Sunday, November 30, 2014


On this last day of November we celebrate what would have been the 94th birthday of actress Virginia Mayo. For a long time, I did not appreciate her as an actress, but taking a second look at her films, I realize she was a better actress than she was given credit for. Mayo was born Virginia Clara Jones on November 30, 1920 in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the daughter of newspaper reporter Luke and wife Martha Henrietta (née Rautenstrauch) Jones. Her family had roots running back to the earliest days of St. Louis, including great-great-great grandfather Captain James Piggott, who founded East St. Louis, Illinois in 1797. Young Virginia's aunt operated an acting school in the St. Louis area, which she began attending at age six. She was also tutored by a series of dancing instructors engaged by her aunt.

Following her graduation from Soldan High School in 1937, Virginia landed her first professional acting and dancing jobs at the St. Louis Municipal Opera and in an act with six other girls at the Hotel Jefferson. Impressed with her ability, her brother-in-law, vaudeville performer Andy Mayo, recruited her to appear in his act "The Mayo Brothers". Jones toured the American vaudeville circuit for three years serving as ringmaster and comedic foil for "Pansy the Horse" as the Mayo brothers performed in a horse suit. In 1941 Jones, now known by the stage name Virginia Mayo, got another career break as she appeared on Broadway with Eddie Cantor in Banjo Eyes.

In the early 1940s Virginia Mayo's talent and striking beauty came to the attention of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who signed her to an acting contract with his company. One of her first films was the 1943 hit Jack London, which starred her future husband Michael O'Shea. Other roles soon followed as she became a popular actress who personified the dream girl or girl-next-door image in a series of films. A beneficiary of the Technicolor film process, it was said that audiences—particularly males—would flock to theaters just to see her blonde hair and classic looks on-screen. Her first starring role came in 1944 opposite comedian Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate. Remaining in the comedy genre, Mayo had several popular on-screen pairings with dancer-actor Danny Kaye, including Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).

Going against previous stereotype, Mayo accepted the supporting role of unsympathetic gold-digger Marie Derry in William Wyler's drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Her performance drew favorable reviews from critics as the film also became the highest-grossing film inside the United States since Gone with the Wind. At the zenith of her career, Mayo was seen as the quintessential voluptuous Hollywood beauty. It was said that she "looked like a pinup painting come to life". According to widely published reports from the late 1940s, the Sultan of Morocco declared her beauty to be "tangible proof of the existence of God."

She would continue a series of dramatic performances in the late 1940s in films like Smart Girls Don't Talk (1948). Virginia Mayo was a constant fixture in the movie theaters in 1949 as she co-starred in many movies all released that year. Among them were Flaxy Martin, opposite Joel McCrea in the western Colorado Territory, co-starred with future President Ronald Reagan in The Girl from Jones Beach, and with comedian Milton Berle in Always Leave Them Laughing. Mixing drama with comedy roles all year, Mayo received rave reviews for her performance alongside James Cagney and Edmond O'Brien in 1949's White Heat and received equally impressive reviews for her co-starring with George Raft in Roy Del Ruth's Red Light that same year. In a later interview Mayo admitted she was frightened by Cagney as the psychotic gunman in White Heat because he was so realistic. I think that is what made Virginia Mayo so popular; every role she was in – she made seem so realistic as well…

Friday, November 28, 2014


One of the most endearing films of all-time was 1939's The Wizard Of Oz. For over three generations, the film has been a beloved class of children and adults alike. I wanted to do some research into one of the more interesting rumors about the movie. There is a rumor that a jilted munchkin commited suicide, and it appeared in the film print. The so-called "munchkin suicide" scene occurs at the very end of the Tin Woodsman sequence, as Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodsman head down the road on their way to the Emerald City.

The sequence begins with Dorothy and the Scarecrow trying to pick fruit from the talking apple trees, encompasses their discovery of the rusted tin man and their encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West (who tries to set the Scarecrow on fire), and ends with the trio heading off to Oz in search of the Wizard. To give the indoor set used in this sequence a more "outdoors" feel, several birds of various sizes were borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo and allowed to roam the set. (A peacock, for example, can be seen wandering around just outside the Tin Woodsman's shack while Dorothy and the Scarecrow attempt to revive him with oil.) At the very end of this sequence, as the three main characters move down the road and away from the camera, one of the larger birds (often said to be an emu, but more probably a crane) standing at the back of the set moves around and spreads its wings. No munchkin, no hanging — just a big bird.

