Thursday, December 31, 2009

Final Obits of the Year

Here are a couple of deaths which caught my attention this last week of the year.


He was a rare African-American media mogul, owning a string of radio stations in the 70s and 80s, but is better known as a civil rights activist. His law firm handled Malcolm X, and he himself was advisor and mentor to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama. He was the youngest of 15 children, whose father was himself born into slavery at the beginning of the Civil War. The elder Sutton went on to a life as a teacher in segregated schools, and insured that all his children went to college.

Our Percy attempted to enlist in the armed services during WWII, and was turned away by southern recruiters, so he traveled to New York to enlist. He was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and settled in Harlem after the war. He earned a law degree while supporting himself as a postal worker and subway conductor, then returned to active duty to serve in the Korean War. His law firm specialized in the defense of civil rights activists, who were routinely arrested in the South during the 60s.

Sutton was politically active throughout his career, and famously gave up his delegate's seat to the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in protest over the Vietnamese War. He served in the New York legislature for a time, though was defeated in his run for US senate and in his run for mayor of New York.

Sutton made a huge contribution to the arts by spending a quarter of a million dollars to rescue the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The famed stage would never have survived to the ripe old age of 76 had Sutton not stepped in to save the theatre from demolition in 1981. He died last week at the age of 89.

Here's a horse of a different color:



She was said to have one of the most thankless roles in television, that of Mrs. Wilbur Post in the silly 60s sitcom Mr. Ed. Her co-star Alan Young claimed her biggest line was usually "lunch is ready." She had a minor career in TV and modeling before landing what would be her signature role, that of the confused but loving wife of a bumbling architect with a talking horse. The series was based on short stories by Walter Brooks, and bore a striking resemblance to the Francis the Talking Mule film franchise.

Hines continued to act a bit in episodic television after Mr. Ed's cancellation, but retired from acting in 1971. She hosted a cable-access program for a while, interviewing veterinarians and other animalfolks, and emerged from retirement to appear onstage with her former costar in Love Letters in 1996. (By costar, I mean Alan Young, not the horse.) Connie died last week at the age of 78.

Here's an actor who lived his life in support:



Ok, that's not a picture of Arnold Stang. It's a picture of what may be his best known character, Top Cat, who headlined his own primetime cartoon series in the 60s. The show bore a resemblance to Phil Silvers's "Sgt. Bilko" character and lasted only 30 episodes, but is fondly remembered as the "coolest" of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon family.

Stang began his long career in radio, and moved easily into television and feature films. He played Sinatra's sidekick in The Man with the Golden Arm, and Schwarzenegger's sidekick in Hercules in New York. He owned the gas station which Jonathan Winters demolished in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He was a regular on Milton Berle's variety show, and appeared in countless commercials over the years. I still remember his long-running gig as the spokesman for Chunky chocolate bars. He had a geeky charm which served him well over his lengthy career; as he put it, "I look like a frightened chipmunk who's been out in the rain too long." He died last week at the ripe old age of 91.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Dance Party: King-Sized Christmas

Back in the day, Rudolf, The Grinch, Charlie Brown, and Frosty were not the only television celebrities eagerly awaited by audiences every holiday season. If you had a bit of the vaudeville in your blood, you would also look forward to the annual Christmas variety specials. Several singing stars headlined such specials year after year. If you liked sweaters and snoozing, you waited for Perry Como's special; if you liked the Osmonds, you looked forward to the Andy Williams show. The stars of this week's Dance Party headlined more than two dozen specials (and two actual series) throughout the 1960s and 70s.
They actually started in vaudeville, traveling with their parents in an act called "The Driggs Family of Entertainers." In high school, three of the sisters formed their own vocal group, and the King Sisters were born. The group varied in size for a while, having either three or four members at one time, with the six girls in the family rotating in and out of the group. The number eventually settled to four, and they began a professional career singing with various bands, such as that led by Artie Shaw. They had over a dozen moderate hits in the early 40s, and even appeared in a few films, but did not achieve the stardom of competing sister acts such as the Andrews or the McGuires. One of the sisters had married bandleader Alvino Rey, and the group began touring with his band exclusively. Their repertoire of novelty songs (one of their big hits was "Mairzy Doates") masked their tight harmonies and musical expertise.

