Sunday, August 30, 2009

Theatre Droppings: Parody, Politics, and Pros

It's a bit surprising that I have attended only two shows in the past weeks; I'm usually eager to leap into as much theatrical goulash as I can. Summer in DC is the quiet season, theatrically speaking, but that doesn't mean there's NOTHING going on. In fact, there is more happening than you might think. I've missed most of it (and I can't blame my involvement with the Washington Stage Guild's staged reading series; I only did a few of those this summer). Whatever, I was able to catch two productions which prove that, even in the Dog Days of Summer, DC is kind to a Theatre Beast.

Today, I popped over to MetroStage to see the first show of their new season. It's actually a remount of their successful production from last year, The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! I missed it last time, so was glad to attend today's matinee. The show had an Off-Broadway run a while back, long enough to yield an Original Cast Recording, which reveals that the writers, Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell, were also the original stars. Well, if you could write yourself a showy show, wouldn't you?

The local cast at MetroStage is packed with first-rate musical clowns (two of them, Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio, were nominated for Helen Hayes awards for their work in the first incarnation). The show itself has the slightest plot imaginable; this plot is played out five different times, in the styles of five Broadway composing teams. This is Forbidden Broadway to the fifth power, and it's a real hoot. I imagine it helps to have a substantial knowledge of the catalogues of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Herman, Lloyd Webber, Kander, and Ebb, as the writers seem to leave no turn unstoned with their parody songs (it doesn't hurt to be familiar with the directorial cliches of Bob Fosse, either, to which most of the Kander and Ebb routine is linked). If an audience member walked in off the street, never having seen a musical, they would be pretty flummoxed. But how likely is that to happen?

Anyway, the show is a scream. MetroStage is a terrific space, with nice stadium seating providing a great view from anywhere in the house. I usually choose to sit a bit further back than I actually did. Today, I sat in the front row, my least favorite spot in a theatre. The box office dude must have pegged me as a ham, for he asked to plant me down front in order to hand Donna some fake flowers at the Act One finale. I couldn't refuse the poor guy; he obviously had to find someone each and every performance to do this, and that can't be easy. But sitting in the front row is just too close for my tastes: not only do you usually miss the overall picture the director is creating with his staging, but you often get spit on, too. It is almost impossible to enunciate clearly onstage without some spittle escaping at least once or twice. Front row dwellers usually get a spray or two.

But it was fun to watch the work of those two real pros, Donna and Bobby. I've seen them both onstage many times, and actually worked with Donna years ago during a staged reading of a new musical. I've never met Bobby, but he is always good, as I wrote a while back, and Donna doesn't need kudos from me: she is headed to Broadway in the upcoming revival of Ragtime. Matt Anderson and Janine Gulisano-Sunday rounded out the cast, and special support was given by musical director and pianist Doug Lawler, who has a comic timing as precise as any of the actors.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: it's been a month or more since I caught the final weekend of King Lear at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. The show is long gone, but I'm still thinking about it.

From the moment the audience entered the STC's Harman Center and was faced with a row of filthy urinals, well, you knew this would not be your Olivier's King Lear. Director Robert Falls recreated his controversial Goodman Theatre production of several years ago, and provided a raw and visually arresting event. He placed the action in a Britain which mirrored the collapse of the Marshall Tito era in Yugoslavia; I think the concept worked like gangbusters.

His principle cast from Chicago was almost intact, led by Stacy Keach and Ed Gero as Lear and Gloucester. More on them in a mo'. The supporting cast here was pretty swell, with some terrific surprises. Lear's wicked daughters were wicked indeed: Kate Arrington's Regan came across as a blond bimbo with a decidedly vicious streak (think Paris Hilton by way of Lucretia Borgia) and Lise Bruneau's Goneril was the most nympho-maniacal royal since Catherine the Great did it with that horse. She worked that fur coat like nobody's bizness. (BTW, kudos to Bruneau, who stepped into the role with minimal rehearsal, and ran with it.) You had to love Dieterich Gray's skateboarding Oswald, and Chris Genebach's coked-out Cornwall provided the most brutal death scene in an evening full of death scenes. Getting the picture? Edgar wore a diaper and Edmund wore a suit, and somehow, it all made sense here.

