Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Invitation to the Dance

This week's Dance Party stars Gene Kelly, who had a birthday this week, or would have, had he not been dead. Everybody knows Kelly was one of the biggest musical stars of the 40s and 50s. His masculine athleticism set him apart from the other dancing superstar of the era, Fred Astaire. While Fred's work was sophisticated, elegant, and a bit ethereal, Gene's was aggressive, powerful, and more sensual. I doubt the two were ever up for the same part, though Kelly was supposed to play opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade before he broke his ankle and was replaced by Astaire. How different that film would have been with Gene in the lead!

Astaire had the slender, willowy frame of the aesthete, while Kelly was muscular and earthy. Gene learned early in his career that his physique was his fortune, and he was usually dancing in form-fitting costumes which accentuated the use of his body as a tool (Fred, on the other hand, always seemed to leave his gangly body behind when he danced).

Just take a look at the costume Kelly wore in a fantasy sequence in The Pirate. I bet that closet queen Vincent Minnelli had a hand in putting Gene in hotpants and a muscle shirt; this guy would have been at home dancing on a box at a disco in West Hollywood:

There are dozens and dozens of clips out there, of Gene Kelly and his work. He danced with all the big stars of the day (go here to see a very sweet clip with Julie Andrews in a previous Dance Party), but I find it fascinating that his creativity was not limited to human dance partners. When left to his own devices, Gene came up with some of the most unusual dance routines in film history. He danced on skates, and with a mop, a garbage can lid, a goat, and his own reflection (and of course, in one little-known clip, he does some hoofing in a rainstorm).

He danced with the cartoon mouse Jerry, as well as a host of other hand-drawn partners, in his dialogue-free masterpiece, Invitation To The Dance, released in 1956. That film flopped but is now considered an innovative gem; it provided Walt Disney with the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

This week's Dance Party comes from 1950's Summer Stock. In it, Gene Kelly uses a creaky floorboard and a ripped newspaper as both percussion and dance partner. Happy birthday, Gene!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Twinsies For Keepsies

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards were held last night, a week before the higher-profile Primetime Emmys. Kathy Griffin calls these awards the Shmemmys, and she's allowed to, having won two. She lost her award last night to something called Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. Isn't that the show when the Brit goes to the fattest town in America (you mean there's only one?) and gets them all to lose weight?

Jane Lynch, currently red hot for her role on Glee (and star of the Dance Party here), was nominated for a guest shot on Two and a Half Men, a performance which lasted about two and a half minutes. She lost her award to Betty White. Betty's hosting turn on Saturday Night Live gave her a seventh Emmy, which still does not give her the record (Cloris Leachman still holds the record for performers, at nine). Did you know White won the very first Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series (Life With Elizabeth, in 1952)? She is also the only woman to win an Emmy as Best Game Show Host (in 1983, for something called Just Men! Does anybody remember that one?). Everybody knows White is on a surging winning streak lately, but she was derailed a bit last night. Yes, she won for SNL, but her commercial for Snickers lost the Emmy to the Old Spice guy on the horse. Yes, even commercials win Emmys.

John Lithgow, one of my favorite actors who always gives a reliable performance, picked up another award (he used to win big time for 3rd Rock From the Sun) for a guest arc on Dexter, a show I have never seen. It's on Showtime, which I don't get, and apparently, neither does Lithgow. He pulled a Denzel during his acceptance speech and thanked HBO, who has nothing to do with his program. At this year's Tony Awards, Denzel Washington won for Fences, and could not come up with the name of the organization who was giving him the prize.

And speaking of the Tonys, my protege Neil Patrick Harris was probably the big winner last night. He's been nominated for Emmys numerous times for his role on How I Met Your Mother, but he's never won. This year, in addition to being nominated again for that performance, he also got a nod (and last night, won) for his guest appearance on Glee. But here's the kicker. A while back I lamented that Neil was not able to be recognized for his superior hosting skills on the Tony and Emmy Awards shows of 2009. The TV academy eliminated the category which comprises those kinds of performances. Instead, they clump the host of such shows with the producers, so when, say, the Oscar broadcast wins an Emmy, the host(s) pick up a trophy, too. So, the host is inexorably linked to the show; if the host's performance is better than the broadcast in which it appears (as often happens), he's shit outta luck. This is the only instance in which this happens at the Emmys: hosts of game shows, talk shows, and reality shows are all judged independantly from the programs in which they appear. Jeff Probst wins the Emmy in his category repeatedly, though the show he hosts, Survivor, never does.

