Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Crown's Jewel

I haven't written an obit/tribute in these pages since last year (when Patty Duke died, go here to read that one), but when this gent died last Friday, attention had to be paid.  
Tim Pigott-Smith
Our hero had a career spanning six decades with success on stage, screen, and television.  He never stopped working, though his career had a couple of high points.  One of those was very recent, as he introduced the world to one of the most admired new plays of the past few years, King Charles III.  
Truth be told, there's not much physical resemblance between Pigott-Smith and the royal he portrayed in King Charles III, but everyone thought he nailed the role. He was nominated for both the Olivier (he lost to Mark Strong in View From the Bridge) and the Tony (he lost to Frank Langella in The Father).
Written by Mike Bartlett in iambic pentameter, the piece takes place in the very near future: upon the death of Elizabeth II, the Prince of Wales finally assumes the British throne, after 70 years waiting in the wings.  
It was great fun to watch this fictionalized
portrait of the royal family with struggles
right out of Shakespeare and O'Neill. And
there was some great Hat Acting being
done by the actress playing Camilla.
I saw the play in its regional theatre debut at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, but I wish I had caught the original West End cast when it transferred to Broadway last year.  Pigott-Smith (let's call him P-S for convenience from here on out, no disrespect intended) received rave reviews and a Tony nod for his work.  He received an Olivier nomination for the performance as well, he lost them both.  But his career was continuing non-stop;  he has several films in the can, including a TV version of Chuck 3 scheduled to be shown on PBS in May.
P-S's contemporary work included this production of Albee's A Delicate Balance; do you recognize the woman he's playing opposite? That's Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey's Cousin Isabelle, though I knew her work decades earlier, beginning with the PBS taping of The Norman Conquests back in the mists of time.
No, it's not Equus as directed by Bob Fosse. It's our hero as
Prospero in The Tempest. I'm guessing his co-star is playing
Ariel, though I suppose it could be Caliban by way of Bowie.
Standing over six feet and with a booming, majestic voice, our Tim excelled at playing authoritarian characters.  His Shakespearean roles included two crowned heads, Polixines in The Winter's Tale, and King Lear himself (as well as the pseudo-Shakespearean Charles III). 
Tim made a splashy West End debut in the early 70s in this Hamlet. He played Laertes (here dead) opposite the Hamlet of a very young Ian McKellen.
American classics were fair game to P-S. He was scheduled for
Death of a Salesman before he died, and here, he tangled with
Dame Helen Mirren in O'Neill's monster Mourning Becomes
Tim's Broadway debut in a Sherlock Holmes play (he played Watson) was well received.  His stage resume includes Shaw, Albee, and lots of playwrights in between;  he was due to begin rehearsals as Willy Loman, if you can believe it, a few days after he died.
Tim Pigott-Smith is not in this picture, but fans of Downton Abbey will know why this particular screen grab is displayed in a tribute to P-S. If you need a further clue, the person in bed is Lady Sybil. The episode in which the youngest daughter at Downton gives birth, then acquires a disease which ultimately kills her, is one of the pivotal moments of the series. Our hero guested on this episode, as the pompous London doctor who misdiagnosed Sybil, over-ruled the family doc, and caused her death. Not surprisingly, P-S's character never returned.
I mentioned his career had a couple of high points, one of which was his recent success with King Charles III. Decades ago, he achieved an even bigger high point as a central character in one of the most respected television programs in the history of the medium.  

