Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Champagne Tastes


I really dislike New Year's Eve, always have. For the reasons why, you can visit the entry I offered the very first year of these pages. Today is the day one is supposed to take stock of one's life, examining the past year and making resolutions for the next one. I don't usually make resolutions (though I did a few years ago, go here if you wanna see; I've just reread the entry, and those resolutions still hold true for this year...what does that tell you?). There is just too much self-disappointment when I don't follow through with vague promises I make to myself. Who wants that?

As for looking back, well, a quick look wouldn't hurt. I had a pretty quiet year, professionally, but whenever I was working, it was on a project I loved (that doesn't always happen). Early in 2010, I spent several months with my beloved Washington Stage Guild in their world premiere production of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime. Artistic Director Bill Largess had adapted a little Oscar Wilde novella, and it worked pretty great onstage. Of course, I did not hesitate to let Bill know, after our closing, how I thought the script could be improved. I'm surprised he's still talking to me.


A little later in the year, I spent a week at Ford's Theatre, workshopping a staged reading of the musical Parade. I was surrounded by the cream of DC's musical crop of actor/singers, plus a couple of topnotch NY folks and director extraordinaire Jeff Calhoun. I was seriously outclassed by the musical talent with whom I shared the stage, but I didn't complain.


I finished the year with a whirlwind shooting of A Modest Suggestion, a low-budget feature film regarding the foolishness of anti-Semitism. My experience on film does not begin to compare with my stage work, as I wrote a couple of years ago, but this project may have some traction. Due to the intricate pre-production work done by the producers and director, and the marvels of the digital world, the film was completed in only a few weeks. And I mean completed, including music and everything. It's currently being shopped to various film festivals, so who knows what further life it may have.

Judging from the trailers which have been posted, this little film actually turned out quiet well. If you want to take a peek, the trailers are only a minute long each:





I really don't know which of these is my favorite. Here is the other one:





On the personal front, I did some traveling this year, including several trips to the North Carolina mountains, and several to Los Angeles. These fun times more than made up for the disappointments of the year. I won't mention the gig I lost because I had food poisoning, nor the gig I lost because I have male genitalia. I wasn't bulldog enough for one gig, and lost yet another when the producers decided they'd rather have a Tony Award winner play the part. But I prefer not to dwell on these disappointments. I can hardly remember them!

OK, I've had it with the looking back, at least on the personal/professional side. Check back to these pages tomorrow or the next day for my annual rundown of all the obits I penned this year. Until then, it's time to celebrate with some champagne and some classy cabaret. Who better to ring in the new year than the late, great Eartha Kitt? She died several years ago, on Christmas day, but why shouldn't she help usher in 2011 anyway? This clip shows Kitt doing the "speak-sing" thing which she used more and more as she aged, but she is still a dynamic, unusual presence onstage. I like her attitude here. I can't think of a better way to wish everybody a Happy New Year Dance Party:



Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Neutron-obits


Before 2011 ends, it's time to shake up the obituary file, and see who keels over. Here are some folks you may not have realized are now gone.

First, one of those innocent hypocrites who sincerely believed a life spent inventing extreme forms of warfare would be good for humanity.


Samuel Cohen

1921-2010

The son of a movie studio carpenter, he attended UCLA, studying science and, to make ends meet, working parttime digging graves at the local cemetery. That should have been a clue. He grew up to be a member of the Manhattan Project; that illustrious group, you'll recall, was the think-tank who invented the first use of nuclear energy as a weapon of mass destruction.


Cohen spent his time with the Project studying the neutron. He claimed to have been greatly affected by the sight of destitute children in Seoul drinking out of sewage-filled ditches during the Korean War. He later explained it reminded him of a lunar landscape, and he set about inventing a bomb which would preserve infrastructure while evaporating humans. The American government was keenly interested in such a bomb, which could prove useful in Europe should the Cold War ignite into a nuclear conflict. Soviet Premier Khrushchev described the instrument as a way to eliminate an enemy in order that one can then steal the suit he was wearing.

