Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mercer's Baby

She was one of the last surviving band singers, and her life was dominated by two men, one at the beginning of her career, and one at the end.

Margaret Whiting


If you're going to have a recording career that spans 7 decades, you better start early, and Whiting did just that. She was singing by the age of 7, and she delivered her first hit record ("That Old Black Magic") at the age of 18. She was born into a show biz family: her father was a composer who wrote 'Hooray For Hollywood", her mother was a talent manager who handled Sophie Tucker, and her aunt was a vaudeville star. Her sister Barbara was an actress who played an important part in Maggie's TV career, more on that in a mo'.

But the man who most influenced our Margaret was not a relative, but became a surrogate father when her own dad died in 1938. Johnny Mercer was just one of a number of composers who hung around the Whiting house in Los Angeles (Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Jerome Kern were frequent visitors), but he became the mentor who influenced her career the most. When Mercer formed Capitol Records, Margaret was one of the first stars he signed to recording contracts. She delivered a long string of hits, including "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "Moonlight in Vermont."

Her recording of Mercer's "Baby It's Cold Outside", as a duet with Mercer himself, has become a holiday perennial. Her recording catalogue includes over 700 songs, and a dozen million sellers; over the years, she became the preeminent interpreter of Johnny Mercer's work (she even headed the Johnny Mercer Foundation for a time, and was still touring her cabaret act dedicated to his work when she died earlier this month).

Margaret met the second most important man in her life in 1976, when she accompanied her gay posse to an exotic stage show starring porn star Jack Wrangler. An unlikely relationship blossomed between the two, a relationship which lasted decades; they actually married in 1994. "But I'm gay!" Wrangler remembers telling Whiting, to which she replied, "Only around the edges, dear."
I wrote a pretty swell obit of porn star Jack when he died of emphysema a while back, bring your best bow-chicka-bow-wow here to get the scoop.

I mentioned that Maggie had an actress sister, Barbara, and the two of them starred in a sitcom in the 50s called, appropriately, Those Whiting Girls. The show ran two summers as a replacement series for I Love Lucy, and was in fact produced by Desilu. Here's a fun little clip from the show, which presented a fictionalized version of the Whitings themselves. Back then, if you had a star who could sing (or in Desi's case, play the bongos), you wrote your episodes to include those talents. So here we get a bit of Margaret singing, as well as the comic interaction with her sister. Sharp eyes will detect two more recognizable faces in this scene. The hunk is Mike Connors, a decade before he became Mannix, and the actress playing the Whiting matriarch is Mabel Albertson, who maintained a long career playing comedic mothers, secretaries, and meddling neighbors. (Those of a certain age will recognize her as Samantha's mother-in-law on Bewitched, where her episodes usually climaxed with her moaning to her husband, "Frank, I have a sick headache.")

Have I wandered off track here? What are the odds of that? Here's that clip of Margaret Whiting, with admiration for a long and varied career:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Dance Party: He Did A Little Side-Step

The inspiration for this week's Dance Party came from the death of a little-known character actor who was on my radar from my very early days.

Jay Garner


This raucous southern gent spent the early part of his career as a stage actor in Atlanta, while I was growing up there. By the time I was attending professional stage shows, he had already moved on to New York, taken there when a quirky home-grown musical made an unexpected transfer from GA to NY. The piece which afforded Jay his Broadway debut was called Red, White, and Maddox, and was a satirical look at one of Georgia's most outlandish politicians, Lester Maddox. Garner played the title role, and though the show was a failure in New York, Jay was not. He went on to create two more corrupt politicians in musicals, M. Dindon in the original La Cage Aux Folles, and earlier, the governor of Texas in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (that scene-stealing role was later played by Charles Durning in the film version, who snagged an Oscar nomination for it).

Garner took over the role of Ben Franklin in the original 1776, a role which became one of his favorites, and one he recreated for various regional theaters and summer stock companies. It was in this role that he came to my attention, when he played it in Atlanta, opposite the John Adams of (get this) Joel Grey. The two were dynamite together, and I never forgot Jay's robust performance. His final Broadway appearance was in the 1995 revival of Hello, Dolly!, opposite the perennial Carol Channing. He had not been heard from in many years when he died last week at the age of 82.

This week's Dance Party is not from any of those stage musicals, but is instead from one of Garner's film appearances. The 1978 British mini-series Pennies From Heaven became an immediate cult classic, and in 1981, a feature film version was produced with Steve Martin in the leading role. The piece tells the dreary story of a depression-era schnook who steps out on his wife, and is juxtaposed with stylized musical numbers (which, as in the TV series, were all lip sinc performances). Martin was fresh off his first starring role in a film (The Jerk), and audiences were not ready to see him in this new dramatic light. The movie was one of the financial failures of 1981.