The unusual movement in the background of the scene described above was noticed years ago, and it was often attributed to a stagehand's accidentally being caught on the set after the cameras started rolling (or, more spectacularly, a stagehand's falling out of a prop tree into the scene). With the advent of home video, viewing audiences were able to rewind and replay the scene in question, view it in slow-motion, and look at individual frames in the sequence (all on screens smaller and less distinct than those of theaters), and imaginations ran wild. The change in focus of the rumor from a hapless stagehand to a suicidal munchkin (driven to despair over his unrequited love for a female munchkin) seems to have coincided with the heavy promotion and special video re-release of The Wizard of Oz in celebration of its 50th anniversary in 1989: someone made up the story of a diminutive actor who, suffering the pangs of unrequited love for a female "little person," decided to end it all right there on the set, and soon everyone was eager to share this special little film "secret" with others. Since (grossly exaggerated) tales of munchkin lechery and drunken misbehavior on the "Oz" set had been circulating for years (primarily spread by Judy Garland herself in television talk show appearances), the wild suicide story had some seeming background plausibility to it. (Other versions of the rumor combined elements from both explanations, such as the claim that the strange figure was actually a stagehand hanging himself.)

The logistics of this alleged hanging defy all credulity. First of all, the forest scenes in The Wizard of Oz were filmed before the Munchkinland scenes, and thus none of the munchkin actors would yet have been present at MGM. And whether one believes that the figure on the film is a munchkin or a stagehand, it is simply impossible that a human being could have fallen onto a set actively being used for filming, and yet none of the dozens of people present — actors, directors, cameramen, sound technicians, light operators — noticed or reacted to the occurrence. (The tragic incident would also had to have been overlooked by all the directors, editors, film cutters, musicians, and others who worked on the film in post-production as well.) That anyone could believe a scene featuring a real suicide would have been left intact in a classic film for over seventy years is simply incredible...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I haven't read a biogrpahy as engrossing as Richard Zoglin’s revelatory new biography of Bob Hope in a long time. It makes staggering claims for its subject. Is it enough to say that “for the way he marketed himself, managed his celebrity, cultivated his brand and converted his show business fame into a larger, more consequential role for himself on the public stage, Bob Hope was the most important entertainer of the century”? No, it’s not. Mr. Zoglin adds that “one could argue, without too much exaggeration, that he was the only important entertainer.”
I may not agree that Bob Hope was the entertainer of the century - from a century that boasted such entertainers as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles, but Hope was important to comedy, as well as the soldiers during World War II. Hope was the Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Steve Carell of his day - but by the time his last special aired in 1998, he was an aging relic.
Even though the author does admire his subject, he does not gloss over some controversal subjects like Hope's many affairs or the fact that Hope and Bing Crosby did not like each other much. The book is a balanced piece of literature that exposes the good and the bad of Bob Hope.
This unabashedly ambitious book also makes much of Hope as inspiration, public citizen and inventor of the stand-up comedy monologue, the kind he delivered when hosting the Academy Awards, which he did more than anyone else has. “No one ever looked better in a tuxedo,” Mr. Zoglin hyperbolizes about that.