It was the early 60s when sister Yvonne was asked to put together a benefit performance for her church in Salt Lake City (it should come as no surprise that this family of major procreators was Mormon), and she added her children, parents, brothers, in-laws, aunts, and uncles to the big finale. The concert was such a success, she edited a video out of some home-movies of the event, and pitched the group to ABC. They were given a guest shot on Hollywood Palace, and The King Family was born. They headlined two short-lived variety series, but are better remembered for their specials, spanning the 60s and 70s, many of which centered around a holiday.

I remember being quite jealous whenever I bumped into The King Family on television, as the group included members as young as 3 and as old as 70. The children ("The King Kiddies") did not seem particularly stellar to me, even at my young age, but just by virtue of their birth, they were performing on TV!

In addition to the Sisters and the Kiddies, a group of twentysomethings splintered off into The King Cousins, who actually recorded separately, as well as with the family at large. They appear on the Bye Bye Birdie soundtrack (uncredited) as well as on their own recordings.
Though the King Family is largely dormant these days, several of the members of the extended family continue to perform (at any one time, The King Family numbered between 30 and 40 members, but occasionally that number could double, depending on "who was in town"). Original King Kiddie Cam Clarke is a major voice over talent, appearing in many cartoon series and films over the years. Original King Cousin Tina Cole had a bit of an independent career in the 60s, becoming the first female regular on the long-running sitcom My Three Sons. Original King Sister Marilyn continues a career as a solo artist, and is proud to have provided the singing voice to one of the nuns in the Sound of Music film.
Looking at them now, there is a lot at which to snicker, as we know nobody is this wholesome, and even in their heyday, the King Family did not get much critical acclaim. But they were hugely popular with the audience at large, perhaps because we wished our own families got along as well. And we really wanted to wear those clothes.

The King Family lost their matriarch, original sister Yvonne King Burch, the woman who put them onstage for the first time, just a few weeks ago, just shy of her 90th birthday. In her honor, and in honor of singing and dancing families everywhere (whatever happened to the Cowsills?), enjoy this reminiscence of a typical King Family Christmas:
Merry Christmas, everybody!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Keeping Santa Fey

I've admitted before, and so many times, that I lack a few of the genes others in my tribe take for granted. I lack the Garland gene, having seen only two of her films in their entirety. I lack the Halloween gene, just can't get excited about dressing up. And I CERTAINLY lack the fashion gene and the shopping gene.

In addition to the above, I lack the decorating gene. I've been in my condo for a full decade, and the place still needs a coat of paint. Or three. And it's still a mishmash of old and new, with my grandmother's favorite rocker sitting next to the patio furniture from my apt in California. Whatever. I'm the one living here, and I don't give two hoots what you think.

When I returned from my L.A. Holiday trip, I was determined to decorate my condo with all my Christmas baubles, in hopes of jump-starting the holiday. While I usually do some decorating for Christmas, I have been known to skip the whole thing (I did so last year; I was traveling too much). I've skipped the Christmas tree thing only two or three times in the past, mostly when I was in grad school and was spending the hols with the folks.

But this year, there was to be a tree. And full decoration of the condo. This is a bigger task than you may imagine. All my decorations are stashed in the basement, three steep flights away, in four boxes of varying size and shape. It requires at least two, and sometimes more, trips to the basement to haul all my decorations into the apt. Of course, once the boxes are emptied of their goodies, they must be returned to their living quarters in the basement, as there is no room to store them in my living space. Then, when the inevitably depressing day comes to UNdecorate, I have to repeat the process in reverse.

My holiday decorating confirms that I have no sense of style. I usually pick out the tree in about 5 minutes, and don't give much thought to which is the "bad side." This year, I think I've got a pretty good one, though it's listing just a bit. I was lucky to have snagged the thing a few days before we were hit with the Big Snow Storm, which would have prevented my getting out to get a tree, since my car was buried:

But back to the tree. I've also inadvertently placed the lights in an off-balance way, so that only the lower half of the tree is blinking. The top half has all the steady lights; when the switch is flicked, it kind of looks like the tree is dropping its pants and pulling them back up, over and over again.

As for tree decorations, again, I lack the gene. My buddies in Los Angeles, who host our annual Tree Trimming Event every year, have a full box of sentimental, very personal ornaments, in addition to many, many boxes of multi-colored balls. But me, I have only a handful of ornaments I would classify as "personal." There's a charming little elephant, given to me by one of the children I worked with when I played the Panto Dame in New York. The show was about the first elephant in America:

The elephant's on the left, wise-ass. I've also got a couple of candy canes dressed up as reindeer, which were given to me by my auto mechanic. (Note: if your mechanic sees you often enough to give you Christmas decorations, it's time to get a new car.) But my favorite of the "personal" ornaments is the pickle, which was given to me by a British director who guided me through a show at Arena Stage a while back. The Christmas Pickle has significance to the Brits, I think it's good luck or something, but I now make sure it is the very first ornament to go on the tree, and the very last to be removed. I hope that's bringing me some luck.