Steve Martin trained for his dance sequences for 9 months before shooting began (during that period, he displayed his talent alongside Gregory Hines in a previous Dance Party here), and the following clip is the first big production number in Pennies From Heaven. Martin considers this his first dramatic role, but he is clearly hamming it up during the number; his predecessor in the mini-series, Bob Hoskins, was better at maintaining the dark tone throughout his performance.

And here, too, is our dead guy, Jay Garner, playing the bank president (he reported that the little kiss which kicks off the number was completely spontaneous on Martin's part). In honor of one of the (pardon the pun) unsung stars of musical theatre, enjoy this week's Dance Party!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

La Mamabits

These folks are not household names, but in the world of the stage, they had significant impact.

Theoni Aldredge


She was born and raised in Greece, and immigrated to the States in the late 40s, to study theatre at the Goodman in Chicago. She discovered the focus of her studies, and of her career, when she stopped off in New York and attended a screening of Caesar and Cleopatra; she was mesmerized by the flowing gowns worn by Vivien Leigh. She spent the 50s in Chicago, designing costumes and teaching at the Goodman, where she met an up-and-coming actor/director, Tom Aldredge. They married and headed to New York. (DIGRESSION ALERT: Tom is one of my favorite character actors, equally at home on screen and on stage. In recent years, he has carved a niche for himself playing paternal figures to Edie Falco [The Sopranos], Glenn Close [Damages], and Chip Zien [the original Into the Woods]; he was currently playing Steve Buscemi's father on Boardwalk Empire, until his death, go here).

Now back to his wife. Theoni's design career took off immediately. Geraldine Page had seen her work in Chicago, and recommended her for the original production of Sweet Bird of Youth.

She dressed Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Bacall in Woman of the Year, and the Burtons in Private Lives. Her designs for Joe Papp's 1960 production of Measure for Measure led to her appointment as resident costume designer for the Public Theatre. She remained in that position for 20 years, during which her designs for Sticks and Bones, Threepenny Opera (the one starring Raul Julia), and Hair all reached Broadway. As did her 1975 production of A Chorus Line, for which she received one of her 14 Tony nominations. She did not win the award that year, as her work was deceptively simple: throughout most of the show, the actors wore disheveled rehearsal togs. Aldredge had attended many rehearsals of the landmark musical, and designed these costumes based on the clothes the actors themselves were wearing. That memorable finale was another story. She persuaded director Michael Bennett that the clothes should not be red, as he wanted, but champagne colored. She won that battle, but lost the Tony (to Florence Klotz's designs for Pacific Overtures).

The next year, Aldredge prevailed, winning one of her three Tonys for the original Annie (she was competing against herself, among others, that year, as Threepenny Opera's costumes had also been nominated).

She also took home the Tony for Barnum and the original La Cage Aux Folles. The New York Times reports that, during the 1984 Broadway season, more than 1000 of Leoni's costumes could be seen onstage, as she had five musicals running simultaneously: A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, La Cage Aux Folles, 42nd Street, and The Rink.

She designed for film as well, contributing to Moonstruck, Ghostbusters, and Network, among many others. She won the Oscar in 1974 for The Great Gatsby, and during her acceptance speech, she pointedly ignored the young Ralph Loren, who had dressed the men in the film to her specifications but was taking credit for the designs in the press. Who says only actors are divas? Theoni Aldredge died last week from cardiac arrest at the age of 88.

Michael Langham


His name is totally unknown to the general public, but he was one of the premiere stage directors of classical works. He placed John Gielgud in Julius Caesar, Paul Scofield in Love's Labor's Lost, Peter O'Toole in Merchant of Venice, and Julie Harris in Romeo and Juliet. He had a long working relationship with Christopher Plummer, directing him in Henry V, Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Antony and Cleopatra, among others. He was an artistic advisor for the National Actors Theatre, the admirable, but ill-fated, attempt by Tony Randall to create a repertory theatre company along the lines of Britain's National Theatre. He directed Brian Bedford to a Tony nomination in Timon of Athens, the one and only production of that Shakespearean chestnut to ever reach Broadway, and he guided Randall himself in The Government Inspector for the company. His direction of the original production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie provided a starmaking vehicle for Zoe Caldwell.

But Langham will be most admired for his work in regional theater. He got the bug in Nazi Germany, of all places, when he was a prisoner of war for 5 years. During that time, he studied the classics and directed plays with the other inmates.

After WWII, he began a professional directing career which took him all over the world; he landed at the Stratford Festival in Canada, where he succeeded founder Tyrone Guthrie as artistic director. Under his guidance, the theatre grew from summer stock to year-round programming, with the NY Times calling it the finest classical theater in North America.