Why, then, is Mr. Hope so seldom thanked for all he contributed to American life? Why do stand-up comics forget to mention him as the great pioneer? Lenny Bruce, whose name is as acceptable for them to drop as Hope’s is not, once supposedly spotted Hope in his audience and followed him into the parking lot, asking Hope to put him on NBC. Hope thought Bruce brilliant, but he knew how to deflect him. “Lenny,” he said, according to The San Diego Union, “you’re for educational TV.”
How did Hope start in vaudeville, entertain his way through the changing show business styles of the 20th century, become all-powerful and then ignored? It’s a great, forgotten story, and Mr. Zoglin provides a definitive version. Sure, it’s hyperbolic at times, and even defensive about Hope’s bad judgment once it starts to torpedo him. But Mr. Zoglin sees a great, gifted performer who gave the world endless amounts of hilarity, generosity and showbiz savvy. And it seems to pain him viscerally when Hope casts a shadow over his own achievements. This book is so enveloping that it’s hard not to share some of that pain.
If he had ended his career before Vietnam he would have been a beloved American hero. But Hope lived past his 100th birthday and kept performing long past the point at which he could be funny. His vehement, conservative politics were held against him by angry protesters during the Vietnam era, and his efforts to acknowledge the differences between that war and World War II fell flat: From then on, he became unfunny and out of touch. On Woodstock: “Since the dawn of man, that’s the most dandruff that was ever in one place.” On AIDS: “Have you heard? The Statue of Liberty has AIDS. Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.”
How could nostalgists miss him when he wouldn’t go away? Every big birthday meant a stiff, codgery NBC tribute to Bob Hope. Talented young performers didn’t want to be seen on these things, and more and more of his contemporaries were ailing or dead. Movie art houses declined to give Bob Hope films the treatment they gave the Marx Brothers, although Mr. Zoglin’s book may help correct that oversight. And his family members remain involved in trying to burnish his legacy and bring back the best of what he achieved. Mr. Zoglin’s fascinating book is a big contribution to their cause...


Monday, November 24, 2014


In the history of comedy, many of the funny people had life full of tragedy. One of the greatest funny men was Lou Costello. Unfortunately Costello had a lot of heart ache. Lou and his wife Anne suffered through the worst tragedy parents could suffer through - the loss of a child. I wanted to do some research into the life of Lou's wife Anne Costello. Anne was the second of three daughters born to William and Isabelle Battler of Glasgow, Scotland in 1912.

In 1920, at the age of eight, she and her father immigrated to the United States. Her father wanted to see if the country were a good place to live before sending for the rest of his family, and chose his middle daughter Hannah to join him. They settled in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but only six months after their arrival her father came down with pneumonia, hastening the arrival from Scotland of her mother and two sisters. In America, the Battler sisters all changed their names; Hannah became Anne, her older sister Isabelle became Irene, and her younger sister Mary became Mayme.During her teenage years, Anne took up dancing, and also became a children's dance teacher. She and her older sister Irene, who was also a dancer, won numerous medals for their skill in Scottish dancing. In 1930, she decided to enter show business as a tap dancer. After starting out a dancing career in Providence, she moved to New York a year or two later to dance in the chorus line at the Republic Theater on Broadway, in the Ann Corio show 'This Was Burlesque.' Because of her diminutive size, Anne was dancing at the very end of the line, in the role of the "pony," the shortest performer in a chorus line.

There she met comic Lou Costello. She and Lou Costello, then working as a burlesque comic at the same theater, were mutual friends with Corio, who eventually persuaded her to say yes to going on a date with him. While waiting in the wings before their first date, Anne was hit on the head by a clothes tree Costello had knocked over when coming onstage, and from that moment on, they were a devoted couple. They were married on January 30, 1934 in Massachusetts, using her own mother's ring, as her new husband had forgotten Anne's own wedding ring.

Their first home was in Manhattan, and on weekends, her father-in-law would visit to give her lessons on Italian cooking. Not long after her wedding, Anne's career as a dancer was brought to an end when she and Costello were driving home from their theater and got into a very serious car accident, which broke Anne's neck and put her into a full body cast for months. After her dancing career came to an end, though, she switched all of her energy and focus into being a full-time wife and mother. She had four children, Patricia Ann (Paddy), born in 1936, Carole Lou, born in 1939, Louis, Jr. (Butch), born in 1942, and Christine (Chris), born in 1947. The family moved to Hollywood in 1940, eventually settling into a lavish mansion in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood.

Tragedy struck on November 4, 1943 when their only son Louis Jr drowned in their family pull. Anne blamed herself for her son drowning. She was on the phone at the time of the tragedy. It was felt that neither she nor her husband were ever the same afterwards. Anne also began having problems with drinking to deal with her grief and feelings of guilt. In 1954, due to problems with the IRS, she and her family had to give up their mansion and move into a ranch in Canoga Park. This move and the subsequent downgraded standard of living took a big emotional toll on her, though she tried to handle the situation the best she could for the sake of her family. Four years later, in 1958, she and her family, by this time only Anne, her husband, and their youngest daughter, moved again because they couldn't afford all of the taxes and upkeep on their ranch.

