Saturday, December 31, 2011

Monkey Business

That birth year seems a little suspect to me, and to others too, as it would make this monkey 80 years old at his death.  Even in captivity, which Mike surely was, this would exceed his normal life expectancy by at least 20 years.  Why are we talking about this?  Because Mike the Monkey was better known by this name:

If the story holds true, Mike was one of over 15 chimps to play Tarzan's comic sidekick and snugglebunny.  The character was a highlight of the film series, acting as a comic foil as well as a loyal friend (Cheetah was fabricated by the film makers, as no such character appears in any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books from which Tarzan the ape-man sprang).The zoo where Mike has been living for about 40 years claims that he was a gregarious, fun-loving chimp, but when he lost his temper, he would fling his feces. 

This temperamental behavior smacks of a star who does not get his way, and rings true to Mia Farrow.  Mia, you'll recall, is the daughter of Maureen O'Sullivan, who played Jane in the series of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller.  Farrow recalls that her mother referred to Cheetah as "that bastard," as he was always biting her.  The chimp was always affectionate with Weissmuller, however, leading Maureen to speculate that Cheetah was gay. Who else would want to nuzzle a swimmer in a loincloth?

O'Sullivan should have counted her blessings.  She was only bitten.  Apparently, she could have been pummeled with shit.

Hold It Between Your Knees

Bert Schneider
When this film producer died a few weeks ago, nobody had heard from him in decades.  I was a little too young to appreciate him in his prime, which coincided with the countercultural movement of the late 60s and early 70s.  Though he was born into the Hollywood establishment (his father was a muckity-muck at Columbia during the heyday of the studio system), Bert did his best to forge a new path. 

He attended Cornell for a time, and was expelled.  His producing career took off when he teamed with Bob Rafelson to create the phenomenon known as The Monkees.  He helped concoct the off-beat sitcom, which concerned a rock group loosely based on The Beatles, and was partially responsible for the group's swift rise to superstardom.  When he produced the band's film debut, Head, people thought he'd lost his.  The stream-of-consciousness style of the film alienated the fans of the Monkees, and the really cool kids would not be caught dead watching anything starring The Monkees.  The film tanked, but is now considered an authentic period piece.

Bert's biggest contributions were in film, where he guided Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The King of Marvin Gardens, among others, to cult status.  As I said, I was a little too young to appreciate these films, but I've since seen some clips, including that hilarious diner sequence in Five Easy Pieces.  It's sometimes said that this single scene made Jack Nicholson a star.

Bert Schneider's other films of note include The Last Picture Show and Days of Heaven. 

His documentary, Hearts and Minds, was a devastating illustration of the hypocrisy of the Vietnam war, and was the perfect embodiment of his extreme left-wing politics.  It won the Oscar.  Schneider faded from the national consciousness once his style of "in-your-face" film fell out of fashion, and has rarely been heard from since the mid-70s. He died December 12th, at the age of 78. 

Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter

George Whitman


The above picture is not Whitman, of course, but it illustrates his contribution to the literary world.  Born in New Jersey, he served in Paris during WWII, and settled there.  He began lending books to American soldiers, and soon opened a bookstore called Le Mistral.  Located across the street from Notre Dame cathedral, the shop became a home for itinerant writers, who were always offered a spare bed by Whitman.  One such expat tells this story:

"Eyeing me suspiciously, George asked if I was a writer. I said I’d been a college editor, and had aspirations. He said OK... I could have a week on the mattress."

In the early 50s, Whitman befriended Sylvia Beach, who had owned a bookshop of her own, called Shakespeare and Company, before the war.  She reportedly shut down the place rather than sell a copy of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to a Nazi soldier.  That shop never reopened, but Whitman eventually purchased Beach's inventory, and changed the name of his shop to Shakespeare and Company, in her honor. 

It's said that the shop, now run by Whitman's daughter, is the most famous bookshop in the world, having been mentioned in countless pieces of literature, and even having appeared in several movies (Woody Allen's recent hit Midnight in Paris, for instance).

Frankly, I had not heard of this place before Whitman's recent death.  I visited Paris when I was 17, and somehow, a musty, cramped bookshop never made it onto my itinerary (though it surely would now).  But in reading the descriptions of the place, it seems to be a spot where one can browse for hours, discovering treasures. 

So why is this guy's death, and his bookstore, on my radar?  It reminds me of the bookshop which features prominently in one of my favorite little films, 13 Charing Cross Road. 

