Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Young Men's Christian Association

Alan Carr was a film and stage impresario who excelled at party planning and anything flamboyant.  He began in PR, and helmed the ad campaign which turned a starless low-budget film in 1977 into a cultural phenomenon.  That film was Saturday Night Fever, and it brought disco into the mainstream.  Carr next produced (and wrote) the screen adaptation of Grease, providing one of the biggest smashes in the history of musical film.  Meanwhile, everyone was scrambling to capitalize on the disco craze, Carr included, and he came up with the gigantic flop from which this week's Dance Party is plucked.
Disco was one of those musical styles which wore out its welcome with the public in record time, so by the time Can't Stop the Music arrived in theaters, there was already a public backlash against it.
That's not to say the film is any good, it would be a real stinker, even without that backlash.  Carr placed up-and-coming nerd Steve Guttenberg at the center of his film, and enlisted Valerie Perrine as the female lead.  Perrine already had an Oscar nomination on her resume (for Lenny), but had failed to achieve anything remotely resembling that earlier success.  In supporting roles, Carr used established, but fading, stars such as Tammy Grimes, Barbara Rush, and June Havoc.  Even Mrs. Sammy Davis, Jr. showed up.  These all seem unusual choices for a disco film, wouldn't you think?  But Carr went further, and cast this guy in the romantic leading role:

Today is Bruce Jenner's birthday, and from the pictures I've seen of him lately, he bears only a passing resemblance to the human statue he was in the 70s. Extensive cosmetic surgery will do that, I guess.  I believe he is somehow related to the skanky Kardashian clan, but as reality television makes my skin crawl, I can't tell you exactly how. 

In the late 70s, though, Jenner was legitimately known as the greatest athlete on earth.  The whole planet had watched his gold medal performance in the decathlon during the '76 Olympics, and he was very photogenic.  Sadly, he possessed the charisma of limp lettuce, and the acting talent to match.  After testing for the leading role in Superman, and of course losing it, he landed in Can't Stop the Music.  He's hilariously bad, and it is his only appearance in a feature film to date. Even more, he landed in one of the campiest, most pseudo-homoerotic outfits ever seen onscreen:

Can't Stop the Music has no gay characters or plotlines, but has one of the gayest sensibilities of any "straight" film ever made.  Carr surrounded his stars with members of the Village People, the gay-centric club group which was responsible for several disco hits.  Their songs included lyrics which winked at their gay fans while leaving an impression with middle America that the group was lousy with machismo. The Village People tunes were peppy and eminently danceable, and they provided the musical inspiration

 (such as it was) for Can't Stop the Music.

And who did producer Allan Carr place at the helm of this hodgepodge?  This film auteur:

Though she had legitimate musical theatre performance credentials in her early career, Nancy Walker was an unlikely choice to direct an anthem to disco.  She had directed some episodic sitcoms, when she was playing Rhoda's mother, but had never been in charge of a feature film.  The result she delivered was a colossal mess of a movie.  Can't Stop the Music was so atrociously received, it encouraged publicist John J.B. Wilson to inaugurate a new set of awards, The Golden Raspberry, to commemorate the worst films of the year.  The presentation has been held annually the night before the Academy Awards, for the past 30 years.  These days, stars actually
show up to accept the dishonor.  In 1981, the very first Razzie as the Worst Film of the Year went to Can't Stop the Music.

Our Dance Party clip was placed in the film as security, as it was already the Village People's most well-established hit (it still is).  It is a fair representation of the entire movie, filled with the flamboyant excess which Allan Carr loved.  By placing sexpot Valerie Perrine at its center, he seemed to think that it would mask the overt homo-eroticism of the number.  Instead, it's an over-the-top, hilariously rendered, display of beefcake.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Dance Party: "Reach Out. Take A Chance."

A maudlin, disturbed young man enacts elaborate suicide scenarios to attract his mother's attention, and attends funerals for amusement.  A  septuagenarian Holocaust survivor with a zest for hookahs, player pianos, and swiping cars, sweeps into his life.  She teaches him how to  begin to live, even as she says goodbye. 

It's Harold and Maude, and it's one of my favorite films.  It was a failure at the box office in its initial release in 1971, but has since been revered as one of the masterpieces of American film.  AFI includes it in its list of top comedies, and it is preserved at the Library of Congress.

The film made a cult favorite of milque-toast young actor Bud Cort, and the hilarious performance by Vivian Pickles, as the oblivious, self-centered Mrs. Chasen, is worth the price of admission. 