Their new home was an apartment in her old neighborhood of Sherman Oaks. Shortly after this move, she was hospitalized following a heart attack, and also started to develop asthma. In March of 1959, she was left a widow when Lou died of a heart attack, brought on by his longtime problems with rheumatic fever. Following her husband's death, she and her daughter Chris moved into another house in the neighborhood. The problems she had had with drinking had been increasing in recent years, and coupled with her grief over losing her husband as well as her son, took a large toll on her emotional and physical health that finally caught up to her. She died at the age of forty-seven. A sad end to the wife of a wonderful clown...

Saturday, November 22, 2014


Dancer Vera-Ellen (1921-1981) was not only a wonderful dancer that deserves to be remembered alongside the other greats like Cyd Charisse and Eleanor Powell, but she was a beautiful woman as well. Reportedly she did not have a very happy life, but she gave her audience a lot of happiness. Here are some beautiful photos of the dancing legend...

Thursday, November 20, 2014


When one reads about the great American songwriters, you always read about Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. There are many songwriters who wrote unforgettable songs who are not remembered as much. One such songwriter is the great Frank Loesser. Loessor was born on June 29, 1910 in New York City. He grew up in a house on West 107th Street in Manhattan. His father had moved to America to avoid Prussian military service and working in his family's banking business.  His parents both prized high intellect and culture and thus Loesser was taught musically in the vein of European composers. He was taught piano early by both his father and his older half-brother Arthur Loesser. Loesser did not like his father's posh taste of music and resisted when he wrote his own music and took up the harmonica. He was expelled from Townsend Harris High School, and from there went to City College of New York (even though he had no high school diploma). He was expelled from the CCNY in 1925 after one year for failing every subject except English and gym. After his many various jobs, he decided that he wanted to write in Tin Pan Alley and signed several contracts with music publishers before his contracts were eventually terminated.

His first song credit is listed as "In Love with the Memory of You", with music by William Schuman, published in 1931. Loesser's early lyrics included two hit songs of 1934, "Junk Man" and "I Wish I Were Twins" (both with music by Joe Meyer, and the latter with co-lyric credit to Eddie DeLange). However, they apparently did not help his reputation, and in later years, he never mentioned them. After signing a six-month contract with Universal Pictures, in 1936 he moved to Hollywood with his new wife. After his contract was up, he was offered another contract by Paramount Pictures. His first song credit with Paramount was "Moon of Manakoora" written with Alfred Newman for Dorothy Lamour in the film The Hurricane. He stayed in Hollywood until World War II when he enlisted into the Air Force. In 1948, he sold the rights to a song he wrote in 1944 and performed informally at parties with his then wife Lynn Garland to MGM. The studio included in the 1949 movie Neptune's Daughter, and the song, Baby, It's Cold Outside became a huge hit. Garland was mad at Loesser for selling what she considered "their song" to MGM. He ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the song.

His next musical, Guys and Dolls (1950), based on the stories of Damon Runyon, was again produced by Feuer and Martin. It would become Loessor's greatest work. Guys and Dolls became a hit and earned Loesser two Tony Awards. Bob Fosse called Guys and Dolls "the greatest American musical of all time." A film version was released in 1955, and starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, and Vivian Blaine. In 1950, Loesser started his own publishing company Frank Music Corporation. It was created to control and publish his work but eventually supported other writers such as Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, and Meredith Willson.

After working on the film Neptune's Daughter, he wished to write more than one song for a film. His wish was granted in 1952 when he wrote the music and lyrics for the film Hans Christian Andersen. The movie had notable songs such as "Wonderful Copenhagen", "Anywhere I Wander", "Thumbelina", and "Inchworm". He wrote the book, music and lyrics for his next two musicals, The Most Happy Fella (1956) and Greenwillow (1960).