As for Keach and Gero, well, I've admired these two gents since I worked with them at The Shakes in the mid-90s. Macbeth was my first show in DC, and though I thought I had lots of Shakespearean experience before I arrived (Feste, Pompey, Cassio, and Dogberry, among others), I learned daily lessons in the muscular attack, language-wise, necessary to make Shakespeare sing. (I wrote about my admiration for our Lady M, Helen Carey, a long while back.) Anyway, I was so glad to see these two experts onstage together again, and this production of Lear deserves a further life. (I have no inside info regarding this, though someone told me the set pieces and costumes were all boxed up for storage, which means there may be hope it will resurface one day. I think this particular production would succeed in New York.)

So, though I haven't seen everything DC had to offer this summer, the shows I did see were terrifically handled by seasoned pros. Happy September!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Death of Camelot

Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr. made his fortune in real estate, banking, and the movies (he ran RKO for a while, and had several extramarital affairs, including one with star Gloria Swanson; he bequeathed his penchant for glamour pusses to his sons); he supplemented his income selling bootleg liquor during Prohibition. This guy was going places! He had politics in his blood, as his father served in the Massachusetts legislature, and he married into a political family as well. His wife, Rose Fitzgerald, was the daughter of the mayor of Boston. Together, they obeyed the pope and procreated like mad.

Everybody's been using the word "dynasty" with the Kennedys, and I guess it's appropriate. They certainly were a fun lot to watch from afar, weren't they? Let's take a gander:


He was the golden boy of the family, rich, handsome (well, they were all good least, the boys were...) and destined for greatness. Papa Joe was determined that all his children would find substantial places in the world, but he had particularly high expectations of his eldest son. Junior studied law at Harvard and economics in London before undergoing officer's training and entering WWII. He died in a kamikaze-type mission into occupied France, where he and another officer were to pilot a plane filled with explosives, aim it at a cannon site, and parachute to safety before the plane crashed into its target. Who could predict something like this could go wrong? The plane detonated in flight, before ever leaving British airspace.

By the way, the guy next to Kennedy in this picture is Broadway star Matt Cavanaugh, who played Joe Jr. in the musical version of Grey Gardens. You can catch him in the current West Side Story revival. Hmm. I seem to have wandered off track here.

Anyway, Papa Joe and Mama Rose (no, not that Mama Rose, I mean Rose Kennedy) had a back-up plan for their political ambitions. It was this guy:


Everybody already knows this one's story. Young senator, fairy-tale marriage, a lucky break during a TV debate, then tragedy. But before that crummy trip to Dallas, JFK adopted the Camelot motif which continues to be used to describe his era today. Everybody knows his successes (Cuban Missile Crisis, banging Marilyn Monroe) and his failures (Bay of Pigs, keeping his affair with Marilyn Monroe secret), and historians are pretty mixed about how effective a president he actually would have been, had he served a full term or two. He didn't have much of a chance to prove himself. His assassination was one of those pivotal moments during which everybody on the planet remembers exactly where they were. The only other moment like that in my lifetime was the 9/11 attack. Both were instances of catastrophe. I wonder why we don't all remember seminal GOOD moments so clearly, like where we were when Neil Armstrong played golf on the moon, or when Elaine Stritch finally won the Tony?

While the Kennedys were grooming Joe, and then Jack, for their glorious futures, they had a dirty little secret:


During her father's lifetime, she was kept strictly out of the public eye, at least until her sister Eunice stepped in (more on her below). She may have had some mild retardation, though experts today believe she simply had a lower IQ than her siblings, which led her to being the slow one in the family. In the highly competitive Kennedy clan, she could never keep up, and reacted with mood swings and tantrums. But she kept a diary through her teenage years, which has been examined and seems to reveal a normal, though depressed, child. She accompanied her parents to the White House to meet FDR, and was presented to George VI during Papa Joe's tenure as US Ambassador to Britain. But her father was never pleased with her. "We don't want any losers around here," he would say, "We only want winners." Eventually, Joe was offered the chance to ease his daughter's mood swings, with a new procedure called a lobotomy (only 65 had been done, worldwide). He jumped at the opportunity to turn his daughter into a competitor, and the operation was done. And botched. Rosemary, who had been highly verbal and bright, became unintelligible, incontinent, and incapacitated. The truth about the lobotomy was hidden for many years, as it was assumed such a story would be unpalatable to American voters, so Rosemary became "the lost Kennedy," the mentally retarded girl living in an institution for the rest of her 86 years.

