Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Dance Party: I'd Rather Be Different Than Be The Same

OK, here is one of the weirdest clips ever to grace these pages. I have been a Cass Elliot fan since way before she died, and was one of those who recognized her sparkle even as she sang harmony in the group which made her a star, the Mamas and the Papas. They were a hugely successful folk-rock group in the mid-to-late 60s, but broke up at their height, after only two years of hit-making. Posterity will surely bestow the greatest legacy on "Papa" John Phillips, who composed the group's greatest hits "Monday, Monday", "California Dreamin' ", "I Saw Her Again", and "Creeque Alley".

But for pure show-biz pizazz, the breakout star of the group was Cass Elliot. She had a substantial solo career after the group broke up, delivering several moderate hits before becoming more of a cabaret/variety performer. She had nice comic timing, and was frequently seen on Carol Burnett's and Julie Andrews's variety shows, as well as on Johnny Carson's talkfest, which she occasionally guest-hosted. The truth is, her solo hits were all of the "Bubble Gum Pop" genre of music, and are not my favorites. But she maintained a healthy respect for older standards, and always included a few on her albums (this at a time when no one in the pop music arena was recording those oldies). The Mamas and the Papas had a hit with Rogers and Hart's "Sing for your Supper" (from The Boys from Syracuse), and Elliot's signature song, "Dream a Little Dream of Me," was a Depression-era tune recorded previously by Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald. Elliot's version is considered definitive.

Because she was not a songwriter, Elliot's contributions have faded a bit, though she seems to spring back up into the popular consciousness every decade or so. Playwright Jonathan Harvey used her music as the backdrop to his play and film Beautiful Thing in the mid-90s, and more recently, the TV series Lost placed Elliot's hit "Make Your Own Kind of Music" at the center of its explosive second season opener.

Which brings us to this week's Dance Party, which must be Cass's strangest appearance. H.R.Pufnstuf was a live action children's program created by Sid and Marty Krofft, and achieved enough success that a feature film was released in 1970 (a long while ago, I wrote about the psychedelic world of Pufnstuf, and a while later, the big production number from the film graced a Halloween Dance Party). Somebody advised Elliot that this was a good career move (I hope that person was fired), and it is her only feature film appearance. (Well, I should issue the caveat that she appears with the Mamas and the Papas in the documentary covering the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1969.)

Pufnstuf is not a worthy vehicle of Elliot's wide-ranging talents, but she was just striking out on her own and can be forgiven for accepting this chance to act in a Hollywood film, as cheesy as it is. The song she is singing is not one of her best, written by the gents who scored the movie and the TV series, but I still get a kick out of it; it reflects the "Make Your Own Kind of Music" philosophy by which she lived her short life. I have memories of sitting through this movie several times in a row as a kid, waiting impatiently for Mama Cass to make her first entrance, sitting in a vat filled with fruit, eating a banana:

A bit later, she sings this song, with a witches' coven as back-up singers and a Nazi rat as disc jockey. I warned you this was strange.

So, from the whacked-out world of the Krofft Brothers, please enjoy this number from their film, Pufnstuf. (That's film clown Martha Raye in the purple; she appears in her own Dance Party number here.)

Cass Elliot died 35 years ago this week, at the age of 32.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paul MacWhorter


The DC theatrical community first lost Paul in 2006, when he immigrated to Canada with his husband Dan Lawson. At that time, he left behind a collection of friends and colleagues with whom he had worked for a whopping 35 years. He attended Georgetown University in the early 70s, launching a DC career which included acting, directing, producing, and teaching. He became an accomplished playwright, furnishing the Washington Theatre Festival at Source Theatre with several one-acts and a full-length play, At the Rim of a Purple Volcano, which won a prestigious GLAAD award in 2002.

Paul's greatest gift seemed to be the ability to inspire creative work in others. He formed a long-standing creative relationship with director Jose Carasquillo, with whom he co-directed a number of well-received works such as Metamorphosis, Blood Wedding, and Medea at Washington Shakespeare Company, and A Language of Their Own at Studio Theatre's SecondStage. As I researched this obit (I regret that Paul was not a personal friend of mine), one particular project has popped up several times, a one-act play he directed called Aubergine Days; Carasquillo calls it the most moving one-act he has ever seen. The production ran as part of the Washington Theatre Festival in the mid-90s and cemented a working relationship between Paul, actor Steve Carpenter, and playwright Roy Berkowitz which continued for several subsequent years (Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Rena Cherry Brown often joined the fun). When Paul expressed an interest in stepping back onstage, he and Steve swapped positions (that's not as provocative as it sounds), and Steve directed Paul in one of Roy's ten-minute plays, Tough Stains, which became another award winner. (The above pic is from Steve's wedding; Paul is wearing glasses.)

