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The TV series is now controlled by CBS, which has withdrawn it from circulation and has at times taken legal action in an attempt to squelch the widespread Internet sale of bootleg tapes and DVDs of the  episodes.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

 

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.”

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.

Sign at a tavern in Portland, Ore.

One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.

Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”

Opening title of the television series "The Life of Riley"

As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.

That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.

Rosemary DeCamp and Jackie Gleason

The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”

Of  course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.

Lugene Sanders

Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.

Bill Bendix on the cover of a Dell comic based on the series.

The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.

While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure  for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.

Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.

DANNY THOMAS

Danny Thomas used to do a monologue about a man who got a flat tire and then discovered that he had no jack in his car. He had no choice but to walk to a gas station that was miles away, and the routine consisted of this guy muttering to himself as he trudges along the road. Already annoyed, he makes himself angrier by imagining how the garage owner will try to take advantage of him. He is so furious by the time he reaches the station that he verbally attacks the unwitting mechanic, telling him what he can do with his jack. Some people could tell that story in a few sentences; Thomas could make it last ten minutes. That was the genius of the saloon comic whose talent and know-how made him a television mogul.

Thomas was a popular guy in our house, not only because he was funny but because he had Lebanese parents. My mother’s parents were from Lebanon, and when Thomas became a national figure, he was the only one who shared that heritage. The Lebanese were once regarded in our country as exotic, so much so that my mother told me that her parents instructed her to say she was French if anyone should ask. Danny Thomas with his broad popularity and his frequent acknowledgement of his background provided a chance to wave the flag.

The story has been told often enough about how Thomas, when it appeared that he might never succeed as an entertainer, promised St. Jude that if his fortunes changed he would build a shrine to the saint. Even St. Jude might have forgiven someone for dismissing a vow made in desperation, but Thomas stuck to his word and, in the process, made himself one of the heroes of 20th century America.

When Thomas first launched a campaign to raise money for his project, the backbone of the drive then as now was the Arab-American community, including several of my mother’s Lebanese cousins. My parents attended fundraising events, including one at which Thomas and his wife, Rose Marie, appeared.

 

MARLO THOMAS

I figured that tenuous connection was better than nothing when I had an opportunity last year to share a meal with Marlo Thomas, one of Danny Thomas’s three children. I needn’t have bothered. She is a gracious and open woman who doesn’t require pandering. She and her siblings are also their father’s successors as heroes, making an extraordinary commitment to generating support for the hospital he founded. Although it has been operating since 1962, the mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital – to treat children with catastrophic pediatric diseases regardless of their families’ ability to pay – seems more like a dream than a reality The hospital has operating costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a day. Someone who joined us at dinner asked Marlo about covering that nut. “How do you do it?” he said. And she answered: “We do it.” I have often thought about that answer; it reveals a combination of determination and confidence that I have encountered in leaders of other charitable enterprises.

Marlo Thomas, on her own, has had a remarkable career. She is a talented dramatic and comic actress, and her TV series “That Girl” was a benchmark in prime time representation of independent women. Her project “Free to be You and Me” — a record album, a TV special, and a book — broke new ground in eliminating the image of the helpless or subservient female that infected traditional children’s literature and entertainment.

She has recently published her sixth book, “Growing Up Laughing.” This book alternately recounts her childhood and adolesence in the Thomas household — which was frequently extended to include the likes of Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jan Murray — and her conversations with contemporary comics about the origins of their own funny bones. Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy  Griffith, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams are among them. The observations of these modern performers supplement the wisdom that Marlo Thomas gleaned from her exposure to the wits of her dad’s generation. The book is entertaining and full of insights about both the inspiration and the discipline of comedians.