In that spirit, the Yeats quote which adorns the wall at Shakespeare and Company seems apropos:

"Be not inhospitable to strangers,
Lest they be angels in disguise."

George Whitman, proprietor of the most famous bookstore in the world, died December 14th, at the age of 98.

Before The Parade Passes By

Harry Kullijian
When this guy died last week, on the eve of his 92nd birthday, he was a reminder of the adage, "all things come to he who waits."  And boy, did he wait.  He spent some time in the military, serving with distinction in both WWII and Korea, and was a prominent real estate tycoon, then local politician, in the northern California area.  In 2002, he picked up this book:

In it, his high school sweetheart, Carol Channing, mentioned him fondly.  He looked her up, and they began a late-life romance.  They married a year later, and have since been strong advocates for arts education, forming a foundation.  His death from an aneurysm comes just as a documentary about his wife, Larger Than Life, is making the film festival circuit.

The Mayor of 43rd Street

Dan Frazer
My respect for actors who live their lives "in support" is certainly in play here, as this gent was a common face on TV from the 50s through the 90s.  His most recognizable role was probably as Kojak's boss, a long-suffering police captain saddled with a renegade cop. 

He was equally at home with comedy, appearing in a couple of early Woody Allen films (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) and in a slew of sitcoms. 

He played opposite Sidney Poitier in the film which won the latter his Oscar (Lillies of the Field), and in his later career, was a recurring presence on all three New York based Law and Orders.  That New York connection was very real for Frazer, who was born in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and maintained close ties to the region for the rest of his life.  After his spell in LA, he returned to the neighborhood, since renamed "Clinton," and was such a regular presence there that he became known as the Mayor of 43rd Street.

My New York "branch" is in that neighborhood, but that's not the only reason Dan Frazer is on my radar.  For a decade beginning in 1986, he played the no-nonsense chief of police on As The World Turns, and has the distinction of playing opposite Helen Wagner, whom I have mentioned before in these pages, and who is in the Guinness Book as playing the same role longer than any other actor. 

(I've also written about the now-defunct soap, and the significance it played in my life.)  On the show, Frazer became the second husband of the afore-mentioned Wagner (astonishingly, this soap's matriarch lasted the full 54 years of the show's run, but had only two husbands), and was at the center of an Alzheimer's storyline which was a groundbreaker at the time.

Dan Frazer died several weeks ago, at the age of 90.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Anita Lebost

Mary Tyler Moore turned 75 on Wednesday, so it's only fitting that she star in this week's Dance Party (she appeared in an earlier segment here, in which she and Julie Andrews negotiate a quirky elevator).  Everybody knows she was plucked from relatively obscure dance and commercial gigs to portray Dick Van Dyke's wife, back in 1961.  Our Mare won the first of her Emmy awards for her portrayal of the simultaneously wholesome and sexy suburbanite, Laura Petrie. 

She would go on to headline her own series, of course, for which she was duly awarded, and a bit later, she gave one of the most surprising film performances of the 80s, in Robert Redford's Ordinary People (she was nominated for the Oscar for that one, and should have won, too, but Sissy Spacek's Loretta Lynn took the prize).

But this week's Dance Party brings us back to the sitcom which introduced Ms. Moore to the world.  The Dick Van Dyke Show often featured musical numbers, as its star was one of the premiere song-and-dance men of his generation.
This particular segment was included in an episode from October of 1963, and concerned the production of an amateur show which Rob was set to direct.  His wife Laura expected to snag the leading role, until a new neighbor gave a pretty explosive audition.  I suppose hilarity ensued, this is one of the many episodes of this series which I do not remember.  The guest star here is Sylvia Lewis, who occasionally helped with choreography on the series, but on this occasion, stepped in front of the camera.  She does her best to hold her own with Van Dyke and Moore.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Liza's Beau

The Judy Garland Christmas Special, broadcast on CBS 12/22/63, was really just the holiday episode of Garland's single-season variety show.  I have owned the soundtrack to the show for years, and have now seen the video of the episode several times.  It is one of the Christmas programs I get to see every year, when I visit Los Angeles (I wrote about this yesterday).  Judy's variety show is one of those series which is highly respected in retrospect, but one which struggled during its initial run. 

Nobody could figure out how best to present this larger-than-life superstar on the small screen (a decade later, Julie Andrews had the same problem with her variety show).  In its single, 26 episode season, they went through three producers (one of whom, George Schlatter, would go on to create Laugh-In) and just as many formats. 