P-S spent some time on Doctor Who, I'm told (don't watch the thing myself), as well as several other British programs which did not jump the pond to the US. But everyone agrees his greatest fame came from his pivotal role in The Jewel in the Crown, the 1984 mini-series which is regularly included on lists of the best television programs of all time.
This love/hate triangle dominated the first episodes of Jewel in the Crown, and affected the later episodes in more subtle ways.
It was this series which first brought Tim Pigott-Smith to my attention.  I tuned in every Sunday night as this huge story of the last years of the British rule in India was broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre (I still miss Alistair Cooke's urbane commentary, don't you?).  
The plot of Jewel in the Crown hinged on the brutality which
policeman Merrick inflicted on the Indian who dared love a
British woman. There was a hint of homo-eroticism in this
interrogation scene which I bet many viewers missed.
I knew almost nothing about the British Raj (that's Hindi for "rule") and was fascinated by the Indian struggles for Independence while World War II raged. Sounds pretty, ahem, "educational," but the series itself brimmed with life. The show was based on a quartet of novels by Paul Scott, which explains the somewhat jarring shift of prospective the program underwent. 
Peggy Ashcroft and Tim Pigott-Smith did not work
much together on the sprawling series, but they
walked off with the biggest kudos, well-deserved.
The first three episodes concerned the forbidden love affair between a British girl and an Indian expat, who had been educated in a British public school before returning to the subcontinent. A love triangle (of sorts) developed when the British lass caught the attention of a brutishly ambitious police officer, played by our P-S. Ronald Merrick was perceived to be the villain of The Jewel in the Crown, and I wouldn't argue that point, but P-S's performance was never one-note.  
Early in the series, Merrick had a soul and a
conscience, just look at those eyes. They
reflect a longing to be accepted and a
deadening of the soul, simultaneously.
His role was actually an illustration (or perhaps symptom) of the actual theme of the show, the violent animosity between the Hindu and Muslim religions as India struggled to become independent from Britain. Mix in the animosity between all Indians and their British rulers, and you've got a real pot-boiler, and our P-S's Merrick was in the thick of it.
Susan Wooldridge as Daphne Manners, who had the bad luck to
fall for an Indian, then get gang raped, get pregnant, give birth to
a baby of uncertain paternity, then die. And in only 3 episodes!

The defining moment of the series (spoiler alert: it's a rape) occurred in the second episode, and by the fourth episode, this romantic triangle dissolved, and the focus of the series shifted to the Layton family, Brits who left England's middle class to settle in India and become part of the ruling elite.  
These star-crossed lovers gave way to another ill-fated couple.
This storytelling shift was pretty abrupt;  the characters we had met in the first 3 episodes, characters the viewing audience assumed were the stars of the series, receded into the background of the story, with the exception of our anti-hero Merrick. The remainder of the series centered on the Layton sisters: compassionate, level-headed Sarah, and Susan, whose sanity becomes more and more suspect as the series progresses.  
Turns out THIS was the central romance of the series.
Geraldine James and Charles Dance received big career boosts
from Jewel... Their roles were understated and a bit subdued
compared to the flamboyant performances surrounding them.
Judy Parfitt played their chilly mother (in what I think is the best performance in a series full of them), and Charles Dance played a young military man, whose life becomes entangled with Pigot-Smith's Merrick.
Judy Parfitt's gin-fueled Mildred
was brittle,tense, and unlikable
(I loved her)
Everyone on the show did yeoman's work, there are no shortages of stellar performances in this epic, and a few true greats wander through. 

Dame Peggy Ashcroft as lesbian missionary Barbie Bachelor was a series highlight. After a prestigious stage career spanning decades, Jewel in the Crown catapulted her to international stardom at age 77.  She won the BAFTA for her performance (everyone in the category that year was her co-star from the series, she beat them all).  The same year, she won the Oscar for another trip to the subcontinent, A Passage to India.
Rachel Kempson's serene Lady Manners
sailed through several episodes. She is better
known to American audiences as mother to
Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave.
But in my mind, the series belongs to Tim Pigott-Smith's performance as Merrick. His journey was a violent one, and though he evolved into a pretty nasty degenerate, at the beginning of the series he was a devoted friend and hardworking officer of the law who, regrettably, allowed his personal bigotry to affect his character.  
Merrick performs an act of heroism which disfigures him
for life, and begins his descent into degeneracy.
Ah, those Brits really know how to put on a show with performances such as these. Pigott-Smith is one of those British actors who bursts on the scene with a pivotal performance for which they will be primarily remembered.  He had a thriving career both before and after Jewel in the Crown, but his renown has always been linked to this performance. 
P-S as Prof. Higgins brags to his housekeeper, while his creation looks on.  It's Pygmalion, of course, but take a look at the gal playing Eliza.  It's Michelle Dockery, star of Downton Abbey.
There are a handful or more British thespians who never quite escaped their breakout performances, like Derek Jacoby in I, Claudius , David Suchet in the Poirot series, and  Keith Michell's Henry VIII.  Even including his recent international success as Charles III, Tim Pigott-Smith's Ronald Merrick was one of these career-defining performances.  