This all sounds very clique-ish, and indeed, it seems Paul maintained very close ties to a handful of people, but his influence was much more far-reaching. As an actor, he appeared on many DC stages, including Washington Shakespeare Company, Actors Theatre of Washington, Olney Theatre Center, Foundry Players, and Rorschach Theatre, to name a few. (The pic above is from WSC's Marat/Sade; Paul is seated on the floor, to the left of the central couple.) Like just about all DC theatrical artists, he subsidized his income with a day job; he worked for 31 years at Arnold & Porter, a local law firm.

As I mentioned, I did not know Paul well, only having met him two or three times. But he was always warm and supportive during those brief encounters. I specifically remember his enthusiastic response to Thief River, a production in which I appeared and which was directed by our mutual buddy Steve Carpenter. If it seems like DC theatre is a bit incestuous, well, it kind of is. But in a good way.

For over 20 years, Paul waged a courageous battle against HIV, receiving the newest drugs in their earliest stages. The treatments took their physical toll (though not on his biceps...this guy had GUNS), and the DC theatrical community lost Paul for a second and final time. He died from AIDS related complications July 18, at the age of 56.

There are tentative plans for a DC memorial service for Paul, but in the meantime, Paul himself requested that his loved ones remember him by making a contribution to the Canadian medical facility which prolonged his life. To make a contribution, please go here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Salt Lake Smooch

It seems there has been some unauthorized homosexual kissing going on in Utah. Not that ANY homosexual kissing is authorized in Utah, but...

The other week, a couple of gay men took a short cut across the Main Street Plaza in Salt Lake City, after a concert. They were holding hands and according to their own account, they paused for a kiss. According to security guards at the Salt Lake City Temple, which owns the plaza, the activity was inappropriate and the couple was ordered to leave. From here the story gets muddled, as these stories always do, with the gays claiming they were handled roughly, and the Mormons claiming the queens were being pornographic. The police were called, the men were handcuffed (but not in a fun way) and were cited for trespassing. The incident triggered several protests in the following days, in which dozens of gay couples (and quite a few straights who were also incensed) gathered just outside the boundaries of the Main Street Plaza and had a Kiss-In. The national media mentioned this story in passing, but the incident has opened some wounds in Salt Lake City.

The Main Street Plaza is a full block of Main Street, constructed by the city, and is exactly what it sounds like, a plaza right in the middle of town, in front of the imposing structure of the Mormon temple. In 1999, the Mormon church offered to buy the block for over 8 million dollars (those Mormons are wealthy as sin, as evidenced by the millions they spent to support the passage of California's Prop 8, about which I railed a while back), and volunteered an easement which would allow the general public to continue to use the plaza. However, the church insisted that they (the Mormon Church) be allowed to dictate all behavior on the block; their goal was to prohibit the various protests and demonstrations which often popped up when the Church of Latter Day Saints did something repugnant (gee, how often does that happen?). I guess the city liked the dollar signs, and the city council, all but two of whom were Mormons, agreed to the terms, and the sale was made.

Thus started a long battle which continued for close to a decade. The ACLU filed suit against the terms of the deal, stating that the public's individual Constitutional Rights, such as the Right of Free Speech, go with them wherever in the United States they go; those rights cannot be relinquished while crossing the block of Main Street between North and South Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Various appeals courts upheld the sale as legally binding, and the ACLU stopped making noise. That is, until this latest exhibition of "Christian" behavior by the Mormons. Yes, I put "Christian" in quotes, as it's hard to reconcile the virulence with which fundamentalists such as the Mormons condemn homosexuals, with all that pesky "love thy neighbor" stuff they teach.

Anytime Organized Religion attempts to dictate behavior to the public at large (rather than sticking to dictating to their own flock), there is going to be trouble.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

s'Newz occasional series of stories which recently caught my eye...