By the way, take a look at that picture of Rosemary as a mature woman (above). If they ever make a musical about this gal's life, Kaye Ballard should play it. Maybe Sutton Foster should play her sister:


Here was a Kennedy who was ready to party! High-spirited and rebellious, she gained her strict mother's disapproval early and often. She was educated in England while Papa Joe was ambassador there, and was named "the most exciting debutante of 1938." She carried that Kennedy Public Service Gene, of course, and was working in a Red Cross service center in 1943 when she met her future husband, the Marquess of Hartington. As heir to the duchy of Devonshire, you would think the Kennedys would be thrilled with the match, but he was a Protestant, and the devoutly prejudiced Mama Rose would not approve the marriage. "Kick" went ahead without her parents' blessing, and was married in 1944, with her brother Joe Jr. the only Kennedy in attendance. I wonder if the folks investigated a lobotomy for her? Kick Cavendish became the toast of the younger London aristocracy, but her boisterousness drew raised eyebrows from the older establishment. Our party gal was not to become a duchess after all; her husband was killed in action only four months after the wedding. The young widow soon began an affair with another young nobleman, and they planned to marry after he secured his own divorce. A private plane carrying Kick and her fiance crashed in the south of France, and Kathleen Kennedy became the youngest of the nine siblings to die, at the age of 28.

There's got to be a Lifetime movie in this girl's story, don't you think? And there's a full-blown miniseries in the life of the next sister:


Everybody knows this gal's story, as she died just a few weeks ago at the age of 88. She spent her early career like all the other Kennedys, employed in a variety of charitable organizations. In the 1950s, she became an executive in the Joseph Kennedy Jr. Foundation, a Catholic charity formed by her family in honor of her eldest brother. She gradually shifted the emphasis of the charity to focus on the mentally handicapped, which eventually led to the formation of the Special Olympics, for which she is best known. Her husband, Sargent Shriver, was Ambassador to France for several years, and was the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1972. Her life-long work on behalf of the mentally challenged was a result, in part, of her sister Rosemary's retardation. She is the only woman to appear on a US coin while still living: she appears on the 1995 silver dollar commemorating the Special Olympics.

Eunice is remembered as a no-nonsense woman who worked tirelessly throughout her life, often on behalf of the mentally disabled. She clearly had a strong affection for her sister Rosemary, visiting her in the institution and seeing to it that she be included in various family functions over the years. I wonder what she thought of her younger sister, who appears to have been her opposite:


Pat was the socialite in the family, and had a fascination with her father's Hollywood career. She had hopes of becoming a film producer and director, but never made it that far. Hers was a particularly famous Kennedy spouse: she married British actor Peter Lawford in 1954. The couple lived in Santa Monica, and hung out with Judy Garland and her family. The marriage was troubled from the start; Peter was a ladies man and a heavy drinker, and he was uncomfortable with the staunch Catholicism of the Kennedys. The marriage eventually ended in divorce (Pat, being the good Catholic, never remarried). In her later life, Pat battled alcoholism and cancer, and died at the age of 82.

This guy may be my favorite Kennedy, though I'm not sure why:


RFK was the "doer" in the Kennedy clan, and, as the third son, spent most of his life "in support." Perhaps that's why I have a fondness for him: I love supporting players. He worked tirelessly on behalf of his brother's political agenda, and could be ruthless when dealing with adversaries. He was surely the most influential white guy backing the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; as Attorney General under JFK, he sent soldiers to Mississippi to escort the first black student onto the University of Mississippi campus. After investigating Martin Luther King for communist affiliations (he even had his phone tapped), he came to admire the reverend, and was devastated by his assassination. He gave a stirring, impromptu speech in Indianapolis the night the news of King's murder was announced, and it's widely believed he prevented the rioting which was wide-spread in other heavily black cities.