The 2009 Tony Awards broadcast was indeed nominated this year, for Best Special Class Program, but the nominators goofed and left Harris off the paperwork. If the error had not been spotted by an eagle eye at the LA Times, our Neil would never have known that he should have won his second Emmy last night, as in fact, the Tony Awards won that category. The error was corrected a couple of weeks ago, so NPH (as he's affectionately known around here) picked up a twin trophy. Just in time to decorate his new nursery, as he and his partner are having twins, by surrogate, due in the fall.

That's two wins out of three nominations in a single year, we'll find out next week if he wins his third Emmy. That will be doubtful, as his category includes the little gay boy from Glee (whose episode is double the length of everyone else's, and includes some dramatical moments) and all those terrific actors from Modern Family.

But I'll bet NPH is pretty satisfied with his twin Emmys won last night, further proof that an openly gay star can continue a career after revealing his sexual orientation.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Miles From Her Own Little Corner

This week's Dance Party celebrates one of the very few successful movie musicals of the 1980s. Victor/Victoria was the brainchild of Blake Edwards, who was shopping around for a musical to showcase his wife at the time, Julie Andrews. Edwards was shrewd to take a lesson from Bob Fosse's landmark film of Cabaret: modern audiences are far more likely to accept singing actors if those actors are onstage at the time. Fosse famously jettisoned about half the original Cabaret's score, all "book" numbers, and showcased the songs performed onstage (and added a few new ones). I'm sure Cabaret will show up on the Dance Party eventually, since it is one of my favorite pieces of theatre or film. But back to Blake Edwards. He adapted a German film from 1933, Viktor und Viktoria, enlisted Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse to write a brand new score, and surrounded his wife/star with a couple of top-notch supporting players. Broadway veteran Robert Preston had a ball playing the gay best friend, and James Garner was a believable hoot as the manly gangster who can't quite understand why he is falling for a man who dresses in women's clothes. Victor/Victoria is a fun treatise on sexual identity, and is definitely worth a look if you have never seen it. There is also a DVD of the stage adaptation out there, filmed before a live audience when Andrews played the role on Broadway in 1995, but that video reflects a bloated stage show which did not adapt all that well to the stage. Stick to the film version. When you see it, you will be duly impressed with an over-the-top, hilarious performance by the star of this week's Dance Party, Lesley Ann Warren. Victor/Victoria put Warren back on the map, so to speak, as she had been floundering for several years, attempting to outgrow her sugary ingenue identity formed in the 1960s. She got her start on Broadway, appearing in 110 in the Shade, and she received nice notices for her performance in the notorious flop, Drat! The Cat! She tested for the role of Liesl when The Sound of Music was being filmed, a role she obviously lost. But in 1965, she became perennially attached to the Rogers and Hammerstein oeuvre when she appeared in the first television remake of their Cinderella. The original Cinderella, as everybody knows or ought to, was Julie Andrews, who performed the role once, in 1957, on live television. The show was preserved on lousy kinescope, so was unseen by the public for close to 50 years; it has since been cleaned up a bit and released on DVD. A clip from that production appears on this Dance Party. But when my generation thinks of Cinderella, we think of Lesley Ann Warren. Her version was preserved on videotape and rerun many times, in addition to eventually being released on VHS and DVD. That 1965 performance informed Warren's career for many years. Soon after, Walt Disney paired her with John Davidson in several musical films, one of which graced the Dance Party a while ago. Go here for that swell dance number pitting Lesley Ann against Goldie Hawn, of all people. Warren had a difficult time outgrowing the double-whammy of Cinderella and Disney, and as she matured, she had trouble graduating to more mature roles. She played Scarlett in a disastrous attempt to musicalize Gone With the Wind, and she spent one season on Mission: Impossible, during the period when she was billing herself as simply Lesley Warren. I guess she hoped that it was the "Ann" which was holding her back. She has long since regained her three names, and is now a respected character actress, with many recurring roles on many TV series to her credit. But it was this performance in Victor/Victoria which finally proved she had outgrown Disney and R&H. The character is a loud, screechy mobster moll, with that New Yoik accent we always expect. I may be able to pinpoint the exact moment in this film when Cinderella was finally put to rest: "Keeeeeng!" Warren's Norma Cassidy whines through a closed door,"I'm hoyneeeeeeee!" Bet Uncle Walt rolled over on that one, but the Academy did not; Warren was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. As you enjoy Leslie Ann Warren's big number from Victor/Victoria, it's fun to note that this sophisticated film, full of naughty double entendres and adult innuendos, stars the two actresses who each created an enduring, almost iconic, performance as the wholesome Cinderella . 
Lesley Ann Warren turned 64 this week.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Happy Dancing: Unexpected Edition