JERRY SEINFELD

I particularly liked Jerry Seinfeld’s explanation of his  remark that comedy doesn’t belong on the arts pages, but on the sports pages:

One of the things that drew me to comedy was that it’s a simple world. It doesn’t require the interpretation of any critic to tell you whether something is good or not good. If the audience is laughing, the guy’s good. If they’re not laughing, he’s not good. Period. And that’s the analogy to sports: You can talk all you want about how two teams played in a game. But we all know who won at the end. There’s no debate. It doesn’t require any perception. … Standup comedy doesn’t require value judgments. If you get laughs, you work; if you don’t get laughs, you don’t work. It’s all about the score.

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.

GLENN BECK

In their learned discussion  this week, political philosopher Glenn Beck and stateswoman Sarah Palin evoked the spirits of the “founding fathers” — a term, by the way, that was coined by an earlier genius, Warren G. Harding. After his own apotheosis of George Washington, Beck inquired of Gov. Palin, “Who is your favorite founder?” Apparently not wanting to offend the disciples of any one of our forbears, Gov. Palin demurred: “Ummm … you know … well, all of them.” Beck, clearly trying to uphold his reputation as a hard-hitting and objective interviewer, expressed his reservation by dismissing the governor’s attempt at delicacy as “bull crap” and demanded to know who was her favorite. The two great minds, as  it turned out, were superimposed much like a prophetic convergence of heavenly bodies. Gov. Palin’s choice was George Washington. She made her reason clear: She empathized with Washington’s indifference to public office, except as a temporary duty, and his disdain for notoriety in general. So it was a natural choice for the former city council member, mayor, and governor, and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor and vice-president — and recently engaged Fox News commentator. Neither Beck nor Palin brought up slave-holding or land speculation, but it was only a one-hour program.

THOMAS PAINE

Given the spiritual underpinnings of the two thinkers, their discourse naturally turned to religion. They agreed that religious faith was an important motivation for  the “founding fathers,” although Glenn Beck darkly noted, “except Thomas Paine — we think he might have been an athiest.” As far as the others were concerned, Gov. Palin twice tried to assure Beck — who didn’t seem to be listening — that “we have the documents.”

Paine might have run afoul of Glenn Beck and Gov. Palin anyway inasmuch as he eventually described Washington with words like “hypocrite,” “apostate,” and “imposter.” However, unless the “we” who share Glenn Beck’s suspicions know something that historians do not know, Paine was not an athiest but a deist — deism being all the rage at the time, including among many of the “founders.”

As for the “documents” the governor referred as evidence that the republic somehow was founded on religious principles, perhaps she will be specific when she settles into her role as a commentator or when she publishes her next book. Presumably she is not referring to the Declaration of Independence, which is not part of the organic law of the land, nor such things as Thanksgiving proclamations. Nor can she mean the treaty with Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and signed by the deist founding father and president, John Adams — a treaty that explicitly rejects the idea that the government of the United States was founded on Christian principles. If Gov. Palin can find religion — except a prohibition against establishing it — in the federal Constitution, which is the law of the land, she has an obligation to expose it for the rest of us.

DP ends itDuring the last ALCS game, I got this lyric stuck in my head: “So who would want these diamond gems? / They’re diamonds in the rough. / A baseball team needs nine good men. / One guy just ain’t enough.”

I remember hearing that on television about 50 years ago. It was sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” and it got stuck in my head. Every once in a while it comes to the surface.

When it came to the surface the other day, I decided to do what I always tell my students to do — look it up. In the Internet age, that’s a lot easier than it used to be, although this song seemed so obscure that I didn’t expect to track it down.

BBCL0201By searching on a phrase from that lyric I actually found one reference to it. It turns out that it’s part of a jingle that was used in one of a series of public service announcements sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. An application for a grant to help fund the series turned up on a site that houses the archives of the AJC. Among the documents was a page from an issue of TV Guide dated April 28, 1951. On the page was a short article about this animated short that was part of a larger, award-winning anti-bigotry campaign by the AJC. The short was designed to reinforce the idea that people of many backgrounds contributed to life in the United States.