Bobby was believed to be the most religious of his generation of Kennedys, and as such, he fulfilled his obligation to go forth and propagate. He and wife Ethel had 11 children. He entered the 1968 presidential campaign a bit late, but had a pretty good chance of securing the Democratic nomination after winning the California primary on June 5th. He was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while taking a short cut through the kitchen, and died the next day.

Journalist Robert Novak, who died earlier this month, was standing about 20 feet from Kennedy when he was assassinated. You know who else was in the hotel that fateful night? Bobby's little sister:

Jean was pretty shy when compared to other Kennedy girls, and lived much of her life out of the limelight which her siblings so enjoyed. But she was apparently a skilled diplomat, and served as US Ambassador to Ireland during the Clinton administration. Her husband, Stephen Edward Smith, was responsible for overseeing the various trusts granted to members of the extended Kennedy clan. But her biggest claim to fame is probably the fact that she gave birth to one of the more notorious of the Kennedy scions, William Kennedy Smith, who dragged the family into a high-profile criminal matter in 1991. The scandal is just too delicious to overlook.

On March 29, 1991 (Good Friday), much of the Kennedy clan had gathered on their family estate in Palm Beach, Florida. In the late evening, aging party boy Senator Ted Kennedy awakened his son Patrick, and his nephew, the aforementioned William Smith, and said, "Let's go drinking." How's that for a terrific pater familias? The three of them hit the bars, and the younger boys picked up a couple of tricks...oops, I mean young ladies with impeccable morals. The elder Kennedy went to bed, and the young rapscallions took their dates to an empty house owned by the family. Smith and his date took a walk along the beach, during which the young lady claimed she was raped. (Smith says the sex was consensual.) The case went to trial, during which testimony from three other women, who claimed to have been assaulted by Smith, was excluded. Our boy was acquitted. In 2004, another woman charged Smith with sexual assault, but the case was dismissed; around this time, it was revealed that yet another woman had received payment from Smith as an out-of-court settlement in yet another sexual assault case.

Jean Kennedy Smith must be so proud of her little boy. I guess I shouldn't be so snide; the poor woman is now the last surviving member of her generation of Kennedys. As everybody in the world knows, her little brother died this week:

I used to see Senator Kennedy in my neighborhood, lunching on the patio of a French brasserie around the corner from my house. A red-faced, bloated, cheerful Teddy would be holding court in the late afternoon, with several empty wine bottles littering the tabletop. Like so many of his clan, he loved the booze. Though he claims otherwise, don't we all think he was drunk when he drove his car off the bridge at Chappaquiddick in 1969? He escaped the sinking car, deserting the drowning girl in the back seat, and did not call the cops until his car was discovered the next day. No indictments were issued over the event, but many political analysts believe the incident sank Teddy's chances (ooh, a pun!) at ever becoming president (that's a benign word, "incident," for what was an atrocious, possibly criminal act). But this week, I've heard some commentary which makes sense to me. Ted Kennedy was the baby of the family, the happy clown from whom not much was expected. Through no fault of his own, he was thrust into the role of patriarch of his highly visible, highly political family, and a presidential bid was expected of him. But it's possible he never really wanted it; he was asked in an interview, during his failed bid in 1980, why he wanted to be president. His bumbling answer rivals Sarah Palin's incoherence with Katie Couric. Once Teddy's presidential prospects were dashed, he leaped into his senatorial role, and truly became the Lion of the Senate everyone is eulogizing this week.

And whatever I think of his private life (that image of him puttering around the Kennedy estate in his underwear is one I'd like to forget), I think he did some great work in congress. Among other triumphs, he sponsored the Ryan White Aids bill, after a period in which the President of the United States (Reagan) would not even utter the word. Even so, some of the coverage of Edward Kennedy's passing seems overblown. He was just a guy who believed that serving the public was an honorable vocation.

I've been pretty snarky on this page, but putting that aside, from where I'm sitting, it seems like all the Kennedy siblings felt an obligation to serve those less fortunate than themselves. Maybe that was forced into them by their parents, or maybe they came to that attitude naturally, but who really cares? They did a lot of good. Is that the Camelot Mystique of which JFK was so fond? Not sure. Camelot was a fantasy place where it only rained after dark, and the fog disappeared by 8 AM. But it had a "fleeting wisp of Glory," so maybe the Kennedys belong there after all.

