Naming - 1When I was a newspaper reporter, I was assigned to cover the dedication of a school in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, that was named after a former mayor, James J. Flynn Jr. During the ritual, Jay Flynn, as everyone knew him, stood next to me, and at one point he leaned toward me and whispered in his gravelly voice, “They should never name a building after someone who is still alive. It’s too risky.”

Jay Flynn never made the Perth Amboy school district regret its decision and, nearly a half century later, the James J. Flynn Elementary School goes on serving the needs of the city’s youngsters. Still, I got his point. Around that same time, the name of a United States senator from New Jersey was removed from a major railroad station, because he had been convicted of accepting bribes and was sentenced to federal prison.

naming - 2

MICHAEL JACKSON visits the Gardner Street Elementary School/elusiveshadow/com

And lo, I now read in the Los Angeles Times that some folks are having second, or third,  thoughts about honoring the late entertainer Michael Jackson by naming an auditorium after him in the Gardner Street Elementary School, where he was once a pupil. Jackson visited the school in 1989 to express his gratitude. In 2003, after Jackson was arrested and accused of abusing minors—he was acquitted two years later—his name over the auditorium doors was covered up. But after the singer died at least some of the public and school authorities had another change of heart, and “Michael Jackson Auditorium” was restored. And now, because of the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, which, I understand, renews accusations of abuse of minors, the propriety of honoring Jackson at an elementary school, of all places, has again been called into question.

Of course, the risk attached to heaping praise on someone doesn’t end with the person’s death. I am not equating the two episodes, but this Jackson business comes up in the same week as the absurd decisions by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers to stop playing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” at their games and, in the Flyers’ case, to remove a statue of the singer from outside the team’s arena—all because of two racially troublesome songs that she recorded nearly ninety years ago.

2009 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

HARMON KILLEBREW/Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In the midst of all this, word came this month in the Idaho Statesman that, pursuant to a House Resolution passed in December, the post office in the town of Payette (2017 pop. 7,434) has been named after Harmon Killebrew, a native of the place and one of the great baseball sluggers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. A 13-time All Star, Killebrew played almost all of his career with the franchise known first as the Washington Senators and then as the Minnesota Twins. While he was playing major league ball, Killebrew joined the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, and he neither smoked nor drank. He was a gentleman on the field, even to the extreme of complimenting umpires on tough calls.

When Killebrew died in 2011, Twins President David St. Peter recalled Killebrew’s prodigious hitting, his role in establishing the Minnesota baseball franchise, but also the “class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day.” When a writer for Sports Illustrated asked Killebrew if he had a hobby, Killebrew said, “Just washing the dishes, I guess.”

What do you say, Jay? Shall we take a chance?

 

 

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Kate Smith 1

KATE SMITH

Should we chip Abraham Lincoln’s image off of Mount Rushmore, because he said that black and white people could not live together in peace; because he believed the white race was superior; or because his favored disposition of freed slaves was not to establish them as American citizens with full rights but rather to ship them to a colony in Liberia?

Or should we evaluate Abraham Lincoln in the context of his whole life and conclude that, whatever disagreements we may have with him, the country is better off overall because he lived?

And what of Kate Smith, the “songbird of the South”?

Kate Smith 2.pngIn the 1930s, she recorded one song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,”  that is racially problematic and another, “Pickaninny Heaven,” that is just plain offensive. I say the first song was problematic, because it appears that the lyricist, Lew Brown, intended it as a parody of racist attitudes. That interpretation might be validated by the fact that Paul Robeson also recorded the song. There is no such room for interpretation of “Pickaninny Heaven,” a morbid and condescending lyric that Smith first addressed, on radio, to “a lot a little colored children listening in an orphanage in New York City.” And Smith also was featured in a cartoon advertisement for Calumet Baking Powder that included a stereotypical image of the turbaned black cook and a “mammy doll” supposedly sent to Smith by a fan of Smith’s recipe book.

Kate Smith 4

IRVING BERLIN/Masterworks Broadway

Because of those two songs, recorded nearly ninety years ago, the New York Yankees, the team that didn’t integrate until 1955, and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would stop playing Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” at their games, and the Flyers said they would cover the statue of Smith outside their arena.

