Boys’ or ‘The Odd Couple’ and have a great time if everybody does a ‘good’ job. If I go to a farce and everybody does a ‘good’ job, I think, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”

I’ve read Ludwig’s play, but reading farce is like reading a recipe. It lays out the parts and the moves, but it can’t even hint at the reality. I have also read at least one negative review of the Washington production, but the fact that a farce doesn’t work with one company doesn’t mean it won’t work with another. Ludwig, after all, is the author of “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You,” both of which won him Tony awards. And Scolari knows a thing or three about playing comedy in general and farce in particular.

Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks in 2004 at the premiere of "Polar Express" in which they both appeared

Scolari first drew national attention in 1980 when he co-starred with Tom Hanks in “Bosom Buddies,” a TV sit-com about two young men who dress in drag so they can live in a women-only hotel where the rent is dirt cheap and about what they can afford. The show, which lasted a couple of seasons, was indirectly inspired by the Billy Wilder movie “Some Like it Hot.” Since then, Scolari has put together a long resume of television and stage appearances, mostly in comedies, including 142 episodes of Bob Newhart’s second hit series, “Newhart.”

Talking to Scolari, who is witty, thoughtful, and articulate, was an entertainment in itself. If I weren’t aware that I was keeping him from his train after he had spent a full day of rehearsal, I would have prompted him to talk for another hour, just so I could listen. If I had had unlimited time and he had had unlimited patience, I would have steered him back around to baseball, because no sport lends itself to talk as well as baseball does, and my guess is that Scolari appreciates that as much as I do. I asked him which New York team he roots for now that he is living on the East Coast again after his sojourn in California. He could have simply said that he roots for the Yankees, but this wasn’t a guy answering questions. This was a guy talking baseball:

Thurman Munson, Yankees catcher, captain, All-Star, and MVP, was killed in a plane crash in 1979. He was 32.

“I follow the Yankees. I make no apologies about it, but they’re not the Yankees. For me the Yankees who owned my heart ended with the captain, with Thurman Munson. I never got over that, to be honest with you, as a fan. So you come back, and they’re your team, and they’re in the Bronx, and that’s really important — but it’s not quite the same.”

O, Pioneers!

February 25, 2011

Amanda Randolph

PBS has been running  a series of documentaries under the title “Pioneers of Television.” We have watched three of them — on westerns, detective shows, and sitcoms — and found them informative and entertaining. Being the quarrelsome type, however, I question the use of the term “pioneers” — at least with respect to sitcoms, which were the topic of Monday night’s broadcast.

The program included segments on Jackie Gleason – specifically on the one full season of “The Honeymooners,” Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. I can’t argue with the stature of those performers nor with the contributions all of them made to the development of TV comedy. But while there were some general references to the fact that situation comedies originated on radio, I don’t understand how a documentary about sitcoms can ignore Gertrude Berg.

Gertrude Berg

I had a similar complaint — and wrote about it here — when the US Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring “pioneers” of television and didn’t include Gertrude Berg. I won’t repeat that post here, but Berg started her show — most widely known as “The Goldbergs” — on radio in 1929 and moved it to television in 1949. She owned, produced, and wrote the show, and she played the main character. Although it was a comedy, the show had very serious overtones, and it was the first show of its kind to introduce general audiences to the family lives of American Jews. That’s not a pioneer?

While I was watching that program Monday night, I spotted an actress named Amanda Randolph in a still from the Danny Thomas show. She played Louise, the wisecracking maid to the “Williams” family. By that time, Amanda Randolph had been an entertainer for more than 30 years — as a piano player and then as an actress in radio and movies. She was the first black actor to star in a regularly scheduled television show — “The Laytons” — which ran for a couple of months on the old Dumont network in 1948. She later had a recurring role as Ramona Smith – the mother of Sapphire Stevens – on the television version of “Amos  ‘n’ Andy” — the first TV show with an all-black cast, and the last one for many years. That’s not a pioneer?

Lillian Randolph

Amanda Randolph was the older sister of Lillian Randolph, another groundbreaking black actor and singer. She started working in radio in the mid 1930s and became a mainstay in that medium and in television and films. She had a recurring role in the radio, television, and movie versions of the popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve,” and she played Madame Queen — girlfriend of Andy Brown — in the radio and TV versions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

Lillian Randolph may be best remembered now for the role of Annie in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Somebody at PBS doesn’t remember, but I do.

STEPHANIE ZIMBALIST

Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by instances in which multiple members of a family have worked in the same or similar fields. For example, the other day I heard an interview on WNYC radio with Louis Rozzo, a fish dealer who was making an argument for taking the trouble to buy fresh anchovies and sardines and other fish that are typically packed in oil and canned. The conversation was interesting enough, but a detail that resonated with me was that Rozzo is the fourth generation owner of F. Rozzo and Sons. I would have liked to hear more about that.

In a similar way, I like reading about people like the Delahanty brothers – five of them played major league baseball – or the Harrisons, who included a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Virginia legislator and attorney general, two presidents of the United States, and two members of Congress.  The five Marx Brothers have always interested me less for their comedy than for their family history, which started with their maternal uncle, Al (Schoenberg) Shean, who was a famous vaudevillian.