Everything else on the tree is store-bought and looks it. Still, once the thing is decorated and lit, it looks pretty good. At least to me.

As for the rest of the place, I have some pretty schlocky decorations that I throw up onto the mantle ("throw up" being the operative phrase). This shot includes a Santa and three mice which were once part of a home-made centerpiece my mother concocted about 45 years ago. They aren't worth much, but are very important to me:

I still hang the stocking which I've had my entire life, though it now dangles above the mantle rather than below it. My grandmother knitted stockings for all us kids, and though the tradition of stuffing them with goodies went out long ago, I still put the thing up. Makes me feel close to her. I do have THAT gene.

I have a Santa from Costco who sits on my stereo speaker, surveying the room, and several candy cane-colored candles scattered about. But without a doubt, my favorite decoration is one I also found at Costco. I couldn't walk by it without snagging it for my collection.

This guy spends the holidays in my small entrance hall, right next to the bowl which holds my keys. I see it every time I enter or leave home, and it never fails to give me a chuckle. I'm missing a lot of the genes the rest of my tribe carry, but if you come to visit during the holidays, you will be greeted with this evidence that somebody bent lives here. This is a Santa who is clearly sure of Be honest, isn't this the gayest St. Nick you've ever seen?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday Week Obits

Can you believe all the people who have died lately? Here's a quick rundown of those who hold some interest for me. I'm sure you heard about this one:

Jennifer Jones


It's pretty surprising this gal lasted to the ripe old age of 90, as she suffered substance abuse problems, survived two suicide attempts, and endured a second marriage (out of three) which essentially wrecked her career. She started out with a bang, starring as a saintly peasant girl who has visions of the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette. It's often considered her film debut, though she appeared in a few earlier pieces under her real name, Phylis Isley. It certainly put her on the map at a young age: she snagged the Oscar for her performance. She was married at the time to actor Robert Walker, but was conducting an affair with one of the tyrants of Hollywood, David O. Selznick, who was himself married to Louis B. Mayer's daughter. The two eventually divorced their spouses and married each other, becoming one of Hollywood's power couples of the 40s and 50s.

Selznick did his wife's career no favors with constant interference. Though she worked steadily during the period, his choice of roles for her did not capitalize on her strengths. Portrait of Jenny, Beat the Devil, Duel in the Sun, and Love is a Many Splendored Thing were a few of her better known films; Selznick tended to alienate his wife's directors with constant demands on her behalf. He steered her away from roles he considered unworthy, such as East of Eden (Julie Harris got the role) and On the Waterfront (Eve Marie Saint put herself on the map with that one, and won the Oscar). Meanwhile, Jones appeared in a string of forgettable roles in Madame Bovary, A Farewell to Arms, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Good Morning, Miss Dove.

In her later years, she made some regrettable film choices, such as The Idol (1966), in which she slept with her son's best friend, and Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969), in which she played a porno queen. Her final film appearance was in the star-studded disaster epic, The Towering Inferno.

She retired, and lived quietly with her third husband, art collector Norton Simon, until her death last week.

You don't know this guy's name, but maybe you recognize his face:

Val Avery


He was one of those character actors who created a niche and stayed there comfortably throughout his career. Mafia types were a specialty, but he also played cops, bosses, and any kind of gruff meanie. He was in Humphrey Bogart's final film (The Harder They Fall), and appeared with Paul Newman in Hud and Hombre. He was a favorite of director John Cassavetes, who used him in Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Gloria. He played a traveling corset salesman in The Magnificent Seven, and cut off Eric Roberts's thumb in The Pope of Greenwich Village. His television career began during the live days, and continued through The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Columbo, and The Odd Couple. In an unusual move for any actor, he convinced his director on Russian Roulette to remove all his dialogue, and allow him to portray his role of an assassin with silent menace.

It was a bit of a departure for him to play a kindly grandfather onstage in Over the River and Through the Woods off-Broadway in 1998. He died last week at the age of 85.