He left Stratford to head the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and he was also chair of the drama school at Julliard for many years. He died a few weeks ago, at the age of 91.

Ellen Stewart


Long before there was a Mama Cass or a Matron Mama Morton, there was Mama Stewart. There are those who would call this lady a pioneer, and who am I to quibble? Her early life is sketchy, as she told conflicting stories about her upbringing and her early common-law marriage. She landed in New York City in the 50s, and worked for a time at Macy's, either as a dress maker or an elevator operator. She had no particular training in theatre, and in fact maintained throughout her career that she did not read plays, she read people. In the early 60s, she rented a tenement apartment in lower Manhattan, and began offering the space to struggling playwrights. The neighbors called the cops: a place where white men visited a black woman in her basement apartment was sure to be a whorehouse.

She was evicted several times by various city code authorities; she picked up the habit of sitting on her front steps during her shows, to prevent inspectors from interrupting actual performances. She was advised that it was easier to get a permit to run a coffee house than a theater, and Cafe LaMama was born.

Throughout the 60s, she provided a stepping stone for playwrights such as Sam Shepherd and Jean Claude van Itallie, and in their early careers, actors such as Pacino, DeNiro, Dreyfuss, Dukakis, Midler, Keitel, and Nolte performed at LaMama. As her organization grew, she clashed with the unions (nobody made any money, they passed the hat after performances), but she afforded artists a place to experiment. Landford Wilson's first major play, Balm in Gilead, with a cast of several dozen, premiered under her tutelage, and Godspell, Hair, and Torch Song Trilogy all began their development at Cafe LaMama.
"LaMama" is now an international brand name for experimental, avant garde, cutting edge performance art. LaMama Experimental Theatre Club (or "LaMama ETC") now boasts three theaters, rehearsal space, and for a time, an apartment uptop where Stewart herself lived. When she received the MacArthur Grant in 1985, she bought a monastery in Umbria, Italy, and converted it into an international arts center. Andrei Serban, Peter Brook, and Robert Wilson are just a few of the international figures who credit LaMama with part of their artistic development.

LaMama's growth in its first decade came at a time when Off-Broadway theaters were becoming more traditional and more commercial; Ellen Stewart is commonly credited with creating, and sustaining, the Off-Off-Broadway movement. She died January 13, at the age of 91.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Dance Party: If Memories Were All He Sang

I ran across this week's Dance Party (which, like so many others, has no dance) while researching the death of David Nelson. Ricky Nelson is considered by many to be the original teen idol (he even had a hit song with the title), and became a recording sensation while appearing as himself on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The early, and most successful, part of his recording career was managed by his father, who used the TV show as a vehicle to introduce the public to Ricky's music. In it's middle and later years, the sitcom featured a concert-type performance by Ricky in about a third of the episodes.

During the heyday of the Nelsons' program, our star landed on Billboard's Top 40 a whopping 30 times, but as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet came to a close, Ricky's recording career slumped. He is sometimes considered a pioneer of early rock-and-roll and its offshoot rockabilly, but by the late 60s, he was in trouble with both his professional and personal life. He was a regular cocaine user and a sexaholic, and endured a lengthy, highly contentious marriage and divorce. He fathered a son out of wedlock, whom he never supported, and suffered continual financial problems.

He wrote the song below after a disastrous appearance at Madison Square Garden in 1971. The concert was marketed as a Rock-and-Roll reunion; Chuck Barry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell were also on the bill. John and Yoko were in the audience, as was George Harrison: this was a pretty big deal. Ricky's physical appearance surprised the audience, who were expecting a more adult version of the clean-cut teen he had played on his parents' TV show. Instead, Nelson sported shoulder-length hair, a purple velvet shirt, and bell-bottoms. He sang several of his old hits, then launched into a cover of the Rolling Stones tune "Country Honk." The crowd began to boo, and Ricky left the stage in frustration.

It's now thought that the crowd may have been booing some police activity happening at the back of the auditorium, but at the time, Ricky took the response personally. He wrote this song about that appearance; it was to be his final Top 40 hit.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


All these folks died weeks ago, but life around here has been pretty busy. A bit of travel linked to an audition took up some time, and this week, I've spent many hours at the computer, registering scores of actors for our upcoming group auditions. I enjoy being busy, so no complaints from me. These folks have something to complain about though: they're dead.