Mel Torme was hired to provide specialty musical material, and to appear as a frequent guest;  he was sacked mid-way through, as was comic Jerry Van Dyke, who received rotten reviews, and choreographer Danny Daniels (Torme filed a breach of contract suit, and wrote a scathing memoir about the experience).  Garland had resisted committing to a television series throughout the 50s, but the early 60s found her in financial trouble with the IRS, so she signed a very lucrative deal. 

Ever the trooper, she tried to accommodate all the changes her producers were tossing at her, but the show's timeslot, opposite ratings giant Bonanza, probably doomed the program.  The show is now available on DVD, and features memorable guest spots from the biggest names in entertainment at the time, and included some up-and-comers like Barbra Streisand, who earned an Emmy nomination for her appearance. 
Several episodes of the series threw out any semblance of variety show format, and simply featured Garland giving a one-hour concert.

Anyway, back to this week's Dance Party.  Near the top of her Christmas "special," Judy (in a swell Edith Head gown) invites the audience to join her as she spends Christmas with her family and a few friends.  

Her two youngest kids, Lorna and Joey Luft, are given the spotlight several times during the show, with Lorna coming off much better than her brother.  She belts a pretty nice rendition of "Santa Clause is Coming to Town," even recovering from an ill-timed swallow.  Joey, though, proves that he inherited his father's genes, rather than his mother's.  His rendition of "Where Is Love" (one of several tunes featured on the show from Oliver!, which was packing them in on Broadway at the time), is so painful, it was not included in the soundtrack recording. 

When Judy introduces her younger children, she purrs, "Liza's out skating with her beau, she'll be in later."  Whether or not Tracy Everett, the co-star of the clip below, was actually Minnelli's boyfriend, I really don't care.  He was definitely a part of Garland's weekly chorus of dancers, and in this clip, he displays his choreographic skills as well.  And doesn't he remind you of this guy from Petticoat Junction?

Anyway, in honor of Christmas, enjoy this clip of a 17-year old Liza Minnelli, back when she fancied herself a dancer, and her "beau," Tracy Everett. Probably to accommodate Minnelli's preference for Fosse-ish jazz moves, Tracy did not include any tap, which was a particular strength of his.  He teaches it now in Hoboken.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hazel, Anne Frank, and Me

I've made a dozen or so trips back to LA since moving from the city in 1993, and the past 5 years, that annual trip has happened the first two weeks of December.  The trip has gained special significance for me, and has now become the centerpiece of my Holiday Season.
I'm put up by my old friends Scott and Drew, who live in a swanky house in Woodland Hills, in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. 

I usually arrive the weekend after Thanksgiving, and stay 10 or 11 days. 

That's usually two or three days after the time we start to want to kill each other, but somehow, it all works out. The second weekend I am there, the boys host a little Tree Trimming party, which includes only myself, and my two oldest buddies Claudia and Judy (I wrote about all four of these cherished friends a long while ago here). 

While in LA, Judy, who runs the theatre department at Notre Dame High School, hires me to teach movement workshops for her young actors.  This gives me something to do during the day, and affords me lots of time to spend with Jude, but it has become something more to me.  Interacting with young actors reignites my enthusiasm for my craft, an excitement of which I find I often lose track, in my professional life.

This year's trip began with bad luck.  I had chosen a flight which left DC at 10:30 AM, and arrived in Burbank at 3:30 PM, with a very quick stop in Phoenix. 
After a flight cancellation (while I was in midair!) and a complete failure of customer service on the part of USAir, I arrived in Burbank at 9:30 PM.  By the time I collected my bag and rental car and drove across the Valley to Woodland Hills, I was pretty fried.  But Scott and Drew took care of me, handing me a beer or three and serving me a delicious homemade stew. 

The Boys, as Claudia, Judy, and I call them, spend a lot of time decorating their den for the holidays, and the room always puts me in the holiday spirit. 

It is the hub of the house during the hols, where all TV Watching / Christmas Carol Listening / and Tree Trimming takes place.  These guys are very creative with their decorating;  this year's new addition was an animated scene in which an elf works in a sweatshop overseen by Kathy Lee Gifford.
(Take a minute to check out the detail of this scene, it's really quite remarkable.  And yes, they're those kinds of decorations.  You will not find a manger or a North Star or a Wise Man anywhere around, as the boys are secular celebrants of the season).