He died last week at the age of 70.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Magic That Makes Things Grow

As I undecorated the Christmas tree the other day, I had to admit that the holiday season just ending was a very melancholy one.  It hadn't started out that way;  I spent all of December, and much of November, immersed in the Dickensian world of Ghosts Past, Present, and Future.

I suppose you COULD be melancholy while appearing in A Christmas Carol, if you're playing Jacob Marley, but it would have been impossible for me to feel anything but jolly while playing The Ghost of Christmas Present (above).  I also played Fezziwig in this production at Titan Theatre in NYC; both roles lent themselves to raucous laughter and robust attitudes. While there was some tediousness to the commute to and from Queens, the experience certainly was not melancholy.
Just a few days after closing A Christmas Carol, I flew down to North Carolina for my family's usual holiday.  It's always a low-keyed affair, which suits us fine.  It was while at dear ol' Dad's that, miles away in DC, this year's holiday turned frightening, then ugly, then ultimately melancholy. 
Tricia McCauley was a DC-based actress, yoga instructor, and herbalist.  Back in the 60s, these descriptions might have made her sound, well, "Hippy-Dippy".  She would have embraced that label, I think.
The day I first met Tricia, years ago, remains vivid in my memory. I was asked by my grad-school buddy Steve Carpenter to appear in a staged reading he was presenting for his theatre company, the Washington Stage Guild. 
An outdoor Shakespearean performance,
early in her career.
I had worked with the WSG previously in Opus, after which the company lost their home and began many months of presenting these readings of interesting plays while they hunted for their next digs.  (I wrote a bit about this reading series here.  And I wrote about appearing in Opus here; I used to write a lot in these pages...).  Anyway, we were to rehearse this reading only once, a day or two before the performance.  I arrived at the home of WSG's executive director Ann Norton and was introduced to Tricia.  With a wide grin and completely unabashed manner, she told me to sit down and show her my tongue.

Trish was working on her masters degree in Herbal Medicine when I first met her. She was tortured by severe allergies, and the medical community didn't seem to be much help, so she took action on her own.  Her training in medicinal herbs helped her overcome her own allergies and led her down another career path. When she demanded to see my tongue at our first meeting, she was completing a homework assignment to examine various tongues.  She never told me what my tongue told her about my diet and lifestyle, and I certainly never asked.
My first glimpse of Tricia, years before
we met, was this production of Major
Barbara, in which she played the title
role. I was drawn to the show because
my grad school buddy Steve Carpenter
was in it. I was later to become friends
with many members of this WSG cast.
I did more than a dozen staged readings for the Stage Guild during this period, and a lot of them included Tricia. Our group spent a lot of downtime together, after rehearsal and before performances, and we had a habit of walking around the corner from the little black box used for these performances to some cafĂ© or other to grab a bite.  
Though a regular with Washington Stage Guild,
Tricia worked all over, including Olney Theatre,
where she played Sorel Bliss in Hay Fever.
These instances illustrated Tricia's constant (at the time) battle with food.  She was allergic to everything, even to some things she hadn't even encountered before, so dining out with her was a challenge.

