Saturday, January 30, 2010

"I Consider Myself Rather Condensed"

Zelda Rubinstein


An actress and human rights activist, she came to her entertainment career a bit late, after having worked for years as a lab technician. She is best known for her role as psychic Tangina in the 1982 horror flick Poltergeist, where her diminutive (4'3") stature and doughy face combined with a steely stare and little-girl voice to create an unforgettable impression. ("Would y'all mind hangin' back?" she drawls upon her entrance into the haunted house, "You're jammin' my frequencies.") After a series of hair-raising tactics to rid a suburban home of ghouls, she calmly proclaimed, "This house is clean." Luckily for her, she was wrong, as the film spawned two sequels; she appeared in both.

Her first film role was as one of the comic relief munchkins in the Chevy Chase monstrosity Under the Rainbow, which solidified her belief that little people were used more for comedic props than for their talent. She formed the Michael Dunn Memorial Theater Company especially for under-sized actors (the late Dunn was an actor who gained some fame as a recurring villain on TV's The Wild, Wild West, and who earned an Oscar nomination in 1965 for Ship of Fools).

Rubinstein's career stalled a bit in the mid-80s, when she became one of the first celebrities to join in the fight against AIDS. The epidemic was in full swing, and the only victims seemed to be gay men. Anyone living in Los Angeles who went to a club or watched a bus go by became aware of the print and video campaign in which she appeared as "Mother," urging all her sons to play safely. She later maintained that her involvement in the cause adversely affected her acting career.

Our Zelda popped up again in the early 90s, as a co-star of Picket Fences, a David Kelley TV series about a seemingly normal mid-western town where odd things often happened. Rubinstein, playing a police dispatcher, seemed a perfect fit for the scenario, but after a season or two, she was dropped to recurring status when the writers had trouble coming up with plotlines for her particular eccentricities. She eventually vanished from the show's canvas, though a later episode, starring composer Paul Williams as her brother, tied up her disappearance (her character fell into a deep freezer and, well, froze. Comic relief again.).

I am not a fan of horror films, or ghost films, or the like. But the original Poltergeist really spooked me, probably because, rather than taking place in a secluded house on a creepy hill, it took place next door. It was a relatively low-budget flick, with B and C list talent such as JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, and Beatrice Straight turning in steady performances. And of course, our Zelda helped the film to huge grosses (pun intended). If you are interested, here is a scene:

Zelda Rubinstein died this week from natural causes. She was 76.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Dream Curly

James Mitchell


He was a soap opera stalwart, landing his first contract role on The Edge of Night in 1964. Later in the decade, he was the male lead in Where the Heart Is, a barely remembered CBS soap which ran four years or so. In 1979, he landed the role for which he is best remembered, Palmer Cortlandt, on All My Children, a part he played for 30 years. He received 7 Emmy nominations for his work on the show, winning none.
Before snagging that role, Mitchell had toyed with retiring from acting. He had a lengthy stage career, but as he aged, roles dried up, and his final big stage appearance, in the Broadway flop Mack and Mabel, caused him to return to school, where he earned an MFA and landed teaching gigs at Julliard and Yale.

But his earlier stage career is why this gent is on my radar. He came late to the ballet studio (in his twenties), so his traditional technique was lousy. But his masculine style so impressed choreographer Agnes de Mille that she hired him anyway, for Bloomer Girl in 1944. Their collaboration lasted 25 years, during which Mitchell became a leading interpreter of de Mille's work. She placed him in the starring dance role of Harry Beaton in Brigadoon, and often hired him as her assistant as well as a leading dancer. Mitchell always stated that it was his acting ability which attracted de Mille to him, never considering himself a true dancer. In fact, he played many non-dance roles in his career, including Marco the Magnificent in Carnival, and conceited choreographer Paul Byrd in the Fred Astaire classic, The Bandwagon. His final film role was as another choreographer, in 1977's The Turning Point, opposite Anne Bancroft.