But the heart and soul of the movie rests
with two people.  The first is Ruth Gordon, who was in the later stages of a remarkable career as an actress and writer.  Her contributions to two Hepburn and Tracy films earned her Oscar nods for her screenwriting, and she holds the distinction of creating the role of Dolly Levi in the original production of The Matchmaker.  By 1971, Gordon was enjoying a renaissance in her acting career, having won the Oscar only a few years earlier, playing a satanic neighbor in Rosemary's Baby.  But her luminous performance as an unlikely object of romance in Harold and Maude is, in my opinion, her career cap.

The above trailer is one of those remixes, and does not include the contributions of the second person whose superb work elevated H&M to masterpiece status.  That person is Cat Stevens, who provided one of the most evocative film scores of the 70s, including several songs which can stand alone, but also reflect the film's tone and theme.  This week's Dance Party is a great illustration; the number perfectly encapsulates the theme of Harold and Maude, and has spoken to me at several critical times in my  own life. 

So this is another Dance Party which is also about me.  To my detriment, I am often satisfied with the status quo;  Change (note the capitol C) is not something I usually seek, so it sometimes takes a reminder, such as this song, to push me in a new direction.  I've written about the changes coming in my life, and I will undoubtedly write much more; reminding myself of this great Cat Stevens tune helps me remember all the possibilities of my life.  I feel a bit like Harold Chasen, standing on the top of that cliff, playing the banjo and heading into new directions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Opening A New York Branch

Back in the early 1970s, Midtown Manhattan was a scary place, and the middle class was deserting the city in droves.  In an effort to stem the tide, somebody built two apartment towers right in the middle of what was (and is) known as Hell's Kitchen. 

They took up a full city block, and were meant to offer the middle class a safe place to live, in the heart of a very dangerous city. Nobody was interested, and the two towers seemed destined for the scrap heap. But then, somebody came up with the idea that the two buildings, which held over 1600 apartments, should be dedicated to the artists who keep New York City alive.  Since then, Manhattan Plaza has been a haven for artists, with 70% of the occupants receiving discounted rents.  Those rents are calculated according to the individual tenant's gross income, so the complex became the most desirable place for actors, musicians, playwrights, designers, and the like to live.  The place became so desirable, in fact, that in 1995, the waiting list was officially closed.  Apparently, it had become just too long to be handled.

In July of 2003, the waiting list was reopened for one month.  There was an avalanche of requests to be put on the list, so a lottery was held to randomly choose the artists who would be allowed to be placed on the waiting list for an apartment.  I saw the announcement in the trades, and on a fluke, submitted my name.  A few months later, I was informed, by mail, that my name had been chosen from the lottery, and I was now #683 on the waiting list.

Since then, once a year, Manhattan Plaza has sent me a form letter which I was required to return, verifying that I wished to remain on the waiting list for a subsidized apartment.  It didn't cost me anything to remain on the list, so, year after year, I sent my annual confirmation, and forgot about it.

Three years ago, I received a personal letter from ManPlaza.  I was now #55 on the waiting list, and it was time to gather proof that I am, indeed, an artist.  The rules for receiving this discounted housing require that the artists earn 51% or more of their income, for the past 3 consecutive years, from the arts.  I was able to meet that requirement, and provided proof with my income tax returns.

For the next several years, I was required to furnish the most recent tax returns, to prove that I continue to be a performing artist.  In January of this year, after almost 8 years, I received an actual phone call from an actual person connected with Manhattan Plaza.  It was now time to gather current income and banking info, so my file could go before two committees.  The first would determine that I am, in fact, a qualified performing artist, and the second would crunch the numbers of my income from the last 3 years, and would determine what my monthly rent should be.

I cannot describe how odd all this activity seems to me, as I added myself to this waiting list on a fluke, and never expected to get this far along in the process.  I have never had a strong desire to live in New York, and I believe you really need such a desire, as the city is, to quote one of my friends who lives there, a Cruel Bitch.

About a month ago, I was summoned to the city to view an apartment. I was (and still am) in the midst of Witness for the Prosecution in Maryland, so I was forced to donate my single day off to make the roundtrip train schlep to New York.  The apartment I was shown was a shambles.  The floor had been taken up, there was no fridge or stove in the kitchen, and the entire bathroom was in a rubble in the tub.  I suppose this is good news, proof that the place is being completely overhauled for the next tenant.  But I was disoriented and rattled, and could not get a clear vision of what this studio apartment might eventually look like.

Everyone I have spoken to swears that Manhattan Plaza tenants are the luckiest actors in New York.  I suppose that's true, and, though I still have no urgent desire to hang my hat in Manhattan, I surely cannot pass up an opportunity which has dropped into my lap.  So, a week from Monday (Halloween! I'm trying not to read too much into that...), I will be taking a final walkthrough and will be handed the keys to apt #29G.