Here's what I do know. This generation of Kennedys had a whole lot of faults. But they tried to make the world a bit better to live in. I think they may have succeeded, too. They deserve some kudos for that.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Dance Party: A Couple of Doo-Wop Ditties

I had something completely different in mind for this week's Dance Party, but the death of composer Ellie Greenwich cannot be ignored. She was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the early and mid-60s, and was a bit of a trail blazer, too. Along with Carole King (to whom she was often compared), she proved that women could pen pop hits.

I love her story, which includes collaboration with a half-dozen lyricists over her career. She married one of them, Jeff Barry, a match which yielded a string of hits for the likes of The Crystals, The Ronelles, the Shangri-Las (don't you love the names of early 60s girl groups?) and Lesley Gore. She was a major player in the famous Brill Building, where songwriters of the day churned out hits. Her tunes have all been covered by more contemporary artists, a testament to their artistic integrity.

I have no such integrity. Though there are videos out there of the original artists singing Greenwich's songs, I prefer to present these lower class clips instead. I hope Greenwich wouldn't mind if her tribute comes from the voices of some of those later artists.

One of the things I love about Greenwich's story is the fact that she became involved in one of the first "jukebox musicals" (before that term was coined) of her own work. Leader of the Pack had a healthy run at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village in 1984, after which it was retooled, expanded, and presented on Broadway. Greenwich herself appeared in the musical, which garnered a Tony nomination for Best Musical, in a year infamous for its lack of new musicals (the Tony went to Big River that year, largely, in my opinion, by default). But the show flopped, with the New York Times calling it an "embarrassment," and Frank Rich adding that the show's producers later battled each other in litigation that "entertained Broadway far longer than their show had."

Well, our girl didn't need a Broadway hit to secure her place in the history of popular music. As well as writing songs, she became a music producer, and is credited with discovering Neil Diamond. She was a singer as well, recording her own work as a member of The Raindrops, and as a solo artist later in her career. She was often in demand as a studio vocalist, and appears on most of the Archies hits.

As I said, her songs are sung by all sorts of people, including this travesty of one of her biggest hits. Take a peek at this performance by the middle Cassidy boy, before he matured into the television producer he is now. Shaun actually had a few pop hits back when he was a teeny-bopper star of The Hardy Boys, and this was one of them. And may I add, I really don't understand why shiny bell-bottoms went out of style. They are so groovy!

OK, a tribute to Ellie Greenwich cannot be complete without a word from the Divine Miss M. In Bette's early years, she peppered her stage shows with doo-wop hits for which Geenwich was famous, usually turning them into mini-musicals all on their own (Bette did a hilarious staging of Chapel of Love). Here, Midler is appearing on some TV show, I don't know which, and is clearly in her early prime. The telecast is a little wavy, but you can still see the power of the Divine One. Oh, and keep an eye on the background girls ("The Harlettes"). The tall one in the middle is Katey Sagal, who leaped from background vocals to Married With Children and never looked back:

Ellie Greenwich suffered a fatal heart attack this week at the age of 68.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shear Sadness

...well, perhaps "sadness" isn't quite the right word, but I was certainly experiencing mixed emotions today at the Kennedy Center. Many of us in the extended family of Shear Madness gathered to bid farewell to the show's long-time associate producer, company manager, and back-up stage manager, Robert Warren. After 8 years with the Madness, he's heading south, to take a prestigious gig at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.

Robert was not with the company the first year I worked there, but by the time I was invited back several years later, he had assumed command of the Shear administrative office located in the bowels of the Kennedy Center. I always enjoyed his dry, quick wit, and eventually discovered we had similar artistic tastes. Over the years, I've had fun discussing local productions we have both seen, and we, more often than not, shared the same opinions.
When I returned to the show about two years ago, Robert had ascended to the position of associate producer, and was also stage managing my performances (I have previously written about the second, "Spring Fling" company of the show, which I was thrilled to join for a few years running). It was during these runs that I discovered Robert's skill with the topical quip; he was often able to come up with a funny ad lib regarding a current event. Such topical comments keep the show fresh after 20-something years and add immediacy to what is, let's face it, a pretty straight-forward murder mystery.