 In 1956, Lynn and Loesser got divorced, and Loesser then began a relationship with Jo Sullivan, who had a leading role in Fella. He wrote the music and lyrics for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), which ran for 1,417 performances and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and for which he received two more Tonys. The last musical of his that was produced, Pleasures and Palaces (1965), closed during out-of-town tryouts. At the time of his death he was working on Señor Discretion Himself, for which he was writing the book, music and lyrics.

Another unproduced musical, Señor Discretion Himself, premiered after his death. He started working on a musical version of the Budd Schulberg short story Señor Discretion Himself in 1966, but stopped working on it after 2 years. A version was presented in 1985 at the New York Musical Theatre Works. With the support of Jo Loesser, a completed version was presented at the Arena Stage, Washington, DC, in 2004, reworked by the group Culture Clash and director Charles Randolph-Wright. When he was asked why he did not write more shows, he responded by saying, "I don’t write slowly, it’s just that I throw out fast." The New York Times confirmed his hard working habits and wrote that Loesser "was consumed by nervous energy and as a result slept only four hours a night, spending the rest of the time working."

Loesser, an avid smoker, died of lung cancer at age 59 in New York City on July 28, 1969. He was survived by his second wife and four children.You may not recognize Frank Loesser by his name like other songwriters, but Loessor wrote some wonderful songs. From World War II songs like "I Don't Want To Walk Without You" to Broadway hits of the 1950s and 1960s, Loesser wrote many of the tunes the country sung and hummmed back then and still do...

Monday, November 17, 2014


Character actor Eddie Bracken was one of the true gems in classic Hollywood cinema. Every movie role he ever had I loved. Here is his obituary from November 16, 2002 from The New York Times...

Eddie Bracken, a character actor whose portrayals of bewildered and long-suffering comic heroes crowned a stage, screen and television career of more than 70 years, died Thursday in Montclair, N.J. He was 87 and lived in Glen Ridge, N.J.

Mr. Bracken made his first major screen splash in 1940's comedies by Preston Sturges, and he remained active until recently. Besides appearances in various television series, he was most widely seen as Mr. Wally, the proprietor of the Disneyland-like Wally World in ''National Lampoon's Vacation'' (1983) and as E. F. Duncan, the proprietor of a large Manhattan toy store in ''Home Alone 2: Lost in New York'' (1992).
Mr. Bracken, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, began as a child actor in the 1920's, but he did not really come into his own until the early 1940's when he made several light comedies in Hollywood, including ''Caught in the Draft'' with Bob Hope in 1941 and ''Sweater Girl'' with June Preisser that same year. Years later, John Corry, writing in The New York Times, called him ''the embodiment of the warm, vulnerable young American.''

Perhaps his strongest roles in that era were in two stand-out Sturges films of 1944, ''The Miracle of Morgan's Creek'' with Betty Hutton and ''Hail the Conquering Hero.'' In ''Hero,'' Sturges cast him as a young man rejected by the Marines because of his hay fever, but who, through confusion and misunderstanding, is welcomed back to his home town as a war hero. It was the kind of situation that had been exploited so effectively in the silent film era by Harold Lloyd, a comedian Mr. Bracken greatly admired.

In the decades ahead, Mr. Bracken continued acting onstage and in the movies and moved into television as well, appearing in several shows, most notably ''Masquerade Party'' on NBC in the 1950's. He also headed his own production company and invested in an electronics company in Chicago and in Downey's, long a popular steak house in Manhattan's theater district. Not all of his investments panned out. In the early 1970's he tried to create a circuit of winter and summer stock theaters, but the plan foundered.

In the 1950's he was Tom Ewell's replacement in the road show version of ''The Seven Year Itch''; in the 1960's he took Art Carney's role in ''The Odd Couple.'' In the 1970's he joined Carol Channing on tour in ''Hello, Dolly!'' and in the 1980's he played the devil (Mr. Applegate), the role Ray Walston had made famous in ''Damn Yankees.

Mr. Bracken was married for 63 years to Connie Nickerson, an actress he met when they were in the same road company. She died in August. He is survived by their children, Judy, Carolyn, Michael, Susan and David, and by nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren...