Perhaps Thespis wants me in New York, but I am not so sure.  Luckily, I will be able to keep my condo on Capitol Hill, and will become Bi-Urban.  Most of my work comes from DC, so I do not foresee giving up that life.  Instead, I will be splitting my time between the two cities, as the need arises. 

I am not moving to New York.  I am simply opening a branch of my life there.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Soapy Obits: Don't Don't Don't Don't Don't Panic

The death this week of one of my favorite character actresses encouraged me to make room for these ladies in the obituary file.
Jane White


She identified herself as African-American, though her mixed race parentage gave her light-skinned complexion a Mediterranean look. It was both a blessing and a curse. In her early career (and against her own moral judgement), she lightened her skin with make-up and auditioned for the role which would become her most famous, the scheming Queen Aggravain in the original Off-Broadway production of Once Upon A Mattress. She would repeat the role, opposite Carol Burnett, on Broadway and in two television versions.

She complained that casting directors felt she was "too black to be white, and too white to be black," so she missed the stardom she craved. She was well regarded for her work in the classics, spending much stage time at the NY Shakespeare Festival, and winning an Obie for her work in Coriolanus and Love's Labor's Lost. White spent some time on the daytime soaps, and was a bit of a groundbreaker there. In fact, my first glimpse of her, years before I realized she was on my cast album for Once Upon A Mattress, was on The Edge of Night. Back in those early days, I would dash home from school to catch the latest episode of Dark Shadows (yes, I was that guy), and often, I would flick the TV on a few minutes early. On one of those afternoons, the channel was set to The Edge of Night; the very first scene of a traditional soap opera I can ever remember seeing featured Jane White. She was playing a duplicitous private nurse, employed by a wealthy senior, who was secretly embezzling from her patient. The fact that I remember her so clearly from an episode from the 1960s is proof that she made quite an impression. I discovered, decades later, that she was the first African-American female to be placed under contract to a daytime soap. Jane White died July 24, from cancer. Speaking of soap operas, this lady is also in that genre's history books:

Mary Fickett


She was well respected for her stage career, which was launched when she replaced Deborah Kerr in the Broadway production of Tea and Sympathy. In 1958, she played Eleanor Roosevelt, opposite Ralph Bellamy's FDR, in Sunrise at Campobello, for which she was nominated for a Tony.

But she deserves a space in these pages for her performance as matriarch Ruth Martin on All My Children. She appeared in the original episode of the series in 1970, and three years later was awarded the first Emmy Award ever granted to a performer in daytime drama. Her character on the soap was mother to a Vietnam vet, and she was usually given the politically charged speeches which writer Agnes Nixon peppered throughout those early years of the show. Fickett left the series after 26 years to care for her dying husband, but occasionally returned until her Alzheimer's forced her retirement. She died last month at the age of 83, unaware that the show which earned her soap opera's first Emmy Award for acting, had been cancelled.

Doris Belack


She had a no-nonsense demeanor which, mixed with a strong comic sense, gave her lots of work on stage and television. The list of her sitcom credits, dating from The Patty Duke Show through Sex and the City, would fill up this page. She was a one-episode replacement for Florence Stanley as Abe Vigoda's wife on Barney Miller, and she played Bea Arthur's sister in the first season of The Golden Girls. Those who knew her personally agreed that she was an invaluable partner to her husband (of 65 years!) Philip Rose, who was the producer responsible for Raisin in the Sun and Purlie Victorious, at a time when bringing non-musical plays starring blacks and written by blacks to Broadway was considered lunacy. Doris spent some time playing a judge in the Law and Order franchise, and earlier, was an original cast member of One Life To Live. But she is most fondly remembered, at least by me, as Rita Marshall, the producer of the fictional soap-within-a-film which is at the center of Tootsie. Sydney Pollock's casting of Doris Belack in the role of the executive producer of Southwest General, was just one of his masterful moves; Tootsie is full of beautifully rendered, specifically unique comic performances, beginning with Dustin Hoffman of course, and including Jessica Lange (who won the Oscar), Teri Garr (who should have), Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Lynn Thigpen, Ellen Foley, Pollock himself (in a truly hilarious turn as a theatrical agent), all the way down to the one-liner by Estelle Getty. Belack's role in Tootsie was actually based on Gloria Monty, the real-life dragonlady who took the reigns of General Hospital in 1978 and rescued the show from cancellation (George Gaynes, playing the aging Lothario who stars in Southwest General, was also playing a role based on a real person from General Hospital, actor John Beradino). You can catch most of this dynamite cast in the following climactic clip:  Whether intentionally or by happenstance, Doris's portrayal of Rita Marshall helped illustrate Tootsie's underlying theme of gender expectation, and the difficulty women experience of maintaining femininity while being in a position of power. She died this week at the age of 85, only 4 months after the death of her husband. A joint memorial is being held in Manhattan on Monday, to celebrate the theatrical couple.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Bad Day For Miss French

It's Friday, October 14th. That date mean anything to you? Other than the fact that it's, you know, today? There's a gang of us up at Olney Theatre for whom the date has real significance. Everybody involved with Witness for the Prosecution knows the date very, very well. On that date, wealthy spinster Miss Emily French was conked on the head with something called a cosh. I'm still not sure what a cosh is, even though I listen to the retelling of the murder 8 times a week, sitting in the courtroom, playing the oddly silent barrister, Mr. Brogan-Moore.