The weapon became known as the neutron bomb. Its inventor died in November from cancer, proclaiming, just as other members of the Manhattan Project have before him, that his work was meant to invent a "moral weapon that conformed to the Christian 'just war' principles."

Yuck. Let's leave that devil behind, and mention a couple of actors who spent their careers in support, which, as you know, means they have my high regard.

Steve Landesburg

1936-2010

He came to his performing career a bit late, so for years, he fudged his age, so much so, that when he died a few weeks ago, many reported him to be only 65. He worked the comedy club circuit during the 60s and 70s, alongside other future sitcom stars Freddie Prinze and Jimmie Walker. He graduated to appearances on The Tonight Show and Dean Martin's variety hour before landing the gig for which he is best remembered, playing Detective Sgt. Arthur P. Dietrich on Barney Miller, in 1975. He made recurring appearances on the show for several years before becoming a regular player. The series ran 7 years (but is barely remembered today), and concerned a police precinct in New York. Each episode featured a regular cast of eccentric detectives, and oddball suspects paraded through the squad room on a weekly basis. The vastly superior and better known Hill Street Blues, which premiered with great fanfare in the middle of the sitcom's run, is sometimes called "Barney Miller Outside." Some cops point to Barney Miller (which I confess was not one of my favorites), with its illustration of the routineness of a squad room, as the most realistic portrayal of the ordinary banality of the policeman's life.



Landesberg went on to guest on a host of other TV programs, and may be remembered on the big screen as Dr. Rosembaum in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. His most recent gig was as a regular player on the Starz comedy Head Case. He died from colon cancer at the age of 74.

Neva Patterson

1920-2010


She made a career playing upper class, sometimes chilly women, though her way with the wisecrack served her well in the two projects for which I best remember her. In 1957, she played assistant to computer expert Spencer Tracy in Desk Set, in my favorite of the Tracy/Hepburn pairings, and decades later, she played the governor's dryly sardonic secretary in the sitcom The Governor and JJ. On the big screen, she is probably best noted for her role as Cary Grant's fiancee in 1957's An Affair to Remember.

Sci-fi geeks will recognize her from her performance as Eleanor Depres in the original miniseries V (and its follow-up, V-The Final Battle) in the early 80s. She died last week at the age of 90, from complications from a broken hip.

This guy also spent his life in support, but rather than on screen, his influence was felt in the corridors of power:
Splash

1996-2010


Senator Ted Kennedy was rarely seen without his favorite pooch at his side, who was a familiar presence in Senate chambers and at the Kennedy compound. Ted started every morning with a rousing game of fetch, and the Portuguese waterdog remained with the senator throughout his work day. Though not allowed in the Senate chamber, Splash was a constant sidekick everywhere else. He once famously interrupted a heated debate in the Democratic caucus between Joe Biden and Paul Wellstone when he, apparently, felt the discussion had gone on long enough. Splash was rewarded with an honorary membership. He is credited with authoring "My Senator and Me: A Dog's-Eye View Of Washington, D.C" in 2006 (frankly, I find it a bit too precious when pets write children's books, but I guess that's just me), and Kennedy's devotion to Splash caused him to lobby heavily for the Obamas to chose the breed when the nation was spellbound by the debate over the First Family's dog choice in the early months of the Obama administration (my, don't you bet Obama longs for those simpler controversies these days?).


The death of this dog was probably only noted in the Massachusetts press, but I'm including this obit in honor of the service Splash did during the final months of Ted Kennedy's life. When he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the senator took to the seas, sailing with his family and his dog. I know from experience how comforting the presence of a dog can be to the terminally ill; during the last months of my mother's life, she received comfort from our Pomeranian-poodle mutt, Ashley.

So the passing of Splash Kennedy deserves some notice. He was almost 14 at the time of his death.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Christmas Eve Edition


I'm heading to the North Carolina mountains for what looks to be a white Christmas, so this week's Dance Party is a mercifully short one. Don't get used to it. Here are a couple of my favorite Christmas clips, both of which I originally saw as a kid, growing up in Atlanta. This first clip is so classy and underplayed, that it is hard to believe a TV network presented it. These days, it would be all jazzed up with an announcer blaring about a Very Special Episode of Something or Other. But several years in a row, whenever I saw this clip, I truly felt in the Christmas spirit.