I've been whining all summer that my stellar auditions have not been bearing fruit. And it's true; while I have felt that my last four or five theatrical auditions were top-notch (and I don't often feel that way about my own auditions), I have failed to secure a stage gig. But I am doing the Happy Dance this week anyway, as a gig popped up from an unexpected quarter. About a month ago, I got a rare call to read for a low-budget, independent film which will be shooting in the Baltimore area in October. It is unusual for me to get calls for film auditions, though there is a fair amount of the stuff done in the region. Most of it is non-union, so I cannot be considered for those jobs, but even with the union projects, I tend to be ignored. (If you are interested, go here to read about my last film gig, where I shared a trailer with Kevin Bacon. Sort of.) I have never considered film work to be a viable part of my career, I've done very little of it. But I don't turn down any opportunity to read for anything these days. The casting office which was handling the project has steadily ignored me for years, so I really don't know why they plucked my picture out of their bloated files. Except I do: the scene needed four middle-aged corporate types. So, I made the hour-plus drive north to Baltimore, during one of our hottest days of the summer. Believe me, if your car has been sitting in the sun all morning, there is very little the air conditioning can do to make the interior comfortable, particularly if you are wearing a business suit, as I was. (It had been literally years since I was required to put on my many years that I had to let the waist out a bit. Thank you, martinis, midnight munching, and middle-age spread.) I didn't think the reading was any great shakes, but I guess the Powers That Be did, as I received a callback a week or so later. This was to be an unusual callback, at least in my experience of film auditions. The director, producer, and executive producer of the film were all in attendance, and of course, our audition was filmed. I say "our," because the director had six of us rotating in and out of the audition chamber, reading the five roles he was casting. I guess this guy wanted to see how we interacted with each other, and while this is pretty standard for a stage callback, it is pretty rare for a film audition. So, the six of us gents spent about an hour and a half reading this scene over and over again, playing different characters. This callback was weeks ago, and truth be told, I forgot all about the thing. As I said, film work is not a big part of my career, so I don't stress about it as I do my stage work. So, it was a big ol' surprise to receive word that I had been cast in the role of the leading corporate guy (he doesn't have a name, they call him "A"). I have very little information about the project at this point; the film is so low-budget that they have yet to hire production personnel who can answer some of my questions. I do know the entire film will be shot in about 10 days (it's that low-budget), but I have no idea how much of that time I will be working. Who cares? It's union work, and I can always use more experience on camera. It will certainly be the largest film role I have had, and perhaps I will even end up in the theatrical trailer of what is currently called A Modest Suggestion. Hey, it could happen. When I appeared in John Waters's Pecker years ago, I only worked on one scene, but for some reason, I ended up in the trailer, seen by millions of theatre-goers across the country. Can you spot me? 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Shields and Yarnell

If you asked Joe Blow from Idaho to name a famous mime, I bet he couldn't do it. If he could, it would probably be Marcel Marceau, who brought pantomime into American homes as a guest on various variety shows in the 60s and 70s.

If Joe Blow from Idaho were required to name TWO famous mimes, I bet he couldn't do it. If he could, that second name might likely be Bill Irwin, though his style of pantomime is much closer to classic clowning than the style of Marceau; since Irwin has matured into a fine interpreter of Edward Albee's work, that guy from Idaho might not even know that Bill began his career with physical shtick.

But if Joe Blow from Idaho were required to name a famous mime TEAM, he could only shrug his shoulders. Or name Shields and Yarnell, two of the unlikeliest TV stars of the 1970s.

They began their careers quite separately. Robert Shields was spotted at the Hollywood Wax Museum by Marceau himself, who offered the young mime a scholarship to study with him in Paris in 1970. After learning all he could from the Master, Bobby returned to the states, becoming a street mime in San Fransisco. It's said he was the second most popular tourist attraction in the city, right behind the streetcars.

Lorene Yarnell, meanwhile, was pursuing a career as a dancer (Gene Kelly was particularly impressed); she appeared regularly in the television chorus of the variety shows headlined by Carol Burnett and Dean Martin.