The coincidence of the date was noticed during rehearsal for our production. Not only does October 14th fall on a Friday this year, just as it does in the fictional world of Witness, but we are actually playing on that date. In honor of the spooky occurrence, a couple of our actors came up with a promotional gimmick to celebrate the day. It involves a raffle and a discount and other things which hold little interest for me, I've never seen a raffle go smoothly at a theatrical performance. I'm told that, in one very unfortunate case, the legendary Dorothy Loudon was involved in a show on Broadway which raffled off a live chicken at each performance. Nonetheless, I am still intrigued by the cosmic symmetry involved with performing on this special, murderous day.

So, this week's Dance Party concerns murder. And who else to entertain us than the great Betty Hutton? She graced these pages a couple of years ago, so it's time we revisit the old gal. One of her signature comic tunes, appropriately enough, is called "Murder, He Says." It was written by the great Frank Loesser, as were so many of Hutton's famous songs. I hope I'll be forgiven for presenting it here; despite it's title, it has absolutely nothing to do with the act of homicide. But it's a hoot, and Hutton's a hoot, and so why not?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Witnessing The Prosecution

My current gig, Witness for the Prosecution at Olney Theatre, is roughly half-way through our run. There was the possibility of an extension, but it appears that will not be happening. Though the Word of Mouth has been good for the show, it's an expensive one to run, with 17 actors and 9 Equity contracts. Our houses have been good, but not full, and I suppose the Powers That Be crunched the numbers, and decided we will be closing as scheduled.

The clientele of the theatre, which tends to be a bit senior in age, likes a good mystery, and this one is put together very well indeed. At our first table read, a few people, including our director, Jack Going, offered their opinion that Witness for the Prosecution is Agatha Christie's "best play," meaning I guess that it is the best written. I offer no opinion on that, academically, but I can suggest that it is her most challenging, as the suspense depends solely on the dialogue. As in Greek tragedy, almost all the action of the play happens off-stage (and in this instance, before the play even begins). This is quite different than other Christie classics, which present a slew of characters, usually gathered in some secluded location, with a murder happening, onstage, toward the end of act one. Witness is not structured this way, which puts a big burden on the actors and director of the piece, to keep the show lively and interesting. Jack is a master at such obstacles; our rehearsals were painstakingly detailed, as Jack and the actors worked out every little piece of business, every little movement, every line emphasis.

That attention to detail seems to have paid off, as our audiences have been very enthusiastic, even during a 3 hour presentation.

The length of our show brought some snarky comment from the Washington Post critic, who compared the production to the short story and the Billy Wilder film version from the 50s, both of which are substantially different from the play script. That critic had nothing but good things to say about our actors and design elements; indeed, his only darts seem aimed at Dame Agatha Christie herself, for penning such an over-written piece. That woman clearly didn't know what she was doing when she was writing a play.

Well, Witness for the Prosecution is being touted, even by our press, as a classic whodunit, but I would beg to differ. Ten Little Indians, The Mousetrap, and Black Coffee are all whodunits in the classic sense, with half a dozen suspects presented to the audience. But I would suggest that, rather than a whodunit, Witness for the Prosecution is a "Didhedoit." As I mentioned, the structure of the play is different, and more difficult to manoeuvre.

Well, the Post's critic notwithstanding, we have had some lovely response from the other reviewers. Go here to read an absolute rave, and the only review likely to mention my minimal contribution to the show. I am playing the very small role of a lawyer's head clerk, and in the courtroom scenes, I don a mustache and wig and observe the proceedings as a silent barrister. I don't mind confessing that this routine was a pain during the rehearsal process, as it meant I was called to every rehearsal (in fact, to every hour of every rehearsal), though my responsibility in the show is very slight. But it all worked out, as, now that we are running, I enjoy dashing about changing costumes, it makes the evening move along nicely. One of my least favorite aspects of live theatre is the fact that, often, the actor spends more time in the green room, waiting to go on, than onstage. This is not the case with me this time, and I'm grateful for that.