Friday, November 14, 2014


Many movie goers these days consider the movie musical to be nothing more than fluff and fantasy. Most people in real life do not break out in song. That is true, but for moviegoers of the 1930s and 1940s the movie musical was an escape. It was an escape from the pain of poverty during the Great Depression, and it was an escape from the horrors of World War II. Of all the stars during that era, it was Bing Crosby that introduced the most standards. He was the voice of the times.

Bing started out as a singer with the Rhythm Boys in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and then he moved on to making a series of film shorts for Mack Sennett. Those shorts were corny and really were only used to spotlight Bing’s singing, but it got him more popular exposure. Not only did he become a star on radio, but he was also signed to a long term contract with Paramount Studios. He would remain at the studio for almost 25 years.

The first movie Bing made for the studio was The Big Broadcast in 1932. The film was basically a spotlight of the popular radio stars of the day with a light plotline in between the songs. Crosby got to introduce some great songs like “Dinah”, “Please”, and the underrated torch song “Here Lies Love”. Bing basically played himself, and he did not really stretch his acting chops in this film. My favorite role in the movie was Bing’s friend, played by comedian Stuart Erwin. The movie catapulted Bing to movie stardom, and he followed it up with a more forgettable movie – 1933’s College Humor. The film was not bad, but even a young 30 year old Bing could not pass for a college student. He did get to sing the great song “Learn To Croon”, which became Bing’s unofficial anthem in those early years. More flimsy films followed in the 1930s, but he introduced a great standard in each of them. In She Loves Me Not (1934), Bing introduced “Love In Bloom”, in Here In My Heart (1935), Bing sang “June In January”, and in Two For Tonight (1935) Bing introduced “Without A Word Of Warning”.

Going back to Bing’s third movie in 1933, he was loaned to MGM Studios for the splashy musical Going Hollywood. It would be one of the best of the earlier Bing films. He was reunited with Stuart Erwin, his love interest was the older Marion Davies, and he got to sing some wonderful Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed tunes like: “Temptation”, “Our Big Love Scene”, and “Beautiful Girl”. Bing would not return to the studio until 1956, and it was the first of only four movies Bing made for the studio. With Bing Crosby being such a big and rising star, I am really surprised Paramount Studios loaned him out in the 1930s as much as they did.

 The movie roles remained forgettable until Bing was loaned out again to Columbia Studios in 1936. For the movie Pennies From Heaven, Bing had his most dramatic role yet as an ex-convict who “adopted” a young child of another convict. It was still not Citizen Kane, but Bing had a lot more to do in this movie than just sing and play a crooner. He also introduced the title song, and a few other great songs like “So Do I”, and “Let’s Call A Heart A Heart”. When Bing went back to Paramount though, he went back to the flimsy musicals, which were quite popular with movie audiences.

Fast forwarding to 1939, Bing made a favorite movie of mine to end the decade. He played real life songwriter and kid show producer Gus Edwards in the movie “biography” The Star Maker. Bing sang some vintage songs, even vintage for 1939, like “School Days” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”, while he got to sing the new song “Still The Bluebirds Sing”. The film was another example that Bing was feeling more sure of himself as an actor and could play roles other than a carefree crooner. By making movies like Pennies From Heaven and The Star Maker, Bing was paving the way for meatier roles in the 1940s and even roles that would recognized by the Academy Awards. Bing never could have imagined that back when he was making movies playing a 30 year old college co-ed…

Sunday, November 9, 2014


My wife always jokes me that I like any performer as long as they are dead. She is partially right. The singers I like from the 1930s to 1950s do not have many of the era’s original performers alive today in 2014. However, just because an entertainer is dead, does not mean I like them. An example of this is Eddie Fisher. When singer Eddie Fisher died in 2010, it wasn’t a big headline. Each one of the obituaries said his daughter is Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in Star Wars. The way the obituaries read you would think his daughter achieved more success than he did. In the early 1950s, no one was bigger. Every record of his a hit. However, poor decisions and a horrible personality made his fall from the top and momumental as his rise to the top. I am one of those people that always say we should separate the personality from the talent. Usually I can do this, but not in the case of Eddie Fisher.