Full disclosure: I have been a fan of Kate Smith the singer since I was a kid listening to her radio show with my mother. But I have also long known that Kate Smith and I would have had serious philosophical differences. Though she had been a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt, she became very conservative and nationalistic, and, I gather, kind of a knee-jerk patriot who was not inclined to question authority. Her recording of “God Bless America,” which Irving Berlin wrote specifically for her, famously inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land is Your Land” in response.

Kate Smith 6

JOSEPHINE BAKER

On the other hand, Kate Smith sold $600-million worth of war bonds during World War II, more than any other individual, and the number of her appearances before troops during that war was exceeded only by Bob Hope. And it’s worth mentioning here that in 1951—four years before the Yankees integrated—the highly controversial Josephine Baker, made her first American television appearance on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, a show that was produced by Smith’s manager, Ted Collins. Baker, who had returned to the United States that year after a long absence, had campaigned, during her U.S. tour, against segregation of audiences. After a spat with Walter Winchell in which he suggested that she had Communist leanings, Baker’s work visa was revoked, and she returned to France. Baker, by the way, had once appeared in blackface, a sin for which I believe she has long since been forgiven.

Perhaps it’s because racial bias has persisted for so long in this country that we tend to err on the side of righteousness, but in doing so, we should not lose our sense of balance.

 

 

 

A couple of things Van Johnson told me about himself have stuck in my mind for more than 30 years. One was that he had a lifelong ambition to ride an elephant during the opening of a Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus performance. The other was that he was disappointed that living in a Manhattan apartment meant that children would never come to his door on Halloween.

VAN JOHNSON

I’ve been thinking about those things today because last night we watched Van Johnson in the 1954 film The Last Time I Saw Paris. He co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor. Others in the cast were Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Eva Gabor, George Dolenz, and Sandy Descher.

This film, which was loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” is a long flashback to Paris at the end of World War II in Europe. Johnson plays Charlie Wills, a soldier and aspiring novelist who works as a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. At the beginning of the tale, he has returned to Paris from the United States, and he reminisces about the bitter circumstances under which he had left the City of Light: During the celebratory bedlam in Paris when the war ended, Charlie winds up at a party at the home of James Elwirth (Pidgeon), an impecunious American chancer who believes in living high even if one can’t afford it.  Charlie is invited to the home by Elwirth’s quite proper daughter Marion (Reed), but is quickly infatuated with Marion’s ne’er-do-well sibling, Helen (Taylor).

Charlie and Helen marry and have a daughter, Vicki, played by Descher. Marion — who is broken-hearted over losing Charlie to the sister of whom she disapproves, settles on a rebound match with a thoughtful Frenchman, Claude Matine (Dolenz).

ELIZABETH TAYLOR

The marriage of Charlie and Helen goes well, even while they’re living from hand to mouth, but Charlie is gradually losing confidence in himself as one publisher after another rejects his novels. Then their world is permanently altered as oil is discovered on Texas land, thought to be barren, that Elwirth jokingly gave the couple as a wedding gift. While Helen struggles to maintain stability in the family, Charlie sinks further and further into a morass of depression and decadence.

When this movie was released, some critics savaged it. It is true that the story is implausible and that some of the acting is either arch or wooden. Eva Gabor, as socialite Lorraine Quarl, who plays a supporting role in Charlie’s decline, gives exactly the kind of performance one expected of the Gabors. Descher, who was only nine years old, is gag-me cute in the role of Vicki –and she inexplicably never ages as the years roll by.

SANDY DESCHER

Van Johnson’s light comedy is entertaining, but his drunk scenes are simply unbelievable. I once heard from a stage veteran that an actor who can’t play a convincing drunk is no actor at all. That might be too harsh a judgment on Johnson, but this film suggests that faux inebriation was not his strong suit.

WALTER PIDGEON

Elizabeth Taylor and Donna Reed did passably well as the sisters, although a scene in which Taylor’s character is mortally ill is so unconvincing as to be ludicrous. Walter Pidgeon, on the other hand, is delightful as the irresponsible but  charismatic Ellswirth and Dolenz plays Claude as the most realistic figure in the film.

