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.
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 26, 2013
I have always associated “September Song” with Jimmy Durante, who recorded it for an album in 1963. I like Durante’s version because it has a touch of melancholy that doesn’t come through with quite the same effect when the singer is Bing Crosby or Sammy Davis Jr.
Come to find out in Ethan Mordden’s book Love Song that the song was written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson specifically for another entertainer who had no singing voice — namely, Walter Huston. Huston played Peter Stuyvesant in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday and he more or less insisted that he should have a solo in the show. Weill and Anderson accommodated him, devoting only a couple of hours to writing the song. The show was designed to criticize the New Deal by portraying Stuyvesant as corrupt and dictatorial in his rule over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the mid 17th century. The musical closed after about six months, although it was the basis for a later movie. The song didn’t attract too much attention until Walter Huston’s version of it was used in the 1950 movie September Affair. After that, it was recorded by many male and female vocalists, ranging in type from Ezio Pinza to Tex Ritter. Among the females who recorded it was Lotte Lenya, who was twice Kurt Weill’s wife and the love of his life — after his music.
The composer and the singer are the subjects of Mordden’s book, which is subtitled The Lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, although Mordden devotes at least as much attention to Weill’s sometime collaborator Bertolt Brecht as he does to Lenya.
Pretty much everything in this book has been reported before, but Mordden brings to the story a knowledge of music and 20th century culture, and a sharp wit, that makes this a worthwhile profile of three fascinating figures — the trio who, among other things, brought the world The Threepenny Opera.
Weill was Jewish and totally absorbed in music; Lenya, who was born Karoline Blamauer, was flirty and unfettered. They separated and divorced once, but remarried and never really lost their mutual devotion. They became enamored of each other in Berlin during the hiatus between the two world wars, or during the pause in the one great war, depending on how you look at it.
This was the period of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, a part of German history perhaps not well known to Americans — certainly not to me. Mordden shares his own understanding of the uproarious time with its inept government, dead-on-arrival economy, and non-conformist arts scene, an odd recitative to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
It was in the Weimar incubator that Weill and Brecht hatched The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s book lampooning the milieu in Berlin at that time. The show appeared in 1928 and is regarded as a classic, but the nascent Nazi crowd thought it smelled of socialism. Eventually, Nazism drove Weill, Lenya, and Brecht out of Germany. Weill and Lenya went first to Paris and then to New York where the artistic and personal freedom they experienced for the first time had a trans-formative effect on their lives.
The couple hadn’t planned to stay in the United States, but they did stay, and both became American citizens. It may have been inevitable, at least for Weill, because he had long had an interest in using American themes in his compositions.
Weill was prolific and versatile; his work included cantatas, orchestral pieces, chamber works, and film scores, but he is best remembered for what he wrote for the stage, including the musical plays Johnny Johnson; Street Scene – ostensibly an American opera; One Touch of Venus, which introduced the song “Speak Low”; and, of course, Knickerbocker Holiday and The Threepenny Opera.
Lenya’s career as an actress and singer had its ups and downs. After Weill died in 1950, she became the central figure in a revival of his work. She recorded many of his songs. In 1952, she sang in Leonard Bernstein’s concert version of The Threepenny Opera at Brandeis University; that led to a New York production that ran for 2,706 performances. Lenya won a Tony Award for her performance, even though the show ran off Broadway.
In 1966, she created the role of Fraulein Schneider in the original Broadway production of Cabaret, believed to have been inspired by Weill’s work, and she had highly visible movie roles in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and From Russia with Love.
Brecht, with whom Weill worked on several projects, settled in East Berlin where, Mordden writes, he was a “stooge” for the Communist regime. “Oathed to the extermination of oppression,” Mordden writes, “Brecht allied himself with the most oppressive regime of the century, and he lived by recognizing no one’s rights but his own.’’
Brecht comes across as a character who many found magnetic but who was offensive in many respects, including his abusive treatment of actors and his substandard personal hygiene.
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.
I 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.
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.
December 2, 2012
During a group discussion in our parish last month, we touched on the question of whether anyone is beyond redemption. We had in mind folks like the terrorists who carry out mass murders and suicide missions for what they perceive to be good or necessary causes. The question might have answered itself if any of us that night had thought of C.P. Ellis. I, for one, had never heard of him.
More recently, I learned about Ellis while I was writing about a play by Mark St. Germain entitled “The Best of Enemies.” The play, in turn, is based on a book by that title, written by Osha Gray Davidson. The enemies were Ellis, who in 1971 was the grand cyclops of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Durham, North Carolina, and Ann Atwater, who was a black civil rights activist in the same city.
Durham was late coming to the school desegregation party, and a community organizer named Bill Riddick arrived in town to get a public dialogue going. He proposed to conduct a series of town meetings, and he chose Atwater and Ellis — who couldn’t stand the sight of each other — as co-chairs. As the process unfolded, the unlikely pair gradually realized that as economically marginalized members of the community, and as parents who were concerned about the quality of their children’s education, they had more in common than they had thought. The experience also inspired Ellis to examine the reasons for his membership in the Klan. Ultimately, Ellis quit the Klan by tearing up his membership card at a public gathering; as a result, he was ostracized by his former friends and threatened with death.
Ellis became a union leader, representing constituencies of mostly black workers. He and Atwater were friends until his death in 2005.
Mark St. Germain’s play was introduced at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts and is currently on stage at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
You can read Studs Terkel’s interview with Ellis, in which Ellis talks about the reasons for his membership in the Klan and describes his encounter with Ann Atwater, by clicking THIS LINK.
November 4, 2012
Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.
This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.
That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin'” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.
This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic — a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.
Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.
I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.
There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.
October 23, 2012
On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.
The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.
Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.
The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”
This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.
We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.
South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.
What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.
July 22, 2011
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.
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 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.”
The last time I saw Arthur Laurents, he sat in the row in front of me during an opening at The George Street Playhouse — a theater where he felt very much at home. He was with several people who were at least six decades his juniors. Arthur had them in stitches; he told them one story after another and they hung on every word and then exploded in laughter.
Arthur died yesterday at the age of 93, and I’m glad my last memory of him is the animated man with the sharp-edged wit holding the attention of yet another generation.
I got to know Arthur through numerous encounters at George Street, whose impresario, David Saint, was his colleague and close friend. Arthur, a writer and director, introduced a couple of his more recent plays at George Street, and he was sometimes there just as a member of the audience.
Arthur was blunt, and some folks didn’t like him on that account, but in a world in which obfuscation is the norm, some of us found that refreshing – especially when his bluntness was directed at hypocrisy or intolerance of any sort.
As a friend and I were reminding each other this morning, Arthur had a knack for making every conversation seem personal — a quality not always found in people of his stature.
Arthur was blackballed during the McCarthy era, and he remained angry at his peers who had cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee — not the least of them being Elia Kazan, who had “named names.” But Arthur picked his spots. I bumped into him at George Street one day in 2003, and I mentioned that Kazan had died not long before. “Yes,” Arthur said. “He was a great director.”