Though he also danced for Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion, he was known principally for his close ties to Agnes de Mille. This week's Dance Party is only a brief illustration of his style, and the clip, I'll be honest, is not one of my favorites. It's from the film Oklahoma, and the sugary sweet performance of Shirley Jones makes my teeth ache (I've heard she's actually a salty lady, but that persona never made it on film in any of her movie musical roles). The sequence is capped with a dream ballet, a technique which was used occasionally back in the day when a choreographer wanted a leading character to dance, but the performer didn't have the skill. In these days of triple threats, it's just as likely to see the stars themselves dance this routine (Hugh Jackman performed his own ballet in his revival of Oklahoma a while back).

But way back when, stars such as Shirley Jones and Howard Keel were not expected to dance, so dream sequences took over. Here is part of the dream ballet from Oklahoma, with James Mitchell playing "Dream Curly."

James Mitchell died last week at the age of 89.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Time of "Hope" becomes Time of "Nope."

I live four blocks from the Capitol (yes, that Capitol), so it's very difficult to avoid lots and lots of political blather. But I do my best.

This year it's particularly hard. I am a Democrat (what are the odds of that?), and remain very disappointed in the party's performance. Others more qualified than I can examine and dissect all the monumental things which have gone wrong with the President's agenda, a matter which he will probably address in his first State of the Union Address tonight.

Health Care Reform seems dead in the water, which distresses me on the personal level. I don't know if the current bills would even have eased any of my difficulties, nobody can really explain all the details clearly to me. I am persuaded that Obama's sincere desire to allow the legislature to handle this gargantuan issue was naivete on his part. As has been pointed out by others, the guy should have come up with his own plan, then submitted it to congress for review and passage. Instead, well, everybody knows what happened next.

My health insurance ends in June, after which I'll have to come up with exorbitant COBRA payments until I re-qualify through my union's plan, a process which can sometimes take a year or more. I'd like another option, please.

Anyway, today, in the midst of a very busy week (rehearsals for my next project have begun, an important audition has reared its head, and there is still much prep to be done regarding the annual group audition I help run next week), I received the following alert from the District of Columbia.

Remember, I live four blocks from the Capitol.

Street Closures for President’s State of the Union Address.

(Washington, D.C.)

The United States Capitol Police have provided the following information regarding security restrictions for the President’s State of the Union Address on Wednesday, January 27, 2010.

The Capitol Square will be restricted to authorized pedestrians only beginning at 6 pm on January 27.

In addition, Capitol Police will be closing the following streets surrounding the Capitol on Wednesday at 7:30 pm until the event has concluded:

D Street between 2nd Street, NE & Louisiana Avenue, NW

C Street between 2nd Street, NE & Louisiana Avenue, NW

Constitution Avenue between 2nd Street, NE & Louisiana Avenue, NW

Delaware Avenue between Columbus Circle & Constitution Avenue, NE

New Jersey Avenue between Louisiana Avenue, NW & D Street, NW

Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st Street, NW & 3rd Street, NW

East Capitol Street between 2nd Street & 1st Street

1st Street between Columbus Circle, NE & C Street, SE

1st Street between Louisiana Avenue, NW and Washington Avenue, SW

Maryland Avenue between 1st Street, SW & 3rd Street, SW

Independence Avenue between 2nd Street, SE & Washington Avenue, SW

C Street between 1st Street, SE & Washington Avenue, SW

Delaware Avenue between Washington Avenue, SW & C Street, SW

New Jersey Avenue between Independence Avenue, SE & D Street, SE

South Capitol Street between Independence Avenue & D Street

Now I know that, constitutionally, the president must report on the state of the union annually to the public, via the legislature. But the habit of his coming to the Capitol is old fashioned, a tradition set back when there was no other way for his message to be presented. Why must he disrupt my very busy week with his visit to the Capitol, just to deliver a speech?