Here are four underrated musicians who appeared on the Dance Party quite a while ago. This clip should have put to rest any doubts that they were, in fact, musicians:



Merry Christmas, everybody!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When You're Good To Mama




When I heard this gal died the other day, it started me down a memory lane I had not traveled in years.

Marcia Lewis

1938-2010

She was a registered nurse in Cincinnati before she decided to hit New York to become a professional actress. Supporting herself with her nursing degree, she landed in the original production of Hello, Dolly, playing the comic role of Ernestina opposite the Dollys of both Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman. Her short, roly-poly figure was a natural for comic roles, and her Betty Boop voice belied her ability to belt the roof off the theatre. She did not show much of that belt when she was cast in the 1994 revival of Grease, in which she played Miss Lynch, a largely non-singing role but one which showcased her ability to milk a laugh out of dreck. The revival (this is the one which co-starred Rosie O'Donnell and Megan Mulally) did not get much critical respect, but it lasted four years and spawned continual tours. Our Marcia secured a Tony nomination for her work, losing it to Carousel's Audra McDonald.


Lewis displayed her trumpet-voice to good effect in the current revival of Chicago, in which she was the original Matron Mama Morton. Another Tony nod followed, which she lost to Lillias White in The Life. She was one of the many replacement Miss Hannigans in the long-running Annie, and she had a lively career touring in stock productions. She had some dramatic chops, too, playing in The Time of Your Life and opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Orpheus Descending. But her brassy stage presence was best suited to the musical stage, and she appeared on all the NY cabaret stages as well.

After her initial work in the original Dolly and Annie, Marcia lived in Los Angeles for a while, paying the bills with guest shots on a variety of tv programs of the 70s and 80s. I still recall with fondness her cameo on The Bob Newhart Show, playing a pushy broad determined to buy the Hartleys' refrigerator. It was during this period in Los Angeles that I met her.

My college chum Valerie was responsible for introducing me to a variety of off-beat, funky experiences which I would not otherwise have had. She had discovered the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica, which was a small movie palace converted to resemble an old-time vaudeville house. The shows were live, of course, and included several different acts each night. The venue had a swell bar, where I was introduced to a very British cocktail called a Pimms Cup. I'd never heard of it, but I fell in love with the sweet taste and the unusual garnish: a slice of cucumber. I never failed to have two or three of these drinks whenever we visited the Mayfair, even in the days when I was slightly underage. Nobody ever carded anybody there, it was not the sort of place where teen-agers were likely to gather and cause trouble. In fact, Val and our crowd were always the youngest audience members in the theatre.


The house sat only about 200 people, around little tables which were convenient when we ordered drinks from Muriel the Singing Waitress. She had a winning way with a song, and later became my voice teacher, helping me get over my nervousness about singing in public.

True to the British Music Hall tradition, the show was always kicked off by The Chairman, in this case from one of the boxes which flanked the stage. He was the warm-up guy, the narrator, and the host of the evening, introducing all the acts, and making hilariously awful jokes. I had no idea at the time that I was doing research for a show I was to do decades later. In 2000, I was cast to play the Chairman in Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush, which played in the basement theatre at Arena Stage in DC, and like the shows at the Mayfair, was a recreation of the music hall experience in England. During those rehearsals in 2000, I had numerous flashbacks to my days in the audience at the Mayfair Music Hall, watching The Chairman elicit groans from the crowd for his puns and his double entendres.