Tricia created her own line of herbal "lotions and potions," designed to give all-natural relief for various ailments and conditions. I admire the way she met the challenge of curing herself, leading to a new career helping others. Her company was called Leafyhead, which was a nickname she acquired when she appeared at some herbal event wearing a crown of leaves. Maybe she was working on a monologue of Ophelia's? The moniker stuck.
On stage, Tricia was particularly adept at various accents, a talent she was to use quite precisely in the only full production in which we appeared together.
In Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, Trish played several roles, all with different accents. At various times, she impressed with her Scottish accent, her upper-class Brit, and, in a truly hilarious turn, her role as a Russian soldier (above). This show ran several years ago, but last fall, the cast gathered for a bit of a reunion.  The Washington Stage Guild was presenting staged readings of plays they had produced in each of the five performing spaces they have inhabited over their 30 years. That reading of Lord Arthur was to be Tricia's final stage performance, and as fate would have it, an audio recording of it was made. It's now a treasure.
Rubbing elbows with a Royal, here's Tricia introducing HRH
Prince Charles to the urban garden she helped to maintain.
While I have spent most of my Christmases with my family in the South, there have been two occasions when that did not happen.  Those were the times I was able to accept the annual invitation I receive to dine at the home of WSG artistic director and friend, Bill Largess.  He hosts this event every Christmas Day, and there are many DC folks who attend every year as part of their holiday tradition.  Tricia was one of those folks.
Bill's annual Christmas Dinner is held in the basement of the home in which his grandmother once lived. The table takes up the whole room, so I'm not sure the basement is used for anything else, but once a year, it comes alive with flickering candlelight and dazzling conversation, as a dozen and more folks gather to celebrate the season. It's reminiscent of Dickens, or at least, of "happy" Dickens, perhaps Christmas Dinner at the Cratchits, after Scrooge has surprised them with a turkey as big as Tiny Tim. Even with Santa's Marching Band playing obnoxiously in the background (don't ask), it's a truly memorable way to celebrate the day.
I was to learn the following details (such as they are) a little later.  Apparently Tricia made her traditional dish for the dinner (Brussels sprouts, I've had them, delish) and sent out word that she was on her way, around 5 or so Christmas evening.  She did not show up at the party.  Her absence was noticed but did not arouse too much concern.  Apparently, one time in the past, Tricia had planned to attend the dinner, then slept right through it. 
It was not until the following day that alarms started to go off.  Tricia had planned to fly out of DC to visit family the day after Christmas;  she never got on the plane.  Missing a dinner party was one thing, but Tricia was not the kind of person who would miss a flight without alerting her family at the other end.  Something was wrong.
I learned of these frightening developments late Monday afternoon, as word was sent out that Tricia was missing, and the internet exploded.  I posted a notice on my Facebook, as did countless others.  In DC, search parties were formed to scour Tricia's neighborhood, and the police entered the picture.  Sometime during the day, they searched her apartment and found nothing amiss.  Tricia's car, which she usually parked on the street, could not be located.
It may have been Tricia's car which cracked the case. This little two-seater is fairly uncommon, and may have attracted her killer's attention at a stop sign or traffic light, who knows? The bumper sticker reads "Plant More Plants." Pictures of this car circulated all over the internet and the media, the day after Christmas, and the vehicle was spotted by someone walking his dog. Tricia's killer was driving the car at the time, and apparently hollered out the window at the witness, who notified the cops. The suspect was apprehended shortly afterward, and the car was located, with Tricia's body in the back seat.

I went to bed Monday night with the same sick feeling which everyone else must have had.  I awoke the next morning and logged onto the Net;  frankly, I was hoping Tricia had been found in a ditch someplace, injured but alive.  That was the most positive hope we could hold onto, under the circumstances. 

Surveillance cameras picked up this guy
driving Tricia's car. His family reports he is
homeless and has mental problems. His
numerous arrests led a judge to require him
to wear a tracking device, which he never
showed up to receive. No one followed up.
Our justice system at work.
The police had alerted Tricia's family that her body had been found.  Details were sketchy, but apparently she had crossed paths with a homeless drifter with mental problems;  this guy was seen driving her car around town on Monday, and was apprehended after robbing a CVS hours earlier.  Recovery of her car (and a later autopsy) confirmed the worst: this monster had raped and strangled Tricia, then tied her up with a seat belt and stuffed her in the back seat of her own car.  He then drove around the city, using her credit cards and even picking up a prostitute.