Legend has it that Eddie Fisher was "discovered" at Grossinger's Resort in the Catskills by comic showman Eddie Cantor. Cantor put Fisher on his show, and a star was born. Eddie soon landed a deal with RCA, and a small role in a movie. After a couple of minor hits in 1949, Fisher struck the charts hard with "Thinking Of You" and "Turn Back The Hands Of Time" in 1950. These were followed by "Any Time" and a cover of the Four Aces' "Tell Me Why" in 1951. He was a superstar in records, and even ventured to radio, television, and the movies. He made a movie for MGM even with then wife Debbie Reynolds called Bundle Of Joy (1956). He was in fine voice in the film, but he was so wooden it is no wonder why he did not make more movies.

By the late 1950s Fisher had lost his teen audience and his knack for hit records. He became tabloid fodder and began to take prescription drugs. As the 1960s rolled in, he dumped Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor, who in turn dumped Eddie for Richard Burton. While his personal life disintegrated in the 1960s, Eddie turned to the one thing he could count on: His vocals. Fisher fans guaranteed moderate sales, but otherwise the record buying public took little notice. A couple of minor hits from the 1960s were "Sunrise, Sunset" and the enjoyable "Games That Lovers Play." However, soon the booze and the pills ruined Fisher’s voice and he faded into obscurity.

Fisher would emerge from now and then, giving an interview where he bad mouthed one of his ex-wives, his children, and fellow singers. In one of his autobiographies, Fisher says he sat next to legendary crooner Bing Crosby, and Crosby was rude and talked about beating his children to Fisher. I not only think the story was exaggerated, I think it never happened. By the end of his life, Fisher was not talking to any of his family, and he burnt any work related bridges he had had.

You would think being discovered by Eddie Cantor, a man who is a definition of work ethic, would have rubbed off on Fisher. Considering his tough workaday roots and years of dead-end struggling for success, it's easy to see how EddieFisher lived for the here and now. Had he known that he would live into his 80s, it's likely that Eddie Fisher would've been a different man. In my opinion, Eddie Fisher had one of the worst personalities of anyone I have ever read about in show business. While, his voice was good, it sometimes bordered on the shrill side. Some of the people that worked with Fisher in the past even said he was tone deaf. So, I admit I do not like Eddie Fisher. My one CD I have of his is collecting dust among the much played albums of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Al Jolson. When my wife says I only like dead singers, I can tell her I don’t like Eddie Fisher. I guarantee you that her reply will be “Who?”…

Thursday, November 6, 2014


The most shocking – in a most delightful way – theater news arrived in my email without fanfare. It said that Angela Lansbury will be going on a four-city tour from December through March with “Blithe Spirit,” the Noel Coward comedy for which she won her fifth Tony in 2009.

 At most, stars just want to do 14 weeks on Broadway in a high-profile, high-ticket burst of charismatic marketing, then head back to their real jobs in Hollywood.

It was not always so. As veteran Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann remembers, “Touring was the way of life. Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell would play in New York for a season and tour for a season. That was the way it operated.” Sarah Bernhardt did nine American tours from 1880 until 1918.

Decades before plays were taped for limited showings in movie houses, people across the country learned to love theater by seeing its royalty – the originals, not second casts – in the flesh in their own cities. McCann isn’t sure exactly when and why the road died for plays, though she agrees the years and years of Carol Channing trouping the land with “Hello, Dolly!” are long gone.

Ah, but it appears that nobody told Lansbury. “I think I didn’t realize that people don’t tour,” she told me in a recent phone interview, probably at least half joking. “But they don’t, you’re absolutely right. And, in some respects, I’m kind of asking myself, ‘Why’? I enjoy going somewhere else … setting the place on fire for a few weeks.”

She understates. After all, last year, she and James Earl Jones did a four-city Australian tour of “Driving Miss Daisy.” That came immediately after she played an irresistible gorgon of a backroom powerhouse on Broadway (with Jones) in “The Best Man” in 2012 and immediately before she brought “Blithe Spirit” to London last spring – her first appearance there in 40 years.
“Dammit,” she said, sounding not a bit like a Dame anointed by Queen Elizabeth in December, “if you still have the guts to get out there … why not?”