Hasn't this guy ever heard of Skype?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Cowboy And A Doll

A couple of folks have died recently who, though better known for their screen work, were on my radar because of stage appearances late in their careers.
Jean Simmons


"Simmons is one of the most quietly commanding actresses Hollywood has ever trashed," wrote film critic Pauline Kael in 1960, regarding her performance in Elmer Gantry. At that point, Simmons was already in the waning portion of her career, a career which began in her teens, when she was plucked from her dance school recital in 1944, to play Margaret Lockwood's little sister in Give Us the Moon. She played a brat in David Lean's Great Expectations in 1946, a performance which brought her to the attention of Laurence Olivier (Simmons was to come full circle with Great Expectations 45 years later, when she played batty spinster Miss Havisham in a Disney remake). Olivier had trouble hiring Simmons, who was under contract to another producer at the time, and tested dozens of alternatives before finally prying our Jean out of her contract to play Ophelia opposite his own Hamlet. She snagged an Oscar nomination and landed on the covers of Time and Life. She was 19.

That pesky contract was purchased by Hollywood profligate and weirdo Howard Hughes, who had more on his mind than Jean's iambic pentameter. Though she had recently married Stewart Granger, a leading man 16 years her senior (Jean liked older men: her second husband was 17 years older than she), Hughes was blatant about his desire to bed the young actress. When she refused, he retaliated by putting her in a string of stinkers (he owned RKO at the time). Hughes further damaged Jean's career by refusing to allow her to appear in Roman Holiday, in a star-making role which then went to Audrey Hepburn, who won an Oscar.

Simmons had a substantial film career, playing both leading and supporting roles. She turned to television later in life, winning an Emmy for the mini-series The Thornbirds, and starring in the prime time Dark Shadows remake, playing the role film-noir siren Joan Bennett had played in the daytime soap version. She also turned to the stage, headlining the first national tour of A Little Night Music; she also played in the original London production. It was not her first musical role. Back in 1955, she played strait-laced Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, opposite that musical icon Marlon Brando. She did her own singing in the role (so did he! The film was not well-received); here is a clip featuring one of the better known songs from the show:

Jean Simmons died this week from lung cancer at the age of 80.

If you are old enough, you will recognise this guy:

If you are not quite so old, you may recognise this guy:
They are both the same guy. It's Pernell Roberts, who had a long career of ups and downs. He started his work on the stage, winning a Drama Desk award in 1955 for Macbeth, but became a star with a big break in the early 60s, playing the eldest Cartwright boy in Bonanza.
He left the hit show after six seasons, after clashing with producers over a variety of issues. He disliked the habit at the time of casting white actors in non-white roles (remember Marlo Thomas as a Chinese girl?), and wanted to discard his toupee, which network execs vehemently opposed.

After leaving the Ponderosa, Roberts continued guesting on various episodic programs, and returned to the musical stage, where he displayed a rich baritone voice (he did a fair amount of singing on Bonanza, too). He is really on my radar for his connection with the disastrous attempt to musicalize Gone With the Wind, in which he played Rhett Butler (I wrote a bit about this show when Harve Presnell died; Presnell played the role in London, while Roberts played it in the states, when the musical was called Scarlett). Pernell returned to weekly television in the title role of Trapper John, MD, playing a character originated by Elliott Gould in the movies and by Wayne Rogers in the earlier TV hit M*A*S*H. The show ran a healthy seven seasons, and introduced Gregory Harrison as a young doctor mentored by Pernell.