I don’t know if this is true, but I have read that the producers didn’t use the title of Fitzgerald’s story because they were afraid movie-goers would think the film had a biblical theme. I wondered about the title they did use, particularly because its lyrics express sentiments exactly opposite of those in this film. The song “The Last Time I Saw Paris” is heard in the background throughout the movie. It turns out that song was written in 1940 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and it was sung by Ann Sothern in the 1941 film Lady be Good. It won the Oscar for best song. The song was composed in the aftermath of the German occupation of France. There were six versions of the song on the hit charts by the end of 1940, and Kate Smith bought the exclusive right to sing it on the radio for six months.

As is often the case with movies, the shortcomings of The Last Time I Saw Paris do not add up to a failure. The film is nicely photographed — much of it in Paris, it captures the mood and mores of the early ‘fifties, and it is entertaining. It’s also an inoffensive opportunity to spend a couple of hours indulging oneself  in the  kind of escapism provided by “golden-age” stars such as Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.

You can hear the title song, presented in the mood in which it was written, by clicking HERE. The performance is by Anne Shelton, a fine British vocalist who devoted a lot of time and energy to entertaining troops via radio and in person.

KATE SMITH

During World War II, the popular radio star Kate Smith used to end her daily broadcasts by saying, “And remember … if you don’t write, you’re wrong!” Kate Smith, who was a major supporter of the war effort in general and of American troops in particular, was prodding those at home to send letters to soldiers and sailors. I don’t know whether Kate Smith introduced that expression, and that inspired a songwriter, or the other way around. I do know that a writer named Olive Kriser wrote a song by that title in 1943, and it, too, urged families and friends to write to the troops.

For me, that phrase has always evoked what I imagine was a melancholy aspect of the war years: young men and women suddenly separated from their families, friends, neighbors, familiar surroundings, everyday routines, and hurled into the maelstrom, wondering about the folks, about ever seeing them again, longing for a mundane conversation around the kitchen table, a cheese sandwich made by Mom. And yearning, yearning, for a word from home.

That was the real-life experience of tens of thousands of young people, including Joseph Farris of Danbury, Connecticut, who was drafted, trained, and shipped off to the fighting fields of France and Germany shortly after leaving high school.

Farris, who has become a very successful cartoonist and illustrator, has recreated his experience in A Soldier’s Sketchbook, an elegant volume published by National Geographic. Farris got lots of letters, but in this book, he reproduces many of the letters that he wrote to his parents and two brothers during the three years, beginning in May 1943, that he spent in the United States Army. The book also contains facsimiles of some of those letters and of other documents, photographs of Farris and some of his colleagues, and watercolors and drawings that he did while he was in service.

Farris provides a narrative in which he demonstrates how he pulled his punches in his letters home, both because military censorship sharply restricted what combatants could write about and because he didn’t want to worry his family. The folks wouldn’t know until it was well over that Farris — who wound up heading a heavy machine-gun platoon — came under heavy fire, watched his fellows soldiers being blown away, shivered in the cold and wet of the foxhole, and confronted the fact that any hour could the last in his brief life.

By the time Farris got into combat, Italy had surrendered, Athens had been liberated, France had been invaded, and the German siege of Leningrad had been broken. The jig was up for the Third Reich. So although he experienced the worst of the war, he also had some less lethal duty, moving through towns in France and Germany and temporarily occupying houses that were far more comfortable than a hole in the ground.

A touching aspect of this book is the writer’s lack of self pity and his consistent concern for the well being of his parents and brothers. While he was still in harm’s way, he wrote to his younger brother George, “Dad, Mom, & I are exceedingly grateful, kid, that you are around to help out. Mom & Dad depend a helluva lot on you, so don’t let them down. You may work a little harder than many other fellows your age but in the long run it’s going to pay. You don’t know how thankful I am for the training I got in the store” — a reference to his family’s Danbury Confectionery — “not only the business experience but the systematic method necessary. You’re fortunate in having the swellest folks possible. If I can treat my future children half as good as Mom & Dad have treated us I’ll feel that (I) have done my job well.”