In “Blithe Spirit” on Broadway, I remember marveling at her Madame Arcati, the dotty spiritual medium in Coward’s sophisticated 1941 drawing-room comic-fantasy. She appeared to be channeling the lighthearted shrewdness of her iconic Jessica Fletcher from her 12 years in “Murder, She Wrote,” and the impeccably wild comic timing of her Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd,” the diabolical baker of human meat pies she originated (and for which she won her fourth Tony) in 1979.

Even she admits the response in London was “quite extraordinary. I was like a rock star. The young people, thank God, knew me from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.’ People knew me from those movies and from ‘Murder, She Wrote,’ which is shown in the morning and in the evening in England. People in Europe and the Far East know ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ I am very famous in far-flung places.”

She is amused and pleased by how many “illustrious people love that show,” she says about the series in which she played a mystery writer and master sleuth, pleasantly resolving grisly slaughters against particularly jaunty theme music. “There’s something good about it,” she acknowledges at a distance. “It’s one of the most calming, feel-good shows.”

That can’t happen in theater. She unflappably calls this a “very manageable tour. First, I’ll be in Los Angeles, where I live, so I can drive to the theater or have somebody drive me. Then we do two weeks in San Francisco. That’s a pretty damn nice place to visit, isn’t it? Toronto is a special kind of town. … I did my first ‘Gypsy’ there.” That was before she brought the show to Broadway, where she won her third Tony. Then “Blithe Spirit” goes to Washington, D.C., where she performs in the same National Theatre where she made her first pre-Broadway stage debut nearly 58 years ago to the day.

Jeffrey Richards, a lead producer of the play on Broadway and on the tour, says simply, “She wanted to do it, and we wanted to do it.” More seriously, he continues, “There are these people for whom the stage is sacrosanct.”

He and Lansbury have been planning a Broadway revival of “The Chalk Garden,” Enid Bagnold’s 1955 drama. “It’s very hard to turn down a great role,” she says, “And every role I’ve done seems to have had something wonderfully interesting.” There was a time, shortly after she ended her Jessica Fletcher years, when theatergoers worried that every Lansbury performance would be their last time to see her. When I told her that she faked them out, she laughed and adorably defended herself, “But I didn’t mean to do it.

“I am an elderly woman who still acts like she is 35 and feels that way most of the time, except in the late afternoon.”


Monday, November 3, 2014


The subject of this post does not really fall into the category of nostalgia or old Hollywood, but I must review this book and share it with you. Since the music on the radio is pretty much horrible these days, I have been listening to our local NPR station when I am not listening to my CDs. I have about a 30 minute drive to and from work each day. They profiled a new book that was coming out and I had to read it – “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” by author Jeff Hobbs.

No one outside of the New Jersey and Yale community had probably heard of Robert DeShaun Peace, but the biography makes you wish you did. The book is a heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Robert’s life was rough from the beginning in the crime-ridden streets of Newark in the 1980s, with his father in jail and his mother earning less than $15,000 a year. But Robert was a brilliant student, and it was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale, where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics. But it didn’t get easier. Robert carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” in Yale, and at home.

Through an honest rendering of Robert’s relationships—with his struggling mother, with his incarcerated father, with his teachers and friends and fellow drug dealers—“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” encompasses the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. It’s about the collision of two fiercely insular worlds—the ivy-covered campus of Yale University and Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about poverty, the challenges of single motherhood, and the struggle to find male role models in a community where a man is more likely to go to prison than to college. It’s about reaching one’s greatest potential and taking responsibility for your family no matter the cost. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all the story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and unforgettable.

I have been an avid book reader all my life, and when I finished the last 15 pages with my wife and children around, I had tears in my eyes. A book has never reached me like that before. Growing up as a white man in the suburbs, I will never know the plight of Robert Peace or understand it fully, but the author (who was Robert’s college roommate) makes you feel as though you were right there next to Peace the whole time. At times the writing is slightly dry, and the author has a hard time conveying Robert’s life in New Jersey since the author’s life was a life of the upper class and priveldge, but he does his best. I am glad the author wrote this book so people could read about the life of Robert Peace. Then maybe the tragedy of Peace’s life would not be so much in vain…