Tuesday, June 22, 2010


It's time to clean out the old obituary file. Here are some folks whose deaths in recent weeks crossed my radar, for one reason or another.

On the heels of the death of the oldest surviving Ziegfeld Girl came this news a few weeks ago. Surely you heard, right?

Christine Johnson (Smith)


She was born in Kentucky, and studied voice in Nashville before heading to New York in the late 30s. Her contralto voice was heard on NBC and CBS, back when opera stylings were popular on radio. Glad those days are gone. She sang Bess in Porgy and Bess under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, in what I guess was a very early illustration of colorblind casting. In 1943, she won an audition contest with the Metropolitan Opera, sharing first place with Patrice Munsel. Don't know who Patrice Munsel is? Never mind, I'll cover her when she dies.

Christine's greatest claim to fame came in 1945, when she was cast as Nettie Fowler in the original production of Carousel:

Though it was the third female lead, she was the first to sing "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and she introduced what became an enduring anthem of optimism and hope, "You'll Never Walk Alone." For that song alone, Rogers and Hammerstein can be forgiven for writing "This Was A Real Nice Clambake," another of Christine's numbers in the show.

Time magazine, in 1999, named Carousel the greatest musical of the 20th century, a claim I would vigorously debate, but that's another posting. Christine won a Tony nomination for introducing those classic Carousel numbers. After leaving the show, she essentially retired from the biz, moving back to Kentucky with her husband. She gave voice lessons to Florence Henderson, but I choose not to hold that against her. She died June 9th at the age of 98.

I bet you heard all about this guy's death, too:

Tony Peluso


He was a Grammy-winning producer for Motown records, working with Michael Jackson, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, and The Temptations. On other labels, he produced and/or arranged for Kenny Loggins, Seals and Croft, Boys II Men, Ricky Martin, and contributed to the soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain. But his greatest, most lasting fame may have come at the beginning of his career, when, at age 21, he joined Richard and Karen Carpenter as their lead guitarist (why they trusted him is a mystery: he had just spent time on the bubble-gum pop recordings of Bobby Sherman. ick). A year later, he provided a guitar solo in the middle of what many believe to be the Carpenters' most artistic release, "Goodbye to Love." That riff is considered by some to be the finest guitar solo on any recording of the 70s or 80s.

Peluso died a few weeks ago at the age of 60.

Here's another music type who recently played his last tune:

Hank Jones


He spent a lengthy career as a jazz pianist, usually remaining in the background as a sideman. He worked with Benny Goodman and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald for years, he recorded with Charlie Parker, and was a studio musician for CBS for decades. He won the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys a year later. But he is on my radar as the musical director, and onstage pianist, for the longest running musical revue in Broadway history, Ain't Misbehavin'.

See him peeking around the stars above? Oh, and he is in the history books for one more appearance. Remember that grainy black-and-white clip of sexpot Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to JFK in 1962? It happened at Madison Square Garden, and though it's hard to tell through Monroe's off key, breathy performance ("Happy Birthday, Mr. President..."), she had an accompanist: it was Hank Jones. He died earlier this month at the age of 91.

This guy died back in April, but I'm still having nightmares. I can't really blame him, but I can try:

Eddie Carroll


He had a bit of a career as an actor, appearing on Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, One Day at a Time, Fantasy Island, Life With Lucy, Love American Style, Maude, and Alice. He was a long-time Jack Benny impersonator, and in one unusual bit of stunt casting, appeared in a production of The Odd Couple, as Jack Benny portraying Felix Unger. He was born and raised in Canada, and, after a bout with polio, came to Hollywood as part of an NBC talent program, bringing along his best friend from high school, Robert Goulet (whatever happened to him?). He worked for several years with the Armed Forces Radio and Television network, and soon formed a production company with Jamie Farr, who would later go on to fame in the TV series MASH. In the early 70s, he was a regular player on The Don Knotts Show, a variety series no one seems to remember.
But in 1973, Carroll met the personality which would provide a lifetime of work:

He inherited the voice of Jiminy Cricket from Cliff Edwards, who originated the voice in Pinocchio. Carroll voiced Jiminy in commercials, video games, theme park rides, and everywhere else that the Disney folk needed to hear Jiminy Cricket. He holds the record for voicing a Disney character for the longest period of time.

I've previously written about my dislike of the movie Pinocchio, and though Eddie Carroll had nothing to do with that film, he still must take responsibility for continuing to give life to the perky character from the film which gave me nightmares as a kid. That poor boy, Pinocchio, was turning into a donkey before our eyes, and what did his best pal and protector Jiminy Cricket do? He was busy winning an Oscar for his signature song, "When You Wish Upon A Star."
Carroll died from a brain tumor at the age of 76. I'm not necessarily claiming that was retribution for my nightmares, but...