Throughout his military service, Farris thought about his plans for a career in art, and often asked his family to send him supplies. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and in other major publications. You can see many of his cartoons and illustrations by clicking HERE.

For another interesting aspect of World War II, click HERE to read about the Women’s Land Army. The site includes many letters written home by Genevieve Wolfe, who was one of a group of 40 young women from West Virginia who traveled to a camp in Ohio to provide labor needed on farms in the northern part of the state.

There’s a radio station in these parts that started the week after Thanksgiving to play nothing but Christmas music. And that has been pretty much restricted to non-religious Christmas music, which sharply limits the available tracks, even with generic winter tunes like “Let it Snow” thrown in.

JOHNNY MARKS

We usually stick to the public radio classical music station, but once in while, when that station delves into music we find grating, we have switched to the commercial station, but the steady diet of what seems like a dozen songs can be nauseating. Earlier today, within less than 30 minutes, that station played yet again “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives. It occurred to me as I reached for the remote that all of those songs were the work of Johnny Marks. That’s no small thing when one considers that relatively few pop Christmas songs have become standards.

“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was actually a collaboration with Marks’s brother-in-law, Robert May, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, who worked as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

ROBERT MAY

For many years, the retail chain had been giving away Christmas coloring books to children who visited Santa Claus at Montgomery Ward stores, but in the 1930s, turned to creating its own book, which featured the tale of Rudolph, written in verse by Robert May. By 1946, more than six million copies of the book had been distributed. To its credit, Montgomery Ward, which originally owned the copyright to Rudolph because it had been written by an employee as an assignment, turned the rights over to May in 1947. Marks turned May’s poem into lyrics and set it to music. Although other singers turned down the chance, Gene Autry recorded the song for the Christmas season of 1949 and the disc sold more than 2.5 million copies the first year and has sold tens of millions since.

Incidentally, May’s achievement was remarkable in its own right in that he managed to add a character to the ages-old Santa Claus legend.

Marks, who attended Colgate and Columbia universities, also wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a musical adaptation of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The song was recorded by several major artists, including Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, and Kate Smith.

From what I’ve read, although “Rudolph” made Marks a rich man, he wasn’t crazy about being remembered only for that and a few other Christmas songs. As it happens, Marks also collaborated with Carmen Lombardo and D.L. Hill to write one of my favorite songs, “Address Unknown.”  It was a big hit for the Ink Spots. You can hear their recording by clicking HERE.

JOHNNY MARKS

I don’t want to leave Johnny Marks without mentioning that he served with the U.S. Army during World War II — specifically, as a captain in the 26th Special Service Company — and he was awarded the Bronze Star and four battle stars.

Serving under General George Patton during the invasion of Normandy, Marks won the Bronze Star for leading 20 men in an attack on a castle and capturing the 100 Germans inside. 

I’m obsessed

November 6, 2010

KATE SMITH

The popular song “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” was written in 1931, and its lyricists, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll, provided a hopeful message that sounded all the more melancholy because of the reality of the times – economic depression. My favorite recording of that song was made by Kate Smith. I like the way she sings two lines — both of them in this verse:

Your castles may tumble / that’s fate, after all / Life’s really funny that way / No use to grumble / Smile as they fall / Weren’t you king for a day?

Kate Smith had a wonderful, musical laugh, which I loved to hear on her radio and television shows. And she laughs that laugh on the word “funny” in that verse without breaking the tempo of the line. I can’t hear her sing that line too often, and I’ve had the recording for about 40 years. Then, at the end of the verse, she does a little glide on the word “day,” starting on the note and then smoothly sliding down the scale. Again, I’m obsessed with that line. I play the song just to hear her treatment of that one word – “day.”

BING CROSBY

In a similar vein, for many years, whenever I learned that a TV station was going to broadcast the movie “High Society,” I would watch it so that I could hear Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra perform the duet “Well, Did You Evah,” sometimes referred to as “What a Swell Party This Is.” I even figured out about how far into the movie that song occurs, because I didn’t want to watch the whole film, which is a flawed remake of “The Philadelphia Story.”