I'm haunted by these images.  Tricia was a force of lightness, and positive energy, and the webpages set up to honor her have focused on these attributes. No one wants to focus on the violent way she was taken from us, what does it solve at this point?  But I'm not evolved enough to be able to ignore the horrific events which ended Tricia's life;  I'm still wracked with questions. 
Tricia was also a Life Coach, both professionally, and to any
friend in need.
Though we now know what this animal did to her, we still don't know exactly when, or where, or how.  How and where did Tricia cross paths with this creature? Was this a carjacking gone bad?  Did this guy have a gun, preventing Trish from escape (there has been no mention of a firearm involved)?  As a petite woman, she could probably be overpowered, but she was in peak physical condition;  what happened which prevented her from running?  Judging from the pictures of this criminal, she might have outrun him if she'd had a chance to get out of the car.
This is Tricia, on the left and up in the air. Her career as a yoga instructor brought in a steady paycheck and also kept her in great shape. In fact, when the media released descriptions of her as age 47, I was sure they were wrong, she looked about 32.  This picture, so full of life and fun, adds to the distress of her violent end.  She was in terrific physical condition; what did this psychopath do to her to keep her from escaping? These thoughts don't help anything, but I'm still haunted by them.
These questions are torturous, and don't do anyone any good, but I'm afraid I can't help myself. 
This candlelight vigil was held for Tricia on the Tuesday after her death, focusing on the positive way she lived her life.  This weekend, a more formal memorial was held, with friends speaking eloquently about the effect Trish had on their lives.  I didn't, or couldn't, attend either of those events.  I'm ashamed to admit I remain consumed with anger, unable to release the negative feelings Trish herself would advise are useless.
When all of us woke up on that Tuesday to that terrible news, many people in DC noted the rainbow in the sky that day:
Tricia's pathway to the great beyond? Who knows, but it was a beautiful image on a truly ugly day, so perhaps it helps us to think so.  We should follow Tricia's own words; believe me, I'm trying: 
 Look up.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Muddy Waters Off The Tallahatchie Bridge

I love a good Story Song.  Now I know all my composer friends will tell me, quite rightly, that ALL good songs tell a story of some kind, even if it's, well, non-linear.  But I really love a song which tells a story in the traditional sense, a song with a beginning, middle, and end;  one with characters and a plotline and a conflict, a climax, and even a denouement.  
Many of the great Story Songs are in the Country/Western
genre. Those dudes and dudettes from Memphis can really
spin a tale with a tune. Dolly Parton is an expert; I'm a crusty
old agnostic, but her rendition of the Resurrection as told by
the Apostle Peter ("He's Alive") gives me chills. She didn't
write it, but she performs it with gusto.
This kind of Story Song has been around since the beginning of time, I imagine, when tribes of humans gathered around the fire and told stories of their ancestors.  But when a modern Story Song pops up (and it's a good one), I'm in heaven.  This week's Dance Party, in honor of the Third of June (another sleepy, dusty, delta day), is the best such song I have ever run across.  It was written and delivered by this gal, way back in 1967:
Bobbie Gentry
"Ode to Billie Joe" launched a pretty substantial career for Gentry, whose sultry good looks, voluminous hair, and down-home Southern charm made her a natural country/western star.  Plus she wrote great tunes.  
Gentry's second Story Song was "Fancy." It
described a cracker gal who was
pimped out by her mother, in order to escape
In addition to "Ode", our gal had success with duets with Glen Campbell, and on her own, she wrote another terrific Story Song, "Fancy", about some poor white trash who uses her feminine wiles to accumulate wealth and prestige.  (Reba McEntire has often used "Fancy" as her encore number in her concerts, as well as recording a well-received cover in 1991). Sometime in the 1980s, Bobbie Gentry withdrew from public life, for reasons unknown.  Nobody's seen or heard from her in decades, and when the Washington Post tracked her down this week, living on an estate just a few miles from the scene of her greatest song, she hung up on them. Certain wags have tagged her the J.D.Salinger of country music.
Bobbie recorded frequently with Glen Campbell, and appeared on his variety show as well. On the strength of her biggest hit, she maintained a thriving Vegas career for a while.
Both the film and TV series based
on "Harper Valley PTA" starred
Barbara Eden. I'm not aware of
any other hits by singer Riley.