This story reminded me of my father, who used to sit for hours next to his portable short-wave radio, way back in the 60s, and tune into a channel which was broadcast solely in Morse Code. He learned the signal system in the army, when he barely missed WWII, and liked to practice his decoding skills by painstakingly writing down every dot and dash and then translating it. Nobody uses Morse Code anymore, but an office tower in Pittsburgh has been flashing "Pittsburgh" with dots and dashes since it was built in 1929. This year, over the Fourth of July weekend, some bored pedestrian looked up and decoded the signal, to discover that the beacon was instead spelling out "Pitetsbkrrh."

If my father had been in downtown Pittsburgh for the Fourth of July, he would have been that guy.

Did you hear this guy died?


Gordon Waller (the guy on the right) is not hugely remembered today, but in the early 60s, Peter and Gordon were an important part of the pop music scene. Dubbed the "Everly Brothers of the British Invasion," they had nine top 20 hits before breaking up in 1968. Their first hit was also their biggest, "A World Without Love," which was written by Paul McCartney (he was dating Peter's sister at the time).

This lesbian died recently:

Teresa Ann Butz


She was brutally murdered in her own home in Seattle last week. An intruder entered the home through an open window, and stabbed her and her partner. They both escaped outside, but Teresa died of her wounds. The couple was planning a commitment ceremony next month, to coincide with Teresa's 40th birthday. I would never have heard this story, had her brother not been Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz. By the wildest coincidence, Norbert is currently in Seattle, starring in the pre-Broadway try-out of the musical version of Catch Me If You Can. I have written in the past of my admiration for the Broadway Butz, whom I saw play the Emcee in Cabaret. Several preview performances of his show have been cancelled so he can tend to these family matters. Seattle police are not prepared to call the incident a Hate Crime

I must be the last one to hear this news. When I went to the movies this week, I saw this poster announcing a film opening next March, 2010:

I had no idea this film was in the works, but apparently, it's already causing lots of buzz. Johnny Depp teaming up with Tim Burton certainly isn't news; I guess the biggest surprise is that Disney hired the duo to pull a Willy Wonka on one of their animated classics. I will look forward to seeing Depp's Mad Hatter, a role I played many moons ago, but did not really understand. In fact, I don't think I've ever understood Alice in Wonderland. I look forward to Burton's explaining it to me. The first official trailer for the film is recently out; if you haven't seen it, take a peek:

But as much as I look forward to Burton and Depp finding the terror in Alice in Wonderland, I look forward to this even more. At first, I thought it was a hoax, but apparently not. Johnny Depp wants to star in a biopic of one of the most iconic Broadway performers of all time:

He honestly believes that, with all the special effects available these days, he can pull it off. And what's more, Channing herself believes it, too. She gave her blessing to the concept, proclaiming Depp a true artist, and pointing out that most of the people who have impersonated her over the years have had five o'clock shadows.

Yes, I want to see Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. But I would kill to see him belt out "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Don't Call Me Shirley

This week's Dance Party comes from the Daddy of all comedy parody films, and is credited with inventing the genre. The film was created by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker, founders of an improvisational comedy troop known as the Kentucky Fried Theater (their first movie was the translation of some of their sketches to film, Kentucky Fried Movie, directed by John Landis of Animal House fame).

Airplane! was filled with hilarious sightgags and double entendres, with the plot poking fun at the "who's going to fly the plane?" scenario. "ZAZ," as the creative team was known, excelled in their casting of the film, which they filled with well-established men who were not known for their comic chops. Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, and Robert Stack were all dramatic actors who, when speaking the outrageous dialogue in Airplane!, were drop-dead funny. (The film altered the direction of Leslie Nielsen's career, who was a moderately known dramatic actor before Airplane! transformed him into THE superstar of the parody film genre. He starred in the Police Squad TV series and its film versions, the Naked Gun series, all of which were guided by one or more of the ZAZ team).

Famous cameos pop up throughout Airplane!, including Ethel Merman (in her final film role), playing a male soldier who thinks he's Ethel Merman, and Barbara ("June Cleaver") Billingsley, who is an absolute scream as a passenger who "speaks jive" and who translates for black passengers. (For California viewers, the film even includes a cameo by Howard Jarvis, who led a tax revolt in the late 70s which resulted in California's Proposition 13; in the movie, he is stranded at the curb with the meter running.)

At the center of the lunacy, ZAZ placed two relative unknowns. Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty had both been knocking around the business for a while, and both had television and stage credits when they were cast as the romantic leads in Airplane! and its sequel. Neither of them were able to parlay the success of these films into substantial careers, but here, Hays's stoic hero and Hagerty's vacant facial expressions equaled comedic gold.