Speaking of nightmare-inducing images, how about this guy? His recent death ignited discussion of how low-budget independent films of the late 60s changed the way movies were made.

Dennis Hopper


He had a fairly traditional career in his early years, with some stage work at La Jolla Playhouse, and some small but featured roles in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, both starring one of his role models, James Dean. But his combative personality, mixed with an ongoing addiction problem, spelled trouble. Working with director Henry Hathaway in the 60s, he deliberately ruined 87 takes due to a dispute over a single line reading; word of his obstinacy spread through Hollywood, and he was unable to secure a leading film role for the rest of the decade. That is, until his drug buddy Peter Fonda suggested they write a film together, and star in it as well. The result, Easy Rider, was filmed on a shoestring but grossed millions, and George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdonovich, and Francis Ford Coppola all point to Easy Rider as the explosion which opened the doors for their careers.

Hopper directed Easy Rider, but was unable to parlay that success into a sustained film directing career (though he won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). He continued to abuse drugs and alcohol, and cause trouble on any set on which he worked. His private life was a mess as well; he married 5 times, including an 8-day marriage to "Mama" Michelle Phillips (he later claimed, "Seven of those days were pretty good. The 8th day was the bad one.").

Hopper hit rock bottom in the early 80s, and was institutionalized for a while in a psychiatric ward . He rebounded a bit once he gave up drugs and booze, winning an Oscar nomination for his role in Hoosiers, and appearing in a string of films, usually playing a creepy villain. He became an ardent and shrewd art collector, and his private collection is said to be highly valuable. Hopper was in the middle of another nasty divorce when he died last month after a battle with prostate cancer.

Hopper's film performances, particularly in his later life, were primarily psychotics and weirdos, and I found his work to be downright hammy. Which brings me to this next guy:

Jimmy Dean


Dean had a substantial singing and acting career before forming the sausage company which bears his name. He was well-known for several variety shows in the 1950s, and he even hosted the CBS Morning Show for a time. He gave Roy Clark his start in the business, hiring him as a guitarist, then firing the bum for always being late. In 1961, he provided a huge cross-over smash, "Big Bad John," which hit #1 on the Billboard Pop Chart and won the Grammy. He continued a lively recording career throughout the 60s, made frequent appearances on television, and was a major headliner in Vegas. His acting roles included a stint on Daniel Boone on television, and a role in the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.

He remained in the public eye for decades, as the commercial spokesman for Jimmy Dean Sausage, and continued making those commercials even after selling his company to Sara Lee. Ultimately, the corporate parent determined Dean was too old to sell breakfast meats, and he faded from view. His reputation was tarnished a bit in 1991, when the National Inquirer broke the news that he was a drunk and a wifebeater. He divorced his victim, quit drinking, and married his biographer. He has spent his retirement living in Richmond, VA, where he became a noted wildlife conservationist. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February of this year, only a few months before his death at the age of 81.

Here are a couple of inventors whose passing attracted my attention.

If you have ever been frustrated because you cannot remember your banking PIN , you may have this guy to blame:

John Shepherd-Barron


Back in the 60s, this Scotsman became frustrated by being locked out of his bank, and took a cue from the candy machine. He set about inventing a way to access his money from any bank, any time of day, any where in the world. The first ATM was installed in London in 1967, and required a check be put into the machine's drawer before a 10-pound note was dispensed (plastic bank cards had yet to be invented. How about that? The ATM is actually older than the credit card!). Our hero also set the standard for the 4-digit PIN when his wife told him 6 digits were too many to remember. The inventor of the Automated Teller Machine died last month at the age of 84.

This guy had a direct influence on countless gatherings I hosted in Los Angeles in the 80s:

Chris Haney


He was a Canadian who purchased a Scrabble game for his best friend, but groused about the game's high price. Along with Scott Abbott, he determined to invent his own board game and make a mint. They took advantage of the large number of Baby Boomers who were college graduates, and came up with a game in which obscure knowledge would be key. Investors were sceptical; they didn't think anyone would pony up $29.99 for a game which made the player feel stupid. Haney and Abbott persisted, writing the game's original 6000 questions themselves, and named their invention Trivial Pursuit.

The game's success was phenomenal, and spawned a series of more specialized editions, including Silver Screen and Sports. By the time Hasbro bought the rights to the game in 2008, for a whopping 80 million dollars, Trivial Pursuit had sold 100 million copies in 33 different countries, all for a game whose format was invented in 45 minutes (though it took the boys 2 years to write the questions). Chris Haney died May 31 at the age of 59.