Shields and Yarnell met when appearing in the chorus of Fol-de-Rol, a TV special produced by those wackos Sid and Marty Krofft in 1972. Lorene followed Bobby back to Frisco, and they formed a professional and personal partnership, passing the hat in Union and Ghirardelli Squares. They married in what now seems a fairly precious way, but in the Godspell-tinged 70s must have seemed a good idea: they donned band outfits and mimed their vows in full white-face.

In 1975, they headed to Hollywood. With Yarnell's specialty in dance, and Shields's in mime, the two made a nice variety act team, and they had a natural chemistry which was very endearing to watch. They landed as a regular act on The Mac Davis Show, and once Mac bit the dust, they were snatched up by Sonny and Cher. At that time, television variety shows did not rerun their episodes; when their seasons ended in June, their timeslots were filled by summer replacement series. Shields and Yarnell were tagged for a half-hour slot, a mix of comedy and mime. One of their running sketches involved "The Clingers," a pair of robots living daily lives (it is said that Bobby Shields was the inventor of the robotic movement which later became a disco staple, and a major inspiration for Michael Jackson's dance moves; Jacko was a devoted Shields and Yarnell fan).

The Shields and Yarnell Show was the hit of the 1977 summer season, and CBS picked up the program as a mid-season replacement. In their infinite wisdom, the network placed the newcomers opposite the runaway hit Laverne and Shirley, and Shields and Yarnell were gone as quickly as they had arrived. They continued to offer live performances, and were headliners opposite George Burns and Frank Sinatra, among others, in the major showrooms in Vegas and Tahoe.

They had come a long way from the street corners of San Fransisco; even after their divorce in the mid-80s, they continued to perform together, though a bit sporadically. They appeared before a couple of presidents and the Queen, and counted Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton among their fans. Bobby wrote a TV special for the two of them, Toys On The Town, which won the Emmy; they also hold several AGVA awards for their variety work onstage.

After their meteoric rise and decline, Bobby remarried and settled in Arizona, where he became a painter, sculptor, and jewelry designer. Lorene had a leading role in the Mel Brooks parody film, Spaceballs, playing the robot Dot Matrix (her character was voiced by Joan Rivers); she later remarried and moved to Norway, where she became a dance teacher.

It's difficult to describe the attractiveness of this couple, who worked so well together, and even resembled each other; perhaps this week's Dance Party will give some clue. Here are Shields and Yarnell on The Muppet Show:

Bobby Shields remains in Arizona, and occasionally performs solo. Lorene Yarnell suffered a brain aneurysm last week; she passed away at the age of 66.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sing-A-Long Obits

Patricia Neal


I hadn't seen nor heard about Neal in so long, I though she was already gone. Turns out she has been battling lung cancer in Massachusetts. That husky voice is unmistakable, and was put to good use in a career which spanned stage, screen, and television. She had some success on Broadway, more on that in a mo', but is best known for her film appearances. And for her private life, which was a stormy one. She was already in the midst of an affair with a very married Gary Cooper (who was 25 years her senior!) when she co-starred with him in 1949's The Fountainhead.

The affair, during which Cooper persuaded Neal to undergo an abortion, ended when Cooper's wife and daughter started making noise. A few years later, Neal met and married British children's author Roald Dahl, with whom she stayed for 30 years. They had their share of trouble, with one child being hit by a taxi which resulted in brain damage, and another child dying from the measles.

Neal won the Oscar for her performance in Hud opposite Paul Newman, but only a few years later, suffered a series of strokes which left her in a coma, and with debilitating handicaps. She was pregnant at the time, but delivered a healthy daughter. Her husband helped her learn to speak and to walk again, but her health was to be a problem for the rest of her life. She earned another Oscar nod when she returned to the screen in The Subject Was Roses, and was the original matriarch of the Waltons when that famous family first appeared in the TV-movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. When the film spawned a series, its creator declined to offer Neal the gig, believing her health to be too precarious for the grind of weekly television. (In fact, Ellen Corby was the only one of the four parental actors in the original film to make it into the cast of The Waltons.)

Patricia was nominated for the Emmy for her performance as Olivia Walton, and won the Golden Globe. She was to appear in various screen projects over the years, though she was one of a number of stars to turn down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Her lengthy film resume includes A Face in the Crowd and Breakfast at Tiffany's, and she made a cameo appearance in a well-regarded TV-film about her own life, The Patricia Neal Story, in which Glenda Jackson played the title role, with Dirk Bogard as Willy Wonka creator Dahl..