Everybody called Jeannie C. Riley a real copycat when she landed on the charts a year after "Ode" was released, with a Story Song called "Harper Valley PTA". The song, about a sexy single mother who scandalizes a small town with her mini-skirts, shares enough melodic similarity to "Ode to Billie Joe" that there were murmurs of plagiarism.  In tone and rhythm, though, the songs couldn't be more different, with Harper Valley being a comedic look at small-town hypocrisy. Composer Tom T. Hall filled out the "PTA" album with other story songs about the other residents of Harper Valley.
People who know Vicki Lawrence only as her grouchy alter-ego, Mama, will be surprised to learn that, in her younger years, she was a One-Hit Wonder.  "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was written by her husband (at the time), Bobby Russell.  Vicki was enjoying some fame as a supporting player on The Carol Burnett Show and was certainly not a recording star, so her success with this Story Song was a total fluke.
Vicki Lawrence's husband was having no luck with his composition.  It was first offered to Cher (and turned down by Sonny) and composer Russell was ready to abandon the song when Vicki, who was sure it was a hit, recorded a demo herself.  Most unexpectedly, the song took off,and soared all the way to #1 on the charts.  The song has a tone similar to "Ode"; both tunes have been called Southern Gothic. 
In addition to recording a version of Gentry's "Fancy",
Reba McEntire also covered this hit, 20 years after it
rose to #1.
There was a murder, you see, on that Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: a philandering woman two-timed the wrong man, who had a sister (the singer) with justice on her mind. The denouement of the song reveals the singer to be the murderer (and she gets away with it! Hooray for Southern Gothic!) 