STEPHANIE ZIMBALIST

This topic has been on my mind because I had an opportunity recently to talk with actress Stephanie Zimbalist, who is soon to appear in a production of Frank Gilroy’s play “The Subject Was Roses” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. On her own, Stephanie Zimbalist has built a substantial resume of performances on television and on the stage. However, her family’s background in the performing arts goes back at least as far as her great-grandfather Aron Zimbalist, who was an orchestral conductor in Russia in the 19th century. Her grandparents were both outstanding classical performers whom I have admired since I was very young. Her grandfather was Efrem Zimbalist, a concert violinist whose name can be mentioned in the same sentence with Jascha Heifitz and Fritz Kreisler. Efrem Zimbalist was married to Alma Gluck (nee Reba Feinsohn), who was one of the most popular female vocalists of the early 20th century.  My family had 78 rpm recordings by both of these artists — along with others — and, long before I understood their significance, I listened to them over and over again on our wind-up Victrola.

ALMA GLUCK

Alma Gluck, who was born in Romania, was a soprano who was on the roster at the Metropolitan Opera Company. She also had a substantial concert career and was one of the first serious artists to make phonograph records, and that greatly contributed to her fame. She made more than 170 recordings for Victor between 1911 and 1924, choosing songs from a wide variety of genres. She and her husband made at least 32 recordings together, and he had a long list of recordings of his own. Zimbalist was also a composer and the director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Efrem Zimbalist and Alma Gluck were the parents of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. – Stephanie’s father – who is a popular film and television actor whose starring roles included the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI.

 

Stephanie Zimbalist justifably has a great deal of pride in this heritage. I found that she enjoys talking about Alma Gluck – who died before Stephanie was born – and is well schooled in her grandmother’s career. Stephanie told me — only half joking, I suppose — that she didn’t pursue a singing career because she didn’t want to weather comparisons with her grandmother. Still, Stephanie Zimbalist has a trained voice and has given some performances. Speaking about her grandmother, she told me, “Daddy said she would have loved me, but I don’t know. She was tough task master on him. She wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer, and he wanted to be a dancer or a gymnast.” But the musical gene apparently didn’t skip a generation with the actor, Stephanie said. “He says he knows very little about music, but he knows an awful lot. He studied orchestration at Curtis, and he’s written a lot of things; he’s written many many pieces of music.”

ALMA GLUCK and EFREM ZIMBALIST

Stephanie Zimbalist’s mother, the former Stephanie Spaulding, died in 2007. Stephanie cares for her mom’s pet, an elegant long-hair dachshund named Scampi, who participated in our interview. I asked Stephanie what would be next in her career after her run at George Street, and she said, “Nothing. I don’t have a career. I just have bumps in the road. That’s probably why I’m doing good work these days, if I am doing good work. Nothing’s an agenda. I don’t do anything to see where it will take me. I just do it for the work. On my plate in my life right now is this sweet little thing” — a reference to Scampi, who was on Stephanie’s lap. “And then, my Dad is 92, God bless him, and doing very well, but I spend quite a bit of time with him, just to be there.”

A publicity shot for “77 Sunset Strip”: Roger Smith, left, as private detective Jeff Spencer; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., right, as Spencer’s colleague, “Stu” Miller; and Edd Burns as their protege, Gerald “Kookie” Kookson — the inspiration for the 1959 pop song “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.”


BOB NEWHART

It’s always a pleasure when we watch a television program from several decades ago and find that it was as good as we remember. For us, that’s true of “The Bob Newhart Show,” which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978. We rented from Netflix the first episodes in the series, and we were not disappointed. The later series, “Newhart,” was weak by comparison.

The tone of the series is set by Newhart’s mannerisms played out in psychologist Bob Hartley’s droll world view. Newhart is one of those  rare actors who gets laughs by being a straight man. The show succeeds because the writing, casting, and direction is all in harmony with Newhart’s low-key (below-key, if there is such a thing) personality. Even the more traditionally comic performances – Marcia Wallace as receptionist Carol Kester, Peter Bonerz as dentist Jerry Robinson, and Bill Dailey as neighbor/airline navigator Howard Borden, are relatively subdued so as to create a comfortable context for Newhart’s flat wave.

SUZANNE PLESHETTE

Although the series is built around Bob Newhart’s personality, an important part of its success  is Suzanne Pleshette’s performance as Bob Hartley’s seductive, wise-cracking wife, Emily. She was cast in the role in the first place after producers noticed the natural chemistry between her and Newhart on a 1971 broadcast of “The Tonight Show.” The producers weren’t imagining things. Pleshette and Newhart were a high point in television matchmaking.

We first became aware of Newhart when he was a stand-up comic; we still have his “Buttondown Mind” LP. His signature routine was the one-sided telephone conversation, a device that he took with him to the TV series. A lot of actors find themselves faking telephone calls, but Newhart perfected it. He was especially smooth in repeating the unheard half of the conversation — doing it so skillfully that it didn’t seem contrived.

Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette

I don’t know how decisions are made about what shows get re-run on television, but I do know that there seem to be endless recyclings of series that weren’t very good to begin with, but no sign of “Taxi,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” or the first Newhart series.

Thank heaven for Netflix.