I fell in love with the Mayfair Music Hall, and went whenever Val invited me, which was often. The acts were eclectic and unusual. We saw sitcom veteran Vito Scotti, who was, believe it or not, an accomplished mime, and there was a magician, and an escape artist, and a nasty little comic named Mousie. But I always enjoyed the musical numbers the best, which were often offered by a handsome leading man named Walter Willison (he went on to a larger career in New York). "Guest Artistes" were always introduced by The Chairman with great enthusiasm, and one of those acts was Marcia Lewis. She was always clowning around with a comic song. She got us used to her high-pitched cutie-pie voice, then would astound the crowd by switching to her belt, which I kid you not, would rival the Great Merman herself.




Once the show was over, we would adjourn to the bar in the lobby for one (or two) more Pimms. The performers would usually pop out for a drink, and would gather at the old upright piano to entertain some more. I loved those evenings, and can point to them as the moments when I first fell in love with the kind of talent which could perform in such musical/cabaret settings. Marcia was surely my favorite "artiste" at the Mayfair Music Hall. It would take several more decades before she would win her Tony nominations and become a Broadway name, but I'd like to think that she remembered those nights at the Mayfair with fondness. She died from cancer on Tuesday.

There are only a couple of clips out there of Marcia Lewis, but if you are interested, here is one actually filmed at the Mayfair Music Hall. Who knows, I may have been in the house that night. The quality is lousy, but if you let yourself get into it, you can see for yourself the brassy, sassy quality of her work.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spiderman: Turn Off the Show

Once again, the producers dodged a bullet. Nobody died. This time.

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the inexplicable hit of the current Broadway season (it hasn't even opened yet), has been plagued from its inception, years ago. But as soon as the actors stepped onstage (or leaped, or flew, or backflipped, or what-have-you), they started getting injured. This hasn't stopped the producers from forging ahead, though they continue to postpone their official opening to make "creative changes." Meanwhile, the previews are raking in the bucks; according to Broadway.com, the show is grossing over a million a week, and in terms of capacity, they are filling their houses better than Wicked, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, in fact every show on Broadway, with the exception of The Merchant of Venice, which has a limited run starring Al Pacino.

There is some macabre word on the street that people are packing into the theatre in hopes of seeing the next big unplanned disaster. The show had to be halted five times during the first preview, and technical snafus continue to arise. Well, that's what previews are all about these days (though technical snafus USED to be handled during something we actors call REHEARSAL, but since rehearsals don't generate income, and Spiderman is in sore need of some, they started selling tickets.)



But as I said, as soon as actors joined the process, they started getting hurt. One of the leading actresses was conked on the head backstage and was out of the show for two weeks with a concussion, some other poor schnook broke BOTH his wrists trying a stunt, and surely there have been sprains and other injuries ("minor") which have not made the press. Once these mishaps started occurring with regularity, Actors Equity Association dispatched one of its "safety officials" to be onsite at every performance (nobody can recall that EVER happening before).

Well, that safety official didn't prevent the biggest injury yet, which happened in the final minutes of last night's preview. One of the stunt doubles for the hero took a header into the pit when his cable broke, and he wound up in traction on a stretcher, being wheeled into an ambulance.


The mishap even caused some equipment to tumble into the audience. The producers have not released the name of the actor, but the New York Times has determined it is Christopher Tierney, who is an aerialist and one of Spidey's stunt doubles.

I'm wondering when the heck Equity is going to step in with some force. Clearly the production team is determined to move forward with their show, which, at $65 million is the most expensive production (BY FAR) to ever hit Broadway. It is estimated that they must gross over a million dollars a week just to meet their running costs; economists are predicting the show must exceed those running costs for four solid years before profit is made.

Labor Department safety inspectors are on hand as I write these words, trying to determine what happened and, I assume, how it can be prevented in the future. These are the same guys who investigated the last mishap, when a sling-shot effect went wrong and two actors were injured. After that accident in November, they gave approval for performances to continue uninterrupted.

I wonder, how CAN it be prevented in the future? This monster show looks like Cirque de Soleil on steroids, with plenty of opportunities for severe injury to its cast. Equity has the power to shut down this production until it can be proven safe to perform: by pulling its members off the stage (as a Broadway show, everyone who steps foot on the stage is a union member), the show would have to shutter, at least temporarily. Would that be such a drastic step, considering what has been going on? Yes, I know the argument: if Spiderman turns into a smash hit (rather than the gruesome curiosity it now is) and runs for years, it will generate tens of thousands of work weeks for union actors. Is it worth making that gamble, when the next injury could put an actor in a wheelchair for life, or actually end it?