Roberts died this week from pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ali MacGraw's Disease

Film critic Roger Ebert coined the term, "Ali MacGraw's Disease," and described it as a "movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches." Ebert would never have been talking about such a thing if it weren't for this guy:


He was the most intellectual of men, teaching classical literature at Yale, and fluently speaking German, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He held undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, and published well-regarded examinations of Euripides and Plautus before his career took a decidedly populist turn. Though he had written screenplays before (he shares credit on The Beatles' cartoon classic Yellow Submarine), nothing could compare with the phenomenon he created with Love Story. While the movie was in pre-production, Segal was asked to crank out a novelization to be published before the film hit the screens; Love Story the paperback enjoyed the largest print order in the history of publishing, and earned a nomination for the National Book Award (judges were so shocked at the nomination that several threatened to resign, claiming its mere inclusion would diminish other, more substantial works of literature).

But Segal didn't need his puny National Book Award once Love Story the movie was released. It was a smash hit both financially and culturally, signalling a return of old-fashioned melodrama to film, and creating the outline for what would become known as "the chick flick" decades later. The movie made temporary superstars out of its young leads, Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, both of whom, incredibly, received Oscar nominations for their work. O'Neal had been a television soap stud (he appeared in TV's first primetime soap, Peyton Place, opposite Mia Farrow), and MacGraw had a bit of a modeling career before making the smartest career move she could ever have made: she married Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount. Soon after, she replaced a pregnant Lesley Ann Warren in Goodbye, Columbus, and was tapped to play the dying heroine of Love Story.

If you didn't live through the period of Love Story, it's hard to describe the cultural phenomenon it was. O'Neal and MacGraw became sensations. Ali landed on the cover of Time and Mr. Blackwell's Worst Dressed List, and Ryan began a film career which remained healthy for several years. Despite a severe lack of enthusiasm for Love Story from the critics (Judith Crist called it "Camille with bullshit"), the movie garnered 7 Oscar nominations, including the top categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor (John Marley, above), and Original Screenplay for our boy Segal. But the only award which the film won was probably the only one it actually deserved, for Francis Lai's original score.
Lai also contributed an original song which became so popular, even today it can be identified by its first five notes. The composer's original recording of the Theme from Love Story reached #39 on the US charts, and Henry Mancini's version hit # 13. The song was everywhere in 1970; a lyricist (Carl Sigman) quickly penned some words, and the tune became Where Do I Begin? It took on a second life, becoming THE romantic melody of a generation. Countless vocalists covered the song, with Andy Williams's version topping the charts for four weeks.

Erich Segal became a bit of a jetsetter with his success, appearing on Johnny Carson's show four times in a single month, judging the Cannes Film Festival, and partying hard in Paris and London. He continued his teaching at Yale, where attendance to his lectures jumped into the hundreds. His academic peers were not amused (or were jealous), and, despite his scholarly publications and his doctorate earned at Harvard, they denied him tenure in 1972.

Segal ultimately settled in England, becoming a teacher at Oxford, after having furnished a sequel to Love Story called Oliver's Story, which could not repeat the success of the original tearjerker. He continued to publish both scholarly work and popular entertainment, and has gone on record that Love Story is NOT based on the courtship of his good friends from college, Al and Tipper Gore (here's a fun fact: Al Gore's roommate in college was Tommy Lee Jones, whose very first film appearance was in, you guessed it, Love Story).
Erich Segal was a devoted runner for many years, a passion which diminished as his Parkinson's disease became more advanced. He was a linguist and an academic, but will always be best remembered as the creator of one of the most famous, and most parodied, lines of dialogue to appear in any American film:
"Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Segal died this week after suffering a heart attack.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Casting Yul

The person behind this week's Dance Party does not appear in it, nor was she one of its creators. But without her, it would not exist:

Shirley Rich


This woman spent a very long career as a casting director, for both stage and screen, and, if anyone can be admired for being a casting director, she was. I admit to a bit of a prejudice against casters, at least the current crop, who spend a great deal of energy trying to convince the world that people who want to hire actors and actors who want to be hired need a conduit. At least in New York and Los Angeles, casting directors run the range from reputable Often they are folks who started out as actors and gave up in order to make more money. I'm remembering the casting director who was recently caught Twittering during actors' auditions (I wrote about that lady of loose integrity here). Many casting directors indulge in what I think is a pretty low enterprise, running what they call "workshops for actors," ostensibly to help them learn how to get the part, but actually charging actors for the chance to meet them. That activity has always rubbed me the wrong way, for obvious reasons.