TOM GLAZERThe animated cartoons were by Fred Arnott and the song was written by Lynn Rhodes. I could find out nothing more about either of them. However, the song was sung by Tom Glazer, who had a decent reputation as a folk singer. A lot of people of a certain generation will remember his novelty song “On Top of Spaghetti,” a children’s song he recorded in 1963. He also wrote “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was recorded by the Weavers and by Peter Paul, and Mary, and “Talkin’ Inflation Blues,” which was recorded by Bob Dylan. Glazer wrote idiotic and kind of racist lyrics to “Skokian,” a Zimbabwean song that was popular in multiple versions. Glazer’s version was recorded by the Four Lads.

Anyway, the song he sang for the AJC went like this:

Though every player is top flight / Our team just falls to pieces / With every game they have to play / The number of flubs increases.

To figure why they fall apart / You needn’t be too clever / With no teamwork the team’s big star / Will die on third forever.

The shortstop simply cannot play / With the jerk who’s second sacker / The pitcher can pitch to anyone / But certainly not to his catcher.

So who would want these diamond gems? ‘/ They’re diamonds in the rough / A baseball team needs nine good men / One guy just ain’t enough.

A nation’s like a baseball team / It’s run by teamwork too. / And every race and every creed / Works with Y-O-U.

Play ball with all your neighbors / Pitch in a little more / Americans, join your teammates all / Roll up a winning score.

Sui generis

August 5, 2009

GERTRUDE BERG

GERTRUDE BERG

A few months ago, I wrote in this journal that my wife and I had discovered and watched on line a few episodes of the television series “The Goldbergs.” Those episodes are at http://www.archives.com.

After I wrote that blog, I heard from a publicist who was handling a new documentary film about the owner, writer, and star of “The Goldbergs” — Gertrude Berg — who was one of the most remarkable women of the second half of the 20th century. As a result of that contact, I wrote the following story, part of which has appeared in the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill and has been picked up on other blogs:

When the U.S. Postal Service issues its “Early TV Memories” stamps this summer, don’t look for Gertrude Berg.

The New York City native, who 80 years ago created the domestic situation comedy, and became a media mogul, was not included with the likes of Lucille Ball and Harriet Nelson, who decades later followed her into American homes.

But Berg is being reintroduced to the American public in a documentary film – “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” – written and directed by Aviva Kempner.

The title evokes the phrase associated with Berg during the radio and television runs of the show she created and controlled, most widely known as “The Goldbergs.”

The principal character, Molly Goldberg, and her neighbors in a Bronx apartment building, interacted by leaning out their windows and calling: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg … Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Bloom.”

From her window, Molly – portrayed by Berg – invited listeners and viewers into the Goldberg household to share the lives of her husband, Jake; their children, Sammy and Rosalie; and Molly’s brother, David Romaine.

The show ran on radio from 1929 to 1946 – five days a week for much of that time – and on television from 1949 to 1956. Berg herself wrote every script in longhand.

PHILLIP LOEB

PHILLIP LOEB

There were also a stage play, a movie, a lucrative vaudeville tour, a comic strip, a jigsaw puzzle, a newspaper column, a line of women’s dresses, and a popular cookbook – although Berg couldn’t cook.

Berg’s rise to prominence, Kempner emphasized, occurred “at the time of the greatest domestic anti-Semitism in America, and during the rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe.’’

Berg presented the family as Jewish – adopting a mild Yiddish accent and a unique use of language that became a hallmark of the character:

As Molly shows off a hat, a neighbor asks: “With what dress are you going to wear it?’’

“With mine periwinkle,’’ Molly answers, striking a pose: “Visualize!”

And Berg didn’t shy away from difficult issues affecting Jews.

The documentary points out that in 1933, the year Hitler became dicator of Germany, she had a rabbi conduct a Seder service on the program. And after Kristallnacht in 1938, she wrote an episode in which a stone smashed an apartment window while the Goldbergs were celebrating Passover; Molly calmed the children and urged Jake to continue leading the Seder.

“And yet,’’ Kempner said, “Molly Goldberg was universal. You didn’t have to be Jewish to love her.’’