Recognize this guy? Probably not:
Charles Davis


Ok, this isn't really Charles Davis. It's a leprechaun. I've scoured the 'net looking for an actual shot of Davis, and there simply isn't one, which is very surprising, since he appeared in 22 films, including The Desert Rats (with Richard Burton), Hong Kong Story (with Clark Gable), and Star (with Julie Andrews) and has over 100 television appearances to his credit, including Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Perry Mason, The Wild Wild West, and Leave it to Beaver. He was a writer as well, contributing scripts to Death Valley Days, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Bold Ones.

But apparently he hated to have his picture taken, or he's a vampire and doesn't show up on film. But I'm pretty impressed with his stage cred. He was a member of the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin (appearing opposite Burgess Meredith among others) when the Broadway producers of Finian's Rainbow were looking to cast the role of Og (now that picture above makes some sense, right? Og is a leprechaun). During its original run and first national tour, Davis gave over 1000 performances of the role. He met his wife, actress Marilyn O'Connor, doing the show, and after a marriage of 59 years, she is one of his survivors. I hope she has some pictures of him. He died last week at the age of 84.

I'm sure you heard of this guy's death a few weeks ago:

Gene Barry


He is remembered primarily for his television work, having starred in three series: Bat Masterson, Burke's Law, and The Name of the Game. It was this last one which brought him to my young attention. Each episode was a whopping 90 minutes in length, and starred either Barry, Tony Franciosa , or Robert Stack. The series was an example of a "wheel series," in which two or more series are rotated in the same time slot. The three leading men all headed different magazines in the same publishing house, and were tied by the presence of the same editorial assistant, played by a young Susan St. James.

At the time, I had no idea Gene Barry had a previous film and stage career. He was in the original Sci-Fi classic The War of the Worlds, and appeared in its remake directed by Steven Spielberg (who got one of his early career breaks directing an episode of The Name of the Game). Barry's early stage career was dominated by musicals and operettas, a fact which had faded into the background until his triumphant return to the musical theatre as the original Georges in La Cage Aux Folles in 1983.

He introduced one of Jerry Herman's nicest ballads, "Song on the Sand," and earned a Tony nomination for his work. He lost the award to the hammier performance of his co-star, George Hearn. Barry died last week at the age of 90.

Tired of actor obits? Here's a guy who was not one, but had a bit of an effect on the show biz community:

Roy E. Disney


My friend Becky alerted me to his death; I recognized the name, but mainly because of his father, who was also named Roy. The Disney brothers started the behemoth which carries their name, with Walt handling the creative side and Roy the business side. The younger Roy, the guy who recently died, spent his early career as a producer and creator of nature documentaries, including The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie, both of which received some Oscar love. With the deaths of his father and uncle, he tried unsuccessfully to gain control of Disney Studios, finally leaving the company and becoming an independent financier.

Years later, having made his own fortune, he turned his attention back to his family's heritage, and clashed with Disney moguls Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In particular, our Roy was distraught over the state of the Disney Animation department, a wing of the company which put Disney on the map but which had fallen into major disarray. As he put it, the company's emphasis on its theme parks resembled a real estate company masquerading as a film studio. After a series of corporate maneuvers, he was able to gain some control over Disney Animation, and ushered in a new era of cartoon classics. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were all blockbuster hits for the studio, and all were developed under Roy's tutelage.

Disney was also a major philanthropist, donating millions to the California Institute of the Arts. In his parents' name, he funded REDCAT, an experimental theatre attached to the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. He died last week at the age of 79.

I know Oral Roberts died last week, too, but I don't feel like writing about him. Hey, it's my thing here.

But this gal will be missed by lots of you Sesame Streeters:

Alaina Reed-Hall


She was a regular on "the Street" for about a decade, and had a bit of a career elsewhere. I remember her from her co-starring role on 227, a sitcom built around Marla Gibbs which had a healthy 5 year run in the late 80s. She was also a singer and stage actress, appearing in Eubie, Hair, and Chicago, and an off-Broadway run of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road. In her later career, she popped up on ER, Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue, and Friends. She lost her battle with breast cancer last week, at the age of 63.

The controversy surrounding this guy will probably die with his death last month:

Robert Degen

He was a musician during the WWII era, working clubs and weddings and such in the Scranton, Ohio area. He never hit the big time, and eventually gave up and became a furniture salesman. He was not much of a composer, but the one song he bothered to copyright, in 1944, was the cause of lots of headaches: "The Hokey-Pokey Dance." A few years later, another musician, Larry LaPrise, claimed to have written the song to entertain skiers in Sun Valley, Idaho, and recorded his version. Thus began a decades-long dispute over ownership of the song, which was ultimately settled out of court, with both gents (who never even met) sharing the writing credit and the royalties.