On stage, Neal played Mrs. Keller in the original Miracle Worker and appeared in a revival of The Children's Hour, among other projects. Her death Sunday has added significance to the theatre world, as she was the last surviving winner from the first year's crop of Tonys. In 1946, she picked up the very first award for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in Another Part of the Forest. She lost her actual Tony along the way, and was presented with a replacement trophy during the award show in 2006.

Larry Keith


Keith was a regular player on Broadway and regional stages, beginning a long career with the original production of My Fair Lady. He replaced Alfred Drake in the stage version of Gigi, and was one of many replacements for Ron Rifkin in the long-running Cabaret revival, playing Herr Shultz. He originated two high-profile roles in musicals: in 1997, he warbled the love song "Still" to his wife as the boat sank in Titanic, and in 2004, he played the inscrutable head of household in Caroline, or Change.

Larry was known to a wider audience as an original cast member of All My Children, a role he played on and off for over three decades. He received two Emmy nominations for his performance as Nick Davis (he's on the far right):

Recently, he had a recurring role on Damages. He died last month at the age of 79.

This guy had a bigger impact on pop music than you might think:

Mitch Miller


He played the oboe, of all things, and appeared on many jazz recordings of the 1930s. He was part of Orson Welles's infamous War of the Worlds radiocast, and produced some of Charlie Parker's finest recordings. It was as a producer that Miller's greatest influence was felt. He headed Columbia Records during its heyday, guiding hits for Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page, and Frank Sinatra. He had a knack for picking commercial products (though his distaste for rock and roll made him pass on signing Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly), and in 1950, he famously forced Rosemary Clooney, a little-known band singer under contract to Columbia, to record "Come On-a My House," which soared to #1 and elevated her to stardom. His novelty tune "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause," recorded by a 13-year old, is still recognized today.

"You've got to work out a gimmick that'll get people's attention and hold it," he once told Time, a mantra he repeated when he began recording his own, feel-good music. He often recorded folk music, and had a hit with "The Yellow Rose of Texas," among other homespun standards. His recording of "Colonel Bogey's March" is better known as that whistling tune from Bridge on the River Kwai.

He brought his old-fashioned musical sensibility to his own variety show in the early 60s. Sing Along With Mitch received lousy reviews but was popular with audiences, and he became such an icon of Americana that Norman Rockwell sketched his portrait:

It can be argued that Miller's sing-along style, upon which he capitalized over and over in his recordings, was the first step toward the invention of karaoke. He died last week at the age of 99.

Here's another of those character actors that nobody knows but everybody has seen a hundred times:

Maury Chaykin


He spend much of his career in Canada, and won the Gemini Award (the Canadian Oscar) for his starring role in Whale Music in 1994. On our side of the border, he was seen to good effect in Dancing With Wolves, Wargames, and My Cousin Vinny, among many other films. On television, he starred for two seasons in the title role of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, opposite Timothy Hutton. More recently, he has had a recurring gig on Entourage, playing a role which is a send-up of blustery movie producer Harvey Weinstein. He died last month, on his 61st birthday.

This guy is remembered for one of the strangest commercial ad campaigns in TV history:

Dan Resin


Many folks may recognize him as Dr. Beeper from Caddyshack (a film I cannot sit through: that floating Baby Ruth is just too sick), but Resin had a nice stage career going as well. He was a replacement in the original My Fair Lady, and was in the cast of Once Upon a Mattress when it jumped to Broadway from Off-. Other Main Line credits included Don't Drink the Water, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Fade Out- Fade In. He was a regular on the sitcom On Our Own, which provided Dixie Carter one of her first TV gigs, and spent some time on Edge of Night. But none of those appearances had the impact of this series of commercials:

Wearing a captain's hat and a snazzy blazer, Resin spent years rowing around the toilet tank selling Ty-D-Bowl cleanser. As you can see in the above clip, he eventually got a speedboat, and in one memorable spot, was on a raft with two calypso players crooning "we put the lemon in the Ty-D-Bowl for you!"

The whole idea of somebody rowing around in toilet water is just plain gross, and I still remember the Carol Burnett lampoon of the commercial, in which she flushes him down the toilet. But the campaign was successful enough to continue for many years, with several other actors playing the unlucky sailor. Resin retired from acting and became a minister. He died last week from Parkinson's disease at the age of 79.