The following clip includes several sightgags which are just too delicious to cut. Please enjoy the flashback dance sequence from 1980's Airplane!

Julie Hagerty turned 54 last month, and Robert Hays turns 62 today.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Day in the Life: The Trickle Down Theory

I had a free day today (let's face it, they're all pretty free these days, but I won't start whining...yet), so I thought I'd finally make an effort to get down to see King Lear at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. The show is in its final week, and they had a noon matinee, just for me and the old folks. I have had some good luck in the past snagging a cheap ticket to these nooners, but alas, today that luck was not with me.

I worked with star Stacy Keach when he played Macbeth back in the 90s, and I came away with a huge respect for the man and his work. I learned a great deal about classical acting just from watching him (and by being slaughtered by him in my own personal duel in Act V; I played Young Siward). The reviews for this Lear have been raves, for Stacy and his costar, Ed Gero (I worked with Ed in that same Macbeth, and was slaughtered by him in Act the Shakes, they always recycle their soldiers to beef up the battlefield. Once you're killed, you crawl offstage and return to fight again).

The lobby of the swanky Harman Center was pretty crowded when I arrived, about half an hour before the curtain, and there were lines at all four windows of the box office. Everyone was picking up their Will Call tickets. I reached the front, and was confronted with one of my biggest pet peeves: talking to somebody through a glass window. At The Shakes, someone has decided the ticket clerks are in such danger, they must be secured behind bullet-proof glass, like cashiers in liquor stores on Skid Row. This perplexes me, as I can't imagine there is much money back there; the top ticket price is now almost 80 bucks, and surely patrons pay with their credit cards much more than using cash.

But what I really hate about this "Clerk Behind the Glass" routine is, I can never understand what the hell the clerk is saying. At The Shakes, each window has its own mic, but the young jerk (and he was a jerk, judging from his attitude toward me) couldn't be bothered to lean over to turn his on. Instead, he muttered some incomprehensible syllables at me, as I asked if there might be seats available. I couldn't read his lips or his mind, so after several minutes, he finally turned on his mic to rudely tell me that the performance was sold out, "of course."

I was less disturbed by this news than I was by this guy's attitude. As I walked around the corner to see a movie instead, I thought about his demeanor toward me, and decided it was just another example of a truism I have observed for years. The overall attitude of a theatre's staffers is a direct reflection of the attitude of the top brass. It does not matter if the theatre has three people on staff, or 300, it's always the same: the attitude at the top trickles down to affect everyone. If the Artistic Director of the company is warm, welcoming, genial, and easy-going, so is the staff. The opposite is also true. At The Shakes, the staff is arrogant, snarky, and disrespectful of their individual audience members, and even of each other. (Not their high-powered donors, of course. Just like all other theatres in the country, The Shakes is feeling the pinch of the economy, shrinking their season, furloughing their employees, etc. They do a great job of keeping the donors pleased. But in their one-on-one interaction with the public at large, the staff reflects the exclusionary attitude of those at the top).

Oh, about that movie I saw instead? Outstanding. (500)Days of Summer is a terrific little film, starring one of my favorite young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. You surely know him from television; he grew up in front of us, as a star of 3rd Rock From the Sun, and since then, he has made dozens of really interesting movies. His choices are always unusual, which has probably prevented his becoming one of the superstars of his generation, but his work never disappoints.

This film created some buzz at Sundance, and it deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Romantic Comedy, as a genre, is almost always geared toward women, even when the protagonist is a man. This film is smart, funny, endearing, and feels absolutely realistic (despite the occasional fantasy sequence). It feels true to the male of the species.

I was sorry to miss Stacy and Ed flinging their iambs around for three hours today, but I was more than compensated by this terrific movie.

Theatre Droppings: Summer Stock, Shenandoah Valley Style

While I spent a few months sidekicking, I was able to enjoy a couple of busman's holidays, seeing some Summer Stock. My own gig as Sancho Panza cannot be classified as a stock gig; Wayside Theatre began its life as a summer theatre, but has long since graduated to year-round producing. But elsewhere in the Shenandoah Valley, there are two other theaters offering up summer fare.