But the controversy over the Hokey Pokey was not settled. There is evidence that the phrase first appeared in the 18th century, with the words "hokey pokey" invented by Puritans to mock the Latin Mass (note the similarity to "hocus pocus"). Lately, some Scottish Catholics were concerned the song was being used by soccer fans to taunt rival teams, and suggested that singing the song should be considered a hate crime.

Anybody who gets the tune stuck in their head would agree. Anyway, one of the men who actually received royalties on the song, the aforementioned Robert Degen, died in November at the grand old age of 104. He had a long life, but his funeral wasn't easy on his survivors. The most traumatic part for his family was getting him into the coffin. They put his left leg in. And then the trouble started.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas in Urinetown

"Welcome to the Morgue."

Those were the words my great friends and hosts Scott and Drew greeted me with, when I arrived at their home for my 10-day holiday stay in Los Angeles. I stepped into their grand foyer, and immediately knew this would not be like any other Christmas trip I had taken.

My LA trip has developed, over the past several years, into a traditional holiday vacation, during which my hosts and I would spend many evenings schmoozing and boozing by the fire, accompanied by Christmas music or videos. It was a terrific way to kick off the holiday season, and we all enjoyed it (I wrote a bit about this new tradition last year). This year, however, Scott was suffering from a frightening medical problem which, to date, weeks after it first appeared, has yet to be fully diagnosed. But when I stepped into that grand foyer, Scott and his partner were in the midst of a series of unscheduled trips to doctors and emergency rooms, of anti-biotics and anti-depressants, and mis-diagnoses of his ailment which would make the biggest quack doctors envious.

The first five days of my visit, Scott was in actual pain, and he had other symptoms which are a bit too gruesome to describe here. He and Drew were beside themselves with worry and stress, not very conducive to festive holiday cheer. For most of these days, they secluded themselves in their bedroom suite, leaving me to my own devices.

My trip took on a weird schizophrenic quality. In the evening, I would prepare my own dinner, and dine in the beautifully decorated den of my hosts, while the guys themselves would fix their own dinner and have it in their bedroom. That is, when they weren't dashing off to the emergency room or the pharmacist. I admit I was feeling abandoned and awkwardly in the way at the same time.

But during the day, I drove across the valley to teach at Notre Dame High School, where I was having an absolute ball. My best friend for 35 years, Judy, heads the drama department there, and has turned the program into a substantial training ground for young actors. In recent years, she has done me the great honor of inviting me to teach her second and third year actors for the week. What a terrific time I have with Judy's teens. Even at the crack of dawn, these kids are enthusiastic and ready to learn new techniques. We played a variety of theatre exercises and childrens' games, all with the intention of learning a vocabulary of movement for the actor.

Judy was my savior during this schizo trip. We spent most days together teaching, then heading out for lingering lunches where we caught up on each others' lives. She was also responsible for the theatrical events I attended while in LA (I wrote about those here). It sounds like a cliche, but when I spend time with Judy, she renews my spirit.

Each night I returned to the big house on the cul de sac, where I was experiencing a completely different vacation. I have to admit I wasn't much help. After I had been in residence five days, Scott's physical symptoms began to subside, but he and Drew made the decision to continue to seclude themselves in the privacy of their bedroom suite. This isn't much of a surprise, as they have worked hard to build an insular life where they remain removed from most of the day-to-day interactions the rest of us endure. Drew works exclusively from his office downstairs, and Scott's work requires him to be away from home only a few hours a week. Otherwise, the two are inseparable, and impenetrable by the outside world.

So when the outside world penetrates, as it did with Scott's mysterious illness, the stress level of the couple skyrockets. Nothing else can be thought about, no other activities can be attempted, they are completely paralyzed; all other considerations are sidelined. We did our best to replicate the joy of the annual Tree Trimming evening, joined by Judy and Claudia (I wrote about this whole clan a long while ago), but this year was simply not the same as previous nights.

As I headed back to DC last week, I felt that I'd had two very separate trips. During the day, there was the celebratory feeling of reconnecting with an old friend and having new adventures, in the classroom and elsewhere. In the evenings, there was a stressful gloom determining the trip. I suppose I should have been a better Hayley Mills, who spent all those days trying to cheer up Agnes Moorehead, but there's a reason no one ever confuses me with Pollyanna.

So I had half a holiday, which I'm not sure is better than none at all. I returned to DC determined to make up for lost time, and threw myself into decorating my own space. Stay tuned.