Saturday, January 1, 2011

Charon's Resolution

Only yesterday I wrote that I no longer make New Years Resolutions, but here is one I clearly need to make. I need to cut down on the dead people. If you visit these pages with any regularity, you have run across my going on and on about somebody or other who recently died. I've been doing this since the first year of this site, but the number of annual corpses seems to be growing. Must be the influence of the zombies, but two years ago, I mentioned only 40 people who had died in 2008. Last year, the number doubled to 80. This year, I wrote obits for well over 100 people. As my grandmother might have said, "that child ain't right."

But as long as I've already written all those eulogies, might as well take a look back for a 2010 review. It will surprise no one that the vast majority of these folks were in the entertainment industry, in one way or another. And it will also surprise no one that many of them were the character actors who do the lion's share of the work in television, film, and on stage.

I was deeply saddened by the loss of Dixie Carter, whom everyone remembered as the mouthy Julia of Designing Women, but whose career I had been following since she was in her 20s and shaking up daytime's Edge of Night. Rue McClanahan was another whom I had followed from Maude to Golden Girls and beyond; I met her once in the parking lot of a high school, and she was a true charmer. And I was very distressed when Lynn Redgrave succumbed to breast cancer; when I wrote of her, I told the story of participating in a master class she led, in front of about 400 people (that evening remains one of the most memorable moments I have ever spent on stage.)

TV lost many of its longtime players, including Peter Graves, Robert Culp, Fess Parker, Kevin McCarthy, and the original Danno, James MacArthur. Beaver lost his mom and Ritchie Cunningham his dad, in the space of about a week, while Rhoda's dad and Willis's brother also kicked the bucket. Shields lost his ex-wife and mime partner Yarnell, and the Angels lost their Charlie. The sitcom which spoofed soap operas, Soap, lost two supporting players in Nancy Dolman (Mrs. Martin Short) and Caroline McWilliams, while the soaps themselves suffered what I consider pretty severe losses. All My Children lost one of its original players, Larry Keith, and one of its longtime stars, James Mitchell; both those gents had ongoing stage careers as well. Days of Our Lives matriarch Frances Reid's death was substantial enough that the writers spent several weeks eulogizing her, bringing back many actors from the show's early history.

But the two biggest soap losses this year concerned As The World Turns. The show itself was terminated after a 54 year run; that show's birth and my own were intertwined a bit. It was a crying shame that Helen Wagner, who uttered the show's first words in 1956 and who remained with the show throughout its history (placing her in the Guinness Book of World Records), died only a few months before the show's final episode. What a terrific bit of symmetry it would have been, to have the same actress uttering the very first and the very last lines of dialogue. But Thespis would not allow.

Art Linkletter has to be credited with helping to create the daytime talk show, and David Wolper helped create the nighttime miniseries when he produced Roots. Other producers of note we lost included Stephen J. Cannell, who mixed pop culture with cartoonish action to create a whole series of programs, and on the big screen, Dino DeLaurentiis engaged in creative financing to produce the first international co-productions. And on the scale of important losses, the death of Blake Edwards rates a "10".

Film actors of note who died this year included Tony Curtis, Patricia Neal, Leslie Nielsen, Dennis Hopper, and Jill Clayburgh. We lost a couple of munchkins: Menhardt Raabe, who was the coroner who pronounced the Wicked Witch of the East dead, and Zelda Rubinstein, who pronounced the house "clean" in the Poltergeist films. Caractacus Potts, the inventor of the flying car known as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, lost his father (Lionel Jeffries), and when Jean Simmons died, Brando lost his Sister Sarah Brown and Olivier lost his Ophelia. Gloria Stuart finally got some respect in her 90s when she became the oldest person to ever receive an Oscar nomination (for Titanic), but Doris Eaton Travis had her beat: she was the last surviving Ziegfeld Girl, and died this year at the age of 106.

Gypsy Rose Lee is long gone, and this year, we lost her sister June Havoc, whose childhood was immortalized in the musical Gypsy. Anne Frank is long gone, too, and this year, one of the heroic office workers who hid her in the attic, Miep Gies, also died. Since I have a dear friend who has made his career in the world of voice acting, I was aware that the voices of Speed Racer, Cinderella, Jiminy Crickett, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were all stilled this year. So was that of Lena Horne, a great star, and Kathryn Grayson, a less-great star.

As long as we've moved on to musical folks, Broadway lost some greats and near-greats. Composer Jerry Bock and librettist Joseph Stein, responsible for Fiddler on the Roof among other hits, died within weeks of each other, and two musical performers known in the DC area, Darin Ellis and Jane Pesci-Townsend, also died in a similar timeframe. Tony nominee Marcia Lewis died a few weeks ago, and I told another story of "I knew her when..." A couple of Noels will be missed in the theatrical world: Noel Taylor costumed stars, and Craig Noel founded the Old Globe Playhouse in San Diego, helping birth the regional theatre movement. Oscar Brockett wrote the book on theatre history (and helped me pass my MFA comps), and Erich Segal, a professor at Yale, wrote a little tale of yuppie love and created the genre of the chick flick. Shirley Rich, a NY casting director, was responsible for giving Yul Brynner his signature role, and Alex Anderson went to court to insure that we now know he is responsible for giving us Bullwinkle.

Not everyone who was obited here was connected to the entertainment world, though most everyone was entertaining. Daniel Schorr wore his journalist credentials for half a century, and was never more proud than when his name showed up on Nixon's infamous enemies list. Edwin Newman, another longtime news hound, became known as the keeper of good grammar, and wrote books about the decline of the English language. An unknown nurse named Edith Shain was grabbed by a sailor in Times Square on VE day, and the resulting pic became a WWII icon, and an unknown teacher/barkeep inspired one of the hottest rock bands of the 70s.

I occasionally went outside the species with my obits, as when Splash Kennedy died a few weeks ago, and when Paul the Octopus Oracle croaked last summer. I wrote about meeting, and performing for, Martin Ginsberg, who has a very famous wife on the Supreme Court, and I mourned the passing of Elizabeth Edwards when she succumbed to cancer.

I celebrated, though, the inventions of several visionaries who died this year. John Shepherd-Barron invented the ATM, and Donald Goerker, an executive at Campbells Soup, came up with a circular noodle and invented Spaghetti-Os. The guys who first came up with the frisbee, the trampoline, and Trivial Pursuit also died this year, as did the wacko who dreamed up Gumby and Pokey. I wish TV exec Frank Magid had never come up with the idea that news readers should interact with each other; I am tortured by the concept of "happy talk" now constantly used on all local newscasts. And one real devil died this year, the man who invented the neutron bomb. It's a device which kills living things by radiation, but leaves inanimate objects, like buildings, unharmed.

Believe it or not, there were even more obits this year; you can access all of them here, in reverse chronological order. I will do my best to rein in my deadly enthusiasm in 2011; for now, Charon's boat is pretty overloaded for 2010. I really need to see fewer dead people.