While the Country/Western gang probably creates most of the Story Songs, several Folk/Rock artists have delivered admirable entries as well. Perhaps the most famous for my generation is Harry Chapin, who introduced his song "Taxi" on the Tonight Show in 1972.  
Harry Chapin hit the jackpot with "Taxi." Years later, he revisited his two characters by creating a sequel song, ingeniously called "Sequel." He wrote other Story Songs, and also delivered a huge hit with a tune which really isn't one, but reminds you of one: "Cats in the Cradle," a weepy song about fathers and sons.
This tune peaked at #24 on the charts. Its
sequel, called "Sequel," hit #23.
The response to "Taxi" was huge and immediate, and Johnny Carson invited Chapin back on his show the very next night. The song concerns a cab driver who picks up a female fare, soon to recognize her as a former lover from long ago. It's a pretty maudlin tale about lost chances and regrettable choices:  the woman exits the cab and returns to her loveless marriage as the cabbie returns to the streets and his drug habit.  Happy Valentine's Day!
I love this Story Song and wouldn't be surprised if it showed up on the Dance Party one day.
Two former lovers are also at the center of "Same Old Lang Syne", Dan Fogelberg's sad Story Song which takes place on Christmas Eve.  The story is a true one: Fogelberg was attending a family Christmas in Illinois when he ran into his high school sweetheart at a grocery store.  
This Story Song peaked at #9 in 1980.
The two wanted to reminisce but couldn't find an open bar, so they settled for a six-pack of beer in the car.  As with "Taxi", there are intimations that neither of the old friends are happy with their current lives, and when they part, the "snow turned into rain," revealing a melancholy which a lot of people feel at the holidays.
"And no one's gettin' fat 'cept Mama Cass," goes the refrain to this 1967 hit Story Song.  Papa John and Mama Michelle penned this history of the formation of The Mamas and the Papas. It reached #5. 
The Mamas and the Papas sang a Story Song about the formation of their group when John and Michelle Phillips wrote "Creeque Alley".  The song mentions many of the folk/rock artists working in the 60s as they form groups, disband groups, form other groups, and generally chase fame while being broke. The story ends when "California Dreamin' is becomin' a reality," that is, when the group had their first hit song.  I'd be interested in another song describing the dissolution of the Mamas and the Papas, which was messy and full of drama.
This film was produced 9 years after the initial release of the song. Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor were a popular teen couple at the time, appearing in several films together as well as a TV version of Our Town. They were not a couple in life, but they had an onscreen chemistry. Note the director of this little film: it's the man who played Jethro Bodine. He knew what he was doing, as the finished product, made for 1.1 million, grossed about 36 times its budget.
This week's Dance Party is the best of all these Story Songs, in my opinion. "Ode to Billie Joe" is a haunting song, made all the more mesmerizing by the way Gentry composed it.  Details of the suicide of the title character are revealed matter-of-factly, amidst the banal conversation at the table during a midday meal on a farm in Mississippi.  
"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"
This is Ford's Theater at its grand reopening in 1968. After
watching the televised concert, I dreamed the solution to the
mystery of "Ode to Billie Joe."
There is a mystery at the song's center which has never been solved.  But I solved it, in my sleep, back in 1968.  The night was January 30, 1968, and Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, held a huge gala to celebrate reopening as a legitimate theater.  The event was televised, and I have clear memories of watching it, with great excitement, from my family's home in Atlanta.  I was about 12, and the main reason I was tuning into this show was to watch one of the stars performing at the gala.  Bobbie Gentry was to sing her "Ode to Billie Joe", and I was not going to miss it.  The song had been around a year or so, and was still very prominent in the country's consciousness.  
In 1967-68, you could tune into almost any radio station and wait only 10-20 minutes before hearing this song. It was the epitome of the cross-over hit;  it reached #1 on the Pop chart (knocking the Beatles's "All You Need is Love" out of the top spot), plus the song also spent time on the Easy Listening chart (#7), the R&B chart (#8) and the Country chart (#17). The song earned 8 Grammy nominations and won 4, three of them for Gentry herself.
EVERYBODY knew this song, loved this song, and was mystified by this song, for the story had a mystery which even its writer, Ms. Gentry, has declined to solve.
What did they throw off the bridge?
Why did Billie Joe kill himself?
Why did the filmmakers change the
spelling of Billie Joe's name to Billy?
Ms. Gentry ain't talking.
In the song, a  young teen aged couple is seen throwing something off a bridge into the muddy river below;  soon afterward, the young man throws himself off the same bridge.  What the hell did they toss?  That night in 1968, I fell asleep in front of the TV almost immediately after Bobbie Gentry's performance of the song.  And I dreamed the rest of it.  
Robby Benson is now remembered primarily as the voice of the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Glynnis O'Connor has maintained a steady but unremarkable career in film and TV.
Oh, how I wish I could recall my dream exactly, because my subconscious was singing added stanzas to the song, all completely within the rhythm and rhyme. When I woke up from this dream, I told everyone I knew:  the teens threw a baby off the bridge.  (I have since learned that this conclusion has been reached by others over the years, but believe me, I had no idea until I dreamed the song).  Years later, when a film was produced based on the song, the protagonists did not throw an actual baby off the bridge, they threw a doll.  I was pretty damn close though, right?  
Poor Billy Joe had to pay for being gay.
The film answered the question regarding Billie Joe's suicide as well: according to the screenwriter, our hero was a closeted gay kid who got drunk one night and Did the Deed with a Dude.  His guilt was so strong, he could do only what every gay protagonist of the period was required to do: either be murdered or commit suicide. No happy endings for homosexuals could be allowed back then, so Billie Joe had to go.

Bobbie Gentry remained silent about the movie based on her masterful song, so we don't know if she agreed with the screenwriter's embellishments.  She certainly didn't object.  We'll probably never know, since she has been secluded for decades in her big house in Mississippi, for reasons unknown.  Now THAT'S a Story Song waiting to happen!