The next morning (Saturday), a routine set in.  I awoke early, as is my unfortunate habit, and slipped downstairs to boil an egg (which, during this trip, became a euphemism for something else, you don't need to ask...), slurped some yogurt, and then caught up on email on my laptop.  I was always greeted by this fellow:

You'll note that the chalkboard welcoming people to the Boys' home is addressed to somebody else.  Not me.  It remained that way over a week.

After an hour or two, the upstairs would begin to stir with the sound of leaping critters.  Scott and Drew have two dogs, both Weimaraners, and both puppies.  They decided a while ago that they should have two of this breed, known for their high strung nature, their possessiveness, and, from what I gathered, their neuroses.  Why oh why these otherwise intelligent gents thought that owning two examples of this overwrought breed was wise, rather than perhaps one Weimaraner and one Beagle or Basset or Mutt, cannot be answered.  Nevertheless, I was in the house less than an hour before recognizing that this establishment was being ruled by canines.  Or more correctly,  being ruled by the presence of canines. 

The routine of the household is dictated by the needs of these dogs, which was, I think, the opposite of what Scott and Drew intended when they decided to adopt two pets.  The theory was that the dogs would keep each other company, allowing their masters the opportunity to occasionally go out together, for dinner or a movie or even just to shop.  The exact opposite happened. Now, the only way the Boys can leave the house without the dogs is to crate them, separately, and drive away. 

When I was around, and the Boys needed to run an errand, I was banished to my upstairs bedroom to remain, silent, until their return, so as to fool the dogs into thinking no one was in the house. Thus I became Anne Frank, hiding in the attic.

It was a small price to pay, and besides, I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.

In addition to lunch after class with Jude, she and I indulged in our mutual passion, the theatre.  We caught Travels With My Aunt at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, and Vigil at the Mark Taper.  The latter was a real treat for me, as I have performed the play (a two-hander) twice in years past. 
"Vigil," with Diana Sowle, Everyman Theatre, 2003

This production starred Olympia Dukakis, in a role with only a handful of lines, but her participation in the show caused the playwright, who also directed here, to beef up the physical bits for the role.  She was a hoot.
Most nights, I returned to my hosts' for a luscious dinner, and usually, the viewing of one of their favorite Christmas programs.  They spend the holiday season enjoying (repeated) viewings of many such shows from the past (I don't think there is a single show in their collection less than 20 years old). I willingly indulge that quirk, as I have it myself, though not necessarily for holiday programming.  (By the way, return to these pages tomorrow for a Dance Party clip from one of these chestnuts.)

The Boys do a bang-up job keeping my dinner plate filled while I'm in residence, so it's become a bit of a tradition that I help with the clean-up afterward.  And by help, I mean I do it all.  Usually the next day, in the afternoon, after I return from teaching.  When the plates are good and crusty, and the pots and pans are thick with dried, gloppy sauces.  When Scott cooks, he cooks;  they made a pact with each other, early in their relationship, that Scott cooks, and Drew cleans.

These days, I've seen Drew prepare a little specialty of his own (a dessert or an appetizer or something), but Scott does not reciprocate in kind.  Since he does not do any of the clean up, he does not hesitate to reach for a clean pot, pan, utensil, tool, or kitchen appliance when he's preparing a meal.  The room, after a big dinner, usually looks like Beirut.

I'm making some fun here, but I don't mind the K-P duty, it's not expected of me, I just volunteer.  The Boys hear me clanging around from upstairs, and remark to each other that Hazel is back at work.

I guess The Big Event of my trip is the trimming of the tree.  This year was a bit different, in that Judy had a last minute childcare issue and could not join us.  But the dogs surely did, at least from howling distance.  Drew and Claudia did the lion's share of the work, turning the huge tree into a huge success. 
Scott is a fan of "flocking" a tree, which is simply spraying some kind of gunk, probably toxic, all over the green branches and turning them white.  Doesn't sound very pretty, and growing up, I hated such trees, but I have to admit, the finished product is a stunner.

I've been home well over a week now, and there hasn't been a whole lot of Christmas fun to be had.  Logistics prevented my putting up my own tree this year, and I won't be traveling to the family Christmas until the actual day. 

Until then, I've written about 100 cards to be sent out, just in the nick of time.  But otherwise, it's been business as usual.  It makes me doubly glad, and thankful, that I started the season off with a lot of holiday cheer.