Have I wondered off topic here? You bet. Anyway, Shirley Rich seems to have been one of the well-respected of her tribe, and specialized in casting the smaller, supporting roles which flesh out a project. She placed Donna Pescow in Saturday Night Fever, and Judd Hirsch in Serpico. She helped launch the careers of both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn by casting them as cadets in Taps, and is responsible for placing stage vet Helen Gallagher at the core of the cast of the daytime soap Ryan's Hope; Gallagher went on to win multiple Emmys for her work there.

Rich worked her magic on stage as well, placing comic Alice Ghostly in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window for Broadway, a performance which won the Tony; she spent time working with Harold Prince and Rogers and Hammerstein as well. It was in that latter connection that she became, ultimately, responsible for this week's dance party. The story goes that Shirley was running an open casting call for a new R & H project in the early 50s. A sullen, striking, bald man entered, sat on the floor cross-legged, and strummed a guitar while wailing some unintelligible sounds. Rich was intrigued enough to bring him to the attention to the Powers That Be; he was cast as King Mongkut of Siam, and an iconic musical performance was born.

Yul Brynner won the Tony and the Oscar for his performance in The King and I, and returned to the role again and again throughout his career. In the original stage version, he played opposite Gertrude Lawrence; today's Dance Party comes from the 1956 film version, where Deborah Kerr played "Mrs. Anna." The song is one of the hits from the show, and Kerr's singing is being dubbed by our old stand-by Marni Nixon. Her polka-ing, presumably, is her own:

Casting Director Shirley Rich died this week from natural causes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Dear Kitty"

I am reminded of that old joke which has been around for decades. I've heard it attached to various young starlets, but the one which sticks concerns Pia Zadora. She was an astoundingly talentless young woman who, back in the 80s, married an older, wealthy man and attempted to create an acting career on the back of his millions. He produced a vanity production of The Diary of Ann Frank, with pitiful Pia in the title role. Her performance was atrocious: when the Nazis appeared in Act Two, audience members stood up and shouted, "She's in the attic!"

You gotta love that story, though it's myth. Until Wendy Kesselman's new adaptation appeared in 2001, there were no soldiers in the cast of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Here's someone who never shouted, "She's in the attic":



She was born in Austria, but immigrated to Holland in 1922 to escape food shortages. In 1933, she took a job as a secretary in the spice firm of Otto Frank in Amsterdam, a gig which would make her quite famous. During the Nazi occupation , she helped hide the Frank family and four other Jews in the warehouse attic; for over 2 years, Gies and four other employees brought food, books, and other necessities to the hideaways. Her husband Jan obtained ration cards from the underground resistance movement, and Gies exchanged them for food by bicycling all over Amsterdam to different grocers to allay suspicion.

Historians still do not know who furnished the Nazis with the tip which brought them to the hideout; the Frank family was shipped to Auschwitz, then Anne and her sister were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they contracted typhus and died only a few weeks before the camp was liberated. Gies and her husband escaped prosecution, but two of their co-conspirators were arrested and sent to labor camps (they both survived the war). After the Franks were removed from the warehouse, Gies collected their personal papers, which included Anne's diary, and hid them from the authorities. She never read Anne's journal, claiming later that even a teen-aged girl deserved privacy. She restored the papers to lone survivor Otto Frank after the war, who ultimately published Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.