According to AEA rules, if any actor feels unsafe performing anything on stage, all he has to do is say so, and he cannot be forced to do so. So why are these actors taking their own safety so cavalierly? Because that's what we do: we are desperate to work, and anxious to be considered a team player. I am a big Equity supporter, been in the union for decades, serve on the local liaison committee, rah rah sis boom bah. But I am ashamed that AEA has so tentatively stepped in to insure the safety of its actors. The producers are not going to do it, they've been injuring their cast members since day one. Somebody should. Somebody must.

(update: the most recent accident has been labeled "human error," and resulted in a postponement of one performance of Spiderman; new safety measures are being put in place, and performances will continue tomorrow night.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Dance Party: You and Me


I haven't had much time to update these pages, as the holidays have overtaken my time. But the Friday Dance Party survives! This week's star has appeared in several of the clips I share here, but this one has some poignance, as it was directed by her husband, one of the bright stars of American comedic film.
Blake Edwards

1922-2010

He was one of Hollywood's leading depressives, and had a lengthy career of success and failure. He spent a bit of time as a contract actor for Fox before recognizing that his true calling was behind the camera. His casting of Peter Sellers (with whom he did not get along) as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau was inspired, and led to the creation of one of the most recognizable film franchises in history, The Pink Panther. His creative partnership with composer Henri Mancini began with the 50s detective series Peter Gunn, and lasted 30 years (all four of Mancini's Oscars came from Edwards's films). In addition to the farcical Panthers, Edwards turned a Truman Capote novella, about a New York prostitute, into Breakfast at Tiffany's, a sparkling confection palatable to middle America of the early 60s. His direction of the dark tale of an alcoholic marriage, Days of Wine and Roses, proved he was adept with dramas as well (it was that film's star, Jack Lemmon, who suggested Blake would be able to inject a bit of humor into the morose story). The Great Race, an all-star homage to westerns, adventures, and slap-stick silent comedies, was not a big success, but is admired today as an expert blending of those various genres.

By 1970, Edwards's cost overruns and difficult relations with studio bosses put his career in decline. His espionage musical Darling Lili, a particularly bloated example of mismanagement (anyone who puts Rock Hudson in a musical is asking for trouble), introduced him to Julie Andrews; their 41 year marriage (the second for both) was one of the most enduring matches in Hollywood. Edwards lived abroad in a self-imposed exile for a while during the 70s, but had a surprise hit at the end of the decade with 10, which provided Dudley Moore with a tour de force, and turned the phenomenally untalented Bo Derek into an international sex symbol.

On the strength of 10's box office success, Edwards made what many consider his most personal film, S.O.B., a scathing dark comedy about the movie business. His last major success was a remake of a German film from the 30s, Victor und Viktoria. He received his first Oscar nomination for the screenplay for Victor/Victoria, and provided nods to Andrews, Robert Preston, and Leslie Ann Warren as well (Blake knew how to guide actors on film: Audrey Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, and Lee Remick were other actors who received Oscar nominations under his direction). It is from his best musical film that this week's Dance Party springs (if you are interested, Warren's solo from V/V appeared on the Dance Party here). Edwards later turned the movie into a stage musical, again starring his wife, which had a Broadway run of about two years (it was that lengthy return to the stage which caused the vocal trouble which led Andrews to the throat surgeon who robbed the world of her golden soprano).

We don't hear any of her upper notes in this clip, in which Julie, impersonating a man, performs in a French bistro with the scene-stealing Robert Preston. Julie's co-star played the fop quite well, though apparently, his dancing skills were questionable: Edwards shot the soft-shoe portion of this number so that Preston's feet would be hidden from view.



Blake Edwards was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2004. He died this week from pneumonia, with his wife and family at his side.