Robert had a varied career before joining the Madness of Shear. In the 80s, he studied theatre and acting in New York, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and at Marymount Manhattan. He continued his studies at the University of Maryland, and spent some time working at the White House and at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In the late 90s, he became the producing artistic director of the Blowing Rock Stage Company, where he set plans in motion for the swanky Hayes Performing Arts Center in North Carolina.

In terms of Shear Madness, I've been very pleased to return to the show on occasion over the years, though I am not one of the immediate Go-To guys used repeatedly for the show. But I credit Robert with doing his bit to keep my name in the Madness mix; he surprised the heck out of me a long while back, by attending my performance in Thief River at the Theatre Alliance. This is a guy who cares about actors and acting, which makes him a great addition to Florida Studio Theatre's staff. I'm not sure what his exact title will be, but I do know he will be acting as the associate artistic director, with lots of creative input into setting up the theatre's various seasons, including cabarets and a New Play Development Series, as well as the main stage productions.

I'm sorry to see Robert go, but in his new position, he will have the chance to stretch artistic muscles which have been dormant for a while. And that's a great thing.

It was only appropriate that the extended Shear family celebrate Robert's next phase. Cast and crew members, past and present, gathered backstage today, between shows, to wish him "Happy Trails." We were joined by some of the KenCen folks who worked with Robert daily; more of them, as well as the top brass of Shear Madness, will be joining together tomorrow for another send-off. But for today, the last word was issued by the current cast of the show, who gave Robert several parting gifts, and gathered onstage for a picture. That's Robert in the Barber's Chair, which, in these instances, is also the Seat of Honor. It's well deserved.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Sand Script

When I was sent this clip, my first reaction was, "Forget it. I'm not going to watch something for eight minutes." But after about 10 seconds, I was hooked. This is Kseniya Simonova telling the story of the German occupation of Ukraine during World War II, through the fascinating art of Sand Animation. Using a box lit from underneath, evocative music, and of course sand, she creates a mesmerizing routine. I confess I am totally unaware of the specifics of her art or of her subject, so allow me to swipe from another blogger's description:

"She brings calm, then conflict. A couple on a bench become a woman's face; a peaceful walkway becomes a conflagration; a weeping widow morphs into an obelisk for an unknown soldier. Simonova looks like some vengeful Old Testament deity as she destroys then recreates her scenes - with deft strokes, sprinkles and sweeps she keeps the narrative going."

This young girl won the most recent "Ukraine's Got Talent" competition with this performance art. You can keep your Susan Boyle and your Wedding Dancers. This is an internet star who deserves the honor:

She signs her final image with the words, "You are always near."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Don Hewitt


The creators of ABC's Twenty-Twenty and NBC's Dateline must be awfully thankful that their competitor Don Hewitt had an idea for an unusual kind of news show back in the mid-60s. He pitched a prime time program consisting of celebrity profiles, investigative reporting, and feature stories to CBS, who flew in the face of reason and granted him an hour slot on Sunday night. Sixty Minutes was the first newsmagazine, and Hewitt can be credited with inventing the genre (in fact, he was the first to link the term "newsmagazine" to television. He wanted the show to reflect the mix of hard and light news which had been popularized by Life Magazine.)

Forty one years later, the show is currently the longest running prime-time program of any genre; it finished in the top 10 a whopping 23 years in a row, and has been the number one, top-rated program four times (so far). In its early decades, it was certainly appointment television in my family (and remains so for my father); that tick-tick-ticking of the stopwatch has become one of the truly iconic images in the history of television.