Peter Yates


He was one of Hollywood's workhorses, and was as likely to produce a dud as a diamond. He was nominated for two Oscars for his screen adaptation of The Dresser in 1983, the same year he delivered the abysmal sci fi flick Krull. The former is one of my favorite films, dealing as it does with a ragtag group of touring actors. Yates made the dangerous decision NOT to try to "open up" the play. Other than an expositional opening sequence, The Dresser takes place in real time, during a performance of King Lear. The film brilliantly illustrates the claustrophobic atmosphere of a theater's backstage life; Yates directed both his leading men (Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay) to Oscar nominations.

Peter is probably best remembered for his direction of the Steve McQueen action film Bullitt; though the film was released way back in 1968, the 10-minute car chase through the streets of San Francisco is still regarded as one of the finest action sequences ever filmed.

Yates received more critical acclaim for Murphy's Law (1971) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), but he was drubbed for several other films. Barbara Streisand was being hailed as a skilled film comedienne after the screwball hit What's Up, Doc?, but Yates directed her follow-up, For Pete's Sake, which is pretty disappointing. And the less said about Mother, Jugs, and Speed (guess which one Raquel Welch played) and The Deep (an attempt to recreate the success of Jaws by filming another Peter Benchley thriller), the better.

But Yates's masterpiece is probably Breaking Away, a deceptively breezy comedy about a teenager who becomes obsessed with bicycle racing. The cast featured premiere performances by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley.

Stage vet Barbare Barrie earned an Oscar nod, and Yates himself was nominated for his direction; the film was up for Best Picture, and Steve Tesich won the award for his screenplay.

Peter Yates died Jan 9th at the age of 81.

Susannah York


She burst on the film scene as the love interest in 1963's Best Picture, Tom Jones, and she remained a regular figure in international film for the next two decades. She played Paul Scofield's daughter in 1966's A Man For All Seasons (another Oscar winner for Best Picture) and turned some heads as the ingenue in the groundbreaking British film of 1968, The Killing of Sister George (the film is believed to be the first to openly deal with lesbianism).

A year later, York received her only Oscar nomination, for her performance in the gritty depression-era drama, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? That shower sequence is a stunning example of wordless acting. Susannah, being a proper English lady (she had a smidge of royal blood, being a descendant of William the Conqueror), took umbrage at being nominated without being asked (!), and the academy responded to her admonishments by giving the award to Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower.

York appears (as Mrs Cratchitt) in one of the most respected of the A Christmas Carol films (the one starring George C. Scott), and in 1972, she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival for Images. She is also remembered for her cameo appearances in the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise. She played his birth mother, standing quietly by as Marlon Brando, playing his father, sends the infant off into space before the destruction of the planet Krypton. She reappeared in Superman II, though only as a result of litigation. Brando had filmed enough material during his 12 days of shooting to be included in Superman II (Superman and its sequel were filmed simultaneously), but by the time the first film came out, and was a smash, Marlon sued for additional profit share. With his participation in the sequel in limbo, Susannah was brought in to film that scene at the North Pole, or in the Ice Palace, or wherever that thing is (I wasn't paying all that much attention by then).

Once the legalities were settled, York was excised from Superman II, and Brando is now in the director's cut.

Our Susannah was pretty blunt about her small but important role in the saga. Director Richard Donner reported that York was frustrated that Brando had a soliloquy before sending Supe into outer space, while she stood idly by. She complained, "The mother doesn't get to say Dick!"

Susannah York died of cancer at the age of 72.

David Nelson


He was the last surviving member of the television clan which, along with Father Knows Best and Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver, was blamed for idealizing the American family of the 50s and early 60s. There are those out there, though, who would never "blame" Ozzie and Harriet and their kids, they would instead CREDIT them, for giving the public a glimpse of what American family life could be.

I confess that I was never a fan of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the show in which David Nelson grew up. It bugged me that Ozzie never went to work, and I hate cardigan sweaters. But I have to give the Nelsons their due. Ozzie was a bandleader (though I don't remember a single episode in which he displayed any musical ability) and Harriet was his singer when they married and began a radio program based on their life together. They were one of the major hits of the 40s, and their sons, David and Ricky, ultimately joined the family business when they began playing the roles of David and Ricky.

The four Nelsons and their gentle humor made the transition to television in 1952, and remained fixtures for the next 14 years. The boys grew up onscreen, and in the later years of the series, David's real life wife June Blair was added to the cast as David's wife June. And Ricky's real life wife Kris was added to the cast as Ricky's wife Kris. No wonder the lines between fiction and reality were always blurred by the Nelsons.

David willingly relinquished the spotlight to his younger brother Rick, and he appeared as an actor in a few rather forgettable projects before becoming a director. His performance in the film The Big Circus is proof enough that he was at his best when he was shirtless, in spandex, and in silence. David died last week from colon cancer at the age of 74.