Miep Gies died last week just shy of her 101st birthday.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Creators, Innovators, Seducers

There are more than a few folks who have passed away in the new year, and I have been woefully inadequate with keeping up. Here are a few of interest:

Art Clokey


These oddly shaped creatures are Gumby and Pokey. They were created by Clokey, who was an early innovator in stop-motion clay animation; he helped create the technique which was later trademarked as "claymation." Gumby and Pokey only slightly resembled living beings, and had the ability to twist and reshape themselves, and could even turn themselves into a puddle, which just gives me the creeps. They completely ruined Play-Doh for me. They first appeared with Howdy Doody in the late 50s and eventually graduated to their own children's show. They were always contorting themselves into various odd shapes, to escape the villainous Blockheads, who were always trying to catch them for some reason. Gumby returned to the spotlight in the 80s when Eddie Murphy began to portray him on Saturday Night Live. And if you can believe it, there was even a Gumby movie released in the 90s.
A slightly lesser-known creation by Art Clokey was the TV team of Davey and his talking dog, Goliath. Their adventures were sponsored by the Lutheran Church, and I have vague recollection of the duo (yes, I watched them on Sunday mornings as a kid. They may have been ninnies, but at least they didn't disintegrate into pools of glop). Each episode had a message attached, as you would expect, but the preachiness didn't seem forced, at least to my young eyes. The stories taught gentility, respect and tolerance, sometimes illustrated through interaction with their young friend Nathaniel, who was black (the show broke a bit of ground here). This series had a very long life, running periodically during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with the lead character aging only a few years, finally attending high school. There were some ownership issues between Clokey and the producers of Davey and Goliath, during which time he left the church, studied Zen Buddhism, and began dropping acid with Frank Zappa. Bet you wish you didn't know that part. Regardless of subsequent events, the opening theme to Davey and Goliath still brings back a feeling of tranquility to me (it's based on a tune written, appropriately enough, by Martin Luther in 1529.) Go ahead, make fun.

In 1965, Clokey designed the opening credits for the camp classic Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, starring Vincent Price and Frankie Avalon. He used his signature clay animation to introduce us to this parody of the James Bond films, with The Supremes singing the ridiculous theme song underneath. Clokey died last week at age 88.

Here's another innovator who died recently:

Donald Goerke

He was a marketing guru with Campbell's Soups, and its subsidiary Franco-American, dating back to 1955. In 1965, he was presented with the challenge of creating a pasta dish which could survive canning, reheating, and most importantly, sloppy children. After discarding stars, cowboys, baseballs, and spacemen as possible pasta shapes, he settled on a simple circular noodle with a hole in the middle, and Spaghetti-Os were born. Over 150 million cans of the stuff are sold each year. Goerke is also responsible for creating the Chunky Soup line of Campbell's products.
If you grew up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, the jingle for the ubiquitous canned pasta remains lodged in your brain. "Uh, oh...Spaghetti-Ohs!" was originally sung (or chanted) by Jimmie Rodgers, a pop singer who was never as famous as this guy:
Teddy Pendergrass

Though he began his career with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and charted with songs such as "Wake Up Everybody" and "If You Don't Know Me By Now," he became a breakout solo artist with such hits as "Close the Door," "Turn Off the Lights," and "Love T.K.O". His concert performances showcased a powerfully seductive baritone and muscular physique which drove the ladies wild. He was known for his "For Ladies Only" midnight shows, during which he would shed his shirt and occasionally start a riot. The Washington Post reports that gunfire broke out at one of these events over his discarded headband.
His performing career was dealt a serious blow with his car crash in 1982, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was not wearing a seat belt; his companion, a transsexual club performer, walked away from the crash. After a long period of depression, drugs, and the like, he was coaxed back onstage by Ashford and Simpson. In 1996, he toured in a revival of Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, in a production redesigned to suit his talents and disability (his costar was Stephanie Mills from The Wiz). His autobiography, "Truly Blessed," was published in 1998. In his later life, he founded the Pendergrass Institute for Music and Performing Arts, and became an advocate for disabled artists. He died last week from colon cancer at the age of 59.

These are just a few of the folks already lost in the new decade. More dead people to come!