COLE PORTER

The movie has a book by John Patrick and songs by Cole Porter. In “Well, Did You Evah” Crosby and Sinatra simultaneously sing Porter’s lyrics and exchange spoken barbs. At one point, Crosby sings, “Have you heard / about dear Blanche? / Got run down by an avalanche.” Sinatra says, “Nooooo,” and Crosby answers “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know. Got up and finished fourth.” Sinatra: “This kid’s got guts.” Crosby: “Havin’ a nice time? Grab a line.” At which point, Sinatra resumes singing.  Crosby was Mister Smooth, and the way he delivers the line, “Don’t you worry. She’s a game girl, you know . . . ” has captivated me since the first time I heard it about 50 years ago. Fortunately, I now have bookmarked that song from YouTube and I can listen to Crosby say that line as often as I like, which is often, because I’m obsessed.

AL PACINO

I don’t experience this kind of fixation only with music. It also occurs with the spoken word — for example, with Al Pacino’s speech in the climax of the movie “Scent of a Woman.” I read a review of that movie in which the critic remarked that Pacino’s dramatic choices were confined to whether to speak loud or louder. It’s fair to say that Pacino often gobbles the scenery, but the most effective line in that speech is one for which he lowers his voice and uses the words like sharp instruments. It is the last sentence of this passage: “As I came in here, I heard those words, ‘cradle of leadership.’ Well, when the bow breaks, the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here; it has fallen. Makers of men; creators of leaders; be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here.” When Pacino says those last words – “Be careful what kind of leaders you’re producin’ here” – he makes them prophetic, ominous. I bookmarked the video of that scene, too – it’s at THIS LINK — and I never tire of hearing him say it. I’m obsessed.

SETH RUDETSKY

I recently learned that this behavior doesn’t constitute a private disorder of mine – and that there is a name for it: deconstruction. The dawn broke when I was at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick talking to Seth Rudetsky, who is so versatile that he defies definition. It’s something like comedian-actor-radio host-raconteur-musician-composer. I was talking to him because he is going to appear in the George Street production of the musical play “[title of show].”

Rudetsky hosts a web site which includes a series of videos he calls “Deconstruction.” In these, he plays clips from Broadway musicals — a subject he knows inside-out — and analyzes, in his supercharged manner, the techniques with which a singer such as Florence Henderson, Laurie Beechman, or Kristin Chenoweth handles a song – or a line, or a word, or a syllable. “I’m obsessed!” he often says when he has played a phrase over and over again, mouthing the words along with the singer.

I’m glad to finally know that I’m in good company. Rudetsky’s site is at THIS LINK.

SUSAN BOYLE

SUSAN BOYLE

The sensation caused by Susan Boyle’s appearance on a British talent show should be embarrassing to more than those judges and that audience who initially dismissed her based on her appearance alone. They didn’t dismiss her because her appearance was somehow exceptional; if they had met her at a backyard party in her village they might not have given her appearance a second thought. Rather, they either assumed from the outset that a person that ordinary, a person of that age, could have nothing to offer in the way of talent, or they assumed that no matter what she had to offer in the way of talent, it couldn’t be enough if she looked like that. The judges and the audience weren’t alone in making such assumptions. They live in a larger world in which uncounted people of enormous talent go unnoticed while mediocrities like Britney Spears make headlines regardless of their lack of artistic gifts.

KATE SMITH

KATE SMITH

The Susan Boyle phenomenon calls to mind the experience of Kate Smith, one of my favorite singers of standards. Early in her career, she had to put up with ridicule, especially “fat girl” jokes, but in the end the public couldn’t ignore her musical prowess. Based on the only thing I’ve heard Boyle sing, she reminds me of Kate Smith in that the power and clarity of her voice are enhanced by her ability to deliver the song. Kate Smith was a favorite among lyricists for that reason, which explains why she introduced more than 650 hit songs during her radio and recording career.

My guess is that we didn’t learn anything – at least, not permanently – from the Susan Boyle incident, but it will be justification enough for her if she flourishes in a mid-life career. I, for one, would love to hear more.