A few miles up the road from Wayside, there is a summer stock theatre which has been producing big musicals for over a quarter of a century. Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre has a special place in my heart, as I've often mentioned in these pages. It provided the first job I ever snagged from a New York audition, and since then, I have returned to play some terrific roles. Though I've only appeared there a handful of times over the past decade or so, I do my best to catch at least one show each season. This year, a whole slew of Man of La Mancha folks gathered to attend SSMT's season opener, Hairspray. The cast was headed by my two favorite Shendites, Rick Wesley and Robin Higginbotham. Rick is an alumnus of the program at Shenandoah University, which hosts SSMT, and since his graduation about a hundred years ago, he has become one of the steady presences each season. This year, he played the drag role of Edna Turnblat, the agoraphobic, "full-figured" hausfrau originally played by Harvey Fierstein onstage, and destroyed by John Travolta in the movie. He was teamed with another Shenandoah favorite, Jack Rowles, and they tore up the stage as the parents of our heroine, Tracy. I admire Rick each and every time I see him, and hope one day to be able to share the SSMT stage with him.

As for Robin, well, I have already shared the stage with that firecracker; she is another alum who has become an integral part of each SSMT season. In Hairspray, she got the rare opportunity to play a villain ( "Miss Baltimore Crabs"), and she was a hoot. Robin and I were the comic relief in Brigadoon a while back, an experience which remains one of my favorites.

The big surprise in Hairspray, for me, was the gal playing best friend Penny, a young actress named Beth Tarnow. Beth played my daughter in Bye Bye Birdie two years ago, and has matured into a dynamic musical performer. She landed every laugh, and practically stole the show.

I love all the success stories of SSMT, because I know first hand how many odds must be overcome there. Artistic Director Hal Herman created the festival 26 years ago, and continues to direct almost all the shows himself. The kids in the ensemble get a crash course in true summer stock: roughly ten days of rehearsal which will include a maximum of four rehearsals with the full orchestra, and only a day and a half onstage before the opening. Even more terrifying, there is one, count 'em ONE, full tech-dress runthrough, without stops, before the opening night crowd shows up. After 26 years, Hal and his crew know how to do it.

Totem Pole Playhouse knows how to do it, too. Their schedule is almost identical to Shenandoah's, and they've been pulling off six or so shows each summer for a whopping 59 years. In previous generations, the theatre was run by Jean Stapleton's husband, and the walls of the theatre are adorned with pictures of her in a variety of shows, before she became a television superstar playing Edith Bunker.

My DC buddy Ray Ficca has recently taken over the reigns of the company, so I was very glad I had the chance to get out to Gettysburg, PA, to see one of his shows. I have seen I Hate Hamlet twice before, including the notorious original Broadway production, where one of the leading players quit the show during intermission (I wrote about seeing that show here). I also saw a community theatre production of this light-weight piece only a year or so ago (go here to read my rant about that monstrosity), so there were not going to be any surprises for me.

Except there actually were. The Totem Pole production was superior to either of the previous incarnations I had encountered, due to the performances of my friends Ray Ficca and Larry Dalke. (If you've dropped by these pages before, you may have noticed that my friends are always the best things in their's a mysterious phenomenon). Ray played the ghost of John Barrymore in this one, and as always, his physicality brought great sparkle to the show. Larry, I'm not surprised to report, swiped every scene in which he appeared, playing the materialistic Hollywood producer.

I love summer stock, both as a performer and as an observer. I think there is no greater challenge to the stage actor; there is never enough rehearsal, so actors must create on their feet, a very exciting and dangerous task. Hairspray and I Hate Hamlet have both closed by now, already replaced by new productions with the swiftness that only Summer Stock brings.

Both Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre and Totem Pole Playhouse know how to do it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Frank McCourt


It was McCourt's desperately poor childhood which made him a wealthy man. He had spent a full career as a high school teacher and occasional lecturer by the time his first memoir was published, when he was in his mid-60s.

This guy certainly made lemonade out of what seems to have been a truly tragic upbringing. His alcoholic father drank the family into perpetual poverty, dooming his family to life in a shack with no electricity or running water. McCourt reports that raw sewage from the public lavatory next door regularly flooded his floors, and mushrooms grew out of the damp tweed clothes which never dried out.

Angela's Ashes spent a whopping 117 weeks on the New York Times' Bestseller List and won the Pulitzer. He followed up that success with two subsequent memoirs, 'Tis, the story of his arrival in Manhattan at the age of 19, and Teacher Man, the history of his days as a public school teacher.

In the years previous to his phenomenal literary success, McCourt toured the country with his brother Malachy, telling stories and singing songs, in a vaudeville they called A Couple of Blaguards.
Frank died last weekend at the age of 78.