Saturday, January 19, 2008

Album Droppings: Diva Edition

I continue to slog away at my vast record collection, translating hundreds of albums to digital format. I've moved into the 'Ps"!

I have to admit that many many MANY of these albums are real losers. I don't know why I bought them in the first place.

Well, yes I do. I know why I bought each and every one of them. In some cases, in fact in a whole lot of them, I bought the album merely for the presence of a single female performer.

Such was the case with Pins and Needles. This was a studio recording celebrating the 25th Anniversary of a Harold Rome revue which in its original form ran about four years back in the 30s. This recording was released in 1962. Rome was at the time represented on Broadway as the composer of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and for this studio recording of Pins and Needles, he enlisted one of the minor players in Wholesale. It is Streisand's appearance on this album (she doesn't need a first name on this blog) which encouraged me to purchase it. It's amazing how clear and clean her sound was back then (she was in her late teens at the time), with only a hint of the nasality which she adopted soon afterward.

While on the topic of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, it's a very under appreciated story of the meteoric rise and sudden downfall of an unscrupulous young businessman. The tone is considerably darker than another show with identical themes which appeared around this time (early 60s), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. While Wholesale sings of "men and ulcers on parade," How to Succeed admonishes that a "secretary is not a toy." Audiences chose lightness over dark; How to Succeed won all the Tonys and the Pulitzer, and Wholesale is remembered solely as Streisand's Broadway debut.

I was never a Mary Martin fan. Give me Merman or Channing, please, but not the sugary sweet characters Martin tended to play. I own the original Sound of Music because one must, and the original I Do! I Do! because the terrific Robert Preston is worth it. The only other recording I have, either on vinyl or CD, which features Martin is One Touch of Venus. This is one of those studio albums which pretends to be an original cast album, and as such things go, this one is pretty darn good. Kurt Weill broke with his usual atonal habit and contributed a fairly traditional score, but as I am a fan of neither Weill nor Martin, you might wonder why I own this thing. Well, I purchased it on vinyl only a few years ago, when I appeared in a staged reading of the musical at American Century Theatre. We did a weekend's worth of performances, and I actually liked the piece. I had a ball playing sidekick Stanley.

I have lots of other recordings featuring various divas, but this one is probably the weirdest. Sid and Marty Krofft had booming careers as producers of children's television back in the 60s and 70s, but their shows all had a psychedelic twist. Lidsville took place in a world of talking (and singing and dancing) hats, and starred the hilarious Charles Nelson Reilly, a gig for which he was MUCH too good. The Bugaloos were all flying insects who were also a rock band, or something, tortured by a villainous Martha Raye who lived in a giant juke box. Or maybe the singing insects lived in the giant juke box. I can't remember those specifics. I can only remember being embarrassed for Raye, who was one of the great film clowns of the golden age, being reduced to this thing (our Maggie Raye has starred in the Friday Dance Party in these pages). Sigmund and the Sea-Monsters starred a post-Family Affair Johnny Whittaker, before things went so terribly wrong for him.

But the weirdest, wildest, most disturbing show from the Krofft Brothers was also their most famous, H.R. Pufnstuf. These guys surely ingested something illegal when they concocted this story of an island where all inanimate objects talked, and many of them walked. All of them annoyed. Poor Jack Wild, fresh from an Oscar nomination for Oliver, did the best he could as the kid lost in this acid-induced world, where the title character was a talking Dragon. Or maybe he was a dinosaur, who knew? Somehow, this piece attracted my attention way back when. I'm sure it was due to the presence in the cast of character actress Billie Hayes, whom I had loved as Mammy Yokum in Li'l Abner, and was here chewing the scenery as an incompetent witch.

This TV series was popular enough to spawn a film, and I own the soundtrack to that film. It has not been released on CD in this country, and somebody has listed the vinyl recording on EBay at 20 bucks. I imagine it used to be worth even more than that, as the soundtrack boasts a solo by "special star Mama Cass" (I bet she loved that billing) which has not been available anywhere else for over 30 years. That song, "Different," has now been released on a CD of Elliot's solo recordings, so I guess the value of Pufnstuf 's soundtrack has dropped (that number can be viewed here). The film was extremely low budget, shot on the TV series' sets, and when watching it now (full disclosure of my geekiness: I not only own the soundtrack, I actually own the movie on VHS-it's never been released on DVD), one feels rather sad. Three divas playing witches deserved better. Martha Raye was ending her long stage and screen career; to her credit, she is as subtle as anyone could be playing a character called "Boss Witch." Billie Hayes, who spent a lot of time in Krofft Bros. series, deserved better than to be remembered only for this hammy role of "Witchiepoo." She snagged the role of Mammy Yokum in the film version of Li'l Abner after playing the role on the first national tour (she stole it from original Broadway Mammy, Charlotte Rae. I love that.) And Elliot was just stepping out on her own, which is probably how she was talked into playing this role in which her first appearance is made sitting in a vat of fruit, munching on a banana.

It helps, I suppose, to be hopped up on mushrooms to enjoy this thing. But be careful. The mushrooms in Pufnstuf talk.