This urban mother first appeared on radio a month after the stock market crash, and the Goldbergs became so important to the national psyche during the Great Depression, as people maintaining the family circle in spite of want, that Franklin Roosevelt himself acknowledged it.

THE CAST OF "THE GOLDBERGS"

THE CAST OF "THE GOLDBERGS"

Kempner – based in Washington, D.C. – made the documentary through her Ciesla Foundation, whose goal is to “produce films about under-known Jewish heroes.” Kempner – whose work includes a 2000 film about baseball legend Hank Greenberg – said that although the Gertrude Berg film is complete, she is still raising money to pay for it.

The new film includes vintage photos and motion pictures and input from members of Berg’s family, actors, her biographer and others, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The story they tell has its dark sides.

Berg, born in 1898, did not grow up in the kind of setting she portrayed in her shows.

“She never had a nurturing mother like Molly Goldberg,’’ Kempner said. “She created what she didn’t have.’’

Berg’s own mother sunk into depression after the early death of her son and ended her life in a mental institution. Berg’s father badgered Gertrude into working at resorts he opened in the Catskills and in Florida but never supported her career as an actress and producer.

By contrast, her husband, Lewis Berg, a chemical engineer, typed many scripts from his wife’s handwritten originals.

Especially unsettling in Gertrude Berg’s life was the impact of “Red Channels,” the publication that purported to expose Communists working in radio and film.

One of those identified was Philip Loeb, an actors’ union leader, who played Jake Goldberg on the television series. Berg herself was listed as a “sympathizer.”

CBS and her sponsor pressured Gertrude Berg to fire Loeb. She refused, and her show was cancelled. NBC eventually picked up the show, but Loeb had accepted a cash settlement out of consideration for Berg and the other actors. Blacklisted from radio and film, he committed suicide in 1955.

Berg won an Emmy for her portrayal of Molly Goldberg, and a Tony for her 1959 Broadway performance in “A Majority of One,” and her autobiography was a best seller.

Still, only a small percentage of Americans today know who Gertrude Berg was, Kempner said, “and I want to restore her correct place in our cultural history.’’

The home web site for the film is at http://www.mollygoldbergfilm.org/home.php Information about theaters showing the film is available there.

The Ciesla Foundation web site is at http://www.cieslafoundation.org/

Joy, joy, joy

June 13, 2009

JOY BEHAR

JOY BEHAR

I don’t know why this took so long, but I’m glad to see that Joy Behar is finally going to have her own TV talk show. It will be on at 9 p.m. weekdays on HLN, the network formerly known as Headline News.

I listened reguarly to Behar’s radio show on WABC in New York. I didn’t always agree with her – particularly on religious issues – but I was drawn in by the combination of wit, intelligence, and common sense and by her willingness to listen to other points of view. In fact, I called in to her show several times, and she always gave me enough time to say what was on my mind.

JOY BEHAR

JOY BEHAR

While she was still doing that radio show, I wrote a long profile of her. I remember the lead: “Joy Behar is a chiacchierone” – that being the Italian term for “chatterbox.” I spent about an hour with her at WABC, and I later talked by phone to the station manager, who told me Behar’s show was doing well and that he had just signed her to a new contract. It wasn’t long after that that she was fired, not a surprising turn of events in radio. She seemed too liberal and too outspoken in general for the management of that station, but she wound up working for the same parent company when she got her position as a co-host of “The View.”

ANN COULTER

ANN COULTER

It isn’t possible to judge Behar’s potential as a TV host based on “The View,” because guests aren’t given enough time on that show and the hosts often talk simultaneously. There was a better example of  her work recently when she substituted for Larry King and interviewed Ann Coulter. When Coulter appeared on “The View” the conversation deteriorated into babble as everyone tried to make her point at the same time in a contentious atmosphere. On the King show, however, Behar and Coulter were able to have a linear conversation in which – though they may be polar opposites in many ways – they showed each other mutual respect and the viewer got a chance to learn something from the dialogue.

At last, something  to look forward to in the bleak landscape of television.