LEONARD WARREN

LEONARD WARREN

My best friend was up in Nantucket at one of those places where you leave things you have no further use for and other folks take them home. Lou  spotted a set of CDs containing dozens of  vintage recordings of operatic arias. Being my best friend, he brought them back for me. One of the singers who was well represented on the discs was the American baritone Leonard Warren, whose voice I hadn’t heard in many years.

Just seeing Warren’s name in the play list evoked for me a vivid memory of a Friday night — March 4, 1960 — when I was watching television and heard a bulletin announcing that Warren had died that night on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan while performing the role of Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. Warren, 48, collapsed after singing the aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” which is introduced with the words “Morir: tremenda cosa” — “to die: a momentous  thing.”

HARRY PARKE

HARRY PARKE

I was 17 when Leonard Warren died, and I was already an opera fan, so learning of his passing in that abrupt fashion made a strong impression on me. I was disappointed, but the dramatic aspects of Warren’s death — with his boots on, as it were — weren’t lost on me. I have a  recurring daydream of  one day slumping over my keyboard, though I have had to amend it over time from a bulky steel Royal to an IBM Selectric to a variety of front-end terminals and PCs. When those who still remember my name hear how  I cashed out, they’ll purse their  lips, nod, and mutter, “Of course. How else would he go?”

If I ever do join Warren in that exclusive society, he won’t be the only entertainer I find among those with club-room privileges. Harry Parke, for example, could hardly have picked a more auspicious context for his final bow. Parke, who is largely forgotten, was a former newspaper man who more or less wandered into comedy by way of Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Parke developed a character he called Parkyakarkus and did a schtick in which he spoke in a garbled form of  Greek. He eventually had his own radio show, and he appeared in nearly a dozen movies from 1936 to 1945. He also made a lot of money in real estate.

HARRY PARKE

HARRY PARKE

On November 24, 1958, Parke was appearing at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He had just finished what reportedly was a very successful riff on the honorees when he slumped over onto Milton Berle. Berle asked if there were a doctor in the house and the line — understandably in that context — got a big laugh until folks realized that Parke was really ill. Five physicians who were among the Friars worked hard to save Parke, but he died after about two hours at the age of 54. His sons include the comics Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and the versatile writer Charles Einstein.

DICK SHAWN

DICK SHAWN

Many years ago, I met a man who eventually would fall into this rarefied category: the comedian Dick Shawn. I met Shawn while he was appearing in a play in a regional theater, but his career for more than 35 years was principally as a stand-up comic. He did appear in some movies, including the iconic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and the Springtime for Hitler segment in The Producers, and he was a familiar figure on television as a comedian and as an actor.

On April 17, 1987, Shawn performed at the University of California at San Diego. During a routine in which he was talking about he and the audience surviving a nuclear war, he collapsed on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack. The audience thought his fall was part of the act and didn’t leave even when they were told to after someone had gone onto the stage to examine Shawn.  He was 63.

If you click HERE, you can see and hear Leonard Warren, in a television performance, singing the prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.

MILTON BERLE

MILTON BERLE

As I continue my recent reminiscences about the theme songs of entertainers, I’m struck by the contrast between the outrageous comic persona of Milton Berle and the sentimental character of his signature tune, “Near You.” Berle, largely forgotten by later generations, was the first major television star and one of the most popular figures in the United States. He started performing in silent movies when he was a child and later was a success in musical theater, vaudeville, and radio. After he brought his slapstick routines and outlandish costumes to television in 1949, he dominated the medium for several years and is generally credited with doubling the sales of TV sets.

FRANCIS CRAIG

FRANCIS CRAIG

The song Berle chose as his closing theme had music by Francis Craig and lyrics by Kermit Goell. Craig, who had his own dance band, also wrote the hit song “Beg Your Pardon” and a tune called “Dynamite” which is the fight song of his alma mater, Vanderbilt University. The lyricist, Kermit Goell, had an interesting background including a degree in agriculture from Cornell and experience excavating historic sites in Turkey with his sister, Theresa, who was an archaeologist. Goell was also an Army Air Force veteran of World War II.

Berle - 3
“Huggin’ and Chalkin'”, which Goell wrote with Clancy Hayes, was recorded by Kay Kyser, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, and his “One Finger Melody” was a hit for Frank Sinatra.

The lyric of “Near You,” which was published in 1947, begins like this: There’s just one place for me, near you / It’s like heaven to be near you . . . .” As I recall, Berle would appear on stage at the end of his show and sing, “There’s just one place for me, near you / Only one place for me, and that’s near you ….” and then say his good-night while the music continued.

Craig’s own recording of “Near You,” spent 21 weeks on the Billboard Best Sellers chart, hitting number one. The record was number one on the “Most Played By Jockeys” chart for 17 consecutive weeks, which was the record for both a song and for an artist on any chart. The Black-Eyed Peas broke the record for an artist in 2009, but with two songs — “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.”

“Near Me” has been recorded by Andy Williams, Roger Williams, Nat King Cole, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. You can hear the Andrews Sisters’ recording by clicking HERE.

MILTON BERLE

MILTON BERLE

Saul Austerlitz filed an interesting story for the Los Angeles Times about the ambition of many comic actors and comedy directors to work in drama. I once attended a lecture by Milton Berle in which he talked about this subject. As do a lot of comic actors, Berle maintained that comedy was the more difficult genre inasmuch as no one is funny all the time, or even a lot of the time, whereas most of us are serious much of the time and some of us all of the time. At least, I think that’s what he said.

Berle had a few opportunities to prove that he was capable of playing straight roles. His autobiography revealed that he nursed his share of bitterness over certain events and personalities in his life, and those probably provided a well for him to draw on.

JACKIE GLEASON

JACKIE GLEASON

Jackie Gleason who, like Berle, made his name with the broadest of comedy, had a flair for drama and demonstrated it in “The Hustler” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He had already shown in a couple of his comedy characters — particularly “the poor soul” — that he could play a part for pathos, although when he tried to put that character virtually intact in a serious film — “Gigot” — the result was uninspired.

Anyway, those interested in film comics in particular might be interested in the Austerlitz piece — inspired by a new Adam Sandler project, at this link:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-comedians19-2009jul19,0,4668140.story