The correspondents in those early years were all newsmen of the highest caliber: Morley Safer and Harry Reasoner, along with curmudgeonly humorist Andy Rooney, became unlikely celebrities due to their involvement with the program. Dan Rather was the baby of the bunch; at his departure in 1981, Ed Bradley replaced him, raising the profile of African-American journalists across the country. But the breakout star of 60 Minutes was surely pitbull Mike Wallace, whose relentless questioning of his subjects became legend. The last thing any corporate or political swindler wanted to see out the window was Wallace, approaching his front door with a film crew.
Prior to the creation of 60 Minutes, Hewitt had a substantial career in television journalism. He was the first news producer to superimpose words onto the TV screen during a news story, and is said to have been the first to add cue cards to his broadcasts. In fact, he directed the very first news broadcast, in 1948, and in 1960, produced the first televised presidential debate. That debate probably remains the most influential of all subsequent debates, as historians claim it turned the election in John F. Kennedy's favor. As the story goes, Hewitt asked candidates JFK and Richard Nixon if they wanted make-up for the camera. Kennedy was confident in his tan and declined, so Nixon declined as well. Nixon's pasty complexion, glistening brow, and sweaty lip did not compare well with the healthy glow of the senator from Massachusetts, and Kennedy won the day. (Interestingly, polls which focused on voters who heard the debate on the radio reflected that people who listened to, but did not watch, the debate thought Nixon was the victor.)

But 60 Minutes remains the crowning achievement in Hewitt's career (in fact, it may be the crowning achievement in the entire history of CBS News). Under Hewitt's leadership, the show won 73 Emmy Awards and 9 Peabodys. The list of correspondents who have contributed to the program over the years is a Who's Who of broadcast journalism. Hewitt had final approval on every story which hit the air, many of which were highly controversial. He admits his decision to pull a story about a whistleblower of the tobacco industry was not his finest hour (the Russell Crowe / Al Pacino film The Insider covers that incident), and his decision to broadcast a tape of Dr. Jack Kevorkian ("Dr. Death") administering a lethal overdose to a terminal patient ignited a national debate about euthanasia. He was most proud of stories which exonerated the innocent, such as Morley Safer's investigation into the evidence which convicted a Texas man for robbery; the man was ultimately released.

Hewitt was at the helm of his creation for over 35 years, but was asked to step down at the end of the 2003-2004 season. Demographics were catching up with the old warhorse, and 60 Minutes had the oldest audience in television (and some of the oldest stars, too), so new blood was needed. Hewitt remained on the CBS payroll and continued to critique the work of his replacement. He was determined that the show maintain its core mission, which he summed up in four words:

"Tell me a story."

Don Hewitt died yesterday from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 86.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert Novak


In his youth, he was nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness" for his pessimistic view of life, a moniker he relished and used as the title of his memoir. A political columnist, commentator, and reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times, CNN, and Fox News, he felt no hesitation in revealing his own right-wing view of the world. I disliked Novak's style, and was one of those who applauded Jon Stewart when he labelled him "Douchebag of Liberty," for his hypocrisy regarding news sources (he had steadfastly refused to name his own sources regarding the Valerie Plame affair, but demanded CBS name their's during the Dan Rather debacle).

Novak became nationally infamous for publishing the name of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame. Her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was openly challenging the George W. Bush administration's evidence for its invasion of Iraq, and Novak's outing of Plame was widely seen as an attempt to discredit opposition to the war by attacking the man's wife, an ethically questionable move at best. The revelation ignited a scandal from which he never really recovered; he complained it would "forever be a part of my public identity." He expressed no regret for the outing, an incident which lead to the Scooter Libby conviction. Novak claimed he "didn't hurt Plame a bit" by naming her in the press, but failed to acknowledge the danger into which he placed everyone who had ever worked with her during her undercover career.

There was some irony to this affair: Novak himself felt the war was unjustified. It was not the first time in his career that he broke ranks with the ultra-conservatives, which leads me to believe some of the kudos he has been receiving since his death. He was apparently a bulldog when he wore his reporter's hat, which is commendable, no matter how I feel about his politics. But he is one of the instigators of the now common practice of placing two loudmouths in a room together and letting them shout at each other. This kind of "commentary" does absolutely nothing to advance actual debate, and drives me right up the wall. When reporters allow their political biases to become their central calling card, which is routine these days, I don't know how they can still call themselves "reporters." I bet the late Walter Cronkite doesn't know, either.

Novak was one of the worst offenders of this practice, freely calling himself a "right-wing ideologue."

He landed on the front page again several years ago, when he ran down a homeless pedestrian in DC and left the scene. Apparently, he did not even know he had plowed into the poor schnook, and had to be flagged down by a guy on a bicycle before he would stop his car. This kind of thing is a symptom of the brain cancer with which he was diagnosed only a week later, and from which he died yesterday at the age of 78.